My focus will be concerning the cosmological argument for God’s existence in its modern conception as formed in and around the 18th century which allows for the possibility of an infinite regress of dependent beings. The goal of this short rumination is to propose that Rowe’s usage of the Principle of Sufficient Reason to claim that there is a need for the explanation as to the existence of an infinite set of dependent things is not valid.

The proposition of an infinite regress of dependent beings in the argument is usually raised by those who seek to undermine the cosmological argument by saying that there need not be an independent, self-existent being or First Mover to begin the causal chain which has brought about existence as we know it through experience. In the concept of an infinite regress of dependent beings, each dependent being is merely the product of another dependent being and that being is also just the product of yet another dependent being, such that each link of the infinite chain owes its existence to the link which precedes it. In this way it is supposed that each link (dependent being) has an explanation for its existence, therefore the existence of the whole infinite chain (the whole of existence), which is made of those links, is explained.

Rowe claims that this objection misses the point, for he argues that it still leaves unexplained why there exists an infinite set of dependent beings. In other words, the question is not “how does each dependent being exist?”, but “how does the infinite set taken as a whole exist?”.[1] He is convinced that answering the former does not sufficiently answer the latter.[2] That he expects an explanation for the existence of the infinite set, and that he is not willing to accept that the infinite set exists as a simple brute fact, comes from his adherence and application of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). Rowe formulates the Principle by saying that, of anything that exists, its existence must be explained either 1) by another thing or 2) by itself.[3] Thus, his rejection of the idea that the infinite set is a simple brute fact, meaning that it simply exists apart from any explanation, rests upon his assumption that for everything there must be some form of explanation. Seeing that there is nothing inherent in the concept of an infinite set which necessitates that it exist, and seeing that no further explanation is given for its existence by reference to another, Rowe rejects that the set exists as a brute fact and claims that its existence thus necessitates and can only be explained by the existence of a self-existent being who caused it to exist, and this would be God.[4]

But I believe that Rowe’s usage or application of PSR is unwarranted. To understand this, we should examine the evidence upon which the said Principle is based. When we do this, we find that there is no doubt that it is based on an empirical analysis of our surroundings in the world, it has an a posteriori foundation. We examine the world, and we see that for each thing that exists, some other thing or factor has caused it to exist in the manner that it does. We see that each thing is a dependent thing. Science has shown this truth to be, so far, universal. So, if this principle is seemingly universal, why should I raise an objection on Rowe’s usage of it? My issue is not against the Principle itself necessarily, but against the way in which Rowe employs the Principle, which is based on the observation of the particular, and which he applies to the whole. While it may be true that, within the infinite set itself, there are only dependent beings each depending on another, and therefore the Principle applies and explanations can be given, that does not mean by necessity that the Principle applies to the entire infinite set itself and as a whole. I see this as a kind of compositional fallacy. In short form, Rowe figures that since the Principle applies to all things within the infinite set of dependent beings, the Principle must then apply to the entire set as a whole. But this is not the case necessarily. For, it could be rationally supposed that the existence of the infinite set is a given, brute fact, while at the same time recognizing that the Principle applies within the set and amongst its infinite members as they stand in relation to one another.

This consideration does not undermine Rowe’s argument entirely. But what it does mean is that a deductive proof for the self-existent being is not possible through his application of PSR. Nor does my objection to his application of it necessitate a deductive proof that the infinite set is a brute fact. So, both sides are merely left to inference, and on that score, I find greater strength in Rowe’s position. While not deductive, I believe it is the stronger inference that PSR would apply to the infinite set since we seem to see around us a multitude of witnesses to its truth. Surely, to believe in the existence of the infinite set as a brute fact, while also holding that within the set itself PSR applies, would be a claim which is more seemingly abnormal to make than to infer PSR’s application to the infinite set’s existence based on the common observation that PSR applies everywhere we have looked in our sciences.

[1] William L. Rowe, Philosophy of Religion: An Introduction (Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2007), 25.

[2] Ibid, 28.

[3] Ibid, 22-23.

[4] Ibid, 29-30.

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