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Cosmological Argument


A term used to designate a type of argumentation whereby one reasons from observable aspects of the universe, or cosmos, to the existence of God. The reasoning process is a posteriori, from effects obsevable in the universe to a cause that do not fall directly under human experience, and in this respect is different from that employed in the ontological argument, which is a priori in that it argues from the concept or definition of God to His necessary existence. Although frequently used in the singular, the term actually refers to a number of arguments, depending on the particular observable aspect of the universe that is the starting point of the proof. Thus, of thomas aquinas's "five ways," the classical proofs for the existence of God, the first three are commonly regarded as cosmological insofar as they begin with the obvious facts of motion, efficient causality, and contingency in the universe, respectively, and from these rise to a knowledge of the Unmoved Mover, First Cause, and Necessary Being whom we call God. Some would also include the "fifth way" among the cosmological arguments, insofar as it argues from the fact of design in the cosmos to the existence of a Supreme Intelligence who has planned and guides the universe in its complex processes; others would make of this a special proof that invokes finality or teleology and so is more aptly designated as the teleological argument.

Kantian Origins. The practice of labeling rational proofs for God's existence as ontological, cosmological, and teleological takes its origin from Immanuel kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781), where this threefold division is first proposed. Kant's mentality was at root quite different from Aquinas's. Although much interested in rationalism's claim to provide systematic knowledge of God, and indeed conditioned by his university training to give a sympathetic hearing to G. W. F. leibniz and Christian wolff, Kant's own approach to God developed in a way that was predominantly affective and moral in character. Reacting in his early writings to Hume's skepticism with regard to demonstrations of God's existence, Kant at first hoped to recast the traditional proofs in such a way as to make them acceptable to the most critical thinker. As he worked out his own theory of knowledge, however, he became aware that according to its canons this would be no longer possiblenot that he ever doubted God's existence himself, but because he had come to see the weaknesses involved in earlier speculative claims. Obviously unconvinced by, but still dependent upon, the rationalist metaphysics of Wolff, Kant reduced all previous proofs to three major types: the ontological argument, based on the idea of a most perfect being; the cosmological argument, based on the contingency found in the universe; and the teleological (or physicotheological) argument, based on its order or design. Quite correctly, and here in company with Aquinas, Kant saw the impossibility of deducing anything about God's existence from the idea of His essence. He went on, however, to maintain further that attempts to reach God from an analysis of contingency being in the world, or from considerations of orderliness and design in the cosmos, also inevitably involve the use of the idea of a most perfect being. Thus he rejected, from the category of rigid proof, both the cosmological and the teleological argument as implicitly presupposing the ontological argument, and as being vitiated on that account.

Kant's rejection of the cosmological argument, according to Collins (pp. 16286), is a logical consequence of the epistemological teachings that are central to the Critique. These effectively equate the requirements for all knowledge with those proper to the knowledge of Newtonian physics, which combines in its own distinctive way a rationalist conception of the use of reason and an empiricist theory of experience. Working within the narrow confines of this epistemology, Kant was unable to grasp sensible beings in their very act of existing, but instead he viewed them solely under the noetic conditions required for their becoming objects in classical physics. As a consequence, in speaking of contingency he could not begin with the existential act of things that come to be and pass away, but had to focus instead on the idea of contingency and so unwittingly placed himself in the purely ideal or possible order at the very outset of his projected proof. It is not in the later stages that the cosmological argument invokes the ideal order of essences; rather, as Kant formulates it in his synthetic a priori way, it does so at the very beginning because of the categorial view of existence it is forced to employ.

Other Alternatives. Those who continue to reject cosmological reasoning as a speculatively valid demonstration of God's existence usually do so either (1) because they remain captive to Kant's epistemology, with its rejection of metaphysics as a transcendental illusion and its consequent agnosticism with regard to God, or (2) because they subscribe to the Humean analysis of causation, with its substitution of temporal sequences among events for causal efficacy, and its resulting inability to rise above the phenomenal order to a transcendent cause. The rationale behind their rejection is also usually one of conforming with modern science and its methods, a motivation that was dominant for both Kant and hume. Developments within science in recent years, however, and the associated growth of the philosophy of science movement, have provided other alternatives to those available to these philosophers of the 18th century, for whom science was perforce still in its infancy. The discovery of elementary particles, for example, and the ingenious proofs devised to reveal the existence of entities with properties that are not directly observable, and even unobservable in principle, suggest ways of transcending sense experience to arrive at deeper ontological explanations of the phenomena of the physical world. On the basis of the reasoning processes used to argue to the existence of electrons, positrons, and other "particles," one can now formulate canons of demonstrative inference for establishing the existence and attributes of entities quite unlike those of ordinary experience. Such canons are similar to those implicit in Aquinas's "five ways" and need only to be supplemented by his doctrine of analogy to provide adequate conceptual tools for arriving at knowledge of God's existence and His essential attributes.

Causality, of course, and this in its pre-Humean understanding of a knowable nexus between cause and effect, still remains the key concept on which cosmological argumentation must rest. Unfortunately, under the influence of Newtonian physics, there has been a tendency through the 18th and 19th centuries to identify causes with forces, and then further to equate causal explanation with complete determinism and predictability. This has fostered a concern with efficient causality alone, and a consequent neglect of other types of causal reasoning such as those based on material, formal, and final causality, which can serve as valid starting points for theistic proofs. In this connection it should perhaps be noted that one of the most powerful arguments advanced by Aristotle and Aquinas in support of a key premise in their cosmological argumentation, viz, the motor causality principle, "whatever is in movement is moved by another," is based not on efficient causality but on material causality. Again, concepts such as force and energy are far from transparent to philosophical analysis, particularly when used as vehicles to carry the causal inference required for arguments of the cosmological type. Those who would rely on them exclusively for this purpose thus expose themselves to the dangers of unwittingly terminating such arguments before they can be started, or of so insulating the phenomena under investigation from metaphysical inquiry as to nullify their value as starting points in any search for transcendence.

Difficulties. To turn now to more recent objections against the cosmological argument, these center around three difficulties that are commonly raised against this type of proof. The first is brought against it not so much by atheists and agnostics as by religious thinkers who, while themselves firmly convinced of God's existence, do not see such existence as a subject for rational inquiry. They would object to the proof on the grounds that it operates in virtue of a suppressed major premise to the effect that the universe is rationally explicable. Logically, however, as they see it, there seems to be no way of ruling out the possibility that the world may be ultimately irrational or inexplicable; if one accepts the view that it is not, so their objection goes, he does so by virtue of his own individual belief and not from any objective necessity. This difficulty is likely to prove insurmountable for one imbued with a fideistic or pietistic spirit or who sees religion as ultimately an affair of man's heart or will and not of his intellect. It is not troublesome, on the other hand, to those to whom the cosmological argument is more likely to appeal in the first place, namely, scientists who daily use their intellects to come to a knowledge of nature and its underlying mechanisms. If the universe is ultimately irrational then science itself is radically impossible. Logic, of course, is powerless to solve this question on an a priori basis; the only way one can find out whether the universe is rational or not is by studying it and having its rationality revealed to him through the a posteriori process of discovery. It is this experience that makes a person a scientist; the same type of experience, pushed to metaphysical ultimates, can lend him to a rational knowledge of God's existence.

The second difficulty is somewhat akin to the first in that it too raises a logical question, and this relating to the type of necessity that attaches to the conclusion of the cosmological argument. The objection is that such type of argumentation does not conclude with logical necessity, since it is not concerned with a set of analytical propositions whose self-evidence can be made manifest, but rather speaks of contingent matters that could be otherwise and so at best can provide the basis for probable conclusions. So stated, the difficulty is connected with Leibniz's dichotomous division of "proofs" into two types; those concluding with strict logic to a self-evident necessity, and those based on probable occurrence that can never be reduced to self-evidence. Actually this objection is similar to that behind Kant's rejection of the cosmological argument, for it says, in essence, that anyone who pretends to reason a posteriori from a factual and contingent premise about the universe to God's necessary existence actually gets turned around in the process and draws his conclusion on definitional grounds, in a priori fashion. His reasoning process is thus equivalent to making the existence of a First Cause inconceivable, and so he implicitly invokes the ontological argument in his proof. This objection is particularly telling against those who conceive all of science on the model of mathematics, or who accept the rationalist ideal of formal logic as the only measure of necessary reasoning. The very possibility of natural science, however, is ruled out by the acceptance of this ideal. In the world of nature, as Aquinas pointed out centuries ago, nothing is so contingent that it does not have some element of necessity associated with it. The necessity of nature's operation is not that of mathematics or of logic; rather it is the conditional necessity that is characteristic of causes that attain their effects regularly and for the most part, even though occasionally, and on a contingency basis, they can be impeded. Once one learns how to achieve demonstration when dealing with subject matters that exhibit contingency of this type, he also becomes proficient in isolating the elements of necessity that can sustain the required inference to a First Cause. His demonstrations will then conclude with a real causal necessity that gives rise to true metaphysical knowledge, and not with the tautological necessity of self-evidence that characterizes the world of formal logic and pure mathematics.

The final difficulty is typical of a series of objections that have been raised by linguistic analysts and other analytical philosophers, who first were attracted to the ontological argument and subsequently have turned their attention to the cosmological argument as well. Such objections focus on the questions that the latter argument proposes to answer and raises doubts as to their being truly meaningful. Linguistic philosophers do not dispute that questions relating to the first cause of motion, etc., make grammatical sense or seem understandable on the basis of ordinary experience. They claim, however, that such questions turn out to be ultimately misleading, and the reason they urge is that the questions one may legitimately ask of a part of a system become inapplicable when applied to the system in its totality. Thus one may meaningfully ask where the earth is located with respect to the entire universe, but one may not ask where the universe as a whole is located, for to such a question there can be no answer. The objection is ingenious, and indeed is telling against some of the ways in which the cosmological argument has been articulated, notably by Duns Scotus in the Middle Ages and by Frederick Copleston in recent times. However, the argument need not be proposed in ways, for example, that allow the existence of an infinite series of contingent beings as a totality and then seek an extrinsic cause for it, on the grounds that such a series exists and whatever exists must have a cause. The arguments developed by Aquinas are not of this kind, nor are they vulnerable to the objection that the questions they raise are ultimately meaningless. They make no assumptions, in fact, about the universe in its totality, but rather show that the particular features of the cosmos they are examining require explanation, and yet are inexplicable in terms of the type of being of which the universe seems to be composed, whether finite or infinite in number, and so demand the existence of a transcendent being whom we call God.

See Also: god, proofs for the existence of; ontological argument.

Bibliography: d. r. burrill, ed., The Cosmological Arguments: A Spectrum of Opinion (New York 1967). b. r. reichen- bach, The Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment (Springfield, Ill. 1972). w. a. wallace, "The Cosmological Argument: A Reap- praisal," American Catholic Philosophical Association. Proceedings of the Annual Meeting 46 (1972) 4357. j. d. collins, God in Modern Philosophy (Chicago 1959). r. w, hepburn, "Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God," The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. p. edwards, 8 v. (New York 1967), 2.23237.

[w. a. wallace]

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