In natural theology, a cosmological argument is an argument in which the existence of a unique being, generally seen as some kind of god or demiurge is deduced or inferred from facts or alleged facts concerning causation, change, motion, contingency, or finitude in respect of the universe as a whole or processes within it. It is traditionally known as an argument from universal causation, an argument from first cause, or the causal argument. Whichever term is employed, there are three basic variants of the argument, each with subtle yet important distinctions: the arguments from in causa (causality), in esse (essentiality), and in fieri (becoming).
The basic premise of all of these is the concept of causality and of a first cause. The history of this argument goes back to Aristotle or earlier, was developed in Neoplatonism and early Christianity and later in medieval Islamic theology during the 9th to 12th centuries, and re-introduced to medieval Christian theology in the 13th century by Thomas Aquinas. The cosmological argument is closely related to the principle of sufficient reason as addressed by Gottfried Leibniz and Samuel Clarke, itself a modern exposition of the claim that “nothing comes from nothing” attributed to Parmenides.
Argument from contingency
In the scholastic era, Aquinas formulated the “argument from contingency“, following Aristotle in claiming that there must be something to explain why the Universe exists. Since the Universe could, under different circumstances, conceivably not exist (contingency), its existence must have a cause – not merely another contingent thing, but something that exists by necessity (something that must exist in order for anything else to exist). In other words, even if the Universe has always existed, it still owes its existence to an Uncaused Cause, Aquinas further said: “…and this we understand to be God.”
Aquinas’s argument from contingency allows for the possibility of a Universe that has no beginning in time. It is a form of argument from universal causation. Aquinas observed that, in nature, there were things with contingent existences. Since it is possible for such things not to exist, there must be some time at which these things did not in fact exist. Thus, according to Aquinas, there must have been a time when nothing existed. If this is so, there would exist nothing that could bring anything into existence. Contingent beings, therefore, are insufficient to account for the existence of contingent beings: there must exist a necessary being whose non-existence is an impossibility, and from which the existence of all contingent beings is derived.
The German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz made a similar argument with his principle of sufficient reason in 1714. “There can be found no fact that is true or existent, or any true proposition,” he wrote, “without there being a sufficient reason for its being so and not otherwise, although we cannot know these reasons in most cases.” He formulated the cosmological argument succinctly: “Why is there something rather than nothing? The sufficient reason […] is found in a substance which […] is a necessary being bearing the reason for its existence within itself.”
In esse and in fieri
The difference between the arguments from causation in fieri and in esse is a fairly important one. In fieri is generally translated as “becoming”, while in esse is generally translated as “in essence”. In fieri, the process of becoming, is similar to building a house. Once it is built, the builder walks away, and it stands on its own accord. (It may require occasional maintenance, but that is beyond the scope of the first cause argument.)
In esse (essence) is more akin to the light from a candle or the liquid in a vessel. George Hayward Joyce, SJ, explained that “…where the light of the candle is dependent on the candle’s continued existence, not only does a candle produce light in a room in the first instance, but its continued presence is necessary if the illumination is to continue. If it is removed, the light ceases. Again, a liquid receives its shape from the vessel in which it is contained; but were the pressure of the containing sides withdrawn, it would not retain its form for an instant.” This form of the argument is far more difficult to separate from a purely first cause argument than is the example of the house’s maintenance above, because here the First Cause is insufficient without the candle’s or vessel’s continued existence.
Thus, Leibniz‘ argument is in fieri, while Aquinas‘ argument is both in fieri and in esse. This distinction is an excellent example of the difference between a deistic view (Leibniz) and a theistic view (Aquinas). As a general trend, the modern slants on the cosmological argument, including the Kalam argument, tend to lean very strongly towards an in fieri argument.
Kalām cosmological argument
William Lane Craig gives this argument in the following general form:
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
- The Universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the Universe had a cause.
Craig explains, by nature of the event (the Universe coming into existence), attributes unique to (the concept of) god must also be attributed to the cause of this event, including but not limited to: omnipotence, Creator, being eternal and absolute self-sufficiency. Since these attributes are unique to god, anything with these attributes must be god. Something does have these attributes: the cause; hence, the cause is god, the cause exists; hence, god exists.
Craig defends the second premise, that the Universe had a beginning starting with Al-Ghazali‘s proof that an actual infinite is impossible. However, If the universe never had a beginning then there indeed would be an actual infinite, an infinite amount of cause and effect events. Hence, the Universe had a beginning.