Existence of God (part 6)
Transcript of William Lane Craig's Defenders 2 class.
Excursus: Natural Theology
§ II. Kalam Cosmological Argument
Let’s step back for a moment and get an overview of where we are. We have been doing the Doctrine of God in this current section of the class, and we spent many weeks–months actually–studying the attributes of God. And now, having completed that section, we’ve come to what is called Natural Theology, that is to say, the attempt to give evidence or argument for God’s existence without appealing to special revelation, but simply using human reason and evidence alone. So we are taking a kind of excursus here through Natural Theology before we come back to looking again at what the Bible has to say about the Doctrine of God, particularly the Trinity.
Our first argument that we surveyed was the Contingency Argument developed by such thinkers as Leibniz. Today we want to turn to a different argument, which is the Kalam Cosmological Argument.
What is the Kalam Cosmological Argument? The word “kalam” is an Arabic word that denotes medieval Islamic theology. Muslim theologians, when Islam swept over Egypt in North Africa, absorbed the Christian thought that had been in those areas, like in Alexandria, which was the center of Christian learning. They picked up these arguments for the creation of the world that Christians had been using against Greek materialists and other philosophers. They began to develop these arguments in highly sophisticated ways for the existence of God as the creator of the universe.
So let me appeal to one of the greatest of these medieval thinkers whose name was al-Ghazali, a medieval Muslim theologian from the 12th century who lived in Persia, or modern day Iran. He was concerned that the Muslim theologians of his day were being highly influenced by Greek philosophers. They denied the creation of the universe by God. Instead these philosophers held that the universe just flows necessarily out of the being of God and is therefore eternal and beginningless and, in fact, just as necessary as God is. The world is a sort emanation out of the being of God.
After thoroughly studying the writings of these philosophers, al-Ghazali wrote a withering critique of their views in a book entitled The Incoherence of the Philosophers. This is a fascinating book, which I think repays reading today – it is just a very stimulating book! In this book, he argues that the idea of a beginningless universe is absurd. He argues that the universe must have had a beginning, and since nothing comes into being without a cause, there must be a transcendent creator of the universe. Al-Ghazali frames the argument very simply; here is a quotation from him, “Every being which begins has a cause for its beginning. Now the world is a being which begins. Therefore, it possesses a cause for its beginning.”1 We can summarize al-Ghazali’s argument by means of three simple steps:
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
This little argument is so marvelously simple that anybody can memorize it and share it with another person. It just consists of those three short steps.
Notice that it is also a logically airtight argument. If the two premises are true, then the conclusion follows necessarily. Anybody who wants to deny the conclusion that the universe has a cause of its beginning has to deny one of the two premises. He has to say that either premise 1 or premise 2 is false, and so the whole question comes down to that – are these premises more plausibly true than false?2
What we want to do is examine each of the premises in turn.
What Ever Begins To Exist Has a Cause
The first premise is that whatever begins to exist has a cause. I think that this premise is virtually undeniable for any sincere seeker after truth. For something to come into being without any causal conditions of any sort would be to come into being from nothing. That is surely impossible. Let me give three reasons in support of this first premise.
First, something cannot come from nothing. To claim that something can come into being from nothing is worse than magic, when you think about it. When a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, at least you’ve got the magician – not to speak of the hat! But if you deny premise 1, you have got to say that the whole universe just appeared at some moment in the finite past for no reason whatsoever. But I do not think that any sane person sincerely believes that things, say, a horse or an Eskimo village, can just pop into being out of nothing without a cause.
This isn’t rocket science or high level metaphysics! Remember the Sound of Music when Captain von Trapp and Maria finally reveal their love to each other after trying to deny it for a long time? What does Maria say? “Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could!” Well, we don’t normally think of philosophical principles as romantic, but in this case here I think Maria was expressing a fundamental principle of classical metaphysics. She had no doubt been very well trained in the convent school in Thomas Aquinas and classical metaphysics. So I think this is an obvious truth that we recognize, that nothing comes from nothing or something doesn’t come from nothing.
Very many times, skeptics will respond to this point by saying that in physics, subatomic particles, virtual particles as they are called, come into being from nothing. And, therefore, in subatomic physics, you do get something from nothing: these virtual particles pop into being from nothing. Or certain theories of the origin of the universe are sometime described in popular magazines as getting something from nothing. Very often the universe will be described as the proverbial “free lunch.” Milton Friedman, the economist, says, “There ain’t no free lunch.” Sometimes people will say that the universe is the exception to the proverb “There ain’t no free lunch” because the universe came into being from nothing.
I think that this response represents a deliberate abuse of science, to be frank. The theories in question have to do with particles’ originating as fluctuations of the energy in the vacuum. And you need to understand that in physics, the vacuum is not what the layman means by a vacuum, namely, nothing. In physics, the vacuum is a sea of fluctuating energy, a sea of violent activity, having a physical structure and governed by physical laws. Similarly, in these models of the universe, the universe comes into being out of the vacuum; it doesn’t come into being from nothing. The vacuum is definitely something, which is this sea of fluctuating energy. And to tell lay people that in this case something comes from nothing is simply a distortion of these theories and, as I say, an abuse of science by those who appeal to them.
There is, by the way, a lesson that is very, very important in this, namely, you have got to be very leery of articles in popular magazines and shows on television purporting to describe current scientific theories.3 In order to communicate these highly technical theories to laymen, the authors of these articles and television shows inevitably have to appeal to metaphors which are highly misleading and inaccurate. This is a case in point, where it is said that contemporary physics shows that something can come from nothing. They are using the word “nothing” in an inaccurate sense, philosophically. The quantum vacuum is not nothing. So be very careful and skeptical on what you hear on these popular programs and in these popular articles.
Nothing, or nothingness, is not just empty space. Nothing is the absence of anything whatsoever. As such, nothingness literally has no properties because there is nothing there to have the properties. So nothingness has no properties, and therefore you can see how silly it is when popularizers say things like nothingness is unstable to quantum fluctuations or the universe tunneled into being out of nothing. They are using these words in a philosophically inaccurate and misleading way. Nothingness is non-being. It is the absence of being – the absence of anything – and as such has no properties and therefore cannot be unstable to fluctuations or produce universes or anything of this sort.
When I first published my work on the KalamCosmological Argument as a result of my study at the University of Birmingham in England, I figured that atheists would attack the second premise of the argument (“The universe began to exist”) because that seemed to me clearly a more controversial premise. I never dreamed that atheists would go after this first premise. It seemed to me that to attack the first premise would simply expose one as a person who isn’t really sincere about finding out the truth about reality but is just looking for an academic refutation of the argument – just looking for any sort of loophole to try to escape the conclusion. You can imagine my surprise, then, in finding atheists denying premise 1 in order to avoid the conclusion to the argument! For example, my friend and colleague Quentin Smith, who is a philosopher at the University of Western Michigan, responded to this argument by saying that the most rational position to hold is that the universe came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing – sort of a good close to a Gettysburg Address of atheism! But it seems to me this is simply the faith of an atheist. In fact, I think it represents a greater leap of faith than to believe that God exists as a cause of the universe because, as I say, to reiterate, it is literally worse than magic to hypothesize such a thing. If this is the alternative to the belief in God, namely, to think that the universe just popped into being uncaused out of nothing, then I think atheists need to simply be forever silent in their denunciation of theists as being irrational because what could be more irrational than this – to think that the universe just popped into existence uncaused out of nothing?
Question: Would the atheist then have any explanation of why things don’t spring into existence from nothing anymore?
Answer: That was going to be my second point! Very nice anticipation of my second point! Let me go on to the second point, since you have done that.
My second point is: if something can come into being from nothing, if that is possible, then it becomes inexplicable why anything and everything doesn’t come into being from nothing. Think about it. Why don’t bicycles and Beethoven and root beer pop into being uncaused from nothing? Why is it only universes that can spring into being from nothing? What makes nothingness so discriminatory? There can’t be anything about nothingness that favors universes because nothingness has no properties.4 Nothing can constrain nothingness either because there isn’t anything to be constrained. I think this point is a very persuasive one, namely, it becomes utterly inexplicable why just anything and everything doesn’t just pop into being out of nothing, if this can happen.
I have heard atheists respond to this argument in the following way. “Well, premise 1 is true of everything in the universe, but it is not true of the universe.” I think you can see that this is just the old Taxi Cab Fallacy again that we talked about with regard to Leibniz. You cannot dismiss the causal principle like a cab once you have arrived at your desired destination. Premise 1 isn’t just a physical law of nature, like the law of gravity, which only applies in the universe. Rather, it is a metaphysical principle which applies to being as being – it applies to being as such. Therefore, it governs all of reality, all of being. And it would be arbitrary to say that the principle does not apply to the origin of the universe – that the universe can somehow spring into being without a cause.
At this point the atheist is likely to retort, “All right, if everything has a cause, then what is God’s cause?” And, I must say, I am surprised at the self-congratulatory attitude that accompanies this question many times on student’s lips. They imagine that they have said something really profound here and really offered a knock down argument, when in fact all they have done is misunderstand the first premise. Premise 1 does not say everything has a cause. It says whatever begins to exist has a cause. Everything that comes into being has a cause. But something that is eternal would not need a cause because it never came into being.
And notice this isn’t special pleading for God. This is what the atheist has always said about the universe, right? The universe is eternal and uncaused and therefore there is no cause of the universe existing. So this isn’t special pleading for God, this is exactly what the atheist has typically said about the universe, or about matter and energy. But the problem is, as we will see, we now have strong evidence that the universe is not eternal in the past, but that the universe did have a beginning. And so the atheist is backed into the corner of having to say that the universe just sprang into being uncaused out of nothing, which, I think, is absurd.
Question: As to the response that the principle applies for things in the universe but not of the universe – I still don’t think that gets them out of the dilemma of why other universes aren’t popping into being all the time.
Answer: That is a good point, actually, because in contemporary cosmology, where it will often talk about other universes as bubbles that form in a sort of sea of energy, you could have a universe that would form right in our midst and annihilate us. There could be a universe that would pop into being in our universe. And yet that hasn’t happened. Why not? So, yeah, that is a point that still would need to be asked. But I want to question it at this even more fundamental level because I think that their thinking of the causal principle as being a physical law of nature rather than as a metaphysical principle is wrong and just a fundamental misunderstanding.
Question: I have encountered arguments from atheists, and they claim that the universe as we know it had come into being but that not all matter and energy was initially bundled up in the singularity.
Answer: Right, and that question will be addressed when we come to premise 2. Did the universe really begin to exist, or was there just a relative beginning but there were material constituents prior to the Big Bang out of which the universe was made? But right now, even if premise 2 is false, we are just considering this causal principle, which is a religiously neutral principle and has nothing to do with God or whether the universe ever began.5 We are simply asking, can things come into being without any causal conditions? That is the question.
Question: Can you comment on the retreat to quantum considerations. This seems to be a common move these days.
Answer: I think on the popular level it does represent a sort of refuge of ignorance on the part of people who don’t understand quantum mechanics and so can appeal to this mysterious and bizarre realm where anything can happen. It really does become a kind of veil, where you can say, “What’s behind the curtain?”, so to speak. But what we need to do is pull away the curtain and try to understand these theories. And when you do, as in this case, you can say it is simply not the case that virtual particles are instances of things coming into being out of nothing. Notice that I might add that this premise doesn’t say that every event has a cause. This would be consistent with quantum indeterminacy, to say that events like, say, the decay of a radioactive isotope, isn’t precisely determined causally. It is consistent with saying events can be without a cause; but what it is claiming is that things cannot come into being without some kind of causal conditions.
The third point in support of this first premise is that common experience and scientific evidence confirm the truth of premise 1. Premise 1 is constantly verified and never falsified. So it is hard to understand how any atheist, who is committed to modern science, could deny, in the light of the evidence, that premise 1 is more plausibly true than false. Even if it is not certain, surely the evidence makes it more plausibly true than false. It is never falsified, it is always verified, and that gives us good inductive grounds for accepting this premise.
In my opinion, the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument is clearly true, and if the price of denying the argument’s conclusion is to deny premise 1, then I think that atheism is philosophically bankrupt.6
1 Al-Ghazali, Kitab al-Iqtisad fi’l-I’tiqad, cited in S. de Beaurecueil, “Gazzali et S. Thomas d’Aquin: Essai sur la preuve de l’existence de Dieu proposée dans l’Iqtisad et sa comparaison avec les ‘voies’ Thomiste,” Bulletin de l’Institut Francais d’Archaeologie Orientale 46 (1947): 203.
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