The Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) is tremendously popular among apologists, particularly fans of William Lane Craig, its most prominent contemporary proponent. The basic argument can be summarised as follows:

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

The basic argument tells us nothing about the nature or identity of the cause, so apologists typically include an additional statement that identifies the cause as a personal creator god. Some stop there, but others go further to identify the creator as the particular god of their religion (e.g., Yahweh). Without explicitly identifying the cause as the Christian God, Craig argues that the cause must be an unfathomably powerful, unembodied, immaterial, spaceless, and timeless mind, capable of wilfully creating whole universes from nothing. According to Craig, these characteristics are consistent with the putative nature of a personal creator god, such as the god of Christianity.

As the premises are ambiguous enough to permit multiple interpretations, we can only examine the merit of the argument once their meaning has been made clear. To that end, there are several questions worth considering: What does the apologist mean by something “beginning to exist”? Does “the universe” refer to “the totality of physical reality” or does it refer to our local spacetime universe, which may or may not encompass “the totality of physical reality”? Does the second premise refer to the expansion of our universe, which began 13.8 billion years ago and continues still, or is it claiming that matter, energy, and spacetime were created ex nihilo? The purpose of asking questions like these is twofold: (1) to be better able to examine whether the premises are supported or not; and (2) to avoid the confusion that can arise when premises are poorly defined.1 With that in mind, let’s turn to the first premise.

Premise 1

In support of the first premise (P1), apologists gesture toward our everyday experience and the intuitive understanding of causality derived from it. However, the way in which they use the phrase “begins to exist” departs significantly from that understanding. If “beginning to exist,” or “coming to be,” is conceived of as the creation of matter, energy, and spacetime from nothing (creatio ex nihilo), then apologists cannot appeal to our everyday experience as support for P1. We don’t experience things “coming to be” in this way. The apologist is conflating ex materia creation, which is supported by our experience, with ex nihilo creation, which is not.

Does this mean that ex nihilo creation is impossible? No, not necessarily. But it’s worthwhile bearing in mind that intuitions about causality derived from our experience of matter and energy in spacetime need not apply in the absence of matter, energy, and spacetime. In other words, our understanding of things that “come to be” ex materia need not apply to things that “come to be” ex nihilo, if ex nihilo creation is indeed a real phenomenon, which is far from certain. Our causal intuitions have not been tested in the unfamiliar terrain that is ex nihilo creation, and more to the point, we aren’t even sure whether there is any such terrain to navigate in the first place.

Premise 2

Apologists typically appeal to contemporary cosmology as support for the second premise (P2),2 arguing that the Big Bang theory shows that the universe “began to exist.” As with the first premise, the meaning of the phrase “begins to exist” needs to be clarified before the premise can be properly examined. If P2 is taken to mean that matter, energy, and spacetime were created ex nihilo, then apologists cannot appeal to contemporary cosmology as support for P2. In its present form, the Big Bang theory only indicates that the universe began to expand from a very hot and dense state 13.8 billion years ago. What happened before then, if “before” even makes sense in this context, is presently unknown to us. The universe may have always existed in some form. To quote Alan Guth in The Inflationary Universe (p. 2):

Although the generally accepted big bang theory holds that the observable universe emerged from an explosion some ten to twenty billion years ago, the theory nonetheless assumes that all the matter in the universe was present from the start. The form of the matter may have been different, but it was all there. The classic big bang theory describes the aftermath of the bang, but makes no attempt to describe what “banged,” how it “banged,” or what caused it to “bang.”

As noted above, if the universe did indeed originate ex nihilo, then our causal intuitions, which are derived from our experience of things originating ex materia within the universe, may not apply. Moreover, if P1 refers to ex materia creation and P2 refers to the universe originating ex nihilo, then the argument commits the equivocation fallacy by using two different meanings of the phrase “begins to exist.”

Conclusion

Following P1 and P2, the argument concludes that the universe has a cause. Remarkably, this conclusion has no clear theological significance. All it implies is that the origin of the universe is mysterious and in need of explanation. By implication then, accepting the argument’s conclusion doesn’t necessarily commit one to theism. Apologists must therefore further the argument to show that a personal creator god provides the best explanation for the origin of the universe (cosmogony).3

To this end, William Lane Craig claims that a “conceptual analysis” reveals the basic characteristics of the cause, and that these characteristics happen to be congruent with the purported nature of god. The term “conceptual analysis” is a neat euphemism for speculation. Specifically, Craig speculates that the cause is an unembodied, immaterial, spaceless, and timeless intelligence who wilfully brought our universe into being from nothing.

Several problems with this proposal are immediately apparent. First, it is assumed that intelligence is capable of existing independently of matter, energy, and spacetime. To the best of our understanding, intelligence depends on there being a universe with conditions conducive to the evolution of intelligent organisms. Apologists are implicitly claiming that at least one intelligence is an exception to this. Second, it is assumed that this intelligent entity is somehow able to make wilful decisions despite being in a timeless state and therefore unable to undergo any sort of mental transition or initiate any action. Third, it is assumed that the intelligence is unitary rather than plural; that there is only one and not many. Fourth, it is assumed that this single intelligence exists without a beginning and that it is therefore not subject to P1.

In response to these concerns apologists often claim that the cause of the universe must be exceptional. The cause exists beyond the universe and is therefore exempt from whatever principles are at work within the universe. By implication then, we shouldn’t expect it to conform to our scientific understanding of intelligence, since that understanding is derived from within the universe. There are two salient points to draw from this. First, our causal intuitions are also derived from within the universe, yet apologists show no reluctance in extrapolating these intuitions beyond the universe, even though this is problematic for reasons already discussed (see Premise 1). Second, claiming that the cause must be exceptional may seem like an expedient move, but it comes at a price: the same trick can be used to justify any explanatory model. Consequently, the apologist cannot dismiss alternative models by claiming that they do not conform to certain principles at work within the universe, while also upholding his preferred theological model by claiming convenient exemptions to those principles. To do so would risk special pleading.

To illustrate this latter point, consider the following alternative model: “the universe sprang forth from the flickering of an eternal, impersonal, imperishable, nongaseous flame.” In response, apologists often argue that since fire is a part of the universe, and the material components necessary for fire are all found within the universe, it is unintelligible to talk of a “flame” apart from the universe. As we all know, fire requires a source a fuel and is extinguished once that fuel is depleted. We can therefore dismiss the “imperishable flame” as an explanation for the universe’s origins.

However, the model may be defended by mimicking the apologist’s strategy: “This is no ordinary flame. The imperishable flame is exceptional. Physical principles that describe how flames naturally form within the universe don’t apply to the imperishable flame that exists beyond the universe. It’s special and therefore doesn’t need to satisfy the conditions of naturally forming flames.” If the imperishable flame can be critiqued and dismissed on the basis of principles operant within the universe, then why should the apologist’s preferred theological model be immune from the same treatment?

A common objection to this is that the actual model itself is inconsequential: whatever the model is, it is “god.” This objection depends on a strategically elastic definition of “god,” which ultimately renders the entire argument pointless. If you want to say that whatever the answer is, it is “god,” then “god” merely becomes a placeholder for whatever the real answer is, even if that answer does not involve any supernatural elements. In effect, this response admits defeat by conceding that the origin of the universe remains mysterious and that positing the existence of a personal creator god has in no way remedied that situation.


  1. In my experience, apologists are often reluctant to answer these questions, leading me to believe that the apologetic utility of the KCA depends on the premises remaining vague. 
  2. I should note from the outset that, although I find cosmology endlessly fascinating, I’m not an astrophysicist and I don’t pretend to understand the underlying physical principles of the Big Bang theory in detail. That said, proponents of the KCA are rarely experts in cosmology either, yet they have no qualms pontificating on the matter. 
  3. Henry Reich of MinutePhysics has an excellent video on why this question is so difficult to answer. Having watched that video, you might be inclined to ask: if the language of physics breaks down at the scale of the early universe, shouldn’t we cast it aside and start using a different language, a theological language perhaps? We could, but would that actually get us anywhere? Would our understanding of the origins of the universe be improved in any way by substituting the language of physics for the language of theology? Has that sort of substitution ever furthered our understanding of anything? 
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5 thoughts on “On the Kalam Cosmological Argument

  1. Ben,

    Your argument that the first premise can only be supported by our common experience if beginning to exist is creatio ex materia is not true. If complex things such as our universe could begin to exist from nothing without a cause then we should expect to experience this for at least simple things like a small rock if not more complex things. We can intuitively know that things do not generally begin to exist from nothing (or from existing material for that matter) without a cause.

    Nor does it really seem to matter for the sake of the KCA whether the universe was created ex nihilo or ex meteria. In both cases it is reasonable to assume a cause. In the case of creatio ex nihilo because something cannot come from nothing and in the case of creatio ex materia because this is how the observable universe works.

    Your argument against the second premise also has some issues. You don’t consider that case that both premise 1 and 2 both consider begins to exist as creatio ex materia. Furthermore, since you argument against premise 1 has issues, your argument against premise 2 that relies on your argument against premise 1 suffers from the same issue. Both the biggest problem is Alan Guth (who you quoted), along with Borde and Vilenkin proved in 2003 that the universe (and any inflating multiverse too) is not past eternal. Point being, cosmology does say that our universe began to exist.

    I do however agree that the KCA is probably best described as an good argument for Deism. I think WLC’s follow up arguments for a Theistic First Cause are plausible.

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    1. Hi Simon, thank-you for taking the time to respond.

      I think I anticipated most of your comments in the post already. First, I outline why it’s important for apologists to clarify what they mean by “begins to exist.” Leaving that term vague makes it difficult to examine the premises, while also opening the door to equivocation. Second, I deal with what we “intuitively know” under sections Premise 1 and Premise 2.

      You mentioned Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin, whose work is frequently cited by Craig as evidence of the universe having a beginning. I think Sean Carroll addresses this point very well (http://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2014/02/24/post-debate-reflections/). Note that Guth speculates the universe is eternal. Whether that is true or not seems to be an open question in cosmology, so it’s unsurprising that other physicists disagree. In any case, as I pointed out in my post, a beginning doesn’t necessarily point to theism or to any other supernatural explanation for the universe’s origins.

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      1. With all due respect I don’t think you anticipated my questions at all. My point was that it doesn’t matter whether it is creation from nothing or creation for pre-existing matter, both would need a cause under our current understanding of science and logic. I also pointed out the we intuitively know that things do not suddenly appear out of nothing uncaused. You’re post doesn’t address these issues, nor does your reply above.

        I know the Guth thinks the universe will be future-eternal but I would be surprised to see him assert that it was past-eternal. Do you have a quote from him stating this?

        How do you think Carroll addresses it well?

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        1. My post is dedicated to those issues. As such, I feel that I’ve already dealt with your concerns in the post itself. I focused in particular on what we “intuitively know,” and how apologists’ usage of terms such as “begins to exist” departs from that. Your response doesn’t address this in any other way except to admit that the apologist is indeed conflating two different senses of the term. You seem to have no qualms about this, but I do, for reasons already discussed in the post itself.

          Likewise with your question about Guth’s views. Sean Carroll already addressed it in his post. If you want more information on that, you’d have to ask him. The larger point wasn’t about Guth though. It was that the question is far from settled and that a beginning doesn’t necessarily point to theism, contrary to what apologists often imply in their arguments.

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    2. When you say “cosmology does say that our universe began to exist,” I wonder what you mean by “began to exist.” This is precisely the problem that stimulated this post in the first place. Unless you define your terms, we cannot properly examine whether the premise is supported or not. As I noted in footnote 1, it seems that apologists want these terms to remain as vague as possible, perhaps because it allows them to equivocate.

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