January 29, 2017
Royally Bad Objections to the Kalām Cosmological Argument
I can't tell you how much of a blessing your work has been to me. You have been a great inspiration to me, and I consider you a fine example of what a Christian scholar should be.
I have been listening to a series of lectures entitled "The Big Questions of Philosophy" published by The Great Courses in which Professor David K. Johnson of King's College attempts to answer philosophically some of life's biggest questions. Because of the growing popularity of these lectures (especially now that they have been made very affordable through Audible), I thought it might be beneficial to get your thoughts. Professor Johnson demonstrates a deep familiarity with Christian apologetics. So much so that the lectures could almost have been entitled, "An Unbelievers Guide to Christian Apologetics." That may be a little bit of an exaggeration but not by too much. He singles out Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, and yourself. I hope one day you might have time to produce a podcast debunking his claims in general, but for now I wanted to ask you about something in which he mentions you by name specifically. This is a direct quote from the coursebook summary, which was prepared by Professor Johnson:
"Modern versions of the Kalām argument, found in the works of such
Christian apologists as William Lane Craig, go something like this:
○ Things that begin to exist need an explanation. For example, think
about all the objects around you right now; they began to exist,
and their existence has an explanation.
○ But something that did not begin to exist would not have, and
does not need, an explanation. If it has always been, then it has
○ The universe began to exist; God did not.
○ Thus, the universe needs an explanation, but God does not."
He uses this as a working formulation for the Kalam and says (in Lecture 12) that it is "fraught with many problems." He points out that to bolster the first premise everyday objects are used to demonstrate its truth. [I suppose he is thinking about how sometimes you use common things as examples of things that come into being.] However, he suggests that our experience of everyday objects only can tell us about how everyday objects are re-arranged. He uses the example of making a replica of a Star Wars' Death Star out of Legos. You have only re-arranged existing matter, you haven't created anything out of nothing. The matter used to create the Death Star has existed from the beginning of the universe. He writes in the course guidebook: "...everyday objects are very different from the universe, especially in the way they come into existence. When you explain the existence of such an object, you are just explaining how the matter that makes up that object came to be arranged in the way that it is. Of course, the universe is the matter that makes up objects. That means the argument now simply begs the question—it argues in a circle."
He indicates that in order for the argument to work and not equivocate on the word "existence" we would need to change the first premise to say:
"The matter that makes up objects needs an explanation"
He says "If that's true then the Universe does need an explanation. But of course the universe is the matter that makes up objects. That means the argument, by changing that first premise, now just begs the question; it argues in a circle. To think the argument is sound one would already have to assume that its conclusion is true. It concludes that the existence of matter needs an explanation because the existence of matter needs an explanation."
He indicates that that alone is enough to set the Kalam aside! But he goes on to suggest that because virtual particles can come into existence un-caused then perhaps our universe sprang into being from something like a quantum foam fluctuation. To quote Professor Johnson's course guidebook, "The Kalām argument is flawed because quantum foam is eternal. It never began to exist; it always has been and always will be. Thus, the foam needs no explanation. Because quantum foam is fairly well understood, and God is an unexplained entity with inexplicable powers, the God hypothesis does not fare well against it."
Finally he concludes that it may well be that the existence of the universe simply is a brute fact, but that all philosophical questions must eventually hit bed-rock. But it is better to accept the existence of the universe as a brute then to accept God as explanation because if we did that we would simply be explaining the unexplained with the explicable.
I would be very grateful to hear your thoughts on his critique of your Kalam argument.
Wow, these are such royally bad objections that I almost hope you have misrepresented Prof. Johnson, Stephen, lest his reputation be impugned! The only reason I take your question is due to the influence his objections apparently have in the UK, according to your report.
Now the first step in criticizing an argument is to state it accurately. Otherwise you’re attacking a straw man. As is well-known, the argument as I have formulated it runs:
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
1´. If the universe began to exist, then the universe has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
So why does Prof. Johnson re-formulate my argument rather than citing the argument I actually give? My formulation is crisp and logically airtight. The version he gives is an illogical quagmire. (It even seems to presuppose that God exists!) Why does he misrepresent the argument so atrociously? His version seems to be a conflation of the kalām cosmological argument and the Leibnizian cosmological argument. Leibniz seeks an explanation of the universe’s existence; the kalām argument seeks a cause of its beginning to exist. The difference becomes significant, as we shall see, when it comes to Johnson’s criticisms.
So consider premiss (1) or (1´). The lesson of everyday experience is that things don’t pop into being out of nothing; rather they have causes that brought them into being. Johnson’s first criticism of this obvious truth is strange:
everyday objects are very different from the universe, especially in the way they come into existence. When you explain the existence of such an object, you are just explaining how the matter that makes up that object came to be arranged in the way that it is. Of course, the universe is the matter that makes up objects. That means the argument now simply begs the question—it argues in a circle.
Here he admits that unlike things in our everyday experience, the universe didn’t have a material cause! It did not come into existence by a re-arrangement of matter. That is, of course, the very point I insist on. If the universe had a beginning, then it cannot have had a material cause. Johnson does not deny that everyday objects that begin to exist always have causes; he admits they do. They don’t pop into being from nothing. If we are to avoid the absurdity of saying that the universe came into being from nothing, it must have had a cause, and that cause cannot have been material. The universe has an efficient (productive) cause, not a material cause.
Think about it: how is it possible for the universe to come into being if it lacks BOTH a material and an efficient cause? This seems doubly absurd.
Especially bizarre is the charge that the argument now begs the question. What can Johnson mean? An argument (or person) begs the question when the only reason for affirming the conclusion is the assumption of the conclusion itself. So how does the argument for (1) or (1´) from everyday experience assume (1) or (1´)? Everyday experience shows that things that begin to exist have causes. So everyday experience supports (1) or (1´). I don’t see the circle.
The suggestion that we should reformulate (1) or (1´) to
(1*) The matter that makes up objects needs an explanation.
is just maladroit and has lost all connection with the kalām cosmological argument, which is based on things’ beginning to exist. As I indicated above, what Johnson has done is conflate the kalām argument with the Leibnizian argument, which does affirm (1*). But this premiss plays no part in the kalām cosmological argument, and so Johnson’s charge of begging the question falls flat.
If we let “the matter that makes up objects” = “the universe” and “explanation” = “cause,” then (1*) is the conclusion of the kalām cosmological argument, but it is not a premiss, and so there just is no circular reasoning. It is only Johnson’s straw man argument that begs the question. The correct reformulation of my argument along Johnson’s lines would be to replace (2) with
(2*) The matter that makes up objects began to exist.
There is no begging of the question here.
Johnson takes a quite different tack, apparently inconsistent with the above criticism, by appealing to the “quantum foam” as an eternal material cause from which our universe emerged. This brings us to premiss (2) and the philosophical and scientific support for the universe’s having an absolute beginning. Johnson’s assertion that this hypothetical quantum era is well-understood is no more than hand-waving, as is evident from the plethora of cosmological models for the early stages of the universe. There is no evidence whatsoever that any such quantum era is past eternal, as Johnson asserts. For a nice discussion of various quantum models see James Sinclair’s contribution to “The Kalām Cosmological Argument,” in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.
Finally, as to accepting the universe’s existence as a brute (unexplained) fact, we see here once more the pitfalls of conflating the kalām cosmological argument with the Leibnizian cosmological argument. Non-theists typically respond to Leibniz by saying that the universe has no explanation of its existence. Indeed, that retort actually supports one of the premises of Leibniz’s argument as I formulate it. (See my discussion of the argument in Reasonable Faith or On Guard to judge whether that is a good retort to Leibniz.) As a retort against the kalām cosmological argument, it is lame. For while we can give the brute fact claim some credibility if the universe is past eternal, it loses all credibility once we discover that the universe began to exist. For then we are forced to say that for no reason whatsoever the universe popped into being out of absolutely nothing, which is worse than magic.
It is sobering to think that these are the sorts of refutations that pass muster in so many circles these days. But at least laypeople ought to be very encouraged in their use of the kaläm cosmological argument and other theistic arguments by the weakness of such criticisms.