The Kalam Cosmological Argument, Part II

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In the last post we took a look at the history of the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the form of the argument. Now we move on to look at the reasonableness of the premises, properties of the cause of the universe, and some objections to the argument.

Supporting the Premises

The Universe Began to Exist

As explained earlier, it seems that the evidence in current cosmology is that the universe had a beginning. Certainly, there are various cosmological theories that try to get around this: the multiverse hypothesis, various theories involving circular time, some sort of cyclical universe, etc.[1] But they all seem to have major shortcomings. For example, while the eternal inflation model has an ever-growing number of universes spawning eternally in the future, the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem claims that any universe that expands on average has to have a finite past boundary. There are cosmological theories that try to get around the BGV theorem, but they have problems of their own. One idea is that the universe has two halves, each spreading out infinitely in opposite directions on the timescale, so that you have infinite time in both directions. The shortcoming with this idea is that the other half of the universe is not our past. Obviously, there's much more to say on the subject of cosmology, but I'll stop here because 1) I'm not sure I understand it all (in fact I'm pretty sure I don't) and 2) it would take a really long time. If you're feeling brave, read through that section in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Alternatively, you could stay up till 3am reading dozens of wikipedia articles on cosmology.

In addition to the cosmological evidence for the second premise, there are also philosophical arguments for a finite past. The easiest way to show this is through thought experiments. For example, if events in the universe stretched back into the infinite past, how would we get to today? If you started in the infinite past and tried to work your way towards a point in time, you would never actually reach it. It would be like trying to count all the negative numbers, ending at -1.

Further, an infinite past also brings about various paradoxes, much like Hilbert's Hotel. One good example is al-Ghalazi's thought experiment. Let's say, for the sake of illustration, that the solar system is infinitely old. Jupiter then orbits the sun roughly two and a half times for every one time Saturn orbits the sun. Now, which of the two planets has completed the most orbits? The answer is that they have completed the same number of orbits. This seems absurd, as just observing their orbits shows the disparity in the number of orbits must be increasing. Yet if we extend the timeline to the infinite past, the numbers are the same (infinity). To further confuse things: is the number of orbits they have taken even or odd? The answer, paradoxically, is both.

Now that you're thoroughly flummoxed, I hope you'll agree that the second premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument has some pretty strong support.

Everything that Begins to Exist Has a Cause

This probably seems obvious to most people, but I think it is worthwhile delving into a little bit. There are three main reasons to think the premise is true.

The first is the obvious intuition that things do not just pop into existence without a cause. As the Blackwell Companion puts it, "Nobody sincerely believes that things, say a horse or an Eskimo village, can just pop into being without a cause. But if we make the universe an exception to [the premise], we have got to think that the whole universe just appeared at some point in the past for no reason whatsoever."[2] In other words, the sudden existence of the universe would just be a brute fact, which in my opinion is just about the worst cop-out ever. There are some who claim that the craziness of quantum physics (specifically virtual particles coming into being out of nothing) provides a way out of the first premise. But there is considerable debate in the scientific community as to whether virtual particles exist at all. Besides, the particles come out of a quantum vacuum, which is definitely something (rather than nothing), metaphysically.

Second, if the universe can come into existence out of nothing, what's to stop anything else? "Why do bicycles and Beethoven and root beer not pop into being from nothing? Why is it only universes that can come into being from nothing? What makes nothingness so discriminatory?"[3] Some argue that the premise only holds true in the universe, but is not the case for the universe itself. But the premise is not based on some physical law; it is based on a metaphysical principle - the Causal Principle, which applies to all of reality. And why should the universe be some special exception to this principle? In the words of philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, "The causal not so accommodating as to let itself be used like a hired cab, which we dismiss when we have reached our destination; rather it does resemble the broom brought to life by the sorcerer's apprentice in Goethe's poem, which, when once set in motion, does not leave off running and fetching water."[4]

Finally, it's worth just pondering our entire life experience. Everything in our entire collective experience has had a cause. Not to mention that the causal principle has been crucial for science. It would be silly for scientists to search for the causes of physical phenomena, if there was the possibility that some phenomena just have no cause at all.

So Where Does that Leave Us?

Glad you asked. It's often claimed that most of the arguments for the existence of God at best leave us with some remote, deistic God. Closer inspection shows us that isn't the case. Granted, the conclusions of the arguments don't lead directly to all the doctrines of Christian theology and the path from them to Christianity itself is pretty long, but they do give us some insight into what the creator of the universe must be like.

In the section on the Kalam Cosmological Argument, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology gives several examples of properties of the First Cause. The first, and most obvious, is that the cause is itself uncaused. Second, the cause is also beginningless. This follows from the first premise. The First Cause had no cause, and therefore did not begin to exist.

Third, the First Cause is changeless, since an infinite regress of changes cannot exist. Based this changelessness, we know the cause must be immaterial, since anything that is material undergoes constant change. Since we already know the cause is changeless, it cannot be material. The cause must also be timeless, at least prior to creation, as time itself came into being with the beginning of the universe, and the First Cause existence before the beginning of the universe [5].

The First Cause must also be immensely powerful. Spend a night looking at the stars and studying the Hubble Deep Field and you will get a very strong impression that the First Cause must be staggeringly powerful.

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, the First Cause is - probably - personal. There are a few reasons to think this is the case. The first is that, when explaining causes, you can split them up into two categories (a la Richard Swinburne): scientific causes and personal causes [6]. Now we know the first cause cannot be scientific in nature, as scientific explanations rely on initial conditions and laws. The First Cause is the condition and created all laws that we observe. So it must be personal.

The second is that an immaterial, beginningless, timeless, etc. thing must either be an abstract object (like mathematical truths existing in some platonic heaven) or a disembodied mind. But we can eliminate the cause being an abstract object because abstract objects do not stand in causal relations with anything else. They don't cause stuff. They're just sort of...there.

To see the final reason it is likely that the First Cause is personal, we need to take a look at a puzzle. "The cause is in some sense eternal, and yet the effect which it produced is not eternal but began to exist a finite time ago. How can this be? If the necessary and sufficient conditions for the production of the effect are eternal, then why is not the effect eternal?...Why is the effect not co-eternal with its cause?"[7] It seems that we've hit a snag. And the only plausible explanation is that the First Cause is a free agent, who can choose to create. Such a free agent could exist eternally but choose to create the world in time. This doesn't mean that in choosing the creator changed his mind, but rather - to paraphrase the Blackwell Companion - he freely and eternally chose to create a world with a beginning.

With all these properties in mind: "This, as Thomas Aquinas was wont to remark, is what everybody means by 'God'."[8]

What Are Some of the Objections to the Argument?

The most common objections to the argument are also the most taudry. The first is that the argument equivocates with the word "cause." We usually use the word "cause" to denote something that transforms something that already existed in the material world, whereas the cause in the argument creates out of nothing. But notice that the argument itself only relies on the idea that a cause is something that brings about an effect. What sort of effect that may be is another question.

Another objection is that causality is compatible with a series of events stretching back infinitely back. But the problem with an infinite series of events stems not from causality but from the possibility (or, rather, the impossibility) of an actual infinite.

A somewhat more interesting objection is that creation out of nothing is incomprehensible, and therefore the argument as a whole is incomprehensible. But the statement that a finite time ago a transcendent cause brought the universe into being out of nothing is clearly a meaningful statement, not mere gibberish, as is evident from the very fact that we are debating it. We may not understand how the cause brought the universe into being out of nothing, but such efficient causation without material causation is not unprecedented, as we have seen, and it is even more incomprehensible, in this sense, how the universe could have popped into being out of nothing without any cause, material or efficient."[9]

I've saved what I consider to be the worst for last. The claim is that if everything has a cause of its existence, then the cause of the universe must also have a cause. But that isn't what the argument stated. It clearly states that whatever begins to exist has a cause. Something eternal needn't have a cause.

One more thing. It isn't an objection per se, but it's worth keeping in mind. The entire argument depends on the A-theory of time, as opposed to B-theory. What theories of time?! Let me explain (and I should point out that, no, philosophers are not always the most creative when it comes to naming things). Under A-theory, the present is the only thing to really exist, whereas under B-theory the passage of time is an illusion, and that past, present, and future all exist tenselessly. This is a whole new can of worms, and both the philosophical and scientific community debate about which is the correct theory of time. If B-theory is correct, then it seems the universe didn't really begin to exist, in a sense, as the entire timescale exists tenselessly. So, the A-theory of time must be correct for the kalam cosmological argument to succeed.

1. I should mention that these various theories have been put forward for many different reasons. The motivation is not simply to do away with the universe having a definite beginning, though that does seem to be one of the motivating factors with the theories.
2. The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, p182
3. Ibid., p186
4. On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, p42-3
5. This may be a point of confusion. How could something exist before the existence of time itself? Doesn't that imply some other time scale? It's not that the First Cause existed temporally before time, as that idea is nonsensical. Rather, the First Cause's existence comes logically prior to the creation of the universe.
6. I'm pretty sure you could do something similar with Aristotle's four causes, but I'll leave that exercise to Austin!
7. Blackwell, p193
8. Ibid., p194
9. Ibid., p196
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