The first substantive argument I am going to deal with is the fanciful named cosmological argument. Many people that first read this argument are taken in by the simplicity that it conveys itself—on a cursory glance it seems quite an attractive premise. How did the universe come into existence? This is really what is being dealt with by this argument.
Contemporary scientific understanding is that the universe came into being about 14 billion years ago as a singularity called the big bang—this is a bit of a queer concept—it says that the distance between anything in the universe was zero also the universe was infinitely dense and infinitely hot. What happened nearly instantly after this singularity came into existence was it began to expand very fast and it still expanding to this day. Thinking that time and space were both created is so odd to our heads that we find it hard to conceptualise.
What has all this got to do with god? Well, the cosmological argument basically tries to trace things back to their root. St. Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the most cited in terms of this argument—he has written extensively on god’s existence—in his Summa Theologiæ he lists five—what he calls ‘proofs’—I am going to group the first three under the heading of Cosmological because they all deal with the idea of tracing things back to a beginning.
The first two of Aquinas’ proofs are nearly exactly the same—he says that the universe as it is now was caused by how it was a moment ago and how it was a moment ago was caused by how it was two moments ago and so on. Basically everything has a cause and every cause has a cause. The second is basically the same but instead of causes it’s motion. So what Aquinas does is to trace everything back and say that they cannot go back into an infinite regress—they must have a terminator i.e. a first cause and Aquinas conveniently calls this terminator ‘god’.
There a number of reasons why this argument can be undermined. The first one is the assumption that there cannot be as a matter of logic an infinite regress. Why not? The argument goes that without a start something cannot have reached the present—it could not have gotten started—well that’s the whole point of infinite—it didn’t start it has always been going—to suggest that it needs a start is therefore not allowing it to be infinite.
If we accept that there can be nothing without a cause all we need to show is a prior cause not the first cause—if we say that the regress is infinite then for every cause we pick we can point to one previous. Where Aquinas is mistaken is using his mind’s experience of events like if we imagine a chain hanging from the sky with a bell on the end we cannot see the top but we ask what is holding the bell up? The last link—yes, but what is holding the last link up? The second last link. But the question goes to what is holding the whole thing up? In our experience there are no chains that are infinite so we cannot imagine one but, causes are not chains there is nothing to put a limit on things going back forever.
There is no philosophical limit or paradox in infinite regress however, there is a practical one at least as applied to this universe insofar as modern scientific understanding says that the universe had a beginning some 14 billion years ago—therefore time cannot stretch back infinitely. Does this mean that the universe as a whole needed a cause? Well we have been accustomed to seeing things as requiring a cause—there is no dinner without a cook; there is no house without a builder—however, the development of quantum mechanics does provide explanations that refute this very idea—however; quantum mechanics is a very difficult concept to grasp it has been said of it that “anyone that says they understand quantum mechanics doesn’t understand quantum mechanics” if that doesn’t give you much hope in quantum mechanics understand that the results of predictions made on the basis of quantum mechanics are extremely accurate Richard Feynman is quoted as saying the precision of quantum mechanics “is equivalent to predicting the width of north America to within a human hair’s breadth”.
However, what about the universe as a whole—could that have a cause? First, I have to say that at the creation of the universe everything was created: matter; space and time. So before the big bang was created there was nothing—no matter; no space and no time—so to say that the universe had to be created doesn’t make sense there was no time before the universe so when did it happen? It is like asking what is north of the North Pole —it is not a valid question to say what was before the big bang?
But let’s indulge for a moment and contemplate what was before the big bang. Is it what Aquinas suggests it is i.e. god? The reasons for suggesting it is a ‘personal god’ are thus; it goes that where there are two different options that are equally likely that is the existence of the universe or not then this choice must be made by a personal agent that chooses one over the other. This is not a logical statement—they are mutually exclusive either one occurs or the other one does—if a free agent chooses neither then one of them will occur as a matter of logic. Obviously that kind of logic really doesn’t hold any water.
Now ignore all that again so we can suppose how a creator can be excluded from the idea that everything must have a first cause. What is his first cause? The theists’ answer is that god has a different kind of existence—outside of time—because we know that he cannot exist in time because time is in the universe and god cannot be in the universe and also cause the universe—and also be excluded from needing a creator.
The Argument from Contingency
Aquinas’ third ‘proof’ tries to deal with that—it says in basic terms that everything in contingent on something else that is the bell is contingent on the last link in the chain and the last link is contingent on the second to last and so on—he applies this to the universe that everything in the universe in contingent on something else therefore the universe as a whole is contingent e.g. all parts of a chair are contingent therefore the whole chair is contingent. Since conceivably the universe as a whole might not have existed because it was contingent on something else existing then that means that there is something that exists that doesn’t need a cause—Aquinas calls this god Aristotle calls it the ‘uncaused cause’.
We are expected to take it that the uncaused cause doesn’t need a cause just because it is necessary. Furthermore the qualities of the uncaused cause need not have traditional god-like powers e.g. goodness, omnipotence or even sentience. Why does it even have to be just one could there not be more than one? Why couldn’t it be a cosmic force or something rather than a ‘living’—for want of a better term—thing?
We also need some explanation of how this being created the universe—it is not fair to say that we have contingent things on one hand and god on the other and he causes the contingent things. Theists’’ answer to this is that god had a choice he could have created another universe or none at all—‘[god] is a being that exists of necessity but which creates this universe as an act of free will’
OK, well then does this god exist in time? He cannot exist in time because as we have said how can he create time and exist in it? So he must exist out-of-time—well then how can he make a choice? Choices need to take place in time—I must choose to bake a cake before I bake a cake—surly the same can be said of universes. “But”—you might say—“maybe the creator can make a non-temporal choosing—he doesn’t need to do it in time”—well then if he chooses to create the universe he is doing it at no time so he doesn’t make it occur. But again it gets worse remember we said that we let the uncaused cause be god because he is making a choice to create a universe rather than not? Well part of that choice has to be why he chose to create the universe when he did. He cannot choose when to create it if there is no time.
As you can see this argument really is not much help when you really get a good look at it. It can be kind of a head wrecker. There is lots of counter-arguments to what I have said but I have read a lot of them and do not think that they are valid counter arguments.