William Rowe on Aquinas and The Cosmological Argument

Tonight I went to listen to a talk on cultural apologetics and in looking up the speaker I saw he did his PhD in philosophy at Purdue University. My radar lit up like a Christmas tree. “I have to ask him if he ever spoke with Rowe about the argument.” Preparing myself, I looked up a passage from a book by Rowe which I want to quote and see if anyone can comment on it.

I did get a chance to ask about Rowe and the speaker also knew Paul Draper my professor who later went to teach at Purdue. How lovely and unexpected it was.

This is the passage I stumbled upon as a philosophy undergrad trying to wrap my head around the cosmological argument:

Thus, for example, if one human being is generated by other human beings, and they in turn by still others, the impression his argument (Aquinas’s) conveys is that each such series of generators of existence must stop with a first member, it cannot regress to infinity. But this is not Aquinas’s view. Indeed, he explicitly rejects the view that the generation of one human by others could not proceed to infinity -“it is not imposible for a man to be generated by man to infinity;…”

William Rowe, The Cosmological Argument


Can you also call this a contingency argument?

Like this:
Contingency Argument SPEED RUN!

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I remember when reading a book called Thoughtful Theism: Redeeming Reason in an Irrational Age, by Andrew Younan, the author explained that Thomas Aquinas’ argument wasn’t about regress into an infinite past but into an infinite regress of causality. For example, if you light a match, there is a chain of events that led to the lighting of the match, the chemical reaction between oxygen and the fuel, the spark that initiated the reaction, the movement of your hand muscles to strike the match, the chemical potential energy released to move your muscles, the electrical signals from your brain to tell your arm and hand to move, etc. These steps essentially happen simultaneously, but there is still a causal link where one step is dependent on another. If you define infinite as “no first cause,” you could argue that no first cause would mean no second cause and no third cause, etc., and therefore the effect wouldn’t happen because there would be no cause to begin with. This would be true even if cause and effect were happening simultaneously.


I don’t think so, but I am far from an expert on Aquinas or the cosmological argument.

Back when I was first writing about this, I thought Aquinas was making a distinction between the possibility of a set proceeding to infinity and the impossibility of the set becoming actually infinite.

I’m looking forward to once again reading Aquinas this week and see if I can make sense out of Rowe’s quote.

If Julian Barbour or Sean Carroll were present they would likely add that in certain situations the arrow of time can reverse and the effect temporally precedes the cause :grinning:

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Aquinas was not the only medieval scholar to use the Cosmological Argument for God as the First Cause of the existing universe. His near contemporary Franciscan, John Duns Scotus, utilised the argument in a more elaborate argument for God as First and Final Cause (leading things to an end), Supreme knowledge and Infinite Being. It is an interconnected argument and the Final Cause is also linked to the Beloved (Christ).


There is a short and very readable essay by William Rowe on cosmological arguments in Blackwell’s A Companion to Philosophy of Religion (1999).

Just prior to Rowe taking another look at Aquinas and the possibility of an accidental series proceeding to infinity, there is this gem of a paragraph:

It must be admitted that it is difficult to imagine an absolutely infinite number of temporally discrete events having already occurred. But what is the philosophical objection to it? It is sometimes suggested that if the series of events prior to the present is actually infinite, then there must be events in the past that are separated from the present by an infinite number of events. However, this suggestion is mistaken. No past event is separated from the present by an infinite number of events. It is also sometimes suggested that if the past is actually infinite then new events cannot be added to the series, for the series thus added to would be the same size as the series before the addition was made. The response to this objection is that one can add to an infinite collection even though the number of entities in the collection before the addition will be the same as the number of entities in the collection after the addition. The fact that this is so does not prevent the old collection from being a proper subset of the collection composed of the old collection and the new member. For reasons such as these, most philosophers who have studied these matters remain unconvinced that an actual series of past events is impossible.

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Aquinas had no awareness of evolution. The notion of one First Cell unfolding into the Great Tree of Species would never have passed muster. [[ Current research into the origin of life (OOL) a.k.a. abiogenesis is racing ahead. ]]
At all times along the evolutionary tree, once speciation got under way, a large population existed which either split into multiples, or morphed as forced by changing environment, with the result of one or multiple new species (each with its own large homogenous breeding population.
This phenomenon is called smooth or gradual evolution.
Or in other words, the backwards to infinity is a failed idea since there was a starting life form. Forward to incalculability is real.

I personally don’t see how one can add to an infinite collection. I honestly don’t even see how an actual infinite collection is a functional possibility (of things, outside of abstract thoughts in the human brain). Infinity is more of a concept than a thing to me.

And for reasons such as this, I consider most philosophers detached from reality and full of hot air.

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For your collective interest, I reproduce below a short extract from Appendix B of my Kindle book ‘The God Debate - Dawkins in Denial’:

"But in the modern era, appeal has been made to another approach, the cosmological argument. This originated in the work of twelfth century Muslim philosopher and theologian Al-Ghazali and is based on the concept that the universe must have begun. As no rational mind can entertain the idea that something can pre-exist itself so as to be the cause of its own existence, reason forces us to concede that if the universe had a beginning, then something else brought it into being.

"Why should we think that the universe must have begun? Because time is a dimension of the universe’s nature and, as Al-Ghazali argued, time must have had a beginning. The argument is similar to Fr. Spitzer’s disproof of an infinite regression of conditioned realities [an updated statement of the Contingency argument]. Think of a retrospective calendar endlessly stretching backwards and containing an infinite number of ‘days’ (i.e., units of time). How could the universe ever traverse an infinite number of days in order to arrive at today, since there would always have to be yet one more day to traverse before it could do so? As we are here today to contemplate it, the number of days to reach today has actually happened, but Hilbert showed that an actual numeric infinity is impossible.

“Does this not counter Aquinas’s argument?”

Fr Robert Spitzer argues this viewpoint in his book ‘New Proofs for the Existence of God’ and again in his recently published book ‘Science at the Doorstep to God’.


In efficient causes it is impossible to proceed to infinity “per se”—thus, there cannot be an infinite number of causes that are “per se” required for a certain effect; for instance, that a stone be moved by a stick, the stick by the hand, and so on to infinity. But it is not impossible to proceed to infinity “accidentally” as regards efficient causes; for instance, if all the causes thus infinitely multiplied should have the order of only one cause, their multiplication being accidental, as an artificer acts by means of many hammers accidentally, because one after the other may be broken. It is accidental, therefore, that one particular hammer acts after the action of another; and likewise it is accidental to this particular man as generator to be generated by another man; for he generates as a man, and not as the son of another man. For all men generating hold one grade in efficient causes–viz. the grade of a particular generator. Hence it is not impossible for a man to be generated by man to infinity; but such a thing would be impossible if the generation of this man depended upon this man, and on an elementary body, and on the sun, and so on to infinity.

This is the passage Rowe quotes from and it seems like a key text for looking at Aquinas on the possibility of an infinite number of previous events.

What if Aquinas is merely distinguishing between the possibility of an accidential series proceeding to infinity (like in the future) and the impossibility of an efficieint series proceeding to infinity?

… when St. Thomas says that an infinite series is impossible (and this principle is utilised in all three proofs), he is not thinking of a series stretching back in time, of a ‘horizontal’ series, so to speak. He is not saying. for exampłe, that because the child owes its life to its parents and its parents owe their lives to their parents and so on, there must have been an original pair, who had no parents but were directly created by God. St. Thomas did not believe that it can be proved philosophically that the world was not created from eternity: he admits the abstract possibility of the world’s creation from eternity and this cannot be admitted without the possibility of a beginningless series being admitted at the same time.

Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy

This pretty well expresses the common reading on Aquinas and infinite accidental regresses. I’d like to see someone like Feser consider the possibility of an accidental series proceeding to infinity in the future with the impossibility of an efficient series proceeding to infinity.

Also, I’m very interested in seeing better minds than mine connect the creation of the world from eternity with a world that has its beginning in the present and not the past, which can be admitted without admitting a beginningless series.

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