Monday, July 16, 2012
Cosmological argument roundup
A year ago today I put up a post with the title “So you think you understand the cosmological argument?” It generated quite a bit of discussion, and has since gotten more page views than any other post in the history of this blog. To celebrate its first anniversary -- and because the argument, rightly understood (as it usually isn’t), is the most important and compelling of arguments for classical theism -- I thought a roundup of various posts relevant to the subject might be in order.
The versions of the argument I regard as most significant are the ones developed within the Aristotelian-Thomistic (A-T) tradition. This includes the first three of Aquinas’s famous Five Ways and the “existential proof” of Aquinas’s short treatise On Being and Essence (which is in my view related to the Second Way). As I have emphasized many times, these arguments cannot properly be understood without some knowledge of the broader A-T metaphysical context in which they were originally embedded. For that reason, I have stated and defended the arguments at length in two of my books, where there is space to set out the relevant background. The blog posts I’ve written on this subject can to some extent be understood without having read the books, but they are only intended to supplement what I’ve said there. They address specific questions of interpretation, answer various objections that have arisen, and so forth. For the arguments themselves you need to look to the books.
A detailed exposition and defense of all of the Five Ways can be found in Aquinas, in particular in chapter 3, with the relevant background metaphysical ideas set out in chapter 2. That book is as reader-friendly as I could make it, but it is written in a more academic and dispassionate style. More polemical and semi-popular is The Last Superstition, where two of Aquinas’s versions of the cosmological argument are defended in chapter 3, with the relevant background metaphysical ideas set out in chapter 2.
The “existential inertia” thesis holds that once in existence, the natural world tends to remain in existence on its own, without need for a divine sustaining cause. I maintain that the traditional theistic arguments represented by the Five Ways, when rightly understood, show that this thesis is false, and that in fact the world could not continue in being even for an instant, even in principle, if God were not continuously sustaining it. I defend this claim in my article “Existential Inertia and the Five Ways,” which appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly. A shorter version of the paper appeared under the title “Existential Inertia” in the volume Metaphysics: Aristotelian, Scholastic, Analytic, edited by Lukas Novak, Daniel D. Novotny, Prokop Sousedik, and David Svoboda.
It is sometimes suggested that Aquinas’s First Way is undermined by Newton’s principle of inertia. This is not the case, for reasons explained at length in my article “The Medieval Principle of Motion and the Modern Principle of Inertia,” which is forthcoming in the Proceedings of the Society for Medieval Logic and Metaphysics. (I also discuss this issue briefly in The Last Superstition, at greater length in Aquinas, and in some of the posts linked to below.)
I discuss some of the metaphysical issues underling the argument in a lecture I presented at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in December 2011, which you can watch on YouTube:
Proper understanding of the cosmological argument among the general educated public (and even among some professional philosophers who have not made a special study of the subject) has been greatly hampered by a blizzard of caricatures, superficial objections, and urban legends that have come to surround it. These are discussed in the post mentioned above:
Some common objections raised against various versions of the argument are addressed in:
The post on Edwards just linked to explains the notion of causation that underlies Aquinas’s versions of the cosmological argument. Questions about causation are also addressed in:
It is sometimes claimed that modern science has somehow pulled out the rug from Aquinas’s arguments. As I have said, Newton’s principle of inertia is sometimes claimed to have done so. Quantum mechanics is sometimes thought to have undermined the principle of causality. I respond to claims like these in the following posts, most of which were written as part of an exchange with physicist Robert Oerter:
Stephen Hawking, Lawrence Krauss, and some other scientists have claimed that physics can explain the existence of the world without recourse to God, contrary to the central theme of the cosmological argument. I respond to these sorts of claims in the following posts:
Not Understanding Nothing [a review of Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe from Nothing]
The cosmological argument raises questions about ultimate explanation. But is the world ultimately explicable? Or is it an unintelligible brute fact? Questions about ultimate explanation are addressed in:
As I have said, even some professional philosophers have attacked crude caricatures of the cosmological argument rather than the real McCoy. I discuss some examples in:
Naturally the same theme is addressed in the “So you think you understand the cosmological argument?” post linked to above. That post gave rise to an exchange with Jason Rosenhouse, my side of which you can find here:
The cosmological argument is, I maintain, the most important argument for God’s existence, but it is not the only good argument for His existence. I have defended the Fourth Way and the Fifth Way as well. But there are other arguments for God’s existence that I do not think succeed. I discuss some of these in:
Finally, there are, of course, many other important works defending Aquinas’s versions of the cosmological argument, which I cite in the books of mine referred to above. Most such works are not available online, but there are a few online sources:
David Oderberg, “’Whatever is Changing is Being Changed by Something Else’: A Reappraisal of Premise One of the First Way.” [Follow the relevant link from the “Articles” page on Oderberg’s website.]
Michael Augros, “Ten Objections to the Prima Via”
James Sadowsky, “Can There Be an Endless Regress of Causes?”