Sunday, May 1, 2011

Where the Mystery Ends

The following is a paper on the Cosmological Argument for the existence of god. I wrote it back in early November 2009. The Cosmological Argument served as the final pillar upon which I continued to accept my belief in god as both rational and warranted. For years the Cosmological Argument stood alone amidst the rubble of other pillars which had collapsed under the weight of scrutiny. I wrote this paper in order to test the strength of that final remaining pillar. This was a test I had been afraid to conduct before. Sometimes, the pursuit of truth means one must overcome one's fear. This was my attempt to do just that.

Where the Mystery Ends: a Critique of the Cosmological Argument

Bud Uzoras

While I never considered the Ontological Argument sound (though for a long time I had difficulty explaining why this is the case) and the Teleological Argument gradually lost its sway over me, for years the Cosmological Argument held the distinction of being the last remaining of the traditional arguments for the existence of god that I accepted as sound; in spite of this, my confidence in the argument (which subsequently augmented my confidence in a theistic paradigm) coincided with a nagging doubt that something is wrong with the argument. I grew frustrated because I could neither demonstrate that my doubt was unfounded nor determine why I suspected something about the argument was amiss.

The purpose of this paper is to both offer a critique of the Cosmological Argument and analyze the foundational premises upon which the argument rests in an attempt to discern and express discursively the source of my continued doubt in the soundness of the argument, so that I may endeavor to offer a variant of the Cosmological Argument that is, if not demonstrably sound, at least yielding a process of reasoning towards a conclusion that is verisimilitudinous.

The Cosmological Argument

Many arguments fall under the rubric of “the Cosmological Argument.” Each version of the argument begins with the same a posteriori suppositions: the universe exists and something is required to explain its existence. [1] Here is one version of the Cosmological Argument, known as the Argument from Contingency:

Premise one: Everything that exists contingently must have a reason for its existence.
Premise two: The universe exists contingently.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe has a reason for its existence.

Stated another way:

Premise one: There are entities in the universe.
Premise two: Entities can only be either contingent or self-existent.
Premise three: The series of contingent entities cannot extend ad infinitum.
Conclusion: Therefore, there must be a self-existent entity.

Here is another version, known as the Argument from Motion:

Premise one: In the universe, things are in motion.
Premise two: Moving things can only be either intermediate movers or primary movers.
Premise three: The series of intermediate movers cannot extend ad infinitum.
Conclusion: There must be a primary (unmoved) mover.

The Kalām Cosmological Argument, championed by renowned Christian apologist William Lane Craig, has become popular among theistic thinkers. This version of the Cosmological Argument is as follows:

Premise one: Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
Premise two: The universe began to exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe must have a cause.

For the theistic apologist who promulgates the Cosmological Argument, the “reason for the universe,” “self-existent entity” and “unmoved mover” each describe, as Aquinas said, what “all men speak of as God.” [2] Assuming for a moment that the Cosmological Argument is a sound argument, what does it prove? None of the premises show that this cause must be intelligent, personable, supreme, or even a being.

When I read the famous 1948 debate between Father Copleston and Bertrand Russell, I was surprised Russell did not attack what I consider to be the biggest flaw in Copleston's argument; a flaw which many others have exhibited over the years: the jump from "necessary cause" to "a supreme personal being - distinct from the world and creator of the world." Russell simply accepts the definition (though he does not believe in such a being who would fit that definition).

The Principle of Causality

In the debate between Father Copleston and Bertrand Russell, Copleston argues for the existence of god by employing a variant of the Cosmological Argument. [3] Copleston argues that there are “contingent” beings, which “do not contain in themselves the reason for their existence, the world is the totality of individual contingent objects, and therefore this totality must have a reason that’s both external to it and not contingent, but necessary. He argues that, if there’s an infinite regress of contingent objects, then there's no explanation for the totality.

Russell argues that the totality doesn’t need an explanation and questions the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Russell questions the assumption of causality, as well as Copleston’s reasoning that, if all the parts share something in common (like the quality of being contingent), then the whole shares it as well. Russell remarks, “Every man who exists has a mother, and it seems to me [Copleston’s] argument is that therefore the human race must have a mother, but obviously the human race hasn't a mother…”

Russell is correct that Copleston commits the fallacy of composition. He is also correct in questioning causality and the idea that “everything needs a reason.” Causality may seem “intuitively” true to many (including myself), but whether it can be proved is a different issue altogether; however, I take issue with this comment by Russell: “As for things not having a cause, the physicists assure us that individual quantum transitions in atoms have no cause.”

Some say “there is no cause” but the best one can actually say is “there is no cause that we can perceive.” If proving causality is tough, how much more difficult is it to prove “not causality”? “No apparent cause” is not equivalent to “no actual cause.” Russell is wrong: the physicists offer no epistemic assurance on this matter.

Even if what we understand to be our universe is merely one hole of the larger piece of cheese that is what one might call the “multiverse” or “omniverse” (I use these terms to indulge my inner geek), I still wonder about the whole of the cheese. Where did the cheese come from? To answer this question we have to ask, “Where could the cheese possibly come from?” There are only two possible options:

1. The cheese came from nothing.
2. The cheese came from something.

Option 1: The cheese came from nothing. If the cheese came from nothing, then we have two possibilities:

a. nothing existed and then – for no reason – there was cheese (“and it was good”); or,
b. there has always been cheese.

To accept premise “a” one must deny the principle of causality. While causality seems almost self-evident phenomenally, and I am inclined to believe “ex nihilo nihil fit” and pitch my tent in the camp of the Scottish common sense philosophers, I question whether causality can be proved (which keeps my inclination from blossoming into a full-fledged belief).

Many apologists who use the Cosmological Argument claim that only two types of entities can exist: self-existent entities and contingent entities. A self-existent entity is that which is ontologically independent, having no cause for its existence – arguably “eternal.” Most things that exist (that we have perceived) are considered contingent, which means that it is possible for them not to exist. My shoes, for example, are “contingent” in that their existence relies upon the prior existence of other objects and other processes, and could have just as easily not existed.

They reject the idea that a contingent entity can come into being without a cause, though at best the only reason I have seen them give is that causality seems correct “intuitively.” Craig writes, "The first step is so intuitively obvious that I think scarcely anyone could sincerely believe it to be false. I therefore think it somewhat unwise to argue in favor of it, for any proof of the principle is likely to be less obvious than the principle itself." [4]

Echoing these sentiments are Sproul, Gerstner and Lindsley, who claim that the validity of the law of causality is one of at least three assumptions (the other two being the validity of the law of non-contradiction and the basic reliability of sense perception) which "are not only prerequisites for knowledge, but are necessary assumptions about life itself." [5] They argue that "all denials of these assumptions are forced and temporary. No one denies these principles in its broadest sense. These assumptions are necessary for science in the broadest sense." [6]

Proponents of the Cosmological Argument also reject the idea that an entity can be “self-created.” I agree with this. For something to create, it would have to exist in order to create. For something to create itself, it would have to exist before it existed if it were to create its own existence. In other words, a self-created entity would have to be and not be at the same time and having the same relationship. Shakespeare’s Hamlet could understand that this is a clear contradiction.

Kant’s refutation of Anselm’s Ontological Argument demonstrates that a “non-existent entity” cannot create itself (or anything else, for that matter) for the same reason “non-existent entities” cannot be greater or lesser than “existent entities”: existence is not a predicate. [7]

To accept premise “b” one must accept that either the cheese is infinite (at least that it has no beginning, and thus no origin) or there is an infinite regress of events that make up the whole of the cheese. Either choice means, if one is to believe premise “b”, one accepts that there is something infinite: something which has always existed, whether one thinks of the universe as an infinite entity or one thinks that there is an infinite chain of events. In either situation there is neither first cause nor a beginning.

Option 2: The cheese came from something.

If Craig, Sproul, et al., are correct in affirming both the principle of causality and the finitude of the universe, then the only remaining option is to affirm that the universe has a cause; moreover, this cause can be neither contingent nor caused, nor can it be an “intermediate mover.” The cause must be self-existent; dare I say infinite. In his opening remarks in his debate with Quentin Smith, William Lane Crag notes, “If the universe has a cause of its existence, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans creation is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful and intelligent.” [8] While much can be written about each of these qualities Craig attributes to the creator, I will focus on the one attribute that I believe has been the source of my continued doubt in the soundness of the Cosmological Argument: infinity.

The Problem of Infinity

An infinite regress is impossible because an actually infinite number of things is impossible. An actually infinite collection of things cannot be formed by adding one thing after another, nor created by adding one thing after another, because no matter how many things are added, the number will always be finite, never infinite. In other words, any series that ends cannot be infinite, because an infinite series of real entities cannot be finished. If one more thing is added to any given series of things, then that is where the series ends currently. It is impossible to pass through an infinite series of moments. If the chain of causes goes into the past forever, and right now is where that series stops, we would have passed through an infinite series and that is impossible.

One of the most interesting defenses of this premise comes in the form of the thought experiment known as "Hilbert's Hotel." [9] Hilbert's Hotel was created by German mathematician David Hilbert. Imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms. Suppose that all the rooms are full. When a guest arrives asking for a room, the proprietor says, "Sorry, all the rooms are full." When another guest arrives asking for a room, the proprietor decides to shift the person in room #1 into room #2, the person in room #2 into room #3, the person in room #3 into room #4, and so on, out to infinity, in order to make a room available for the new guest. This shift of persons into new rooms is possible since the hotel has an infinite number of rooms. So now the guest is able to check into room #1. But, remember, before all the shifting occurred, all the rooms were full. Nobody left the hotel, yet now a room is available. This is the absurdity that arises when we consider the notion of an actually infinite number of things (in this case, an actually infinite number of rooms).

In mathematics we learn that when one thing is added to a number of real things, the number of those real things increases by one. This is tautologous. If an infinite series of real things actually existed, adding one thing to the number of those real things would not increase the number of those real things by one (because the series is infinite), which would make the following true:

n • 1 = ~(n • 1)

This is contradictory. William Lane Craig has said on numerous occasions, "[I]nfinity is just an idea in your mind, not something that exists in reality." [10] I found in Craig’s statement that which has bothered me for so long about the Cosmological Argument. His argument against the possibility of an infinite regress is an argument against the possibility of infinity. God is supposed to be infinite. I pondered this for hours, and during a late-night drive (which I do on occasion when I need to think), this question came to mind:

“When did god have his first thought?”

An entity can only be either static or dynamic. Is god – the infinite entity – static or dynamic? If the fundamental nature of this infinite entity is static, then it cannot be the cause of anything at all. A thing in stasis simply does nothing. If the nature of this infinite entity is dynamic, then to say that this entity must experience change, or motion in the Aristotelian sense, is a necessary truth. To create is to be in motion. If an actually infinite series cannot exist, then an actually infinite entity that is dynamic cannot exist either, for the same reason. To be both dynamic and infinite implies an infinite series of dynamism, thus implying that the “uncaused cause” cannot be an infinite entity.

If god spent a good portion of infinity – not considering that the notion of dividing infinity into portions is absurd (What is half of infinity?) – doing nothing else that would make him dynamic, he must have had a mind, and therefore thoughts. If god has always existed in his current state (fully cognizant, fully capable of reasoning), then it is reasonable to presume that god has been thinking for as long as he has existed. If god is infinite, then so is his series of thoughts. In the infinity of time before god created the world, he must have had thoughts – one of those thoughts being the idea to create a world.

Some suggest that this infinite entity exists "outside of time," and therefore is not subject to the same limitations imposed on entities “in time.” I suspect this suggestion arises out of a need by theists to justify an already accepted proposition, namely that “god exists.” As of this writing, I find the claim that god exists "outside of time" as meaningful as the claim that god exists "north of the North Pole." One action cannot "follow" another without reference to time. Even if we hypothesize that god exists in a separate time, we run into the same contradiction vis-à-vis infinity.

Possibly flawed premise: Time is the metrical measurement of potential becoming actual.

When we speak of the "passing of time" we are noting the actualization of potentialities. Aquinas understood “motion” to mean “the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality.” Aristotle defined “time” as “the measure of bodies in motion,” and while I do not consider (or, more accurately, I do not know) this to be the most accurate or even correct definition of time necessarily (although my premise certainly resembles the Aristotelian definition of time), I find that we cannot speak of time without referring to objects and events “in time.” I mean to say, regardless of whether time is an object that exists independently of our perceptions, our minds, and any physical object, we do not observe time per se; rather, we observe change, or motion. Perhaps it is more accurate to say we are noting the process of actualization, or the "becoming."

My good friend Clayton, a Christian minister by profession, asked me this question during a conversation about religion: “At what point do you allow for mystery?” Clayton wanted to know the point in my philosophical inquires which I resign that I cannot know something; in particular, he was curious about my inquiries concerning god. I admit that, if god exists and is everything a being called “God” should be, then there must be aspects of this entity a human is not able to comprehend. I answered, “For me, mystery ends at the discovery of contradiction.” A proposition (or a series of propositions) that contains a contradiction is not a mystery; on the contrary, it is necessarily false. Statements like, “God can create four-sided circles” (and the implicit premises in questions like “Can god create a rock so heavy he can’t lift it?”) do not express “the wondrous mystery of god.” They are contradictory, and therefore nonsense.

To make the declaration that god is immutable, eternal and infinite is to say god is static. To make the declaration that god is a creator, a cause and a “mover” is to say god is dynamic. To make both declarations is to speak a contradiction. If this is the case, then theists need to reconsider the qualities traditionally attributed to god.

I admit that I have difficulty accepting this conclusion, perhaps due to certain vestigial preferences that have lingered with me from my previous adherence to a more conservative Christian theism. Perhaps I am wrong and there is an actual meaning to the phrase, "existing outside of time" of which I am not currently aware. If my reasoning is not flawed, then once both an infinite regress and an infinite entity have been eliminated as possible options, and considering the shaky epistemic foundation upon which the principle of causality rests, the only conclusion remaining is that nothing created the universe.

Language’s way of turning a negation into a noun runs the risk of equivocation. By saying “nothing created the universe,” I am not suggesting that there is a “person, place or thing” called “Nothing” that caused the universe [11]; rather, I am suggesting that there is not a thing (“no thing”) that created the universe. “Nothing created the universe” is equivalent to “The universe has no cause.”

What of the nature of the universe? Is space infinite? Scientists are divided on the issue, which means they don’t know yet. Perhaps it is. That I acquiesce to the possibility raises yet another question: if space can be infinite, why can’t god? According to my path of reasoning, nothing is infinite. As I have said, language’s way of turning a negation into a noun runs the risk of equivocation. Perhaps this nothing, or the void (another noun offered by our language that almost begs to be equivocated) extends forever, and this is how what we call “outer space” has always been.

I have difficulty picturing what this looks like, and greater difficulty comprehending what this “infinite space” means; however, this does not mandate any logical inconsistency. Mystery does not imply contradiction; rather, mystery implies the unknown and enigmatic, the not-yet-discovered and not-yet-understood that should arouse both curiosity and wonder. My rejection of infinity is more specifically a rejection of an actual infinite series. “Nothing” is not a series.

Yet, this path of reasoning produces the same nagging doubt that something is wrong with it. If our universe is expanding as the scientists say, is it expanding into nothing? If the universe is curved as some suggest, then what is on the other side of the curvature? Can we really call it nothing – “no thing”? If our universe if finite, does it make any sense to say that it exists inside no thing? And what might this say about the possibility of the infinity of god? By asking these questions I am not sure whether I am pondering the great mystery of the universe or just banging my head against a wall of contradictions. Stephen Hawking claimed in his book, A Brief History of Time, that he and Roger Penrose “showed that Einstein’s general theory of relativity implied that the universe must have a beginning and, possibly, an end.” [12] Perhaps there really is nothing beyond or before the universe. But what if there is, in fact, something?

Most people would find the picture of our universe as an infinite tower of tortoises rather ridiculous, but why do we think we know better? What do we know about the universe, and how do we know it? Where did the universe come from, and where is it going? Did the universe have a beginning, and if so, what happened before then? What is the nature of time? Will it ever come to an end? Can we go back in time? Recent breakthroughs in physics, made possible in part by fantastic new technologies, suggest answers to some of these long-standing questions. Someday these answers may seem as obvious to us as the earth orbiting the sun – or perhaps as ridiculous as a tower of tortoises. Only time (whatever that may be) will tell. [13]

The BOCA Argument

I should mention that my attempt to formulate an acceptable version of the Cosmological Argument stems from impure motives; that is to say, my attempt is motivated by the desire to avoid declaring myself an atheist (a complete rejection of the Cosmological Argument would be a step in that direction, albeit not in itself a sufficient condition for my wholesale acceptance of atheism). I have no problem with either atheists or atheism. My problem is with my emotional side, which cares nothing for what my rational side has to say. I mention this because admitting one’s bias is the first step towards objective thinking.

While my paradigmatic bias has no bearing on the soundness of my argument (or lack thereof), keep in mind that I am currently incapable of approaching my own argument objectively, so I present my argument in this paper as an intellectual exercise while suspending judgment concerning the argument’s soundness or the conclusion’s truth value.

I call the argument “Bud’s Ontological Cosmological Argument” or “the BOCA Argument” for short. [14] I give the argument this name for three reasons: 1) I’m vain and wanted to put my name in the title; 2) this variant of the Cosmological Argument is based on the ontology of the “first cause,” as will be seen in the argument itself; and, 3) given my current inability to analyze this argument objectively, calling it “the BOCA Argument” is my acknowledgement that the argument might be as devoid of soundness as BOCA burgers are devoid of beef. [15] The argument is stated as follows:

Premise one: Entities can either be ontologically independent or ontologically dependent.
Premise two: There cannot be ontologically dependent entities only.
Conclusion: Therefore, there must be at least one ontologically independent entity.

Ontological dependency “is a relation—or, more accurately, a family of relations—between entities or beings... For there are various ways in which one being may be said to depend upon one or more other beings, in a sense of ‘depend’ that is distinctly metaphysical in character and that may be contrasted, thus, with various causal senses of this word. More specifically, a being may be said to depend, in such a sense, upon one or more other beings for its existence or for its identity.” [16]

Like any variant of the Cosmological Argument, the BOCA Argument – premise two in particular - is founded on the principle of causality. Consider my shoes again: what I call my “shoes” is the result of a combination of factors, including the individual physical components that make up my shoes, the underpaid factory workers who put my shoes together, the concept of “footwear,” and even me (after all, they can’t rightly be identified as “my shoes” unless there’s a “my” of which to speak). My shoes are not only contingent, but ontologically dependent.

Premise two asserts that there cannot be ontologically dependent entities only because, if there were, there would be no explanation for their existence. An ontologically dependent entity needs a reason for its existence. One could say such a thing “depends” on a reason (or a series of reasons or causes) for both its existence and identity. Therefore, an ontologically independent entity must exist.

Certainly, even if there must be an ontologically independent entity, its identity must still in some ways be dependent. For example, god’s identity as creator is dependent on his creation; that is, god cannot be considered a creator unless there is a creation of which to speak. Likewise, god cannot be considered “transcendent” (“above and independent of”) unless there is something which he in fact transcends. Thus, one can argue that there cannot be ontologically independent entities, because if an independent entity exists, it must be dependent, and this is contradictory.

A possible solution is to suggest a distinction be made between an entity’s quiddity and haecceity. An ontologically independent entity depends on nothing for its existence and identity, which means the quiddity or hypokeimenon (that substance which persists in a thing going through change – it’s “whatness”) of an ontologically independent entity should remain constant in any possible world, even if its haecceity (the properties or characteristics of a thing which make it a particular thing – it’s “thisness”) might differ according to each possible world. [17]

Some may argue that an ontologically dependent entity might actually lack quiddity, possibly appealing to Hume, who held that “self” is nothing but a bundle of interconnected perceptions linked by relations of similarity and causality. This is similar to the Buddhist doctrine of Conditioned Arising, which states the principle of conditionality, that all things, mental and physical, arise and exist due to the presence of certain conditions, and cease once their conditions are removed: nothing (except nibbāna) is independent. [18] This does not run contrary to the idea that an ontologically independent entity can have or does have quiddity.

Ontological independence is certainly a mystery, but as of this writing, I see nothing about it that is contradictory. Like other variations of the Cosmological Argument, if the BOCA Argument is sound, it does not prove the existence of god per se, but merely that some entity exists that possesses a quality that could be attributed to god.

I suggest we keep in mind abductive reasoning, also called inference to the best explanation (or I.B.E. for short), which involves examining a mass of facts and allowing these facts to suggest a theory. Abductive inference follows this form of reasoning:

Premise one:: Facts X and Y are observed.
Premise two:: But if Z were true, X and Y would be a matter of course.
Conclusion:: Consequently, there is reason to suspect that Z is true.

I.B.E. is, like inductive reasoning, based on probability. After examining the facts about the universe, what should one suspect is most likely to be true? If the principle of causality holds, then there must be at least one causal agent that is an ontologically independent entity. If the principle fails, then one has little reason at all to expect there to be an answer to the question of the origin of the universe, because there might not be an answer.


1. Louis P. Pojman and Michael Rea, Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thompson Wadsworth Learning, 2008) p. 24.

2. James Kellenberger, Introduction to Philosophy of Religion (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007) p. 43.

3. See for the entire transcript of the famous 1948 radio debate.

4. William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994) p. 92

5. R.C. Sproul, John Gerstner, Arthur Lindsley, Classical Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984) p. 72

6. Ibid., p. 72

7. James Kellenberger, Introduction to Philosophy of Religion (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2007) p. 38-39.

8. Does God Exist? Debate between William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, March 22, 1996. (Retrieved November 9, 2009)

9. G.W. Erickson and J.A. Fossa, Dictionary of Paradox (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1998) p. 84.

10. Craig-Smith Debate: Craig’s Initial Arguments. (Retrieved November 9, 2009)

11. Such equivocation is seen in the “Ham Sandwich Argument”:

Premise one: Nothing is better than true love.
Premise two: A ham sandwich is better than nothing.
Conclusion: Therefore, a ham sandwich is better than true love.

12. Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time- The Updated and Expanded Tenth Anniversary Edition (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1998) p. 35.

13. Ibid., pp. 1-2.

14. I know that calling it “the BOCA Argument” is redundant (like "PIN Number"), but it just sounds better to me to call it “The BOCA Argument” than simply calling it “BOCA.”

15. See for information on how to add soy to your diet. Yum yum.

16. Ontological Dependence – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (Retrieved November 9, 2009)

17. According to Aristotle's definition (in Categories), hypokeimenon is something which can be predicated by other things, but cannot be a predicate of others.

18. Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 1990) p. 54.

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