Two Problems for the Cosmological Argument

The cosmological argument for the existence of God starts from the assumption that whatever exists contingently requires an explanation. Given the further assumptions that the world around us exists contingently and that infinite regresses of explanation are ruled out, we get the conclusion that there must exist a necessary being – and “this all men call God,” as Aquinas blithely notes.

Actually Aquinas knows perfectly well that the argument isn’t finished at that point, and goes on to argue that a necessary being would have to have the traditional attributes of God – uniqueness, goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, etc. But those arguments, whatever their merits, aren’t my current concern. Nor shall I consider the assumption that the world around us is contingent, though that assumption is open to challenge as well. My present beef is with the initial assumption that whatever exists contingently requires an explanation.

I have two objections. Here’s the first. Suppose X is a contingent being. In that case, X’s existence is supposed to require an explanation. But why? Presumably because if something is the case which might not have been the case, we need an explanation for why it’s the case rather than otherwise. But then it seems to follow that if X did not exist, its nonexistence, being likewise contingent rather than necessary, would likewise require an explanation.

marbles At this point the demand for an explanation of why X exists begins to look puzzling. Since X is a contingent being, X’s existence is somehow supposed to be metaphysically surprising and to require explanation. But now it turns out that X’s nonexistence would also be metaphysically surprising. But X’s existence and X’s nonexistence are the only logically possible options; how can they both be surprising?

Suppose I reach into an urn containing 10,000 marbles, and I randomly pull one out. Then I reflect: “The odds of my getting this marble were one in 10,000! How amazing! What explains this extraordinary event?” This would be a confusion. By reaching into the urn I guaranteed that I would get one or another of those 10,000 marbles; if there’s nothing special about this marble that the other marbles lack, then there’s nothing to be surprised about – since whatever marble I got was guaranteed to be one in 10,000. By the same logic, if X’s existence and X’s nonexistence are both contingent, and yet those are the only two possible options, then it’s guaranteed that some non-necessary state of affairs will be the case. If that’s so, then there’s nothing metaphysically surprising about it – so why must it require an explanation?

So my first objection is that we don’t need an explanation for every contingent being. My second objection goes farther: that there couldn’t be an explanation for every contingent being.

dominoes Why not? Well, granting that every explanatory chain must be finite, consider the causal origin Y in which the explanation of contingent being X terminates. Y is ex hypothesi a necessary being. But what about Y’s causing X? Is that necessary or contingent? If it’s contingent – that is, if Y could have existed without causing X – then we still have an unexplained contingent being (and the fact that Y’s own existence is necessary doesn’t help).

On the other hand, if Y’s causing X is necessary, then since Y’s existence is necessary too, it follows that X’s existence is likewise necessary – in which case we haven’t explained the existence of a contingent being at all, since X turns out to be a necessary being rather than a contingent one.

It follows that if there are any contingent beings at all, then necessarily some of them have no explanation for their existence. In which case the cosmological argument can’t get off the ground.

For example, if Y is supposed to be God, then the question is whether the act of will whereby God creates X is necessary or contingent. If it’s necessary, then so is X, belying the original premise of X’s contingency. And if instead God’s act of will is contingent, then we still have an unexplained contingency – now it’s just the act of will leading to X rather than X itself.

Unless, of course, one wishes to say that something can explain X without being sufficient for X. Now in fact I have no problem with saying that. But once one has said that, then one has granted that explanation can be contingent, in which case the whole rationale for chains of explanation terminating in something necessary has been given up.

12 Responses to Two Problems for the Cosmological Argument

  1. JOR October 27, 2007 at 10:32 pm #

    I’m wondering if arguing that there is, in fact, no contingency is really what theists are trying to do, or are committed to doing, with the cosmological argument all along.

  2. Administrator October 28, 2007 at 12:11 am #

    They may be committed to doing it but I don’t think they’re trying to do it — since most theists, at least in the JCM [Jewish/Christian/Muslim] traditions, believe that God has a free choice about whether to create the world and what to put in it. (The view, popular with Neoplatonists and some versions of Hinduism, that the world is a necessary expression of God’s nature is called emanationism and most theists in the JCM traditions reject it as heretical.)

  3. Kevin October 28, 2007 at 11:20 am #

    Hullo Master!

    Interesting post. Some replies are in order:

    A lot of modern defenders of the cosmological argument recognize that the traditional PSR has problems. Peter van Inwagen acknowledges your second point about the PSR in his Metaphysics book. If God is a necessary being and is the wholly sufficient explanation of everything, it looks like everything happens necessarily.

    If we suppose that God has libertarian freedom, however, His actions are contingent. If so, then we have at least one case where the PSR fails.

    In response to this, defenders of the PSR have developed other principles. Alexander Pruss at Georgetown is perhaps the person to consult about the PSR. He has a recent book here: Alexander R. Pruss, The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment, Cambridge University Press, 2006

    Here’s a summary of his reformulation of the PSR: http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/ap85/papers/RPSR.html

    Here is the RPSR (Restricted PSR):

    (RPSR) If p is a true proposition and possibly p has an explanation, then p actually has an explanation.

    Now, I *think* this principle can accommodate your second concern.

    For we can argue that God has libertarian freedom and that His acts require no explanation, and therefore do not fall under the RPSR.

    The reply to this is obvious, however: If God’s acts are contingent yet require no explanation, then why can’t the existence of the universe have similar properties?

    I don’t have a satisfactory reply to this, but here is an attempt:

    This same problem arises with the old cosmological argument in a different way – why not think that if God can be necessary that the universe can’t be necessary instead? Aren’t you just placing the necessity where you like to get the conclusion you desire? In the same way, it might be said that we place the contingency-in-need-of-explanation where we like to get the conclusion we desire.

    The response in the first case is that conceivability is a guide to modal knowledge. The universe is material, and it therefore seems by definition to be contingent (say, because it is conceivably divisible or corruptable). In our case, one might argue that we typically don’t expect for libertarian free acts to have full explanations (we can conceive of them without full explanations), but we expect that physical events do. But that may not satisfy, and I recognize that.

    I must say I don’t understand the force of the first concern. We find that p is contingent, and would be surprised *if it had no explanation* and then when we learn that p has an explanation, we realize that we would be surprised if p had failed to exist. We’re surprised at p’s existence in one epistemic situation, and we would be surprised that p might have turned out not to exist in another epistemic situation. What’s the problem?

    You may be alluding to something modal here, however. If p is contingent, then it’s existence is surprising. But if p has a fully sufficient explanation (as the PSR requires), then p’s existence is no longer surprising because p’s existence is necessary given the cause of p. But that seems odd. P’s existence can’t be *both* contingent and necessary.

    I think the thing to do is to deny that if p has an explanation that that explanation makes p’s existence necessary. In other words, p can require explanation because it’s contingent, and yet still be contingent despite the fact that it’s been explained. In this way, we can find it surprising *that p would exist without explanation* and find it surprising that *given the explanation of p that p would not have come to exist*.

  4. Administrator October 28, 2007 at 1:06 pm #

    Hi Kevin!

    (RPSR) If p is a true proposition and possibly p has an explanation, then p actually has an explanation.

    That weaker version seems to avoid the second problem I raised for the stronger version, but a) it seems less intuitively appealing than the stronger version, b) it doesn’t seem to avoid the first of the two problems, and c) it doesn’t seem especially useful to the cosmological argument.

    The universe is material, and it therefore seems by definition to be contingent (say, because it is conceivably divisible or corruptable).

    I don’t see how divisibility makes matter contingent. It may make particular material complexes contingent, but how does it make matter itself contingent? Any material complex is divisible either finitely or infinitely. If it’s only finitely divisible, then we end up with material atoms that are not divisible. If it’s infinitely divisible, then we never finish dividing it. Either way, we’re left with some matter. (As for corruptibility, if you mean that in the Aristotelean sense, corruption presupposes that matter survives the process. And if you mean corruptibility in some other sense, what is it?)

    We’re surprised at p’s existence in one epistemic situation, and we would be surprised that p might have turned out not to exist in another epistemic situation. What’s the problem?

    If we initially find something surprising, but then discover that the only possible alternative to it would have been equally surprising, then we (should) realise that we were mistaken to find it surprising — just as in the marble case. Do you agree with me about the marble case? If so, how do you regard the present case as different?

    I think the thing to do is to deny that if p has an explanation that that explanation makes p’s existence necessary.

    Fine, but then the cosmological argument will no longer eventuate in a necessary being, right?

  5. Kevin October 29, 2007 at 12:20 pm #

    Master,

    I’ll admit that a) the RPSR is less appealing. However, there are lots of reformulated principles. It might be fun to go through them, but (assuming you’re up for it), it will have to wait until after my exams. (To be completed, Necessary Being willing, in early January ’08.)

    I’ll get to b) below, and I think Pruss’ paper linked gives a pretty good explanation as to why the existence of at least one necessary being follows from it.

    As for the universe’s contingency, I suppose I was ignoring the possibility of an atomless gunk world. I thought that no particular material being could be necessary because it is either divisible or corruptible. But I think you’re suggesting that even if matter is infinitely divisible, we might be in a gunk world, and so the sum of all the gunk might be necessary. I guess I just don’t think we’re in a gunk world. But even if we are, it seems possible that there could be less gunk than there is now, and thus possible that there be no gunk at all. In that case, materiality is still contingent.

    As The Praxeologist says:

    We (should) realise that we were mistaken to find it surprising — just as in the marble case.

    Really? I guess this ‘surprising’ stuff is ambiguous between a metaphysical read and an epistemic one. I thought you meant that it would be epistemically surprising, in which case we needn’t think that we were *wrong* to have originally found something surprising which on further examination turned out not to be so surprising. But I guess you mean metaphysically surprising. And I’m not sure what that means, to be honest. If you mean contingent, then I think we’ve already covered that. But if you mean something else, please enlighten me.

    I think the thing to do is to deny that if p has an explanation that that explanation makes p’s existence necessary.

    Fine, but then the cosmological argument will no longer eventuate in a necessary being, right?

    I don’t think so. So long as you think every contingent event that possibly has an explanation has one, then you can get to a necessary being – because you’ll still need an explanation of an infinite series of contingent beings causing contingent beings. Or, you could still deny that an actual infinity is possible on this view. But perhaps I’m missing something.

  6. Alexander R Pruss November 13, 2007 at 12:57 pm #

    I don’t see why there is a link between something calling for an explanation and its being surprising. That it is wrong to murder blue-eyed people is not surprising. But it calls for an explanation (and an explanation is easy to find: it is wrong to murder people regardless of their eye-color). Philosophy is born in wonder. One of our tasks as philosophers is to arouse this wonder, to show that things not surprising are nonetheless puzzling, that they call out for explanation.

  7. Alexander R Pruss November 13, 2007 at 12:59 pm #

    Correction: There is a one-way link. If something is surprising, it clearly calls for an explanation. But so do some, perhaps all, unsurprising facts.

  8. smally lerned December 11, 2007 at 2:09 pm #

    Why does the Cosmological Argument have to go so far as to conclude a Necessary Being necessarily causing the universe. Why not just a Necessary Causing of the universe. In termrs of the chain, we need no Y, just X’s being caused necessarily (with no explanation).

    Does that make sense?

  9. smally lerned December 11, 2007 at 2:23 pm #

    Or, with less gibberish, why not conclude that the universe is necessary? I guess in lite of the comments on the fallaciousness of the Ontological argument, that couldn’t work either.

  10. John T. Kennedy February 27, 2008 at 9:18 pm #

    Why are infinite regresses of explanation ruled out?

  11. Aleena Raza November 18, 2016 at 12:39 pm #

    Okay could you please simplyfiy this as I need this my RE exam ?Tah

  12. Kairos June 14, 2020 at 4:47 am #

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    thespiritualworld-petertan.pdf

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