The Cosmological Argument
The following article outlines the three most common cosmological arguments in favor of the existence of God. This article is a survey of these arguments, explores the relationship between the arguments, offers some of the most common counter arguments, and offers rebuttals to those dissenting positions. This article is written as a summary of the arguments which William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga have developed and/or popularized and quotes from their work are used throughout. We take absolutely no credit whatsoever for originating this content. The article begins with the Cosmological Argument from Contingency, then moves on to the Kalam Cosmological Argument, then the Teleological Argument for Fine-tuning, and then wraps up with some point/counter-point discussion. Our hope in this article is that those who are new to these arguments might come away seeing the power and potency of these arguments when dealing with difficult questions about God’s existence.
1. Cosmological Argument From Contingency
This argument is concerned purely with the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
Before we can go into the Argument from Contingency, we need to first understand a type of reasoning called modal logic. Modal logic is a method of constructing arguments based on three kinds of objects:
- Impossible: these are objects that cannot exist rationally, like a square circle.
- Contingent: objects that depend on something else for their existence, like apples depend on apple trees or eggs depend on chickens. In reality all space-time objects are contingent.
- Necessary: objects that depend on nothing for their existence, like God or the number 3.
How can we say that God is necessary? Let’s define God.
God is defined as a maximally great being, a being who has only greater-making qualities and no lesser-making qualities.
Some examples of great-making and lesser-making properties might be:
|Great-making Properties||Less-making Properties|
|Timeless||Bounded by time|
|Space-less||Bounded by space|
|Immaterial||Bounded by matter|
|All powerful||Limitedly powerful|
|All knowing||Limited in knowledge|
Consider also that a great-making property would be necessity because it is certainly better to be necessary than unnecessary.
Therefore, God would be a necessary object in modal logic.
Let’s also define one other term: Universe = all space-time reality.
The Contingency argument, goes like this:
Premise 1: Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
Premise 2: If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
Premise 3: The universe exists.
Conclusion: Therefore the explanation of the existence of the universe is God.
Now, surely this is some kind of trick; Premise 2 just has to be some form of question begging, that is creating a premise with the conclusion already in mind. We can’t just introduce God into the argument so casually.
Believe it or not, among professional philosophers, Premise 2 (P2) is not a point of contention. But why???
If the atheist takes issue with P2, s/he can only argue one of two points.
- The universe does not exist.
- There is no explanation of the existence of the universe.
Do you see what is wrong with these contentions?
Both are absurd:
- We can take it as properly basic that the universe exists.
- How can something exist and have no explanation even if the explanation is its own necessity?
When atheists argue, as they often do, that the existence of the universe has no explanation they are also unwittingly revealing the reason why Premise 2 is NOT question begging.
To say that the universe has NO explanation is an absolute statement, which includes the idea that God is not the explanation of the universe. Logically, therefore, all the atheist can claim is:
P2: Given that God does not exist, the universe has no explanation.
Which is the same as saying, if the universe has an explanation, God is the explanation.
We can see, therefore, that P2 is NOT question begging.
Now, what if the atheist claims that the universe exists necessarily?
In this case the atheist must show that the universe has qualities which demonstrate the universe’s necessity, for instance, one might try to argue that the universe is infinitely old.
To deal with the argument about the potential necessity of the universe, we can use the Kalam Cosmological Argument.
Alexander Pruss, Timothy O’Connor, Stephen Davis, Robert Koons, and Richard Swinburne all use this argument in formal writing and debate.
2. Kalam Cosmological Argument
The word Kalam comes from the phrase Ill al-Kalam, or “science of discourse” which is the Arabic term for theological study. This argument dates back to the 9th century AD, and in its modern formation is structured like this:
Premise 1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
Premise 2: The universe began to exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Just as with the Contingency argument, the Kalam argument is considered logically sound. If each of the two premises are correct, the conclusion must be correct. Let’s look at each premise:
P1 states that everything that begins to exist has a cause. Notice that it does NOT say that everything that exists has a cause, but that everything that BEGINS to exist has a cause. This excludes all necessary objects, including God.
P1 ALSO makes clear that nothing can come into existence out of nothing completely uncaused.
P1 ALSO is consistent with everything that our personal experience and scientific observation tells us about reality.
P2 simply declares that the universe began to exist.
Biblical creationists and theists have long held P2 to be true. However, the scientific community has fought against the idea of the universe having a finite beginning because to admit the universe has a beginning gives credence to the creationist world view.
The prevailing steady state view of the universe (that is that the universe existed eternally) gradually gave way under the weight of scientific evidence until in 1964 the discovery of the cosmic microwave background radiation—or echo of the initial creation of the universe—was discovered. This is Big Bang Cosmology.
Of course the conclusion of the Kalam Argument, that the universe has a cause, just follows logically.
But how does this argument begin to deal with the contention that the universe is a necessary object?
Clearly, if the universe began to exist, it cannot be eternal and cannot, therefore, be necessary.
Specifically, three scientific discoveries in the last century have made the steady state universe (a universe that has existed eternally) untenable:
- The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy (the tendency for everything in a closed system to gradually work its way to chaos) increases over time; therefore, an infinitely old universe would have long ago become chaotic and burned out.
- The relatively recent discovery that the universe is expanding proves that the universe cannot be infinitely old—more on this later.
- The big bang theory and relativity show that not only space but also time had a beginning.
What makes the Kalam Argument so interesting, however, is not the science but some of the theological implications that naturally follow from it.
Like what? For starters if the universe had a beginning (it had a cause), and the beginning of the universe was also the beginning of time, space, and matter, what can, therefore, be said about the cause of the universe?
The cause must be:
Why? Because whatever created time cannot be in time. That’s impossible. The same goes for space and matter.
What kind of objects might fit the description of timeless, space-less, and immaterial? Philosophers suggest two options:
- Abstract objects like numbers or shape descriptions, like circles.
- A mind.
The problem with the first type of objects, the abstract objects, is that they don’t cause anything. The number 2 doesn’t cause anything to happen. It’s just a number.
It is vastly more probable, therefore, that the cause is a timeless, space-less, and immaterial mind. A mind? Yes, a mind. It might at first blush seem peculiar, but let’s examine why a mind is actually the most reasonable explanation for why a universe might come into existence out of absolutely nothing. To explore why a timeless, space-less, and immaterial mind has such explanatory power, let’s first ask a more basic question and work our way forward.
Is there any reason to think that this mind is God?
What do we know about the cause of the universe already? Well, we know that it is:
What else can be deduced from the Kalam argument?
The cause must be:
- Extremely powerful—how could all the energy in the universe come to be without an extremely powerful cause?
How might we prove volition?
Before the universe there was no time, no sequence of events. Therefore, there was no chain of reactions which could cause anything to happen. There was literally nothing, no thing—no time, no space, no matter, nothing.
For something, anything, to come about under these conditions (conditions under which there is literally nothing to interact with anything), it must come about by the will of a mind, forcing into existence something which would not otherwise have any means of existing; there could be no other mechanism by which something could come into existence other than a volitional being.
Just think about the terrible quandary in which atheists find themselves. They must explain how an entire universe came from absolutely nothing—no time, no space, not matter. There is nothing reacting with nothing. Then everything comes into being. Only volition can bring something from nothing.
Imagine a far simpler situation. Imagine you have a blank sheet of paper and a pencil sitting on the paper. How long would you have to watch before a picture of a smiley face appeared on the paper. The answer is forever. And that’s with a piece of paper and a pencil already existing. Now do something volitional. Take the pencil and draw a smiley face. It takes the will of a conscious being to create something that is not there.
Now volition is a very unique quality. Unlike timelessness, space-lessness, immateriality, and being extremely powerful, volitional is a uniquely personal trait. Philosophers call this agent causation.
3. Teleological Argument from Fine-tuning
What entity meets all of the following criteria:
- All Powerful
This is starting to sound a lot like God. In fact, the only significant theistic notion of God that is missing from this description is maximal intelligence.
Do we have any reason to believe that this uncaused cause of the universe is intelligent?
In fact, we do. And this final argument has come to be known as the Teleological Argument from Fine-tuning.
Teleology simply means: explaining a phenomenon based on the purpose it serves. You could explain, for example, the shape of a fork based upon the purpose or function of the fork.
So let’s look at the teleology of the fork.
- It scoops food.
- It stabs food.
- It grips food.
The fork is shaped the way it is because it needed those three functions. We can explain the shape of the fork based upon its function.
How does this apply to the universe?
First, it is important to note that the fine-tuning argument is NOT an argument for the design of the universe; to attempt to prove that God designed the universe by stating that the universe is designed is clearly circular.
However, during the last 40 years or so scientists have discovered that the existence of a life-permitting universe is extremely rare. In fact, the mathematical probabilities are so infinitesimal, that it is considered “mathematically absurd.”
How do scientists come to this conclusion?
To understand how scientists have come to believe that the universe is fine-tuned, we must understand the difference between a law and a constant.
A law is a force like gravity, or the strong or weak atomic force, or electromagnetism.
A constant would be the strength of these forces.
For example, the law of gravity is a force of attraction between two massive bodies. But the law of gravity has a constant strength value in relationship to the mass of those bodies.
Gravity’s constant G gives us the gravitation force between two massive bodies by means of F=G(m1 x m2 / r^2).
Not only does gravity have a constant value, but all physical forces have constant values.
So what? Well, if this constant for gravity, for example, were changed by any more in 1 part in 10^60, that’s a 1 with 60 zeroes behind it, then life of any kind could not exist.
To understand how large this number is, consider that there have only been 10^20 seconds that have ticked by in the last 13.8 billion years.
If the gravitational constant had been one part in 10^60 more than it is the universe would have collapsed. If it had been one increment less, the universe would have expanded so fast that no stars, planets, or life would have formed.
Consider also the expansion rate of the universe, which is a constant. A change in value by 1 part in 10^120 would ensure that there was no chance for any kind of life in the universe.
Even more mind-boggling, consider that if the ratio of neutrinos to photons to atoms to dark matter (quantum physics stuff) was off by one part in 10^10^123 life could not exist. This particular ratio led physicist Roger Penrose to note:
“I cannot even recall seeing anything else in physics whose accuracy is known to approach, even remotely, a figure like one part in 1010^123.”
Keep in mind that there are over a hundred of these constants. But it gets even more difficult for the atheist….
It is not enough that the constants are all exact, but the ratios between the constants must also be exact. The odds of this happening are incalculable.
Stephen Hawking said:
“The remarkable fact is the values of these numbers seem to have been very finely adjusted to make possible the development of life.”
It is important to state again that when scientists say that the universe seems to be finely tuned for life, they are not saying that the universe is designed; rather, scientists are simply saying that small deviations in the constants would make life as we know it impossible.
Therefore, here is the Teleological Argument from Fine-tuning:
Premise 1 (P1): The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.
Premise 2 (P2): It is not due to physical necessity or chance.
Conclusion 1 (C1): Therefore, it is due to design.
Let’s briefly look at this argument to see how it works.
P1 presents three possibilities for why fine-tuning might exist:
- Physical Necessity: This possibility posits that the universe has no choice but to have the existing values for the constants. Some universal law prohibits any other values.
- Chance: This possibility posits that we just got really lucky.
- Design: This possibility posits an intelligent mind behind the cosmos who has designed the universe to support life.
P2 then addresses the first two possibilities.
As we have seen the laws of the universe are wholly separate from the constants. It does not follow that the constants as a whole should be dependent upon some law.
This rationale is reinforced by the fact that scientist have no evidence at all that constants are necessarily set at certain values. The best current cosmological theories, M-theory and String Theory, both postulate a “cosmic landscape,” also called a multiverse, of around 10^500 universes, each with unique constants. Physical necessity is not a viable option to explain fine-tuning.
The truth is that chance too is a rather poor explanation. The reality is that we only know of the existence of one universe, which makes the probability that it is life-sustaining at the minimum 1 in 10^500.
To put that into perspective there are approximately 5 million million atoms on the head of a pin. Now suppose we play a game. I have taken one atom in the entire universe and painted red. The probability that our finely-tuned universe exists is almost precisely the same as if you, out of all the atoms in the universe, randomly selected the one atom I painted red…not once, not twice, but five times in a row.
Chance is not a viable option to explain fine-tuning.
The conclusion, therefore, seems quite probable given the likelihood that the premises are true. The fine-tuning is the result of a designer.
What can we say, therefore, about the designer of the universe?
- All Powerful
- Unimaginably Intelligent
Let us ask the question again:
Is it reasonable to think that God exists?
Let’s review what we’ve seen:
The Cosmological Argument from Contingency has shown that:
Everything has an explanation, either by the necessity of its own nature or an external cause. And that God is the most likely explanation of the universe, unless the universe exists necessarily.
But if one argues that the universe exists necessarily, the Kalam argument demonstrates that everything that began to exist has a cause, and that the universe began to exist. Therefore, unless the universe was caused by necessary but random forces, God is the explanation and cause of the universe.
But if one argues that the universe was caused by necessary but random forces, there can be no rational explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe. Therefore, is it reasonable to think that God exists?
The answer is a resounding YES!
Answering Difficult Questions, Q&A
Q1: Who designed the designer?
Professor Richard Dawkins in his book “The God Delusion” makes the point that offering God as an explanation of the universe serves to explain exactly nothing. According to Dawkins God has no explanatory power because now God needs an explanation. In other words, the question naturally arises, who designed the designer?
A1: Dr. William Lane Craig has publicly ridiculed Dawkins’ argument against God, calling it “the worst argument in Western history.” He said this for several reasons:
- Theists define God as maximally great and eternally necessary. A maximally great and eternally necessary entity can have no explanation or designer. Therefore, Dawkins’ argument is a simple misunderstanding of definitions.
- The arguments for God’s existence in this presentation are deductive. In other words, they do not posit God, but are based on true premises from which we derive conclusions with theistic implications. In this case Dawkins’ argument is a red herring.
- Dawkin’s argument makes science itself logically incoherent. Why? Because an explanation does not need an explanation of the explanation in order for that explanation to be the best explanation. In other words, to require that an explanation have an explanation is an endless loop for which there is no terminator. This is called an infinite regress. If we take Dawkins’ argument to be true, then science itself is impossible because no explanation could ever be offered without also providing an infinite string of explanations of explanations.
Q2: What makes us think that the beginning of the universe is also the beginning of time?
A2: According to the scientific data upon which atheistic cosmological argumentation is based, the universe is not space and time but, rather, space-time. According to relativity and quantum physics, space-time is a four dimensional manifold or geometry which is self-contained. The beginning of the universe, therefore, is not merely the beginning of space but also time in one unit called space-time.
Q2a: A related question might be: could there have been time before the beginning of the universe?
A2a: This is a more difficult question. To deal with this question we must actually define time. Cambridge philosopher J.M.E McTaggart postulated that all theories of time basically break down into two categories, which he called the A-Theory of Time and the B-Theory of Time.
- A-Theory is a tensed theory of time in which temporal becoming is a reality. What does this mean? According the A-Theory the only true existence is the ever-present now; the past is utterly gone and the future is merely a kind of waveform of potentiality or possibility. The “now” is constantly collapsing the future potentiality into reality, which itself passes into nothing in the past.
- B-Theory is a non-tensed theory in which temporal becoming is an illusion of mental processes. In B-Theory there is no past, present, and future; all of time exists as a block of sequenced events. Our perception of the passage of time is the illusion of awareness at each point in that block of time.
Why is this important? This is important because for many principles of modern physics, like time dilation, to work, time must be the static block theorized in B-Theory.
If B-Theory is correct, time cannot have existed before the Big Bang, or at a minimum, this dimension of time could not have existed. Therefore, cosmologists almost universally accept that time began with the Big Bang.
Q3: Is a mind really timeless, space-less, and immaterial?
A3: The real question is CAN a mind be timeless, space-less, and immaterial? Let’s examine each of these beginning with immaterial and working our way towards the more difficult bit, timelessness:
- The immateriality of mind will be dealt with in detail later in this series when we discuss materialism; however, for the time being let us consider near death experiences and out of body experiences as evidence that mind and body are unique and separable. If the mind and body are distinct and the mind not ultimately dependent on the body, then an immaterial mind is more than possible, it is one of its key properties.
- The idea that mind might act as a space-less entity arises from the information sciences. Information science tells us that information itself has no mass, no material, and takes up no space. Consider a hard drive. A hard drive with no information on it might weigh 2 pounds and take up 400 cubic centimeters of space. Now take that hard drive and fill it with trillions of bits of information. Now how much does it weigh? It weighs 2 pounds. How much volume/space does it now occupy? It occupies 400 cubic centimeters. The information has added nothing. Now keep in mind that information is not merely stored data; it is also heuristic thoughts and intentionality. In other words, the stuff of the mind. If information and mind are equivalent, then what is true for information is true for mind. And, therefore, mind is space-less.
- Finally, let us consider the possibility of a timeless mind. Humans do not have a timeless mind; our minds change over time. But what if a mind did not change over time? Or what if a mind could not change over time because there was no time? Does it follow that this timeless mind lacks the ability to store information, to think, or to have intention? No, all that can be said is that the information cannot change, that the thoughts cannot grow, expand, change, or pass away; that the intentions must be eternal. Does it seem possible that a mind could be timeless. I think it does. It would be different than a human mind, but no less possible.
To return to the question, can a mind be timeless, space-less, and immaterial. Certainly it can, and based on these definitions we have no logical reason to doubt that it is possible. Therefore, a mind could have preexisted the universe in a state of timeless perpetuity.
Q4: Is not the Teleological Argument guilty of conflating correlation with causation?
First, let us be clear that the Teleological Argument is a deductive argument not an assertion. The conclusions of the Teleological Argument results from truthful premises about the possible correlation of fine-tuned constants with necessary laws and blind chance. As we have seen, necessity and blind chance are highly (indeed very highly) improbable. It only then follows that design is more probable than the alternatives. Causation is only postulated after eliminating correlation. To quote Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, somewhat playfully,
“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
Objection 1: Is not the multiverse a valid explanation of the universe, the cause of the universe, and an answer to the apparent design of the universe?
The multiverse is, of course, the idea that there exists beyond our universe a vast sea of universes, each with different constants. These universes emerge and fizzle out as bubbles in this great sea. The belief is that with a sufficient number of universes with unique and randomly determined constants, we can be certain that a universe as well balanced and finely-tuned as our own is inevitable. Equally, the multiverse is both the explanation and the cause of this and every other universe.
Does the multiverse refute the theist’s cosmological arguments? A closer look reveals several problems with the multiverse hypothesis.
- The multiverse is impossible to detect scientifically. Why? Because it is outside of our universe. Our universe, is a closed system of space-time. We cannot get outside of it or beyond it to detect a multiverse. Does God not similarly suffer? No, God, unlike the multiverse is a person who can reveal Himself.
- Assuming that the multiverse could somehow be detected, the multiverse fails to deal with any of the theist’s cosmological arguments. At best the multiverse pushes the arguments back one level. The atheist would still have to deal with the explanation of the multiverse, the cause of the multiverse, and the fine-tuning of the multiverse.
Explanation: Everything that exists has an explanation, either by the necessity of its nature or an external cause. The multiverse exists. Therefore the multiverse has an explanation. Could the multiverse be eternal? Probably not. In 2003 three physicists, Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin, developed a theorem which showed that any universe that is expanding must have a finite past. The theorem also extends to known multiverse theories.
Cause: Everything that begins to exist has a cause. Here the multiverse has two problems. First, the atheist must show that the multiverse is necessary by nature and, second, show how the multiverse causes universes to begin to exist. Neither of which is likely to happen, given that the multiverse cannot be observed.
Fine-tuning: although the multiverse potentially explains the fine-tuning of this universe, the multiverse itself has its own fine-tuning problems. For starters, what laws and constants in the multiverse are responsible for generating random constants in universes instead of the same exact constants in each universe? Why is the multiverse so discriminating about what it creates? Why does it create universes and not other things? What is keeping universes from just colliding into one another? What keeps a universe factory stable, etc.?
- A multiverse is a violation of Occam’s Razor, which states that one should not multiply entities beyond necessity. Even the staunchest of the naturalists have noted that the multiverse is an “unparsimonious extravagance.”
Objection 2: Doesn’t Dr. Lawrence Krauss’ cancellation argument provide a means by which the universe might come from nothing?
Physicist Lawrence Krauss postulated that because matter is precisely balanced against anti-matter in the universe, the two cancel to zero; if zero is the sum energy of the universe, then zero coming from nothing is perfectly reasonable.
This argument is logically absurd. But why?
Let us suppose that I have one apple and I owe you an apple. That would be 1 apple and a -1 apple, so 1 + -1 = 0; yep, the math works out. But wait, the argument is not about whether 1 and -1 cancel out. This issue is about the explanation and cause of an apple that does exist. Just because 1 apple and -1 apple cancel out does not mean that the apple came from nothing. No, the apple does exist, so the apple must be explained. In fact, the debt of the apple (the -1 apple) also exists and needs explanation. Krauss’ argument simply fails logically.
It is important to note that Krauss’ argument came in the form of a book, not a peer reviewed paper, likely for obvious reasons.
Objection 3: Couldn’t the universe be infinitely old and be a necessary object if there were a kind of bouncing or oscillating universe?
Some physicists have postulated that the universe expands (Big Bang) then slows down and stops before reversing directions and contracting back down to a singularity (Big Crunch); this process, it is theorized, is eternal.
The oscillating universe has significant problems, however; here are a few.
- In 1970 physicists Roger Penrose and Steven Hawking showed that such oscillating universes were a probabilistic impossibility. Space-time could not be extended into a singularity (Big Crunch). What, if anything, emerged on the other side of the Big Crunch was utterly unpredictable and certainly not likely to be a stable universe like the previous one. After this discovery most physicists abandoned this idea completely.
- In order for a Big Crunch to occur the expansion rate of the universe must be slower than the strength of the gravity necessary to collapse the universe. Recent observations have now demonstrated that the universe is not slowing down. In fact, it is speeding up at such a tremendous rate of speed that gravity will never catch up with it. The universe is not destined for a crunch but an inevitable heat-death. Eventually the stars will be so far away that no stars will be seen on earth or any other planet. The stars near planets will burn out, and everything will be dark and lifeless.
- The law of conservation of energy ensures that each successive bounce would necessarily be larger than the previous bounce. If the universe were infinitely old, our early universe would have expanded too quickly and too far for stars and planets to form. Therefore, this universe and life would be impossible.
- An oscillating universe would be conclusive evidence for God’s existence because the oscillating universe would have to overcome all previous probabilistic impossibilities and itself be inexplicably fine-tuned. In fact, an infinitely oscillating universe would have to be infinitely fine-tuned. This is impossible under a naturalistic world-view. An oscillating universe would literally be a miracle, and, therefore, evidence for God’s existence.
Eternally oscillating universes make the problem vastly worse for atheists.