Monday, May 12, 2014

Book Write-Up: The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz

William Lane Craig.  The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz.  New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1980.  (This book was first published in the United Kingdom by the MACMILLAN PRESS LTD, and in the United States by Harper and Row Publishers, Barnes and Noble Import Division.)

William Lane Craig is a Christian apologist and philosopher.  I wanted to read Dr. Craig’s Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz after I had read his 2013 book (with Joseph E. Gorra), A Reasonable Response: Answers to Tough Questions on God, Christianity and the Bible (see my review of that here).  Dr. Craig’s presentation of the cosmological argument often seemed to me to be rather simple, and I wanted to see if he addressed the nuances and different formulations of the cosmological argument.  Moreover, since I was reading about Greek philosophy and the Enlightenment, I figured that Dr. Craig’s book might teach me more about these topics.

Well, I did not find The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz to be simple!  It was quite nuanced, its presentation of different philosophers’ arguments could be heavy, and, as Dr. Craig often does, it valued precision.  I probably would have enjoyed the book more had it possessed a greater narrative element, giving background about the philosophers and conveying their arguments in more of a storytelling fashion.  In addition, while I understood many of the words that Dr. Craig used in their dictionary-definition sense, I was not always clear about their meaning within a philosophical context: essence and existence, for example, and how essence does not necessarily imply existence.  A couple of apologetics books that I have read have bibliographies that mark books by level of difficulty, labeling them as basic, intermediate, or advanced.  I would either put this book in the advanced category, saying that it requires background in philosophy to be an easy read, or I would call it intermediate, while adding that it may require an intense level of concentration in order for many readers to grasp its contents fully.  I got something out of the book, but I am sure that I missed certain nuances.

Still, while the book and I did not have much of a chemistry, the book would probably be valuable to scholars in philosophy.  Craig states that his goal is to clarify the different formulations of the cosmological argument, since a number of scholars tend to conflate them.  Craig also attempts to correct what he deems to be inaccurate interpretations and applications of Thomas Aquinas’ cosmological argument.

The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz is about the cosmological argument in the thought of Plato, Aristotle, Arabic theologians and philosophers, Jewish philosophers, Thomas Aquinas, John Duns Scotus, Benedict de Spinoza, and G.W.F. Leibniz.  What is the cosmological argument?  Well, it varies!  The argument that Dr. Craig usually presents in debates is the Kalam version, and it states that (1.) everything that began to exist was caused to exist, (2.) the universe began to exist, and therefore (3.) the universe was caused to exist.  The cosmological argument often pertains to the question of where the universe came from, or what brought it into existence.  The implication is that God was the one who brought the universe into existence.

But the Kalam version of the cosmological argument was only one version, and Dr. Craig chronicles the various versions.  Plato and Thomas Aquinas stressed movement: things are causing other things to move and to change, and there had to be a first mover, one (or, perhaps for Plato, more than one) who was not moved by another.  Aristotle did not believe that the universe came to exist after not existing, per se, for he regarded the universe and its movements as eternal, yet he maintained that a primary unmoved mover was sustaining the universe and continually acting as the source of its movements.  The Kalam version held by Arabic thinkers posited that the universe and time had a beginning.  John Duns Scotus stressed that the cause of the universe’s existence had to come from outside of the material world: one who was transcendent rather than material.  Spinoza, by contrast, was a pantheist, who equated God with the universe.  And Leibniz focused on the question of why something exists rather than nothing, proposing that God is a sufficient reason for the universe’s existence.

Dr. Craig explores the reasons and arguments that the philosophers offered for their positions. What comes up often in this book, and also in other places where Dr. Craig has discussed the cosmological argument, is the impossibility of an infinite regress.  Certain Arabic thinkers maintained that time and the universe had to begin at some point, otherwise they have always existed, and we would never have arrived at the present moment.  How could we arrive at the present moment, if time goes back forever and ever?  There needs to be some starting point, in short.  Dr. Craig in debates often appeals to the Big Bang Theory, which posits that the universe had a beginning, and he argues that something cannot naturally come from nothing, and thus there is good reason to believe that God caused that something to exist.  But the Big Bang Theory does not come up in The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz, for it was unknown by the philosophers whom Dr. Craig discusses.  Those in this book who believed that the universe had a beginning had other reasons for their position, such as the impossibility of an infinite regress.

Another issue seems to be that certain philosophers thought that what was finite and contingent had to be caused by a source that was infinite and necessary in its existence—-that something finite or contingent would not be adequate as an ultimate cause or source.

I cannot say that I feel spiritually inspired after reading Dr. Craig’s apologetics or philosophical arguments, for they are rather technical.  At the same time, there is some spiritual part of me to which the cosmological argument appeals: that we are finite in our lives, that we are limited, and that someone greater than us needed to bring us into existence, otherwise we would not exist.  We are dependent, according to the cosmological argument.  Humbling thought!

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