I’ve been thinking about why I dislike the cosmological argument and it seems to me to operate by a sort of sleight of hand with a nebulous metaphysical concept.
What does it mean to explain something? Suppose we ask, why does this object fall at this speed, we “explain” it by talking about Newton’s Laws of Gravitation, etc, about the gravitational pull which the earth exerts on various objects, the mass of the earth, etc, etc.
Now, the most illuminating explanations are those which explain a particular phenomenon with another particular phenomenon: The speed of the object falling with the mass of the earth and gravitational pull, etc.
Suppose we were to say, “Because God made it so”. That is an explanation which doesn’t explain anything. If the object were to fall with a different velocity, the explanation “because God made it so” would still be valid.. This is unlike real explanations where we relate two particular and independent facts with each other. The fact of the earth’s mass is a distinct fact from the speed of the falling object. An explanation relates the two facts together and draws a relationship. If the falling speed were different, the fact of the mass would not shift to accommodate this fact. We would amend our theories and explanations instead. But the “fact” that “God made X” is a fact which doesn’t relate a particular fact with another. The fact that “God made X” would shift in accordance to X. If it were discovered to be not X but Y, then the “fact that “God made X” would change to “God made Y”. The statement “God made X” is ultimately explanatorily vacuous, its meaning is wholly derivative from the existence of X.
Thus, let us think of “causes” as essentially “explanations”. Why did the billiard ball move at this speed and angle? Because it was hit by another billiard ball with this force, and at this vector, etc. The idea behind the cosmological argument is that you would then have to ask, why this other ball hit the previous ball, and this explanation would appeal to another particular explanation and so on and so forth. But, the cosmological argument goes, you supposedly cannot have an infinite chain of causes or “explanations”. Explanations have to end somewhere, and that somewhere is God.
But why must explanations end? Why couldn’t there be an infinite chain of explanations? For each particular thing, you can keep “relating” each phenomenon with another particular phenomenon in all its infinite richness. For any particular phenomena, we can keep asking until we simply grow tired of asking or find the answer sufficiently satisfactory to stop asking and simply wonder at the system of the world. One should not confuse epistemic fatigue for a proof of God’s existence.
Even if we grant that there must be an end to a chain of explanations, it does not follow that God is the explanation “at the end of the chain”. Remember, God as a matter of fact does not explain anything. Let’s say we have an chain of explanations until we reach a “basic fact” X which doesn’t seem to have an explanation or cannot be related to another particular phenomenon. How is “God made X true” an explanation? It would be on par to working through a geometrical proof and after we have arrived at a geometrical axiom, we declare, and God made this axiom true. What sort of explanation is that? If given an alternative chain of explanations we arrive at Y instead of X, the statement “God made Y true” would also apply. Which goes to show that God as a matter of fact, explains nothing because the explanation “God made A” is compatible with every contradictory fact, making it a vacuous explanation for this particular fact.
The sleight of hand of the cosmological argument is that it attempts to “shift” the explanatory activity of relating each particular fact with another by attempting to explain the universal set itself. But the fallacy, as long ago pointed out by Bertrand Russell, is that the argument attempts to move from “every human being has a particular mother” to “the whole human race has a particular mother”. There is no particular entailment between each particular element being related to another particular element and the entire set of the former particular element being related to the same particular element.
The one way to evade this problem is first, to move the concept of “cause” away from that of an “explanatory” interpretation of “causes” into questions of space-time physics and temporal causality. In which case, then “God” works simply as a “God of the Gaps”, to plug in the holes of the physicists and the cosmologists who at present is unable to find an explanation of the Big Bang, and which would be refuted if, say, quantum physics or something discovers something more fundamental than the Big Bang.
The other way to evade the problem is secondly, to move the concept of “cause” into some metaphysical scheme of a chain of being whereby contingent beings flow from necessary beings, etc and there exists hierarchy of beings with God as a “higher level” being above creation. St Thomas Aquinas, for example, did believe that an eternally old universe was compatible with creation, that God, was simply a “higher order being” who establishes the whole of this creation at one shot, not through a chain of causation.
But of course, to buy into this great chain of being is already to sort of beg the question, that there is as a matter of fact this structure to the universe with the creator at the top and the creation at the bottom.
This incidentally explains also why I prefer the “design argument” (not in the teleological sense as I’ve explained in another note). The design argument is an attempt to relate a particular feature of the universe, e.g. cognitive resonance and intelligible and rational structures and its fit to mathematics, to a rational orderer or governor of the universe, whether that be a “platonic form” or the “logos” of Heraclitus, etc.