Fundamental Reality I: Prologue, or Why Even Bother?

Looks like I've got to tell you now what I think about the Cosmological Argument.  I believe that Cosmological Arguments can give us a good reason to believe in some type of fundamental entity which causes the universe to exist.  In Theism that fundamental entity is taken to be God.  However, I think that the Cosmological Argument by itself, apart from other considerations, does not necessarily imply either Theism or Supernaturalism.  That is because there are also candidates within Naturalism for what that entity might be.  But there are related considerations, having to do with consciousness and ethics, which in my view tip the scales towards Theism, and I will try to also explain what these are.

Before I begin, let me tell you right away that this isn't my preferred approach for doing Apologetics.  I generally prefer a more empirical approach based on examining historical records for things like, oh, people being raised from the dead.  That's not just because that type of data can potentially get you to Christianity instead of just Theism.  It's also because, as a scientist, I've been trained to prefer the data to purely theoretical reasoning. Also, as someone who has studied the history of Philosophy, I'm well aware of just how far astray one can be led by so-called “armchair reasoning”, where you try to figure out how it makes sense for the universe to work, based only on broad aspects of reality.

There's way too many examples of philosophers (I'm looking at you, Kant) who say that things logically follow necessarily from premises, when in fact they don't.  They're sneaking in extra assumptions on the side: relying on intuitions and then calling it Reason.  It's not irrational to have intuitions—without them reasoning would never get off the ground—but not everyone necessarily shares those intuitions.  That's just how it is in Philosophy.  Any strictly deductive arguments for the existence of God necessarily rest on premises that not everyone is going to accept.

So I'm not going to even try to make deductive claims for most of what I'm going to say, but instead I'll try to tell you why I find Theism plausible, from an armchair reasoning point of view.  There are plenty of places where you'll be able to dissent from me.  I will argue that Theism makes better sense out of the world than any rival view, but not that all other views are inconsistent or absurd.

The English idealist F.H. Bradley said that “Metaphysics is the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct; but to find these reasons is no less an instinct.”  Well, I'm going to indulge that instinct here. I'm well aware that what I say isn't going to convince everyone.

I've been told that the perfect philosophical argument would be one where if the hearer understood the argument but failed to accept the conclusion, they would just die.  The struggle to accept the incoherence would just be too much, and their brain would shut down.  Well, there aren't any arguments like that, but I think Metaphysics is still worth doing anyway.

In fact, we must do Metaphysics.  Even if you decide to focus on empirical evidence such as miracle claims, you still have to decide how much empirical evidence you actually need to accept a conclusion that may seem weird to you. But just how weird is God's existence? Bayes' Theorem says that the assignment of prior probabilities is a necessary step in evaluating any claim.

So that means, when deciding whether something exists or not, we always need to have some set of plausibility heuristics in our mind which say how likely that thing is to be.  In cases where we are talking about the fundamental nature of existence, that means we've got to do Metaphysics.  Even if there are no strictly deductive arguments (from indisputable premises), there are still going to be plausibility arguments pointing in various directions.  It's irrational to put too much faith in plausibility arguments, but it's also irrational to be completely insensible to them.  We must assess the plausibility of propositions in order to evaluate them properly.

If at any point you think I am handling things badly and going beyond my evidence, I ask only to be judged by fair standards.  It's easy enough to just take a negative point of view, and criticize unwarranted assumptions in other people's arguments.  But suppose that someone asked you to stand up and defend your own metaphysical beliefs (say, materialism) with arguments capable of persuading others.  Not just something offhand like “This makes sense to me, and I've never seen any good reason to believe otherwise”, but some robust intellectual argument for certain types of existence or nonexistence claims. You'll quickly find that it's a hard thing to do.  Yet some particular specific set of metaphysical statements must in fact be true, even if it is hard to see which ones.

So if you disagree, please do not just say, “There's a hole in your reasoning at line 278, therefore you are being illogical and religion is irrational.”  Instead tell me what metaphysical view you find more plausible and why.

From this perspective, I find it interesting that it is possible to argue for the existence of God as well as we can.  There are no compelling armchair arguments for the existence of quarks, jaguars, and so on, yet these exist and are observationally measurable.  Only in the case of the most fundamental being, God, can we make any kind of purely philosophical argument for his existence.  And that is precisely because he is so fundamental, that he is part of the background for everything else that we can or do experience.

I hasten to repeat that this type of considerations I'm about to present are not the primary reasons why I believe in God.  God has shown himself through explicit divine revelations, recorded in the Bible and elsewhere.  So it is not necessary to approach him through purely philosophical means. And there are many important things about God which we cannot hope to learn without revelation.  Nevertheless, there are some people who have argued themselves into Theism for reasons similar to those I am going to describe.  I also think it gives some helpful background motivations for Christian theology, even though it is not the primary source of it.

But I don't think Cosmological Argument type reasoning should be exclusively thought of as an argument for Theism, as though it had no other applicability except as a religious tool.  I think there are several different types of Cosmological considerations, and that anyone trying to think through Metaphysics seriously, will have to do some type of reasoning not completely unlike what I am going to say.  Indeed, quite a bit of what I am going to say should be acceptable even to atheists, and I would continue to accept several of the arguments even if I ceased to be religious.

None of what follows is intended to be particularly original, except for the presentation, and perhaps also the modesty with which I wish to assert the following claims as plausibility arguments, rather than any kind of strict deductions.  Broadly speaking, the types of arguments being considered have been around for a long time (longer than Christianity has been around), although I'm going to present them in the form I find most plausible even at the cost of a bit of originality.

One might worry that such arguments are a post hoc attempt to justify, through specious reasoning, conclusions which really came from certain religious texts.   But historically speaking, this is not at all what happened.  The arguments were developed primarily by Greek philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.  These arguments tended to support a monotheistic view of the world, which was actually in conflict with the polytheistic view of their surrounding culture.  (Other Greek philosophers developed something more akin to Naturalism, which was of course also in conflict with popular Greek religion.)  It is therefore quite interesting that the Greek arguments supported something much closer to the Hebrew conception of divinity, which the Hebrews had received by Revelation rather than Reason.  Western culture as we know it is really the synthesis of the Greek mind with the Jewish heart, without which there is no theo-logy.

But that combination is also not the origin of Christianity.  Rather, it is the cultural milieu in which Christianity started.  The compatibility of these two sets of ideas was just starting to be appreciated, when something far stranger than either of them came into the world to save it.

Next: Causes and Explanations.

(Update: edited the sentence about the perfect philosophical argument.)

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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13 Responses to Fundamental Reality I: Prologue, or Why Even Bother?

  1. JD Walters says:

    I'm greatly looking forward to this series, thanks!

    I agree that the cosmological argument by itself doesn't conclude immediately to theism, but I doubt whether the type of fundamental entity required to play the role of First Cause in the argument is compatible with any form of naturalism. The types of entities naturalism can countenance all seem to be contingent and finite through and through.

    Also, I hold out hope yet that you will become convinced that we can move beyond mere plausibility in philosophical arguments :)

  2. Yes I'm with JD. No-one I've read thinks this or other philosophical arguments are deductively proven, but many think they are good inductive arguments to establish what is probably true. WL Craig is an example - he argues persuasively, and wins many debates, but he doesn't claim deductive proof, just the best of all explanations.

    I also think the Cosmological argument finishes with something that looks like God and doesn't look like anything else we know, and that is a fairly convincing conclusion to me - probably stronger, though not as complete, as historical or experiential evidence. I guess we'll see where you end up!

    I really enjoy your blog and look forward to the next few posts. Thanks.

  3. John Michael Salinas says:

    Dr. Wall
    Just for clarity, will you be presenting inductive cosmological arguments, or deductive arguments which are to be ultimately considered as evidence for a Bayesian Probability analysis?

  4. TY says:

    May I share these thoughts with all? From my experience, people believe in God and try to live a godly because their lives have been touched (this is of course a load of mumbo-jumbo to an atheist's or naturalist's ears); not because of some cosmological argument. If belief is something that springs from the heart, the question is why bother to appeal to the intellect or the mind? I think there has always been an anti-religious myth, going back to Biblical times, but it has gained certain (strident) ascendancy in scientific materialism in modern times.
    We are in a different philosophical battlefield today. And the parish priest can no longer be content to deliver soothing sermons and go back to the rectory, assured that core Christian teachings are not threatened. He or she must also engage in Christian Apologetics. Science and faith are not on a collision course; have never been, but scientific materialism wants to make it so. Any attempt – deductive, inductive, armchair logic – to blunt the arguments of scientific materialism is therefore good theology. And we know there are quite a few false "scientific" arguments. So I eagerly await Dr Walls’s subsequent posts to provide the credible arguments for God and for God the creator of the universe. Proof? There is no such thing.

  5. Aron Wall says:

    Although in general, I think the philosophical method delivers much less certainty than more empirical approaches (within their domain of validity), I do think there are philosophical arguments which deliver near-certainty about their conclusions. For example, that we have minds, the validity of logic and reason, the existence of an external world, the rough accuracy of our senses in at least some respects, and so on: unless we were reasonably certain that these philosophical beliefs were true, we really couldn't be certain of much else.

    I just don't think the traditional proofs of the existence of God fall into that category, although I do think it is the most reasonable metaphysical system. Presumably when combined with a functioning sensus divinitatis this is sufficient to rationally warrent belief among those righteous pagans who truly seek God, even without special revelation (through prophecy, miracles, the Bible etc.)

    Are you agreeing with St. JD Walters? I thought he was arguing for the Scholastic position that the existence of God can be demonstrated through pure reason, as also argued by St. Feser. If not, we just have probability arguments, as you say.

    There are actually several different definitions of inductive vs. deductive, and I'm not sure what you're referring to. I don't claim that my argument will prove the existence of God with certainty, if that's what you were asking. Nor am I going to be listing specific numbered premises, since there's too much groundwork to lay out for that, and I think a more expository, excursive style will work better for what I want to do. Why don't you wait until the argument is posted, and then if something is unclear, you can ask about it.

  6. Hi Aaron, perhaps I assumed too much about JD - he has definitely expressed some uncertainty, and I thought it was as I said. I guess I should leave him out of it and reiterate that I find the Cosmological and design arguments very persuasive (though short of being proof) and important for me. Thanks.

  7. John Michael Salinas says:

    My apologies Dr. Wall

  8. Aron Wall says:

    No need to apologize for an honest question. I'm just putting it off, that's all.

    I'll try to get around to answering your comment soon, but right now I'm on Amsterdam time and need to go to bed.

  9. Aron Wall says:


    Not many people are persuaded by the type of approach I'm outlining, but I still think it is worth doing, since some are. Besides, it's interesting to me, even if nobody who doesn't already believe is persuaded!

    I'm not sure that the New Testament distinguishes very sharply between the mind and what we would call the heart---look at the way Paul uses the term \nu o \upsilon s!

    Any attempt – deductive, inductive, armchair logic – to blunt the arguments of scientific materialism is therefore good theology.

    Any attempt? I would have thought that good theology should also be honest and correctly reasoned... it's easy enough to blunt the arguments of scientific materialism using shoddy arguments, intellectually dishonest thinking, or bad science.

    Perhaps you just meant that you liked my attempts; in that case compliment accepted.

  10. Pingback: Christianity and Science | Evangelicals in the Episcopal Church

  11. David says:

    I have a personal "cumulative case" argument for theism/against naturalism (unless an atheist is going to believe in emergent angels or something, they might as well be the same thing, though if pressed I would say that the following is, strictly speaking, an argument that naturalism is false).

    Opening my copy of The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, I see the following arguments:
    The argument from contingency
    The Kalam argument
    The fine tuning argument
    The argument from consciousness
    The argument from reason
    The moral argument
    The ontological argument
    The argument from religious experience

    To this list, I would add the following important arguments:
    The Thomistic cosmological argument
    The Henological argument (a good example can be found in St. Anselm's Monologion)
    The Scholastic teleological argument (the fifth way)
    The argument from abstract objects (St Plantinga counts this one 4 times in his "24 theistic arguments")

    Each of these arguments can provide powerful reasons and defenses for it'd premises. Doubtless, a determined foe can find "defeaters" for each of those reasons, and the defender can find defeaters for said defeaters in a vicious sprawl of arguments and counterarguments.

    In response, the atheist can bring forth the argument from evil, and much the same can be said of it.

    While i personally am a convinced Scholastic, and think that at least the more classical arguments are successful, i recognize that this is a minority position.

    Perhaps the most balanced assessment would be that each argument is defensible but inconclusive... on its own. What happens if we lump 'Em all together?

    Here's where things get awesome. Let's say that an argument is "defensible but inconclusive" if
    0.1 < P (C|A) < 0.5
    Where "C" represent the conclusion of an argument and "A" represents the evidence given for the premises of the argument. If P (C|A) 0.5, then we have at least a tentative conclusion.

    So, we take each argument individually. The argument from evil relies on the existence of suffering and the objective moral values, so we'll throw it out along with the moral argument and the argument from consciousness, leaving us with ten arguments against naturalism/for theism, each of which is on the interval (0.1, 0.5).

    Let "N" represent naturalism and "E" represent all the evidence for each premise of the remaining arguments. Doing the multiplication, and we find
    0.0009765625<P(N|E)< 0.3486784401

    While my definition of "defensible" may be a little strict, my definition of "conclusive" is DEFINITELY loose (would P=0.6 really be considered conclusive by anybody), so the bulk of the interval will still be on the "supernaturalist's" side.

    To my mind, the fact that so many philosophical ideas, scientific discoveries, and facts of daily life furnish arguments for God's existence is one of the best arguments for theism.

  12. Aron Wall says:

    First of all, at least some of these arguments should simply be considered fallacious. The Ontological Argument is clearly in this category. I also reject the Argument from Reason at least in the form most commonly defended by Sts. Lewis and Platinga. (St. Feser's version is more interesting, although I'm not sure it can be separated from the Argument from Consciousness.) I also find the Henological Argument rather dubious unless you can explain why the property "good" should be treated differently from the property "blue". (There is no single "blue entity from which all blue things get their blueness".) The Argument from Abstract Objects is interesting if God exists, but I don't think I would find it at all forceful if I were an atheist. And I certainly don't buy the Epistemological Arguments on St. Platinga's list! (Maybe if the Argument from Simplicity were reworked into a significantly different form.)

    Nevertheless, even after weeding out bogus and repetitive arguments, there do seem to be, in some sense, more interesting arguments for Theism, than arguments against. This observation is well worth making, although it's more of a meta-argument than an argument in its own right. Surely, the fact that there are so many different arguments cannot be counted as a separate Argument for Theism, as if it had some independent force besides the strength of the individual arguments which it refers to! And, it can often be the case that 1 really good argument is more convincing than 10 bad ones!

    Perhaps one could say, it provides some reason to think that Theism is a particularly unifying hypothesis, and that it is unlikely that a small change in our knowledge or opinions would completely invalidate all of these arguments at once. (If you've done the analysis properly, this kind of thing should already be built into a Bayesian calculation, but sometimes one wants to take a step back and intuitively check whether the lay of the land makes sense...)

    When atheists try to collect dozens of arguments against the existence of (any) God, they can only really do so by including lots of minor variants on the argument from Evil. This is the only really good general argument against Theism (leaving aside arguments against particular religions and scriptures). The most obviously distinct arguments are (a) claims that God has a low a priori probability and (b) claims that various divine attributes are logically inconsistent; but these are really more like counterclaims that the Theists have failed to adequately justify / define Theism and therefore throw one back onto evaluating the Theistic arguments.

    It would have been clearer to write out .5^{10} and .9^{10}, it took me a while to figure out how you got those numbers, especially since that's not the right way to do these probability calculations. (Suppose there were 0 arguments for theism, and also 0 for atheism. Would you say that the probability of naturalism is therefore .5^{0} = .9^{0} = 1?) You need to specify the prior probability of Naturalism vs. Theism (vs. other alternatives?), and then work out the Bayes factors properly. You need to do a proper Bayesian calculation where you start with the prior probability of Theism / Naturalism (possibly taking some subset of arguments into consideration) and then update based on the rest of the arguments.

    (Assuming that the priors are equal: P(N) = P(T) (which is not at all obvious), and each of N arguments has P(A|N)/P(A|T) = p, and that each argument provides independent evidence (somewhat suspicious given the similar structure of several of the Theistic arguments), then you would get P(N|E) = p^N / (p^N + 1), which is similar to your answer when p^N gets large.)

    PS Wouldn't "emergent angels" technically still be Naturalism? Assuming they emerged from some more fundamental natural interactions in some way...

  13. David says:

    Yeah, I will admit that the ontological argument probably doesn't belong on the list, though after reading the entry in the Blackwell Companion, I found myself questioning whether there may actually be something to it. However, I think that all the others are worth paying attention to.

    The version of the "argument from reason" in the Blackwell Companion has more in common with Feser's version based on intentionality and processes of reasoning than with Lewis' or Plantinga's "skeptical theat" style of argument. Having said that, if one advocates a "representationalist" theory of knowledge (in which the objects of experience are not birds and trees and people but colors and sounds and smells), noting the fact that evolution can't notice a false representation of the world if it's coupled to a false representation of the organism's own actions could be useful. Of course, a more Scholastic theory of knowledge would bypass the problem, But a Scholastic theory of knowledge will lead to a Scholastic metaphysics, which can get you to God by other, more reliable means.

    As to the distinction between the argument from reason and the argument from consciousness, I think that, between the two of them, we have at least three distinct arguments: the argument from qualia, the argument from intentionality in general (and from the semantic/conceptual/propositional content of our thoughts in particular), and the argument from rationality (which is anchored in our ability to move from meaningful proposition to meaningful proposition according to appropriately universal laws of logic).

    The henological argument relies on the Scholastic notion of "trancendentals:" properties/predicates/attributes that apply to being as being, that can't be pinned down into categories like "Substance," "quality," "quantity," or "relation," but can apply to all of them - as well as being applicable to an entity that can not be pinned down in the above categories, if any such there be. "Blue" is about as clear of an example of an attribute belonging to the category of quality as I could ask for. Such attributes as "one," "good," and "true" are transcendental in the relevant sense. This is all very closely connected with the Scholastic version of classical theism (that is to say, the thing most philosophers will think of when you say "classical theism," God as Pure Act and all that stuff), and probably can't be adequately addressed in a combox.

    The point of the sort of "cumulative case" argument I'm talking about is for when you've gone through the arguments, and the atheist has found weak points in all of them, and is feeling complacent in his conclusion that he doesn't have to take super naturalism seriously. The point of this argument is that if EVEN ONE of his dodges doesn't work, the Supernaturalist foot is in the door and his old worldview is no longer tenable. Now he has to do more than show that none of the arguments are conclusive, he has to show that most of them aren't even defensible, and the one or two that are defensible are inconclusive enough that, even taken together, they are insufficient to cast practical doubt on naturalism. The point is to remind the atheist that a dozen arguments for the existence of God, if each is taken from a different domain, will have substantial force even if none of them are knock-outs. This isn't a case of "one weak link means naturalism wins," this is a case of "one strong link means naturalism loses." If there's a Baysean way to formulate this point, I would greatly appreciate some help on that front.

    As to emergent angels, my main point was that in the modern Western domain of discourse, atheists are very unlikely to be willing to accept a god even if it, like the gods of paganism, was born of chaos. It's a part of the conceptual space that an apologist will have to deal with, but since that sort of idea has so few adherents, it can be dealt with in a couple of paragraphs (whereas notions like reincarnation, being so central to certain eastern religions, should be given rather more attention).

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