I am privileged to be one of the general editors of the upcoming Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Zondervan, April 2017). Paul Copan, Tremper Longman, Michael Strauss, and I–along with our excellent team at Zondervan–have endeavored to create a reference work that tackles the most important terms, concepts, people, and debates at the intersection of Christianity and science, from an evangelical perspective. Over the next few weeks I’ll be featuring sneak-preview excerpts from the Dictionary, available exclusively here at the CAA blog.
Cosmological arguments for a transcendent reason or cause of the universe have been formulated and defended for thousands of years by notable philosophers. One of the most prominent contemporary defenders of (one version of) the cosmological argument is William Lane Craig. In the excerpt below from his article on this topic in the Dictionary, Dr. Craig provides a brief definition and history, and explains three different types of cosmological arguments.
The cosmological argument is a piece of natural theology that seeks to demonstrate a Sufficient Reason or First Cause of the existence of the cosmos. Its proponents include many of the most prominent figures in the history of western philosophy: Plato, Aristotle, Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali, Maimonides, Anselm, Aquinas, Scotus, Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, and Locke, to name but some.
We can distinguish three basic types of cosmological argument: the Kalam cosmological argument for a First Cause of the beginning of the universe, the Thomist cosmological argument for a sustaining Ground of Being of the world, and the Leibnizian cosmological argument for a Sufficient Reason why anything at all exists.
The Kalam cosmological argument derives its name from the Arabic word designating medieval Islamic scholasticism, which helped to advance this version of the cosmological argument. The argument aims to show that the universe had a beginning at some moment in the finite past. Although medieval proponents of the argument pressed philosophical arguments against the infinitude of the past, the stunning discoveries of astrophysical cosmology related to the origin of the universe in a big bang some 14 billion years ago have especially reignited contemporary interest in the argument. If the universe began to exist, then, since something cannot come out of nothing, the universe must have a transcendent cause, which brought it into being.
The Thomist cosmological argument, named for the medieval philosophical theologian Thomas Aquinas, seeks a cause that is first, not in the temporal sense, but in the sense of rank. On Aquinas’s Aristotelian-inspired metaphysic, every existing finite thing is composed of essence and existence and is therefore radically contingent. If an essence is to be instantiated, there must be conjoined with that essence an act of being. The instantiation of an essence involves a continual bestowal of being by an external cause, or the thing would be annihilated. Although Aquinas argued that there cannot be an infinite regress of causes of being and that therefore there must exist a First Uncaused Cause of being, his actual view was that there can be no intermediate causes of being at all, that any finite substance is sustained in existence immediately by the Ground of Being. This must be a being who is not composed of essence and existence and hence requires no sustaining cause. It is, as Thomas says, ipsum esse subsistens, the act of being itself subsisting. Thomas identifies this being with the God whose name was revealed to Moses as “I am” (Ex. 3:14).
The Leibnizian cosmological argument is named for the seventeenth-century German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who sought to develop a version of the cosmological argument from contingency without the Aristotelian metaphysical underpinnings of the Thomist argument. “The first question which should rightly be asked,” he wrote, “is this: why is there something rather than nothing?” (“The Principles of Nature and of Grace, Based on Reason”). Leibniz meant this question to be truly universal, not to apply merely to finite things.
On the basis of his principle of sufficient reason (PSR) that “no fact can be real or existent, no statement true, unless there be a sufficient reason why it is so and not otherwise” (“The Monadology”), Leibniz held that this question must have an answer. It will not do to say that the universe (or even God) just exists as a brute fact. There must be an explanation for why it exists. He went on to argue that the Sufficient Reason cannot be found in any individual thing in the universe, nor in the collection of such things which is the universe, nor in earlier states of the universe, even if these regress infinitely. Therefore, there must exist an ultramundane being that is metaphysically necessary in its existence, that is to say, its nonexistence is impossible. It is the Sufficient Reason for its own existence as well as for the existence of every contingent thing.
Taken from Dictionary of Christianity and Science by Paul Copan, Tremper Longman III, Christopher L. Reese, and Michael G. Strauss, General Editors. Copyright © 2017 by Paul Copan, Tremper Longman III, Christopher L. Reese, Michael G. Strauss. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.
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