William Lane Craig and the Kalam Cosmological Argument (#1)

Recently, William Lane Craig has produced a video, based on an essay in a book he and Paul Copan have edited this year (“Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics”) entitled “Terrible objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument”. I am yet to read the essay, but I must assume it to broadly follow the line of his video of the lecture “Worst objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument”.

I have a mild obsession with the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) and am potentially one of the internet infidels to which he derogatorily refers in his introduction. What I found in his exposition of these “worst” arguments is that the talk was a fantastic array of straw men, ad hominem, mischaracterisation of cogent arguments, and poor reasoning. I will tell you for why.

The talk is split into the following parts: 1 - 3: Objection to the Form. 4, 5: Objection to the First Premise. 6, 7: Objection to the Second Premise. 8 - 10: Objection to the Conclusion. The introduction seems to have been an ad hominem attack on internet detractors of the KCA. This is rather amusing since his first objection is what he accuses as being an ad hominem attack on himself. There is some irony here. I am not going to go through his objections because, for the purposes of this post, I want to concentrate on one thing and one thing only: the circularity of the argument and issues of causality. In this, Craig sort of addressed parts, and neglected to do them justice.

Let’s remind ourselves of the KCA:

1) Everything which begins to exist has a cause for its existence.

2) The universe began to exist.

3) Therefore, the universe had a cause for its existence.

This is it, in its simplest form. So how can I accuse the argument of being circular? A circular argument is one which presupposes its conclusion within the premises.

The problem for the KCA is the definition of “everything” and as such, we could indeed have a fallacy of equivocation. My claim is that everything is on fact ‘the universe’ itself.

What we need to think about first here is causality. Indeed, this whole argument is one over causality. Cause and effect. Whilst cause and effect might be at face value a very simple thing, just the term cause can be tricky. When Craig talks about cause, he terms a cause as an efficient cause which is often defined as that which causes change and motion to start or stop. And this is where it gets difficult. Let me analogise:

Smith is driving along the road over the speed limit. He is tired due to a heavy work schedule and a deadline which meant a lack of sleep the night before and is late for a meeting. One of his favourite songs comes on the radio and he starts singing along to it. On the pavement (sidewalk) a drunk man falls over into a bin which the Council had just put in place to improve the cleanliness of the town. The bin is knocked off its stand and rolls into the road. Smith sees the bin late as his attention is distracted. He swerves, to avoid it. At the same time, a boy is trying to cross the road without looking. Smith is swerving into him and has to reverse his swerve significantly the other way, hitting a pothole in the poorly maintained road. This sends the car out of his control and onto the pavement. Jones, who had been walking by, slips on some soapy water draining from the carwash he is walking past. Whilst picking himself up, Smith’s car mounts the pavement, hits Jones and kills him instantly. What is the cause of Jones' death?

This is a very difficult, but standard causal question. The universe is not an isolation of one cause and one effect. It is a matrix of cause and effect with each effect being causal further in the continuum. One could say that the impact of the car on Jones’ head kills him. But even then, at what nanosecond of impact, what degree of the force killed him? This is arbitrarily cutting off the causal continuum at 1, half or quarter of a second before the effect (Jones’ death). Having said that, the cause could be said to be the lack of oxygen to the brain, or the destruction of his vital organs. We could also accuse the bin, the drunk or anything else as being a cause.

As a result, I would posit that the cause of Jones’ death is one long continuum which cannot be arbitrarily sliced up temporally. As such, it stretches back to, say, the Big Bang – the start of the causal chain. In terms of free will, we call this the causal circumstance. Because the universe is one big causal soup, I would claim that any effect would be the makeup of the universe at any one point, like a snapshot. This makeup cannot be sliced up arbitrarily, but is the entire connected matrix of ‘causes and effect’ (for want of a better term) since the Big Bang.

In other words, there is only one cause. The universe at the Big Bang (or similar).

So how does this look so far? Well, if we project this conclusion onto the syllogism, we get:

1) Everything which begins to exist has the universe as the causal conditions for its existence.

2) The universe began to exist.

3a) Therefore, the universe had a cause for its existence.

3b) Therefore, the universe had the universe as a causal conditions for its existence.

As you can easily see, both conclusions are problematic. 3a seems to be nonsensical. 3b seems to insinuate that the universe is self-caused.

But it is actually more complicated still, as I will show. We now get on to talking about ‘everything’ and ‘begins to exist’.

Firstly, the only thing, it can be argued, that ‘has begun to exist’ is the universe itself (i.e. all the matter and energy that constitute the universe and everything in it). Thus the first premise and the conclusion are synonymous – the argument is entirely circular.

So how do I establish that the only thing which has begun to exist is the universe? We may think that things like tables, chairs, humans, rocks, lemmings and so on exist. Well, they do in one sense (an arrangement of matter / energy), but in the sense of the abstract labels of ‘rock’ or ‘chair’, they are exactly that, abstract labels. Their existence, in Platonic terms, as some kind of objective entity, requires the philosophical position of (Platonic) realism. This is not a position that Craig adheres to. All we have on a nominalist or conceptualist worldview (as opposed to realist) is a transformative coming into existence. What this means is that what makes the chair, the molecules and atoms, already existed in some other form or other before the ‘chair’ came to be. So the matter or energy did not ‘begin to exist’. This merely leaves the label of ‘chair’.

Let’s now look at the ‘label’ of ‘chair’. This is an abstract concept, I posit, that exists only in the mind of the conceiver. Most philosophers agree that the part of the definition of abstracts is that they are causally inert. We, as humans, label the chair abstractly and it only means a chair to those who see it as a chair – ie it is subjective. My idea of a chair is different to yours, is different to a cat’s and to an alien’s, as well as different to the idea of this object to a human who has never seen or heard of a chair (early humans who had never seen a chair, for example, would not know it to be a chair. It would not exist as a chair, though the matter would exist in that arrangement). I may call a tree stump a chair, but you may not. If I was the last person on earth and died and left this chair, it would not be a chair, but an assembly of matter that meant nothing to anything. The chair, as a label, is a subjective concept existing in each human's mind who sees it as a chair. A chair only has properties that make it a chair within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human-derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items – i.e. chairness. These properties are arguable and not objectively true themselves. Thus the label of ‘chair’ is a result of 'subjectively human' evolution.

If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don't exist materially. For example, a 'forqwibllex' is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have ‘made-up’). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does - have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don't even have names, but to which they have assigned 'mental labels', for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A chair, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely they same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker!

When did this chair ‘begin to exist’? Was it when it had three legs being built, when 1/2, 2/3, 4/5, 9/10 of the last leg was constructed. You see, the energy and matter of the chair already existed. So the chair is merely a conceptual construct. More precisely a human one. More precisely still, one that different humans will variously disagree with.

Let's take the completed chair. When will it not become a chair? When I take 7 molecules away? 20? a million? The fallacy of the beard / sand dune / slippery slope will tell you that this is entirely subjective.

Now let's take an animal - a cat. What is this 'chair' to it? I imagine a visual sensation of 'sleep thing'. To an alien? It looks rather like a shmagflan because it has a planthoingj on its fdanygshan. Labels are conceptual and depend on the conceiving mind, subjectively.

So, after all that, what has begun to exist? A causally inert abstract concept.

You see, once we strip away the labels and concepts, all we have left is matter and energy which is only ever involved in what can be called 'transformative creation', meaning it doesn't begin to exist, but is being constantly being reformed throughout time. It only began to exist at the Big Bang or similar (in Craig’s model).

As Craig mentions in the video, this can sometimes be seen as mereological nihilism which is explained here. This is a complex subject itself. I think the notion that Craig derisorily laughs of an established philosophical disciple (since the time of Plato) and throws it in with ‘amateur internet infidels’ says more about Craig than about the arguments he is trying to put down.

But even if we move away from a kind of nihilism, we have, as I suggested above, a discussion about the philosophy of realism vs conceptualism vs nominalism. Craig merely sweeps this under the carpet for the KCA, but it is entirely relevant. I will define conceptualism and nominalism as per the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Conceptualism (also called psychologism and mentalism, depending on the sorts of objects under discussion): This is the view that there do exist numbers — or properties, or propositions, or whatever — but that they do not exist independently of us; instead, they are mental objects; in particular, the claim is usually that they are something like ideas in our heads. As we will see below, this view has serious problems and not very many people endorse it. Nonetheless, it has had periods of popularity in the history of philosophy. It is very often thought that Locke held a conceptualistic view of universals, and prior to the twentieth century, this was the standard view of concepts and propositions. In the philosophy of mathematics, psychologistic views were popular in the late nineteenth century (the most notable proponent being the early Husserl (1891)) and even in the first part of the twentieth century with the advent of psychologistic intuitionism (Brouwer 1912 and 1948, and Heyting 1956). Finally, Noam Chomsky (1965) has endorsed a mentalistic view of sentences and other linguistic objects, and he has been followed here by others, most notably, Fodor (1975, 1987).

Nominalism (also called anti-realism): This is the view that there are no such things as numbers, or universals, or whatever sort of alleged abstract objects are under discussion. Thus, for instance, a nominalist about properties would say that while there are such things as red balls and red houses, there is no such thing as the property of redness, over and above the red balls and red houses. And a nominalist about numbers would say that while there are such things as piles of three stones, and perhaps “3-ideas” existing in people's heads, there is no such thing as the number 3. As we will see below, there are many different versions of each of these kinds of nominalism, but for now, we don't need anything more than this general formulation of the view. (Sometimes ‘nominalism’ is used to denote the view that there are no such things as abstract objects; on this usage, ‘nominalism’ is synonymous with ‘anti-platonism’, and views like immanent realism count as versions of nominalism. In contrast, on the usage employed in this essay, ‘nominalism’ is essentially synonymous with ‘anti-realism’, and so views like immanent realism will not count as versions of nominalism here.)

So either abstracts and labels do not exist, or they only exist as mental (potentially causally inert) constructs, or they exist, as Craig would have it, as real thing in some way. The problem for Craig is that he claims many abstracts are not Platonically real:

“I am wholly in sympathy with your scepticism about numbers, propositions, and scientific laws as abstract objects. Moreover, insofar as they are conceived to be uncreated, I am dead set against them.”
Whilst denying these labels as being in any way abstract, that the thing ‘chair’ or ‘Bill Craig’ exists in any different way, as illustrated above.

Whilst Craig might be right, and whilst the KCA might actually be sound, Craig assumes an awful lot in laying this out. He doesn’t seem to want to deal with these difficult questions. Rather, he either dismisses them as unworthy in some way, or merely asserts his premises under a massive assumption that his philosophy on mereology or realism is correct. He doesn’t even let his audience, readership or debating partner know that his premises depend on these assumptions. Obviously any philosophical claim depends on an awful lot of philosophical underwriting in order to stand, and one cannot enter every debate or create every paper by building up one’s philosophy from scratch. But when one is arguing God so forcefully on what is effectively 3 lines of syllogism, I would demand a little more honesty of what those premises entail.

So now let's look at the KCA again, and what the syllogism would look like given these notions of nominalism or conceptualism:

1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence
2) the universe began to exist
3) therefore, the universe had a cause for its existence.

Let's look more closely at premise 1. We have agreed, then, that abstract concepts might begin to exist, but these are causally inert and do not exist objectively - only in the minds of the conceiver. So that leaves matter and energy, which has always existed because it is, in effect, the universe itself. It is not that the universe is 'made up' of lots of matter and energy making it something, it simply IS a quantity of matter and energy. This, then, makes the KCA look like this:

1) The universe that begins to exist has a cause for its existence
2) the universe begins to exist
3) therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence

The syllogism becomes entirely circular, and thus logically invalid.

What is happening is you are trying to make a generalised rule about other things to apply that rule to the universe. But there are no other things, so the only thing that has begun to exist is the universe itself. We cannot seek to prove a conclusion about the causal behaviour of a one-off event merely by asserting it in the premise.

In this context, causality is the universe. personally, I adhere strictly to causality 'within' the universe: I am a determinist. However, I recognise that it doesn't necessarily follow that the universe required causation (I actually believe in an eternal universe in some way such as Loop Quantum Gravity). Phrases like 'within the universe' are misleading since the universe is everything. The KCA does its work inductively. It looks at everything in the universe (but as mentioned there is nothing 'in' the universe since everything 'of' or 'in' the universe is the universe itself) and sees a pattern and ascribes it to the universe itself.

My point is you can't make a pattern from a singular event, if you will, and then say, necessarily, that the event itself must adhere to this one-off rule.

In critiquing the KCA, of course, one does not invalidate the notion that God created the universe, or that the universe had a cause or what-have-you. One is merely saying that if that is so, one cannot prove it using the KCA. The KCA is not sound.

In later posts, I will look at other issues with the KCA.