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Cosmological Argument

Does the Universe Require a First Cause?


The Cosmological Argument takes different forms, but the most common deal with two ideas: God is required as an explanation for the existence of the universe (First Cause — also called the Etiological Argument) or for the order in the universe. This is not an exhaustive critique of the arguments, just a summary of major problems.

First Cause

Aristotle described an early First Cause argument:

    Our present position, then, is this: We have argued that there always was motion and always will be motion throughout all time, and we have explained what is the first principle of this eternal motion: we have explained further which is the primary motion and which is the only motion that can be eternal: and we have pronounced the first movement [or: “Prime Mover”] to be unmoved.
    - Aristotle, Physics, Book VIII, chapter 9

Aristotle’s “Prime Mover” is an important premise behind cosmological arguments for the existence of a god. His basic idea was that everything that happens is caused by something else. For example, if a patch of ice causes you to slip and fall, what caused the ice to form? Obviously a combination of excessive moisture in the air and cold temperatures — but what caused the humidity? What caused the temperature drop?

The questions can go on and on — everything that causes something is in turn caused by something else. We can trace this chain of causes back as far as we want, but Aristotle thought that eventually we reach a first cause that just was — causing but itself uncaused. This is Aristotle’s “Prime Mover.”

Aristotle began his arguments with the attempt to show that the ideas of Parmenides and Zeno were circular. Those two argued from the premise that whatever is simply is — but Aristotle regarded this as a tautology because it ignores the fact that there are many different types of being and existence. We will return to this shortly.

The most common type of the cosmological argument, postulating a god as a “First Cause,” can be summarized thus:

  1. Everything that exists or begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe exists and began to exist.
  3. The universe must have a cause.
  4. The cause of the universe is God.

It has been objected that the universe might be eternal, thus eliminating the need for a cause. Yet few people today still regard the universe as eternal because they have accepted the Big Bang Theory, so this objection has fallen out of favor.

It is worth pointing out that time is an aspect of the universe — without the universe, there is no time. Thus, it is possible to say that the universe has existed at every point in time and that at no point in time has there been no universe. That is just about as close to “eternal” as we’re going to get. Because time is an aspect of the universe, it‘s hard to see how it can be said to have a “beginning” in the way the word is normally used. The concept of a “beginning” normally assumes a “time before” at which the object did not exist — but there was no “time before” the universe. Without a time before, the notion of "cause" no longer applies.

Another objection is that the argument concludes that a “god” exists, but if so, this god must have a cause (according to the same argument). This leads to an infinite regress of causes (gods) unacceptable to the theist, so most believers make an exception for their god, asserting that it doesn’t need a cause — but there is no obvious reason why this exception cannot be applied to the universe, too. If a god “just is,” why can’t the universe “just be?” Defining God this way would be begging the question. Aristotle didn’t like the idea of simply accepting that some things simply are, but even he had to resort to this when it came to his Prime Mover.

For this reason, many using the argument say “everything that begins to exist has a cause” — asserting that their god never “began” and, hence, needs no cause. The problem here is that there is no support offered for the idea that their god must be “eternal.”

Finally, even if a “First Cause” is probable, this doesn’t mean we have proven that God exists. A mere “First Cause” that has apparently done nothing more than cause the Big Bang hardly seems to warrant the label “God.” It isn’t necessarily worth worshipping, revering, or even giving much thought to (Aristotle didn’t conceive of his Prime Mover as something that should be worshipped, much less as the “God” of later Christian tradition).

It also doesn’t necessarily have the qualities normally ascribed to God (omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence) by the people who offer the argument (Christians, Jews, Muslims). The Cosmological Argument doesn’t mean that this god must be alone — a committee is equally believable. It doesn’t even mean that this god is still “alive” or still “exists.” So even if successful, the Cosmological Argument is a failure as an argument for believing in any sort of god worth worrying about.

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