The Kalam Argument

This is the sixth in a series of posts responding to a list of 20 arguments for the existence of god from this article. To be fair, the article does state that these arguments don’t make a case except when taken all together, using the metaphor of a rope, but I am analyzing them individually so I have responses when I encounter the argument later in other sources.

I’ve been hesitating in addressing this argument. As I mentioned last week, I’ve been having some personal struggles, but the main reason is that there are so many refutations of this argument out there already, by tons of people both better educated in philosophy and probably smarter than I am. In fact, I’m going to end this post with some links to other people’s work on the topic, because I have a feeling mine won’t measure up to what I can find in about 5 minutes on google. Spoiler alert: intellectual laziness and firm adherence to the god theory are the only real reasons to accept this argument, recently made famous by William Lane Craig. However, I’ll be responding to Peter Kreeft’s version.

This sort of demonstration has had a long and wide appeal among both Christians and Muslims. Its form is simple and straightforward.

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its coming into being.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause for its coming into being.

Grant the first premise. (Most people—outside of asylums and graduate schools would consider it not only true, but certainly and obviously true.)

It’s nice of him to start off with a dig at higher education. It couldn’t possibly be that the studies of graduate level science or other subjects might include evidence that some things might come into being without a cause; no, they have just fooled themselves so they can be atheists and/or pretend they are smarter than everyone. Ahem.

Is the second premise true? Did the universe—the collection of all things bounded by space and time—begin to exist? This premise has recently received powerful support from natural science—from so-called Big Bang Cosmology. But there are philosophical arguments in its favor as well. Can an infinite task ever be done or completed? If, in order to reach a certain end, infinitely many steps had to precede it, could the end ever be reached? Of course not—not even in an infinite time. For an infinite time would be unending, just as the steps would be. In other words, no end would ever be reached. The task would—could—never be completed.

But what about the step just before the end? Could that point ever be reached? Well, if the task is really infinite, then an infinity of steps must also have preceded it. And therefore the step just before the end could also never be reached. But then neither could the step just before that one. In fact, no step in the sequence could be reached, because an infinity of steps must always have preceded any step; must always have been gone through one by one before it. The problem comes from supposing that an infinite sequence could ever reach, by temporal succession, any point at all.

As I mentioned in my post on the argument from efficient causality, we don’t have the language to speak coherently about the cause of time, because to say something was “caused to exist” is to say that it did not exist at one point in time, but did in another. Further, as I think I’ve explained before (although I’m unsure where), infinity does not have to be unbound in both directions. Even if a task had an infinite number of steps, the first step would be just that, the first step; it would not have an infinity of steps preceding it, just as the number 1 is the first positive whole number in an infinite series but is not preceded by an infinity of positive whole numbers. Indeed, every step in an infinite task would be preceded with a finite number of steps, because we can count forever and the previous number will always be n-1, not infinity. It’s true that it could never be completed, because there would always be +1 steps left, but Peter Kreeft simply doesn’t appear to understand counting. To be fair, infinity is quite difficult to grasp, but that just means our first instincts on the matter are likely to be wrong.

I don’t pretend to have expert level undertanding of the Big Bang Cosmology, but one thing I’ve learned is that the universe, according to this theory, was a singularity at the time the Big Bang happened. All of matter was about the size of a large marble. By that “I watched Cosmos” understanding, the universe already existed in one form at the time of the Big Bang. (One of my links later will be a debate between WLC and physicist Sean Carroll that does have an expert talking about this.)

I’m not going to bother responding to most of the rest of Kreeft’s “defense” here, but the last part is actually a way of phrasing one of my objections.

Question 3: But is this cause God—a he and not a mere it?

Reply: Suppose the cause of the universe has existed eternally. Suppose further that this cause is not personal: that it has given rise to the universe, not through any choice, but simply through its being. In that case it is hard to see how the universe could be anything but infinitely old, since all the conditions needed for the being of the universe would exist from all eternity. But the kalam argument has shown that the universe cannot be infinitely old. So the hypothesis of an eternal impersonal cause seems to lead to an inconsistency.

Is there a way out? Yes, if the universe is the result of a free personal choice. Then at least we have some way of seeing how an eternal cause could give rise to a temporally limited effect. Of course, the kalam argument does not prove everything Christians believe about God, but what proof does? Less than everything, however, is far from nothing. And the kalam argument proves something central to the Christian belief in God: that the universe is not eternal and without beginning; that there is a Maker of heaven and earth. And in doing so, it disproves the picture of the universe most atheists wish to maintain: self-sustaining matter, endlessly changing in endless time.

My way of putting it is that, even if we grant the argument, it doesn’t prove a god. Even if we accept a first cause, there’s no actual reason to assume that it is a being and not an object. Saying “it is hard to see how the universe could be anything but infinitely old” does not mean it isn’t, just as my saying that it is hard to see how anyone could be Catholic does not means Catholics don’t exist. I also enjoy his open admission that no proof can show the Christian god per se, but he is wrong about this argument showing “that there is a Maker of heaven and earth” because unless he means space, he hasn’t shown that heaven exists, either, let alone a maker of it.

One final thought is that I have no good reason to see why this is anything but arbitrarily stopping the chain of causality where it is convenient for theology. In other words, what caused god? If an infinitely existing universe is philosophically impossible, why is an infinitely existing god philosophically possible? Indeed, under an infinitely existing god, it is equally true to say that “it is hard to see how the universe could be anything but infinitely old, since all the conditions needed for the being of the universe would exist from all eternity”. After all, at what point in infinite timeless existence did this alleged god decide to cause a universe? Was that always his plan? Was it the first thing he did? What caused him to make that choice? Did he undergo a change to do so? Doesn’t that undermine his perfection, if he did? Wouldn’t his deciding to make a universe if he hadn’t before made the decision require time before time began? Etc, etc, and so forth. Not only is the argument begging the question in that it assumes there must be a cause so it can prove the cause is god, but there’s no reason to see why we couldn’t apply the same logic to god.

Now, for the list of other people’s counter arguments. It is perhaps worth noting that I had only seen number 2 before I started writing this post, to the best of my knowledge, although some of my ideas here were not original to me and even the ones that were appear in many of these videos and/or articles.

  1. Sean Carroll, physicist, debating WLC, apologist (TL;DR Speaking of the universe as having a cause is “not even wrong” because physics.)
  2. Theoretical Bullshit video “On Causation and the Ethics of Discourse” (TL;DR The Kalam confuses causing to exist from nothing with causing to exist from other material things.)
  3. Jeffrey T Allen (TL;DR The existence of an omniscient god necessarily entails an actual infinite.)
  4. Counter Apologist video (This video is the TL;DR of a much longer series.)
  5. Debunking Christianity (TL;DR Treating the universe as though it must follow the same rules as objects in the universe is a category error.)
  6. Atheism and the City (TL;DR “The universe is the ultimate free lunch.”)
  7. The A-Unicornist (TL;DR Pancakes are yummy and I wish I’d thought of that blog name first.)
  8. Debunking WLC (TL;DR It looks like nearly every post on this blog points out a problem with the Kalam. That’s amazing.)
  9. Skeptical Science (TL;DR Even if the Kalam were convincing, which it isn’t for three reasons listed in the linked post, it still wouldn’t reach past deism.)
  10. Doctor Bad Sign (This one is really short.)
  11. Ex-Christian (TL;DR Apologists don’t understand science.)
  12. Iron Chariots (TL;DR This is a wiki listing 14 counter arguments.)

4 thoughts on “The Kalam Argument

  1. On Infinity,

    It is my contention that apologists argue that infinite regress is a problem mostly because they do not understand the nature of infinity. To be fair, as you mention, “infinity” is a fairly complex topic which is not well understood by many people; but if one wants to build an argument based on the properties of infinity, they should take the time to understand the subject.

    You give a great, easy to understand depiction of a unidirectional infinity (the positive, natural numbers). But things get even worse for the apologist: even a bidirectional infinity can actually be bounded. Take, for example, the set of all real numbers which are greater than 0 but less than 1. Here, we have an infinite amount of numbers which, nonetheless, are entirely bound between two finite values.

    Even more to the point than that, the infinite regress “problem” is only actually problematic if one presumes the Tensed theory of time (as William Lane Craig does). On a Tenseless theory of time, bidirectionally infinite time does not pose any real mathematical problems, in and of itself. My “WLC on Time” series on my page goes into some lovely detail on why the Tensed theory of time is as much an antiquated philosophical relic as is geocentrism.

    1. D’oh! I completely forgot about the infinity between 0 and 1 (or any two whole numbers, really). Thanks for the reminder!

      It is unclear from the page I’m using whether Peter Kreeft is aware of Tenseless theories of time, so I avoided the topic because I haven’t researched it yet and I’m not responding specifically to WLC’s version of the argument. I’ll definitely have to check out your series when I do my review of Reasonable Faith, though, if not before.

      It continues to astound me how very many problems these arguments contain upon examination, perhaps especially those that seem reasonable on the surface, like this “First Cause” type argument.

  2. I really liked your argument here. I don’t really have anything to add (partly because I’m sick of talking about it). Good job.

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