Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Kalām Cosmological Argument

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe must have a cause.
Quoting Christian Philosopher William Lane Craig for a fair presentation of the argument:

"God makes sense of the origin of the universe. Have you ever asked yourself where the universe came from? Why everything exists instead of just nothing? Typically atheists have said that the universe is eternal, and that's all. But surely this doesn't make sense. [...] If the universe never began to exist, then that means that the number of events in the past history of the universe is infinite. But mathematicians recognize that the idea of an actually infinite number of things leads to self–contradictions. For example, what is infinity minus infinity? Well, mathematically, you get self–contradictory answers. This shows that infinity is just an idea in your mind, not something that exists in reality. [...]

But that entails that since past events are not just ideas, but are real, the number of past events must be finite. Therefore, the series of past events can't just go back forever. Rather the universe must have begun to exist.

This conclusion has been confirmed by remarkable discoveries in astronomy and astrophysics. The astrophysical evidence indicates that the universe began to exist in a great explosion called the "Big Bang" about 15 billion years ago. Physical space and time were created in that event, as well as all the matter and energy in the universe. [...] Thus, what the Big Bang model requires is that the universe began to exist and was created out of nothing.

[...] There must have been a cause which brought the universe into being. And from the very nature of the cause, this cause must be an uncaused, changeless, timeless, and immaterial being which created the universe. It must be uncaused because there cannot be an infinite regress of causes. It must be timeless and therefore changeless––at least without the universe––because it created time. Because it also created space, it must transcend space as well and therefore be immaterial, not physical.

Moreover, I would argue, it must also be personal. For how else could a timeless cause give rise to a temporal effect like the universe? If the cause were an impersonal set of sufficient conditions, then the cause could never exist without the effect. If the sufficient conditions were timelessly present, then the effect would be timelessly present as well. The only way for the cause to be timeless but for the effect to begin in time is if the cause is a personal agent who freely chooses to create an effect in time without any prior determining conditions. And, thus, we are brought, not merely to the transcendent cause of the universe, but to its personal Creator. [...]"

Some objections:
  • About premise 1. We have never seen anything coming into being, everything we see inside of our universe is the product of change. When we say that a new chair came into being, what we mean by this is that there was a change in the way pre-existing molecules were arranged in space and "chair" is how we identify the new arrangement. This is the product of change and not of creation. Since we never observed anything coming into being, we can't apply the same rules that we know apply for the change we observe in our universe and therefore, things that come into being might not require a cause. I'm only including this here to point out the metaphysical possibility of this premise being false, although I actually think that the premise is a reasonable assumption and much more reasonable than it's denial.

  • About premise 2. What's really meant by it? It's very important to make a distinction here: Many different things can be interpreted by the 2nd premise, this argument implies that all space and time came into being, from nothing, at the beginning of the universe but when we say that the universe began to exist, we're not necessarily presuming that the very stuff that the universe is made of actually started to exist. From a scientific point of view, the argument endorses and appeals to the Big Bang theory, which doesn't tell us anything about the origins of energy. There's no information or meaningful theoretical data from time zero to Planck Time so the Big Bang theory doesn't tell us whether all energy and matter was created ex nihilo (out of nothing) or was the product of change. From a metaphysical point of view, I don't see why that assumption should be more plausible than any other. The only thing we should presume with that premise is that the universe began to exist in the sense that there was a time zero from which this instance of space and time expanded and formed this universe.

  • About premise 2, the universe may never have began to exist. Began as in created from nothing. The temporal effect (the Universe) could be eternally present without being infinite in the past. First, because time is a meaningless concept "before" time 0, which doesn't necessarily mean that nothing existed; and second and most importantly, because it seems to be presumed that time is an absolute measure that must be in agreement between the inside of the universe and "outside" of it and I can't see how that would work out from a metaphysical point of view. Otherwise, a 4-dimensional object can exist timelessly and still be finite in all 4 dimensions, including the 3 space dimensions and 1 time dimension.

  • What does it mean for something to be immaterial? The cause must be something because, if it is nothing, it doesn't exist. If it is something then there is something. This seems obvious, I'm only spelling this out because there are too many layers of assumptions in the word immaterial as if it could be something made of nothing. The idea behind the argument is that if the cause created the concept of matter, he mustn't be made of it (hence immaterial), however, this doesn't exclude the cause being "made" of something else. Of course that "being made of" has lots of connotations with the physics that we know of but the point is that the cause needs to be something instead of nothing. Now if this is correct and this is only meant as a "relative immateriality" (relative to the kind of matter we know of) and not something made of nothing, then anything can be the cause of the universe, not just abstract things like minds or numbers, it just needs to be made of something different than what the universe is made of, to be immaterial in that sense. Therefore, the justification for it to have to be a mind doesn't seem to stand.

  • What does it mean for something to be timeless? By timeless, we can mean something without change or, as I see it, we can recognize the possibility of change without what we call time. I think the former is being presumed in the argument but that's not important because both present different problems to the rest of the argument as we'll see next.

  • An immaterial, timeless mind gives rise to two problems. Minds as we know them, unless you accept dualism, are likely reducible to our nervous systems and are therefore, material in their cause. Also, if we accept the notion of timelessness as the absence of change, then this mind couldn't think, it would be in a constant frozen state where no thoughts could flow and no decisions could ever be made. If the cause was eternally present in the state necessary for creation then the effect would be eternally present as well.

  • What caused God then? It is argued that the cause of the universe must be uncaused because there can't be an infinite regression of causes but this doesn't deny the possibility of a cause for God, it only tries to deny that by presuming that the cause of the universe is the end of the causal chain and there's nothing in the argument establishing that necessity. Also, this property would work just as well if applied to any other alternative cause, even to the universe itself. If the principle is that things don't require causes to exist as long as they're the first cause which, by the way, would be a very unsatisfying principle, then the universe might also not require a cause if it's the first cause.

    Now, the premises of this argument seem to have been assembled anticipating this objection and to allow you to claim that God didn't begin to exist and therefore, doesn't require a cause. The problem is that the word cause relates to something very earthly where causes precedes their effects in time, however we're talking about a timeless cause so the word in this metaphysical sense has a wider scope. We're talking about a cause as in a reason for a thing's existence, not in the sense that it precedes the effect but in the sense that the effect depends on the cause to exist.

    So I think that, by default, we should expect timeless things to require causes too. Let me illustrate the absurdity of the denial of this principle: Each turtle's existence in an infinite series of turtles might be explained by the preceding parent turtle in the series, because there's an infinite number of them then there's always one more parent to explain each and every turtle that exists, but that wouldn't explain the existence of the infinite set of turtles itself. Claiming that the infinite set of turtles doesn't require a reason to exist because it never began to exist is metaphysically absurd to me.

    So even though I'd agree with a principle that claims that things that begin to exist require a cause, I wouldn't agree with the principle that things that don't begin to exist, don't require causes and this argument relies on such premise for the way it deals with an objection demanding a cause for God.

  • Now even if we'd concede that an eternal being wouldn't require a reason for it's existence, or if that being's reason for existing is in it's own necessity, what is there that separates God from an eternal, impersonal set of conditions that gave rise to the universe?

  • It can be said that you don't need an explanation for the explanation to recognize that explanation as the most plausible but the hypothesis with God seems the less plausible. The eternal, uncaused existence of what the universe is made of is a more simple concept  than the eternal, uncaused existence of a being so complex that it's even capable of creating the stuff that the universe is made of. Furthermore, it's also a person, a mind, it's all powerful, all knowing and all-good; each of those properties increase the complexity of the cause, compared to any competing cause, and decrease the plausibility of that hypothesis.

  • About the property of being a personal cause, it is justified by saying that, if the cause was simply an impersonal set of timeless conditions, the effect (the universe) would be eternally present as well. The assumption here is that there's no change possible in conditions that are timeless but I don't see why a personal cause would make any difference. Under such an assumption, as we've seen before, a timeless mind would be in a constant, frozen state that enabled creation so the effect would also be eternally present. A mind can't function without change. Now if we don't accept this assumption about the concept of timelessness and if we accept change without our own notion of time, then the argument runs into a problem in this very property since a timeless set of impersonal conditions could also be a cause for the universe. Furthermore, if we accept my objection about the premise that the universe began to exist, then there's no obstacle to an impersonal set of conditions either with or without change.

In conclusion, even if we would work around all objections and accept the validity of the hypothesis, it still seems blatantly less likely than any impersonal alternative. The uncaused existence of a personal being which is a mind, timeless, immaterial and all-powerful, is not just more unlikely than the uncaused existence of a set of impersonal conditions, but it's also extremely ad-hod. The argument is also overly ambitious in its scope, it sets out to answer "why is there something, instead of nothing?", but it ends up only shifting the question to "why is there a universe, instead of nothing?" and still leaves the question open of "why is there God, instead of nothing?".

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