Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 14, 2008

Logical Analysis of the Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God


Introduction

As I’ve stated before (like here or here), creationists often use a seeming leap of scientific faith to justify a “proof” for the existence of God from somewhere within the Big Bang theory. So far, I’ve argued against specific scientific claims that would seem (to their proponents) to show why we need something divine to justify our existence.

In this post, however, I’m going to examine this from a purely logical standpoint, critiquing what apparently is known as the “Cosmological Argument” for the existence of (a) G/god(s).

The Claim

The Cosmological Argument actually has its roots at least as far back as Plato and Aristotle, over 2300 years ago. The main premise is that everything (all effects) must have a cause.

There are many different ways of positing the argument, some involve 6 steps, some 4 steps, and some 3 steps (like the one below). They all pretty much say the same thing.

Therefore, I’m going to go with the easier 3-step one, and I am specifically taking my cues for the version of this argument from this person’s blog post:

(1) The universe exists, and there must be an explanation for why it exists.

(2) There are only three possible explanations for why the universe exists: (a) It has always existed. (b) It created itself. (c) It was created by something outside of itself.

(3) Explanation (a) has serious scientific and philosophical problems. Explanation (b) is absurd. Therefore, the universe was created by God.

Critique

Part 1: From a philosophical argument, there really doesn’t need to be an explanation for why something exists. It could just exist. I choose to take 2 steps at a time occasionally “just ’cause,” there really doesn’t need to be any specific reason. So right off the bat, we have a faulty major premise.

If you choose to interpret this from a cause-and-effect argument – the “effect” of the universe existing must have a cause – I would argue that this is not necessarily true. Science’s current concept of the “universe” is, by definition, “everything” and that includes space and time. Therefore, if time did not exist “before” the universe formed, how could there be a cause?

Some may argue that this itself is a logical fallacy of “Special Pleading,” meaning that in this one particular case I am arguing that the rules by which we live and are normally subject to don’t really apply in this special case. I would partially agree with this … however, I would also make the point that the formation of the cosmos is a special case, and the rules by which we live now were likely not in existence “before” the universe came into existence.

Part 2: I would agree that, logically, the three possible explanations for “why” the universe exists are likely correct, though I would point out that this could be a case of the “False Dichotomy” (or I guess “false trichotomy”) logical fallacy: Those three options may not actually be all the possible explanations. We may just not know, especially considering that we’re talking about something that happened “before” the creation of our universe. But let’s examine each of them, anyway:

Part 3: I would agree that, taken at its face, 2(a) does have some scientific problems. Evidence that I have talked about before does seem to show that the universe – at least as we now know it – had a definite beginning. However, that may not actually be the case. Stephen Hawking has posited the idea that the universe and time may be closed, but unbound. To get an idea about what this means, think of a sphere: You could walk along the surface of a sphere literally forever and never come to the edge of it. Therefore it’s closed (it’s a finite size) but unbound (the geometry has no edges, no beginning nor end).

To say that 2(b) is “absurd” is an ad hominem logical fallacy that just ridicules it without providing a reason why it would be false, rather just implying that its false by name-calling. Granted, this is akin to the “Grandfather” paradox of time travel, where it sometimes is put such that you can’t go back in time and kill your grandfather because then you never would have been born to go back in time and kill your grandfather. Another slight wrinkle on this that is less of a paradox and more of an incestual scenario is that you go back in time, kill your “grandfather,” and then end up “arranging things” [rated PG blog] such that you become your own real grandfather.

That seemingly shouldn’t be “allowed” to happen, but again, since we are dealing with the universe itself, there are possible ways that the universe could have caused its own formation. For example, some ideas are that there was a previous universe that went through a “Big Crunch” and then rebound, forming our own universe. In that sense, the previous “universe” was the parent of our own “universe.” However, I’m not sure if any actual theoretical cosmologists put stock in that scenario, so I’m willing to grant that 2(b) is unlikely, but not “absurd.”

The original post then simply states that 2(c) is the only logical conclusion, that something else must have created the universe. The person then commits two HUGE logical fallacies of a non-sequitur – that that “something” that created the universe must have been God (in other words, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the something that created it was “God”) – and the fallacy of the Unstated Major Premise – that “God” actually exists.

To give you an example of why this is an “absurd” argument, think of this scenario: I come across a bird in the forest, sitting on a tree. I have never seen another animal before, nor do I know how it could have been formed, so I follow an apparent line of logic to figure out how it formed: I reason that the bird must have a cause. The cause could be the bird (a) always existed, (b) created itself, or (c) something else created it. (a) is has problems, (b) is “absurd,” and so I reason that God created it. But to you, an outside observer, you realize that I just made a major leap of literally “faith” to go from “something” created it to “God” created it … when more likely it hatched from an egg that was created by its parents and (a) G/god(s) had nothing to do with it even if (s)he/it even exists.

Other Critiques

There are other possible scientific explanations for how our universe came into being. “Brane Theory” is one, that holds that multidimensional membranes somehow interacted to create the universe. Others involve the cyclical approach I mentioned above. Another is that we represent a “pocket” of inflation from another, different, larger universe. We don’t know, but to attribute something that we don’t know to (a) divine creator(s) is yet another logical fallacy, the God of the Gaps.

Another, major, weakness of this argument is … Who/What created God? If everything must have a cause, and the idea that nothing has “always” existed, then what created God? This is a special pleading case as well as an example of the Inconsistency logical fallacy, where they’re stating that the universe can’t not have a cause, but God can.

Further Reading

Much more intelligent philosophers than I have argued about the Cosmological Argument. I invite you to read some other sources (some pro, some con):

5 Comments »

  1. Hi! Payton here, from High-school Apologetics,

    I noticed you removed my comment, which is just a bit disconcerting for me. But I’d like to apologize for my tone in the refutation of your analysis that I wrote. I’m sorry I came off as a bit critical, especially by calling your analysis “retarded”. I want to assure you that I REALLY DID mean it all in good fun. I was not trying to be the least bit critical of you, only your analysis, which was faulty. I think you may have interpreted my article as being harsh and condescending, when I was really trying to be funny. If I hadn’t used that sort of sarcastic tone, I would have come off as insufferably boring. I’m sorry for compromising morality in the name of entertainment.

    Your philosophical analysis wasn’t up to par with the rest of your astronomical work, so when I cautioned my readers “mind you he’s an astronomer, not a philosopher”, I was trying to protect you from undue criticism. You really don’t deserve harsh words just because you screwed up in a philosophical effort of yours. I completely forgive you for it. It was not your fault, to be honest, seeing as how you’re not a philosopher!🙂 After all, I wouldn’t call Michael Phelps a terrible athelete if he happened to lose a game of golf to Tiger Woods, now would I?

    Lastly, I would like to ask for your forgiveness. I have wronged you by insulting you, and for that I am truly sorry.

    Sincerest apologies,
    The High-School Apologist, Payton Alexander

    Comment by Payton — April 11, 2009 @ 10:09 am | Reply

  2. Payton –

    I didn’t delete your first comment, I never approved it. I thought for quite awhile on that, and I talked with many other people about it, and I decided not to approve it because it simply starts off by calling the post “retarded.” There was no legitimate discourse in it that added anything to the blog post. Yours was only the second comment I did not approve, the first being someone ranting and then giving his phone number out.

    If you actually want to refute what I wrote, then you should do that. However, your blog post was about 50% an ad hominem attack on me, calling me various names that I know you meant as insults even though some of them really weren’t (for example, an atheist). But they were unnecessary. You will notice that on my blog I specifically set out to examine claims of evidence or logic rather than to address the people making them. I think only once – and that was in response to a podcast by Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute – did I get a little carried away and may have let a few ad hominems slip through.

    Another quarter of your post was incorrect or a straw man. I realize now I wasn’t using the formal, original version of the Cosmological Argument. However, you were arguing for a different version, the Kalam.

    Finally, you also start off your post by stating:

    I’m not trying to be condescending, but if you find yourself able to refute a famous theistic argument that’s been around for millenia, invented and propagated by Plato, Aristotle, or Socrates, and expounded by philosophers of every culture regardless of religion, chances are you misunderstood or misrepresented the argument. Yes, it will likely be possible for you to refute recent arguments concocted by wannabe-apologists, but when you claim to have refuted a 2,000 year old argument of classical philosophy, you ought to be careful. Ask yourself: Am I reallyso much smarter than every other philosopher of the last couple centuries that I alone have found the problem with “x” argument? Why has no-one else in the last 2,000 years seen this contradiction/problem/fallacy?

    As Jason pointed out in the comments on your blog. You are wrong. The Cosmological Argument has NOT stood the test of time, it has been refuted by just as many philosophers as have advocated it. You are also using an argument from authority fallacy. Just go to the Objections and Counterarguments section of the Wikipedia page on the topic.

    I am not against polite, rational discourse. I am against throwing out attacks on the person making the discourse. That is why I have chosen to not reply on your blog and why I did not permit your first comment here to go through. And to show that I am completely open to real attacks on my arguments, I started a thread on the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Forums asking about my own logic and your apparent refute. I invite my blog readers to read over that thread and decide for themselves whether they are persuaded by the Cosmological Argument based upon the analysis therein.

    Comment by astrostu206265 — April 11, 2009 @ 10:39 am | Reply

  3. To say that 2(b) is “absurd” is an ad hominem…

    Er, no, it’s not ad hominem. Not saying it’s not a fallacy, but it’s not the ad hominem fallacy.

    Comment by scaryreasoner — April 11, 2009 @ 8:26 pm | Reply

  4. I have already read your dialogue on Skepchicks.

    There is a big difference between ad hominem and humor, I’m afraid. Though I clearly wasn’t pointed enough in letting you know I was not insulting you. I would disagree tremendously on the idea that most of my article was an ad-hominem joke, I must say. Jason (whom I have also called Uglyface McPoopnose. mind you I’m having fun!) cited the same objection to my argument you point out.

    You see, the gigantic list of officially named “fallacies” that your lot seem so fond of committing to memory, are only to be applied to theoretical arguments. An “Argument from Authority Fallacy” is only a fallacy if it is presented as a theoretical argument, not if it’s presented as a practical argument (Pascal’s Wager is a famous practical argument). Here, the difference between theoretical and practical, which is the difference between proof and persuasion, really does make the idea of a fallacy in a practical argument rather absurd, to be quite honest. A theoretical argument from authority is a fallacy. A practical argument from authority is not. A theoretical argument demonstrates what “is”, whereas a practical argument is meant to demonstrate what is in ones best interests to do or believe. To take a leaf out of your book Mr ___?, arguments against conspiracy theories in general usually are practical. Even more so, they are almost EXACTLY like the specific argument I used! To put it in context, NASA is certainly in a better position to know a thing than is an old crack-addicted fat man in his basement who thinks Mars is actually covered in canals!

    I really like you to be honest. There’s a crazy Lebanese wannabe-terrorist in my class, against whose conspiracy theories I am most inclined to cite your work first. You have proved an invaluable resource in my struggle to show him that the Apollo Landing wasn’t a hoax. Along with the rest of the skeptics on that delightful forum, you seem to like wikipedia. Well and good. I do too, as a matter of fact, and I daresay I’m rather well acquainted with the “Objections and Counterarguments” section, considering the fact that I wrote it!

    And to show you that you might not be completely open to real attacks on your arguments, I’d like to point out how quickly you cited Jason’s objection in order to say I’m wrong, though to be brutally honest I also “eviscerated” his objection nearly a week ago!

    Wouldn’t you know! He seems to have shut up about it…

    Frankly,
    Payton Alexander

    Comment by highschoolapologetics — April 12, 2009 @ 2:58 pm | Reply

  5. Since when was philosophy science?

    Anyway, what I came to actually say is: creationists would not get along with existentialists. At all.

    Comment by flip — August 19, 2012 @ 3:51 am | Reply


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