By Rabbi Adam Jacobs
September 15, 2013
A few months back I had the pleasure of watching the film “In Our Own Time,” a surprisingly engaging documentary about the Bee Gees. Toward the end of the film, Barry Gibb mused that even a few years back you wouldn’t be caught dead putting on a Bee Gees record, but now they were slowly making their way back to the public’s embrace. It occurs to me that (in some ways) philosophical argumentation is like pop music — moving in and out of cycles of favourability and that what was once “uncool” can be rediscovered and mined for its wisdom anew. What is known as the Cosmological Argument (Prime Mover) is a case in point. Far from being outdated, obsolete or refuted, it continues to sing its compelling tune of logic and reason for those who are willing to properly understand it — and aren’t too cool to spin the classics.
The argument has enjoyed a diverse and multicultural history and has been expounded by many, including: Aristotle (pagan), Al-Gazali (Muslim) who in turn influenced Aquinas (Christian) and Maimonides (Jewish). The Al-Gazali formulation (though it will be rejected) goes like this:
Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
The Universe began to exist;
Therefore, the Universe had a cause.
Aquinas further modified the argument to assert that the universe need not have existed and, inasmuch as that’s true, it is entirely contingent — something that is not necessary or intrinsic. He therefore held (unlike Al-Gazali) that even if the universe has always existed, it nonetheless owes its existence to an un-caused cause which he understood to be God.
Perhaps you will now suggest that there may be an infinite series of contingent causes (and therefore no need to evoke a Prime Mover or un-caused Cause). The theological philosopher Edward Feser has done a great job explaining this facet of the argument (and the argument as a whole) in his book “The Last Superstition.” By way of analogy, he has the reader envision a hand which is holding a stick which is pushing a stone. Would it be accurate to suggest that the stick is pushing the stone? Not really, as the hand is doing the pushing. But what allows the hand to push in the first place? The arm, which in turn is dependent on the muscles which are dependent on cells which are dependent on molecular structure which is dependent on atomic structure which is dependent on the primary forces of gravitation, electro-magnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces which are dependent on … what? What we’ll see is that even if there were an infinite series of contingent causes such as these, we would still need a final, un-caused cause to get the ball rolling. Without it, nothing could unfold as nothing would have started the process.
For example, let’s say that there were an infinite array of mirrors reflecting one to the other and an image of a bear in each mirror. Would it be possible to suggest that the image of the bear stretches on infinitely with no actual bear to start the reflections reflecting? Surely not. Even if there were an infinite number of mirrors, there would still need to be a real bear (a cause) who initiated the reflective series.
Say you were driving along the quiet and bucolic countryside when you’re forced to (patiently) wait at a train crossing. All you see is a series of flatbed cars that seems to go on for miles. After an uncomfortably long wait you realize that this is an infinite series of flatbed rail cars! Would it then be logical to conclude that there is nothing actually pulling these cars — no locomotive? That would clearly be absurd, as you know very well that flatbed rail cars have no power of locomotion, i.e., they are contingent/dependent on an outside force to move. As such, you can (and must) conclude that even if there are an infinite number of these cars — or of anything (any series of contingencies) — there must be an original, non-contingent force that is doing the moving, a force that has not been, and cannot be influenced by any other. This force is God.
Many people would be tempted to suggest that even if it were true that there was such a force, going ahead and calling it “God” would quickly strain credulity. Nonetheless, as Professor Feser beautifully explains, logic alone would demonstrate that the force in question would have all of the characteristics of the classical Western notion of the Creator. For instance, inasmuch as there must be an ultimate non-contingent force, its non-contingency indicates that (as held in monotheism) it must be singular, for if there were more than one mover each would be limited — and hence contingent — deriving their power from some earlier force. Such a force would also need to be immaterial as material things are changeable and therefore contingent. This being would not come into or go out of existence but simply always exist. Finally, as the source of all change, this prime mover would be the ultimate cause of things coming to have the qualities and attributes that they do — eminently, if not formally. Inasmuch as that would include all powers, we would conclude that this being is all powerful and all knowledgeable.
There are many common misconceptions that prevent (even very intelligent) thinkers from properly appreciating the import of this argument. Here’s a sampling:
It does not rest on the premise that “everything has a cause” which would leave open the question of what caused God. Rather the argument is that whatever comes into existence (is contingent) has a cause. Therefore, to ask “what caused God?” is really to ask “what caused the thing that cannot in principle have a cause?”
Some object that the argument doesn’t prove that any particular religious belief structure is true. That’s correct but irrelevant. Despite the fact that Professor Feser and I part company about four-fifths of the way down the theological path, we walk lockstep most of the way — all monotheists do.
Many people will say that “science has shown such and such” and therefore the argument is false. The reality is that most versions of the argument do not depend on particular scientific claims in any way.
It’s not a “God of the Gaps” argument. It is not intended to plug a hole in our scientific knowledge or asserted as a “best explanation” for evidence.
It seems to me that an open-minded thinker, free of biases and misconceptions, would have no choice but to acknowledge the veracity of this argument. When properly understood, it is simple, direct — and tough to refute. Why then, despite its obvious and compelling line of reasoning, does it seem to have so few backers? Perhaps this (refreshingly honest) quote from NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel provides the answer:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
Rabbi Adam Jacobs is Managing Director, Aish Centre in Manhattan