Cosmological Argument


Many atheists assert that an eternal universe is explanatorily equivalent to an eternal God.  For example, Sagan once asked, “If we say that God has always been, why not save a step and conclude that the universe has always been?”[1]  And just recently, two prominent atheists made the same claim.  In his new book, A Universe from Nothing, Lawrence Krauss writes, “[T]he declaration of a First Cause still leaves open the question, ‘Who created the Creator?’ After all, what is the difference between arguing in favor of an eternally existing creator versus an eternally existing universe without one?”[2]  Victor Stenger agrees with Krauss:

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In response to various cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of a creator God some atheists appeal to the principle of parsimony—often dubbed “Ockham’s Razor”—to argue that invoking God to explain our cosmic origins is both unnecessary and unhelpful.  Introducing a divine being to explain the origin of the universe is said to be less parsimonious than simply acknowledging that the universe popped into existence uncaused from absolutely nothing.

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Premise one of the kalam cosmological argument (KCA) states that everything which begins to exist has a cause.  It goes on to reason that since the universe began to exist, it too requires a cause.  Given the properties required of such a cause, the KCA is a powerful argument for a personal creator God.  

To avoid the conclusion of the argument many new atheist-types take exception with the causal principle embodied in premise 1.  Quantum physics, they say, has shown that there can be effects without causes.  And if quantum events do not need causes, then perhaps the universe doesn’t either.  

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During his debate with Arif Ahmed and Andrew Copson at the Cambridge Union Society, Peter S. Williams gave a lucid illustration for the argument for the existence of God based on the contingency of material reality.[1]

Imagine if I asked you to loan me a book.  You say you don’t have it, but you’ll ask your friend to loan you his, and in turn you’ll loan it to me.  When you ask your friend for the book, he says he does not have it, but he’ll ask his friend to borrow his copy, and in turn he’ll loan it to you, who will loan it to me.  If this process continues ad infinitum, I will never receive the book.  If I do receive the book it is because the process of requesting to borrow the book is not infinite, but temporally finite.  Somewhere down the chain of requests to borrow the book, someone actually had the book without having to borrow it from someone else.  

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Physicist Lawrence Krauss’ new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing, purports to answer the age-old philosophical question of why there is something rather than nothing from a scientific, rather than philosophical or religious perspective.  In the book’s afterword Richard Dawkins announces that Krauss has triumphed in his quest:

Even the last remaining trump card of the theologian, “Why is there something rather than nothing?,” shrivels up before your eyes as you read these pages. If On the Origin of Species was biology’s deadliest blow to super­naturalism, we may come to see A Universe From Nothing as the equivalent from cosmology. The title means exactly what it says. And what it says is ­devastating.

Columbia professor of philosophy, David Albert, couldn’t disagree more.  In his scathing review for the New York Times, Albert points out that Krauss has not answered the question at all.

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In honor of Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday, a meeting of the minds took place to discuss the state of cosmology.  New Scientist[1] reported on the events of the night, one of which was a talk delivered by famed cosmologist, Alexander Vilenkin, describing why physical reality must have a beginning.  But first, a little background is in order.

For a long time scientists held that the universe was eternal and unchanging.  This allowed them to avoid the God question—who or what caused the universe—because they reasoned that a beginningless universe needed no cause.[2]  They recognized that if the universe began to exist in the finite past that it begged for a cause that was outside of the time-space-continuum.  As Stephen Hawking told his well-wishers in a pre-recorded message, “A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God.”

Scientific discoveries in the early and mid-20th century, however, forced cosmologists to the uncomfortable conclusion that our universe came into being in the finite past.  The scientific consensus was that the origin of our universe constituted the origin of physical reality itself.  Before the Big Bang, literally nothing existed.  The universe came into being from nothing and nowhere.  This sounded too much like the creation ex nihilo of Genesis, however, and seemed to require the God of Genesis to make it happen.  As a result, some cosmologists were feverishly looking for ways to restore an eternal universe.

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Several months ago the Discovery Channel aired a television series featuring Stephen Hawking called Curiosity.  Whereas in his book The Grand Design Hawking claimed that God is not necessary to explain the origin of the universe given the existence of physical laws such as gravity, in Curiosity he argued that God could not have created the universe because there was no time in which God could have done so:

[D]o we need a God to set it all up so a Big Bang can bang? … Our everyday experience makes us convinced that everything that happens must be caused by something that occurred earlier in time.  So it’s natural for us to assume that something—perhaps God—must have caused the universe to come into existence.  But when we’re talking about the universe as a whole, that isn’t necessarily so.
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In the August 2011 edition of Scientific American, famed cosmologist, George Ellis, wrote an article titled “Does the Multiverse Really Exist?”  Here are some great excerpts from that article:

“Similar claims [about a multiverse] have been made since antiquity by many cultures.  What is new is the assertion that the multiverse is a scientific theory, with all that implies about being mathematically rigorous and experimentally testable.  I am skeptical about this claim.  I do not believe the existence of those other universes has been proved—or ever could be.  Proponents of the multiverse, as well as greatly enlarging our conception of physical reality, are implicitly redefining what is meant by ‘science.’”—pg 39

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In an earlier post I argued that the nature of science is such that it cannot demonstrate an entity/event to be uncaused, and thus scientific discoveries can never inveigh against the causal premise (“whatever begins to exist has a cause”) of the kalam cosmological argument (KCA) for God’s existence.  Here I want to extend the discussion to the cosmological premise (“the universe began to exist”) of the KCA as well.

The contrapositive of the second premise is “the universe is eternal.”  The nature of science, however, renders it incapable of demonstrating the universe to be eternal even if the universe were eternal.  Why?  Science is an empirical discipline based on what can be observed and quantified.  For science to prove that the universe is eternal, it would have to do so empirically.  But this is impossible.  An eternal past cannot be observed or quantified.

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The kalam cosmological argument (KCA) for God’s existence goes as follows:

(1) Anything that begins to exist requires a cause
(2) The universe began to exist
(3) Thus, the universe requires a cause

Additional reasoning leads us to conclude that the cause of the universe is God.  Given that whatever caused space, time, and matter to begin to exist cannot itself be spatial, temporal, or material.  Furthermore, whatever caused our orderly universe to come into being a finite time ago must be immensely powerful, intelligent, conscious, and hence personal.  These are apt descriptions of a being theists have long identified as God.

Some seek to undermine this causal argument for God’s existence by denying the first premise.  They point to quantum mechanics and virtual particles as evidence that there are exceptions to the causal principle.

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I was doing some research on William Lane Craig’s website the other day when I stumbled on an interesting objection to the kalam cosmological argument (KCA) I had not heard before.  I thought it was interesting, so I’m passing it along.  It requires a brief set-up.

According to Aristotle there are four types of causes:

1.      Material cause (that of which something is made)
2.      Formal cause (a thing’s essence, form, or pattern)
3.      Efficient cause (the thing that produces the change)
4.      Final cause (the purpose for which something is caused)

Consider a marble statue.  The block of marble from which it was formed is the material cause, the precise shape of the statue is the formal cause, the sculptor is the efficient cause, and beauty is the final cause.

The two causes we are most familiar with are material and efficient causes.  Point to anything in the universe and we can tell you what it is made of, and what caused it to exist.  But what about the universe itself?  The origin of the universe marks the beginning of material stuff, so it cannot have a material cause.  It came into being ex nihilo.  The KCA argues, however, that the universe still needs an efficient cause.  Something outside the universe is needed to cause the universe to come into being because contingent entities don’t just pop into existence uncaused.

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I was listening to a podcast by Jim Wallace from PleaseConvinceMe.com the other day on my way to work.  He was talking about atheists’ stock objection to the cosmological arguments[1]: “Well, then, who caused God?”

Wallace pointed out that the question itself is meaningless.  He illustrates his point by asking, What sound does silence make?  Silence is soundless, of course, so it makes no sense to ask what kind of sound it makes.  Likewise, the question, Who created God? is a meaningless question because by definition God is an eternal, uncreated being.  To ask, Who caused God?, then, is to ask, Who caused the Uncreated Being to exist? which is meaningless.

For additional information on responding to the “Who made God?” objection, read my post “Inexcusable Ignorance Part II.”


[1]Which argue that the universe needs a cause, and that cause is God.

In my experience, most opponents and skeptics of theism reject theistic arguments on less than epistemically justifiable grounds. For example, premise one of the kalam cosmological argument proposes that “everything which begins to exist has a cause” (and concludes that since the universe began to exist, the universe has a cause). Some detractors of the argument will counter that since our only experience with cause and effect is within the spatio-temporal world, we cannot be certain that causation is possible outside the spatio-temporal world. While I think this is a fair point to consider, does it really undermine the premise, and hence the conclusion? It doesn’t seem to me that it does. While it is possible that the principle of cause and effect does not apply beyond the temporal framework of our universe, unless one can demonstrate that non-temporal causality is incoherent/impossible, the mere logically possibility that the principle of causality does not hold outside of the universe does not override the warrant we have for thinking all effects require an antecedent cause (and that contingent things require an external cause).

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Some of you may have seen a news article circulating every major news outlet.  With provocative titles such as “God did not create the universe, says Hawking,” and “Why God Did Not Create the Universe,” one would expect to find some new scientific discovery/argument proving that the universe is capable of creating itself – no God needed.  After reading the articles, however, that expectation will quickly turn into disappointment.

Stephen Hawking is probably the most famous physicist alive.  While he is clearly a brilliant man, his case for the sufficiency of natural processes to account for the origin of the universe is truly embarrassing.  Consider the following claim: “Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing.  Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.  It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going.”

Where to begin!  First, while Hawking is attempting to explain how something could come from nothing, he only explains how something (the universe) comes from something else (physical laws, namely gravity).  True nothingness is the absence of any and all existents, including physical laws.  So from whence come the physical laws?

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Alternative Responses (cont)

 Colin McGinn, philosopher at the University of Miami

As mentioned in my second post, Colin McGinn (echoing Immanuel Kant) makes a distinction between asking why some particular existent within the whole of existence exists, and why the whole of existence itself exists.  The former question can be answered by appealing to some other preexistent existent within the whole of existence, but the latter question appeals to some existent outside the whole of existence to explain the whole of existence.  It is impossible, however, for something to exist outside the set of the whole of existence.  By definition there cannot be additional entities outside the set of “every existing thing.” 

 McGinn thinks this problem can be remedied by reformulating the question as “Is it true of every concrete thing that it exists contingently, or necessarily?”  He affirms that every concrete entity exists contingently.  So far so good, but why do concrete entities exist, then?  Here is where McGinn fumbles.  He affirms that the whole of concrete, contingent existence just exists inexplicably!  Surely this is absurd.  Contingent beings, by definition, derive their being from something outside themselves, and thus there must be an explanation for why they exist.  It is metaphysically absurd to speak of an uncaused contingent being.  Inexplicability is appropriate for a necessary being, but not contingent beings (and all concrete entities are contingent beings).

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Alternative Responses

Now that I have put my own view on display (See parts 1 and 2 of this mini-series), let us take a look at how a few philosophers have answered this puzzling philosophical question. We will explore the views of Quentin Smith, John Leslie, Colin McGinn, Hubert Dreyfus, and Bede Rundle.

Quentin Smith, philosopher at Western Michigan University

According to Quentin Smith, the answer to why there is something rather than nothing is so simple that it seems rather trite: The reason Y exists at time t4 rather than nothing is because X existed at time t3, and caused Y to exist.  Likewise, X exists at time t2 rather than nothing because W existed at time t1, and caused X to exist, and so on.  In other words, the present something exists because a previous something caused it to exist.  Why did that previous something exist rather than nothing?  The reason is that it, too, was caused by something that existed before it, and so on.  The answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing, then, is simply that something is always preceded by something else.

The problem with Smith’s answer is two-fold.  First, he shifts the locus of the question from why anything has ever existed to why something exists right now.  The question, however, seeks a reason for the whole of reality, not just each temporal state of reality. 

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Why is there Something, Rather than Nothing?

“Why is there something rather than nothing?”  This is considered by many to be the most fundamental of all philosophical questions. The question, however, presumes that “nothing” and “something” are two equally possible states – that nothingness is a genuine alternative to something.  If what I have argued thus far is sound, nothingness is metaphysically impossible, and thus it is not a logical alternative to something.  Something must exist.  But what if my reasoning is flawed, and it turns out that non-existence is logically possible?  How would we answer this long-standing philosophical question, then? 

To answer the question we first need to be clear about what is being asked.  For example, what is meant by “why?”  Are we seeking to discover the cause of existence, or the purpose for existence?  If we are seeking a purpose for existence, then we are already presupposing the existence of some supreme mind, because only personal agents create things for particular reasons and with some purpose in mind.  Without access to that mind, it is difficult to discover what purposes it had for creating.  It is much simpler to identify the cause of existence: the what rather than the why. 

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Women often wonder what men are thinking about.  Jerry Seinfeld once joked that the answer is, “Nothing.”  For the past several weeks, I too, have been thinking about nothing – not nothing as in “not anything,” but nothing as in the concept of nothingness.  What is nothing?  Is it possible that there could have been nothing rather than something?  If so, why is there something rather than nothing?

What is Nothing?

Nothing is a very difficult concept to wrap one’s mind around.  As A.J. Ayer pointed out, we are often fooled by the grammar of nothingness into think that since “nothing” is a noun, it must refer to something.

But “nothing” is a term of universal negation, not a term of reference.  It’s similar to words like “no one ” and “nowhere.”  “Nowhere” does not refer to a place, but to the absence of any place (not anywhere).  Likewise, “nothing” does not refer to something, but to the absence of anything (not anything).  If someone asked you what you had for lunch today, and you say “nothing,” you don’t mean you had lunch, and what you ate was called nothing, but rather that you did not have anything for lunch.  If they ask you what nothing tasted like, tell them, “Chicken, of course.”

The minute we begin to think about nothing, we mentally transform nothing into a something; an object to be contemplated.  It is even impossible to imagine nothingness, because every image we conjure up is an image of something.  We often imagine nothing as an infinite expanse of black, empty space (a vacuum) – but empty space is something, not nothing.  Nothing is “not-even-space.”  Nothing is not a little bit of something, or “something-lite,” but literally no-thing; the absence of being.  Perhaps Macbeth said it best when he said, “Nothing is but what is not.”  It is the absence of any and every existent, including the very concept of existence.  Could this kind of nothing “exist”?

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I think a good argument can be made for the existence of God based on the existence of the universe.  We know the universe began to exist.  Given that whatever begins to exist requires a cause external to itself to bring it into existence, there must be a cause external to the universe to explain why it came into being.  Whatever brought time, space, and matter into existence cannot itself be temporal, spatial, and material, and thus the cause of the universe must be eternal, non-spatial, and immaterial.  Furthermore, the cause must be personal in nature since there are only two known sources of causation—events and personal agents—and it is impossible to explain the first event in terms of a prior event.  Therefore, an agent must be the cause of the universe.  A personal, eternal, non-spatial, and immaterial being is what most theists mean by “God.”

While I think this argument demonstrates the existence of the divine, it cannot tell us anything about the number of divine beings responsible for creating the universe.  There could be one, or there could be billions.  An additional argument is needed if one is going to prove the existence of one and only one God.  In the past I argued for monotheism on the basis of divine omnipotence.  I reasoned that the property of omnipotence cannot belong to more than one being, for if two or more beings have to share power, then neither being can be said to have “all” power.  So God, then, must be one if He is omnipotent.

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