Critically evaluate the Kalam Argument. (40)

The Kalam Argument for the existence of God was put forward by Islamic mutakallimimiin in the early middle ages. Responding to the work of Aristotle, gathered and translated by the first Caliphs into the Bayt al Hikmah in Baghdad, Muslim scholars were divided between accepting Aristotle’s persuasive world-view along with his arguments and modifying Aristotle to fit in with the revealed truth that the Universe was created by Allah and so had a beginning in time. Those who accepted Aristotle’s idea of an infinite universe, albeit one sustained by a Prime Mover, were known as “Falsafa” (the Arabic transliteration of “Philosopher” and those who modified Aristotle were known as “Kalam” (which literally means word or speech of God).  The Kalam argument built on 6th century Christian writer John Philoponus’ argument that the idea of an infinite universe was self-contradictory.  Philoponus observed that “The eternity of the universe would imply an infinite number of past motions that is continually being increased. But an infinite cannot be added to…” Scholars of the Kalam school argued that

  • P1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  • P2: The Universe began to exist
  • IC:  The universe has a cause to its existence.
  • P3: That cause is what everybody calls God
  • C:  God exists

In this way, scholars such as Al Kindi and later Al Ghazali proposed that Aristotle’s principle of causation suggests a necessary Uncaused Causer at the beginning of time rather than just a Prime Mover sustaining an infinite universe.

The work of Al Ghazali in particular inspired American scholar William Lane Craig to develop and defend a new version of the Kalam Argument in the 1970s and 1980s as part of a battery of arguments which he employs for the purposes of Christian apologetics.  He focussed on the first part of the argument above, namely

  • P1:  Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  • P2: The Universe began to exist
  • C:  The universe has a cause to its existence.

Craig chose to leave it to Theologians to argue separately that the (uncaused) cause of the universe could indeed be said to be God. Nevertheless, Craig’s argument was subject to immediate criticism.  Scientists took issue with the proposition “everything that begins to exist has a cause”, citing quantum particles as examples of entities within the universe that are not subject to the Aristotelian principle of causation.  Atheists took issue with the conclusion “that cause is what everybody calls God”, noting that little can be known about the Uncaused Cause of the universe and there is little point of worshipping something as abstract as the Higgs Boson. This essay will conclude that while the argument fails to demonstrate God’s existence it has significant value in other ways.

The Atheist philosopher JL Mackie rejected Craig’s first statement of his Kalam argument in his “The Miracle of Theism”, which was published posthumously in 1983.  In Chapter 5 Mackie attacks the idea that the universe could have a first cause in time, suggesting that Craig had misunderstood the concept of infinity.  He doubts that there is any good reason to believe that the first proposition of the Kalam argument, that “everything that begins to exist has a cause”, is true but focusses his attention on proposition two, that the universe must have begun to exist.  Mackie showed that there are a series of steps or sub-arguments involved in proposition 2, the first relying on the impossibility of an actual infinite and the second relying on the impossibility of an infinity by successive addition.  He argued that neither of the sub-arguments could be said to be sound and therefore that proposition 2, on which Craig’s conclusion relies, cannot be upheld.  Finally, Mackie pointed to the inconsistency in an argument which starts by upholding causality and then proposes an uncaused solution; like Al Ghazali and later Bertrand Russell, he asks “why could not the universe be its own cause?” Mackie’s critique of Craig’s argument is persuasive and echoes generations of critics of the Cosmological Argument as a whole. Nevertheless, in “Professor Mackie and the Kalam Cosmological Argument[2] Craig labelled Mackie’s criticism as “superficial”, suggesting that Mackie’s theoretical demolition of his claim that an actual infinite or an infinity by successive addition is impossible did not address the real-world difficulty of supposing the universe has no beginning.  It is one thing to theorise about Hilbert’s Hotel or Gabriel’s Trumpet, but it is a different matter to suggest that either approximates to reality.  Craig appeals to experience; how can we suppose that a series of causes and effects in time has no beginning?  Something just can’t come out of nothing!  It seems that Craig really has a point; the concept of infinity stretches the bounds of comprehension and the idea of the universe we can see and otherwise sense and that we can observe (using radio-telescopes at least) expanding, having no beginning and no end seems much less plausible than the alternative.

Nevertheless, Craig’s reluctance to make the move from claiming that the universe has a first cause in time to claiming that this cause is God is a potential weakness. Perhaps, as James Still observes, “Craig’s admirable effort to prove the finitude of the universe leaves him in the position of the runner at Marathon. While he has expended all of his energy to bring the news of the universe’s beginning to us, he has little strength left to argue convincingly for its cause.”  Or perhaps Craig’s reluctance is more strategic.  Given research into sub-atomic particles and the evidenced suggestion that on the quantum level things happen without a cause right now, let alone when the conditions of the universe were markedly different (as in the singularity), it is a logical stretch to identify the un-caused cause of the universe with God with any speed and without a great deal of justification.  Although the qualities that Craig ascribes to the cause of the universe – uncaused, necessary, timeless, space-less, eternal, unchanging, infinitely powerful – are the traditional qualities of God, arguably they became so as a result of the work of philosophers in attempting to co-opt Aristotle’s philosophy into the Philosophy of Religion.  It is difficult to see how the cause of the universe could be understood to be the father of Jesus, the author of miracles or the active recipient of prayers, even allowing for the use of metaphorical language. Yet of course Craig understands this difficulty; as a Reformed Epistemologist following Hick and Pannenberg, he leaves it to Theologians to make that case, seeing that his role as an apologist is limited to showing that a faith sourced elsewhere is potentially reasonable.  Craig’s theistic purpose in advancing and defending his argument is obvious; Craig’s version of the Kalam argument was first advanced at the end of a survey and analysis of cosmological arguments for God’s existence and is repeatedly referenced through Craig’s apologetic articles and videos.  It seems that his evasion in relation to the final step in the Islamic Kalam argument is deliberate and strategic, sidestepping the damaging criticism that would inevitably have followed on from his completing the Kalam argument as Al Ghazali did. Craig does not need to complete the argument for his purposes and to do so would be costly, so he chooses to focus on the part of the argument that is more defensible and which raises difficult questions about his opponents’ world-view.  While the criticism that Craig is a hypocrite is rightly rejected as being ad hominem,[4] it is fair to suggest that Craig’s strategic approach to the argument undermines its plausibility to some extent.

In later articles and popular presentations[5] Craig has recruited the work of scientists in support of his reasoning, pointing to the Big Bang Theory and associated evidence such as Red Shift, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics etc. as evidence for the necessity of a beginning for all time and all space.  Given the weight of scientific opinion behind the existence of the universe having a beginning it seems reasonable to conclude, as Craig does, that the universe must have a cause and that this must be outside space and time and thus, single, simple, unchanging, necessary and the origin of everything.  Yet the Philosopher of Science Adolf Grunbaum rejected Craig’s reasoning, arguing that Big Bang theory leads back to a singularity, an infinitely small and dense point of matter at t0.[6]  If time starts with the singularity, it makes no sense to speak of a cause prior to the singularity so the ultimate cause of the universe IS the singularity.  To put it another way, the singularity is the cause of the universe and, because there is no space or time prior to the singularity, the cause of the universe can only be the singularity.  Grunbaum’s reasoning seems flawless; if space and time are connected, as Einstein demonstrated, a universe expanding in space is also expanding in time and both space and time start together.  How then could there be a cause prior to or outside the universe, whether that cause is God or otherwise?  Perhaps the conclusion that the universe is, at least so far as human understanding is concerned, “a brute fact” is inescapable.

In conclusion, it seems that the Kalam argument is subject to several significant criticisms.  While its simple and elegant form seems to be valid, as JL Mackie observed it conceals chains of reasoning which might not bear scrutiny and makes universal claims about causation which cannot be fully supported.  It is not, therefore, a good argument even in terms of establishing the limited conclusion which William Lane Craig restricts it to, that the universe has an unspecified cause.  Nevertheless, it does seem that the argument has the merit of drawing attention to the inadequacy of alternative, non-theistic explanations of the universe.  It may be that we cannot establish the necessity of a cause for the universe, let alone that that cause is God in any meaningful sense, and yet the idea that the universe has no cause is difficult to accept on any level.  In the end the Kalam Argument shines a light on the bizarre state of relations between Science and Theology today… with the Scientists arguing against the principle of causation and against the implications of their own conclusion that the universe started to exist and the Theologians arguing that the scientists have been right all along, that the principle of causation must stand and that the Big Bang Theory and its implications must be accepted in full.  Perhaps at some point both will have to accept that establishing the cause of the universe is beyond the limits of human knowledge.

Footnotes

[1] Quoted in William Lane Craig “The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz” (1979) p53.

[2] Religious Studies, 1984, Vol.20, pp.367-375

[3] James T Sill “Eternity and Time in William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument” www.infidels.org

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSK3F3sjVNk

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CulBuMCLg0

[6] Vardy and Vardy “God Matters” (SCM Press, 2014) page 74

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