Original image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
This post is about scratching the surface of cosmological arguments for the existence of God. As this is a very complex area and there are many disagreements and debates even between brilliant thinkers and professional philosophers, I cannot stress enough that this post is mostly about my personal journey of trying to begin to understand these issues and arguments. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to prefix the post with the ‘what I know so far’ phrase but unfortunately, that would also be a lie. As there are different types of cosmological arguments by many brilliant thinkers and attempts to refute those arguments by equally brilliant people, I will not cover even what I know so far about all variations of cosmological arguments. The post would simply be too big. Instead, consider this post a kind of an introduction to what I know so far about this line of argument. As this page is constantly being updated, eventually we’ll go deeper into cosmological arguments.
Disclaimer: as an atheist, I obviously do not believe that any argument I have read so far for the existence of God is successful. By ‘not successful’ I mean that the argument is not enough to convince a person in the existence of God. And by ‘convince a person’ I do not intend to offend religious people. I simply intend to say that religious people are probably not religious because of any single argument or even because of many arguments combined but because they were taught to be religious from an early age and never had the time to look deeper at the arguments themselves or they were not made aware of any objections to those arguments. As for the ‘brilliant thinkers’ that defend the arguments for god, I believe they are doing it not because a particular argument alone was enough to convince them but because they had faith before. They had faith because of social or psychological states of mind, so in defending the arguments they are defending that pre-existing faith.
On to the argument. Finally.
Maybe the simplest version of cosmological argument could be briefly summarized like this:
- We live in a physical world. Each thing and state in this world were caused by what was happening in this world a moment ago – and that was caused by what was happening a moment before that. And that was caused by the state of the world three moments ago.
- This regress cannot go on forever.
- Therefore, there must have been the first cause and this cause is the source of everything.
- That thing is uncaused – carries the reason for existence in itself. This ultimate cause we call God.
Basically, it is argued that we need God in order to explain the cosmos. Everything we know is caused; it depends on God which is the first cause.
In summary, these are the things the argument is saying:
- Whatever physical thing exists - it must have a cause for its existence.
- It cannot be the cause of itself – it is caused to exist by another thing.
- Infinity of causes is not possible.
- So, we must postulate something with its own reason for existence – the ultimate, first cause. Without this, it is impossible to imagine that anything exists at all. God is necessary.
The argument does look convincing, does it not? After all, our experience is with things and states that are caused so it stands to reason that if you go back enough there needs to be the first cause. Well, let’s see if there are any criticisms of the argument which will make us question whether the argument is good enough to really convince us.
Not exactly one?
The first thing that might be said about this version of the argument is that it doesn’t seem to exactly point to one cause, to one first cause. Remember, the argument goes that we must postulate something with its own reason for existence – something that is uncaused, but it does not seem to necessarily point to a single thing. The argument seems to support multiple uncaused causes. As I gather, this would be the argument that perhaps many causes – or if we switch to ‘religious talk’ - many polytheistic gods existed, all uncaused, all being the cause of a set of states, with then the next state continuing to cause the next, etc. The result – the world which we live in is not a single chain of states but many chains of them with each starting from its own first cause – a different polytheistic god if you will.
Cannot be identified with God?
Next, if we skip the previous objection – there seems to be no reason at all to assume that this first cause should be any religious God – an atheist can theoretically say – OK; there seems to be a strong case for a first cause, but this first cause could be the multiverse which has always existed, is uncaused and is the first cause.
“It must be some unknown, inconceivable qualities, which can make his non-existence appear impossible […] And no reason can be assigned, why these qualities may not belong to matter. As they are altogether unknown and inconceivable, they can never be proved incompatible with it.”
― David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion
So, as Hume says – argument says that God has unknown and inconceivable qualities which makes him necessary. But because of the very reason they are unknown and inconceivable, we can say that instead of any god these qualities can belong to matter – the multiverse, for example.
Is it clear there cannot be infinite causes?
The argument entirely depends on the idea that there cannot be an infinity of events, but it is not even clear that is the case. This version of the argument doesn’t explain why there cannot be infinity. For example – with numbers, we all accept that they are not finite. So, why couldn’t an event always have an earlier event?
Not only that but as Martin in the Atheism: A Philosophical Justification writes:
“Experience does not reveal sequences that have a first cause, a cause that is not caused.”
The idea is not that experience teaches us about the infinity of causes but that the first uncaused cause is missing in our experience as well.
A lot of religious blogs and authors tend to argue that infinite series cannot get started because it has no first member etc – but infinity doesn’t need to START. That IS the point. Infinity, in this case, means that there is ALWAYS an earlier event. Infinity did not begin. Infinity doesn’t have first or last member – numbers go into negative infinity or to until positive infinity. Yes, there are other kinds of infinity – between two numbers, where you can always divide by two but that is not the type we’re talking about. Remember, the argument is saying that a chain of events cannot be infinite – that chain can’t even start. But it doesn’t have to start – it is infinite. There is ALWAYS a previous event. It doesn’t start. It continues. You can always add one.
Just because it might seem “lazy” to us to argue for an infinity of causes or events that does nothing to indicate these are impossible. So, it seems that infinity is indeed a proper objection to the cosmological argument.
Most of the arguments against the infinite series come from the current physics, not logic or philosophy – the idea that the Big Bang was the start of time and the idea that time cannot get smaller than a certain minimum.
“But while the regress and resulting infinity of natural numbers are arguably unobjectionable, the regress of events seems problematic … since we have good empirical reason to think that there has only been a finite amount of past time: that time started a finite time ago with the Big Bang.” Cameron, Ross, "Infinite Regress Arguments", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2018/entries/infinite-regress>.
But you see, that is not an argument about logic. That is trying to use things we still don’t know everything about to argue that we ought to think that infinity of events is impossible. The very fact the objections are from what we empirically know should give us some idea that infinity of events doesn’t seem logically impossible. The simple truth is that we still don’t know enough about the Big Bang. When we have a quantum theory of gravity, we can say that we are a big step closer to understanding it. Until then enjoy this Twitter thread by Sean Carroll, a research professor in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology.
So, even the “physical” arguments don’t really seem on the firm ground.
Mind you – there are indeed philosophical arguments that aim to show that infinity of events is different than the infinity of numbers. The readers already somewhat more familiar with cosmological arguments will remember various arguments, notably from Craig about the impossibilities of “actual infinity” etc. Why does he focus so much on this? Well, precisely because the idea of an infinite regress of causes is not illogical and that many cosmological arguments have failed to show that there could not be infinity of events, so he tries to prove that while it’s not illogical, it’s impossible that this is the case. And sure, just because something is logically possible that does not mean it’s possible in reality. As this is an introductory post to these arguments, we’ll not talk about his ideas and replies to them now. But in a future blog post we’ll look also at this because as far as I know, his ideas about the impossibility of “actual infinity” are not entirely convincing – that is, I have read convincing replies to him. So, stay tuned.
Mind as an alternative?
Although we have argued before that argument does not point to a single cause or even if it does, it does nothing to identify that cause with god, most religious people use it to point to the chosen god from their religion – identifying him as a kind of a wise architect – that is, they point to the mind as the first cause.
Well, there are problems with doing that. As you’ll remember, the idea was that there is something which does not need an explanation – the explanation is in the very nature of that being, but then we are (usually) asked to think there’s a mind at work here. Well, minds are in the need of an explanation. Not only that, but our experience with the physical world tells us that minds come late. Minds are a result of 4 billion years of evolutionary history.
“The earliest time that life forms first appeared on Earth is unknown. They could have lived earlier than 3.77 billion years ago, possibly as early as 4.28 billion years ago, or nearly 4.5 billion years ago”
Not only that but our experience with minds tells us they are dependent objects. So, imagining a mind that is immune from everything we know about minds - that does need an explanation. The theist argument that we are jumping from things that do need explanations - our minds - to those that do not - the mind of God, seems wrong. It seems reasonable to say that any minds they postulate also require an explanation. Otherwise, they are jumping even higher than postulating some sort of eternal matter that does not need an explanation. The jump they propose - to eternal mind - is higher and more violent.
Of course – the mind having a different “kind” of existence has been argued by theists but again - to say a mind is the first cause, a mind immune from dependency – that seems a bigger “violation” than saying there’s some sort of eternal matter immune from dependency.
This somewhat shallow analysis of the cosmological argument shows us that we don’t have a good enough reason to accept it as proof of the existence of god because there are serious objections to it.
- The argument does not prove a single cause.
- The argument does not point to what most people would call God.
- There is nothing illogical about the infinity of events.
- There are problems with arguing the mind is the answer.
To end with a note for experienced readers who might otherwise accuse me of being dishonest – as you probably know, there are various other versions and forms of the cosmological argument, for example, the ‘argument from contingency’. This form of the argument will escape some criticisms which will be provided below but we will not discuss that argument in this blog post. As this is the first post about this topic we started at the beginning. So, if this was not your first encounter with this line of argument of objections to it or you simply wish to know more about other versions, stop by the website from time to time. We’re just getting started.
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