Friday, March 23, 2018

Bavinck on the Cosmological Proof of God

In The Doctrine of God, Bavinck provides come clear thinking on the various “proofs” of God. I’ll try to summarize his arguments beginning with the Cosmological Argument.

In future posts I'll look at other so-called proofs.

All quotes attributed to Bavinck are from: Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God, translated by William Hendriksen, Baker Book House, 1951, pp. 69-70.

There are actually quite a few forms of the Cosmological Argument, but they share the feature of rolling the cause and effect tape backwards until you get to the first cause, which was necessarily uncaused—it just was. It is then a seemingly small step (but is it logically valid?) to call this first cause God. 

Before any Cosmological Argument has any force, you must eliminate the obvious counter-argument: an infinite chain of causes with no beginning. Bavinck more or less dismisses this criticism as absurd:
Now an infinite series of causes is indeed inconceivable and impossible. Nobody accepts such a series: all recognize an absolute ground, a first being, whether this being be called God or the Absolute, substance or force, matter or will, etc. 
Let's take a look at the most common form of the Cosmological, with a preamble attributed to Kalām:

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

 Bavinck agrees with this (so far), writing:
 It is correct to reason that even as all individual objects have a cause, so also the universe as a whole –whereas it consists of these objects—must also have a cause. 
But what comes next? As found in Wikipedia, Modern Christian philosopher William Lane Craig explains, by nature of the event (the Universe coming into existence), attributes unique to (the concept of) God must also be attributed to the cause of this event, including but not limited to: omnipotence, Creator, being eternal and absolute self-sufficiency. Since these attributes are unique to God, anything with these attributes must be God. Something does have these attributes: the cause; hence, the cause is God, the cause exists; hence, God exists.

Bavinck would disagree. After the Bavinck quote above, in which he concurs that the universe must have had a cause, he writes:
But further than that it [the argument] does not bring us. It tells us nothing about the character and nature of that cause. 
And he goes on to add:
[T]he cosmological proof does not tell us anything of the inner nature of such a first cause; that we have no right to apply the law of causality also to it; hence we can say nothing definite in regard to the first cause, Therefore we are forced to the conclusion that, at best, i.e., provided that we grant the impossibility of an infinite series of causes, the cosmological proof brings us to a first, independent, absolute world-cause. 
But beyond that—it’s pure speculation. The argument does not rule out God. Nor does it rule out a universe caused by a primordial quantum fluctuation.

What can I say? This has been my feeling regarding the Cosmological Argument from the very first time I heard it. It is not an argument devoid of comfort for the believer, but (unfortunately) it fails to rise anywhere close to the level of proof of any god, let alone The God.


  1. Jason5:48 AM

    The first cause argument mentioned in this post attempts to prove the universe has a temporally first cause. But all the other cosmological arguments allow for an eternal universe; for their concern is not when or how the universe got started, but rather concern actuality and potentiality, possibility and necessity etc. These considerations lead us to a 'First Cause' - something that is Pure Actuality, for instance. It is not temporally first, but rather ontologically.

    And then further deduction shows that to be pure actuality is to be eternal, immaterial etc.

    I strongly recommend a book called 'Five Proofs of the Existence of God' by Edward Feser. Any of his work on God, really. Or check out his blog post:

    Once understood, you may see what exactly it means to be the First Cause, and that indeed it is God in the most proper sense.

  2. Jason, Thanks for the reply.

    I read the Feser blogpost. Leaving aside its obnoxious "I'm smart and you're dumb" attitude, it is primarily concerned an incorrect formulation of the argument, on which P1 is "everything that exists has a cause". Of course the form I used does has P1 as *whatever begins* to exist has a cause.

    As for all the forms that allow for an eternal (in the past) universe, I agree philosophically with Bavinck that it is absurd, I would also argue mathematically it is absurd, and finally the crushing blow is that scientifically the increasingly accelerating universe we find ourselves to be inhabiting has all but killed any eternally bouncing cosmos models. Our universe, at least, had a beginning and as far as science can say, it will expand forever until all matter breaks down an there is nothing but a barely above absolute zero glow.

  3. Jason4:42 AM

    Thanks for the response, David.

    What I mean to say is that the other arguments simply proceed whether or not the universe finite, had a beginning etc. The arguments don't claim the universe is eternal; rather the question is irrelevant.

    If you haven't, I really recommend reading the literature on the classical first cause/cosmological arguments that are concerned with the sheer actuality of things.

    For in such cosmological arguments, the nature of the First Cause is very clear, and follows immediately. There is no leap from first cause to God in those arguments, is what i'm trying to say.