Common Misconceptions About the Cosmological Argument

Edward Feser:

1. The argument does NOT rest on the premise that “Everything has a cause.”
2. “What caused God?” is not a serious objection to the argument.
3. “Why assume that the universe had a beginning?” is not a serious objection to the argument.
4. “No one has given any reason to think that the First Cause is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, etc.” is not a serious objection to the argument.
5. “The argument doesn’t prove that Christianity is true” is not a serious objection to the argument.
6. “Science has shown such-and-such” is not a serious objection to (most versions of) the argument.
7. The argument is not a “God of the gaps” argument.
8. Hume and Kant did not have the last word on the argument.  Neither has anyone else.
9. What “most philosophers” think about the argument is irrelevant.

Read the full post here.

[HT: Wintery Knight]

19 replies
  1. simonge not read the
    simonge not read the says:

    “In particular, I think that the vast majority of philosophers who have studied the argument in any depth – and again, that includes atheists as well as theists, though it does not include most philosophers outside the sub-discipline of philosophy of religion – would agree with the points I am about to make, or with most of them anyway.”

    Congratulations Mr. Edward Feser, you have shown that mostly-Christian philosophers agree with a theistic argument. Wow. Wow.

  2. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    So you think it’s unimportant that some atheist philosophers agree with a theistic argument?

    I wonder if you think a Christian can go ahead and say the same thing about mostly-atheist philosophers agreeing with an atheistic argument. I suspect not; you’d hold him to a higher standard. For example, you’d recognize that just pointing to some kind of consensus or possible bias is nothing more than the good ol’ ad hominem fallacy. You’d want him to actually interact with the logic, and show via good argumentation that there’s something wrong with what the atheistic philosophers believe.

    Well, that’s the standard of discourse we expect here. If you want to post again, I suggest you stick to it.

  3. Tom Joad
    Tom Joad says:

    It’s a pretty self-limiting list of points re: the cosmological argument.

    2. “What caused God?” is not a serious objection to the argument. Why on earth not? It is the obvious question to ask. Why should the people who want the argument to be true be entitled to limit the scope? The real point here is ‘we have no good answer to the question, therefore you may not ask it.

    5. “The argument doesn’t prove that Christianity is true” is not a serious objection to the argument.I agree – it’s an objection to the Christian extension of the argument though.

  4. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Tom, welcome back. I’m still looking forward to your reply in the ’embarrassing truth about Richard Dawkins’ thread :)

    Unfortunately, your question here indicates that you haven’t read the original article, where Feser explains exactly why your question is both wrong and stupid:

    The cosmological argument … 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.

    I seem to recall this isn’t the first time you haven’t read the article before sticking your oar in on it. If you can’t be bothered engaging enough with the topic to even read the original article, please don’t comment. Not only is it embarrassing for you, but it’s also a waste of time for everyone else.

  5. simong
    simong says:

    I think you’ll fins that they don’t agree with the argument, Bnonn, they agree with the points that Feser has made. For example, perhaps they accept 2. because the arguer defines god as being uncaused, but they actually think such a definition is ridiculous.

    More philosophers of religion are going to be religious. If there were a sub-discipline Philosophers of Atheism, then they would be unrepresentative, too, and i would personally discount their collective opinion on theistic topics. So, NO, you are completely wrong about me. I would hold both scenarios to identical standards.

    But I completely disagree with you that it is about logic. Logic is undeniable. What it IS about is epistemology, and claiming to know a more complex tid-bit about god (that he’s uncaused) in an argument about a less complex thing (his existence) is all a bit silly.

  6. simong
    simong says:

    As I have pointed out many times, the conjecture here 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.”

    is just nonsense. Maybe it sounds likely to some, but this one sounds likely to me:

    If there is a thing, then that thing must have been caused by something.

    Also, the first conjecture is, well, just conjecture. The second is PERHAPS THE MOST EVIDENCED FACT KNOWN TO HUMANS.

    Also, there is and has never been any evidence whatsoever of any “thing” that does not behave like a ‘thing’ in the second conjecture.

  7. Tom Joad
    Tom Joad says:

    Charming as always, BNonn. If the contempt you show me is any indication, I can only imagine how you must loathe the tens of millions of Christians around the world who are even more unsophisticated in their theological understandings than even I am. I’m not meaning to be pious, but it is a bit perplexing that one Christian can be so sure of themself yet embrace a theology that millions of other people also subscribe to without understanding nearly as well as you do.

    As with the Richard Dawkins post, I have read the article. You will notice the author makes the following declaration:

    ‘I’m not going to present and defend any version of the cosmological argument here. I’ve done that at length in my books Aquinas and The Last Superstition, and it needs to be done at length rather than in the context of a blog post. The reason is that, while the basic structure of the main versions of the argument is fairly simple, the background metaphysics necessary to a proper understanding of the key terms and inferences is not.’

    Reading between the lines, this admission is essentially saying: God has created the universe. I know this because of an intricately complex but ultimately unconvincing theological argument (unconvincing as evidenced by the fact that the majority of people do not subscribe to it if they have even heard it at all). This complex argument is understood by me, and perhaps 0.1% of the world’s population, and it contains within it the meaning of life and the origin of the universe.

    Does it not strike you as odd that God has the answers to such important questions in this way? The point of my previous post (and I apologise if this was lost on you) is a rejection of the cosmological argument that explains the origin of the universe, but doesn’t permit an explanation of the origin of God. The paragraph you quote is so verbose and difficult to yield that it essentially proves my point. This is another example of the need Christians have to jump through hoops in order to satisfy something they want to be true. What you essentially start with is the bible, and this is extrapolated out into complex naratives that do nothing to prove the Christian faith (at least not to me). For some context, I continue to have every reason to hope that Christianity is true. But I am yet to hear any argument by which I am convinced, and which do not require an absurd leap in logic. This is another example of that.

  8. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Sorry Simon, just saying “this is nonsense” won’t cut it when some of the world’s brightest minds have given actual arguments for why it is not nonsense. Also, most of your post is pretty incoherent. You might want to try more specific terms than “thing” next time.

  9. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Tom, when you say the cosmological argument is ultimately unconvincing, I presume you mean it is ultimately unconvincing to you. But then, are you one of the supposedly 0.1% of the world’s population who understands it? If not, how can you say it is unconvincing?

    As regards the paragraph I quoted, I didn’t find it overly verbose. Not the best written prose ever, no doubt, but hardly difficult to follow, unless perhaps you have a reading disability. Did you truly find it so hard to read that you couldn’t even pick out the major point? The cosmological argument seeks to show (1) that there must be a cause of everything else; and (2) that this cause not only happens to exist, but could not even in principle have failed to exist.

    I’m not sure how all this shows Christians jumping through hoops to satisfy something they want to be true. Is all philosophy just instances of various people jumping through hoops to satisfy things they want to be true? How about you? No hoop-jumping on your end, I hope. You wouldn’t start with the assumption of naturalism and then try to construct arguments to support it, right?

    In any case, plenty of people come to faith because of evidences like the cosmological argument. These arguments do indeed prove the Christian faith to them. They don’t start with the Bible; they end with it. So your psycho-analyzing is not only irrelevant ad hominem, but it’s just embarrassingly disprovable to boot.

    And I can’t help noticing that for all your talk, you haven’t given a single reason to think that the cosmological argument is a bad argument. You’re big on claims about “absurd leaps of logic”, but when it comes to substantiating them…well, let’s just say your mouth is writing checks your brain apparently can’t cash. So far you’re all talk.

  10. simong
    simong says:

    I see no contesting of my points. But you are correct Bnonn, i should explain my ‘nonsense’ claim:

    The claim that there must be an ‘ultimate’ cause is completely unevidenced, and the claim that it must be ‘necessary’ is completely unevidenced. Therefore such claims should be duly ignored.

  11. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Simon, you’ve just replaced one bogus assertion with another. It is manifestly untrue that it is “completely unevidenced” that there must be an ultimate cause, and that this cause must be necessary. The cosmological argument is itself evidence for both these contentions!

    Is this how atheists usually argue? In a circle of assertions that never actually touches theistic arguments?

  12. simong
    simong says:

    Bnonn,

    The cosmological argument relies upon the premise that there is an ultimate cause. If the evidence for an ultimate cause relies upon the cosmological argument itself, then this is a circular argument. Please provide (non-circular) evidence for an ultimate cause.

  13. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Simon, I’m sorry but it just sounds like you don’t understand the cosmological argument. Which of its premises, exactly, are you talking about?

  14. simong
    simong says:

    Bnonn,

    There are many forms of the argument, but this:

    “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.”

    is completely unevidenced. It is pure fantasy.
    In contrast, every single thing that any human has ever observed has involved a cause. Therefore everything has a cause. Nothing is uncaused.

  15. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Simon, three things:

    1. Can you place that premise into the larger argument please? I haven’t seen it used in any version of the cosmological argument I’ve seen.

    2. What part of that premise is pure fantasy? It has at least three clauses: (i) if there is to be an ultimate explanation of things; (ii) then there must be a cause of everything else; (iii) which not only happens to exist, but which could not even in principle have failed to exist.

    3. How do you know that every single thing any human has ever observed has involved a cause? And even if it is true, how did you get from that premise to the conclusion that therefore everything has a cause? You’re missing a minor premise in your argument; what is it? The only thing that seems likely is something along the lines of, “Nothing exists which is unlike the things human beings have observed”. But of course, that’s guilty of not one, but two logical fallacies! First, it’s the inductive fallacy, and second, it flagrantly begs the question against the cosmological argument.

  16. Tom Joad
    Tom Joad says:

    Bnonn- (1) that there must be a cause of everything else; and (2) that this cause not only happens to exist, but could not even in principle have failed to exist.

    The reason I think the cosmological argument is a bad argument is simply that, even if you accept the concept in your quote above, the ’cause’ is simply not likely to be the angry and vindictive human-constructed God of the hebrew bible. That’s all.

    It seems like a form of special pleading to go from ‘there must have been a cause of everything’ to ‘and that cause is the Abrahamic God and Jesus is his son.’ There is still no reason I can see to halt the search for causality at God. But even if we allow that premise to sit (i.e. that there is a cause to everything and no cause to that cause (induction aside)) it doesn’t prove anything about Christianity other than the most very basic concept (i.e. that of ‘a’ God) which is not unique to Christianity, as of course you know. You say that people will progress from consideration of the cosmological argument to the Bible and acceptance of Jesus as their Lord and saviour.

    Well I can see the logic in the reasoning but it’s not compelling to me at all. I mean just open to the first page of your bible. It’s beautiful and poetic but it’s completely metaphorical as an explanation for the beginning of the earth. Just one example that caught my eye – ‘God created all sorts of animals [including] livestock.’ Well no he didn’t. Tame animals have an evolutionary history, sheep and cows didn’t just appear ready to be penned in and controlled. Same applies to Noah and the arc, the ‘young earth’ component of creationism etc etc. So the cosmological argument seems to present a basis for both the existence of God and the order of nature and the universe, which the very first pages of the bible proceed to render incompatible in anything other than a metaphorical sense.

    Again, you’re arguing the cosmological argument presents a basis for the creation of the earth, and leads you to Christianity – but the explanations in Christianity for the creation of the earth are clearly at odds with basic scientific knowledge (specifically evolution).

  17. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    The reason I think the cosmological argument is a bad argument is simply that, even if you accept the concept in your quote above, the ’cause’ is simply not likely to be the angry and vindictive human-constructed God of the hebrew bible. That’s all.

    Two things Tom.

    1. Can you show me a version of the cosmological argument where the conclusion is “Therefore, the cause of the universe is the angry and vindictive human-constructed God of the Hebrew Bible”? I don’t imagine you can. In fact, if the God of the Hebrew Bible is human-constructed, then by definition he cannot be the cause of the universe.

    2. You’re letting your emotions cloud your reasoning—and begging the question to boot. Even if, for the sake of argument, I granted that the God of the Hebrew Bible is fairly described as “angry and vindictive”, you can’t very well start out assuming that he was made up, and then evaluate the cosmological argument from that position. If the cosmological argument actually shows that the Christian God is the best explanation for the cause of the universe, then your discounting him because he is “human-constructed” is the very definition of question-begging. Is that how you have to argue to maintain your atheism?

    It seems like a form of special pleading to go from ‘there must have been a cause of everything’ to ‘and that cause is the Abrahamic God and Jesus is his son.’

    It’s not special pleading, but it’s certainly a naked assertion. Fortunately, Christian formulations of the cosmological argument actually, you know, argue to the conclusion that the cause is the God of the Bible.

    There is still no reason I can see to halt the search for causality at God.

    Which indicates that you don’t understand the basic thrust of the argument at all.

    Well I can see the logic in the reasoning but it’s not compelling to me at all.

    It’s not compelling to you because (i) you don’t understand the argument, as evidenced by your objections; and (ii) you don’t have any knowledge whatsoever of how Christians formulate the argument. Embarrassing.

    ‘God created all sorts of animals [including] livestock.’ Well no he didn’t. Tame animals have an evolutionary history, sheep and cows didn’t just appear ready to be penned in and controlled.

    How is this relevant to the cosmological argument?

    Again, you’re arguing the cosmological argument presents a basis for the creation of the earth

    Where have I said this? The beginning of the universe and the creation of the earth are not the same thing.

  18. Tom Joad
    Tom Joad says:

    Cheers for the reply.

    I’m not sure why you insist I don’t understand the argument. As you said, those two particular components of the argument identified are fairly easy to understand. You must also know that one of the principle objections to the argument is the ‘what caused God’ objection. I admit that I still haven’t read anything in rebuttle that isn’t rougly translated to ‘you can’t ask that question because we said so.’ But it’s not your responsibility to explain this philosophy to me so I’ll leave it there. Suffice to say, the fact that ‘God’ and ‘the Big Bang’ are metaphorically equivalent in this argument does not lead me any closer to Christianity.

    ‘In fact, if the God of the Hebrew Bible is human-constructed, then by definition he cannot be the cause of the universe.’ – Bingo! My point exactly. But I appreciate that in the context of ‘the cosmological argument’ , as you said ‘you can’t very well start out assuming that he was made up, and then evaluate the cosmological argument from that position.’ My point is simply that the cosmological argument doesn’t really lend credibility to Christianity. I suppose you’re not a young-earth creationist. You’re making a complex argument around the origin of the universe, and then saying that the God of the bible fits as an answer – but as we see in Genesis, the account of the earths creation (a component of the universe, no doubt) is completely flawed and at odds with our contemporary understandings of, say, the natural world.

    Maybe you can fill the gap between ‘God is the cause of the universe’ and the bible accounts of God creating the earth – is it just metaphor?

  19. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    I’m not sure why you insist I don’t understand the argument.

    Because you keep making comments and raising objections which someone who understands the argument wouldn’t make or raise.

    You must also know that one of the principle objections to the argument is the ‘what caused God’ objection.

    Indeed, but as the original article points out, this is a jejune objection. It is an objection made only by people who genuinely do not understand the fundamental principle behind the argument. Unfortunately, rather than taking the time to understand the reasoning, these people just assume that because it makes no intuitive sense to them, it must be an illegitimate line of argumentation. It’s rather like fundy Christians who say that because it makes no intuitive sense to them that “lizards can turn into monkeys”, or whatever, therefore evolution must be false. It’s surprising that you aren’t more careful about making that sort of mistake.

    Suffice to say, the fact that ‘God’ and ‘the Big Bang’ are metaphorically equivalent in this argument does not lead me any closer to Christianity.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “metaphorically equivalent”. The big bang is not a metaphor for God. And it’s certainly not literally equivalent to God. You keep saying things that suggest you haven’t thought carefully about this topic at all.

    My point is simply that the cosmological argument doesn’t really lend credibility to Christianity.

    And again, I can only observe that (i) this is not a statement of objective fact, but just a subjective belief on your part; (ii) this subjective belief is quite evidently grounded in the fact that you don’t understand the argument (so obviously you find it unpersuasive); and (iii) some of the world’s greatest thinkers, and many other more average ones, have found it to lend credibility to Christianity.

    I suppose you’re not a young-earth creationist. You’re making a complex argument around the origin of the universe, and then saying that the God of the bible fits as an answer – but as we see in Genesis, the account of the earths creation (a component of the universe, no doubt) is completely flawed and at odds with our contemporary understandings of, say, the natural world.

    Young earth creationism is completely irrelevant to the soundness of the cosmological argument. I don’t even know why you think it is worth considering. It’s the very definition of a red herring. Even if it turned out that the Bible unequivocally teaches YEC, and even if it turned out that our current understanding of the earth’s formation and evolution was accurate, all you would do is disprove biblical inerrancy. You certainly wouldn’t affect the premises or conclusion or inference involved in the cosmological argument! There are plenty of Christians who wouldn’t find that the least bit troubling. (I am not one of them.)

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