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Craig, Kalam, and Quantum Mechanics: Has Craig Defeated the Quantum Mechanics Objection to the Causal Principle?

Aron Lucas


Over the past three decades, Christian philosopher William Lane Craig has been appealing to the beginning of the universe in order to argue for the existence of God. The Kalam cosmological argument, as it is called, takes the following form:

P1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause
P2) The universe began to exist
C) Therefore, the universe had a cause

The purpose of this essay is to quickly outline a common objection to P1 known as the "quantum mechanics objection," and then examine Craig's typical rebuttal. I will conclude that Craig's objection is not only irrelevant to the quantum mechanics objection, but comes with a whole host of other problems: a) it leads him to equivocate on "begins to exist," b) it renders P1 completely unverifiable, c) makes his entire argument question-begging, d) and leads to him adopting contradictory definitions of "nothing."

The Quantum Mechanics Objection

Regarding P1, Craig says this principle is "constantly confirmed in our experience."[1] But is this really true? One common critique of P1 is that, on the subatomic level, the typical laws of cause and effect break down. For instance, "virtual particles," as they are called, randomly pop in and out of existence. The random decay of a radioactive nucleus, for example, is another commonly cited instance of quantum indeterminacy. Such indeterminacy is thought by many to be an intrinsic feature of a quantum world, and because the early universe was compressed to the size of a particle, the creation of the universe would have been a quantum event. As Paul Davies puts it,

By weakening the link between cause and effect, quantum mechanics provides a subtle way for us to circumvent the origin-of-the-universe problem ... viewed through the eyes of a quantum physicist, the spontaneous appearance of a universe is not such a surprise, because physical objects are spontaneously appearing all the time--without well-defined causes--in the quantum microworld. The quantum physicist need no more appeal to a supernatural act to bring the universe into being than to explain why a radioactive nucleus decayed when it did.[2]

How Does Craig Respond?

William Lane Craig is well aware of the "quantum mechanics objection" to P1. His typical response is that quantum events, even if uncaused, are still not examples of creation ex nihilo. Craig protests that virtual particles aren't really coming from nothing, but rather a preexisting quantum vacuum. And when these particles appear, Craig says, they aren't popping out of thin air, but merely being converted from preexisting energy. He writes:

[P]article pair production furnishes no analogy for this radical ex nihilo becoming ... This quantum phenomenon, even if an exception to the principle that every event has a cause, provides no analogy to something's coming into being out of nothing. Though physicists speak of this as particle pair creation and annihilation, such terms are philosophically misleading, for all that actually occurs is conversion of energy into matter or vice versa.[3]

Is Craig's Respond Relevant?

Though Craig is right to say that virtual particles aren't created ex nihilo, he completely misses the point of the objection. Virtual particles and other examples of quantum indeterminacy are not being presented as examples of creation ex nihilo. Rather, they are simply being presented as exceptions to P1--things beginning to exist without causes. These particles didn't used to exist; now they do, and they have no causal explanation. The fact that they emerged from a preexisting vacuum does nothing to change the fact that they began to exist without a cause, plain and simple.

In 2012, the cosmologist Lawrence Krauss published a book titled A Universe from Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing, in which he aimed to show that quantum mechanics can explain how matter, space, and time can emerge from "nothing." Critics immediately jumped on Krauss, accusing him of using the word "nothing" in a misleading way. The philosopher of science David Albert, for instance, wrote in The New York Times,

[Quantum vacuums]--no less than giraffes or refrigerators or solar systems--are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff ... none of these poppings [of virtual particles]--if you look at them aright--amount to anything even remotely in the neighborhood of a creation from nothing.[4]

Albert's criticism is essentially the same as Craig's: quantum events are a far cry from creation ex nihilo. In quantum field theory, Albert explains, particles are viewed as specific arrangements of quantum fields. The way these fields are arranged determines the number of particles. "Certain arrangements ... correspond to there being an infinite number of particles, and certain other arrangements correspond to there being no particles at all."[5] The field arrangements which correspond to the absence of particles are called "vacuum states." Now, in Krauss' eyes, these vacuum states ought to be considered "nothingness." But in Albert's eyes, these vacuum states are very much "something." The only difference between our universe and a vacuum state is the arrangement of these fields. Rearranging fields won't ever give us "nothingness"; the only way to do that would be to get rid of the fields altogether. Thus, Albert concludes, there is nothing in quantum mechanics which can explain how the universe arose from nothing; merely how it arose from a different sort of something.

While Albert is surely correct that quantum theory presupposes the existence of "something," and therefore cannot bridge the gap between existence and nonexistence, this fails to grasp Krauss' key insight. The true value of Krauss' book, and what seems to be his primary goal, is to explain how modern physics has seriously challenged the common-sense intuitions which have given rise to belief in P1. As Krauss explains, the everyday man on the street would surely tell you that empty space stays empty! The man on the street would also surely tell you that a spaceless-timeless state could never produce anything without God's help. But as Krauss rightly points out, such commonsense intuitions are false. In a harsh critique of David Albert's review, the philosopher of science Justin Fisher writes,

[Krauss] argues (correctly) that ... many ordinary folk think it is impossible, without miraculous intervention, for ordinary physical objects spontaneously to come to exist where no such objects had existed before--something they often abbreviate by saying "something can't come out of nothing!" It is such people, and not we professional philosophers with our "wholly unrestricted quantifiers," who are the intended audience of Krauss' book.[6]

Indeed, the Campus Crusade for Christ website provides an excellent example of how laypeople can be misled by their intuitions. On their website, they make the argument that it would be impossible for a room of nothing but empty space to produce any physical "stuff":

Let's say you have a large room. It's fully enclosed and is about the size of a football field. The room is locked, permanently, and has no doors or windows, and no holes in its walls. Inside the room there is ... nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not a particle of anything. No air at all. No dust at all. No light at all. It's a sealed room that's pitch black inside. Then what happens? ... Waiting 15 minutes will not, in and of itself, change the situation. Well, you say, what if we wait eons? An eon is merely a bunch of 15-minute segments all pressed together ... So here's the question: if originally--bazillions of years ago--there was Absolutely Nothing, wouldn't there be Absolutely Nothing now? Yes. For something--no matter how small--cannot come from Absolutely Nothing. We would still have Absolutely Nothing.[7]

These are the sorts of intuitions that have given rise to the idea that "everything that begins to exist has a cause"; and these are precisely the sorts of intuitions that Krauss debunks in his book.

The fact that Krauss never provides a naturalistic account of creation ex nihilo is irrelevant to the fact that he does provide a scathing critique of the commonsense intuitions which have given rise to P1. He may not have explained why there is something rather than nothing, or how the universe could come from nothing, but he has certainly shown that not everything that begins to exist requires a cause. Indeed, he has shown that P1 is violated all the time!

Thus, the critiques of the Craig's and Albert's of the world are very much off-base. Quantum mechanics does indeed provide counterexamples to P1, and this is all that is needed to put a dent in the Kalam cosmological argument. Even the Christian philosopher Bruce Reichenbach agrees that "it should be recognized that by showing that indeterminacy is a real feature of the world at the quantum level would have significant negative implications for the more general Causal Principle that underlies the deductive cosmological argument."[8]

Does Craig's Equivocate on "Begins to Exist"?

So why does Craig disagree that these quantum phenomena provide an exception to P1? The answer seems to lie in the way that Craig defines "begin to exist." In places, Craig has actually provided a precise definition of "begin to exist," which has 4 independent clauses:

Entity x begins to exist at time t if and only if:
1.\ x exists at t
2.\ t is the first time at which x exists
3.\ there is no state of affairs in the actual world in which x exists timelessly
4.\ x's existing at t is a tensed fact.[9]

Clause 3 was specifically added by Craig so that God would be immune from beginning to exist at the time of the Big Bang (and therefore immune from requiring a cause of his own), and clause 4 makes it clear that Craig's definition hinges on the controversial "A-Theory" of time. When considering the case of virtual particles and other quantum phenomena, we see they fulfill these requirements rather easily. When a particle appears out of the vacuum at a certain time, it exists at that time (clause 1), it is the first time at which that particle exists (clause 2), the particle never had some sort of timeless existence in some sort of timeless realm--whatever that means (clause 3), and if we go along with Craig and assume the A-Theory of time is true, then the first moment of the particle's existence would be a tensed fact (clause 4).

By Craig's own definition, virtual particles do in fact begin to exist, so he should be the first to admit that they violate P1. So why doesn't he? It seems that Craig is altering his definition of "begins to exist" when he's discussing quantum mechanics. Craig often equates "begin to exist" with "come into existence." Interestingly, Craig seems to understand the term "come into existence" in such a way that something only comes into existence if it comes from nothing. This is why he does not consider virtual particles, which do not literally come from nothing, to be examples of things which came into existence without a cause. Thus, in Craig's view, the only things which truly begin to exist are those which are created ex nihilo. Everything else is merely converted or transformed out of preexisting matter and energy. So although Craig states P1 like this:

P1: everything that begins to exist has a cause
P1 should really say this:
P1 (modified): everything which comes into existence out of nothing has a cause

Thus, we see that Craig is guilty of the fallacy of equivocation. At one time in his argument, he uses his 4 clause definition of "begins to exist," under which certain quantum phenomena qualify. To avoid this problem, Craig switches definitions midstream and adopts a new requirement that things can only begin to exist if they come into existence out of nothing.

Does Craig's Response Render P1 Unverifiable?

Craig's reformulated version of P1 also has the unintended consequence of making P1 completely unverifiable. If we define "begins to exist" as "coming into existence out of nothing" then we have never actually witnessed a single instance of anything beginning to exist. Instead, we have only witnessed examples of matter transformation and energy conversion, which don't fall under the purview of P1 in Craig's eyes. But since we have literally no experience with things beginning to exist, we obviously cannot say that our experience confirms the premise that such things require causes. Thus, there is absolutely no empirical evidence supporting P1, whatsoever. As the philosopher Nicholas Everitt rightly says, "If this is what a 'beginning of existence' is, we have too little experience of them to say whether all such events have causes or not."[10]

Does Craig's Response Render Kalam Circular?

More importantly, Craig's understanding of P1 actually renders his entire argument circular. Ask yourself: if things only come into existence if they come from nothing, then what types of things fall into this category? Interestingly, the only thing that is even eligible is the universe itself. Everything that begins to exist within the universe will necessarily come out of a preexisting space-time, so P1 couldn't possibly apply to anything other than the universe as a whole. But since "everything that begins to exist" is equivalent to "the universe," P1 should actually read:

P1 (modified): the universe has a cause.

But this just presumes what that the conclusions is true, making it a blatantly circular argument.

Does Craig Equivocate on "Nothing"?

Notice that William Lane Craig also alters his definition of "nothing" when it suits his needs. At times, he'll say things like this: "Does anyone in his right mind really believe that, say, a raging tiger could suddenly come into existence uncaused, out of nothing, in this room right now?"[11] Given his previous comments on the definition of "nothing," Craig can hardly say this would be an instance of creation ex nihilo, given that the tiger would be appearing out of the preexisting space-time. In this case, Craig is willing to broaden his definition of "nothing" because it allows him to say that our experience lends support to P1.

But if this tiger would qualify as something coming from nothing, then it's not clear why a particle randomly appearing in a vacuum is not an example of something beginning to exist uncaused (after all, a vacuum is much closer to nothing than a living room). To avoid this problem, Craig pulls a bait-and-switch and changes his definition of "nothing" so that only spontaneous creation from absolutely nothingness fits the bill. But if this is the definition he wants us to accept, then the fact that tigers don't randomly appear in our living rooms is irrelevant to whether or not the universe could've begun to exist without a cause.

Thus, whichever definition of "nothing" Craig takes, he runs into a problem. If he takes the broad definition, in which a tiger popping into a living room counts, then quantum mechanics seems to provide an exception to P1. On the other hand, if he takes the narrow definition of pure nothingness, then Craig loses the ability to appeal to experience in order to confirm P1.


[1] William Lane Craig & James Sinclair, "The Kalam Cosmological Argument" in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (eds. William Lane Craig & J.P Moreland, Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2009), p.187

[2] Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster), pp.61-62

[3] William Lane Craig, "The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe" (URL: 1991) spotted February 20, 2013.

[4] David Albert, "On the Origin of Everything 'A Universe From Nothing,' by Lawrence M. Krauss" The New York Times, March 23, 2012, BR20.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Justin Fisher, "A Philosopher Defends Krauss" (URL: 2012) spotted February 20, 2013.

[7] Was There Ever Nothing? (URL: spotted February 20, 2013.

[8] Bruce Reichenbach, "Cosmological Argument" (URL: 2012) spotted February 20, 2013.

[9] Craig & Sinclair, p.184

[10] Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (New York, NY: Routledge, 2004) p.307.

[11] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (3rd ed.)(Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008) p.113.

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