Debate on the Kalam Argument

Debate on the Kalam Argument

Conversation with William Lane Craig. Discussion of the Kalam Argument, including Dr. Craig's recent public dialogue with Wes Morriston.


Transcript Debate on the Kalam Argument

Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, you’ve been having to take your vitamins this week. That and a lot of prayer. You’ve had a couple of debates as we are speaking now and another couple coming up. We talked a little bit about the Richard Carrier debate in earlier podcasts on the resurrection. But earlier this week you had an exchange with Wes Morriston. Give us a little bit of background on him and the debate.

Dr. Craig: Wes Morriston is a philosopher at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He has been very critical of the kalam cosmological argument. He must have written four or five articles published in professional journals of philosophy criticizing various aspects of the kalam cosmological argument that I’ve defended. I did discover on this trip, unbeknownst to me, that Wes is actually a member of the Society of Christian philosophers. So he is not an atheist; he is a theist. But he is critical of the kalam argument. So when I received an invitation to have a debate with Wes Morriston at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, I thought, boy, what a great opportunity for him and me to discuss the kalam argument in detail; not just in superficial discussion where it is one of five arguments, but let’s focus the whole debate on that argument. Also, in order to win his approval to do this, I said we’ll exchange our opening speeches in advance. There won’t be any surprises. And we won’t have a debate – let’s have a dialogue. I’ll give my 20 minute opener, you give your 20 minute response, then we will have 40 minutes of just conversation about the argument and talk with each other about your reservations and why I think it is correct. Then we will throw it open to the audience for questions. So it was not a confrontational event. This was a very friendly, collegial conversation about an important philosophical argument. That is a little bit of the background as to how the event came about.

Kevin Harris: Is he one of the more vocal opponents of the kalam in the theistic side?

Dr. Craig: Yes. I think you’d have to say that. There are a few people who have engaged the argument in such detail. He will be the first to say that he finds the argument absolutely fascinating. He says, “I love the kalam cosmological argument!” The issues it raises about infinity, the origin of the universe, the nature of time and the past are just mind expanding. I am so pleased that Wes shares with me the fascination that the kalam argument has.

Kevin Harris: What are his reservations then?

Dr. Craig: Well, he has reservations about almost every aspect of it. He has reservations about even the causal premise – that whatever begins to exist has a cause. He has reservations about both of the philosophical arguments for the beginning of the universe – the finitude of the past. And although he is not as abreast of cosmology scientifically as perhaps he would like to be, he also thinks that the scientific evidence is inconclusive and doesn’t support the second premise that the universe began to exist. And, finally, he is skeptical about the attributes of the first cause of the universe that I attempt to adduce from the nature of being a cause of space and time. He thinks this runs into problems, and that therefore he is skeptical that the cause of the universe would need to be a personal agent. Just almost every aspect of the argument he has difficulty with.

But I think this serves to underline a point, Kevin, and that is that for an argument to be a good one it doesn’t need to be certainly true. Certainly a person can have difficulties, he can have reservations, but that doesn’t mean that the argument is absurd or ridiculous or anything of that sort. It can still be a real subject of open debate and rational people can disagree about.[1] He said this in the debate – he said it is a good argument to at least get theism on the table. He said, “I don’t think it’s a good argument if by that you mean it will convince any rational person, but it is a good argument in that it will get the issue on the table.” It is a way to get the atheist to start thinking about theism and whether or not a theistic view isn’t a credible worldview. And I said, “Wes, I am happy with that, but if you mean that to be successful a good argument has to convince any rational person, why there are scarcely any good arguments in philosophy at all.” Because you would have to say that anyone who disagrees with my argument is irrational – and few of us are willing to indict our opponents with irrationality. I may think my opponent is mistaken, but I am not going to get up and say Wes Morriston is irrational.

Kevin Harris: This seems to be the strategy of Graham Oppy, the atheist.

Dr. Craig: Oh, very much so.

Kevin Harris: Who says that an argument has to rationally convince anybody.

Dr. Craig: Right. I think that is setting the standard for being a good argument so unrealistically high that if you say that, well, in one sense the response would be, “Given that definition, all right, it is not a good argument in that sense. But then there are no good arguments in philosophy. Let’s now talk about being a ‘schmoogood’ argument – not a good argument, a ‘schmoogood’ argument.” That would be an argument that, say, has premises that are more plausible than their contradictories.

Kevin Harris: You are saying that that view leads to the conclusion that there are no good arguments in philosophy then.

Dr. Craig: Right. It is an unreasonable standard of goodness to say that in order to be a good argument, anybody who disagrees with it has to be indicted as being an irrational person.

Kevin Harris: What about that argument itself there?

Dr. Craig: That’s right, Kevin. One would say, gee, that is what you think is a good argument? What is your argument for thinking that that is the right standard of goodness? That actually came out in the debate with Wes Morriston. We began to argue about what makes a good argument. What are the standards? If you say that in order to be a good argument your opponent has to be irrational, then they would have to indict as irrational anybody who fails to agree with them about the standards for being a good argument! And they can’t do that because there aren’t any sort of agreements about what makes for a good argument in that sense of these very high standards.

Kevin Harris: I have an airtight argument that there are no airtight arguments.

Dr. Craig: [laughter] Yeah, right.

Kevin Harris: Before we get into some of his reservations about the kalam, I am curious. He is a theist. What arguments for God does he like?

Dr. Craig: This actually was asked him by one of the students. He seemed to indicate that he is sympathetic with Alvin Plantinga’s view that belief in God is properly basic. That to hold belief in God without inferential arguments is perfectly rational and that you can know God exists in that way. But he also did speak very favorably of the fine-tuning argument for the existence of an intelligent designer of the universe. He didn’t endorse it outright but he did speak of it sympathetically as being a powerful argument.

Kevin Harris: Let’s look at some of the points then. The first premise. He has reservations about whatever begins to exist has a cause.

Dr. Craig: Yes. I gave three reasons in support of the first premise. I said first of all that something cannot come out of nothing. This is a sort of metaphysical first principle and that if the first premise is false then that means things could some into being out of nothing, which seems worse than magic. And his response to that was simply to say those are just synonymous statements. That whatever beings to exist has a cause, something cannot come into being out of nothing. So it doesn’t advance the argument. Well, I don’t think that is true. I think the one can provide a deeper explanation for the other and can be more evidently true than the other. Sometimes rewording a claim in a certain way can make it more perspicuous. I think that the vast majority of people, certainly the vast majority of philosophers, have believed that being doesn’t come from non-being. Being only comes from being, and therefore it is a sort of first principle of metaphysics that something doesn’t come from nothing and that it has to have a cause.

Kevin Harris: Would we say that something cannot come from nothing uncaused?

Dr. Craig: Right. By that you mean uncaused. If you say that something comes into being from nothing via a cause then you are using the word “nothing” in a different sense. What you are saying there is there is no material cause of it. Aristotle distinguished between the efficient cause of something which produces it in being and the material cause which is the stuff of which a thing is made.[2] So to say that something is caused to come into being from nothing is quite different. What that is saying is that there is a cause – there is an efficient cause – but there is just no material cause.

Kevin Harris: I can hear someone saying, “If something cannot come from nothing, then God can’t bring anything from nothing either.”

Dr. Craig: That would be a misunderstanding, as I say, of the claim. Because in the absence of God, what one is saying is there is no efficient cause, there is no material cause, there is no cause whatsoever. Being comes from nonbeing. But when you say God brought the universe into being without a material cause, that is not a case of being coming from nonbeing. There God is a being – he is an actual being – and he produces the universe in existence. So that is very, very different from saying there is no cause whatsoever. In the one case you are saying there is an efficient cause but no material cause; in the other case you are saying there is neither an efficient cause nor a material cause. That is why I say it is worse than magic. In magic, when the magician pulls a rabbit out of the hat, at least you have the magician, you see? But on the atheistic view, the universe just pops into being absolutely from nonbeing which, I think, is surely absurd.

Kevin Harris: His problem with the second premise – he didn’t go to cosmology as much . . .

Dr. Craig: Not as much, though he did try to spring a surprise on me there by quoting some people he had gone and interviewed at the University of Colorado in the physics department. We can talk about that if you want to.

Kevin Harris: Let’s do talk about that. Don’t you think that the evidence is very convincing and growing that the universe, in fact, had a beginning?

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that is right. What he did was he went and interviewed some physicists as UC Boulder, and it was very interesting to listen to their statements carefully. You’ve got to parse these statements to hear what they are really saying because I think their statements were accurate but I don’t think they had the implications that Wes thought they did.

So, for example, one of the theorists that he interviewed said, “We don’t have any physical theory of the initial conditions of the universe. The reason for that is we need a quantum theory of gravity.” From that Wes drew the implication that therefore we don’t know that the universe began to exist. What I pointed out to him is that the theorem developed by Borde, Guth, and Vilenkin in 2003 is independent of any physical description of that early era of the universe. It holds regardless of your quantum theory of gravity. Therefore, the fact that we don’t have a theory for describing this early era does nothing to undermine the implication of the finitude of the past. Nor did his source say that it did. He simply read into his source an implication it didn’t have.

Another string theorist that he interviewed said that we cannot be confident or know for sure (something to that effect) that the universe began at the Big Bang. Now, again, that is technically accurate because there are theories developed in pre-Big Bang cosmology, Loop Quantum Gravity, and certain other very speculative fields that would enable you to push back to an era prior to the Big Bang. But, again, that doesn’t imply that the universe did not have a beginning because those theories cannot be extrapolated back to infinity. They still have only a finite past even if the beginning wasn’t at the Big Bang event in the standard model. Nor did his source say that they could be extrapolated to infinity past. Wes was just inferring this from that statement. I pointed out to him that these models are all surveyed very carefully by Jim Sinclair in the article that he and I have co-authored for the forthcoming Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology where he goes through these various attempts to avoid the implication of the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem and shows that these cannot be extended to past infinity. So even if the universe did not begin at the Big Bang event, as in the standard model, it still had a beginning at some time in the finite past.

That was a very interesting part of the debate where he brought up these sources from folks he had interviewed and then read into them implications that they didn’t really have.

Kevin Harris: Bill, you argue that we can recover various attributes of the cause just by conceptual analysis. What would this cause of the universe be like? It couldn’t be material because it brought about matter.

Dr. Craig: Yes.

Kevin Harris: It couldn’t be spatial because it brought about space.

Dr. Craig: Right.

Kevin Harris: And it couldn’t be subject to time because it brought about time.

Dr. Craig: Exactly.

Kevin Harris: So we start to recover these. Are you saying that he has some trouble with that?[3]

Dr. Craig: Yes. He didn’t dispute that the cause would have to be timeless and immaterial and spaceless because it brought time and space into being. But he wanted to dispute my inference that the cause would be personal. One of the arguments I give for the personhood of the first cause is one which I have only actually lately hit upon. It wasn’t in my original book Kalam Cosmological Argument but really has arisen as a result of my work on abstract objects. It is the following argument. There are only two candidates that I know of in the philosophical and scientific literature for entities that can exist timelessly and immaterially, and that would be either an unembodied mind – a consciousness without a body – or else an abstract object, like a number, a mathematical object. But mathematical objects don’t stand in causal relations. The number 7 has no causal impact upon anything. It is part of the definition of abstract objects that they are causally effete or causally impotent. They don’t stand in causal relations. That implies, therefore, that the cause of the origin of the universe must be an unembodied mind. Therefore, the cause of the universe is a personal being. Wes’ response to this was just to say, “How do you know these are the only two alternatives? Maybe there is some timeless, immaterial entity that we don’t know of?

Kevin Harris: Well, give it to us.

Dr. Craig: Exactly. I thought that was a very weak response. I said, “Fine. Tell me what it is and I’ll include it in the list.” But there is no non-ad hoc candidate in the philosophical and scientific literature, apart from minds or abstract objects, that I know of. Nor could he name one.

Kevin Harris: I hear that from time to time. I hear, “OK, whatever brought about the universe wasn’t made of matter because it brought about matter, so it was some kind of super-matter.”

Dr. Craig: [laughter] Yes, yes.

Kevin Harris: Well, now you are getting into metaphysics and into the God column.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, you know Shakespeare said a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. It doesn’t matter what you name it. I remember in my debate with Louis Wolpert, he was wanting to say it was a computer that originated the universe. And I said, “Well, that is impossible, a computer is a material, spatial entity.” “Oh, no, this is a very special computer! It is a non-spatial, immaterial computer.” And I said, “That is incoherent; that is not what a computer is.” And he said, “This is a special computer.” I said, “A computer is a temporal object – it functions in time.” He said, “Oh no! This is a timeless computer.” And I finally said, “Well, you know, Louis, it sounds to me like what you are calling a non-temporal, non-spatial, immaterial computer is just what I would call ‘God’.” And the audience all burst into laughter at this point because you could see it was just a semantic difference.

Kevin Harris: Yeah, that’s strong. How does Wes Morriston handle infinity then? The impossibility of traversing an actual concrete infinite?

Dr. Craig: This was very interesting. In response to the Hilbert’s Hotel illustration, which is the illustration devised by the great German mathematician David Hilbert of a hotel that has an infinite number of rooms but is also fully occupied. So there are no empty rooms anywhere in this infinite hotel. Yet Hilbert shows how, by just moving the people around inside the hotel, you can create more vacancies without doubling up anybody in any room. You still have just one person per room, and yet you can create room for infinitely new people to come into the hotel. I point out that that is not only absurd, but then also when people check out of the hotel it leads to absurdities as well.

What Morriston said was, “Look, your illustration presupposes that people can move around in the hotel – that they can be moved from say room 1 to room 2 and room 2 to room 4, and so forth.” But he said events in time are not like that. Events in time are fixed at their dates. You can’t move the date of the Declaration of Independence and have it be signed at another date. Times are fixed. Therefore, it is disanalogous to Hilbert’s Hotel.

My response to that was to say, “Wes, this is just a thought experiment.” Let’s suppose Hilbert’s Hotel is a hotel where, say, all the rooms are locked so that people can’t move out of them. Or maybe there are no doors to the rooms so that you have an infinite number of rooms, one person in each room, but there are no doors. I said you can still imagine what it would be like for a person in room 1 to be in room 2, and the person in room 2 he could be in room 4, and you will generate the same absurdities. You don’t have to actually go through the trouble of moving the people physically. He said to me, “Well, I thought you might say that. And so here is my next response. If the past can’t be infinite then the future can’t be infinite as well, which is absurd.”[4] And the reason for that is, he said, “Let’s imagine that you will praise God and never cease. You will just keep uttering one praise per minute without ever ending. How many praises will you utter? Well, you will utter an infinite number of praises. Therefore, if an actual infinite cannot exist in the past, you can’t have an actual infinite in the future. You have to say your praises will come to an end and that is absurd. So your argument proves too much, Bill. If it proves you can’t have an infinite past then you can’t have an infinite future as well.” And I said, “Wes, you are confusing an actual infinite with a potential infinite.” If the series of future praises goes on forever, there will never be uttered an actually infinite number of praises. Rather, infinity serves merely as the limit which you endlessly approach but you never arrive at. The number of praises is always finite but it is always increasing toward infinity as a limit.

Kevin Harris: It is strange to use the word infinite and limit in the same sentence. It serves as a conceptual limit.

Dr. Craig: Yes. Purely conceptual.

Kevin Harris: You never get there. But it is perfectly OK to say, “We will praise God forever” in that it will never cease.

Dr. Craig: That’s right.

Kevin Harris: Not that one day we will complete an infinite.

Dr. Craig: Right. Or that we will ever utter an infinite number of praises. But, you see, Kevin, you can’t say that about the past. For the past to be potentially infinite, it would have to be finite but growing in a backward direction. That is to say, growing in the earlier-than direction to be the mirror image of the future. And that is crazy. The past isn’t growing backward in the earlier-than direction. It is moving forward in the sense that with the present event more and more events are being added to the past. So there is a clear asymmetry between the past and the future. So I said to Wes, “I agree with you. The future cannot be actually infinite, like the past. But it can be potentially infinite unlike the past.” He just didn’t get the point. But I think that was the correct and clear answer to his objection.

Kevin Harris: I hate to end on this because this is going to be difficult but let me bring it up anyway. Some say (and I’m curious to know what Wes Morriston would say) all of that is well and good – Hilbert’s Hotel, the kalam – on an A-Theory of time. But I hold to a B-Theory of time so therefore none of that applies to me. Can you give us some kind of a direction on the difference between the A and the B?

Dr. Craig: Yeah, we need to first explain to listeners what it is you are talking about there. The so-called A-Theory of time is a view of time that says the future is unreal. It is not as though the future is out there waiting for us to arrive at it; that your lunch tomorrow is as real as the present event. The A-Theory says, no, the future is pure potentiality, and that things really do come into being and pass away with the passage of time.

Kevin Harris: They come into being; they go out of being.

Dr. Craig: Right. And the B-Theory of time is the view that the future is just as real as the present; that the events in the future (like, say, the 2012 presidential election and the 2016 presidential election) are just as real as what has happened already and that the passage of time is merely an illusion of human consciousness. There really is no temporal becoming in an objective sense. I think, whether you adopt an A- or B-Theory of time will have a radical effect on how you assess the kalam cosmological argument because I think this argument presupposes from start to finish an A-Theory of time.

When we say that whatever begins to exist has a cause, another way of saying that would be “whatever comes into being has a cause.” Something can’t come into being without a cause. I think that is intuitively obvious. But on a B-Theory of time, to say that the universe began to exist just means that the universe has a front edge, so to speak, in the earlier-than direction. It no more comes into being than a yardstick comes into being at the first inch. It just has a first inch and it is only in that sense that it has a beginning. But it doesn’t really come into being at that point. So that will affect how you view the first premise.

With regard to the second premise, again the arguments there tend to presuppose that temporal becoming is real – especially the second philosophical argument that you can’t form an actual infinite by adding one member after another.[5] That presupposes that the series of past events is growing with each new event that occurs.

So I do think that this presupposition is really critical for how you assess the argument. For that reason I have written two books on the A- and the B-Theories of time arguing for the A-Theory of time, which is, I think, the common sense view of time. I see no good reason to give up the common sense view that says temporal becoming is real. Moreover, I think that the B-Theory of time faces very severe philosophical problems that ought to cause us to rejected it. So you are quite right, I think, in making this point, and I am willing, if called upon, to defend the A-Theory. Fortunately, in our dialogue, Wes Morriston is also an A-Theorist. So this was not a point of separation between us – he does believe in the A-Theory of time.[6]



[1] 5:05

[2] 10:01

[3] 15:01

[4] 20:03

[5] 25:07

[6] Total Running Time: 26:47 (Copyright © 2009 William Lane Craig)