Originally posted on the Cambridge Skeptics Blog – May 25th 2020.
If you are anything like me, and the vast majority of the country, you are now no doubt stuck at home for the foreseeable future while we ride out this pandemic. If you are also anything like me this has you thinking about philosophy, apologetics, and the Kalam Cosmological Argument. Come on, you know you’re all doing it. And so, as you are all primed and raring to go, I thought I would take an overly long and in-depth look at this most pervasive of arguments for the existence of God. Let’s start at the beginning shall we.
Where did the universe come from? This is a great and fascinating question that most of us have wondered about at some point in our lives. Many religious people, though I will be focusing on Christian belief here as it is what I am most familiar with, believe that the cause of the universe was an eternal, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, enormously powerful, personal being that they call God, who created the universe in which we live out of absolutely nothing. Probably the most common apologetic argument put forward in defence of this proposition is the aforementioned Kalam Cosmological Argument. Stated formally it goes like this:
1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Now I am sure you will all have immediately noticed that the conclusion of the Kalam Cosmological Argument is not “the cause of the universe is an eternal, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, enormously powerful, personal being who created the universe out of absolutely nothing”. To reach this conclusion additional steps are required, or as Professor William Lane Craig, arguably the pre-eminent Christian apologist advancing this argument, puts it “once we reach the conclusion that the universe has a cause then we can analyse (sic) what properties a cause of the universe would have to have.” Ok then Dr Craig, but before anyone does that maybe we should start by taking a look at the Kalam Cosmological Argument itself and see if it even holds up.
First off, I should acknowledge that, as stated, the Kalam Cosmological Argument is completely valid. That is the conclusion, that the universe has a cause, naturally follows from the two premises. This is not under question here, rather what should be questioned is whether the two premises are sound, that is do they accurately reflect the reality in which we find ourselves? So, let’s start with that first premise, everything that begins to exist has a cause, do we have good reasons to accept that this is true?
In his book, Reasonable Faith, Dr Craig puts forward three arguments in defence of this premise. Firstly, he argues that the premise is self-evidently true, that our understanding of the laws of cause and effect tells us that every effect must have a corresponding cause. Furthermore, he states that this premise is certainly more plausible than its negation, namely that something could come into being without a cause, or to put it another way, something could come into being out of nothing. He goes on to proclaim that the mere suggestion that something could come into being from nothing is “literally worse than magic” and that the person making the suggestion has “quit doing serious philosophy”. Those are some pretty strong words.
Next Craig makes use of a reductio ad absurdum argument to state that it is completely absurd to believe that the universe could come from nothing, because if it were possible for the universe to do this then why couldn’t anything and everything do likewise? Why, he asks, don’t things like root beer, Beethoven and bicycles simply pop into being completely uncaused from nothing if it were indeed possible for things to begin to exist uncaused? Lastly, he points out that the idea that everything that begins to exist has a cause is constantly being reaffirmed by our everyday experiences. Every single thing we can point to that begins to exist has a cause. The chair I am sitting in right now had a cause, as did the table I am sitting at, and the laptop I am typing this on. As did I for that matter. Simple, everyday reality re-enforces over and over again that everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence. It is, as Craig himself puts it, intuitive. Unfortunately, for Craig that is, it is this matter of intuition that undermines his argument. It also goes a long way to showing that, rather than using a “bottom up” approach to philosophy, by which the self-evident and intuitive nature of reality and the laws of cause and effect are used as the foundation from which to construct an argument, Craig is using a “top down” approach, in which he starts with his answer and then searches reality for those aspects of it that support this predefined conclusion. Allow me to elaborate.
As Craig rightly states, the idea that every effect has a cause is indeed supported by our ongoing experience of reality. When faced with something we have never encountered before it is indeed intuitive to conclude that the object in question must have had a cause. But is this the only thing our intuition tells us? Is it really the case that the best our intuition can do is tell us that every effect had a cause? Can it not be any more specific than that? Well yes, yes it can.
In book five of Metaphysics, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that there are four fundamental types of answer to the question of “why” things change or move; or to be more specific in this case why there is a universe, or a chair, or a table, laptop or a person sitting inside writing about religious apologetics on a beautiful, sunny afternoon. These four fundamental types can be thought of as four different “causes” for the thing in question. The first of these is known as the Material “cause”. This refers to the pre-existing material that an object is made out of. So, for example, the material cause of the chair and table might be wood and nails, the laptop metal, plastic and silicon, while the material cause for me would be the egg and sperm that formed my zygote.
Next up is the Formal “cause”. This refers to the form that the object takes. So for example the difference between me and a simple collection of cells is the specific arrangement of the cells in my body that allows me to have certain properties and perform certain functions that the cells on their own would lack. Thirdly, there is the Efficient “cause”, that being the thing or agent responsible for the effect. Coming back to our previous list the efficient cause of the table and chairs would be a carpenter, or more likely a machine in a factory somewhere. Likewise, my laptop also probably had a machine as its efficient cause, while the efficient cause of me was my parents. And lastly there is the Final “cause”. This one is probably the most abstract of the four and therefore the most difficult to get your head around. Final causes refer to the end or purpose of an object. So the final cause of a chair is to be sat on, the table’s final cause is to have things put on it, while the laptop it to be used to carry out computer related task and my final cause, at least according to Aristotle, is to produce more humans. Not sure I really agree with him on that last one.
For the sake of the discussion at hand we are only really interested in two of these four fundamental types, those being the material and efficient “causes” of things. You see, when we look at the world around us our intuition does more than tell us that everything that begins to exist has a cause, it tells us that everything had both a material and an efficient cause. Look around you, pick absolutely anything you see. Maybe you are reading this sitting on your sofa, with a TV in the corner of the room and a picture hanging on the wall. All three of these things were made out of pre-existing materials and all three of them were the product of some kind of agent, conscious or otherwise, acting upon those pre-existing materials. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any effect without taking both the effector, the thing producing the effect, and the effected, the thing upon which the effector acts, into account. Try it. Come up with an example where you have an effect that does not require an efficient cause, the effector, acting upon a material cause, the effected, to produce it. Stop reading now and take a minute to work this through in your head. You will find it holds true for every example you can think of, even if some require a bit more thought than others.
A kid, the efficient cause, threw a ball, the material cause, at the window and broke it, the effect. A cook, the efficient cause, combined ingredients, the material cause, to make a cake, the effect. Your parents, the efficient cause, combined egg and sperm, the material cause, to produce you, the effect. Every single example of an effect that we can point to in the world around us requires both an efficient and material cause for it to have begun to exist. This is what our intuition tells us, and so we must ask why the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument does not reflect this? Why is it, if it is truly based upon what our intuition tells us, that the Kalam Cosmological Argument does not read like this:
1. Everything that begins to exist has both an efficient and material cause of its existence.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has both an efficient and material cause of its existence.
Now I don’t see a problem with this. Why couldn’t some pre-existing, non-universe stuff have been acted upon in some way to produce the universe? Well William Lane Craig has a response to this. He argues that the term “universe” is being defined in the Kalam Cosmological Argument as “the whole of material reality”, and as such if material reality had a pre-existing material cause then it didn’t really begin to exist at that point. Personally, I think this is just word games, and even goes against the arguments Craig himself offers in support of the second premise, which I will not cover in any detail in this post as it is already way too long. When most people use the term “universe” they are referring to all of time and space and its contents, subsequent to the Big Bang. If there existed any material before the Big Bang, then this material could not be rightly referred to as the “universe” in any meaningful way. Just as nails and wood before they are put together are not a table, or an egg and sperm before they are combined are not a zygote, any material that existed before the Big Bang was not the universe.
Craig is specifically defining the word “universe” in such a way that it makes the possibility that the universe had a material cause seem “incoherent”. However, he then goes on to make use of modern cosmology and physics to support his second premise, both of which do not use the word “universe” in the way that Craig does. Why would he do this? Why would he use a definition of the word “universe” that is at odds with the very evidence he uses to support part of his argument? Well the answer is fairly clear. As previously stated, Craig uses the Kalam Cosmological Argument as support for his conclusion that “the cause of the universe is an eternal, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, changeless, immaterial, enormously powerful, personal being who created the universe out of absolutely nothing”. Craig simply cannot use a definition of the word “universe” that allows for the possibility that the universe was formed from some pre-existing non-universe stuff, even if doing so flies in the face of the way the word is used in cosmology and physics, because the predefined, top down conclusion he wants to reach is that the universe was created “out of absolutely nothing”.
Having this predefined conclusion in place and attempting to forge an argument to point to it, rather than following the logic and evidence where it leads, causes even more problems for Craig as we move on. When discussing the creation of anything there are two different types of creation that we need to keep in mind. The first is creatio ex nihilo, or creation from nothing, while the second is creatio ex materia, or creation from material. Dr Craig uses the Kalam Cosmological Argument as evidence for his conclusion that the universe is an example of this first type of creation, creatio ex nihilo, and yet in order to do this he points to examples of the second type of creation, creatio ex materia. Look again at the arguments he offers in support of the first premise. One of the main pieces of evidence he presents to support the idea that everything that begins to exist has a cause is our ongoing, everyday experience of the world around us. And yet, as discussed previously, every single example of something beginning to exist that we have experience of is an example of creatio ex materia, while not even one is an example of
creatio ex nihilo.
And it still gets worse. Another line of evidence Craig presents is the idea that our understanding of the laws of cause and effect tells us that every effect must have a corresponding cause. Craig calls this self-evidently true, and yet the conclusion he wants us to reach about the causal nature of the universe goes against one of the fundamental aspects of the laws of cause and effect, and that’s the relationship between affect and effect. As we discovered earlier, when talking about cause and effect we are referring to an efficient cause, the effector, acting upon a material cause, the effected, in order to produce an effect. Craig wants to remove the middle part of this equation, to have an effector who acts upon nothing in order to produce an effect. Or to put it another way, he wants an effector who doesn’t affect anything in order to produce an effect. This is incoherent, and furthermore is in no way supported by the laws of cause and effect, or our experience of the everyday world. It most certainly is not self-evidently true.
It seems to me that if we grant that the universe had to have had an efficient cause, and that we go along with Craig and proclaim this efficient cause to be God, we are left with three options as to how this played out.
1. God affected the universe in order to cause the universe.
2. God affected nothing in order to cause the universe.
3. God affected previously existing material, assembling it into the universe.
Now the first of these options simply doesn’t make sense. When a carpenter causes a table to begin to exist, he does not do so by acting upon the table, because the table doesn’t exist yet. Instead he acts upon wood and nails in order to produce the table. You cannot act upon a thing in order to bring that thing into existence. Craig himself dismisses this possibility with his definition of the universe as “the whole of material reality”. Using this definition there could not have been a universe, of any sort, to act upon in order to bring about the universe we know and love. So that option is off the table.
Next up we have the option that Craig himself favours. That God created the universe out of absolutely nothing. God produced an affectless effect. Now this may be what Craig’s religion tells him, but it removes the “relationship” part of the cause and effect relationship. You have God, the alleged efficient cause, and you have the effect, the universe. What you don’t have is any connection between the two. If God did not act upon anything then in what meaningful way can he be said to have been the cause of the universe? Craig has already stated that he finds the idea that something could come from nothing “literally worse than magic” and an example of someone who has “quit doing serious philosophy”, and yet he believes that God acting upon nothing to produce something is the most rational and logical conclusion we can come to. As such Craig seems to be arguing that because he believes that God existed both causally prior to the creation of the universe and after the creation of the universe then he must have been the cause of the creation of the universe, but this simply does not follow. Unless God affected something then it is not possible for an effect to have been produced, at least not using the laws of cause and effect as we understand them, and certainly not based upon the self-evidently true nature of the world around us.
And so we are left with the third option, that God acted upon some kind of pre-existing, non-universe material and assembled it into the universe. Of the three this is the only option that is actually supported by the laws of cause and effect and can be said to resemble the countless examples of things beginning to exist that we witness on a day to day basis. And yet Craig completely and out rightly rejects this option. Why? Because it is somehow illogical and goes against the evidence he himself presented in support of the first premise? Well no, he rejects it because it goes against his predefined conclusion that God created the universe from nothing.
Of course these objections are not new to Craig; he has heard them all before. So how does he deal with them? During an interview for his Reasonable Faith podcast Craig was presented with the following statement by the interviewer Kevin Harris. “If something cannot come from nothing, then God can’t bring anything from nothing either.” Now as I stated above this seems a perfectly reasonable conclusion to me. If nothing is being affected then nothing can be caused to come into being. So how does Craig respond to this? Well, like this: “
That would be a misunderstanding … of the claim. Because in the absence of God, what one is saying is there is no efficient cause, there is no material cause, there is no cause whatsoever. Being comes from nonbeing. But when you say God brought the universe into being without a material cause, that is not a case of being coming from nonbeing. There God is a being – he is an actual being – and he produces the universe in existence. So that is very, very different from saying there is no cause whatsoever. In the one case you are saying there is an efficient cause but no material cause; in the other case you are saying there is neither an efficient cause nor a material cause. That is why I say it is worse than magic. In magic, when the magician pulls a rabbit out of the hat, at least you have the magician, you see? But on the atheistic view, the universe just pops into being absolutely from nonbeing which, I think, is surely absurd.”
This, as far as I can tell, appears to be his entire argument on the matter. In fact he echoes this statement in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology when he says “for if coming into being without a material cause seems impossible, coming into being with neither a material nor an efficient cause is doubly absurd.” You will note that he hasn’t presented any argument or evidence as to why we should think that it is possible to have an efficient cause without a material cause, all he has done is point out that he finds it even more “absurd” to suggest that the universe had neither an efficient cause or a material cause. But why should we accept an absurd claim, even one that is less absurd than other possible options, when we have an entirely plausible alternative to hand that fits perfectly with the very evidence raised in support of the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument to begin with?
As it stands the options before us are as follows: 1. The universe was caused to exist by the interaction of an efficient cause with a material cause.2. The universe was caused to exist by an efficient cause, but without any material cause.3. The universe was caused to exist without an efficient cause or any material cause. Option 2, the one that Craig believes to be true, has already been shown to be incoherent, and by Craig’s own admission is absurd. It makes no sense what so ever to talk about an efficient cause without a material cause. If something acts upon nothing then is cannot produce an effect, not using any definition of the laws of cause and effect with which we are familiar. As for Option 3, well apparently this is “doubly absurd” and “literally worse than magic” and so if Craig himself is happy to do away with this then so am I. This leaves Option 1, the only one with any logical or evidential support, and the one that yet again Craig is forced to absolutely reject because it does not fit with his predefined conclusion. This is the problem with doing “top down” philosophy.
All that said I am sure the sharp minded amongst you will have noticed that the three options above don’t actually constitute a complete list of the choices available to us. There is a forth option, one that I am not going to say all that much about, but the existence of which is yet another nail in the coffin of this apologetic argument.
4. The universe had an a-causal beginning.
An a-causal beginning is a beginning that did not require a cause. This is not to be mistaken with something being caused to begin to exist out of nothing; it is literally something beginning to exist without any cause for it having done so. Now there appears to be some evidentiary support for this idea. While I am certainly no expert on the matter, physics points to the existence of so called virtual particles, which seem to appear and disappear within our universe completely uncaused. While future investigation will confirm whether this is the case or not it remains an option that has to be ruled out before Craig can assert that Option 2 is the only possible explanation.
Now before I finally bring things to an end, for the moment at least, I mean there is a whole second premise to this thing to look at, I want to revisit that reductio ad absurdum argument that Craig presented against the idea that the universe could have come from nothing. Up to this point I have simply let it stand, choosing instead to focus on his other two lines of evidence. However, it is such a bad argument that I can’t move on without at least making a passing comment. As I am sure you remember Craig stated that if it were possible for the universe to come into existence from nothing then why do other things, such as root beer, Beethoven, and bicycles not do likewise?
Now I have no doubt that you can all immediately see the flaw in this reasoning. The universe, if we use Craig’s own chosen definition, represents “the whole of material reality” and as such before the universe existed there was no material reality, there was in fact “nothing”. However, once the universe started to exist there was no longer nothing, because there was now something, namely the universe, in existence. When Craig asks why root beer bottles don’t suddenly “pop into being uncaused out of nothing” I have to ask where exactly is this “nothing” he is talking about? The universe is not nothing, the universe is something, and a something with very specific laws governing what is and is not possible. All the examples he gives to try and show how foolish it is to believe something could come from nothing are actually examples of something coming spontaneously from something, of Beethoven coming from the universe. We have never seen a single example of something coming from nothing because we have never seen a single example of nothing. As such to claim that we should not believe that something can come from nothing because we don’t see examples of something coming spontaneously from something is a complete non sequitur, it simply doesn’t follow.
Furthermore, this argument once again peaks that intuition of ours, and again not in Craig’s favour. The reductio ad absurdum encourages the reader to compare causes within the universe with the cause of the universe itself. Craig wants us to draw the conclusion that because we don’t see things popping into existence from nothing within the universe then it is not possible for the universe itself to have done so. The problem is that this line of reasoning arguably does the exact opposite, and instead highlights the fact that we do not know how the laws of cause and effect apply to the universe as a whole, but only how they apply within the confines of the universe itself. As such, and once again, we find ourselves with legitimate cause to ask why, if the Kalam Cosmological Argument is really based upon our intuition about the laws of cause and effect and the everyday evidence of the world around us, it is not worded differently. For example like this:
1. Everything that begins to exist within the universe has a cause.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.
Now obviously one of the reasons it is not worded like this is because this argument is no longer logically valid, the conclusion does not follow naturally from the premises. However, as with the issue of all known effects having both an efficient and a material cause, the question remains as to why this obvious fact is apparently not taken into account. Every single example of something beginning to exist that we are aware of and every single example of the laws of cause and effect in action that we can point to all take place within the universe, not a single one takes place outside of it. Personally, my intuitions as to how cause and effect works do not extend to realms completely absent of any known physical laws, or time and space for that matter. Indeed, it seems fairly intuitive to me that the state of reality that gave rise to the universe was fundamentally different from the state of reality we find within the universe that gives rise to everything else. However, and I am sure this will come as no surprise, Craig has a response to this:
“[The Causal Principle is not} a merely physical law like the law of gravity or the laws of thermodynamics, which are valid for things within the universe… [Rather it is] a metaphysical principle: being cannot come from non-being; something cannot come into existence uncaused from nothing. The principle therefore applies to all of reality, and it is thus metaphysically absurd that the universe should pop into being uncaused out of nothing.”
So according to Craig the idea that something cannot come from nothing is not just a physical law, but rather a metaphysical one, or in other words he is saying it is something that is true regardless of what ever state of reality one might find themselves applying it to. Well, to paraphrase philosopher Wes Morriston, that is certainly what William Lane Craig claims, but are there any good reasons as to why we should accept that he is right? I think not. Remember, Craig is claiming that this causal principle must be metaphysically true in part because he says that it is needed to explain why things like root beer, Beethoven and bicycles don’t simply pop into existence from nothing. But this seems rather like overkill to me. We don’t need an all-encompassing metaphysical principle to explain why these things don’t just pop into existence within the universe; we have perfectly good physical explanations as to why they don’t.
Moreover, I also remind you that part of Craig’s argument for the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument is that it is constantly being confirmed by our everyday experiences. In fact he has gone as far as saying that “[a]theists who are scientific naturalists… have the strongest of motivations to accept [this].” However, I, and Wes Morriston for that matter, have to wonder what exactly it is that Craig thinks the “scientific naturalist” is accepting here? Are they accepting that the laws of cause and effect have to be metaphysical and apply to all states of reality, or are they simply agreeing that within the universe these laws do indeed seem to hold true? It is also interesting to note that Craig appears to be cherry picking which aspects of the laws of cause and effect he thinks are metaphysical and which he thinks only apply within the universe. He apparently believes that the observed fact that every effect requires both an efficient and material cause is not metaphysical in nature, nor is the idea that causality is temporally bound, and that a cause must always precede its dependent effect. He believes that the universe did not have a material cause and was brought into existence from a timeless state of reality, thus to him these aspects of causality cannot be metaphysical, while the idea that something cannot come from nothing, which he requires to support his beliefs, must be. It seems to me that which aspects of causality, if any, are metaphysical in nature is far from established, and why, if we are to dismiss such integral aspects of causality as the efficient/material cause relationship as merely physical, we should accept that something being unable to come from nothing is a metaphysical principle is also entirely unclear to me.
So there you have it, the evidence in support of the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument. Two lines of reasoning that support the idea of the universe having both a material and efficient cause, and a complete non sequitur that falsely equates something with nothing and asks us to cherry pick which aspects of causality we consider to be metaphysical in nature. Of course the argument does have a second premise, but I will not cover that today as this post is already way, way too long and I need a rest.
Take care, stay safe, and if you are interested I will aim to cover the second premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument sometime soon.
 Craig, William Lane; Moreland, J. P. (2009). The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (pp. 194). John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 978-1-4051-7657-6.
 Craig, William Lane (2000). The Kalam Cosmological Argument (pp. 149). Wipf and Stock Publishers. ISBN 978-1-57910-438-2.
 Craig, William Lane. (2010). The Best of the Kalam Cosmological Argument. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-best-of-the-kalaam-cosmological-argument
 Craig, William Lane (1994). Reasonable Faith. Moody Press. ISBN 0-89107-764-2.
 Aristotle, “Book 5, section 1013a”, Metaphysics, Translated by Hugh Tredennick Aristotle in 23 Volumes, Vols. 17, 18, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1933, 1989; (hosted at perseus.tufts.edu.)
 I feel I should note here that every example I have listed here has a conscious agent as its efficient cause. Of course this does not have to be the case. The moon’s gravity, the efficient cause, acting on the ocean, the material cause, to produce the tides, the effect, is an example of a non-conscious agent playing the role of an efficient cause.
 Craig, William Lane. (2007). Causal Premiss of the Kalam Argument. http://www.reasonablefaith.org/causal-premiss-of-the-kalam-argument
 I need to give credit here to Scott Clifton and his excellent series of Youtube videos presenting his objections to William Lane Craig’s presentation of the Kalam Cosmological Argument. He puts things far better than I ever could and his videos are well worth checking out – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRn-mVPIl60
 Clifton, Scott (2011). William Lane Craig is not doing himself any favors. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IGlgYExLOo
 Craig, William Lane; Moreland, J. P. (2009). The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Chapter 3: The Kalam Cosmological Argument (pp. 101-201). John Wiley and Sons. ISBN 978-1-4051-7657-6.
 Smith, Q (1988), “The Uncaused Beginning of the Universe,” Philosophy of Science 55:39-57.
 Craig, William Lane (2008). Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
 Morriston, Wes (unpublished). Doubts about the Kalam Cosmological Argument. Forthcoming in Meister, Moreland, & Sweis (eds), Debating Christian Theim. Oxford University Press.
Image taken from https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/07/debate-intensifies-over-speed-expanding-universe