Too much carbon monoxide for me to bear… Why atheists should love the cosmological argument

The review I wrote yesterday reminded me of something awesome.  While you’re knitting on this cold Sunday afternoon, let me outline this awesomeness.

The cosmological argument has been around since Aristotle, at least.  In a nutshell, it says that everything has an origin, therefore the universe has an origin, therefore God.  Over time, the argument has become significantly more sophisticated — deftly avoiding the asinine ‘So what’s God’s origin, huh?’ response — and a thousand times more useful for atheists.

That’s not a typo.

One of the fundamental properties of physical objects (i.e. those we perceive empirically) is that they obey cause and effect.  This has been a cornerstone of empiricism since Hume.  Basically, if the principle of cause and effect isn’t true, we have absolutely no way of interpreting the world around us.  Before anybody gets too Deepak Chopra on me, this rule of cause and effect also applies to quantum events.  Yes it does.

So we get the following:

For any physical object, there is a cause. (P1)

The universe is a physical object. (P2)

Therefore, the universe has a cause, x. (From P1 + P2)

If x is a physical object, it has a cause. (From P1)

From this, we can see that we’ll either end up with an infinite chain or we’ll end up with x being a non-physical object.

To keep it quick, we can deny that there’s an infinite chain of causation.  Our observations of the universe do not support there being an infinite chain.  An infinite chain also lacks explanatory power: why is there an infinite chain rather than nothing?

So we’ve got a non-physical cause to the universe.  It’s usually at this point that one of two things happen:

1. Theists jump to ‘And this non-physical cause is God.’

2. Atheists try to deny the non-physical cause.

(1) is clearly batshit.  Let us not speak of it, but look and pass on.

(2) causes extreme difficulty for outspoken atheists.  Richard Dawkins — in one of the many wall-banger moments in The God Delusion — writes:

[I]t is more parsimonious to conjure up, say, a ‘big bang singularity’, or some other physical concept as yet unknown. [Source: Dawkins, The God Delusion, Ch. 3]

So… he’s denying cause and effect?  Really?  Or by ‘physical’ does he mean ‘non-physical’ (sort of like how Sam Harris uses the word ‘science’ to mean ‘science and lots of things which are not science’)?

We atheists can do a whole lot better.

An option we have available to us is to deny that all objects are physical objects.  There are some objects, for example, which we can only understand through reason and rationality but cannot experience.  The object which gave rise to physical objects, for example, is one of them.  This is also good news for atheists who want to be realists about mathematics as well (I’m not in that group, but we might as well spread the love).

But, best of all, it allows atheists to claim back the (currently) unchallenged turf of theists: the parts of our ontology which extend beyond empirical verification.

(2) leaves atheists exposed because it’s so extremely irrational and forces us into the untenable position of admitting only empirically verifiable objects into our world.  Atheists should admit the solid reasoning of the cosmological argument and attack the leap from ‘non-physical object’ to God.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

One thought on “Too much carbon monoxide for me to bear… Why atheists should love the cosmological argument”

  1. In line, I think, with your suggestion here, I do believe that we’ve done ourselves a disservice by conceiving of the classical arguments here–ontological and physicotheological as well as cosmological–as merely canned apologetics.

    All of them have a substantially broader, and much more interesting scope. Just thinking about the cosmological argument raises a number of questions foundationally implicated in metaphysics, theory of science, theory of nature, etc.–what sort of things exist? what sort of relationships exist between things? what is a cause? how do we reason about causes? etc.

    Recognizing the broader scope of these arguments has the useful effect of changing the issue from a polemic between theist and atheist to the much more practical and profitable shared project of inquiring into this basic issues–a shared project because theist and atheist both can recognize and engage in it, and thus proceed together on these matters from a common footing.

    I believe you’re also right to indicate that one of the main avenues of response for the atheist is to accept the classical form of the cosmological argument but call into question the strictly theistic conclusion. The most important source for this kind of response is probably Spinoza, who gives both an exemplar treatment of the cosmological argument and an exemplar criticism of traditional theism.

    Presumably the problem many atheists have had and will have with this approach is that it may not end up being consistent with at least certain popular formulations of naturalism. If we continue with Spinoza as an example, while it is true that he furnishes an important criticism of traditional theism, the usual gloss of his thought is quite mistaken: i.e. the presumption that it is a straight-forward naturalism which merely uses the term ‘God’ to refer poetically to the nature described by empirical science.

    The demands of cosmological reasoning require, as you indicated, that we conclude the argument with a postulate which is, from the naturalistic perspective, rather unusual. Spinoza is not being capricious when he continues to speak of God, and his conception of God, while being critical of traditional theism in many essential points, also has an important continuity with theistic thought.

    This situation leads to the complication that a clear division between theism and atheism, or even between theism, deism, and atheism may not, after all, be forthcoming or uncontentious. For all its complexities, I’m inclined to suggest we regard this too as a strength: Again, rather than approaching these issues as a polemic between theistic and atheistic camps, we ought to find where we can a common ground and a common method for proceeding. This sorts of complexities raise the crucial questions of what we mean when we refer to God and whether those meanings can in fact be grounded in the logical work of our arguments. That both theists and atheists can and ought to, as you have suggested, work with the cosmological argument is, on these lines, a promising result. Again, continuing with the example, if both theists and atheists can find something relevant in Spinoza, this similarly speaks of the promise entailed in carefully working through the complexities of a shared, cosmological inquiry.

    The other historically important kind of response for atheists here is the skeptical one which you treat only in passing, and whose important sources are Hume and with slightly different consequences Kant. In my experience, the typical misstep in employing this argument is that it’s used in an inconsistent and merely ad hoc manner, rather than being pursued as a general thesis. The skeptical argument doesn’t attack the theistic conclusion in particular, but rather any conclusion to cosmological thinking. A closed, naturalistic causal account of the universe gets rejected here along with the theistic one. For many atheists, this is probably an unacceptable consequence. There seems to be a common impulse to retain the rationalistic metaphysics which wound undergird a robust naturalistic cosmology, which opens the door to the theist to use the premises of such a method to advance the cosmological argument. Of course, that would return us to the atheist’s first form of response.

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