Saturday, March 27, 2010

On the Kalam Cosmological Argument for God's Existence

That natural reality is assumed rather than explained, is not proof for the existence of a creator. Introducing god as an explanatory notion only shifts the locus of the question: why would such a god exist? And, it is possible that the universe just happens to exist, without explanation.~ Willem B. Drees

No time says the clock, the clock says no time.” ~ Bill Nelson, 'No Time Says the Clock' from the album Clocks & Dials (Discs of Ancient Odeon, 2008)

The Kalam Cosmological Argument is a philosophical and scientific defense of theism that many theistic apologists have found to be relevant and useful in recent years. It is especially favored by Christian apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig, who has been primarily responsible for popularizing it. This theological argument is one that becomes so complex and very involved with deep philosophical implications that entire books have been written on the subject. Consequently, my treatment of the argument in this essay touches only briefly upon its basic components and describes some of its more common criticisms. If my reader is interested in learning more about the subject, more objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument than is presented in this brief examination can be found through a simple Internet search.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument originated with the kalām tradition of Muslim dialectics engaged in by medieval Arabic theologians such as al-Ghazālī, al-Kindi and ibn Rushd [1]. In recent years, William Lane Craig has resuscitated and revised the argument, rescuing it from the obscurity of esoteric orientalist journals and breathing new life into it as an argument for theism that he claims holds relevance in light of modern developments in philosophy, theology, mathematics and science.

Before discussing the Kalam argument itself, it will be useful to clarify what cosmological arguments are in general. This genre of philosophical argumentation essentially attempts to address the question of "why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there a universe at all, and how did it come to exist? What was the initial cause of everything, if there was in fact a cause?" Obviously, theologians and apologists for various religions want to argue that there was a cause for the existence of the universe, and that this cause was necessary. Apologists such as William Lane Craig then attempt to make the case that this cause is necessarily the Christian God, despite the fact that arguing philosophically or scientifically toward establishing a causal agent says nothing about the nature or identity of that agent, or even that it must be intelligent. Another term for this rhetoric is the "First Cause Argument." In this more generic non-kalām form, it is claimed that everything that exists had an intial cause, with the special exception of one thing that has no cause. This uncaused agent that is asserted is then given the attribute of intelligence without evidence and called God. Such "First Cause" arguments contain its own refutation; it first states that everything that comes into existence has to have been caused, but then posits something for which there was no cause. In a footnote in his book on the kalām cosmological argument, Craig writes, "[T]he causal principle concerns only what begins to exist, and God never began to exist, but is eternal" [2]. These two claims cannot both be true. The moment we grant that something exists for which there was no cause, then we are simply no longer burdened with the need to describe why anything has a first cause, and such an attempt is rendered unwarranted. The first premise at that point becomes no longer applicable. Theists attempt to bypass this problem by invoking the Argument from Contingency, which we will presently see is also highly implausible.

Additionally, Craig is demonstrably and grossly misguided when he states that "Objections to a First Cause of the universe hardly merit refutation" [3]. Because Craig assumes that the First Cause argument is a self-evident principle that requires no justification other than ubiquitous experience, he does not develop as elaborate a defence of it in his book as he does for the second premise (that the universe began to exist). He delivers his justification for not elaborating fully on the causal principle in the following way:

The causal proposition could be defended as an empirical generalisation based on the widest sampling of evidence . . . To reject the causal proposition is therefore completely arbitrary. Although this argument from empirical facts is not apt to impress philosophers, it is nevertheless undoubtedly true that the reason we - and they - accept the principle in our everyday lives is precisely for this very reason, because it is repeatedly confirmed in our experience [4].

It is this type of everyday and common experience that gives us the impression that the world is flat. Thus, according to Craig's logic, it would be just as "completely arbitrary" to reject the proposition that the world is flat. The fact is that physical events at quantum levels are observed to have no evident cause. Scientists find no evident or observable cause for excited atoms dropping to a lower level and emitting photons, for example. A similar example is found in the decay of a radioactive nucleus, for which a cause is not at all evident or observable. Quantum mechanics has successfully predicted numerous times that individual events are not pre-determined and indicate that the emission of photons and nuclear radiation occur spontaneously and without precedent. Such quantum principles can be applied on a macroscopic level, to the universe as a whole, for quantum mechanics transition smoothly into classical Newtonian mechanics when the system's parameters approach that classical regime. In what may be a vague anticipation of this objection, Craig makes another crucial blunder in the same footnote when he writes, "unobservable entities such as cosmic rays cause observable effects. And could not an unobservable spirit being like an angel or demon, if there be such, cause observable effects, such as the levitation of an object? Why then could not God cause the world?" [5]. Craig is here effectively admitting that the "cause" spoken of in his first premise could just as likely be an entirely natural one

Examining Kalam

The Kalam Cosmological Argument, derives from a comprehension of weighty notions of time and causality. This is not to say that the Kalam Cosmological Argument is any more correct than less sophisticated formulations of theistic cosmological assertions - and it does utilize a great deal of obfuscation to make the matter seem more confusing than it really is - but it nevertheless tackles concepts and weaves premises from them that are not accessible to those unversed in philosophy or science. Ultimately, however, the Kalam Cosmological Argument contains the seeds of its own refutation as well. A notable number of critics have pointed out several devastating logical problems, both philosophical and scientific, that plague the argument. One of the most prominent problems, and the one I shall focus on in this essay, is the contradictory models of time that William Lane Craig invokes in attempting to vindicate the argument.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument is posed by Craig syllogistically as follows:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence [6].

After proposing this formulation, Craig writes, "The point of the argument is to demonstrate the existence of a first cause which transcends and creates the entire realm of finite reality. Having reached that conclusion, one may then inquire into the nature of this first cause and assess its significance for theism" [7]. For the purposes of this critique, we may set aside the obvious point that there is no point in the argument that informs us that the proposed first cause necessarily has to be the Islamic or Christian God, or any intelligence for that matter. Even if the argument itself held up under scrutiny (which we will see does not) there is no aspect to be found in the argument that can inform us as to the nature of the cause [8].

One of the most pressing problems in the way Craig structures the argument is one that has been pointed out by many philosophers of a mathematical bent, which is that the argument depends on two incompatible ideas of time. The crux of Craig's thesis is his contention that the existence of an actual infinite is impossible, including the formation of an actual infinite by successive addition. He maintains that if the series of events in the past is infinite, the present moment could never be reached [9]. This underlying contention comes as a consequence of the implications involved in a Newtonian concept of absolute time. In the Newtonian understanding, time is viewed as a linear chain of causal events, a substratum within which all states of affairs occur. In absolute time, time exists ontologically distinct from and independently of all states of affairs. Absolute time can perhaps be best conceived of as a stage across which objects move; the stage (representing absolute time) exists independently of the presence of motion across it. By arguing that the idea of actual infinity is untenable due to the impossibility of the past being composed of an infinite chain of events leading to the present, Craig is assuming that the model of absolute time is untenable. This assumption is needed in order for Craig to argue convincingly for his second premise, that the universe began to exist.

On the other hand, the concept of relational time stands opposed to Newtonian absolute time. The concept of relational time, as first advanced by philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz and later elaborated upon by Einstein, states that time cannot exist in the absence of bodies in motion. On this view, time is ontologically nothing without objects relating to other objects and states of affairs acting on other states of affairs in space. Time and motion are thus understood to be interdependent; one cannot exist without the other. Time is a measure of motion in space, hence the concept of "spacetime."

In his analysis of the kalam cosmological argument, freelance philosopher James Still points out that Craig seems to agree with the notion of relational time, simply because his entire premise is based on the impossibility of actual infinity, and thus, by implication, the concept of absolute time. But then, in order to argue that the cause of the universe was a creator God, he flips the switch:

Craig seems to agree with the relational view of eternity. However, when he discusses the problem of an actual infinite, he slips into an absolute view of time to use the principle of determination in the kalam argument's conclusion. He argues that the universe began to exist because of thermodynamic considerations and the impossibility of an actual infinite. However, if eternity is a timeless void, then the universe is eternal in the sense that there were no moments in which the space-time continuum did not exist. Yet in order to effectively employ the argument for a particularizer who decides a course of action at a given moment, Craig finds it necessary to revert to an absolutist view of time . . . Craig wrongly presupposes an ontological view of time that conflates timeless eternity with temporal infinity - an infinity that is supposed to be a priori impossible in the kalam argument . . . [T]he kalam argument becomes entangled in this conflated notion of eternity when it argues that God was a particularizer who freely chose to create the universe in time [10].

The conflation of timeless eternity with temporal infinity that Craig commits is seen most clearly when he invokes the Islamic principle of determination and the related Leibnizian principle of sufficient reason to support his claim that the agent responsible for creating the universe is a personal being. He writes,

[W]hy did the universe begin to exist when it did instead of existing from eternity? The answer . . . was carefully explained by al-Ghazālī and enshrined in the Islamic principle of determination. According to that principle, when two different states of affairs are equally possible and one results, this realisation of one rather than the other must be the result of the action of a personal agent who freely chooses one rather than the other. Thus, Ghazālī argues that while it is true that no mechanical cause existing from eternity could create the universe in time, such a production of a temporal effect from an eternal cause is possible if and only if the cause is a personal agent who wills from eternity to create a temporally finite effect. For while a mechanically operating set of necessary and sufficient conditions would either produce the effect from eternity or not at all, a personal being may freely choose to create at any time wholly apart from any distinguishing conditions of one moment from another. For it is the very function of will to distinguish like from like [11].

We will see later on why it makes no sense to speak of God choosing from eternity to create, given that choice is always a temporal decision. For now, it is enough to point out that the question Craig poses at the beginning of the quoted passage above can only make sense in the absolute view of time, a view that he argues against at great length in his book. But this principle of determination is implausible in and of itself as well. The existence or non-existence of the universe are mutually exhaustive; as such, one of them will occur even in the event that the causal agent chooses neither option. This means that either the universe could have arisen without a cause, or that something else was responsible for causing the universe. The former possibility stands contrary to the kalam argument's first premise, and the latter possibility contradicts the principle of determination (i.e., that the non-existence of the universe was equally possible).

This flipping of the switch that Craig engages in is very similar in nature to what Christian apologist Matthew J. Slick resorts to in his Transcendental Argument for God, in which he argues at length to establish that logical absolutes cannot be contingent upon minds, then turns around in the conclusion and arbitrarily makes a special exception for one mind [12]. This inconsistency is enough to dismantle Slick's case completely, without even raising the additional objection that the only minds that we have direct experience with are the result of physical processes. Minds occur in brains, and sometimes they occur in microchips (which entail a very loose definition of "mind"). But we are nor aware of any "mind" that exists in the absence of a space infrastructure to support it, and in fact groundbreaking developments in neuroscience strongly indicate that such infrastructure-independent minds are very likely impossible.

In like manner, scrutiny reveals Craig's argument to be an elaborate exercise in proposing a special exception, once one wades past the sophisticated obfuscation. Creation is a causal activity. Thus, in order to argue for the existence of a creator of the universe, Craig must appeal to absolute time, contradicting the relational time he earlier depended on to argue against the possibility of infinity. Craig devotes the majority of his book to arguing against the possibility of infinity in order to make the case for a sentient, creative First Cause in the first case! It can often be noted that a great many arguments for theism and creationism can be summed up in the following manner: "There is a rule X which must and always does apply in order for our case to make sense. But it cannot always apply, because we have proposed something that has permission to break the aforementioned rule and have called it 'God.'" The Kalam Cosmological Argument is no exception; it is an extremely elaborate and ornate structure that in the end simply couches another special-pleading fallacy.

Craig wants the causal agent of the universe to be "a personal Creator of the universe who exists changelessly and independently prior to creation and in time subsequent to creation" [13]. But in order to engage in the causal activity of creating a universe, this agent has to create within time. Nothing can be timeless and contingent upon time simultaneously, and Craig contradicts his statement that the creator exists changelessly at one point and relationally at another point. Something that is "changeless" and eternal by definition cannot change! If time exists in the Newtonian absolute sense, a being that exists outside of what we recognize as spacetime is still not separated or outside of time. There are therefore pronounced difficulties in positing a being that does not work within causality.

Another problem with Craig's argument is that it necessitates the assuming of knowledge of conditions that precipitated the beginning of the universe. We do not currently have that knowledge, and it is possible that we never can have that knowledge. Our current scientific knowledge concerning the origin of the universe extends back impressively far. We can trace the origins of the universe back to the time at which the entire known universe was an extremely hot and dense state that expanded and inflated rapidly. But we cannot currently progress beyond that point in order to inquire further, and we do not know what manner of physical conditions applied that caused the universe to arise. When apologists such as Craig begin positing a God who created the universe and who is not subject to the physical rules implied by that selfsame causal activity and who is outside of spacetime, the same problem arises. How can anyone presume to say anything about how God operates if this God is outside of nature? In order to presume upon such matters, the apologist is forced to admit that his argument does not derive from empirical observations, which they often like to claim.

Besides, the nature of space and of time is tied very closely to the nature of matter in relativity theory, which Craig admits is empirically confirmed. As a consequence, if there is anything "outside" of spacetime that is exerting an influence on this universe, such an influence is still contained within the concept of the universe, or the totality of all that exists. This serves to raise a common problem that is frequently encountered in cosmological arguments for theism: they rely on a very vague and ambiguous definition of "universe." We can consider the universe to be the sum of all things that exist, in which case God would in actuality be a part of the universe, and any notion of existing outside the universe is reduced to absurdity. One can also use "universe" in the sense characteristic of a science-fiction story, in which there are a vast number of parallel universes. In this useage, one can make reference to "this universe" as one particular universe among many. It is this latter concept that apologists usually seem to fall back on when they speak of creation from outside. In the formulations common to cosmological arguments for theism, there is a universe, but there is also stuff outside this universe to account for the creative acts. However, the stuff "outside" this particular universe can also be encompassed by the word "universe" in the sense of a mathematically complete set. As philosopher Nicholas Everitt points out, "[T]here could not have been an event preceding the universe and bringing it about, for the simple reason that there was no time before the start of the universe in which that event could have occurred. The first moment of time was the first moment of the universe. If per impossibile there had been any event before the supposed start of the universe, that would simply show that the universe had in fact begun earlier than we had assumed" [14]. If Craig is to remain consistent in his appeal to relational time against the possibility of an infinity of past events, it would seem he is forced to concede this point. This is the problem that I find inevitably emerges when apologists talk about that which is "outside the universe," or that which is not reliant upon spacetime. In the course of his kalam cosmological argument, Craig arrives at a God who is given permission to break any and all rules because he exists outside and beyond all physical laws. In this case, how can he say anything meaningful about this God at all? How can he really know how a being of that nature operates, and bring the news of it to us? And how is it sensible to posit a being who transcends spacetime and yet carries out causal activity such as universe-creating within spacetime?

In responding to Craig's invocation of the Islamic principle of determination and of the Leibnizian principle of sufficient reason to account for why the causal agent must be personal, Everitt succinctly reveals the inconsistency inherent in arguing for a timeless being who chooses to create a universe thusly:

[N]ecessary beings are thought of as being in some way 'outside' time. But although this picks up on the traditional idea that God is timeless, it threatens to render unintelligible the conception of the God/universe link in terms of choice. For choosing is something that takes place at a time, and if X's choices are to explain X's actions, then the choices must precede the action: X must be a temporal being . . . Suppose we grant for the sake of argument that the creator could have a thought of the form 'I will a universe of such-and-such a kind to exist.' Since the creator is outside time, this willing does not occur before (nor of course after) the start of the universe which it is supposed to create. It occurs, but occurs at no time at all. Already it sounds a very suspicious sort of cause. But worse is to follow. The hypothesis of the creator is supposed to explain why the universe began to exist when it did, rather than earlier or later. This requires that the creator should be able to have thoughts of the form 'I will the universe to start existing now (or in a million units of time from now, etc.)'. But a being who is outside time can attach no sense to terms like 'now' (or 'a million units of time from now' etc.). They can be used and understood only by beings who exist at a time and who persist through time [15].

These self-contradicting notions that we find batted back and forth within the structure of the same argument create devastating problems for the conclusion that the universe necessarily had to come into existence as a result of a Creator. Craig's argument fails to establish that God is something that anyone can meaningfully comment on, in much the same way that arguments from design fail to demonstrate that a personal First Cause is an inherently consistent and meaningful concept that is demanded by the structure of nature. Intelligent Design advocates such as Behe and William Dembski invoke a being which in principle is infinitely more complicated than the universe in order to account for complicated things, which they at the outset insisted needs an explanation as the aperture to proposing a God! This internal inconsistency is aided and abetted by Craig, who comes along to posit a God who does not need an explanation, who exists outside of time and space and yet creates regardless.

In conclusion, the Kalam Cosmological Argument comes burdened with a variety of logical inconsistencies, and the premises contained within it are not rooted in anything as solid as apologists seem to think they are. Not only does the argument assume a knowledge of conditions that nobody can have at our current scientific state, but the argument also juxtaposes two irreconcilable models. For most of Craig's argument sides with the notion of relational time over absolute time. But then, once Craig comes to the point where he needs a God to be the cause responsible for creating the universe, there is a sudden shift to absolute time. This is because, according to the argument, God had to have been engaging in a causal activity in order to bring forth the universe, necessitating a model of time that is not relational, not interdependent with the bodies in motion and states of affairs that is allegedly being created. Such is the self-refuting difficulty with Craig's entire premise. Apologists for theism want a God that has the capacity to carry out causal deeds, that necessarily utilizes a causal process to create a universe. But at the same time, this God avoids the very rules they claim necessitate his existence; in Craig's argument, he gets to be a creator who exists within absolute time only at the junctures in the argument that call for an absolute over a relational time model. Again, how can such a being be both timeless and eternal and contingent upon time simultaneously? An irrational and unjustified belief in magic is what theistic arguments such as these boil down to in the end.

If the interested reader wants to delve deeper into this subject (seeing as this critique has only just scratched the surface) there are a number of critiques that can be found in many interesting articles and papers online. The subject makes for very worthwhile and fascinating reading, especially when reading Craig's rebuttals to his critics and their subsequent counter-rebuttals [16]. I recommend as an excellent starting point for broaching the many involved issues surrounding this as well as other theological arguments, such as the Transcendental Argument.


1. A useful historical overview of the origins of the kalām tradition is found in William Lane Craig, The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz (London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press, 1980), pp. 48-126.

2. William Lane Craig, The Kalām Cosmological Argument (London and Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press, 1979), p. 170.

3. Ibid., p. 170.

4. Ibid., p. 145.

5. Ibid., p. 170.

6. Ibid., p. 63.

7. Ibid., p. 64.

8. It is ironic that when the Big Bang theory was first proposed in 1927 by Catholic priest and astronomer Georges Lemaître, the most outspoken critics of the theory were those whose philosophical commitment to naturalism rendered the theory singularly uncomfortable. Astronomer Fred Hoyle, who was the most well-known critic of Lemaître's findings, proposed the Steady State model of the universe as an alternative to the Big Bang model for this very reason. Craig writes, "[A]ccording to Hoyle's own admission, the steady state model sought to bypass the conceptual difficulties of the origin of the universe . . . Hoyle, unlike the vast majority of scientists, realises the metaphysical and theological implications of such a beginning, and he recoils from these implications" (Craig, Kalām, p. 120). This is extremely ironic given the fact that in modern times, anti-scientific rejections of the Big Bang theory almost always come from religious fundamentalists.

9. This idea plays a central role in Zeno's Paradoxes, which Craig comments upon in an appendix to his book as a basis for drawing a distinction between potential infinity and actual infinity. Zeno's Paradoxes address infinite subdivisions of finite length, and asks whether a finite distance that is infinitely divisible can actually be traversed. In contrast to this concept of potential infinity, speaking of time as infinite is to speak of actual infinity, in which time extends an infinite distance backwards.

10. James Still, "Eternity and Time in William Lane Craig's Kalam Cosmological Argument." Internet Infidels 1998, (accessed 27 March 2010).

11. Craig, Kalām, pp. 150-1.

12. Matthew Slick, "The Transcendental Argument for the Existence of God." Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, (accessed 27 March 2010).

13. Craig, Kalām, p. 152.

14. Nicholas Everitt, The Non-Existence of God (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 70.

15. Ibid., p. 76.

16. For a sustained back-and-forth written debate between Craig and atheist Quentin Smith concerning the cosmological argument, see William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).

Monday, March 22, 2010

Under God? A Comment on the Michael Newdow Case

On March 11, 2010, atheist activist Michael Newdow lost a case of great significance to the issues surrounding separation of church and state in San Francisco's Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit [1]. Newdow, a Sacramento physician who holds a law degree, is best known for the lawsuit he filed against the inclusion of the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance that finally ended in this Appeals Court, a case that he made on the grounds that the phrase constitutes a religious endorsement, thus violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This particular case, Newdow v. Rio Linda Union School District, ruled that the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance is constitutional, as is the mention of God in U.S. currency.

What was the court's rationale for this decision? On page 9 of the ruling, the court wrote,

We hold that the Pledge of Allegiance does not violate the Establishment Clause because Congress’ ostensible and predominant purpose was to inspire patriotism and that the context of the Pledge—its wording as a whole, the preamble to the statute, and this nation’s history—demonstrate that it is a predominantly patriotic exercise. For these reasons, the phrase “one Nation under God” does not turn this patriotic exercise into a religious activity [2].

According to the ruling, the Pledge of Allegiance, including its religious reference, is simply a statement of "patriotism." The crucial point that was overlooked by the court is the fact that the only reason such features of our Pledge and currency are viewed as "inspiring patriotism" is because in 1954, "patriotism" was redefined to mean opposition to "godless communism." The phrases "under God" and "In God We Trust" were added in 1954 as a result of the Red Scare that pervaded American society under Joseph McCarthy's influence and his abandonment of the First Amendment. In Newdow v. Rio Linda Union School District, the federal appeals court in San Francisco based their ruling on that distorted definition of patriotism. They ignored the fact that the encouragement of active patriotism in the 1950s that gave birth to the religious references in the Pledge and on the currency was specifically in opposition to the "godless communism" scare that was unfounded to begin with, and which led to active discrimination against non-religious citizens. In much the same way that Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer invented a "grandfather clause" out of thin air for a Ten Commandments monument engraved on the grounds of the state capitol in Texas in 2005, the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco has fallaciously claimed that the questionable phrases in the Pledge and on our currency are not a religious violation of church-state separation. Rather, they justify such violations by identifying them as issues of "patriotism." In past cases of a similar nature, violations of church-state separation have been justified by appealing to tradition or artefactual concerns. But in the case of the Newdow v. Rio Linda situation, the court's ruling was that the Pledge was predominantly patriotic. This is ludicrous, and displays either an ignorance of history or deceptive tactics and word games.

There are many teachers in public schools across America who hold serious objections to the Pledge of Allegiance issue. The pledge to God that is included (which, it should be reiterated, was added later), is a clear violation of separation of church and state, and fails to represent American citizens who have no belief in God or religion. But the situation is even more dire than this, for it even has the potential to affect religious believers in an adverse way. Consider: if there is a student who refuses to pledge allegiance because of her belief in God as the sole object of her allegiance, she is still going to be harassed by the school faculty. According to the very religion that is being unconstitutionally promoted in our schools, the deity does not want you to pledge allegiance to anything but it!

Declining to pledge allegiance to a government that needs to earn its citizenship and that needs to earn my allegiance is much more patriotic than what the system currently expects of us. They want me and millions of other nonbelievers to pledge to a deity that we do not believe in, and this is contrary in every way to the principles of freedom of conscience and freedom of religion that this country was founded upon. In the type of ideal America that was envisioned by founders such as Thomas Jefferson, there was no pledge, and there should be no pledge. The government should be afraid of its people, not vice versa. Thanks to the way things have been run in our country in recent history, especially during the eight years under George W. Bush we languished through, one would be hard-pressed to find people who are not afraid of their government.

1. Bob Egelko. "Appeals Court says 'Under God' not a prayer." San Francisco Chronicle. March 12, 2010.

2. "Newdow v. Rio Linda Union Sch. Dist." United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. March 11, 2010.