On The Cosmological Argument and Libertarian Free-Will

Consider the following argument:

  1. All things which come to exist have causes.
  2. The universe came to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.

This is one version of the Cosmological Argument (CA). Concluding that the universe had a cause, proponents of CA draw the further inference that God was the only possible cause that the universe could have had. Those who reject CA have replied that atheists can concede that the universe had a cause without conceding the existence of God. Why, for example, should we think that the universe’s cause had a mind? If one cannot conclude that the universe’s cause had a mind, CA proponents will need an additional argument to reach theism.

In order to argue that the universe’s cause has a mind, theists may appeal to the notion that minds have unique causal powers. Human minds, for example, seem to be capable of generating ideas ex nihilo. Generally: minds possess unique causal powers because minds are uniquely creative. Perhaps only a vastly powerful mind could generate the universe ex nihilo. (This may seem fairly implausible; it does to me. But put that aside.) What the theist would need to argue is that there is something qualitatively distinct about those states of affairs in which something is willed into existence from those states of affairs where events have non-mental causes, so that the universe’s generation ex nihilo can only be explained by some mechanism which possesses a will. Because only minds can have wills, a universe willed into existence must have been caused by a mind:

  1. Nothing can be generated ex nihilo except by a mind.
  2. The universe was generated ex nihilo.
  3. Therefore, the universe was generated by a mind.

For the purposes of what follows, assume that a libertarian free-will is one which is capable of making choices without any antecedent causes. As such, LFW is incompatible with determinism — the view that all events have antecedent causes — and with what I will call  “acausalism” — the view (perhaps held by Hume) that no events have antecedent causes. Furthermore, notice that if libertarian free-will (LFW) exists — and a large number of theists believe that it does — there is a good reason to think that minds have unique causal powers in virtue of their possession of a will. (For example, in a Newtonian universe, a mind that possesses a libertarian free-will would, by definition, not be bound by the laws of physics.)

I think that any argument employing a strategy of this sort is doomed to failure. The problem is that, as far as I can tell, LFW is incoherent. And if LFW is incoherent, we are left with either compatibilist free-will or with no free-will at all (hard determinism or acausalism). Under either compatibilism or hard determinism/acausalism, (4) is implausible and we are left with no way to distinguish between a universe maker with a mind and one without. In what follows, I will present an argument, inspired by Hume’s Treatise, for the conclusion that LFW is incoherent. Having argued that LFW is incoherent, I will conclude that the strategy outlined in (4)-(6) is implausible and that the atheist can concede (1)-(3) without accepting that the universe was caused by a mind.

It may seem obvious that LFW is not compatible with agents choosing to act on the basis of causes external to themselves. After all, by definition, LFW can only obtain if (at least some of) the choices that agents make do not have antecedent causes. Perhaps the motivation to perform a free action can only be generated by reasons internal to an agent.

However, consider the possibility that there were reasons that went into the decisions made by agents. In this case, the decisions agents make have antecedent causes; namely, the reasons they employed. This is worse for the case of a necessary being. Such reasons could only originate in either the essence or the mind of a necessary being. Surely, different reasons would not be available to a necessary being at other possible worlds nor would the essence of such a being be different at different worlds. Thus, a necessary being, in so far as it employed reasons, would perform the same actions at every possible world. LFW would not obtain for a necessary being acting on the basis of internal reasons.

The only other possibility is that (at least some of) the actions agents perform are not produced on the basis of reasons at all. The problem now is that it is difficult to see why such actions should be termed “choices” or even “willed”. Such actions would be random and arbitrary and, because they would not be generated by reason, would not be planned. Certainly, such actions would not be distinguishable as those of an intelligent entity.

Thus, it seems difficult to make sense of LFW. If LFW does not exist, the only other possibilities are that either (a) compatibilist free-will exists or that (b) free-will does not exist at all (hard determinism or acausalism). But both (a) and (b) imply that minds have the same causal powers as any other object. Thus, (a) and (b) imply that we should reject the notion that minds can uniquely generate ideas (or anything else) ex nihilo. (4)-(6) are left without support.

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