Theistic Notebook

April 6, 2011

An Intro to the Philosophy of Religion Ch. 5 (Cosmological Arguments)

Intro to the Philosophy of ReligionDependence version 1:

5.27 Every being is either dependent or self-explaining.
5.28 Not every being can be dependent.
5.29 Therefore, at least one self-explaining being exists (a being which in turn explains the existence of the dependent beings).

This a posteriori argument seeks to establish the existence of a self-explaining being: one that does not depend on something else for its existence.

Infinite Regress and the Principle of Sufficient Reason
The infinite regress objection (IRO) aims at premise 5.28 by advancing the thesis that, while a finite chain of dependent beings requires a self-explaining being, an infinite chain of dependent beings not.  This objection implies an infinitely old universe, a topic one which cosmology continues to vacillate.  Thus one reply to IRO might simply reference the latest evidence for the Big Bang.  But a better, philosophical reply to IRO involves the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR):

PSR There must be a sufficient cause, reason, or explanation for the existence of every thing and for every positive fact.

According to PSR, even an infinite chain of dependent beings will leave some fact(s) unexplained.  One example of such a fact: there is something rather than nothing.  Second, the fact that there is an infinite collection of things.  How will defenders of IRO deal with PSR?  Some have replied that these facts actually are explained.  An example is given in which someone has fifteen dollars–ten dollars in one pocket that came from an ATM and five dollars in the other pocket that came from a friend in repayment of a loan.  Now, what if we asked this person to explain why he has fifteen dollars, why does he have some money rather than none at all?  Once he explains where his five dollars and ten dollars came from (individually), there doesn’t appear to be a further explanation required for the fifteen dollars.

Do these examples show that IRO satisfies PSR?  It depends on yet another principle: the external explanations principle: “A set of dependent beings is explained ‘with no explanatory remainder’ when each member of the set has an explanation and at least one member of the set is explained by appeal to something outside the set of dependent beings to be explained.”  In the case of the fifteen dollars, there is an appeal to something outside of the set: the ATM and the loan re-payer.  In the infinite regress objection, this isn’t true, and thus the objection fails to satisfy the PSR.

Objection to PSR
A serious problem with PSR, raised by Leibniz himself, is that the grand totality of all facts (the SUPERFACT) requires an explanation.  But what exactly would count as an explanation for something like a SUPERFACT?  Whatever the explanation, it can’t be a necessary truth; otherwise, the SUPERFACT would obtain in all possible worlds and thus only the actual world will be possible.  What if the SUPERFACT’s explanation is contingent?  Rea and Murray only leave us with the vague notion that “only very special propositions are true in just one world…truths that are true in only one world are hard to think of.”  The only one they can think of is “the world described in the SUPERFACT exists” which can’t itself explain the SUPERFACT.  They conclude that we should reject PSR. [1]

Dependence version 2:
We might try to replace PSR with a weaker principle, such as there can be no independent contingent thing.  Thus the new argument can be construed as follows:

5.30 Every being is either dependent or necessary.
5.28 Not every being can be dependent.
5.29 Therefore: at least one necessary being exists (a being which dependent beings at least partially depend for their existence).

This version is still susceptible to the IRO.  Finally, Rea and Murray consider it “no easy task” to argue that the universe (as a collection) is a contingent thing.

The kalam version
William Lane Craig’s recent work on this version of the argument has attracted attention from philosophers, cosmologists and physicists. [2]

5.31 Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its coming into existence
5.32 The universe began to exist
5.33 Therefore: the universe has a cause for its coming to exist.

The first premise seems obvious but in fact has fostered lively debate.  The second premise is justified both on a priori and a posteriori grounds.  As to the latter, the best cosmological theories (the Big Bang) all posit a universe that began to exist.  As to the former, some philosophers have argued that an actually infinite series of past moments is impossible.

This argument describes the cause-to-universe relationship in an interesting way, because it posits a cause which exists simultaneously with its effect.  This is important because some object to this argument on the grounds that a timeless cause is incoherent. [3]   The best illustration of this (not in the book but from Craig himself in a lecture I heard one) is that of a bowling ball and a pincushion.  The bowling ball causes the pincushion to be indented in a certain fashion.  Now, imagine that the bowling ball and the pin cushion have forever been in this position.  It would not be the case that one event was causing a succeeding event.  Likewise, “Craig argues that God’s causing the universe to come to be could be simultaneous with its coming to be.”  He also concludes that this timeless cause needs to have some kind of personal agency, namely the ability to bring about effects “at will.”  So, Craig thinks this argument gets us to a timeless quasi-personal being that caused the universe to come into existence.  There are numerous objections to this argument that delve deeply into theories of time, causal explanation, infinity, and more. [4]

1 For a more detailed analysis, see Alexander Pruss, The Principle of Sufficient Reason (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy).
2 See William Lane Craig, The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe
3 Quentin Smith has devoted much attention to this topic.  Check out his article on Infidels, “The Uncaused Beginning of the Universe” (1988).
4 More online reading on the cosmological argument: Some Recent Progress on the Cosmological Argument, by Alexander Pruss.  A New Look at the Cosmological Argument, by Robert Koons.  A New Cosmological Argument, by Alexander Pruss and Richard Gale.  A new cosmological argument undone, by Michael J. Almeida and Neal D Judisch.  And finally, The Cosmological Argument, by David Oderberg


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