Why the Cosmological Argument Fails – Part 1

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

The Kalam cosmological argument is a very old argument originating from medieval Islamic theology for the existence of God from causation. William Lane Craig breathed life back into it and popularised the argument for the modern era.

In it’s modern form the argument reads as a short syllogism:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
  2. The universe began to exist;
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause.

While I can find no fault with the deductive validity of this argument – the conclusion certainly seems to follow from the premises – I’m afraid this is as successful as the argument gets. Not just one, but both of the premises commit logical fallacies which they hide in the vagueness of their formulation.

First of all, in this article, I will explain why the first premise is false.

Category Errors

If you read apologetic accounts of the Kalam Cosmological argument, in nearly all cases you’ll find a blind acceptance of the first premise.

Take this article for instance:

https://neillology.com/2018/10/31/keep-kalam-and-carry-on-the-cosmological-argument-for-the-existence-of-god/

“Denying the first premise of the cosmological argument is a deadly pill for the person committed to seeking truth.”

Although the premise seems to be fairly solid for everyday objects in the universe, one really should have a proper think about whether this premise can also be applied to the universe as a whole. It can’t.

Trying to apply this premise to the universe is what’s known as a “category error”. The universe can’t be put in the same category as the objects within it and so we can’t necessarily apply the first premise to the universe in the same way that we can to ordinary objects.

But why can’t we? To understand why it is exactly we can’t apply the first premise to the universe, we need to understand what is meant by causation.

Causation

While the precise definition of causation is subject to wide metaphysical debate, it should be fairly uncontroversial that causation is a temporal concept. Philosophy may debate all it likes about causation and lead to new insights on that front, but from a physical perspective causation is certainly a temporal concept – it can’t function without time.

But time is a part of the universe. Objects within the universe are embedded in time, the same cannot be said of the universe itself. The universe is not embedded in time, time is a part of the universe.

This is why we can apply the idea of causation to everything inside the universe, because objects inside the universe are embedded in time, and causation needs time. Causation cannot be applied to the universe in a meaningful way because the universe is not a part of time.

One possible escape route I have seen for a supporter of the cosmological argument is given here:

https://thinkingrightsite.wordpress.com/2018/07/20/my-return-to-blogging-some-thoughts-on-causality-god-and-the-universe/

“I tried to unpack this criticism and come to a metaphysical understanding of whether or not causation can be an atemporal event.”

I commend the author on recognising that what I have detailed above really is a problem for the cosmological argument, and looking at the logical escape route from it. If causation is purely temporal then the argument I’ve detailed above holds, we cannot say that the universe has a cause and the first premise fails.

But if causation can be an atemporal relation too, then there is some hope of rescuing the premise. My issue with atemporal causation though, is that even if it is a coherent concept, we have absolutely no evidence for it in the physical world.

All causation relations that we see in the world are temporal, they’re not anything else – atemporal causation cannot be found within our universe. So, we have absolutely no evidence that atemporal causation is a thing – we can’t amend the first premise to say “Everything that begins to exist has a cause either temporal or atemporal” because we have no evidence to back up the truth of this premise.

To claim that everything has a cause, be it temporal or atemporal, is an unjustified assumption.

To me, this closes the only escape route from my objection to the first premise of the cosmological argument. Far from being an untouchable premise, it is easily knocked over.

13 thoughts on “Why the Cosmological Argument Fails – Part 1

Add yours

  1. “whatever begins to exist has a cause”
    Two issues with this:
    1) how could one possibly know this to be absolutely true without exhaustive knowledge? That nothing in the universe could be self caused (quantum particles anyone?)
    2) it intentionally excludes Self existent, Always existing Gods who supposedly are eternal and always existing. If everything that exists needs a cause, which is the original formulation of the argument, so does their God. So wlc rewrites the first line to purposely exclude His God from the requirement.
    Patently dishonest and irrational.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. 1. We can know all kinds of truths without exhaustive knowledge. For example, we know that, nowhere in the universe are there square circles. That is because the idea is logically contradictory. We don’t need to conduct an exhaustive search of the universe to confirm this information. I would argue that “anything that begins to exist has a cause” is a similar kind of truth. We don’t have to witness every effect to know that, philosophically, they must have a cause. The alternative is metaphysically absurd.

      And quantum particles are not an exception. Quantum vacuums, gravity and the laws of physics are not “nothing”!

      2. I’m scratching my head on this one. On what grounds can you possibly say that excluding an error is irrational? If I understand you, you’re basically saying that “if he does not commit the same technical error as someone else did, he is being dishonest and irrational”. I don’t think he is being deceitful about what he is claiming. He is saying that, if something begins to exist, then it has a cause. He is manifestly NOT saying that everything that does exist has a cause. Which is why the evidence that the universe began to exist is so important! I think maybe you’re trying to say that this is special pleading? I think this is clearly not the case, but at the end of it all, this is not about WLC. The character of the person making the argument is irrelevant. This is about an argument that needs to be addressed on its merits – so that even if the formulation were devised with ill-intentions, that fact would be irrelevant to the truth or falsity of the argument.

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    2. Grabaspine, I DON’T! The Kalam argument is just a deduction from the evidence. It happens to support theism in general but not Christianity in particular – the argument is not intended to go that far.

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  2. I think that one of the biggest hidden problems with Dr. Craig’s formulation of the Kalam Cosmological Argument is that he means something entirely different by the phrase “begins to exist” than the average person means by that phrase. In fact, he deliberately crafted his definition so that it can be applied to something which was literally never non-existent.

    So, for Dr. Craig, the universe began to exist despite the fact that he admits there was never a time when the universe did not exist.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hello and thank you for the link to Neillology.com!

    Appreciate your thoughts here. I still think this objection more closely represents the fallacy of composition, but I understand better now why you would say category error. My response to this article is much the same as I stated on my own thread. The thrust of it is this – the 1st premise rests, in part, on the metaphysical intuition that being can not come from non-being. While this is confirmed in our experience inside the universe, it does not DEPEND on that experience. Rather the principal applies broadly to any creation event; regardless of the temporal or atemporal nature. In my view there is no necessary link between causation and time anyways. You’re the one making that assertion, but as far as I can see, that’s all it is.

    Further, to deny the 1st premise is to say that things can begin to exist without a cause. But the notion that anything (including the universe) can arise uncaused, out of nothing has absurd consequences. That is, as Dr. Craig is fond of saying, “to suggest that things could just pop into being uncaused out of nothing is to quit doing serious metaphysics and to resort to magic. If things really could come into being uncaused out of nothing, then it becomes inexplicable why just anything and everything do not come into existence uncaused from nothing.” This reductio ad absurdum is why I say to deny the 1st premise is to swallow a deadly pill. The very idea is “worse than magic” and it is certainly not serious metaphysics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No worries for the link, thank you for taking the time to respond!

      You raise some interesting points, and have expanded on the position in your original article in much better detail, but I don’t think your arguments rest on solid ground. My contention would be that your premises rely too much on “metaphysical intuition” as you put it than hard logic.

      Sure we may have a metaphysical intuition that being cannot come from non-being, but from my experience as a physicist it is clear that intuitions should not be relied upon. It used to be our intuition that objects can only be in one place or another, and I’m sure this intuition may have served as a premise for arguments in mereology or the like, but we know from experience of quantum mechanics that this premise is not really true. So I would say that our metaphysical intuitions can only be lent weight if they are to some extent confirmed by our experience, and in that sense they do depend on experience. Perhaps you may denounce it as a subjective viewpoint, but I think all our reasoning should be backed up by experience – if we’re trying to understand the nature of the world, then surely it makes sense to listen to it first and foremost.

      I do really need to write an article on why causality requires time, but until I do that I’ll say this – the only notion of causality which we can gain from experience is a temporal one, because all we experience is temporal. So to talk of atemporal causation is to talk of something we have absolutely no evidence for – it’s empty talk, and that’s why I disregard causation without time. There are other reasons too, in relativity one can see that causal relations are parasitic on time – causality in relativity is defined in terms of time and not the other way around, but this is much more technical and I’d have to write a full article on that.

      Denying the first premise does not say things can begin to exist without a cause – because I haven’t said anything in time can begin to exist without a cause. “Begin to exist” presupposes time, but my grounds for rejecting the premise are that the universe is not contained within time. The universe is not in time, so it cannot be said to begin – you’d need a meta-time to have that, and so I have not claimed that things can begin to exist without a cause.

      Even so there are candidates for things that do begin to exist without a cause. Virtual particles pop into existence from the quantum vacuum all the time in quantum field theory. I admit that it’s unclear whether this is actually the case, maybe with more physics we’ll find that actually these virtual particles are caused to exist, but at least for now it is prudent to say that the universe might disagree with our insistence that things can’t begin to exist without a cause.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Whew, now we’re taking a deep dive! It’s been a while since I have been stretched in this area, so I appreciate your insights for sure.

        I have lots to say, but alas, I really should do some work at some point today. How’s this, I’ll summarize 2 big points and then I’ll watch out for your article on causality so that we can (probably) cross blades again?

        (1) It is hard to understand how causation could be divorced from time, but it is not logically impossible.

        (2) We are forced to face logical absurdities if we posit a finite, but uncaused, universe – even if our empirical basis is limited to our universe.

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  4. Taylor,

    (1) It is hard to understand how causation could be divorced from time, but it is not logically impossible.

    (2) We are forced to face logical absurdities if we posit a finite, but uncaused, universe – even if our empirical basis is limited to our universe.
    **
    Arguments from incredulity and ignorance, backed by what you say is “metaphysical intuition”? Sounds like nothing but a confirmation bias to me. I’m out though. It’s getting too deep for me here.
    -mike

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    1. HA! Nice try… Actually, I take that back – poor try, grabaspinemike. 😛

      Neither of these points are an argument from incredulity or ignorance.

      (1) It is difficult to think of anything as being “outside of time” because that’s not how our brains are conditioned, but we know, by order of logic, that whatever caused time, is not itself inside time. Thus, it is difficult to conceive but not logically impossible because there is no inherent contradiction.

      (2) See reductio ad absurdum.

      Confirmation bias? Where, pray tell?

      Oh well, we digress. I am out too.

      Like

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