In Defence of the Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument is often stereotyped and condensed into two premises and a conclusion: Everything has a cause. There must be a first cause. The first cause is God. This is then rigorously critiqued by the modern atheist to be of illogical reasoning, hence arguments such as; ‘why must we assume there has to be a first cause’ and ‘what caused God’ are formulated, seemingly rendering the argument wanting (as in the case of this argument there are no logical grounds to make an exception for God as the terminator of the infinite regress). This is seen as conclusive proof against all forms of cosmological argument, and prominent atheists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins would make no further comment on the topic. However if one is to be a philosopher, to love wisdom, one must search for the truth rather than create a fallacious straw man argument of all forms of cosmological argument, all of which cannot be simplified into the argument above. Perhaps the mistake is made in the first premise: ‘everything has a cause’ of which no prominent philosopher would argue, instead the premise: ‘every contingent being has a cause’ is perhaps sufficient if we are to even attempt to coalesce the different formulations.

Different versions of the cosmological argument approach this task in different ways. Aristotelian versions argue that change, the actualization of the potentials inherent in things, cannot in principle occur unless there is a cause that is “pure actuality”, and thus can actualize other things without itself having to be actualized. Neo-Platonic versions argue that composite things cannot in principle exist unless there is a cause of things that is absolutely unified or non-composite. Thomists not only defend the Aristotelian versions, but also argue that whatever has an essence or nature distinct from its existence, so that it must derive existence from something outside it, must ultimately be caused by something whose essence involves existence, and which existence or being itself need not derive its existence from another. Leibnizian versions argue that whatever does not have the sufficient reason for its existence in itself must ultimately derive its existence from something which does have within itself a sufficient reason for its existence, and which is in that sense necessary rather than contingent.

These arguments in the main can be associated with Aquinas’ third way, that is the argument from possibility and necessity, and this is the argument that we will evaluate in this essay with regard to Humean and Kantian critiques that among many are seen as conclusive in their refutation of the cosmological argument. However as we will ascertain, these critiques are not sound and to examine them at close proximity, especially the Kantian critique, reveals flaws that on the whole arise from a misunderstanding of the cosmological argument.

With regards to Kant, he wrongly draws parity of the cosmological argument with the ontological argument as first formulated by St Anselm, clearly to do so is a grave flaw as although it may appear prima facea, at first glance, that some aspects of Aquinas’ argument relate to existence being viewed as a predicate, it is certainly not the view of Aquinas that existence can be derived from the essence of God. Aquinas explicitly refutes this apriori concept in ‘Summa Theologiae’ and instead postulates: “If the existence of God were demonstrated, this could only be from his effects” aposteriori.

The argument as presented by Aquinas in his third way is known as the ‘Argument from Possibility and Necessity’ and it fundamental relies on a reductio ad absurdum from the principle that in nature every being is of possible ontology; in that it need rely on another for causation (contingency) and is of a finite and mutable nature. To assume thus that ‘everything is possible not to be’ would mean that at one point in time there would have been nothing in existence, and because: ex nihilo nihil fit, nothing from nothing, there would remain nothing for eternity. Furthermore nothing could ever have begun to exist due to contingent beings depending on external causation for existence. Therefore one must postulate a necessary being to explain the existence of contingent beings. This necessary being is seen to be of singular existence as Aquinas discards the idea of an infinite regress of necessary beings as absurd (perhaps using Occam’s razor this is a justifiable belief because; as only one necessary being is needed for the universe to exist, why postulate an infinite regress of beings). Therefore “we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another”, and this necessary being is God.

The first objection comes from Hume and is perhaps seen as the most famous, known as the ‘fallacy of composition’ Hume states that; assuming all beings in the universe are caused, it does not logically follow that, the universe has a cause. Observing Liebniz’s’ principle of sufficient reason Hume says:

“Did I show you the particular causes of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable should you afterwards ask me what was the cause of the whole twenty. This is sufficiently explained in explaining the parts.” – David Hume, Dialogues concerning Natural Religion (1779)

Hume is essentially postulating that the twenty individual particles is a sufficient explanation of the whole and need no external explanation or cause. This is not entirely dissimilar to Russell’s famous analogy: “It is one thing to state that every human being has a mother, but one cannot move from this to say that there is a mother of the whole human race.” This fundamentally highlights the same fallacy as Hume but is not conclusive. Russell is maintaining that both the cause of the particular and the cause of the whole are fundamentally to be the same thing, the mother, however this is not what is being claimed in the cosmological argument, namely that every being has a phenomenal cause whereas the series of phenomenal causes has a transcendent cause (and not a further phenomenal cause). Further, even if this series is an infinite regress it still needs sufficient reason to explain it, and thus we need postulate a transcendent cause external to the series. However although Russell’s critique seems refutable, Hume’s, although similar, is of different nature and it is speculative as to its impact on the cosmological argument.

Hume suggests that the sum of the parts is a sufficient explanation of the whole and needs no external explanation. In answer to this a Thomist would deny this as being a sufficient explanation because every contingent being per se must be explained with external reference. Thus the universe, being a sum of contingent beings, is of contingent nature and requires a necessary being to explain its existence. However as shown in the Russell-Copleston debate of 1948 – “we seem to have arrived at an impasse” due to Humean philosophers refusing to accept the need for external sufficient explanation (Russell’s: “Brute Fact”).

Another of Hume’s arguments, outlined in ‘Dialogues concerning Natural Religion’, is in saying that “all existential properties are synthetic”, this I will combine with the main Kantian critique. Kant essentially attempts to highlight similarities between the cosmological and ontological arguments so as to conclusively refute two birds with one stone. Kant, Hume and Russell would say that existence is most definitely not a predicate and we cannot conclude of Gods existence from his essence. Here Russell gives the example of the “Existent round square”; a being that’s existence it would be contradictory to deny. This critique would of course be applicable to the ontological argument however it fails to refute the cosmological argument on the grounds that the idea of necessary existence is not the same thing as the idea of a being whose nature or essence includes existence. A being exists necessarily if it is impossible for that being not to exist. This need not involve the inclusion of a property of existence in the nature of the thing in question. Thus, one can accept that there is a necessarily existent being without accepting either premise of the simplified ontological proof.

Secondly, Kant would suggest that the cosmological argument exhibits the ‘logical fallacy of equivocation’. Kant argues that you cannot move from a concept to reality itself, merely to a concept of reality. In short: If God exists, he exists necessarily, not that he exists. For example a triangle must have three sides but if there is not the triangle there is not the three sides. Similarly with regards to God, if there is not a God there is not the predicate of necessary existence.

Russell mirrors this point in the debate on the argument from contingency stating that “analytic propositions come in rather late in the build-up of propositions”, one must have synthetic knowledge of a concept before one can analyse the said concept, indeed this is perhaps true of the empirical world, however it fails to have any impact onto the cosmological argument as; for the Thomist a necessary being is only postulated after a contingent being is shown to have reliance on external cause. That is the necessary being. Thus a necessary being exists of necessity otherwise one could not explain the existence of contingent beings. Therefore the analytic proposition is in fact late in the build-up of propositions as Russell suggests, and the argument: ‘God exists necessarily only if God is proven to exist’ is indeed adhered to as God is not defined into existence but is both proven to exist, on the impossibility of only contingent beings existing, and thus shown to exist necessarily.

In conclusion, having examined various critiques of the cosmological argument one can assert that most of the critiques are based on a misunderstanding or false classification of the argument, the most guilty being Kant. However Hume’s critique of the fallacy of composition seemingly still holds to some degree. Perhaps this can be circumnavigated when taking into account Thomist assumptions of causation being not a horizontal causation model, but rather from hierarchical cause. This discounts an infinite regress as well as having to postulate the universe as being a contingent object as such and thus needing a cause. Instead all causes must be traceable to the necessary being. Aquinas (perhaps) stipulates that God creates and sustains the universe all at one moment because all moments are one to him being atemporal and omniscient. Thus he causes the primary causes which in turn cause secondary and intermediate causes, which are of teleological nature. Further the secondary cause cannot exist if the primary cause ceased to exist so are entirely dependent on prior causation. If we regress to God, the first cause, he must continue to cause the universe (although raising the question of the eternality of matter/universe of which Aquinas appears to suspend judgement) from one moment. The hierarchical causation model is more coherent than the horizontal, accidental, causation model in which it is possible to reach an infinite regression of causes; however with the hierarchical causation model infinity is disproved. Thus having surpassed the main Humean critique and assuming my logic is of sound nature, one can conclude that the cosmological argument, in particular Aquinas’ hierarchical causation model of cosmology, has not been conclusively disproved as is popular modern assumption, further it has not been seen to be disproved in any manner and thus one must maintain that it is of sound nature until proven otherwise. 

Contributed by Tim Livingstone

3 thoughts on “In Defence of the Cosmological Argument

  1. Sorry, I Havnt even finished reading this yet, but just a though – with quantum theory now defining our scientific understanding of the universe, hasn’t chaos and chaos theory been underdone a little – because random (unpredictable, and to go a step further, I caused to a degree) movements of particles are responsible for chaotic processes such as the weather etc etc. Nothing seems to have cause on this phsicallevel, and thus would it not be misplaced to project a needed cause to the metaphysical level?

  2. Hi. Causation is a metaphysical principle defined really, once and for all by Aristotle. As Feser and others have shown actually, the worst moment in the western intellectual tradition..that leads to such bizarre phenomena as Richard Dawkins and poor Stephen Hawking’s not so Grand Design, is the rejection of the only radically sound principle of causation available. The quantum based objection confuses our being able to determine causes with there actually being causes. Two different things. This much is certain (pun intended). Koon also shows with his argument from defeasible reasoning that if we want to follow where reason goes, reason gives us no reason (another pun but accidental- a good Aristotelian term) to get unreasonable…or uncausal. I am so grateful for the perduring sanity of Thomists and religious thinkers. Materialists have no idea… whacked they are.

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