A Presentation of the Cosmological Argument(s)

Preliminary Introduction to Cosmological Arguments

Cosmological Arguments attempt “to demonstrate the existence of God [sic] by applying philosophical or scientific principles to a basic fact of the universe – a fact, that is claimed, that cannot be explained without reference to a supernatural being” [1]. William Lane Craig and James Sinclair define cosmological arguments as “a family of arguments that seek to demonstrate the existence of a Sufficient Reason or First Cause of the existence of the cosmos.” [2] These terms will be discussed at length throughout the rest of this post.

Craig and Sinclair go on to distinguish three types of arguments:

  • (1) the kalam cosmological argument for a First Cause of the beginning of the universe;
  • (2) the Thomist cosmological argument for a sustaining ground of Being of the world; and
  • (3) the Leibnizian cosmological argument for a Sufficient Reason why something exists rather nothing.

R. Douglas Geivett recognizes in his essay [3] that “[e]ach version of cosmological argument focuses on some feature of the cosmos that implies that the universe is contingent rather than than necessary, so that some necessary being must exist and be the ultimate cause of the universe” [4].

He also distinguishes between two key elements of cosmological arguments: (1) cosmological arguments differ “with respect to the support offered for each of the major steps in the argument” [5], and secondly that proponents of the cosmological argument (2) “differ in the way they seek to exhibit the theistic content of the final conclusion of the argument” [6].

With respect to the first qualification, take for example the premise that “whatever begins to exist has a cause.” This premise has been argued as evident by philosophers due to the following:

  • (a) metaphysical intuitions;
  • (b) an induction of empirical observation; and
  • (c) a practical principle of rationality.

The above evidences will also be examined later throughout this post. The second element of cosmological arguments contain proponents that see the argument as “a stand-alone argument for the existence of God, having pretty much the same conclusion as any other standard argument for the existence of God, so that a plurality of arguments is thought to strengthen the case for belief in the shared conclusion ‘God exists’” [7].

Meanwhile, other proponents of the kalam argument regard the scope of its final conclusion as “somewhat more restricted and having a content that overlaps without being identical to that of other standard arguments for the existence of God, so that a combination of arguments [ … ] is needed to generate the full content of the concept of God characteristic of classical theism” [8].

Further Clarifications

Alexander Pruss in his essay on the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument writes that “[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 an explanation and argues that this feature is to be explained in terms of the activity of a First Cause” [9].

In fact, arguments for the existence of God are traditionally categorized between a posteriori (based on experience) and a priori (independently of experience). The cosmological argument is an a posteriori argument that focuses on some simple experiential fact (as Pruss said) and then argues towards a conclusion that has to do with “the activity of a First Cause.” Pruss thence goes on to identify four issues that a cosmological argument must solve in order to be considered successful:

  • (I) Although some features, such as the existence of contingent things, call for an explanation, it can be disputed whether an explanation exists.
  • (II) The Regress Problem – the problem of how to deal with an infinite regress of causes or explanations.
  • (III) The Taxicab Problem (Schopenhauer) – Using the explanatory principle (i.e., principle of sufficient reason) on contingent objects but stopping at God.
  • (IV) The Gap Problem – granted there is a First Cause, but does anything of religious interest follow?

Scottish philosopher David Hume argued that if we had an infinite regress of explanations, E1 explained by E2, E3, and so on, then everything in this successive regress would already be explained, even if there were no ultimate explanation positing some First Cause (see Hume-Edwards objection below). Therefore to conclude our discussion:

  • (A) There our three kinds of cosmological arguments: the kalam, the Thomistic and the Leibnizian (Pruss, 2009: 25).
  • (A’) The kalam and the Thomistic are related in the sense that they posit an intuitively plausible Causal Principle for objects (e.g., contingency, movement, etc.) having a cause of their existence.
  • (B) The arguments differ as to how they handle the Regress Problem.

Thus, it is a mistake to interchangeably render all three as the same argument, since, at their very core, they are not.

The Thomistic Cosmological Argument
Argument from Contingency

For the first three ways of his “Five Ways”, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) points to familiar facts of experience that are simply stated. These (for example) being: (1) Some things are in motion; (2) some things come in and out of being; (3) things are generated and corrupted. With respect to his Third Way, we come across what has famously been known as The Argument from Contingency. This argument is as follows:

  1. What we observe in the universe is contingent.
  2. A sequence of causally related contingent things cannot be infinite.
  3. The sequence of causally dependent contingent things must be finite.
  4. There must be a first cause in the sequence of contingent causes. [10]

The argument basically runs as follows: We observe that things come in and out of existence – that is, they are contingent. More particularly, we notice things in the world that are capable of existing and capable of not existing. However, it is impossible for those contingent things to exist as such forever, for, anything that can fail to exist has not always existed. Since not all existents are capable of existing and not existing, there must be a necessary being – a being that cannot not exist. From this point, we are confronted with the question of whether or not this necessary being has its existence in itself or from another. As John F. Wippel writes in his essay on the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas:

Every necessary (that is, incorruptible) being has a cause of its necessity from something else or its does not. One cannot regress to infinity with caused necessary beings. . . Therefore, he concludes, there must be a necessary being that does not depend on anything else for its necessity and that causes the necessity in all else. This being everyone calls God. [11]

What is important to notice with respect to this argument is its focus on two major steps: (1) the possible and (2) the necessary. Aquinas addresses these issues in separate fashions although they are headed under the same argument. In other words, the possible deals with contingent, or finite things. A finite thing, according to Winfried Corduan, meets any one of the following conditions:

  1. It is restricted by time and space.
  2. It can be changed by something other than itself.
  3. It has a beginning in time.
  4. It needs things other than itself to continue existing.
  5. Its attributes, whether essential or accidental, are to some extent influenced by other things. [12]


Aristotle’s Argument for a Prime Mover
Briefly Stated

Aristotle contains a rather different but interesting version of the cosmological argument that looks at the phenomena of change and motion in an eternal universe. From the mere fact of motion, Aristotle stipulated that there is a Prime Mover responsible for all actions of motion. Philosopher Mortimer J. Adler explains:

Aristotle’s view of the universe as eternal [ … ] leads him to question the cause of everlasting change. He attributes all the changes constantly occurring on earth to the motion of the heavenly bodies. But what keeps them everlasting in motion? It cannot be something that is itself in motion or changing in any way. If it were, it, too, would need a cause of its motion, a cause of its changing. Given infinite time, one might go back from effect to cause in an infinite series and never reach a first cause – mover in motion that is not itself moved by something else in motion. [13]

Further down the line of reasoning, Aristotle comes to posit the existence of a Prime Mover. He even argues that to “be an unmoved and eternal mover of a universe everlastingly in motion, the prime mover must be immutable. But to be immutable, [ … ] it must also be immaterial” [14]. Therefore,

It is by such reasoning that Aristotle came to the conclusion that the prime mover is pure actuality – a being totally devoid of matter or potentiality. In addition, this immaterial being is a perfect being, a being lacking no perfection that remains for it to attain. This perfect being, which is the prime mover of the universe, Aristotle called God. [15]

However, it should be understood that Aristotle provided for us a completely “philosophical notion of God” and a “rational theology.” Drawing from the demonstration of Plato, Aristotle has given attention to the lesson it teaches us regarding the origin of our philosophical notion of God:

Men, Aristotle says, have derived it from two sources: their own souls and the motion of the stars. And if we remember the gods of Homer, it is at once apparent that Aristotle was right. What makes Aristotle’s metaphysics an epoch-making event in the history of natural theology is that in it the long delayed conjunction of the first philosophical principle with the notion of god became at last an accomplished fact. The prime mover of the Aristotelian universe is also its supreme god. [16]

This recognition of Plato and Aristotle’s natural theology is important because “[t]he Greeks had never gone further than the natural theology of Plato and Aristotle, not on account of intellectual weakness on their part, but, on the contrary, because Plato and Aristotle had pushed their investigations almost as far as human reason alone can take us” [17].

The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) in his 1697 work On the Ultimate Origin of Things outlines an argument that looks to the ex

You may indeed suppose the world eternal; but as you suppose only a succession of states, in none of which do you find the sufficient reason, and as even any number of worlds does not in the least help you to account for them, it is evident that the reason must be sought elsewhere.

For in eternal things, even though there be no cause, there must be a reason which, for permanent things, is necessarily itself or essence; but for the series of changing things, if it be supposed that they succeed one another from all eternity, this reason is… the prevailing of inclinations which consist not in necessitating reasons, that is to say, reasons of an absolute and metaphysical necessity, the opposite of which involves a contradiction, but in inclining reasons. [18]

Thus, we can structure Leibniz’s argument as the following:

  • (1) Every contingent fact has an explanation.
  • (2) There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.
  • (3) Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact.
  • (4) This explanation must involve a necessary being.
  • (5) This necessary being is God.

First, it should be made clear that the use of the word “fact” simply means to say “true proposition”. And thus, the PSR states “that every fact, or every contingent fact, has an explanation” [19]. Alexander Pruss gives several evidences as to why we should consider the PSR true:

  • (1) It is self-evident (pp. 26-28)
  • (2) It is possibly an a priori truth (p. 28)
  • (3) A belief in the successive state of natural evolutionary history is undermined if PSR is rejected (p. 28-30)
  • (4) Inference of the best explanations (pp. 30-32)
  • (5) PSR is more probable than not (p. 32).

In Timothy O’Connor’s book Theism and Ultimate Explanation [24], the mere existence of contingent things leads us human beings to “ask the question (while waving one’s hands all about) “Why is there this – why, indeed, is there anything at all?” [20] O’Connor continues:

The reason that any contingent thing exists at all (and, in particular, the world of which we are part) is that it is a contingent causal consequence of an absolutely necessary being, a being which itself could not have failed to exist, since that it is is inseparable from what it is. [21]

However, what reason do we have to believe that the universe doesn’t have the reason for its existence within itself? In other words, that the “explanation lies not in an external ground but in the necessity of its own nature”? [22] Now, considering that we generally “trust our modal intuitions on [ … ] familiar matters” [23], if we were to do otherwise with respect to the universe’s contingency, then the “non-theist needs to provide some reason for his skepticism other than his desire to avoid theism” [24].

What must be addressed particularly is the very notion of explanations themselves as we use the term. In other words, how do we explain the existence of some given contingent object?

(IC.3.2) How to Understand Explanations 

Richard Swinburne (2010) has written that “[s]cientists, historians, and detectives observe data and proceed thence to some theory about what best explains the occurrence of these data. We can analyse the criteria which they use in reaching a conclusion that a certain theory is better supported by the data than a different theory – that is, is more likely on the basis of those data, to be true” [30]. As rightly observed by Brian Ellis (1985), “any request for explanation is a request for information” [31].

Swinburne analyzes what kind of explanations throughout the physical sciences are carried out, which can be identified as inanimate explanations. These sorts of explanations can be understood as “initial conditions plus law of nature causing event” [32]. Of course, Swinburne recognizes that to reduce all sorts of scientific explanations as to the (“over-simplified”) definition given above would indeed be a bit crude. However, some clarification can be given.

Bernard d’Espagnat (2006) explains that in order to fully explain an event (such as a falling stone) two sets of data must be known:

  • (1) a general law; and
  • (2) the initial conditions.

The general law of a falling stone would be gravity, while the initial conditions might be the angle and velocity with which the stone was thrown. These conditions are known as “causes”. d’Espagnat goes on to explain:

In the example in hand – and, generally, when we are interested in some individual event – this privileged element is the second one. We assert that the explanation is the throwing of the stone because in our mind the law – gravity – goes without saying. On the contrary, when we have to do with repetitive phenomena no individual cause or effect is singled out and what is normally called “explanation” is knowledge of the law. It is the law of gravity that “explains” the uniformly accelerated motion of objects falling vacuum [33].

So, particularly in the example of dynamite exploding, we might ask something along the lines of why the explosion went off. Thus, the initial condition would be: someone lit the gun powder causing the dynamite to explode. However, the law of nature aspect of this particular example of course is a local one, itself derivative from more generalized laws of nature. However, initial conditions and their respective relationship with laws of nature are only one example of how to explain things, there is also another form of explanations and that is in terms of the actions of persons.

“Why am I here?” in respect to some point of local position (a movie theater, school, an airport, etc.) has an explanation of terms of the beliefs and actions you’ve constructed in order to reach your point of local position (i.e., you were told that x would be there, you walked, etc.). Swinburne contends that the latter form of explanation is something that cannot be reached in terms of the traditionally understood forms of scientific explanations. Hence, he outlines three types of explanations:

  • (1) Full Explanations
  • (2) Partial Explanations
  • (3) Complete Explanations

In respect to (1), Swinburne simply means that a full explanation is an explanation of an event in which is such that “given the substances and the conditions in which they occur, their powers and liabilities to act (or beliefs and purposes), which the explanation cites, the event must inevitably occur” [34]. By (2), a partial explanation of an event is one which “makes the occurrence of the event only probable; this may be because it does not mention all substances, etc. involved in the causal process, or because the substances involved have only a probabilistic liability to produce the event in question” [35] And lastly, (3) a complete explanation:

By a ‘complete explanation‘ of an event I mean a full explanation , which cites causes with their most fundamental powers and liabilities (or beliefs and purposes). To use the terminology of ‘laws of nature’, complete inanimate explanations will invoke the most fundamental laws. [ … ] A complete personal explanation will invoke powers and beliefs, and purposes which do not derive from simultaneous higher-level powers, purposes, and beliefs. (Swinburne, 23)

Thus, to finish, we can ask ourselves the question: “… what justifies a claim that so and so is the cause of some event and such and such is the reason why it had the effect it did? [36]” A claim that some proposed law is really a law of nature, is justified to the extent by which:

  • (1) It leads us to expect (with accuracy) many and varied events which we observe (and we do not observe any events whose non-occurrence it leads us to expect).
  • (2) What is proposed is simple.
  • (3) It fits well with our background knowledge.
  • (4) We would not otherwise expect to find these events (e.g. there is no rival law which leads us to expect these events which satisfies criteria (1-3) as well as does our proposed law).

Thus, these criterions in light of Swinburne’s analysis of their application, suggests that “[a] true application of an event will involve not only the correct scientific theory, but also correctly described initial conditions” [37]. More over, these “same four criteria are at work in judging the worth of personal explanations” [38].

(IC.3.3) In Application to Leibniz’s Argument 

Thus, this goes to show that in application to Leibniz’s argument, “God explains everything we observe, not just some narrow range of data. It explains the fact that there is a universe at all, that scientific laws operate within it, that it contains consciousness animals and humans with very complex intricately organized bodies [ … ] The very same criteria which scientists use to reach their own theories lead us to move beyond those theories to a creator God who sustains everything in existence.” (Swinburne 2010: 2)

This is motivated by the criterions (1)-(4) as identified above; to which, it should be noted “[i]n explaining some phenomena as caused by persons, we seek a hypothesis which leads us to expect the phenomena which we would not otherwise expect to find, as simple a hypothesis as possible, and one which fits in with background knowledge” (Swinburne 2010: 33). Swinburne argues that God is not only the best, but most plausible and simply hypothesis in regards to explaining a wide range of numerous data (as seen on p.2).

(IC.3.4) Objections to the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument (Quantum Mechanics)

Although I have in brief touched on this subject in other places [39], this is an often misunderstood objection to the adherents of the cosmological argument. As the argument goes, quantum physics shows at the subatomic level so-called ‘virtual particles’ coming into being out of nothing tunneling at very high speeds through a vacuum. In a similar [macroscopic] way, particular cosmogonic models have been shown to purport the universe coming into being out of nothing via quantum vacuum (or other means) [40]. To quote James D. Sinclair,

Even on the indeterministic interpretation, particles do not come into being out of nothing. They arise as spontaneous fluctuations of the energy contained in the subatomic vacuum, which constitutes an indeterministic cause of their origination… the same point can be made about theories of the origin of the universe out of a primordial vacuum. Popularizers touting such theories as getting ‘something from nothing’ apparently do not understand that the vacuum is not nothing but is a sea of fluctuating energy endowed with a rich structure and subject to physical laws. Such models do not, therefore, involve a true origination ex nihilo. [41]

More so in particular as observed by Alexander Vilenkin (2006), these cosmogonic models showing “creation ex nihilo” misuse the terms they employ. Vilenkin (2006) critiques that “[a] quantum fluctuation of the vacuum assumes that there was a vacuum of some pre-existing space. And we now know that ‘vacuum’ is very different from ‘nothing’. Vacuum, or empty space, has energy and tension, it can bend and warp, so it is unquestionably something” [42].

Alexander Pruss (2009) also rightly recognizes that indeterministic quantum effects doesn’t necessarily diminish PSR. The matter of explanations Pruss means is “giving [ … ] reasons sufficient to explain the explanadum, not the giving of reasons logically sufficient for entailing the explanadum” [43].

(IC.3.4.2) The Humean-Edwards Objection to Explanations

To summarize the position of Hume’s critique, he writes:

Did I show you the particular causes of each individual in a collection of twenty particles of matter, I should think it very unreasonable, should you afterwards ask me, what was the cause of the whole twenty. This is sufficiently explained in explaining the cause of the parts. [44]

In other words, Hume had argued that “there is no cause of the existence of any series of physical beings beyond the sum of each member of the series. If there is a beginningless series of nonnecessary existent beings, then this is a sufficient cause for the universe as a whole” [45]. Richard Swinburne (2004) has also commented that that “[t]he whole infinite series will have no explanation at all, for there will be no cause of members of the series lying outside the series” [46]. Paul Edwards (1968) more over has written in line with Hume that

[t]he demand to find the cause of the series as a whole rests on the erroneous assumption that the series is something over and above the members of which it is composed. [47]

For example, suggests Edwards, imagine a group of five Eskimos standing on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 50th Street and you wish to explain why the group came to New York.

  • Eskimo no. 1 did not enjoy the extreme cold in the polar in the polar region and decided to move to a warmer climate.
  • No. 2 is the husband of Eskimo no. 1. He loves her dearly and did not wish to live without her.
  • No. 3 is the son of Eskimos 1 and 2. He is too small and too weak to oppose his parents.
  • No. 4 saw an advertisement in the New York Times for an Eskimo to appear on television.
  • No. 5 is a private detective engaged by the Pinkerton Agency to keep an eye on Eskimo No. 4.

Therefore, according to Edwards, to ask why the group as a whole are in New York is to pose an absurd question. “There is no group,” says Edwards, “over and above the five members, and if we have explained why each of the five members is in New York we have ipso facto explained why the group is there” [48]. The problem with this objection is that the existence of the universe over infinite time will itself be an explicable brute fact. From Swinburne:

There will be explanation (in terms of laws) of why, once existent, it continues to exist. But what will be inexplicable is its existence at all throughout infinite time. The existence of a complex physical universe over finite or infinite time is something “too big” for science to explain. [49]

Flew uses the analogy of a computer software virus capable of replicating itself on computers connected by a network. “The fact that a million computers have been infected by the virus does not in itself explain the existence of the self-replicating virus.” [50]



  • [1] George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Promotheus: 1979) p. 235
  • [2] W. L. Craig and J. D. Sinclair, The Kalam Cosmological Argument in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, ed. by J.P Moreland and W. L. Craig (Wiley-Blackwell: 2009) p. 101
  • [3] R. Douglas Geivett, The Kalam Cosmological Argument in To Everyone An Answer (IVP Press: 2004) pp. 61-76
  • [4] Ibid., p. 62
  • [5] Ibid., p. 63
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Ibid.
  • [9] Alexander Pruss, The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument, in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Wiley-Blackwell: 2009) p. 24
  • [10] This was taken from W. David Beck, “A Thomistic Cosmological Argument” inTo Everyone An Answer, ed. William Lane Craig, Francis Beckwith, J.P. Moreland (IVP Academic: 2004) pp. 99-100
  • [11] John F. Wippel, “Metaphysics” in The Cambridge Companion to Aquinas, ed. Norman Kretzmann and Eleonore Stump (Cambridge University Press: 1997) p. 115
  • [12] Winfried Corduan, “The Cosmological Argument” in Reasons for Faith, ed. Norman Geisler and Chad Meister (Crossway Books: 2007) p. 204
  • [13] Mortimer J. Adler, Aristotle for Everybody (Simon and Schuster: 1978) p 185
  • [14] Ibid., p. 186
  • [15] Ibid., p. 187
  • [16] Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy, foreword by Jaroslav Pelikan (Yale University Press: 2002) p. 32
  • [17] Ibid., p. 43
  • [18]
  • [19]
  • [20]
  • [22] Gottfried Leibniz, On the Ultimate Origins of Things, in Leibniz: The Monadology and Other Philosophical Writings, trans. Robert Latta (London: 1898) p. 1
  • [23] A. Pruss, p. 26
  • [24] Timothy O’Connor, Theism and Ultimate Explanation (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009)
  • [25] Sections to quoting O’Connor will be found in chapters 3, 4, and 5, pp. 65, 68-72, 111-113, 116-117
  • [26] Ibid.
  • [27] William Lane Craig, quoted from The Mystery of Existence, ed. by John Leslie and Robert Lawrence Kuhn (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2013) p. 157
  • [28] Ibid.
  • [29] Ibid.
  • [30] Richard Swinburne, Is There a God? (Oxford University Press: 2010) p. 1
  • [31] From P. Churchland and C. Hooker (eds.), Images in Science (Chicago University Press: 1985) pp. 48-74
  • [32] Swinburne, p. 22
  • [33] Bernard d’Espagnat, On Physics and Philosophy (Princeton University Press: 2006) p. 333
  • [34] Swinburne, 23
  • [35] Ibid.
  • [36] Swinburne, 34
  • [37] Swinburne, 31
  • [38] Swinburne, 32
  • [39] See my other post Does Quantum Mechanics Serve as a Counter-Factual to Something Coming From Nothing? at https://philosophicaugustine.wordpress.com/2013/03/01/does-quantum-physics-serve-as-a-counter-factual-to-something-coming-from-nothing/
  • [40] See Hawking and Hartle, 1983.
  • [41] W. L. Craig and J. D. Sinclair in The Kalam Cosmological Argument, in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Wiley-Blackwell: 2009) p. 183
  • [42] Taken from chapters 17 and 19 of Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes (New York: Hill & Wang, 2006), pp. 178-191 and 203-205
  • [43] Pruss, p. 58
  • [44] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Edinburgh: 1907) p. 120
  • [45] Antony Flew, There is a God (HarperOne: 2007) p. 140
  • [46] Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God (Oxford: 2004) p. 142
  • [47] Quoted from Peter Angeles, Critiques of God (Promotheus: 1997) p. 51
  • [48] Ibid.
  • [49] Swinburne 2005, p. 142
  • [50] Flew, 140

6 responses to “A Presentation of the Cosmological Argument(s)

    • You have always been more than gracious on my posts, Prayson! Maybe one day we can do a piece on some topic together. I enjoy your writing very much and have great respect for your work!

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