Cosmological Arguments for the Existence of God S. Clarke


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1 Cosmological Arguments for the Existence of God S. Clarke [Modified Fall 2009] 1. Large class of arguments. Sometimes they get very complex, as in Clarke s argument, but the basic idea is simple. Lets start with a few background ideas. 2. Theoretical Entities: a. Sometimes we can infer the existence and nature of something that we cannot directly see by its effects. Such things are called theoretical entities. For example: i. We can infer electrons exist because of electricity We can infer the nature of the inside of the sun from its outside (e.g., cosmic rays) b. A number of the most famous arguments for the existence of God treat God this way. We infer His existence from his effects. c. But how can you do this? 3. Principle of Sufficient Reason a. This sort of inference turns on a basic principle that i. every phenomenon has an explanation, and that the explanation must explain every feature of the phenomenon. b. This is a tricky premise. I am not going to try to evaluate it beyond pointing out that it is very hard to see why it should be accepted. It is clear that many things do have explanations and causes. It is less clear that everything does. How can we know this? 4. Inference to the Best Explanation a. Of course, not all explanations are equally good. Some are better than others. b. We infer that electrons exist, and have certain properties such as being negatively charged, because, as far as we can tell right now, that is the best explanation of electrical phenomena such as lightning and so on. c. So the trick behind this sort of argument is to figure out what the best explanation for the relevant phenomenon is.
2 d. The idea behind several of the most famous argument for the existence of God is that God is the best explanation for many important phenomena. 5. Note several things about inference to the best explanation a. We do not necessarily want to accept something because it is the best explanation we can currently think of. For the best might be pretty bad! b. There is no universally accepted, general theory of what counts as a better explanation. There are some things that seem clear about it, but often scientists work on the fly, so to speak. Later, when we talk explicitly about science, we have to confront this issue more directly. 6. The Probabilistic and Falliblistic Character of Such Inferences a. Before continuing, it is important to recognize some crucial features of any argument to the best explanation, whether or not one about God. b. These are all inductive arguments and never certain. c. They are also open to revision. What seems like the best explanation of something today might not seem so tomorrow. d. In the context of God, this is interesting. In the past, lots of phenomena seemed to require a God to explain them but we now know they do not, e.g., lightning. 7. Simple Cosmological Argument a. The universe exists b. Everything that exists needs an explanation or cause c. An infinite series of causes backwards in time is not possible d. Therefore the universe has an explanation/cause: God [God as first cause. ] 8. Critique of this version of the Cosmological Argument a. Even if the argument works, it only gets that the universe has a creator. It does not get a God that is worthy of worship. Nor does it get anything like a traditional God save for the one feature: first cause. We do not know that this cause is allknowing, all good, or that it even continues to exist. Nor does it support any particular religion. Note, this does not refute the argument, but it does cast doubt on its ability to be useful to religion.
3 b. If everything needs a cause, than doesn t God? c. It is not clear why we should believe an infinite series of causes backwards in time is not possible. The proponent of this argument wants us to believe in a particular model of the universe, but consider several possibilities. i. The universe could have a start in time. i The universe could be infinite in time Time could loop somehow. Clarke s Complex Cosmological Argument 9. Clarkes version of the argument is designed to deal with at least some of the problems with the simpler version, a. the questionable premise that an infinite series of causes backwards in time is not possible. b. The issue of God s needing a cause. 10. Start with the Basic Distinction for Clarke a. He begins with a distinction between dependent beings and independent beings. i. A dependent being is one the existence of which is explained in terms of something else. Also called a contingent being. An independent being is one the existence of which is explained by its own nature. Also called a necessary or selfexistent being. 11. Independent Being: This is a very difficult to understand notion. Several points. a. In fact, we might not be able to understand it. After all, we do not usually bump up against any such beings. b. Still we do not want to just assume that we cannot get some grasp of this sort of thing, perhaps using mathematics or some other methods. c. And even if we cannot grasp it very well, it may be that we can only understand such a being negatively: it is not a dependent being. That is at least something. 12. Clarke s Conception of God and his Basic Thesis a. God is to be understood as an independent, necessary or self existent being.
4 b. There has always existed such a being. 13. The reductio ad absurdum : a. Clarke s argument is complex. I will put it into a somewhat simpler form that might make it easier to understand. b. But first we need a general point. Clarke s argument, as I will interpret it, is a reductio ad absurdum, or indirect proof. This is a general style of argument that can be employed anywhere, not just in the context of arguments about God. c. A reductio argument seeks to prove something by refuting its opposite. Its form is this. d. I wish to prove that P. To do it, I will assume, for reductio, notp. I will show that notp leads to an absurdity and is therefore false. Given that notp is false, it follows that P is true. i. Assume notp for reductio i iv. NotP leads to Q Q is false. Since notp lead to a falsehood, notp is itself false. v. Since NotP is false, P must be true. 14. Statement of Clarke s Argument: Pay attention to the complex structure of this argument. As I set it up, it has four premises, but premise (a) and (d) require support. So there are two subsidiary arguments, one for (a) and one for (d). a. Something has always existed. b. There are two possibilities i. There have always been dependent beings and no independent being. There has always been an independent being. c. The first is absurd. d. Therefore the second is true: there has always existed an independent being. 15. Clarification of Premise (b): Basically, (b) tells us that there are two possible picture of
5 the world. We need to choose between them. On one picture, all that has ever existed are dependent beings, that is, ordinary sorts of things like people, trees, planets, suns. On the other picture, along with those dependent beings, there is another special sort of being, an independent being. a. The first option, which excludes the independent being, includes that assumption that that there have always been dependent beings to that they go infinitely far backwards in time. b. But the second option does not assume this. The independent being is assumed to have always exist, but it is left open whether dependent beings have always existed along with it, or whether they came into existence at some time. That is not the important issue here. The important point is that on this picture of the universe, whether or not there have always been dependent beings, there has definitely always been an independent being. 16. Proof of Clarke s Premise (a) a. Suppose at some time nothing existed b. Something cannot come from nothing c. So, given (i) nothing would now exist d. But things do now exist. e. Therefore, 1 is false. 17. Proof of Clarke s Line (d) a. Suppose there has been an infinite series of dependent beings and no independent being. b. Everything has an explanation, so the existence of this series of dependent beings needs one. c. The explanation is either from within the series or from without it. d. The explanation cannot be from without since, by hypothesis, all that exists is the series. e. The explanation cannot be from within since the series is itself dependent. f. Therefore, this series has no explanation. g. But this contradicts premise a
6 h. Hence, our assumption leads to a contradiction and is therefore false. 18. This version of the cosmological argument is supposed to deal with several of the problems we saw in the original formulation of cosmological argument a. One of the problems with the original cosmological argument was this. It started from the premise that everything needs a cause. But if everything needs a cause, doesn t God? We now avoid this by not using that premise at all! It is not part of Clarke's argument. b. A second problem with the original cosmological argument was it turned on an assumption that the universe cannot go on forever backwards in time. That is not obvious. In fact, we looked at three possibilities: that the universe had a beginning, that it involved an infinite series backwards in time, and that it involved some sort of loop. Only the first leads to a first cause. But note, Clarke s argument does not turn on any such assumption. His argument works if the universe had a beginning, if the universe involved infinite time and had no beginning, and if time somehow loops back on itself. His point is that which ever of these three possibilities is correct, we need an explanation for the whole. And that requires an independent being. 19. Evaluation of the Argument a. If the argument works at all, it does not establish a traditional God or any one religion. i. Does not establish how many independent beings there are. Does not establish the power of God, his moral character, or virtually any of the other features we tend to think as central to God. b. The argument involves a very obscure notion, that of an independent being. And given that it is so obscure, we do not know that the universe can t be an independent being. c. The argument turns on a questionable assumption: the principle of sufficient reason. How do we know that everything has an explanation? That is not just obviously true, and it is hard to see how it could be proven. d. The argument involves a serious logical flaw. For we cannot transfer the properties of the parts to the whole. Clarke seems to assume that since the parts of the universe (e.g., trees, rocks, birds) are dependent beings, the whole is a dependent being. This is the classic fallacy of composition.
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