The Cosmological Argument (part 1)

August 12, 2007     Time: 00:37:48

We want to go to a second argument which is called the cosmological argument for God’s existence. Let me set the framework for this before we jump into it. We had been studying the attributes of God for several months. We brought that section of Christian doctrine to a close. Now we are taking a sort of apologetical excursus to ask “Are there any good reasons to think that there is such a being as God?” Last time we looked at the first of these arguments – I am going to share five – and that was the argument from contingency. Today we are going to talk about the cosmological argument.

The cosmological argument is actually a family of arguments that attempts to show that there is a first cause or sufficient reason for the existence of the cosmos. There are many different versions of this cosmological argument. As I say, it is really a family of arguments, but they all aim to get back to a kind of first cause or sufficient reason of the existence of the universe. The version that we are going to look at is a version that was originated by Christian philosophers in the third and fourth century after Christ in response to the Greek doctrine of the eternity of the world. It is an argument that attempts to prove that the universe had a beginning and therefore requires a transcendent cause to bring it into being. When Islam took over these Middle Eastern lands like Egypt, Islam absorbed this argument. This argument was highly developed then by medieval Islamic thinkers who are well worth still reading today. That work was then passed back again into the Christian West later in the twelfth and thirteenth century. Because of its Arabic or Islamic roots, I have called this version the kalam cosmological argument. Kalam is the Arabic word for “speech.” In medieval Islamic theology, a kalam came to identify a doctrine or a doctrinal statement – a position. It was through this movement of kalam which was this medieval scholastic Islamic theology that this argument became highly developed and sophisticated. So to distinguish this version of the cosmological argument from other versions, I’ve dubbed it the kalam cosmological argument. That is the background of this version of the argument.

The argument is actually very, very simple in its structure. It consists of two premises and a conclusion:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore the universe has a cause.

That in a nutshell is the argument. It is very, very simple and easy to memorize. What we do after this is to explore what does it mean to be a cause of the universe. Then you are able to deduce a number of attributes of this first cause that make it plausibly identifiable as God.

That is the fundamental argument. Let’s look at each of the premises together.

Whatever begins to exist has a cause. It seems to me that this premise is supportable both philosophically and scientifically. Philosophically, I think that this statement is a sort of first principle of metaphysics. For anybody who really contemplates it, I think that it is obvious that whatever begins to exist has a cause. Basically this is saying that things don’t come into being out of nothing. Things don’t just pop into existence uncaused out of non-being. Being does not arise from non-being. Being only comes from being. So, as I say, this is a kind of first principle of metaphysics. Metaphysics, for those who don’t know, is that branch of philosophy which deals with the ultimate questions of what is real and what exists. Metaphysics asks about the nature of ultimate reality.[1] Aristotle described metaphysics as the study of being. That is why I say this is a sort of first principle of metaphysics because basically what it says is being only comes from being. Being does not arise from non-being. Something cannot come into existence out of nothing.

As such, I think the principle is obvious to anybody who understands it. Any defense you could give of the principle would be based upon premises which are less obvious than the principle itself. As Aristotle said, you shouldn’t try to prove the obvious by the less obvious. In that sense, I think it is somewhat maladroit, it is somewhat misconceived, to try to argue for the truth of this first premise. It is better to just help the unbeliever understand it and then hope that he is honest enough to grasp it. There are ways in which you can make this intuitively obvious. For example, one of the things I like to say is that none of us believes that, say, a raging bengal tiger could suddenly pop into being out of nothing in this room right now or that an Eskimo village or a gasoline station might just pop into being uncaused out of nothing in this room. I think anybody recognizes things don’t just pop into being uncaused out of nothingness. Sometimes I’ll say to audiences, “Nobody here in the audience is worried that while we are here listening to this talk that back home in your living room a horse might have popped into being out of nothing and is defiling the carpet while we talk.” We don’t worry about those kind of things. These aren’t arguments I think you’ll understand. These aren’t arguments for premise (1), but they are just ways of illustrating it – just making it intuitively appealing so that the unbeliever says, yeah, that is obvious.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: We will talk in more detail about the scientific aspects of this question, but let me answer your question directly. When I began to work on this argument in my doctoral work in England, I didn’t think anybody would attack the first premise. I thought it would be the second premise they would go after, therefore that is where I really focused my big guns – defending the second premise. I have been astonished at the degree to which atheists, when their backs are against the wall, will say the universe just popped into being uncaused out of nothing.

Followup: [inaudible]

Answer: I have a friend – Quentin Smith, who is a professor of philosophy at the University of Western Michigan – and in our book that we wrote together Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology, his final position is this: the most rational thing to believe is that the universe came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing. That is sort of a good conclusion to a Gettysburg Address of Atheism I think! But to me that is the most irrational thing to believe. I think if you can get the atheist to that point then you have succeeded in your argument, because it is only I think the darkened intellect that can stand before God on the Judgment Day and say “God, the reason I didn’t believe in you was because I thought things could just pop into being uncaused out of nothing.” As I sometimes point out in talks, this is really worse than magic when you think about it because in magic when the magician pulls a rabbit out of the hat you’ve at least got the hat and you’ve got the magician![2] But in this case the universe just pops into being out of nothingness.

Followup: [inaudible]

Answer: It is the ultimate miracle. This is an interesting point. We sometimes have talked in this class about the argument for the resurrection for Jesus, which is a sort of argument for God from miracles. But really this is the argument from miracles writ large. It is the universe coming into being that requires a supernatural cause beyond the natural realm because in this case it is the whole natural realm which comes into being. So it cannot have a natural explanation because it is the whole theater of natural causes which pops into existence and so points to a miraculous supernatural explanation. Well, if you are committed to the impossibility of miracles you can’t accept that. But then that gets into the question of miracles which I am not talking about now, but notice that only someone who has a proof of atheism can deny the possibility of miracles. Because as long as God’s existence is even possible then it is possible that there are miracles. So the atheist, in order to avoid this argument, needs to have some sort of a proof that there is no God and that therefore miracles are impossible. In the absence of a proof of God’s non-existence, he needs to be open to the possibility of miracles and therefore to the possibility that the universe has a cause of its being.

Question: [inaudible – asks if subatomic particles blinking in and out of existence with no apparent cause is an objection to premise (1).]

Answer: Yes, this is a common objection and I am going to treat it in a second when I look at objections to the first premise. But for right now we are talking about what positive reason is there to adopt it. I was saying it is intuitively obvious in itself and it seems to me that we can give illustrations to try to make this evident to the unbeliever that ought to cause him to believe.

But in fact I think there are philosophical arguments for this. For example, I think it was Jonathan Edwards who argued for this first premise by saying that if things could really pop into being uncaused out of nothing then it is inexplicable why just anything and everything doesn’t pop into being out of nothing. Because after all before they exist there isn’t any sort of nature that would constrain what sort of things could pop into being out of nothing. Because before they exist there isn’t anything there. So why don’t television sets and Charles Darwin and things like this pop into being uncaused out of nothing? If things could really come into being uncaused out of nothing then it does seem inexplicable why just anything and everything would do so, which obviously contradicts experience.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: That is the difficulty. These folks, when their backs are to the wall, will say that it is not miraculous for things to pop into existence uncaused out of nothing. It just happens. Remember what I said about how every person has inside of himself a sort of skeptical dial. You can ratchet it way up when it comes to arguments for conclusions that you don’t like, but then you can dial it way down for your own views. I think this is the perfect example of this. When their backs are to the wall, atheists just dial up that skeptical dial really high and say you can’t prove that whatever comes into being has a cause. It could just come into being out of nothing. But they would never accept that sort of explanation at any other level of human experience. If you walked into your bedroom and found a horse there you wouldn’t think it just popped into being out of nothing. You would say there had to be a cause for what brought it there. This is part of this difference that I described last week between what J. I. Packer calls “travelers” along life’s way and “balconeers” who can discuss the journey, talk about it, but aren’t really on the road themselves.[3]

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I have hard a lot of atheists appeal to this as a way of avoiding God. Occam’s Razor is a principle that was enunciated by the medieval Christian philosopher William of Ockham. Basically what it says is this: don’t multiply causes beyond necessity. This is a great principle to use, say, in arguing for monotheism rather than polytheism. It is unnecessary to posit many gods as the cause of the universe – one God will do it. So Occam’s Razor will say on the basis of this argument (whatever begins to exist has a cause, the universe began to exist), therefore you are rational to infer that there is a cause of the universe, but you wouldn’t be justified in inferring, say, that there were three causes of the universe or a panoply of gods or something like that. But Occam’s Razor, properly used, doesn’t in any way say that you shouldn’t make causal inferences because it states “don’t multiply causes beyond necessity.” But if it is necessary to have some cause, well then of course you posit some explanation. This is the way science works. For example, we find fossil bones in the earth. Now, you could say, “Don’t think on Occam’s Razor that there were once living animals that left these remains. That would be multiplying causes.” So we just stick with the bones. They are just bones in the earth, that’s it, there never were any dinosaurs. That would be absurd of course. The scientist posits these theoretical entities called dinosaurs as the best explanation for why we find these fossilized bones in the earth. To refuse to posit a cause for these is really to refuse to do science. It is to refuse to seek causal explanations. So the proper use of Occam’s Razor is you just don't multiple causes beyond what is necessary to explain the effect. You are only justified in positing such causes as are necessary to explain the effect. But it would be silly – and I mean, it is hard for me to understand how a professor could say this – to say you just stay with the effect and you never ask for the cause.

Followup: [inaudible]

Answer: That doesn't seem to make sense to me because a cause is an entity. You are positing here what in science would be called a theoretical entity to explain some effect. For example, you see a trace in a cloud chamber so you postulate a theoretical entity called an electron to explain that. Or in quantum physics, entities like quarks are postulated as the best explanation for certain effects that we observe. And they are entities. Causes are entities. So that seems to me to be a distinction without a difference. So don't be fooled by this Occam’s Razor thing. This is a misuse of Occam’s Razor – to try to subvert or avoid causal inferences.

Sometimes this is called simplicity. People will say you go for the simpler explanation. Certainly simplicity is a virtue of explanations – a simpler theory is a better explanation than a necessarily complex theory. But in addition to simplicity there are lots of other explanatory virtues, too. For example, explanatory power would be one of the most important. That is to say, the explanation first and foremost has to have the power to explain the effect. It does no good to have a simple theory if it has no explanatory power. That would be worthless as a theory; to say, “Oh, but this theory is so simple” but it explains nothing! So simplicity can be sacrificed if there is a substantial gain in explanatory power.[4] Another theoretical virtue would be explanatory scope. That is to say, does the explanation just explain a narrow range of data or does this entity explain a broad range of data. If you have an explanation that has a broader explanatory scope as well as good explanatory power, that also might be a reason to offset adopting a more complex theory. So you can sacrifice simplicity for a gain in explanatory scope.

One of the interesting things about these arguments for God’s existence that I am sharing is that not just each one has explanatory power, but together they show that the hypothesis of God’s existence has tremendous explanatory scope. It explains things like why anything exists rather than nothing, why the universe came into being 13.5 billion years ago, why there is an objective realm of moral values in the world. It explains things like the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. It explains the incredible fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life. So there is this broad range of the data of human experience that is all explained by postulating the existence of God. So this is a view that has tremendous explanatory scope as well as explanatory power, and it doesn’t really violate Occam’s Razor at all because Occam’s Razor simply says don’t multiple causes beyond what is necessary to explain the effect.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: This argument says that you need a being beyond the natural realm because that natural realm that you described, governed by the laws of physics which can be given mathematical expression, that realm itself came into existence a finite time ago, and things don’t just come into existence out of nothing. The natural laws themselves cannot explain why the universe came into existence because it is the natural realm governed by those laws that itself has come into existence. So you’ve got to have something that is outside the realm to explain why this realm governed by these natural laws came into being.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: It is important to see that this principle is not itself a mathematical principle. This is not a natural law; it is not a mathematical principle. This is more a sort of metaphysical principle or it is a methodological principle for deciding which theory to adopt. It isn’t itself part of science. It is more one of those philosophical assumptions that underlies science. Say you have this natural realm like this – space and time. And it is governed by all these equations like E=mc2 and things like that; all these equations that operate in this realm. But this realm itself came into being. The question is – why did this realm come into existence.[5] If you deny that there is a transcendent cause then you’ve got to say it just popped into being uncaused out of nothing, which seems to me, as I say, to be metaphysically absurd and violates this first principle.

Let me say something else about this. I have been talking about philosophical reasons to adopt this first premise – it seems metaphysically obvious once you understand it and that we can give an argument based upon if it were false anything and everything ought to come into being uncaused. But moreover I think it is also confirmed constantly in our experience. In our experience we have good empirical evidence for thinking this premise is true. It is constantly verified. It is never falsified. Of all of the facts of experience, this first premise ought to stand right at the top of the heap in terms of empirical confirmation.

So whether you look at philosophical evidence or scientific empirical evidence, it seems to me we have good grounds for believing premise (1). At the very least we have better grounds for believing it than its negation. And remember last time that is what I said is necessary for the argument to be a good argument. It doesn't have to be 100% certain, but as long as you are 51% certain that one is true rather than its contradictory, this is a good argument. So it does seem to me that based on philosophical reasoning and scientific evidence that this first premise is more plausible than its contradictory.

Let me deal with objections that might be raised against this premise. Here I want to get to an earlier question. It is very, very often said that subatomic physics or quantum physics is a counter-example to this first principle. The physics of the subatomic realm – quantum physics – shows an exception to this first principle because on the subatomic realm certain types of particles like virtual particles can come into being for a fleeting moment out of the quantum vacuum which is this sort of sea of energy that underlies all of reality, and spontaneously these particles can come into being and then almost immediately vanish back into the vacuum again. Sometimes people have tried to apply quantum physics to the origin of the universe and say maybe the universe is just a fluctuation out of nothingness. Sometimes you will hear these almost rhetorical expressions like “nothingness is unstable” or “the universe is a free lunch because we got something for nothing” or “the universe is a quantum fluctuation out of nothingness” and so forth. But I think that this objection is based upon misunderstandings.

In the first place – this is the number one point – not all physicists agree that the quantum realm is causally indeterminate. That is to say not all quantum physicists believe that the quantum realm is not causally determined. The indeterministic interpretation of quantum physics is under the so-called Copenhagen interpretation which is the interpretation of the father of quantum mechanics Neil Bohr, a Danish physicist. On the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, it is true that these particles are said to arise spontaneously out of the vacuum without any sufficient determining cause. However, you need to understand (and most people don’t understand) that the Copenhagen interpretation is just one of many different interpretations of quantum physics. In other words, any scientific theory has a mathematical core and then it has a physical interpretation of the mathematics. Quantum mechanics has the same mathematical core but it has at least ten different physical interpretations that I can think of – at least ten. Not all of these ten are indeterministic.[6] For example, David Bohm has an interpretation of quantum mechanics which is fully deterministic. On this view the uncertainty is purely mental. You may not be able to determine what is the cause of the origin of some quantum event but it does have a cause. Bohm’s theories are mathematically consistent, they are entirely consistent with the evidence, there is no way evidentially to distinguish between the Copenhagen and the Bohmian interpretation, and yet the Bohmian interpretation is fully deterministic. So when people tell you that quantum mechanics furnishes a counter-example to premise (1), all you have to do is simply point out that that is not a proven counter-example because there are lots of interpretations of quantum mechanics that are fully deterministic, so this is not a proven exception to premise (1).

But the second point I want to make, even on this Copenhagen interpretation, these particles do not come into being out of nothing. The quantum vacuum is not what the layman thinks of when you say the word vacuum – namely, nothing. The quantum vacuum is a sea of fluctuating energy. It is an arena of violent activity and governed by physical laws. So it is far from nothing. What happens is, on the Copenhagen interpretation, this energy locked up in the vacuum fluctuates and can spontaneously for a brief time spin off particles that then dissolve back into the energy of the vacuum. So they do not come into being out of nothing, as would be the case with the origin of the universe.

I want to make a third point, though. The third point is that on interpretations of the origin of the universe in which the universe comes into being out of the vacuum, the same point holds, namely, they do not talk about the universe coming into being out of nothing. As we will see later when we get down to the vacuum fluctuation theory, they are talking about a sea of fluctuating energy out of which the universe originates as a vacuum fluctuation. So it is not creation from nothing. So when you read in popular magazine articles and newspapers that the universe is a free lunch because it came out of nothing or that nothingness is unstable to fluctuations, this is just a misuse of language. These are rhetorical flourishes that are not taken seriously by scientists and philosophers. Nothingness, when you think about it, can’t have any properties because it isn’t anything. To say that nothingness is unstable or has properties is to treat it as though it were something. So nothingness can’t have any properties because it just isn’t anything. So it can’t have instability or anything of that sort. We will talk more about these models later on but I think this is enough to say why quantum physics doesn’t furnish a counter-example to premise (1). Let me just quote from a philosopher of science named Robert Deltete. This is what he says by way of summary:

There is no basis in ordinary quantum theory for the claim that the universe itself is uncaused, much less for the claim that it sprang into being uncaused from literally nothing.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: I certainly agree with you that this is the traditional view [Copenhagen interpretation] but I think that may just sort of be the contemporary paradigm, but it isn’t to say that it is therefore . . . well it is certainly not empirically better than Bohm’s because they are empirically equivalent. It is a matter of taste in a sense.

Question: [inaudible]

Answer: This is a good point. In the quantum vacuum, when you have a positron and an electron coming into being they can’t stay in being longer than something called the Heisenberg indeterminacy principle allows because then you would violate physics.[7] So they have to dissolve back into the vacuum in a real hurry or it is going to upset the scientific applecart. So these particles are sort of able to hide in a sense in this period of scientific ignorance. I think that is why Bohm’s view is plausible to say this uncertainty is just in our heads, it is not necessarily in reality.

Question: [inaudible – but asks “What caused God?”]

Answer: It is a good question but I am not sure this is the right point to raise. That would be better raised later on. Let me just say this. What we will see is that this first cause must be uncaused. So the question then will be that God doesn’t have a cause. We will look at that later on.[8]



[1] 5:10

[2] 10:04

[3] 15:04

[4] 20:03

[5] 25:07

[6] 30:00

[7] 35:15

[8] Total Running Time: 37:08 (Copyright © 2007 William Lane Craig)