The Cosmological Argument
for the Existence of God
“A may be explained by B, and B by C, but in the end there will be some one object on whom all other objects depend.” Swinburne 1996
The Cosmological Argument is an umbrella term and comes from the Greek cosmos meaning world/universe. This inductive/a posteriori argument allows us to locate God beyond this universe and offers and explanation for the universe itself too.
The argument is based on the claim that everything existing in the universe exists because it was caused by something else; that ‘something’ was itself also caused by something else. However, it is necessary for something to have started this all off – something which did not and was not itself caused/created. That ‘something’ is God.
Plato (428-348 BCE)
“Shall we say then that it is the soul which controls heaven and earth”. Plato
Plato’s important distinction was between things that had the power to move
or change both themselves and others - Primary movers; and those things
which could only move or change others once they had been moved – Secondary movers. Only souls can be primary movers – so whatever caused the universe must be
Aristotle (390-323 BCE)
“The series must start with something, since nothing can come from nothing” Aristotle
Aristotle believed all changes must come from some ultimate source. It is not possible for there not to be a first cause, as if there were not, there would be nothing. There is no manner in which the universe would come into being out of nothing owing to no action (!) therefore there must have been an initial cause.
NOTE: [Augustine said that God created ex nihilo (out of nothing), but this is not the same idea as Aristotle’s, as the ‘nothing’ he mentions does not contain a ‘God’.]
The Five ways of Thomas Aquinas
The First Way – The Unmoved Mover
In the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is moved is moved by another. But this cannot go on to infinity…Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, moved by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.
All things are in motion [a state of change: For Aquinas, motion is ‘the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality’] but since nothing moves itself, there must be a first mover who began the chain of motion.
P1 Nothing can move itself
P2 An infinite chain of movers without a beginning can have no successive movers.
C There must be a mover that causes motion in all: that unmoved mover is God.
Second way – The Uncaused Causer
In the world of sensible things we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible…Therefore it is necessary to admit to a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name God.
Nothing causes itself, so if the universe was to exist at all there needs to be a first cause which began the chain of cause and effect. Aquinas rejects an infinite chain of causes and insists without a first cause there would be no subsequent causes and therefore nothing at all. This first cause itself cannot have had a cause (obviously) and so we know this to be God, the uncaused causer.
Third way – From Necessity and Contingency
We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be since they are found to be generated, and to be corrupted, and consequently, it is possible for them to be and not to be… Therefore if everything cannot be, at one time there was nothing in existence and it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist and thus even now nothing would be in existence which would be absurd.
Therefore we cannot but admit the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.
The universe is contingent, and so could not be the cause of its own existence. Only a necessary being has the power to bring it into existence. All things are contingent and do not need to be, however, God is a necessary being as the unmoved mover etc.
► All things are moved by others, and that mover is moved by something else. You cannot have an infinite chain, so there must be an unmoved mover: GOD
► All things are caused and since nothing can be its own cause (logically impossible) there must be a first cause (uncaused causer) on which all others depend: GOD
► Everything which we can point to is dependent upon factors beyond itself and thus is contingent. These factors demand an ultimate explanation in the form of a necessary being, dependent on nothing outside itself: GOD
Other forms of the Cosmological Argument
The Kalam Argument
The Islamic form of the argument, known as the Kalam Argument which goes back to Al’Kindi (c.870 CE) proposes a simple cosmological argument as follows:
P Whatever comes into being must have a cause
P The universe came into being
C The universe must have a cause
In this version of the argument it is important to note that infinite regress is rejected and that the cause of the universe (God) is believed to be finite, external and personal.
The principle of Sufficient Reason (Leibniz 1646-1716)
“If you suppose the world eternal, you will suppose nothing but a
sucession of states, and will not find in any of them a sufficient reason” Leibniz, Theodicy.
Even if the universe had always existed, there doesn’t appear to be anything within the universe itself to say WHY it exists. Man has not been able to find the reason for existence within the universe itself, hence one can conclude that there is sufficient reason to believe in a great cause outside the universe which Leibniz suggests is God.
Similar to this Swinburne suggests that it is the most sensible suggestion to postulate God as the first cause:
Quotation: “If we can explain the many bits of the universe by one simple being which keeps them in existence, we should do so – even if we cannot explain the existence of that simple being.” Is there a God? 1996
Criticism: [Hume] It is inconsistent to claim that you can jump (an inductive leap) from the cause of each episode and entity in life to there being one great primary cause. Plus, to go even further and call this God is even weaker and unfounded.
The principle proposed by William of Ockham in the fourteenth century: “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily”. This, on the most basic of levels, means that the simplest conclusion is the most viable/likely answer. So one can say:
“By using Ockham’ Razor, we are able to conclude…”
There have been numerous recent scientific developments which people have adopted to proffer an answer to this question:
The Big Bang – Modern cosmology has suggested that there was a physical process, which may well have had no cause which gave rise to the universe which we have at present.
Oscillating Universe Theory – There is an infinite series of expanding and contracting universes.
Criticism: While many hold these scientific ‘proofs’ to be the best explanation we currently have, theists may claim that these are either inaccurate, or are explanations of God’s work.
Criticisms of the Cosmological Argument
1. Infinite Regress?
Surely there could be an endless series of causes? Why is it deemed necessary to stop at one first cause?
Counter-Criticism: Mackie emphasises Aquinas’ rejection of the concept of infinite regress with the analogy of a train, where each carriage pulls along the other: is it not sensible to presume there is an engine i.e. a mover/causer?
2. How can there be an exception to the rule?
Can Aquinas really be justified in saying God is the great exception – the UNCAUSED causer? The original assumption (‘all things have a cause’) is contradicted by the conclusion. How can God not? Can God be necessary?
Why does the existence of God not require any further explanation?
Counter criticism: God is (and indeed surely must be) of a totally different order, and is thus not bound be the same ‘rules/laws’ of the world.
3. We should just stop our search at the universe and go no further
Is looking for the answer in a realm we cannot understand – the universe – either sensible or likely to bear any fruit at all?
Why assume that we even need to find a cause at all? As Hume says:
“It were better never to look beyond the present material world.”
“The universe is just there, and that’s all there is to say.” Bertrand Russell
This is known as the concept of the brute fact of the universe.
Counter-criticism: It is surely just giving up on the great question to say, this is all we have and that’s it! We should never stop pursuing the quest to find the universe’s meaning/cause.
Plurality of first causes
Could there not be many causes and not just one?
The argument appears to be attributing too much to one specific cause.
Not only did this ‘being’ cause the most extraordinary creation (we have not nearly discovered the depth of the deepest sea, let alone the universe). This would be an extraordinary force. Would it not be more sensible to suggest that there were a number of first causes?
Counter criticisms: Would these Causes be simultaneous? Would they be ‘necessary’ or how were they brought about? Of course this one force is extraordinary – it is ‘God’!
“Theism is simpler than polytheism”. Swinburne
Is this the Christian God/the God of Classical Theism?
Why would this necessary causer/mover still have to eternally exist?
Like a parent, could it have brought about existence but now died/ceased to be?
To see God as simply a first ‘pusher of the great dominos of life’ does not fully satisfy the role of God, who is believed to be a sustainer. If this God is still sustaining the world, then he is not doing a very good job of it (e.g. evil).
“Why may not the material universe be the necessarily existent being, according to his [Aquinas’] explication of necessity?” Hume
Counter-Criticism: [weak] Think of God as planting the first seed, which he then continues to nurture to help grow/flower.
Strengths of the Argument
It is a solution
The argument offers solution for the universe as well as the existence of God. Unlike Russell who appeared to be suggesting that there is no point asking the question and simply accepting the universe for what it appears to be as we experience it. The Cosmological argument at least offers an answer –which many have indeed accepted.
Quotation: “…If one refuses to sit down at the chessboard and make a move, one cannot, of course, be checkmated” Copleston
The argument appears not to be in conflict with scientific research. It is perfectly possible for a believer to accept the concept of the Big Bang (as long as they are not a creationist, possibly!) as they would suggest that this was all owing to the handiwork of God. The argument thus encompasses science.
The argument emphasises the ‘otherness’ of God and does not fall foul of anthropomorphism or making God ‘too small’ (Phillips). In fitting with the god of revealed theology, i.e. the great creator of mankind and the universe (Genesis 1, John 1) although it does not tell us a great deal about him, the argument appears to be a perfectly acceptable answer for many.
Does the argument work?
It only highlights the possibility of God
While the argument does contain certain points (i.e. it offers an explanation where others appear unable to provide one), philosophically it falls where the inductive leaps of God being a primary causer/the most sensible reason as the answer to the question.
God? The God of Classical Theism/Christianity?
Ultimately the argument cannot explain God and only offers ‘God’ as a possible explanation. It does not even allude successfully to any other characteristic of his other than being creative.
If we are not satisfied with the idea of God as a being who himself requires no explanation, the argument will fall.
“As an argument for a first cause of all existing things the cosmological argument seems a reasonable one. But it does not by itself establish the existence of God with all the properties sometimes ascribed to him.”
“God is simpler than anything we can imagine and gives a simple explanation for the system.”
“The atheistic option that the universe is ‘just there’ [c.f. Russell]
is the more economical option”