The Cosmological Argument

The Cosmological Argument

Gordon H. Clark

Thomas Aquinas rejected the Platonic cast of Augustine’s theology and based his thought on Aristotle. Therefore he had no time for the ontological argument, but reconstructed the cosmological argument. To refer again to the question of knowledge, the difference between these two arguments is basically a difference in epistemology: For Augustine it was not necessary to start with sensory experience, for one could go directly from the soul to God; but Aquinas wrote, “The human intellect …. is at first like a clean tablet on which nothing is written” (Summa Theologica I, Q:97, 2). It is sensation that writes on the tabula rasa. The mind has no form of its own. All its contents come from sensation. On this basis, Thomas gave five arguments for God’s existence; but the first four are almost identical, and the fifth is so little different, that only the first will be reproduced here:

The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain and evident to our senses that in the world some things are in motion. Now, whatever is moved is moved by another, for nothing can be moved except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is moved; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in act. For motion is nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality. But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e., that it should move itself. Therefore whatever is moved must be moved by another. If that by which it is moved be itself moved, then this also must needs be moved by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and consequently no other mover, seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are moved by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is moved by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at the first mover, moved by no other, and this everyone understands to be God.

The first thing to be noticed is that this is a formal argument. Thomas intended it to be a conclusive demonstration that God exists. It is not a collection of evidences that make it plausible to believe in God. It is an analysis of sensory experience with the conclusion that only God can explain it. Far from being a list of evidences, it appeals only to a pebble that rolls down the hillside or a marble that rolls across the floor. It claims to prove conclusively that on this basis God must of necessity exist. It is a matter of logical necessity.

Five objections can be made against this cosmological argument. First, the original premise says, “It is certain and evident to our senses that in the world some things are in motion.”

Empiricism is perhaps a common sense view. It has also been the view of many philosophers. But it faces insuperable objections. In the first place, the senses of men and animals produce conflicting data. Dogs, for example, are supposed to be color blind, but they have sensations o sound when men hear nothing. For that matter, men differ among themselves. Esoteric artists see colors in grass that no common man finds there. Which of these sensations correctly represent the color of the object seen? In some cases the senses contradict each other, as when a stick half submerged looks bent but feels straight. Then there are mirages and other optical illusions. While they last, we cannot tell that they are illusions; and we cannot tell whether our present sensations are illusions. Again, are we dreaming or not? An elementary textbook on psychology will describe many of these phenomena, with the result that it is impossible to trust what we call sensory perception. Beyond this, the theory of imagination, by which the sensations are supposed to be preserved and later raised to concepts, collapses on the fact that some people do not have images. Many people lack olfactory or tactual imagery; some also lack visual imagery as well. Empiricism then would have to say that these people can know nothing. But some of them are accomplished scholars.

The second objection notes that the quoted passage is more a summary than a complete argument. In fact the complete argument would include a great amount of physics and metaphysics. For example, the second, third, and fourth sentences in the quoted argument need lengthy substantiation. The extent would cover hundreds of pages, as it does in both Aristotle and Aquinas. For the final cosmological argument to be valid, all the subsidiary arguments must be valid. Now, while this is theoretically possible, it is not probable. Surely Aristotle and Aquinas must have made a mistake somewhere. And one mistake breaks the chain of consequences. Of course, someone is sure to complain that this is unfair and begs the question. To avoid this accusation, it may be pointed out that the two philosophers use the concept of potentiality. Aristotle needed the concept of potentiality in order to define motion. But in the third book of the Physics, where Aristotle takes up this problem, he not only defines motion by potentiality, but he also explains potentiality by the concept of motion. If the student wants to spend the time, he may study Aristotle’s Physics to determine whether the argument is circular and whether there are any other flaws in books four to eight.

The third objection can be seen in the summary itself. Toward the end Aquinas talks about a series of motions and movers, and says that this series cannot go on to infinity. The reason it cannot go on to infinity is that if it did there would be no first mover. But unfortunately the argument as a whole claims to prove that there is a first mover. Therefore Aquinas has used for one of his premises the very proposition that he wants as the conclusion.

The fourth objection is more complicated. Because Aquinas holds that God’s existence is identical with his essence, which is not true of any other object of knowledge, he must assert that no predicate can be attributed to God in the same sense that it is said of created beings. When both man and God are said to be good, or rational, or conscious, or anything, the words good and conscious do not mean the same thing in the two cases. If God is a mover and man is am over, the word mover does not mean the same thing. Not only so, but since God’s existence and essence are identical, the verb to be does not have the same meaning in the two cases. If we say God is good, neither the good nor the is means what it means in the created world. Hence when we say God exists, this existence does not mean existence in the same sense we use it for pebbles or marbles. Now, in a valid argument the only terms that can occur in the conclusion are those that occur in the premises. If some additional element is added in the conclusion, the syllogism is a fallacy. But the cosmological argument begins with the existence of a pebble or some sensory object that moves. It ends, however, with an existence that is different. There fore the argument is fallacious. The different meaning of the word in the conclusion cannot be derived from the original meaning in the premises.

Now, finally, the fifth objection is directed against the last sentence of the argument, which is, “and this everyone understands to be God.” But this is not what everyone understands to be God. Particularly Christians deny that this is God. Aquinas claims to have proved the existence of a first mover, a primum movens, an ens perfectissimum, or even a summum bonum. But these neuters are not satisfactory for a concept of the living self-revealing God of the Scriptures. It can even be said that if the cosmological argument were valid, Christianity would be false. The God of the Bible is a Trinity of Persons. No form of the cosmological argument has ever claimed to demonstrate the existence of this only true God.

Despite these objections, Roman Catholics continue to depend on the cosmological argument, so do most Lutherans, and some Calvinists defend it, too. J. Oliver Buswell, Jr. was one of these, at least in his earlier writings, though he seems to have agreed later that it is not strictly valid. Cornelius Van Til of Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, makes very strong statements on the validity of the argument. Buswell had accused Van Til of disparaging the objective evidences for Christianity and of rejecting the cosmological argument. Van Til replied in A Christian Theory of Knowledge (291-292) and charged Buswell with formulating the argument improperly. Quoting partly from one of his earlier works, Common Grace, he says:

The argument for the existence of God and for the truth of Christianity is objectively valid. We should not tone down the validity of this argument to possibility level. The argument may be poorly stated and may never be adequately stated. But in itself the argument is absolutely sound…. .Accordingly I do not reject the theistic proofs, but merely insist on formulating them in such a way as not to compromise the Scripture. That is to say, if the theistic proof is constructed as it ought to be constructed, it is objectively valid.

This assertion that the cosmological argument is valid, absolutely sound, a formal demonstration, and not merely a probability argument does not hold true of any cosmological argument published in any book. Van Til pays no attention to the fallacies embedded in Thomas Aquinas. The argument he defends is one that no one has ever yet written. But how does he know that it is possible to formulate this ideal argument? What is the argument he defends? He says he insists on formulating it correctly. For many years some of Van Til’s contemporaries have been challenging him to produce this reformulation he insists upon. He has not done so.

Since Van Til and Buswell in the passage cited are engaged in recommending a method of preaching the Gospel to unbelievers, it is doubly unfortunate that Van Til cannot justify his position, for unbelievers cannot be expected to be impressed with an argument that the evangelist himself is unable to present to them.

September 1979

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9 Responses to “The Cosmological Argument”

  1. R.C. says:

    And, as if not knowing Gordon Clark was deceased wasn’t bad enough, it turns out I’ve gotten the name of the author of the Aquinas book, and the book title, slightly wrong.

    Twice now.


    The correct title is: Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide

    The correct author is: Ed Feser (one “s,” not two)

    I now retire the field, head hung low. I should know better by now than to allow myself to sound superior in fisking someone else’s blog post. God, in His mercy and providence, makes a point of deflating me when I do that. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

  2. R.C. says:

    Oh, got it.

    The fellow is dead. Didn’t realize that, as I hadn’t heard of him before arriving at this page.

    In that case, I can’t very well recommend to him that he does more reading! (He can, one hopes, discuss the matter with Aquinas personally.)

    But if anyone wants a better understanding of Aquinas’ five ways than the misunderstandings of Mr. Clark, I once again recommend Ed Fesser’s Aquinas for Beginners.

  3. R.C. says:

    This is a pretty disappointing essay on the matter of Aquinas. So far as I can tell, none of Gordon Clark’s criticisms of Aquinas are in fact valid, and some of them indicate a failure to understand Aquinas.

    I think Clark should read Aquinas for Beginners by Ed Fesser for a better understanding.

    His first objection is to Aquinas’ statement: “It is certain and evident to our senses that in the world some things are in motion,” and goes on to state nothing in particular about it. He says that “Empiricism…faces insuperable objections” and lists some, but none are relevant to Aquinas’ statement, for Aquinas is not defending Empiricism defined in any way that is defeated by the objections Clark raises, but only is trying to establish that changes happen to things in the universe.

    Indeed, I’m not sure that Clark understands that this is what is meant by “motion” when Aquinas uses it in that context: An ice cube, remaining perfectly still but melting, is “moving.” The rationality of the argument requires understanding what Aquinas means by essence, existence, potency, act, accidents, and substance, but I am not confident that Clark understands that “motion” in Aquinas’ argument means “a thing which is in act reducing a property of some thing from potency to act, in accord with the essence of the thing.” Clark’s statement that “the complete argument would include a great amount of physics and metaphysics” seems to betray the misunderstanding, because he’s right about metaphysics, but physics? Not really.

    The key philosophical insight here is that only a thing which already IS can induce change in another thing, because a thing which IS NOT, being nothing, cannot do anything to itself or to anything else. This is not a matter of physics; it is a basic intuition without which the universe is unintelligible.

    The statement, “For the final cosmological argument to be valid, all the subsidiary arguments must be valid. Now, while this is theoretically possible, it is not probable. Surely Aristotle and Aquinas must have made a mistake somewhere….” is pretty lazy. The argument is sound until proven unsound; and anyway Aquinas and Aristotle did not gain their reputations by having easily-detected errors, or by tossing work out still full of mistakes like an ill-considered blog post. Where’s the error?

    Clark states that Aristotle “defines motion by potentiality, but he also explains potentiality by the concept of motion.” This is not quite accurate, especially if Clark intended to implicate Aquinas in the same breath. Aquinas and Aristotle define the change in location which is motion as an example of the reducing of a potential to act (e.g. “The thing was HERE, with a potential to be THERE…and now, it is actually THERE”). This is not circular reasoning; it is mere subsetting. Motion is one example of a reducing of potential to act, but there are others involving no motion (in the modern sense of the word) at all.

    To say that a student “may study Aristotle’s Physics to determine whether the argument is circular” is more laziness. The argument isn’t in fact circular…but Clark didn’t even do the obligatory work of stating that it was and showing why. He just insinuated that it was, and then suggested someone else do the work. (And he was careful to imply that it was a lot of work, and not worth doing. Was this to discourage his reader from checking to see whether he was right?)

    Clark’s third objection is also incorrect. Clark states, “Toward the end Aquinas talks about a series of motions and movers, and says that this series cannot go on to infinity. The reason it cannot go on to infinity is that if it did there would be no first mover.” But that is not the reason Aquinas uses. If it were, Clark’s objection that this was circular reasoning would be valid. But in fact the real reason Aquinas gives that the series cannot be infinite is rather different, as one can learn by reading what Aquinas says elsewhere about the matter.

    The real reason is that there are two kinds of “movers”: Instrumental and Primary, with the distinction being that the former moves something but not by any power of its own, and thus is itself being moved by the latter type, which is the real source of the event. For example, if I poke a rock with a stick, we would say that the stick was the Instrumental Cause of the rock being moved. But the stick did not choose to bump the rock of its own accord: I was using it as an instrument, but I was the one doing the poking. The stick is only the Instrumental cause of the rock moving. Aquinas is saying that if everything in the universe was an Instrumental cause — something that can do nothing on its own, but only by being an Instrument of another more fundamental cause — then nothing would ever happen because by definition Instrumental causes do nothing. An infinite regress of Instrumental causes is useless; a Prime cause is required, which moves everything else through their instrumentality. Once you find that Prime cause, the ability of all the Instrumental causes to influence one another is perfectly intelligible, but the idea that there is no such thing is in conflict with the fact that any potency has ever been reduced to act, ever. P and Not-P are mutually exclusive and one of them must be true; Not-P is false, therefore, P is true.

    None of the above requires causation to take place over time, by the way. It remains true even if causation from a Prime Cause through all Instrumental Causes is simultaneous.

    Clark’s best objection is the fourth: That any predicate said about God means something different than said about man.

    But a reasonable counterargument is that it is different as a matter of degree, but not so entirely qualitatively different to render the use of the same predicate about both useless by analogy. God’s goodness is not like man’s goodness, but the two are not so unrelated as to allow God’s goodness to be evil, or to allow God’s goodness to be tapioca. God’s goodness is still good, and more so than man’s, but in a fashion that were we to understand it we would recognize it as good, and our own goodness a faint reflection (but not a thing entirely unconnected).

    Clark’s fourth objection thus fails, for the proper relationship between man’s good and God’s good is the same found in an a fortiori (the kind Jesus used on occasion): If man can be good enough not to feed rocks to his kids, how much more good is God? But the syllogism involving “motion” (defined in the Aquinas sense) relates the motion of created things to the moving of them by their Creator. If a stick can be said to have moved the rock, how much more is it true to say that I moved the rock? If things (Instrumentally) cause other things to resolve from potency to Act, how much more is it true to say that the Prime Mover causes all things to resolve from potency to Act (as a Prime, not an Instrumental, Cause)?

    And Clark’s fifth objection is directed at something Aquinas never said. Clark seems to suggest either that Aquinas intended that his five ways proved the Judeo Christian God in all His attributes and glory — which Aquinas explicitly denied — or that Aquinas neglected to note that merely being a “Prime Mover” is rather less than what Christians believe about God. He did in fact note exactly this, and stated that Natural Reason was sufficient to demonstrate some, but not all, of the things Christians said about God (e.g. that He is the first cause of all that exists, the creator of heaven and earth). Aquinas added that Revelation was God’s merciful gift to us, to reveal what Natural Reason could not, and also to correct any errors in our Natural Reasoning that might occur as a result of human fallibility, insufficient data, inadequate training, inadequate time for reflection, and the like.

    Clark’s final judgment is: “This assertion that the cosmological argument is valid, absolutely sound, a formal demonstration, and not merely a probability argument does not hold true of any cosmological argument published in any book.” But this judgment is extremely suspect, and will remain so until Clark demonstrates that he has both read, and understood, all the relevant books.

  4. facebook chips says:

    lol most of the responses bloggers write make me laugh, from time to time i ask myself if they seriously read the articles or reviews and items before leaving your 2 cents or whether they barely skim the post title and craft only the first thought that one thinks of. nonetheless, it is actually pleasing to look over smart commentary now and then as opposed to the same exact, old oppinion vomit that i often see on the internet i’m off to take up a few rounds of facebook poker goodbye

  5. martino says:

    All we actually have is our body and its muscles that allow us to be under our own power.

  6. Shep says:

    It’s not that some people have willpower and some don’t. It’s that some people are ready to change and others are not.

  7. Caroljean says:

    The man of virtue makes the difficulty to be overcome his first business, and success only a subsequent consideration.

  8. goldie says:

    You always pass failure on the way to success.

  9. Kate says:

    The fact that he didn’t get credit for a while is more the story of social injustice. But his own spirit wasn’t driven by that, and wasn’t dependent upon that. He just wished he had the cash to go to medical school.

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