Making Sense of the Cosmological Argument

Short and sweet: I’ve been wondering about one of the objections to the argument, namely, WHY can’t we have an infinite chain of causes stretching back forever?

The problem I see is that if a chain of things that ALL need to be caused stretches back forever and ever, well…isn’t that, by simple definition, impossible? Being contingent means having a cause. But if you go back forever, you have no cause. It’s the uncaused cause.

In one way, you’re actually proving that in some way we need an infinite being, something that always and ever will be there, to keep things in motion. Congratulations, you’ve hit upon one of the standard arguments for the existence of God.

Of course, I’m taking only one of the premises of one of the most basic possible forms of the argument and putting it up against what is itself a very basic objection. I recognize that I haven’t gotten completely “there” yet with my response, but I feel as if I’ve reached a good starting point. Ultimately it goes back to denying a fundamental aspect of reality to make a point – a contingent chain going on forever? Do we have ANY evidence of this occurring? I would argue that even if we accepted this as an objection we could still say that the existence of God is likely, if not absolutely proven. But I’m really spitballing here, having no formal training in the subject.

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22 Responses to Making Sense of the Cosmological Argument

  1. Grundy says:

    An infinite being, do we have ANY evidence of this occurring? 😉

    If you ask a mathematician, infinite regress is entirely possible given infinite time. It’s a common apologetic mistake to say that it isn’t possible. That said, time, as we understand it, began with the Big Bang, so there isn’t enough time for infinite regress. However, if one assumes God predated the universe and therefore has access to another, infinite, time-like dimension–that dimension would also allow an infinite regress of causes.

    • An infinite being, do we have ANY evidence of this occurring?

      Good question. Define what you mean by “evidence”

      Well, first it’s important to note that Aquinas famously holds that it’s theoretically possible for the universe to have existed forever. He didn’t believe it for Biblical reasons, not philosophical ones. A cosmological argument that assumes a beginning is the Kalam cosmological argument often argued by William Lane Craig; I dislike it for that reason. What if it turns out that it’s impossible to scientifically prove the universe had a beginning?

      As a response to you, I quote the link embedded in my following post:

      Against Aquinas’ second way, we might claim with Bertrand Russell (1964) that the argument is confused. For although all events within the universe involve causes, we are wrong to believe that the universe as a whole assumes a first cause. This would be similar to claiming that because every human-being has a mother, the human race as a whole must have a mother.[10]

      Russell’s argument however, does not seem to be fatal.[11] Considering the analogy, Aquinas is not claiming that because events within the universe (analogous to human-beings) have distinct causes (analogous to mothers) therefore the universe as a whole has a distinct cause (analogous to yet another mother). Aquinas is rather claiming that the first cause is not identical to any distinct cause – it is not analogous to yet another mother. The first cause is the sufficient reason that allows us to make sense of all the distinct causes. And as Copleston notes, Aquinas’ position does not therefore fall into self-contradiction – both claiming that everything has a cause, and at the same time claiming that there is something which has no cause (God). He is only claiming that things that change or are formed or come into existence need a cause. The origin of change, formation or existence does not itself need a cause.

      Aquinas would readily admit that numbers, in theory, could go back forever. He also wouldn’t care. His whole point is that all of those causes make no sense without something outside of that loop sustaining their existence.

      If it sounds like I’m assuming there must be something outside of that loop it’s because I’m only rebutting a certain faulty understanding of the argument, not making the argument itself. The theory is that even if something went back forever, there has to be a reason for it to exist at all.

      For a good primer on what the cosmological argument is REALLY saying and on certain faulty understandings of it I HIGHLY suggest reading this article by Dr. Feser before we discuss further. It’ll make the discussion a lot more intelligent.

      This one will also help out a lot:

    • Grundy: I just looked through your blog. It seems as if you’re a new atheist. You’re welcome here, but a warning: In the corner of the blogosphere I frequent, theists are not idiots. We are extremely unimpressed with new atheist idiots like Dawkins. In fact, we hold him and his ilk in contempt, because he’s not only wrong, he’s arrogant and extremely hostile to religious people besides, which seems to be you.

      On my blog, at least, don’t expect to get away with arguing that religion is child abuse, or that the Five Ways of Aquinas were, like, disproven by Hume AGES ago, and now everybody is qualified to refute them with five minutes and Google. We don’t appeal to Divine Revelation to make most of our arguments. We are intelligent, rational people, and yes, we’re all very conservative, and we will, and I will, expect to be treated seriously and with respect. A failure to do so will result in you being banned from this blog. Is that clear?

      That said, if you’re here to make real contributions and not just to trot out stock strawman objections or mock, welcome to the blog, and I hope you find my thoughts on all and sundry interesting.

      • Grundy says:

        Yikes, I see why you call yourself a cynic. I’m just an atheist, not a new atheist. Funny, the last comment about my blog from a believer was very positive. Guess it depends if you read the posts or just look at the pictures. Admittedly, my memes are more biting and cater to my mostly atheist audience. You don’t have many commenters here, I can see why…

      • Well, if you’re not a new atheist (and I did qualify with “seems”), I’m glad to hear it. As I said, you’d be welcome either way basically if you don’t be a douche – and you haven’t been. So you’re not in anything like trouble anyway.

        That “very” positive comment about your blog praised your writing ability, not your content. You may well be a very fine writer, but it’s the content I’m more concerned with here.

        You don’t have many commenters here, I can see why…

        Meh, you can have what opinions you want to. I can think of a lot of reasons why I don’t have readers, but I want you to look at the comments under my “With a Shoutout to Crude” thread and tell me that I don’t let opposing viewpoints have their say. I was called an ignorant prick and the person who said this has STILL not been banned, and I responded individually to each point he made.

        You’ll excuse me if I’m wary that a blog that explicitly mocks the idea of belief in God in the title will be unfair to religious people.

      • Grundy says:

        I fully admit that I poke fun at some religious beliefs, but you have to understand that from my perspective they are kinda funny–and I say this as someone who used to believe them.

        Okay, let’s start over. I’ll address some points you made below.

      • Sounds good. If you’re really concerned about whether or not you’re saying something out of line, check out the commenting guidelines at the top. But like I said, the real guideline is “Don’t be a douche”. If you aren’t one, neither of us should have any problem.

  2. Or, take a look at this:

    He seems to think that what Aquinas was concerned to show is that if you lay out a series of causes ordered per se in a straight line, the line will necessarily have a beginning. But that is not what he was concerned to show. As Thomists sometimes point out, it wouldn’t change things in the least if we granted for the sake of argument that a series of causes ordered per se might loop around back on itself in a circle, or even that it might extend forward and backward infinitely. For the point is that as long as the members of such a circular or infinite chain of causes have no independent causal power of their own, there will have to be something outside the series which imparts to them their causal efficacy. (As the Thomist A. D. Sertillanges once put it, a paint brush can’t move itself even if it has a very long handle. And it still couldn’t move itself even if it had an infinitely long handle.)

  3. I’m having fun now, so I’ll continue. Three examples from a poster on Dr. Feser’s blog called Would Be Thomist:

    1. An infinite series of moons cannot shine. It does no good to say the moon closest to us is reflecting the light of a prior moon, and that of a prior moon, and so on. An infinite series of non-luminous bodies cannot be a source of light. If the last moon is shining, there has to be a sun somewhere up the line, the first cause of the light.

    2. An infinite series of mirrors cannot reflect a non-existent bear. Suppose I’m shaving, and see a bear reflected in my mirror apparently walking through my garden. I go into my garden, and find no bear, and no bear prints, but another mirror. I trace that back, and find yet another mirror, and so on. It does no good to try and explain the bear I saw by postulating an infinite series of mirrors each reflecting the image of a bear from a prior mirror. There has to be a first mirror that first reflected an actual bear. No bear, no reflection of a bear.

    3. An infinite series of flat bed rail cars cannot accelerate itself. Suppose I come out of a the woods to find a train crossing the trail in front of me. It is accelerating, and one flat bed car after another passes by. I get tired of waiting for the train to pass, so I climb a tree to see how long the train is. and find that the train track is circular, and that there are just enough cars on the train to link up the train all the way around the circle, so that there is no first or last car on the train. I then conclude, correctly, that somewhere in that circle of cars there has to be a locomotive. I can’t argue that the flat bed car in front of me is being accelerated by the one behind it, and that one by the one behind it, and so on all the way around the track. No flat bed car can accelerate itself, and so no looped or infinite series of flat bed cars can accelerate themselves. It takes a locomotive to start a train moving.

    • Grundy says:

      These are all false analogies. The items in the series are fundamentally different from the item with the ultimate effect. An infinite regress of causes would be the same finite cause repeated. It’s less a series of reflectors and a light source, it’s more a series of ancestral parents and a new parent. A kid’s “cause” can be seen as his parents, his parents “cause” can be seen as his parents and so on. Given an infinite timeline there is no reason this scenario couldn’t go back forever.

      To think about it mathematically, .9 repeating is equal to 1. That’s not rounding up, the 9s repeating indefinitely make a whole number. If you need a proof, one third times three equals one. .3 repeating times three equals .9 repeating. .3 repeating is one third.

      This isn’t to say an infinite regress of causes is, for sure, what predated the big bang, but there is no reason it couldn’t be.

      • But Aquinas’s cosmological argument doesn’t have to do with what “predated” the big bang. Time isn’t a relevant factor; he rather famously holds that in theory the universe COULD have been there infinitely. He means “first” in the sense of “primary” cause or “sustaining” cause.

        In fact, you are 100% right that the items in the series are fundamentally different from the item with the ultimate effect. That’s the entire point; another item of the same type as the one in the series CAN’T have created the series. So we need another “item”, a “first” item. That this “First Cause” is identical to God isn’t really established in the argument, but later.

        Of the several thousand pages of the Summa, it’s noteworthy to consider that Aquinas’s famous five ways encompass maybe one and a half. A MUCH larger section of the book talks about the qualities of God and how we can derive them, and what they mean to our conception of God’s existence.

        In Aquinas’s mind, establishing God’s existence was easy almost to the point of being obvious. Establishing what it MEANT for us now that we knew God existed was the REALLY interesting question.

      • Crude says:

        I’ll back up what Malcolm’s saying here. Aquinas’ cosmological argument isn’t about a temporal series – this isn’t obscure, but it’s a common mistake. Actually the ‘parent/child’ example is straight out The Last Superstition, I recall, in showing what a temporal series is and why it’s not what Aquinas is dealing with.

        Kalam deals with a temporal series, and there the main issue revolves around the possibility of an actual infinite.

  4. Grundy says:

    Aquinas’ cosmological argument might not be about a temporal series, but it can’t rule it out. The original post was largely about a chain of causes and that is what I’m addressing.

    “That’s the entire point; another item of the same type as the one in the series CAN’T have created the series.” I understand that’s your claim, but why can’t it? What’s your support?

    • I’m utterly confused as to what you’re asking me right now. Are you asking me why the first cause can’t be a temporal item of the same type as the rest of the series? But I thought you just rejected that?

      • Grundy says:

        I’m asking why you think another item of the same type as the one in the series CAN’T have caused any succeeding item in the series. Why specifically must there be a first cause?

    • Anyway, my responses have basically been an admission that I misunderstood the argument. So maybe that’s what’s tripping you up.

    • Isn’t that made clear in the analogies? If something is moving, something had to start moving it. It’s no good saying some other moving part was being pushed by some other moving part ad infinitum, because that doesn’t get to why they’re moving in the first place. Like the moon reflecting light from a previous moon – there still needs to be a light source.

      Like I said, look at my responses too as an admission that I got it wrong in the original post, then work from there.

      • Grundy says:

        Like I said, they are false analogies. It’s not a bunch of go betweens in front of one actual cause, it is an infinite chain of equally valid causes. Do you see the difference?

      • You keep saying they’re false analogies, and I’m saying you’re doing what I originally did and misunderstanding the analogy. Take a look at exactly what I said in the post you are directly responding to and tell me what, exactly, the issue is, because from what I see you keep going back to what I’ve already admitted more than once was an incorrect version of the argument. The real thing is a lot more powerful.

      • Grundy says:

        I guess you don’t see the difference. I don’t know how to explain it any differently.

      • Indeed. It seems we have reached an impasse. Maybe if you check out what Codg is saying below me if you want to try and understand what I mean.

    • If I may interject, the thrust of the cosmological argument is not about “chains” at all, no matter how long, how old, or how complex. Hence the “first cuase” is not to be understood in a spatial or sequential, but rather in a logical, sense. The cosmological argument is aimed at an *intrinsic metaphysical deficiency* in a naturalistic account of being and change.

      Insofar as each, to cater to the common parlance, “link” in a causal nexus is but an effect, then each such link is not *logically properly speaking* a cause as such. And if *everything* in our metaphysical analysis is but the *effect* of a prior ‘causal’ state of affairs (which is what naturalistic reductionism aims for, by the way), then *everything* is an effect. If, however, everything is an effect, derived from all the progressively deeper and broader prior *conditions* for those effects, then nothing is properly speaking a cause in its own right. Without absolute causation per se, it would be “effects all the way down.”

      (I assume your reflex is to say that effects can be causes, like when a (!)child qua the effect of his (!)parents causes its own child(!), but this is to miss the point. The causality of the (!)child results from our efforts to integrate it into our metaphysical analysis. Logically speaking, the (!)child was presented as an effect of its (!)parents, and therefor it is only an analytical sleight of hand to say that the (!)child is a *cause* in the absolute sense we’re seeking here.)

      Now, if nothing in the universe is, properly speaking, a cause in and of itself, then no effects could have been brought about. But such effects have been brought about, therefore there is at least one cause that is a proper cause in an of itself (i.e. not just some higher-order constellation-of-effects based on some deeper level of analysis).

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