Saturday, 9 August 2014

Thoughts on the Cosmological Arguments

I'm convinced that cosmological arguments- especially the cosmological argument from contingency- are some of the most significant evidences for the existence of God. Besides having the run-on-the-mill empirical/explanatory virtues, it is completely immune to the "God of the gaps" pitfall, since the data it deals with- the fact of contingent existence- is something science assumes, but cannot explain. As Swinburne would say, this is something that is "too big" for science. Second, the argument is easy to intuit. There is a lot of complexity associated with the usual portrayals of it, but that is because they not only present the argument, but also contain rebuttals to potential counter-arguments. Were these counters not to exist and we had room to appreciate the argument in all its raw, intuitive appeal, it would seem extremely simple but very significant. Finally, one of the proponents of the arguments seem to be none other than God Himself (Qur'an, 52:35). God knows best.

In this post, I would like to clarify a very common but damaging misconception that just refuses to go away from public psyche. There is no "the" cosmological argument. Cosmological argument(s) are a family of arguments that argue from some large-scale, general, non-controversial feature of the cosmos- change, beginning, existence, movement, and so on. The cosmological arguments are different in at least two ways: in the data they use as premise, and the way they deal with objections. People don't understand this, which leads them to equivocate between the two. Incidentally, the second in the series of debates that took place in Australia between William Lane Craig and Lawrence Krauss exhibited just this fallacy- Krauss simply didn't have the mettle to understand how the argument defended by Craig was altogether different from the one he was attacking.

Consider, for example, the two most popular versions of the cosmological arguments: the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Leibnizian Contingency Argument. The Kalam argument uses the "beginning" of the universe as a premise, while the LCA uses its very existence as a premise. As such, the KCA bears more burden of proof than the LCA. The proponent of the KCA, therefore, would have to prove based on science and/or philosophy that the cosmos had a beginning in order for his argument to go through. There are different strategies of doing that: philosophically demonstrating the impossibility of an actual infinity (e.g. by paradoxes such as Grim Reaper or Hilbert's Hotel), the second law of thermodynamics, appealing to data gleaned physical cosmology, and so on. Additionally, the KCA proponent would also have to establish the truth of the A-theory of time (the reality of temporal becoming), since "beginnings" only make sense given tensed time. The LCA seem to be on much better footing in these areas, it would seem, since it would work perfectly even if the universe didn't have a beginning- all it needs to work is the mere existence of the universe, not its beginning. It may be relevant here to note that some noted Muslim scholars didn't believe the universe had a beginning- Ibn Taymiyya, for example, believed in an eternal universe on the theological premise that God was perpetually creating from pre-eternity.

Another potential difference between the KCA (at least William Lane Craig's formulation of it) and the LCA (at least the formulations I've seen by Alex Pruss and Robert Koons) is that the former argues on the basis of the contingency (in the sense that their beginning requires a cause) of things, while the latter only argues on the basis of the contingency of facts. Upon arriving at a necessary fact, the latter fills up the gaps by stating a fact necessarily entails a being. The only significance of this distinction I can think of is in their response to counterexamples from Quantum Mechanics. The KCA proponent can easily argue against the non-deterministic interpreter of QM by saying the argument sits perfectly well with inexplicable (in principle) events, what it has an issue with is inexplicable (in principle) things. To be sure, the QM doesn't say the beginning of things are altogether non-deterministic, just that some events in the causal chain are (e.g. when exactly it happens, and at what position etc). This doesn't mean the LCA proponent is necessarily in a bad position, however- for at least two reasons. First, Pruss and Koons define causality in a way that is different from causal necessitation, in other words- they don't agree that X causes Y only if every aspect of Y's occurrence is explained by X. They invoke an explanatory principle much weaker than a strict version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and perhaps this version is immune to the QM counterexamples (I would have to read up more on this). Second, maybe the LCA can be defined in terms of things just as easily.