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AQA Religious Studies Unit 03 - Philosophy of Religion - Cosmological Argument

Updated on May 2, 2013

Thomas Aquinas

Do you think Thomas put forward strong arguments, or did he just make an Aquin-ass of himself?
Do you think Thomas put forward strong arguments, or did he just make an Aquin-ass of himself? | Source

The First Three of Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways

  1. Causation of Existence
  2. The Argument From Motion
  3. Contingent and Necessary Beings

Way One: Causation of Existence

1) Every object is a result of creation from other objects
2) Nothing can create itself
3) There cannot be an infinite line of objects that created each other
4) There must be an uncaused object that started the chain of creation, this uncaused object is God

Way Two: Argument From Motion

1) Nothing can move itself.
2) Every object in motion was first put into motion by a mover, necessitating a first object that put all else into motion - the first 'mover'.
3) This first mover is called the 'Unmoved Mover' and must be God.

Way Three: Contingency and Necessity of Objects
1) Contingent beings are caused by something
2) Therefore not every being can be contingent
3) There must be a 'necessary being' that is the cause of all contingent beings
4) This necessary being is God.

Weaknesses of Aquinas' First Three Ways

  • Each commits Bertrand Russell's fallacy of composition - Aquinas makes the observation that certain parts of the universe have certain characteristics e.g. some objects he saw had an identifiable cause that stemmed from other objects, and applies those same characteristics to the Universe as a whole. These are illogical leaps in his argument.
  • Simultaneously, then, Aquinas also faces David Hume's problem of induction. Specifically, Aquinas commits the fallacy of hasty generalisation, using a very small sample (the objects he experienced in his lifetime) to generalise every object in the universe. It can be argued that Aquinas could not have seen enough objects in the universe to pass judgements on everything in it. Furthermore, David Hume would argue that Aquinas could only apply the conclusions he made to the objects he experienced, and then only in the present - not to anything in the past or future.
  • Scientists have found particles that seem to have no cause, observing that they enter the universe as randomly as they leave it (referred to often by Stephen Hawking in his books).
  • All of Aquinas' arguments rely on a posteriori knowledge which carries with it the usual detriments - the senses may be fooling us to believe that things exist, or perhaps we have not the intellectual capacity to fully understand the meaning of existence (therefore nullifying any conclusions we make on it).
  • Aquinas' rejection of infinite regress can be heavily challenged, allowing the possibility of an infinite regress.
  • Even if Aquinas was right and there was a 'first cause', he puts forward no argument for why this God should be the one described in monotheistic religions. The cause could have been anything at all, even the big bang, leaving no room for the monotheistic God who poses many more questions than he answers e.g. modern science has refuted much of what is written in the Bible, Torah and Qu'ran like our creation in genesis (with evolution) and other stories (such as Noah's Ark).

Strengths of Aquinas' First Three Ways

  • Based on a posteriori premises - it is hard to deny that the universe exists, that all objects have a cause and were set into motion by something else and that all objects rely on something else for its existence.
  • Ockham's razor favours the cosmological argument because it is the simplest answer to the question of how the universe was created 'God did it'.
  • Gottfried Leibniz also offers support for the cosmological argument with his idea of 'sufficient reason', stating that although we can have answers to how things came about, we need a 'sufficient reason' that will not pose any more questions after it. This sufficient reason then must be God. He gives the example of books, where each book is based on a book before it, dating back to the original source of the information. If the analogy is applied to the universe, then God is the original source of all that followed.
  • An infinite regress is impossible, as shown by Zeno's paradox of Achille's racing the turtle. Therefore, there must have been a first cause with nothing before it. This must be God.
  • Any suggestion that Aquinas committed "hasty generalisation" can be met with the counter argument that there is enough evidence to suggest that the objects in the universe had a cause (and any particle found to have no cause is just not yet understood, having a cause but not an explanation for it). Therefore, to say that Aquinas commits 'hasty generalisation' is in itself the fallacy of 'slothful generalisation' - defying vast amounts of evidence that all points to the same conclusion.

Bertrand Russell's Argument

  • The term 'necessary being' carries no meaning because we have never experienced such a thing - we have only ever observed contingent beings and therefore that is all we can speculate exists. As the British empiricist David Hume would have stated, we can only pass judgement on that which we are observing at the time that we are observing it - we cannot make any conclusions about what happened to those objects in the past, nor make predictions of how they behave in the future.
  • Furthermore, if the universe needed a 'necessary being' then why can't the universe be the necessary being in itself. The statement: 'the universe exists' makes more logical sense (or at least is favoured by Ockham's razor) than the statement 'God exists and created the universe'.

An Example Essay Answer to a Past Paper Question

What are the Weaknesses of the Cosmological Argument?

Weaknesses of the Cosmological Argument

Although there are certain strengths of the cosmological argument, for each
strength there is at least one weakness.
To start, Thomas Aquinas’ Ways 1-3 can all be seen as fallacious. All 3 commit
Bertrand Russell’s fallacy of composition: Way 1 bases Aquinas’ small life
experience of moving objects and extends his conclusion to that of all objects
in the universe. He does the same in Way 2 but for objects and in Way 3 for the
contingency of beings in the universe. It can be argued that it is not correct to
make such leaps in his argument.

Another argument against the cosmological argument is David Hume’s problem
of induction. Aquinas states in Ways 1,2 and 3 that observed moving objects
have had something to put them into motion, observed objects have always had a
cause and that all observed objects are contingent beings, he can only (according
to David Hume and the problem of induction) refer to those objects which he has
observed and cannot extend these observations and apply them to the past or
future as well as every object he has not observed in present time.

Similarly, all three ways rely on a posteriori knowledge which can be seen
as weak because the senses can be unreliable and give false information.
Alternatively, we may simply not understand the concepts and implications of
existence and therefore although we believe things exist, we cannot be certain
they do.

Aquinas’ rejection of infinite regress can be heavily challenged and therefore an
infinite regress as the cause of the universe (and therefore denial of God and the
cosmological argument) is possible. For example, Zeno’s paradox of Achille’s and
the turtle can be explained mathematically.

Science also starkly contrasts the cosmological argument by giving evidence
of matter coming into existence without a cause. Furthermore, since Aquinas’
cosmological argument supports the monotheistic god, science also rejects this
in the way of disproving things like Genesis (specifically creation) and the age
of the Universe (13.6 billion years not several thousand as according to the
monotheistic texts).

Lastly, there is no reason or argument given for the belief that the God that
evidence has been given for has a personality specific to the monotheistic texts
and not anything else (the cause could have no personality, for example).

Full List of Questions for the Cosmological Argument Section

Below is a full list of all of the questions that have ever been asked in the AQA AS Religious Studies exam in the section of 'cosmological argument':

  • January 2010:
    (a) Explain key criticisms of the cosmological argument. (30 marks)
    (b) 'The weaknesses of the cosmological argument far outweigh its strengths.' To what extent do you agree with this view? (15 marks)
  • June 2010:
    (a) Explain the cosmological argument with particular reference to:
    - The rejection of infinite regress, and
    - God as the necessary being. (30 marks)
    (b) Assess how far the cosmological argument proves that God exists. (15 marks)
  • January 2011:
    (A)Explain how Aquinas’ cosmological argument attempts to prove that God exists. (30 marks)
    (b) Assess the value of the cosmological argument for religious faith (15 marks)
  • June 2011:
    (a) Explain the weaknesses of the cosmological argument. (30 marks)
    (b) To what extent do the strengths of the cosmological argument outweigh its weaknesses? (15 marks)
  • January 2012:
    (a)Explain Aquinas’ cosmological argument with particular reference to:
    - God as the first mover
    - God as the necessary being. (30 marks)
    (b) ‘The cosmological argument proves that God exists.’ How far do you agree? (15 marks)
  • June 2012
    (a) Examine the different understandings of the role of God found in the cosmological argument (30 marks)
    (b) 'The cosmological argument shows that it is reasonable to believe in God.' How far do you agree? (15 marks)

As you can see, the questions each year have been almost the same and therefore you can be very sure of the idea that a similar question will be asked again. The questions are quite vague, implying that the same information can be used each year.


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    • Justin Bagwell profile image

      Justin Bagwell 3 years ago

      The Earth is concave

    • profile image

      Dr Un-Sweet 4 years ago

      Very thorough account. You could (but don’t need to) add that Bertrand Russell had more issues with Aquinas in his choice of terminology. In his 1947 radio debate with F. Coplestone, he claimed that ‘necessary being’ carried no meaning as we only have experience of contingent beings. He claims that if the term carries any meaning then the universe itself could well be the necessary being or a ‘brute fact’.

      Excellent Hub