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Reflections on the cosmological argument

July 8, 2014

This morning at the RZIM Summer School we heard a presentation by Vince Vitale on the Cosmological argument. He posed the question, which do you see as we observe the universe? A universe as Richard Dawkins sees: without design, nothing but pitiless indifference, or a universe as the Psalmist sees, ‘declaring the glory of God’ (Psalm 19)? 

Vince Vitale proposed four reasons cosmology pushes us to believe in God:

  1. The universe had a beginning
  2. The universe is comprehensible
  3. The universe is regular
  4. The universe is fine-tuned for life

I won’t go into too much detail on what was said as the presentation was a fairly standard defence of the cosmological argument. I wanted instead to spend a little time reflecting on Vitale’s presentation of the first of those four reasons, i.e. ‘the universe had a beginning’ and to respond to some criticisms of this argument that I’ve heard, namely it is a form of ‘god of the gaps’. 

Vitale proposed three options for positing why the universe is here now:

  1. God created the universe
  2. The universe popped into existence from nothing
  3. The universe has always existed (which isn’t really an explanation of why there is a universe at all).

Vitale demonstrated quite convincingly (to me) that through the concept of entropy that the third of these options is unviable i.e. because if the universe was infinite then we should already be at entropy, therefore because the universe still has usable energy that it must have had a beginning. Even Stephen Hawking acknowledges that the universe had a beginning.

Hence the question then revolves around the best explanation for the beginning of the universe. Vitale provided two options – that either the universe was created by God or that the universe popped into existence from nothing.

I wonder if these are really the only two options available? I know I’ve discussed this with some atheists who challenge the first option by suggesting that you have assumed God. They suggest that agnosticism may in fact be  the best conclusion. So I wonder if it might be better to rephrase the alternatives on the origin of the universe in a slightly different way:

  1. The universe began as the result of the work of a personal agent
  2. The universe did not begin as the result of the work of a personal agent.

I think this is tighter and better expresses the nature of the options. The universe MUST have begun with either of these options. Either the universe began through the will and work of an agent or not. I think this absolves the argument of relying on any form of a ‘gap’ to solve the argument because there can only by two answers to this question. It’s not, ‘I don’t know therefore God’, it seeks to say that something comes into existence via an agent or not.

The difficulty of the argument is that we can’t quite know the answer for certain. It seems far more reasonable to suggest that the universe was caused by an agent rather than the universe coming into existence without agency i.e. the universe popped into existence by itself. Vitale points this out and that the atheist must assert that nothing made the universe and this turned into dinosaurs.

This is where the kalam cosmological argument becomes helpful as it assumes that everything that comes into existence comes so with a cause (to dispute this would require some carefully articulated evidence). Hence the cosmological argument helps to point out that it seems reasonable to believe that the universe began with an agent (but it must be acknowledged that this can’t be proved).

Once establishing that it seems likely that the origins of the universe were the result of an agent, the question then follows, which agent? As Vitale pointed out in his lecture, the agent must be outside space and time, be powerful and creative – these are characteristics which we would normally associate with ‘God’. So I think the cosmological argument can be used as some form of evidence for the existence of God.

As I pointed out before, I don’t think that the cosmological argument is a form of ‘god of the gaps’, because it assumes that the best explanation for things coming into existence is through an agent. And he best ‘agent’ to explain the beginning of the universe is ‘God’.

Keen to hear some atheist reactions to this? Where have I gone wrong here? 

  1. These are arguments by analogy. They state that, for a primary or non-contingent cause to participate in subsequent causal relations or contingencies, it must be like those subsequent causes or contingencies, though it is not a subsequent cause or contingent object itself. From this likeness, the arguments then deduce other qualities as necessary precursors unique to the primary cause or non-contingent base. Such deductions are not valid. The qualities in question are, by definition, essentially unlike and independent of subsequent causes and contingencies. This is an epistemological problem which precedes all others. These are zombie arguments reanimated by Craig and his ilk for a popular market. They are a serious waste of everybody’s time and misleading for believers – not to be too harsh. 🙂

  2. “…So I think the cosmological argument can be used as some form of evidence for the existence of God…”
    Then you are mistaken, Rob. You’ve demonstrated neither evidence nor a rational argument here.
    I have to agree with keithnoback above, from an epistemology and classical philosophy viewpoint, and I would love to ask Keith for more background and/or sources about the contingency/non-contingency argument he mentions… 🙂
    But there are other and further considerations as well.

    One is concerned with the argument about a universe ‘coming from nothing’, regardless of whether a personal agent is involved. That is, the definition of ‘nothing’ and the contextual setting of it. ‘Nothing’ is a tough concept for our primitive, macroscopic minds to grasp. There are no examples of ‘nothing’ ever known – only imagined. As you know, Lawrence Krauss addresses the unstable nature of nothing in his book, and if you haven’t read that yet, then I strongly recommend you do, in order to get a better grasp on the ‘nothing’ that you imagine might have existed during or prior to the beginning. To a non-scientist the physics can be a bit heavy, so you can cut to the chase and go to the last few chapters only to help with this.
    Here’s the thing: Not only are there strong mathematical models of the behaviour of virtual quantum particles, there is a growing body of repeatable empirical experimental data confirming the soundness of those models.
    Keep up with current science, Rob. It will improve your arguments, regardless of which side of the faith fence you fall on.

    ” It seems far more reasonable to suggest that the universe was caused by an agent rather than the universe coming into existence without agency…”
    And this is now just an argument from incredulity. You haven’t given any reason for asserting personal agency, other than “it seems reasonable”, because you cannot imagine “that nothing made the universe and this turned into dinosaurs…”
    This is exactly the God of the gaps argument. With no evidence or logical argument whatsoever, you’ve filled in the answer to the question with God, because you cannot accept any other answer.

    “The difficulty of the argument is that we can’t quite know the answer for certain.”
    Here’s another thing. If there is no God, then this is true, in the same way that we can’t know whether unicorns are real or imaginary.
    If there is a God, and He wants us to know that He’s real, then there is a solution to this. He can reveal Himself. That would put a quick end to all the rumours.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Why “I don’t know” is not an extra option to explain the beginning of the universe | Atheist Forum

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