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Cosmological Arguments

Thomas Aquinas.
Image via Wikipedia

A cosmological argument is a proof that God exists based on the existence of the Universe itself, and this has been argued in many different forms over the years. In essence, the argument seeks to prove that God is the only possible explanation for the existence of the Universe and, because the Universe exists, God must exist. Four of St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Ways outline some form of a cosmological argument.

The simplest version of the cosmological argument – and the easiest to criticize – takes on the following form:

  1. Everything that exists must have a cause to its existence.
  2. The Universe exists.
  3. Therefore: The Universe has a cause to its existence.
  4. Because there cannot be an infinite regression of causes leading up to the cause of the Universe’s existence, then there must be a first cause.
  5. That first cause is God, therefore God exists.


The problem with this simple formulation of the cosmological argument is that it is logically unsound – that is, the conclusion actually contradicts the premise (1). The first premise states that everything that exists must have a cause to its existence, yet, the conclusion states that God exists but does not have a cause to its existence. If God does not have a cause to its existence then (1) is false. If God does have a cause to its existence then the argument is no longer conclusive. Thus, more complex cosmological arguments will always attempt to address this inherent contradiction in the simple formulation in some manner.

Another issue here is the explicit equation of the term “God” with “first cause.” When most people think of God they think of much more than simply a first cause. For example, tied up with the notion of God are also notions of perfection, goodness, and love. God is imagined as being eternal, present within the world,  conscious, and cares about what happens within the world. If all of these things are tied into the term “God” then this argument, even if sound (and we’ll see other attempts to make it sound), does not prove that “God” exists but simply proves that a mysterious “first cause” exists – an uncaused cause. But there’s no reason to conclude that this uncaused cause is conscious or loving, or that it even still exists. A cause that exists eternally into the past need not exist eternally into the future. For all purposes, this “first cause” could be nothing more than a random, uncaused fluctuation of energy.

Also at issue here is the 4th premise which states that an infinite regression of causes into the past is not possible. In other words, imagine that Z was caused by Y and Y was caused by X, and so on and on down the line. The argument in premise (4) is that this cannot go on forever infinitely into the past, that is, without a first cause – an uncaused cause (call it A), then there could be no B, C, D,…..,X, Y, or Z. As the philosopher and Christian apologist Peter Kreeft puts it, “If there is no first cause, then the universe is like a great chain with many links; each link is held up by the link above it, but the whole chain is held up by nothing.”

First of all, the idea itself of an infinite regression is not logically impossible. Mathematicians work with them all the time, namely, the number line is an example of an infinite regression in both the negative and positive directions. Secondly, it’s necessary to distinguish between two key concepts – (1) that of a first cause in time, that is, an uncaused cause that at some point in time caused a whole chain of causes, and (2) that of a causal primacy.  A causal primacy is the metaphysical basis for the concept of causality itself. In other words, its existence cannot be explained because it makes explanation possible. Existence itself is the causal primacy because all explanation must take place within the concept of existence. How would you explain the existence of existence itself without using existence as a basis for your explanation? You can’t – it’s impossible. You cannot explain anything in terms of non-existence. Existence is the causal primacy and it must be eternal because without it there could be no explanation.

In this case, there is no reason that causes could not extend infinitely into the past within the context of an eternal existence – there would be no need for a first cause at some point in time. Kreeft objects that the “whole chain is held up by nothing” but this cannot be true – the chain is “held up” by existence itself – existence allows for there to be a chain at all. If existence has no beginning, then neither should causation.

Argument from Contingency

A more sophisticated version of the cosmological argument is the so-called Argument from Contingency. Instead of attempting to prove a first cause, this argument attempts to prove that a “necessary being” must exist, and, of course, this necessary being must be God. It begins by making a distinction between “necessary existence” and “contingent existence.” To put it simply, something that exists necessarily could not have not-existed, while something that exists contingently could have not existed depending on certain circumstances. My existence is contingent on my parents – under different circumstances I could have not-existed. The argument can be outlined as follows:

  1. Everything that exists contingently must have a reason for its existence, i.e., its existence is dependent on something else.
  2. Everything within the Universe is contingent on something else, and thus, the Universe itself must be contingent – or – the Universe does not exist necessarily because it could have logically not existed.
  3. The cause of the contingent Universe must itself not be contingent, that is, it must exist necessarily in order to provide the reason for the Universe’s existence.
  4. That necessary being is God.


As before, the Universe itself provides the context in which the concepts of causality make sense. In what sense can we apply the notion of causality to the Universe itself? However, the central problem with this argument is its assertion that the Universe is contingent. This assumes that at some point the Universe did not exist and that at another point it did exist and there must be some reason for this fact. But this is not a fact. Think about what it means, for instance, to say that you or I don’t exist. Fundamentally, this means that the special arrangement of matter that allows us to function as a living, breathing human being is not arranged in this manner. When we cease to exist the matter that makes us up doesn’t suddenly disappear, rather, it continues to exist in other forms.

When, then, does matter ever not exist? Factual observation tells us that matter is never created nor destroyed. In other words, the existence of matter is not contingent upon anything. Matter is a metaphysical primary. The Universe – that is, the sum total of all matter – therefore, exists necessarily and not contingently. So what in the Universe does exist contingently? Only particular arrangements of matter. A building is a particular arrangement of matter that need not exist in that way – but to say that the building’s existence is contingent is not to say that the existence of the matter that is used to form the building is contingent.

Thus, this argument fails because everything exists necessarily and only particular arrangements of matter exist contingently. The argument’s distinction between necessary and contingent existence is an illusion. All existence is necessary, only the particular form of existence is contingent because it need not necessarily take on any particular form.

More recent variations of this classic argument try and incorporate modern scientific ideas and discoveries about the Universe and cosmology into the argument itself as support for some of its premises. The most popular, by far, is termed The Kalam Cosmological Argument and has its most vocal supporter in William Lane Craig.

This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:13 pm


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