The Vertical Cosmological Argument and the Fallacy of Composition

The Vertical Cosmological Argument has various forms and is rather conceptual, but can be described as:

1. Everything in the universe is contingent (they could “not exist”).
2. All contingent things need an ongoing cause to sustain them.
3. Therefore the universe needs an ongoing cause to sustain it.

(a more detailed description can be found here)

Common attacks from critics on this argument are 1) this untrue since it depends on the principle of sufficient reason, and 2) it’s the fallacy of composition. We won’t deal with the first here other than to say the vertical cosmological argument does not hinge on sufficient reason, but on the principle of causality, which is very different.

But the second is a bit more tricky. The fallacy of composition can be described with the following illustrations: if every tile in a floor is square, it does not follow that the whole floor is square. If all the parts to a machine are light, it does not follow that the whole machine is light. Therefore, the critics say that just because every part of the universe is contingent then it does not follow that the whole universe is contingent.

However, the fallacy of composition does not always apply. For example, the fallacy of composition would say that just because every floor tile is square, the floor does not have to be square. However, it is true that if every tile has a geometric shape, the whole floor will have a geometric shape. If every tile is brown, the whole floor is brown. If every part of the machine has weight, the whole machine will have weight. If every part of the machine has no weight (such as in a software machine), then the whole machine can have no weight. These things are not opinion; they are necessarily so, they must be true. The fallacy of composition is not a formal logical fallacy, but an informal one, and therefore only applies when it applies, which is not always, as we have just shown. Critics do not always recognize this.

Our question of course, is whether the universe and it’s parts are like the square-ness of the tiles, or like the brown-ness of the tiles. Could it be that the contingency of the universe could add up to a whole which is not contingent?

No, it cannot. The reason is that being (existing) has the nature that adding up contingent beings (things) can only give us a big pile of contingents. Adding together contingents cannot give us a necessary being. (A necessary being is one that cannot “not exist.”) While adding together lightweight parts can give us a heavy, and adding together small squares can give us a rectangle, it is not true that adding together dependent, contingent things can get anything else than a pile of contingents which need a necessary Being for their existence. Adding together all the contingents in the universe does not give us something more or something necessary; on the contrary, it merely requires a bigger cause.

Therefore the vertical cosmological argument is not disproved by the fallacy of composition, but is a sound proof that the universe is caused. We have a sure, rational, valid proof that the universe needs a cause, one that is a necessary being. This we call God.

 

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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12 Responses to The Vertical Cosmological Argument and the Fallacy of Composition

  1. Debilis says:

    This is a very clear summary of the issue, I think.
    I’ve always found this argument to be a strong one, and loved seeing such a good defense of it here.

  2. doctoroctagon says:

    Thank you for this! Exactly what I’ve been looking for.

  3. doctoroctagon says:

    Reblogged this on Philosophy of Religion and TOK and commented:
    For AS level students looking to evaluate Hume’s criticisms of the cosmological argument, this is very helpful

  4. Hornsbee says:

    “If every part of the machine has weight, the whole machine will have weight. If every part of the machine has no weight (such as in a software machine), then the whole machine can have no weight. These things are not opinion; they are necessarily so, they must be true.”

    1. Individual cells are invisible to the naked eye

    2. The human body is made of individual cells,

    Therefore, the human body is invisible to the naked eye

    If every cell in the human body is invisible to the naked eye, then the body must be invisible to the naked eye. So the question we must ask is, if the parts are invisible to the naked eye, when they are ‘added’ up, do they become visible?

    No, they cannot. The reason is that being invisible to the naked eye has the nature that adding up more things invisible to the naked eye can only give us a big pile of invisible things. Adding together invisible parts cannot give us a visible whole.

    ….and the fallacy of composition only applies when is applies. But it does not apply here.

    Hope this helps, cheers!

    • humblesmith says:

      No way around it, my friend. FoC is an informal fallacy that only applies when it is used improperly. It is not a formal fallacy that can be used as a categorical disproof, as the post shows. You might want to study the difference between substance and accidents. Size is an accidental quality, while contingency is not.

      As an aside, I’ve been told cells of the sea slug are visible to the naked eye. But no difference, it’s still confusing substance and accidents, which is the core of the difference.

      But even without the technical terms, it becomes clear that things such as size, shape, and weight will change when a few individuals are combined. Combining human cells does indeed give us something that is visible. It is also obvious that if a thing is created, combining created things does not make them uncreated.

      To claim different shows the length people will go to to avoid dealing with God.

  5. Pingback: To what extent was Hume successful in his critique of the cosmological argument? [10] (with breakdown of my answer) | Philosophy of Religion and TOK

  6. Hornsbee says:

    Wouldn’t you first be required to defend Aristotelian properties before you could use it as a proper response? I do understand the difference between accidental and essential properties in the sense that Aristotle posited, and later Aquinas embraced. I also know the short-falls of adhering to this particular philosophical approach. Do you?

    I don’t think anyone has claimed ‘FoC’ to be a failure of logic structure whenever it can possibly be applied, nor is it’s use limited to ‘accidental properties’.

    However, when an argument is subject to composition, the attributes of the parts MUST be demonstrated to extend into the whole. I think you know this, as your example of floor tiles shows.

    The position I wish to submit is, just because a deductive proof is valid and its premises are ‘true’, it does not necessarily follow the conclusion must be true. The attributes one wishes to impose from the parts to the whole MUST be demonstrated in actuality, otherwise the argument commits the fallacy of composition. I think we both understand this.

    The failure of my ‘proof’ above is that observation demonstrates the conclusion to be false, regardless of its valid structure and accepted premises. So it becomes an issue of observational verification, not logical necessity or ‘Aristotelian properties’, that determines if the deductive proof demonstrates ‘truth’.

    And as for the VCA, you are correct. It is logically valid and I will accept the premises’ truth-value on assumption. But in order for the argument to not commit the FoC, it’s conclusion must be verified by observation.

    Have any ideas how we can do this?

    “To claim different shows the length people will go to to avoid dealing with God.”

    ’tisk, ’tisk,.. Aren’t you using style over substance, here? Or does your philosophical avocation also qualify you to make psychological assessments…

    Hope to hear from you; Cheers!

  7. humblesmith says:

    The main thrust of the post was in response to several instances where I’d seen skeptics throw out FoC as if it were an automatic disproof of VCA. Perhaps there is some skeptic out there who has made the distinction between when FoC is used properly and when it cannot be used, but I’ve not seen them. It seemed to me all too common for people to merely yell “FoC” and think it was a valid disproof. It is not.

    I hope you’re not attempting to say that we can draw no reasonable conclusions from deduction unless we’ve exhausted all possible observations of all instances……otherwise we must conclude a theory invalid. I would disagree, for as even our friend Hume would admit, we must eventually put our game back in the closet and live life as if we can draw conclusions.

    The rest of the things in your post will take a bit time for thought.

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