Ed Feser explains common misunderstandings of cosmological arguments

A post explaining why popular objections to the cosmological argument are weak, from Ed Feser’s blog. This is a MUST-READ.


Most people who comment on the cosmological argument demonstrably do not know what they are talking about.  This includes all the prominent New Atheist writers.  It very definitely includes most of the people who hang out in Jerry Coyne’s comboxes.  It also includes most scientists.  And it even includes many theologians and philosophers, or at least those who have not devoted much study to the issue.

[…]In particular, I think that the vast majority of philosophers who have studied the argument in any depth – and again, that includes atheists as well as theists, though it does not include most philosophers outside the sub-discipline of philosophy of religion – would agree with the points I am about to make, or with most of them anyway.  Of course, I do not mean that they would all agree with me that the argument is at the end of the day a convincing argument.  I just mean that they would agree that most non-specialists who comment on it do not understand it, and that the reasons why people reject it are usually superficial and based on caricatures of the argument.

Here’s the list of his corrections to common atheist misunderstandings of the cosmological argument:

  1. The argument does NOT rest on the premise that “Everything has a cause.”
  2. “What caused God?” is not a serious objection to the argument.
  3. “Why assume that the universe had a beginning?” is not a serious objection to the argument.
  4. “No one has given any reason to think that the First Cause is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good, etc.” is not a serious objection to the argument.
  5. “The argument doesn’t prove that Christianity is true” is not a serious objection to the argument.
  6. Science has shown such-and-such” is not a serious objection to (most versions of) the argument.
  7. The argument is not a “God of the gaps” argument.
  8. Hume and Kant did not have the last word on the argument.  Neither has anyone else.
  9. What “most philosophers” think about the argument is irrelevant.

Excerpt: (number 1 in the list)

Lots of people – probably most people who have an opinion on the matter – think that the cosmological argument goes like this: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists. They then have no trouble at all poking holes in it. If everything has a cause, then what caused God? Why assume in the first place that everything has to have a cause? Why assume the cause is God? Etc.

Here’s the funny thing, though. People who attack this argument never tell you where they got it from. They never quote anyone defending it. There’s a reason for that. The reason is that none of the best-known proponents of the cosmological argument in the history of philosophy and theology ever gave this stupid argument. Not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne. And not anyone else either, as far as I know. (Your Pastor Bob doesn’t count. I mean no one among prominent philosophers.) And yet it is constantly presented, not only by popular writers but even by some professional philosophers, as if it were “the” “basic” version of the cosmological argument, and as if every other version were essentially just a variation on it.

Don’t take my word for it. The atheist Robin Le Poidevin, in his book Arguing for Atheism (which my critic Jason Rosenhouse thinks is pretty hot stuff) begins his critique of the cosmological argument by attacking a variation of the silly argument given above – though he admits that “no-one has defended a cosmological argument of precisely this form”! So what’s the point of attacking it? Why not start instead with what some prominent defender of the cosmological argument has actually said?

Suppose some creationist began his attack on Darwinism by assuring his readers that “the basic” claim of the Darwinian account of human origins is that at some point in the distant past a monkey gave birth to a human baby. Suppose he provided no source for this claim – which, of course, he couldn’t have, because no Darwinian has ever said such a thing – and suppose also that he admitted that no one has ever said it. But suppose further that he claimed that “more sophisticated versions” of Darwinism were really just “modifications” of this claim. Intellectually speaking, this would be utterly contemptible and sleazy. It would give readers the false impression that anything Darwinians have to say about human origins, however superficially sophisticated, is really just a desperate exercise in patching up a manifestly absurd position. Precisely for that reason, though, such a procedure would, rhetorically speaking, be very effective indeed.

Compare that to Le Poidevin’s procedure. Though by his own admission no one has ever actually defended the feeble argument in question, Le Poidevin still calls it “the basic” version of the cosmological argument and characterizes the “more sophisticated versions” he considers later on as “modifications” of it. Daniel Dennett does something similar in his book Breaking the Spell. He assures us that the lame argument in question is “the simplest form” of the cosmological argument and falsely insinuates that other versions – that is to say, the ones that philosophers have actually defended, and which Dennett does not bother to discuss – are merely desperate attempts to repair the obvious problems with the “Everything has a cause” “version.” As with our imaginary creationist, this procedure is intellectually dishonest and sleazy, but it is rhetorically very effective. It gives the unwary reader the false impression that “the basic” claim made by Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. is manifestly absurd, that everything else they have to say is merely an attempt to patch up this absurd position, and (therefore) that such writers need not be bothered with further.

And that, I submit, is the reason why the stupid “Everything has a cause” argument – a complete fabrication, an urban legend, something no philosopher has ever defended – perpetually haunts the debate over the cosmological argument. It gives atheists an easy target, and a way rhetorically to make even their most sophisticated opponents seem silly and not worth bothering with. It‘s a slimy debating trick, nothing more – a shameless exercise in what I have elsewhere called “meta-sophistry.” (I make no judgment about whether Le Poidevin’s or Dennett’s sleaziness was deliberate. But that they should know better is beyond question.)

What defenders of the cosmological argument do say is that what comes into existence has a cause, or that what is contingent has a cause. These claims are as different from “Everything has a cause” as “Whatever has color is extended” is different from “Everything is extended.” Defenders of the cosmological argument also provide arguments for these claims about causation. You may disagree with the claims – though if you think they are falsified by modern physics, you are sorely mistaken – but you cannot justly accuse the defender of the cosmological argument either of saying something manifestly silly or of contradicting himself when he goes on to say that God is uncaused.

This gives us what I regard as “the basic” test for determining whether an atheist is informed and intellectually honest. If he thinks that the cosmological argument rests on the claim that “everything has a cause,” then he is simply ignorant of the basic facts. If he persists in asserting that it rests on this claim after being informed otherwise, then he is intellectually dishonest. And if he is an academic philosopher like Le Poidevin or Dennett who is professionally obligated to know these things and to eschew cheap debating tricks, then… well, you do the math.

I don’t agree with Ed Feser on everything, but this post is dynamite. It is very forceful. He has 168 comments at the time of writing. It’s long, so you might want to print it out. But it is awesome.

I remember one day when I was having a closed-door conversation with one of my liberal atheist co-workers following the completion of a grueling project. I asked him why he was an atheist. He said he didn’t really know other that he didn’t want to be bothered. So I listed out about 10 arguments against Christian theism and he finally said that in college he had read an argument against God from evil. I asked him “human evil or natural evil”. He said human evil. I said “deductive or inductive”. He didn’t understand, so I explained the difference between the logical and probabilistic problem of evil. It was deductive. I said, “is it from J.L. Mackie?” He shot out of his seat and put his hands on the desk “how did you know that!”. I told him to sit down, and I refuted the argument using Plantinga’s work. Then I told him about William Rowe’s probabilistic version of the problem of evil. “That’s a better version of the argument, but I can defeat that one too”. We went to lunch and I did so. Christians have to know everything, and we have to be able to articulate our opponent’s point more forcefully than they can. It shows intellectual honesty to be able to help the person see the most forceful version of their objections. We need to be able to do that.

Here’s an excellent peer-reviewed paper by William Lane Craig on the science of the cosmological argument. It was published in a peer-reviewed astrophysics journal.

Debating the Kalam cosmological argument

Here’s a basic lecture explaining the kalam cosmological argument that leverages the Big Bang cosmology to argue for God’s existence.

Watch and see!

Part 1:

Part 2:

Part 3:

Part 4:

You can also find a more technical version of the lecture here on video. This version is based on a research paper published in an astrophysics journal, and was delivered to an audience of students and faculty, including atheist physicist Victor Stenger and prominent atheist philosopher Michael Tooley, at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Craig has previously debated Stenger and Tooley. And they both asked him questions in the Q&A of this lecture.

You might also be interested in this exchange in which William Lane Craig takes on prominent atheist Daniel Dennett. And you can watch an entire debate between William Lane Craig and Christopher Hitchens here. The cosmological argument is Craig’s first of five arguments.

7 thoughts on “Ed Feser explains common misunderstandings of cosmological arguments”

  1. Feser argues from a Thomistic metaphysics, which I doubt you share, which seems to mean that Fesers observations may not or do not apply to your own position (WLC, the most commonly cited proponent of the Kalam is certainly no Thomist).

  2. “Christians have to know everything, and we have to be able to articulate our opponent’s point more forcefully than they can. It shows intellectual honesty to be able to help the person see the most forceful version of their objections. We need to be able to do that.”

    I agree!

  3. It seems that Duns Scotus (why is my computer too stupid to know the names of the greats?!), believed that (Proposition#1) Anything which is both non-contingent and possible exists necessarily. I would like to know if this is a plausible First Principle; I tried something similar, and devised two other propositions: (#2) That which is actually infinite necessarily exists. (#3) That which is absolute necessarily exists. If any one of these is true (and the truth either 2 or 3 implies that 1 is true), then God exists.
    What say you?

  4. On second thought, I had a better idea!

    Ax.1: Every fact has an explanation; if it is a fact that Barack Obama exists, there is an explanation for why it is so. If it is a fact that unicorns do not exist, there is an explanation for why it is so.
    Ax.2: A fact can either have the sufficient explanation for being within itself (“Necessary Fact”) or be explained by another (“Contingent Fact”).
    Ax.3: The set of all contingent facts (call her “S”) is herself a contingent fact. (Likewise, the set of all necessary facts (call her “B”) is a necessary fact.)
    Pr.1: It is possible that there is a First Fact.
    Pr.2: (Ax.1) Being the First Fact, there can be no explanation for why it does not exist.
    Pr.3: (Ax.2) Being the First Fact, there can be no external explanation for why it exists.
    C.1: The First Fact explains its own existence (is Necessary).
    Pr.4: (Ax.3) S cannot be explained by contingent facts. These contingent facts would be part of S, so would themselves require an explanation external to S.
    C.2: S is dependent on B.

    We see that God (the First Fact) exists as a logically necessary being (there is nothing to prevent Him from existing (Pr.2), and something in God’s nature dictate that God exists (Pr.3)), that all of contingent beings depend on for their existence. If Platonism is true, then (it seems to me at least) Christianity is false, and if the universe is eternal, Christianity is false. However, this argument proves that a God exists.

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