Hillsdale College


Psychological Foundations of the Cosmological Argument

Shaun Nichols (Cornell)
Tamar Kushnir (Duke University)
David Pizarro (Cornell)

Total Award Amount: $249,913
Start Date: January 1, 2022
End Date: December 31, 2023

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Why does the universe exist? This seems like a perfectly reasonable question. But why think there should be an answer to it? Why should there be an explanation for the existence of the universe? According to the Cosmological Argument, this question about the universe is perfectly reasonable, and God provides the only adequate answer.The cosmological question resonates with common sense – it seems like there has to be an explanation for why the universe exists.

One explanation for this resonance is that there is a commonsense presumption that there has to be an explanation for everything that exists, the universe being no exception. In philosophy, the conviction that there has to be an explanation for everything is elevated into a doctrine: The Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). Philosophers wield this doctrine in the service of the cosmological argument. Our project investigates the extent to which there is a presumption of something like the PSR in ordinary thought. Do people think there has to be an explanation for everything in nature? If indeed there is such a presumption, we can then ask whether the situation is importantly different for a supernatural entity like God. According to the Cosmological Argument, the existence of God does not demand some further external explanation.

Our ambition is to begin to investigate whether the presumption of the PSR is a human universal. We propose to examine the range of such a presumption across several different cultures. We will also explore the origin of such a presupposition in young children. In addition to its central role in the Cosmological Argument, the PSR is of extremely broad significance in philosophy. This principle has been treated as a foundation for general philosophical inquiry and as the basis for philosophical views like causal determinism. Thus, exploring the extent to which this principle really is an early-emerging and cross-cultural part of common sense promises to illuminate a wide range of philosophical thought.

Project Team

Shaun Nichols (Cornell)

Shaun Nichols is Professor of Philosophy and Director of Cognitive Science at Cornell University. His research concerns the psychological underpinnings of philosophical thought. He is the author of Sentimental Rules: On the Natural Foundations of Moral Judgment, Bound: Essays on Free Will and Moral Responsibility, and Rational Rules: Towards a Theory of Moral Learning, and he has published over 100 articles in academic journals in philosophy and psychology.

Tamar Kushnir (Duke University)

Tamar Kushnir is a Professor in the Department of Human Development, the director of the Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory and former co-director of the Cognitive Science Program.  She received her M.A. in Statistics and Ph.D. in Cognitive Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, and was a Post-Doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan. Kushnir's research examines learning and conceptual change in young children with a focus on social learning and social cognition. Kushnir’s work is motivated by a long-standing curiosity about the developing mind, and in particular by how children learn about themselves and others from actively exploring the world around them.  Research topics include: mechanisms of causal learning, the developmental origins of our beliefs in free will and agency, cultural influences on early social and moral beliefs, normative reasoning, and epistemic trust, and the role of imagination in social cognition, motivation and decision making. Kushnir has served as an associate editor at Child Development and Cognitive Science, and currently serves on the boards of the Society of Philosophy and Psychology and the Cognitive Development Society.

David Pizarro (Cornell)

David Pizarro is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His primary research interest is in how and why humans make moral judgments, such as what makes us think certain actions are wrong, that some people deserve blame or praise for their actions, or that some people have a good or bad character. In addition, he studies how emotions influence a wide variety of social judgments. These two areas of interest come together in the topic of much of his recent work, which has focused on the emotion of disgust and the role it plays in shaping moral and political judgments. In addition to research, he co-hosts a podcast on the psychology and philosophy of ethics called Very Bad Wizards.