Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Feser on atheists and the cosmological argument

Philosopher Ed Feser has a great post on the fallacies that atheists invoke in their efforts to refute the cosmological argument. Feser, a superb Thomist philosopher, got into a blog debate with several New Atheists, including Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse. Needless to say, the New Atheists were outnumbered by Feser. New Atheist literacy in philosophy and even rudimentary logic is pitiful, and nowhere is that illiteracy more obvious than in their juvenile tilting at the cosmological argument for the existence of God.

I've posted on Aquinas' First Way, which is one version of the cosmological argument. All versions of the cosmological argument assert the impossibility of infinite regress in an essentially ordered series of causes (the terminology may be unfamiliar; I explain it in detail in my post linked above).

Feser notes:

Most people who comment on the cosmological argument demonstrably do not know what they are talking about. This includes all the prominent New Atheist writers. It very definitely includes most of the people who hang out in Jerry Coyne’s comboxes. It also includes most scientists. And it even includes many theologians and philosophers, or at least those who have not devoted much study to the issue.
I’m not going to present and defend any version of the cosmological argument here. I’ve done that at length in my books Aquinas and The Last Superstition, and it needs to be done at length rather than in the context of a blog post. The reason is that, while the basic structure of the main versions of the argument is fairly simple, the background metaphysics necessary to a proper understanding of the key terms and inferences is not. It needs some spelling out, which is why Aquinasand The Last Superstition each devote a long chapter to general metaphysics before addressing the question of God’s existence. The serious objections to the argument can in my view all be answered, but that too can properly be done only after the background ideas have been set out. And that too is a task carried out in the books.
I will deal here with some of the non-serious objections, though. In particular, what follows is intended to clear away some of the intellectual rubbish that prevents many people from giving the argument a fair hearing. To get to the point(s), then:

1. The argument does NOT rest on the premise that “Everything has a cause.”
Lots of people – probably most people who have an opinion on the matter – think that the cosmological argument goes like this: Everything has a cause; so the universe has a cause; so God exists. They then have no trouble at all poking holes in it. If everything has a cause, then what caused God? Why assume in the first place that everything has to have a cause? Why assume the cause is God? Etc.
Here’s the funny thing, though. People who attack this argument never tell you where they got it from. They never quote anyone defending it. There’s a reason for that. The reason is that none of the best-known proponents of the cosmological argument in the history of philosophy and theology ever gave this stupid argument. Not Plato, not Aristotle, not al-Ghazali, not Maimonides, not Aquinas, not Duns Scotus, not Leibniz, not Samuel Clarke, not Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, not Mortimer Adler, not William Lane Craig, not Richard Swinburne. And not anyone else either, as far as I know. (Your Pastor Bob doesn’t count. I mean no one among prominent philosophers.) And yet it is constantly presented, not only by popular writers but even by some professional philosophers, as if it were “the” “basic” version of the cosmological argument, and as if every other version were essentially just a variation on it.
[T]his procedure is intellectually dishonest and sleazy, but it is rhetorically very effective. It gives the unwary reader the false impression that “the basic” claim made by Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. is manifestly absurd, that everything else they have to say is merely an attempt to patch up this absurd position, and (therefore) that such writers need not be bothered with further.
And that, I submit, is the reason why the stupid “Everything has a cause” argument – a complete fabrication, an urban legend, something no philosopher has ever defended – perpetually haunts the debate over the cosmological argument. It gives atheists an easy target, and a way rhetorically to make even their most sophisticated opponents seem silly and not worth bothering with. It‘s a slimy debating trick, nothing more – a shameless exercise in what I have elsewhere called “meta-sophistry.” (I make no judgment about whether Le Poidevin’s or Dennett’s sleaziness was deliberate. But that they should know better is beyond question.)
What defenders of the cosmological argument do say is that what comes into existence has a cause, or that what is contingent has a cause. These claims are as different from “Everything has a cause” as “Whatever has color is extended” is different from “Everything is extended.” Defenders of the cosmological argument also providearguments for these claims about causation. You may disagree with the claims – though if you think they are falsified by modern physics,you are sorely mistaken – but you cannot justly accuse the defender of the cosmological argument either of saying something manifestly silly or of contradicting himself when he goes on to say that God is uncaused.
This gives us what I regard as “the basic” test for determining whether an atheist is informed and intellectually honest. If he thinks that the cosmological argument rests on the claim that “everything has a cause,” then he is simply ignorant of the basic facts. If he persists in asserting that it rests on this claim after being informed otherwise, then he is intellectually dishonest. And if he is an academic philosopher like Le Poidevin or Dennett who is professionally obligated to know these things and to eschew cheap debating tricks, then… well, you do the math.

When I was becoming a Christian, I secretly feared reading debates about God's existence. I feared that my growing faith would be shattered by some obvious logical flaw in theist arguments. I began to read, with trepidation, Christian vrs. atheist debates ( my first was Does God Exist? The Great Debate. by J.P. Moreland, Kai Nielsen and others).

I was astonished. The atheist arguments, rather than presenting formidable challenges to belief in God, were.. pitiful. The Christian arguments were well-structured logical demonstrations, basically rigorous extensions of common sense. The atheist arguments were tangential, ad hoc, absurd ('the universe caused itself', 'everything came from nothing'). The best the atheists could do is play semantic games. In Does God Exist, the most capable atheist philosopher, Kai Nielsen, merely argued that 'God' was undefinable, and therefore arguments for His existence were nonsensical. That's the best he could do.

As I've studied the arguments, my disdain for atheist arguments has grown exponentially. None of the New Atheist 'intellectuals' has presented an argument against God's existence that would get a passing grade in a freshman philosophy course.

Bottom line: read good philosophers like Feser and Craig and Moreland, and you'll see that reason and logic are Christian virtues, not atheist virtues. Atheist illiteracy on even rudimentary philosophical issues is astonishing.

I'll post more on Feser and the cosmological argument.


  1. Nice story, but it appears I missed the part where your proved god.

    1. It also appears that you are missing more than that! Sorry.

    2. Dasdot,
      Seems like you missed the whole plot, actually. More Soma?

  2. When debating about Christ the historical knowledge of the New Atheists is even more abysmal.

  3. Feser's whining doesn't save his argument because "everything that begins to exist has a cause" doesn't actually do the heavy lifting he thinks it does. The only thing we can say about the universe is that it began to exist in its present form at some point in the past. Prior to the Planck time we have no information, and no information can be passed forward from before the event known as the Big Bang. So did the universe exist before the Big Bang? Maybe. We don't know. Hence there is no way to know if the universe "began to exist".

    Not only that, "everything that begins to exist has a cause" is an assumption that is not demonstrated. Nothing actually really begins to exist: matter and energy are neither created nor destroyed, but merely change form. Hence, Feser's basic claim is junk, like the rest of Aquinas.

    1. @anon:

      You don't understand the arguments you claim to refute. The eternity/non-eternity of the universe has no bearing on the cosmological argument, at least not on the classical argument developed by Aquinas and Aristotle.

      They both assumed an eternal universe.They pointed out that even an eternally existing thing does not necessarily contain the cause for its own existence. Aquinas showed rigorously that the only thing that can be the cause of its own existence is an entity in which essence (what it is) and existence (that it is) are identical.He also showed that it must be simple (without parts) and pure actually, without potentiality. The universe meets none of these criteria-- therefore it must have a cause prior to itself, even if it is eternal.

      Only God has all of these attributes.

      You need to understand the argument before you embarass yourself trying to refute it. Feser's Aquinas or Last Superstition are good places to start.

    2. Seems this anon has embraced Philistinism!

      To quote: The New Atheist writers are supremely self-confident in their ability to dispatch opponents with a sarcastic quip or two. And they show no evidence whatsoever of knowing what they are talking about.

    3. "They pointed out that even an eternally existing thing does not necessarily contain the cause for its own existence."

      You miss the point - nothing ever "comes into existence", it is merely matter and energy changing form. And since we can't say anything about anything that was prior to the Big Bang, we can't say anything about what what things could or could not be caused by prior to the Big Bang, themselves or otherwise. Aquinas is junk when it comes to establishing ultimate causes, since Aquinas assumes information that is simply not available.

    4. With all respect, friend, you STILL don't get it. Aristotle and Aquinas' argument does not rest on knowledge of matter, energy, the origin of time, or the origin of the universe. It is not a scientific argument but a purely logical one that looks at ontology, a branch of philosophy which reasons about existence itself. You are correct when you say that nothing ever comes into existence if you mean that nothing can come from nothing. The question then is, how did anything, including the physical laws themselves, come to exist? Note that this holds even if the physical laws dictate an eternally existing universe or a sequential, fixed-time origin "Big Bang" universe, or indeed any universe with physical laws within it. All it requires is for the universe in question to just exist. What Aristotle and Aquinas mean is that anything which exists is contingent, in other words, something that must not necessarily exist. If it is contingent, then its existence must depend on something that must necessarily exist. Another way to put it is that the universe at one point was potential, not actually existing; it then became actual when acted upon by something that was pure actuality, or existence itself. For a more complete explanation of potentiality/actuality or contingency/necessity you have to hit the philosophy texts, preferably one like Feser's Aquinas written by an expert in the field. Please don't reply by saying you'd rather not-- if you wanted to know about neurosurgery, you know you have read a book written by a neurosurgeon, right? And you don't want to look like an ignoramus, right? (Dean Wormer's remark to Flounder comes to mind)...

  4. "Only God has all of these attributes. "

    Or God's father. Or his father. Or a mindless eternal energy field that periodically spins off universes. Or Aquinas tells us as much about the origin of the universe as Aristotle tells us about quantum mechanics.

    These arguments only work if you start with belief, so that when the time comes to jump from "an eternal something" to "the God of the Israelites", you have the faith with which to leap.

    Egnor praising Feser praising Aquinas - it's just courtiers preening over the emperor's invisible clothes.

    1. Anon is not alone anymore!
      (see above)

    2. RickK,
      Feser is quite good, actually. If you like philosophy and enjoy polemic style, he is a good read. An excellent introduction/primer to Aquinas and Aristotle. No one is preening.
      Your comment regarding faith is unfounded and, frankly, uneducated. You have no idea how the Doctor has drawn his conclusions or came to make that 'leap', as you describe his belief in God.
      Further, your (incorrect) note about the validity of scholastic argument is easily applicable to your own beliefs and certitudes.

    3. My purpose, RickK, is not to convince you that Aquinas' proofs are valid. To understand that, you must engage them, which is not an easy task.

      My purpose is to show that you and other atheists don't understand the argument. I've shown that.

    4. Since you have proven, in post after post, a complete inability to get from "first cause" to the God of the tribes of Israel, you've failed to demonstrate that your understanding is any deeper than Wikipedia, Michael.

      Well done.

      Now, are you going to delete this comment too?

    5. I haven't deleted any comments of yours, and I have only deleted one comment in the history of this blog-- a disgusting racist comment by troy.

      I welcome your comments-- I'm not the censor here.

      It may be in the spam filter. I have trouble checking the filter from this computer. I'll check as soon as I can.

  5. “Aquinas showed rigorously that the only thing that can be the cause of its own existence is an entity in which essence (what it is) and existence (that it is) are identical. He also showed that it must be simple (without parts) and pure actually, without potentiality.”

    How simple? It seems to me that all religions rely on a fairly complicated God or Gods. I don’t see how a God that necessarily underpins all of existence as a constant causal force while maintaining an intellect and relationships with his creations can be simple. How does something without parts have a thought? Of course if something has no parts, then there can be no change of relationship between those parts, and thus no potential for thought or purposeful action.

    It’s far less problematic to imagine that quantum systems boot-strap themselves into existence by their very quantum nature, and that at least one such self contained quantum fluctuation contained an inflation field resulting in a flat universe full of matter and gravity with zero net energy.

    It’s far more reasonable and potentially far more scientifically fruitful to assume that quantum systems can generate themselves that it is to posit the existence of a really not so simple omnipotent, omniscient, eternal being. The cosmologists and physicists who have made this a truly remarkable time in our understanding of the universe will, thankfully, simply continue to ignore medieval metaphysical bullshit.


    1. KW has now joined anon and RickK in the Philistinism Movement!

    2. Edward “feel free to pick up a copy or three of my book” Feser is a smart guy. He’s figured out a way to make money by selling snake-oil to the congregation.

      The fact is you don’t need to study philosophy and develop a great understanding of metaphysics to know Aquinas and his modern-day followers are full of shit. You can safely stop your studies as soon as it becomes obvious that it’s total crap, which takes about five minuets.


    3. ...a way to make money by selling snake-oil...

      Thanks. This is a perfect description of Dicky Dawkins! God bashing is a good investment...

      ...to the congregation.

      Thanks again. I always knew atheism was a (f**ked up) religion. I bet you would have The God Delusion replace Gideon Bibles in hotels!

      ...you don’t need to study philosophy...

      It shows that you did not study philosophy. Why do you like to shoot yourself in the foot?

      ...which takes about five minuets.

      As Dawkins said, we dance to your gene and it's a minuet! :P

  6. I tried to respond to your statement that you never delete comments, but my response was deleted.

    --Rick K

  7. Egnor has lied over and over again in his blog, so why would anyone expect him to tell the truth about censoring comments?