February 13, 2012
Muslim Appreciation of the Kalam Argument
Dear Dr. Craig;
I sincerely hope and pray this letter reaches you. I am not a Christian; I am a Muslim. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled onto a Christian philosopher who respects and utilizes Imam Al-Ghazzali in his brilliant discussion and rebuttal of prominent "new" atheists! Though I have learned much of Imam Ghazzali's arguments growing up, I had never seen them fused with modern science to create the masterful thesis as they have in your work. I am very impressed, and I thank God that He has brought us a man such as yourself to defend His name in such trying times.
My question is in regards to the second premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument: the universe began to exist. Many atheists cling to pre-eternal universe theories, no matter how untenable, and a simple explanation as to why they are untenable is, unfortunately, hitherto undeveloped. Even if it were so, however, I do believe Dr. Dennett has a point when he says that, just because something is improbably and absurd does not mean that it is impossible. Thus, I've found the argument to be unfortunately unpersuasive for many atheists.
Having thus prayed for guidance and contemplated on the subject, I wondered if we could not assert that the very concept of a "now" assumes a beginning point. Take this argument, for example:
1. Everything that has a "now" in time must have a beginning
2. Our universe has a "now" in time
3. Therefore, our universe must have a beginning
I began to think that much of our discussion on an infinite past conceptualizes the past from our point of "now." How, however, does an infinite past ever reach a now, since there is no end to infinite past events it must go through. Therefore, it is inherently assumed in an idea of a "now" that there is a beginning. Time *must* begin; it is inherent in the concept of time.
I'm sorry if this is nothing new, but I felt that it was important to share. Thank you once again for your work. I refer many a Muslim youth to your website; it is, in my opinion, the most useful resource in defense of God. Though we differ on the divinity of our mutually beloved Christ, I hope that Muslims and Christians can share a bond of love and understanding as worshipers of the same God and fruits of the same sacred Abrahamic tree. I believe this is especially important in our time that is on the verge of nihilism. Hopefully, when Nietzsche's predictions about the despair of nihilism come true, the world will once again turn back to God. Until then, however, we believers must stick together and comfort each other. May God guide us all and include of all of us in His blanket of infinite mercy.
I’ve become increasingly aware over the last few years, Muhammad, of how many Muslims are reading and appreciating my work. I recently received a Question of the Week from an academic in Pakistan, for example, who told me that my natural theology has been a mainstay in resisting the influx of the New Atheism into universities there! I must admit to mixed feelings about this unexpected development. I don’t want my legacy to be that I helped to equip the next generation of Muslim apologists! I can only pray that Christians, too, will profit from my defense of theism and that Muslims will also consider honestly the strength of my argument in defense of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In any case, we certainly do share a philosophical hero in al-Ghazali! When we were in Jerusalem this past May, I was delightfully surprised to discover that just off the back side of the Temple Mount is a small sign for Ghazali Square! I just had to have my photo taken beneath the sign! I think the argument Ghazali defended is even more powerful today that when he wrote. Before I respond to your argument on behalf of the second premiss that the universe began to exist, let me say a couple of words about your misgivings about the argument.
First, I’m rather surprised at your comment that “a simple explanation as to why [past-eternal universe theories] are untenable is, unfortunately, hitherto undeveloped.” You’ve evidently not seen Jim Sinclair’s co-authored article in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Blackwell, 2009). He surveys a wide range of such theories and explains why each model cannot be past-eternal. Did you see that at the recent conference in Cambridge held in honor of Stephen Hawking’s 70th birthday, Alexander Vilenkin presented the results of a new paper closing the door on two more models that some had hoped might avert the absolute beginning of the universe (“Why Physicists Can’t Avoid a Creation Event,” New Scientist [January 11, 2012])? According to Vilenkin, “All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning.” Reflect on that statement a moment. It’s not just that the evidence for the beginning of the universe outweighs the evidence that the universe is eternal; rather there just is no evidence that the universe is eternal. All the evidence says that the universe began to exist. The author of the New Scientist article says that Vilenkin’s paper was “the worst birthday present ever” for Hawking, who prior to the conference had recorded a speech in which he declared, “A point of creation would be a place where science broke down. One would have to appeal to religion and the hand of God.”
As for Dennett’s reply, no one thinks that a successful argument has to compel assent. If that were the case, there would be precious few good arguments for anything. When Dennett and I shared the podium a few years ago in New Orleans at the Greer-Heard conference, he had nothing to say against my arguments and evidence in support of the argument’s two premisses. All he could do was say that if plausible premisses logically imply a conclusion which you are sure is false, then you have to go back and deny one of the premisses, no matter how plausible! That just begs the question in favor of atheism, since there were no grounds given for thinking that the conclusion of the argument is false.
As for your argument, I published a paper a few years ago entitled “Why Is It Now?” Ratio 18 (2000): 115-122, in which I argued the same thing! If the universe is past-eternal, then why out of all the moments in time is 2012 now? Why not some earlier or later moment? I was intrigued that in his response to my recent lecture at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, the philosopher Stephen Priest was struggling to articulate this same question, calling it one of the most profound philosophical questions. He misstated the question, I think, by asking, “Why is it now now?” That question is trivial, for when else could it be now than now? Of course, it is now now! But the question is really, “Why is 2012 now?” Postulating a beginning to time at least enables us to answer that it is now 2012 because that is how much time has elapsed since the beginning, an answer not available if the universe is past-eternal.
Notice that this argument is different from your worry “How does an infinite past ever reach a now, since there is no end to infinite past events it must go through?” That consideration actually underlies my second philosophical argument for the beginning of the past, which was derived from Ghazali and immortalized in Immanuel Kant’s Second Antinomy concerning time. It is a different argument than the argument you broach here.
Premiss (2) of your argument will be denied by those who reject a tensed view of time in favor of a tenseless view, according to which now is no more objective than here. The distinction between past, present, and future, some will say, is a subjective illusion of human consciousness; all events in time are equally real. So it is false that our universe has a now in time.
That is not a deficit of your argument, just something you need to be aware of. I have written extensively in defense of the tensed theory of time and refer you to that work (The Tensed Theory of Time: A Critical Examination, Synthèse Library 293 [Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000]; The Tenseless Theory of Time: A Critical Examination, Synthèse Library 294 [Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2000]; for a popular level treatment see Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2001]). So I think your premiss (2) is very plausibly true.
Thank you for your generous comments and kind wishes!