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Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. – Albert Einstein

The cosmological argument is a leading candidate for an idea that can be made too simple. Its essence is: “you can’t get something from nothing.” In this instance, the something under consideration is the entire universe (cosmos); this is the grand scope claimed by the cosmological argument. We could leave it at that, rightly asserting that the universe can’t appear from nothingness, without any cause to make it come into being or substance from which to make it.

It is that simple, but simple isn’t entirely helpful. Therefore, we will expand our discussion to include many of the major concepts that comprise the various aspects of the cosmological argument. In so doing, we can more carefully construct a strong case for a divine cause of the universe, an argument that is not too simple to do its job as an affirmation of our faith in a Creator.

A basic and straight-forward argument

Unlike the teleological argument we discussed previously [which reasons from the evidence of design in the universe], the cosmological argument does not refer to any details, order, or design in nature. It is, in fact, of quite the opposite temperament, as the cosmological argument is perfectly happy with the drabbest of nature’s offerings. We don’t need an incredibly complex biological system that just happens to fall in the narrow slit that allows for life; just a little dirt will do fine for the cosmological argument, for even dirt requires an ultimate cause of its existence. And while the cosmological argument seeks to establish the cause of the entire universe, it works just as well with a grain of sand. The quest of the cosmological argument is to account for the existence of anything at all, or for some change (motion) in what does exist.

Perhaps owing to its simplicity, the cosmological argument has had widespread appeal; formal statements of it have come from a variety of religious worldviews dating from several centuries B.C.1 Astrophysical measurements in the last several decades have led to an almost universally accepted position that the universe had a specific beginning (rather than merely accepting the universe as an unexplainable fact or an eternal given). The modern view of a universe with a beginning has reinvigorated a nearly millennium-old version of the cosmological argument, which we will touch on later. As a group, the cosmological arguments comprise a very resilient line of thinking that remains a vital and cogent force in apologetics.

Forms of the cosmological argument

Our overview will encompass a group of closely related arguments that seek to explain the existence of the universe by appealing to a transcendent, immaterial, eternal entity (cause, reason, being, God) that exists outside (beyond, above, around, before) the physical universe. Cosmological arguments seek to establish that such an entity must exist because we cannot otherwise account for the existence of the universe. Some aspects of the cosmological argument focus on the necessity of a first cause for physical motion, some on the fact that matter cannot create itself, and some on the idea of change or the physical realization of an ideal. Some argue for the existence of merely an unmoved mover or uncreated first cause; others demand no less than a personal God as traditionally understood by monotheistic religions. Collectively, we can call this whole array the cosmological argument, and for our purposes we treat them as a generic whole, using extracts from many versions.

The very old version mentioned above (the kal_m cosmological argument) states, “Anything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence.”2 This formulation focuses on a beginning, and therefore appeals to both theological and scientific sensibilities. A beginning implies an outside agent, for nothing can cause its own existence. If it did, then it would exist before its own beginning, which is absurd. The Biblical creation statement, Genesis 1:1, implies that God, the uncreated first cause, already existed when the universe began.3 Creation means more than a simple mechanical cause that leads to some motion or change. In its full account, it means no less than a manifestation of the mind and purpose of a personal God.

Another formulation came from Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716), whom we cited at the beginning of this series on the problem of evil. Leibniz asked, “Why does something exist rather than nothing?”4 He proposed that anything that exists must have “sufficient reason” that it should exist rather than not exist.

We can say that nothingness is the default state; to break that state and have something requires not just a causal agent, but a more comprehensive idea called sufficient reason. To get to a sufficient reason for a thing’s existence, we need to look beyond the intermediate steps of causation. Leibniz used as an example copies of a book (imagine a succession of manuscripts copied over time). A book is a copy of a preceding text, which in itself is a copy of a yet older text, but in order to explain the original version, we need an explanation of a different order. The original book is not a copy of anything, but an original document; hence, it needs an author. Expanding this analogy to its intended usage, the universe, Leibniz noted that various formations of matter cannot be sufficient reason for the universe, for they are only intermediate, or contingent steps, obeying the laws of nature, with each “copy” depending on the preceding state of affairs. The sufficient reason, that is an explanation that accounts for not only the physical cause but also the rational purpose for the entire chain of events, must be an entity outside the system, namely, God.

This is just a snippet from an elaborate conception of the universe, but we can use Leibniz’s deceptively simple question to highlight the point made in the first sentence of this article. We’re dealing with a very simple idea, one of the most fundamental concepts of nature, a phenomenon that we know intuitively and from daily experience: things just don’t “happen;” there must exist a causal agent and a causal action. Because the concept of causation has many aspects, we will give a brief review of a classical analysis of causation. First, though, let’s list all the parts of the cosmological argument we will investigate in this and the following article.

Principle concepts within the cosmological argument

Taken compositely, the following concepts work together to create cosmological arguments:

  1. Aspects of causation
  2. Sequential events
  3. The limit of temporal regression
  4. Does infinity help?
  5. Something from really nothing?
  6. Necessity of an external causal agent
  7. Mechanical and personal causation
  8. Is God explainable?

At the end, we will find not so much a conclusion or a proof, but, perhaps surprisingly, a considerable dilemma. Either we accept a completely untenable position, accounting for the universe without a transcendent causal agent, or we adopt the theist position. The latter easily accounts for the universe, but leaves us with the apparently more difficult task of accounting for God. Clearly, we have an interesting journey ahead!

Aspects of causation

If you were to come to my home for a visit, you would notice that many paintings hang on the walls. You might ask, “Why are these paintings hanging on your walls?” If you’re philosophically inclined, you might phrase the question, “What is the cause of these paintings hanging on the walls?” I could answer four ways, each response answering to a different aspect of causation.

I could respond dryly, “A hook nailed into the wall suspends a wire attached to the back of the frame, therefore the paintings hang on the wall.” True enough, but probably not a fulfilling answer, as you would certainly already know, or not really care, about the suspension mechanism.

You ask again, and I offer this true but unfulfilling reply: “The paintings hang on the wall because I put them there.” You probably don’t really care if I hung them or someone else did.

You ask a third time, and again, I respond in truth, but seem to avoid the real meaning of the question. “The paintings hang on the wall because it is the nature of paintings to do so; hanging on a wall is their proper place, and fulfills the inherent destiny or plan of what it means to be a painting.” Again, this is perfectly true, and probably still not getting to the gist of your question.

Finally, I answer in a fashion that satisfies your curiosity about the paintings that hang on the walls. I could give many reasons that could all be true at once:

“I enjoy the beauty of the paintings.”
“My mother is the artist, and I honor her by hanging her work in my home.”
“They cover the holes in the wall.”
“The paintings divert your attention from our impoverished furnishings.”
“They’re for sale; this is also a gallery as well as my living room.”
“They remind me of special places and events in my life.”

These replies get to the deepest why of the matter, in the realm of human reason. We recognize them as being far more intellectually fulfilling than merely mechanical explanations.

This is not to say that the first three types of answers have no relevance; if we came upon something complicated, like a particle accelerator, we would certainly want to know how it worked on a mechanical level, and who dreamed it up and built it. Even here, though, the greatest question would remain as to purpose: “But why did you have it? What will it do for you?” We’re interested most in the motivations, aspirations, and truly personal purposes of any device, not just its mechanical construction.

Ancient thinking

The various causes of paintings hanging on a wall illustrate a scheme of causation developed by Aristotle in the 4th century B.C. Aristotle had a great interest in matters of organization, relationships, and classification. He wanted to have a systemic knowledge of things, what they’re made of, and the forms and relationships they have in nature, whether he thought about a stone in the street or a star in the sky. Aristotle reckoned that an adequate explanation of any given “effect” (that is, an existing thing, or a movement or change) required reference to four different aspects of causation. He called these the material, efficient, formal, and final causes.5

  1. A material cause is the substance out of which the end product was made. A tree comes from nutrients in the soil, a vase is made of clay, music from notes, etc.
  2. The efficient cause is the person or force that produces the effect, e.g., a potter for the vase. In the case of a tree, the efficient cause is the seed, just as Aristotle said that the father was the efficient cause of the child.
  3. An archetype, or a potential into which something could become is the formal cause. This is abstract, but the idea is that of potentiality or moving into a certain arrangement or form; hence the term, formal cause. The formal cause of a vase is the concept of a vessel of specific style.
  4. A final cause involves the idea of purpose, or rationale, “that for the sake of which,” to use Aristotle’s words, a thing is done. The final cause invokes an ultimate end or purpose outside the nature of the thing itself. A vase may be used to display flowers. A painting might be used for a number of purposes, none of which have anything to do with a painting per se, such as covering a hole in the wall.

We will find this parsing useful as we move forward with the idea of causation, as different forms of the cosmological argument rely on different aspects of causation. Note that two of the above, the material cause (out of which) and formal cause (into which), reflect properties inherent in an item itself (e.g., a vase), and the efficient cause (by which) and final cause (for the sake of which) imply an external agency acting upon the item to bring about a result.

Sequential events

We will leave causation and move to another subject, the temporal sequence. This is a series of events in time, each of which depends on a previous event. To illustrate, we will take a walk to the local town park, where Boris and Vito are enmeshed in their weekly chess game. Chess moves are discrete in time and space and suitably demonstrate the principal of sequenced events.

As we quietly approach their table, we see that the contest started some time ago. It is Boris’ move; we did not see Vito’s last move. While Boris considers the options for his next move, we will think in the other direction, that is, we will regress the game back to its beginning. We will start by trying to determine Vito’s previous move. The rules of chess, the number of pieces that remain, and the squares on the board give us a finite number of possible precedent moves. Vito has seven pieces left; he could have moved any of them, but some moves seem unlikely, and we can eventually reduce the options to just a few. We decide that Vito probably moved his knight (from one of several possible squares) to defend his queen because on Boris’ previous move he advanced his king’s rook. Theoretically, we could continue in this vein (with untold millions of possibilities) until we arrive back at the beginning with each player’s sixteen pieces lined up neatly on the last two rows of each side of the board, ready to sally into intellectual battle at the behest of the minds behind them.

As we regress the game toward the beginning, we see that at any given point the configuration upon the chessboard is governed by the previous configuration. When Boris makes his next move, that new configuration will dictate Vito’s options. We have a temporal sequence, with the possibilities of each move determined by the preceding configuration.

What’s the point of this not-too-remarkable observation? A step-by-step backwards movement, explaining each move in terms of the preceding move, can take us back to the beginning of the game, but it cannot explain why a chessboard has sixty-four squares and sixteen pieces per side, or why the pieces are allowed certain movements and not others, or why the pieces are made of wood or metal, or where the materials came from, or who made the chess set. We can make a sequential regress back to the beginning, but we can go no further. Our observation that “this happened because this happened just before” will explain the configuration of this particular chess match, given the existence of chess as a game, and given the existence of the board and pieces, but the regress of moves cannot explain why and how there is a game of chess, complete with both material (pieces, board) and immaterial (rules, strategy) components.

The limit of temporal regression

Now let us expand this idea first illustrated by a chess game to a larger system, our universe. Of particular significance in regressing the universe is that before the universe existed there was no time, space, matter, or energy at all. We will return to that idea later.

The earth is in a certain position in its orbit of the sun, and all the other planets likewise. These paths are regular and predictable, so astronomers can locate any body in the heavens and know where to look for it in a fortnight or in forty years. The stars, planets, and galaxies move through the heavens occupying positions consistent with their previous position and the forces that act upon them. We can say that the configuration of the heavens at any time depends on the configuration at a time just previous. We explain the position of the heavenly bodies, just as we did with pieces on the chessboard, in terms of previous position and the rules of the game (forces that govern movement, etc.). Certain events, such as supernovae, might not have a regular or predictable appearance, but they nonetheless follow the “rules of the game.” Stars might explode, but they do so because the forces within them dictated that it was time for them to behave that way.

Can we get back to an original set-up, as at the start of a chess game? A large picture of the universe reveals galaxies apparently moving away from each other. We can regress this motion back to the beginning of the universe, when all matter and energy were condensed into a single point (singularity), but we then run into an impenetrable barrier. As long we explain or account for a current arrangement of the universe by preceding arrangements, we have a way of physically explaining what’s going on, but we have no way of transcending the physical barrier known as “the beginning.” For before the beginning, whether you call it a big bang or “In the beginning,” we run out of physical explanations.

At this point we ask, “And where did that come from?” and there is no preceding state. Before the beginning there is, of course, nothing — no time, no energy, no matter. Once the universe starts, we can construct theories of what happened and how long it took. But how does it get started in the first place?

A temporal regress can only explain nature within its own physical terms, but it cannot tell us how the program started in the first instance. This is known as the limit of temporal regress; to explain the universe we must at some point transcend the purely physical account of matter and account for the origin of matter, energy, and time. The ‘buck stops’ at the beginning.

With that half-formed idea, we must leave off for this month. We will continue, God willing, with the next concept on our list, the idea of an infinite regress.

David Levin


1. For an historical overview, see The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz (London: The Macmillan Press, 1980, 305 pp.) This book explores the richness of thinking inherent in this simple proposition. After 300 pages about why you can’t get something from nothing, and the author then politely states, “A comprehensive, scholarly history of the cosmological argument remains to be written.”

2. The kalam cosmological argument dates from the Islamic philosophers of the 9th to 11th centuries. Two similar book chapters by William Lane Craig defend the kalam argument. “The Cosmological Argument” in The Rationality of Theism, Paul Copan and Paul K. Moser, eds. (New York: Routledge, 2003, 292 p) and “The Kalam Cosmological Argument” in William Lane Craig, ed, The Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide (New Brunswick,NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2002, 634 p.).

3. To say already existent before time began is a bit awkward because “already” implies time. The creation is a unique event on the scale of time, as it is the beginning of the scale and thus has no temporal antecedent. However, we are referring to a transcendent eternal being when we speak of God. This does not mean that God waited an eternity before Genesis 1:1; it means that the temporal came forth from the eternal. In this context, eternal and temporal are more qualitative than quantitative.

4. “On the Ultimate Origin of Things.” Leibniz discussed this argument in several of his works. William Lane Craig’s The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz, (op. cit.) has many quotations and a detailed analysis. Also see “Cosmological Argument” by Bruce Reichenbach, Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmological-argument/.

5. Brief accounts of this scheme are in Aristotle’s Physics II:3 and Metaphysics VIII:4. Mortimer Adler’s Aristotle for Everybody (New York: Macmillan, 1978, 206p.) gives an easily understood account of Aristotle’s basic ideas.

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