Friday, May 20, 2005

Common Questions I - The Cosmological Argument

It seems that the same questions always come up when you mention that you're an atheist. I'd like to treat them one at a time. In this issue:

Everything in the Universe has a cause. Therefore, the Universe must have a cause. Therefore, God exists.

This is traditionally known as The Cosmological Argument. Many very smart people have defended and attacked the argument, but since this is my blog, I'll give my take on it.

There are several flaws with the argument.

1) "Everything in the Universe has a cause." This assumption is without evidence. Are we even aware of "everything" in the Universe? How do we know that there isn't an entire galaxy which, without cause, popped into being ten minutes ago? We must, at the very least, revise the statement to read "Everything in the Universe which we are aware of has a cause." This might be correct, but it certainly has not been demonstrated to be true. Aren't, for example, Quantum Fluctuations uncaused? Isn't anything random?

2) The Universe is not within the Universe, so the argument as it stands can be only a metaphorical argument. One must make an argument as to why the Universe itself must observe the same laws which "things" within the Universe observe. Empiricism fails here since everything we can observe is inside of the Universe.

3) Even if you accept that the Universe must have a cause, that cause is not necessarily a Deity. Maybe outside of the Universe (whatever that means) there are an infinite number of universes which are caused by collisions between particles called universons which were themselves caused by something equally nontheistic in a string of causations which goes back forever. Assuming that a cause is a Deity assumes an intelligence and an intentionality for which the Cosmological argument does not provide evidence. It also assumes that the Deity is itself uncaused and arguments must be brought to explain why the same argument used to postulate the Deity doesn't negate the Deity. That is to say: if the statement "everything in the Universe has a cause" implies "the Universe must have a cause" then doesn't "everything in the Universe has a cause" imply "the Deity must have a cause?"

4) This is not a flaw of the argument itself as much as a flaw in how it is usually used. Even if you were to accept that the Universe has a cause, and that the cause is itself causeless, and that the causeless cause has an intelligence and intentionality, then there is still a long way to go between this causeless cause and any particular god postulated by any particular religion. Other, much more complicated arguments must be brought to justify those claims.


Chana said...

To make sure I understand, I'm going to post a review of what I believe you've said. Everything in the universe has a cause. True. However, who is to say the universe itself has a cause? After all, it is not within itself. More to the point, even if it has a scientific cause, with anything from supernovae to the Big Bang, that doesn't assume that a Deity created the Universe. And it certainly doesn't assume that your particular deity of your particular religion created the Universe. Interesting.

So I suppose the only way to prove the universe would have been created with intention would be to prove that it is a rare occurence. Having planets and other galaxies seems to disprove that, as there are other spheres in the solar system similar to ours. Interesting.

Here's the question- suppose that someone said that the cause of the universe being created rested upon people, who would be the visible imprint, and that we were the proof? Suppose someone stated that the intricacy of the human body, with its immune system and organs and control over bodily functions, etc, was testament to a Creator?

Let's see- one could disprove that by saying a) evolution and b) that still doesn't prove God Himself created it- there is no sign. But what if the body itself is the sign?

Or let's move onward and state- well, this Cosmological Constant rebuttal shows that there is no tangible proof God created the Universe. But neither is there proof to say the contrary- that God did NOT create the Universe. Fact is, there is no proof one way or the other.

So what happens then?

Jewish Atheist said...

Thanks for resonding, Chana. Your review of what I wrote is essentially accurate. As for your suggested arguments, let me take them one by one.

The human body as testament to a Creator.

This is a variant of The Watchmaker argument, which is essentially the following:

The Universe (or the human body) is very complex and intricate. Everything else we see which is complex and intricate, like a watch or a car, was created by intelligent beings. Therefore complex "natural" phenomena, like the human body or the Universe, must have been created by an Intelligent Being.

This is also an argument by analogy. Essentially, humans are complex and watches are complex, so if watches have a creator, so too must humans. The flaw is as you alluded to -- there are other explanations for the complexity of humans. A few hundred years ago, postulating a Creator may indeed have been the most rational response to the wonder one feels when studying the human body. When Darwin came along and offered a convincing alternative, it changed everything. With evidence from paleontology, biology, anthropology, history, and biochemistry, it became clear that evolution did and does occur. Evolution does not prove that there isn't a Creator. After all, He could simply be guiding evolution's path. It does, however, remove the necessity of postulating a Creator to explain how such a complex and wonderful thing as a human came to be. Richard Dawkin's The Blind Watchmaker goes into detail on this subject. Be forewarned, he's a much more aggressive atheist than I. :)

Fact is, there is no proof one way or the other.

What you say is strictly accurate. I readily admit I cannot be 100% certain that there is no Creator. However, it seems to me that as our understanding of the world grows, the presumed Creator's role in the world continues to shrink. People used to believe that the gods controlled the weather, people's moods, insanity, disease, the sun's rising and setting, the planets orbit, etc. As we figure out how each natural phenomenon occurs, we stop assigning it to a Creator and move the Creator back one step. It just seems to me that the Creator will keep moving back until there's no room for Him/Her anymore.

Enigma_4u, in that post on Not the Godol Hador which led to my post, provided the following quote from Hippocrates:

"People think that epilepsy is divine simply because they don't have any idea what causes epilepsy. But I believe that someday we will understand what causes epilepsy, and at that moment, we will cease to believe that it's divine.
And so it is with everything in the universe."

I think that sums it up well.

Anonymous said...

Not that I disagree with most of what you say, but I'd likt to point out that Dr. Lee Spetner in his book "Not by Chance" blows Richard Dawkin's The Blind Watchmaker out of the water. If you're into a little math and you read Spetner's book carefully, you'll see that Dawkin's argument is entirely fallacious.

Orthoprax said...


Spetner argues on a misconception of how scientists say evolution occurs. Spetner argues about the odds of a new trait basically appearing from nowhere and how unlikely that is with a strict set of point mutations.

But what evolutionary theory says occurs is one mutation happening with a reasonable probability of occurring and it makes a very small change. Then natural selection works and this small beneficial change spreads throughout the population. Once it's all over, another small reasonable change occurs. This again spreads all over. This process continues indefinitely.

As opposed to Spetner's one generation huge mutation concept, actual evolutionary theory interposes natural selection between mutations.

And besides this, evolutionary theory does not contend that only point mutations are a factor. There are dozens of other possible forms of mutations, many of them creating new sets of genes and even inserting the genes of one species into another, e.g. transposons. Such mutations can easily force much speedier evolution than point mutations alone as Spetner argues.

In short, Spetner has defeated a straw man.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect, orthoprax, I think you need to study the subject. I urge anyone interested, and who has the proper background, to read Spetner's book. I haven't got the time or interest in rehashing old arguments other than to say that orthoprax's previous post convinces me that he dosn't know what he's talking about. Spetner takes apart every point Dawkins has to offer. I have tried to find holes in Spetner's arguments, but so far, have been unable to do so. I have also discussed Spetner's book with fellow (nonreligious) geneticists, and so far have only heard very minor criticisms; nothing that disputes the main point.
I actually wrote to Dawkins about 2 years ago but never received a reply.

Orthoprax said...


My response was referring specifically about what Spetner says in chapter four where he multiplies the probabilities of 500 steps (where any one bad step and the whole crumbles) thus giving a ridiculously low number of probability for random speciation. But he only multiplies them because he doesn't see that biological evolution doesn't work like that.

One bad mutation won't crumble the whole. It will simply not be selected for (that individual will die or otherwise be reproductively unsuccessful) and what we have already will be retained within the rest of the population.

Anyone mathematically inclined knows that you don't multiply related probabilities.

Given that this factor is a major and repeated segment in Spetner's book I find critiquing it alone shows Spetner's poor understanding of actual evolutionary theory as he attacks a position modern scientists do not hold.

For additional critiques on Spetner, see


Anonymous said...

My point is that one should not use Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker as a reference. Spetner has shown convincingly that Dawkins' arguments are fallacious. The Blind Watchmaker is a bad source on which to base one's opinion.
As for Spetner's own point of view, I have neither the patience, interest, or time. I'm not going to rehash old news, some of which you refer to in your links.

Orthoprax said...

As a sole reference for evolutionary theory, The Blind Watchmaker is very insufficient. It's scope is far far too narrow. If you want to learn about evolution one should read about all the broad sources of hard evidence that stand by themselves.

I disagree about Dawkins' arguments being fallacious though. Spetner tries hard but in the end Spetner himself doesn't really know what evolution is and so his arguments are weak indeed.

The problem with Dawkins' book for a beginner is that he mixes arguments. Evolution does not automatically discount theism. The Catholic Church has no issue resolving the two. Dawkins tends to be pushy about his beliefs and he links evolution to atheism without a third option.

If one is going to write a book on evolution, they should stick to that topic. But that's not Dawkins' style.

The beginner should see the facts and arguments over the facts before they are thrust into arguments of mechanism and arguments against ID. Yet, The Blind Watchmaker is written for the novice which makes it more appropriate as a philosophical tract than a book of pure science.

As a biologist I would not recommend it. As a skeptic of theism, I might.

Anonymous said...

I would not recommend Dawkins' book, whether it be as a biologist or a skeptic. As I said, Dawkins' arguments have been shown to be fallacious. I have seen or heard nobody convincingly defend Dawkins against Spetner's criticisms.

You don't really have a personal opinion. It's obvious that you're merely parroting what you read. You quote from others (without proper aknowledgment, btw.) [For example, "Spetner seems to fight against a straw man."]
I would recommend that you spend a few years studying and then form an opinion.

Otherwise, all you can do is watch the experts argue and choose a side.

Orthoprax said...


I assure you that I have done extensive research in the matter. Perakh and I may have come to similar conclusions but that only bolsters my stand not reduces it.

You are the one who is merely stating a side and calling it authoritative while I have presented clear evidence to the contrary.

You say you don't wish to get into a debate about old news, that's fine and I can appreciate that myself. But denigrating me personally does nothing for your case.

Anonymous said...

"Perakh and I may have come to similar conclusions"

Not similar conclusions - the EXACT SAME wording.
I may believe in the theory of evolution, but not in such unlikely coincidences. Did you use his wording, or did he use yours?

"while I have presented clear evidence to the contrary"

This I find laughable for a number of reasons. I'm really tired of this. I don't wish to engage in fruitless back-and-forth. Have your last word and be done with it.

Orthoprax said...


You quote Perakh saying "Spetner seems to fight against a straw man."

My words which were similar were: "In short, Spetner has defeated a straw man."

The only things in common are "Spetner" and "straw man." Being that Spetner is the subject of discussion and straw man is a very common term for describing an argument made against a false opponent - it is then no coincidence that we both agree in that this is exactly what Spetner has done.

It is nobody's "wording" to use the term. It is very very common when discussing such logical fallacies.

"This I find laughable for a number of reasons."

You may find it laughable but since all you've done here so far is denigrate me personally and laud an authority I find your amusement far out of place. You may think you have all the answers but your smugness impresses no one.

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