An Agnostic’s Response to My Use of the Cosmological Argument

by Max Andrews

The following is a guest blog post by Fred, an agnostic, critiquing my use of the argument from contingency I presented at the Virginia Tech debate on the existence of God.  Here’s a brief bio:

B.S. and M.S. in Computer Science, completing my formal education in 1978.  I’ve taken precisely two philosophy courses during my student days, both in Logic.  I  took a lot of math and science courses. I am now in I.T. middle management at a multinational oil company, with about 90 people reporting to me.

I’m 58 years old, grew up as a devout Catholic – attended Catholic schools in Houston for 12 years.  I credit the free thinking atmosphere at my high school with opening my mind up and allowing me to look beyond the dogma I had always been taught.  This led me to question, to become skeptical, and ultimately to develop into an agnostic.  I lack a belief that a God exists, but I have continued to explore.  I am impatient with dogmatism, from theists and atheists alike.  My engagement in discussions such as this is out of pure self-interest.  I’m not trying to prove anyone wrong, I’m just trying to see if I’m missing some truths or overlooking some credible argument. I do so by challenging the position of the person I’m engaging, which can sometimes give the appearance that my position is more extreme than it is.  In the course of my pursuits I’ve been forced to look a little into metaphysics, because it seems this is where the arguments for God’s existence reside.  I’ve also looked into historical methodology, because this pertains to the arguments for Jesus sit. 

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An excerpt from the Thomistic cosmological argument used at the Virginia Tech Debate:

The Thomistic Cosmological Argument

  1. What we observe and experience in our universe is contingent.
  2. A network of causally dependent contingent things cannot be infinite.
  3. A network of causally dependent contingent things must be finite.
  4. Therefore, there must be a first cause in the network of contingent causes.

In this context, what I mean by contingent is that if X is contingent then X owes its existence to something else. For a thing that has the potentiality of movement cannot actualize its own potential; some other thing must cause it to move.  The universe consists of a network of causes. A was caused by B, but only because B is caused by C, and so on. We know of nothing that spontaneously initiates its own causal activity. (Even supposed quantum indeterminacy requires a state of affairs, or preceding causal conditions, such as the governance of the laws of nature, for the event to occur).  This is a hierarchical network of causation and not temporal.  Note that nothing here turns on our having to know about everything.

The contingency of which you speak is a statement of causality.  Our experience of causality, the fundamental basis of our concept, is entirely based on causes being temporally prior to effect. I’ll get into this shortly, but first I’d like to describe a broader context. Looking at the entirety of material reality as a system, at any point in time material reality can be thought of as a state of affairs.  The state of affairs includes the vector of each particle in existence (i.e. its position, trajectory, and any other relevant characteristic). Material reality transitions from one state of affairs to the next in a temporal sequence. (For the sake of simplicity, I’m omitting special relativity from consideration. Special relativity implies that time is not moving in lockstep at all locations in spacetime. However, it is nevertheless the case that everything moves in the same temporal direction, they follow a common arrow of time).

When we examine a subset of material reality, and observe how it changes over time, we observe causality. e.g. I throw a ball  into the air, and it will eventually fall back to earth.  Although you could describe this in logical terms, omitting the temporal element, your description will be incomplete.

Therefore your contention, “This is a hierarchical network of causation and not temporal” is an unjustified assumption. You are arbitrarily stripping temporality from causality, which is fundamental to our concept. My throwing the ball into the air temporally precedes its falling to earth.

Your premise #1 is true only in a limited sense. It is true in the sense that the state of all the particles of matter and energy in the universe is a consequence of temporally prior states. However the transition from one state to the next is a function of natural law. There is no evidence that natural law is contingent, based on your definition.  I’ll note that some of the observed laws of physics are contextual, but these are actually pseudo-laws, not fundamental. E.g. the half -life of uranium is meaningless if uranium atoms don’t exist, but the observed half- life is due to the more fundamental processes describing the interaction of the weak guage bosons with the quarks in the nucleus of the atom.

#4 is a reasonable conclusion, but needs to be put into this temporal context.  The “first cause” is an initial state of affairs that has no temporally prior state of affairs. It means no more than that. What might this initial state consist of?

Fundamental natural law itself does not appear to be subject to causality, its existence transcends time. The initial state would therefore include natural law. It needn’t include anything else.  One could then examine whether or not natural law alone is sufficient to explain all contingent entities.  It appears that it may very well do so. For example, there are hypotheses of Quantum Gravity that suggest the spontaneous appearance of virtual particles may occur, thus providing a mechanism for energy, in the form of virtual inflatons, to undergo quantum fluctuation and form a bubble universe.  Conservation of energy is maintained in the system by symmetry: there are both positive and negative energy particles, and conservation is not violated if the energies sum to zero.  A quantum fluctuation is a change of state, and therefore occurs in time, but the ground state from which the fluctuation occurs is timeless. Timelessness is maintained similarly to energy: quantum fluctuations may proceed in a positive direction of time, or a negative direction.  This hypothesis has been proposed by Sean Carroll, discussed in this interview, and in his book, From Eternity to Here.


4 Comments to “An Agnostic’s Response to My Use of the Cosmological Argument”

    • I started reading your article, but stopped when I read this comment (I stopped because it is bedtime):

      “The argument does NOT rest on the premise that ‘Everything has a cause.’

      “Lots of people – probably most people who have an opinion on the matter – think that the cosmological argument goes like this: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists. They then have no trouble at all poking holes in it. If everything has a cause, then what caused God? Why assume in the first place that everything has to have a cause? Why assume the cause is God? Etc.

      “Here’s the funny thing, though. People who attack this argument never tell you where they got it from.”

      I’ll address this by telling you that I got it from Max. He said, “In this context, what I mean by contingent is that if X is contingent then X owes its existence to something else. For a thing that has the potentiality of movement cannot actualize its own potential; some other thing must cause it to move…”

      I see causation all through his comments. Before I continue reading your article, please tell me if it’s going to be relevant to Max’s argument.

  1. Thanks Fred. I’m not sure why you would take Max’s words to mean “everything has a cause.” All that follows from the quote you gave from Max is that “contingent things have causes.” Are you arguing that everything that exists is contingent?

    The article is somewhat related to some of the issues you brought up, but I think it’s interesting in general relating to the cosmological argument which is why I posted it. It doesn’t get into the details of causality being temporal or simultaneous, but Feser addresses those issues elsewhere on his blog if you’re interested. But again, I mainly posted it for it’s general informative nature regarding many popular objections to the cosmological argument.

    • Hmm. My real mistake was in reading and posting right before going to bed in near exhaustion. I agree, he doesn’t say everything has a cause. He merely suggested that everything we observe and experience in our universe has a cause.

      You ask if I think everything is contingent. Max defines contingent to mean caused (“what I mean by contingent is that if X is contingent then X owes its existence to something else.”) No, I think some things are uncaused. I think an infinite regress is unlikely, although not actually provably impossible – and that this implies there would have to be an initial, foundational state of affairs. Further, I see no reason to exclude the possibility that uncaused things occur in the universe, at least in some senses of the word “caused.” I’ll add that I’m surprised that Max defines “contingent” as he does. I’m interested in seeing where he takes this.

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