# The Cosmological Argument

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1 The Cosmological Argument Reading Questions The Cosmological Argument: Elementary Version The Cosmological Argument: Intermediate Version The Cosmological Argument: Advanced Version Summary of the Cosmological Argument Reading Questions For question, consider the following argument: Everything was caused by something else that happened before it and so either there s an infinite causal chain extending backwards or there s a first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but which started everything else. There can t be an infinite causal chain extending backwards, though, which means that there must be first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but which started everything else. Therefore, God exists.. God exists. 2. Everything was caused by something else that happened before it. 3. Either there s an infinite causal chain extending backwards or there s a first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but which started everything else. 4. There can t be an infinite causal chain extending backwards. 5. There s a first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but which started everything else. 2 A B 5 C ) What is an objection to this argument? For question 2-4, consider the following argument: Every contingent being was caused by something else that happened before it and so either there s an infinite causal chain of contingent beings extending backwards or there s a first cause, some necessary being that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. There can t be an infinite causal chain of contingent beings extending backwards, though, which means that there must be first cause, some necessary being that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. Therefore, God exists.

2 2. God exists. 2. Every contingent being was caused by something else that happened before it. 3. Either there s an infinite causal chain of contingent beings extending backwards or there s a first cause, some necessary being that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. 4. There can t be an infinite causal chain of contingent beings extending backwards. 5. There s a first cause, some necessary being that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. 2 A B 5 C 2) What are contingent beings? 3) What are necessary beings? 4) What is an objection to premise 4 in this argument? For questions 5 and 6, consider the following argument: Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false.. The causal chain behind everything we experience can t go back to infinity. 2. In a causal chain, the first cause causes the second, and so on, until you get the final effect in this case everything in existence now. 3. To take away the cause is to prevent the effect. 4. If there were no first cause, then the first cause would be taken away, the second cause wouldn t exist, and so on, and there wouldn t be anything in existence now. 5. If the causal chain were infinite, there would be no first cause. 6. If the causal chain were infinite, there would be nothing in existence now. 7. But there are things in existence now!

3 A B C 5) What does it mean for an argument to equivocate, or to trade upon an ambiguity? 6) What is wrong with this argument? For questions 7 and 8, consider the following argument: Clearly contingent things have causes, so we re faced with a causal chain going backwards in time. Either this causal chain doesn t go backwards forever, or it does. What are the consequences of each possibility? On the one hand, if the causal chain doesn t go backwards forever then there s a first cause, and this cause, not requiring a cause itself, must be a necessary being. Consequently, if the causal chain doesn t go backwards forever then there must be a necessary being. On the other hand, if the causal chain does go backwards forever, we can consider the entirety of the causal chain itself and ask ourselves why it exists. What is responsible for the existence of this infinite causal chain? Surely something is responsible for its existence, and whatever is responsible for the existence of the chain can t be a contingent being because all contingent beings are in the chain and nothing that s in the chain can be responsible for the existence of the chain. It follows that whatever is responsible for the existence of the chain must be a necessary being and so if the causal chain does go backwards forever then a necessary being must exist. Whether or not the chain of contingent being extends infinitely back, then, a necessary being must exist. It s reasonable to suppose that this necessary being is God, so God exists.. God exits. 2. Contingent things have causes. 3. We re faced with a causal chain going backwards in time. 4. Either this causal chain doesn t go backwards forever or it does go backwards forever. 5. If the causal chain doesn t go backwards forever then there s a first cause. 6. This first cause, not requiring a cause itself, must be a necessary being. 7. If the causal chain doesn t go backwards forever then there must be a necessary being. 8. If the causal chain does go backwards forever then something is responsible for its existence. 9. Whatever is responsible for the existence of the chain can t be a contingent being. 0. All contingent beings are in the chain.. Nothing that s in the chain can be responsible for the existence of the chain. 2. Whatever is responsible for the existence of the chain must be a necessary being.

4 4 3. If the causal chain does go backwards forever then a necessary being must exist. 4. Whether or not the chain of contingent being extends infinitely back, then, a necessary being must exist. 5. It s reasonable to suppose that this necessary being is God. 0 + C D A B E F G 7) What is the Principle of Sufficient Reason? 8) How might someone object to this argument? The Cosmological Argument: Elementary Version The cosmological argument often occurs to people naturally. Have you ever looked out into the universe (the cosmos) and pondered how everything got here? Have you ever thought something like this? A long time ago, there were dinosaurs that evolved from even more ancient animals. And those more ancient animals evolved from elementary cells that came from chemicals. And those chemicals resulted from atoms that came from the Big Bang. But what started that? What caused the Big Bang? Was there something before that? Did the universe just come out of nothing? Does it go back forever? Or did God start it all? If you ve ever thought along these lines, you ve already grasped the fundamentals of the cosmological argument. Here s a pretty standard statement of it, followed by its diagram. Everything was caused by something else that happened before it and so either there s an infinite causal chain extending backwards or there s a first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. There can t be an infinite causal chain extending backwards, though, which means that there must be first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but which started everything else. Therefore, God exists.. God exists. 2. Everything was caused by something else that happened before it.

5 5 3. Either there s an infinite causal chain extending backwards or there s a first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. 4. There can t be an infinite causal chain extending backwards. 5. There s a first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. 2 A B 5 C Stop and Think: What s your first reaction to this argument? Of course, this version of the cosmological argument is not without its problems. One problem is that it s not clear why the first cause is God and not, for instance, the Big Bang or some other natural event. This shows us that inference C is far from perfect. In practice, however, people who use the cosmological argument to establish the existence of God typically argue in two stages: first they argue for the claim that is a first cause of some sort or another, and then they argue that this first cause is God. We won t, therefore, be worrying too much about inference C here. Another problem with this argument is illustrated by the question What caused God? and if you find yourself asking this question then you see a rather deep problem with the argument as it stands. Repairing this problem will take us to a new, more advanced, version of the cosmological argument. The Cosmological Argument: Intermediate Version Thinking About Premise 2: Contingent and Necessary Beings So, assuming that the cosmological argument that we ve seen successfully establishes the existence of God, then what did cause God? Everything was caused by something else that happened before it and so either there s an infinite causal chain extending backwards or there s a first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. There can t be an infinite causal chain extending backwards, though, which means that there must be first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but which started everything else. Therefore, God exists.

6 6. God exists. 2. Everything was caused by something else that happened before it. 3. Either there s an infinite causal chain extending backwards or there s a first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. 4. There can t be an infinite causal chain extending backwards. 5. There s a first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. 2 A B 5 C (But what caused God?) There are only two possible answers to this What caused God? question: ) Something caused God, or 2) Nothing caused God. The first answer, Something caused God, is unavailable to an advocate of the cosmological argument that we ve been examining. Can you see why? If we say that something caused God then we re off on an infinite regress of causes going backwards, with something causing God (maybe a Super-God) something else causing the thing that caused God (maybe a Super-Duper-God) something else causing the thing that caused the thing that caused God (maybe a Super-Duper-Mega-God), and so on. But if we re okay with this, then we re rejecting premise 4 in the cosmological argument, which says that there can t be an infinite series of causes going backwards. This means that an advocate of the cosmological argument needs to adopt the second answer and say that nothing caused God. But if nothing caused God then God is uncaused, and if God is uncaused then premise 2, the claim that everything was caused by something that happened before it, is false. In order to address this difficulty, advocates of the cosmological argument maintain that God is importantly different from other things in a way that explains why God can be uncaused while everything else needs to have been caused by something else. They do this by claiming that only beings of a certain kind, called contingent beings, need a cause. Contingent beings, which include all of the objects in our experience, in some sense wouldn t have to have existed. It s these objects that need a cause, or an explanation for their existence. Suppose, for example, that you re holding a pen. Not only could we destroy the pen now, but the pen didn t have to have ever existed at all. If things had been different than they are, the pen wouldn t have existed. That s what we mean when we say that the pen is a contingent being. The existence of the pen is

7 7 contingent upon things in the universe having been a particular way upon there having been that particular pen company, for example and this contingency allows us to ask why the pen exists. It allows us to inquire into the conditions that brought the pen about. God, however, is presumably not like that pen. Many thinkers believe that God, if he exists, would be a necessary being, or a being that couldn t possibly fail to exist. Because necessary beings can t possibly fail to exist, we can t inquire into the particular conditions that are responsible for their existence. Necessary beings, in other words, don t require a prior cause. Advocates of the cosmological argument are usually much more precise about Premise 2, claiming only that all contingent beings have causes, and this allows them to say that God, as a necessary being doesn t require a prior cause. The revised, intermediate, version of the Cosmological Argument runs as follows: Every contingent being was caused by something else that happened before it and so either there s an infinite causal chain of contingent beings extending backwards or there s a first cause, some necessary being that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. There can t be an infinite causal chain of contingent beings extending backwards, though, which means that there must be first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but which started everything else. Therefore, God exists.. God exists. 2. Every contingent being was caused by something else that happened before it. 3. Either there s an infinite causal chain of contingent beings extending backwards or there s a first cause, some necessary being that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. 4. There can t be an infinite causal chain of contingent beings extending backwards. 5. There s a first cause, some necessary being that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. 2 A B 5 C Of course, the argument still has some problems because employing the distinction between contingent and necessary beings raises difficulties of its own. For one thing, it isn t at all clear what a necessary being is, if any beings really are necessary, or if a

9 9 But can you see an important difference between these two series? An advocate of the cosmological argument could counter that an infinite series of numbers is importantly different than an infinite series of causes. 2 isn t caused by 3, after all, and so it seems like the existence of 2 is independent of the existence of 3 (although it s hard to get a handle on what we mean when we say the existence of 2 ). Your grandmother, on the other hand, was caused by your great-grandmother so your grandmother s existence is dependent upon the existence of your great-grandmother. No great-grandmother ever, no grandmother either. St. Thomas Aquinas ( ) takes advantage of this feature of causal chains to argue that premise 4 is true and that we can t have an infinite causal sequence going backwards. Here s how he does it. In the world of sense we find there is an order of causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or only one. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate cause. But if in causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first cause, neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first cause, to which everyone gives the name of God. (The Second Way from The Summa Theologica) The argument that Aquinas has in mind goes something like this:. The causal chain behind everything we experience can t go back to infinity. 2. In a causal chain, the first cause causes the second, and so on, until you get the final effect in this case everything in existence now. 3. To take away the cause is to prevent the effect. 4. If there were no first cause, then the first cause would be taken away, the second cause wouldn t exist, and so on, and there wouldn t be anything in existence now. 5. If the causal chain were infinite, there would be no first cause. 6. If the causal chain were infinite, there would be nothing in existence now. 7. But there are things in existence now!

11 4. If the bank is under water then our money will get wet. 5. If the river rises then the banks will be under water. 6. If the river rises then our money will get wet B 6 Can you see why the inference in this argument doesn t work? There are two different kinds of bank. Premise 4 is talking about the kind of bank with tellers and safety deposit boxes. Premise 5 is talking about the side of a river. Because premises 4 and 5 aren t talking about the same thing at all, they can t go together to prove anything. In just this way, premises 4 and 5 in Aquinas s argument aren t talking about the same thing, either. Let s take a look: 4. If there were no first cause, then the first cause would be taken away, the second cause wouldn t exist, and so on, and there wouldn t be anything in existence now. 5. If the causal chain were infinite, there would be no first cause. 6. If the causal chain were infinite, there would be nothing in existence now B 6 Can you see how there are different ways in which there can be no first cause, just like there are different kinds banks? Premise 4 is talking about there being no first cause because the cause has been removed. Premise 5 is talking about there being no first cause because there is an infinite series of causes. Those are completely different ways to have no first cause, and so premises 4 and 5 can t work together. If there s no first cause because the chain is infinite (idea 5) then there never was a first cause; it s not as though the first cause has been taken away (idea 4). This means that we can t conclude that if the causal chain were infinite there would be nothing now, any more than we could conclude that our money will get wet if the river rises. Inference B is bad because it equivocates upon no first cause. It trades upon an ambiguity, and this makes the entire argument bad.. The causal chain behind everything we experience can t go back to infinity. 2. In a causal chain, the first cause causes the second, and so on, until you get the final effect in this case everything in existence now. 3. To take away the cause is to prevent the effect. 4. If there were no first cause, then the first cause would be taken away, the second cause wouldn t exist, and so on, and there wouldn t be anything in existence now.

12 2 5. If the causal chain were infinite, there would be no first cause. 6. If the causal chain were infinite, there would be nothing in existence now. 7. But there are things in existence now! A B C The Cosmological Argument: Advanced Version So far, then, the cosmological argument is in trouble because we can t establish that there has to be a first cause. For all we know, the chain of causes could go back forever. But never fear: a more advanced version of the cosmological argument incorporate this fact. Here s how it goes: Clearly contingent things have causes, so we re faced with a causal chain going backwards in time. Either this causal chain doesn t go backwards forever, or it does. What are the consequences of each possibility? On the one hand, if the causal chain doesn t go backwards forever then there s a first cause, and this cause, not requiring a cause itself, must be a necessary being. Consequently, if the causal chain doesn t go backwards forever then there must be a necessary being. On the other hand, if the causal chain does go backwards forever, we can consider the entirety of the causal chain itself and ask ourselves why it exists. What is responsible for the existence of this infinite causal chain? Surely something is responsible for its existence, and whatever is responsible for the existence of the chain can t be a contingent being because all contingent beings are in the chain and nothing that s in the chain can be responsible for the existence of the chain. It follows that whatever is responsible for the existence of the chain must be a necessary being and so if the causal chain does go backwards forever then a necessary being must exist. Whether or not the chain of contingent being extends infinitely back, then, a necessary being must exist. It s reasonable to suppose that this necessary being is God, so God exists.. God exits. 2. Contingent things have causes. 3. We re faced with a causal chain going backwards in time. 4. Either this causal chain doesn t go backwards forever or it does go backwards forever. 5. If the causal chain doesn t go backwards forever then there s a first cause. 6. This first cause, not requiring a cause itself, must be a necessary being. 7. If the causal chain doesn t go backwards forever then there must be a necessary being.

13 3 8. If the causal chain does go backwards forever then something is responsible for its existence. 9. Whatever is responsible for the existence of the chain can t be a contingent being. 0. All contingent beings are in the chain.. Nothing that s in the chain can be responsible for the existence of the chain. 2. Whatever is responsible for the existence of the chain must be a necessary being. 3. If the causal chain does go backwards forever then a necessary being must exist. 4. Whether or not the chain of contingent being extends infinitely back, then, a necessary being must exist. 5. It s reasonable to suppose that this necessary being is God. 0 + C D A B E F G It s probably pretty obvious why this is a much more advanced version of the cosmological argument than the other versions we ve seen. Not only is it more structurally complex, but it recognizes the distinction between necessary and contingent beings and avoids the assumption that there can t be an infinite causal chain. It does, however, make another assumption to which some thinkers object. The Principle of Sufficient Reason states that there must be a reason, or an explanation, for every contingent fact. As you can see, this drives the cosmological argument, appearing in Premise 5 and again more problematically - in Premise 8. But is this principle true? In particular, must something be responsible for the totality of existence, if that totality, as hypothesized in Premise 8, extends infinitely into the past? Couldn t this infinite causal chain just happen to be, without explanation or reason? I suspect that your attitude toward the cosmological argument will be a function of your attitude toward the Principle of Sufficient Reason. If you accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason then you ll be inclined to conclude that there must be some ultimate cause of existence and you ll be driven to postulate some necessary being (although claim that this necessary being is God will need some fleshing out). If you don t accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason, on the other hand, then you won t feel compelled to postulate a necessary being or an ultimate cause of existence.

14 4 So, what s more the more rational stance? Should we accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason or should we reject it? It seems to me as though rational people can fall on both sides of this issue. Some rational people will accept the Principle of Sufficient Reason and so endorse the cosmological argument. Other rational people will reject the Principle of Sufficient Reason and the cosmological argument along with it. And this might go a long way toward explaining why rational individuals can be found in both the theist and atheist camps. Of course, the debate continues. Philosophers question whether or not all versions of the cosmological argument need to invoke the Principle of Sufficient Reason. They distinguish between different versions of that principle, and argue for and against the acceptance of any particular version. We re leaving our discussion of the cosmological argument here, but the discussion goes on without us as people advance arguments and criticize them, respond to the criticisms and object to the responses, on and on, indefinitely. No word in philosophy is ever the final word. The key is to find a place that makes sense to you and to be content to rest there for the moment.

15 5 Summary of the Cosmological Argument An Elementary Version of the Cosmological Argument Everything was caused by something else that happened before it and so either there s an infinite causal chain extending backwards or there s a first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. There can t be an infinite causal chain extending backwards, though, which means that there must be first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but which started everything else. Therefore, God exists.. God exists. 2. Everything was caused by something else that happened before it. 3. Either there s an infinite causal chain extending backwards or there s a first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. 4. There can t be an infinite causal chain extending backwards. 5. There s a first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. 2 A B 5 C A Problem with the Elementary Version of the Cosmological Argument: If we think that something caused God then we re off on an infinite regress, rejecting premise 4. If we think that nothing caused God then we re denying premise 2. An Intermediate Version of the Cosmological Argument Every contingent being was caused by something else that happened before it and so either there s an infinite causal chain of contingent beings extending backwards or there s a first cause, some necessary being that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. There can t be an infinite causal chain of contingent beings extending backwards, though, which means that there must be first cause, something that wasn t caused by anything else but which started everything else. Therefore, God exists.

16 6. God exists. 2. Every contingent being was caused by something else that happened before it. (Note: Contingent beings are beings that wouldn t have to have existed.) 3. Either there s an infinite causal chain of contingent beings extending backwards or there s a first cause, some necessary being that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. (Note: A necessary being is a being that couldn t possibly fail to exist.) 4. There can t be an infinite causal chain of contingent beings extending backwards. 5. There s a first cause, some necessary being that wasn t caused by anything else but that started everything else. 2 A B 5 C Aquinas s argument in defense of Premise 4:. The causal chain behind everything we experience can t go back to infinity. 2. In a causal chain, the first cause causes the second, and so on, until you get the final effect in this case everything in existence now. 3. To take away the cause is to prevent the effect. 4. If there were no first cause, then the first cause would be taken away, the second cause wouldn t exist, and so on, and there wouldn t be anything in existence now. 5. If the causal chain were infinite, there would be no first cause. 6. If the causal chain were infinite, there would be nothing in existence now. 7. But there are things in existence now! A B C A Problem with Aquinas s Argument: It equivocates on no first cause. Premise 4 talks about there being no first cause because the cause has been removed. Premise 5 talks about there being no first cause because there is an infinite series of causes. Those are different

17 7 ways to have no first cause so premises 4 and 5 can t work together. This undermines inference B. A Problem with the Intermediate Version of the Cosmological Argument: We lack a reason to think that can t be an infinite causal chain of contingent beings extending backwards. An Advanced Version of the Cosmological Argument Clearly contingent things have causes, so we re faced with a causal chain going backwards in time. Either this causal chain doesn t go backwards forever, or it does. What are the consequences of each possibility? On the one hand, if the causal chain doesn t go backwards forever then there s a first cause, and this cause, not requiring a cause itself, must be a necessary being. Consequently, if the causal chain doesn t go backwards forever then there must be a necessary being. On the other hand, if the causal chain does go backwards forever, we can consider the entirety of the causal chain itself and ask ourselves why it exists. What is responsible for the existence of this infinite causal chain? Surely something is responsible for its existence, and whatever is responsible for the existence of the chain can t be a contingent being because all contingent beings are in the chain and nothing that s in the chain can be responsible for the existence of the chain. It follows that whatever is responsible for the existence of the chain must be a necessary being and so if the causal chain does go backwards forever then a necessary being must exist. Whether or not the chain of contingent being extends infinitely back, then, a necessary being must exist. It s reasonable to suppose that this necessary being is God, so God exists.. God exits. 2. Contingent things have causes. 3. We re faced with a causal chain going backwards in time. 4. Either this causal chain doesn t go backwards forever or it does go backwards forever. 5. If the causal chain doesn t go backwards forever then there s a first cause. 6. This first cause, not requiring a cause itself, must be a necessary being. 7. If the causal chain doesn t go backwards forever then there must be a necessary being. 8. If the causal chain does go backwards forever then something is responsible for its existence. 9. Whatever is responsible for the existence of the chain can t be a contingent being. 0. All contingent beings are in the chain.. Nothing that s in the chain can be responsible for the existence of the chain. 2. Whatever is responsible for the existence of the chain must be a necessary being.

18 8 3. If the causal chain does go backwards forever then a necessary being must exist. 4. Whether or not the chain of contingent being extends infinitely back, then, a necessary being must exist. 5. It s reasonable to suppose that this necessary being is God. 0 + C D A B E F G A Problem with the Advanced Version of the Cosmological Argument: A rational person could deny the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which says that there must be a reason, or explanation, for every contingent fact. This would allow that person to reject premise 8.

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