Explaining the Cosmos

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I thought I would take a step back in this post and give an overview of cosmological arguments in general.  As our regular reader (I'm not entirely sure how many "regular" readers we have, but I'd say the probability is in my favor if I use the singular rather than the plural here) knows, Steve has just completed a two-post series on the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  Those entries can be found here and here.  And if we look way back in the archives of the internet (you know, in the labyrinth of tubes which extends deep below the earth), we'll recall that I did a post on Thomas Aquinas' First Way, or Argument from Motion, when this blog was first started up. You can find that post here (wow, that was over two years ago. I wonder how many mistakes I made back then that would tempt me to deny the persistence of Self in order to be absolved).  I also plan to do a series of posts on the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument in the near future. Those are all examples of cosmological arguments, and anyone who even slightly follows Philosophy of Religion knows that there are a handful of others which are well known. 

So what is a cosmological argument?  What does is seek to do?  Why should we care?  "A cosmological argument takes some cosmic feature of the universe -- such as the existence of contingent things or the fact of motion -- that calls out for explanation and argues that this feature is to be explained in terms of the activity of a First Cause, which [...] is God." [1]  One strength of this type of argument, in my opinion, is that it is broad enough to withstand charges that it is simply a "God of the Gaps" objection.  Such an argument would seek to insert God into a gap in our knowledge of the world.  The problem is that many of these gaps end up being filled with the causes discovered by science (a common example/analogy is the explanation of lightning being caused by the god Zeus).  The gap might have a material or efficient cause found within the universe, and similar cases in the past have been determined to have such causes.  But a cosmological argument is much bigger than that.  It argues from some grand cosmological feature which could not even in principle have a material or efficient cause which could be discovered by science.

There are four problems, as outlined by Alexander Pruss, which every cosmological argument must face. Its success against these problems determines whether the argument is successful and convincing, and its methods for solving these problems determines what type of cosmological argument it is.  I will make reference to Steve's posts on the KCA to provide examples of how an argument will deal with those problems.
    1. The Glendower Problem
    2. The Regress Problem
    3. The Taxicab Problem
    4. The Gap Problem
The Glendower Problem is that just because a feature of the universe calls for an explanation, does not mean that such an explanation exists.  This name was coined by Pruss in honor of the exchange from Shakespeare's Henry IV:
Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man; but will they come when you do call for them? 
Usual solutions to this problem involve the defense of a causal or explanatory principle.  As we saw in Steve's post, the Kalam deals with this by defending the premise "Everything that begins to exist has a cause."

The Regress Problem has to do with how to deal with an infinite regress of causes or explanations.  Is it possible for such an infinite regress to exist?  And if so, is there no need for an ultimate cause or explanation?  Again, one of the premises of the KCA both takes this into account, and argues against a past infinity of causes. 

The Taxicab Problem has to do with what happens when the explanatory or causal principle invoked in response to the Glendower Problem gets applied to the First Cause. As Steve noted in his posts, the name of this problem comes from a quip made famous by Schopenhauer. Again, the Kalam deals with this in the first premise by defending the premise that only those things that begin to exist must have a cause-- therefore the causal principle invoked does not apply to the First Cause.

Lastly, the Gap Problem refers to the gap that we are left with once we have successfully argued for a First Cause. What of religious interest follows from a First Cause?  How do we identify this First Cause as the God of some particular religion?  Often, the cosmological argument can get us part way there by extrapolation of certain properties inherent in the First Cause. We saw this in Steve's second post on the KCA-- the First Cause must be incredibly powerful, immaterial, it must transcend space-time, and it must be personal.  Different arguments will leave us at different places, but often supplemental arguments are required to get us closer.

There are three main categories of cosmological arguments-- Kalam, Thomistic, and Leibnizian.  The Kalam and Thomistic arguments will utilize a type of causal principle. These two types of argument are then split on how they respond to the Regress Problem. The Kalam, as I mentioned above, argues against a past infinity of causes on either (or both) a priori or a posteriori grounds. The Thomistic argument does not rule out the possibility of an infinite past, but uses a variety of methods to argue against the hypothesis that there is an infinite regress of causes with no First Cause. Leibnizian variations usually invoke a very general explanatory principle, such as the Principle of Sufficient Reason which is then applied to some cosmic state of affairs. The Regress Problem is usually handled by arguing that even if an infinite chain of causes or explanations exists, without a First Cause, we are unable to explain how the whole chain of causes exists.

This post should give you a very basic understanding of cosmological arguments in general. Each argument has its own uniqueness, which comes with different difficulties that need to be overcome, and different merits upon succeeding. I'll end this post with a request-- that you at least take the cosmological arguments seriously.  Certainly, many people have researched these arguments charitably and come to the conclusion that they are false. But these arguments have been put forth by some of the brightest thinkers in human history (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Maimodes, al-Ghazali, Duns Scotus, Leibniz, and the list goes on), and certainly deserve your earnest attempt to understand them before rejecting or dismissing them.

1.  Pruss, 2012.  Much of the content of this post is from the same source.
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