Countering Theist Apologetics: The Kalam Cosmological Argument

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The Kalam Cosmological Argument is a philosophical and (ostensibly) scientific defense of theism that many theistic apologists have found to be relevant and useful in recent years. It is especially favored by Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig, who has been primarily responsible for its modern popularization. The argument has its origins in the medieval tradition of Islamic apologetic dialectics called kalām, developed by Arabic theologians such as Al-Ghazālī, Al-Kindi, and Ibn Rushd (better known as Averroës). [1] In recent years, William Lane Craig has resuscitated and revised the argument, rescuing it from the obscurity of esoteric orientalist journals and breathing new life into it as an argument for theism that he claims holds relevance in the light of modern developments in philosophy, mathematics, and science.

Before discussing Kalam itself, it will be useful to clarify what cosmological arguments are in general. This genre of philosophical argumentation essentially attempts to address the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there a universe at all, and how did it come to exist? What was the initial cause of everything, if there was in fact a cause?” For obvious reasons, theologians and religious apologists want to believe that there was a cause responsible for the existence of the universe, and that this cause was necessary. Apologists such as William Lane Craig then attempt to make the case that this cause is necessarily the Christian God, despite the fact that philosophical or scientific cases for the existence of a universal causal agent can say nothing about the nature or identity of that agent. Another term for this class of rhetoric is the “First Cause Argument,” a more generic non-kalām form of cosmological argument which claims that the totality of existence ultimately had an initial cause, with the special exception of one thing that has no cause. This uncaused agent is then given the attribute of intelligence and called “God.”

As I explained in my article on the general class of First Cause apologetics, such arguments contain the seeds of their own refutation. It is first stated that a cause is required for anything to come into existence, but then something for which there was no cause is posited to account for the phenomena of causation. In a footnote in his 1979 monograph on the kalām cosmological argument, Craig states that “the causal principle concerns only what begins to exist, and God never began to exist, but is eternal.” [2] But he cannot have it both ways. The moment we grant that something exists for which there was no cause, then we are simply no longer burdened with the need to invoke first-cause principles to account for why anything else exists. The special exception made for an uncaused thing cancels out the initial claim that everything that exists must have a cause.

The more specific Kalam Cosmological Argument attempts to avoid this inconsistency by adding a qualifier to the premise. Instead of saying, “Everything that exists has a cause,” modern science-savvy apologists now say, “Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence.” But this qualifier, intended to exempt God from the logical rules of the argument, is hardly a new insight designed to save the argument, for it invokes the age-old argument from contingency, which we will presently see is also flawed.

Craig is grossly misguided when he states, “Objections to a First Cause of the universe hardly merit refutation.” [3] Because Craig assumes that the First Cause argument is a self-evident principle requiring no justification other than ubiquitous experience, he does not bother developing a defense of it in his book. His rationale for not fully elaborating on the causal principle runs as follows:

The causal proposition could be defended as an empirical generalisation based on the widest sampling of evidence . . . To reject the causal proposition is therefore completely arbitrary. Although this argument from empirical facts is not apt to impress philosophers, it is nevertheless undoubtedly true that the reason we – and they – accept the principle in our everyday lives is precisely for this very reason, because it is repeatedly confirmed in our experience. [4]

But the kind of everyday and common experience Craig describes also gives us the equally intuitive but false impression that the world is flat. According to Craig’s logic, rejecting the proposition that the world is flat should be at least as “completely arbitrary” as rejecting the causal principle. Craig makes another blunder in the same footnote when he states that “unobservable entities such as cosmic rays cause observable effects. And could not an unobservable spirit being like an angel or demon, if there be such, cause observable effects, such as the levitation of an object? Why then could not God cause the world?” [5] Here Craig has effectively admitted that the “cause” to which his first premise refers could just as likely be an entirely natural one.

We now turn to the argument itself.

Kalamity Kraig

The Kalam Cosmological Argument is derivative of some weighty notions concerning time and causality. This is not to say that the argument is any more viable or compelling than less sophisticated formulations of theistic cosmological assertions – and it does disingenuously utilize a great deal of obfuscation to make the matter seem more intellectually formidable to the layperson than it actually is – but it nonetheless tackles concepts and weaves premises from them that are not readily accessible to those unversed in philosophy or science. However, like all First Cause apologetics, Kalam is ultimately self-refuting.

Craig poses the Kalam Cosmological Argument in the following syllogism:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence. [6]

After proposing this formulation, Craig writes, “The point of the argument is to demonstrate the existence of a first cause which transcends and creates the entire realm of finite reality. Having reached that conclusion, one may then inquire into the nature of this first cause and assess its significance for theism.” [7] This is a blatant non-sequitur; at no point does the argument itself require that the proposed first cause must be the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, or any personalized intelligence for that matter. Even if the syllogistic argument itself held up under scrutiny (which we will see does not), nothing in the argument contains information about the nature or character of the cause.

The first major problem with Craig’s argument is the first premise’s statement that “Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence.” This is not true. The fact is that some events can happen without cause. Physical events at subatomic quantum levels, such as the emission of photons by atoms in an excited state and the decay of radioactive nuclei, have been observed to happen spontaneously and without any evident cause. The quantum phenomena of spontaneous uncaused events apply on the macroscopic level and to the universe as a whole, because quantum mechanics transition smoothly into classical Newtonian mechanics when the system’s parameters approach that familiar regime.

This objection is by itself sufficient to overturn the whole syllogism. But the second premise of the argument has fatal flaws of its own, even if the first premise held up. The statement, “The universe began to exist” is not evidently correct. The common consensus among cosmologists is that the beginning of our universe was not necessarily the beginning of all things. We know beyond any reasonable doubt that the Big Bang gave birth to our universe 13.7 billion years ago, but it does not then follow that no other universe existed prior to that event. Physicists and cosmologists have, for example, developed detailed scenarios in which our universe emerged from another preexisting universe through the well-established physical process called quantum tunneling[8] This scenario is more than just speculation; it has been worked out mathematically and is consistent with established physical and cosmological data. [9] There is therefore no basis for assuming either that our universe is the only universe or that the Big Bang represents the beginning of everything. By extension, there is also no need to posit any kind of supernatural creation in order to account for the universe’s existence.

By asserting that the universe had a beginning, Craig also presumes to have knowledge of the conditions that precipitated the Big Bang. But we do not currently have such knowledge, and it is possible we never will. We can trace the origins of the universe all the way back to 10-43 second after the Big Bang, but no further at the current stage of scientific knowledge. Designated the Planck time, this was the point at which the entire known universe was undergoing rapid exponential inflation. But we do not currently have the technological and scientific resources to extend our inquiries beyond the Planck point, nor do we know what manner of physical conditions may or may not have applied at t=0 when our particular universe came to exist. When theistic apologists such as Craig posit a god who created the universe, a god who furthermore exists outside of spacetime and is therefore not subject to the physical rules implied by that very causal activity, they are speculating from a position of ignorance. How can anyone presume to say anything about how God operates if this god is outside of observable nature? In order to presume upon such matters, the apologist must admit that his argument does not derive from empirical observations but rather from faith.

Absolute Time versus Relational Time

As Craig fleshes out the skeletal structure of his syllogism and develops the argument, we find that his entire case hangs on two mutually-incompatible conceptions of time. The crux of Craig’s thesis is the contention that the existence of an actual infinite, including its formation by successive addition, is impossible in principle. He maintains that if a series of past events is infinite, the present moment could never be reached. [10] This contention is based on the implications involved in a Newtonian concept of absolute time. In the Newtonian understanding, time is viewed as a linear chain of causal events, a substratum within which all states of affairs occur. In this conception, time exists ontologically distinct from and independent of space. Absolute time can perhaps best be pictured as a stage across which objects move and interact with one another. The stage (representing absolute time) exists independently of the presence of the objects moving across it. By arguing that the idea of actual infinity is untenable due to the impossibility of the past being composed of an infinite chain of events leading to the present, Craig is assuming that the model of absolute time is untenable. This assumption is needed in order for Craig to set up his second premise (“The universe began to exist”).

Standing opposed to Newtonian absolute time is the concept of relational time. According to this understanding, first advanced by the seventeenth century philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz and later elaborated upon by Einstein in his special theory of relativity, time cannot exist in the absence of bodies in motion. Time can have no meaning if there are no objects and states of affairs relating to and interacting with other objects and states of affairs in space. Time and motion are fundamentally intertwined and interdependent. You cannot have one without the other. As per Einstein’s relativity, time is a measure of motion in space, hence the term “spacetime.”

In his analysis of Craig’s cosmological argument, philosopher James Still points out that Craig seems to implicitly side with the relational understanding of time, since his premise is based on the impossibility of actual infinity and therefore, by implication, on the impossibility of absolute time. But then, in order to argue that the cause of the universe was a creator God, Craig contradicts himself:

Craig seems to agree with the relational view of eternity. However, when he discusses the problem of an actual infinite, he slips into an absolute view of time to use the principle of determination in the kalam argument’s conclusion. He argues that the universe began to exist because of thermodynamic considerations and the impossibility of an actual infinite. However, if eternity is a timeless void, then the universe is eternal in the sense that there were no moments in which the space-time continuum did not exist. Yet in order to effectively employ the argument for a particularizer who decides a course of action at a given moment, Craig finds it is necessary to revert to an absolutist view of time. . . . Craig wrongly presupposes an ontological view of time that conflates timeless eternity with temporal infinity – an infinity that is supposed to be a priori impossible in the kalam argument. . . . The kalam argument becomes entangled in this conflated notion of eternity when it argues that God was a particularizer who freely chose to create the universe in time. [11]

Craig’s conflation of timeless eternity with temporal infinity is displayed most clearly when he invokes the Islamic principle of determination and Leibniz’s related principle of sufficient reason to support his claim that the agent responsible for creating the universe is a personal being. He writes,

[Why] did the universe begin to exist when it did instead of existing from eternity? The answer . . . was carefully explained by al-Ghazālī and enshrined in the Islamic principle of determination. According to that principle, when two different states of affairs are equally possible and one results, this realisation of one rather than the other must be the result of the action of a personal agent who freely chooses one rather than the other. Thus, Ghazālī argues that while it is true that no mechanical cause existing from eternity could create the universe in time, such a production of a temporal effect from an eternal cause is possible if and only if the cause is a personal agent who wills from eternity to create a temporally finite effect. For while a mechanically operating set of necessary and sufficient conditions would either produce the effect from eternity or not at all, a personal being may freely choose to create at any time wholly apart from any distinguishing conditions of one moment from another. For it is the very function of will to distinguish like from like. [12]

The principle of determination is highly problematic. The possibilities of existence or non-existence of the universe are mutually exhaustive. That is, one of these possibilities will inevitably obtain even in the event that a causal agent does not choose either option. This means that the universe could either have arisen without a cause, or could have been caused by something other than a personal agent. The former possibility stands contrary to the kalam argument’s first premise, and the latter possibility contradicts the principle of determination.

Creation is a causal activity. Thus, in order to argue for the existence of a personal universe-creator, Craig must appeal to absolute time in contradiction to the relational concept of time upon which he earlier depended as a basis for his case against the possibility of an eternal universe. In fact, the majority of Craig’s book is devoted to refuting the idea of actual infinity in preparation for setting up his argument for a sentient and creative First Cause in the first place. This is very typical of arguments for theism and creationism, a great deal of which can be summarized as follows: “There is a rule x which must always apply in order for our case to make sense. But it does not always apply, because we propose something that has permission to break the aforementioned rule and call it ‘God.’” Underneath all the sophisticated jargon, scrutiny reveals Craig’s formulation of kalām to be nothing more than an elaborate exercise in proposing an unwarranted special exception to rules he wants and needs to hold true elsewhere. The Kalam Cosmological Argument in the end couches a special-pleading fallacy.

Craig wants the causal agent of the universe to be “a personal Creator of the universe who exists changelessly and independently prior to creation and in time subsequent to creation.” [13] But in order to engage in the causal activity of creating a universe, this agent has to create within time. Nothing can be simultaneously timeless and contingent upon time. Here Craig’s statement that the creator exists changelessly at one point and relationally at another point is contradictory. By definition, something that is changeless and eternal cannot change! If time exists in the Newtonian absolute sense, a being that exists outside of spacetime as we experience it is still not separated from or outside of time. There are therefore insurmountable difficulties in positing a being that does not operate within causality, not least of which is the fact that it makes no sense to speak of a personal agent “choosing” from eternity to create, since “choice” can only be made temporally. The philosopher Nicholas Everitt does a fine job of highlighting the inconsistency inherent in the notion of a timeless entity “choosing” to create a universe:

[N]ecessary beings are thought of as being in some way ‘outside’ time. But although this picks up on the traditional idea that God is timeless, it threatens to render unintelligible the conception of the God/universe link in terms of choice. For choosing is something that takes place at a time, and if X’s choices are to explain X’s actions, then the choices must precede the action: X must be a temporal being . . .

Suppose we grant for the sake of argument that the creator could have a thought of the form ‘I will a universe of such-and-such a kind to exist’. Since the creator is outside time, this willing does not occur before (nor of course after) the start of the universe which it is supposed to cause. It occurs, but occurs at no time at all. Already it sounds a very suspicious sort of cause. But worse is to follow. The hypothesis of the creator is supposed to explain why the universe began to exist when it did, rather than earlier or later. This requires that the creator should be able to have thoughts of the form ‘I will the universe to start existing now (or in a million units of time from now, etc.)’. But a being who is outside time can attach no sense to terms like ‘now’ (or ‘a million units of time from now’ etc.). They can be used and understood only by beings who exist at a time and who persist through time. [14]

In relativity theory, which Craig admits is empirically confirmed, the nature of space and time is closely tied to the nature and behavior of matter. As a consequence, if there is anything “outside” of spacetime that is exerting an influence on our universe, the effects of that influence is still contained within the totality of all that exists. This consideration raises a common problem frequently encountered in cosmological arguments for theism: They often rely on highly vague and ambiguous definitions of “universe.” We can consider the universe to be the sum of all things that exist, in which case God would actually be a part of the universe. Under this definition, any notion of existing outside the universe reduces to absurdity. One can also use the word “universe” in the context of the multiverse hypothesis in cosmology, in which there exist an unlimited number of parallel universes. In this usage, one can make reference to “this universe” as just one particular universe among innumerable others. [15] However, even under the multiverse conception, the stuff “outside” this particular universe can also be encompassed by the word “universe” in the sense of a mathematically complete set. As Everitt points out, “This means that there could not have been an event preceding the universe and bringing it about, for the simple reason that there was no time before the start of the universe in which that event could have occurred. The first moment of time was the first moment of the universe. If per impossibile there had been any event before the supposed start of the universe, that would simply show that the universe had in fact begun earlier than we had assumed.”[16]

If Craig is to remain consistent in his appeal to relational time against the possibility of an infinite sequence of past events, he is forced to concede this point. This is a problem that inevitably emerges when apologists talk about things that are “outside the universe” or that are not reliant upon a spacetime infrastructure for their subsistence. In the course of his argument, Craig arrives at a God who is given permission (by Craig, of course) to break any and all rules because he is said to exist outside and beyond all physical laws. If this is the case, how can he say anything meaningful about this God at all? How can he really know how a being of that nature operates and bring the news of it to us? And how is it sensible to posit a being that transcends spacetime and yet carries out causal activity such as creation within spacetime? In the final analysis, theistic arguments of this sort boil down to a primitive appeal to magic, and Craig’s argument is no exception.


[1] A useful and comprehensive historical overview of the origins of the kalām tradition can be found in William Lane Craig, The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1980), pp. 48-126.

[2] William Lane Craig, The Kalām Cosmological Argument (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1979), p. 170.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 145.

[5] Ibid, p. 170.

[6] Ibid, p. 63.

[7] Ibid, p. 64.

[8] Quantum tunneling is the same process by which nuclear fusion occurs in the core of stars. It is the means by which two or more positively-charged protons are able to overcome repulsion in order to fuse together and become helium. The net release of energy that results from this interaction is the nuclear fusion reaction. Quantum tunneling is therefore a well-established process without which we would not exist.

[9] One such quantum tunneling scenario is worked out mathematically in Victor J. Stenger, The Comprehensible Cosmos: Where Do the Laws of Physics Come From? (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006), pp. 312-19.

[10] This idea plays a central role in Zeno’s Paradoxes, upon which Craig comments in an appendix to his monograph as a basis for drawing a distinction between potential infinity and actual infinity. Zeno’s Paradoxes address infinite subdivisions of finite length and asks whether a finite distance that is infinitely divisible can actually be traversed. In contrast to this concept of potential infinity, speaking of time as infinite is to speak of actual infinity, in which time extends infinitely backwards into the past.

[11] James Still, “Eternity and Time in William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument,” Secular Web (1998), http://infidels.org/library/modern/james_still/kalam.html (accessed July 3, 2015).

[12] Craig, The Kalām Cosmological Argument, pp. 150-51.

[13] Ibid, p. 152.

[14] Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 76.

[15] For the past three decades, cosmologists have devoted much serious theoretical research to the multiverse hypothesis, which is based on the best current cosmological models and is even strongly suggested by the data. See Victor J. Stenger, God and the Multiverse: Humanity’s Expanding View of the Cosmos (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2014), pp. 309-346.

[16] Everitt, The Non-Existence of God, p. 70.

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About Nathan Dickey

I am a freelance writer trying to finish my degree in Journalism. I attended Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. My interests are many, and include investigative reporting, science, philosophy, history, classic rock music, and pop culture analysis. My motivation in writing is to contribute what I can to the promotion of science and skepticism among the public. My goal is to use my journalism training to be active in the skeptical and freethought movement, analyzing dubious but popularly-believed claims involving the supernatural, the paranormal and religion.
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2 Responses to Countering Theist Apologetics: The Kalam Cosmological Argument

  1. Roger says:

    Hi. I actually agree with many of Craig’s arguments (everything has a cause, there must be a cause for existence, etc.) but still conclude that the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” can be answered non-theistically. Of course, because we can’t step outside existence, neither theists nor non-theists can ever prove their arguments, but we can provide evidence. My argument is as follows. Others, like science writer Amanda Gefter (1) have suggested that the seeming insolubility of this question is based not on the question itself being insoluble but instead on a flawed assumption. I agree and propose the following. Traditionally, when we imagine getting rid of all existent entities including matter, energy, fields, forces, space/volume, time, abstract concepts, laws or constructs of physics and math as well as minds to consider this supposed lack of all, we think what is left is the lack of all existent entities, or “nothing”. This is the “nothing” we often think of in the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. But, I suggest that this situation, the supposed lack of all existent entities, is itself an existent entity. That is, it is a “something”. This means that the original question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, is based on a false distinction between “something” and “nothing”. It also means that because even “nothing” is a “something”, then “something” is necessary or non-contingent. But, I think it’s also possible to explain how a “something” can be necessary.

    Two arguments for how the supposed lack of all is itself an existent entity, or a “something”, are as follows.

    1. Consider the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”. Two choices for addressing this question are:

    A. “Something” has always been here.

    B. “Something” has not always been here.

    Choice A is possible but does not explain anything. Therefore, choice B is the only choice with any explanatory power. So, let’s explore this choice to see where it leads. With choice B, if “something” has not always been here, then “nothing” must have been here before it. By “nothing”, I mean the same supposed “absolute lack-of-all” (no energy, matter, volume, space, time, thoughts, concepts, mathematical truths, etc., and no minds to consider this complete “lack-of-all”) described above. In this “absolute nothing”, there would be no mechanism present to change this “nothingness” into the “something” that is here now. Because we can see that “something” is here now, the only possible choice then is that “nothing” and “something” are one and the same thing. This is logically required if we go with choice B.

    2. I think that a thing exists if it’s a grouping defining what is contained within (e.g., the surface of a book, the definition of what elements are contained in a set, the mental/neural construct called the concept of love defines what other mental constructs are contained in it, etc.). The grouping is equivalent to an edge or boundary that gives substance and existence to the thing. Try to imagine a book without a surface defining what is contained within. By this, if there is a grouping defining what is contained within, this grouping is an existent entity. Now, applying this to the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, if we consider what we’ve traditionally thought of as “the absolute lack-of-all” (no energy, matter, volume, space, time, thoughts, concepts, mathematical truths, etc.; and no minds to think about this “absolute lack-of-all”), and not our mind’s conception of “the absolute lack-of-all”, this “absolute lack-of-all” would be the entirety, or whole amount, of all that is present. That’s it; that’s everything; there’s nothing else; it would be everything that is present. It is the all. An entirety, whole amount or an “all” is a grouping defining what is contained within and is therefore a surface, an edge and an existent entity. In other words, because the absolute lack-of-all is the entirety of all that is present, it functions as both what is contained within and the grouping defining what is contained within. It defines itself and is, therefore, the beginning point in the chain of being able to define existent entities in terms of other existent entities. The grouping/edge of the absolute lack-of-all is not some separate thing; it is just the “entirety”, “the all” relationship, inherent in this absolute lack-of-all, that defines what is contained within.

    Three notes on visualizing and talking about “non-existence” are 1.) It’s very easy to confuse the mind’s conception of “non-existence” with “non-existence” itself, in which neither the mind nor anything else is present. Because our minds exist, our mind’s conception of “non-existence” is dependent on existence; that is, we must define “non-existence” as the lack of existence (this is why, to the mind, non-existence just looks like nothing at all). But, “non-existence” itself, and not our mind’s conception of “non-existence”, does not have this requirement; it is independent of our mind, and of existence, and of being defined as the lack of existence. “Non-existence” is on its own and, on its own, completely describes the entirety of what is there and is thus an existent entity; 2.) It’s very difficult to visualize “non-existence” because it entails visualizing, with our mind, what it would look like if everything, including the mind, were gone. But, only once everything is gone, including the mind, does “non-existence” become the all, the entirety of all that is present, and thus an existent entity.; and 3.) Some might say that in the above, just by using the word “nothing”, I’m reifying, or giving existence to, something that’s not there at all. But, this ignores the point about our mind’s conception of “nothing” (and therefore the use of the word “nothing”) being different than “nothing” itself in which no minds are present. It also ignores the fact that in order to even discuss the topic, we have have to talk about “nothing” as if it’s a thing. It’s okay to do this; our talking about it won’t affect whether or not “nothing” itself, and not our mind’s conception of “nothing”, exists. That is, we’re not reifying “nothing” itself by talking about it because our talking wouldn’t even be there in the case of “nothing” itself.

    Anyways, that’s my argument. If anyone is interested, or really bored, I’ve got more at my websites at:

    https://sites.google.com/site/whydoesanythingexist/
    (summary)

    https://sites.google.com/site/ralphthewebsite/
    (click on 3rd link, longer and more detail)

    Thanks for listening!

    1. Gefter, A., Nautulus, 2014, 16; http://nautil.us/issue/16/nothingness/the-bridge-from-nowhere

  2. Jon Darby says:

    Great article, Nathan! One of the huge problems I have always seen with the Kalam argument is that it relies so heavily on the impossibility of an actual infinity, yet at the same time if God doesn’t exist, then infinity must exist. The flaw in Craig’s argument is that he assumes infinity has to be omni-directional. Even assuming a linear form of time, it can have a starting point and still be infinite (such as a ray in geometry). If there is no God, then there is nothing that can possibly end time and the expansion of our universe. Therefore, not only can infinity exist, but without God, it must exist.

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