Two Questions about Samuel Clarke’s Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God

I’ve just learned of a reading group that has spent the past several months going chapter-by-chapter through the book Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics. The group moderator contacted me with two questions about my chapter. They’re great questions and I’d like to answer them here, for the benefit of others who might be interested (and in case the questions come up again).

My chapter describes “Two Versions of the Cosmological Argument” for the existence of God, one developed by Samuel Clarke (1625-1729) and one that has come to be called the the kalam cosmological argument. The first is an argument from the contingency of the universe to the existence of God as a necessary being; the second is an argument from the origin of the universe to the existence of God as the first cause.

The first question concerns a premise in the first of these two arguments. Here’s the premise:

2. If something has existed from all eternity, then either there has always existed one unchangeable and independent Being, or there has been an infinite succession of changeable and dependent beings.

Here’s the first question:

“Why can’t there be such a thing as a CHANGEABLE, independent Being?”

Samuel Clarke (1675-1729)

This is an important question. Clarke’s argument goes on, in subsequent premises, to argue that both options set forth in premise 2 (stated above) require the existence of a self-existent being from eternity, and that this being must be immutable and independent. Most of the argument is devoted to demonstrating why it is that even the second option entails the existence of such a being. This makes sense since the alternative (the first option) is equivalent in kind to this sort of being. No special argument is needed to make the inference.

That’s all well and good IF premise two states the only reasonable possibilities given the assumption that something has existed from all eternity. But are these the only two possibilities? That’s the point of the question.

Since I was working within space limitations, I passed over this point in my chapter, saying at the end of my exposition of the argument, “As for its immutability [i.e., the immutability of the being inferred in the conclusion of the argument], readers should consult Clarke” (page 63). Convenient, right?

Still, I might have allowed myself a brief remark about the point. The short answer to the question is that a mutable, or changeable, being would be a being whose history was a succession of changeable states. Such a being would be analogous to a succession of changeable beings. In both cases, the succession would have to be inifinite, for, as premise 1 states, “Something must have existed from all eternity.”

The question we are considering would have us suppose that there may always have existed a changeable, independent being. If we suppose that, then, following Clarke, we must suppose that there may exist a being with an infinite succession of changeable states. But could such a being also be independent? No individual state of such a being would be independent, in the sense stipulated in the argument. For each novel state of such a changeable being would bear a dependence relation to a prior state of that being, a state that was itself novel, and so also dependent. If all of the individual states of the changeable being we are here imagining are dependent, because novel, then how is the being itself independent?

Recall that the reading group had two questions. Here’s the second question:

“What exactly is meant by the term ‘being’? Any physical thing in existence, a ‘higher power,’ or any kind of self-aware person (such as a human)?”

This can be answered more simply, though I’ll answer it from my perspective rather than in terms stated by Samuel Clarke. We can understand the term “being” in this argument to be anything that exists, having properties and relations. It may be finite or infinite, mutable or immutable, natural or non-natural, temporal or eternal, personal or impersonal, and so forth. Each individual being will have a definite set of properties. Its essential properties will determine the kind of being it is. It may or may not have non-essential properties. And that will depend on the kind of being it is.

A synonym often used by philosophers for this sense of the term “being” is “object.” Some objects are also subjects; that is, they are personal beings. God, angels, and humans are all to be understood as personal beings. But they are objects in the benign sense intended in metaphysics (a major branch of philosophy).

* * *

Samuel Clarke’s most significant work, first published in 1705, is A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God. His cosmological argument is expounded there. Clarke also explains how the various attributes of God relate to his famous argument. A facsimile reprint of the original publication can be obtained from Amazon here.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

4 Responses to Two Questions about Samuel Clarke’s Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God

  1. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Patrick,

    Yes, we are speaking of the nature of the being in question, and of that being’s essence. But it is at least possible that it be essential to some being’s nature that that being does not change its mind. In the case of God, I think he does not literally change his mind about anything. This is partly because of how I understand the scope of his knowledge as an omniscient being.

    About your second question. Persuasion happens in different ways in different contexts. Someone might study Clarke’s argument and move from atheism to agnosticism or from agnosticism to theism, or even from atheism to theism. But you’re right, I wouldn’t normally present this argument point-for-point to someone who was casually interested in an argument for God’s existence. The kalam argument is, I think, easier to develop and understand in circumstances like that. But there’s a lot more to developing the evidence for God’s existence than what I present in that chapter. In fact, much of the evidence for theism is available even if it does not come packaged in the form of an argument.

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  2. Patrick McNamara says:

    Hi Dr. Geivett…

    If I can try to reword the answer to the first question, in order to confirm my interpretation of it, I think what you’re saying is that the words “changeable” and “unchangeable” refer to the NATURE of the being in question, not the mind of the being in question. For example, if the being in question was the God of the Bible, “unchangeable” doesn’t mean the being cannot change His mind, it means that the essence of that being is unchangeable… because in order for the essence of a being to change, it would be dependent on some other outside agent to do that. Am I understanding this correctly?

    One other semi-related question I’d like to throw out here, which also came out of discussion of this chapter in the Passionate Conviction book. How does the layman apply these philosophical concepts in a “practical” way? You started off the chapter with an anecdote about a friendly chat with a curious skeptic on an airplane… but I’m guessing you didn’t share Samuel Clarke’s argument with him on a point-by-point basis. Was it simply a matter of bringing out the points you summarized in the Conclusion of the chapter?

    Thanks very much,

    Patrick McNamara

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  3. Doug Geivett says:

    Hi Ross,

    Thanks for the heads-up on this. I should have included the link to the Christian Classics Ethereal Library where Samuel Clarke’s work can be found.

    Glad you enjoy the blog. Hope to hear from you again!

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  4. Ross Rarker says:

    Dr. Geivett,

    First off, I wanted to tell you that I’ve really enjoyed your blog. It’s encouraging to read your posts, and so I would encourage you to keep up the good work.

    In response to this particular post, let me mention that ccel.org has a copy of Clarke’s “A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God” available online.

    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/clarke_s/being.titlepage.html

    In Christ,
    Ross Parker

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