Exploring the Kalam Cosmological Argument, Part I

*Introductory note: This post was originally published on my former blog Sens Homines. The version published here has received some slight alterations. 

For the most part, the Kalam Cosmological Argument currently reigns as the most popularly defended and discussed argument for the existence of God. Mainstream apologetics circles are especially obsessed with it, but quite a decent amount of attention has been given to it within the realm of academic philosophy of religion as well. Historically, however, this has not always been the case; and indeed for many centuries the Kalam was perhaps seen as the “odd man out” when it came to cosmological arguments generally. As philosopher Edward Feser notes, “Most versions of the cosmological argument . . . are not concerned with trying to show that the universe had a beginning” [1]. For the Kalam, on the other hand, showing the universe to have had a beginning is precisely what it is concerned with. The Kalam thus occupies a unique position in all natural theology.

So why its contemporary prominence over and above the vast plethora of other cosmological arguments (and natural theology arguments broadly)? This prominence is to such an extent that many people are content to refer to it as the cosmological argument, as if there were indeed no others at all. I think there are a number of reasons for this, a few of which I shall briefly explore here.

First, the argument by its very nature strikes at something very human in us, something deep and even primal in our own self-awareness. The question “where did we come from?” is one of the most fundamental and most profound questions that we can ask, and to some extent it drives both our broader intellectual inquiry and our own personal existential journeys. Of course, this question is not one that is asked solely by the Kalam, but the Kalam presents it somewhat more explicitly than other cosmological arguments. Aquinas’s first way, for instance, asks why we live in a universe that is full of motion and change; various contingency arguments ask why we live in a universe replete with contingent, finite things; but the Kalam on its very surface gets to the universe as a whole, and addresses a question which has been the subject of discussion and contemplation amongst philosophers, scientists, theologians, story-tellers, myth-makers, and individuals for thousands of years: is the universe eternal, or did it have a beginning? The Kalam, I think, thus naturally resonates with people. As Aristotle wrote in the Metaphysics,

“For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e. g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe” [2].

In other words, our very desire to know and think and “philosophize” is inspired ultimately by wonder — wonder at our own existence, at our own self-awareness, at nature and its order and splendor and beauty, at the vastness of the universe, etc. St. Gregory of Nyssa would later capture this pure human sentiment in his succinct statement: “Only wonder understands anything”. And part of trying to come to understand anything, but especially ourselves and our relation to the universe, is asking of its origin. It is no surprise, then, that much of our most ancient literature consists of creation myths. Aristotle continued: “Even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of Wisdom, for the myth is composed of wonders” [3]. In other words, the project of the philosophers had been carried out long before in the project of the poets and storytellers. The central question of the Kalam, then, is a question deeply ingrained in the human psyche; and it thus makes sense that in an age when philosophy can be so widely disseminated to the masses it would be this particular argument which has found so much popular interest.

Secondly, the argument naturally lends itself to modern scientific investigation in a way that other cosmological arguments do not (or at least have not). Indeed, this is precisely one of Edward Feser’s strongest criticisms of certain naive presentations of the Kalam: in his paper “Natural Theology Must Be Grounded in the Philosophy of Nature, Not in Natural Science”, he argues that “natural theology cannot properly be grounded in sciences like physics, chemistry, or biology, as these are typically understood today. Rather, it must be grounded in the more fundamental discipline which studies the metaphysical preconditions of any possible physics, chemistry, or biology” because “we are not going to be able to successfully reason from the world to God unless we can deal with the most basic philosophical questions about the nature of change, causation, material substance, and the like”, and indeed he actually “[denies] that arguments grounded in natural science alone can [even] get you to classical theism” [4]. Now, anyone very familiar with defenses of the Kalam might immediately point out that it is not “grounded in natural science alone”, but rather for most of its history was defended using the very metaphysical methods Feser prescribes here; and even William Lane Craig, the primary advocate for the Kalam in recent years, has insisted in a few places that what he refers to as the “philosophical arguments” in defense of the Kalam must be taken as more fundamental to its success than the scientific/empirical evidence. Despite this, the very reason for the Kalam’s reemergence in the twentieth century was arguably a direct result of developments in scientific cosmology, specifically “Big Bang” cosmology beginning in the early twentieth century. These developments seemed to indicate that the physical universe was not eternal but had a beginning (whether it actually indicated such we will be exploring throughout this series). Even though Big Bang cosmology has received some backlash from religious groups, its potential supernatural implications were almost immediately recognized [5]. Philosopher William Lane Craig has been at the forefront of the revitalization of the Kalam, and a huge amount of his work in its defense is focused on the physical-cosmological aspect.

And we are a scientifically obsessed culture, so much so that the statement “X is a scientifically proven fact” has become a de facto conversation stopper. As Craig notes, many people today “find philosophical arguments dubious or difficult to follow; they prefer empirical evidence” [6]. As such, those who are so scientifically inclined are more likely to be interested in arguments which make use of scientific material. Or, to put it bluntly, our culture is very much more likely to take an argument that appeals to “scientific evidence” seriously than one which just relies on strict metaphysical proof. Hence, insofar as the Kalam lends itself to scientific investigation in ways other arguments from natural theology do not, the Kalam also lends itself to increased modern interest and attention.

Lastly, the Kalam’s contemporary prominence seems to be due in large part to its excessive use in popular apologetics. The most recent wave of popular apologetics has in many ways been essentially aimed as a response to the “new atheism” which stormed popular culture and media after Nine-Eleven, with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al. at the helm. One of the major driving forces behind the “new atheism” was the claim that science and religion are in principle at odds and in competition with each other; and so one of the central tasks of the corresponding “new apologetics” was to bridge the apparent gap between science and religion. And the Kalam (along with other arguments such as Fine Tuning) served as exactly this bridge. What better way to demonstrate that science and religion are “compatible” than showing that modern science actually “proves” the existence of God? Wielding the results of modern cosmology, the new apologetics saw as its task a change in outside perspective concerning Christianity’s intellectual status, particularly its relation to natural science.

Of course, this all may be an overly simplistic analysis; and in reality there was most likely much more going on. My point is simply that the Kalam’s contemporary prominence in part has been inseparably tied to its use in popular apologetics. Another reason for its favorability among popular apologetics is its relative simplicity. In its most frequent formulation, the Kalam consists of three basic premises which are concise, easy to comprehend, and contain an intuitive appeal. It does not take a course in advanced metaphysics to understand what the argument is claiming. The problem, however, as we’ll consider throughout this series, is that the relative simplicity of the Kalam’s premises has sometimes resulted in an overly simplistic and even shallow understanding of the arguments behind those premises. I will be attempting to avoid this mistake in this series.

So, now that we’ve considered these general points about the Kalam’s current status, we can turn to examine the argument itself, and then begin a historical overview of its formation and defense. The most common and basic version of the argument is that which appears in much of William Lane Craig’s work:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause

This is the formulation that appears in Craig’s landmark 1979 book The Kalam Cosmological Argument which played an extremely significant role in the reintroduction and reinvigorated interest in the Kalam as a serious argument.

Interestingly, all three premises of the Kalam are found almost verbatim in Plato’s Timaeus, although, as we’ll see, they are to a much different effect. In the dialogue, the character Timaeus, giving an account of the history and nature of the universe, states:

“Now everything that comes to be must of necessity come to be by the agency of some cause, for it is impossible for anything to come to be without a cause . . . Now as to the whole universe or world order [kosmos] . . . there is a question we need to consider first. This is the sort of question one should begin with in inquiring into any subject. Has it always existed? Was there no origin from which it came to be? Or did it come to be and take its start from some origin? It has come to be.” [7].

Plato’s reasoning for concluding that the world must have come to be has to do with his overall metaphysical system, which would take much more space than is available here to explore in any depth. Basically, Plato separated reality into at least two distinct categories: “What is that which always is and has no becoming, and what is that which becomes but never is” [8], or, more succinctly, “being” as opposed to “becoming”. What falls into the former category are things such as the eternal and immutable forms or Ideas, which are “grasped by understanding” and the intellect; and what falls into the latter category includes all physical, material objects that we know only through “sense perception”, which he saw as a much inferior and more unstable source of knowledge. All objects that we grasp through sense perception, Plato argued, are less real than the eternal Forms. They are inherently finite and ever-changing: “It comes to be and passes away but never really is” [9]. But the universe is precisely one of those things, Plato then observed:

“For it is both visible and tangible and it has a body — and all things of that kind are perceptible. And, as we have shown, perceptible things are grasped by opinion, which involves sense perception. As such, they are things that come to be, things that are begotten” [10].

And so, since “necessarily, that which comes to be must come to be by the agency of some cause” [11], Plato concluded that our physical universe must have a cause, a divine “craftsman” [12], a “maker and father of this universe” [13]. Which is, of course, what the Kalam itself is likewise intended to establish. The problem, however, is that Plato did not see this argument as showing that there is a God who “created” the entire universe in the same sense that the God of Classical Theism and major monotheistic religions is believed to have. The God of Classical Theism (the God of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), has traditionally been held to have created all things other than Himself, by His own power, absolutely ex nihilo. The “craftsman” or demiurge of Timaeus, on the other hand, really only fashions/orders/informs pre-existing matter. In other words, the matter itself, the material stuff out of which the universe is made, already existed on its own, and the demiurge merely gave order and form to it, modeling it after the eternal realm of the forms itself. And so Plato writes that the demiurge “took over all that was visible — not at rest but in discordant and disorderly motion — and brought it from a state of disorder to one of order” [14]. So the divine craftsman did not create matter itself, nor did he create the eternal forms, since these by definition are unbegotten. Indeed it is unclear what exactly the status of the demiurge is within the eternal realm. In any case, what is clear is that while although Plato thought the fact of the universe’s having a “becoming” required an efficient cause, he also thought that it required a separate material cause out of which the efficient cause crafted the physical cosmos. In fact, foreshadowing Aristotle’s famous “four causes”, Plato wrote that our universe must have had three separate causes: an efficient, a material, and a formal (or “that after which the thing coming to be is modeled” [15]).

So, although Plato certainly saw theistic implications to be derived from the “becomingness” of the universe, the type of theism he arrived at thereby is not quite what typical defenders of the Kalam are aiming for. Nevertheless, we find in Plato the foundation of future cosmological arguments, including the Kalam.

In the next post in the series, we will continue to trace the historical development of the Kalam, eventually reaching contemporary discussions of it. I should point out that while I myself am a theist, I tend to think that the Kalam is ultimately an unsuccessful argument for the existence of God. In this series, however, as fairly as possible I want to explore and discuss both sides of the argument, specifically from a Thomistic perspective. So, to those interested, I invite you to follow along.

Notes

[1]. Feser, Edward. “A Difficulty for Craig’s Kalām Cosmological Argument?” Edward Feser, Blogger, 2 Sept. 2016, http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2016/09/a-difficulty-for-craigs-kalam_2.html.

[2]. McKeon, Richard, editor. The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. Print. Metaphysics 1.2, 982b12-17.

[3]. Ibid. 1.2, 982b18-19.

[4]. Feser, Edward. “Natural Theology Must Be Grounded in the Philosophy of Nature, Not in natural Science” in Neo-Scholastic Essays. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2015. Print, 61-62.

To be fair, I don’t think Feser intended this paper as a critique of the Kalam specifically. In fact, within the paper he concedes that the Kalam actually shows that natural theology can, to an extent, draw from and make use of natural science. His point is rather that natural theology cannot primarily depend upon natural science, in the way that the Kalam often does. So my own critique here is not that the Kalam lends itself to scientific investigation, but that too often defenses of the Kalam depend almost entirely on conclusions taken from natural science.

[5]. See, for instance, this quote from Sir Arthur Eddington: “The beginning seems to present insuperable difficulties unless we agree to look on it as frankly supernatural”. Quoted in Craig, William Lane. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. 1984. 3rd. ed.,Wheaton: Crossway, 2008. Print, 128.

[6]. Ibid. 125.

[7]. Plato. “Timaeus” in Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1997. 28a-b.

[8]. Ibid. 27d-28a.

[9]. Ibid. 28a.

[10]. Ibid. 28b-c.

[11]. Ibid. 28c.

[12]. Ibid. 28a.

[13]. Ibid. 28c.

[14]. Ibid. 30a.

[15]. Ibid. 50d.

 

 

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