The Cosmological Argument

Spiral Galaxy NGC 1566, courtesy www.nasa.govThe Cosmological Argument is not one argument, but rather a group of several arguments for the existence of God proposed by different thinkers over the centuries. Here is one relatively simple form of it –  just 2 premises and the conclusion – but with a lot packed in those 2 premises, and a serious implication inferred by the seemingly modest conclusion. Whole books can be written on each point[1], but in a nutshell, it goes like this:

Premise 1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
Premise 2) The universe began to exist.
Conclusion) Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Premise 1 is simply the law of causality, (i.e. cause and effect): the effect (beginning to exist) has a cause. This law is not only fundamental to science, but also verifiable by anyone through our everyday observations. Nobody walks into a room and, seeing a ball rolling across the room, assumes the ball has always been in motion. We instinctively look in the direction the ball rolled from to see who or what caused it to roll. Notice that this premise does not say that whatever exists has a cause, but that whatever begins to exist does. If either the theist’s God or the atheist’s universe is eternal, then neither would require a cause. Hence the atheist’s question of “Who made God?” is as irrelevant as asking them who made the universe in their view. No one needed to. That’s the nature of anything being eternal.

But Premise 2 then eliminates the option of an eternal universe through three independent lines of reasoning: one scientific and two philosophical. First, a host of scientific evidence points to the universe having a definite beginning. The Standard Cosmological Model (the “Big Bang”), whether you agree with the specifics of it or not, has withstood decades of attempted refutation and points to a unique beginning to all space and time at a single point in history, a singularity where space and time cease to exist prior to that point. Another insurmountable obstacle is the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. This is the most universally accepted physical law, so much so that it forms the basis of the US Patent Office refusing to grant patents for perpetual motion machines without a working model. As Sir Arthur Eddington said, “if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics, I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.”[2] The universe is only winding down. But if it is only winding down, that means it had be wound up.

Attacking the possibility of an eternal universe philosophically, we have two more abstract, but nevertheless valid, approaches. First, an eternal universe would require an infinite regress, but there can be no actual infinite regress because an actually infinite number of things cannot exist. A beginningless series of events in time entails an actually infinite number of things (events in this case). Therefore, a beginningless series of events in time cannot actually exist.

The second philosophical rationale is that one cannot traverse an infinite series. The series of events in time is a collection formed by adding one member (or event) after another. A collection formed by adding one member after another cannot be actually infinite.  So then, the series of events in time cannot be actually infinite.

Therefore, the universe has a cause. If this argument seemed fairly noncontroversial to you right from the beginning, then you might be surprised at the resistance to it. That’s because of the implications the conclusion leads us to. This cause cannot be material or temporal as space and time both had a beginning, and this first uncaused cause would necessarily have to exist before the effect it caused (the universe). This cause must be extremely powerful to cause everything observable (and probably more that we haven’t observed). The incredibly detailed precision observed in the universe would require an intellect far beyond the greatest human minds to orchestrate the intimately interrelated web of cause and effect detected so far. For comparison, we routinely fail to predict the consequences of even simple actions over periods of days or weeks (i.e. weather prediction). This cause is necessarily a free agent capable of making choices. An impersonal force like gravity cannot choose to act at a particular time on an object. A ball does not simply float in the air until gravity decides to act on it and make it fall to the ground. If this cause were simply a force like gravity, acting from all eternity, then the effect (the universe) would be eternal as well, which contradicts the observed evidence and our reasoning. This cause is therefore a person, in the general sense of a being possessing rationality. This first cause, or uncaused cause, then appears to be, for all practical purposes: eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, and personal. As with the Ontological Argument from last week, this correlates well with the description of God in the Bible and forces us to face the possibility of a sovereign Maker who might very well hold us accountable for our actions. Hence, the determined resistance to this line of reasoning.


[1] See “Reasonable Faith”, 3rd Ed., chapters 3 & 4, by William Lane Craig for a much more detailed treatment of this and other arguments for the existence of God.
[2] Sir Arthur Eddington, “The Nature of the Physical World”, 1927.

The Ontological Argument

The ThinkerLast week, I reviewed some key terms in logic as a prelude to looking at logical arguments for the existence of God. This first one is a philosophical rationale called the ontological argument. Ontology is simply the study of existence, or reality. And so the ontological argument is a line of reasoning based on the very nature of existence.

The first premise, or basis for this argument, is that it is at least possible that a maximally great being exists. This isn’t about what’s probable at this point – just what’s possible. It’s also not about whether we can know whether this being exists or not (epistemology), but simply about whether it could exist (ontology) . Now let’s define some terms. A “maximally great being” can be defined as a being possessing omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection. Omniscience is knowing all truth and only truth. Omnipotence is the ability to cause any effect not logically impossible. It is necessary, or noncontingent, existence. Moral perfection is the highest degree of moral attributes such as love, mercy, justice, etc. Where attributes conflict (i.e. mercy vs. justice), this being possesses the greatest compatible degree of each, such that any more of either trait could be considered an introduction of imperfection (i.e. the best possible combination). There is nothing self-contradictory about this concept. It is not like a square circle or a married bachelor. It is simply the spectrum of characteristics we observe in human beings extrapolated to a maximum value.

Premise 2 is that if it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world. By “possible world”, we do not simply mean another planet, but rather any alternate reality with its own forms of matter & energy, laws of physics, existence or nonexistence of life, and even existence or nonexistence of space-time itself. The set of all possible worlds would be a set of all possible versions of reality; each with one, and only one, variable different from all others. For instance, one possible world may have a slightly different gravitational constant that results in the collapse of any conceivable universe, or the impossibility of the universe ever forming. Another might have every physical variable identical to the reality we are familiar with, but with a history where Hitler won WWII. This set of possible realities is necessarily immense (practically infinite) to address every possible physical and historical alternative.

Premise 3 proposes that if a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world. This one isn’t a very intuitive step, so let’s look at it a little closer. If a maximally great being in a possible world is indeed omnipotent, then all else in that possible world is contingent, or dependent on its existence. If it is morally perfect, then it is capable of making conscious decisions, of exercising free will. In that case, this being could’ve chosen not to create anything, but simply to exist, alone. So if a maximally great being exists, there is a possible world such that only that being exists. This would then be the minimum qualification for a possible world. This being is then the “lowest common denominator” in all possible worlds (i.e. one variable in common to all, that cannot be negated without eliminating that world from the set of all possible worlds). Therefore, Premise 3 logically follows, and the maximally great being exists in all possible worlds.

Premise 4 states that if a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world. What applies to the set as a whole applies to all members of the set. In logic, this is called “dictum de omni”, or the law about all – whatever is universally true of a subject must be true of everything contained in that subject. The actual world is contained in the set of all possible worlds. Therefore, premise 4 logically follows.

Premise 5 simply adds that if a maximally great being exists in the actual world, then a maximally great being exists. Not too controversial. The actual world is what exists as opposed to possible worlds that only could exist. Anything shown to exist in this actual world therefore has actual existence.

From these 5 premises follows the conclusion that a maximally great being exists. At this point, we’ve simply concluded that some being with certain characteristics necessarily exists, but what do those characteristics tell us? A necessary or noncontingent being can exist outside of space and time and is therefore immaterial. An omnipotent being could create, or cause all contingent elements of reality to exist. An omniscient being would be capable of designing the incredibly complex and very interdependent “system of systems”  we recognize as our universe. A morally perfect being would have the authority to issue decrees, judge behavior, and reward or punish as appropriate. This description aligns remarkably well with the biblical description of God, which leaves the reader with the choice of trying to refute the argument or admitting the existence of God and dealing with the consequences. Choose wisely.


Resources:

Reasonable Faith, 3rd Ed., (Crossway Books, 2008), by William Lane Craig, Chapters 3 & 4. Craig’s interpretation of Alvin Plantinga’s refinement of St. Anselm’s ontological argument was a major part of my giving this argument another chance after discounting it for years. My only departure from Craig is that in premise 3, I’ve tried to justify the jump from existence in a possible world to existence in every world without resorting to the modal logic used by Plantinga and Craig.

Logic

Spock_at_consoleIn the coming weeks, I want to look at some different arguments for the existence of God. But first, how can you know my reasons for believing God exists are legitimate? Maybe you don’t believe God exists, or maybe you simply don’t know. Likewise, how do I know if your reasons are legitimate? How do we discuss our opposing reasons (for this or anything else imaginable) on a level playing field? With that goal in mind, today let’s start out with a refresher (or introduction) to basic logic. Like a lot of foundational material, it may seem a little dry, but it really is the necessary foundation for any type of critical thinking. Underlined words are key terms in logic.

Let’s start with some clarification. An argument in logic is not a fight or quarrel, but rather a rational though process using a series of statements (or propositions) called premises and conclusions. As such, there are some rules for making sure the conclusions you draw are legitimate. Just like in sports, these rules help ensure that the winner really did win fairly.

Propositions are simply statements that may be either the premises or the conclusion of an argument. While you may be trying to determine a reasonable answer to a question with an argument, you can’t have a question or a command for a premise, so these are always declarative sentences. Not to bring up bad memories of diagramming sentences in grade school grammar, but these statements need a subject and a predicate. The subject is just what you’re talking about, while the predicate is what you’re saying about it. The premises are  propositions that each propose a basis for the conclusion. They give your evidence. Premises can be either true or false.  “The city of Houston, Texas is located in the country of Australia.” is a false premise, while “Mars orbits around the sun.” would be a true premise. These premises use terms that can either be clear or unclear. A term is clear if it can be understood in only one sense. For instance, a person can use the word “hot” to describe: temperature (“It’s hot outside”), attractiveness (“She’s hot!”), or questionable legality (“He wrote a hot check”).  In this case, “hot” has equivocal meanings and wouldn’t be a good term to use in a premise unless we either defined it first, or the meaning was clear from the context. Some terms are not so obviously different  in their meanings, and many a misunderstanding has happened because of this issue of equivocation (using the same term in different ways).

The conclusion either necessarily follows from the premises and the argument is valid, or it doesn’t follow and is invalid. “All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” is a classic example of a valid syllogism. A syllogism is your most basic argument: 2 premises and 1 conclusion showing a clear relationship between 3 terms. If it is true that all men are mortal, and Socrates is indeed a man, then Socrates simply must be mortal. This is an example of deductive reasoning, which generally moves from a universal principle to a specific application. Inductive reasoning, on the other hand, typically moves from specific observations to a more general conclusion. Valid deduction provides certainty in its conclusion, while induction only provides a degree of probability. Just because you’ve observed many similar cases doesn’t mean all cases will be similar (the exception would if you’ve actually observed all cases). Science typically uses inductive reasoning based on specific observations, hence the tendency of scientists and engineers to always qualify what they say with disclaimers.

Understanding the principles of logic is advantageous regardless of your educational background, your culture, or your beliefs because it provides a framework for knowing that what you believe is true. If your terms are clear, your premises are true, and your deductive argument valid, then your position is necessarily true and there can be no argument against it. Likewise, if your opponent’s argument doesn’t have ambiguous terms, a false premise, or a logical fallacy, then, to be honest, you must admit he’s right. The same goes for me. And so we now have a level playing field, with the same rules applicable to and acknowledged by, both sides. Maybe you’ve listened to a talk show where two opposing guests simply stated their own views over and over again and ignored the other side. Or they simply talked past each other louder and louder? Did you walk away feeling like it was just pointless discussing some issues? There is hope, and this is where logic shines. I encourage you to not simply stop at this short  glossary of logic, but to dig deeper, learn it, and apply it in your own life.


Resources:

Socratic Logic, Edition 3.1, by Peter Kreeft, (St. Augustine’s Press, 2010), which served as a reference for much of this. This is an actual logic textbook.

Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, by D.Q. McInerny, (Random House, 2005), is also an excellent and very concise introduction to logic, and well-suited for a first exposure to logical principles.

Walking Away?

Out the doorA friend loaned me a book by Dan Barker, co-leader of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. My friend said this book was instrumental in his rejecting Christianity and becoming an atheist. Mr. Barker had been a preacher and Christian musician at one time before he “deconverted”. Does Dan Barker have the “inside scoop” to warrant walking away from Christ? Let’s look at that.

Frank Turek[1] and J. Warner Wallace[2] have rightly pointed out that the martyrdom of modern day believers doesn’t count as evidence for the truth of Christianity because anyone can sincerely hold wrong beliefs, even unto death (i.e. Muslim suicide bombers). But, they add, it doesn’t make sense for the early disciples of Christ to suffer prolonged, intense persecution and grueling deaths for something they knew to be a lie. While we were not eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, they were eyewitnesses to the events they being killed for speaking about. Like modern cases of martyrdom, do modern testimonies of life-changing experiences similarly lack evidential weight and speak more of trust than truth? Yet, providing one’s personal testimony has been a part of Christian missionary endeavors from the very beginning[3], and personal experience often resonates with an audience more than technical statements of belief.  Then should  “deconversion” testimonies from Christianity to atheism be given equal weight to conversion testimonies? Is it simply a matter of people changing their mind from one set of beliefs to another? I don’t think so, and here’s why. No offense to Mr. Barker, but the “Christian” deconverting may have been living a lie, not truly a Christian. Maybe this sounds like an excuse to you, but Jesus Himself said there would be many that would say on Judgement Day that they had done all sorts of wonderful things for Him, and yet He will still reply, “I never knew you; depart from Me.”[4] Sobering words for all of us who call ourselves Christians. Likewise, the apostle John speaks of men like Mr. Barker when he says that “their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”[5]

But what of the atheist who becomes a Christian and is then persecuted for it, like many were in Communist countries? Men like Haralan Popov and Richard Wurmbrand come to mind, among many others who didn’t live to tell their tales. This may not be of the same weight as the original apostles’ transformation, but it is surely difficult to explain unless there was a genuine transformation in the former atheist. A change of mind seems inadequate to explain a person enduring 13-14 years of torture, like the cases above, when a simple change back to what they originally believed would not only stop the torture, but set them free from prison, and result in rewards upon release. This is the same boat the apostle Paul found himself in centuries earlier, as he wrote to the Corinthians, listing out all the punishments he had endured for his belief in Jesus, a belief he had originally persecuted others for zealously.[6]  What could cause this kind of change? We’ve all been fooled at least once in our lives, but why this refusal to change back? Simple stubbornness? Shame? Pride? How meaningful are those emotions when faced with imminent (and cruel) death? We are sometimes overly concerned with punishments being “cruel and unusual” in our Western culture, but that wasn’t an issue in Paul’s day, nor in modern Communist countries. They weren’t worried about whether a lethal injection would sting. After all, the Roman punishment of crucifixion is where we get the word “excruciating”. If simply changing your mind – not to something you’ve always rejected, but back to what you had previously wholeheartedly accepted – would spare you an agonizing death, why proceed? There is something inherently, intrinsically different about a genuine Christian that will not let him “deconvert”. Paul writes to the Colossians of “Christ in you, the hope of glory”[7].  Jesus told the disciples that the Holy Spirit would dwell in them.[8] Becoming a Christian is not simply a change in what you think, though that is certainly part of it. It is actually an indwelling of the Spirit of God, our Creator, with His creation in a personal relationship. If Christianity were just another religion of rules to try to bribe your way into eternal reward, I wouldn’t blame anyone for leaving. But if Christianity is true – if we are “the temple of the living God”[9] as Paul described – then that is a total game-changer, and there is no going back from that.

In the end, the person deconverting from Christianity and the person converting to Christianity are both leaving a lie, but only one is gaining the truth. The person leaving a Christian masquerade for atheism is only exchanging one lie for another, while the person entering into a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ is gaining the ultimate truth from the source of all truth.


[1] Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2004), p. 294.
[2] J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity, (David C Cook, Colorado Springs, 2013), p. 115-116.
[3] Acts 4:19-20, Acts 22:1-21, Acts 26:4-29, NASB.
[4] Matthew 7:22-23, NASB.
[5] 1 John 2:19, NIV.
[6] 2 Corinthians: 11:22-33, NASB.
[7] Colossians 1:27, NASB.
[8] John 14:16-20, NASB.
[9] 2 Corinthians 6:16, NASB.