Recently I saw an apologist I enjoy interacting with throwing some heat at a video by atheist YouTuber Cosmic Skeptic on his latest video about the Kalam. Since I’ve got a deep history with the argument I wanted to check it out. You can view the video here:
In short I think Alex is correct that the Kalam is unsound, but he’s right for the wrong reasons in a few cases, and he makes a few other errors along the way. I mentioned this to him on Twitter and he kindly asked me to expand – hence this post.
Leave Aquinas Alone!
The first error that Alex makes is in a bit of a tangent about Aquinas and cosmological arguments in general. The main thing to point out here is that while Aquinas does have arguments that would be classed in the cosmological argument “family”, they don’t have anything to do with the Kalam per-se and Alex gets Aquinas’s views explicitly wrong. Ironically, Aquinas actually thought it couldn’t be proven that the universe was finite, he said he believed the universe is finite as a matter of special revelation from god.
More importantly however - Aquinas never espoused the principle that “everything must have a cause”. Even centuries ago philosophers would have raised the objection Alex does about “what caused god then?” I think Aquinas is dead wrong, but he was not stupid enough to make the mistake Alex accuses him of. FWIW - Aquinas’s arguments are based on an Aristotelean metaphysic and responses to it effectively involve rejecting the underlying metaphysic rather than attacking the premises directly.
Why the Kalam?
The Kalam argument isn’t so much a way to solve the problem of “what caused god” as it is to give a take on the cosmological argument that doesn’t rely on an Aristotelean metaphysic that most non-Catholic Christians reject. It also helps that apologists can sprinkle in some impressive sounding science to make the argument sound more convincing than it has any right to appear.
On not proving the Christian god
Alex’s first objection is to say that even if the argument worked, it doesn’t prove that the first cause had to be a god, or a single god. Alex then goes after Frank Turek’s explanation as to why the cause of the universe had to be a mind. Turek’s explanation of this is ridiculous, even on its own terms, but I feel Alex misses the mark.
Turek says that a choice had to be made to go from a state of nothing to creation, and only a mind can make a choice. That’s….idiotic. First it’s not clear how it’s even remotely possible that one can create something from nothing, let alone how we can sensibly lay out requirements to do such a thing.
Turek however is just a popular apologist, he’s only a communicator, not a philosopher. Craig at least gives a more plausible explanation as to why the cause of the Kalam needs to be a mind:
“By the very nature of the case, that cause of the physical universe must be an immaterial (i.e., non-physical) being. Now there are only two types of things that could possibly fit that description: either an abstract object like a number, or an unembodied mind/consciousness. But abstract objects don’t stand in causal relations to physical things. The number 7, for example, has no effect on anything. Therefore the cause of the universe is an unembodied mind. Thus again we are brought, not merely to a transcendent cause of the universe, but to its Personal Creator.”-William Lane Craig, Does God Exist?
Alex’s response misses the mark since he points out that “consciousness isn’t always required as a driving force behind something happening”. He points out that no mind is required to cause a leaf to fall off of a tree.
This response is wrong, though something similar does hold as the basis for an strong objection to the Kalam.
Alex gets it wrong since the apologist will respond that once you’ve accepted that there is a state of nothing, or at least “nothing material” since we’re talking about what caused “all of material reality” – the only things left would inherently be nonphysical. Since platonic forms are by definition causally inert, the only thing conceptually left would be a mind or some kind of transcendent causal force.
The objection that I think Alex could be going for here is to reject the idea that there ever was a state where “nothing material existed”, and to say that our big bang was caused by physical forces or the laws of nature acting on some kind of always existing material. This would eliminate the idea that a “mind” is necessary to have caused the big bang. To his credit, Alex does get around to something like this later in the video when addressing another point about the universe having a beginning.
Theists don’t like this response, but nothing in the big bang theory contradicts this notion. The loop quantum gravity theory was used to create a well-defined model of an eternal, self-contained universe by Anthony Aguirre and Stephen Gratton. This model, like all models of quantum gravity is speculative and not empirically proven yet, but is completely compatible with all known evidence we have.
What about other gods?
Alex makes a point to say that even if the Kalam proved that there was a consciousness behind the universe, it doesn’t prove that the Christian god was it, or that it was even a “good” god or consciousness.
That’s true, and theists will concede that point quite happily. The point of the argument is to move an atheist towards theism in general, with additional arguments to bring the now theist towards their specific religion. Typically the Kalam is presented as part of a cumulative case apologetic. It’s not there to prove Christianity is true, it’s there to prove that a god exists.
This isn’t a problem for the Christian. Consider an atheist trying to deconvert someone. Perhaps through arguments about the immorality of biblical hell and the falseness of a young earth, you’re able to convince someone to give up Christianity, however they still remain a classical theist (believe in a omniscient, omnipotent, omni-benevolent being).
That’s still progress. Perhaps you could continue on and then get them to stop being a theist all together by presenting other arguments about gratuitous suffering or massive theological disagreement. That the other arguments don’t get you all the way to atheism via one single silver bullet isn’t a flaw in those arguments or make them any less valid.
The Absolute Beginning of the Universe
Alex gets a lot right when he tackles this part of the argument, pointing out that the big bang is the beginning of “our universe”. I think the best way to state that is that the big bang is the beginning of the expansion of our known universe.
Still, Alex makes great points in terms of what kind of atheistic compatible scenarios there are which are compatible with all known evidence we have for the big bang.
One point I’d like to make here is that atheism is perfectly compatible with all of physical reality having an absolute beginning, all you’d need to accept is the B-Theory of time and the Kalam argument fails even if the universe had a beginning, because it wouldn’t “begin to exist” as Craig defines it. The universe as a whole would just “always exist timelessly” with what we experience as time being something inside the universe.
The Fallacy of Composition
Alex does get things a bit wrong when it comes to accusing the Kalam of the fallacy of composition.
While some forms of the argument may have suffered from this problem in the past, the version of it that Craig and others have defended do not – here’s why:
What Craig and others are doing is taking some general rule about reality that we observe – ie. that things have causes, and creating a general metaphysical principle out of that. A general metaphysical principle is kind of like postulating a fundamental law of nature that describes how reality works. So “everything that begins to exist has a cause” is the metaphysical principle Craig is making.
Now there are problems with this, though it’s not readily apparent.
First is how Craig defines “begins to exist” which explicitly requires an A-Theory of time, which according to what the methods of science tell us, very likely is false. Craig rejects the conclusions of science and says that his metaphysical arguments trump scientific conclusions – but that has its own set of problems I go into painstaking detail on here.
The second problem is that Craig is being very selective about which general observable rules about reality we have can be applied to become a general metaphysical principle. Consider the idea that “All material things have a material cause” or “all minds we observe are embodied”. From this we could infer general metaphysical principles that would contradict the Kalam and its conclusions.
As I said at the start, I think Alex is right but for the wrong reasons. It’s important to get things right in counter apologetics because getting things wrong allows an apologist to do the debunking and get things correct – which makes their arguments look far better than they actually are. More importantly it allows them to avoid responding to tougher objections that they don’t have answers to, while appearing to have responded to “critics of their argument”.
That said, I like Alex and his channel, so I hope this post is helpful to him in making new videos. FWIW I don’t really do much with my channel these days, but I do have a good amount of content on Countering The Kalam that goes into these issues in detail.