• Two Ways to Explode (or Explore) the Cosmological Argument

    Rabbi Adam Jacobs resurrects the cosmological argument in a recent Huffington Post piece:

    The argument has enjoyed a diverse and multicultural history and has been expounded by many, including: Aristotle (pagan), Al-Gazali (Muslim) who in turn influenced Aquinas (Christian) and Maimonides (Jewish). The Al-Gazali formulation (though it will be rejected) goes like this:

    1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
    2. The Universe began to exist;
    3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause.

    Aquinas further modified the argument to assert that the universe need not have existed and, inasmuch as that’s true, it is entirely contingent — something that is not necessary or intrinsic. He therefore held (unlike Al-Gazali) that even if the universe has always existed, it nonetheless owes its existence to an un-caused cause which he understood to be God.

    Jacobs unwisely allows the article to be titled “An Iron-Clad Proof of God.” It’s not a proof, and it is not iron-clad. The fact that the argument (argument, not proof) has been studied and examined and re-formulated and built-upon indicates enough that it maintains a provisional status. Its more like a map then like the territory the map depicts. At best, then, the argument serves as a guide for what’s really true.

    How good a guide is it? Not very.

    Consider two angles of approach:

    1. Temporal causes and beginnings.
    2. Logical causes and beginnings.

    From the temporal angle, the problem with the argument is that it does not necessarily apply to the universe or lots else. The reason it doesn’t apply is that “beginning” is an anthropic concept, like longitudinal lines or like marriage or like the Bible. That such concepts refer not to reality-in-itself but rather to mental models of reality is revealed by trying answer such questions as At what exact moment does a human being begin? There are other examples. When does a song become a song? Given a sand-hill, at which single grain will you have removed enough so that there is no longer a hill?

    Trying to give specific, definite answers to these questions helps illustrate that many things which come from ongoing processes of transformation, like the universe, can only be said to have beginnings when those beginnings are set arbitrarily by people. So, when really does the universe begin? How do you determine what the beginning consists of?

    If we cannot know, when pressed, when the universe actually began to be the universe, then the cosmological argument does not apply. If we can only say the universe has a beginning by saying so, by setting an arbitrary boundary, then the cosmological argument is a cheat. It rests on a mental convenience, not a physical fact.

    Sophisticated defenders of the cosmological argument know this, however. That’s why they prefer to avoid the temporal argument and go instead with the logical angle. Thus, they argue that existence logically presupposes a cause. If X exists, then it must have a cause; X necessarily depends on having a cause.

    We note here that the argumentation rests on the notion of existence. As a concept, “existence” presupposes “cause.” It’s kind of like how “king” presupposes “male.” Yet we must remind ourselves again that the map is not the territory. Our conception of existence is a model of what we think is so, but we are way far away from being able to pronounce that our “existence” matches existence in reality.

    Notice, too, that the cause is bound to the thing that exists–at least in our conception. In presupposing cause, existence subsumes it, as “king” subsumes “male” and incorporates it into other things that a king is also. For theists, the uncomfortable implication here is that humanity bears the stamp of its creator yet exceeds that creator.

    The obvious retort to the logical angle of the cosmological argument is to ask, “What causes the cause?” My experience with defenders of the cosmological argument is that they will berate you for even asking such a question. They consider it philosophical naivete. Usually, the philosophers have a point–usually, for the objectors go to temporal priority instead of logical priority. Philosopher and ardent Catholic Ed Feser defends the idea that God is and can only be the terminus of what would otherwise be an infinite regress of causes:

    Limited causes are limited precisely by potentialities which are not actualized.  Hence a sculptor is limited by the degree of skill he has so far acquired, by the limits on his dexterity given the structure of his hands, etc.  He is limited also by the potentialities of his materials – their capacity to be molded using some tools but not others, their capacity to maintain whatever shape the sculptor puts into them, and so forth.  Now that which creates out of nothing is not limited by any such external factors, precisely because it is not modifying anything that already exists outside of it.  But neither can it be limited by any internal potentialities analogous to the limits on a sculptor’s skill.  For it is not merely causing a being of this or that sort to exist (though it is doing that too) – modifying preexisting materials would suffice to cause that – but also making it the case that any being at all exists.  And only that which is not a being among others but rather unlimited being – that which is pure actuality – can do that.

    The idea is perhaps best stated in Platonic terms of the sort Aquinas uses (in an Aristotelianized form) in the Fourth Way.  To be a tree or to be a stone is merely to participate in “treeness” or “stoneness.”  But to be at all – which is the characteristic effect of an act of creation out of nothing – is to participate in Being Itself.  Now the principle of proportionate causality tells us that whatever is in an effect must be in some way in its cause.  And only that which just is Being Itself can, in this case, be a cause proportionate to the effect, since the effect is not merely to be a tree or to be a stone, but to be at all.

    So only God – who just is pure actuality or Being Itself rather than a being among others – can cause a thing to exist ex nihilo.  But why could He not work through instrumental causes in doing so?  For all the preceding argument would seem to show is that Being Itself is the ultimate cause of any thing’s existing at all.  That is, it suggests that any cause of a thing’s sheer existence that was less than Being Itself would, either directly or indirectly, owe its own existence to that which is Being Itself.

    Disclosure: I have clipped ends of the top and bottom paragraphs, to keep the quotation not so lengthy. Feser appeals here to Being Itself, a logical construct signifying that which, alone, can cause a thing to exist ex nihilo. We might respond here, “Who said anything about ex nihilo?” but that’s Feser’s model: at some point the causal chain is finally initiated by Being Itself causing something to exist from nothing, causing anything to exist at all.

    To me, this all seems tortured. Why can we not ask what causes Being Itself? Where does Being Itself live, within the nothing where it creates or outside of it? Moreover, how remote is this Creator God from the all-too-human deity playing around in the Bible?

    I have my own favorite answer to what causes the cause. In textual studies, we say that interpretation partly creates the text. Usually, we think that the text is there, say in a book, we read it and then interpret as we read. Very linear and clean. But reading is not a linear input-output operation. The mind reads and interprets simultaneously, and reading is as much interpretation as it is deciphering, and the emerging interpretation governs perception of the thing being interpreted. The more confident we are in what we think we are seeing, the more our perception conforms to that judgment. From the point of view of the mind, then, the effect (interpretation) participates in establishing the cause (the text).

    What causes the cause, then, according to me? I think it’s our cognitive approach to existence. In vulgar terms, God didn’t create the universe; he was created by our perception of a universe unfolding in time.

    I offer no proof of God. Only an argument, and only the God that I think could possibly exist: the imaginary God.

    Category: Religion

    Tags:

    Article by: Larry Tanner

    • If we cannot know, when pressed, when the universe actually began to be the universe, then the cosmological argument does not apply. If we can only say the universe has a beginning by saying so, by setting an arbitrary boundary, then the cosmological argument is a cheat. It rests on a mental convenience, not a physical fact.

      I don’t follow your reasoning here. The fact that we don’t know exactly when the universe began to exist does not entail either (1) that the universe did not begin to exist or (2) that the universe’s beginning/existence is not a physical fact.

      Thus, they argue that existence logically presupposes a cause. If X exists, then it must have a cause; X necessarily depends on having a cause.

      That is not what a defender of the cosmological argument presupposes. Rabbi Adam Jacobs quotes Edward Feser as stating: “It does not rest on the premise that ‘everything has a cause’ which would leave open the question of what caused God. Rather the argument is that whatever comes into existence (is contingent) has a cause.”

      For theists, the uncomfortable implication here is that humanity bears the stamp of its creator yet exceeds that creator.

      How, exactly, does humanity exceed its Creator? Or, in what sense does humanity exceed its Creator? I don’t see anything “uncomfortable” here.

      My experience with defenders of the cosmological argument is that they will berate you for even asking such a question. They consider it philosophical naivete. Usually, the philosophers have a point–usually, for the objectors go to temporal priority instead of logical priority.

      Rabbi Adam Jacobs quotes Edward Feser as writing: “Therefore, to ask ‘what caused God?’ is really to ask ‘what caused the thing that cannot in principle have a cause?'” As a Thomist, Feser is defending what you call “logical priority”. He’s say that if you understand the nature of the First Cause and causality then you will see why it is a nonsensical question.

      To me, this all seems tortured.

      Feser is working from a Thomistic metaphysics. It might seem tortured to moderns because we are not familiar with the technical jargon. But that’s not a refutation of his position. To refute his position one needs to offer a better metaphysics of being and causality.

      Why can we not ask what causes Being Itself? Where does Being Itself live, within the nothing where it creates or outside of it?

      Think about your first question for a moment. You’re basically asking what being caused Being Itself to exist. But that being-which-is-the-cause-of-Being-Itself must participate in Being Itself before it can cause Being Itself to come into existence. It’s a nonsensical question. Your second question is wrong-headed since it assumes Being Itself occupies space.

      Moreover, how remote is this Creator God from the all-too-human deity playing around in the Bible?

      As Rabbi Adam Jacobs made clear, there really isn’t a problem here. Pagans, Jews, Christians, and Muslims can and have agreed on the conclusion to the cosmological argument. The divine name (“I am what I am”) expresses the quality of absolute being or it means he causes to be. Perhaps the problem arises from an overly literal interpretation of the Bible’s description of God.

      What causes the cause, then, according to me? I think it’s our cognitive approach to existence. In vulgar terms, God didn’t create the universe; he was created by our perception of a universe unfolding in time.

      I don’t see how that really avoids the issue. Surely the human mind is not the cause of all being. There seem to be only three possibilities: (1) some contingent things exist without cause; (2) there is an infinite regress of causes; or (3) there is a First Cause.

      • lartanner

        The universe did not begin to exist. The concept of “beginning” is a human contrivance that tries to segment reality into discrete bits. The universe was and is always transforming.

        • lartanner:

          The universe did not begin to exist. The concept of “beginning” is a human contrivance that tries to segment reality into discrete bits. The universe was and is always transforming.

          Let me make sure I’m understanding you correctly:

          (1) Are you saying the universe is eternal?

          (2) Do you believe there are different kinds of things? For example, are cats and trees different kinds of things or are they human contrivances too?

          Also, the article notes that the cosmological argument works even if the universe was and is always transforming so I don’t see how your statement gets around the cosmological argument.

          • lartanner

            No, you are not understanding correctly. Think of it this way: Imagine you have a sand-hill and you want to find the exact number of grains of sand it will take until the hill is no longer a hill. Can you get down to the one grain that makes the difference? I don’t think so.

            In the same way, you cannot isolate a single nanosecond in which the universe begins. The nanosecond before that one is not sufficiently different to allow you to say there is no universe here, but there is one here. This is my assumption, at any rate, and would love to hear the counter-argument that in fact we can isolate the two nanoseconds that divide a universe not existing into a universe existing.

            But the larger point, if all this holds, is that while our model-universe, the one we use language to call into our minds, has a beginning (in the model), we cannot say that the real universe has a beginning. Applying the concept of beginning to the real universe is in fact trying to shoehorn reality into anthropic categories, perceptions, and desires.

            And if the real universe cannot be captured in a concept like beginning, then the CA doesn’t hold because beginning is a human heuristic that has everything to do with human cognition but little to do with what the actual universe was doing or is doing. The CA refers not to the actual universe but to a model of it.

            • lartanner:

              Think of it this way: Imagine you have a sand-hill and you want to find the exact number of grains of sand it will take until the hill is no longer a hill. Can you get down to the one grain that makes the difference? I don’t think so.

              You’re describing a sorites paradox. Granted that I can’t tell how many grains of sand are needed to form a hill, what does that tell us? It seems that it could mean nothing more than the fact that the definition of the word “hill” is vague. It’s not as if you are proposing that sand does not exist, correct?

              In the same way, you cannot isolate a single nanosecond in which the universe begins. The nanosecond before that one is not sufficiently different to allow you to say there is no universe here, but there is one here.

              But we might be able to agree that the universe began somewhere between t1 and t100, could we not? And if we can agree on that then the universe must have had a beginning even if we don’t know the precise moment it came into existence. The fact that we don’t know the precise nanosecond the universe came into being is an epistemological limit on our part.

              This is my assumption, at any rate, and would love to hear the counter-argument that in fact we can isolate the two nanoseconds that divide a universe not existing into a universe existing.

              My previous response assumed time exists separately from the universe. But it is also possible that when we say “the universe” we are referring to time, space, and matter. If so, then the change from atemporality to temporality would be the beginning of the universe. Another way to put this would be to say time is closed in the direction of the past.

              But the larger point, if all this holds, is that while our model-universe, the one we use language to call into our minds, has a beginning (in the model), we cannot say that the real universe has a beginning. Applying the concept of beginning to the real universe is in fact trying to shoehorn reality into anthropic categories, perceptions, and desires.

              And if the real universe cannot be captured in a concept like beginning, then the CA doesn’t hold because beginning is a human heuristic that has everything to do with human cognition but little to do with what the actual universe was doing or is doing. The CA refers not to the actual universe but to a model of it.

              How far are you willing to take this line of thinking? It seems you could apply it to all areas of knowledge, not just the cosmological argument.

              Also, the theist can grant (for the sake of argument) that the universe is eternal or beginning-less and still employ a cosmological argument.

            • “But we might be able to agree that the universe began somewhere between
              t1 and t100, could we not? And if we can agree on that then the universe
              must have had a beginning even if we don’t know the precise moment it
              came into existence. The fact that we don’t know the precise nanosecond
              the universe came into being is an epistemological limit on our part.”

              No, we might not agree in the light of quantum physics. The universe had no beginning, it always existed but was/is unknowable because of Planck”s wall: it only experienced one thing, not creation – expansion when time and space was created. The universe is self created and the obvious creator of everything, elementary particles, quarks, atoms….you and me in the end.

              Why do you need a self created god when you have the evidence of a self created universe?

              Why do you stop the regression of causation at god? Why postulate all of a sudden an un-caused god while maintaining causation for everything else?

              In the end the concept of god adds unnecessary complexity. It is useless for any investigation into the nature of the material world.

            • Peter Moritz:

              Why do you need a self created god when you have the evidence of a self created universe?

              First, because the notion of self-creation is incoherent. Perhaps you mean something else? Second, because, depending on the specific cosmological argument under consideration, the universe (a) had a beginning, (b) is contingent, and/or (c) is not pure actuality.

              Why do you stop the regression of causation at god? Why postulate all of a sudden an un-caused god while maintaining causation for everything else?

              Unless one is willing to either (a) believe things can come into existence uncaused or (b) there can be an infinite number of causes then one must believe in a first cause. God is not postulated “all-of-a-sudden”. His existence is logically deduced from the nature of being and causality.

            • First, because the notion of self-creation is incoherent

              So god is not self created? Who created him then? Infinite regression…

              “the universe (a) had a beginning, (b) is contingent, and/or (c) is not pure actuality.”

              I guess you have a hard time grasping the implications of quantum physics. There was no beginning of the Universe, there was an expansion from an unobservable quantum state of the proto universe to a state when this expansion created time and space. The universe expansion was uncaused, as was its previous timeless existence in a timeless state – the same state that an eternal god exists.
              Since the universe is uncaused you do not need an uncaused god.
              This adds a layer of unnecessary complexity as it proposes a timeless and dimensionless god with enough complexity to make the decision to create in a timeless state? Talk about contradiction.

            • lartanner

              Ultimately, we always get to a kind of “Who created God” type question, yet Christian apologists never tire of saying how unsophisticated the question is. We ask why god alone can be self-created and not the universe, and they scoff. To them, god alone is a metaphysical necessity, and that’s just the way it is.

            • lartanner

              But we might be able to agree that the universe began somewhere between t1 and t100, could we not? And if we can agree on that then the universe must have had a beginning even if we don’t know the precise moment it came into existence. The fact that we don’t know the precise nanosecond the universe came into being is an epistemological limit on our part.

              Yes, but what is our agreement based on? It’s based on our own imposition of demarcation. We’re measuring something related to our own epistemological capabilities, not something intrinsic to the universe or reality in-itself.

              And I think from the temporal angle, the CA doesn’t apply because it smuggles in causality along with the anthropic notion of beginning. It’s like, as I said, smuggling in maleness along with the notion of king. People are not in-themselves kings; human contrivance makes them so, and it so happens that maleness is part of what’s incorporated into kingness.

              So, the universe in-itself does not have a beginning. It therefore cannot by the CA be said to have a cause. I am here speaking from the temporal angle. The question of existence itself is the logical angle, and I think the infinite regress problem dogs it, whether one wants to imagine Being Itself or whatever.

              How far am I willing to take this thinking? Well, I don’t think what I’m saying is terribly original. I’m simply distinguishing between reality in-itself and our expressions or models of reality. If the thinking is valid and sound, I’m willing to take it as far as I can.

            • lartanner:

              Yes, but what is our agreement based on? It’s based on our own imposition of demarcation. We’re measuring something related to our own epistemological capabilities, not something intrinsic to the universe or reality in-itself.

              This is why I asked you whether you believe different kinds of things exist. If different kinds of things exist (like universes) then they are intrinsic to reality, are they not?

              And I think from the temporal angle, the CA doesn’t apply because it smuggles in causality along with the anthropic notion of beginning. It’s like, as I said, smuggling in maleness along with the notion of king. People are not in-themselves kings; human contrivance makes them so, and it so happens that maleness is part of what’s incorporated into kingness.

              I don’t find your king analogy convincing in denying the very real existence of a beginning for something. If we take it seriously it seems we would have to believe that this very comment I am writing does not have a beginning. But if it does not have a beginning and it is not eternal then how does it presently exist?

              So, the universe in-itself does not have a beginning.

              Earlier you wrote that the universe “was and is always transforming.” But then you went into how we can’t point to an exact nanosecond when the universe began. Do you believe the universe is eternal? If so, doesn’t that introduce an infinite regress problem? If not, then do you say the universe has an “origin” or a “start”? How is that different from a “beginning”?

              How far am I willing to take this thinking? Well, I don’t think what I’m saying is terribly original. I’m simply distinguishing between reality in-itself and our expressions or models of reality. If the thinking is valid and sound, I’m willing to take it as far as I can.

              I’m not claiming it’s original. But it seems that you would have to believe that historical events don’t have a beginning, that material objects don’t have a beginning, and so on. And I wonder how this would affect moral questions.

            • lartanner

              If different kinds of things exist (like universes) then they are intrinsic to reality, are they not?

              How can we know about reality apart from our cognition and epistemologies? How can I know whether Schrodinger’s cat is really dead or alive before I open the box?

              I don’t find your king analogy convincing in denying the very real existence of a beginning for something. If we take it seriously it seems we would have to believe that this very comment I am writing does not have a beginning. But if it does not have a beginning and it is not eternal then how does it presently exist?

              My earlier response just now answers this.

              Earlier you wrote that the universe “was and is always transforming.” But then you went into how we can’t point to an exact nanosecond when the universe began. Do you believe the universe is eternal? If so, doesn’t that introduce an infinite regress problem? If not, then do you say the universe has an “origin” or a “start”? How is that different from a “beginning”?

              I’m trying to avoid using anthropic terms and concepts. The point of the nanosecond exercise is to remind us that beginning is our concept, and that the universe has no obligation to our concepts and models.

              But it seems that you would have to believe that historical events don’t have a beginning

              The truth is, that it is not so easy to say when historical events begin or end. Did the Middle Ages in England end in 1485? According to some. Some people argue the Middle Ages really lasted through the 16th century or even longer.

              Let me ask you this: Does the earth have an equator? Does it have lines of latitude or longitude?

              And, in your response to Peter you talk about the incoherence of self-creation. Does that mean you believe self-creation is logically impossible? I ask because I recall some who define omnipotence as being able to do anything that isn’t logically impossible.

            • IgtheistMorgan

              Quentin Smith claims that each part of the Multiverse causes other parts to exist.no incoherence!
              [ Peter Adam] Angeles’ infinite regress argument notes, as do most physicists, that cause, event and time presuppose previous ones.
              Theists beg the question and special plead for Him not to have a cause or designer as William Sahakian does when he claims that we naturalists commit the fallacy of multiple questions to ask what caused Him? So, we don’t!
              The Aquinas- Shelley superfluity argument as Percy Bysshe Shelley notes:” To suppose that some existence above them, or beyond them [ the descriptions- laws- of Nature ,I.M.] is to invent a second and superfluous hypothesis to account for what already is accounted for.” Theists would beg the question of claiming that that is a metaphysical category mistake.
              ” Logic is the bane of theists.” Fr.Griggs
              Why, let’s refer to the Big Transformation instead of the Big Bang, lartanner.

            • Joe G

              If the universe didn’t have a beginning then it doesn’t have an age….

            • lartanner

              Correct. And if we assign a beginning, then we also assign an age.

            • Wrong,

              A Proto universe did exist with no observable time (10^-43 sec, one Planck time http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_time) and dimension (1.616199(97)×10−35 metres = planck length, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck_length ) – in an unobservable state.

              Time began when a quantum fluctuation (possible because of the uncertainty principle – please read and understand the article I linked to) expanded this universe into the observable realm, the after glow of this expansion still measurable as the CBR.

              The observable Universe clearly has – as it has expanded beyond Planck limitations of measurement – a history and an age.

              And again – since the creator you imply exists does live in a timeless state (being eternal meaning timeless, no beginning and no end) how can he even make the decision to create, as deciding anything means action, even if i is a mental action?

              That impossibility of a creator being timeless but being able to somehow still be active in that timeless state (action means movement, mental or otherwise within a timeframe) can only mean that the creator and his creation are timelessly coexistent, clearly not the case from the observable Universe.

              The other option is a creator at a state beyond observability – but the quantum theory does just fine to establish the possibility of uncaused creation by quantum fluctuation,

            • peter

              The universe in final regression vanishes behind the wall of Planck Dimension and Planck time. Time ceases to exist, and so does distance. Therefore we cannot say anything about this potential Universe. It is there but unobservable, and only upon expansion time and length begin to have meaning.

              The Universe does not have a cause, it always existed as a potentiality.

              I can again only link to this article:
              http://nirmukta.com/2012/05/13/understanding-natural-phenomena-3-quantum-mechanics/
              “Now consider an experiment in which an electron is more conveniently
              interpreted as behaving like a particle, rather than a wave. We can
              assign a position and a momentum (or velocity) to it. In a 1-dimensional
              situation, the position is, say, x, and the momentum is px. Let ∆x and ∆px
              be the errors or uncertainties in the measurement or specification of
              these quantities. In classical physics, it is possible for these errors
              or uncertainties to be arbitrarily small, even zero. Not so in quantum
              physics. There is this famous principle called the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, according to which the product ∆x.∆px cannot be less than a certain quantity of the order of the Planck constant, h. The principle says that ∆x.∆px ≥h/(4π). Of course, the Planck constant is a very very small quantity, but it is not zero.

              This principle implies that if ∆x is nearly zero, then ∆px is extremely large, and vice versa. And large ∆px means large uncertainty in kinetic energy (because momentum and kinetic energy are directly proportional to each other).

              There are several ‘conjugate’ pairs of quantities for which the Heisenberg uncertainty principle must be obeyed. Energy E and time t are another such pair, and the principle states that ∆E.∆t ≥h/(4π).
              This provides a very important loophole (!) in the principle of
              conservation of energy, because the uncertainty principle says that
              energy conservation can be violated by an amount ∆E, provided it occurs for a time less than ∆t.

              Back to the Big Bang event. This was a quantum event because the spatial dimension of the system was extremely small: ∆x ≈ 0.

              And this, in turn, means that ∆px, and therefore ∆E, could become arbitrarily large at the moment of the Big Bang. Our universe was born out of such a quantum fluctuation.”

              There simply is no need for a god to be the cause of anything. There is no causality in quantum physics.

              The concept of a god directing anything also falls apart when considering the Heisenberg uncertainty – how could a god exist in a quantum world where he could not even predict both the momentum and the energy of a particle, or cannot even control both energy and time of an event?

    • Dave Mabus

      what’s the harm of little idiots?
      ….
      skepticfriends.org/forum/topic.asp?TOPIC_ID=15587