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The Cosmological Argument: Agnosticism and Silence
by Taylor P. Smith
An atheist, agnostic, and theist walk into a bar to discuss whether God exists. Rather than arguments from evil, or teleology, or free will, the concept that structures their debate is the cosmological argument. The atheist will ask the theist, “What came before God if God is all that ever existed?” And the theist will trot out the usual line, “Well how can something come from nothing if there was a big bang and no God?” Meanwhile, the agnostic nurses her drink, entirely unconcerned with the present discussion—her silence, as will be argued, is the most plausible position.
The question this essay addresses is not to once and for all answer the question “which side of the argument is right?” but rather, “why do such discussions usually end in stalemate?” And, more to our point, “why do they have the discussion at all?” The atheist and theist find themselves happily in their own camps, entrenched and unable to sway the other an inch. Though, despite being at odds, both are actually after the same thing—an explanation. The two positions unite against the agnostic who does not think questions of these sorts to be worthwhile in the way they usually occur. What if the agnostic is right? How could the agnostic be right if she does not entertain the question? She must make the move of not answering “does God exist?” but questioning the cosmological argument itself.
In order to render all of this intelligible, we will examine some well known philosophical concepts: substance, the cosmological argument for God’s existence, and the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). Part I of this essay establishes Spinoza’s view of substance monism, expresses that everything in existence is attributed to this substance, and uses Spinoza’s four proofs of Part I, Proposition XI of his Ethics to show how this substance is thought to be God. Part II focuses on the mechanics of the modern cosmological argument while employing Spinoza’s view of substance as the proponent’s God. Here, the proponent’s position on the cosmological argument will be criticized by first explaining God to be unnecessary within the cosmological argument and, furthermore, that the principle of sufficient reason, on which the proponent depends, is an unstable and maybe impossible to satisfy principle. This part will also include a reading of Spinoza’s Ethics that the atheist uses against the theist in explaining the universe’s origins. Finally, Part III will engage the agnostic’s silence and debate PSR—the heart of the discussion—with an end of dismissing at least part of its entailments as beyond humanity’s reach.
I. Spinoza, Substance, and God
In Part I of the Ethics, Spinoza attempts to reduce substance dualism to substance monism. In order to lay the groundwork for what his four proofs will attempt to prove, there are several points that must be closely noted. In his beginning list of axioms and definitions, axiom I claims that “All things that are, are either in themselves or in something else.” In his subsequent propositions, V asserts that “In the universe there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.” A key term here is “nature,” which equates to a substance’s essence, or what would distinguish that substance from other substances, provided that other substances exist. Spinoza uses the term again in Proposition VII: “Existence belongs to the nature of substance.” If the nature of substance is existence, and two or more substances cannot share the nature of existing, we may conclude that only one substance’s essence involves existence. Thus, according to Spinoza, only one substance should exist.
Spinoza further builds his idea of substance monism by defining “self-caused” as that which its “essence involves existence.” Thus, it appears that only one self-caused substance could exist. More so, in Proposition II, Spinoza says that substances with different attributes—for example, existence and non-existence—have nothing in common and are totally distinct. He adds in Proposition III, “If things have nothing in common … one cannot cause the other (also in Proposition VI: ‘one substance cannot be produced by another substance’).” If there exists only one substance, and this one substance is self-caused, then everything that indeed does exist must depend upon it for its existence—in other words, reality is an attribute of the existing substance.
But we must be clear on the relationship between attributes and their substances. Spinoza defines attribute as “that which the intellect perceives of substance as constituting its essence.” That is to say that the finite human intellect grasps two attributes—thought and extension—and it is by way of such that one recognizes substance.
To briefly summarize what has been established so far: everything that is thought and everything that is extended, including the space in which it is extended, is an attribute of a necessarily existing substance that is self-caused. Spinoza calls this substance “God” in Proposition XI and then explicitly expresses his substance monism in Proposition XIV: “There can be, or be conceived, no other substance but God.” It is important to note, however, that this latter proposition depends upon the preceding one, which claims to prove God’s existence.
Due to this argumentative dependence, Spinoza must prove God to actually exist as a substance before he can commit to substance monism—and he does so through four proofs. These proofs involve a principle drawn from Axiom III, which reads: “From a given determinate cause there necessarily follows an effect; on the other hand, if no determinate cause be given, it is impossible that an effect should follow.” If “effect” were to be read as “any event,” then every state of affairs would have sufficient reason for its existence in some cause, namely, substance. To express it bluntly: if something exists, there must be a cause of its existence. This will be considered Spinoza’s principle of sufficient reason (PSR).
The axiomatic PSR is divided into two parts: PSRa states that there is an explanation for the existence of every being; PSRb states that there is an explanation for any positive fact whatsoever. This principle is required within Spinoza’s cosmological argument—for the argument itself is an argument that seeks to explain the origin of the cosmos—and well-suited to it, for PSR is all about causal explanation.
Having brought PSR into frame, we can now examine the divine proofs. Don Garrett proposes Spinoza to be “best understood as offering four interrelated arguments which resemble ontological arguments in being essentially a priori and relying on a definition of ‘God,’ but which resemble cosmological arguments in depending on a version of [PSR].” The ontological proofs exceed the current study, but their mention here directs us by contrast to the insight that the cosmological argument and PSR are a posteriori in that they necessitate experience of the world and seek to describe probable causes. This directs us to now consider the third proof.
Spinoza argues from the assumption that all that exists are finite entities:
To be able to exist is power; to not be able to exist is weakness—at this point, such is ungrounded.
If only finite entities exist, then they would be more powerful than an infinite Being—by (1).
It is absurd for finite beings to be more powerful than an absolutely infinite Being—self-evident.
Therefore, either nothing exists, or an absolutely infinite being exists—by (1), (2), and (3).
We exist and are finite beings—the cogito, self-evident.
An absolutely infinite being (God) necessarily exists.
There is something curious about point (2). As Martin Lin proposes: consider it as parallel to the claim “this pond has more lily pads than the non-existent pond;” accordingly, it strikes me as odd to compare the two, for the non-existent pond cannot have actual lily pads, and actual lily pads are what we are really after. How could a being that does exist, as this third proof argues, be less powerful than something that does not exist, which the argument assumes? There is a further issue with (1): Spinoza has not yet connected infinitude and power. I agree with Lin that these two issues are enough for Spinoza’s third proof to fail, however, Spinoza’s final proof builds from this one and attempts a resolution.
The fourth proof is defined within the third proof’s scholium, and, hence, the two are heavily related. Spinoza says that the third proof was presented a posteriori for ease of the reader. He claims that he can rephrase the proof to explain God a priori:
At least one being is self-existent—Axiom I.
To be more powerful is to have more reality—stipulation.
The more reality a being or thing has, the more attributes it has—Proposition IX and X’s scholium.
If any being exists necessarily, the being with the greatest power to exist exists necessarily—self-evident.
God has all possible attributes—Definition VI.
God is the most real substance and therefore has the greatest power to exist—by (3) and (4).
We may conclude God exists necessarily.
This line of reasoning allows Spinoza to conclude God as being the one absolute substance upon which all extension and thought is dependent, as per Proposition XIV.
Spinoza’s first and second proofs, which are left unmentioned here, are insufficient because they fail to address why one cannot simply replace “God” with a substance of one attribute like extension or thought, i.e., Spinoza never forces the reader to accept God from his arguments without possible recourse. But the third and similar fourth proofs succeed in forcing the reader to accept that such substances are ruled out as being lesser, and thus contingent upon a greater substance, God, as required by Axiom I and the fourth proof. If we accept Spinoza’s definitions, axioms, propositions, and arguments, then he has sufficiently shown us the reason for everything that exists as thought and extension is contingent upon an absolute and self-existent substance, which is God, for there can only be one substance if God is defined by Definition VI.
What Spinoza is essentially arguing is that if there exists anything at all, there must exist a necessary being; proof four shows that necessary being to be God. Yet after concluding this, we need to address the question that this elaborate explanation is itself contingent upon, “Why do we need a reason for dependent beings at all?” The answer comes from Axiom III, Spinoza’s PSR. His argument for God’s existence is, consequently, necessary only if one accepts PSR and its requirement that any positive fact whatsoever, e.g., that the universe exists, be explained by itself or another thing.
We have covered a decent amount of ground, but this alone should be considered precursory. In order to fully appreciate the point at which we have arrived, we will now shift our attention from Spinoza himself to the cosmological argument as a broader topic.
II: The Contemporary Cosmological Argument Expounded
The cosmological argument, in its crudest form, is reducible to an adage: “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” That is, which came first: God, or nothing at all? And just as our adage assumes the need for a PSR, and therefore a need to explain which is contingent and which is not, so does the cosmological argument.
In seeking the universe’s origins, it seems intuitive to accept as impossible that something can come from nothing at all. If we consider our personal existence, the reason for our being is found within our biological parents; if we consider our existence further, we find it is further owed to our parent’s parents, and so on. Logically, given evolution, we can suppose that we must trace our ancestry back to the simplest organisms and, thus, the proto-Earth on which terrestrial life is dependent, the solar system, proto-Sun, Milky Way, etc., until we eventually reach the universe’s origin. Atheists and theists would share this interest with theologians and philosophers.
So, what does a cosmological argument actually look like? It is as follows:
Every being’s existence must be explained by another thing or by its own nature.
There must be an explanation for every being’s existence—PSRa.
Thus, each being is explained necessarily by another being or by its own self.
Every being can only be dependent if an infinite series of dependent beings is all that has ever existed.
If all that has ever existed is an infinite series of dependent beings, then there would be no explanation for why there is such a series at all.
But there is an explanation for every positive fact—PSRb.
Thus, not every being can be a dependent being.
Therefore, there exists, or once existed, at least one self-existent being.
Where the PSR in Spinoza’s Part I of the Ethics is a bit obscured, here it is obvious that, without PSR, the argument for God’s existence fails. Where PSR becomes a problem for this argument’s soundness can be traced back to Anselm’s three cases for sufficient reasons to exist:
(A) Explained by another,
(B) Explained by nothing,
(C) Or, explained by itself.
The PSR only admits (A) and (C); (B) is simply presumed to be invalid and withdrawn from the conversation. Let us say that somebody would like to argue for (B). The proponent of the cosmological argument would object by asking the critic how they might explain the origin of any existence at all? In other words, if the cosmos and all therein can be traced back to the big bang, which is how all extension and thought first became expressed, then what or whom caused the big bang?
At this point, the critic may have to conclude as Bertrand Russell does during a radio debate with the Jesuit philosopher-theologian Fredrick Copleston: “It’s illegitimate to even ask the question of the cause of the world.” But, in order to do so, the critic must dismiss PSR, which, if it is permitted, leaves the critic with results that are impossible to comprehend (which will be addressed more in the following section).
So where does Spinoza stand with all this? Why his substance? Why his thoughts on this matter? Because, I propose, there is a possibility that assuming Spinoza to have been arguing for substance monism qua God is a misunderstanding of some tacit hypothesis, one that has no need for a self-existent being.
There is an interesting reading, what I shall call the psychologically contextual reading, of Spinoza’s Ethics as presented by Matthew Eshleman. It is as follows:
Put yourself in Spinoza’s family’s shoes. You’ve got some commitments to Judaism, and you’ve got a whole society that either wants to kill you, kick you out, or change your views. This also happens to be around the time that … science is emerging, religion is fracturing, and you’ve just been kicked out of your country, and are in fear of your life and your sense of chosen identity. And then you read Descartes. So you have sympathies to science, and you’d prefer not to be killed or persecuted for talking about philosophy and your convictions.
Keeping in mind that Spinoza’s life coincided with the Spanish Inquisition, such a reading sounds reasonable; Spinoza surely would have been hesitant to publish works contra the Roman Empire, e.g., ideas like ‘‘God’ is really a designator for a pantheistic concept.’ If this supposition from the Ethics’ context is to have merit, as I believe it does, then one could make the case that Spinoza is not arguing for the existence of God, but rather for the existence of God qua Nature—“Nature” (intentionally capitalized) being defined as the cosmos and all therein. This would make “God” unnecessary by virtue of Ockham’s razor.
But the mechanics of such a system are not obvious and require some sorting out. In the previous section, we saw how God was proved to exist. However, interpreted through the psychologically contextual reading, Spinoza should be read as always having scare-quotes around the term “God.” Everything that was discussed and proved for a Spinozistic God in the previous section does no more than place an unnecessary title over whatever substance does necessarily exist, which we know is somehow related to thought and extension. The work is not done yet; if we are to satisfy PSR, as we must in order to remain consistent with Spinoza’s Axioms I and III, we need to explain to what or whom extension and thought are attributed, if not God.
For clarity, let us initially lay out the only two seemingly possible arguments. First, if it is true that God—as in one self-existent entity from which all is derived—does not exist, then the only alternate explanation for existence that does not violate PSR is an infinite chain of dependent beings. This would make true the claim, “all there ever has been is dependent causation existing in infinitude.” It is dependency all the way down. If we now return to the concept of us, parents, grandparents, proto-Earth, Sun, and so on, ad infinitum, without stating that eventually we require a self-existing being at the end of the dependent chain, we can argue the proposition that God does not necessarily exist, even while using Spinoza’s own framework. And, we can do so since the existence of Nature—i.e., the infinite cosmos—is identical to Spinoza’s definition of God (as shown above with Ockham’s razor), which can account for everything in reality. Or, second, the only other seeming alternative is to dismiss PSR and conclude that there exists a being whose existence is by definition impossible to comprehend—an ineffable being.
Up until this point there was the proponent of the cosmological argument, who needed God at the end of the dependent chain to exist and explain Himself through Himself (our theist); there was the critic of the proponent who grabbed onto the psychologically contextual reading of Ethics and said that the infinite dependent chain was God, and called it Nature (our atheist); but now there exists a third, who does not accept either of the above views, and finds this entire discussion awry (our agnostic).
What’s the split then between the atheist and the agnostic? It all has to do with PSR—the atheist wishes to fulfill PSR, while the agnostic wishes to dismiss it. The agnostic wants to do so seeing as the view of God qua Nature as proved by the atheist’s interpretation of Spinoza still begs the question, “What’s the cause of the infinite series as a whole?” Spinoza’s clever equation of God qua Nature, though sufficient to fulfill PSRa (that every being’s existence is explained), cannot do the same for the series of infinite dependent beings as a whole, thus violating PSRb (that every positive fact has an explanation). So, it would appear that we have arrived at an impasse. Either one must accept or deny PSR. If one denies it, as I will partially argue is the wiser choice, then Spinoza’s proofs for God, even God qua Nature, ultimately fail their own criterion of fulfilling PSRb.
All we have covered leads to this narrow way. To legitimize a position against those trying to satisfy PSR, we must establish the possibility and work out the implications of an ineffable being, namely, the infinite chain of dependent beings itself, as a whole, existing absent causal explanation with some absolute relation to extension and thought. This series as a whole will hereafter be referred to as the “Cosmos.”
III: Ineffability and PSRb
The PSR has already been thoroughly defined and used in our discussion within and without Spinoza; what we have not done with PSR is refute it. Even with an argument against it, this territory is a highly debated one for thinkers of every background, and my conclusion may be found lacking for those with opposing intuitions; though, I will attempt to use this very fact to my advantage.
First, we must draw a final distinction between PSRa and PSRb. And, to do so, we must conclude everything discussed about the cosmological argument with three possibilities:
God is a self-existent explanation for all contingent beings, explained by Himself.
The infinite chain of dependent beings, i.e., the cosmos, explains all contingent beings.
The Cosmos exists as a brute fact of which an explanation is by definition contradictory.
PSRa is satisfied in all three; PSRb, however, is satisfied in none—and this is the great hurdle for the cosmological argument. It has already been shown that (1) and (2) fail for identical reasons: though both sufficiently explain the existence of ourselves, our parents, our earth, and the universe, neither can explain the explanation of why there exists a creator or infinite chain at all. With PSRb in play, (1) and (2) fail. Possibility (3)—in the same way that (2) operates, for at the chain level they are both infinite—fulfills PSRa, but not PSRb. This time, however, it is per (3)’s definition, so it does not fail like the other two do. The narrow way gets narrower.
But, for (3) to be right, PSRb has to be rejected, which is no simple task. One problem with PSRb arises when one asks: “why accept PSRb in the first place?” If there must be a reason for every positive fact, there must be a reason that PSRb exists and that it is true, if it indeed is. Yet, the requirement to fulfill such a need is found within itself, akin to believing scripture because scripture says scripture is true and ought to be believed. One may react to this critique by claiming that PSR is intuitive, and thus an absolute, a priori fact shared by all rational beings. The proposition here only attacks PSRb if PSRb is false, although many (including, as we have and will again see, Bertrand Russell) simply do not accept PSR in full. This debate is of utmost importance. However, by contrasting it with the antithesis of PSRb, the ineffable Cosmos, we can declare that the question of PSRb’s validity is impossible to deny or verify—which is precisely what the agnostic wants.
Let us pretend that Spinoza’s ghost tells the American Philosophical Association to disregard the foundations they laid for PSRb, but not for PSRa. If this were the case, there would no longer be a required explanation for anything other than dependent beings. Possibilities (1) and (2) err regardless of this omission because God and the dependent chain still require explanations for their beings as a whole; possibility (3) is again not the same case. If PSRb is ignored, the only possible way to also fulfill PSRa is through (3), the Cosmos existing ineffably and expressing itself in relation to mind and matter perhaps throughout at least one expanding-collapsing universe.
The impasse earlier mentioned is now blatant: PSRb’s validity and the Cosmos are both unable to be argued for after this point, the participants fall back into their intuitive camps, usually right where they started. If PSRb is true, it would appear to be a brute fact; we do not have to debate PSRb unless one accept PSRb. Likewise, the Cosmos is defined as a brute fact that cannot possibly be debated within PSRb’s acceptance. The paradox is put forth as follows: “how do you argue for or against [PSRb], and how do you argue for or against the existence of something that’s theoretically impossible to explain?” This is where the debate has stalled.
Michael Della Rocca comments about this stumbling block: “It seems as though for the last 271 years a great deal of the best efforts of the best philosophers have been devoted to an assault on PSR.” This statement amplifies my own argumentative inadequacies, for I know I do not have the capacity to refute PSRb objectively, and, it appears, I am in good company. That for nearly three centuries the issue of explaining or not-explaining every positive fact has not been resolved is telling of a possible absurdity within PSRb. It is in accord with this train of thought that I conclude PSRb is not worth serious consideration. I submit that to fulfill PSRb is to enter territory in which the human mind has no purchase.
To put a final touch on the inability of humans to seriously inquire about the origins of the universe’s reason for existing: it was above shown that, while the PSR was being seriously considered, (1), (2), and (3), were unable to provide a sufficient answer when asking “who or what caused the big bang?” Therefore any deliberation into this question, while employing PSRb, is rendered unintelligible. But, if something is beyond the human mind, would it not then be a negative fact? That Alexander the Great did not use radio, Tiger tanks, or the M-16 rifle are not positive facts, and thus do not require explanations, which is to say they do not require the need for an explanation. Our inability to fully explain the universe and its origins is a negative fact, and so forgoes a need to be reasoned—one more job in which PSRb has no part.
In the radio debate previously mentioned, Copleston states that an adequate explanation must be a total explanation, “to which nothing further can be added.” He is, as most Jesuits, committed to God as his total explanation. Russell does not take the side of the atheist in this debate; rather, he takes the side of the agnostic. Had Russell and Copleston both been dedicated to one side of the issue of explaining any positive fact whatsoever, I believe they would have ended in a circular stalemate, for it is impossible for the theist’s and atheist’s positions to be conjuncts, they must be disjuncts. In other words, they would both agree that PSRb is fulfilled by their self-existent being that has and will always exist, i.e., the cosmos or God. Their positions begin to look eerily similar after the agnostic has raised her voice.
Yet, this does not happen during the radio debate, because Russell does not claim to know how to give a total explanation, and cannot proceed with PSRb still dictating the debate. In response to Copleston, Russell says, “I can only say you’re looking for something which can’t be got, and which one ought not expect to get.” Copleston forms a reply deserving of attention: “To say that one has not found it is one thing, to say that one should not look for it seems to me rather dogmatic.” And this point is quite appreciable; it is entirely plausible that everything in existence has a reason for that existence, as PSRb states is the case. But, it is also just as plausible to claim, as we have seen, that to give a reason for every positive fact whatsoever may be an absurd impossibility. Thus, the thinker must accept PSRb and think within its confines, or entirely abandon the need for PSRb using reasons similar to Russell’s.
Much to the dismay of curious thinkers everywhere, the end of the Russell-Copleston debate ends as this:
Copleston: Your general opinion, then, Lord Russell, is that it’s illegitimate even to ask the question of the cause of the World?
Russell: Yes, that’s my position.
Copleston: Well, if it’s a question that for you has no meaning, it’s of course very difficult to discuss it, isn’t it.
Russell: Yes, it is very difficult. What do you say—shall we pass on to some other issue?
I do not think that there is any argument that can make the atheist adopt the theist’s position, or vice versa, and that this sort of intellectual conflict breeds only a stronger hold of one’s beginning intuition. Further, I do not believe there to be any argument that can convince an agnostic of any explanatory theory of the universe. This opaqueness tells me that thinkers would do themselves good to not abandon the cosmological argument or PSR, but to know that if they wish to actually argue the cosmological argument and PSR, then they should not be surprised when, after a long philosophical day, things end much like the above debate: simply having to move on.
The theist at the bar turns to his theist friends and asks, “those two are crazy, right?” The atheist does the exact same. The agnostic has had some fun, but really would wish that they could “pass on to some other issue,” one in which argumentation can bridge the gap of opposing intuitions.