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:
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
- The Universe began to exist;
- 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:
- Temporal causes and beginnings.
- 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.