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.