The Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Destructive Power of “Maybe Not”

I came across another interesting Sean Carroll video today (watch here) on the strengths and weaknesses of God as a theory (not a purely scientific theory either, but simply an “idea about the universe which may or may not be true”). Carroll briefly covers the Kalam Cosmological Argument, a deductive attempt to prove that some sort of prime-mover or first-cause was necessary to create the universe. I last saw this argument while attending a Reasonable Faith seminar in Dallas entitled “Does Science Bury God: A Refutation from Physics”. Here it is in full (there are various forms):

Modern rendition of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Modern rendition of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Now, the first thing to note is that this argument is not a refutation from physics. That’s because it’s not physics – it’s metaphysics. The second odd thing is how often this argument is still used. It’s been so badly beaten by so many people that I’m a little confused  as to why it keeps getting offered (most notably and skillfully, or greasily, by William Lane Craig). You don’t have to be a professional philosopher to refute it, but Carroll offers you the easiest way:

Just look at the first premise and say, “maybe not.”

It certainly has not been proven that everything which begins to exist must have a cause. Lots of things do, but if experience has taught us anything it’s that our observations are limited and generalizing can get you in trouble, especially in areas you cannot conceivably test (such as the rather broad spectrum of “everything”). As soon as one premise fails to be completely established, the deduction fails and the argument is of little use. There are obvious additional flaws as well – namely that most theologians will exempt God from the first premise (saying something like, well, He didn’t begin to exist, He always existed, and therefore doesn’t need a cause) but that begs the question and assumes the conclusion the argument is setting out to prove.

Then of course there do seem to be examples in physics of things coming into existence without causes – see Victor Stenger. The verdict’s still out on the the universe having a beginning (that is, there are scientifically consistent models describing situations in which the universe does not have a beginning). And, just for kicks, even if we were to accept the premises as all true, it wouldn’t get us any particular God. You would still have all the work ahead of you to demonstrate the truth of Judaism or Christianity or Islam or any tiny, single, pitiful attribute of any creator.

How would the Kalam Cosmological Argument look using the scientific ethos? Simple:

  • Everything which begins to exist might have a cause
  • The universe might have begun to exist
  • Therefore, the universe might have a cause

Well. Waters it down a bit, no?

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2 comments

  1. Very interesting move. That the universe or universes began to exist is becoming a cosmological orthodox. Leading cosmologist Alexander Vilenkin put it, “[a]ll the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning” (Grossman 2012: 7). He contended that any any model with expanding time-space must have a beginning.

    I would argue from the power of maybe not:

    1. As far as we know, everything that begin to exist has a cause.(metaphysical principle)
    2. The universe began to exist.(according to contemporary cosmology)
    3. Therefore, as far as we know the universe has a cause.

    If the idea of God is off being that did not begin to exist, then it is reasonable to accept with theologians, since the case is about beings that begin to exist. Many mathematicians think logic, numbers, sets and-the-like did not begin to exist. For-example they will say 2 + 2= 4 or a triangle necessarily has three angles e.t.c even if the universe was not here or we never came to discover they were so. I don’t see how these beg the question. Do you?

    It is quite unclear that there are examples of things coming to existence without a cause. Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum physics is a hot topic, but it is one out of ten other interpretations, to which, as far as I am aware, been able to know which interpretation is true.

    We indeed still remain uncertain though, since it is still only, “as far as we know”. What is your thoughts?

    1. Thanks for your comment! I am well aware of Vilenkin, Borde, and Guth’s theorem and particularly Vilenken’s quote concerning the universe having a beginning (as it is used so frequently by theologians). Here are a few informal references that clarify:

      http://debunkingwlc.wordpress.com/2010/07/14/borde-guth-vilenkin/



      http://www.patheos.com/blogs/hallq/2012/08/victor-stenger-on-william-lane-craig/

      The point about 2+2 equaling 4 even if the Universe were not here is intriguing, but my instinct is to see it as nonsense (it’s certainly not something you can prove or provide evidence for), since it postulates something existing in a non-existent state, if that makes sense. I’m nowhere close to a professional philosopher, however, so I’m sure there are nuanced points to the argument I am missing.

      Of course, besides begging the question, numerous, killer problems with the KCA remain. Generalizing observed laws of physics (things seem to have causes) and applying them to a point when our Universe’s particular laws of physics did not exist (prior to the Big Bang) is poor logic, so is turning observations into fundamental truths (yes, maybe most things we’ve observed do have causes, but that doesn’t mean everything has to have a cause and it certainly doesn’t lead to the necessity of any supernatural creator).

      I agree that many things are unknown, where I disagree is with any claim that belief in a supernatural being (particularly one who intervenes, is all-powerful, etc) is justified by what we do know at present.

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