Critiquing an Objection to the Cosmological Argument

by Max Andrews

Neill Shenton recently did a review/response to one of Doug Beaumont’s arguments for the existence of God.  Doug’s argument is the ususal Thomastic cosmological argument from contingency.  At this point I’ll assume that you’ve read the two posts so you’ve got a greater context for what follows.

Here’s Shenton:

This is an argument that keeps coming up & folk tweet responses but my thoughts don’t fit in a tweet so here’s my ramblings on the topic. 

I see this as a rather futile attempt to “prove” there is a god by a logic that depends upon definitions of the terms.  The key words here are ‘being’ and, not surprisingly, ‘god’.  If we substitute these words the futility is exposed.

  1. A widget exists
  2. Widgets cannot spontaneously come into existence, they have to be “made” by something that came beforehand.
3. If our widget was made by or evolved from another, and so on, where did the first widget come from?
4. Some none-widget-like-process made the first widget
5. I’m calling that “f’narg”
6. What do we know about F’narg? Nothing except it isn’t a widget by definition.  Is it god?  You could call it that, I’ll stick to f’narg; it has NO connotations.  So, we now know exactly what we already did, all this widgety universe started with something and now it has a name, f’narg

What Shenton is doing here is that he’s completely ignoring the modal status of the terms ‘contingent’ and ‘necessary’ in the original Thomistic argument.  This isn’t that big of a deal but for him to completely dismiss it isn’t critiquing the argument on its own grounds.  He’s changing the argument (straw man).  P3 is obviously a misunderstanding of the argument.  He’s conflating Thomas’ hierarchicial in esse causation with temporal causation as with kalam. So why think 3 is a valid premise on Shenton’s own terms? Well, I don’t think there is a reason because of the ambiguity of the terms and the conflation of temporal processes and hierachical/transitive causation.  When we say that there cannot be an infinite regress of in esse causation (contingencies) we have to contrast that with something that is non-contingent.  This is why the modal relationship is important here. In P6 Shenton says that there are no connotations between widget and f’narg.  Well, that’s precicsely why we should cast doubt on P4 and P5.  What is the relationship between these two terms?  The argument fails on its own grounds because of a lack of definition between the terms.  One cannot have a modal argument without having the modal connections in terms.  To offer a counter-argument like this to demonstrate the absurdity of the argument doesn’t work because modal terms are not interchangeable with non-modal terms while preserving the argument.  Once one changes the modal status of the terms it’s a completely different argument.

Thus, there are two primary problems with this counter-argument.

  1. Removing the modal relationship of the terms ‘necessity’ and ‘contingent’ with terms that hold no modal status (or at least have not defined their modal status).
  2. Convolution P3 with temporal causation and transitive causation.

6 Comments to “Critiquing an Objection to the Cosmological Argument”

  1. Good work Max. Problem 2 is common enough that it appears in many textbooks, so I could grant Shenton some mercy there ( I once had a student write an entire paper on Thomas’s argument from contingency that made this mistake!).

    Problem 1 probably flows from Problem 2, but fails anyway. Only if one fails to catch Shenton’s switch from “All contingent being” to a mere subset of it (“widgets”) does his argument even seem to get off the ground. However, “non-contingent” and “non-widget” are not analogous. Contingent/Non-Contingent are exhaustive categories, whereas widget/non-widget are not.

    Finally, in his failure to grasp the significance of the modal terms (which is basically the whole argument!) he fails to see that a non-contingent being certainly does have “connotations” as he put it (e.g., infinity, simplicity, eternality, etc.). If he thinks that ” f’narg” is analogous to a being like that, then calling it “God” is hardly objectionable!

  2. Yeah, when an argument doesn’t work out in my favor I usually change the terms too. I kid of course, but the absurdity is in there. This is precisely a problem I have come into on a number of occasions. First, those who disbelieve in an existing God do like to change the terms to try and show how absurd we are. Yet, little do they know they are only logically positioning themselves into a cataclysmic facepunch of linguistic and logical problems. But hey, anything to try and make us look like crazy fundamentalists that want to take everyone’s freedom away.

    Let us then focus on the matter at hand. One of the central problems with evolutionary biologists, or just your typical atheist, is that they are bound to acknowledge this necessary and contingent condition of an eternal something of which everything of the cosmos, man, and creature has flown from. Within the universe, perhaps an evolutionary biologist would call this hydrogen. Perhaps they could call it energy. Either way, this does not critique, refute, or even alter the cosmological argument. What we come to is its proper logical conclusion and that is an eternal something caused all of this. With use of other arguments such as the moral argument, fine-tuning perhaps, contribute to an accurate account of that eternal something being God. God by definition as the perfect being at which its essence actualizes the rest of what we see in this universe (or in the multiverse).

    My interpretation of this cosmos is that there is an eternal causer of all that we see. I hold to the cosmological argument but as a preliminary basis of my thinking, because it alone does not suffice an accurate account of a perfect being of which we call God.

  3. Right Ho,

    Just to clarify as I have never been a student of pure philosophy, are you saying the flaw in my case is that I am talking about a chain of causality that runs along time line? If you read my subsequent tweets you will see I address that issue. However, I have another pair of train journeys tomorrow and I’ll address this at more length in a blog.

    • No worries. Someone asked me to share my thoughts on your post. I was recently in a debate in March and my atheist opponent made the same mistake of mixing the two types of causal series. I haven’t read your tweets, sorry.

  4. Neill,

    As the Philosopher says, “a small error in the beginning grows enormous at the end.” Since this argument is based on pure philosophy, you really need to learn at least the basics before critiquing it. Fortunately the work it is based upon is fairly short, and available for free here: http://faculty.fordham.edu/klima/Blackwell-proofs/MP_C30.pdf

    “In this way, therefore, it is clear how essence and existence are in substances and in
    accidents, how they are in the composite and simple substances, and how the logical
    intentions are found in all, except in the First Principle, which is of infinite simplicity, to
    which therefore the notion of genus or species does not apply, and so neither does a
    definition because of its simplicity, in which let there be the end and consummation of
    this discussion. Amen.”

  5. https://neillshenton.wordpress.com/2012/05/24/does-the-vertical-cosmological-argument-prove-anything-v2/

    Okay chums, here’s version 2. The principle stands, the argument doesn’t prove anything but that there is a dependency on something at some level, but we don’t know what

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