The Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God (2017), by Sean Gabb

The Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God

Note: One of my duties in the various places where I teach is to show students how to write essays – something most young people are not nowadays taught to do. What I like to do in class is to choose a question at random, discuss possible approaches, and then dictate an answer one paragraph at a time. Some of these answers are very short. Some are just notes. Some amount to small dissertations. In this latter case, the students take turns at looking on-line for the information we decide is needed. It they cannot find it, I show them how to change the structure of what has already been written, or to strike out in a new direction.

It is a “writing masterclass” approach that makes use of my own strengths, and is often a welcome alternative to formal teaching. It fills up a long morning session. Everyone learns something, and the more attentive will improve their final grades by at least one step.

Here is an example of the finished product. Do not take it as a statement of personal opinion. It is an answer produced for a specific question, and it bears in mind what a possibly unknown examiner will appreciate, and what can be written to incorporate the sources found in class. SIG

PS – If anyone wants to engage my services as a teacher of these skills, please click on the image to the left. Though they are my niche subjects, Greek and Latin are not my exclusive focus as a teacher. I do much else besides.


(i)Outline the key concepts of the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God (21)

The cosmological argument is associated with the 13th century philosopher Thomas Aquinas who worked in the Aristotelian tradition, but has been used by many other philosophers including Leibnitz and William Craig. Its purpose is to prove the existence of God by arguments from experience and from an understanding of the universe as we perceive it.

The cosmological argument comprises three separate arguments.

The first is the notion, borrowed from Aristotle, of an “unmoved mover.” We see that material objects are able to change location, place and form. Aquinas uses the example of burning firewood to show that, for a piece of wood to become hot, fire must be applied to it. Now, whatever is moved or changed cannot be moved on its own but by another, because there would be an infinite regress of movers which is impossible. If we trace the sequence of movements to the beginning, we must arrive at a first mover. This “unmoved mover” must be God.

The second argument is similar to the first. Whatever happens has a cause this in turn has a cause and that has a cause. For example, a billiard ball on a table is set in motion when hit by another billiard ball. This billiard ball is set in motion with a snooker which is held by a human being who was brought in to being by his parents and has been kept alive ever since by various other causes. Following on, a thing cannot cause itself, I cannot be my own father, because my father brought me into being and there is a logical contradiction to say that I brought myself into existence when I was already in existence.

We can follow the chain of cause and effect back a very long time. However, to say that there is an infinite regress of cause and effect involves us in various logical contradictions. For example, there is the Hilbert’s Hotel observation, in which a hotel with an infinite number of rooms can be both full and not full at one and the same time.  A further point is, that the human mind does not seem able to form a clear conception of infinity.

We therefore say that the chain of cause and effect, and the chain of motions, ends with a first cause which itself has no cause. This we call God or the supreme being.

The third argument is based on contingency and necessity. Whatever we see in the world can be imagined not to exist. Much of it did not once exist and will not exist at some time in the future. To come into existence a contingent thing needs to be created by something that already exists. This means that the entire universe is contingent. The fact that it exists  means that it was brought into being by something that is itself, not contingent and this we call God, who is a necessary being, that is to say a being whose existence is part of his definition.

In conclusion, the cosmological argument describes God as the unmoved mover, uncaused causer and a necessary being. It claims the existence of a necessary being, who is responsible for the existence of the universe and every contingent being. This external cause must be God, who is eternal and does not require a cause to exist. The cosmological argument also argues that infinite regress is impossible as it would mean no ultimate cause, in which case the universe never existed.

[Comment on the claim that the cosmological argument for the existence of god is not convincing](9)

The argument is unconvincing for these reasons:

  1. The contingency argument rests on Aristotle’s distinction between potential and actual states of being. This is no longer considered a useful distinction for analysing the world. Modern science is more interested in what happens than in why things happen. A further point was made by Bertrand Russell. That, although individual parts seem to require something else to bring them in to being, the universe as a whole simply exists. For example, each member of a cricket eleven has a father, but it is just a language game to say that the cricket eleven as a whole had a father.
  2. The motion/causation argument is also unconvincing , I see nothing wrong with the idea of an infinite regress. It may involve logical contradictions such as the Hilbert’s Hotel example. But the idea of God also involves infinity. If God can be infinite, why not the whole universe?
  3. A further objection, from David Hume, is that one cannot prove causation. The only reason for belief in cause and effect is experience. This is good enough to persuade us not to drink cyanide or to put on warm clothing in winter. But, a method of explanation based simply on a belief is not strong enough to prove the existence of a supreme being.

There are other weaknesses. For example, just because we cannot form a clear conception of an infinity it does not mean that infinity is impossible. It may show only that our minds are limited. A man blind from birth is unable to conceive of colour. Does this mean he can argue that colour is impossible?

For these reasons, the cosmological argument is unconvincing.

© 2017, seangabb.

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