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Does God Exist Part Two
Some Theistic Contributions to the Debate; Part Two

This article is the fourth in a series of articles on the Existence of God, also known as the Problem of Evil.  The series presents both theistic and atheistic perspectives with provocative points and counterpoints for you to ponder.  Previous articles in the series can be viewed from the links below. 

The final theistic argument to be presented is the cosmological argument.  The concept itself dates back at least to Plato’s and Aristotle's "unmoved mover" and possibly earlier.  The primary contributors to this argument here will be Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and John Duns Scotus (c1266-1308) along with a cosmological argument on time from medieval Muslim philosophers.  Aquinas was an immensely influential philosopher and theologian and is considered to be one of the greatest Christian philosophers to have ever lived.   Scotus is generally considered to be one of the three most important philosopher-theologians of the High Middle Ages and has had considerable influence on both Catholic and secular thought. 

The cosmological argument has to do with whether things are eternal or infinite as opposed to having a beginning in time, whether they are contingent (dependent on someone or something else) or necessary (exist on their own without other cause). 

Aquinas put forward five proofs for the existence of God.  The first was the argument of motion.  For Aquinas motion includes any kind of change including growth. He argues that the natural condition is for things to be at rest.  Studying the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle, Aquinas concluded from common observation that an object that is in motion is put in motion by some other object or force. From this, Aquinas concludes that ultimately there must have been an Unmoved Prime Mover who first put things in motion, namely God.  Aquinas’ second proof deals with the issue of existence. Aquinas puts forth that common sense observation tells us that no object creates itself. In other words, some previous object had to create it. Aquinas believed that ultimately there must have been an uncreated first cause (God) who began the chain of existence for all things.

Aquinas’ third proof defines two types of objects in the universe: contingent beings and necessary beings. A contingent being is an object that cannot exist without a necessary being causing its existence. Aquinas believed that the existence of contingent beings would ultimately necessitate a being, which must exist for all of the contingent beings to exist. The argument goes like this: Contingent beings are caused.  Not every being can be contingent.  There must exist a being, which is necessary to cause contingent beings.  This necessary being is God.

The fourth proof for the existence of God as formulated by Aquinas is from a very interesting observation about the qualities of things. For example one may say that of two marble sculptures one is more beautiful than the other. So for these two objects, one has a greater degree of beauty than the other. This is referred to as degrees or gradations of a particular quality.

 From this fact Aquinas concluded that for any given quality (e.g. goodness, beauty, knowledge) there must be a perfect standard by which all such qualities are measured and these perfections are contained in God.  Finally, Aquinas puts forward a proof by Intelligent Design.  This has to do with the observable universe and the order of nature. Aquinas states that common sense tells us that the universe works in such a way, that one can conclude that is was designed by an intelligent designer, God. In other words, all physical laws and the order of nature and life were designed and ordered by God, the intelligent designer.

Before giving Scotus’ argument for a “First Cause”, let’s look at the “Kalam” (time) argument by medieval Muslim philosophers such as al-Kindi and al-Ghazali.  This argument demonstrates the impossibility of arriving at the present moment in time if the past is infinite and without beginning or, in other words, uncreated.  What distinguishes the kalam cosmological argument from other forms of cosmological argument is that it rests on the idea that the universe has a beginning in time. 

Advocates of this argument claim that it is impossible that the universe has an infinite past. In support of this claim, advocates appeal to modern science, specifically to the Big Bang theory. Modern science, they say, has established that the universe began with the Big Bang.  More recently, three leading cosmologists—Arvind Borde, Alan Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin—proved that “any universe which has, on average, been expanding throughout its history cannot be eternal in the past, but must have an absolute beginning.”  This would be true of our universe. 

Traditionally, however, it is mathematics that has been used by proponents of the kalam argument in order to establish that the past is finite. There are a number of ways of doing this; I‘ll outline three.  The first argument draws on the idea that actual infinites cannot exist, the second on the idea that actual infinites cannot be created by successive addition, and the third on the idea that actual infinites cannot be traversed. 

There are two types of infinites, potential infinites and actual infinites. Potential infinites are purely conceptual, and clearly as concepts they both can and do exist. Mathematicians employ the concept of infinity to solve equations all the time. Actual infinites, though, arguably, cannot exist. For an actual infinite to exist it is not sufficient that we can imagine an infinite number of things; for an actual infinite to exist there must be an infinite number of actual things. This, however, leads to certain logical problems.  This is most easily explained by the Hilbert’s Hotel paradox.  If I had a hotel with an infinite number of rooms and filled those rooms with an infinite number of people, the hotel would be full; I would have room for no more, making the actual available space finite. 

The second mathematical argument for the claim that the universe has a beginning draws on the idea that an actual infinity cannot be created by successive addition. If one begins with a number, and repeatedly adds one to it, one will never arrive at infinity.  So actual infinites cannot be created by successive addition.  The past has been created by successive addition. The past continuously grows as one moment after another passes from the future into the present and then into the past. Every moment that is now past was once in the future, but was added to the past by the passage of time. 

If actual infinites cannot be created by successive addition, and the past was created by successive addition, then the past cannot be an actual infinite. The past must be finite, and the universe must therefore have had a beginning.

Finally, if I were to set out on a journey to an infinitely distant point in space, it would not just take me a long time to get there; rather, I would never get there. No matter how long I had been walking, a part of the journey would still remain. I would never arrive at my destination. Infinite space cannot be traversed.  This also applies to time in the past. If the past were infinite, then it would not just take a long time to get to the present; the present would never arrive. No matter how much time had passed, we would still be working through the infinite past. It is impossible to traverse an infinite period of time.  Clearly, though, the present has arrived, therefore the past has been traversed. The past, therefore, cannot be infinite, but must rather be finite. So time had to be created and the universe had to be created in time. 

John Duns Scotus’ primary contribution to the proofs for the existence of God is his possibility premise for the existence of a First Cause. Within his argument, he uses the Kalam argument.  Scotus reasons, “A First Cause is possible.  Whatever is possible is either contingent or necessary.  Whatever is contingent can be actualized.  A First Cause cannot be actualized.  Therefore, a First Cause exists necessarily.  That First Cause is God.”  Given the arguments against an infinite regress of non-temporal causes, Scotus’ primary premise is quite plausible.  His second premise is true by definition.  If something exists, its existence is either dependent on someone or something else (contingent) or not (necessary).   If something is contingent upon another, it has the potential to be actualized, but something necessary, a First Cause, does not have the potential to be actualized by another or it would not, by definition be a First Cause.  What then follows as a result of the truth of first four premises is that the First Cause has to be necessary. 

Now let’s look at the atheistic response to these proofs.  William of Ockham (Occam) (c1280-1349) was an English philosopher and historically, has been cast as the outstanding opponent of Thomas Aquinas.  The central theme of Ockham’s approach to any subject is the principle of simplicity, so much so that this principle has come to be known as “Ockham’s Razor.” Theologically, Ockham is a fideist, which means he maintains that belief in God is a matter of faith rather than knowledge.  Against the mainstream, he insists that theology is not a science and he rejects all the alleged proofs of the existence of God. 

According to Ockham, advocates of the cosmological argument reason as follows: There would be an infinite regress among causes if there were not a first cause; therefore, there must be a first cause, namely, God. There are two different ways to understand “cause” in this argument: efficient cause and conserving cause. An efficient cause brings about an effect successively over time. For example, your grandparents were the efficient cause of your parents who were the efficient cause of you. A conserving cause, in contrast, is a simultaneous support for an effect. For example, the oxygen in the room is a conserving cause of the burning flame on the candle.

In Ockham’s view, the cosmological argument fails by using either type of causality. Consider efficient causality first. If the chain of efficient causes that have produced the world as we know it today had no beginning, then it would form, not an extensive infinity, but an intensive infinity. This means infinity does not extend forward or backwards linearly as one might imagine, but is more circular and self-contained.  Since the links in the chain would not all exist at the same time, they would not constitute an uncountable quantity of actually existing things. Rather, they would simply imply that the universe is an eternal cycle of unlimited or perpetual motion.

Conceiving of the world as a product of simultaneous conserving causes is difficult. Ockham readily grants that if the world has to be “held up” by conserving causes, then there must be a first among them because otherwise the set of conserving causes would constitute an uncountable quantity of actually existing things. It is in fact a tenet of belief that God is both an efficient and conserving cause of the cosmos, and Ockham accepts this tenet on faith. He handily points out, however, that, just as the cosmos need not have a beginning, it need not be “held up” in this way at all. Each existing thing may be its own conserving cause. Hence the cosmological argument is entirely inconclusive.

Thomas Ash is a graduate student studying philosophy at Merton College in the University of Oxford. He received his BA in the subject from the University of Cambridge, where he was president of the University Atheist and Agnostic Society. As you may have guessed, he is an atheist.  Ash argues against these theistic premises by saying, “All the argument shows is that we have intuitive difficulties imagining infinity, which is, after all, to be expected of such an advanced concept. Mathematicians can cope quite well with an infinite sequence of integers; appealing to the incomprehensibility of infinity is what Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene calls an ‘argument to personal incredulity.’  The word 'personal' exposes the key flaw in this line of reasoning - our limited human imaginations are a poor guide as to what properties the universe can have. It's just arrogant to say ‘I have difficulty imagining or explaining this thing, therefore no one ever could.’ But that is what the Kalam argument effectively does. Besides,” he continues, “the universe as a whole is not an ordinary finite 'object', it is what finite objects constitute parts of; this means we have no reason to assume that the same principles apply. This can be said of both contingency of everyday material objects and their obeying of the laws of cause and effect. As Kant pointed out,” says Ash, ‘we have only ever witnessed these properties within the universe. It would be going far beyond what we know to conclude that the universe itself has a cause or is contingent.’”

Join us next week for the Free Will arguments for and against the existence of God.