On the Kalam Cosmological Argument
One of the most popular arguments for the existence of God is known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument. In general, the “cosmological” family of arguments attempt to show that some initial condition necessarily pre-exists the universe, and declare this initial condition (or its cause) to be God. There have been many different versions of the cosmological argument, but the Kalam is particularly popular because it is composed of a very simple syllogism with premises that many people find self-evident. This simplicity makes the KCA very easy for laymen to remember and explain, while professional philosophers love the hidden nuances and depth which underlie the seemingly simple premises. The KCA was first developed and refined by medieval Muslim thinkers like Al-Kindi, Al-Ghazali, and Averroes in the time when the Arab world stood at the pinnacle of Western philosophy and science. Today, arguably the most avid and scholarly proponent of the KCA is Christian apologist, William Lane Craig (whose work has been a frequent focus of this blog), and it will be Dr. Craig’s particular formulation of the KCA which I will be discussing.
The argument is as follows:
- Anything that begins to exist has a cause.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Indeed, this is a very simple syllogism to remember! There’s no wonder that this argument has become so popular, as apologetics has spread to your average Joe Theist. The first premise seems self-evident, the second premise seems to fit with the common understanding of the Big Bang, and the conclusion follows validly from the premises. The words which the KCA employs are all common to the everyman’s vocabulary, so that the argument avoids the more complex, specialized, and (therefore) confusing vocabulary one might expect from a philosophical argument. The direct and simple premises make it fairly easy to predict common objections, which in turn makes it fairly easy to train a person to handle these common objections.
However, the astute among you might have already noticed a fairly glaring problem with this presentation of the Kalam Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God: it doesn’t actually mention God, at all.
Dr. Craig noticed this issue, as well, which is why he amends the argument with the following, in 2009’s “The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology” (co-authored with James Sinclair):
- If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal, creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful.
- Therefore, an uncaused, personal creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful.
Suddenly, the KCA doesn’t seem quite so simple, anymore. Unlike the main syllogism of the KCA, these amended premises contain very specific philosophical language discussing very complex philosophical concepts which are likely to spark very complex philosophical objections. Because of the added complexity of these amended elements, they are quite often omitted entirely from people’s presentations of the KCA. Even when they aren’t entirely omitted, these amendments are very often simplified to just “the cause of the universe is God.” Even Dr. Craig often simplifies his amendments to the KCA, in his presentations, and he very rarely spends much time defending them, preferring to discuss the premises of the main Kalam argument.
I’m actually going to ignore the amended premises, today, saving them for another article entirely. For now, let’s just focus on the main Kalam Cosmological Argument, because even without the amendments, I do not think that the KCA is sound.
1. Anything that begins to exist has a cause
Again, this premise is worded in such a manner as to make it seem very simple and self-evident. However, the apparent simplicity is actually hiding some very complex ideas. It may surprise you to learn that the phrases “begins to exist” and “cause” are really not as simple as you might imagine. Before we can address the KCA in any meaningful way, we have to learn what Dr. Craig actually means when he uses these phrases. If this assertion strikes you as being pedantic, at first glance, let me assure you that it is not, because I am fairly certain that Dr. Craig means something entirely different by the phrase “begins to exist” than the common person means when they use that phrase.
Generally, when the common person says that an entity “began to exist,” it conjures up an image in their mind of a time when that entity did not exist, followed by a time in which that entity does exist. However, this is not at all what Dr. Craig means when he uses the phrase “begins to exist.” As you can see from this Question of the Week on Dr. Craig’s Reasonable Faith website (dated July 5, 2010), the first premise of the KCA is nowhere near as simple as it first appears. Dr. Craig defines the phrase “begins to exist” in the following way:
For any entity e and time t, e begins to exist at t if and only if
- e exists at t
- t is the first time at which e exists
- There is no state of affairs in the actual world in which e exists timelessly
- e‘s existing at t is a tensed fact
The first two elements of this definition are simple enough, and coincide pretty well with the common understanding; however, it is very noteworthy that the definition does not require that there actually is any time before t in which e did not exist, as most people think when they hear the phrase “begins to exist.” This is absolutely deliberate, on Dr. Craig’s part. He knows full well that if he asserts that time is finite in the past (as he does), since time is a part of the universe, there would be no period of time in which the universe did not exist. Dr. Craig is specifically attempting to craft a definition for “begins to exist” which can be applied to something which was literally never non-existent, at any point in time. Whether time is eternal or finite in the past, if time is a part of the universe, then there was never any time when the universe did not exist.
The third element of the definition introduces a tricky concept into the mix: the idea that something could exist timelessly. One critic of the KCA, a blogger and YouTuber who goes by the nom de plume A Counter Apologist, has labelled this Dr. Craig’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card for God. If we were to omit element 3 from the mix, then even the God of classical theology could have “begun to exist,” on this definition. Dr. Craig has crafted this element of his definition specifically to exclude entities which exist without space-time, like the classical God. The problem is that it is not at all clear what it even means to “exist timelessly.” It’s difficult to conceive of a cogent definition for “existence” which could allow something to “exist timelessly;” and when you add in the fact that the KCA also implies that such a being must exist non-spatially, a cogent definition for “existence” becomes altogether inconceivable.
The fourth element brings another sophisticated philosophical concept to the fore. Basically, Dr. Craig is here stating that his definition for “begins to exist” is constructed upon the premise that the Tensed Theory of Time is accurate. The Tensed Theory of Time is the idea that time actually progresses from one moment to the next; and that the future is not real, but rather a system of potential occurrences which become actualized at the present. This is generally the common view of how time works, on the human experience: the past is behind us, the present is real, the future isn’t real until it occurs. The problem is that this common perception of time does not really match up very well with the scientific understanding of time. I have done a whole series of articles on Dr. Craig’s views on time (see parts One, Two, Three, Four, and Five). Without rehashing all of that, here, I’ll just note that I find Dr. Craig’s Tensed Theory of Time to be antiquated and untenable.
So, to summarize, Dr. Craig asserts that a thing can begin to exist, even if there was never a time when it did not exist, just so long as there’s no way it could exist timelessly (whatever that means) and assuming that his outdated and unscientific understanding of time is correct.
Now that we’ve established a definition for “begins to exist,” let’s move on to a definition for “cause.” Generally, Dr. Craig uses the word “cause” as shorthand for the concept of Aristotelian causation. In his book “Physics,” the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, laid out four different elements which he believed were necessary to causation which he labelled the Material, Efficient, Formal, and Final causes. For the purpose of simplifying this article, somewhat, we can ignore the Formal and Final causes, and concentrate just on the Material and Efficient causes. The Material cause is that which is being changed. For example, the Material cause of a table might be wood, while the Material cause of Mount Rushmore is granite. The Efficient cause is the entity which effected the change. So, in the case of our table, the Efficient cause would be a carpenter; while in the case of Mount Rushmore, the Efficient cause would be the sculptors, Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum. It is important to note that, on the view of Aristotelian causation, the Material and Efficient causes are not optional. A Material cause undergoes no change unless acted upon by an Efficient cause. Similarly, an Efficient cause cannot effect a change without a Material cause upon which to act. We will definitely explore this fact, more, later in our article.
Given Dr. Craig’s definitions for “begins to exist” and “cause,” I find that I have to reject the veracity of Premise 1. Something which begins to exist at the first moment of time has not undergone any change, and therefore cannot be said to have either an Efficient or a Material cause.
2. The universe began to exist
Since we have already defined what we mean by “began to exist,” the only new word to define in Premise 2 is “universe.” In another of his weekly Question articles (June 18, 2007), Dr. Craig laid out his definition of “the universe ” as meaning “the whole of material reality.” The necessary implication of this is that there might be some kind of immaterial reality which is separate from the universe. As we will see, it is within the framework of this implied immaterial reality that Dr. Craig believes God exists.
So, then, what support does Dr. Craig offer for the idea that the whole of material reality began to exist? Typically, he attempts to point to Big Bang and Inflationary cosmology, which are the fields of physics which deal directly with our earliest data for the universe. Dr. Craig notes that these sciences seem to indicate that, since the universe is currently in a state of accelerating expansion, we can extrapolate backward in time to presume that the universe was once much more compact. This would be a fairly accurate description of the physics were it not for one incredibly glaring flaw. Dr. Craig commits to a major fallacy of equivocation, here, because “the universe” (as defined by these fields of physics) is not equivalent to “the whole of material reality.” Generally, physicists define “universe” as meaning something akin to “a 4-Dimensional manifold of three spatial dimensions and one temporal dimension.” Depending on the particular article you are reading, the geometry can get even more erudite, with descriptions of deSitter and non-deSitter spaces and other such complex features. However, I have never seen a cosmologist define “the universe” as “the whole of physical reality” in any of their peer-reviewed work. Cosmologists have no idea, whatsoever, whether or not our particular 4-D space-time manifold encompasses the whole of physical reality.
However, even if we ignore this equivocation, Dr. Craig still has another problem to overcome. The fact that the universe is expanding, and was therefore more compact at some point in the past does not necessarily indicate that it has a finite past. Dr. Craig must show that there is good reason to believe that the universe is not past-eternal, and he thinks that he has found just such a proof in the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin Theorem. Whenever he presents on this topic, Dr. Craig claims that BGV proves that “any universe which has, on average, been expanding throughout its history cannot be eternal in the past, but must have an absolute beginning.” You’ll notice that, in the video, this line is read as if it is being quoted directly from the findings of BGV, and you can see in the transcript for the video that this line is, indeed, marked as a quotation. However, no source is offered for this quotation, and if you read through the actual BGV, which I linked above, you’ll notice that this line does not appear anywhere in the published paper. In fact, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem does not state anything like this quote. To find the actual conclusion drawn by BGV, you needn’t look any farther than the abstract at the top of the first page: “inflationary models require physics other than inflation to describe the past boundary of the inflating region of spacetime.” This is a very far cry from the claim that any expanding universe must have had an absolute beginning in the finite past. Rather, the BGV simply states that our current models are not sufficient to describe the entire history of the universe. Dr. Craig is attempting to turn ‘we don’t know enough about the history of the universe’ into ‘we know that the universe had an absolute beginning.’
Between Dr. Craig’s baldfaced fallacy of equivocation and his blatant misrepresentation of his strongest piece of supporting evidence, I’d say we have to reject the veracity of the KCA’s second premise.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause
Considering the fact that I have rejected both of the premises of the KCA, you might be inclined to wonder why I am addressing the conclusion, at all. Obviously, if the premises cannot be shown to be true then the Conclusion is already unsound. However, there is another issue introduced by the combination of Premises 1 & 2 which I think merits some discussion. In fact, I hinted at it, earlier, while discussing causation.
As we noted in our discussion of Premise 1, on Aristotelian causation, an Efficient cause requires a Material cause and a Material cause requires an Efficient cause. Neither of these concepts can have any sensible application in the absence of the other. However, note also that Dr. Craig’s definition of “the universe” was “the whole of material reality.” This introduces a major problem for Dr. Craig’s argument. The Material cause of the universe cannot be causally prior to the whole of material reality. Something material cannot exist to be changed prior to the existence of all material reality.
As a staunch supporter of the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, Dr. Craig is actually quite happy at this paradox. He argues that, since it makes no sense for the universe to have a Material cause, it must not have had one. However, in the very next breath, he will assert that the universe still must have had an Efficient cause, even though the concept of an Efficient cause is nonsensical without a Material cause. This, he argues, is wonderful evidence for the truth of the Christian doctrine! It is an entirely inconsistent position. Not only that, it displays an amazing level of hypocrisy on the part of Dr. Craig. William Lane Craig, who very frequently chides his debate opponents, claiming that they believe that the universe could just “pop into existence,” when he personally supports the position that God just popped the universe into existence.
It is absolutely preposterous for a man as intelligent as Dr. Craig to simultaneously proclaim ex nihilo nihil fit and creatio ex nihilo.
Putting It All Together
William Lane Craig’s version of the Kalam Cosmological Argument claims that a thing can begin to exist, even though there was never a time when it did not exist; that an entity must have a cause, even when there is no way for it to be caused; that science makes claims about the whole of material reality, even though the papers he cites have never addressed the whole of material reality; and that God created the universe from nothing, even though nothing can come from nothing.
Given all of this, one might wonder why the Kalam Cosmological Argument is so popular. Who would bother trying to utilize a tool with so many glaring inadequacies? However, take another look at the page you’ve just read. I had to spend around 2500 words, unpacking some complex philosophical and scientific concepts, in order to show that an argument with fewer than 20 words is unsound– and that’s not even counting the five other articles I’ve written against the philosophy of time which underlies the whole KCA. It is far, far easier for the theist to memorize and repeat the KCA and a few scientific-sounding quips about Entropy and the Big Bang and the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem than it is for an atheist to learn everything they need to debunk the Kalam’s claims.
William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument is worse than just being unconvincing. It is irrational, paradoxical, incoherent, and dishonest. And yet, it remains one of the most popular arguments for God’s existence, not just among average theists, but even among intelligent and sophisticated professional apologists. Because of the lies and misconceptions propagated by WLC’s KCA, I run across people on a daily basis who absolutely insist that science has definitively proven the universe had a finite beginning, even though these people have no understanding of the actual science involved. Dr. Craig, himself, tried to assert this falsehood to an extremely prominent cosmologist, Dr. Sean Carroll– a man whose work has notably included the development of past-eternal models for the universe– going so far as to suggest that Dr. Carroll and even Dr. Alan Guth (one of the publishers of the BGV) did not understand the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem as well as he did!
Despite all of this, if you ask a modern theist with even a modicum of apologetics training to give you their strongest argument for the existence of God, you are likely to hear the Kalam Cosmological Argument.