Clarifying the cosmological argument

Philosopher Edward Feser clears us misconceptions about the cosmological argument for the existence of God:

1. The argument does NOT rest on the premise that “Everything has a cause.”

Lots of people – probably most people who have an opinion on the matter – think that the cosmological argument goes like this: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists. They then have no trouble at all poking holes in it. If everything has a cause, then what caused God? Why assume in the first place that everything has to have a cause? Why assume the cause is God? Etc.

Here’s the funny thing, though. People who attack this argument never tell you where they got it from. They never quote anyone defending it. There’s a reason for that. The reason is that none of the best-known proponents of the cosmological argument in the history of philosophy and theology ever gave this stupid argument. Not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne. And not anyone else either, as far as I know. . . .
What defenders of the cosmological argument do say is that what comes into existence has a cause, or that what is contingent has a cause.  These claims are as different from “Everything has a cause” as “Whatever has color is extended” is different from “Everything is extended.”  Defenders of the cosmological argument also provide arguments for these claims about causation.  You may disagree with the claims – though if you think they are falsified by modern physics, you are sorely mistaken– but you cannot justly accuse the defender of the cosmological argument either of saying something manifestly silly or of contradicting himself when he goes on to say that God is uncaused. . . .

“What caused God?” is not a serious objection to the argument.

Part of the reason this is not a serious objection is that it usually rests on the assumption that the cosmological argument is committed to the premise that “Everything has a cause,” and as I’ve just said, this is simply not the case.  But there is another and perhaps deeper reason.The cosmological argument in its historically most influential versions is not concerned to show that there is a cause of things which just happens not to have a cause.  It is not interested in “brute facts” – if it were, then yes, positing the world as the ultimate brute fact might arguably be as defensible as taking God to be.  On the contrary, the cosmological argument – again, at least as its most prominent defenders (Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al.) present it – is concerned with trying to show that not everything can be a “brute fact.”  What it seeks to show is that if there is to be an ultimate explanation of things, then there must be a cause of everything else which not only happens to exist, but which could not even in principle have failed to exist.  And that is why it is said to be uncaused – not because it is an arbitrary exception to a general rule, not because it merely happens to be uncaused, but rather because it is not the sort of thing that can even in principle be said to have had a cause, precisely because it could not even in principle have failed to exist in the first place.  And the argument doesn’t merely assume or stipulate that the first cause is like this; on the contrary, the whole point of the argument is to try to show that there must be something like this.

via Edward Feser: So you think you understand the cosmological argument?.

He goes on, in some fascinating and lucid philosophizing.

HT:  Joe Carter

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • WebMonk

    none of the best-known proponents of the cosmological argument in the history of philosophy and theology ever gave this stupid argument. Not Plato, not Aristotle, …. And not anyone else either, as far as I know.

    He needs to be introduced to 99% of Internet posters. Other than those people, no one every gave that stupid argument. :-)

    *Yes, I know I’m not precisely addressing his intent, but rather a side-aspect, that’s part of posting on the Internet! I’m So Meta, Even This Acronym.

  • WebMonk

    none of the best-known proponents of the cosmological argument in the history of philosophy and theology ever gave this stupid argument. Not Plato, not Aristotle, …. And not anyone else either, as far as I know.

    He needs to be introduced to 99% of Internet posters. Other than those people, no one every gave that stupid argument. :-)

    *Yes, I know I’m not precisely addressing his intent, but rather a side-aspect, that’s part of posting on the Internet! I’m So Meta, Even This Acronym.

  • Leif

    Makes sense to me. But as WebMonk pointed out sense has little to do with internet comment wars. In fact, this sort of thing just happened on a site I read announced how we’re genetically modified to believe in a God/gods/etc.

    What strikes me as important here is the gulf between the learned and the unlearned of a topic(insert any other symbolic name here…”masses”, etc.) and how the two would debate it.

    Rather than realize that something may (or may not) have as important an implication as they hope it does (or doesn’t) they (specifically 99% of internet posters) blindly argue on with complete disregard as to the logic of their argument and whether or not the people they are swearing by would actually follow them into their brand new territory.

    On a side note, I’ve always sort of held this example to the same notions as the article:

    If I created a computer program that embodied a small universe in which all balls bounce 10 ft. higher on their fifth bounce than on their previous bounces and then created an observer in that universe with a limited form of intelligence (ie. just enough self-realization and knowledge to be able to create a system to investigate their world) does this mean that the balls in my world also bounce 10 ft. higher on their fifth bounce?

    Or…

    Do balls even exist in my world anyways?

  • Leif

    Makes sense to me. But as WebMonk pointed out sense has little to do with internet comment wars. In fact, this sort of thing just happened on a site I read announced how we’re genetically modified to believe in a God/gods/etc.

    What strikes me as important here is the gulf between the learned and the unlearned of a topic(insert any other symbolic name here…”masses”, etc.) and how the two would debate it.

    Rather than realize that something may (or may not) have as important an implication as they hope it does (or doesn’t) they (specifically 99% of internet posters) blindly argue on with complete disregard as to the logic of their argument and whether or not the people they are swearing by would actually follow them into their brand new territory.

    On a side note, I’ve always sort of held this example to the same notions as the article:

    If I created a computer program that embodied a small universe in which all balls bounce 10 ft. higher on their fifth bounce than on their previous bounces and then created an observer in that universe with a limited form of intelligence (ie. just enough self-realization and knowledge to be able to create a system to investigate their world) does this mean that the balls in my world also bounce 10 ft. higher on their fifth bounce?

    Or…

    Do balls even exist in my world anyways?

  • http://www.jkjonesthinks.blogspot.com J. K. Jones

    Great post.

    To put it simly, the cosmological argument, particulalry in its kalaam form, shows that something must (!) not have a cause. Something must exist necessarily.

  • http://www.jkjonesthinks.blogspot.com J. K. Jones

    Great post.

    To put it simly, the cosmological argument, particulalry in its kalaam form, shows that something must (!) not have a cause. Something must exist necessarily.

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