Causes, Wagers, and Morals (A.C. Grayling, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, pp. 95-106.


The cosmological argument, in its various forms, infers the existence of deity from observations about the contingency of the world. It is similar to the teleological argument in being empirically based, but it differs in that, instead of focusing on the appearance of design in the world, it concentrates on the facts that the world came into existence, that it could have been different (this is what is meant by the world being ‘contingent’), and that everything is governed by causation – everything is the effect or outcome of preceding conditions and circumstances that caused it.

The standard form of the cosmological argument says that because the world came into existence, it must have been created, and it must have been created for the following reasons: it is contingent, so it must be grounded on something that is non-contingent, which is to say, necessary. Everything is the effect of a preceding cause, which means that the causal chain runs backwards in time to earlier and earlier causes. Now, either there is a first uncaused or self-caused cause, or there is a regress of causes going back infinitely. But this latter supposition makes no sense, so there must be a first cause which is itself uncaused or self-caused.

And then the usual big jump is made from ‘a first cause’ or ‘a necessary ground for contingent being’ to a god – indeed, to the god of traditional religion.

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One immediate comment that the cosmological argument invites is to say that it is an expression of a psychological need to have explanations about why there is a world, how it began, and where it is going. It is a feature of human beings that they are eager for accounts that give explanatory closure. The scientific mindset, which welcomes the open-endedness of uncertainty because it is an invitation to enquiry and discovery, is the opposite of this. Notably, a religious explanation of how the world began, why it exists, and where we are all going to end, can be given in twenty minutes or less. It takes years to master the rudiments of physics.

Arguments of a cosmological type are found in Plato and Aristotle, but a clear modern statement of the argument’s basic idea is given by Leibniz in his assertion that ‘nothing can exist without a sufficient reason why it is so and not otherwise’.12 In the physical world revealed by empirical observation, this principle – known as the ‘principle of sufficient reason’ – takes the form of a causal claim stating that every contingently existing thing has a cause of its existence. And then the rest of the argument falls into place: the chain of causes cannot run back infinitely, so there has to be a first cause, and since this first cause is itself not contingent upon or caused by anything else, it must be non-contingent, that is, necessary.


There are a number of obvious responses, each equally definitive. One is to question the necessity of a non-contingent first cause. Why cannot the universe be its own reason for existing? Science has a very good account of how the universe we occupy – whether or not it is one of many, perhaps infinitely many – has evolved from a beginning whose nature can be carefully reconstructed, to within a minuscule fraction of time after the initial singularity (the ‘Big Bang’), by tracing back the evolution of physical phenomena as they now are.

The logic that underlies this did not have to wait for contemporary physics to be clear. Hume argued in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) that if you explain each individual contingent thing in the universe, you thereby explain the universe, and that it is a fallacy of logic to suppose that once you have done this you still have to explain the existence of the universe as a whole. This is cognate to what in logic is called the ‘fallacy of composition’, which we commit if we say that because each member of a school of whales is a whale, the school of whales is a whale – in other words, that a collection has the properties of its individual members. By reasoning in an analogous way, we see that to explain each thing in the universe does not leave the universe as a whole to be explained; the sum of individual explanations does the work already.

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Hume also called into question the principle of causation that underlies the argument. Why accept a priori that everything has a cause, given that we can conceive of effects independently of causes? Defenders of the cosmological argument say that without strict adherence to the causal principle we cannot make the universe intelligible. But this might be because of the psychological need noted above, to reduce everything to a neat explanatory framework – the universe might in fact work in ways that do not comply with our intellectual preferences.

Kant approached the cosmological argument differently in his Critique of Pure Reason. He argued that it is not really an empirical argument, but a concealed version of the ontological argument, for it invokes the concept of a necessary being to serve as a ground for the contingent universe. But the concept of a necessary being is shown by discussion of the ontological argument to be empty.


Some of Kant’s critics use a technical philosophical distinction to answer him. They claim that he has mistaken the idea of a logically necessary being with the cosmological argument’s requirement for a metaphysically necessary being. The distinction works in rather the way that equivocation over the term ‘necessary’ worked in relation to Dr Pangloss’s nose, as explained above. A logically necessary being is one that must exist. A metaphysically necessary being is one that must exist in order for the universe to have a stopping-point for the regress of causes, that is, as a ground on which contingent existence can rest. Thus, metaphysical necessity is relative, logical necessity is absolute.

But Kant can reply that this attempt to restrict attention to the ‘necessary condition’ sense of ‘necessity’ is spurious, because what is being proposed is a being that has to exist, whether our ground for asserting this is the definition of the being (as the ontological argument has it) or the contingency and causal dependency of the world upon such a being (as the cosmological argument asserts). Any counter to the claim that the idea of a necessary being makes sense is therefore a counter to both arguments.

Some defenders of the cosmological argument position it as a version of the ‘inference to the best explanation’. This move has it that because of our ignorance about the why and how of the world, nominating a deity as both its source and the reason for its existence is ‘the best available explanation’.

This is a very feeble argument; it clutches arbitrarily at something to fill the explanatory gaps in our knowledge, and has no better claim than if we just as arbitrarily invoked the existence of fairies for the same purpose. Moreover, to summon so undefined and implausible a thing as a deity to perform this role is to explain the universe in terms of something more mysterious and arbitrary than the universe itself. That takes us nowhere.

Thomas-Aquinas-Picture-Quote-e1394104417378The arguments so far discussed all aim to establish the proposition ‘that God exists’. They are arguments that date from the long era before natural science began to give us a far better grip on the nature of natural phenomena and their operations and sources. They are arguments spun out of semantics and armchair philosophising based on very little real knowledge of the world. They wear their inadequacies on their sleeves, and such interest as they have belongs to the history of ideas – a great archive of surpassed speculations.

A quite different tactic is to argue that it is prudent to believe that there is a deity, whether or not one can otherwise provide reasons for thinking so. In fact, this move is specifically aimed at supporting belief in a deity of the traditionally conceived type, that is, one that is interested in human beings on this planet to the point of promising rewards for obedience and worship, or punishments otherwise.


The most celebrated such argument is Pascal’s wager.13 Pascal said that because the existence of a deity can be neither proved nor disproved (here he was mistaken; see above) by rational argument, one has to take the different course of considering the advantages and disadvantages of believing that there is a deity. If there is a deity, the advantage of believing in its existence is huge; it is a benefit that pays off for all eternity. If there is no deity, then one has not lost much by believing in its existence anyway. Therefore, it is prudent to believe.

In contemporary theory this argument is stated in terms of ‘expected utility’. Pascal’s point is that no matter how small the probability that a deity exists, as long as it is non-zero the utility of believing it far outweighs the disutility of believing it; therefore it is not just prudent but rational to believe.

Some theistic critics put the interesting argument that this very pragmatic reason for believing is too cold and calculating to be the kind of belief that an interested god would want from its creatures, and this might count against the utility of believing in this way; if such a god exists but is offended by the calculating nature of the belief, the sought-for benefits will not be forthcoming. So Pascal’s prudential argument is self-defeating.

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Voltaire’s response to Pascal’s wager was characteristically acute: ‘the interest I have in believing in something is not a proof that the something exists’.14 This is of course right. But the two chief criticisms of Pascal’s argument are that its starting-point does not do what is required of it, and that it is not the case that the existence of a deity cannot be disproved.

First, Pascal says that as long as the probability of a god’s existence is non-zero, then the utility of believing in it outweighs the utility of disbelieving in it. Note that this is only so if, in addition, you believe that there is life after death, heaven, reward and punishment, indeed a whole raft of additional things that Pascal simply assumes accompany belief in the existence of a god. If the probability that there is a god is vanishingly small, what is the probability of the truth of all this additional matter?

Pascal Quote

Grant for a moment that Pascal’s prudential calculation applies to these things too. Now consider that by parity of reasoning the same amount of sense can be made of the claim that there is a non-zero probability that fairies exist, however vanishingly small that probability is; or that the gods of Olympus exist, or even that there is green cheese beneath the surface of the moon. Admittedly the utility of believing some of these things will be very low or even negative, but there could be utility in believing some of the others: belief in fairies, for example, might yield a great deal of charm and pleasure, and it might even add explanatory value. (It used to be believed that fairies were responsible for curdling milk, and for stealing small household objects such as pins and shoelaces.) In no such case could the usefulness of believing these things by itself make it rational to believe them.

This point applies to other forms of a prudential or, slightly differently, pragmatic argument. It is sometimes claimed that theistic belief should be encouraged because it makes people behave better, or because it comforts them in time of trouble, and that it can discipline whole populations by making them believe that they are being watched always and everywhere, and that they will inevitably, no escape possible, be rewarded or punished for what they do. The utility or the prudential value of this is offered as making (the inculcation of ) belief rational. This is where it is relevant to revisit the points about proof made earlier, and fully worth repeating.

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It was noted that in formal systems of logic and mathematics, proof is demonstrative and conclusive. In deductive logic all inferences are actually instances of petitio principii because the conclusion is always contained in the premises, and deductions are merely (even though often not obviously) rearrangements of the information in the premises (consider: ‘all men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal’). As noted earlier, there can indeed be psychological novelty in the outcome of a deduction, but never logical novelty; this latter only happens in inductive inference, where the informational content of conclusions goes beyond the informational content of their premises. For this reason inductive inferences are known as ‘ampliative’

But inductions are not proofs in the sense of formal proof. Their success or otherwise turns on how probable the premises make the conclusions, or – differently and better viewed – how rational the premises make acceptance of the conclusions. And this relates them to the non-demonstrative sense of ‘proof’ which is at issue here.

In non-demonstrative contexts ‘proof’ is to be understood in its proper meaning of ‘test’. Steel and other materials are tested or ‘proved’ – loaded until they crack or break, heated until they warp or melt, frozen until they shatter, or whatever is appropriate – and this is the sense in which we talk of the ‘proof of the pudding’ or ‘the exception that proves (tests) the rule’. Claims to the existence of anything are subject to proof or test in this sense. This is where Carl Sagan’s ‘dragon in the garage’ example demonstrates its worth.

Again remember Clifford’s strictures on belief. When the evidence is not merely insufficient but absent or contrary, how much more wrong to do as Doubting Thomas was criticised for not doing, and as Søren Kierkegaard encouraged: to believe nevertheless.

This point weighs particularly against those who, in similar vein to Plantinga but with less disguise in theological or philosophical clothing, claim that one can choose to believe because it is comforting or satisfying to do so, or because it gives hope even if one knows that it is the very slimmest of hopes. These are psychological motivations which are no doubt very common among adult believers (children, as we saw, believe because they are evolutionarily primed to be credulous, and therefore believe everything the adults in their circle insist that they believe). But Clifford’s point about the ethics of belief demands that we make mature and responsible use of our cognitive capacities, and nothing that Pascal or anyone else (William James had a similar view15) says in the way of prudence, caution, hope against hope, or the benefits of believing even on poor grounds, can stand against that.

 William_Kingdon_Clifford_by_John_CollierWhat of the moral argument for the existence of deity? We need only the briefest discussion of it. Stated at its simplest, it is that there can be no morality unless there is a deity. Put a little more fully, the argument in effect says that there can be no moral code unless it is laid down, policed, punished and rewarded by a deity. Religious apologists would prefer to state the case differently: that morality is the response of a loving creation to its loving creator. Or, alternatively put again: because god is so nice, we should be nice to each other. The existence of moral evil (the tsunamis and childhood cancers) raises questions about the love and niceness of the deity if there is one, but the positively spun versions of the moral argument do not hide the fact that it consists in saying that morality is groundless unless ordained, and its breaches sanctioned, by a deity. This view is consistent with the assumption made, in the case of Judaeo-Christian religion, that humans are ‘fallen’ or innately sinful beings who need salvation.

The argument that there can be no morality unless policed by a deity is refuted by the existence of good atheists. Arguably, non-theists count among themselves the most careful moral thinkers, because in the absence of an externally imposed morality they recognise the duty to examine their views, choices and actions, and how they should behave towards others.

Consider the thinkers of classical antiquity – Aristotle, the Stoics and others – and one will see that their examination of ethics was not premised on the belief that morals were a matter of divine command, or that they were responding to the requirements of a deity, still less that they were seeking reward in an afterlife, or the avoidance of punishment. Their example illustrates the falsity of the claim that moral principles can only come from an external agency.

Nor were these thinkers persuaded that supposed analogies between moral and natural law suggest that both require to have been laid down by a deity; nor again that the only ground for the actual or even apparent objectivity of ethical principles is that they are the product of a divine will.

Kant, this time in his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), demonstrated one way to underwrite the objectivity of moral law; he argued that reason identifies the categorical (unconditional) imperatives that specify our moral duties, and that this would be so whether or not a deity exists.

There is an important point implicit in this view. The fact that anyone commands us to do something is not by itself a reason why we should do it, other than prudentially (as when we are threatened with punishment for not obeying). The action in question has itself to be independently worthy of doing, or there has to be a reason other than someone’s merely wishing or commanding that we do it, to serve as a genuine reason for it.


A related consideration, called the ‘Euthyphro Problem’ after a discussion of it in Plato’s dialogue of that name, is this: is an act wrong because a god says it is, or is it forbidden by god because it is wrong? If the latter, then there is a reason independently of the will of a god that makes the act wrong. But then there is morality without god and the moral argument for the existence of god fails. If the former, then anything god commands (murder and rape, for example) would be morally good, just because he commands it; and then, as Leibniz puts it, ‘In saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but merely by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realising it, all the love of God and all his glory. For why praise him for what he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary?’16

Behind the thought that there needs to be a god to give and enforce moral principles is the further thought that such principles require the backing of authority, for otherwise there is no answer to the moral sceptic who asks, ‘Why should I be moral? Why should I not lie or kill or steal?’ because there is no ultimate sanction for his failure to live morally. To thinkers of this persuasion, morality is empty unless it can be enforced.

The examples of the good atheist and the classical philosopher also rebut this view. There are many sound reasons why we should seek to live responsibly, with generosity and sympathy towards others, with care and affection for them, and with continence, sound judgement and decency in our own lives. We can see the value of these things in themselves, and from the point of the benefits they bring society and its individual members, including ourselves. A thoughtful person could decide not to be the sort of person who steals even if he would never be found out or punished, precisely because he does not want to be such a person, and because at least one person knows what he would be doing if he did such things – namely, himself; and if he has standards, he might well choose to live up to them.

In short, there is no need for an external enforcer to make us the kind of people who take such thoughts seriously; and we might all prefer to live in a world where people seek to be morally worthy because they see the point of it, not because they are being watched and will be rewarded or punished according to the degree to which they abide by the rules. In the latter sort of world one cannot tell the difference between those who are acting out of principle and those who are acting out of prudence, and perhaps wishing they could do otherwise – doing it inauthentically, as the point is sometimes put. How much better is a world for being a world of volunteers, not slaves!