The Best of the Kalaam Cosmological Argument

The Best of the Kalaam Cosmological Argument

Conversation with William Lane Craig.


Transcript The Best of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Kevin Harris: Hi, welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. Today we have a special podcast. As you may know, one of Dr. Craig’s greatest contributions to philosophy and theology is his development of the kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God. If you are not familiar with this fascinating argument for God’s existence, today’s podcast is a good place to start. Even if you are familiar with the kalam this podcast will help synopsize the argument and highlight some basic premises. So let’s call this “The Best of the Kalam Cosmological Argument.” We begin with Dr. Craig’s recent address on a speaking tour in California. As we begin, we’d like to ask that you consider supporting Reasonable Faith. Your tax deductible financial gifts are a huge blessing to us and supports our work not only on the internet but on the most influential university and college campuses in the world. Your support helps us keep free content on the web. So if you appreciate Reasonable Faith, please support us. Just go to ReasonableFaith.org. While you are there, be sure to pick up a copy of Dr. Craig’s new book On Guard. It is available for purchase at ReasonableFaith.org.. Now here is Dr. Craig.

Dr. Craig: In my article in Christianity Today the first argument that I discussed was a form of the cosmological argument known as the kalam cosmological argument. First let me formulate the argument for you:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

And once we reach the conclusion that the universe has a cause then we can analyze what properties a cause of the universe would have to have. Now premise (1), I think, seems obviously true; it is at least more plausibly true than its negation. First and foremost, the premise is rooted in the metaphysical intuition that something cannot come into being out of nothing. To suggest that things could just pop into being uncaused out of nothing is literally worse than magic. It is to quit doing serious philosophy and appeal to magic. Secondly, if things could come into being uncaused from nothing, then it becomes inexplicable why just anything and everything doesn’t come into being uncaused from nothing. Why doesn’t root beer and Beethoven and bicycles just pop into being uncaused out of nothing? And finally, thirdly, the first premise is constantly confirmed in our experience. We have the strongest of motivations therefore to accept the first premise.

What about premise (2)? Well, this can be supported by both philosophical arguments and scientific evidence. The philosophical arguments aim to show that the idea of an infinite regress of events in time is impossible or, in other words, the number of past events must be finite and therefore the universe had a beginning. Now the philosophical arguments for the finitude of the past are fascinating and mind expanding. The scientific evidence for the beginning of the universe is based on the expansion of the universe. According to the Big Bang model, physical space and time, as well as all matter and energy in the universe, came into being about 13.7 billion years ago in a cataclysmic event known the Big Bang. Now what makes the Big Bang so remarkable, so stunning, is that it represents the origin of the universe from literally nothing. As the physicist P. C. W. Davies explains,

The coming into being of the universe, as discussed in modern science . . . is not just a matter of imposing some sort of organization . . . upon a previous incoherent state, but literally the coming-into-being of all physical things from nothing.[1]

[The recording repeats portions of the previous audio and then continues . . ]

Now, of course, alternative theories have been crafted over the years to try to avoid the absolute beginning predicted by the Big Bang model, but none of these alternatives has commended itself to the scientific community as more plausible than the Big Bang theory.[2] In fact in 2003, Arvind Borde, Alan Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin were able to demonstrate that any universe which is on average in a state of cosmic expansion over its history cannot be eternal in the past but had to have an absolute beginning.[3] Vilenkin pulls not punches, this is what he says,

It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place [and by that he means the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem], cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape, they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.[4]

Kevin Harris: You are listening to Reasonable Faith. Thanks so much for being here as we continue with highlights on the kalam cosmological argument. Dr. Craig had a dialogue on the kalam with one of its detractors, Wes Morriston. Here he discusses the interaction.

Dr. Craig: 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. 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. 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.[5] 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: 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.” 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.[6] 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.”

Now what about God’s knowledge of what will happen? Are there an infinite number of items of God’s knowledge? Well, again, that is not obvious to me. This seems to assume that God’s knowledge is propositional in nature. That is to say, that what God knows is an actually infinite number of future tensed propositions. But the difficulty there is that it assumes that God’s knowledge is propositional in nature. I don’t think that is incumbent upon the theist. In fact the classical theist has typically denied that God’s knowledge is fragmented into propositions, in individual bits of information. Rather, God’s knowledge is a seamless whole, an intuition of all reality and all truth, and is therefore non-propositional in nature. We finite knowers fragment God’s infinite propositional knowledge into a potentially infinite number of finite bits or propositions. But that represents simply our finite expression of what God knows, not the medium by which God himself knows them. Therefore, the number of propositions that exist, if propositions exist at all, would simply be potentially infinite as human cognizers come to formulate and know more and more propositions. But there is no reason to think that God’s knowledge has to be propositional in its structure. If it is not, then I don’t see that there is any collection of things that is infinite in number – neither the events themselves are actually infinite in number nor are the items of God’s knowledge actually infinite in number. So there just isn’t any case here of an actually infinite number of things. Therefore, it is not a counter example to the argument.

Kevin Harris: This seems to answer objections to God based on his future knowledge throughout future events and also prior to creation, causally prior to the Big Bang, what God was doing throughout all of eternity. If you cannot traverse an actually infinite number of things, then God was thinking thoughts all this time prior to creation and he was thinking an infinite number. Are you saying that God doesn’t think thoughts successively one after another like we do?

Dr. Craig: That would be entailed in what I am saying. The series of past events which could include mental events in God’s mind must be finite and have a beginning. It will get you back to an absolutely changeless state in which there is no succession of before and after. That would include in the mental life of God himself. God would exist changelessly sans the universe (without the universe).

Kevin Harris: Thank you so much for listening to Reasonable Faith. Today you’ve heard excerpts from various podcasts and audio on the kalam cosmological argument, but the complete versions are available at ReasonableFaith.org. We will be adding new podcasts each week. So be sure you come back. Finally, thank you so much for your financial support. This keeps the ministry of Reasonable Faith expanding. Even the name Reasonable Faith gets so many people’s attention. They often assume that faith in God is not reasonable or supported by facts and evidence. The name alone can break down unnecessary barriers and bring people to Dr. Craig’s work on these crucial questions of life. So check out ReasonableFaith.org, click through all the great resources there, and if you wish you can safely donate there as well. It would be a blessing. We appreciate it. I’m Kevin Harris. We’ll see you next time on Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig.[7]



[1] “In the Beginning: In Conversation with Paul Davies and Philip Adams” (January 17, 2002). http://www.abc.net.au/science/bigquestions/s460625.htm (accessed August 3, 2013).

[2] 5:12

[3] Arvind Borde, Alan H. Guth, Alexander Vilenkin, "Inflationary spacetimes are not past-complete," arXiv:gr-qc/0110012v2. See http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/0110012v2 (accessed March 24, 2014).

[4] Alex Vilenkin, Many Worlds in One: The Search for Other Universes (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), p. 175.

[5] 9:58

[6] 15:15

[7] Total Running Time: 20:48 (Copyright © 2010 William Lane Craig)