How cosmological arguments say science gives an insufficient account of nature

In his Mystery of Existence, Milton Munitz argues that cosmological arguments all fail since there is no reason to think that natural explanations of natural things are insufficient, and therefore no reason to posit any other causes. If we need an account for, say, why an asteroid hit Jupiter last Tuesday, none of the premises or equations which we use are insufficient or inadequate in a way that requires us to posit a divine cause. In response to this, we might be tempted to say that the causes are insufficient so far as they fail to give a metaphysical account of nature. But this approach is suspect, since it is fishy to posit an entire realm of inquiry in relation to which, mirabile dictu,  natural causes are insufficient.

Aristotle based his physics on the fact that there were two elemental ways to describe any change. As change involves moving from non-X to X, it can be described in two ways:

1.) Something becomes X

2.) The non- X becomes X.

Aristotle used the example of a “man becomes musical” and “the non-musical becomes musical”, but this describes any process where something new comes to be. Now the key thing for us to note is that an analysis of nature based on conservation laws is emphatically an approach to nature that sees nature in the first sort of way. Matter or mass or energy or momentum don’t pass away in exactly the same way in which a man becomes musical without passing away. When we decide to found an inquiry on conservation laws we implicitly decide to deal with it only so far as we can give an unqualified “yes” to the question of whether something survives the change. Whatever the value of this approach, it is not the only answer to the question, and the fact that we can answer the same question with an unqualified “no” remains there for anyone who chooses to deal with it. Now because what we call science is based on conservation laws, and conservation laws consider motion and coming to be entirely according to account 1 as opposed to account 2, it would seem that it is not scientific to analyze motion according to the second account or give an account of what needs to be true about coming to be if both those accounts are true of it. But it is also true, for the same reason, that what we call science is only a partial and insufficient account of motion, since it only treats of one true response we can have to the question of whether something is conserved in coming to be.

Now Aristotle based his whole physical doctrine of act and potency on this double account of coming to be (that is, on what had to be true about motion if both accounts given above were true of it) and he based his “cosmological argument” on the division of potency and act. This suffices to explain why what we call science can never formulate a cosmological argument, and its inability to do so is not because some clever thinker hasn’t hit on the right principle yet or (if we wanted to impute darker motives to them) scientists have an a priori commitment to doctrines like Mechanism or Naturalism. Science founds itself on conservation principles and so cannot raise the question of the contrary that is not preserved in coming to be, or of what must be true of motion if it is both true and not true to say something is conserved in becoming. From the POV of what we now call science, Aristotle’s question is outside of scientific inquiry, and so Milton Munitz is right that the cosmological argument does not arise from any insufficiency in natural causes as the scientist can understand them. At the same time, it is also wrong to say that it is only in light of a metaphysical account of change that the insufficiency of the scientific account is obvious, since to systematically develop only one of at least three different accounts of some reality is obviously to give only a partial account of it, and science is such a development.


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