The Kalam Cosmological Argument, from here on to be referred to as KCA, is a fascinating, thought provoking and controversial argument which will impress your friends and family, puzzle skeptics and probably land one in a lengthy debate with an atheist, usually online, about the nature of infinity. It, in its various forms, has been frequently discussed in philosophy of religion and used by many apologists, most notably by William Lane Craig.
All of the forms of this argument, whether it be the Thomistic, or the Leibnizian forms, all argue from the contingency of the universe and seek to cut the infinite regress cord at a non arbitrary stopping point, positing a metaphysically necessary first cause. In layperson terms, the argument seeks to end the endless “why” questions akin to what a curious, yet slightly argumentative, child might ask a parent.
Many have raised objections against this argument, such as that it commits special pleading with God, that He is the only thing that gets off the causal hook, or be what is defined as “infinite” and not the universe. If, after all, God can be infinite, why not the observable universe? Many Christians have also objected to this argument by rightly noting it does not necessarily lead one to the Christian God of theism, but to a more deistic, less personal, form of god. More to be said on these points later.
In philosophy, it is said, there aren’t a lot of discoveries made, which might be true, at least when philosophy works in a vacuum and does not apply itself to other fields, in which case it grows. Jacobus Erasmus, professor, computer scientist and philosopher, demonstrates the importance of challenging, or reevaluating, widely held philosophical arguments in his recently written “The Kalam Cosmological Argument: A Reassessment.” In this book he takes a unique approach to this argument and, to borrow from Gary Habermas, to allow the user to argue from the minimal facts rather than getting hung up on the endless argumentation about, ie, the nature of infinity. He takes to task simplifying the argument, and arguing from a common place which will allow a user to get to the point of the argument.
Erasmus makes some very valuable points at the beginning of this book, that even if this argument were useless in winning over a single atheist that it is valuable for:
1. Promoting interfaith dialogue. Erasmus notes that the Arabic origins of this argument allow the big 3 monotheistic faiths (Christians, Jews and Muslims) to have a commonplace means of discussion. This will prove valuable in the next point.
2. It sheds light on the divine attributes. Erasmus notes that an important aspect of the philosophy of religion is analyzing the concept of the nature of God, such as formulating coherent definitions of the divine attributes, ie, omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence and omnibenevolence. One cannot, after all, have God without concepts of God and this argument allows us to be parsimonious in our ideas of God and allows us to, by means of conceptual analysis, to model the nature of God with minimal properties. Here, God will be treated as a substance, which is the bearer of the divine attributes. Which God, of the big 3, best fits the glove? Furthermore, to add to this, this argument allows us to be parsimonious in our metaphysical explanations for the origin of the universe and to eliminate religions which may teach a plurality of causes, which allows us to cut right to monotheism without having to become experts in comparative religion and then proceed in eliminating polytheistic ideas. In other words, this argument helps avoid metaphysical overkill or ad hoc explanations with regards to ultimate causality.
3. The KCA promotes interdisciplinary dialogue. Throughout the history of science philosophy has often informed the scientist as to their prescribed methodology and how to interpret the data, while letting the data be the data (ideally). However, as Erasmus notes, there is somewhat of a contempt for philosophy in some scientific circles, mostly amongst logical positivists, and Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow have recently declared philosophy to be dead, in their joint effort book “The Grand Design.” However, this itself is a philosophical position and as brilliant as the authors are, they have expressed that philosophy is inescapable. How does the KCA fit into this? While the physicist builds models of the universe, and some have developed models which suggest it is eternal, philosophical arguments like this, so long as they are valid, force the physicist to build models which account for challenges presented by the philosopher. For instance, while the physicist may suggest a past eternal universe, the philosopher/theologian may ask how we ever got to this present point if the universe were always an eternal state, or how change within this eternal state were ever possible. (More on this to follow.)
4. The KCA addresses one of life’s most important questions. The atheist may deny objective morals are possible in lieu of God’s existence, thus affirming the moral argument backhandedly. This argument may serve to buttress other arguments for the existence of God, such as the moral argument, giving them a conditional proof that God does, indeed exist. Furthermore, this may serve as a tool for the Christian who is struggling with the existence of God in their own life due to grief or personal doubt, for whatever reason.
CREATION OUT OF NOTHING
Erasmus begins by, first, defending the doctrine of Creation Out of Nothing. The reader interested in further developing this argument would want to read “Creation out of Nothing” by Craig and Copan, but this chapter summarizes the importance of the doctrine well enough for the purposes of the argument. Here, Erasmus does an excellent job of succinctly demonstrating that the notion of a universe which is eternally past, even with God in the picture, would be an immutable universe that cannot be acted upon by outside forces, because it would be co-eternal with God and, therefore, necessary. Here the author notes the two different orders of creation in the Biblical witness. The two types of creative activity, denoted in the Hebrew, are creation ‘out of nothing’ and ‘creation out of preexisting material’, and in Genesis only God is portrayed as creating out of nothing, initially, while subsequent acts of creation are what is described with regards to God’s orchestrating of events and bringing about life. Erasmus notes that Genesis was also written, perhaps as an early apologetic, against other Ancient Near East creation accounts which present similar accounts but portray a plurality of causes or that the causes are identifiable with creation, or that these causes created, or fashioned, out of preexisting stuff. Erasmus then points to a Biblical metaphysic, in Colossians 1, and John 1, that in the eternal word, which is in God, all things have their being, and these verses point to creation being distinct from, yet caused by, God. This very notion precludes any possibility that God acted upon preexisting stuff to bring about the present state of affairs. He also notes many extra-biblical, yet ancient, sources which affirmed the doctrine of creation out of nothing, and why all this is important is that the KCA, a 6th century argument, emerged from an early belief that God brought the universe into existence out of nothing.
WHAT IS THE KCA?
One can read this book with no prior understanding of the KCA, and get a good understanding of what this argument is, and not having prior ideas about this argument, either way, might even be to an interested reader’s advantage.
Erasmus does not necessarily seek to reevaluate all the forms of the cosmological argument, but the form which its most famous proponent, William Lane Craig, espouses.
What Craig argues, in his debates and his books is:
Everything that has a beginning has a cause
The universe had a beginning
Therefore the universe has a cause.
Craig then will say that the universe, regardless of it size, is not exempt from the principle of causality, as it would be metaphysically inexplicable why universes should be exempt from this. When Craig refers to the universe, he is referring to all space, time and matter. This, Craig says can be held by the principle of sufficient reason, (PSR) which is that it is reasonable to hold effects have sufficient causes to account for them.
When Craig refers to a “cause” in this case, he is referencing Aristotle’s 4 levels of causation. To appeal to a cause with the domain of the universe would be to appeal to a mechanistic cause, thus, it would be insufficient to appeal to the origin of the universe based on its inner workings. Craig, here, is referring to an efficient cause, the “that through” which something comes to be, not “that out of/by” which something comes to be.
FORMING ACTUAL INFINITES
In an earlier chapter, Erasmus gives an outline of set theory, and the reason this is important, as later realized in the book, is that is it impossible to form an actual infinite by successive addition. To better understand this, let us posit an actual infinite does exist in a collection and we will call this set M, now let us divide infinitely out of this set and form a subset of M, which will be called N. We now have two sets of an actual infinity. One which exists as a collection formed, perhaps, by successive addition, and the other formed by successive division out of the main set into a subset. It seems that one is as absurd as the other.
(My presentation of set theory will not be as eloquent, or thorough, as presented in the actual book, but I hope I presented it well enough for review purposes.)
Craig, then, defends the second premise of the argument by saying that if the present universe emerged from an infinite past, are an infinite collection of past moments, we never would have arrived at the present moment, but we have arrived at the present moment, therefore the past collection of moments is finite and the universe had a beginning. Craig points to other matters, such as thermodynamics and the ‘winding down’ of the universe, and that if the universe were eternally past it would have died an infinite amount of time ago.
Craig then says that so long as the universe has a beginning it has a sufficient cause to ground its existence, and this cause would be transcendent and distinct from the universe, and would be uncaused. By definition, this ultra-mundane entity would be God. Craig would then, by conceptual analysis assign essential properties to God which demarcate between God and non-god, noting the universe, itself, lacks essential properties required to be god.
So what is Erasmus reevaluating here? He does not seem to dismiss the KCA, but assigns much value to it. What Erasmus seems to suggest is to not get hung up on the impossibility of actual infinites, as this does cause the dialogue to endlessly get caught up on debating one point rather than getting to the essential point. This would, in my opinion, allow us to simplify the argument and argue from more commonly held ground, that an infinite series of past moments is impossible, for the above reasons, while avoiding needless discussion that no actual infinites exist in mathematics or in nature. This also allows the user of the KCA to not have to argue against Platonism, which can be very difficult. Platonism teaches that for every form we see here on earth, there is an eternal idea which this form participates in, and these eternal ideas exist even if no earthly form reifies it. For example, we can recognize a chair in its various forms, even if they look different, because they all participate in some ultimate idea of “chair-ness.” These ideas could go on ad infinitum, as long as one could keep counting.
The objector to the KCA could then say that actual infinites do exist, so long as Platonism is true, and it would be implied by the existence of God, as will be discussed later. Extending this further, one might imagine a finite number, and another and so on, and that there are numbers that have not even been realized yet and that for these finite numbers there are ultimate ideas of said numbers which go beyond the control of God into infinity. While Craig does handle this in his two books, “God Over all” and “God and Abstract Objects” one needn’t become a metaphysician in order to use the KCA competently, if Erasmus is correct.
As one can tell, this is a lengthy obstacle to overcome and if this argument is to be more accessible to laypersons in a church we should be interested in simplifying it without reducing its efficacy.
So, two questions I have in mind reading this book are:
1. Is a reevaluation warranted?
2. Does Erasmus offer a better model?
It does seem this reevaluation is warranted, because he notes in his chapter on the problems with the infinity argument that even Christian scholars, such as Douglas Groothuis, question the impossibility of actual infinites for two reasons:
1. So long as God’s knowledge, omniscience, in infinite, and this includes knowledge of possible worlds, as well as of the actual sequence of future events into eternity, then actual infinites exist.
2. Groothuis argues that set theory presents a problem for the argument against actual infinites, and it presents the actual infinite as a logically coherent entity which may be instantiated in reality.
Where I would suggest we cannot find actual infinites is in any collection of numerable things, marbles, money, cats and so forth, but this does not necessarily preclude the existence of actual infinites in other categories as mentioned above. But can we say the series of past events is eternal, or actually infinite? What about the series of future events? Can we count eternally into the future and for every moment we count add a marble to a collection and gain an actual infinite? It would seem that a collection of moments, like things, cannot be actually infinite since this would form a subset of infinity. Let us say for every moment which passed by, a marble rolled down a chute, and let’s say an infinite series of moments went by, we would then have a subset of an infinite collection of marbles representing each passing moment.
What about God’s omniscience? If God has infinite knowledge about not just this world, but about all possible worlds and the truths therein, and given there is an infinite array of logically possible worlds which God could have actualized, does not an actual infinite then exist in God’s knowledge? By “possible world”, I mean any possible existing whole with a non-contradictory state of affairs. Ie: it would not be illogical to say a world could have been actualized with one less mosquito or one in which I was never born. But it would be illogical to say a possible world ensemble exists in which triangles are also circles. These two, by their definitions, do not fit together.
Here, Erasmus says one can adopt a weaker form of omniscience and say that God knows all that is knowable, and reject the possibility of an actual infinite, namely God’s array of knowledge. Or, one may affirm God knows an infinite array of truths and affirm actual infinites.
However, Erasmus offers a third escape route, which is consistent with notions of God being an unchanging/necessary being. One can imagine how we, as finite beings, reason internally, or use discursive reasoning to work from a set of premises to a conclusion. Someone asks us a question and we reason that if such and such is the case, then such and such will be the case.
Erasmus suggests that it is not possible for God’s knowledge to be broken down into propositions that amount to an actual infinite. He rejects William Lane Craig’s position that God must know tensed facts, because it puts God in the position of having a divided structure, thus there being actual infinites in terms of God’s knowledge.
What Erasmus offers is:
“God is omniscient iff (if and only if) for any proposition p, (i) God can comprehend p and (ii) if God consciously thinks about p, then God will immediately identity the truth value of p.”
Here Erasmus invites us to think of God’s knowledge as similar to human knowledge, which is if one knows Q is logically entailed by P, and that if P is true then Q will logically follow. However, as Erasmus notes, unlike humans, God immediately knows the truth value of a proposition when considering it.
I was able to correspond with the author on this to make sure I understood him, and he said,
“What I am suggesting is that God’s knowledge is really an *ability, namely, the ability to identify the truth of a proposition upon comprehension. This ability is a bit different to how computers (and humans) operate: a computer has to perform several calculations or operations in order to arrive at a result for a request. God’s knowledge (or ability), however, is not based on such discursive reasoning or operations. That is, God will immediately, and without inference from prior knowledge, be able to identify the truth of a proposition upon reflection. So, yes, in this case, God knows the truth of any proposition without having to be consciously aware of that proposition.”
By “ability” it should be understood as: there is an ability to reflect on the truth value of P, but it does not necessitate that God have ever thought about P. Jeremiah 19:5 does suggest that there are things which do not even enter the mind of God, such as certain human atrocities. God, therefore, has the ability to immediately identify the truth value of P without ever entertaining the notion of P.
Therefore, there needn’t be an actual infinite collection of thoughts ever present in the mind of God for God to be omniscient. This third option presented, thus, precludes actual infinites and preserves God’s omniscience.
But what about God creating out of a live pool of possible worlds? Would not have God had to sort through every possible world scenario to decide which one to actualize? Erasmus notes that God created out of an immediate knowledge of His nature and used that as an efficient cause for creation. Just as one can know the sum of two and two is four without considering the infinite array of other wrong numbers, so too can God actualize out of the immediate awareness of His immutable nature.
This is probably one of the more difficult notions presented in this book, but an interested reader will find this portion extremely rewarding and valuable.
The note on which Erasmus seeks to reevaluate the infinity argument is that he seems to hold it does not rely on strict logical or mathematical modality, but it seems to rely on our intuitions about what is metaphysically impossible or possible. As experience has shown, intuitions are hardly intersubjective and can often be statements about the knower rather than what can actually be known. It is, therefore, on this basis I will proceed with the book review.
Erasmus suggests we would profit from replacing the infinity argument, even if it is sound, with an argument that does not deny the possibility of an actual infinite, but simply denies the possibility of of an actually infinite regress of past events. To do otherwise, in my opinion, would be for us, as apologists, to defend too much. This would put the infinity argument back into philosophical and mathematical circles, giving the apologist less ground to defend.
So, Erasmus says the current form of the KCA is inadequate in defending against Platonism and problems posed by divine omniscience, but replaces it with a competing model, suggesting it requires defending less ground and yielding the same net result, Eramus’ model is summarized as such:
1. If the universe came into existence, then God brought it into existence.
2. The universe came into existence.
3. Therefore, God brought the universe into existence.
Since Erasmus is seeking to replace the current paradigm, he seeks to also define the terms he is working with, since there does tend to be a incommensurability between paradigms:
1. Universe. Here Erasmus does not seek to write on the philosophy of time and remains reserved on the position, but proposes space is a relation between objects, and seems to suggest time is a relation between events.
2. Came into existence. Here Erasmus uses the term interchangeably with other terms, such as “came/come into existence” or “begins to exist” much the same as the usual form of the KCA. Here he discusses the A and B series of time, and rejects the B series of time, which presents the universe as a space time block in which there are no privileged moments, only an eternally existing whole. He affirms the A series of time, or presentism, according to which there is a genuine passing of the present into the past and that we emerge from the past into our future.
Erasmus notes that this can be demonstrated by the contingency of the universe and that its eternal states, which come and go (the universe is in flux) demonstrate it is perpetually coming and going out of existence, therefore, the B series seems less defensible than does the A series. I, myself, would compare this to logic, which the theist needn’t affirm as having “come into existence” and may affirm as a timeless truth. That logic is not necessarily something which is invented and is normative and true in all possible worlds demonstrates it never came into existence, as a universe which is not immutable. The B series of time would apply to abstract objects, perhaps, but not to contingent states of affairs.
Erasmus uses classical arguments against an infinite past, which are common in defending the classical KCA, such as the problem of traversing the infinite barrier. The argument can be summarized as such,
1. If the universe it eternal, an infinite series of moments has preceded the present, finite moment.
2. An infinite series of moments cannot be traversed.
3. Therefore, the universe is not eternal.
In defence of premise 2, if an actual infinite series of moments has preceded the present moment the present moment never would have arrived, but the present moment has arrived, so it can be said the universe is not past eternal. Given the inadequacy of the B series of time, such an eternal universe seems untenable. One might compare this to explanation, where if there is no foundational explanation for why an event has happened one will be stuck infinitely explaining why something happened, rather than appealing to a first principle. So, just as there are first principles in logic, one could say there are first events which ground subsequent events.
Given the state of the universe and entropy, and that the universe is winding down from a finite state, it seems logical to conclude, if the universe were eternal, that it would have died from heat death an infinite amount of time ago.
Erasmus, next, presents an argument not usually seen in defence of the KCA, which is inspired by Laureano Luna, that argues against there being ungrounded causal chains. He notes that every event needs a prior event, but if there were no first event and if nothing outside the chain determines the events in the chain, then no event could have occurred. This does seem like a defensible argument, for if we were to posit a groundless existence which does not terminate in the existence of a necessary existence or event, then we live in a groundless existence. Explaining the current state of affairs, space and time, purely in terms of the inner workings of the universe is inadequate and does not give any insight into ultimate origins.
Given the adequacy of these two arguments against an infinite series of past events, Erasmus presents a better reason to argue from this position than from the infinity argument in the classical KCA. Again, why defend more than we need to, as apologists, when this model leaves us being able to cut right to the chase regarding the nature of the first cause, namely “God”, which can be discussed by means of conceptual analysis?
In the next chapter, Erasmus discusses the inadequacy of naturalistic models which present alternate, and infinite, universes, such as multiverse theories and suggests one can weigh them against models which present a finite, therefore caused, universe. Many of these models appeal to inner workings of the current universe, which are inadequate, or to multiverse theories which do not escape the need for a transcendent cause and appeal to an infinite collection of universes.
THE FINAL CHAPTER
While this is the final chapter, it could probably be read first and then read again last. This book presupposes the reader have a working knowledge of metaphysics and Erasmus mentions “Conceptual analysis” throughout this book. What is a conceptual analysis? (CA).
A conceptual analysis is breaking a system, or thing, down into its constituent parts in order to analyze what is necessary as to what is sufficient for a thing to be what it is as opposed to something else.
For example, in order to be a triangle a thing must have shape, or have extension in space as an object, but other objects such as circles and squares are both shapes and have extension in space, so these are only sufficient conditions, or are “good enough”. While a necessary condition is that which is absolutely required for a thing to obtain to be what it is, and not something else, for instance to be a triangle means a thing must possess a property of triangularity, or 3-sidedness.
How this relates to causation is we are examining what is necessary and sufficient to count not only as a secondary cause, but as a primary cause.
Does the universe possess the necessary attributes of a primary cause? As mentioned earlier, and in this chapter, that the universe changes in its internal states demonstrates it is, in itself, contingent and fails to find ultimate explanation within itself. A conceptual analysis of any first cause would require building a model of what is required and what predictions said model can yield. Any appeal to internal states of the universe lacks given it appeals to inner workings, but this can only explain internal states.
In this chapter, Erasmus admits he sides with Craig in regards to premise two, that everything that begins to exist has a cause.
Given the adequacy of arguments against, not actual infinites—but against an an infinite past, based on the demonstrable contingency of the universe, I believe Erasmus is correct in jumping to the nature of the first cause, by means of a CA, and appealing to the aforementioned Principle of Sufficient Reason, that effects have sufficient causes, and that God is the best explanation in light of competing alternatives, such as multiverses of steady state models, which are inadequate.
The weaknesses I find in this book, not in this argument, is that is does cover a lot in a relatively short book. It is well sourced with footnotes, and references to other materials which do help the reader follow through with ideas. This book would be invaluable, in addition to the other mentioned sources, in developing a comprehensive apologetic, although one could learn much with it alone. I hope the author, later, follows through and develops some of the ideas he wrote on, such as God’s relationship to abstract objects.
The strengths I see in this presentation are that it simplifies a powerful argument in favour of God’s existence and allows the apologist to be an apologist without having to be a philosopher arguing, constantly, against actual infinites and the problems posed by Platonism.
I, myself, will likely use this form of the KCA, instead of the classical argument which has still much value, but will reserve debate against actual infinites for philosophical discussion rather than as a point of evangelism. I say that a reassessment of this argument is both in order and that the author did a more than adequate job in presenting a competing model, building on, not against, the current model.
This book covers much more than I covered. It discusses the relationship of God to abstract objects, as well as the philosophical and scientific reasons for a universe with a beginning. It also presents fair arguments against what is being argued for and responds to them responsibly.
I would recommend this book for anyone looking for a better understanding of the KCA, as well as a response to arguments against it. This book would serve apologists and pastors, alike well. While it is intended for scholars and professionals, there is no reason that a reader who has wrestled with these concepts on their own cannot work through this book.
About me: I am a volunteer apologist for Reasons To Believe and participate in a local chapter of Reasonable Faith in my hometown of Edmonton. My interests are primarily in logic, metaphysics and apologetics. I was given a free copy of this book and was not required to write any particular type of review, for or against this book.