Amongst many arguments for the existence of God, the cosmological argument has been heralded even by some atheists as the most potent and convincing.
…but that’s not saying much.
The argument comes in a few varieties, all of them playing on the basic theme of the quandary of the existence of existence. All of the varieties are synonymous in that they argue that existence is, in some way, evidence for god; they only vary in the way they reason from premise to conclusion.
So today I’m defending the universe from those who want it under tyranny. The grandeur of existence will not be encroached upon by childish totalitarian wish-thinking — not while I’m still writing articles, anyway.
The refutations fall into three categories, as follows:
When these refutations are referenced, they will be coloured according to their category. Though the refutations will be introduced gradually where they are most appropriate, I will run through them again at the end in a more structured fashion.
The Balance & Results
The effectiveness of this argument at different points in a debate is a movement between two opposing goals. If either goal is met and stands unchallenged, that side of the debate will have won:
The goal of proponents is to demonstrate that something which could be a god is necessary to explain existence.
The goal of opponents is to demonstrate that such a thing is not necessary to explain existence.
The opponent does not have to demonstrate that such a thing is impossible, as the opponent does not have the burden of proof.
An important point to note is that this argument could not rationally lead to any theistic conclusions, and not even deistic conclusions are necessary. If the proponent succeeds, all it proves is that there is an unknown component which is necessary for creating the universe.
The opponent (me, in this case) could concede this argument entirely, and it wouldn’t demonstrate a god.
The unknown component could be just about anything. It could be the Christian or Muslim God, a non-personal deity, or a natural process which is as godless as everything else we have discovered with science. In fact, a natural explanation would be nearly (if not actually) infinitely more likely than a supernatural explanation, due to the extreme disparity in the frequency of each, not to mention the scientific tractability of only one of the two. We’ll refer to this as the natural probability problem.
If, however, the opponent succeeds, then the possibility of a god is far from disproved, it simply maintains its normal state of being an unfounded assertion, and therefore irrational to believe.
Ultimately, the debate will establish a likelihood either way. It’s possible for neither side to succeed, but for a probability to be the conclusion of the debate. A minor flaw with a proponent’s argument could result in it changing from necessary to probable, which would technically be a failure, but neither would it be a compelling success for the opponent.
Briefly before beginning, I’ll explain what a syllogism is and how I will use them in this article. Skip this section if you understand syllogisms.
A syllogism is a kind of logical argument that applies deductive reasoning to arrive at a conclusion based on two or more propositions that are asserted or assumed to be true.
A syllogism consists of three parts, usually referred to as the major premise, minor premise, and conclusion. For brevity, in this article I will refer to these parts as premise, predicate, and conclusion respectively.
An example syllogism for reference:
All humans are mortal [premise]
You are human [predicate]
Therefore, you are mortal [conclusion]
If the premise or predicate of the syllogism can be reasonably doubted, then the conclusion can be doubted to an equal degree.
In this article, I will use syllogisms to explain the logical form of the various cosmological arguments.
Variants of the Argument
This is the basic blueprint from which the other forms of the argument inherit. In its most basic form, the cosmological argument is as follows:
Everything that exists was caused [premise]
The universe exists [predicate]
Therefore, the universe was caused [conclusion]
It is subsequently posited that this cause is a god.
This form of the argument deals with fundamental causality (as we know it). It is based on the seemingly-universal notion that an effect must have been caused, and posits that due to this necessary relationship, there must have been a cause of the universe.
This argument is either self-contradictory or fallacious. It relies on the notion that everything that exists must be caused, then states that God exists but is not caused. Either this is a contradiction, or God is being arbitrarily exempted, which is a Special Pleading Fallacy.
This problem is also sometimes rephrased as the Infinite Regress Problem, which is often expressed as “what caused god?”. If the premise of the argument is correct, then it also applies to the God it attempts to prove, resulting in a creator for that god, and a creator for that god, and so on ad infinitum.
The appropriate response to the special pleading fallacy inherent in this argument is “if god can be un-caused, why can’t the universe?”. This equalises the two components in causal responsibility, thus removing any need for a creator god. I would refer to this as the Unwarranted Substitution Problem.
Another refutation which I haven’t heard often is what I call Normative Causal Assumption. The premise of the argument is based on an assumption that causality works exactly as it appears in every conceivable situation, which is a normative assumption. This can also be referred to as inductive reasoning, concluding for specific cases based on general principles. General relativity states that time began when the universe did, and it should be obvious that without a passage of time, causality as we know it is impossible. Of course, some alternative form of causality could exist, but this uncertainty negates the use of causality as an argument for the necessity of god. It may also be revealed that general relativity is wrong in this case, as it is on the quantum scale, and so there is uncertainty on both sides.
The history of this argument is varied, and has been developed by many theologians, both derivatively and atomically. The earliest credited is Aristotle, and the most popular advocate today is William Lane Craig. This is probably the strongest of the variants.
Whatever begins to exist has a cause [premise]
The universe began to exist [predicate]
Therefore, the universe had a cause [conclusion]
The difference between this and the core argument is subtle. It attempts to evade the problems present in the core argument by justifying the special pleading (making God an exception to the premise), by stating that only those things which begin to exist are subject to the argument. This qualifier excludes most concepts of God, but also a practically infinite number of other conceivable explanations, which are also necessarily argued for, alongside God.
This does not evade the normative causal assumption (the assumption that causality works the same in every conceivable situation), as it’s very possible that causality either doesn’t exist or functions differently outside of our universe from how it does inside.
If you feel that the refutation “a general rule cannot always be applied to a specific case” against the normative causal assumption is weak, then you might be interested to know that the argument itself has the same weakness: There is no evidence that anything exists which did not begin to exist: a specific case which is contrary to the general rule. This is a massive assumption which itself flies in the face of normal causality. To attack the logic of the normative causal assumption refutation would also be to attack this variant of the cosmological argument itself.
This argument also suffers, though in a slightly different way, from the unwarranted substitution problem, in which a god is posited for a role that could be just as easily performed by a natural component, like the universe. In this case, if we grant that the universe had a beginning, then there’s no problem from the universe itself, but the universe we know and inhabit might very well not comprise the entirety of natural existence (as opposed to supernatural existence, if that exists). If indeed there is more to existence than the universe we know, then natural existence may well be past-eternal, as god is posited to be, and this argument would therefore be just as readily applicable to natural existence. This is also a manifestation of the natural probability problem, as a natural explanation is far more likely than a supernatural one.
It is not certain that the universe began to exist. As much as this sounds outrageous in the light of modern science, I believe it’s worth mentioning. Nothing prior to the Big Bang is knowable, therefore it’s possible that events were transpiring before it which were still technically within the universe. To state that there were no such events would be another assumption, though I would concede, a safe assumption. For clarity, let’s refer to this as the absolute commencement assumption.
Modern Quantum theory would seem to disprove the premise of this argument. Quantum particles constantly appear and disappear without apparent cause, and their actions often seem completely random. Though it would be impossible to prove that quantum particles behave absolutely randomly and/or without cause, it can’t be said that they are acting within standard causality either. Modern hypotheses (and evidenced understandings) of the Big Bang do involve such quantum interactions, and so it may very well be that the universe did come about without a cause. Certainly, this all throws doubt on the idea that a cause of the universe is necessary, at least as we understand causality. Let’s call this the quantum strangeness effect.
In conclusion, the Kalām Cosmological argument is an appeal to normality. It makes many assumptions, and there are even good reasons to believe those assumptions are actually false. Any potency it possesses as an argument is based purely in the credulity and myopia of the target, as all it takes is an expansion or adjustment of one’s perspective of reality to assuage it. Critical thinking and education are, as usual, potent forces against religious reasoning.
Crilliam Wane Laig
This variant of the argument seems to have been developed by Aquinas, following the work of Aristotle.
Even if the Universe has always existed, it still owes its existence to an Uncaused Cause, Aquinas further said: “…and this we understand to be God.”
In syllogism form:
It’s possible that the universe may not have existed [premise]
The universe does exist [predicate]
Therefore the universe is contingent upon something else existing [conclusion]
Again, this something else is proposed to be a god.
The premise is a big assumption. Perhaps the universe exists necessarily? Similarly to the problem with the core argument, there’s an implicit contradiction or fallacy in arbitrarily exempting god from the rule that is your premise: if god can be necessarily existent, why can’t the universe? This is the unwarranted substitution problem.
This variant of the argument contains all the same weaknesses as the core argument, but just presents it differently.
“Nihilo ex Nihilo“, or “nothing from nothing” is the argument that with nothing to cause or comprise the universe, the universe would not exist.
In syllogism form:
Nothing begets nothing [premise]
The universe exists [predicate]
Therefore, there must have been something to cause and comprise the universe [conclusion]
Prove there was ever nothing. The idea that at some point nothing existed is an assumption, and not at all a safe one. This kind of ‘absolute nothingness’ may exist in concept; it is the answer to “what do rocks dream about?”, but that doesn’t mean that there was ever a time when absolutely nothing existed, especially since time itself would have to exist to even recognise that state. How can total non-existence be measured? Let’s call this the absolute vacancy assumption.
Arguing for a god using the laws of thermodynamics is profoundly self-defeating, as god defies all such laws, unless you apply special pleading, and claim that god is an exception. However, any application of such an exemption can almost certainly also be applied to the universe (or to whatever process drove it during its opening moments), the only case where the exemption seems to work is the Kalām variant, and I’ve already refuted that. This is therefore another instance of the unwarranted substitution problem.
There have been fascinating suggestions in recent years that the universe may actually have a total energy of 0. This would mean that its existence is not a breach of the First Law of Thermodynamics. All that’s required for this to work is abundant negative energy, in equal quantities with positive energy (matter); since gravity is this negative energy, this hypothesis seems very plausible, not to mention substantiated. Let’s call this the quantum equilibrium effect.
For the question of what process or event brought existence into existence, we can turn to quantum mechanics again. Quantum particles can come into existence and leave it without apparent cause, only remaining under certain conditions. This is the quantum strangeness effect mentioned earlier.
With regards to Quantum Mechanics, I don’t claim to understand it at any more than at a novice level, but unless you’re a particle physicist, don’t assume you understand it either:
If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.
Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.
If you can find any real science which discredits the quantum mechanics related refutations I’ve posted here, do let me know.
This argument seems to have originated with Plato, and has been adopted by many theologians since.
[…] All movement in the world and the Cosmos was “imparted motion”. This required a “self-originated motion” to set it in motion and to maintain it.
It focuses on material physics, and on the well-established first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy (expressed in this case as movement) cannot be created or destroyed. The argument therefore posits that a god started all the movement in the universe.
In syllogism form:
Energy (movement) cannot be created or destroyed [premise]
There is energy (movement) in the universe [predicate]
Therefore something outside the laws of physics must have imparted that energy [conclusion]
This variant is very similar to Nihilo ex Nihilo.
This variant, like many before it, fails on the unwarranted substitution problem. It makes the assumption that natural existence cannot possibly be responsible for starting all movement, but that supernatural existence can be. Neither of those claims are justified, (and the latter form of existence hasn’t even been evidenced), so it’s a special pleading fallacy.
As mentioned in the quantum strangeness effect and the quantum equilibrium effect, quantum particles can come into existence without apparent cause, and can remain existent as long as conditions are right. This explains the fundamental origins of matter, thus energy, thus movement.
Although the fine-tuning argument deals with the subject matter of existence and cosmology, the logical form categorises it not as the cosmological argument, but as the teleological argument. It argues from the implication of design seen in existence, specifically the universal physical constants, and focuses on the presence of highly complex cosmic and biological forms.
It is more difficult to refute than variants of the teleological argument focused solely on the existence of life (because evolution), but is regardless not difficult to refute. I may write an article which deals with the argument more formally in the future.
Here are presented all the refutations, as a sort of glossary, in order of appearance in the article. I have included an indicator of the strength of each refutation, as a value from 1 to 5 in square brackets.
The refutations are again colour coded according to category: Philosophical, Logical, or Scientific.
- Natural Probability Problem : A naturalistic explanation is always more probable than a supernatural explanation.
- Infinite Regress Problem : If the universe requires a creator, why doesn’t God? If God has a creator, who created that creator? etc.
- Unwarranted Substitution Problem : If God can be un-caused (or past-eternal), then why can’t the universe (or natural existence)?
- Normative Causal Assumption : The assumption that causality works exactly as we know it in every conceivable situation.
- Absolute Commencement Assumption : The assumption that the apparent beginning of the universe was an absolute beginning.
- Quantum Strangeness Effect : The reality that quantum particles can appear and disappear without apparent cause.
- Absolute Vacancy Assumption : The assumption that absolute non-existence is possible, or has happened/existed.
- Quantum Equilibrium Effect : The at-least-partially-substantiated hypothesis that the total energy of the universe is zero.
If you can think of any I’ve missed, or have found a problem with any presented, I welcome your comment.