Argument from Ignorance

 With each and every individual, is born an instinctual curiosity, urging him to ask existential questions and dig in all the possible directions trying to answer them, most of the times in vain.

  Taught at philosophy classes in colleges and schools, encountered in all kinds of forums and discussion groups, the Cosmological Argument gains a high reputation among the arguments involving God(s) and Religions, simply because it is – for some reason, considered a logical scientific argument that uses a number of facts that govern our Cosmos, which, if combined, make a proof of the existence of a unique being, usually referred to as ‘God’.

  While the cosmological argument goes back to Plato’s Laws, 893-6, its first clear formulation appeared in Aristotle’s Physics (VIII, 4–6) and Metaphysics (XII, 1–6). Throughout history, and after its first appearance, the argument has known a lot of modifications and different statements, but their essence is the same, it is summed up in the following: Every finite contingent being has a cause, a causal loop cannot exist, nor can a causal chain go to infinity, therefore an uncaused cause must exist.

  Ignoring the validity of its premises – which is to be discussed in further details, the cosmological argument does not provide any solid proof for the existence of ‘God’ in the traditional theistic sense.

  One of the most important statements of the argument is the Argument from Contingency, formulated by Thomas Aquinas. Contingency is a philosophical term, which means that something that exists could have under different circumstances not-existed. A simple example would be any human being, if Einstein’s mother died before

she had him, he wouldn’t have existed, and therefore Einstein is a contingent being. From this point of view, Aquinas argues:

1. Everything in the universe is contingent.
2. Therefore the universe is contingent.
3. Contingent things cannot exist on their own, so there must be something that caused the universe to exist.
4. That thing cannot be contingent, since contingent beings are not sufficient for the existence of other contingent beings.

5. Therefore, there must exist an uncaused being, whose non-existence is impossible.

Aquinas further said: “…and this we understand to be God.”(Summa Theologiae, I : 2,3).

   A great fallacy Aquinas fell into, is the fallacy of Composition, which is to conclude that if the components of something has a certain property, therefore the whole thing should have the same property. If the bricks are small, it doesn’t mean that the wall is small. Likewise, if the constituents of the universe are contingent, this does not mean that the universe itself is.

In his debate with Fredrick Copleston on BBC radio, Bertrand Russel says: “The universe is just there, and that’s all.”

Russel’s point of view, is viewed as one of the greatest objections to Aquinas’ argument from Contingency. In the same debate, he argues that the concept of cause is derived from our personal experiences  and observations on personal things, but the universe is not something that we can actually experience, so for now, and until we widen our circle of experimental skills in a way that will allow us to measure things of the size/age of our cosmos, the universe just is.

We can also argue that the Causal principle itself is to be investigated. David Hume, one of the most important figures in the history of western philosophy, argues that not every effect, should have a cause. He gives as an example that even if every being should have a mother, there is no mother for the whole human race, every husband should have a wife. In his own words, he says:

“But this does not prove, that every being must be preceded by a cause; no more than it follows, because every husband must have a wife, that therefore every man must be marry’d. The true state of the question is, whether every object, which begins to exist, must owe its existence to a cause: and this I assert neither to be intuitively nor demonstratively certain…”

(David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book 1: Of the Understanding, Part 3: Of knowledge of probability, Section 3)


  Another statement of the cosmological argument is the Kalam cosmological argument which argues for the existence of a first cause for the universe. Its roots go back to medieval Islamic theologians such as Al-Ghazali and Al-Kundi. The best statement of the argument would be that formulated by William Lane Craig:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.

4. Since no scientific explanation (in terms of physical laws) can provide a causal account of the origin of the universe, the cause must be personal (explanation is given in terms of a personal agent)

( Craig and Smith 1993, chap. 1)

  Like the other statements of the argument, the Kalam cosmological argument is based on the principle of causality as we know it, a refutation of  such an argument wasn’t so trivial in the early days were it was formulated since the physical sciences, to be more specific, physics itself, was on a totally different level than the one it’s at today. Physics was viewed as a purely deterministic field (i.e. each cause has an effect), until a breakthrough took place in the 20th century, which is the appearance of a new field called “Quantum Physics” of course. It was experimentally proven (double-slit experiment, or Young’s experiment) that electrons randomly disappear from a place, and reappear somewhere else, without any direct relation between neither the two places, nor an explanation of why did it appear in this place exactly and not another. Quantum theory, has changed our understanding of causality, it actually broke the causal principle as we know it, and the relationship between causes and effects has taken a different deviation.
Now let’s take another look at the premises of the Kalam cosmological argument, more specifically, the first premise: “Everything that begins to exist, has a cause to its existence”. In a scientific notation, ‘begins to exist’ can be translated into ‘has a finite past’, which means that it existed at a finite time in a finite position. This notation is the problem itself, since – as Einstein’s General theory of Relativity suggests, the Big Bang is NOT an event (a specific point in space-time). The Big Bang does not take place within a space-time context, since it did not happen at a specific time neither at a specific space, for the simple reason that there was no space nor time prior to the Big Bang. As Hawking notes: “the finite universe has no space-time boundaries and hence lacks singularity and a beginning”. (Hawking 116, 136)

  Adolf Grünbaum, the founder of the center for Philosophy of Science in Pitsburgh University, argues that the only cause for an event, can be another event:

“Since the Big Bang singularity is technically a non-event, and  t=0 is not a bona fide time of its occurrence, the singularity cannot be the effect of any cause in the case of either event-causation or agent causation alike…. The singularity t=0 cannot have a cause”

 (Grünbaum 1994)

  Hawking and Grünbaum’s suggestions might cause some confusion for people lacking the mathematical knowledge about the general theory of relativity, who attempt to disprove the  latter through common sense which is not that precise of a tool when it comes to such purely scientific topics. Some might argue that if the chain of events can go to infinity in the future, it can also go to infinity in the past, so we can always go one day further into the future or one day back into the past; in other words, any event has another event prior to it, which makes of the Big Bang an event caused by another one. Another argument is an attempt to re-formulate the notion of an ‘event’, and re-define it in  way that fits the physical information we have about the Big Bang, to make the latter ‘the event of the commencing of the universe’, or “any two points in the observable universe were arbitrarily close together” (Silk 2001, 63), and for some reason, allow themselves to treat causation conditionally and re-define it for that specific ‘event’. In either cases, the best reply would be that the General Theory of relativity is perfectly stated in clear forms and equations, if someone fails to understand it, or understand the mathematical meaning of a singularity, he/she is in no position to argue about it. A further reading about the issue would be Quentin Smith’s “A cosmological argument for a self-Caused universe” (2008), which gives a detailed explanation of self-causing, and how can the universe actually create itself without any interference of higher causes or powers.

  Another statement of the cosmological argument would be that of Swinburne, entitled ‘the inductive cosmological argument’. The essence of the argument lies in Swinburne’s attempt to make of God’s existence a more probable explanation than any other. He says:

  “Theism does not make [certain phenomena] very probable; but nothing else makes their occurrence in the least probable, and they cry out for explanation. A priori, theism is perhaps very unlikely, but it is far more likely than any rival supposition. Hence our phenomena are substantial evidence for the truth of theism”.

 (Swinburne 1976, 290).

 

  His argument can be at best described as a comparative argument, where he tries to assign qualitative values to ‘God’ and ‘The universe’ as following: God is simple, wherea the universe is complex. If we are to think of anything to appear without any explanation or prior cause, that thing is more likely to be simple rather than complex. Therefore, if anything is to appear unexplained, it is more likely God and not the Universe.

  As I see it, the weakness of Swinburne’s argument is the probabilistic approach itself. How can anyone measure probabilities as such ? What makes ‘God’ simple rather than complex ? It is something that can’t be explained through sciences, which makes it as complex as it can get.
Mackie asserts that the existence of such a higher being is very unlikely, it is more unlikely to assign the traditional theistic properties to such a being. “the hypothesis of divine creation is very unlikely.” He says, (Mackie, 100).

  Furthermore, the cosmological argument is an argumentum ad ignorantiam, an argument from ignorance, which is one of the fallacies the whole theistic argumentation falls into. Even if  there’s an unknown uncaused cause to the Universe, we cannot assume that it is God. The theistic argument goes, we don’t know what it is, so it must be God, as Thomas Aquinas says, “We understand this [uncaused cause] to be God.” But astrophysicist Neil Degrass Tyson says, “If you don’t know what it is, then you don’t know what it is; it must not be anything. Your argument should stop there.”

On the other hand, even if the argument is cogent and there is one first cause, and furthermore this cause is God with the traditional theistic properties we all know, what is the guarantee that it’s all powerful and good? Maybe it’s a demon ! Why is it more probable that it’s properties are rather good than evil (also in the traditional understanding of both good and evil)? Actually a closer look of Human life as we see it today, would actually suggest it is more probable for this being to be Evil.

  Starting from the same assumptions I attempted, further questions arise: If the cosmological argument succeeds to prove that the God of religions exist; if so, of what religion? Each one of the monotheistic religions we know assign different properties for God, which gives us more than one definition of it, there is no way we can tell which one is more probable than the other. Furthermore, why is it more probable for one God to exist rather than two, or three? If we allow one unexplained hypothesis, why not allow more the same way the first one was allowed? This kind of questions, which I am personally ashamed to ask honestly, for the reason that the assumptions I threw can in no way be taken seriously, but still, such a way of reasoning gives us a feeling about the weakness of the God Hypothesis and its contradictions.

  Finally, summing up what I previously stated, religions tend to explain the existence of a personal ‘God’ through the so-called cosmological argument, which, in all of its forms and statements, not only provides an un-sound conclusion, but also supports it with invalid premises, which even if considered valid, represent in no way a solid ground for the conclusion of the argument, nor the extension added by mono/poly-theistic religions, which describes the first cause in a perfect picture.

  This leaves us with a small conclusion:  From a majorly-scientific point of view, considered as the greatest in the defense of the God hypothesis, the Cosmological argument turns out to be another weak tool, to be added to the long list of templates and live example of what we call Invalid Arguments.

References

 

 

Books: 

 

“Introduction to logic” – Irving M. Copi/Carl Cohen

“The Cosmological Argument: A Current Bibliographical Appraisal” – Beck, W. David

“A Big Bang Cosmological Argument For God’s Nonexistence” – Quentin Smith

“A brief History of time” – Stephen Hawking

 

 Links:

http://h2g2.com/dna/h2g2/A2669303

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHsANALeHz8 (Video)

http://www.philosophicalinvestigations.co.uk/images/stories/philosophy_files/cosmological_argument/david_humes_criticisms_of_the_cosmological_argument.doc

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BWFpBTqSN0 (Video) / http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/copleston.htm  (Text)

http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/quentin_smith/self-caused.html

http://warp.povusers.org/grrr/kalam.html

http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmological-argument/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmological_argument/

http://www.unc.edu/~theis/phil32/cosmological.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BWFpBTqSN0   (russel copleton debate)

http://www.galilean-library.org/site/index.php/blog/26/entry-93-on-the-cosmological-argument-part-3/

 

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Author: Sami Ab.

Co-founder of CLAFA and Freethought Lebanon, admin at Lebanese Atheists. BS in physics from the American University of Beirut. Currently mastering in physics at AUB. Active freethinker since 2005-2006. A Non-theist/Nihilist.

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