Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Cosmological Argument

". . . be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear." 1 Peter 3:15  
"For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." Carl Sagan

When believers are asked how they know God exists, one of the most common answers given is some version of the cosmological argument.

The cosmological argument is usually credited to Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who was one of the first theologians to teach that God's existence could be proven through reason alone.  In his cosmological argument, Aquinas argues for the existence of God based on the fact that the universe exists, and every thing that exists must have a cause. For example, it doesn't make sense to assume that the table I am sitting at wasn't created by someone. Also, if we found someone that had been murdered, we wouldn't assume that it just happened. No, we would assume that someone killed this person, and we would call the police to try find the murderer. Similarly, the world exists, and it too must have a cause. Here is the cosmological argument in full:

(1) Everything that exists has a cause of its existence.
(2) The universe exists.
(3) The universe has a cause of its existence.
(4) If the universe has a cause of its existence, then that cause is God.
(5) God exists.

However, the argument itself is self-defeating; for if the first premise is true, then the conclusion must be false. Why? If God caused the universe, then who caused God? If everything that exists has to have a cause, then God must have a cause as well. You can't argue that everything must have a cause of its existence, but exclude God from the same requirement! This is a prime example of the Fallacy of Passing the Buck: invoking God to solve some problem, but then leaving unanswered that very same problem about God himself. No mystery has been explained by invoking one mystery to solve another. 

Bertrand Russell refuted premise (1) thus:
If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as god, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Indian's view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, "How about the tortoise?" the Indian said, "Suppose we change the subject." The argument is really no better than that.

However, prominent theologians and philosophers try to avoid this objection by exempting God from premise (1). Basically, they argue that everything except God has a beginning, and therefore has a cause of its existence. Notice how William Lane Craig - who has popularized a more advanced version of the cosmological argument, called the Kalam cosmological argument - subtly changes Aquinas's  argument to avoid refutation:

(1) Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence.
(2) The universe has a beginning of its existence (the Big Bang).
(3) The universe has a cause of its existence.
(4) If the universe has a cause of its existence then that cause is God.
(5) God exists.

Unlike the first version of the argument, this argument is not self refuting since it implies that God does not have a cause. In defense of premise (1), Craig simply says that it's inconceivable that something could pop into existence. 
Now, with respect to premise (1), whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence, I'm not going to say very much in defense of this premise this evening. I really don't think that it's necessary because the premise that whatever begins to exist must have a cause of its existence I think is so intuitively obvious that scarcely anybody could sincerely deny that it is false.

However, despite Craig's attempt to save the cosmological argument, premise (1) is still false. Modern physicists have shown that some things do pop into, and out of, existence. (Remember how I said physics is not intuitive?) According to quantum physics, subatomic particles like electrons, photons, and positrons come into and go out of existence randomly (but in accord with the Heisenberg uncertainty principles). This was first proposed Edward Tryon in 1973: 
Quantum electrodynamics reveals that an electron, positron, and photon occasionally emerge spontaneously in a perfect vacuum. . .  The spontaneous, temporary emergence of particles from a vacuum is called vacuum fluctuations, and is utterly commonplace in quantum field theory." 

Even though most of us have never heard of or understand vacuum fluctuations, their significance is enormous. In fact, vacuum fluctuations are what most of the matter in the universe, including us, is composed of. It's not just subatomic particles that vacuum fluctuations can spontaneously create from nothing (the nothingness of a vacuum at least). Rather, entire universes can be created within vacuum fluctuations. Therefore, there are things that can begin to exist without being caused to exist by something else. If it can happen to subatomic particles, then why not to the universe as a whole? Actually, that is exactly how todays leading astrophysicist thinks the universe got started.

Here is Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow from their recent book The Grand Design, describing the effects of quantum fluctuations:
An important consequence (of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle) is that there is no such thing as empty space. . . . space is never empty. It can have a state of minimum energy, called the vacuum, that that state is subject to what are called quantum jitters, or vacuum fluctuations - particles and fields quivering in and out of existence. . . Quantum fluctuations lead to the creation of tiny universes out of nothing. A few of these reach a critical size, then expand in an inflationary manner, forming galaxies, stars, and, in at least one case, beings like us.

Therefore premise (1) of Craig's argument is false, and his conclusion doesn't follow. However, there is yet another problem with Craig's argument: it assumes too much about whatever created our universe. Even if our universe was created by something outside it, why assume that it was the God of ethical monotheism?  Philosopher Theodore Schick believes this assumption is not justified:
(E)ven if this argument did succeed in proving the existence of a first cause, it wouldn't succeed in proving the existence of God because there is no reason to believe that the cause of the universe has any of the properties traditionally associated with God. Aquinas took God to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. But from the existence of the universe, we cannot conclude that its creator had any of these properties. 

Perhaps the universe wasn't created by just one God, but by a committee of Gods. Or perhaps the universe was created by something less than all-powerful being. Maybe it was created by a super advanced alien?  Or maybe it was created by a committee of super-advanced aliens. Or maybe the God of this universe was lacking in one of the other "omni-qualities" that I discussed in my last post. If so, then this being would not merit the title of God, and therefore would not be worthy of our worship.

Considering all that is problematic with the world and the universe, it is difficult to conceive that it was created by an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving God. For example, our world is filled with pain and suffering where death is universal and extinction is the norm. Faulty design is everywhere we look within our own bodies, and in the Earth as well. Destructive weather, tornados, floods, mudslides, and earthquakes kill millions of innocents. Disease caused by viruses, parasites, and germs usually target the young and the weak. The planet we inhabit will eventually die in a hot death when it is consumed by the Sun as it runs out of energy. And our own universe will eventually fizzle out in a very cold death since it will continue to expand forever.

Therefore, for any number of the reasons listed above, the cosmological argument fails to prove God's existence. But it is important to remember, lest the atheist also commit the fallacy of assuming what has not been proved, that the failure of the cosmological argument does not prove that he doesn't exist either. At best, we have only shown that the cosmological argument fails to prove God's existence, and we are left with a Scottish verdict of "not proven."


  1. How comfortable are you with applying the logic of your concluding paragraph to something you know doesn't exist?

    I assume you don't believe that a Santa Claus exists?

  2. No I don't. Not very probable. But refuting the cosmological argument (which I, and many others have) only refutes an argument for God's existence. It does not prove anything beyond that. We need to get into arguments for atheism (such as the problem of evil) before we can say that there are good reasons to NOT believe in God. All we've done with poking holes in the cosmological argument, is to say that it's not a good reason to believe. BTW, I'm an atheist, but I think we have to be fair in examining theological arguments.

  3. Oh ok. I thought you were an atheist but for some reason it kind of came across a couple posts ago that you were going to list reasons why you believe in a god.

    Thanks for the clarification.

    Do you agree with the idea that "what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence"?

    It seems to me that the word "know" brings in a lot of baggage. But I contend that atheism is justified. Not many people are familiar with the definition of knowledge as justified true belief... and so for the sake of the argument I'll say that I don't know that gods don't exist but I do contend that my belief that they don't exist is justified.

  4. Exactly. See Russell's teapot analogy. You can't rule it out, but there is no reason to believe it's there.

  5. But why can't we rule it out? Just because something is conceivable doesn't necessarily mean it's possible.

  6. Because it's impossible to rule it out. It's not falsifiable.. This is a characteristic if many religious or pseudoscientific claims. Nonfalsifiable claims are worthless because you also can't prove them either. Science, however, make claims that can be falsified. And that's what makes these claims so strong (see Popper).

  7. One more idea: everything is based on probabilities. Nonfalsifiable claims without evidence are not probable, so we usually just ignore them. Falsifiable claims with lots of good evidence to back them up are very probable. And we should pay attention to them. Few things can be proven with absolute certainty. Therefore we deal with probabilities in assigning epistemological certainty to different claims.