To what extent was Hume successful in his critique of the cosmological argument? [10] (with breakdown of my answer)

b) To what extent was Hume successful in his critique of the cosmological argument? [10]

Hume makes some very important challenges to the Cosmological argument which some believe count decisively against it. One of the key areas he calls into question is the argument’s dependence upon what Leibniz termed the principle of sufficient reason. In this principle an adequate explanation must be a total explanation. The universe requires an explanation of itself as a whole. But many would say, as Russell later told Copleston: “Then I can only say that you’re looking for something which can’t be got, and which one ought not to expect to get.”

If you have explained each individual element of a series any explanation of the series as a whole would seem to be superfluous, and besides he says that ‘the whole’ doesn’t really exist anyway – it is ‘an arbitrary act of mind’ that makes things into wholes.  What we term the ‘whole universe’ in modern physics may be only a bubble in a larger reality that we have no way of grasping. Also if we are only entitled to talk about causes when we have had experience of them, then this argument would seem to be over-stretching itself in speculating upon what it cannot know.

On the other hand, there is of course a problem with stopping at a certain point and saying that we should seek no further explanation, in that it is a basic presupposition of all scientific work. However, even though a principle of rationality is that we can find an explanation for things, it is not a logical requirement – there is no guarantee that there will be one. So, I think Hume significantly weakens forms of the argument that depend on the principle of sufficient reason.

However, I think that Hume’s criticisms of a necessary being somewhat misunderstand what is meant by necessity in this case. Some have said that this argument arrives at a factually necessary being, not a logically necessary one, so that Hume’s point that any being may or may not exist is question-begging because the argument seems to arrive a posteriori at a being that has to exist.

Hume has outlined some powerful problems with the argument, but they do not totally defeat it. I think we are at least entitled to ask the question of what caused the universe, as this is what modern physics does. The difficulty is in arriving at the Christian God as an answer to such a question. I think therefore that Hume was fairly but not completely successful in his criticisms of the argument.

Breakdown of part b answer:

Key phrase: “To what extent…” Envisage this as a matter of degree. Try rephrasing as ‘how much’ or ‘how far’ or ‘how successful was Hume’ in challenging the argument? Did he deliver a knockout blow? If so what was it? Why was it a KO? If he didn’t did he only daze the argument so it stills stands, or is it down on one knee? If you visualise the problems and the criticisms like that you won’t finish the essay without doing some kind of evaluation.

1st paragraph: I begin by finding the most fundamental challenge to the argument and stating it. I think, along with many others, that there are fundamental flaws with the principle of sufficient reason, so any forms of the argument that rely on that will be severely challenged (Aquinas’ Third Way does of course). At the end of the paragraph I state an objection to it from Russell.

2nd paragraph: I briefly mention three other of Hume’s objections here. The fallacy of composition, the fact that the ‘whole’ is our own invention, epistemological scepticism. This paragraph is fairly explanatory, and does little evaluation, however, in the context of the essay, I feel it is necessary to establish Hume’s case a bit.

3rd paragraph: Where I make my evaluation of Hume, finding his challenge to the principle of sufficient reason powerful. This could have been improved with an example to show why I think this is the case. For instance,  one of my students said that children playing hide and seek might be looking for a child who they presume is hiding. However, there is no guarantee that they will find the child, as he may have decided to go home. So also, the fact that you are looking for something doesn’t mean it has to exist. This kind of illustration is useful as it can help to persuade someone that there is a problem with an argument, by relating it to an everyday situation. In this case it also serves to illustrate what many see as the fatal flaw with the principle of sufficient reason. Notice that I also show why some think it is acceptable to seek a ‘total explanation’.

4th and 5th paragraphs : I was well over time by this point – you have 45 minutes to do part a and b, so you would only want 20 minutes maximum to do part b – I’m a slow writer/thinker, so find it challenging! Anyway, I finish off by mentioning where I think Hume is not so successful and concluding that I think his criticisms weaken the argument but not totally. I don’t really think my conclusion is completely supported by the body of the essay, but there you go, if I had more time I could!

Things I would have like to add: 

More exploration of the fallacy of composition. Fallacies are useful things to find in arguments because they are errors of reasoning. For instance, where assumptions have been made, or a conclusion has been arrived at that doesn’t necessarily follow from the premise. They are useful because they can signpost that there is a problem with the argument, and they go beyond the kind of criticism that says “I don’t like this argument” or “I find it confusing”. Take the time to familiarise yourself with a list of fallacies on the internet, it will help when you come to evaluate any argument.

The fallacy of composition is an informal fallacy, and there are cases where it doesn’t hold – see this post here for an interesting viewpoint.

For AS level students looking to evaluate Hume’s criticisms of the cosmological argument, this is very helpful

Thomistic Bent

The Vertical Cosmological Argument has various forms and is rather conceptual, but can be described as:

1. Everything in the universe is contingent (they could “not exist”).
2. All contingent things need an ongoing cause to sustain them.
3. Therefore the universe needs an ongoing cause to sustain it.

(a more detailed description can be found here)

Common attacks from critics on this argument are 1) this untrue since it depends on the principle of sufficient reason, and 2) it’s the fallacy of composition. We won’t deal with the first here other than to say the vertical cosmological argument does not hinge on sufficient reason, but on the principle of causality, which is very different.

But the second is a bit more tricky. The fallacy of composition can be described with the following illustrations: if every tile in a floor is square, it does not follow that the whole…

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Interesting survey on the persuasiveness of arguments for and against God

Pascals Bookie

A recent study (loose use of the word) surveyed philosophers of religion, other kinds of philosophers and average people to find out what the most convincing arguments for and against the existence of God are.

The study also attempted to see what factors influence how people view an argument (e.g. atheists view arguments more negatively than believers do, gender, education, etc).

For God

Against God


[From the paper]
Respondents were asked to rate how strong they found a series of natural theological arguments ,on a likert scale of 1 (very weak) to 5 (very strong). Arguments were organized in two groups(arguments for and arguments against the existence of God) of 8 items each. The results are summarized in figures 1,2,and 3 grouped in arguments for and arguments against. Overall, the strongest rated natural theological argument was the argument from evil (meanscore: 3.55). The second strongest rated argument was the

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Explain Hume’s criticisms of the cosmological argument

a) Explain Hume’s criticisms of the cosmological argument. [25]


Hume’s criticisms of the cosmological argument are found in his book Dialogues on Natural Religion. In them Philo, Demea and Cleanthes discuss arguments for the existence of God. Hume was a sceptic and therefore doubtful about the claims of religion. The sceptic in the Dialogues called Philo has therefore been assumed to be putting forward Hume’s views.

The cosmological argument rests on certain principles of causation. In particular that any existent thing must have a cause or reason for its existence (this is what Leibniz points to in his principle of sufficient reason), and that there cannot be more in the effect than there is in the cause. Hume challenges these assumptions in his Dialogues.

There are three main categories of criticism that Hume makes of the argument. Firstly he has general concerns about the way it is structured, and believes that this structure is fallacious, secondly he has more specific concerns related to causation and finally he raises challenges to do with the concepts of contingency and necessity.

Hume’s challenges to the structure of the cosmological argument directly question the validity of the assumption that existent things need causes or reasons for their existence. Hume says that just because each of the elements of the ‘chain’ has a cause, it doesn’t follow that the chain itself needs a cause. He gives the example of a collection of twenty particles – if an explanation is found for each particle individually he says it would be wrong to then seek an explanation for the whole collection, because you have already explained it by explaining each particle. This is called the fallacy of composition, and was later memorably put by Russell that just because every man has a mother, it doesn’t mean that there is a mother of the human race.

Hume also says that people say the ‘whole’ needs a cause, but that the uniting of the parts into a whole is performed by an ‘arbitrary act of the mind’, in other words, what we call a ‘whole’ is only our own name for something that doesn’t actually exist ‘out there’. Eg. when we unite several counties into one kingdom, this has no influence on the nature of things, it is simply a human perception. So to look for a cause of this whole (arbitrarily defined by us) would seem to be mistaken. Modern physics would seem to provide some support for this – with the view of ‘pocket universes’ which exist within larger ones – to look for a ‘whole’ gets very difficult in this view.

Hume says that it is not inconceivable that the world had no cause, or just always existed – he says “it is neither intuitively or demonstratively certain” that every object that begins to exist owes its existence to a cause. He also says that like causes produce like effects – this seems to be true in the case of parent rabbits producing baby rabbits, for example, so as many things in the universe seem to be the offspring of two parents, why should we assume that there is one male ‘parent’ of the universe – wouldn’t it make more sense to postulate a male and female creator God?

Hume also has some challenges to the notion of causation, which the cosmological argument relies heavily on. In the Dialogues Demea puts forward an analogy of a house needing an architect – likewise the existence of an ordered universe requires a divine architect. Philo attacks this by saying that we while we experience houses coming from architects, we have no parallel experience with regard to the universe:

“When two species of objects have always been observed to be conjoined together, I can infer, by custom, the existence of one, where-ever I see the existence of the other… But how this argument can have place, where the objects, as in the present case, are … without parallel…may be difficult to explain.”

So we have had experience of houses coming from architects but no experience of the origins of universes, so we are in no position to talk about them. Hume had developed a theory of causation that was based on our epistemological limits as human beings – to talk about the origin of the universe is to go beyond the scope of human understanding and observation, as it is impossibly remote and unavailable to us. The empirical method is based on the ability to make observations to explain the causes of things. This is only possible for particular effects in the universe.

This is related to another problem that he identified with the notion of causation – that it is a ‘habit of mind’ rather than something that exists independently ‘within’ the object. He gives the example of a billiard ball hitting another – all we can observe is that the motion of one ball follows the motion of the other ball – we link the two in our minds and say that one causes the other to move, but there is no evidence of a link. Therefore, to base an argument on causation would be foolish, as we could never be sure that causation is anything other than a psychological effect. In fact it would be even more foolish in the case of the universe, because lacking past experience of formation of universes, we haven’t even got anything to base our ‘habit of mind’ on.

Finally Hume attacks the idea of a necessary being –  these challenges relate specifically to Aquinas’ third way, as it relies on the notions of contingency and necessity.

Hume wonders if those qualities that make God’s non-existence impossible – couldn’t they belong to the universe itself? In other words why posit a necessary being rather than a necessary universe?

There is a deeper problem with the idea of a necessary being too. Any being that exists can also not exist, and there is no contradiction implied in conceiving its non-existence, but this is exactly what would have to be the case, if its existence were necessary. So the term ‘necessary being’ makes no sense a posteriori – any being claimed to exist may or may not exist. In Hume’s own words “All existential propositions are synthetic.”


Doctoroctagon's Blog

Why does this programme annoy me so much? The ubiquity of Brian Cox and Robin Ince? The self-satisfied self-congratulatory smugness of the programme? The overwhelmingly male panel? The lazy platitudinous characterisation of religion and faith as easy options, usually for faith as ‘belief without evidence’ as opposed to science which is ‘belief based on evidence’?

In the programme on Radio 4 the other day I heard essentially this argument: “Science is great because ‘I don’t know’ is the commonest phrase used by scientists, whilst religion is crap because its adherents have all the answers and therefore abandon all curiosity and interest in life”. Again and again there is a real sense that these people haven’t bothered to find out what faith might actually be to believers, and to have some sense of what belief is about. Many of the greatest theologians have been essentially agnostic about God. All believers are…

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January 17th A2 Philosophy of Religion OCR exam questions

For those taking the January module for Philosophy of Religion OCR A2 I have been asked if I can predict what will come up! The answer to that is no! Anything could come up! All I can point to is what hasn’t come up for a little while.

In June 2012 Eternity, Dawkins and Aristotle, Language Games (Wittgenstein) and Conversion experiences came up. I predicted three of those amongst some others.

The other topics that I noticed hadn’t occured for a while were: disembodied existence, definition of miracles (perhaps linked to Hume), main aims and conclusions of William James (not the 4 characteristics of mystical exp.), numinous experience (Rudolf Otto), and the via negativa. We haven’t had questions on revelation and sacred scripture for a little while either.

Good luck and remember, there is no guarantee that any of these will come up!