Why I’m an Atheist – Part Three: The Cosmological Argument
Okay, time for the marginally more interesting stuff! Most atheists are familiar with at least three arguments for the existence of god: the Cosmological Argument, the Teleological Argument and the Ontological Argument. There are many others, of course, including Kant’s transcendental argument and the argument from morality, but those first three are probably the ones that you’re likely to encounter most often on the internet. In this post I’m going to talk a bit about the Cosmological Argument and explain why I don’t find it convincing.
Although versions of the Cosmological Argument have existed since the early days of philosophy, it is today most often associated with St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was a 13th century Roman Catholic theologian/philosopher whose work continues to influence modern thinkers. He was an empiricist, unlike many of his contemporaries, and believed that God’s existence is not necessarily self-evident. In his most famous work, the Summa Theologiae (or Summa Theologica, according to Wikipedia), he details five proofs for God’s existence, and all five are still frequently used by Christian apologists today. The first three of the ‘Five Ways’ (Quinquae viae in Latin) can be called Cosmological Arguments, so I’ll focus on those today.
The first of the Five Ways, the Argument of the Unmoved Mover, is the easiest to understand. I don’t have a copy of the Summa to hand at the moment, so here’s Wikipedia’s take (Aquinas’ own version is better written, but essentially says the same thing):
- Some things are moved.
- Everything that is moving is moved by a mover.
- An infinite regress of movers is impossible.
- Therefore, there is an unmoved mover from whom all motion proceeds.
- This mover is what we call God. (Source)
Note the term ‘infinite regress’. Most Cosmological Arguments attempt to show that only the existence of God can avoid the seemingly impossible situation of having an infinite regress – in this case, an infinite regress of movers and the things they move. Note the conclusion: rather than saying that the unmoved mover is God or that it must be God, it says that the unmoved mover is ‘what we call God’. Aquinas phrases in conclusion in a similar way, so keep that in mind for now.
The second of the Five Ways, the Argument of the First Cause (or Argument of the Uncaused Cause) runs along very similar lines. Again, here’s the Wikipedia version:
- Some things are caused.
- Everything that is caused is caused by something else.
- An infinite regress of causation is impossible.
- Therefore, there must be an uncaused cause of all that is caused.
- This causer is what we call God. (Source)
Here again we see an appeal to God as the only way to escape from the apparently impossible situation of an infinite regress, and here again the conclusion ends with a strangely weak declaration that popular opinion makes God the only candidate for a First Cause.
The third of the Five Ways is the Argument from Contingency, and it’s a bit more complex than the first two. It hinges upon the concepts of necessity and contingency – a ‘necessary being’ is one which does not rely upon any other being for its existence, while a contingent being is one which does rely on other beings (necessary or otherwise) for its existence. Here’s the argument:
- Many things in the universe may either exist or not exist. Such things are called contingent beings.
- It is impossible for everything in the universe to be contingent, for then there would be a time when nothing existed, and so nothing would exist now, since there would be nothing to bring anything into existence, which is clearly false.
- Therefore, there must be a necessary being whose existence is not contingent on any other being or beings.
- This being is whom we call God. (Source)
This one doesn’t involve an obvious infinite regress, but the idea is the same – only God allows us to escape from a logically impossible situation. I probably don’t need to point out that all three arguments are virtually identical, which means that all three are susceptible to the same criticism.
These three arguments claim that God is the unmoved mover, the uncaused causer and a (the?) necessary being, respectively, yet none of them even begin to establish that prior to their conclusions. The First Way establishes only that something must have existed that was itself unmoved yet capable of moving, the Second Way establishes only that something must have existed which was uncaused and yet was capable of causation itself, and the Third way establishes only that a necessary being – but not necessarily God – exists or existed. Some theists will claim that God must be the First Cause or the necessary being because he is all of those things by definition, but that’s hardly convincing. I can invent an entity from nothing and ascribe it the attribute of omnipresence and invisibility, yet the fact that this entity has those attributes ‘by definition’ does not mean that it is currently hovering invisibly around your computer monitor.
If these mysterious entities aren’t God, then what are they? I have no idea. Neither does any Christian apologists. Think about it – how could they possibly know? They can say that God is one possibility, in which case I would agree with them, but nobody can honestly claim to have any idea what started the Universe. The modern Cosmological Argument is frequently phrased in terms of Big Bang cosmology, yet that only makes things worse for those who believe that it suggests God’s existence. Physicists can tell a lot about what the Universe was like up to a tiny amount of time prior to the Big Bang, but all bets are off as soon as you start speculating about the conditions that were in place ‘before’ that. (I put ‘before’ in inverted commas because time itself was created as a product of the Big Bang. It’s not at all clear that speaking of a ‘before’ in this case even makes any sense.) Anybody who claims to know who or what started the Universe is making a statement of pure faith, nothing more.
Note that I’m not saying ‘the Universe just is’ – I’m saying that even if one accepts that the Cosmological Argument is entirely valid, it does not prove God’s existence. And it certainly doesn’t prove the veracity of any particular religious belief – there’s a very large gap between ‘There must have been an unmoved mover’ and ‘therefore the Bible is the true word of God’. This is why the Cosmological Argument (or indeed, any argument for God’s existence) is rarely taken on its own. Even theistic philosophers will generally accept that other arguments are needed to back it up, which is why I’ll keep the Cosmological Argument in mind as I move through other topics. As we’ll see, it can become much stronger when linked together with one or more other arguments.
One final note: unlike members of atheist or Christian forums and blogs, theistic and atheistic philosophers do not just throw the same arguments and counter-arguments at each other over and over again. Philosophers continue to refine the Cosmological Argument, and a huge number of philosophical papers have been published either defending or attacking it from various angles. However, most apologists use this basic form of the argument, so I won’t go into any more detail on the more complex variations.