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Does God exist? The cosmological argument.

Updated on July 31, 2012

Thomas Aquinas defends the faith.

The question of God's existence is one of the perennial features of the philosophical landscape. Some of the biggest names in the history of philosophy, science, and religion have been engrossed with this question, and the result is a vast and varied corpus of work on the subject. One of the most famous forms of the argument for God's existence is called the cosmological argument.

This argument was formulated most notably by Saint Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century theologian of monumental influence. Aquinas famously posited his five ways of proving God's existence in his massive text called Summa Theologica. This lens will explore the basic structure of the argument, some of its subtle variations, and some of the criticism it has drawn.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Slow down. What is "cosmological?"

Right. I suppose we should begin with a word on what makes this argument a "cosmological" one. Well, there are a lot of starting points you could use to go about arguing for God's existence. This argument starts from the cosmos - that is to say the universe in all of its vast, orderly glory. The cosmological argument starts by saying: "Look at all this stuff (wave hand dramatically across the sky). All this stuff - the cosmos - must have gotten here somehow, and we'd better figure out how." That's pretty much the gist.

A sketch of the argument.

Okay, so Aquinas actually produced three separate forms of the cosmological argument, but they are very similar. In this guide I'm going to shamelessly mash them all together for brevity's sake. Let's start by breaking the argument down into steps.

1. Every contingent being must have a cause.

Think of a table. How did it get here? It was made from boards of wood. How did the boards come into being? They were cut from a tree. So what about the tree? Well, maybe it owes its existence to a farmer who planted it and the soil and climate conditions that sustained it. Where did the farmer come from? His parents birthed him. And on, and on, and on...

Each of the objects and beings mentioned above we could call a "contingent" being. That is: they don't contain the reason for their own existence within themselves, but rather they owe their existence to something else. They didn't use to exist, and they won't exist forever. Their existence is contingent on another being. But those other beings are also contingent beings, which means they too owe their existence to other contingent beings. Hmm.

2. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.

So, as we trace the pattern further back through time, where does it get us? Each being just relies on another being for its existence! So we've got this causal chain that seems to go back through time forever and ever and never stops, but this is impossible. Each time we go a step further back, we're still left with a contingent being. So something had to cause that being's existence too, and we have to go another step back. Frustrating, right?

3. A causal loop cannot exist.

What if instead of thinking of this long cause-effect chain as a straight line, we thought of it as a loop? Let's see what that might mean. I was born from my mom; she was born from her mom; her mom was born from her own mom; so to close the loop, my great-grandmother would have to be born from me! Well, that's obviously ridiculous, so we're back to the straight line, which we already said couldn't just keep going on forever.

4. Therefore, a first cause exists.

The only option left is that at some point in the causal chain, there is a being whose existence is not contingent upon any other being. This being is the start of the chain. This being contains the reason for its own existence within itself. It is the first cause, the uncaused cause, the cause that started it all. ...It's God, if you haven't figured that out yet. Yeah, God exists. Boom.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Becoming versus essence.

I hope you're not confused yet, because we need to make one crucial distinction regarding the cosmological argument. That is whether or not we are talking about causation in terms of becoming or essence. These fancy philosophical terms are not as scary as they sound. To explain them, we must go...to the metaphormobile!

Becoming is like a watch.

Imagine I am a watchmaker, and I put together a watch. After I'm done and I set that bad boy ticking, I can walk away. The watch doesn't need me anymore. I have caused it, and now it's free to do its thing. This is what philosophers mean by becoming. If we're interested in the cosmological argument with respect to becoming, we are saying: God created the first people and things. After that, those people were able to reproduce and generally act however they wanted. God might approve or disapprove, but He can sit back and relax either way.

Essence is like a candle.

Now picture a candle. When the candle is lit, we might say that the candle is responsible for the light's existence. In this case, however, the flame (and the light it produces) are not free to do whatever they want, and the candle isn't able to just walk away. As soon as that candle melts away, that light is gone. This is what philosophers mean by essence.

Within the cosmological argument, if we are interested in essence we have to say something like this: Yeah, God caused us. But every second of our lives we owe our continued existence to Him. If He walks away, we're gone - poof! If we are the light from the flickering flame, God is the candle on which we continuously depend for our existence. In this way, we might say that the fact that we are created by God is part of our essence. As soon as we stop being created by God (meaning when the candle melts away), we cease to exist. It's not a one-time deal.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Are you convinced?

Do you find the cosmological argument convincing? If you believe in God, is this part of the reason why?

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Objection 1: Who caused God?

Oh boy, you better believe the cosmological argument has been absolutely barraged with objections. First up, and perhaps the most popular: who caused the first cause?

The objection goes like this: "Okay, so we've got this long causal chain that goes back and back and back and eventually it just stops at God. Alright, wise guy, then who caused God?" Our whiney objector is accusing the argument of "special pleading," meaning it seems to exempt God from needing a cause for the sole purpose of making the argument coherent.

Those defending the cosmological argument are all like: "What? Were you even listening? The whole point is that the first cause is not contingent on anything, meaning it was never caused at all. It just is. To ask what caused God is to completely misunderstand the argument. Fail."

(Image credit: Detail from Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam, 1511 AD)

Objection 2: Which God are we talking about?

Another popular objection goes like this: "Okay, so you've proved the existence of a first cause. Something - anything - was there at the beginning of it all and set everything in motion. But how do we know if that has anything to do with what Christian scripture says?"

This objection asserts that even if the cosmological argument proves the existence of a creator, it doesn't prove that this creator is the Christian God. For that matter it doesn't even lead us to pick theism over deism.

(Image credit: Liliac Ministries)

Objection 3: It's basic math, people.

A third objection to the cosmological argument comes most notably from British philosopher Bertrand Russell. According to him, the entire basis of the argument rests in people's inability to conceive that an infinite regress might be possible. This is ridiculous, says Russell, because we encounter these types of regresses in mathematics all the time.

Consider, for example, the sequence of negative integers ending in zero. It looks like this:

{ ... -5, -4, -3, -2, -1, 0 }

The left side of that sequence keeps getting smaller forever. Even if we imagine some negative number with a zillion digits, there is a number a little smaller. And yet we don't insist that the sequence eventually ends and we'll find God sitting patiently at the far left side. Russell would argue that we should treat the "chain of being" the same way - there is no need for that left side to ever terminate.

(Image credit: Super Happiness)

Read it for yourself.

The most famous form of the cosmological argument is contained within Thomas Aquinas' massive book Summa Theologica. Instead of wading through that tome to get to the good bits, I'd recommend instead reading him in an anthology. The Oxford edition below provides an excellent overview of Aquinas' thought.

Do you find the cosmological argument convincing? Would you like recommendations on how to further explore this area of thought? Did I leave out something major? Let me know!

What's your take?

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    • Oztinato profile image

      Oztinato 2 years ago from Australia

      The math definition of God is that which always existed in perfection. This is drastically different to atheist science which is stuck in a chicken and egg paradox.

      The correct math definition of God is also proven to be logically consistent as proven by Einsteins successor Kurt Godel in his supercomputer tested proof of God.

    • Pat Goltz profile image

      Pat Goltz 4 years ago

      I was familiar with this argument. The problem with each argument you have described is that at the end of each there is a leap of faith. It doesn't have to be a BIG leap of faith (and there is so much evidence that it is NOT a big leap of faith), but none of these proofs really settles the question once and for all. Unfortunately, when it comes to God's existence, we are blind in one eye and can't see out of the other.

      As with your other lenses on the existence of God, this one is well written and explains the concepts nicely.

    • TeacherSerenia profile image

      TeacherSerenia 4 years ago

      I believe in a supreme creator (or a god if you will) but it is NOT the god of the bible. This god created the universe and then stepped back and has allowed the universe to unwind. This "god" does not interfere in any way shape or form (no matter how much the christians want him to).

      I am in control of my fate, my destiny and my life - not any god or imaginary friend in the sky.

      And yes I am a Deist (See objection number 2 above)

    • Hypersapien2 profile image

      Hypersapien2 5 years ago from U.S.

      Very nice lens!

    • Nimblepins profile image

      Nimblepins 5 years ago

      What a great lens! I'm still on the fence about God, but I loved your arguments. Please keep going!

    • sukkran trichy profile image

      sukkran trichy 5 years ago from Trichy/Tamil Nadu

      thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking read. ~blessed by a squid angel~

    • microfarmproject profile image

      microfarmproject 5 years ago

      I enjoyed reading this lens. The arguments are well laid-out and clear. I will be looking at your related lenses, as well.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Personally, I liked Bertrand Russell's take on the matter. I think, as humans, we simply cannot fathom physics, ideologies, space, time, etc. outside of how we're programmed to look at these concepts. Anything is possible. I'm really impressed with your writing -- you did an excellent job of writing, editing, explaining the concepts clearly (thank you for the visual metaphors!), and sounding natural the whole way through. Best of luck to you. I will be reading more of your lenses! This particular lens I am going to Pinterest and link to from my myth lens.

    • JJNW profile image

      JJNW 5 years ago from USA

      I enjoy your writing style and look forward to reading the rest of this series. Interesting! "Blessed" by a SquidAngel

    • James M Becher profile image

      James M Becher 5 years ago from South Florida

      You did a great job. I'm going to feature this on my lens: Apologetics (How to defend the faith).

    • profile image

      ideadesigns 5 years ago

      Proof of a creator is awesome, and I believe we need the redemption that freely comes from a loving God. "In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins." Thanks for such a thought provoking lens!