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Cosmological Argument

Cosmological Argument

Cosmological arguments aim to establish the causal or explanatory dependence of the world on a wholly independent being, usually identified with God. These arguments typically proceed from the claim that familiar things are dependent in various ways upon other thingsthat is, for their origin, movement, and continued existence. The crux of traditional cosmological arguments is the contention that not every being can be dependent in the relevant way; that is, any chain of dependence must ultimately be grounded in a being that admits of no such dependence.

History of cosmological argument

The history of cosmological arguments goes back at least to Aristotle, though his understanding of the Prime Mover bears little resemblance to theism. After Aristotle, the history divides naturally into two categories: (1) In the Middle Ages, philosophers in all three major theistic traditions defended cosmological arguments. Prominent among them were Ibn Sina (Avicenna), St. Thomas Aquinas, and Moses Maimonides, all thinkers within the Aristotelian metaphysical framework; and (2) By the early modern period, the principles of Aristotelian metaphysics that had supported cosmological arguments were no longer in vogue. But it proved natural to formulate a cosmological argument in fresh terms, as Samuel Clarke did in 1705. Clarke insisted that whatever comes to be is dependent on other things to provide an account or reason for its existence, and he argued that an account is incomplete if it is not ultimately grounded in some independent thing. Clarke's contemporary, Gottfried Leibniz, also defended a cosmological argument, while both David Hume and Immanuel Kant provided famous criticisms. Variations on deductive cosmological arguments (like that of Clarke) are the most important in the literature, and are still discussed today.

Deductive cosmological argument

It is incontrovertible that some things and events are explanatorily dependent on other things in the way described above. But a central question in debates over cosmological arguments of the deductive sort concerns the possibility of an infinite series of things or events, each providing an adequate explanation for the existence (or motion) of the next. Setting Aristotelian principles aside, there is no obvious way to rule out such a series based on contemporary physical theory or metaphysical accounts of causation. But many cosmological arguments reject the possibility of such a series on the grounds that an explanation is incomplete if that which explains (the explanans ) requires explanation itself. This implies that a complete explanation for any thing or event must ultimately be grounded in something that has no explanatory dependence. Finally, it is often claimed that only a necessary being (a being that could not have failed to exist) requires no explanation for its existence. And God is considered the most natural example of a necessary being with causal powers.

Two responses to this argument are common. First, the critic can reject the notion of complete explanation just sketched. Since every individual thing in an infinite series of dependent beings is explained by the thing immediately prior to it, the existence of that individual remains intelligible despite the lack of an independent being in the series. Second, the critic can claim that the infinite series itself provides a complete explanation for the existence of whatever follows it. But the series itself is not dependent on anything else for an explanation.

In order to rule out both of these responses, some theists have propounded a very strong principle: not just the familiar facts of experience, but every contingent state of affairs must have an explanation outside of itself (the Principle of Sufficient Reason). If this principle were true, not only would every individual in an infinite series of causes require explanation, but the existence of the series itself would require explanation. (A contingent state of affairs is one that might not have been the case.) However, the principle seems overly strong and quite difficult to motivate. In fact, even a theist has good grounds for rejecting it. After all, traditional theism maintains that God created freely and could have chosen otherwise; so God's deciding to create the world is a contingent occurrence. And since it is contingent, it cannot be completely explained (i.e. deduced) from any necessary truths about God. In response, the theist could weaken the original principle somewhat, allowing that only free acts of persons are suitable contingent grounds for explanation. But if exceptions to the rule are allowed, why not allow the unexplained existence of an infinite series, or of a first contingent physical event like the Big Bang?

It is important to clarify that even a successful deductive cosmological argument would not establish the truth of theism. First, such an argument would not entail the conclusion that there is a single independent and necessary being, since there could be a number of them. Second, even if there were only one such being, a cosmological argument would provide no guarantee that the being is personal, all-powerful, or good. (Perhaps it is an impersonal force or a great demon.) But these limitations do not mean that cosmological arguments are useless for justifying theism. For a great many competing theories would be ruled out by a successful deductive cosmological argument.

Evidential cosmological argument

An importantly different kind of argument is presented by Richard Swinburne's The Existence of God (1979). Swinburne rejects cosmological arguments aiming at deductive proof. Rather than insisting that some principle of reason rules out the possibility that the physical universe could simply exist unexplained, he compares the creation hypothesis with its rivals by using criteria such as simplicity and explanatory power. In this respect, the existence of God is treated as an explanatory postulate akin to the existence of electrons. Swinburne builds a cumulative case based on several types of facts that he believes are best explained by theism. Among these facts is the mere existence of a complex and contingent physical universe. Nevertheless, because there is no established standard for comparing the merits of ultimate explanations, the evidential cosmological argument is widely considered inconclusive at best. Swinburne's conclusions receive a sophisticated critique in J. L. Mackie's The Miracle of Theism (1982).

See also Aristotle; Avicenna; Causation; Cosmology; Maimonides; Ontological Argument; Teleological Argument; Theism; Thomas Aquinas


brown, patterson. "infinite causal regression" (1966). in readings in the philosophy of religion: an analytic approach, ed. baruch a. brody. englewood cliffs, n.j.: prentice-hall, 1992.

hume, david. dialogues concerning natural religion (1779), ed. h. aiken. new york: macmillan, 1948.

mackie, j. l. the miracle of theism: arguments for and against the existence of god. oxford: oxford university press, 1982.

rowe, william l. the cosmological argument. princeton, n.j.: princeton university press, 1975.

swinburne, richard. the existence of god (1979). oxford: clarendon, 1991.

david manley

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