Medieval Arguments for the Existence of God Part 3: Cosmological Arguments

This is part 3 of a four-part series on the medieval arguments for the existence of God. Part 1 outlined the four types of arguments for God’s existence, Part 2 covered the ontological arguments, and this post (part 3) will cover cosmological arguments. Part 4 will wrap up the series by covering teleological arguments. 


Cosmological arguments for the existence of God have a deep and rich history, from Plato to St. Thomas Aquinas to present day variations. The purpose of this post is not, however, to present this history in detail; rather, it is to present the argument in its strongest form to see whether or not it gives us sufficient reason to believe in the existence of God. 

While the cosmological argument was originally developed by Aquinas and medieval Islamic theologians, the argument has been updated to a more concise and modern form—known as the Kalam cosmological argument—popularized by the analytic philosopher and Christian theologian William Lane Craig. In my estimation, this is the strongest form of the argument and is the variant we will consider in this post. 

Keep in mind that this post does not, and could not, cover in its entirety the rich philosophical literature on this topic. What follows is simply my personal take on the subject, including what I believe to be the most salient points to consider. 

First things first: did the universe have a beginning?

At the heart of the cosmological argument is the following question: Did the universe have a beginning? The cosmological argument asserts that the universe requires a first cause, but if the universe has always existed, then it obviously requires no cause. So, did the universe at some point begin to exist, or not?  

First, I should point out that, to my mind, Big Bang cosmology is not necessarily relevant here, considering that there is no scientific consensus on what, if anything, caused the Big Bang, or what came before the Big Bang, or what exactly the universe, if it is expanding, is expanding into. We don’t even know if the observable universe is the only universe, or if there are multiple universes or even parallel universes and dimensions. These are open questions in physics, and so any arguments grounded in these mysteries will generate inconclusive results. 

So we’ll sidestep these empirical issues and think about things logically; using the most elementary laws of logic, we know that either:

  • The universe came into existence at a certain point; in other words, there was a time in which the universe did not exist and a subsequent time in which it did, or
  • The universe has always existed, with no beginning. 

For the universe to have always existed, it must have existed for an infinite amount of time. But what can it mean to say that time is infinite?

Temporal events happen in succession by adding units of time or processes of change. You can add an hour to the previous 24 hours and get 25 hours. Every time you increase time by an hour, you increase the increment of time that has passed by an hour. Since an hour can always be added, this represents a potential infinity. If the universe if 13 billion years old, in one billion years, the universe will be 14 billion years old, and as long as the universe continues to exist, you can always add potentially infinite more time, but only because the universe had a starting point.

But what do you get when you add a billion years to infinite time, which is an example of an actual infinity, as opposed to a potential infinity? If time is actually infinite, then there can be no beginning and no end. And so by adding a billion years to an already completed set results in no change and thus a paradox. Infinity plus 1 billion is the same as infinity plus 2 billion, 3 billion, and so on, which is logically incoherent and shows the impossibility of the passage of time in an infinite universe. 

Therefore, we are compelled to conclude that the universe had a beginning—and hasn’t existed for an infinite time—which modern cosmology does seem to support, even if inconclusively. 

If you were to make the case that time was created by the Big Bang, and that to ask about time before this is incoherent, one can always ask why, in the absence of time, the Big Bang happened at all? What was the driving force behind this event, this creation of time? Did it just happen, for no reason, out of nothing? 

Time itself is a measure of some change. Without any kind or variety of change, it seems impossible to conceive of time passing. So if time did not exist before the Big Bang, and therefore change did not exist, then what could have prompted the transition from nothing to the existence of matter, change, and time?

Now, if it can be shown that time is in some sense an illusion, or that an actual infinity is in fact possible, then the cosmological argument is invalid right from the start, as some physicists and mathematicians maintain. Perhaps they are right, but for the sake of argument, let’s accept that the universe had a beginning to see where the cosmological argument takes us. 

The Kalam cosmological argument

In its most compact form, the Kalam cosmological argument can be stated as follows:

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

We have already provisionally accepted premise 2, that the universe had a beginning. Should we also accept premise 1, that everything that begins to exist must have a cause?

There are reasons to question this assumption. It is difficult to know, a priori, whether or not the universe in its totality requires a cause in the same way its constituent elements do. Is this not an example of the fallacy of composition, or the error of assuming that what is true of the individual members of a group is true for the group as a whole? 

For example, we can say that no atoms individually are alive, but this doesn’t imply that animals made up of atoms are also not alive. For the same reason, it could be the case that everything within the universe requires a cause, but this does not imply that the universe, as the aggregate of all things requiring a cause, itself requires a cause. 

A restatement of the argument makes the fallacy of composition clearer:

  1. Whatever begins to exist within the universe has a cause within the universe;
  2. The universe began to exist;
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause outside of the universe

The premise that “everything that begins to exist has a cause” is an inductive inference based on our experience of objects within the universe. It is an illegitimate move, however, to apply this generalization to the beginning of the universe itself, or to any possible universe, to which we have no relevant experience. And so what appeared to be a deductively certain argument is shown to be a weaker inductive inference. 

Additionally, it could be pointed out that if causation itself is simply a construct of the mind, and not part of the fabric of the universe, then premise 1 is not necessarily true in cosmological terms (only in psychological terms), adding another layer of doubt. 

So you can see that accepting premise 1 (and premise 2) as true involves answering deep questions about the nature of causality, the nature of time, and the possibility of actual infinite sets, not to mention quantum indeterminacy and the possibility of, as in the book title by physicist Lawrence Krauss, “A Universe from Nothing.” 

All of this should, at the very least, provoke a strong sense of humility and a deep suspicion regarding the idea that the deepest mysteries of the universe have been solved by two premises and a conclusion. 

Again, for the sake of argument, and despite the uncertainty, let’s accept premise 1 anyway, because by accepting the logic of the entire argument, we’ll reveal its biggest flaw. (If you read the last post on the ontological argument, you’ll notice that we used the same strategy, namely, using the argument’s logic against itself. This is proving to be a reliable strategy for all arguments for the existence of God.) 

The self-refuting logic of the cosmological argument

The clearest way to present this objection is as follows:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
  2. God began to exist;
  3. Therefore, God has a cause.

Remember, Craig is arguing against the possibility of an actual infinity. If God didn’t have a cause, then He has always existed, and therefore has existed for an infinite amount of time. But since you can’t count backwards from infinity, it is a contradiction to suggest that God created the universe at any particular point in time. So, if God created the universe, then God must have begun to exist at a certain point himself. 

Since whatever begins to exist must have a cause, God also must have a cause. But it is not possible for God to cause himself, because that would require God to already exist prior to himself, which is a contradiction. God must therefore have an external cause, which must also have its own cause, ad infinitum, resulting in an infinite regress. 

If Craig wants to make the claim that God did not begin to exist, then he is contradicting his own earlier claim that an actual infinite is impossible. This is simply a case of special pleading. Craig is claiming that the universe requires a beginning because an actual infinite is impossible, but that God does not require a beginning because God is—for unargued and unspecified reasons—immune from such logical constraints. 

And what would it really mean to say that God exists outside of time? It could mean outside of our own time, but the creation of the universe in six days—for example as described in the Bible—implies that God is operating according to some conception of time. And any conception of time (or change) introduces the problem of infinity.

Remember that Ockham’s razor (if you feel compelled to use it) is a principle that states that “entities should not be multiplied without necessity.” If you are willing to state that an entity can exist without cause or without a beginning, then Ockham’s razor suggests that you should select the universe itself rather than an additional entity called “God.” 

The bottom line is that the cosmological argument does not appear to solve anything; it simply pushes back the question. If we couldn’t explain the origin of the universe before, we now have an even less accessible entity going by the name of “God” that is susceptible to all of the same problems associated with origin, causation, and time. 

I’ll mention one final point; all that the cosmological argument accomplishes—if it accomplishes anything at all—is the establishment of some sort of first cause. But it should be obvious to any careful thinker that the jump from first-cause to the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic tradition is a complete non sequitur. At best, the cosmological argument leads to deism, not necessarily to theism.

Conclusion

It appears to be the case that whether or not you find the cosmological argument persuasive depends on whether or not you think it is a justifiable move to exempt God from the impossibility of an actual infinity. Those that find the argument unpersuasive see the invocation of God, as an uncaused agent, to be a blatant case of special pleading, while those that find the argument persuasive see God as the only plausible way to stop an infinite regress. And it is at precisely this point that the impasse, between the more thoughtful theists and atheists, is reached.

For what it’s worth, I don’t find the cosmological argument persuasive because I find little reason to exempt God—however He is to be conceived—from the logical constraints we place on the universe. While I do think that the cosmological argument is the strongest argument for God’s existence, and I sympathize with those wishing to prevent an infinite regress of causation, the argument simply leaves too many questions unanswered. It provides essentially no insight into the nature of God, and it even fails to establish that there can be only one God. There could be several gods with various natures even if we accepted the conclusion of the argument. 

Additionally, it introduces further questions as to how God can exist outside of time and space and yet interact with the universe, and it leaves unanswered what God might have been doing before the universe was created, and what He’ll do when it ceases to exist. It introduces the difficulty of explaining, if God exists outside of time and space, and therefore outside of the universe, how He was able to create the material of the universe from nothing. It appears that if you believe in God, you must still believe that “something came from nothing,” unless you claim that God worked with pre-existing materials, in which case, God becomes potentially superfluous.  

Let’s call this the material cause dilemma:

Did God create the universe from nothing, or from preexisting materials?

If you select the first option, then you’re admitting the possibility of something coming from nothing, which most theists deny. If you select the second option, then you’re admitting that the material of the universe was not created by God, which theists also deny. Ether answer shows why God is not an intellectually satisfying solution to the problem of a first cause. 

Up next: Medieval Arguments for the Existence of God Part 4: Teleological Arguments

Further reading

8 thoughts on “Medieval Arguments for the Existence of God Part 3: Cosmological Arguments

  1. With reference to the comments made concerning the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA), the objection which charges the opening premise of the KCA of committing the fallacy of composition is both misguided and immaterial due to the failure to target the premise suo motu. For example, you assert that:

    “the premise that ‘everything that begins to exist has a cause’ is an inductive inference based on our experience of objects within the universe.”

    Now, this is certainly indicative of one possible manner of attempting to justify the opening premise, but it is by no means the sole and exclusive manner of doing so (See Pruss and Rasmussen 2018, Ch. 3). This objection merely targets one possible way of justifying the premise as opposed to targeting the premise itself. Hence, the objection falls by the wayside. In addition to this, there is another, rather unsettling, objection to the KCA which claims that:

    “If God didn’t have a cause, then He has always existed, and therefore has existed for an infinite amount of time.” The comment regretfully proceeds further by adding,

    “But since you can’t count backwards from infinity, it is a contradiction to suggest that God created the universe at any particular point in time. So, if God created the universe, then God must have begun to exist at a certain point himself.”

    Far from being an objection to the KCA, this supposed ‘objection’ suffers from being both completely inapposite, misrepresentative, and utterly mistaken on several fronts. (The subsequent paragraphs only further lead into more tangential and, again, immaterial disputations completely separate from the KCA.) Beginning with the objection that claims that “If God didn’t have a cause, then He has always existed, and therefore has existed for an infinite amount of time.” No, necessary existence and timelessness do not entail that has God existed for an infinite amount of time. (Please think for yourself on this one. If God is atemporal and-or timeless, then there is no temporal duration, and hence no definite and discrete intervals of time.) Secondly, to the claim that “it is a contradiction to suggest that God created the universe at any particular point in time” is patently question-begging and erroneous. Why? Because, the KCA does not entail that time had a beginning. All that the KCA requires is that ‘metric time’, which is to say, time composed of mind-independent sub-intervals, had a beginning, which is perfectly compatible with the view that God exists literally before creation in a non-metric time in which intervals cannot be distinguished, as argued by philosophers such as John Lucas, Richard Swinburne, and Alan Padgett.

    Some Recommended Titles:

    1. ‘The Kalam Cosmological Argument’ by William Lane Craig, James D. Sinclar in “The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology” by J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig

    2. God, Time, and Eternity: The Coherence of Theism II: Eternity by William Lane Craig

    3. Necessary Existence by Alexander Pruss, Joshua Rasmussen

    4. Approaching Infinity by Michael Huemer

    – Infinity, Causation, and Paradox by Alexander Pruss

    1. Understand that the move to define God as existing outside of space and time has some important implications.

      First, it removes the assertion of God’s existence from all possible refutation. It is quite transparent what the theist is up to here. The theist first wants to assert that God cannot be disproven by empirical means because God is ‘immaterial.”

      Then, when faced with the paradoxes of space, time, and causation, the theist wants to claim that God is not only immaterial, but that He “exists outside of space and time.” God therefore cannot be disproven via empirical or rational means because God is immune from both empirical discovery and any possible logical constraints.

      So you are right in one respect; namely, that you can successfully shield God’s existence from any further criticism by defining him in this convenient manner, but it begs the question as to why you, or any theist or philosopher, has the authority to, by fiat, define him in this way. It also begs the question as to why theists bother with any arguments for God’s existence at all, if they are simply going to proclaim his existence as beyond any possible refutation.

      If you sincerely believe that God exists outside of space and time, then what could I, or anyone else, possibly say to change your mind? But I would reconsider how confidently you can make that assertion, and exactly on what grounds.

  2. There is an innumerable amount of statements in your response, Ryan, which are regrettably indicative of profound misunderstandings and which demand critical re-examination.

    Commencing with an examination of your initial set of statements, you claim that “the move to define God as existing outside of space and time” has “important implications” such as somehow securing “God’s existence from all possible refutation.” Immediately after, you claim that “the theist wants to assert that God cannot be disproven by empirical means because God is immaterial” implying that the postulation of God being immaterial, as well as being spaceless and timeless, has been done so for the purposes of anticipating certain objections e.g to evade attempts to disprove God from lack of empirical observation.

    However, these initial remarks are but beyond salvageable. They appear to have originated from reading the KCA on its head as opposed to on its feet. Turning our attention to the claim that “defining God as existing outside of space and time . . . removes [all possible refutation of God’s existence.]”

    No, the conception of God being spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, among other things, has not been defined prior to the independent reasons for presuming this is an adequate conception; rather, there were prior independent reasons which adduced this conception of God. So, no, God has not been pre-determinately ‘defined’ for the purposes of securing some rhetorical leverage. In tandem with this, these formulations of God do not blockade the possibility of refutation. For instance, one could still employ arguments that ( 1 ) purport to show the internal incoherence of God’s individual properties, or arguments that ( 2 ) purport to show the mutual inconsistency between God’s properties, or arguments that ( 3 ) purport to show the mutual inconsistency between the set of God’s properties and a certain fact about the actual world. These are not only possible, but also viable approaches that the non-theist could take to demonstrate the non-existence of God, even when God is to be understood minimally as something spaceless, timeless, and immaterial.

    Further down the line, you then proceed to claim, more explicitly, that “God therefore cannot be disproven via empirical or *rational means* because God is immune from both empirical discovery and any possible logical constraints” due to being spaceless, timeless, and immaterial. However, some pertinent questions for you to answer are, ‘Where, how, and why do you get the phrase that God is immune from possible logical constraints? What are you referring to when you say ‘possible logical constraints? Are you attempting to say that he would be immune from logical scrutiny, that is purely philosophical scrutiny, to contrast his immunity from empirical disconfirmation?’ Again, as shown above, there is no blockage of counterarguments merely because God is to be conceived minimally as spaceless, timeless, and immaterial.

    And in closing, you conclude with the following statement:

    “If you sincerely believe that God exists outside of space and time, then what could I, or anyone else, possibly say to change your mind? But I would reconsider how confidently you can make that assertion, and exactly on what grounds.”

    What confident assertions have I made concerning the relationship between God and time? Nowhere do I affirm that God is either in time or ‘outside’ of time or affirm that God exists. Nor do I even explain the views expressed by Dr. William Craig to clarify his actual defences of the KCA.

    Some More Recommended Titles:

    1. The Kalam Cosmological Argument by William Lane Craig

    2. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion by Michael Rea, Michael Murray

    3. How Reason Can Lead to God by Joshua Rasmussen

    Please email me for more information at guardedacumen@gmail.com. I’d be more than happy to advance this discussion over another medium e.g Discord, Instagram, Facebook, etc.

    P.S: I hope I don’t come off as rude and these comments are but a mere fraction of what could be said pertaining to your comments and posts.

    Corrections For My First Comment:

    **In addition to this, there another, rather unsettling, objection you mentioned against the KCA which claims that:**

    **Far from being an objection to the KCA, this supposed ‘objection’ suffers from being completely inapposite, misrepresentative, and utterly mistaken on several fronts.

    **Secondly, the affirmation that “it is a contradiction to suggest that God created the universe at any particular point in time” is patently question-begging and erroneous.**

    1. I would take you up on your offer if not for the unfortunate impression that tells me that it is not quite a discussion you are after. It seems you are more interested calling out my “misunderstandings,” which you then struggle to coherently explain, to provide a list of books that I suppose are intended to demonstrate your impressive erudition, and to obfuscate your own views by failing to state what it is you actually believe or are arguing for.

      We can have a further discussion if you would like to state and defend your exact beliefs concerning God’s existence and your specific interpretation of the cosmological argument in an intellectually honest manner. Otherwise, I’m afraid I’m not interested in your list of books or transparent attempt to simply be argumentative.

      Here’s what I’m talking about: you wrote that “No, the conception of God being spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, among other things, has not been defined prior to the independent reasons for presuming this is an adequate conception; rather, there were prior independent reasons which adduced this conception of God.”

      What reasons? This is a proclamation, not an argument.

      You then write, “Nowhere do I affirm that God is either in time or ‘outside’ of time or affirm that God exists.”

      Ok, then what are you arguing for other than the sake of simply arguing?

      Last, you mentioned that God’s existence could still be challenged by pointing out “the internal incoherence of God’s individual properties” or “the mutual inconsistency between God’s properties.”

      It’s worth noting that this has been done. The paradox of omnipotence shows the incoherence of an all-powerful being (Can God build a prison strong enough that even He can’t escape?), the paradox of omniscience shows that an all-knowing being cannot have free will, and the problem of evil calls into serious question the benevolent character of God (particularly in regard to childhood cancers and natural disasters).

      But let me make a prediction. You are going to tell me that I have “seriously misunderstood” these paradoxes, that the paradox of omnipotence has been adequately addressed by theists, and that there is a list of books that can clear up my misunderstandings.

      I have no doubt that theists have answers to these paradoxes, but they always involve defining God in such a way as to simply avoid the problems. This is the game that I am not willing to play, and why I stated from the beginning that the theist response is always to define God in such a way as to remove the possibility of any possible refutation. You claim that there are ways to challenge God’s existence, and there are, but the theist game is to define God out of these problems, not to provide a prior, stable, and specific definition that is subject to criticism. This, I would reckon, is why you yourself are noncommittal on your own definition of God, unless you don’t believe in God, in which case, again, I don’t know what you are arguing for.

      1. As our first consideration, I will respond to the following statement:

        “It seems you are more interested calling out my “misunderstandings,” which you then struggle to coherently explain, to provide a list of books that I suppose are intended to demonstrate your impressive erudition, and to obfuscate your own views by failing to state what it is you actually believe or are arguing for.”

        If there are any explanations which appear to be dubiously explained, then proceed to catalogue them for further examination. If not, then the mere assertion that there was a “struggle to coherently explain” them does nothing more than blow hot air. An explanation must be provided which demonstrates that my comments were explanatorily deficient, or else they still stand. (I could admit of explanatory deficiency, however, due to some imprecisions and grammatical errors which may have clouded my intended points.) Additionally, the books referenced towards the end of each comment are not listed for the purposes of “[demonstrating my] impressive erudition”, but are solely titles I recommend. They are relevant to the overall discussion and it would be a disfavor to yourself, and to just about anyone else, in my opinion, to not get around reading them. Also, I did not reference any (of the) secondary material so as to be able to be charged with the offense that I provided the books in order to “obfuscate [my] own views.” Again, they are merely recommended titles relevant to the overall discussion, take it as you will.

        Now, on another note, examining the subsequent statements, you state:

        “We can have a further discussion if you would like to state and defend your exact beliefs concerning God’s existence and your specific interpretation of the cosmological argument in an intellectually honest manner. Otherwise, I’m afraid I’m not interested in your list of books or transparent attempt to simply be argumentative.”

        The issue here is that my views on the matter are simply irrelevant and would be extraneous due to the fact that my comments are in character critical, they are criticisms! That does not necessitate that I disclose my views other than what I find to be deficient. You are of course in the right to defend your post and-or to respond to my objections, you are the author!

        Afterwards, you proceed to clarify what it is that you have issue with. You state:

        “Here’s what I’m talking about: you wrote that ‘**No, the conception of God being spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, among other things, has not been defined prior to the independent reasons there have been given for establishing this conception**; rather, there were prior independent reasons which adduced this conception of God.’ What reasons?” you ask, “This is a proclamation, not an argument.”

        No, that was not a proclamation. I was addressing your earlier comment which stated that “defining God as existing outside of space and time . . . removes [all possible refutation of God’s existence.]”

        So again, there were prior independent reasons which adduced this conception of God. So, no, God has not been pre-determinately ‘defined’ for the purposes of securing some rhetorical leverage. You may ask, “What are those prior independent reasons you speak of?” Well, the very arguments you are addressing in your post! Those are the reasons which have been given for adducing that God is spaceless, timeless, and immaterial and all the rest! The arguments do not begin by pre-determinately conceiving of God as being spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, that’s called reading the arguments on their head. Now, you may not agree with the KCA or contingency arguments or the justifications for them, but it is from these where the conceptions originate from. All the more, there are countless many ways of explaining how people attain this conception of God. It does not come from the KCA or contingency arguments alone. For instance, certain individuals use arguments from natural theology to corroborate and substantiate their experiences of special revelation.

        Immediately after you continue by quoting me where I say, “Nowhere do I affirm that God is either in time or ‘outside’ of time or affirm that God exists.” And then proceed to ask, “Ok, then what are you arguing for other than the sake of simply arguing?”

        Again, as explained above, I am criticizing. Whether one is sensitive to criticism is not the responsibility of he who provides the criticism (unless of course the critic is being provactive and inappropriate.)

        Moving on, you misread my comment where I say:

        “For instance, one could still employ arguments that ( 1 ) purport to show the internal incoherence of God’s individual properties, or arguments that ( 2 ) purport to show the mutual inconsistency between God’s properties, or arguments that ( 3 ) purport to show the mutual inconsistency between the set of God’s properties and a certain fact about the actual world.”

        I commented this in response to your claim that, “defining God as existing outside of space and time . . . removes [all possible refutation of God’s existence.]”

        So, again, Ryan, I am also open for messages on my email: guardedacumen@gmail.com. I also do discussions on Discord, Instagram, Facebook, etc. where I tutor philosophy students on formal logic, philosophy of religion, and philosophy of time. By the way, please continue posting, I am reading!

        P.S: I know that I make a lot of grammatical mistakes. I type these in one go, so yeah . . .

        Corrections for the Second Comment:

        **Let us begin by turning our attention to the claim that “defining God as existing outside of space and time . . . “**

        **No, the conception of God being spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, among other things, has not been defined prior to the independent reasons there have been given for establishing this conception.**

    2. Thanks for the clarifications, but I must point out that the KCA does not support a conception of God as atemporal and non-spatial. A restatement of the KCA will make this clear:

      1. Whatever temporal and spatial object that begins to exist has a temporal and spatial cause.
      2. The universe is temporal and spatial.
      3. Therefore, the universe has an atemporal, non-spatial cause (God).

      This is clearly a non sequitur. The KCA doesn’t support this conception of God; rather, it uses this conception of God in the conclusion to get out of the problem of an actual infinity, which is, as I pointed out in the original post, simply a case of special pleading.

      And this introduces further problems. As the philosopher A.C. Grayling stated, you cannot solve a mystery by introducing a bigger mystery. How does an immaterial, atemporal, non-spatial God interact with or create matter? Does He create it out of nothing (something theists are typically adverse to), or does He work with preexisting material (if the material is pre-existing, the KCA is false).

Leave a Reply