Common Arguments, Refuted: the Cosmological Argument

Hello all,

This is the second in a series of posts deconstructing and refuting some common arguments in favor of theism, religion, faith, etc. This article will feature the so-called “cosmological argument.” The cosmological argument, also called the First Cause argument, goes way back. It was employed by both Plato (in Laws, book 10, his longest dialogue) & Aristotle, and by Thomas Aquinas. A version of this argument, the Kalam Cosmological Argument, is favored by theologian William Lane Craig.

The argument goes something like this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The Universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the Universe had a cause.

Put another way,

  1. Every finite and contingent being has a cause.
  2. A causal loop cannot exist.
  3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  4. Therefore, a First Cause (or something that is not an effect) must exist.

The current understanding of science holds that spacetime began to exist when the universe began to exist. It is meaningless to ask what came “before” the Big Bang, in the same sense that it is meaningless to ask what’s “south” of the South Pole. The concept of “before” didn’t logically exist “before” the existence of time itself, so we needn’t concern ourselves with what came “before” our universe. As Stephen Hawking famously said, “Anything that happened before the Big Bang could not affect what happened after.”

There are several reasons the cosmological argument doesn’t hold water. I think the easiest comes from the particle physicist Victor Stenger, who wrote the wonderful books God: The Failed Hypothesis and The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: Why the Universe is Not Designed For Us. The error in reasoning can be summarized in five words 5 words: The first premise is false. According to Stenger, quantum physics tells us that something CAN come from nothing, so the entire idea that everything that begins to exist must have a cause is just plain wrong.

This premise is an example of a bare assertion, a statement unsupported by evidence. This is something for which, as skeptics, we need to watch out in general. If someone presents an assertion to you, especially as a basis for a set of premises, we need to take a moment to ask, “How do you know that?”

As with most of these arguments, this is really an argument for deism, or at best theism, not Christianity or any god or gods in particular. If you find yourself in a debate about Christianity or any particular religion or god, make sure to drive home this point: This is a (piss-poor) argument for deism—belief in a creator entity, whether still extant or not—not an argument for theism or any particular god. If someone tries to tell you that something can’t come from nothing, therefore Jesus, remind them that this is a non sequitur. It is no better than arguing “something can’t come from nothing, therefore Brahman,” or any other creator entity.

I’m reminded of the wonderful Sidney Harris cartoon, which I will not reproduce here for copyright reasons but which you can google if you’d like (try “Sidney Harris miracle math cartoon”): Two mathematicians are standing at a chalkboard with some complicated figures, and in the second of three deductive steps, it simply says, “Then a miracle occurs.” The one mathematician says to the other, “I think you should be more explicit here in Step Two.”

If someone cannot tell you how they know something, there’s a good bet that they’re bullshitting you. Sometimes the right answer is, “I don’t know, but very smart people are working on that.” For me, that sums up anything we could ever want to know about the “god question,” and it’s why I’m an agnostic atheist.

Until next time,

Dave

  • Mark

    So let me get this straight… Something can come from nothing… As long as by nothing we mean something (namely the laws of physics, the whole state of affairs that preceded this something). Well you’ve sure destroyed that argument!!

    And you realize that you are commenting on the type of cause this allows for while apparently not bothering to read the pages and pages about what traits this cause must have?

    As a fellow atheist and skeptic, this sort of treatment of the various cosmological arguments is embarrassing. Critical thinking involves making sure you’re familiar with an argument before launching a botched, nonsensical attack on it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003410267310 Nataly

    I think every university souhld have at least one freethinking-relevant group! It’s not too hard, and if you’re on a campus you can usually get free money to have events I souhld point out that some schools put groups like ours into the Religious category. And, here at UNB, such groups do not get any money from the school.

  • eric

    Good break down. This argument should just stop at the deism claim if anything. The next step is to show how it’s the Christian god and not any other, but they never follow through with that.

    Another point is the claim that god is the only first cause. Why does god not need a cause itself? If god doesn’t need a first cause, why not skip this and just say the universe itself doesn’t need a first cause?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003410297228 Venkatesh

      I watched them both, and I love them.(Although Greta Christina is pfteecrly correct in pointing out that we should not waste our time with labels, it still would benefit us to have that atheist-agnosticism discussion, not only because it is not exactly comparable to the gay-bi example she gave, but also because there is a facepalm-worthy disparity between who atheists are and what non-atheists think atheists ought to be).Our movement (such as it is) needs more diversity. I keep asking, Where are all of the other Native Americans/First Nations peoples (other than Dan Barker)?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003411101142 Silvio

        I like the idea of connecting with the peolpe he’s talking to. These sorts of superstitions will pass just as many other mistaken ideas about the world have passed. But it takes time, maybe many more generations of humans, before it would naturally go away and in the meantime I’d much rather be friendly and find a way to understand each other. That way we can all play together instead of fighting all the time, which is really boring.