In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
– Genesis 1:1
[I]t is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters…about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun, and about the stars, and about the genesis of the universe.
– Aristotle, Metaphysics I.II
Where did the universe come from? Has it been here forever or not? What would the implications be if the universe had a beginning? These questions have left people scratching their heads from time immemorial. We have all thought about such queries before and rightly so. There are undoubtedly fewer more important questions to ponder than those regarding the universe’s ultimate origins. “All men by nature desire to know” as Aristotle said, and on the topic of the origination of the physical world, it would surely be nice to know just a little! In the next few posts, we will be searching for good answers to the questions above and seeing how those answers point to the existence of a transcendent, personal creator of the cosmos.
What Is a “Cosmological Argument”?
In the field of natural theology, that division of philosophy of religion committed to offering philosophical arguments for God’s existence, there are many different types, or families, of arguments. For instance, there are arguments from design, which are known as teleological arguments, and there are arguments from the existence of objective moral values and duties, which are known as moral arguments. While arguments within these families may fall under the same category, they are often very different in the way they go about arguing for the existence of God. For example, the argument from the universe’s fine-tuning and William Paley’s watchmaker argument are both rightly classified as teleological, yet they are very different in what they argue for and what they argue from (i.e. the conclusions arrived at in the arguments differ, just as the evidences given in support of the premises differ). In this post, I will be introducing one particular argument from the cosmological family known as the Kalam cosmological argument (KCA). Before diving into the KCA, let me first define the pertinent term, namely, “cosmological argument.”
Philosophers C. Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis define cosmological arguments as
“attempts to infer the existence of God from the existence of the cosmos or universe.”1 Cosmological arguments, like the teleological example above, come in many different styles. What differentiates the KCA from other formulations of the cosmological argument is its radical claim that the universe is not temporally infinite, that is, that the universe has not existed for an infinite amount of time but had a first temporal moment at some point in the finite past. The Leibnizian and Thomistic versions of the cosmological argument are not predicated upon the universe’s being temporally finite but upon other considerations (e.g. the universe’s contingency). We, therefore, might classify the KCA as a temporal cosmological argument and the others as non-temporal cosmological arguments.2
Introducing the KCA
The KCA has a rich history in philosophical tradition. It has been defended by prominent ancient Arabic philosophers such as al-Kindi and al-Ghazali 3 and it finds its greatest contemporary defender in the analytic philosopher William Lane Craig who revitalized the argument in the late twentieth century. Other contemporary defenders include J.P. Moreland, R. Douglas Geivett, and Peter S. Williams.4
The argument “originated in the efforts of ancient Christian philosophers like John Philoponus of Alexandria to refute Aristotle’s doctrine of the eternity of the universe”5 and has been embraced historically by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. One of the clearest articulations of the KCA in the ancient world comes from Ghazali’s work The Incoherence of the Philosophers, where he writes, “Every being which begins has a cause for its beginning; now the world is a being which begins; therefore, it possesses a cause for its beginning.”6 We can put Ghazali’s argument into this simpler syllogism:
The argument is logically valid, which is to say it obeys the laws of logic. If an argument is logically valid and has true premises, then it is sound. “Soundness is a property of arguments that are both valid and have all true premises…If an argument is sound, then its conclusion is true and (assuming that you know the argument is sound) you must believe the conclusion.”8 What this means is that if whatever begins to exist has a cause and the universe began to exist, then it follows by the laws of logic that the universe has a cause. On this point J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig write, “In a sound deductive argument the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises: if the premises are true and the inference form valid, then it is impossible that the conclusion be false.”9 Even if we are not ecstatic about the conclusion, we must accept it if we are to be genuine lovers and acceptors of truth. The conclusion may be one that we wish were false but for the sake of objectivity and consistency, two key components of philosophical discourse, we are obliged to accept it.
The question on the table for our consideration now is “Is it true that whatever begins to exist has a cause?” In subsequent posts, we will take a deeper look at premise two and other issues related to the argument.
Do Things That Begin to Exist Have Causes?
At first, asking this question may seem pretty silly; of course things that begin to exist have causes! You would be shocked, and pretty happy I might add, to look into your wallet and find five new, crisp hundred dollar bills in there. The suggestion that they came to be without any cause whatsoever would hardly suffice as an explanation for how they ended up in your billfold.
Surprisingly however, several atheists have called the causal principle into question, quite astonishing to Craig, who writes, “Whenever I first wrote The Kalam Cosmological Argument, I figured that few atheists would deny the first premise and assert that the universe sprang into existence uncaused out of nothing…To my surprise, however, many atheists have taken this route.”10 Quentin Smith, J.L. Mackie, and Lawrence Krauss have all defended what we might call the “causeless thesis” in regards to the origin of the universe.11 For instance, Smith writes, “the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing.”12 That is a pretty extraordinary claim there! Is it really the case that we can get something from nothing? We should hardly think so.
Nothing is “not anything.” It is, to quote Aristotle, “that which rocks dream about.” It has no properties, no potentialities, and no propensities. It is a term of universal negation designating the absence of anything. Whenever I say, “Nothing stopped me from eating the last piece of apple pie,” I do not mean that there was something that stopped me and it was “nothing,” rather, I mean that there was not anything that stopped me; I ate the last piece without any hindrance whatsoever. And again, whenever I say, “Nothing is better than a cold drink on a hot day,” I do not mean that there is something called “nothing” which is better than a cold drink on a hot day. I mean that there is not anything better than a cold drink on a hot day. It is comical, then, to hear some atheists saying things like, “nothing is much more complicated than we would have imagined otherwise” and “nothing turns out to be full of stuff.”13 Nothing cannot be “complicated” or “full of stuff.” To say such is patently absurd and turns nothing into something.
In short, because nothing is, just that, “not anything,” it follows that nothing cannot be the cause of anything, for as the saying goes, ex nihilo nihil fit (Out of nothing, nothing comes). If something begins to exist, then it must have a cause of its existence.
True of the Things in the Universe, but Not of the Universe Itself?
Perhaps, however, the causal principle is true of everything in the universe, but not of the universe itself. Maybe it is the case that when things in the universe come to be they have causes, but if the universe as a whole came to be, then it is exempt from needing a cause. Is that a viable position? It wouldn’t seem so, for it is pretty clearly question begging.14 Why think that we should do away with causality so arbitrarily. There is nothing about the universe that should make us think that it is exempt from having a cause, save for its potentially being eternal, but we will deal with that question in later posts. If things that begin to exist really have causes and the universe began to exist, then it follows that the universe has a cause.
Did the Universe Cause Itself?
“Okay,” someone might reply, “I will admit that things that come to be have causes, but maybe things can just cause themselves.” This position is not viable either, for it is impossible for something to precede itself in existence and such would be necessitated if self-causation were a possibility. Things must exist before they can act as causes obviously, so in the state of affairs in which a thing does not exist, it cannot cause anything, let alone cause itself, for it must be in order to act. Self-causation is therefore logically incoherent.
What About Quantum Fluctuations?
Some skeptics have appealed to quantum mechanics in their attempts to show that the first premise of the KCA is false, claiming that quantum fluctuations give us an example of something coming from nothing. Those making this claim, however, have misunderstood what exactly a quantum fluctuation is. Quantum fluctuations involve the creation of so called “virtual particles” out of the quantum foam. The quantum foam, which has been unreasonably equated with an empty vacuum, is not “nothing,” for it has physical properties, like possessing the zero-point energy, and can be empirically described by physicists. The quantum foam, then, is clearly something and not nothing. Philosopher David S. Oderberg thus writes, “Quantum fluctuations…involve particles emerging from a pre-existing space-time structure, not a genuine vacuum.”15
The Soundness of the First Premise
With those considerations I think it is safe to say that the first premise of the KCA is sound. Firstly, the metaphysical principle of causality holds for all things that begin to exist whatsoever. Secondly, self-causation is logically incoherent. And thirdly, quantum mechanics presents no challenge to the axiom of ex nihilo, nihil fit. In the next several posts we will be considering some philosophical arguments for accepting the second premise.
Written by: Seth Baker
1. C. Stephen Evans and R. Zachary Manis. Philosophy of Religion: Thinking about Faith, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009): 67.
2. Ibid., 68.
3. For an extensive look at the history of the KCA in ancient Arabic and Jewish philosophy, see William Lane Craig’s The Kalam Cosmological Argument (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1979): 1–60.
4. See J.P. Moreland. Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987): 15–42; R. Douglas Geivett. “The Kalam Cosmological Argument,” in To Everyone An Answer: A Case for the Christian Worldview, ed. Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and J.P. Moreland (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004): 61–76; Peter S. Williams. A Faithful Guide to Philosophy: A Christian Introduction to the Love of Wisdom (London, England: Paternoster, 2013): 88–107.
5. William Lane Craig. On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (East Sussex, England: David C. Cook, 2010): 75.
6. Al-Ghazali Kitab al-Iqtisad fi’l-I’tiqad, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, quoted by Craig, On Guard. 74.
7. Craig, On Guard. 74.
8. Steven B. Cowan and James S. Spiegel. The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009): 20–21.
9. J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003): 59.
10. William Lane Craig. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008): 112.
11. See William Lane Craig and Quentin Smith. Theism, Atheism and Big Bang Cosmology (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1993); J.L. Mackie. The Miracle of Theism (Oxford, England: Clarendon, 1982); Lawrence M. Krauss. A Universe from Nothing (New York, NY: Free Press, 2012).
12. Craig and Smith, Big Bang Cosmology. 135.
13. Lawrence Krauss in his debate with William Lane Craig entitled Life, the Universe, and Nothing (II): Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?. Transcript available at https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/debates/life-the-universe-and-nothing-ii-why-is-there-something-rather-than-nothing/.
14. An argument is question begging, or circular, whenever it assumes what it is trying to prove. For an excellent look at informal fallacies, see Mark W. Foreman. Prelude to Philosophy: An Introduction for Christians (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014): chapter 6.
15. David S. Oderberg quoted by Williams. A Faithful Guide. 101.