Stephen Law on the Cosmological Argument

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Sometimes even professional philosophers get basic arguments wrong. Especially when criticising religious beliefs.

This is the second time in a pretty short space of time that I’ve criticised something said by Stephen Law. I don’t want people to think that I’m picking on him. It’s a coincidence, I swear. I had a book of his out of the library and critiqued his (apparent) claim that Christians who use the fine-tuning argument commit the lottery fallacy. Then when I was in that same library a couple of days ago that same book caught my eye because I recognised it as the book that I recently had out. Right next to it was another book by Stephen Law. It was bright green, so it stood out. That’s how I came to be reading him again and how I spotted the comments that I’m about to comment on. I promise, it’s nothing personal.

Having said that, it’s still an example of some pretty bad philosophy. Law’s book The Philosophy Files is basically an introduction to philosophical issues for young people. In general, it’s good; enjoyable, clear, helpful and it has nifty pictures. I have on my desk the edition published in 2000.

But just as with his other book that I commented on, The Philosophy Gym, things head south when it comes to the section on theism (belief in God). Now of course we should cut him some slack. The book isn’t an in-depth textbook. It provides an introductory coverage of issues for people who may never have encountered them before. But even in a simplified presentation, surely we have a duty to represent people’s positions in a way that doesn’t mislead, and that doesn’t portray people that one disagrees with as using arguments that are much worse than the arguments that they use in real life.

Law briefly discusses the cosmological argument. He doesn’t call it that, he just calls it the “big bang argument.” Anyone familiar with cosmological arguments will recognise it for what it is, however. This is all the more so with the focus on the big bang, since, in recent decades, the big bang has been a major focus of the cosmological argument. In what was dubbed the kalam cosmological argument, William Lane Craig argues as follows:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence
  2. The Universe began to exist (i.e. in the event called the big bang)
  3. Therefore the Universe has a cause of its existence

Now, I might quibble slightly with some of the phrasing. I might say “if anything comes into existence, then that coming into existence was caused.” I would conclude “therefore the big bang was caused.” But I doubt that Dr Craig would disagree with me in putting it this way.

Anyway, back to Law’s book. He presents the big bang argument by way of a discussion between two friends, Bob and Kobir. These two good friends, we are told, often argue about philosophy (i.e. they aren’t novices). Here is how there discussion about God and the big bang went:

Bob: well then, my question is: what caused the big bang? Why was there a bang rather than no bang?
Kobir: I have no idea. That is a mystery.
Bob: Yes, it’s a great mystery. After all, everything has a cause doesn’t it? Things don’t just happen. Take that firework that exploded over there a few moments ago. That explosion didn’t just happen, did it? It had to have a cause. Someone had to light the fuse, didn’t they?
Kobir: I guess so.
Bob: But then the same applies to the big bang. The big bang must have had a cause too. Now if God exists, that would solve the mystery of what caused the big bang. That’s why it is reasonable to suppose that God exists. God explains why the big bang happened. God lit the fuse!

[This version of the Cosmological argument] is an argument about an event, namely, the big bang.

Notice the type of argument that Bob has presented. It is an argument about an event, namely, the big bang. He uses the analogy of a firework that has recently exploded overhead. That explosion too, was an event, and it too required a cause. The question invited by the beginning of the universe, then, is “what caused the big bang?” Reflecting on the argument that Bob has presented, Stephen Law then adds, “indeed, you can find much the same sort of argument in the writings of many philosophers and religious thinkers down through the centuries.” He’s right, of course. Naturally, most of the thinkers throughout history that he is thinking of did not refer to the big bang, because they simply did not know about it. Yet versions of the cosmological argument are not new by any means. Especially among Christian and Muslim philosophers, the argument that the events of the beginning of the universe demands a causal explanation. Of course, now that he has acknowledged this, Law needs to be careful that he does not construe Bob’s argument in a way that it is unfair to these historical arguments – And that is where things then go wrong.

HERE is a good and very succinct summary of the cosmological argument of Thomas Aquinas. His first two “ways” were variations of the cosmological argument. His first way is like this:

1. Some things change. (empirical premise, verified by observation)
2. Everything that changes is made to change by something else. (Aquinas has a separate argument for this)
3. The chain of causes can’t go back to infinity.
4. Therefore, there must be a cause of change that does not itself change.

The second way is like this:

1. Every event has a distinct cause.
2. Either the chain of causes goes on forever, or there is a first cause.
3. The chain of causes can’t go back forever.
4. Therefore, there is a first cause.

Another example is the kalam argument used by William Lane Craig, which was originally posed by Muslim philosophers like al-Kindi and al-Ghazali. I noted this argument earlier.

These historic versions of the cosmological argument are a lot like the argument used by Bob in that they refer to all events having causes, or all changes having causes. Now observe how Law depicts Kobir’s response to Bob, and look at Bob’s reaction to it:

Kobir: I’m afraid your argument is no good. You haven’t given us any reason at all to suppose that God exists.
Bob: Why not?
Kobir: Look, in a nutshell your argument is this: Everything has a cause; therefore the universe has a cause; therefore God must exist as the cause of the universe. Right?

As a professional philosophy teacher, Stephen Law knows that this is not the way that the cosmological argument works.

Now of course, this is the point at which Bob ought to have stopped Kobir in his tracks, and probably would have done so if this were a real conversation. After all, it’s quite clear how Kobir has just misconstrued Bob’s argument. As an author who is also a professional philosophy teacher, Stephen Law knows that this is not the way that the cosmological argument works (I am only talking about first cause versions of the argument for now). In the real world, the argument has to do with all events requiring a cause, or all changes requiring a cause. The argument obviously does not stipulate that “everything has a cause,” or we would have to say that God himself requires a cause (since God is a thing). But as the writer of the dialogue, Dr Law gets to determine how the characters respond. After being asked if this rather shoddy nutshell version of this argument is correct, Bob responds and the dialogue continues as follows:

Bob: Yes. I suppose so.
Kobir: Well then, if everything has a cause, then what caused God? What made him exist?
Bob: Good question. That’s a mystery.
Kobir: So you have merely replaced one mystery with another, haven’t you?
Bob: How do you mean?
Kobir: Well, we are still stuck with a mystery, aren’t we? We started with the question: What caused the universe? Scientists give us the answer: The big bang. But then we are left with a mystery, aren’t we? For then there is the mystery of what caused the big bang. Now you try to get rid of this mystery by saying that God caused the big bang. But then we face the mystery of what caused God.
Bob: OK. let’s suppose God doesn’t have a cause. Let’s suppose God isn’t the sort of thing that needs a cause. If God doesn’t need a cause, then there’s no mystery left over.
Kobir: But now you have contradicted yourself! You started your argument by assuming that everything has a cause. Now you are saying not everything has a cause: God doesn’t.
Bob: But when I said everything has a cause I didn’t mean absolutely everything. I made everything except God, obviously.
Kobir: So you are saying that there is one exception to the rule that everything has a cause: God.
Bob: Yes. God is the exception to that rule.
Kobir: But if there has to be an exception to the rule why not just make the universe the exception to the rule instead? What reason have you given us to add God onto the beginning of the universe as an extra cause? You have given us no reason. But then you have given us no reason to suppose that God exists.
Bob: I guess you’re right.
Kobir: You see, Bob, I admit that there is a mystery about where the universe came from. I admit that there is a great mystery of why there is something rather than nothing. I just deny that this mystery gives us any reason at all to suppose that God exists.

And so, Bob meekly allows Kobir to change his argument into something that he never offered in the first place, and then starts throwing an ad-hoc exceptions. To top it all off, Bob humbly agrees that he he really hasn’t given any reasons to believe in God.

But to anyone versed in philosophy of religion, the second part of this dialogue, namely Kobir’s reply, sends alarm bells ringing. We find ourselves wanting to call out to the actors “Wait! Stop! You made a mistake! You changed the argument! No, don’t continue with the new version! It’ll cause problems! No, stop, stop! It’ll…. there. See? I told you the new version would cause problems.” It’s like watching a twelve car pileup on the freeway in slow motion – knowing that it was orchestrated all along.

It’s true that this book is just an introductory text for teenagers. But rather than serving as a mitigating circumstance, I think it really makes the situation worse. Such people don’t have any background in philosophy of religion, and they are unlikely to pick up on the misrepresentation, or on the change of the argument halfway through the discussion. They may simply believe that this is as good as the argument for theism from the beginning of the universe gets, and that any well informed and honest theist will, like poor Bob, end up saying “I guess you’re right.”

Not even close.

Glenn Peoples

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{ 48 comments… add one }
  • The Atheist Missionary May 29, 2010, 1:16 am

    My understanding of the simple point Dr. Law was expressing in this chapter is the circularity of the cosmological argument (i.e. Everything must have a cause … God is that cause … But what caused God? … God doesn’t need a cause because God is eternal … But I thought everything required a cause?)

    I must say that I find the “philosophy of religion” both fascinating and amusing. One of my favorite examples is the philosophical thought underpinning the theory of the Holy Trinity. Here is a priceless extract from “De Trinitate” by Saint Augustine of Hippo

    That the Son is Very God, of the Same Substance with the Father. Not Only the Father, But the Trinity, is Affirmed to Be Immortal. All Things are Not from the Father Alone, But Also from the Son. That the Holy Spirit is Very God, Equal with the Father and the Son.

    Well, that clears that up.

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 1:22 am

    The rouble is, T.A.M., that the “simple point” that law made ended up misrepresenting the cosmological argument.

    Sure, if the argument involved the claim that “Everything that exists has a cause” then there would be a problem. It wouldn’t be a “circular” argument as you suggest. It would be a case of what’s known as special pleading making an ad hoc exception for God. But as I explained, cosmological arguments have never said that everything that exists has a cause.

    Moreover, what you quoted from Augustine isn’t really philosophy of religion. It’s simply theology, and in that case is was the statement of doctrine that is simply irrelevant to the way in which people misrepresent theist arguments in the way that Law has done so.

    Let me put it this way: Do you think it’s fair for Laws to tell readers that this is what the cosmological argument claims? Serious question.

  • The Atheist Missionary May 29, 2010, 2:02 am

    Sure, I think it’s fair in light of the proviso that you fairly make in your post (i.e. “cut him some slack”). My understanding of the Philosophy Files is to give teens a taste of philosophical reasoning in the hope that they will be interested enough to pursue further reading on these topics.

    If one asserts that all the cosmological argument does is assert a first cause (full stop), then I would tend to agree that the discussion might mislead an uninformed reader. However, you and I both know that the argument is usually used to support the existence of a supernatural creator. My problem with this reasoning, and I don’t require a Ph.D. in theology or philosophy to make this point, is that the first cause could just as likely be a million magic fairies as the Judeo-Christian god. In other words, and I think this is Law’s point, the cosmological argument doesn’t get you anywhere.

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 11:09 am

    I have deleted a comment by Stephen Law as he (appears to have) typed it in the wrong place. He has now re-posted that same comment under the blog entry on the lottery fallacy, so all is well.

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 11:19 am

    T.A.M.: How can you call it fair? Here’s how it plays out: He presentes the Cosmological argument by misrepresenting it. You say that’s fair because it’s alright to do such things in a simple book and we should cut him some slack – even though presenting the argument accurately would have been just as simple. Then he presents a rebuttal to the cosmological argument, but that rebuttal is itself based on that misrepresented version!

    Seriously, if you think this is the kind of thing over which we should simply cut people slack, then I hope you never teach philosophy.

    Your comment about the fairies is worth look at, however. In short, that comment makes the point that the cosmological argument doesn’t tell us what the first cause is like. The argument doesn’t tell us whether that cause is Yahweh, Zeus, or magic fairies. Now of course you’re correct, this argument doesn’t tell us that. But it was never intended to do so, so I hardly think this is relevant. What the cosmological argument establishes – especially in the form used today – is that the universe had a first cause. Fine details about that nature of that cause are not part of the argument.

    There are other arguments that various philosophers use when it comes to the nature of God, or which God is the right one, but this is not one of them. However, the cosmological argument does leave us with some interesting implications. For example, since the big bang constituted the creation of physical space, the first cause could not occupy space. It was immaterial. Since the big bang constituted the origin of time, the cause of the big bang had to be timeless (some call this “eternal”) and consequently changeless. Bill Craig argues further that for something to move from this state to a state of causing the big bang, it must also be in some sense personal or at least able to make decisions.

    So even granting that a fully fledged doctrine of God cannot be gleaned from the cosmological argument (and nobody says otherwise), we do end up with a non-material, eternal and personal cause of the universe, which is no small matter.

  • james May 29, 2010, 11:30 am

    Atheist Missionary: “the circularity of the cosmological argument (i.e. Everything must have a cause …”

    Please tell me this is a joke. No one could possibly read this blog post and then write that sentence with a straight face.

    Stephen Law: “attack my actually arguments rather than my teaching materials (it’s actually a kids book, notice)”

    If this is a kids book, then your misrepresentation is even worse, because kids will not spot how badly this argument gets twisted. Did your book clearly point out that Kobir’s response was misrepresentative? Why didn’t Bob point out this blatant switch during the dialogue? Why don’t you do a sequel to this dialogue called “Bob grows a pair and tells Kobir that he has blatantly twisted the argument, and the original formulation of the argument is sound”

    Can we just read these two sentences:

    Everything that exists has a cause
    Everything that begins to exist has a cause

    We can all see that these are different, right? … right …?

  • The Atheist Missionary May 29, 2010, 11:59 am

    First of all, I congratulate you on a great looking site. I downloaded all your podcasts today and my love affair with iTunes continues.

    Don’t worry about me ever trying to teach philosophy. I am dumb as a post – I blame two thirds of that on my parents and the remaining third on my inauspicious amateur rugby days.

    As far as we know, the big bang created physical space in this dimension. However, if you really want to blow your mind, you might be interested to read University of Miami philosopher Colin McGinn’s conjectures on this topic in The Mysterious Flame: Conscious Minds in a Material World – The Origins of Space at pp. 119-123. His intriguing thesis is that perhaps consciousness (which, unlike matter, may be “eternal”) exploited the non-spatial features of the pre-Big Bang universe to lever itself into existence.

    Craig is a sophist and a devastating rhetorician. I am hoping to be able to arrange a debate between he and Law, perhaps in Toronto.

    Although I’m an admitted dummy, I am a big fan of philosophy and am learning as much as I can later in life. As I have pointed out to Law on his blog, in my preferred reality philosophers would be treated like rock stars.

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 4:46 pm

    T.A.M., I confess that I have no idea what you mean by “in this dimension.” Dimensions are things like width and height.

    Talking about the “non-spatial features of the pre-Big Bang universe” doesn’t currently make sense to me, given that there was no universe prior tot he big bang, and the idea of a universe that doesn’t occupy space strikes me as incoherent.

    That being said, your wish that philosophers be treated like rock stars is perhaps the most noble desire that has ever been expressed in human history.And for what it’s worth, I look much more like a rock star than Dr Law does. 🙂

  • Max May 29, 2010, 5:16 pm

    ” I confess that I have no idea what you mean by “in this dimension.” ”

    T.A.M you raise some interesting points.

    If anyone is nor familiar with his rather common usage of the word “dimension”, a quick Google search/Wikipedia look should clear this up for you. Also “the idea of a universe that doesn’t occupy space” should make perfect sense to anyone who can think of a pre-existent divine being – which is not part of the physical universe. It just takes a little imagination and creativity to come up with any number of scenarios which would fit this description. Food for thought.

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 5:33 pm

    Max, a common usage of the word “dimension” is height, width, depth. If T.A.M. means something like “another universe,” then we just push the problem back one step, and all the same questions need to be asked of that universe. To stop us going on forever, we should just ask those question of this universe.

    And it’s not a matter of “imagination” thinking of a non-physical universe. It’s certainly not like thinking of any old thing that’s not material (be it a number, a person etc). The idea of a universe that is immaterial (i.e. not extended in space, simple, has no parts, is not physical) isn’t just a stretch in imagination. It’s incoherent.

    Healthy food for thought. 😉

  • Max May 29, 2010, 5:37 pm

    *A* common usage true. But not the *only* common usage. Context made it clear to me exactly what he meant… but if it does not immediately make sense a dictionary can be helpful to see if there is some meaning one is not familiar with.

    This may also help (with evolution too perhaps…?)

    “I can not comprehend/imagine” ~= “it is incoherent/beyond imagination”

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 5:43 pm

    Max, in my last comment I acknowledged what T.A.M. probably meant.

    As for your equation, you really don’t seem to realise what I’m saying. I am not saying that it’s a matter of imagination, but it requires so much imagination that it’s really really hard to imagine what it would be like.

    Here’s an example that might help: Quick, think of a square two dimensional triangle. What? You can’t? Well try using more imagination. See how that works? It doesn’t. No matter how knowledgeable or creative you might be, you will never think of a square two dimensional triangle. It’s not because you lack creativity, it’s because the idea is not a coherent one at all – no matter who is trying to imagine it.

    The same is true of a universe that is not spatial. If it’s a universe, it’s spatial, and if it’s not spatial, then it’s not a universe.

    No amount of imagination will change an incoherent idea into a coherent one. Those who think otherwise are the ones who invent absurd beliefs and think of themselves as creative geniuses.

  • Max May 29, 2010, 5:58 pm

    Not the same as a square triangle at all. Many people would say that the idea of a person existing outside the universe is incoherent as well, and could use exactly the same examples as you do to show why. Imagine a person who exists outside of all time and space. What? You can’t? Well try using more imagination…

    You already believe the impossible – but find it hard to entertain other possibilities.

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 6:17 pm

    Max, the objections to a universe that is not physical are not going to apply to a person who is not physical. If this is not an area that you’re familiar with, then I would ask you to show less confidence.

    If something is not physical, then it is metaphysically simple. The idea of a simple person might be unusual, but it’s not incoherent. The idea of a simple universe is indeed like a square triangle. It’s not merely odd or hard to think about. The concepts involved are pretty straight forward (like “square” and “triangle” are). But they are not compatible. A simple thing doesn’t contain other separate things. What’s more, a simple thing could not contain other things – not even other simple things. The idea of things happening within a simple universe that physically causes the big bang is a contradiction.

    If you’re talking about non-material realities or concepts, then it’s not a universe. It’s something else. These are the terms.

  • Pat May 29, 2010, 6:47 pm

    Hey Glenn could you please tell me what philosophers attempt to argue what type of god was the first cause? This is one area of this argument I want to explore some more.

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 7:04 pm

    Sure, Pat – although when people offer arguments for what type of God / which God exists they don’t generally do so in terms of the first cause (except for the factors already discussed: a God who is non-physical, eternal and personal, which are pretty important factors).

    The main ones that come to mind are people like William Lane Craig or Gary Habermas who argue for the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and defend belief in the resurrection against objections (often in the form of the argument against miracles offered by Hume, but also historical objections).

    But there are also less direct lines of argument, like the “argument from reason” as it has been dubbed, from C. S. Lewis (and revived and defended by Victor Reppert), which argues not merely against naturalism but also for a kind of theism that involves suppositions about divine rationality.

    The moral argument too, although it is primarily intended to debunk naturalism, also results in (or supports) the conclusion that God is the locus of moral value.

  • Pat May 29, 2010, 7:24 pm

    Is Gary Habermas that postmodern Frankfurt school dude?

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 8:03 pm

    No, that’s Jurgen, not Gary. Gary Habermas is a Christian apologist at Liberty University in Virginia.

  • Max May 29, 2010, 9:12 pm

    “The objections to a universe that is not physical are not going to apply to a person who is not physical. If this is not an area that you’re familiar with, then I would ask you to show less confidence.”

    Again you display a characteristic inability to understand the context in which a statement is made. If I am saying their may be a universe which is beyond what is physical, then it should be obvious to anyone that I am talking about a universe consisting of something other than physical matter. What could this be? Perhaps a world of Forms, or Berkeley’s conception of reality? Who knows. As i said, a little imagination can furnish those who have an imagination with innumerable examples.

    “What’s more, a simple thing could not contain other things – not even other simple things. The idea of things happening within a simple universe that physically causes the big bang is a contradiction.”

    This is meaningless – or else obviously wrong. The Trinity is an example of a “universe” with three ‘persons’ in it, and I think you would admit (even if you are not a Trinitarian yourself) that it is (i) not physical and (ii) existed before and outside of the physical universe. So you can grasp the Trinity, or accept it? (I don’t ask you to understand it). So if a Trinity.. how about a 1500-ity? a Millionity? A whole realm which is not physical? A whole not physical universe? Have I made it imaginable to you yet?

    So there are several examples of what you considered impossible to imagine!

    Now of course you will shrill back “but I said ‘If it’s a universe, it’s spatial, and if it’s not spatial, then it’s not a universe.’ Again it comes back to context. What you have to pay *careful* attention to Glenn, is not how YOU are using, or wish to use a word – but how the person you are attempting to understand is using the word.

    “It’s not my job to help you understand the most basic bulding blocks of philosophical terms.”

    Good thing… my intention is not to offend you, but you are simply showing your inability to think outside a very very limited range.

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 9:29 pm

    “Again you display a characteristic inability to understand the context in which a statement is made.”

    You say this a lot. I suspect you do so because you enjoy saying it. It certainly isn’t true. I give up trying to explain this to you, Max.

  • Max May 29, 2010, 9:35 pm

    This is meaningless – or else obviously wrong. The Trinity is an example of a “universe” with three ‘persons’ in it, and I think you would admit (even if you are not a Trinitarian yourself) that it is (i) not physical and (ii) existed before and outside of the physical universe. So you can grasp the Trinity, or accept it? (I don’t ask you to understand it). So if a Trinity.. how about a 1500-ity? a Millionity? A whole realm which is not physical? A whole not physical universe? Have I made it imaginable to you yet?

    So there are several examples of what you considered impossible to imagine!

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 9:37 pm

    Um… Max, did you intend to copy and paste yourself (albeit with slight variations)?

  • Max May 29, 2010, 9:40 pm

    Oh – I thought you must have missed the main point I was making, since you decided to concentrate on an irrelevant point of my post, rather than the interesting bit which actually disproves your claims.

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 9:41 pm

    No. As with all your previous posts, I saw what you said. I give up on trying to explain metaphysics to you.

  • Max May 29, 2010, 9:48 pm

    Sad. I have a genuine objection to your claim. You don’t seem to have an answer, so instead you give a cop-out “I give up on trying to explain metaphysics to you” answer. If my point goes against your claim, just admit it. There is no shame in learning something new. If I am wrong, and the example of the Trinity is not a good one, tell me why. Otherwise I will have to conclude that you are stumped but too proud to admit that someone else may have made an interesting point.

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 9:51 pm

    Max, each and every one of your comments on this thread have, in my view, been simply wrong, showing genuine ignorance, yet brimming over with obvious confidence, as though you are absolutely certain that you have a mastery of the subject when really you’ve just come up with a new idea on the spot.

    Honestly, I have lost count of the previous times that I have, in my view, been patient while you do this, but I’m not going to indulge you endlessly. You didn’t know what it means for a thing to be metaphysically simple, you accused others of failing to understand context when no such thing is going on, and you ended up resorting to calling the Trinity a “universe” (!!!!) to rescue your remarks. That’s the point where you should have realised that you were just arguing for the sake of it, making up whatever you needed to in order to press on.

    I’m not going to respond point by point. You’d just make up new beliefs with which to reply. You are not in a position to accuse me of being proud. I’m just not going to do it. I, in turn, think you’re being needy!

  • Max May 29, 2010, 10:02 pm

    Neediness is a sad kind of position to be in isn’t it! Poor me!

    Of course you are not obliged to answer any questions, Glenn!

  • Pat May 29, 2010, 10:09 pm

    Ok so I’m new to this whole philosophy stuff but from my readings of Kant any attempts to try and prove god via reason are fruitless. Reason cannot provide access to the transendental ‘object’ To imagine otherwise means that existence of the supreme being in smuggled into the argument and in the course of the explanation pops out as if what was temporarily hidden in the concepts is demostrated. Reason allows itself to be presuaded taht a mere creature of its own thought is a real being.

    Using reason we can establish the necessity of the existence of the ‘god’ but the question is whether this ‘god’ can be understood as the ‘object’ you Glenn and other theologicans describe it as. At most I think we can only be agnostic.

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 10:20 pm

    Pat, bear in mind that this is the same Kant who actually did argue philosophically for the existence of God in his version of the moral argument.

    Many philosophers over the centuries have engaged in arguments for theism using reason. In fact if that’s an area of philosophy that interests you then you’re in luck. Whereas in the early 20th century philosophy was a subject dominated by atheists, since the late 20th century there has been a real renaissance in Christian philosophy, tot he point now where it’s undeniable that the field of philosophy of religion is dominated, not by atheists but by religious believers who are at the very top of their field – Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, Marilyn Adams, Stephen Davis, Nicholas Rescher, David Basinger, Edward Wierenga, Eleonore Stump, William Alston, Peter Van Inwagen and plenty of others. We’re in an era now where – as far as philosophy of religion is concerned, it is the one who wants to attack theism, rather than the one who wants to defend it, who has to look over his shoulder!

  • Pat May 29, 2010, 10:30 pm

    I’m still trying to work out what Kant meant by his idea of trandesental idealism but as the moment I am more of a realist (maybe a critical realist-which is what Alistair McGrath, I think). What metaphysical approach do you take?

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 10:34 pm

    Well there are plenty of ways to answer that, but I’m definitly a realist (as I think most people are). Chairs, apples, buildings, all really do exist. I’m not much of a fan of nominalism, and I think most things that go by the name “anti-realism” are bunk.

  • Pat May 29, 2010, 10:39 pm

    As long as you are not a constructavist I don’t care.

  • Matt May 30, 2010, 12:49 am

    However, you and I both know that the argument is usually used to support the existence of a supernatural creator. My problem with this reasoning, and I don’t require a Ph.D. in theology or philosophy to make this point, is that the first cause could just as likely be a million magic fairies as the Judeo-Christian god. In other words, and I think this is Law’s point, the cosmological argument doesn’t get anywhere.

    Actually, you are mistaken here, fairies are physical beings with wings. The Kalam argument which Glenn discusses argues that the Universe ( that is the totality of everything in space and time) began to exist and hence has a cause. The cause which exists ontologically prior to space and time cannot therefore itself be a being that exists in space and time.

  • The Atheist Missionary May 30, 2010, 1:03 am

    Matt, I’ve never seen a fairy but perhaps I used a poor example. My point was simply that, if we presume a first cause supernatural creator(s), that cause still has an infinite number of possibilities.

    The point you have raised is one that Stephen Law discusses in a March 6, 2010 post on his blog. I will take the liberty of reproducing an excerpt here:

    “Suppose I claim there exists a super-mountain. Only it does not exist in space. It exists non-spatially. That idea might seem to make sense for a moment. But when we start to think about it, it’s nonsensical nature becomes apparent. A mountain needs a summit. By a summit requires one part be higher than another, and so do steep sides. The concept of a mountain is a concept of something essentially rooted in the spatial. Try to apply the notion of a mountain in a non-spatial setting, and you end up talking philosophical gibberish. We can know, just by thinking about, that there are non-spatial mountains.

    But now consider talk about a person existing outside of time. Does that make any more sense? The concept of a person is the concept of an agent who has beliefs and desires, and who performs more or less rational actions as a result. But the concept of belief is a temporal concept – a belief is a psychological state, and states have temporal duration. So do desires. Actions, too, require a temporal setting. You can’t do something if there’s no time to do it in. And so on. The concept of a person is a concept essentially rooted in the temporal. Persons necessarily exist in time, just as mountains necessarily exist in space. But then to talk of a person existing prior to the beginning of time, a person who designed and created the temporal universe, is also philosophical gibberish. It makes no more sense than talk of non-spatial mountains.

    Of course, religious people typically happily talk about God being a person in an apparently quite literal way until you point out this problem, when they tend to say – “Oh, how crude and unsophisticated you are! You have interpreted my talk of a person literally!” I am of course drawing an analogy. God is not a person like you or I, but something merely like – analogous to, a person.

    Of course, someone could say exactly the same thing about the non-spatial mountain. They are talking about something merely analogous to a mountain. But what, exactly? If, every time we ask them to explain what they mean, they just come up with more analogies, or insist they are talking about something that’s like a mountain only in some mysterious way they can’t clearly explain, we’d surely conclude that, rather than raising the debate about the possible existence of this mountain to the level of profundity, they were simply engaging in endless evasions and obfuscations.

    Similarly, if, every time we ask someone who claims god is something merely analogous to a person to explain what they mean, they just come up with more analogies, or insist they are talking about something that’s like a person only in some mysterious way they can’t clearly explain, we’d surely conclude that, rather than raising the debate abot the possible existence of this person to the level of profundity, they were simply engaging in endless evasions and obfuscations.”

  • Stuart May 30, 2010, 1:26 am

    Hi Glenn,

    Another criticism of Law from what you describe, (and one mistake you might be making yourself,) is to think of Aquinas’ arguments for a First Cause to be in the sense of time. Aquinas, taking his cue form Aristotle, did not believe that a the past could be proved finite – though he believed in the finitude of the past because it was revealed in scripture. Aquinas’ First Cause was in the existential sense. It speaks of logical priorities rather than temporal priorities. For instance, the cause of the continuing movement of this carriage is the continuing movement of the carriage pulling it. Or the cause of my existence is the air I breath, rather than the fact I was born once.

    Interestingly, this means his argument does not rely on any particular cosmology. A person who believed in an eternal universe could accept its conclusions.

  • Glenn May 30, 2010, 1:38 am

    Stuart, I’m not so sure about that. After all, Aquinas does speak explicitly about the causes of changes that occur in time, so I suspect that he really is thinking of the temporal causes of events in time.

  • Glenn May 30, 2010, 1:42 am

    T.A.M., as I read through your lengthy quote from Law, when I see comments like “the concept of belief is a temporal concept – a belief is a psychological state, and states have temporal duration,” it looks to me like he’s just assuming that the only kinds of beliefs are beliefs that can be held by us temporal creatures, belief sets that must be in a state of change.

    But why assume this?

  • The Atheist Missionary May 30, 2010, 5:27 am

    Glenn, I guess if you want to go post-modernist on me, we should assume nothing, believe nothing and perhaps think nothing.

    Law’s statement to the effect that: “But the concept of belief is a temporal concept – a belief is a psychological state, and states have temporal duration. So do desires. Actions, too, require a temporal setting. You can’t do something if there’s no time to do it in” seems practically certain to me. But, as you know, I am the first to concede that almost nothing is absolutely certain.

  • Glenn May 30, 2010, 12:34 pm

    T.A.M., I didn’t say anything postmodern.

    Suggesting that until the Big Bang, God did not change in belief or action – is hardly a postmodern thing to say, and what’s more it overcomes Law’s objection.

  • The Atheist Missionary May 30, 2010, 12:44 pm

    Sorry but I can’t resist – what was God doing for the first half of eternity until he decided to create us for his Sims game?

  • Glenn May 30, 2010, 12:52 pm

    Well, that question assumes some sort of long drawn out temporal waiting game. But clearly that wasn’t the case if time began with the big bang.

    Had there been such a span of time, though, I think we all know that God was spending it inventing punishments for people who ask stupid questions.

  • Huseyn Qurbanov January 27, 2016, 7:21 am

    Logically complete cosmological concept. /due to lack of knowledge of the English language was not able to correct the translation Implemented by Google/
    In order to present the unlimited space originally Elementary:
    1. variety (homogeneous) сompleted – enough to postulate the presence in it of two elements with SIMPLE and COMPLEX /closed systematically manifested the essence/
    2. heterogeneous completed – enough to postulate the presence in it of one more element – the Most High and Almighty God – with open exhibited systemic nature.
    Not hard to imagine that even at the lowest possible deployment intangible components the nature of God – the Spirit of God – for the level of the original downwardly directed continuous deployment the material component of the essence of God, there is a curtailment of SIMPLE and COMPLEX /i.e.. their decay occurs due to blocking of origin upwardly directed constantly deploy components of their intangible essences/, as the maximum possible heterogeneous nature of God to the minimum possible number of cell uniformity (№1h) and God on the basis of the material components of the minimum possible №1 deploys heterogeneous to its essence as possible numerical element uniformity (№2H). The process of clotting №2H begins at a certain point in time God begins at the end of its deployment. Curtailment of the Spirit of God to the level of initial deployment again unfolds №1H – God’s potential for transformation into a №1H in №2H and №1H in №2H limitless!

  • Branden Holmes June 15, 2016, 1:10 am

    Kobir didn’t misrepresent Bob’s formulation of the Cosmological argument, because his mistaken premise was there from the beginning:

    “Bob: Yes, it’s a great mystery. After all, everything has a cause doesn’t it? Things don’t just happen. Take that firework that exploded over there a few moments ago. That explosion didn’t just happen, did it? It had to have a cause. Someone had to light the fuse, didn’t they?”

  • Glenn June 17, 2016, 12:12 am

    Branden, in context Bob was talking about events (like the explosion of a firecracker). But more importantly, if you continued reading my blog post past that quotation, you’d see that Dr Law made it clear that he intends Bob’s argument to be construed in the way that historical versions of the Cosmological argument are made. I quoted where Dr Law said this. Those historical arguments do not say that every entity that exists was caused, but they are compatible with Bob’s claim if he means that every event has a cause.

    So it is a misrepresentation, denying Bob the chance to correct the person who misrepresented the argument.

  • Branden Holmes June 17, 2016, 12:50 am

    Glenn, I did read your whole post. It’s pretty clear that Bob mistakenly characterised the argument from the outset*. Bob did only give examples of events after stating that everything has a cause, but that does not imply that Bob meant that it applied only to events. And Bob only qualified that claim after Kobir pointed out that it was special pleading to excuse God from the chain of causal explanations: after Kobir reiterated Bob’s argument back to him, including the crucial premise that “everything has a cause”. Bob then qualified his claim in typical style: “But when I said everything has a cause I didn’t mean ABSOLUTELY everything. I made everything except God, obviously”. So Law didn’t deny Bob the chance to correct Kobir, since Kobir had Bob’s argument right in the first place, and Law had Bob only shift to allowing God to be uncaused after he was caught out.

    * Dr. Law himself did the same thing in his debate with Dr. Craig?

  • Glenn June 17, 2016, 10:11 am

    “It’s pretty clear that Bob mistakenly characterised the argument from the outset”

    Not if, in context, Bob is talking about events, and that appears to be the case. His use of the firework example seems designed to make that clear. He didn’t introduce that example when he was “caught out.” On the contrary, he introduces it at the same time he says that things have causes:

    “Yes, it’s a great mystery. After all, everything has a cause doesn’t it? Things don’t just happen. Take that firework that exploded over there a few moments ago. That explosion didn’t just happen, did it? It had to have a cause. Someone had to light the fuse, didn’t they?”

    So he was showing what he meant by his claim about causes. An explosion is an event.

    But God is not an event like the explosion of a firework, so Bob was in a position to point that out. The author, however, didn’t let him. The author allowed Bob to be construed as making an argument that differs from historic versions of the cosmological argument, even though the author explicitly says that he’s talking about a historic argument.

    If you don’t see it that way then I think you should, but I can’t make you. 🙂

  • Branden Holmes June 17, 2016, 11:19 pm

    If Bob simply meant that every event has a cause then he would have said so, instead of what he actually said: “everything has a cause”. His fireworks example was almost certainly chosen because of the general perception of the public regarding the nature of the Big Bang: an actual explosion. The difference is that while in the case of the fireworks there was a fuse to be lit, there was no pre-Big Bang fuse. Hence, while you may wish to call the Big Bang an event, it was much more than that. Hence Bob’s more general claim, albeit one which does not accurately represent historical cosmological arguments. He should have given something like the causal premise in the KCA.

  • Huseyn Qurbanov November 27, 2016, 2:14 am

    Cosmological concept which is complete from logical point of view

    Initial composition of boundless space from the point of view of element:

    1.It is suffucient to declare existence of two elements, SIMPLE and COMPLEX, possesing closed systemic appearance in order to imagine different (homogenous) and completed one.
    2.It is sufficient to declare existence of Lord and Almighty in other element, possesing non-closed systematic appearance in order to imagine it as different and incomplete as heterogenous (in other words: various type).

    It is not difficult to presume that simple and complex compression is happened in possible minimal widening from permanent widening level, first, inclination to descending, from material component of God from non-material component of Divine Spirit/separation happened as maximum possible diversity (1H) on essence of God on minimum possible numeric homogeneity regarding with blockage of start of non-material components, permanently widening, inclined to their increase of essence/God widens minimal possible homogeneity as maximum possible numeric diversity (2H) to His essence on the basis of 1H material components. Closing process starts only from time, known to God, starting from completion of 2 H opening process. Closing process reopens according to initial opening level of Divine Spirit 1H-1H process of God to 2H process and conversion possibilities of 2H process to 1 H process!

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