Theologians and religious philosophers have been creating arguments for the existence of a creator to the universe since ancient Greek times.  The argument known as the first cause, prime mover, or cosmological argument is among the most illustrious and common attempt to support the position that the universe had an intentional creator.  However, criticism has forced a re-working of the argument, most recently and influentially perhaps by William Lane Craig, producing the so-called kalam cosmological argument.  Its creation seems to have been an attempt to circumvent the classical refutation of the cosmological argument by creating a qualification of one cosmological argument’s first premise. 

This, however, does not circumvent a deeper and more vital criticism of the cosmological argument.  This criticism, essentially a biased choice for a supernatural explanation over a natural one, is terminal of both the classical cosmological argument and the newer kalam argument.  This biased choice suffers from the common problem of circular logic and assumed conclusions.  It chooses a god as the creator of the universe based on attributing, arbitrarily, powers to the creator god that is denied to the natural universe.  This is, in essence, assuming the powers of a god whose very existence the argument is supposed to prove. 

      But before we can address what is particularly wrong with these arguments, we need to first take a look at their structure.  Here is one version of the cosmological argument:

 

The Cosmological Argument

 

  1. Every effect has a cause(s).
  2. Nothing can cause itself.
  3. A causal chain cannot be of infinite length.
  4. Therefore, there must be a first cause; or, there must be something which is not an effect.

And here, the kalam cosmological argument, derived from the Christian apologist William Lane Craig, with its qualified first premise:

 

The Kalam Argument

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe must have a cause.

Both of these arguments are based upon the notion of cause and effect.  Despite Hume’s point of us not being able to, epistemologically, infer a relationship between two subsequent spatiotemporal events, this assumption of the relationship is not in need of challenge.  That is, we do not need to challenge the principle of causation to refute the argument, and thus the traditional Cosmological Argument’s first premise—“every effect has a cause”—is conceded. 

The Kalam argument, however, seems to have been created with Hume’s type of skepticism in mind, and thus inserts a qualified first premise; “everything that begins to exist has a cause.”  The distinction between this and the traditional cosmological argument is that it distinguishes effects in general from those that have a beginning.  This avoids the generic criticism by anyone who will try to argue in light of Hume’s skepticism, but  the qualification also leaves open an interesting possibility.  This qualification leaves open the possibility that some things might exist that never began to exist.  But Craig is not that sloppy, so before we jump on this observation we need to address the kalam argument’s second premise and its support.

The kalam argument’s second premise—“The universe began to exist”—is a claim that seems more of a presupposition than a fact, but watch how it is supported;

  1. An actual infinite cannot exist.
  2. A beginningless series of events is an actual infinite
  3. Therefore, the universe cannot have existed infinitely in the past, as that would be a beginingless series of events.

The important term here is, of course, “actual infinite.”  Wikipedia has the following to say about actual infinities;

Actual infinity is the notion that all (natural, real etc.) numbers can be enumerated in any sense sufficiently definite for them to form a set together. Hence, in the philosophy of mathematics, the abstraction of actual infinity is the acceptance of infinite entities, such as the set of all natural numbers or an arbitrary sequence of rational numbers, as given objects.

The mathematical meaning of the term actual in actual infinity is synonymous with definite, not to be mistaken for physically existing. The question of whether natural or real numbers form definite sets is therefore independent of the question of whether infinite things exist actually in nature.

Mathematicians such as Georg Cantor and Michael Dummett have argued that actual infinites can, in fact, exist.  This is a problem within mathematics, not a solved problem that the kalam argument can use without protest.  As Arnold T. Guminski has elsewhere argued, the application of “Cantorian set theory to the real world…does not generate counterintuitive absurdities.” [1]Thus, at best we have an argument that may be valid if Craig’s premise that an “actual infinite cannot exist” turns out to be true.  In the mathematical sense, this does not appear to be the case unequivocally.  The question is whether it is in this sense that Craig really intends to use it or not.

As it is used in the kalam argument, however, the term “actual infinite” might be better used in a somewhat non-technical sense.  That is, since it is not clear that the mathematical sense of actual infinite can be applied to the natural world, let us see if using it in a less technical sense might save Craig’s argument.  If I were to try and interpret the term actual infinite in this sense, perhaps it could mean that there cannot be anything that actually exists in reality that is infinite in the sense that it never began. This seems to fit the use of the term here, as it is the beginningless entity that interests us here.

  In this sense, the entity in question seems to be time, or more correctly space-time, which the following;

 

  1. An actual infinite cannot exist.
  2. A beginningless series of events is an actual infinite

designed to support the kalam argument’s second premise;

      2. The universe began to exist.

seems designed to support.  So the real question is whether time itself is infinite, which seems to be what Craig and other proponents of the kalam argument seem to be answering as “no.”  

This question of actual infinites and time is reminiscent of the somewhat infamous example from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time;

"A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the Earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy.

"At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise."

"The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?"

"You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's turtles all the way down."

One of Craig’s examples of an actual infinite is a bookshelf with no end, but the same point is made.  The idea is that there must be a point where the turtles or books end, otherwise they would fall, either over or down (to where, I wonder).

It is at this point that many people get a “common sense” feeling that Craig must be right; there must be a point at which it begins, and something had to cause it.  As Augustine speculated, time seems to have been created with the universe,[2] but subsequent scientific research about the universe’s origins seem to point to a beginning to the universe in it’s current form, but not necessarily to the beginning of matter itself, and thus not of time either.  Considerable debate exists over this question among scientists, so it is premature to declare that the universe is, by default, a thing with a beginning. The events at the singularity itself, as predicted by the big bang theory, are not understood by current cosmologists.  Before a certain point, we cannot say what happened, let alone any possible events that took place before the singularity.  This having been admitted, ignorance is not a justification for an insertion of supernatural causation.

Our inability to comprehend the nature of this enigma, however mind-boggling it is, is not sufficient to insert an answer that would require the same explanation.   This “god of the gaps” argument—that because we don’t know some supernatural dues ex machine must intervene—is not reasonable.  There is no reason to reject, out of hand, that the universe can’t be an actual infinite (or, for that matter, that it is incapable of self-cause) no matter how non-sensible it sounds.  Without a conclusion as to why an actual infinite can’t exist or why time cannot be infinite we cannot accept kalam’s second premise.

The cosmological argument’s second premise—“Nothing can cause itself”—has a similar problem as kalam’s second premise.  If we accept that all effects have a cause, this does not imply that the cause cannot be itself.  Certainly, something causing itself is a curious phenomenon, but this does not make it analytically impossible.  Observe how the conclusion is derived from the first two premises and in conjunction with the third premise which is that “a causal chain cannot be of infinite length.”

      The idea is that because things must have causes, things don’t cause themselves, and things don’t exist in an infinite chain (infinite time, turtles all the way down, etc), then something outside the system must be the cause.  Keep in mind that in the previous paragraph we referred to the argued impossibility of something causing itself as well as the necessity of causality for the existence of things.  The conclusion in both arguments is that something outside of the system is the cause.

      The traditional refutation of the cosmological argument is the question of what caused the outside cause.  That is, if we were to name the uncaused cause which exists outside of the universe “God,” then what causes God?  The common response is something along the lines of “God is uncaused” or simply “because he’s God.”  The kalam argument seems to have been worded specifically to address this refutation as it made the qualification that only things that begin have causes.  The kalam arguer will simply state that God didn’t begin; he’s the exception we were looking for earlier when analyzing the distinction between the first premises of both arguments.

      However, this answer seems flawed.  How to articulate what is wrong with it is a problem.  As Bertrand Russell said of the ontological argument, “it is easier to feel convinced that it must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies.”  And for some time after hearing of the kalam argument I felt the same way about it as Russell did for the ontological argument.  This elusive fallacy is actually quite subtle and telling.  It lies in the proposition that the explanation of a creator, excepted from the rule that it must have a cause, outside of the universe is somehow more valid than the proposition that the universe (or at least the natural forces that drive it) is sufficient in creating itself.  Put plainly, the problem is that the kalam arguer believes, implicitly, that God is a more likely explanation than nature.  For Craig, the only thing that can make sense is if a beginningless creator, existing outside of space and time, initiated the universe.          

In either case, the essential criticism can be pin-pointed in an arbitrary choice that must be made.  As Richard Dawkins put it, the cosmological argument makes “the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress.”[3]  Whether we qualify the first premise to exclude non-beginning things (as the kalam argument does) or not (as the cosmological does), the essential question is why it is more logically defensible to claim that for the rule that everything (or at least things that begin) must have a cause, an exception is made for God but not for the natural universe as a whole?  Why can’t the universe create itself? or why does god not begin?  It appears to be a wholly arbitrary choice, as in either case the rule must be violated, but with the proposition of God, we have to add something to the theory that adds nothing else to it.  I think William of Ockham might have had something to say about that. 

If God not having a beginning is not a problem for Craig and other defenders of this argument, why is it a problem for the natural universe?  To answer this, we must look at a further problem.  This problem concerns the definition of god used in both arguments.  A theologian might reply to my argument that the decision is not arbitrary, and that god must be allowed to have these attributes that the kalam argument seems to imply.  He may say that the argument is an attempt to show the need for there to be a God that has the attributes that we cannot find in the universe.  He might say that because we know that everything in the universe needs a cause and that the idea of infinite time is non-sense, there must be this being with these unique attributes.  That is, there must be this being that does not begin, has no creator, and is thus able to create the universe.  However, this suffers from the same problem from, and is in fact the same as, the ontological argument. 

The ontological argument strives to define a god into existence.  Essentially, it asks us to imagine the most perfect of all beings, and says that it must exist because existence is better than non-existence, and if this being is truly perfect it must have this attribute as well.  The problems with this argument are two-fold; merely thinking or imagining some being does not imply the being has actual existence outside of it being conjured in the imagination.  Also, it seems odd to declare that existence is somehow ‘better’ than non-existence.  There have been other criticisms of the ontological argument (the so-called ontological argument of God’s non-existence,[4] but the above is sufficient to make the point.  Therefore, a non-existent God creating the universe is infinitely awesome, greater than which we cannot conceive).

The interesting thing here is that what seems to allow the theist to choose the definition of perfection as including existence rather than non-existence is this same arbitrary choice.  That is, this the same bias that makes the allows the theist to claim that god must have these attributes of being without beginning and not needing a creator seems to lie at the root of the accepting the ontological argument as well.  In fact, this bias, this arbitrary choice, seems to lie at the very basis of theism.  Consider the argument from design; what allows the theist to consider necessary the designer when the processes within the natural universe are sufficient to explain this erroneous perception of intent and design.  This obvious preference for a being beyond the natural seems to be ultimately based in the theistic desire for their to be something beyond the natural.  The fact that nothing necessitates this being other than powers that theists either don’t see in nature or, for some reason, do not want to attribute to the natural world is telling.  This bias admits to what could be described as a fear or longing for there to be more than the physical, but perhaps more appropriately a need for the metaphysical.

 

This need, what Nietzsche called a “metaphysical need,” seems to permeate theism.  The following quote from Beyond Good and Evil is particularly relevant;

To translate man back into nature; to become master over the many vain and overly enthusiastic interpretations and connotations that have so far been scrawled and painted over the eternal basic text of homo natura; to see to it that man henceforth stands before man as even today, hardened in the discipline of science, he stands before the rest of nature, with Oedipus eyes and sealed Odysseus ears, deaf to the siren songs of old metaphysical bird catchers who have been piping at him all too long, "you are more, you are higher, you are of a different origin!"—that may be a strange and insane task, but it is a task[5]

This need drives the theist of all kinds to see God everywhere.  In our gaps of knowledge, the beauty of the world, and in the powers of nature there is a supernatural God that can only be attended to through faith; itself an invisible feign composed of hopes and dreams (“faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.[6] As the New Testament freely admits).  God hides from our finite selves, but yet is so necessary that we cannot love, think logically, or exist without it.  In essence, the theist chooses not only to believe in God but, with this biased need, arbitrarily find it the necessary answer to all of the questions we strive to answer in this proposed being.  To quote Daniel C. Dennett, theists “believe in belief in God,” therefore God must exist.

This choice is not only unnecessary, it is not parsimonious.  In order to explain something apparently designed and which cannot create itself, a being is conjured into existence which would require even more unlikely explanation.  This final thought should have killed the cosmological argument millennia ago, but the need for God just won’t let it die, nor does it seem they will let it die any time soon.

 



[1] Guminski, Arnold T. “The Kalam Cosmological Argument Yet Again: The Question of the Metaphysical Possibility of an Infinite Temporal Series” (2003) http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/arnold_guminski/kalam2.shtml

[2] cf. Books 11 and 12, City of God

[3] Dawkins, Richard TheGod Delusion.  P. 77

[4]    For example (from http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ontological-arguments/#5)

1. The creation of the world is the most marvellous achievement imaginable.

2.  The merit of an achievement is the product of (a) its intrinsic quality, and (b) the ability of its   creator.

3. The greater the disability or handicap of the creator, the more impressive the achievement.

4. The most formidable handicap for a creator would be non-existence.

5. Therefore, if we suppose that the universe is the product of an existent creator, we can conceive a greater being — namely, one who created everything while not existing.

6. An existing God, therefore, would not be a being than which a greater cannot be conceived, because an even more formidable and incredible creator would be a God which did not exist.

7. (Hence) God does not exist.

 

[5] Nietzsche, Friedrich.  Beyond Good and Evil, “Our Virtues,” §230

[6] Hebrews 11.1

1