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«The Recent Revival of Cosmological Arguments David Alexander* Baylor University Abstract Cosmological arguments have received more attention in the ...»

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Philosophy Compass 3/3 (2008): 541–550, 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2008.00134.x

The Recent Revival of Cosmological Arguments

David Alexander*

Baylor University


Cosmological arguments have received more attention in the past ten years. One

reason for this is that versions with restricted or even no reliance on the principle

of sufficient reason (PSR) have been formulated. By not relying on PSR – what

many consider to be a necessary falsehood – philosophers have been able to

escape many of the old criticisms of cosmological arguments. In this essay I survey two recent attempts at presenting a sound version of a cosmological argument. I spend more time on Robert Koons’ since his has not yet received the kind of quality attention that the other has.

In 1988 Brian Leftow noted that while ontological arguments for God’s existence were at the time receiving a great deal of philosophical attention, the same could not be said of cosmological arguments. In 1993 John O’Leary-Hawthorne and Andrew Cortens noted that ‘Cosmological Arguments had fallen on hard times of late’ (60). Perhaps the single most important reason for the lack of interest in cosmological arguments was due to traditional cosmological arguments’ dependence of the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). Peter van Inwagen, inter alia, produced what many took to be a knock-down argument against PSR. Let PSR be the claim that necessarily, every contingently true proposition is entailed by another true proposition. Now consider the conjunction of all contingently true propositions and call it P. P is contingent. Thus, according to PSR, P is entailed by either a contingently or necessarily true proposition. P cannot be entailed by a contingently true proposition, since it would be a conjunct of P and thus P would be a self-explaining contingently true proposition which is taken to be absurd. P cannot be entailed by a necessary proposition since the class of necessary propositions is closed under deduction thus making P necessary. Thus, P cannot be entailed by either a contingently true proposition or a necessarily true proposition.

Thus, P cannot be entailed by anything. PSR, it is concluded, is necessarily false (202–4). Having apparently shown that PSR is necessarily false philosophers attempting to construct cosmological arguments had to do so either without PSR or restrict or weaken PSR in such a way that absurdity did not result. Leftow’s modal cosmological argument attempts © 2008 The Author Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd 542 The Recent Revival of Cosmological Arguments to do the former,1 while Hawthorne and Cortens argument is an attempt at the latter.

Two very recent versions of a cosmological argument follow what might now be called the tradition of either rejecting PSR or restricting it. In what follows I will briefly discuss the new cosmological argument presented by Richard M. Gale and Alexander M. Pruss (‘New Cosmological Argument’).

Next, I will present Robert C. Koons’s new look at cosmological arguments.

I’ll spend more time on Koons’s argument since it has not received the same quality of attention that Gale and Pruss’ has.

Gale and Pruss’ New Cosmological Argument The new cosmological argument of Gale and Pruss replaces what they term the strong principle of sufficient reason (SPSR – necessarily, for any true proposition p, p has an explanation2) with the weak principle of sufficient reason (WPSR).

WPSR: For any contingently true proposition, it is logically or conceptually possible that it has an explanation. (Pruss and Gale 66) W-PSR is supposed to be appealing even to the atheist who rejects PSR on the grounds rehearsed above. Gale and Pruss write, ‘Our new cosmological argument far outstrips traditional cosmological arguments in that it can make do with Duns Scotus’ very weak version of PSR’ (463). Now the


1. @ is the actual world and p is the BCCF of @.

BCCF stands for Big Contingent Conjunctive Fact. A world’s BCCF individuates that world. Thus if W and W′ have identical BCCFs then W = W′.

2. Thus there is a possible W′ that has the proposition that (∃q)(q explains p) as one of its conjuncts.

This premise obviously relies on WPSR.

3. The proposition that q explains p is a conjunct of W′.

4. Propositions q and p are conjuncts in W′.

5. For any worlds, W and W′, W = W′ if, and only if, W’s BCCF is a conjunct in W′ BCCF.

6. @ = W′.

7. q explains p, q and p are all conjuncts of @.

8. Thus, there actually is a true explanation of @’s BCCF.

Gale and Pruss have clearly advanced the discussion. WPSR initially looks far less demanding than SPSR and thus WPSR has more intuitive appeal.

The objections to this new cosmological argument have focused on WPSR. Two objections stand out as the most interesting and perhaps the most devastating.

Philosophy Compass 3/3 (2008): 541–550, 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2008.00134.x © 2008 The Author Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd The Recent Revival of Cosmological Arguments 543 The first objection to consider was raised by Graham Oppy (‘On “A New Look” ’). Oppy argues that Gale and Pruss beg the question since he shows that WPSR implies SPSR. Gale and Pruss agree that WPSR implies SPSR but respond by claiming that since the derivation of SPSR from WPSR is not obvious the charge of begging the question can not

stick (‘Response to Oppy’). Gale and Pruss write:

What counts as obvious or trivial is relative to the epistemic powers of an individual. An omniscient being would find every valid deductive argument to be such. We were negligent in not stating that our argument is not directed at such a reader, as well as those who have an Oppy-level understanding of logic. (91) So Oppy has good reason not to be convinced by the new argument, but others not as smart as Oppy should still buy it? If the non-theist is warranted in denying SPSR and learns of the derivation of SPSR from W-PSR isn’t the non-theist warranted in denying WPSR? That is, the nontheist is perfectly rational in rejecting one of the premises of the argument.

The second objection to consider was raised by Kevin Davey and Rob Clifton. Davey and Clifton agree that W-PSR has initial intuitive appeal.

But so does the claim that it is possible that some contingently true proposition has no explanation. Since W-PSR entails S-PSR this latter intuition is incompatible with W-PSR. Gale and Pruss reply by arguing that W-PSR is ‘more deeply entrenched than the [Davey and Clifton] claim that it is possible that a given contingent proposition has no explanation’ (‘Response to Oppy’ 96).

While Gale and Pruss do an admirable job in defending their new cosmological argument it must be conceded that the overall initial plausibility of the W-PSR has been weakened by the objections presented by Oppy, and Davey and Clifton.

Koons’s New Look Robert Koons’s ‘A New Look at the Cosmological Argument’ takes advantage of recent developments in philosophy. Koons argues that due to the recent reliance on modal realism and causation along with developments in non-monotonic or defeasible logic the cosmological argument is no longer susceptible to what once were standard criticisms. Graham Oppy, while apparently not wishing to question the value of these recent developments, argues that Koons’s spin on the cosmological argument is far from making the argument rationally compelling. In this paper I will present the cosmological argument Koons gives, and the Koons-Oppy exchange. I will attempt to respond to Oppy’s newest version of his objection, thus once and for all freeing Koons’s ‘new look’ from the same confusion. Once this is accomplished I will briefly raise a couple of worries (confusions?) of my own. None of these worries are decisive. What they will show is that the Philosophy Compass 3/3 (2008): 541–550, 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2008.00134.x © 2008 The Author Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd 544 The Recent Revival of Cosmological Arguments non-theist, although perhaps backed into a corner by Koons’s presentation of the cosmological argument, still has enough room to remain reasonably unconvinced.

The Argument Oppy re-presents Koons’s argument in his ‘Koons’ Cosmological Argument’.

With two corrections4 to be discussed in greater detail below, I can do

no better:

1. There are contingent facts or situations. (Premise)

2. If there are contingent facts or situations, then there is a fact or situation which is the sun of all contingent facts or situations. (Premise) 3. (Hence) there is a fact or situation C which is the sum of all contingent facts or situations.

4. C is a wholly contingent fact or situation. (Premise)5

5. Every wholly contingent fact or situation normally has a cause. (Premise) 6. (Hence) C has a cause. (From 4, 5)

7. Causes and effects must not overlap. (Premise) 8. (Hence) C has a cause which is a necessary fact or situation. (From 6, 7, definition of ‘wholly contingent’).

A few comments are in order. Koons defends premise 2 by appeal to a mereological fusion principle. Roughly, it states that if there are any facts of some type then there is a fusion of facts of that type.6 Premise 4 introduces the notion of a wholly contingent fact. ‘A wholly contingent fact is an actual fact none of whose parts are necessary’ (‘New Look’ 195).7 Premise 5 expresses a defeasible rule.8 Finally premise 7 respects a Humean intuition that causes and effects must be separate existences. The things doing the causing cannot be a part of the effect.9 This should suffice as an initial presentation of the argument. Oppy’s criticism will allow us to probe it deeper.

Oppy’s Objection One of the novelties of Koons’s cosmological argument is its use of a defeasible rule, rather than an exceptionless generalization. According to Koons this thrusts the burden of proof back onto non-theists. If non-theists wish to restrict the principle, then they must provide evidence for doing so. Koons writes, [Premise 5] means that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we may infer about any particular wholly contingent fact, that it has a cause. This is, however, all that is needed for the cosmological argument to be rationally compelling. The burden will be shifted to the agnostic, who must garner evidence of a positive sort for the proposition that the cosmos is an exception to the rule. Merely pointing out the defeasible nature of the inference does not constitute a cogent rebuttal. (‘New Look’ 6) Philosophy Compass 3/3 (2008): 541–550, 10.1111/j.1747-9991.2008.00134.x © 2008 The Author Journal Compilation © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd The Recent Revival of Cosmological Arguments 545 Obviously, non-theists will be reluctant to accept premise 5, in either its defeasible or non-defeasible form. Hence, Oppy rightly singles out this

premise for attack. In place of 5 Oppy puts the following:

5*: Every wholly contingent non-first event has a cause.10 In its favor he writes, ‘Plainly all of the evidence which supports Koons’ favored version of the causal principle supports this version of the principle equally well’ (‘Koons’ Cosmological Argument’ 381).

Apparently, the point Oppy is attempting to make is that since the non-theist can come up with a causal principle that is just as supported as any the theist comes up with, both versions of the causal principle are on the same level, with respect to rationality or reasonability. This seems to be his point when he states Since Koons knows perfectly well that non-theists will prefer the kinds of causal principles which I have sketched to the kinds which feature in his argument, it is hard to resist the conclusion that his ‘new look’ at arguments from contingency amounts to nothing more than the argumentative equivalent of stamping your foot. (381) Koons’s Response A less natural version of some defeasible generalization is always, absent evidence to the contrary, unreasonable. Clearly Oppy’s restriction to the defeasible causal principle expressed in premise 5 is less natural. Equally clearly, Oppy has provided no positive evidence for restricting the defeasible causal principle. Hence, thus far in the dialectic, Oppy’s restriction is unreasonable.

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