Thursday, January 10, 2013

Countering the Kalam (2) - Philosophical Objections

Special Thanks to RL friend ErikJ for all the help in creating this series.

New spin, Old problems
The first sign that there’s trouble here is right there in the name, the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  This is just one more spin on the flawed classical Cosmological Argument.  
All cosmological arguments basically try apply causality to the origin of the universe to try and prove god’s existence.  When you take cause and effect and go back to the origin of “everything”, you’re left with two options – an infinite regress of causes and effects, or with something that had to have always existed, something that has a “necessary existence”, which in the theists mind just has to be their particular god.
The classical defeater for this is to ask why can’t the universe itself be “necessary” or “always have existed”. 
The Kalam is just yet another variant of the argument that tries to give god a get out of jail free card by introducing the notion of timeless existence, and tying all of material reality to the existence of time.   Then it sprinkles on a bit of modern cosmology to make it seem like the argument has scientific support when it really doesn’t.

Based on Intuition
There are a lot of philosophical objections that can be brought against the Kalam, but I want to focus on the two I think are the most straight forward objections.
If you remember to the definitions section and the distinction between efficient and material causes that happens in this argument, then the first objection I have is the idea that we can have an effect that has no material cause.
This is a strong objection because the only justification that Dr. Craig has for his premise one of the Kalam is intuition and common experience.  If you try challenge Dr. Craig on premise one, he will largely just call you disingenuous and states that you cannot do any serious metaphysics without it.  
YouTuber SysiphusRedeemed has a great video explaining why trying to get premise one accepted as a universal truth, using only intuition and personal experience as justification is a fallacy all its own, and I recommend checking his video out.

Universal Material Causation

The problem for Dr. Craig is that even if we grant this universal principle of causality, he’s going to have another set of problems.  Because we can just as easily use the same justification he does to establish a premise that “everything material that exists has a material cause”, which it then follows logically from that something material must have always existed – and that’s theologically objectionable to Dr. Craig and other Christians who want creation out of nothing. 

Dr. Craig likes to mischaracterize this objection a bit when it’s brought up, but here is a video [3]where Dr. Craig admits that this is a problem and how he’s going to get around it.

The first thing I interesting is that Dr. Craig claims that the premise of universal material causation requires further "proof", but somehow his premise of efficient causation only requires the inductive evidence he provides.

What’s important here is what Craig thinks is required to overcome the notion that everything requires a material cause – if he has good arguments and evidence that show that everything material has an absolute beginning, and was preceded by nothing, then he can get rid of the notion that everything material requires a material cause.

This part in the series is going to debunk his “good argument” and the next part will show he has no such evidence.

Dr. Craig's Standard for Objections

Before we can decide if Dr. Craig can provide "good arguments" and evidence to refute the premise of universal material causation, we should look at what standard he has for successful refutations to his premises.

Dr. Craig's premise that "everything that begins to exist has an efficient cause" appears to be violated by the creation of virtual particles in quantum mechanics.

Here Dr. Craig objects that not all interpretations of quantum mechanics are indeterminate, pointing out that there are some interpretations that are deterministic [1] - and he's right.

The problem is that we simply don't know which interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, however given this Dr. Craig still thinks he can hold his premise as still valid.  Meaning that his standard involves being decisively shown that efficient causation is not universally applicable, even though it's quite possible it isn't.

So given this standard, to overcome the notion that something material has always existed, Dr. Craig must decisively show that all of material reality had an absolute beginning, preceded by nothing.

Playing Fast and Loose with "Cause"

There is one other thing I want to add here, at times Craig will concede that virtual particles don't have an efficient cause, but he still claims that Kalam's premise one is valid because virtual particles have a material cause. 

Here Craig reverts back to the general definition of "cause" to try and save his premise, but in doing so he undercuts his argument.   It actually strengthens the position that "everything that begins to exist has a material cause", since we now have an example where things begin to exist without an efficient cause.

If we can have things begin to exist with only a material and not an efficient cause, then that leaves the creation of our space-time universe as something created by exactly that process.  In this scenario a god isn’t necessary to cause the universe, only some form of pre-existing material that has always existed – and we’re right back to Craig having to show that material reality must have had an absolute beginning preceded by nothing.

Dr. Craig vs. Infinity

The main argument against some form of material reality always existing is Dr. Craig's argument that an actual infinite can not exist in the real world.  If time is infinite into the past, then that's an actual infinite, and this is supposed to be problematic.

To illustrate this, Dr. Craig appeals to thought experiments like Hilberts Hotel, arguing that  subtraction with infinites can yield contradictory results:

- = 0
- =
- =

This seems intuitively problematic, until you realize Dr. Craig is treating infinity like it's the number four, and isn't applying the proper mathematics to the situation.   Math with infinite sets is a very well defined subject called Cantorian Set Theory, which is something that underpins most of modern mathematics. 

Using Cantorian Set Theory to Dr. Craig's usual examples from Hilberts Hotel we can see that there are no contradictions with his scenario:

[1,2,3…n] - [1,2,3…n] = 0
[1,2,3…n] - [2,4,6…n] =
[1,2,3…n] - [2,3,4…n] =

As you can see, Cantorian Set Theory allows for subtractive operations between infinite sets with perfect logical consistency.  Dr. Craig is well aware of this, but then makes the claim that just because something is logically possible, or even mathematically well defined, there is no reason to think it’s metaphysically possible or applicable to the real world. 
This is an utterly bizarre stance to take on the philosophy of mathematics that is very eloquently refuted in the paper “Worlds Apart: Onthe Possibility of An Actual Infinity” by Josh Denver. [2]
Even with this, Dr. Craig likes to call the existence of an actual infinity “metaphysically impossible” or “metaphysically absurd”.  The problem for the apologist is that such claims are entirely arbitrary and hard to make stick.  One philosophers "metaphysical absurdity" is another's "oddity".

Still, we could postulate that space-time was a continuum, and exist in a way that it is physically impossible that they could be "taken away from".  This seems to match what we know of space and time, which are always "expanding" and it appears to be impossible to remove either in any way.  As such that any segment of space or time would entail an actual infinite existing. 

Dr. Craig will object that it's never been proven that space and time are a continuum, and he's right.  But it's never been proven to be quantized or discrete either - we simply don't know!  The point here is that Dr. Craig can't prove that an infinite past is impossible or even implausible.

Timeless Causation

For the sake of argument, lets look at what Dr. Craig does to explain how the universe was created if we accepted his premises. 

In the part on definitions I briefly covered the way apologists try to get around their god having a beginning by being “timeless”, yet somehow causing the beginning of time and the universe. 
This is especially problematic since Dr. Craig has tied the creation of the universe to the creation of time itself, so this god can't act "before the beginning of time".  To get around this problem, Dr. Craig asserts that god's act of creation is "absolutely simultaneous" with the creation of the universe.
The problem here is that the only definition of “timelessness” that can work on Dr. Craig’s view of time is the notion that something that is timeless is also “changeless”.  This is acknowledged by Dr. Craig.
The problem comes about by trying to understand how something that is “changeless” can affect a change.  Just as one argues that “something cannot come from nothing”, one could similarly argue that “Change cannot come from something that is changeless”.  Dr. Craig and other apologists call this account of divine creation “mysterious”, but not logically impossible.  
That's it.  It's mysterious, but at least it's not a squared circle!
An Absurd Dichotomy
Just as Dr. Craig likes to claim that an actual infinite existing in reality is "metaphysically absurd", the same charge could be leveled against the concept of timeless causation. 

The point here is that no matter which way we go when it comes to the creation of the universe - by Dr. Craig's own argument we're left choosing between two different logically possible but "absurd" or counter intuitive notions.

This may seem like a dichotomy between two equal choices, but it's not.

When it comes to actual infinites, we have a strong understanding of how they work in Cantorian Set Theory.  Further, we have examples of two phenomenon that could very well be actual infinites that exist in the real world - namely space and time.  We certainly can't prove this conclusively, but at least it's plausible and we can understand what's involved.

Contrast this with the idea of something timeless actually existing (Platonic claims Dr. Craig rejects not withstanding), let alone how we could understand or explain how anything "changeless that can effect a change" would even work. 

It seems that the choice seems to favor actual infinites over timeless causation; but even if it didn't it is clear that Dr. Craig hasn't established why we should choose one absurdity over another - leaving his argument unsuccessful.


[1] "it is far from clear that there are not, in fact, deterministic causes of the appearance of virtual particles. Such behavior is indeterministic only on some interpretations of quantum physics, like the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation, but there are other interpretations of quantum physics which are thoroughly deterministic and are empirically equivalent to indeterministic interpretations, and no one knows which, if any, of these competing interpretations is correct. Naive realism about the Copenhagen Interpretation would be rash and unjustified."




  1. Great article.

    But I've always been curious about "actual infinity = metaphysically absurd" thing, and I'm not sure if it's been successfully refuted. Consider the domino effect: suppose that there are an infinite number of pieces stacked up. If we select a piece at random and observe it, we'll have to wait for an infinite amount of time before it is toppled, since there is an infinite number of pieces prior to the selected piece. But this also applies to every other piece, so no piece will ever be toppled because infinite time cannot be traversed.

  2. Nicely presented.

    It seems to me that "everything material that exists has a cause" is simpler and thus has a higher prior probability than "everything material that exists has a material cause". Also, it seems to me that the later premise is in tension with modern cosmology. So, although I could be wrong (and I am always open to new evidence), I presently find it more plausible that the material universe was caused to exist by something immaterial. But I respect those who have a different assessment. And you offer some good insights.

    BTW: I assume you meant Joshua Dever.

    1. There are two responses to that that I'd like to bring up:

      I'm not sure how you could evaluate "everything material has a cause" being more simple than "everything material has a material cause". Couldn't I also speculate that "everything immaterial has a cause?" and use the same kind of reasoning to conclude that god had to be caused by something in the material universe?

      You could appeal to inductive evidence that we have, but then you only get the inference that "everything material has a material cause".

      The other and more important issue is that the premise of having material causes is absolutely NOT in contention with modern cosmology. If you haven't already, please take a look at the next post/video in the series related to cosmology.

      There is absolutely no evidence in cosmology that everything in the material universe "came into existence out of nothing". That's an pre-existing assumption smuggled into the Big Bang theory by apologists, and it has been shown to be possible that a big bang could very well arise from a quantum vacuum. In fact this is what Vilenkin, Guth, and many other cosmologists believe to be the case.

  3. Craig's kalam argument is the worst theistic argument I've ever heard. Most people, even professional philosophers, focus on the first 3 premises, which are only meant to philosophically establish the universe had a cause, but it completely collapses with the further premises analyzing what it is to be a cause. At that point it's an utter failure and classic non sequitor.

  4. Old post but found the blog well researched and thought it deserved some push back which I hope is of the same caliber. I think you need to give the category of metaphysical absurdity more weight as its a notion used in philosophy pretty regularly and not just by philosophers of religion. For some people a square circle is considered metaphysically absurd as opposed to logically because logic cares only about form/syntax without taking into account the meaning of the terms. In Craig's written work (e.g. Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology) he adopts a further distinction, calling the former an example a broadly logical impossibility. As a non-controversial example of metaphysical impossibility, seen as a more strict category, he cites the example of an object with size but no shape or vice versa. Even taking into account the meaning of the terms the contradiction here seems of a different sort than that of a square circle or married bachelor. The terms are not explicitly defined in terms of one another. In some sense we have additional intuitions that need to be fleshed out which inform us that such a situation is impossible.

    On that note, your critique that metaphysical impossibility relies on subjective intuitions seems unfair as all formal systems depend on axioms that we can really only justify by intuitive appeal and maybe how subjectively pleasing we find the formal system that results from the axioms. You are probably aware that infinity is only logically coherent in mathematics because most mathematicians have the subjective intuition that at least some notion of an actual infinity (i.e. an inductive set ) is logically coherent. However there are other well respected mathematicians who do not share this intuition and so go on developing mathematics without it. Apart from subjective intuitions about axioms or about the desirability of the system that results from adopting it, it doesn't seem we have other options for truth seeking. Perhaps you think consensus among expert should play a role.

    So as a start towards defending the Kalam it seems the metaphysical intuitions of people and philosophers cannot be simply thrown out because they are subjective or because some have turned out to be more of a hindrance to truth seeking than an aid (looking at you Aristotle).

    1. This isn't a direct response to your post Alex, but CA brought up Universal Material Causation and I was wondering what you thought about the problem of induction and if inductive reasoning is valid only when applied to material causes as the natural explanation for material effects.