Understanding the Cosmological Argument

I try to avoid Difficult Run posts that essentially regurgitate someone else’s blog post, but Edward Feser’s So you think you understand the cosmological argument? constitutes the best post I have read on both the cosmological argument itself and the general state of philosophy in the modern Western world. I’ll highlight my favorite parts (it’s decently long for a blog post) and comment.

1. The argument does NOT rest on the premise that “Everything has a cause.”

Lots of people – probably most people who have an opinion on the matter – think that the cosmological argument goes like this: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists.  They then have no trouble at all poking holes in it.  If everything has a cause, then what caused God?  Why assume in the first place that everything has to have a cause?  Why assume the cause is God?  Etc.

Here’s the funny thing, though.  People who attack this argument never tell you where they got it from.  They never quote anyone defending it.  There’s a reason for that.  The reason is that none of the best-known proponents of the cosmological argument in the history of philosophy and theology ever gave this stupid argument.  Not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne.  And not anyone else either, as far as I know.  (Your Pastor Bob doesn’t count.  I mean no one among prominent philosophers.)  And yet it is constantly presented, not only by popular writers but even by some professional philosophers, as if it were “the” “basic” version of the cosmological argument, and as if every other version were essentially just a variation on it.

What defenders of the cosmological argument do say is that what comes into existence has a cause, or that what is contingent has a cause.  These claims are as different from “Everything has a cause” as “Whatever has color is extended” is different from “Everything is extended.”  Defenders of the cosmological argument also providearguments for these claims about causation.  You may disagree with the claims – though if you think they are falsified by modern physics, you are sorely mistaken – but you cannot justly accuse the defender of the cosmological argument either of saying something manifestly silly or of contradicting himself when he goes on to say that God is uncaused.

The counterargument ‘so what caused God?’ is probably the single most common and the single most silly answer to the cosmological argument. And yet it’s so prominent that just a few months ago I heard Michael Shermer use it as a rebuttal in a debate at Oregon State University on the existence of God. I like to joke that asking ‘so what caused God?’ is equivalent to saying ‘I was asleep while my opponent gave the premises of the cosmological argument.’ Edward Feser goes on:

What [the cosmological argument] seeks to show is that if there is to be an ultimate explanation of things, then there must be a cause of everything else which not only happens to exist, but which could not even in principle have failed to exist.  And that is why it is said to be uncaused – not because it is an arbitrary exception to a general rule, not because it merely happens to be uncaused, but rather because it is not the sort of thing that can even in principle be said to have had a cause, precisely because it could not even in principle have failed to exist in the first place.  And the argument doesn’t merely assume or stipulate that the first cause is like this; on the contrary, the whole point of the argument is to try to show that there must be something like this.

The above, to me, has always been the power of the cosmological argument. The argument is not one of probability or likelihood. Rather, the cosmological argument posits an uncaused cause that must exist, and that no other possibility is logically coherent with existence. Onward and forward…
3. “Why assume that the universe had a beginning?” is not a serious objection to the argument.

The reason this is not a serious objection is that no version of the cosmological argument assumes this at all.  Of course, the kalām cosmological argument does claim that the universe had a beginning, but it doesn’t merely assume it.  Rather, the whole point of that version of the cosmological argument is to establish through detailed argument that the universe must have had a beginning.  You can try to rebut those arguments, but to pretend that one can dismiss the argument merely by raising the possibility of an infinite series of universes (say) is to miss the whole point.

The main reason this is a bad objection, though, is that most versions of the cosmological argument do not even claim that the universe had a beginning.  Aristotelian, Neo-Platonic, Thomistic, and Leibnizian cosmological arguments are all concerned to show that there must be an uncaused cause even if the universe has always existed.  Of course, Aquinas did believe that the world had a beginning, but (as all Aquinas scholars know) that is not a claim that plays any role in his versions of the cosmological argument.  When he argues there that there must be a First Cause, he doesn’t mean “first” in the order of events extending backwards into the past.  What he means is that there must be a most fundamental cause of things which keeps them in existence at every moment, whether or not the series of moments extends backwards into the past without a beginning.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t even know the above. I thought the universe having a beginning played an important role in the cosmological argument. Turns out, the universe need not have a beginning for the most important forms of the cosmological argument to be just fine.

Later on Feser switches gears to challenging materialism in general. I appreciate the critiques down there as well, but they’re too long to re-quote here. I’d summarize them as the following:

1) Non-religious people are just as potentially motivated by desire for religion not to be true as religious people are motivated by desire for religion to be true. You’d think this point is obvious, since we’re all human beings with preconceptions and biases, but on a regular basis religious philosophers are suspected of bias while the same standard somehow doesn’t apply to non-religious philosophers.

2) Metaphysical naturalism cannot be taken for granted as the ‘correct’ or ‘neutral’ view of reality, yet many philosophers do so, particularly philosophers who do not specialize in the philosophy of religion.

3) Science in no way proves metaphysical naturalism or disproves supernaturalism. Rather, the very common starting assumption of metaphysical naturalism causes people to circle science back around as ‘proof’ of metaphysical naturalism. I’ve also written on this topic before.

So there you have it. If you have time, give the full post a read.

1 thought on “Understanding the Cosmological Argument”

  1. I like Edward Feser a lot. His ‘The Last Superstition’ had a pretty big impact on me. Honestly, I should have included it in my most influential books (at least in the Honorable Mentions). His book on Aquinas is pretty good as well. He also edited the Cambridge Companion to Hayek. :)

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