Essay – the cosmological argument

An example essay of A-grade standard.


The Cosmological argument is an argument put forward by the Christian Philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) in an attempt to prove God’s existence. However, it is important to take into account that Aquinas already had a strong belief in God when putting this theory forward in his Summa Theologiae, meaning that instead of trying to prove God’s existence, he was more trying to solidify his already established faith based on reason through looking at the cause of the Universe which Aquinas claims must be God.

In Summa Theolgiae, Aquinas attempts to logically prove God’s existence in his “Five Ways” though the first three are the ones which are predominantly cited when referring to the argument. The first of these five ways make similar points based on the idea that infinite regression is not possible; there must have been one thing that started off everything that happened. Aquinas argues that this must be God. The first way is an argument for an “Unmoved Mover”. Here, Aquinas claims that everything in the world is in a constant state of change or “motion”. He goes on to argue that something cannot be both potentially and actually the same thing; a cup of boiling tea could not be both hot and potentially hot, though it could be potentially cold and actually hot. By this logic, everything which is ‘in a state of movement’ must have been put into this state by a different object. Because of Aquinas’ rejection of the possibility of infinite regression, this means that there must have been a “first mover” who is “put into motion by no other”. This is, by Aquinas’ logic.

The second way makes a very similar point and is an argument for an “Uncaused Cause”. Aquinas starts off by stating that nothing can be an efficient cause of itself; everything is caused by something else. The efficient causes of a thing follow in order meaning that there was a first cause which caused a second cause and so on and so forth. Once again, because Aquinas rejects the possibility of infinite regression, this means that “it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause to which everyone gives the name of God”. Both of these two ways are heavily influenced by Aristotle’s idea of a prime mover. However, Aquinas does not mean to argue that God is merely the being that started off the chain of events which lead to cause the universe and everything in it. He is rather claiming that he must still exist; Coppleston used the example of winding up a pocket watch every night rather than knocking over the first domino in a chain.

These two ways leave Aquinas’ argument open for several criticisms, as well as showing some strength. One such strength is the way in which it is a satisfying argument for Humans to understand. It is true that, by human, a posteriori logic, things must indeed have a cause which exists outside its own essence or self. We as humans were caused by our parents and the universe was caused by the big bang. However, if the big bang required matter to take place, then that matter, logically, had to have been caused by something and put into the correct environment for the event to take place. Aquinas argues that this causer must have been God.

However, it is possible to severely weaken Aquinas’ argument if you argue that it is in fact possible to have an infinite chain of regression. Seeing as the argument is hinged upon the assumption that this is impossible, disregarding this assumption therefore dramatically reduces the strength of the argument. The philosopher David Hume questioned the very notion of cause and effect. He argued that we make assumptions about the relationship between Cause and Effect which are by no means necessarily true. While it is true that, according to human logic, infinite regression does not seem logical, in mathematics, it is possible to have an infinite series of regression; numbers can keep increasing or decreasing in size infinitely, thereby proving that infinite regression is entirely possible. Using a posteriori knowledge, it may seem apparent that every effect has a cause. However, if you use a priori knowledge, you could easily reason that, not everything which exists has a cause. It is impossible to claim that this is analytically true. Hume would argue that the universe is just a “brute fact”; it just is and has no cause. This completely undermines Aquinas’ first two ways. The Fallacy of Composition is another weakness of Aquinas’ first two ways which David Hume outlines and uses to weaken the Cosmological Argument. While it may indeed be true that everything in the universe does have a cause, it does not necessarily mean that the universe itself has a cause; the fact that everything which humans can observe can be explained by a precedent cause, this doesn’t mean that the universe can be explained in the same way. The atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell agrees with this point and claims that while all humans have mothers, “Obviously, the human race hasn’t a mother, that’s a different logical sphere” in his book Why I Am Not a Christian.

However, Aquinas’ argument can be re-strengthened through Anscombe’s criticism of Hume’s criticism in “Whatever Has a Beginning of Existence Must Have a Cause”: Hume’s Argument Exposed. In this work, Anscombe argues that while it possible to imagine something coming into existence without a cause, this does not mean that it is “possible to suppose ‘without contradiction of absurdity'” that this is the case. For example, though it may be possible to imagine a magician pulling a rabbit out of a magician’s hat without having a cause of its existence, this does not mean that it is logical to think that it is possible. By this logic, while it is possible imagining the universe coming into existence without a cause, that does not mean that it is logical or reasonable to think so.

Aquinas goes on to attempt to further strengthen his Cosmological Argument in his Third Way: The Argument from Contingency. In this way, Aquinas argues that all things which exist in nature are contingent; they did not exist, in the future will cease to exist and, as well as this, it is possible for them never to have come into existence. Aquinas believed that, using this logic, the fact that everything used to not exist must mean that there was a time when nothing at all existed because there would be nothing to bring anything else into existence. Therefore, “there must exist something the existence of which is necessary”. Aquinas goes on to state that, because he believes infinite regression to be impossible, there must be “some being having of itself its own necessity … causing in others their necessity” which he argues is God. In other words, seeing as how there was once a time when nothing contingent existed, there must have been a non-contingent, necessary being which is necessary in itself to cause the existence of contingent things.

This third way could be argued to be either strong or weak. One strength which the argument holds is that, as with the first two ways, this argument appeals strongly to human reason and logic, leading it to be widely accepted by empiricists. In accordance with human logic, things in existence are indeed caused by other things; we are made by our parents, mountains are made by tectonic plate movement etc. Aquinas draws on this logic when putting forward his third way, meaning that it is a fairly satisfying argument.

However, there are also several strengths which are pointed out by philosophers including Immanuel Kant and JL Mackie. Kant’s criticism lies in his rejection of the concept of necessary existence. He entirely rejects the idea of the existence of a subject being necessary; existence could not possibly be a defining predicate of a sunject as it adds nothing to the definition of the subject. In other words, nothing can be necessary. However, this criticism could be weakened by arguing that Kant is just rehashing his criticism of the Ontological differences despite the obvious differences in the Ontological and Cosmological Arguments (Ontological Argument is a priori, Cosmological argument is a posteriori). Another weakness of the Cosmological Argument is put forward by JL Mackie in his The Miracle of Theism. Mackie accepts the logic behind Aquinas’ third way up until the point when he claims that the cause of all contingent objects must be a necessary being. While Aquinas argues that all contingent things whose essence does not include existence must rely on a necessary being to exist, Mackie retorts by claiming that this is not necessarily true; contingent beings could be argued, by Aquinas’ logic, to have been ultimately caused by some necessary stock of matter which has always existed and always will. This severely undermines Aquinas’ third way by proving that Aquinas’ logic has not actually managed to prove the necessity of a Christian God, but rather just some necessary thing – a being, beings or otherwise.

b) Explain and Evaluate the view that The Cosmological Argument is a Weak Argument for Proving God’s Existence

The Cosmological Argument for proving God’s existence has a number of clear strengths and weaknesses. Personally, however, I would argue that the argument’s criticisms outweigh its strengths, thereby making it a weak argument for proving God’s existence. One clear strength of the argument is its appeal to human logic and reason. As an a posteriori argument which is based on human experience, it satisfies human assumptions. It is illogical to humans to think of an infinite chain of regression in regards to anything, let alone to creation of the universe. However, this strength does not necessarily add to the argument’s ability to prove the existence of God, but more to the accessibility of the argument to a wide range of people.

Conversely, perhaps the most severe and damaging criticism of this argument is the idea that an infinite chain of regression is in fact possible. When writing Summa Theologiae and outlining his Cosmological Argument, Aquinas makes the assumption that it is impossible to have an infinite chain of aggression; there must be an “uncaused causer” or “unmoved mover”. However, retrospectively, this assumption is by no means necessarily true. In terms of mathematics, infinite regress is entirely possible as it is always possible to increase or decrease a number. Therefore, it is definitely possible to infinitely regress. This hugely takes away from the strength of the argument as it is upon this assumption which Aquinas bases his entire premise.

On the other hand, a clear strength of the argument is outlined by Copleston in his radio debate with Russell in 1948, and that is that the argument does offer a sound reason as to why anything exists through developing on Aquinas’ Argument from Contingency. In this debate, Copleston claims that the universe is, in itself, not a physical thing, it is instead the aggregate (or sum of)          all the objects which it contains. He goes on to argue that all the things which make up the universe are contingent and, as a result, do not contain their own reason for existence. Therefore, seeing as the universe is the aggregate of these contingent parts, the universe itself must also be contingent and therefore have a cause outside of itself; Copleston argues (and Aquinas would agree) that the only feasible cause of the universe is God. While this is an obvious strength, the degree to which it strengthens the argument could be brought into existence because, once again, it relies on the assumption that an infinite regression is not possible which, if untrue, would completely unbalance the entire argument. Contrary to this, there is another very obvious weakness to the argument which contradicts this idea of God being the only feasible explanation for the creation of the contingent argument, and that is that, while Aquinas’ logic in building up to this conclusion is sound, his reasoning does nothing to prove that it is the omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipresent, omnipotent God of Christianity which initially caused the creation of the Universe. This argument is put forward by JL Mackie. He argues that, assuming that Aquinas is right in claiming there cannot be infinite regression, and assuming that the existence of everything contingent relies on the existence of some necessary thing, there is no proof that the initial cause of the universe is a necessary being. He claims that, by Aquinas’ logic, the cause could be a “permanent stock of matter whose essence did not involve existence from anything else”. Equally, the creator of the universe could well be a necessary being, but not the Christian God; it could be Allah, or even the multiple Gods of Hinduism. This again is a strong criticism of Aquinas’ argument as it shows that, even if his logic in reaching his conclusion is accurate, his conclusion lacks evidence and therefore, does not prove the existence of a Christian God.

Yet another obvious weakness of the Cosmological argument was highlighted by Russell in the aforementioned radio debate with Copleston and is supported by David Hume. While, according to human reason, all effects have a cause (a headache may be caused by banging your head, or you may put on weight from eating a lot of fatty foods), it is wrong, Russell and Hume would argue, to assume that this is true in the case of the universe as it is “a different logical sphere”. Russell used the example of humans; while all humans have mothers, “Obviously, the human race doesn’t have a mother”. Therefore, not only is there the possibility of infinite regress when looking at the cause of the universe, but there is also the possibility that the universe is “just a brute fact” which “just is” and needs no further explanation; in laymen’s terms, it has always existed. Again, this is a clearly thought out criticism of the Cosmological Argument which takes away from its strength.

Overall, therefore, it is clear that, while not without its strengths, the Cosmological Argument is a weak argument for proving God’s existence as it lacks in both the proof given for the conclusion that the Christian God is the cause of the universe and in the logic behind the concept that the universe must have had a cause at all.








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