A Rabbi Looks at the Kalam Argument

A Rabbi Looks at the Kalam Argument

A Rabbi shows how popular and convincing Dr. Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument is!


Transcript A Rabbi Looks at the Kalam Argument

Kevin Harris: An iron-clad proof of God. Dr. Craig, this is an article written by a rabbi in the Huffington Post[1] and as we look over this I think there's some really good illustrations of the kalam cosmological argument and I definitely want to look at these. These are entertaining to me, when I think about it. It involves an array of mirrors and a bear in the mirror, so things like that, so stay close and we'll look at some of these in just a moment. What do you think of the way that he has spelled out the kalam argument? A rabbi has picked up on this argument.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I was intrigued to find a Jewish rabbi formulating and repeating the argument. He mentions the formulation by al-Ghazali, who was a medieval Muslim theologian, that goes like this:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore the universe has a cause.

This is what I have called the kalam cosmological argument, kalam being the Arabic word for medieval Islamic theology. It's an argument that I have defended in my own written work.

I was intrigued to see, though, that the rabbi says parenthetically about al-Ghazali's argument, “though it will be rejected.” And I thought, oh, I wonder what the problem is with the argument that he discerns; why would he reject it? And, in fact, in the remainder of the article I didn't see any reason that he gives for rejecting it. Instead what he turns to is Thomas Aquinas' formulation of an argument from contingency for the existence of God which is a quite distinct argument from the kalam argument. And he notes that Aquinas held, unlike al-Ghazali, that even if the universe has always existed, it owes its existence to an uncaused cause. But al-Ghazali wouldn't have disagreed with that sentiment. I don't see any reason to think that al-Ghazali would have thought that an eternal universe wouldn't be caused by God. Al-Ghazali was simply maintaining that in virtue of its beginning that makes the existence of God necessary and obvious and that it could be shown that the universe began to exist.

And Aquinas didn't disagree that if the universe began to exist then there had to be a transcendent creator. In fact Aquinas says it's clearly obvious that if the universe began to exist there had to be a transcendent cause that brought the universe into being. The problem was for Aquinas he didn't think you could show with absolute certainty – you didn't have an iron-clad proof – that the universe began to exist. He thought the best we could do would be to offer probability arguments for the beginning of the universe, and therefore it wouldn't be a proper demonstration, a sort of mathematically certain proof. And few modern philosophers would be concerned with Aquinas' requirement of demonstrative certainty in order for an argument to be successful. If, to meet the bar of success, an argument had to have premises all of which were demonstrated with mathematical certainty to be true then we would have virtually no proofs of anything. So there's nothing here about the kalam argument that the rabbi identifies as being a reason for its rejection or for its failure.

Kevin Harris: Well, I wondered what he meant by that, Bill, and it could be that he means it's going to be rejected in philosophy or by the mainstream or something because he ends it by saying,

It seems to me that an open-minded thinker, free of biases and misconceptions, would have no choice but to acknowledge the veracity of this argument. When properly understood, it is simple, direct -- and tough to refute. Why then, despite its obvious and compelling line of reasoning, does it seem to have so few backers?

Dr. Craig: Well, I wonder if you're right, Kevin, because the argument that he seems to be talking about is Thomas Aquinas' argument. It may be the case that this rabbi doesn't understand the difference between the two. He may be conflating them. That's very often the case with laypeople. They run these different versions of the cosmological argument together and so get confused. So I guess I'm not sure what he meant by that parenthetical phrase “though it will be rejected.” Perhaps you're right; but it's not clear to me. I mean, Aquinas did reject the argument for the reason I said, namely, you can't demonstrate conclusively that the universe began to exist.[2] But he certainly did agree that a universe with a beginning would need to have a cause. So I don't know; we need to, I guess, email the rabbi and ask him what he meant.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, we'll see what he means. He jumps into the prime mover or the uncaused cause and quotes Edward Feser. What do you think about his analogy of the hand holding a stick pushing a stone?

Dr. Craig: That is right out of Thomas. That is Thomas Aquinas' own illustration. He imagines a stone which is being moved by a stick which is being held by a hand of some man who is moving it. And Aquinas' point is that in this causal series the stick is a mere instrument of the first cause which is the man who is pushing the rock with the stick. And the instrumental cause has no causal power of itself.

Kevin Harris: The stick.

Dr. Craig: Yes, the stick is just a lifeless instrument. The causal power resides in the man – the first cause – who is using the instrumental cause to move the stone and produce the effect. So Aquinas' argument is that in an infinite regress of causes that are essentially ordered – and we'd need to talk about this in a minute to understand what that means – but, in a certain kind of causal series, if all of the causes in the series are merely instrumental then there is no causal power in the series. There is no intrinsic force, and therefore there would be no effect. Therefore, in any sort of causal series of this sort, there needs to be a prime mover, a first cause, which lies behind any instrumental causes that it would use in producing the effect.

Kevin Harris: He says the arm, which is in turn dependent on the muscles, which is dependent upon cells, which are dependent upon a molecular structure – the arm bone connected to the shoulder bone – [laughter] and it occurs to me that in an illustration like that that you could get all the way back to a mind, rather than an infinite regress of elbows.

Dr. Craig: Yes, Aquinas doesn't go that far. He just sees the man himself as the prime mover in that causal series, but you could, I suppose, try to break it down. But it's important to understand, Kevin, that for Aquinas he's talking about a particular type of causal series, namely, it's what we might call a hierarchically ordered causal series, like a chain holding up a chandelier dangling from the ceiling. The links in the chain are like those instrumental causes, and the chandelier hanging there is the final effect. And there needs to be an anchor point there on the ceiling that is holding the chandelier up. If it were just an infinite series of links then there would be nothing to hold up the chandelier and it would crash to the floor. So he's talking about causes that are ordered hierarchically; they're all simultaneous and they all operate at the same time. He's not talking about the sort of temporally ordered causal series like the chicken and the egg, which could go back to infinity Aquinas thought. He thought you could have hens laying eggs from eternity. So from an egg would hatch a hen, from the hen there would be an egg, from the egg there would be another chicken, and he thought that that could go back to infinity in the past. Remember he believed you can't prove that the past is finite, even though he believed that on the basis of revelation. So Aquinas is talking about a very particular kind of causal series, one in which the causes and effects are not linearly ordered in time, but they are hierarchically ordered at one moment of time. And so the cause that is first is not chronologically first, it's first in the sense of rank, like the general is first in the chain of command, say, but he's not temporally first, if you know what I mean.

Kevin Harris: So he's combining the kalam and a contingency argument here, you think?

Dr. Craig: So it would appear, unless he thinks, as I say, that he's rejecting the al-Ghazali version and turning to Aquinas' version as an alternative. It's just not clear.

Kevin Harris: What do you think about the unmoved mover argument?

Dr. Craig: Well, I do think that that's correct. In a series of hierarchically ordered causes it does seem that you would have to have a first cause to have any effect.[3] Think, for example, of a watch. A watch couldn't run without a spring simply by having an infinite number of gears – right? – there's got to be something that turns the gears. So it does seem to me to be correct to say that in a hierarchically ordered series you do need to have a prime mover.

Kevin Harris: He gives another analogy here. He says,

For example, let's say that there were an infinite array of mirrors reflecting one to the other and an image of a bear in each mirror. Would it be possible to suggest that the image of the bear stretches on infinitely with no actual bear to start the reflections reflecting?

Dr. Craig: Right, that's a good analogy because they're all simultaneous – right? – the images of the bear are all simultaneous, and one is the cause of the other, and there would need to be an actual bear someplace to produce this series of reflections. It can't just go back and back with no bear anywhere.

Kevin Harris: I was thinking about this the other day, Bill. If a man were looking in a mirror from all eternity, always in that state, man in front of the mirror. In the case that the mirror and the man had been in that position for all eternity it would be simultaneous – wouldn't it? – the reflection and the man would be a simultaneous event.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that's true. Although one could quibble; one could say that the light rays take a certain amount of time to travel from the man to the mirror, but basically, yes, you're talking about two things that would exist roughly at the same time.

Kevin Harris: It's similar to the boulder laying on the cushion illustration.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's right.

Kevin Harris: And so I wondered if the man would be the – well, if it was absolutely simultaneous there wouldn't even be any light rays, they'd already be in existence.

Dr. Craig: Well, you could say (let's imagine as a thought experiment) that the light signals travel at infinite velocity. Let's suppose we have infinite velocity signals. Then the image and the man would be truly simultaneous and yet – and I think this is the point you're driving at – which is the cause and which is the effect? It's very clear that it is the image in the mirror that is the effect and the man is the cause. It would be absurd to say that the man is the effect and the mirror is the cause. And so that would be a very good illustration of the fact that you can have causal asymmetry (that is to say “cause-effect”) even though they exist at the same time.

Kevin Harris: Yes, that's what I was trying to get at and figure out in my head in doing this.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I like that very much.

Kevin Harris: Since it's absolutely simultaneous and in that state from all eternity, the man would be the efficient cause? Because he wouldn't be the chronological cause, would he be the logical cause? Or which way would he be prior?

Dr. Craig: He's prior to the image as cause to effect, and the image is related to the man as effect to cause. Even though they are simultaneous it shows that you can have asymmetric causal relations without any kind of chronological priority because no one would think that the man is the effect of the image; that would be crazy.

Kevin Harris: And this is just a thought experiment.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that's right. It shows there's no conceptual difficulty with talking about simultaneous causation.

Kevin Harris: One more illustration here, and I like these, Bill, because they're so entertaining to me and the fact that they keep me up all night [laughter].

Say you were driving along the quiet and bucolic countryside when you're forced to (patiently) wait at a train crossing. All you see is a series of flatbed cars that seems to go on for miles. After an uncomfortably long wait you realize that this is an infinite series of flatbed rail cars! Would it then be logical to conclude that there is nothing actually pulling these cars -- no locomotive? That would clearly be absurd, as you know very well that flatbed rail cars have no power of locomotion, i.e., they are contingent/dependent on an outside force to move. As such, you can (and must) conclude that even if there are an infinite number of these cars -- or of anything (any series of contingencies) -- there must be an original, non-contingent force that is doing the moving, a force that has not been, and cannot be influenced by any other. [And of course he concludes:] This force is God.

Dr. Craig: I think the analogy is good but he doesn't state it quite right because he seems to think that you do have an infinite series but that at the head of it there is this locomotive.[4] But you shouldn't think of it like that. The correct analogy is that what we see is the caboose preceded by all these flatbed cars – you see, the caboose is the final effect, it's like the stone that is moved by the stick – you see the caboose and then all these flatbed cars stretching away, and then you ask the question: could the number of flatbed cars be infinite? And the answer is 'no' because then the caboose wouldn’t be moving along. There has to be a prime mover; there has to be a locomotive. This series can't go on to infinity, there needs to be a first cause.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, and if there were a caboose at the end and a locomotive at the beginning, well then, that wouldn't be infinite.

Dr. Craig: Right, then it's finite. That is Aquinas' point. In a series of essentially ordered causes where you see the effect – that's the point, you do see the effect: the stone is being rolled over, you see the final image of the bear, you see the caboose going by – where you see the effect you know that there cannot be an infinite number of merely instrumental causes preceding it. There needs to be a prime cause.

Kevin Harris: We see immediately, as well, Bill, that this is just an argument that shows that the universe had a beginning – the kalam.

Dr. Craig: The kalam does, but not Aquinas' version.

Kevin Harris: What does Aquinas' version show?

Dr. Craig: Remember he's trying to show that there needs to be a first cause in the sense of rank, not chronologically first. And that's where I think the rabbi is conflating these two arguments. Aquinas’ argument is a kind of proto-version of the contingency argument for God's existence which says that we observe contingent effects here in the world and we need to have some reason why these contingent effects exists rather than not. And this can't just go back forever on an explanatory chain; there needs to be an ultimate, necessary being which is the final explanation of why these contingent things exist. And when we say “ultimate” we don't mean chronologically first, we mean ultimate in the sense of rank or highest, if you will. Sometimes it's helpful to think of these causes arranged vertically as opposed to horizontally. If you think of the temporal causal series as arranged horizontally, what Aquinas is thinking about is a causal series that is arranged vertically and gets back to a first mover in the sense of an ultimate, highest, top causal source of the effects that you observe.

Kevin Harris: Well so far we have a first cause, and unmoved mover, that the universe has a beginning. A little more work needs to be done to get it to God, to a personal agent?

Dr. Craig: Yes, that's right. Now he doesn't get to a beginning, remember, in the sense of a temporal beginning. You get to this first uncaused cause in the sense of ultimate, a metaphysically necessary being which is the source of every contingent being or effect that we see. Now this will give you some of the attributes of God, like metaphysical necessity, eternality, and so forth, power, but it doesn't automatically give you the personhood of this first cause. But interestingly enough, Kevin, while I was teaching just a couple of weeks ago at Talbot one of the students in my classes pointed out an argument for the personhood of God on the contingency argument that I had just never thought of, and yet, I think, is so obviously correct.

Kevin Harris: Really?

Dr. Craig: Yes. And I used this argument in my debate with Alex Rosenberg. So kudos to my student. What he pointed out is, how else can you get a contingent effect from a necessary cause unless that cause is a free personal agent who chooses to create a contingent effect. That seems to me to be absolutely correct. If this necessary being were just an impersonal state of affairs or impersonal mechanically operating cause then its effects would be as necessary as it is. Therefore you wouldn't have contingent reality; you would have necessary realities that are dependent upon this ultimate necessary being. The only way, I think, you can get a contingent reality from a necessary cause is for the cause to be a personal agent endowed with freedom of the will, and therefore able to freely chose to create a contingent reality without any sort of necessity behind it.[5]

Kevin Harris: Wow.

Dr. Craig: So it gives you the personhood of the ultimate sufficient reason of the world very quickly.

Kevin Harris: My apologies for not giving the rabbi's name; it's Rabbi Adam Jacobs from Huffington Post. Bill, one of the four things that he concludes this article on: he tries to dispel a couple of immediate objections, and then he speculates as to why more philosophers don't, probably won't, accept this, what he calls an iron-clad proof.

Dr. Craig: Well, he says, first of all, that this cosmological argument does not rest on the premise “everything has a cause.” I noticed that that was the way Alex Rosenberg misstated the causal premise in our debate. Second he says that the argument doesn't prove that any particular religious belief structure is true, that is to say, this is an argument that is common property to Muslims, Jews, Christians, and other monotheists alike, and that's quite correct. This is part of natural theology, and then that would be supplemented by Christian evidences to move beyond mere monotheism. Thirdly he says that the argument doesn't depend upon particular scientific claims in any way. And I think that is quite correct. This is an argument that is metaphysical in nature. It is not an argument about science, in particular it's not an argument about the scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe because this isn't an argument about the beginning of the universe. And then fourth, it's not god of the gaps argument, and that's again correct because it's not trying to explain anything scientific, this is a metaphysical argument about contingency. So the contingency version of the cosmological argument that I like in Leibniz rather than in Aquinas is not in any way dependent upon or appealing to the facts of science other than to reinforce the belief that the universe is contingent in its existence.

Kevin Harris: Well, he concludes the article with kind of a challenging notion that you're not going to accept this because you just don't want to. [laughter]

Dr. Craig: Right, and here I have to part company with him. I appreciate that Nagel has said that he prefers atheism to be true, but the fact is that despite calling this an iron-clad proof of God, these arguments are all disputable, they are not demonstrations in the sense that Thomas Aquinas thought they were. You can always dispute one of the premises to deny the conclusion. I think the goal of the Christian apologist is to try to raise the price tag of atheism as high as you can. You want to make the intellectual cost of denying one of the premises so high that hopefully the atheist will say, “Yeah, I'm just not willing to pay that price. I'm going to accept the conclusion and come to the belief that God exists.”[6]



[1] Rabbi Adam Jacobs, “An Iron-Clad Proof of God,” Huffington Post, January 28, 2013. See http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-adam-jacobs/an-ironclad-proof-of-god_b_2567870.html (accessed January 24, 2014).

[2] 5:08

[3] 10:05

[4] 15:05

[5] 20:15

[6] Total Running Time: 23:57 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)