Sunday, March 20, 2011

The modal cosmological argument once more

The version of the modal cosmological argument (MCA) that I defend goes like this:

1. Every contingent entity possibly has an external cause. (Premise, W-PSR)

2. If the sum total of contingent entities C has an external cause, that cause is a necessary, eternal, and enormously powerful entity. (Premise)

3. C is a contingent entity. (Premise)

4. Possibly, C has an external cause. (From 1 and 3)

5. Therefore, the external cause of C is a necessary, eternal, and enormously powerful entity. (From 2, 4, and S5)

The argument is logically sound, but are its premises more likely true than their negations? Prima facie, almost nobody questions (1). Assuming it's possible for a brick to pop into existence uncaused out of nothing, it's still reasonable to conclude that the brick could have had an external cause of its existence.

(2) is largely analytical. If there is a cause outside the sum total of C that causes C, that cause must have necessary existence. Otherwise, it too would be contained within C. Moreover, this necessary entity would have to be eternal, since there is no time at which a necessary entity can fail to exist. Finally, the entity in question must also be enormously powerful, since a cause's power is at least as great as its effect. The sheer vastness and order of C warrants this conclusion.

Notice what the skeptic cannot argue. He cannot start by reversing the W-PSR:

1*. Every contingent entity possibly does not have an external cause.

The existence of a necessary, eternal, and enormously powerful entity is consistent with its not having caused what exists contingently. What the skeptic would have to do is begin by saying that a necessary entity possibly does not exist. However, this possibility premise entails the much stronger conclusion that C cannot possibly have an external cause. This brings the original W-PSR back into question. So, the skeptic will have to pick their poison.

At any rate, I could argue that a necessary entity's possible non-existence is contradictory (and I think it is), but for now, it's important to realize that not all contradictions are as immediately obvious as the next. "The Prime Minister is a prime number" is necessarily false, but it's nowhere near as obvious as, "X is ~X."


  1. Hey Doug, I wonder if it is possible to get to an even more powerful conclusion, viz. an *infinitely* powerful necessary entity. Consider the fact that, in order to deny cosmological arguments, many atheists say there is an infinite regress of contingencies.

    Suppose the atheist is right. That means that given your line of reasoning that a cause must be at least as great as its effect, we can alter premise 2 to read that "2. If the sum total of contingent entities C has an external cause, that cause is a necessary, eternal, and *infinitely* powerful entity." If because of this the atheist decides to deny the possibility of an infinite regress, then we can switch to a cosmological argument. =D

  2. You've made the point better than I could, Alfredo! It's just another instance of an atheist's having to pick his poison. C is infinite? Okay, then the external cause of C is infinite in power. Wait, no, C is only finite? Well, then the external cause of C is at least enormously powerful. That would be a strange form of atheism, to say the least.

  3. Do you mind if I steal this argument and discuss it a little bit at one of the blogs I write on? I will give props. ;-)

  4. No props necessary, but thanks. Borrow away!

  5. Hey Doug. Sorry for posting this in your combox, but I wasn't able to find your e-mail. I'm interested in your thoughts on some of the things on my blog, specifically the last two posts I did. A friend, Leo, was sort of critical of both this argument and the Scotistic argument. Let me know what you think:

  6. Not a problem at all, Alfredo. I think I can summarize Leo's two main reservations of the MCA concisely:

    First, he points out that some will deny that C is a contingent concrete entity.

    Secondly (and I'm refurbishing the objection to the Scotistic argument to apply to the MCA), he states that the necessary entity in question may only accidentally be first cause.

    Starting with the first reservation, there are strong intuitive reasons to think that the sum total of a certain type of object will necessarily exhibit whatever attribute makes these objects distinctive. If every part of a mountain is made of stone, then the mountain as a whole is made of stone. Surely the mountain isn't an abstract object, but a concrete entity in its own right. I think where Leo gets hung up is on the issue of set theory and the notion of a member having to be both part of the set and outside of it. This is easily remedied if we keep in mind that we're only talking about concrete entities, and not mathematical sets. There's arguably no such thing as the set of all sets, but that's not the case when dealing with concrete entities, where we can and do have mereological sum totals of things.

    As for the second reservation, he is correct to say that this argument doesn't show that the necessary entity is necessarily the external cause of C. I actually find this to be a strength of the MCA, since the skeptic cannot reverse the weak causal premise and conclude there is no necessary entity. After all, a necessary entity's existence is perfectly consistent with its not causing C.

    Of course, if there are independent arguments showing that the necessary entity is the cause of C - and I believe there are such arguments - then even better.

  7. 2. If the sum total of contingent entities C has an external cause, that cause is a necessary, eternal, and enormously powerful entity. (Premise)

    I don't see why C couldn't be caused by a contingent thing. You seem to be assuming (stipulating?) that C is ESSENTIALLY the sum total of all contingent entities. Suppose there are exactly N contingent simples and that C is the sum of those simples. Why couldn't C be caused by something else contingent?

  8. Hi Joshua,

    I'm not sure there would even be a C if c1, c2, c3 and cn are just simples without any real whole-part relation. I'm thinking of C itself as a mereological whole. Maybe I misunderstand the reservation?