Why is there something instead of nothing? This oft heard bromide is the most trivial expression of the cosmological argument. Not that the question isn’t worth discussing. So, why is there something instead of nothing?
For many the answer is clearly God. This argument has a long philosophical pedigree extending most famously back to Aristotle’s prime-mover. The mere existence of the universe — aside from the organization of the universe (something we will get to when we encounter the teleological argument) — is a contingent fact that is not required by any sort of logical necessity. But, the reasoning goes; the world cannot be a series of contingent, dependent facts, each relying on the previous one in a causal chain extending back infinitely. This would be an “infinite regress;” something that philosophers generally wish to avoid. So the buck must stop somewhere. That somewhere, or someone, is God.
Now this is a very simplistic overview of the cosmological argument. Modern philosophy — particularly since Leibniz and Clarke formulated the most popular version of the argument — now centers the majority of discussion on the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). Leibniz describes the PSR as follows; “no fact can be real or existent, no statement true, unless there be a sufficient reason why it is so and not otherwise…” Much of the debate now rests upon the significance, veracity and meaning of the PSR.
The principle of sufficient reason has been called, perhaps correctly, the founding tenet of reason itself. It does hold immense intuitive appeal when applied to the general, boring, everyday life about which we reason daily and unremittingly. However, in spite of its appeal to our ruminations about our little corner of the world, it remains to be seen whether or not that appeal can extend to questions of truly cosmic size, duration and importance.
The estimable William Lane Craig — who has done as much as anyone to push respectable Christian philosophy forward — has revitalized the cosmological debate with the Kalam Cosmological Argument. His argument is based on three very simple premises:
– Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence. (The PSR)
– The universe began to exist.
– Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.
This is the simplest and most compelling form of the cosmological argument.
I will not belabor the points made by many others on both sides of this millennia-old debate. For those interested, a quick Google search will reveal thousands of discussions on this issue that are more in depth than mine (the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good discussion here).
Thanks in part to philosophers like Craig hanging their hats on the cosmological argument, a voluminous amount of arcane and specific literature — of the type that only academic philosophy can muster — is readily available. That is, if you wish to quibble over the details. But, the most important issues surrounding the cosmological argument are not the proper application of predicate logic or the meaning of “began.” You see, after years of thinking on the topic I have realized that I honestly do not care about the cosmological argument.
And this is the best response when you are asked the inevitable “well how do you think this all got here then?” I don’t care. In this short lifespan of mine I must choose my battles. Irrelevant cosmological questions that challenge the boundaries of human thought are an engagement I wish to skirt. The cosmological argument may provide good grounds for a first cause, and it may not. But my interest in the truth of any issue goes only as far as the relevance of the argument at hand. The serious problem with the cosmological argument is its complete irrelevance.
It is worth pointing out, because many seem to not realize this, that the cosmological argument works equally well in promoting any religion; from Hinduism to Satanism. The argument fails to establish, or even make probable, any characteristics of the deity that make him interesting or relevant — much less those that make Him Jehovah, Yahweh, or Allah. Omniscience, omnipotence, goodness, eternal; not one of these traditional qualities follows from the cosmological argument. If we accept the cosmological argument we can go no further than a belief that, in the beginning, some-thing was there. Aristotle found the argument compelling in establishing as much as it is able; the dry and boring “prime-mover.” What we are left with is no more than a force, a power, a cause; a dull fact that lacks any ethical or practical mandate and creates no pertinent issue.
I find it odd that any ethical monotheist would trot out this argument as relevant to their own position. The argument fails to even demand the existence of a single, monotheistic god. A deistic force, a committee of various intelligences, an eternal dualistic struggle (ala Zoroastrianism), an evil god, an insane god, a stupid god; any of these possibilities (and many more) fulfill the requirements of the cosmological argument. And Nietzsche could have been right; a god could have created the world and is now dead.
It may seem odd that I could so flippantly disregard a question of such seemingly magnificent importance as “why are we here?” And, it may seem particularly odd for someone who, personally, spends most of his time thinking about “big” questions. Part of this confusion may stem from an intrinsic bias imparted to us by living in the shadow of an ethically monotheistic culture. “After all, whoever created the world must be a being that loves us” is the stock position that leaps into our minds. But peaking out of that myopic shadow is vitally important to our awareness. Realizing that there is no necessary connection between a creator, or creative force, and a God who warrants grandiose temples and bleeding martyrs is an important step towards broadening our philosophical horizons. (It would also behoove us to learn that not all Christians have believed in a good, praise-worthy creator-God; i.e. Marcionism)
Also, there are big questions and there are BIG questions. The latter set contains such dingers as “what is the nature of time,” “what is beyond the edge of the universe,” “how do I know that other minds exist?” These questions — either because of the small scope of human action or the limiting effect of human nature (try not believing in other minds) — are made irrelevant by their sheer vastness. The big questions, however, concern the actions and opinions that affect the daily life and happiness of human beings. “Is there a God who deserves worship and rewards or punishes me accordingly” would certainly count as a relevant, big question. As we have seen the cosmological argument has nothing to say on this matter.
There is essentially no theist who believes in God because of the cosmological argument. They believe in God because of a religious tradition that imparts the deity with relevant characteristics. Some may wish to promote a constructive, rational, bottom-up approach to belief building; an approach in which first you establish that something is there (with the cosmological argument), then you establish its nature (with the teleological argument), then you establish its relationship to mankind (via revealed wisdom and scripture). This would be rational, but we all know this is a fantasy. Believers actually go through this process backwards; using the conclusions they reach due to revelation to inform all of their opinions about the previous (rationally primary) questions. I often wonder; if the cosmological argument is so unconvincing and unmotivating to them why do they feel it will be persuasive to non-believers?
Many of the traditional arguments for theism — including all that are found in this series — suffer from this problem of irrelevance. However, none are as inconsequential as the cosmological argument. In short, given the scope of the argument — the paltry “god” that even the best versions can establish — it simply doesn’t matter if the argument is true. And this is about all that needs to be said to eradicate it.