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:
- Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
- The universe began to exist.
- 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 evaluate the merits of the argument once their meaning has been made clear. To that end, there are a few questions worth considering: What does the apologist mean by something “beginning to exist” or “coming to be”? What does he mean by “the universe”? What does he mean by it having a “beginning”? 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. With that in mind, let’s turn to the first premise.
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 absolute 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. In doing so, the arguer is taking our causal intuitions beyond the context in which they are applicable, and this alone renders the first premise suspect.
For the second premise (P2), apologists typically appeal to contemporary cosmology for support, 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 it even makes sense to speak of a “before then”, is presently unknown to us. 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.”
Importantly, whether the universe had a “beginning” (and what that means exactly) remains an open question in cosmology. In some models, the Big Bang is seen as a transitional phase in the universe’s history, which goes back further and may even be eternal. In this scenario, the Big Bang may be the “beginning” of the current age of the universe, the age in which we find ourselves, but its history stretches back even further. In other models, there is an absolute beginning, but it’s not a “beginning” in the sense of being a transition from a state of nothingness into a universe, which is what proponents of the KCA seem to envisage when they talk of the universe “beginning to exist”; instead, it’s a “beginning” in the sense of being the earliest moment of time. In this scenario, asking what came “before” the beginning would not make sense because there was no “before” the beginning.
At present, it’s far from certain which cosmological scenario actually holds true, but it’s difficult to see how either could lend support to P2 given that the arguer seems to be talking about the universe “coming from” absolute nothingness. Neither scenario posits a state of nothingness into which the universe “sprang forth” or “popped into existence.” There never was a state of nothingness to start with.
Finally, there may be an equivocation fallacy at play between P1 and P2. If P1 refers to ex materia creation, which seems safe to assume given the evidence adduced in support of it, and if P2 refers to the universe being created ex nihilo, then the arguer is using two different meanings of the phrase “begins to exist,” and the argument is therefore unsound.
The aforementioned problems with the argument’s premises are enough to cast the conclusion into doubt. With that caveat in mind it would nevertheless be interesting to consider the conclusion itself and where apologists tend to go from that point. Since the conclusion (“the universe has a cause”) doesn’t necessarily imply anything theological or supernatural, on its own the KCA doesn’t give sufficient justification for theism. What the apologist wants to say then is that the cause is a personal creator God, or put another way, that such a God provides the best explanation for the origin of the universe. But for the apologist to get to that point additional arguments are needed, going beyond the three-line KCA.
Recognising this, William Lane Craig goes further, arguing that a “conceptual analysis” can disclose the basic characteristics of the cause, and that these characteristics happen to be congruent with the purported nature of his God. The term “conceptual analysis” seems more like a euphemism for speculation in this instance. Specifically, Craig speculates that the cause is an unembodied, immaterial, spaceless, and timeless mind who wilfully, and even lovingly, brought our universe into being from nothing.
How well does such an explanation fare? Well, there are a number of issues — let’s briefly survey some of them. First, it’s assumed that mind can exist independently of matter, energy, and spacetime. To the best of our knowledge, the existence of minds depends on there being a universe with conditions conducive to the evolution of organisms capable of thought. Second, it’s assumed that this mind is unitary rather than plural; that there is only one personal creator and not many. Third, it’s assumed that this single mind exists without a beginning and is therefore not subject to P1.
In response to these and other concerns about their theological explanation, apologists often say that the cause must be exceptional: since it exists beyond the universe it must be exempt from whatever principles are at work within the universe. It follows then that we shouldn’t expect it to conform to our scientific understanding of minds, given that such an understanding is derived from within the universe. Such a response may seem like an expedient move, but it comes at a price: the same trick can be used to save any explanatory model from the same line of scrutiny. Consequently, the apologist cannot dismiss alternative models on the grounds that they do not conform to certain principles at work within the universe, while also upholding his preferred theological model by demanding exemptions to those principles. To do so would be special pleading.
As an example, consider the following alternative model: “the universe sprang forth from the flickering of an eternal, impersonal, imperishable, nongaseous flame.” In my experience, apologists often respond to this model by arguing that since fire is a part of the universe, and the material components necessary for fire are all found within the universe, it would be unintelligible to talk of a “flame” apart from the universe. So we can dismiss the “imperishable flame” as an explanation for the universe’s origins.
But couldn’t the model be defended by mimicking the apologist’s strategy? “This is no ordinary flame. The imperishable flame is exceptional. Our understanding of how physical flames form within the universe doesn’t apply to the imperishable flame that exists beyond the universe.” 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 explanatory 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 doesn’t involve any supernatural elements at all. In effect, this response admits defeat by conceding that the question remains unresolved and that positing the existence of a personal creator God has in no way remedied that situation.