Friday, January 10, 2020

On Medium: When Reasons Run Out: The Cosmological Argument for God

Next up in the series is this article on the cosmological proof of God's existence. Here I try to make sense of the nature of a First Cause and of any "argument" that posits such a pseudo-thing. 


  1. The cosmological argument is so brazenly dishonest that it insults the intelligence of everyone who hears it. The theist pretends, in good faith, to invoke the principle of causality to support her case, but then slyly makes her God the exception to the very principle she used to establish His existence! Anyone who uses it has proven that they don't really take reason seriously & are hoping their victim is too stupid to see through their manoeuvre.

    Do you plan on addressing the ontological arguments for God? They're much more clever & theists have been improving upon Anselm's attempt for a thousand years.

    1. The Ontological Argument is next up. Mind you, this series of articles isn't meant to be detailed or comprehensive. I'm trying to get at the essence of where I think these arguments go wrong.

      After the criticism of the Ontological Argument will be an article that focuses on the conflict between the philosopher's abstract, mystical God and the more personal God of naive folk religion. Then it's the argument from morality, presuppositionalism, something on faith vs reason, divine revelation, and then perhaps something on Christianity's lateness with respect to the Axial Age, and finally Buddhism. I've written up to presuppositionalism so far. The series on secularism will get into scientism, secular humanism, progress, and perhaps neoliberalism and something on Marx.

  2. Hi,

    Your idea of what nothing is seems to be somewhat mundane and maybe even naive.
    At least compared with the description of nothing given by the gnostic Basilides:

    There was a time when there was Nothing; nay, not even that "Nothing" was anything of being, but barely and without reserve, and without any sophism, there was altogether Nothing. When I use the term "was," I do not mean to imply that this Nothing was, but in order to explain what I wish to set forth, I employ the expression "there was absolutely Nothing." Now that which is called "Ineffable" is not absolutely ineffable, for we ourselves give it that name of ineffable; whereas that which is not even ineffable is not "ineffable," but infinitely above every name that can be named. Even for the Visible world, so multifarious are its divisions that we have not names enough; but we are reduced to conceive many of its properties from the names of the properties already named, these (other) properties being ineffable. For an identity of names occasions a disorder and confusion of ideas in the mind of the learner.

    His deep understanding of what nothing is led Basilides to a very original creation story. It is a consistent but also utterly absurd story of creation:

    There was a time when nothing existed, neither matter nor form, nor accident; neither the simple nor the compound, neither the unknowable nor the invisible, neither man or angel nor god nor any of these things, which are called by names or perceived by the mind or the senses. The Not-Being God whom Aristotle calls Thought of thought, without consciousness, without perception, without purpose, without aim, without passion, without desire, had the will to create the world. I say "had the will" only by way of speaking, because in reality he had neither will, nor ideas nor perceptions; and by the word 'world' I do not mean this actual world, which is the outcome of extension and division, but rather the Seed of the world. The seed of the world contained in itself, as a mustard seed, all things which are eventually evolved, as the roots, the branches, the leaves arise out of the seedcorn of the plant.

    Both quotes are from Hyppolitus of Rome: Refutation of all heresies, book VII Chapters VIII and IX.

    I think that the only rational conclusion one can draw from these quotes is, that it is impossible for the universe to exist.
    Somehow this contradicts the actual existence of the universe.

    1. So those quotes are from Hyppolytus? Is he supposed to be quoting Basilides?

      Anyway, I don't see how those quotes are inconsistent with what I say about the mystical, philosophical abstractions associated with the religious idea of God. They're paradoxical since they're meant to point to something ineffable. You can use positive or negative language to gesture towards "something" beyond nature. You can call it "absolute" or "nothing" (no finite, knowable thing). Either way, that abstraction is hardly the deity of theism that atheists have a problem with. In particular, that "Not-Being God" is impersonal. I go over this conflict in more detail in an upcoming article that will likely be called "The Irrelevance of All Philosophical Proofs of God."

      Not sure why you think these quotes imply the universe is impossible. They imply that we don't know how or why God produced the seed of the Big Bang (the singularity?), which is consistent with what I say in "When Reasons Run Out," regarding the cosmological argument.

  3. Hi,

    I see the second quote of Basilides as a complicated way of saying that nothing can originate from nothing. If you start with nothing, then even if a god creates a universe, both the god and the universe must be non-existent. Everything is and remains non-existent all the way down or up (in my opinion).

    Clearly, Basilides does not agree with my interpretation. He seems to think that all those non-existent things somehow act as a seed from which an existent universe grows. But I could not follow his argument.

    The writings of Basilides have been destroyed out of love for the truth by christians. Hence all we know about him are statements about him by his enemies.

    1. There's a Kantian or cosmicist point I'm not sure you're recognizing, which is that when you say "If you start with nothing," you're talking about starting with no limited thing, which is to say no thing that's limited by the mode of human cognition. If, on the contrary, you limit possible being by the human ways of thinking, you're being anthropocentric and virtually presupposing theism.

      By way of methodological naturalism, though, the human ways of thinking correspond to the limits of nature. So the question is whether supernature or some transcendent, inhuman being, which is nothing as far as we're concerned, could give rise to the universe of natural, limited beings.

      I'm pretty sure the early Christians who demonized, persecuted, and censored the Gnostics weren't thinking primarily of the "love of truth." After all, Gnosticism subverts the Catholic urge to betray Jesus by forming an organized religion in collaboration with the Roman Empire that kicked Jesus's ass.

  4. Literal 'nothing' is an incoherent concept. Even if there were nothing, there would still be the fact that there is nothing; and a fact is something, rather than nothing. If 'x' is a stand-in for an undefined thing, then `x (read 'not x') would still be a thing; it would just be the absence of x.

    As dadaharm remarked, nothing comes from nothing. And as Ben said: to be something is to have limits of some kind. An infinite being like God, with no limits, would essentially be nothing at all because a thing is defined by what it is not. This goes back to Aristotle's law of identity: A is A, it cannot be C, F, or any other of the class of not-A things & still remain A. If God is anything, he has to be unique & different from all that is not God or He is nothing; and nothing is, as I proved in the preceeding paragraph, a logical impossibility.

    1. Well said. I'd just add that a mystic would be fine with the paradoxes in talking about nothingness, since they'd make the sort of Kantian or cosmicist (anti-anthropocentric) point I made above in response to Dadaharm. The question is whether the incoherence and the laws of logic speak more to ontological, or to human psychological and epistemic, limits.

    2. Over the past few months, since we had our dialogue on free will vs. determinism, I've become more & more skeptical of ontology. That conversation really goaded me to question what it means for anything to 'exist' & how I could reconcile my rationalist bias with the implicit trust I must put in my senses every day just to feed & clothe myself. What I've concluded is that, given how far both science & philosophy have advanced in just the 20th century, ontology can no longer be taken seriously as a valid branch of philosophy & should be dropped from our language just as we did with Aristotelian 'final causes' & 'natural places' - ontology really has become that irrelevant; I'll explain why.

      Ontology, as distinguished from epistemology, is supposed to concern itself with what things are independent of our perceptions or ideas of them. Well, that's a big problem already since we can't know or understand anything independent of our perceptions & thoughts; Kant already dealt with this problem at excruciating length, so I'll move on. I'd like to tackle this mathematically & syllogistically (because that's what I'm good at) so I'll state it in these terms:

      1) Let 'existence' be defined as the superset E that encompasses all things: from quasars to Harry Potter. Of course quasars would be in the subset of physical things while Harry would be in the subset of imaginary things, but my point is that both quasars & Harry would have to exist within the context of their subset: quasars really are physical phenomena & Harry really is a fictional character beloved by millions.
      2) No set can contain itself (not in Z-F-C anyways).
      3) If no set can contain itself, then there can be no superset E since - per its own definition - no such set could exist!

      To put it simply: if the set of all existing things cannot itself exist (and, by the axioms of Z-F-C, it cannot), then it follows that the only way we can preserve the existence of any particular thing is by denying the existence of the supposed transcendent reality independent of our perceptions & ideas which somehow encompasses & integrates them all into a greater whole that we call reality or the universe or what have you. This way, anything can still exist, but it can only exist within a certain context. Harry exists in the books of J.K. Rowling & in the imaginations of those who read them. Quasars exist the domain of the senses right along with stars, cats, and Scottish Breakfast tea. Even God exists, if only in the hearts of His worshipers. And there is no reason to privilege one domain over another. There are no rational grounds for the claim that the objects of sense have more reality that those of the intellect, nor that those of the intellect are more real than the purely imaginary. The Sun, the square root of negative one, & God himself all exist within their respective domains - but only within their domains, nowhere else & certainly not in some overarching reality independent of our thoughts & perceptions. A place for everything & everything in its place!

      So instead of having these arbitrary categories "exists" & "doesn't exist" & then fighting over what should go where, we just start with the axiom "everything exists" and then decide which domain it exists within by asking ourselves how we know it exists. Can we see, hear, touch, taste or smell it? Then we put in the category of sensible or empirical things. Can we deduce its existence from first principles? Then we put it in the category of intelligible things. Can we 'see' it in our mind's eye, but not with our physical eyes? Then it's imaginary. Can we only see it with our third eye? Then it must be astral or etheric. Can we neither sense it nor deduce it from prior axioms? Then it is intuitive. Basically, we must replace ontological distinctions with epistemological ones.

    3. Just as ethics is being supplanted by self-help and cognitive behavioural therapy, the philosophy of mind by psychology, and other branches of philosophy by various sciences or more popular discourses, metaphysics has been marginalized by physics and cosmology. Some would add that ontology is little more than logic itself, but this would seem to presuppose pragmatism or methodological naturalism.

      Anyway, your egalitarian way of dealing with ontology seems to presuppose the mathematical idea of the set, which enjoins you to pick between Platonism or perhaps Lee Smolin's view of mathematical kinds as being evoked and roughly fictional. If transcendent platonic kinds are separating the domains of all of those types of things (perceivable, intelligible, intuitive things, etc), we'd be privileging rationality after all, as Plato did. If we interpret math as evocative and pragmatic, we'd be privileging the imagination. Either way, we'd seem to be back at the paradox of the set that contains itself.

      So it's not just epistemology that would decide on types of being, but the concept of the set that's assumed by your formulation. If we forget about that formulation and stick with epistemology, I think you'd end up with pragmatism, a position to which I'm sympathetic ever since I did my MA thesis on Putnam's pragmatic realism (see the link below for something on pragmatism, although I suspect you may have read that article already). You'd be saying we should give everything their due credit, depending on their function or results. (If we have _knowledge_ about some domain, the domain must really work and have results, as opposed to being arbitrary and chaotic.) I'm interested in combining pragmatism with Lovecraftian mysticism, something William James did (albeit without the cosmicist take on mysticism, I assume).

      Pragmatists can be even-handed, but it's interesting how positivists were inspired by pragmatic dismissals of metaphysics, such as by Ernst Mach's or Wittgenstein's. But positivism turned into a cult that collapsed under its own weight. Pragmatism, too, isn't as neutral as it appears. Along with the Frankfurt School, I'd align pragmatism with our animal agenda of attempting to survive and thrive by controlling the environment. Mathematicians presuppose the concept of the set and pragmatists presuppose that of utility.

    4. You make a valid point here. While I admit to strong Platonic leanings, my use of set theory in this context is merely a pragmatic tool to classify objects of knowledge along epistemic lines. I chose Z-F-C, however, on empirical grounds since I couldn't think of any instances in the 'real world' of sets being members of themselves; so it seemed like a valid, non-arbitrary choice. I'm not sure how Smolin would see this since, though I have evoked a game here (Z-F-C), the choice was made on empirical grounds & Smolin is an empiricist. But that question aside, I do seem to have fallen into the same paradox I sought to resolve. If I chose Z-F-C on empirical grounds, then I would seem to be presupposing empiricism as a criterion of truth. If I didn't choose Z-F-C on empirical grounds, then I'm open to the accusation of deliberately creating a paradox to suit my argument when I could have just used an alternative to Z-F-C that allows for sets to be members of themselves. I'm actually open to accepting an alternative to Z-F-C & preserving ontology, but I would still need to justify that choice or I'd be guilty of begging the question. I'll have to think about this.

      Positivism had a lot of promise in terms of liberating humanity from semantic spooks & language induced hallucinations, but once it started making statements about reality (rather than language), it betrayed its own spirit - much like Christianity did. You might enjoy reading about Alfred Korzybski if you haven't already; I think he stayed true to the spirit of Positivism.

  5. Hi,

    I am neither a Kantian nor a cosmicist. I consider myself to be an old-fashioned Schopenhauerian. Meaning that I think all objects, concepts etc. are only representations. These representations are useful for dealing with reality in itself. About reality in itself, we cannot say much, only that we are a part of it and that it seems to have a will to exist.

    As far as what it means if nothing at all exists, I think the first quote of Basilides given above is as far as one can go. Because nothing in the absolute is not a coherent concept as Sybok said. In fact, even by pointing to it or giving it a name, it becomes in some sense a something.

    But this does in no way solve the problem whether there was a beginning or not to the existence of whatever currently exists.

    Identifying the nothing in the absolute with some trancendent object or being that "exists", only means that it is in some sense a something and not really nothing. (And then you can ask what existed before that etc.). So this cannot be the solution.

    If we assume that something that exists or existed (in whatever sense) caused our universe to be, then we can always ask the question what caused the existence of that something. (And again we can continue all the way up or down in this way.)

    So we end up with this nothing in the absolute that could never and did never exist (and which cannot and must not be named). This leads to the paradoxical question:

    Why did this nothing in the absolute, that did never exist, all of a sudden become or create a universe ?

    (Maybe Basilides actually knew the answer to this absurd question.)

    1. Hi, Dadaharm. I agree that there's much incoherence in saying that a transcendent being created nature, but that's only as far as the philosophy of religion goes. I'm just pointing out that there's a mystical side of religion which says we should relate to God (the transcendent nothing) not through reason but through faith or elevated states of consciousness. I talk more about the horrific implications of mysticism and about God and nothingness in the links below.

      Schopenhauer followed Kant up to the point where Schopenhauer said we have direct, internal access to the noumena through introspection. Schopenhauer pretty much just combined Kant with the Upanishads.

    2. Hi,

      I guess that I am somewhat of a fundamentalist as far as the pseudo-concept of "nothing" goes. I do not admit a "nothing" that is contaminated by any trace of existence in whatever sense. That implies that it is in no way humanly accessable, mystically or otherwise. So it is not even a noumenon or whatever.

      What you mean by nothing, non-being or god seems to be more or less similar to the buddhist void. I would just call that "reality in itself" and not "nothing". In essence, it is just a game of words concerning metaphysical (un-)realities, I think.

    3. It does turn out to be a semantic game, doesn't it? That's what I was trying to show, that nothingness turns out to be something after all, because to understand X we have to objectify and limit it with our concepts (simplifications, idealizations, cognitive models).

      That was precisely Kant's point. The noumenon is what lies "behind" that cognitive work. I believe slipped Kant slipped up at one point in saying that the noumenon affects or informs the phenomenon. To be consistent, he'd have to say we know nothing at all about how things in themselves "create" or "cause" the stimuli that form the basis of our perceptions.

      It's the same with the origin of nature. Either it comes from more and more nature or from "something" supernatural or unnatural. You can call the unnatural "thing" God or nothing or Blort or whatever. Reasons run out at that point and we're left with silence or with religious faith and story-telling. Alternatively, maybe we can stretch our cognitive capacities to begin to think in unnatural ways.