The Kalam Cosmological Argument, Part I

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Austin and I have decided to start a new series covering the historically significant arguments for the existence of God. We recently realized that we've been writing this blog for a while but haven't really covered the more famous arguments for God's existence. This is our attempt to rectify that situation.

Cosmological arguments are those that seek to establish the existence of a First Cause of the universe - the cosmos - based on some cosmic feature of the universe. The Kalam Cosmological Argument is one such argument, and has had a rather interesting history. It has also seen somewhat of a resurgence in philosophy of religion and apologetics, largely due to the discoveries in cosmology of the last century or so. This is my attempt to briefly explain the argument. Of course, a fully fleshed out version of the Kalam Cosmological Argument would take pages upon pages to elucidate. The hope of this post is to give you a general overview of the argument itself and why it remains a compelling argument for God's existence after so many centuries.

The What Cosmological Argument?

Kalam! It is a term that was used by Muslim thinkers to mark out a theological statement; it gradually morphed into a term to refer to Islamic scholarship at large. This brings up the rather obvious question of why an argument for the existence of God by Christians has an Islamic term attached to it. Let's rewind the clock a bit to find our answer.

The kalam cosmological argument was first advanced by theologians in the early Christian church as a response to the Aristotelian doctrine that the universe has always existed. They used the argument to defend the idea of creatio ex nihilo - creation out of nothing. In the Bible we find that the universe was created, and not that it has always existed. The early theologians used this argument to defend the Biblical position.

As Muslims barreled their way through much of the largely Christian Mediterranean starting in the 7th century, they ran across this argument. Over time, both Muslim and Jewish scholars developed the argument further. Then, the argument made its way back into Christian circles (This is all horribly oversimplified; the idea that Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars might exchange ideas during a supposedly barbaric and anti-intellectual period of history may come as somewhat of a shock. As usual, history itself is far more intricate and subtle than our caricatural understanding of it. The early middle ages is a fascinating period of history, but I have neither the knowledge nor room to write about it at length).

So why is the argument popular now? Two reasons. 1) modern cosmology and 2) William Lane Craig. The latter is largely due to his well respected books on the subject, the first two published in 1979 and 1980. The atheist philosopher and professor Peter Millican described The Cosmological Argument: From Plato to Leibniz as "landmark in the discussion of the cosmological argument."[1] It was William Lane Craig who named it the kalam cosmological argument, to recognize the influence that Islamic scholarship has had on its development. The former because, if you've been paying attention, the scientific evidence of the last few decades strongly suggests the universe has a beginning.

Up until 1929, the scientific consensus had been that the universe did not have a beginning. However, during the 1920s the Russian mathematician Alexander Friedmann and the Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaitre independently formulated solutions to Einstein's theory of general relativity (yes, there are multiple solutions to GR) in which the universe had a beginning. Then, in 1929, Edwin Hubble discovered the redshift of distant galaxies (due to the Dopplar effect), which meant that these galaxies were once closer together. And that meant that all the matter and energy in the universe was once packed into an infinitesimally fine point at the beginning of the universe. That point expanded rapidly to form the universe - the Big Bang. It's like if you were to graph the distances of the galaxies from each other over time, you would see that right now they're far apart, but based on redshift observations you'd see that they were once closer together. Plot a line going back in time based on the distances of the galaxies and you find the line ends with distances between everything being essentially zero.

So What's the Argument Itself?

If you've been tracking with me so far, you already know one of the premises of the argument: the universe had a beginning. But here's the whole argument in its simplest form:
  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause
So is the argument any good? Well, clearly, it is a valid argument. It's a simple case of modus ponens - the conclusion follows directly from the premises. The real debate is over the two premises. Do things that begin to exist have a cause? Did the universe really begin to exist?

This is where things get more complex. As William Lane Craig explains, "The supporting arguments and responses to defeaters of the argument's two basic premises can proliferate in an almost fractal-like fashion."[2] Like any philosophical argument worth its salt, the rubber really meets the road with the premises (unless it's a really complex argument where the form of the argument itself is a matter of debate; but in this case, the form of the argument is very simple).

In the next post, we'll take a look at the premises in reverse order to see if they hold up. We'll then discuss the attributes of the cause of the universe that follow from the argument itself, and finish up with some of the common objections to the argument, and the responses to those objections.


Notes:
1. From Millican's comments as moderator for one of Craig's presentations. Here's a link.
2. The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, p102.
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