Friday, September 25, 2009

Some perennial reminders about cosmological arguments

For some reason people often get confused and think that all versions of the cosmological argument are liable to a "who made God" objection. Bertrand Russell wrote:

I read John Stuart Mill's Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: "My father taught me that the question 'Who made me?' cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'" That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. 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 Hindu'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. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.

Now there are versions of the Cosmological Argument that do have a "who made God" problem. If the argument had said:

1) Everything has a cause.
2) Therefore the universe has a cause.
3) Therefore, God caused the universe.

then we could refute the argument by asking who made God. But we don't have that problem if the premise says "Whatever begins to exist must have a cause of its existence." A cause is required only if there is a temporal beginning.
So the Kalam argument is:

1) Whatever begins to exist, must have a cause of its existence.
2) The universe began to exist.
3) Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.

And this argument exempts God, who ex hypothesi never began to exist.

Consider also the Thomistic argument from contingency. It follows this format:

1) Whatever exists contingently must have a cause of its existence.
2) The universe exists contingently.
3) Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.

Again, unless it is supposed that God exists contingently, the argument is immune to any "who made God" objection.

Dawkins offers the same sort of response. He writes:

First, most of the traditional arguments for God's existence, from Aquinas on, are easily demolished. Several of them, such as the First Cause argument, work by setting up an infinite regress which God is wheeled out to terminate. But we are never told why God is magically able to terminate regresses while needing no explanation himself.

Sorry, Richard, but you are told. In the Kalam argument, you are told that the universe had a temporal beginning, so it does need to be explained, while God had no temporal beginning, so God does not need to be explained. In the Thomistic case, the universe needs an explanation because it exists contingently, while God, ex hypothesi, is a necessary being, and is hence not a contingent being.

Now these arguments might, at the end of the day, prove to be flawed. Perhaps we don't have to accept the idea that whatever begins must have a cause, and maybe there is some theory of the universe that works and doesn't require an absolute beginning. Maybe the contingent/necessary distinction on which the updated Thomistic argument turns can also be undermined. The beat goes on, philosophically speaking.

I'm no fan of accusing opponents of intellectual dishonesty. But these slam-dunk refutations of
cosmological arguments do make me wonder about those who propose them.

I am linking to WLC's page on theistic argument for more information about the Kalam argument.


Gordon Knight said...

The cosmological argument has always struck me as the best argument for theism. It has a flaw, but its not the "how did God come to exist?" canard. The crucial flaw is why we should think that a person is the necessary being that ends the regres. The proper response to this objection is that only an agent cause can fill the bill as a causes.

I think the only causes are agents. But even if one supposes that there is event causation, such caustion does not create anything. But we create, as agents, when we imagine or think up anything.

Berkeley is quite instructive on this, as is his nemesis Thomas Reid.

Clayton said...

It seems that there are two ways of understanding 'x begins to exist':

(i) The duration of x's existence is finite.
(ii) There is at least one moment at which x does not exist that is temporally prior to a moment at which x does exist.

If you have the intuition that things cannot pop into being, you might think that anything that begins to exist in sense (ii) has a cause. The problem is that this doesn't apply to the universe.

Maybe (i) applies to the universe. (See Earman for skepticism.) The thing is that using (i) to motivate the CA, you have to say that there is something that has a cause where that cause does not temporally precede it. Indeed, the cause of this thing seems to stand in no temporal relations to it at all. Intuitive motivation for the view that there are things that have causes that stand in no temporal relations to it is found where again?

Anonymous said...

Arguably the idea of simulation would offer a third category. If I create a simulation on a computer, from within the simulation looking out, the nature and relationship of time gets interesting to say the least.

Of course, if simulations are considered valid instances of universes, then theism/deism becomes vastly more likely than atheism, regardless of deeper questions of time and causality.