Proof of God: The Cosmological Proof (1)

Proof from First Cause, or the Cosmological Proof

Have a quick look around you.

Are you sitting in a chair? Did you ever wonder how that chair got there?

I’m willing to bet you or someone else placed it there. I doubt you created it, though; more likely, a team of people fashioned it out of wood and metal, gave it to another group who transported it to a store or warehouse, where another bunch helped deliver it to you. Where did that first team get their materials, though? The wood was probably harvested from a forest, the metal dug up from a mine. The trees got their nutrients from the soil and the sun. No matter which path you take, both trace back to the Earth or the Sun.

So far, everything we’ve discussed has come from something else. The materials came from elsewhere, and somebody or some process helped shape it. The chair was “caused” by human effort and the proper materials, the tree was “caused” (in a loose sense) by sunshine and nutrients gathering in the right place and the right way. We can do this thought experiment for every object in the universe.

We should be able to do this for the universe itself. It’s a material thing, after all, though perhaps a little larger and more complicated than our chair.

At this point, the chain of causes breaks down. We can’t name anything within the universe as a cause, since by definition that’s a part of the universe itself. Any potential cause must come from outside. But what lies outside the universe, in a place we can never hope to explore?

There’s only one being we know of that could live outside the universe. God, after all, is the only possible being with enough power to create a universe, and in countless religions she does exactly that:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

(Genesis 1:1, Jewish Old Testament, King James translation)

They say it happened long ago when there were no people nor anything, and when earth and the black sky did not exist “Let us make the earth and the black sky,” he said. He began to study and talk about how both the earth and sky might be made.

(“Myths and tales from the San Carlos Apache”, collected by Pliny Earle Goddard)

Nights, days, weeks and seasons; wind, water, fire and the nether regions—in the midst of these, He established the earth as a home for Dharma. [11]

(from the Sikh religious text “Siri Guru Granth Sahib”, translated by Singh Sahib Sant Singh Khalsa)

Then, at last, slowly uprises Tane-mahuta, the god and father of forests, of birds, and of insects, and he struggles. With his parents; in vain he strives to rend them apart with his hands and arms. Lo, he pauses; his head is now firmly planted on his mother the earth, his feet he raises up and rests against his father the skies, he strains his back and limbs with mighty effort. Now are rent apart Rangi and Papa, and with cries and groans of woe they shriek aloud: ‘Wherefore slay you thus your parents? Why commit you so dreadful a crime as to slay us, as to rend your parents apart? But Tane-mahuta pauses not, he regards not their shrieks and cries; far, far beneath him he presses down the earth; far, far above him he thrusts up the sky.

(“Polynesian Mythology & Ancient Traditional History of the New Zealanders,” collected by Sir George Grey)

Therefore, there’s only one possible cause for the universe, and that’s god.

Golden Oldies

The Cosmological proof is, without a doubt, the most popular of its class. Surprisingly, it’s also one of the earliest formal arguments we know of, dating back to Plato’s last work, Laws. In the tenth chapter of this dialogue, the wise “Athenian[12] ” scoffs at those who deny the existence of the gods, who claim they were man-made inventions that bend to human whims. To show their folly, he builds a simple proof by cataloguing the types of motion that exist in the universe. After ticking off nine, the “Athenian” describes a tenth type, that is capable of moving itself and other objects. He then points out this tenth must be the greatest of all, and reaches the core of his argument:

ATHENIAN: I mean this: when one thing changes another, and that another, of such will there be any primary changing element? How can a thing which is moved by another ever be the beginning of change? Impossible. But when the self-moved changes other, and that again other, and thus thousands upon tens of thousands of bodies are set in motion, must not the beginning of all this motion be the change of the self-moving principle?

CLEINIAS: Very true, and I quite agree.

ATHENIAN: Or, to put the question in another way, making answer to ourselves: If, as most of these philosophers have the audacity to affirm, all things were at rest in one mass, which of the above-mentioned principles of motion would first spring up among them?

CLEINIAS: Clearly the self-moving; for there could be no change in them arising out of any external cause; the change must first take place in themselves.

ATHENIAN: Then we must say that self-motion being the origin of all motions, and the first which arises among things at rest as well as among things in motion, is the eldest and mightiest principle of change, and that which is changed by another and yet moves other is second.

(Laws, Book X, translated by Benjamin Jowett)

From there, the “Athenian” needs only a little bit of hand-waving to turn this primary mover into what he calls a “soul,” but modern readers would recognize as a god.

The argument next appeared roughly 1,300 years later, in Avicenna’s studies of ancient Greek thought, only this time it proved the existence of Allah instead of the Greek gods. Later scholars, most notably the influential Al-Ghazali, would condemn all of Plato and Avicenna’s work as a corrupting influence, but retained the handy Cosmological proof.

Thomas Aquinas independently claimed Cosmological for Christianity some 200 years after Avicenna, in his Summa Theologica. Aquinas’ version shows why this proof continues to be so popular. Not content to merely repeat Plato’s chain of movers, he created three more variations of the same proof and claimed each as a newcomer. One is the chain of causation I used in my introduction to Cosmological; another is a chain of creation, which traces back to singular creator; and the last is a chain of perfection, leading to the most perfect being possible.

Plato’s original argument has endured because it is so very plastic. To come up with your own variant, all you need is some way to organize every object in the world into a hierarchy.[13] You then claim that an infinitely deep hierarchy is absurd or impossible, then place atop this tower of induction the god of your choice. In the 2,500 years since it left Plato’s mind, Cosmological has been polished down to an invincible single sentence:[14]

You can’t create something from nothing, unless you’re a god.

Because I Said So

It would help if we had a more formal version of Cosmological to run through point-by-point. The Kalām[15] version of Cosmological, as promoted by William Lane Craig, seems like a good start:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

We can easily modify this to cover all other versions of Cosmological:

  1. Whatever begins to exist was created has a cause creator.
  2. The universe began to exist. A finite number of movers must exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause. a being more perfect than all must exist.

Returning to Plato, he rejected the idea of an infinite chain of movers or causes because he didn’t think infinite things existed in the real world. Most thinkers who invoke the Cosmological proof agree, and like Plato stop this infinitely long cascade by placing an infinitely-powerful being in its path. Thus in order to stop an infinite thing from existing in the world… they propose the existence of an infinite thing in the world. Hmm.

And looming over it all is a cherry of a contradiction that Cosmological tries to ignore. If everything has a creator or mover or what-have-you, and god is something, then what created/moved god? After all, this proof rests heavily on the idea that everything can be put into a hierarchy, with no exceptions, but then it turns around and grants one exception. Doesn’t this derail the entire train of thought? If we’re allowed to grant exceptions, what prevents me from saying the universe is an exception too? Philosophers have been fine labeling their god of choice the “First Mover” without any evidence to justify it, so I fail to see why I can’t slap the same label on the universe, given an equal amount of evidence.

[11] “Dharma” probably means “religious path” here, but in other contexts it could be closer to “religious law” or “social structure.”

[12]  Scholars suspect this mysterious Stranger from Athens was supposed to be Socrates. Plato never named the character directly because he bore little resemblance to the Socrates from Plato’s earlier dialogs. The youthful version was perpetually questioning and dripping with excessive humility, while the later one knows the truth and kindly shares his lessons with lesser people.

[13] Why a hierarchy? Let’s take creation as an example: a lump of clay can be used to create many things, like pots or plates, while those pots or plates have only one creator, the clay. The same one-to-many branching applies to causes, movers, or whatever other mapping you use, and when laid out on paper naturally leads to a hierarchy.

[14] Sorry, that’s a lie. The ancient Greek Parmenides nailed it when he said “ex nihilo nihil fit,” and he pre-dated Plato!

[15] “Kalām” refers to an early school of Islam, that valued knowledge and thought theological arguments were best settled by debating it out. I approve, if only because it cuts down on the number of holy wars.


  1. says

    Therefore, there’s only one possible cause for the universe, and that’s god.

    Actually, there are an infinity of unknown possible causes for the universe.

    It could be a natural phenomenon.
    It could be a creation of aliens.
    It could be a creation of two aliens.

    It could be two gods. Or three

    My dog could have created it (he’s not talkin’)
    I see no reason to believe that the christian god created the universe; my dog (who did some weird things in his day) might just as well have done it, and more importantly I have reason to believe that he exists(existed, technically, because he’s dead now)

  2. hjhornbeck says

    Ssshhhhhh, no spoilers! 😉

    Ugh, I don’t know why my recent posts are popping up with comments enabled. I’ve shut that off for this post, but it’s pretty obvious a number of people want to discuss it. Fortunately, I have an endless thread where you can do precisely that, then wander off into whatever topic you want.