The Cosmological Argument of St. John of Damascus


St. John of Damascus

For those unfamiliar with philosophical terms, “cosmological”  simply means “an explanation of the beginning.” So to say something is a “cosmological argument” merely means, “It’s an argument about why everything exists.”

I have been reading bits and pieces of St. John of Damascus’ book The Orthodox Faith. I’m currently re-working my way through Peter Kreeft’s Socratic Logic mostly so I can read the first part of St. John’s book Fountain of Knowledge (I’m rusty on my terms). In reading over the third chapter of The Orthodox Faith, St. John presents a solid cosmological argument:

All things, that exist, are either created or uncreated. If, then, things are created, it follows that they are also wholly mutable. For things, whose existence originated in change, must also be subject to change, whether it be that they perish or that they become other than they are by act of will. But if things are uncreated they must in all consistency be also wholly immutable. For things which are opposed in the nature of their existence must also be opposed in the mode of their existence, that is to say, must have opposite properties: who, then, will refuse to grant that all existing things, not only such as come within the province of the senses, but even the very angels, are subject to change and transformation and movement of various kinds? For the things appertaining to the rational world, I mean angels and spirits and demons, are subject to changes of will, whether it is a progression or a retrogression in goodness, whether a struggle or a surrender; while the others suffer changes of generation and destruction, of increase and decrease, of quality and of movement in space. Things then that are mutable are also whollycreated. But things that are created must be the work of some maker, and the maker cannot have been created. For if he had been created, he also must surely have been created by some one, and so on till we arrive at something uncreated. TheCreator, then, being uncreated, is also wholly immutable. And what could this be other than Deity?

St. John had a classical education, so he puts the argument in the form of a syllogism. If we were to break that syllogism down it would read something like this:

(1) All things are either created or uncreated
(1a) If they are created then they are changeable
(1b) If they are uncreated then they are unchangeable
(2) All beings that fall within our experience are changeable
(3) All of these things have therefore been created and require a creator
(4) The creator, by logical necessity, would have to be uncreated and therefore unchangeable (we can’t have an infinite regression of “p created q who created r, ad infinitum“).
(5) By definition, such a creator would be called God

Logically, this is a solid argument. The premises follow one another and therefore provide a proper conclusion. If something is changeable, then it is created and requires a creator. If something is unchangeable, then it is not created and therefore does not require a creator.

Though the argument is valid, the question then becomes if the premises and conclusion are true. In a valid argument, the conclusion logically follows the premises, thus if the premises are true and the argument is valid, then the conclusion is also true.

So let us look at the premises:

(1) All things are either created or uncreated
(1a) If they are created then they are changeable
(1b) If they are uncreated then they are unchangeable

(1) seems to be self-evident; something either is created or isn’t created. There cannot be an in between. The question then becomes, “Are all things that are created changeable?” The challenge would rarely be to (1), but rather to (1a). To understand how (1a) is true, we must first look to see what St. John means by the word “changeable.” Most likely, St. John was using the Aristotelean idea that something can develop or change overtime. An acorn changes into an oak tree (though the nature of “oak” remains the same). An infant human changes into an adult human, though the essence of “human” remains the same. So when St. John says “changeable” he is not referring to the nature or essence of individuals, but rather the individual itself. That is, inherent within the nature of a species is that the species will change as time goes on. The same stands true for matter as matter changes all the time. What is a piece of paper tomorrow may be broken down and reshaped into a paper bag tomorrow. Thus, in our experience, everything in the universe is changeable, which means everything was created (or had a beginning).

St. John even argues that among humans or angels, change comes about by free choice. That we can increase or decrease our corruption or we can increase or decrease in size by people. The constant flux of the human population shows a change occurring within the population.

Such change occurs because of movement. Something caused the movement. Such movement is caused by unintelligent forces (e.g. an asteroid hits another asteroid, causing them to move in different directions) or by intelligent movement (a person drives a car from point a to point b). In either case, when change occurs there is a movement prior to such change that caused the change.

But what about (1b)? If we found something that did not have “changeable” as part of its nature, would it follow that such a being is uncreated? If something is unchangeable, then by definition it must have always existed. If it came into existence at some point, then there was a change. There was a time when it did not exist, but now a time where it does exist, and therefore a change has occurred.

Some might want to argue for the eternality of energy and matter, thus putting them under (1b), but this is illogical. We see that energy and matter change all the time and are found in different forms. If they are changing, then they are created (because to change is to move and to move requires an action prior to movement). We could ask, “Then who moved God,” but even if we accept the answer, we’re left moving backwards until we find an unmoved mover. Such a progression cannot go on for infinity because an infinite regress is impossible.

Thus, at some point there was a mover that created. When something is capable of change, that means it has been moved. Since matter and energy precede humans, but are also unintelligent, we know that humans did not move matter and energy and matter and energy did not move on their own will. Thus, they had to be moved by an unmoved mover. This mover is who we call God.

(For a deeper explanation of how material cannot be eternal, go here and here).

(2) All beings that fall within our experience are changeable

This is another self-evident proposition. We have not experience any being (other than God) who is unchangeable. Were we to meet a population of aliens who claimed they were unchangeable, the fact that such a population existed, meaning there were offspring, would contradict such a claim.

(3) All of these things have therefore been created and require a creator

This is almost a conclusion within the syllogism, or a “pre-conclusion.” Since (1a) and (2) are logically sound, (3) follows. Since everything we experience, including ourselves, is changeable, it follows that all these things were created.

(4) The creator, by logical necessity, would have to be uncreated and therefore unchangeable (we can’t have an infinite regression of “p created q who created r, ad infinitum“).

(4) follows from premise (1b), that since God is unchangeable, He is without need of a Creator. Some might argue that this is special pleading. Special pleading looks like this:

1)    Joe accepts standards S and applies them in other circumstances C
2)    Joe is in circumstance C
3)    Therefore, Joe is exempt from S

Or, in an easier to understand example:

Richard: “You have to prove empirically all of your beliefs.”

Bill: “But why haven’t you done so?”

Richard: “Because I don’t need to, I’m the one challenging you!”

That is a case of special pleading. It is saying that one thing is absolutely untrue in one circumstance, but then to reneg on that statement once you find yourself in that circumstance.

To the atheist, when looking at God, they argue that saying God is eternal and therefore uncreated is a case of special pleading; if they can’t say material is eternal and uncreated, then we can’t say God is eternal and uncreated. They believe that God and material are in the same circumstance and therefore the same rules apply.

But such an argument ignores what St. John is saying. As (1a) shows us, anything that changes is created. Matter changes. Therefore, matter cannot be uncreated. For the theist to be guilty of special pleading, he would have to put God in the same circumstance as material, but he does not. Material (energy) changes, therefore it’s created. There’s nothing to lead us to believe that God changes (and, in fact, logically we have to believe that the ultimate Mover of all things does not change), therefore there’s nothing to lead us to believe that God is created.

For a more complex argument on this, I turn to a previous explanation I gave in a debate with an atheist (if you don’t care about technical explanations, or the above common sense defense was enough, simply skip the quote):

Special pleading deals more with ethics than it does metaphysics. Regardless, even if we apply this to a metaphysical application, it still doesn’t work in the case of God vs. naturalism. The reason is God doesn’t meet premise (2). God doesn’t fall under C, therefore He is not subject to S. Naturalism has certain rules to follow (rules you didn’t contest), one of which being that it simply cannot be an infinite series of events. Since God is not found in C, He is not subject to S.

We know this because the naturalistic universe is (i) material, (ii) subject to decay, (iii) finite, (iv) impersonal, (v) unintelligent, etc. That would constitute the first circumstance (C1). God, however, is (vi) immaterial, (vii) incorruptible, (viii) infinite, (ix) personal, and (x) intelligent. This would constitute the second circumstance (C2).

S will differ depending on the circumstance. Thus, S1 corresponds to C1 and S2corresponds to C2. It is illogical to take S1, show that being A violates S1, all the while knowing that A is in C2 and not C1. In order to properly show that A is violating S1 (thus, begetting the special pleading fallacy), one must first show that Aexists within C2.

For our debate then, you would have to show that God is under the same circumstances as the naturalistic world. If you accomplished this, however, you would have to use a definition other than God, in which case you’re using a straw man fallacy. In other words, the only possible way you could justify “special pleading” when it comes to God being eternal and the universe not being eternal is if you were to commit a logical fallacy yourself; two logical fallacies don’t make a right.

In all of this, however, you didn’t address the attacks against naturalism. Even if all of the above were false and these were a case of special pleading, this would lead us into extreme skepticism about God and the natural world. We would be in a worse situation than before, so your arguments really accomplish nothing for the case of naturalism. It’s simply a red herring.

Thus, preposition (4) logically follows the other premises and is not a case of special pleading, so we can accept it as true.

(5) By definition, such a creator would be called God

(5) is the conclusion and since the premises are true, the conclusion is true (since it logically follows the premises). One of the definitions of “God” is that He is without beginning, that is, uncreated.

Like other cosmological arguments, such as the Kalaam Cosmological Argument or Leibnizian cosmology, such an argument is not meant to bring someone to Christ or to prove Christianity. In fact, the Kalaam argument is actually an argument that was perfected by Muslim philosophers. The point of such arguments is merely to show people that God does exist, it is not meant to be evangelical, but rather apologetical.

In conclusion, it seems that St. John’s cosmological argument is an excellent argument for the existence of God. I find it to be a bit easier to understand and argue than the Kalaam argument or Leibnitz argument (though both are still excellent arguments). If nothing else, it is nice to have yet another cosmological argument out there for consideration.

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2 thoughts on “The Cosmological Argument of St. John of Damascus

  1. Joel,

    This is a (very involved) ontological cosmological arguement – that is to say, a largly mental construct.

    I just posted a very brief ontological argument myself, in answer to Anselm’s ontological proof for the existence of god.

    Being of an existential bend myself, I tried to ground the argument in more experiential terms.

    But it is a sympathetic treatment that I think you might like to look over:

    http://modernatheist.org/2010/06/06/an-ontological-basis-for-the-denial-of-god/

    Respectfully, D R Hosie – Modern Atheist.org

    1. Thank you for the comment and I’ll certainly look it over.

      I must admit that I’m not a big fan of Anselm’s Cosmological argument (though I do like Plantinga’s rehash, I’m still not convinced by it). I just don’t think it proves the existence of God. I do think it works wonders as an existential argument for God’s existence (which Pascal develops in his Pensees, and I’m not talking of his wager), but as an actual cosmological argument, I find it weak.

      I did appreciate your arguments on Anselm, but it seemed to shift away from a refutation of Anselm and instead into a theodicy. Maybe it’s because I am so tired right now, but is that what you were attempting to do? That is, were you trying to say that we can conceive of a God who would at least reveal Himself in an obvious manner and also would limit or prevent suffering, therefore Anselm’s argument can be used to disprove the existence of God?

      If that is not what you were trying to say, my apologies. I find that before I even attempt to critique a position, it is best to know the position before forming a critique. Since your position seems new to me, I’m trying to figure it out.

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