Cosmological Kalamity

Dan Barker

"Daddy, if God made everything, who made God?" my daughter Kristi asked me, when she was five years old.

"Good question," I replied. Even a child sees the problem with the traditional cosmological argument.

The old cosmological argument claimed that since everything has a cause, there must be a first cause, an "unmoved first mover." Today no theistic philosophers defend that primitive line because if everything needs a cause, so does God. The only way they can deal with my kindergartener's question is if they can first get God "off the hook."

One approach has been to claim that only effects need a cause: since a first cause is not an effect, it is exempt from causation. Another attempt conceives of a contingent cause of the universe, resting at the top of a pyramid of relationships rather than at the beginning of a chain of temporal events. But this a priori tactic of exempting the conclusion (Creator) from the causality required of everything else--with no evidence that any special "causeless" or "noncontingent" objects actually exist--makes the Creator a part of the definition of the premise, which is circular reasoning. These versions fail to get God off the hook.

The Kalam Argument

Today a more sophisticated version of the cosmological argument is being propounded that connects early Islamic theology with current Big Bang cosmology. According to Kalam reasoning, infinity is just a concept: an actual infinity does not exist in reality. If the series of temporal events is infinite, we never could have traversed it to arrive at the current moment. Yet we have reached this moment; therefore, the series of events must have had a beginning. Today, cosmologists almost universally confirm that our observable universe began at a Big Bang, a singularity[1] that brought into existence not only matter and energy, but space and time as well.

Building on this, Christian philosophers such as William Lane Craig are promoting an up-to-date version of the cosmological argument that they think avoids the problems of earlier attempts:

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

This may be seductive to those who already believe in a god; but to me, it seems suspicious. The clause "Everything that begins to exist" sounds artificial. It is not a phrase we hear outside the context of theistic philosophy. It appears to be an ad hoc construction designed to smooth over earlier apologetic efforts

Does Kalam Beg the Question?

The curious clause "everything that begins to exist" implies that reality can be divided into two sets: items that begin to exist (BE), and those that do not (NBE). In order for this cosmological argument to work, NBE (if such a set is meaningful) cannot be empty[2], but more important, it must accommodate more than one item to avoid being simply a synonym for God. If God is the only object allowed in NBE, then BE is merely a mask for the Creator, and the premise "everything that begins to exist has a cause" is equivalent to "everything except God has a cause." As with the earlier failures, this puts God into the definition of the premise of the argument that is supposed to prove God's existence, and we are back to begging the question.

Where do theists obtain the idea in the first place that there is such a set as NBE? By what observations or arguments is the possibility of beginningless objects warranted? Certainly not via the cosmological argument, which simply assumes NBE; nor from science, which observes nothing of the sort. If they get their initial idea from a religious document or from "inner experience," their argument may be more presuppositionalist than evidentialist. [3]

To say that NBE must accommodate more than one item is not to say that it must contain more than one item. The set might actually contain only one of the eligible candidates. The cosmological argument could be made successful if it could be shown that NBE contains exactly one item from a plural set of possibilities, and if the winning candidate turns out to be a personal creator. The question of accommodation is not whether the set does not contain more or less than one item; it's whether it can not contain other than one. If it can not, then the argument is circular. It would be like a dictator staging an election that permits no other candidates but himself: it's rigged from the start. (I am indebted to Michael Martin for insights on this matter via personal email correspondence.)

Additionally, if the only candidate for NBE is God, then the second premise, "The universe began to exist," would reduce to "The universe is not God," again assuming what the argument is trying to prove. If NBE is synonymous with God, the argument looks like this:

  1. Everything except God has a cause.
  2. The universe is not God.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

This is logical, if not very useful. The circular reasoning is revealed when theists build from this point. Based on the above "universe has a cause" conclusion, Craig argues for a personal creator:

"We know that this first event must have been caused. The question is: How can a first event come to exist if the cause of that event exists changelessly and eternally? Why isn't the effect as co-eternal as the cause?

"It seems that there is only one way out of this dilemma, and that is to infer that the cause of the universe is a personal agent who chooses to create a universe in time. Philosophers call this type of causation 'agent causation,' and because the agent is free, he can initiate new effects by freely bringing about conditions which were not previously present."[4]

This appeal to a personal creator depends on the premise that "we know this first event must have been caused." However, if God is the only item allowed in NBE, the argument effectively (if not intentionally) begs the question. In order to avoid begging the question, theists must produce one or more real or hypothetical candidates other than God for NBE.

We have no experience of any NBE objects in the natural universe (how could we?), nor can we propose anything hypothetical that does not begin to exist as a real item in the natural universe.[5] We can't have such a thing within the natural universe if "begin" means "begin in time" because time itself is a result of the Big Bang. No item in the natural universe transcends time, so it cannot "not" begin to exist. Assuming that current Big Bang cosmology is correct, it would be incoherent to say that something happened "before" time began.

But perhaps there could be something outside[6] the natural universe that would be accommodated by NBE, besides God. (Craig seems to allow this ontological possibility when he "infers"[7] that the external cause of the universe is an "agent causation," implying that it might be otherwise.) Since most theists' definition of God includes personality, NBE might be open to an impersonal force as well as a personal force--or a number of impersonal and personal forces. This would not necessarily lead to polytheism, deism, or violate the principle of economy--it might be true that only the personal agency actually exists from the set of possibilities.

However, if theists allow the theoretical possibility of an impersonal transcendent object in NBE--and it seems they must allow this, or some other nontheistic hypothesis--and if they have not convincingly eliminated it (or them) from the set of actual items in NBE, then they must remain open to the possibility that the origin of the universe could be explained in a purely naturalistic manner.

Transcendent does not equal supernatural.

Have theists successfully eliminated all but one candidate for NBE? By what criteria have they concluded that an impersonal force cannot cause a universe? After all, experience within the universe shows us that many impersonal causes "create" many natural effects.

Craig appears to be justifying the hypothesis of a personal external force via the fact that the natural universe contains complex intelligence and free personal agency--humans, for example--and a creator must be at least as complex as the thing it created[8]. Otherwise, the creation would have been greater than the creator, which is impossible.

But is it impossible? What exactly does "greater" mean? Flowing water created the Grand Canyon: which is greater? Loose pebbles start avalanches. We build machines that are "greater" than ourselves: forklifts, jet airplanes, bombs. We create machines that think better than we do--witness the defeat of World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov to IBM's "Deep Blue." A man and a woman who are both of average intelligence can produce a child who is a genius. Nature abounds with examples of complexity arising from simplicity.

If this is true in the natural world, then why would it not be equally true in a transcendent or supernatural world, if such a world exists? If we are allowed to draw an inference, as Craig does, from one world to the other, then we cannot rule out the possibility of the universe (or God) having arisen from simpler causes. There is no way to dismiss the option that impersonal forces created the right situation for the universe, including intelligence, to arise.

This principle holds in biology. The overwhelming consensus among biologists is that we evolved from simpler ancestors, and so did our ancestors. Theists who agree that the universe originated in a Big Bang about fifteen billion years ago should not be uncomfortable with the observation that life evolved over that vast period of time. (Those few theists who accept cosmology but reject biology may be picking their experts based on theology rather than science.) If theists such as Craig think we can infer anything from natural observation about the characteristics of a transcendent creator, then we naturalists could be justified in playing the same game: we might "infer" that the creator (if it exists) evolved from a less complex, non-personal source.

Some theists dismiss biological evolution from simpler origins (some discard only macro-evolution, and some only the evolution of DNA), but even if they are right, this would not help them: complex/simple does not necessarily translate to personal/impersonal. Who is to say that personality could not have arisen from an impersonal cause? The impersonal might be more complex. If this is impossible, theists must explain why.

Even if it is wrong, in spite of a wealth of evidence, that complexity arises from simplicity, in order for the cosmological argument to hold, theists must at least acknowledge the possibility of one or more transcendent forces that is not personal. They must ontologically contend with something else "out there" that is not God: they must define it, and then eliminate it.

It does no good to say that the "something else" accommodated by NBE might have been created by God, because that simply rolls the set back up into a single item. (We might then claim that it was the other way around: God was created by "something else.") Since this uncaused nontheistic impersonal transcendence would need to exist "on its own," if it exists, then it would not be dependent on God, and therefore God would not be creator and master of everything. Until theists can satisfactorily eliminate this "something else," they cannot conclude that a personal god is the cause of the universe.

Perhaps theists might suggest or prove that the impersonal transcendence is not possible at all: maybe NBE cannot even accommodate such a thing. But if that is true, they are back to square one, and need to propose "something else" as a candidate for NBE in order to keep from begging the question.

Theists might point out that the "something else," even if clearly defined, would be merely theoretical. True, but so is God.[9]If they had evidence for God, they wouldn't need the Cosmological Argument at all.

Is Kalam Self Refuting?

Theists regularly talk about a place "beyond" the universe, a transcendent realm where God exists "outside of time."

". . . the universe has a cause. This conclusion ought to stagger us, to fill us with awe, for it means that the universe was brought into existence by something which is greater than and beyond it."[10] [emphasis in original]

Of course, if you live "outside of time," whatever that means, then you don't need a beginning in time. A transcendent being, living "beyond" nature, is conveniently exempt from the limitations of natural law, and all complaints that God himself must have had a cause or a designer (using the same natural reasoning that tries to call for his existence) can be dismissed by theists who insist that God is outside the loop, unaffected by natural causality, beyond time.

Yet theists continue to describe this "timeless" being in temporal terms. Phrases such as "God decided to create the universe" are taken by us mere mortals to be analogous to such natural phrases as "Annie Laurie decided to bake a pie." If such phrases are not equal or analogous to normal human language, and if they are not redefined coherently, then they are useless. We may as well say "God blopwaddled to scrumpwitch the universe."

The word "create" is a transitive verb. We have no experience of transitive verbs operating outside of time (how could we?), so when we hear such a word, we must picture it the only way we can: a subject acts on an object. Considering the point at which an action is committed, there must be an antecedent state "during" which the action is not committed, and this would be true either in or out of time.

To say that "God created time" is not comprehensible to us. But if he did it anyway, in spite of our lack of imagination, then it couldn't have happened "after" the decision to commit it, because there was no "before." However, we might still imagine the act of creation as "following" the decision to create. Or, to avoid temporal terms, the creating succeeds the deciding in the logical order. (In logic we say that a conclusion "follows," though we do not mean this happens in space or time. Craig writes that "the origin of the universe is causally prior to the Big Bang, though not temporally prior to the Big Bang."[11])

Either in or out of time, the decision of a personal agency to commit an action happens antecedent to the action itself. Even if the deciding and the acting happened simultaneously[12], it would still not be true that the acting was antecedent to the deciding. Imagine God saying, "Oh, look! I just created a universe. Now I'd better decide to do it."

This means that there must exist a series of antecedent causal events in the mind of a time-transcendent creator, if such a being exists. Since the Kalam argument claims that "an actual infinity cannot exist in reality," it shoots itself in the foot: although Kalam deals with temporal succession, the same logic applies to non-temporal antecedent events, if such things are a part of reality. If the series were infinite, then God never could have traversed the totality of his own antecedent mental causes to arrive at his decision to say "Let there be light." Therefore, sticking with Kalam, there must have been a "first antecedent" in the mind of an actual God, which means that God "began" to exist. (This means "began causally," but theists have conceded the appropriateness of expressing non-temporal actions in temporal language.)

If theists counter that the Kalam argument applies only to the impossibility of an actual mathematical infinity within the material universe and that the transcendent, timeless domain of the Creator is an entirely different kind of "infinity" that is not subject to the same laws, then they are begging the question, again. Exempting the conclusion, by definition, from the premises by excluding the supernatural (the very thing theists are trying to prove) is circular reasoning. If it is true that an "actual infinity cannot exist in reality," then a being who is actually infinite cannot be a part of reality. In other words, the Kalam disproves the reality of a beginning-less God. If infinity is just a concept, as Kalam insists, then an infinite God is just a concept.

If we take Kalam seriously, there is no escaping the fact that God (if he exists) had a beginning, either in or out of time[13]. Since this is true, the phrase "Everything that begins to exist" includes God, and sticking with the cosmological argument, it follows that God has a cause.

We are back to my kindergartener's question.

At this point, the theist might remind us that we do have scientific knowledge of the beginning of the universe, but we have no such evidence regarding God. That is true, but it is self-incriminating. Yes, science is a material endeavor--it is impossible to probe the supernatural (whatever that is) with the tools of the natural world--but to say that we have no evidence that God had a beginning is to underscore the fact that we have no evidence about God at all. The Kalam argument was being propounded a millennium before scientists embraced the Big Bang, and its merits were then, as now, nonscientific.

Does Kalam Compare Apples and Oranges?

Another way to show that the Kalam argument may be mere wordplay is to identify the supernaturalistic assumption hidden in the second premise. Here is the argument again:

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

Notice how the words "everything" and "universe" are paired. In this syllogism, the two terms are considered to be of the same essence, at the same logical level. Consider the following faulty argument:

  1. All apples that fall from trees become bruised.
  2. This orange fell from a tree.
  3. Therefore, this orange is bruised.

This argument is wrong because, well, because we are comparing apples and oranges. An orange is not a member of the set of apples.

"The universe," to philosophers (or "the cosmos," to cosmologists), is the set of all things. A set is a collection of items. A set can be a member or subset of another set, and it can be considered a subset of itself, but a set cannot be a member of itself.[14] Yet the cosmological argument treats the universe as if it were an item in its own set. The first premise refers to every "thing," and the second premise treats the "universe" as if it were a member of the set of "things." But since a set should not be considered a member of itself, the cosmological argument is comparing apples and oranges.

You can't draw an inference or law from the relationships between items in a set that applies to the set as a whole. The fact that each member of an orchestra plays in harmony with all other members of that orchestra does not mean that all orchestras play in harmony with each other. The fact that each number in the set of even numbers is separated from its immediate neighbors by a distance of two does not mean that the set of even numbers is separated from its neighbors by a distance of two. Such thinking transfers a truth from one level to another, jumping up where it is misapplied. When you say that "everything that begins to exist" has a cause, you can't pull yourself up by your bootstraps and say that the set of all these things (the universe), even if it did have a beginning of sorts, must follow the same rules or maintain the same relationships as the items that it contains.

To illustrate, consider a faulty argument that uses the word "began":

  1. Every nation began with a revolution.
  2. The Alliance of All Nations began ten years ago.
  3. Therefore, there was a revolution ten years ago.

This is illogical because the "Alliance of All Nations" is not an individual nation, and the word "began" means something entirely different when it is applied to the set as a whole. Likewise, in the cosmological argument, the clause "begins to exist" should not mean the same thing when applied to "the universe" that it means when applied to individual "things" within the universe.

Explaining the Kalam cosmological argument, Craig writes:

"1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The logic of the argument is valid and very simple; the argument has the same logical structure as the argument: 'All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal.' So the question is, are there good reasons to believe that each of the steps is true? I think there are."[15]

But this is not right. The "All men are mortal" argument does not have the same logical structure as the Kalam. Socrates is a man, but the universe is not a "thing." The argument would have the same logical structure as the Kalam if it said: "All men are mortal; the human race is made of men; therefore, the human race is mortal." It is easy to spot the illogic when phrased in this manner.

Bertrand Russell, in his 1948 debate with Copleston, touched on the matter:

"I should say that the universe is just there, and that's all. . . . I can illustrate what seems to me your fallacy. Every man who exists has a mother, and it seems to me your argument is that therefore the human race must have a mother, but obviously the human race hasn't a mother--that's a different logical sphere."[16]

What does "everything" mean? Standing alone, it is synonymous with the universe (or cosmos). But in the cosmological argument, "everything" does not refer to "all things that exist," because it is followed by the limiting clause "that begins to exist," implying (as we have seen) that there are some things (NBE) that are not a part of this particular set. "Everything" is understood, in this context, as two separate words--"every thing"--referring to each individual item within BE. This is supported by the fact that "begins to exist" is singular, referring to one "thing" in the set BE. (Craig uses the word "whatever," which means "whatever thing.")

A "thing" is an object or system that is distinct in some manner from other objects or systems. Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language defines thing as: "anything conceived of or referred to as existing as an individual, distinguishable entity; specif., a) any single entity distinguished from all others [each thing in the universe] . . ." (The same dictionary gives additional definitions of thing as an abstract concept, but we can assume that theists consider God and the universe to be real objects.)

A "thing" is something distinguishable, and to be distinguishable is to be limited. To say that I ate a strawberry is to say that what I ate was not a watermelon or a peach. To say that my daughter is a redhead signifies that she is not a blonde or a brunette. To say that my friend is from New York means that he is not from Chicago, Paris, or any other city. In order to be considered a "thing," an object must be a part of a larger context within which and by which it can be limited. The object must be able to be "pulled away" from other objects.

Is the universe a "thing"? When the cosmological argument moves to its second premise--"The universe began to exist"--we are being forced to view the universe as a particular item in the set of "things." But is the "set of all things" a "thing" itself? How is the set of all things distinguished from other things or other sets? In what context does the universe exist within which it can be identified as a distinct object?

If we even suggest that the universe (cosmos) is a discrete "thing" (not just a concept), we are implying a realm above and beyond the universe within which it is contained, limited, and defined; and this amounts to simply assuming transcendence. Theistic philosophers hope no one will notice that the language they are using effortlessly conjures the existence of a realm beyond nature, portraying "the universe" from a distance, as if "it" had an environment. It is easier for nontheists, who are not tempted to mix logical spheres, to avoid such question begging.[17]

Copleston, responding to Russell, asked: "But are you going to say that we can't, or we shouldn't even raise the question of the existence of the whole of this sorry scheme of things--of the whole universe?"

"Yes," Russell replied. "I don't think there's any meaning in it at all. I think the word 'universe' is a handy word in some connections, but I don't think it stands for anything that has a meaning."[18]

What statements can we make about the universe that show us what it is not? The Grand Canyon is not in New Jersey, the Egyptian pyramids were not built in the 20th century, baseballs are not made of jelly beans. Where does the universe not exist? Of what is it not made? How does it differ from a non-universe?[19] Such questions are meaningless when asked of the "set of all things."

Conclusion

In order for the Kalam Cosmological Argument to be salvaged, theists must answer these questions, at least:

  1. Is God the only object accommodated by the set of things that do not begin to exist?
    • If yes, then why is the cosmological argument not begging the question?
    • If no, then what are the other candidates for the cause of the universe, and how have they been eliminated?
  2. Does the logic of Kalam apply only to temporal antecedents in the real world?
    • If yes, this assumes the existence of nontemporal antecedents in the real world, so why is this not begging the question?
    • If no, then why doesn't the impossibility of an actual infinity disprove the existence of an actually infinite God?
  3. Is the universe (cosmos) a member of itself?
    • If not, then how can its "beginning" be compared with other beginnings?

In the absence of good answers to these questions, we must dismiss the Kalam cosmological argument for the existence of a god.

Footnotes

[1] The Big Bang is not an "event." An event takes place in time and space: it needs a context. Since time and space are a part of the universe itself, calling the Big Bang an "event" would place it in a context beyond itself, which amounts to a presumption of transcendence.

[2] An empty set can be significant. It can be quite meaningful to say "I have no friends." But we know what defines a set of friends, and we can point to non-zero examples of this set in real life. A null set is only significant if could possibly be non-null, and that can only happen if we know what constitutes an item that set. In the case of NBE, we have no examples, so a null set would be equal to no set at all.

[3] I'm not accusing theists of special pleading. It is not impossible to conceive of beginninglessness: Hawking's recent 2D-time model is an intriguing example; and some atheists have suggested that the universe is eternal. But these ideas come after the cosmological argument, and since they are normally rejected by theists, they can hardly be considered a basis for for the original justification of NBE. Besides, the idea of the beginning of the universe itself deals with "all of reality," not with any item.

[4] W. L. Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth And Apologetics, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1994) p. 117

[5] In the conceptual world, of course, there are things with no beginning, such as the set of negative numbers. But the thrust of Kalam is that infinities do not exist in the real world.

[6] This might still amount to begging the question, because the existence of the supernatural is part of the package that theists want to prove.

[7] How can an inference be drawn from observations within the natural universe that applies outside the universe?

[8] This, by the way, is one way of refuting teleological arguments. If functional complexity requires a designer, then the designer also needs a designer, because the designer must be at least as complex as the thing it designed. A creator God, if he existed, would possess a functionally complex, wonderful, organized, purposeful mind . . . but that is a different argument.

[9] Stephen Hawking, in his introduction to Before The Beginning by Martin Rees, calls God a "theoretical construct."

[10] Craig, Reasonable Faith, p. 116.

[11] Craig, W. L. (1992). "The Origin and Creation of the Universe: A Reply to Adolf GrŸnbaum," British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 43. (As quoted in "Some Comments on William Craig's 'Creation and Big Bang Cosmology' (1994)" by Adolf GrŸnbaum on the World Wide Web at http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/adolf_grunbaum/comments.html)

[12] Simultaneous creation is not only non-intuitive, but problematic. Without temporal succession, there is no way to determine the order of cause and effect. If creation happened simultaneously, we cannot eliminate the possibility that the universe created God. (Don't some atheists say that "God" is a human creation?)

[13] The Book of Genesis portrays the Hebrew deity creating the world in time: "On the first day, second day, etc." To the biblical literalist, God's actions are indeed temporal, and therefore under the jurisdiction of Kalam.

[14] I know there are some theoretical attempts to treat sets as members of themselves--the "set of all sets" ought to include itself, or the "set of concepts," being a concept, ought to include itself--but I think these are examples of mixing logical spheres, producing confusing semantics. A set-as-collection has a different referent from a set-as-concept. (All sets-as-concept probably have the same referent.) To be useful, a concept should boil down to its lowest level of referent and avoid paradoxes: the "set of sets of sets of sets, etc." is obviously artificial, lacking any useful referent; the "catalog of all catalogs that do not list themselves" is paradoxical, therefore impossible. In any event, "the universe" is a collection of material things (lowest referent), not a "collection of concepts." (Thanks to Doug Krueger and Alan Gold for insights on this matter.)

[15] Craig, Reasonable Faith, p. 72.

[16] In Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, ed. Al Seckel, (New York: Prometheus Books, 1986), p. 131.

[17] Atheists are sometimes accused of having a "bias against the supernatural," but it could be countered that theists have a "bias against the natural."

[18] In Bertrand Russell on God and Religion, p. 129.

[19] We could say "The universe is not composed entirely of pork chops," but this does not distinguish the universe from any other set. We will never stumble upon a "set of all things" made entirely of pork chops, and say, "Oops, this is not the universe." (If we thought we did, we would have to admit that it is only a subset of all things that exist--a part of the universe, not another universe.) We can find rivers in New Jersey, pyramids built in the 20th century, and jelly beans in various shapes, and we would agree that their existence contributes to the set of all things that those other things are not.

© Copyright 1999 by Dan Barker.

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