It's all about the deep questions.
Theism: The Kalam Cosmological Argument
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.
Then, further argument is made to establish the nature of the cause.
4. The cause must be non-temporal.
5. The cause must be either a personal agent or a non-personal sufficient condition.
6. A non-temporal non-personal sufficient condition would result in an eternal universe.
7. Therefore, the cause of the universe cannot be a non-temporal non-personal sufficient condition.
8. Therefore, the cause of the universe must be a non-temporal personal agent.
Although this argument does not fully establish all of the properties of god that a theist must hold, it still comes closer to it than other arguments. Therefore, the non theist should take it very seriously. (the “personal” part in particular is interesting.)
Criticism 1: What do you mean by “begin to exist”?
Typically, when someone states that x began to exist at time t, I take it to mean that x exists at time t and that there exists a time immediately prior to t where x did not exist. However, under this definition the universe couldn’t have begun under the big bang model of the universe, which the argument rests on. Time began to exist with the universe, in other words, there existed no time “before” the universe. So the universe cannot satisfy the condition, “and that there exists a time immediately prior to t where x did not exist”, since there is no such time. Furthermore, this makes some intuitive sense. If there was never any time where the universe didn’t exist, it seems to make sense that the universe “always” existed. Theists want to avoid this conclusion, however. So the definition was somewhat awkwardly redefined as: x begins to exist at time t if and only if x exists at time t and there exists no time before t in which x exists. This change solves the problem by allowing the universe to “begin to exist”. There are further problems with definition however. William Lane Craig, who pioneered this argument in modern times, argues that god exists timelessly. Then, when he created the universe, he put himself within time to interact with his creation. Under this current definition of begins to exist, however, god also began to exist! From this it follows that God himself must have a cause, which of course a theist wants to avoid at all costs. Say the first instant the universe existed was at time t. Certainly god exists at time t, but there was also no time prior to t in which god exists (since time itself did not exist). It follows then that god began to exist. So, the definition needs to be revised (again). It could be kept in it’s current form but with an extra clause excluding timelessly existing entities. This formulation, however, hurts premise 1. William Lane Craig mainly appeals to the truth of premise 1 from it’s “intuitive obviousness”. However not many people would admit that the spelled out premise is very “intuitively obvious” : For all existing things x, if it is true that x exists at time t and there exists no time before time t in which x exists, provided that x is not a timelessly existing being, then something must have caused x to exist at time t.
Yet another problem arises with the phrase “began to exist”. We can distinguish two different ways for things to begin to exist, creation ex materia and creation ex nihilo. The former applies when something was created from a previous something, such as a chair being made from previously existing wood. Everyone can agree that (at least on the macro scale) we always observe creation ex materia to have causes. What about creation ex nihilo? We have never encountered one instance of anything anywhere being created ex nihilo. Yet this is precisely the type of creation that matters to the argument. Creation ex nihilo does not have one iota of empirical evidence. Not only does the theist have to show that it is coherent, but he/she must also show that every such instance is “caused” by something. However, the word “cause” has all but lost its meaning here. We always know causes to have a) something that causes b)something that is being affected c)the effect. In creation ex nihilo there is no b). It is not surprising that theists, therefore, turn to “metaphysical intuition” to make their case, which is not convincing at all. However the universe did begin (if it did at all), I would assume that that beginning would go directly against all of my common sense intuitions since I evolved to understand the mundane, macro world. We do not have a priori truth factories as brains.
Criticism 2: an appeal to quantum mechanics
According to some interpretations of quantum mechanics, virtual particles come into and out of existence all the time without a cause. Doesn’t this directly falsify premise 1? In response Craig has said that the virtual particles have necessary causes rather than sufficient causes, because the necessary cause of them is the quantum vacuum. (Just to clarify terminology, if x is a sufficient condition for y, then if x exists, then y exists. If x is a necessary condition for y, then if y exists, x exists. For example someone not studying at all and staying up all night before a test is a sufficient condition for failing a test. A necessary condition for failing a test is simply the test taker existing. Because it is a necessary fact that to fail a test one must exist. But simply existing does not entail the fact that one fails a test, while not studying at all and not getting any rest usually does entail failing a test. ) If one does accept this line of argument, then the “spelled out” version of premise 1 has to be spelled out even more. So a further revision must be made to premise 1. “For all existing things x, if it is true that x exists at time t and there exists no time before time t in which x exists, provided that x is not a timelessly existing being, then something must serve as a necessary cause, but not necessarily a sufficient cause, for x to exist at t.” This further removes the intuitive appeal to premise 1. Basically, the appeal to quantum mechanics shows us why we should be uncomfortable projecting our metaphysical intuitions into the external world.
Criticism 3: Simultaneous causation?
One obvious criticism that can be made to the argument is as follows. Since no time existed before the universe, and causes must stand in a particular temporal relation with their effects, namely before them, then it is simply impossible that the universe has a cause. In response to this claim, the argument’s defenders have said that the cause of the universe, god’s willing, is exactly simultaneous with it’s effect, the existence of the universe. Although I am not inclined to outright deny the possibility of simultaneous causation, I do think that it is a dubious topic that intelligent people can disagree on it’s validity. For example, when one flicks a light switch, it seems as if the light turning on was simultaneous with the switch being flicked, but in reality it requires a very small amount of time for the light to actually turn on. For simultaneous causation, the very first moment when the cause is present, the effect has to be already present as well. As it stands, it is just another hurdle that the theist must argue for for the argument to go through. It might seem that simultaneous causation occurs in the actual world, for example when an ball depresses a cushion. The main reply to the simultaneous causation argument is that the cases appearing to exemplify it are misdescribed. The ball takes time to depress the cushion, and in general everything takes time to communicate its motions.
Criticism 4: the B theory of time
“x does not merely exist tenselessly at t, as part of a static, four-dimensional, ‘block universe’. Rather x’s existing at t is an event of temporal becoming: x comes into being at t. It is in virtue of the reality of temporal becoming that x’s beginning to exist requires a cause of x.” This quote, coming from the argument’s foremost defender William Craig, shows that the kalam argument crucially rests on a particular philosophical theory of time, presentism ,or the tensed A theory. Presentism is the theory that most people on the street adhere to. It describes a universe where only the exact present moment exists; the past may once have existed but now does not exist (in any sense of the word) , and similarly the future does not exist (yet). The theory of time that the vast majority of physicists endorse is a four-dimensionalist B theory of time. According to this conception, space and time are analogous, hence space-time. Just as we happen to describe one point in space as “here”, we also happen to describe one point in time as the present. Just because we occupy one point in space, we are not led to deny the reality of other points in space; similarly, because we occupy one point in time does not mean we should deny the reality of other points in time. Four-dimensionalism, in other words, presuppose that both the past and the future still and already exist and are just as real as the present. The resulting is the static, four dimensional, “block” universe that Craig refers to it. Unfortunately, a full discussion of the advantages of the latter theory would be pretty lengthy, and it would veer this paper off quite a bit. (I will probably write a few dedicated posts on it later.) For now, I will just have to say that the vast majority of scientists subscribe to it, it makes for the most natural fit to relativity, solves various philosophical quandaries about cross-time relations, motion (presentists only have “snapshots” of position), the truth-maker objection for times besides the present, and others. My near-confidence in the falsity of the presentist conception of time presents a decisive blow to the argument in my mind.
Criticism 5: How are you so sure the universe did begin to exist?
Two types of arguments can be mounted in order to prove the universe had a beginning: one scientific, one philosophical. The scientific evidence points to the evidence for the big bang. The big bang, however is not enough to prove the universe had an absolute beginning, it only tells us that our observable universe expanded from an exploding singularity. This is entirely consistent with a cyclic model of the origin of the universe, where the universe expands and contracts in an infinite cycle. It is also entirely consistent with our universe emerging from an eternal multiverse, among others. So, clearly, the scientific grounds are not at all conclusive.
But what about the philosophical arguments? One argument attempts to prove the impossibility of an actual infinite, and since a beginning less universe involves an actual infinity, a beginning less universe is impossible. On what grounds can one audaciously declare that an actual infinity is literally impossible? One ground is a thought experiment called hilbert’s hotel. (in the following example infinite will mean countably infinite) Hilbert’s hotel is a hotel with infinitely many rooms numbered 1, 2, 3, …. Now imagine the hotel is completely filled with infinitely many guests. Now further imagine that a further person wanted to enter the hotel, the manager can simply tell everyone to move up a room and give the new guest room 1. So even if the hotel is full, the hotel can always accommodate one more person. Now imagine that infinitely many people are looking for a room in the already full hilbert’s hotel. The manager can simply tell everybody to go to a room double of their original room number. The manager now has infinitely many rooms to accommodate his new infinitely many guests. (namely all of the odd integers.) Everybody can grant that this thought experiment is bizarre, but all it establishes is that infinity is intuitively difficult, not literally impossible. After all, quantum mechanics is intuitively difficult, yet it is true.
Another fact that proponents of this type of argument like to point out is that transfinite arithmetic leads to contradictions. The number of positive integers minus the number of all positive integers greater than one is equal to one. Meanwhile, the number of positive integers minus the number of positive even integers is equal to the number of positive odd integers. In one case, infinity minus infinity equals 1, and in one case infinity minus infinity equals infinity. Mathematicians know that transfinite arithmetic isn’t valid, so what exactly do theists have a problem with? One can’t subtract and add from an infinite past, however, so this contradiction can’t be realized anyway in an infinite past. Basically, everyone recognizes that infinity is a hard concept that must be treated with care, but declaring that it is outright impossible is a bit dogmatic.
Another qualm one can have against an infinite past is the following. If the past was really infinite, wouldn’t the present never be reached since time would have to traverse an infinite amount of earlier periods? Well, that would only be the case if the universe had a beginning an infinitely long time ago. In that case, the objection could be raised. However, the universe had no beginning since it was beginning less. Therefore, the objection is misguided.
Lastly, those philosophers who do affirm the impossibility of an actual infinite must deny the continuity of space and time, which is far from obvious. The continuity of space and time would immediately imply an infinite amount of points of space and time. For example there exists an infinite amount of moments in time between one second to the next, and there are infinitely many points in space between my left eye and my right eye. Furthermore, anyone who accepts the impossibility of the infinite must hold a sort of anti-realism in the philosophy of mathematics which is, again, far from obvious.
In conclusion, the question of whether the universe did in fact have a beginning is one that is not conclusive, but one that is still open to serious questions. The supposition of a strict finitist metaphysics seems to me, however, to be too demanding to accept unequivocably. The honest truth-seeker should, in my opinion, simply remain an agnostic about this very difficult issue until more hard evidence from the physical sciences is unearthed.
Criticism 6: Must the cause be personal?
Here I will argue that a non-temporal personal cause is just as problematic for an initial cause of the universe as a non-personal sufficient condition i.e. some quantum state. Before I go into my main objection, I just want to mention from the outset that I do not believe we have any experience or grasp whatsoever of a disembodied mind, as I find most forms of dualism to be naive scientifically (David Chalmers’ property dualism about the phenomenal parts of the mind might be the sole exception, and even then I still have strong doubts). Therefore, the plausibility of a personal being who has no body, who is outside time, and who wills things into existence is extremely low. I am not willing to say that it is downright impossible, in a metaphysical sense, but I am willing to say that it sounds prima facie like magic. On the other hand, we have experiences of non-personal sufficient conditions all the time, so if I was somehow convinced that the universe itself necessarily must have an external cause (which is a big if), I would be much more inclined towards the non-personal sufficient condition, at least initially. If I would phrase what I just said in terms of Bayesian reasoning, the prior probability of NP (non personal) would be much higher than P (personal). Therefore the evidence that people like Craig give through reasoned argument (E) should strive to be sufficiently compelling so that P(P given E)>P(NP given E), where P(x) means the probability of x. Which I definitely think it fails to do.
Anyways, on to my main objection, which I am grateful for Wes Morriston for writing about. The main problem is that it seems William Craig is committed to an inconsistent set of propositions:
(i) The universe God intended to create has a beginning.
(ii) God’s willing-to-create the universe is eternal.
(iii) God’s willing-to-create is causally sufficient for the existence of the universe.
(iv) If a cause is eternal and sufficient for the existence of some object or event, then that object or event is also eternal.
(v) If a thing is eternal then it does not have a beginning.
According to the following propositions, the universe both did and did not have a beginning, so clearly not all of the propositions can be true. Can the theist reject (i)? Clearly not, the whole argument relies on the universe having a beginning, precisely because God willed it. Can the theist reject (ii)? Again, there is no way he can. (ii) follows directly from the properties of god; since god is immutable and eternal (non-temporal) and had the will to create, his will to create must be eternal. Similarly, there is no way a theist can consistently reject (iii), since what caused the universe to exist was precisely god’s willing it to under his/her conception. (iv) is the principle that the theist endorsed to discount a non-personal cause in premise 6, so they can’t reject it either. Lastly, (v) is a matter of definition. Here, the theist is caught in a quandary. Perhaps his best strategy is to modify (iv) to only include non personal causes. What exactly is the motivation for this however? Until the theist presents a sufficiently detailed and plausible account of agent causation and how it differs from non-personal causation, the non theist has good reason of being very skeptical of the theists “spooky” dualistic account. (hopefully the theists grounds can have some empirical falsifiability as well, i.e. not a made up account.)
Conclusion: What makes the argument ultimately unpersuasive is the sheer number of philosophical positions it presupposes. (metaphysics of causation- simultaneity is plausible, philosophy of math-anti-realism, philosophy of time-presentism, an unwarranted first premise described in the second paragraph of criticism 1, a strict finitist metaphysics, a plausible dualistic account of agent-causation is possible and fares better than a non personal cause with regards to the universe, a good response to bertrand russell’s charge from the fallacy of composition, a good response to david hume’s charge that once the parts have been explained so has the whole, among others) In conclusion, the theist has a lot of work cut out for him/her if he intends the argument to be truly persuasive. Whatever happened near the beginning of the universe is a topic of intense speculation, and I would find it surprising if the answer were not really counter-intuitive. After all, our brains didn’t evolve to readily understand concepts like these. The last place we should be looking for definitive answers is a theists intuitions, given their not-too-good track record.