We will be looking at three major criticisms of the cosmological argument. This doesn’t mean that there are only three problems, more so that the many problems can be fitted into three umbrella areas.
The cosmological argument raises a whole host of major philosophical problems to do with motion, causality, infinity, necessity and many others. To simplify matters, I shall concentrate in my criticisms on what I take to be the three major areas of debate. These are: (1) the principle of sufficient reason; (2) the argument from cause; and (3) the concept of necessary being (Palmer, 2001:58).
The various parts of the Cosmological argument can be grouped together into three sections: sufficient reason, necessary being and cause.
- Principle of Sufficient Reason
This was a requirement put forward by Leibniz (but also echoed in the Kalam argument as the principle of determination) that everything has to be explained fully to make any other argument almost redundant. For example, ‘why I am here?’ is not sufficiently explained by the relationship between my mother and father, we need to look beyond that reason to ask what caused the love, the relationship and ultimately them. In some ways this always leads back to the origin of the universe. But is it always necessary to find such a complete explanation? Russell argues not in his debate with Copleston.
Russell: It all turns on this question of sufficient reason, and I must say you haven’t defined ‘sufficient reason’ in any way that I can understand- what do you mean by sufficient reason? You don’t mean cause?
Copleston: Not necessarily. Cause is a kind of sufficient reason. Only contingent beings can have a cause. God is his own sufficient reason; and he is not the cause of himself. By sufficient reason in the full sense I mean an explanation adequate to the existence of some particular being.
Russell: But when is an explanation adequate? Suppose I am about to make a flame with a match. You may say that the adequate explanation of that is that I rub it on the box.
Copleston: Well for practical purposes- but theoretically, that is only a partial explanation. An adequate explanation must ultimately be a total explanation, to which nothing further can be added.
Russell: Then I can only say that you’re looking for something which can’t be got, and which one ought not to expect to get.
Copleston: To say that one has not found it is one thing; to say that one should not look for it seems to me rather dogmatic.
Russell: Well, I don’ know. I mean, the explanation of one thing is another thing which makes the other thing dependent on yet another, and you have to grasp this sorry scheme of things entire to do what you want, and that we can’t do (2005:132).
Russell, and others, suggest that demanding a complete or sufficient reason is not a logical requirement. Richard Taylor has called it a ‘presupposition of reason itself’. This means that to argue that a sufficient reason is needed is a creation of our finite minds.
… the principle of sufficient reason is an assumption that many feel obliged to make in order to avoid the conclusion that the world is pointless; but to conclude the world is pointless is not in itself contradictory. When, therefore, the cosmological argument presents us with the dilemma ‘Either there is a God or the universe is ultimately inexplicable’, it is not an error of logic to conclude that the universe is inexplicable and that accordingly there is no God (Palmer:2002:59).
Sufficient reason also could become quite annoying- for whom does it have to be sufficient. It is possible to give an explanation which is adequate that doesn’t return to the beginning of the universe. For example if we ask the question ‘Why did Chelsea win the Premiership in 2004/5?’, the answer could be to talk about the qualities of Jose Mourihno as a tactician, man motivator and coach. If this is thought insufficient we could talk about the qualities of each individual player that contributed to the team. If still insufficient we could talk about the millions invested in the club by Roman Abramovich both under the reign of Mourinho and Ranieri. But if it is argued that the explanation is till incomplete we could ask the question of why these people exist, all the way back to the beginnings of the universe, and then to the cause of that- a necessary being. At what point does the requirement for a sufficient reason for the original question become unreasonable.
There is a further problem with ‘sufficient reason’ which is often called the ‘fallacy of composition’. This is highlighted by Hume;
But the WHOLE you say, wants a Cause. I answer, that the uniting of these parts into a whole, like the uniting of several distinct members into one body, is performed merely by an arbitrary act of the mind, and has no influence on the nature of things. 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. That is sufficiently explained in explaining the cause of the parts.
The fallacy is that if every member of a group has a quality then the whole group has that quality. Hume calls it an arbitrary act of the mind, which sounds acceptable when applied to the world and the universe, but when explored in depth is folly. Russell suggest this in his debate with Copleston;
I can illustrate what seems to me your fallacy. Every man who exists has a mother and it seems to me your argument is that therefore the human race must have a mother, but obviously the human race hasn’t a mother- that’s a different logical sphere.
Palmer’s illustration highlights the illogicality of the fallacy;
A: Three friends of mine are in Washington: Michael to see his lawyer, George to see his girlfriend, and John to go to a concert.
B: Fine. But what I want to know is why this whole group of friends is in Washington.
The same goes for the universe. We may be able to explain all the different parts of the universe, but why do we need to explain the universe, can it not just be Russell’s brute fact. In explaining the causes or reason for the members of the group we explain the causes of the group and are not required to explain further the reason for the totality. The group is not distinct from its members, it’s existence is dependent on and explained by its members. The group name is just a term to group contingent things together, and could be seen as an artificial creation of the mind.
The assumption that the whole has a cause is understandable, because from our experience all things have a cause or reason for existence, but the universe does not have to comply with our thoughts just because we want it to.
To this extent the cosmological argument has, thus far, failed as a proof. It may be highly plausible to claim that the objects of our experiences have explanations, whether we know them or not; but no justification has yet been given for supposing that all such objects, taken together, remain unintelligible without the ultimate explanation of necessary being (Palmer, 2002:64).
2. The Argument from Causality
This can be split into three concerns or oppositions- the notion of causality, infinite regress, and the notion of God.
This argument against the Cosmological is inherently linked with the first and challenges the claim that every event must have a cause. Hume argues that just like sufficient reason is created by our minds to make sense of the unintelligible so is causality. In some ways this is like Kant’s argument against the design argument.
Hume concedes that causality is a central part of our experience but not necessarily of our reason. We know the causes of things not because we have thought about them, but because we have observed them. Hume uses a couple of examples for this;
…nor does any man imagine that the explosion of gunpowder or the attraction of a loadstone could ever be discovered by arguments a priori.
But the same truth may not appear at first sight to have the same evidence with regard to events which have become familiar to us from our first appearance in the world, which bear a close analogy to the whole course of nature, and which are supposed to depend on the simple qualities of objects without any secret structure of parts. We are apt to imagine that we could discover these effects by the mere operation of our reason without experience… Such is the influence of custom that where it is strongest it not only covers our natural ignorance but even conceals it, because it is found in the highest degree.
Were any object presented to us, and were we required to pronounce concerning the effect which will result from it without consulting past observation, after what manner, I beseech you, must the mind proceed in this operation? It must invent or imagine some event which it ascribes to the object as its effect; and it is plain that this invention must be entirely arbitrary.
Hume argues that cause can only be ascribed through observation and experience, thus to ascribe causality to something we have not seen before, or is unique is impossible. We can’t test the cause of the world; therefore, we can’t reach a cause except through conjecture. Sometimes our experience is proved wrong, we note a causal connection but it is only probable. We have never seen a new thing happen before, only old things that enable us to form conclusions. Thus if you fire a loaded gun you expect it to shoot, and it will most of the time but it could be jammed.
Aquinas saw the cause and movement as ‘certain’, but with Hume’s argument it may not be so. Though he does recognize “that instances of which we have had no experience must resemble those of which we have had experience, and that the course of nature continues always the same”.
Consider the following statements with what Hume has argued about cause.
The sun will set tonight.
Every man has a mother.
Two people seeing water skiing for the first time. ‘Why is that boat going so fast?’ asks one. ‘Because it is being chased by that idiot on a string’, replies the other.
The universe was created by God.
Why can there not be infinite regress? Hans Reichenbach has argued that
There need not have been a first event; we can imagine that every event was preceded by an earlier event, and that time has no beginning. The infinity of time, in both directions, offers no difficulties to the understanding… Infinite series without a beginning and an end have been successfully treated in mathematics; there is nothing paradoxical in them. To object that there must have been a first event, a beginning of time, is the attitude of an untrained mind. Logic does not tell us anything about the structure of time. Logic offers the means of dealing with infinite series without a beginning as well as with series that have a beginning. If scientific evidence is in favour of an infinite time, coming from infinity and going to infinity, logic has no objection (1951:207-8).
While Aquinas argues that because there is something now it is impossible that there was nothing once (does that make sense?). Others have argued that it is not necessarily so- some things have a beginning, but that they overlap with other things and this could have gone on overlapping for infinity.
Scientists generally accept that the universe has a beginning, but that it can be explained without God. Stephen Hawking argues for an expanding (inflating) universe.
The inflation… was a good thing in that it produced all the contents of the universe quite literally out of nothing. When the universe was a single point, like the North Pole, it contained nothing. Ye there are now at least 1080 particles in the part of the universe that we can observe. Where did all these particles come from? The answer is that relativity and quantum mechanics allow matter to be created out of energy in the form of particle/antiparticle pairs. And where did the energy come from to create this matter? The answer is that it was borrowed from the gravitational energy of the universe. The universe has an enormous debt of negative gravitational energy, which exactly balances the positive energy of the matter. During the inflationary period, the universe borrowed heavily from its gravitational energy to finance the creation of more matter. The result was a triumph for Keynesian economics: a vigorous and expanding universe filled with material objects (1994:88).
I have no idea what this means, but it provides an alternate cause to the universe which leads nicely into the next section.
If it is assumed that there is a first cause- why is God identified as the first cause. Why can’t the universe itself be first cause? Again this conclusion is imposed by the finite mind- we make a decision based on evidence and opinion rather than experience. There is a possibility that the first cause is the universe. Palmer suggests that this possibility
…for Hume is more consistent with what we already know of the world, requires no supernatural agent or divine author: the world, evolving from a primordial supply of matter, actualizes itself. And we may note… that this is possible even if the universe consists entirely of things which individually have the possibility of not existing. Thus there is nothing contradictory in the claim that the universe came into being without a cause, or that it always existed, and that accordingly it had no beginning (2002:71).
Immanuel Kant also argued that the causal argument failed on this premise.
Reason therefore abandons experience altogether…Thus the so-called cosmological proof really owes any cogency which it may have to… mere concepts. The appeal to experience is quite superfluous; experience may perhaps lead us to the concept of absolute necessity as belonging to any determinate thing. For immediately we endeavour to do so, we must abandon all experience and search among pure concepts to discover whether any one of them contains the conditions of the possibility of an absolutely necessary being.
Kant continues to talk about the transcendental principle where we assume a cause. He says that
This principle is applicable only in the sensible world; outside that world it has no meaning whatsoever…. But in the cosmological proof it is in precisely in order to enable us to advance beyond the sensible world that it is employed.
The cosmological argument is based on supposition. It goes beyond the experienced world into the world of conjecture where people have no guarantee that their conclusions are correct. It does not argue that God does not exist (indeed Kant was a theist), rather, it argues that there is no way of assessing the validity of the claims of these arguments and so as proof the cosmological argument fails, whereas as evidence it may be useful.
For people who would argue against Hume and Kant, the fact that something can’t be proved doesn’t necessarily disprove it. It depends on where you place the burden of proof- on the believer or non-believer.
However, the arguments against the Cosmological argument are similarly based on supposition. None of these can disprove God, just offer an alternative.
3. Necessary Being
Why can we not ask ‘Who made God?’ It is a perfectly logical question is a discussion of causality and contingency. J.L. Mackie has argued;
Also what we can call al Farabi’s principle, that where items are ordered by a relation of dependence, the regress must terminate somewhere, and cannot be either infinite or circular, though plausible, may not really be sound. But the greatest weakness of this otherwise attractive argument is that some reason is required for making God the one exception to the supposed need for something else to depend on: why should God, rather than anything else, be taken as the only satisfactory termination of regress? (1982:92)
Again the concept of God does not have to be the God of classical theism.
Kant argues that the concept of necessary being is illogical and a nonsense. He argues that necessary existence is meaningless and self contradictory.
To argue that there is a necessary being is to say that it would be self contradictory to deny its existence; and this in turn would mean that at least one existential statement (i.e., a statement that refers to existence) has the status of necessary truth. But this cannot be allowed. For it is logically impossible for any existential proposition to be logically necessary (Palmer, 2001:17-18)
People who are religious would argue that there can be absolute and necessary truths, and just because they don’t fit into Kant’s view of the world does not make them false.
Although Kant admits that it is perfectly reasonable for us to want to try and find a reason for the world’s existence
It is something very remarkable that, on the supposition that something exists, I cannot avoid the inference that something exists necessarily. Upon this perfectly natural… inference does the cosmological argument rest.
Simply adding the idea of God, as a necessary Being, into the equation, does not mean God exists. As we have suggested, the world is just as capable of a non-religious, as well as religious, interpretation
But, let me form any conception whatever of a thing, I find that I cannot cogitate the existence of the thing as absolutely necessary, and that nothing prevents me – be the thing or being what it may – from cogitating its non-existence [and that]… consequently neither of these principles are objective, but merely subjective principles of reason.