The Sly Circularity of the Kalãm Cosmological Argument

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‘The universe has a cause.’ The claim seems uncontroversial enough. David Hume was perhaps more right than he could have known when he wrote of the human mind’s proneness to associate cause with effect regardless of whether it has a rational basis for doing so (which it ultimately does not); increasing evidence suggests that the principle of causality may well be something not learned through experience, as he had suggested, but biologically and psychologically inherited, which would render us creatures made naturally uncomfortable by the prospect of a cause occurring without its corresponding effect, or, more relevantly, the reverse. It is upon this intuitive inclination—an inclination which, it is worth repeating, has no basis in rational thought—that rests one of the most popular and persuasive arguments for the existence of a supernatural first mover (or, more bravely, a god): the kalãm cosmological argument.

Taking its Arabic name from its roots in Islamic theology and championed today by Dr. William Lane Craig of ReasonableFaith.org, the argument generally takes the following form:

  • Premise one: Everything that begins to exist has a cause;
  • Premise two: The universe began to exist;
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the universe has a cause.

To grant credit where it is due, this argument benefits from logical validity. In simple terms, this means that it cannot be the case that the conclusion is false if the premises are true, since the former logically follows from the latter. That makes the task of refuting this syllogism a plain one; one or both of the premises must be shown to be false.

I often find, in the efforts of my atheist friends and colleagues to do just this, a subordination of the importance of the first premise to the importance of the second. In an attempt to reverse this philosophical injustice, I shall simply grant the second premise. It may be the case, of course, despite the overwhelming evidence that our universe is not an eternal one, that something came before it (if ‘before’ can even make sense in such a context), or that it is only one of many coexisting in a multiverse. On this point it is fair to remain agnostic, and so I will not attempt to prove false the claim that the universe began to exist.

However, I will stress that in granting that ‘the universe began to exist’, we are really granting that ‘the universe began to exist out of nothing’. If the universe were created out of preexisting material, we would be left with the question of where this material itself came from, and the argument would prove nothing important. If ‘beginning to exist’ means anything philosophically significant in this context, it must mean beginning to exist ex nihilo.

It is with this in mind that we should assess the first premise: ‘Everything that begins to exist has a cause.’ This phrase, in all its unassuming simplicity, has the potential to strike its reader as a truism, but it pays to ask yourself an important and relevant question: when have you ever actually known something to begin to exist? Have you ever seen something begin to exist, or even heard of such a thing? You may be inclined to answer that this happens all the time. Just this morning my coffee began to exist — only, it didn’t really begin to exist at all, rather it was the product of a rearrangement of preexisting matter.

Keep in mind that if the kalãm seeks to draw a parallel between things within the universe beginning to exist and the universe itself beginning to exist, they must ‘begin to exist’ in the same fashion. To reiterate, for philosophical relevance the kalãm argument must deal with things that begin to exist from nothing. Since this was obviously not the case with my coffee, it is an inappropriate comparison. What, then, within the universe, has truly begun to exist (from nothing) at a particular point in the past?

Nothing. The answer is nothing. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, and thus nothing in physical existence ever ‘began to exist’ in the sense we are interested in. Not my coffee, nor my computer, nor my father, nor the Burj Khalifa. Even something as seemingly abstract as an idea cannot begin to exist from nothing, since ideas are ultimately nothing more than signals in the brain, and hence physical in nature. It is this realisation that allows us to dispel the first premise as founded on an equivocation fallacy, since the concept of ‘beginning to exist’ is being used, it seems, inconsistently.

Nonetheless, it might be said, this variety of matter and energy constantly rearranging itself must itself, collectively, have an origin. This is of course plausible, but this origin would consist in the very beginning of the universe itself, when all matter simultaneously began to exist. That is to say, no matter has ever begun to exist except when the universe itself came into being. The only thing that ever actually began to exist from nothing, then, is the universe itself, and even this can be confidently asserted only because of our previously granting an entire premise of the kalãm.

Consider the implications of this. If the only thing that ever began to exist (in the relevant sense) is the universe, then the first premise, ‘Everything that begins to exist has a cause’ becomes ‘The universe has a cause’, since the universe is everything that begins to exist, being the only thing that began to exist. It should be immediately apparent that this premise is identical to the conclusion, and thus the kalãm can also be rendered as follows:

  • Premise one: The universe has a cause;
  • Premise two: The universe began to exist;
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the universe has a cause.

As is clear, the second premise is in fact irrelevant, and the argument is now transparently circular. It says nothing whatsoever, since the first premise states the same as the conclusion, and therefore is not a functional syllogism, but a mere claim. It is a claim which, to be at all convincing, will require far more to support it than this unimpressive yet ubiquitous attempt.

56 comments

    1. I am wondering why cosmic skeptic has never done any videos or articles on neat death experience science ??

      Is it because it severely weakens the atheistic stance from science alone ?????

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  1. Yeah. Good point. You can’t say “whatever begins to exist *ex nihilo* must have a cause ” if you haven’t observed any actual cases of that. Now one could say “That’s precisely the problem with that”, but that would imply that the KCA’s proponent’s claim is false.

    You, rightly it seems, point out that if only the universe formed ex nihilo then Premise 1 becomes circular. Perhaps one could respond by saying that it’s axiomatic that IF something forms ex nihilo, THEN it has a cause, independently of the rest of the argument and it just so happens that we observe the universe having formed ex nihilo.

    The problem with this response is that it would make P1 a priori and not dependent on observation. I don’t know of any compelling a priori reason to accept P1.

    In fact, someone (I think Richard Carrier) argued that it’s not just possible but probable that a universe would arise from nothing, in the literal sense of no physical states at all, not just the Lawrence Krauss quantum field sense. His reasoning is that in that case, there would be no laws of nature like the principle of sufficient reason and hence nothing to exclude such an event.

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    1. I’m not a student of philosophy, so forgive me if I’m making false assumptions here. But, if Alex’s argument holds true, isn’t there an implied assertion that it is more reasonable to assume that a universe sprang into existence causelessly, contrary to its own physical properties, than that a prime causer, whose properties perfectly match those required, created it?

      That is an illogical assertion, is it not?

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      1. You’re absolutely right, it is an illogical assertion. At best, what Alex’s post does is force the proponent of the Kalam to rephrase his first premise and maybe knock down one of the multiple reasons for believing the first premise (namely experiential), but it does absolutely nothing to show that the first premise itself is false. The new syllogism can be stated as follows:

        If the Universe began to exist, it has a cause.
        The Universe began to exist
        Therefore, the Universe has a cause.

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      2. It isn’t! He refutes the truth of premise 1, which states that everything that begins to exist has a cause by suggesting that the origin of the universe is the only instance that we have of something that actually began to exist, by granting the second premise. Since there is nothing we can compare it to, the claim that everything that begins to exist has a cause is rendered meaningless. That is all. Nowhere does it suggest that the universe sprang into existence causelessly and neither does it hint that.

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    2. Not brilliant at all. More like the ruminations of a millennial who thinks he knows things others haven’t already refuted.

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      1. 1. “ruminations of a millennial”

        Your borderline condescending name-calling and focus on an opponent’s trait has been duly noted.

        2. “thinks he knows things others haven’t already refuted”

        Citation needed.

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  2. The point you make about circular reasoning is very good.

    The other thing about the First Cause argument is the assumption that a “first cause” is identical to God as understood by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

    God, according to these religions, is a being who is supremely wise, good and powerful, and who loves us as a father does his children.

    Suppose you could prove the existence of a First Cause, whatever that may mean. What difference would it make? Why would this be any more relevant to everyday human existence than the Big Bang theory or any other theory of theoretical physics?

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    1. I think it is a mistake to critique the Kalam argument, taken as an argument for theism, on the first two premises (as nearly all of its critics do). While such critiques are certainly legitimate, the reasons why they are legitimate can become very technical very quickly and thus lose the majority of listeners. It is the cleverness of the Kalam that it relies on the very strong intuitions of its intended audience.
      The best place to attack the Kalam is on its all important but often understated THIRD premise – to wit “if the universe had a cause that cause must be a timeless, spaceless, immaterial, uncaused, personal agent” (quoted from William Lane Craig). And the best way to attack this premise is to point out (1) that no person has, or ever could have, ANY of the first four attributes mentioned (let alone all of them) or (2) if you are allowed to postulate a particular individual person possessing the first four attributes, you should also be allowed to postulate particular instances of countless other items from everyday life that might also have those attributes (a Giant Computer, for example) and would therefore also serve as the cause of the universe.

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      1. You’re right, of course. The reason I brought up religion is that the only times I’ve ever heard the First Cause argument is in the context of argument for monotheistic religion.

        In that regard, even if you could show that the universe was created by an all-powerful sentient being, that would not prove the existence of the Heavenly Father of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Such a being might not have any more interest in individual human beings than a biologist has in individual bacteria in a petri dish.

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      2. How is that so if the cause is the first cause? Wouldn’t the first cause of necessity from the effect produced (the universe) have these attributes? If not, then the effect is greater than the cause.

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      3. I find your second premise to be very entertaining, and while I do agree with the logic of Alex’s syllogism, I don’t see how a giant computer or any other created object would be able to share the same quality as a being such as God. You can change the values and attributes of that computer to match that of God, but then that wouldn’t be a computer anymore. XD

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      4. The cause of the universe does not need to have the qualities of God (ie, a “person”). It only needs to be a cause. Lots of things other than a person can be a cause. That’s the point.

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  3. I really enjoyed your thoughts on this. I have not explored this argument much actually. However, I do have a few thoughts:
    I think that our fascination with the origins of the universe and thus the decades of conversation surrounding the concept of the “first cause” has to do with our understanding of beginnings. Everything around us seems to have a beginning and an ending, so to speak. My own life had a beginning and will have an end. A book has a beginning and an end. Likwise, your post and even this very response had a beginning and an end. Therefore, it seems only natural for us to think about how the universe began. Now, let me tie in your ideas of causation. You’re right. A cup of coffee does not come into existence ex nihilo. However, I don’t think that the cup of coffee is irrelevant because of this. The particular arrangement of atoms and molecules forming that cup of coffee did have a cause in time in space. Would it not exist should I have chosen not to make that cup of coffee? Indeed, the matter/energy existed prior and would exist after, but that cup of coffee would not. Likewise, my examples of my life, a book, your post, and my reply all have causes. Therefore, it seems natural, even logical, to posit the question of the beginning of the universe as well as its cause.
    Regardless, one can merely say that the universe did not have a beginning at all. Yes, there was a first “bang” that began the expansion of the hot, dense singularity of matter and energy. However, as you have pointed out, matter and energy cannot be created nor destroyed within our universe. So, maybe the singularity didn’t have a beginning? After all, is that not the argument of theists as well? God does not have a beginning and therefore does not have a cause.
    Personally, I jump straight to the question of fine tuning within our universe. Why is there anything within our universe at all, let alone the perfectly calibrated universal constants that allow life to exist as it does?
    Overall, thank you for your thoughts and the conversations.

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    1. How is the universe is perfectly calibrated? This loaded phrase requires definition. There have been at least 5 mass extinctions previously on planet Earth, and the Earth is in the beginning of another mass extinction right now. A planet that periodically annihilates nearly all life is your idea of perfectly calibrated? It is only arrogance that presumes humanity is immune to this process. Or what other meaning do you attach to the phrase, “perfectly calibrated?“ We know for a fact through cosmology and astronomy that the universe is violent and deadly. It’s only a matter of time before humans go the way of the dinosaurs. Perfectly calibrated indeed.

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      1. Just because life can perish, or that parts of the universe are hostile to life, does not mean that the universe is not calibrated for life. I do not mean that life cannot die in such a universe. Rather, I mean that should the physical constants and forces that govern the universe be any different than they are now, life would not exist. The values of the universal forces (such as the gravitational constant, weak and strong nuclear force, etc.) as they currently stand allow for the universe we live in. Can we die? Can species go extinct? Sure. Would life exist if the constants of the universe were even slightly different? No. These forces govern how sub atomic particles bind to one another and allow stars to be stable. Changing them changes the very fabric of how the universe works. If life is as fragile as you have already explained, then how could it survive, let alone originate in a universe where the forces that govern it do not allow for such a thing? The universe is, as they say, fine tuned.

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      2. As an athiest who ultimately finds the “fine tuning argument” for theism unconvincing, I also find that many athiests do not understand the argument and fail to respond to it appropriately. The fine tuning does not guarantee that life will exist and thrive at every time or place in the universe. Rather the fine tuning is needed for life to exist AT ALL. As such it is a legitimate point to raise and something that does seem to need an explanation. The reason that it is not a good argument for theism is because there are other, better explanations for it that do not require the existence of God or gods.

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      3. So what is really being said herein this post? The universe is uncaused? The universe is eternal? or The universe is self-caused? What?

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    2. // So what is really being said herein this post? The universe is uncaused? The universe is eternal? or The universe is self-caused? What?//

      I believe that what is being said is that IF the universe had a cause ( a proposition, by the way, that is not necessarily true), then that cause not only does not have to be a personal agent (ie God), it is very unlikely to have been a personal agent (ie God).

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    3. Your analysis is not scientifically sound. ‘Universal constants’ don’t actually exist. Quantities and metrics are the product of human construction and do not exist in the natural world. They’re just tools that scientists and engineers use to quantify the physical properties of the universe and establish consistency. Centimetres, Joules, Newtons, etc. are just tools for us to ground abstract physical phenomena so that we can work with them reliably. Suppose that two intelligent civilizations arose and that they developed completely different systems of measurement and thus completely different conceptions of ‘universal constants’. Theists tend to miss the fact that naturalistic explanations for the evolution of the cosmos are not only corroborated empirically but are able to account for all perceived fine-tuning. Science cannot be 100% accurate, but its the best tool we have. Looking at evidence alone, religion is 0% accurate. Remember that the laws of physics are descriptive in nature. They describe phenomena that are intrinsic to the universe itself. If the universe was in fact engineered by some higher intelligence than said higher intelligence is a terrible engineer.

      With regards to the question of ‘why is there anything in our universe at all’, I don’t know. Nobody really knows. Nobody can really know. My guess is as good as yours. The concept of God is merely a postulation and does not deserve to be granted any more weight.

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      1. Referring to:
        “Your analysis is not scientifically sound. ‘Universal constants’ don’t actually exist. Quantities and metrics are the product of human construction and do not exist in the natural world.”

        I think you’re missing the actual meaning of why those universal constants appear to be fine tuned.

        1. Of course you can use nanofeet, fahrenheit and stones and measure time in “moons” – the constants are still going to be precisely the same, just expressed in different numbers with different units.
        2. it’s not so much the actual value of the constants but rather the way they relate to each-other what makes the universe work.

        What is usually misunderstood, though, is that the existing one is not the only combination of constants that would make a functioning universe that supports life.
        It’s more like: change one slightly and you’ll have to adjust all the others to make it fit again.

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    4. I think the fine tuning is a typical case for the Anthropic Principle. The universe must be fine tuned for otherwise we wouldn’t exist. Or in other words: It is not surprising that the cat has holes in the fur, exactly where its eyes are.
      Also I think part of the argument misses the point. No one is claiming anything about the universe having a cause or not. It is only shown that the Kalam argument is circular and therefore of little help.

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  4. curious student here; i have a few ideas i’d like to talk through with someone.

    “only, it [my coffee] didn’t really begin to exist at all, rather it was the product of a rearrangement of preexisting matter.”
    Couldn’t we still consider it to begin to exist, though? Though it is formed of preexisting matter, the coffee itself did not exist prior to that point in time. It began to exist, just not ex-nihilo.

    “Keep in mind that if the kalãm seeks to draw a parallel between things within the universe beginning to exist and the universe itself beginning to exist, they must ‘begin to exist’ in the same fashion.”
    If we take this to Aristotle’s 4 causes, maybe we could consider the “efficient cause” to be the fashion in which the universe (or anything) is caused. Iirc WLC is referring to an efficient cause when he mentions “cause” in the kalam.
    E.g.: 1. Everything that begins to exist has a [primary source of change or rest];
    2. The universe began to exist;
    Conclusion: Therefore, the universe has a [primary source of change or rest].
    So I don’t think both have to refer to an ex-nihilo causation. Wouldn’t that be sort of mixing up formal causes? (The universe being formed out of nothing and coffee being formed out of pre-formed matter).
    By changing the argument in that way I don’t think it’s committing an equivocation fallacy.

    Premise 1 can be defended by considering that something cannot come from nothing.
    To consider it false the contrary would have to be true (that something can come from nothing).

    I hope my comment isn’t too over the place. I’m a med student with an interest in philosophy and the quarantine is giving me some extra time to pick up some philosophy. 😛

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    1. It was shown by Ibn Taymiyya that the early scholars of Islam did not believe in creation of the world ex nihilo. It is sufficient to realize that every part of the world begins to exist out of another part in order to infer the existence of the eternal Originator of all things. The world may very well be preceded by other worlds in a series without beginning, and that would still not entail that there is anything external to God that is uncreated by Him. The evidence for God, says Ibn Taymiyya, can be known directly from the everyday origination of trees out of the earth and living things out of their parents. It can be predicated on the impossibility in the infinite regress of causes and dependencies, but not on that events do not regress into the past.
      Alex also claims that matter changes only by rearrangement. This is a false claim as matter totally changes into heat and radiation and vice versa. Matter is not created ex nihilo, but it is certainly created out of energy and matter. Things fundamentally change and perish, and only God, the eternal Creator of all things, is not subject to perish.

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      1. //Things fundamentally change and perish, and only God, the eternal Creator of all things, is not subject to perish.//

        This seems to be the crux of your argument, which, unfortunately, is fallacious (argument from ignorance fallacy) how do you know that god is the creator? and he/she/or whatever is eternal? and the creator of all things? and is not subject to perish? what do you even mean by god? you may define the noun god any which way you like, but definition is not the proof of god’s existence.

        You see my friend, you are making sweeping assumptions about the so-called “creator” who nobody knows anything about, and whose existence has not been proven so far.

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      2. //You see my friend, you are making sweeping assumptions about the so-called “creator” who nobody knows anything about, and whose existence has not been proven so far.//

        The originated nature of things entails their dependency on an eternal God. If you do not accept this to be the case, you must allow either for an infinite regress in dependencies or for a circular dependency, when both are rationally impossible.
        The infinite regress in dependencies assumes that a sum of originated things exists by an originated thing included in the sum. This is impossible because the sum exists not by itself, and therefore not by a part of itself with greater reason.
        The circular dependency assumes that things originate themselves by means of originating their causes. This is also impossible, for if a thing may not originate itself, it may not be the cause of its cause with greater reason.
        It so only remains that things originate without an originator, which is impossible.

        This is illustrated in a verse in the Quran where God reminds the polytheists who knowingly rejected Faith of their dependency on their Creator:
        ((Or were they created by nothing? Or were they the creators of themselves?))
        To avoid these contradictions, the Originator must be made eternal and necessary, not an originated or a possible existent.

        Atheists generally do not understand they are originated, and Alex here is a good example. He believes that nothing ‘begins to exist’. But if one believes that he does not begin to exist, one will obviously not know that he has an Originator. This is why I thought it is crucial to point out that matter not only rearranges, but is also fundamentally created and annihilated.

        As for why I believe that God is Creator of all things, it is because there is nothing in the world that is not originated or subject to perish. Every part of the world is originated and is therefore dependent on its Originator. The evidences for God are as many as His creations.

        If you are asking me instead for the reason I believe that this Originator is one and only, not one being among others in a pantheon, then this calls for a more complete explanation of the arguments for His oneness. Those arguments are mentioned in the Quran and have been fully explained by Muslim scholars like Ibn Taymiyya. Generally, they are predicated on the fact that God is unrestricted in power, and on the fact that He is sufficient for His creations, such that they are necessitated by His will and are unchangeable by another god.
        More clearly, if multiple creators existed, God would be restricted in power and agency, and the different creations of each god would not be causally connected in one system, but would be causally disconnected necessarily. This is both impossible and nowhere to be seen.
        This very argument is mentioned in the Quran: ((Nay, but We have brought them the Truth, and lo! they are liars. God has not taken any son, nor is there any god along with Him; else would each god have assuredly championed that which he created, and some of them would assuredly have overcome others. Glorified be God above all that they allege.))

        I am not defining God into existence, Jack. I am simply describing God with meanings laymen find self-evident, and that may be additionally inferred through reason should natural intelligence no longer suffice.
        God is an the eternal Creator of all things and is the Most High above all things. He is the maximally perfect being who is described with the highest attributes. He is the Sufficient one to whom we all turn for help when desperate, and is the Independent one on whom all things depend. None has right to be worshiped but God, which is the meaning of the first testimony of Faith: “La ilaha illa Allah”.

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      3. //The originated nature of things entails their dependency on an eternal God. If you do not accept this to be the case, you must allow either for an infinite regress in dependencies or for a circular dependency, when both are rationally impossible.
        //

        Or it could be that the originated nature of things depends on something other than God. For example it could depend on a Giant Computer. If you say that a computer is not eternal, I will reply that I am imagining a computer that IS eternal. If you say that no computer could be eternal, I reply that a person cannot be eternal either. If you say that the Giant Computer is just another name for God, I reply that the Giant Computer can’t be God because the Giant Computer is not a person. If you say that the eternal first cause must be a person, I simply ask “Why?”

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      4. David, the fact that you are able to imagine an eternal computer does not mean that it is philosophically possible for a computer to exist eternally. To judge a matter as possible, you have to look for evidence of its possibility. This evidence may be its very existence, the existence of something similar, or the existence of that which is less possible and closer to impossibility.
        Take our Resurrection as an example. In the many verses of the Quran, God does not demonstrate the philosophical possibility of Resurrection by the fact that we can imagine it to be. Instead, He demonstrates its possibility with evidence, namely that He created us once and can do it again. In this way, the exalted God does not stop at epistemic possibility, for it does not suffice as evidence. You on the other hand have only mentioned that you find an eternal computer epistemically possible. You did not demonstrate that it is actually so.

        A closer look at your silly conjecture will also lead you to realize that it is a rational impossibility which entails contradictions. An eternal computer is a philosophically impossible notion for many reasons. Tools are obviously not agents but a means of creation. They are influenced and used, unlike that which is eternal, independent and self-sufficient.

        This should be a sufficient reply, unless you intend to posit a God who is without intention or will. If this latter is your intention, then know that God has more right to intention than you do. It is God who has instilled creation with will and knowledge. He is therefore a willing being necessarily. The Giver of perfection does not lack perfection but is more worthy of it.

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      5. //… the fact that you are able to imagine an eternal computer does not mean that it is philosophically possible for a computer to exist eternally. To judge a matter as possible, you have to look for evidence of its possibility. //

        EXACTLY! And the fact that you can imagine an eternal PERSON does not make that possible either. Every single person you have ever met in your entire life has been finite. Evey single one. In fact the very concept of an eternal, timeless, spaceless person is an absurdity in nearly every sense of the word.

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      6. I have already pointed out evidence for that an eternal God is necessary and that an eternal computer is not even possible. Read through my posts carefully, David.

        God is neither spaceless nor timeless. It is indeed absurd to claim that God is timeless or spaceless as you correctly point out. God is both above the world and before it in time. He is Most High and is the First without beginning and the Last without end.
        This was the belief of early Muslims, and was equally the belief of early Christians, before they slowly strayed towards irrational strands of Greek philosophy. This has been clarified extensively in the works of Ibn Taymiyya.

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      7. You have not given any evidence. You have simply stated that an eternal person is possible while an eternal computer is not. Making a statement is not evidence.
        If there is some reason to think that an eternal computer cannot exist – for example that no computer you have ever seen was ever eternal – then exactly the same reasoning will apply to show that an eternal person cannot exist.
        If there is some reason to think that an eternal person might exist – for example that such a person is Most High and First without beginning and Last without end (not that these words constitute a reason to believe anything) – then the same “reasoning” would allow for an eternal computer that has the same properties.
        Can you not see the perfect symmetry of the case?

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  5. “The universe had a beginning”

    This has not been demonstrated.

    Why does existence require a cause? And why does there have to be a “beginning”? If the theist demands a “No” to these questions for god (special pleading?) then it must be granted for the universe.

    Suppose current cosmologists have it wrong and the universe is closed so that it is eternally expanding, contracting, and re-born in a never ending series of big bangs?

    No cause. No beginning. Just existence.

    And I don’t buy that the universe quantum mechanically self created itself from nothing. Krauss postulates vacuums are never really empty. That might be true in a universe full of stuff— matter, energy, and observers looking into the vacuum! We also have laws of nature that govern quantum physics. In a pre-existent state where space, time, stuff don’t exist, and it’s hard to contemplate this even as a thought experiment, what laws would govern self emergence?

    Let’s assume the Big Bang pre-existent state is beyond the reach of physics because the laws which govern science break down in the singularity making the characterization of that state unknowable. This does not mean NOTHING existed, only that what came before is unknowable.

    This is what I believe:

    If something exists, something has always existed.

    You could call that something God, but that is not required. Theists still have the burden of proof for supernaturalism. I’ve yet to hear a case made that does not end with faith, presuppositionalism, or circularity.

    In my opinion, the cosmological argument is a dead end.

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    1. The Muslim theologian Ibn Taymiyya was of the opinion that God is perpetually creating and has always been originating universes. In his view, the species of the worlds is eternal but every particular world has a beginning. This view does not entail that anything is eternal with God or is uncreated. Rather, a nominalist who adopts this view can still believe that God is the Creator of all things.
      Your points should worry only those theists who are unaware of the fact that substances originate and perish. Indeed, many theists, just like Alex, believe that creation ex materia is only to rearrange already existing matter. The substances according to them do not change into a new creation. The substances may have existed eternally. For this reason, these theists try to justify the existence of God with a major act of creation ex nihilo. They may invent subtle arguments to prove that substances and components of matter were originated out of nothing in the distant past.
      According to Ibn Taymiyya, people who resort to this usually lack a proper conviction in God’s existence. The existence of God instead ought to be innate and known directly from observing the signs in His world, signs like trees and animals and minerals. These signs are originated as a substance, not just as a form or arrangement. They are therefore effects of a Creator who is neither originated nor contingent. These signs are also nowhere observed to originate ex nihilo. They are only observed to originate out of a matter that has ceased to exist and totally changed into a new creation.

      If it is understood that the components of the natural world are changing and begin to exist out of other things, not just rearrange into new forms, most of the arguments against God’s creative agency will be resolved straight away.
      I have written a booklet with the title ‘Shining Pearls of Faith’. It makes a quick and brief mention of these points, and also deals with many questions that are usually posed by atheists from a Taymiyyan viewpoint. Search for Shining Pearls of Faith in youtube and you will find the link to the pdf in the video description.

      Wish you all the best in your search for answers.

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    1. Look, I agree with most everyone here that the kalam has problems, mainly because I agree that I don’t think premise 2 could ever be conclusively proved/agreed upon. But egad, please, for the love of all good things, do not reference that horrible Dan Barker article. It’s just about catastrophic for someone of his apparent intelligence. Just the theological and philosophical misunderstandings alone are enough to make me feel like my brain is bleeding out through my ears. And this is from someone who is completely and utterly uninterested in defending WLC’s version of the kalam (or indeed any version of the kalam that I have ever heard).

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      1. Sorry – I read the Dan Barker article and thought he did quite a good job at demolishing the KCA on philosophical grounds. Perhaps you could be more explicit about where you think he went wrong.

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      2. Sure. There are so many things I have problems with on Barker’s article that to deconstruct it entirely would take forever. But just to give a highlight of some of the areas I have problems with in only the “begging the question” section (don’t get me started on the others): he seems to misunderstand how theists use the cosmological argument, none of which simply “assume a NBE” but rather derive as a logical consequence of the argument that there must be a NBE (also, “the old cosmological argument claimed…that everything has a cause” – LOL, no. Never. Do give theistic philosophers some credit.) And it’s hardly like the idea of a NBE has come from nowhere (“Where do theists obtain the idea in the first place that there is such a set as NBE? By what observations or arguments is the possibility of beginningless objects warranted?”) Does he seriously not know this? There are tons of arguments of philosophical reasoning that aren’t strictly theistic in nature that argue that there must be at least one, if not more, NBE. Heck, for centuries scientists thought the universe was a NBE. He also wastes several paragraphs destroying the idea that some complex thing can come from something simpler, something no theist ever would actually disagree with him on because most theists believe that God is absolutely simple. Christians call it the doctrine of divine simplicity and Muslims call this Tawheed. (It boggles my mind that Barker doesn’t know this, given his past life as a preacher – just goes to show you don’t apparently have to know classical theology to become a preacher in the United States). Even Craig, who I don’t think fully accepts the doctrine of divine simplicity as traditionally formulated, still believes that God is simpler than the universe. So Barker’s gone down some bizarre side road with this and apparently doesn’t understand how Craig or other defenders of the kalam defend the idea of the cause as God (I’ll get to that). He also, I should add, misunderstands most teleological arguments in the footnote he drops in [8]. “If functional complexity requires a designer, then the designer also needs a designer, because the designer must be at least as complex as the thing it designed.” Seriously? He’s about to go on to prove this entire principle was wrong, but he’s still advocating it as a legit way of “refuting teleological arguments”? I suppose he’s trying to do this to show that the theistic worldview is somehow internally inconsistent, but it’s just embarassing once you realize that theists don’t actually believe this point re complexity. Most teleological arguments don’t argue this: rather, they’re formulated something along the lines of, “the potential for the effect must exist within the cause” which is not the same thing as saying the cause must be as complex as the effect. It’s a fine distinction, but if you’re going to argue against teleological arguments in a public manner, you really ought to understand it. (PART 1)

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      3. Nancy, when you state that you don’t think premise 2 could ever be conclusively proved/agreed upon, could you clarify your concerns there?

        To the best of my understanding of current cosmology (which is admittedly limited), there is active discussion around the *nature* of the universe’s beginning, but there seems to be pretty widespread agreement that the discussion is needed because there was, in fact, a beginning that we want to to understand.

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  6. (PART TWO) With regard to Barker’s main point regarding the kalam begging the question, I don’t even know where to begin. I could criticize the whole construction of his argument from a lot of different angles, but for the sake of argument, let’s just go with how he’s put it together and just start with his conclusion. In order to avoid begging the question in his formulation, he says that theists must answer no to the question: “Is God the only object accommodated by the set of things that do not begin to exist?” To which theists would actually happily reply … no. First off, Barker concedes that theists only need to come up with a theoretical possibility of something other than God as a NBE to avoid this begging the question (“if theists allow the theoretical possibility of an impersonal transcendent object in NBE–and it seems they must allow this, or some other nontheistic hypothesis”), and I don’t know of a single theist who wouldn’t accept something other than God as theoretically a NBE for premise one. The most obvious examples are things like numbers or mathematical truths, but they might also concede as theoretically possible something like “an immaterial aether out there beyond space-time…” Further, a great many theists would happily agree that in real life, not just in theoretical possibility, there exist NBEs other than God per se. The most obvious case in point is actually with Muslims, who believe the Quran is eternal. But even Christian theists would happily agree that NBEs at least in a temporal sense (which is the sense the kalam cares about) aren’t inconsistent with the Christian idea of God. Christians would say something like, “Mathematical truths are eternal ideas in the mind of God” (and ideas are not equivalent to God), and some (ironically) have even argued that the universe is past eternal. So things other than God being past eternal even in real life, much less in theory, is not a problem for most theists. Thus the actual structure of the kalam survives Barker’s critique.

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  7. (PART THREE) The next aspect of Barker’s critique in this section is basically the idea that theists haven’t shown that the cause is God. In his conclusion, Barker asks “If no, then what are the other candidates for the cause of the universe, and how have they been eliminated?” (First off, as a side note, this is a strange way of phrasing the objection. The theist doesn’t actually have to show there are other realistic candidates for the cause of the universe, per se, in order to avoid begging the question … they only have to show that there are other potential NBEs). His talk of eliminating other candidates as the cause, which he does throughout, also seems to misunderstand how theists arrive at God as the cause in the kalam, which is not by going, “Can’t be X, can’t by Y, therefore God!” but rather more as a positive case – that is to say, “The cause must have X quality for reason A, quality Y for reason B, quality Z for reason C, but an entity with the qualities of X, Y and Z is simply what we mean when we say God.” But what Barker really wants to know is how defenders of the kalam justify the idea that the cause is an immaterial mind rather than an impersonal force, to which he says, “Craig appears to be justifying the hypothesis of a personal external force via the fact that the natural universe contains complex intelligence and free personal agency–humans, for example–and a creator must be at least as complex as the thing it created.” But this is literally not what Craig – nor any defender of the kalam – argues as to why the the cause must be personal! But what boggles my mind is that Barker actually gives the real reason Craig argues for this earlier in the paper, acknowledges this is the reason that Craig argues for a personal creator, and then doesn’t connect the dots or even bother trying to refute it anywhere in the paper: “Craig argues for a personal creator: “We know that this first event must have been caused. The question is: How can a first event come to exist if the cause of that event exists changelessly and eternally? Why isn’t the effect as co-eternal as the cause? It seems that there is only one way out of this dilemma, and that is to infer that the cause of the universe is a personal agent who chooses to create a universe in time.”” COME ON. Barker ought to be trying to refute this point, not the stupid complexity one. Every section of his paper has problems like this – the whole thing is a disaster, but hopefully this highlights the types of problems I see in it. Again, none of this is to say that there are no valid critiques of the kalam. Clearly there are. This is just not one of them.

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  8. CS gives no argument for his comments about the principle of causality He just declares it to be the product of wishful thinking, mentions some advances in biology with no citations, and then considers the matter settled. He hasn’t seriously considered the ramifications of denying the principle of
    causality–like if things can just happen with no cause, why doesn’t this happen all the time? The fact that we can even rationally understand the universe at all would be a miracle if things just changed, mutated, stopped working etc. randomly with no cause.

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  9. Alex, I love the clear, logical way you build your argument, and your obvious avoidance of mean-spiritedness or the straw-man approaches so disturbingly common to these exchanges.

    To your argument: It seems to me that by equating the universe to the group of all things that begin to exist, you are relying on a unique definition of “begin to exist” (that nothing new actually ever began to exist except when its components began to exist along with everything else in the universe, i.e at the Big Bang). The definition appears to be plain old reductionism.

    For example, you state, even “ideas are ultimately nothing more than signals in the brain, and hence physical in nature.” This is hardly a settled matter. We actually have no real idea what ideas are, other than what we’ve guessed them to be. Similarly, you assert that your father (hence a human soul with consciousness) is nothing more than the rearrangement of existing matter, a statement which requires an a priori naturalistic assumption about the nature of consciousness.

    I enjoyed your article!

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  10. You seem to fail to distinguish between efficient, material, formal and final causes, because you fail to distinguish between existence and being. Even Schopenhauer, the great atheist, who had his own debunking of the cosmological argument, did not make the category error conflating material causes with the Aristotelean “efficient cause”, between existence in time and space (according to the principle of sufficient reason, under the law of causality) and being, which is pure idea, the obverse face of the unmanifest and groundless Will. You would do well to read his World as Will and Idea and also his On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Even if you disagreed with Schopenhauer’s philosophy, his analysis of Idealism vs Materialism is brilliant, and takes in the whole sweep of the philosophical history of these ideas.

    Also read Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and/or Edward Feser’s summary of the arguments. Feser is no supporter of William Lane Craig’s, but grasps the categorical difference between existence and being, where reality is composite of idea and matter, rather than merely matter lacking any objective or ideal reality, taking on evanescent forms accidentally either as composites of atoms or as convulsions of singular matter in time and space.

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  11. Speaking as a Christian, I agree with the thesis of this article. The beginning of the universe (I mean, assuming such a beginning occurred) is an event sui generis. In the nature of the case, we cannot appeal to our experiences, or generalisations therefrom, in order to develop a constraining framework, from the onset, regarding what may or may/not have taken place. I see no a priori reason why an infinite chain of causes, or an eternal universe, or any variants of similar ideas should be excluded as possibilities simply because we have not seen things coming into existence with our eyes in the few hours we have been alive.

    Your argument here is cogent and is a sensible application of scepticism to claims that conceal their assumptions with their pedestrian appearance: for this is what it is to speak as if “everything that begins to exist has a cause”, it is to assume that our limited experience is enough to make universal statements about the way things come into existence. This is very naive philosophy and falls to the ground under the criticisms of Hume and Kant. I don’t think Dr. Craig advances this because he is dishonest or foolish—he is clearly a brilliant man. He advances this because he has committed himself to a certain pattern of thinking and cannot see outside of it.

    I would recommend to you the writings of Cornelius Van Til and the lectures on philosophy by Greg Bahnsen (available online for not that much, just google) if you want to encounter the only true defense of Christianity that is available after Kant.

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  12. Thank you both for this article and for your recent interview with WLC which I enjoyed very much.

    A similar objection:- The intuitive appeal of “X began to exist” where X is an everyday object stems from the fact that there is a moment in time at which the object exists and an earlier moment in time at which it did not. This does not apply where X is the universe, since the “beginning” of the universe corresponds to the first moment of time, and so there is no earlier moment at which the universe did not exist. Even if premise 2 retains some intuitive appeal since there is still a first moment at which the universe existed, this distinction between the universe and everyday objects is significant for how we see premise 1. There is no reason why a thing should require a cause if it is impossible to identify a point in time at which it did not exist

    I find it interesting to note that (in your interview) WLC defines “begins to exist” such that “X began to exist iff X exists at a time t and t is the *first moment* at which X exists”, rather than “X began to exist iff X exists at time t and there is an *earlier time* u at which X did not exist*”. WLC’s definition therefore hides the distinction just outlined between the universe and everyday objects.

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  13. I agree Amari,. We all navigate life (and do science) on the basis of a set of assumptions that rely on circular reasoning (as John Frame puts it). When we are comparing world views we kritique the internal consistency of those world views.

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  14. Alex, you wrote “… the first premise, ‘Everything that begins to exist has a cause’ becomes ‘The universe has a cause’ …” based on the notion that only the universe began to exist. But if that basis is true, shouldn’t “ Everything that begins to exist has a cause” actually become “if the universe began to exist then it has a cause?” Then this version of the argument shows no circularity. Rather, it is plainly modus ponens. And putting it like this leaves this premise bare. Sure, the original premise will be used to argue this one, but that is where according to your analysis the circularity exists.

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    1. Exactly, look at the debate between Copleston and Russell.

      You also should make the distinction between time and creation as a theist might argue even if the universe is eternal it is still created meaning it doesn’t matter to the thrist if it is eternal or has a beginning middle and end. It still has a cause. Nothing begets nothing so we’re does something come from. Where does your cup of coffee come from?

      You must guy also ask why you elevate someone like Hitchens? What you get from doing that. Is there such a thing as universal truth? To claim there isn’t in this paper Lance is to make a universal claim. Nonsense.

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  15. I saw your podcast with Peter Singer, and got up to where you started making an argument against being able to do something good without wanting pleasure for doing whatever it is that you did. So I’ll introduce something that’ll make you think, to push against your egoistic hedonist argument: replace “pleasure” for “satisfaction,” and your argument for reciprocal altruism gets hazy. The poet who prefers to live a life of sorrow for the sake of writing better poetry could in fact do so for pleasure, as you say. But, it is equally plausible that her preference for sustaining a sorrowful life to the benefit of her poetry is a satisfactory experience. Take someone who has a mental disability, for example. But this disability prohibits them from properly interpreting their own emotions in the way that allows them to identify their own emotions, specifically. Nevertheless, they still have an interest in poetry. Absent of sustained sorrow, in this example, it would be irrelevant. For in order to sustain sorrow, one would have to be able to identify this experience has a sorrowful one. But if they cannot do so; as in, they are unable to do so, yet still have this interest in writing poetry, then the experience of writing good poetry would be a satisfactory one. Not a hedonistic endeavor. So, it is possible to want absent of however it makes you feel with respect to a pleasurable experience.

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  16. Dear Cosmic Skeptic.

    I seek clarification, [I am not a student of philosophy], does your argument mean that the Kalaam argument is essentially valid but vacuous. It is basically a tautology?

    Thank you.

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