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St. Anselm of
Canterbury, 10331109
The Cosmological and
Ontological Arguments
Does the cosmos need a foundation?
Argument or proof?
• Proof, in the strict sense (e.g. in math and logic) is
rather a high standard.
• Do theists need to prove that God exists? (What
• (most) Theists will be happy enough if there are
arguments, free of mistakes, that significantly
support components of theism.
Aristotle’s layered universe
The basic idea of a cosmological argument
• “Where did all this come from? (It didn’t just appear,
all by itself.)”
• “There must be something behind it all.”
• Any worries about this basic approach?
1. Why does there have to be anything (call it an ‘original
entity’) that created all the other things? (Why not
“turtles all the way down”?)
2. Even if there is such an ‘original entity’, why should it be
God? (E.g. why should it be a person, why infinite, good,
all powerful, etc.)
3. If there is an ‘original entity’, then what created that?
4. (Why should there be anything at all? Why is there
something, rather than nothing?)
What supports the turtle?
“Dependent” properties
• For thousands of years, people (e.g. St. Anselm) have
noticed that some things depend on others for some
of their properties (or features).
• E.g. imagine that a rock is near to a blazing campfire,
and the rock is warm. Why is it warm?
– Rocks are not naturally warm. (As Aristotle would say.)
The rock needs something else to warm it up.
– In this case, the fire warmed the rock.
– The rock’s warmth is dependent upon the fire.
“from itself” properties
• The hot rock can be used to heat up other things,
e.g. a tub of water. (The water then gets its heat,
ultimately, from the fire.)
• But why is the fire warm to begin with? Did
something else warm it up?
– No (says Aristotle, Anselm, etc.) The fire is hot by nature,
just as the rock is solid by nature. Cold fire is an
– The fire is hot “from itself”, or a se in Latin.
Dependent existence
• The rock depends on the fire for its warmth, but
without the fire the rock would still be there. It
would still exist.
• Many objects seem to depend on others for their
existence, however. E.g.?
– Waves on a lake depend on wind (and the lake itself!)
– A painting depends on the painter.
– We often use the word ‘caused’ to describe this relation.
Self existence
• We have seen that an object can (apparently) hold
certain properties by nature, or “from itself”. The
object doesn’t need anything else to give it that
• Could a thing also have existence “from itself”?
– What would that mean?
– Such a thing would not need a cause to bring it into being.
It would be “self-existent”.
– Is there any evidence that a self-existent being exists?
– Could the universe itself be a self-existent being?
“Kalaam Cosmological Argument”
• (see p. 86)
Everything that begins to exist has a cause
The universe began to exist
-----------------The universe has a cause
(S. Hawking seem to agree)
• “While many of us may be OK with the idea of the
big bang simply starting everything, physicists,
including Hawking, tend to shy away from cosmic
genesis. "A point of creation would be a place where
science broke down. One would have to appeal to
religion and the hand of God," Hawking told the
meeting, at the University of Cambridge, in a prerecorded speech.”
• (Grossman, p. 2)
• If the universe does have a cause, then what it
is like? Can we say anything here?
– Does it have to be outside the universe?
– Does it have to be a self-existent being?
What if every being is dependent?
• What if being A depends on B, which depends on C,
etc. etc. without end? (“it’s turtles all the way
• Is this possible?
Closed Causal Loop
Is this possible?
(If not, then why not?)
Infinite Regress of Causes
• An infinite regress of causes is a situation where every
object or event has a prior cause, which in turn has a
prior cause, etc. to infinity. There is no start to this
sequence. (Like the negative integers.)
• Is this possible? (If not, then why not?)
Composition argument
• In the case of the closed loop, we might object to it
on the grounds that the whole system is also a
dependent being.
• In that case, the loop itself requires a cause (from
outside) which it lacks.
• Is this a general rule: Any collection of dependent beings
is itself a dependent being.
“What caused the whole system?”
Where did the whole thing come from?
• But if that rule holds, then an infinite regress of
causes is also a dependent being.
• Does infinity make a difference?
– Perhaps a finite collection of dependent beings
must be dependent, but an infinite collection of
dependent beings can be self-existent?
– Perhaps this principle only holds for finite
collections? (Any collection of dependent beings
is itself a dependent being.)
House in the Sky analogy
• Suppose you hire an architect to build you a house in
Vancouver for only $500,000.
• He says, for that price, you can’t built it on land. It’ll
have to be built in the sky, 100 feet up in the air, with
rope ladder access.
• He says it’s easily done, as long as each part of the
structure is supported.
Design 1: Circular support
“The roof is supported by the walls. The walls rest
upon the foundation. And the foundation hangs from
chains secured to the roof.”
House in the Sky with infinite regress
• “The foundation slab is made of layers sandwiched together. The top
layer is ½ m thick, the next ¼ m, then 1/8 m, 1/16 m, 1/32 m, etc. to
infinity. There is no bottom layer, and the total slab thickness is 1 m.”
• Each layer is supported by the one just below it.
• Obviously the 2nd house will plummet to the ground,
just as surely as the first.
• The fact that the house has an infinite stack of
foundation slabs makes no difference at all.
• This is only an argument from analogy, so nowhere
near conclusive, but it supports the view that even
an infinite collection of dependent beings is itself
Analogy: evidential support
• “Every statement, to be worthy of belief, requires
evidential support”.
• Can you have circular support?
• Can you have an infinite regress of support?
No, and no! In logic, the whole set of statements
requires support as well. (E.g. proof by induction
requires a foundation.)
• So the two analogies examined support the
proposed rule:
• Any collection of dependent beings (whether
finite or infinite) is itself a dependent being.
The main cosmological argument
1. Let “the universe” be the collection of all dependent
2. Any collection of dependent beings (whether finite or
infinite) is itself a dependent being.
3. The cause of an object must be external to that object.
---------------------------4. The universe is a dependent being (from 1, 2)
5. The universe has a cause (that’s what ‘dependent’ means)
6. The cause of the universe is external to the universe (3)
7. The cause of the universe is a self-existent being (1, 6)
David Hume disagrees
“Also: in such a chain or series of items, each part is
caused by the part that preceded it, and causes the one
that follows. So where is the difficulty? But the whole
needs a cause! you say. I answer that the uniting of these
parts into a whole, like the uniting of several distinct
counties into one kingdom, or several distinct members
into one organic body, is performed merely by an
arbitrary act of the mind and has no influence on the
nature of things. If I showed you the particular causes of
each individual in a collection of twenty particles of
matter, I would think it very unreasonable if you then
asked me what was the cause of the whole twenty. The
cause of the whole is sufficiently explained by explaining
the cause of the parts.” (Dialogue, p.36)
Analogy with construction
• Does Hume’s objection work in the case of
• “If I showed you the particular supports of each part
of a building, I would think it very unreasonable if you
then asked me what was the support of the whole
building. The support of the whole is sufficiently
explained by explaining the support of the parts.”
Bertrand Russell Disagrees
• Russell argues that the inference:
Every part of the universe is a dependent being
-----------------------------------The universe is a dependent being
is a fallacy, the “fallacy of composition”. E.g. since
every human has a mother, therefore the human
race has a mother. Is it a fallacy?
Dawkins on the Cosmological Argument
• “All three of these arguments rely upon the idea of a
regress and invoke God to terminate it. They make
the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself
is immune to the regress.”
(Dawkins, The God Delusion p. 101)
• Is this is good criticism?
– (No, since what stops the regress is a self-existent being,
i.e. a being that, by definition, doesn’t require a cause.)
J. L. Mackie
• Mackie (in The Miracle of Theism, pp. 81-95) considers various
versions of the Cosmological Argument, including the “first
cause argument” – roughly the main one we have looked at.
• In the discussion of this argument (pp. 172-174) he refers to
“al Farabi’s principle”:
“a series of contingent beings which would produce one another cannot
proceed to infinity or move in a circle”
And says “… this principle is at least highly plausible”.
• Thus, Mackie concludes, it is reasonable (though not
certain) to infer that some self-existent object must
• “But the greatest weakness of this otherwise attractive
argument is that some reason is required for making
God the one sole exception to the supposed need for
something else to depend on: why should God, rather
than anything else, be taken as the only satisfactory
termination of the regress?”
• N.B. God is traditionally conceived as a self-existent
being. Mackie isn’t questioning that.
• His question is why the self-existent being (or beings)
needs to have all the other traditional divine
Why God?
• I.e. even if we conclude that a self-existent being
exists, why call it “God”? In particular:
1. Why should there only be one such object?
2. Why should the object be living and personal? (I.e.
conscious, rational, making choices, etc.)
3. Why should it be morally good?
4. Why should it be omnipotent, omniscient? (Etc.)
5. Why should it have necessary existence?
Self-existent vs. necessary
• The last question, number 5, might seem silly or
unnecessary. Surely, if a being is self-existent, then it
necessarily exists?
– Not so fast. (Here it gets a little tricky.)
• The cosmological argument only shows (if it
succeeds) that if there are dependent beings, then
there must be a self-existent being as well. But there
seems to be no logical reason why a self-existent
being has to exist. After all, it seems quite
conceivable that nothing should exist at all.
Logical necessity
• In general, logical necessity is a relation between two
sentences – also called logical consequence.
• “Q is necessary for P” means the same as “Q is a
logical consequence of P”, or “P logically entails Q”.
– E.g. “Fred is not married” is necessary for “Fred is a
• Logically necessary sentences are those that can be
inferred from no premises at all. E.g.
– “If Fred is 6 feet tall, then he is more than 5 foot 6.”
– “Mary isn’t an illiterate person who loves reading”
– “2 + 3 = 5”
“Contingent” sentence
A contingent sentence, in logic, is one that is not
necessarily true, and not necessarily false.
Fred is either tall or not tall
– logically necessary
Fred is both tall and short
– necessarily false (i.e. logically impossible)
Fred is tall
– logically contingent.
Contingent beings
• Is the fact that Justin Trudeau exists a contingent fact
or a necessary one?
• It’s contingent, as his existence required many events
that could easily not have occurred.
• A being whose existence is contingent is called a
“contingent being”.
A “necessary being”?
• A necessary being is one that has to exist, i.e. could
not have not existed. It exists “in every possible
• No material object seems to be a necessary being.
• In fact, it seems doubtful that anything’s existence
could be logically necessary.
– How could you start with no information, and logically
infer that a certain being exists?
Is God’s existence logically necessary?
• If God’s existence is logically necessary, then a
sufficiently smart and rational person can just see that
God exists, in the same way that a smart person can
see that some mathematical theorem is true.
• Many philosophers are very sceptical of the idea that
any being could exist by logical necessity. E.g. Kant
(Critique of Pure Reason):
• “For I find myself unable to form the slightest conception of a
thing which when annihilated in thought with all its predicates,
leaves behind a contradiction; and contradiction is the only
criterion of impossibility in the sphere of pure a priori
Ontological arguments
• The conclusion of an ontological argument is that
there is a necessary being. There is one being whose
existence is logically necessary.
• But what kind of being would exist necessarily?
i. Perhaps a self-existent being?
ii. Perhaps a maximal, or “greatest possible”, being?
iii. Perhaps a being that defines the rules of logic itself?
(i) a self-existent being
• Why should a self-existent being have necessary
• the “Principle of Sufficient Reason” (PSR):
– Nothing exists without an explanation of why it exists
• (N.B. many important past philosophers accepted
PSR, but others rejected it.)
• To explain something usually involves inferring its
existence and properties from a description of its
• A self-existent being cannot be explained in this way,
since it has no (and requires no) causes.
• Thus a self-existent being will be completely
inexplicable, unless its existence can be logically
inferred from no premises.
– A self-existent being would violate PSR, unless it is also a
logically necessary being.
Does everything have an explanation?
• Quantum mechanics suggests that many events,
while caused, are not determined by their causes.
Such events cannot be (fully) explained. (But they
have partial explanations.)
“… it may be intellectually satisfying to believe that there is,
objectively, an explanation for everything together … But we
have no right to assume that the universe will comply with our
intellectual preferences”
• But PSR is an important idea in science. What if scientists
gave up looking for explanations, and shrugged “it just
(ii) A maximal being
• St. Anselm said that we all have an idea of God, at
least, according to which God is the “maximal”, or
greatest possible, being.
– It is also said that God has all the “perfections”, or positive
properties, like power, knowledge, goodness, etc. to the
maximum possible degree.
• Anselm also noted that a being that exists is greater
than one that is merely an idea. Thus existence is a
• But in that case, doesn’t the claim that God doesn’t
exist imply a contradiction? Like a 4-sided triangle?
Anselm, in the Proslogion
• [Even a] fool, when he hears of … a being than which nothing
greater can be conceived … understands what he hears, and
what he understands is in his understanding.… And assuredly
that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist
in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the
understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality;
which is greater.… Therefore, if that, than which nothing
greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the
very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one,
than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is
impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being,
than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both
in the understanding and in reality.
Gaunilo’s criticism
• (See the textbook)
Kant’s criticism
• There is something odd about Anselm’s ontological
argument, in the way it goes from concepts to reality.
(E.g. Aquinas found it very fishy.)
• Kant said that the mistake is to see existence as a
concept, comparable to concepts like tall, wise, etc.
– Think about a possible house, an idea of a house. Adding
an extra balcony, fireplace, etc. to the concept is very
different from adding existence.
– So “non-existent maximal being” isn’t really a
contradictory concept. It’s not like “4-sided triangle”.
Kant (Critique of Pure Reason)
“Thus when I think a thing, through whichever and
however many predicates I like (even in its
thoroughgoing determination), not the least bit gets
added to the thing when I posit in addition that this
thing exists. For otherwise what would exist would not
be the same as what I had thought in my concept, but
more than that, and I could not say that the very object
of my concept exists”
Modal Ontological Argument
• Existence isn’t a concept. But surely necessary
existence is? After all, many things that exist (including
ourselves) don’t possess necessary existence.
• And aren’t we the worse for it? Putting it another way,
suppose you meet a being who claims to be God.
“I’m an omnipotent being, fortunately”, he says.
-- “Fortunately?”
“Well, yes,” he continues, “I might easily have been a
regular shmo like you. I was jolly lucky, really, the way
things turned out.”
The Modal Ontological Argument
• This contingent being doesn’t match up to our
conception of God:
– If any being is God, then it exists necessarily
– If any being is God, then it doesn’t just happen to have
divine attributes (e.g. omnipotence), but has them
• Take this conception of God, and add the premise
that it’s logically possible for such a being to exist.
Then it follows that God exists.
N is, by definition, a necessarily existent being.
1. It is logically possible that N exists
------------------------------------N exists
From the premise, N exists in at least one possible world
w. Then by the very concept of N, (N exists) holds in w.
It follows that N exists in the actual world. Hence N
exists. 
• Is there any reason to accept such a premise?
• (Leibniz, Gödel, etc. tried to show that the
perfections are all logically consistent, so that “being
with all the perfections” is a consistent concept, and
hence logically possible.)
(iii) A being needed for logic itself?
• At one point in his life, Descartes was trying to get rid
of all beliefs he had that were possibly false. He even
questioned his own existence!
– “Perhaps I don’t really exist; instead, someone has tricked
me into thinking that I exist.”
• Is there any reason to dismiss this doubt?
– Descartes argued that this particular doubt has a kind of
logical inconsistency. Non-existent beings cannot be
deceived, since there is no one there to deceive. So no
being can be tricked into thinking that it exists. If it thinks
at all (about anything) then it exists. “Je pense, donc je
(iii) A being needed for logic itself?
• As soon as one starts to think, and reason logically,
one assumes various things:
– My thoughts are meaningful. They are capable of
representing states of affairs, or facts, in the world.
– There are facts about which inferences are valid, i.e.
whether proposition B follows from A.
• As soon as one starts to reason logically, one must
accept the existence of a logical realm that
transcends one’s own mind.
Is Logic itself a necessary being?
• Logic includes a body of normative rules, designating
some inferences as ‘valid’ and others ‘invalid’.
• Are these rules mere cultural products, like norms of
• Or do the laws of logic hold across all human
cultures, being general truths of human biology?
• Are the laws of logic transcendent, holding for all
(possible and actual) rational beings?
Is Logic itself a necessary being?
• If logic has the kind of transcendent objectivity that
many believe, then it fits poorly into a naturalistic
• How could something that seems essentially
concerned with thought exist in the absence of
• Many theists regard logic as “the architecture of
God’s mind”.
– Universals are divine concepts
– States of affairs are divine thoughts, etc.
“Augustinian theism [also] provides an attractive explanation [of]
the ontological status of the objects of logic and mathematics. To
many of us both of the following views seem extremely plausible.
(1) Possibilities and necessary truths are discovered, not made, by
our thought. They would still be there if none of us humans
ever thought of them.
(2) Possibilities and necessary truths cannot be there except
insofar as they, or the ideas involved in them, are thought by
some mind.
The first of these views seems to require Platonism; the second is
a repudiation of it. Yet they can both be held together if we
suppose that there is a non-human mind that eternally and
necessarily exists and thinks all the possibilities and necessary
truths. Such is the mind of God, according to Augustinian
(Robert Adams, “Divine Necessity”, Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 80, No.
11, 1983, p. 751)