The Cosmological Proof: A Quick Rundown

While writing the review for Ed Feser’s Five Proofs of the Existence of God, I decided to cut out a large segment I had written concerning the Kalam cosmological argument and its relationship with Aristotle’s First Cause argument.  Feser doesn’t spend much time on the Kalam argument save to mention it briefly in the last chapter of his book, and even then, he spends no time focusing on it.  Since most of what I’ll be discussing here only uses Feser’s book as a jumping-off point, I decided to split it off and make it a post of its own.

The “cosmological” part of the cosmological argument refers to the creation and development of the universe—its origin and its cause.  Interestingly, Aristotle did not really concern himself with the beginnings of the universe or the origin of time; the world according to his view was eternal, having no beginning or end.  While Aristotle’s take on the nature of temporality and creation may be a bit skewed, what this meant for his metaphysics was that his argumentation from cause did not rely on temporality to be sensible.  Rather, Aristotelian causation is more easily referred to as hierarchical.  We will discuss this first.

Aristotelian Argument from First Cause

As anyone covering the philosophical proofs for the existence of God has to, Feser spends some time discussing the cosmological argument.  The argument, in vastly abbreviated form, goes something like this:

  1. Change is real.
  2. Change is the actualization of potential.
  3. Everything that changes has a cause that actualizes its potential independent of itself.
  4. The universe is constantly changing.
  5. The actualization of the universe is being caused by something other than itself.

There are, of course, many steps missing, but Feser gives both an exegesis and a formal numbered statement of the First Cause Proof in the first chapter of this book.  For the sake of brevity, I’ve shortened it to this; for those of you interested in understanding what the words actualize, potential, and even cause refer to in Aristotelian metaphysics, I encourage you to read the book!

The gist of this argument, Feser argues (successfully, as he spent most of two previous books of his focusing on Aristotelian and Scholastic metaphysics), is that this is not an argument concerned with time or temporality.  The causes here are not causes in the sense of one domino in the ancient past being knocked over and kicking off a chain reaction that results in a domino today hitting the table.  Causation in this sense is simultaneous, like a perfectly synched together transmission in which gears turn one another with utmost precision.  The motion generated by the gear at the end of this causal chain has to begin with a gear turning somewhere further up its causal chain, and there can only be one drivetrain powering the motion of the entire contraption.  If there were more than one, the gearbox would fall out of synch.  If there was no drivetrain at all, then there’d be no motion in the first place.  Nothing could move.

This argument functions because movement is conceived of as a fundamental expression of change.  Change must be implemented upon a thing from something outside of itself.  Aristotle explains this by asserting that change is brought about through the actualization of a thing’s potential; both the potential of a thing and its actuality are real, in that they are both aspects of a thing as it exists.  But in order for a thing to undergo change, it must first have the potential to change into whatever form that change results in.  A stick of deadwood, for instance, has the innate potential to be burnt into charcoal, ash, and smoke fumes; it does not have the potential to melt into a puddle like a block of ice.  But this change must be brought on by something other than the thing itself, otherwise nothing would ever hold a definite form.  That stick’s potential for turning into charcoal, ash, smoke, etc. can only be brought about through exposure to intense heat and usually with the help with some sort of a spark.

And so we have a glimpse of a causal chain already.  At the very moment of incineration, the moment when change is taking place to transform wood into smoke and charcoal, the presence of a burning ember is found.  That burning ember is itself evidence of something undergoing a change of forms, and so on.  Aristotle’s argument concludes that, just as a tangible thing cannot cause itself to change, so too can there not be an infinite regression of causes which produce change.  If there’s no drivetrain capable of creating motion—one unique thing capable of self-actualization—then nothing in the system can move.

Feser goes much more into detail about this, and unfortunately I don’t have space here to elaborate more.  You can read his blog or, better yet, pick up one of his books for more information.  This is all pretty entry-level Scholastic Thomism.

Amusingly, most of the popular critics who take aim at the First Cause argument confuse the matter entirely, and take “cause” to mean something temporal in nature rather than hierarchical.  Fortunately, the vast field of Christian apologism actually has an argument that fits this bill, but Aristotle has very little to do with it.  A school of Islamic philosophy from the Middle Ages formulated the best presentation of this argument, as we get into below.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

William Lane Craig has come to be seen as the man who popularized the Kalam argument with the publication of his 1979 thesis on the subject.  Unlike Aristotle’s proof, the Kalam Cosmological Proof is based on temporality of things beginning and ending in time.  This makes it somewhat easier to understand and more intuitive than Aristotle’s, but no less valid.  I mention it here, despite it not being important to Feser’s proofs, because this comes into play when discussing critique of any form a proof from cosmology may come in.  It goes like this:

  1. Everything that came into being has a cause independent of itself.
  2. The universe came into being.
  3. The universe was caused by something other than itself.

This is a distinctly temporal proof, in distinction from the Aristotelian First Cause argument.  Things that begin in time must be begun by something other than themselves.  This particular variant of the cosmological argument is often misrepresented as suggesting that everything that exists was made by something else that preceded it, which falls immediately into the paradox of infinite regression—i.e. Dawkins’ famously stupid question, “if God made the universe, then who made God?”

But what makes critics of the cosmological argument so confident in its uselessness?  Typically, they confuse the idea of “having begun at a point in time” to be synonymous with “all that exists” or “all that is real.”  This confusion likely springs from the (unproven, and in fact, increasingly untenable) materialist assumption that there is nothing greater than the universe that is real.  “The universe” was once a term that referred specifically to the tangible world made knowable through our senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste.  In modern parlance, however, the definition has encroached into the territory of defining all that is real, which poses a problem when it comes to understanding terms.  The most obvious one being, of course, as per Godel, no system is capable of intelligibly defining its own function.  When the term “universe” is stretched to include everything that is real, rather than merely what is tangible, it is being used as an attempt to define itself, which of course implies a self-actualizing, self-realizing function present in the universe.  After all, only real things can cause other real things, but if the universe is all that is real, then somehow the cumulative total of everything that is real has a special property—self-creation—that no individual part of it has.  Believing in the validity of such a miracle (a miracle without origin, since such a hypothesis attempts erase the existence of God) is strikingly less-reasonable than the alternative.

The alternative, of course, is that the correct definition of “universe” remains what it always has been: the system of tangible reality that exists in time and is subject to various natural laws.  This being the case, that system implies something greater than itself in order to function—it implies a cause that comes prior to it.  If we are to believe in a multiverse theory, the same argument applies to the multiverse as it does to our universe, and it doesn’t matter how many multiverses are nested up.  Just as there cannot be an infinite regress, eventually you will trace this back to a first creator.

Infinite Regress and What the Arguments Have in Common

Both of these arguments shed light on the distinction between necessity and contingency; i.e. things which can exist only because other things exist which support them, and things which can exist independent of anything else that is possible.  The universe—creation—must first be understood as contingent in its nature, as the universe is simply a term applied to the sum total of tangible things in the world, and all of these things are themselves contingent.  They are contingent both in the Aristotelian sense—their continued existence, understood as a form of movement and change, is not possible without something sustaining and driving that continuation—as well as in the temporal sense; they exist because they were made at some point in the past by something else which was made prior to that.

I noted before that these arguments avoid falling into the problem of an infinite regression—an infinite number of causes that has no beginning and thus no prime mover or creator.  The paradox to that line of thinking is obvious and it’s already been noted above.  In the case of the First Cause argument, an infinite regress precludes the possibility of change even being possible.  In the case of the Kalam argument, an infinite regress would mean that local events are temporal in nature while the universe, which is the full summation of local events, IS somehow eternal.

This is what makes the Kalam argument important: it asserts that it is not a matter of infinite regresses of causations and that the universe is not eternal.  Rather, the source of the universe comes from outside itself.  Assuming that whatever caused the universe was itself brought into being at some point in the past, and was thus also contingent, continues the regression.  At some point that regress has to stop with a first cause.  That would be called God—a necessary being from which contingency is even possible.  This is true both in the temporal sense of causation of the Kalam argument, as well as the hierarchical sense of causation according to Aristotle.

I’m out of space to discuss any other critiques of these arguments, but the general gist of those critiques typically follow the pattern of criticism I mentioned above: misinterpretation of the premises or assumptions about the arguments that are not actually in the arguments themselves.  The premise “everything that came into being has a cause” is not synonymous with “everything has a cause;” likewise with the premise “everything that changes has a cause for its change” doesn’t equal “everything has a cause.”  The materialistic attempt to reduce everything that exists to the tangible realm of creation inevitably creates a plethora of metaphysical problems, perhaps chief of which is how the universe can possibly stand in as a cause for itself.

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