Cosmological arguments reason from some state of affairs to the necessity of an uncaused cause, the attributes of which justify it being labeled as God; however, according to the esteemed intellectual tradition of New Atheism, “the” cosmological argument (having never read a book, New Atheists think there is one cosmological argument) is patently flawed, nothing more than theistic sophistry which can be rebutted with the simplest of questions: what caused God? In addition to the baffling lack of self-reflection that would allow a person to think nobody but them has figured this out over centuries of discussion, it betrays a total misunderstanding of how cosmological arguments work. Don’t worry, Chris is here to save the day by accidentally making a careless error in his explanation.
Properly Formulating The Argument
Before talking about misconceptions, it would help to be presented with something to have misconceptions about. Example:
1) There is at least one contingent being.
2) Every contingent being has an explanation (ie, as to why it is X instead of Y).
3) Explanations cannot be circular.
Therefore, there is a necessary being that grounds all contingent beings, and we call this God.
Explanation of Premises and Terms
Contingency: something is contingent if it is logically possible, as opposed to possible in the actual world, for it to have been one way rather than another. My cat is contingent because it could have been a different color. Pretty sure at least one cat exists, btw.
Necessity: something is necessary (non-contingent) if it is not logically possible for it to be a different way than it is. An example of this would be 2+2 = 4, or that bachelors are necessarily unmarried.
Being: this just means it exists. A rock is a contingent being — there is no assumption of sentience here.
Explanation: it seems pretty intuitive to say that if my cat could have been brown instead of black, there is an explanation as to why it turned out brown (the combination of genetics, environment, a can of spray paint, and so on). If a rock fell out of the sky and killed your cat… it would take a peculiar human being to not assume there was an explanation as to the rock’s origin. As to explanations not being circular, think of it this way: if every answer itself demands an explanation, you have not actually explained the original question — you have only pushed the explanation a step away.
The conclusion: because all contingent beings have an explanation, but because this explanation cannot simply be an infinite chain of contingent beings, there has to be a different type of being that ‘finalizes’ the explanation — this is only possible if it is a being that is non-contingent, a necessary being.
I’m not even sure how many of these are directly related lol. I don’t care.
What caused (or explains) God?
This question makes no sense as, by definition, a necessary being is uncaused. This objection comes about because people improperly put the argument as “everything has a cause/explanation” rather than “contingent beings.” If everything is said to have an explanation, then this argument is self-undermining since there is no basis on which to exclude God from requiring explanation; however, as it is only contingent beings, and God is a necessary being, it is simply not appropriate to make this demand.
Why can’t the universe be necessary?
The universe cannot be necessary because it is not a thing itself (or can only be a thing itself in contexts like Eternal Inflation — contexts which clearly make it a caused thing), but rather a collection of contingent things. This generally brings up an accusal of a ‘fallacy of composition:’ making a mistake in saying that the whole cannot have properties the parts do not. First, this does not fix the issue of the universe not being a thing. Second, it’s not making this mistake anyway because contingency is a fundamental attribute of the parts which cannot be absent in the whole. Think of it like this: if you take a bunch of isolated, quiet children and dump them into a building with each other then we cannot say (with certainty, or even likelihood) that the collection of children will be quiet. They probably will begin to talk to each other, or fight, or etc. But what we can say is that this will not suddenly have morphed into a collection of adults.
Additionally, this is tied to another error in assuming that what is being argued for is the universe requiring a cause (ie, they are thinking along the lines of a ‘what caused the Big Bang?’)
Some contingent things do have no cause / explanation!
When we look down at our quantum world we find weird things like virtual particles spontaneously popping in and out of existence, the sudden quantum tunneling of radioactive decay, or wavefunction collapse. But this is confusing temporal causation with ontological grounding; while there may be no prior event to the creation of virtual particles, this behavior is still explained by the laws of physics — this could not happen without them (and the laws of physics themselves are contingent because it is logically possible for them to be different).
We tend to think of causation as billiard balls running into each other, dominoes falling, or something like that. In that sort of situation there is absolutely no issue with having an infinite chain of dominoes, the tumbling of each one accounted for by the motion of the previous; however, that is not the situation this argument is addressing. Take that same domino thing and pause it at a single slice of time (pretend time is discrete) — in this moment temporal causation is irrelevant, but there is a “vertical” sort of explanatory chain – the table, for example, is holding up the dominoes, which depend on it for their existence (so to speak). The table is itself dependent on the ground, various physical laws, its molecular composition, etc etc. This is the type of series we are worried about: even with time frozen, removing one of those things from the chain of ontological (“related to existence”) dependencies collapses everything above it (why I like the table analogy so much), so there cannot be an infinite chain since, without a final foundation, nothing could exist at all. You can have the highest tower of blocks imaginable, but if there is no permanent ground it is just going to collapse.
Not only is God not a temporal ‘first cause’ of the world, but this sort of causation means God is actively sustaining and interacting with the world at every single moment. You can have a block tower that has been around eternally, that was never actually assembled, but this eternal block tower still cannot exist without having a base.
The universe could be eternal!
This follows immediately from the former section – this is not temporal causation, and this sort of argument is perfectly compatible with both an eternal, even unchanging, universe or a created universe.
This does not explain why this necessary being is your religion’s god or even God at all.
100% true. But this argument makes no claim to and never intended to do either of these things — all that is happening here is deducing from certain premises the existence of this necessary being (which, again, is not “being” as in a sentient creature; it is just a be-ing, an existing).
This confusion is understandable because so many of these arguments (ie Aquinas) will explicitly label the First Cause, necessary being, pure actuality, ETC as “God,” but this label is applied retroactively. The timeline is like this: argue for the existence of the necessary being; further and different arguments as to the attributes that this being must have, and that these attributes justify calling it God; use “God” in the cosmological argument for simplicity’s sake. This is not just an automatic defining of the necessary being as God, or as your particularly religion’s god (Christianity being true, for example, would involve further appeals to special revelation, Biblical history, personal experience).
This could just as well argue for polytheism instead of monotheism!
Look at the accounts of polytheistic gods: they are basically superheroes, and just as contingent as any human. Each god is different from the others, and this difference means the question of “why is it like this instead of that” becomes legitimate — it’s therefore a contingent being.
Just because there are a lot of confused complaints does not mean that there are not real ones; many philosophers of religion, who are most well-versed in these arguments, are atheists. I’m just going to list one because I’m lazy and positively buggered. At least I’m honest.
Limits of Metaphysical Speculation
The second premise, that all contingent things have an explanation, is known as the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). It’s slightly misleading to say “the,” since this can be formulated with various exclusions (ie restricting it to the realm of human experience) or strengths (ie saying only that it’s possible that there is an explanation). Regardless, the question remains as to whether or not we can apply this sort of principle to metaphysical problems like the existence of God. A Kantian (yea, now I’m really trying to screw up!) approach is one way to deny its applicability – without going into any detail, because I want to cover my ass and also not write a giant essay, something like the PSR would be a requirement for the possibility of experience, it would ground our experience, but, according to his epistemological arguments, this would also restrict its application to the realm of human experience; certain pure concepts determine the structure of our experience, but that inherently limits their application to objects of possible experience. Honestly I should have either said nothing at all or bothered to write the essay because this shorthand version is just gibberish. OH WELL.
New Atheists, especially Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and everyone who likes them, are dumb for baselessly discounting arguments with long pedigrees. While a reasonable person might say that this concluding paragraph does not particularly represent the content of the post and merely serves as a forced opportunity to throw shade on certain individuals… well, a more poetic way to look at it is the guiding, grand, mythological narrative for this entire post is the intellectual ignorance of New Atheists.