God’s Existence and Kalam

This academic year, I’ve been taking a class on the Doctrine of God. Last week we were studying God’s eternity, and as part of that we looked at the Kalam Cosmological Argument (William Lane Craig’s formulation of it – that link goes through to his website, where you can watch a short video on the Kalam which is actually quite good. He didn’t come up with the original argument himself, but he did extend it).

The argument itself is pretty simple. It goes like this:

  1. Everything that began to exist has a cause of its existence
  2. The Universe began to exist
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence.
  4. Causes are either:
    1. Impersonal (without a will) – a previous physical state of affairs which ‘produces’ the new state of affairs. or…
    2. Personal (a will produces the new state of affairs)
  5. So: The universe is either caused by a 4a) or 4b) cause.
  6. But: 4a) causes are not available to cause the universe because by definition there is no previous physical state of affairs.
  7. Further: This personal cause is – in relation to the universe: Transcendent, incorporeal, omniscient and omnipotent.

I think this argument is actually a powerful one. Although I am highly sceptical that it will convince anybody to believe in God (which is another topic in itself), responding to it is rather tricky. Where the universe actually came from is a problem if you don’t believe in God: there is no logical ‘naturalistic’ reason why there should be something rather than nothing.

The main response that you could make to the Kalam (Steps #1-#3 anyway) is that the universe is eternal and infinite (i.e. there has never been a time when the universe did not exist). There are several problems with this:

Firstly, it seems very much like the universe had a beginning. As I understand it, this is not something which is even debated in science: our universe had a beginning in the big bang. We’ll come back to this in a moment.

Secondly, if the universe was infinite, it would mean that it had an infinite past. An infinite past would mean that infinite time had elapsed. There is a problem with this view which I will let Paul Helm explain:

Such a prospect requires that an infinite number of events must have elapsed before the present moment could arrive. And since it is impossible for an infinite number of events to have elapsed, and yet the present moment has arrived, the series of events cannot be infinite. (from Paul Helm – ‘Eternal God’)

Helm is talking about God’s eternity, but the argument is applicable here: if the past is infinite, then logically you would never get to the present moment. Time cannot be infinite with respect to the past. I must admit, I found that hard to get my head around to start with but I think the argument is sound… to get to now you have to start somewhere. If time extends back into an infinite past, there is nowhere to start!

Thirdly, rather than say the universe is eternal some people say that there is a ‘cycle’ – the big bang kicks the universe off, then big crunch kills it off again, and then the whole process starts over again. If time is a part of that, then I think you run into the problem of infinite past time. If time is not part of the process, then you end up with something which begins to look very much like God: uncaused, atemporal, omnipotent, etc.

And, of course, there is no real scientific evidence when it comes to the ‘big picture’ stuff like this – which is a problem for those who wish to adopt a scientific approach.

Anyway, as I said, not an argument which is likely to convince anyone, but I think an interesting one nonetheless.

Where I think the argument gets interesting is #4-7, where we get into a ‘personal’ cause of the universe. #1-3 don’t get you to the Christian God. I think #4-7 actually do, by logical implication. However, I think that’s probably a subject best left for another day – maybe I’ll blog about it next time.

Advertisements

18 thoughts on “God’s Existence and Kalam

  1. Firstly, it seems very much like the universe had a beginning. As I understand it, this is not something which is even debated in science: our universe had a beginning in the big bang.

    You might be surprised. That our universe had a start isn’t terribly divisive, but there’s no real reason why the multiverse, which is not a far-fetched concept, shouldn’t be infinite, while our lonely corner is finite.

    However, I should start with #1. The problem with the first proposition is that nobody has ever seen anything begin to exist, and therefore the statement cannot be made that anything that begins to exist has a cause. What we tend to call “beginning” is actually just a rearrangement of stuff that already existed, and so a chair is made of chair parts, which are not on their own a chair. The chair didn’t begin to exist until it was put together, that being the cause of its existence, but it did not literally begin to exist from nothing in the way that it is said the universe began. The chair is only an idea about the arrangement of things (a knee-high seat and a backrest), but the stuff that made it “began” at the same time as the universe did.

    With #1 being meaningless, and #2 uncertain, the rest of Kalam falls apart.

    • Thank you for your comment.

      “there’s no real reason why the multiverse, which is not a far-fetched concept, shouldn’t be infinite, while our lonely corner is finite.”

      I’m not sure about the multiverse idea. There’s no evidence for it, in fact pretty much by definition you couldn’t have any – it is purely speculative. And wouldn’t you just push back the argument by one anyway – why should a multiverse be infinite?

      I’m not sure about your problem with #1 either. It’s true that we’ve never seen anything begin to exist from nothing, but then – isn’t that the point?

      • The concept of a multiverse emerges from models of the universe that we already know are accurate, requiring just a couple assumptions as opposed to it being some crazy new idea plucked out of nowhere. It’s not impossible that we might gather some evidence for it, but there’s no reason to think we will. The point though, is that it’s not a far stretch to imagine that it is possible.

        Why should a multiverse be infinite? Well, the traditional argument against infinite time prior is that infinite time would have had to pass before an event, meaning that the event would never happen, but that’s not the way the multiverse is supposed to work, waiting forever to do one, single, thing. It is constantly generating new universes. Our universe is just one temporal section.

        The first proposition states, “Everything that began to exist has a cause of its existence.” With a sample size of zero, the author believes that he can assume that there is a cause/effect relationship to the generation of a universe. All we really know is that the pre-existing matter within the universe experiences this relationship on the macroscopic level, but to generalize that into every possible thing is intellectually dishonest. Incredulously remarking that you don’t see how nothing could cause nothing to become something (I’m looking at WLC here) is more so. It’s not that nothing could cause anything, it’s that there is not necessarily a causal relationship at all.

        I should also note that, while theists are more than willing to extend causality to things they know nothing about, they specifically exclude their conception of a god (because how else would it work?). Why not bring the argument back by one and just say the universe?

        • This is a fascinating. I’d just like to take one aspect of your comment, if I may, and talk a bit more about the multiverse.

          You say that the multiverse is constantly pumping out universes, or however you want to put it. Such a multiverse would by necessity be atemporal / eternal, have existence in itself (it is not contingent upon anything else), have the ability to create from nothing (omnipotence), be transcendent (not part of any universe), etc. In other words, what you seem to believe in is something which starts to look very much like God when you add it all up. In fact, the primary difference between God and the multiverse is that the multiverse is impersonal.

          I’m curious to know what the ‘couple assumptions’ are that one needs to make for a multiverse. I’m guessing they would be pretty substantial and fundamental ones which would be incapable of experimental verification. I wonder whether the reason for thinking that the multiverse is more probable than God is rooted in unspoken presuppositions.

          Christians (I can’t speak for all theists) do exclude their conception of a God from from prior explanation, in the same way that you exclude the concept of a multiverse. But *something* needs to be the ultimate cause, the prime mover. I believe that God, as eternal, omniscient, omnipotent etc, is the most logical way to understand the prime mover, and also I believe it is the God described in the Bible.

          • I am not purporting to know the details of a multiverse; it is, after all, only a possibility. I am just saying that it strikes me as more likely to be true than a being with a temper and lose morals that likes to hide from the people he supposedly loves and wants to save from a hell he created. You may feel free to characterize the multiverse however you please. If you believed that the universe was eternal, you would be trying to push god characteristics onto that too. This is because you believe that your god has a monopoly on the eternal, when the truth is you have no way to know. Just a warm subjective feeling that tells you you’re right. Unfortunately, every other religion shares the same warm feeling that also tells them they are right.

            The assumptions made for the universe would be inflation and the large number of potential universes string theory calculates. But I am not a physicist, so here is one who can explain better.

            I do not exclude the concept of a multiverse from causal relationships because, I am not projecting an causal relationship onto an event that has never been witnessed. I have no expectation that causal relationships are a universal phenomena, and we have reason to believe that uncaused events happen all the time with beta decay and quantum fluctuations. There is no reason to believe matter on matter reactions have anything in common with creation ex nihilo, and to pretend that you know that creation ex nihilo requires a cause because of your experience with preexisting matter is dishonest. This is why Kalam fails.

          • Hi there. Your “strikes me as more likely…” comment is interesting to me because you make a moral argument: you are making an appeal to some kind of transcendent moral standard (i.e., something beyond yourself which you would expect even God to obey), and yet I don’t see how such a standard could exist without God. In other words, I think you are essentially presupposing God’s existence in order to argue against him.

            If God does exist, then I think there is a way to know if God has a monopoly on the eternal – and that is if he speaks to us and tells us. That said, I’m not sure it’s logical to believe there are two things which are infinite and eternal – if there was more than one, it wouldn’t be infinite. Augustine once observed that polytheism is essentially atheistic, because it denies any one god absolute power.

            At the end of the day I’m not sure why you’re arguing against the Kalam so strongly here, it seems to me that you’re basically agreeing with it in principle (well, #1-3 at least, we’ll ignore the rest for now). The universe had a beginning, and you seem to be saying that it was (in some sense) “caused” by the multiverse. However cause and effect operates at that level, the universe is in some way dependent or contingent upon the multiverse. In other words, your denying of cause and effect at the level of creation ex nihilo seems to do little to further your argument. The universe requires an explanation.

  2. However cause and effect operates at that level

    On what basis are you making that assertion?

    • What assertion?

      I was trying to make the point that your argument works whether or not you quibble about cause and effect. If you concede all of #1-3, you can just say “… and the cause is, the multiverse”. If I understand you rightly, and I admit that is a big if!

      • I see, I imagined a comma after “however”. Internet grammar is taking its toll on me.

        I’ve specifically argued against #1. #2 is take it or leave it, and 3 depends on the veracity of 1 and 2. So no, I do not in any way concede all of 1-3. #1 fails because it makes an assertion without basis. While I do not assume to know what happens at or prior to the big bang, and can readily make the statement that #1 assumes too much. It generalizes the cause and effect relationship that we are familiar with at the macroscopic level within the universe, and applies it to a situation which has never been witnessed. Not only does #1 reach to far beyond the universe, but we also have reason to believe that uncaused events happen within the universe. So not only is the assertion without a basis, but it is also potentially false. However, a premise merely being without basis is enough to throw out the argument.

        • Thanks for clarifying about your position on #1, that is helpful.

          I wonder whether part of the problem is talking about the word in two different senses, i.e. whether it’s possible to talk about ’cause’ in a conceptual sense without talking about ’cause’ in the physical sense. So, for example, what is the ’cause’ of my being here? In a physical sense, as you pointed out, it was only a rearranging of atoms in the universe at one level so nothing new was created. On the other hand, there was definitely a point at which I did not exist as a separate entity.

          So, in your example, the multiverse may not physically cause the universe in a cause/effect way, but it may be the effectual cause in a logical sense.

          However, all this said, I am not trained in philosophy so I don’t really have the tools to make that kind of argument. I’m sure it’s been said better than I have; I imagine WLC is aware of that objection and has responded to it.

          • Yes, two different definitions is what I was saying. The premise is making an assertion about “cause to be” out of nothing, but the validation for the premise lies in “cause to be” out of something. And that is no good.

            Here’s a video that explains things pretty well, better than I. I don’t agree with him 100%, mainly being finicky about about his later attempt to show creatio ex nihilo to be mythical*, but it’s pretty good. Bonus points for actually being something resembling a conversation with WLC.

            *He says creatio ex nihilo is mythical, but what he means is causal creatio ex nihilo. A zero sum universe can be imagined in which the total energy = zero, with positive and negative energies canceling out. In order to make nothing happen, no material is necessary, and no energy must be input. So, no cause is necessary for a zero energy universe, even if there is pre-existing non-universe material to be toyed with. Observations so far support the hypothesis.

          • Thanks for this. I think I need to do some more thinking about it to be honest, intuitively I think the premise is right but I can’t say exactly why.

            Either way, the Kalam is not the place I would go to debate God’s existence – it makes for an interesting discussion but a philosophical argument like that can get so technical, I have difficulty following it.

          • I sympathize. I once made a practice of looking at the big bang theory and extracting biblical parallels. When you’ve got it in your head that God is the answer, you look only for reasons why, but this is confirmation bias, and it produces fallacious reasoning. This is why your intuition has a strong opinion on the matter, because of your prior belief (and also likely, your respect for WLC). Only after I left faith did I look back in amazement at the mental contortions I performed in order to maintain belief.

            Have yourself a lovely day.

  3. Hello,

    some if not much of your discussion above is over my head, but I would just say that #7 is a rather blatant ‘smuggling in’ isn’t it, since it doesn’t follow from the propositions above…

    in friendship, Blair

    • Thankyou for commenting.

      I wouldn’t say ‘smuggling in’ – if #1-6 are true, then I would say #7 logically follows.

      If a cause is personal, then I would argue that the attributes transcendent, incorporeal, omniscient and omnipotent were logically necessary at a minimum.

  4. hi again Phill,

    well, as you said yourself – “not an argument which is likely to convince anyone” – and I think you were right. I still don’t buy it. “Transcendent, incorporeal…” etc are not generally attributes associated with the ‘personal’ for a start. #6 says “by definition there is no previous physical state of affairs” – but by definition of what? and on what basis does it assert that there was no previous physical state of affairs? It all looks like an attempt to contrive an argument to lead up to creation ex nihilo – which seems to me a remarkable doctrine but (as Nicholas Lash writes in ‘Holiness, Speech and Silence’) is no explanation (in the normal sense of that word) for the universe’s existence.

    in friendship, Blair

    • Hi Blair,

      Yes, it is an interesting philosophical argument but I doubt it will convince anyone of God’s existence. That’s not to say I think it’s an invalid argument, but it’s pretty much impossible to prove anything.

      Surely omniscience and omnipotence are, by definition, personal attributes? All those four attributes are standard for the classical doctrine of God in the Augustinian tradition. If the universe was created by a personal being, I think they are all necessary qualities for that being to have.

      I think what #6 is getting at is that, prior to the universe there is no time or no physical matter which could have ’caused’ the universe. Outside of time and space, what could there have been? Unless, of course, you buy the multiverse theory. Which, as I said to IA, seems to me to basically be substituting an impersonal god for a personal God.

      I’m surprised that creation ex nihilo seems ‘remarkable’ to you, it just seems plain common sense to me. And it’s obviously traditional Christian theology (Rev 4:11, for example).

      Blair, if you don’t mind, I’m curious to know what position you’re coming to this from – Christian? Atheist? Agnostic?

      Thanks,

      Phill

Comments are closed.