Edward Feser has posted a reply of sorts to my two essays from last week (Part One, Part Two.) Turns out he’s pretty touchy about people who are dismissive of the cosmological argument. The post is quite long and only a small portion of it is directed specifically at me. Since most of that portion is just a temper tantrum about the lack of respect shown to the philosophy of religion, I feel no desire to respond in detail.
But there is one place where the magnitude of Feser’s rudeness is so out of proportion to the strength of his argument that I do think some response is called for. In Part One of my earlier post I wrote:
If the cosmological argument is the best theology has to offer then we atheists do not need to worry that we have overlooked a good argument for God’s existence. Feser seems rather taken with it, but there are many strong refutations to be found in the literature. Off the top of my head, I found Mackie’s discussion in The Miracle of Theism and Robin Le Poidevin’s discussion in Arguing for Atheism to be both cogent and accessible.
Feser had much to say about this, most of it silly. For example:
Does Rosenhouse really think that we defenders of the cosmological argument aren’t familiar with Mackie and Le Poidevin? Presumably not. But then, what’s his point? That is to say, what point is he trying to make that doesn’t manifestly beg the question?
My point was simply that I think the cosmological argument is not very good, and that I think Mackie and Le Poidevin provided cogent and accessible refutations of it. How could I have been clearer? I have no idea what question I was begging by expressing those particular opinions.
After all, what would Rosenhouse think of the following “objection:”
Rosenhouse seems rather taken with the materialist view of the mind, but there are many strong refutations to be found in the literature. Off the top of my head, I found Foster’s The Immaterial Self and the essays in Koons’ and Bealer’s The Waning of Materialism to be both cogent and accessible.
Or, while we’re on the subject of what prominent mainstream atheist philosophers have said, what would he think of:
Rosenhouse seems rather taken with Darwinism, but there are many strong refutations to be found in the literature. Off the top of my head, I found Fodor’s and Piatelli-Palmarini’s discussion in What Darwin Got Wrong and David Stove’s discussion in Darwinian Fairytales to be both cogent and accessible.
Rosenhouse’s answer to both “objections” would, I imagine, be: “Since when did Foster, Koons, Bealer, Fodor, Piatelli-Palmarini, and Stove get the last word on these subjects?” And that would be a good answer. But no less good is the following answer to Rosenhouse: Since when did Mackie and Le Poidevin have the last word on the cosmological argument?
Actually, it would not even occur to me to reply as Feser suggests. I would not take either of his hypothetical objections to mean that he thinks defenders of Darwinism or of a materialist view of mind are simply stunned into dumbstruck and embarrassed silence by the arguments in the books he recommends. I would take them to mean simply that in his opinion the authors he cites have provided good arguments against Darwinism and materialist views of mind.
With respect to the objection about Darwinism I would reply simply, “I have read both Stove and Fodor and Piatelli-Palmarini, and I don’t think their major arguments are strong at all.” As for the one about materialist views of mind, my reply would be, “The philosophy of mind is not an interest of mine, but if I ever decide to start writing about it I will be sure to check out those books.” But I certainly would not reply, “How dare you beg the question by recommending a couple of books you liked!” In fact, I would consider it downright weird to respond in such a way.
As I said, very silly stuff. But elsewhere Feser writes this:
The atheist Robin Le Poidevin, in his book Arguing for Atheism (which my critic Jason Rosenhouse thinks is pretty hot stuff) begins his critique of the cosmological argument by attacking a variation of the silly argument given above — though he admits that “no-one has defended a cosmological argument of precisely this form”! So what’s the point of attacking it? Why not start instead with what some prominent defender of the cosmological argument has actually said?
Suppose some creationist began his attack on Darwinism by assuring his readers that “the basic” claim of the Darwinian account of human origins is that at some point in the distant past a monkey gave birth to a human baby. Suppose he provided no source for this claim — which, of course, he couldn’t have, because no Darwinian has ever said such a thing — and suppose also that he admitted that no one has ever said it. But suppose further that he claimed that “more sophisticated versions” of Darwinism were really just “modifications” of this claim. Intellectually speaking, this would be utterly contemptible and sleazy. It would give readers the false impression that anything Darwinians have to say about human origins, however superficially sophisticated, is really just a desperate exercise in patching up a manifestly absurd position. Precisely for that reason, though, such a procedure would, rhetorically speaking, be very effective indeed.
Compare that to Le Poidevin’s procedure. Though by his own admission no one has ever actually defended the feeble argument in question, Le Poidevin still calls it “the basic” version of the cosmological argument and characterizes the “more sophisticated versions” he considers later on as “modifications” of it. Daniel Dennett does something similar in his book Breaking the Spell. He assures us that the lame argument in question is “the simplest form” of the cosmological argument and falsely insinuates that other versions — that is to say, the ones that philosophers have actually defended, and which Dennett does not bother to discuss — are merely desperate attempts to repair the obvious problems with the “Everything has a cause” “version.” As with our imaginary creationist, this procedure is intellectually dishonest and sleazy, but it is rhetorically very effective. It gives the unwary reader the false impression that “the basic” claim made by Aristotle, Aquinas, Leibniz, et al. is manifestly absurd, that everything else they have to say is merely an attempt to patch up this absurd position, and (therefore) that such writers need not be bothered with further.
And that, I submit, is the reason why the stupid “Everything has a cause” argument — a complete fabrication, an urban legend, something no philosopher has ever defended — perpetually haunts the debate over the cosmological argument. It gives atheists an easy target, and a way rhetorically to make even their most sophisticated opponents seem silly and not worth bothering with. It’s a slimy debating trick, nothing more — a shameless exercise in what I have elsewhere called “meta-sophistry.” (I make no judgment about whether Le Poidevin’s or Dennett’s sleaziness was deliberate. But that they should know better is beyond question.)
That’s not silly. That’s actually pretty vicious. And if you are going to throw around words like “sleazy,” “slimy,” and “contemptible” you had better have the goods to back them up.
In a moment I am going to make Feser look very foolish, by the simple expedient of transcribing precisely what Le Poidevin said. But even if we just go by Feser’s version, we might suspect that he is overreacting just a tad. If Le Poidevin’s intent was to make Aristotle, Aquinas and Leibniz look foolish by putting a bad argument in their mouths, one wonders why he explicitly said that no one defends the basic form of the argument that he presents. Moreover, it doesn’t take much imagination to answer Feser’s questions, “So what’s the point of attacking it? Why not start instead with what some prominent defender of the cosmological argument has actually said?” The answer, we might suspect, is that there are complexities to what Feser’s prominent defenders actually say, meaning that you might want to introduce the topic by showing why simpler forms of the argument do not work. This answer becomes all the more plausible when you consider that Le Poidevin was writing an introductory text directed at undergraduate students, and did not want to assume that his readers had any prior familiarity with the argument.
Now here, in its entirety, is the section of Le Poidevin’s book that has Feser so upset:
There are, in fact, a number of cosmological arguments. What they have in common is an observation about some very general feature of the universe, and the assertion that something must be the ultimate cause, or at least the ultimate explanation, of that feature. The arguments we shall examine conclude that the existence of the universe itself must have a cause. This cause cannot be part of the universe itself, for otherwise there would be something that caused itself to exist, and this, we intuitively think, is impossible. For example, suppose we believe, on the authority of a number of physicists, that the universe originates in the so-called `Big Bang’: an explosion from an almost infinitesimally small region of enormous density. We might say that everything that occurred after the Big Bang was caused by the Big Bang. But since the Big Bang is part of the universe’s history, we must include the Big Bang as part of what we are referring to by `the universe.’ It would then be quite mistaken to say `The Big Bang was the cause of the universe’, for this would mean `The Big Bang was the cause of the Big Bang and everything that came afterwards’. So, if the universe as a whole has a cause, this cause is not the Big Bang.
In this chapter we shall look at three versions of the cosmological argument. The first I shall call the basic cosmological argument, because the other two are modifications of it. It goes as follows:
The basic cosmological argument:
- Anything that exists has a cause of its existence.
- Nothing can be the cause of its own existence.
- The universe exists.
Therefore: The universe has a cause of its existence which lies outside the universe.
Although no-one has defended a cosmological argument of precisely this form, it provides a useful stepping -stone to the other, more sophisticated, versions. Before discussing it, we might note that the view that the cause of the universe’s existence should be an intelligent, benevolent creator who has an interest in his creation clearly requires more than this very brief argument. An argument for God, as he is conceived of by the theist, must surely involve a series of interconnected arguments, each contributing some further aspect to our understanding of God. Nevertheless, being persuaded by an argument for a cause of the universe is to take a large step towards theism.
Most proponents of cosmological arguments insist that the universe has not merely a cause but a first cause: something which is not caused by anything else. Now the first two premises of the basic argument:
- Anything that exists has a cause of its existence.
- Nothing can be the cause of its own existence.
are actually incompatible with the existence of a first cause. For if everything has a cause outside itself, then we are inevitably led to an infinite regression of causes: A was caused by B, which was caused by C, which was caused…etc. So, if we want to allow the possibility of a first cause, we must modify either (1) or (2). We could restrict either or both of them just to the parts of the universe, being careful, however, to include the universe itself as something which has a cause. Premise (1) could thus become: Anything which exists and is not outside the universe has a cause of its existence. We are, presumably, safe in assuming that the universe itself is not outside the universe. The problem with this amendment of the first premise, however, is that it seems rather arbitrary. We need to specify what it is about the universe which requires both it and anything within it to have a cause. This takes us to the two influential variants of the basic argument.
End of section. We shall come to the two influential versions momentarily.
That is what provoked Feser to paragraph after angry paragraph about how sleazy and contemptible Le Poidevin is. Seriously. But I’m afraid I missed the part where Le Poidevin either said or implied, “Idiot theistic philosophers used to claim that everything that exists has a cause of its existence. When atheists finally got them to realize that this implies an infinite regress of causes, they desperately revised their premises to protect their dumbass beliefs.”
It sure looks to me like Le Poidevin provided a very brief discussion of the “basic” argument simply to show why a more sophisticated version is needed. I would note that, in the book’s introduction, he writes (referring back to things he said earlier in the intro):
Accordingly, in Chapter 1, I begin with a more refined version of argument (a), namely the cosmological argument. Two versions of this are explored. The first argues that the universe must have had a cause, because it had a beginning, and nothing can come into existence without a cause. The second argues that the universe must have a cause, or at least an explanation of its existence, because it might not have existed. This suggests that something whose existence is necessary — i.e. it is impossible for it not to exist — would not need an explanation for, or a cause of, its existence. (Bold face added).
That bold face remark seems relevant here. Did Le Poidevin simply forget that he actually discussed three versions of the argument in Chapter 1? Or is this proof that he mentioned the “basic” version solely for pedagogical purposes?
Now notice the two versions of the argument Le Poidevin mentions here. These are the two versions which, in the excerpt, he describes as influential, unlike the basic version, which he dismisses very quickly. They are the two versions which take up the remainder of his lengthy first chapter. Now compare them to the very next thing Feser wrote after the portion I quoted above:
What defenders of the cosmological argument do say is that what comes into existence has a cause, or that what is contingent has a cause. These claims are as different from “Everything has a cause” as “Whatever has color is extended” is different from “Everything is extended.”
So let’s take stock. Le Poidevin briefly explained why an overly simplistic version of the cosmological argument does not work as a way of introducing more sophisticated versions, making it unambiguous that no one actually defends the simplistic version. Feser describes this as sleazy and contemptible, pretending that Le Poidevin’s intent was to make certain great philosophers look foolish by placing a bad argument in their mouths. He then describes two standard versions of the argument, without mentioning that they are precisely the two versions Le Poidevin spends most of his time discussing.
Res ipsa loquitur.
Incidentally, it is now clear why Feser’s analogy to the creationist’s abuse of Darwinism does not work at all. The claim that a monkey gave birth to a human is not an oversimplified version of Darwinism that might serve as a helpful stepping stone into a complex topic. It is just a completely made up idea tossed off specifically to make evolution look foolish. The relationship of “Everything that exists has a cause,” to the most common versions of the cosmological argument is far, far closer than the relationship of “A monkey gave birth to a human,” is to Darwinism.
As for the cosmological argument itself, I make no apology for being dismissive. Depending on what version you are considering, you can expect to find concepts like causality or probability being used in domains where they do not clearly apply, or dubious arguments for why an actual infinity cannot exist, or highly questionable premises about the beginnings of the universe or about how everything that began to exist must have had a cause, or groundless invocations of the principle of sufficient reason. You inevitably come so perilously close to assuming what you are trying to prove that you may as well just assume God exists and be done with it.