Edward Feser, the Pasadena pyrotechnic philosopher, has a new post up about the ignorance of philosophers, scientists, and others who refuse to pay close attention to Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Leibniz and, of course, him. Nor will he deign to argue the point in a blog post, because all the metaphysics that is assumed by the cosmological argument is simply too complex to pack into the compass of a blog post; we will just have to read his books, Aquinas and The Last Superstition. The basic error that is made can, however, be stated simply, and that is, well, simply this: “The [cosmological] argument does NOT rest on the premise that “Everything has a cause,” and “‘What Caused God?’ is not a serious objection to the argument.“
And, strictly speaking, this is true. The purpose of the argument is to show that the existence of contingent beings demands the existence of a being which is its own cause (causa sui). It follows, of course, that asking what causes the being that causes itself is not a serious objection to the argument, even though many philosophers have taken this course. Of course, it does not follow that the argument succeeds in demonstrating the existence of a self-caused being, in which case it does make sense to ask about the cause of the being which underlies contingent being. Doubtless, if the supposedly self-caused being — which, as Aquinas says, ”all men call God” – has not been shown to exist, asking for the cause of this self-originating being is merely rubbing salt into philosophical wounds, and perhaps this is what they intend to do, though Feser takes the question as a total misunderstanding of the cosmological argument itself.
However, even though Feser says, in his de haut en bas way, that most philosophers and others who try to refute the cosmological argument haven’t taken the trouble to understand the metaphysical basis for the argument, let alone the structure and intent of the argument itself, it is perhaps worthwhile making a blog post stab at the argument anyway. (It is also worth mentioning parenthetically that Feser’s accusation of sleaze and dishonesty against those who have argued against the cosmological argument is unnecessarily personal. Saying that someone has misunderstood an argument is part of the argument. Saying that they did so as a result of dishonesty and sleaze is an inappropriate move — unless, of course, it is obviously true. As I shall point out below, there is a real sense in which, underlying the cosmological argument, there is the simpler argument that everything requires a cause. That the argument purports to stop the regress of causes by arguing that the principle that everything requires a cause — the simple version of the cosmological argument – implies the existence of a self-caused being, does nothing to change the structure of the argument which is, to quote Feser’s account of what he takes as inaccurate rendering of the cosmological argument: “Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists.”)
Now, no doubt Feser would say, fizzing contemptuously, that it takes more than a quote from Aquinas to sum up the cosmological argument (or arguments), the heart of the cosmological argument, as he presents it in this post (which we understand needs to be supplemented by his two books and a lot of other stuff besides) is to be found in Aquinas’ Third Way in the Summa Theologica (Third Article [I, Q.2, Art.3]) But before we come to that, it is only fair to point out that Aquinas’ Second Way is essentially the argument that Feser dismisses as a misunderstanding of the cosmological argument, being the argument that “in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity …” Perhaps this depends on the other arguments, but Aquinas presents it as an argument complete in itself, and it is hardly fair to dismiss objections to it as misunderstandings.
But the bigger fish are swimming in the big sea of the Third Way, which is put by Aquinas as follows:
The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence–which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.
Obviously, we cannot provide a completely exhaustive refutation of the argument in a blog post. In this, at least, Feser is correct. But we can summarise the argument and ask ourselves whether the various stages of the argument are compelling.
First of all, the point of the argument is clear. Contingent things exist because other things cause them to exist. They do not exist by necessity. Therefore, they might not have existed. At this point Aquinas makes a very questionable move. He argues that, if everything that exists might not have existed, then there would be a time when nothing existed. If nothing (contingent) existed, there is nothing that could bring about the existence of anything unless that thing existed necessarily. And this, says Aquinas triumphantly, is what all men call God.
How good is this argument? Certainly, the leap from necessary existence to the being that all men call God is, just as it stands, illegitimate, though doubtless here is where the additional metaphysical assumptions make their appearance. The argument seems to be that, if what exists at one time did not exist, then only choice (that is, agency) can explain what exists now, and this points towards personal being of some sort, and it should not be hard, given that beginning, to spin out all the other characteristics of what “all men call God.”
Let’s leave that aside for the moment, because there are more serious problems here. Does it follow, we must ask, that, if everything is contingent, it is necessary that at some time nothing should have existed? This premise is essential to Aquinas’ argument, but it seems to commit the fallacy of composition. Does it follow from the contingency of everything that at one time there must have been nothing? No, it doesn’t. There may have been, but need not have been, a time when there was nothing, in the sense of no-thing, but even if there were it does not follow that the no-thing cannot bring contingent things into existence. Indeed, this is just what physicists now claim, when they suggest that “nothing” is in fact unstable. Consider the following excerpt from a lecture by Lawrence Krauss:
It might be argued (as William Lane Craig does in his response to Krauss’s response to Craig) that the nothing of which Krauss speaks is not “really” nothing, but it is, arguably, not something in the sense in which there exist casual chains of contingent particles or entities. As Krauss says, we simply do not know why it is there, nor, in a sense, then, do we understand what it “is”. All we seem to know is that, in any sense in which we use the classical language of being and non-being, whatever “it” (viz., “nothing”) is, it seems to be nothing, and yet this nothing can be unstable in such a way as to bring universes into being.
Now, I’m not going even to pretend to understand what all this means. Nevertheless, it suggests an answer to the questions raised by the cosmological argument. First of all, there is no logical reason why personal being should not have evolved from simpler forms of life, as, indeed, evolution presupposes; nor is there any logical reason why life should not have been the outcome of chance occurrences in the natural world, the right elements coming together under the right circumstances to begin the process of evolution towards more complex types of organic, and then of living, molecules. That this has not yet been explained — and may never be — does not make the search for the details misconceived or illogical.
Thus, the real question lies in how the natural world, the material universe, came to be. The cosmological argument depends ultimately on the assumption that actual infinities are self-contradictory. That is why Aquinas assumes that, if everything is contingent, there must have been a time when there was nothing. Otherwise, there is no reason to postulate a self-caused first cause, for, if an infinite regress of causes is possible, a self-caused first cause would be surplus to requirements, since there would then be no need of a first cause. Now, here’s the point of all this. In the universe described by Krauss we seem to have just what the doctor ordered: a mysterious universe which fulfils all Aquinas’ fears about the self-contradictoriness of an actual infinity, which in some unexplained, inchoate way “exists”, and yet which, in a way not yet (and perhaps never to be) understood, randomly “throws off” universes, which either grow in predictable ways, or revert to the “nothingness” out of which they came.
This suggestion is, I think, consistent with Lawrence Krauss’s account of what is now known about physics and cosmology. I don’t even pretend to understand what it all means, in any detailed sense, since that would take a degree of mathematical knowledge and aptitude which I do not possess. The important point here, however, is this. If this account is even in these broad outlines plausibly true, then there is simply no need to posit necessary beings of any kind. There may be an infinity of mysterious forces which underlie the existence of material universes, and perhaps even an infinity of universes, of which the one we find ourselves in is only one. The point was made a long time ago by David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, where he supposes that the universe we live in may be the discarded attempt at creating a universe by some young or superannuated god. There is simply no reason to think of this universe as either the best or the only one possible, and nothing but presumption can lead us to any other conclusion.
That is no doubt why, when we look out into the universe at night, and see the stars and galaxies receding into unimaginably vast and humbling distances, we might, like Pascal, seem so alone and insignificant. “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me,” Pascal remarked in his Pensées. And surely his experience of cosmic loneliness and insignificance was just as revealing as his remarkable experience of religious fire:
‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’
not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
‘Thy God shall be my God.’
The world forgotten, and everything except God.
He can only be found
by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Greatness of the human soul.
‘O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.’
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have cut myself off from him.
They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.
‘My God wilt thou forsake me?’
Let me not be cut off from him for ever!
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only
true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.’
I have cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him.
Let me never be cut off from him!
He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Sweet and total renunciation.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.
Everlasting joy in return for one day’s effort on earth.
I will not forget thy word.
Sewn into the lining of his coat, these words were found after Pascal’s death, and were no doubt held onto all the more fervently, because in that experience he found the alternative to the frightening vision of infinite, barren spaces, the vision of modern science, which seemed so cold and bewilderingly impersonal. This is still true of many today, who resort to religious vision for comfort and reassurance against the threat of the vast impersonal universe in relation to which we seem so very fleeting and impermanent.
However, the fact that we may feel small and insignificant in a universe which, in a few short months, will crush us heedlessly, does not make the godless vision any less true, and no amount of toying with the logic of infinity or of causation will rescue the religious vision from a well-deserved rest. And this leads me to one last reflection on the cosmological argument(s). The reason why so many people ignore the detailed argumentation to which Feser refers, and the books in which this argumentation is so carefully laid out, is that, for many of us, there are simply too many other reasons for believing that such argumentation, no matter how elaborate, cannot be successful. For, after all the “proofs” of God’s existence have been addressed in their strongest form, the simple truth seems to be that there are too many other reasons not to believe. The fact that science has shown, repeatedly, that the god hypothesis is not needed in order to understand the workings of the world, or that the variety of different religious belief systems seems inevitably to argue against the assumption that any one of them is true, or that the manifold evils suffered, not only throughout the millions of years of evolutionary history, but built right into the process of evolution itself, seem convincingly to show that belief in a god or gods really contributes very little, if anything at all, to the sum of our knowledge about the world or of our existence in it. And for this reason alone, the classical “proofs” for the existence of God simply no longer have the power to persuade.
If scientists and philosophers over-simplify the arguments and so refute arguments which no self-respecting theologian or religious philosopher ever made, the reason is not to be sought in sleaze and dishonesty, as Feser, fizzing away with the high dudgeon of an outraged philosopher, suggests meanly; no, the answer is to be sought in the other reasons that atheists have for not taking such arguments seriously. It may also be the case that contemporary science, as I have suggested, includes all that is necessary to overthrow cosmological arguments for the existence of god(s), and that this is, however dimly, appreciated by those who confront these arguments in their weakest and least elaborate form. Feser must have other reasons why we should attend to these complex logical arguments, and just telling us that the arguments are not as simple as many people assume is not one of them.