History of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 24, 2009 in Islam,Kalam Argument

Part 2 of my Mapping the Kalam series.

flammarionThe standard history of the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) for God’s existence is contained in William Lane Craig’s The Cosmological Argument from Plato to Leibniz, and I will sketch it here.

But first, it will be useful to explain what a cosmological argument is.

What is a cosmological argument?

There are two types of arguments for the existence of God.

An a priori argument deduces God’s existence from pure logic, without reference to anything that exists. For example, I can prove that “No bachelor is married” by pure logic. I don’t have to look up all the bachelors in the world and make sure they are not married. Not being married is part of the definition of being a bachelor. Some a priori arguments for God’s existence include Avicenna’s contingency and necessity argument, Anselm’s ontological argument, Godel’s modal ontological argument, and Maydole’s modal perfection argument.

You’re probably more familiar with the other type. An a posteriori argument infers God’s existence from things that exist. Design arguments say that certain things are so complex and functional they must have been designed by somebody like God. Moral arguments say that moral values exist, and this is evidence for God. Arguments from miracles argue that supernatural miracles have occurred, and this is evidence for God.

Cosmological arguments infer God from the fact that anything at all exists.

Early History of the KCA

Christian theologian John Philoponus (d. 580?) argued against the Aristotelian conception of an eternal world in On the Eternity of the World Against Proculus, in which he gave arguments for creation ex nihilo (“creation from nothing”). For example: “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…”1

Later, Jewish philosopher Saadia (d. 942) adopted Zeno’s paradoxes to support creation ex nihilo. Zeno said you could never get from A to B because first you had to go half the distance from A to B, then half the remaining distance, then half the remaining difference, and so on. If there are an infinite number of spatial points between A and B, then you can never get from A  to B. Likewise, Saadia said, nothing could have traversed an infinite series of moments, or else nothing would have reached the present moment.

These arguments were revived by Medieval Muslim theologians, who were eager to prove the Koranic doctrine of creation. And it is from them we get the term kalam.

While falsafa is a word for the invasion of Greek philosophy into Islam (as had happened so immediately with Christianity), kalam refers to a more orthodox Muslim practice of  ‘natural theology’ or ‘Muslim scholasticism.’ They can also be thought of as two different schools of Medieval Muslim thought. While falsafa contributed the cosmological argument from contingency (all material things depend on a necessary being – God – for their existence), the kalam school contributed the cosmological argument from temporal regress (the universe can’t be infinitely old, so it must have been created from nothing by God).

Falsafa flourished with Al-Farabi (d. 950) and Avicenna (d. 1037), but Al-Ghazali (d. 1111) and his Incoherence of the Philosophers marked the final triumph of kalam over falsafa.

Al-Ghazali came to believe that falsafa‘s contingency argument was self-defeating, since if the world is eternal, then the ‘necessary being’ has already been reached: it is the world. So the world need not be dependent on anything if it is  eternal.

Thus, Al-Ghazali set out to prove that the world is not eternal. In Median in Belief, Al-Ghazali wrote that:

Every being which begins has a cause for its beginning. The world is a being which begins. Therefore, it has a cause for its beginning.

He defends the beginning of the world like this:

There are temporal phenomena in the world. And some other phenomena are causes of those phenomena. Now it is impossible that one set of temporal phenomena should be caused by another, and that the series should go on ad infinitum. No intelligent person can believe such a thing… So if there is a limit at which the series of temporal phenomena stops, let this limit be called the Eternal.

Both falsafa and kalam eventually faded, but Christians read these works and considered their arguments. Aquinas (d. 1274) opposed the KCA, but his contemporary Bonaventure defended it.

Modern History of the KCA

In the 18th century, the KCA met two brutal criticisms from Hume and Kant. Hume attacked the common notion of causation and the Causal Principle – that every contingent thing has a cause. These are required for the KCA to work, and could not be merely assumed by theists after Hume’s attack.

Kant’s complaint was that the KCA argues for a necessary being, a being whose non-existence is inconceiveable. But the only being that could meet that criteria might be the “maximally excellent being” of the ontological argument. So the KCA depends on the ontological argument, but, Kant argued, the ontological argument fails.

The KCA was revived by Stuart Hackett in The Resurrection of Theism (1957), a book that – along with Plantinga’s God and Other Minds (1967) – launched a Christian revival in analytic philosophy.

Finally, the definitive defense of the KCA came from one of Hackett’s students, William Lane Craig, who published The Kalam Cosmological Argument in 1979 (which is also when it came to be identified as the “Kalam Cosmological Argument”).

Craig drew new support for the KCA from discoveries in astrophysics which led most scientists to believe the universe had popped into existence about 13.7 billion years ago, and also from developments in transfinite mathematics. Since then, there has been a firestorm of academic literature published about the argument. So many supporting arguments and counterarguments have been published that one might despair at the thought of knowing whether the argument provides evidence for God’s existence or not.

And that’s why I’m going to map the entire debate over the KCA, so we can see which threads of the argument lead somewhere, which lead to dead ends, and whether the argument, ultimately, succeeds.

Next time, I’ll begin to sketch the argument in its latest and greatest defense, given by William Lane Craig and James Sinclair in their 100-page chapter of The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (2009).

  1. Paraphrased by Herbert Davidson in ‘John Philoponus as a Source of Medieval Islamic and Jewish Proofs of Creation’ in Journal of American Oriental Society 89 (1969). []

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk May 24, 2009 at 4:43 pm

For example: “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…”1

Saadia said, nothing could have traversed an infinite series of
moments, or else nothing would have reached the present moment.

Now it is impossible that one set of temporal phenomena should be caused by another, and that the series should go on ad infinitum. No intelligent person can believe such a thing…

These are all faulty mathematical arguments. Since they are historical, I won’t go into them in detail, other than to say that Al-Ghazali is insulting the intelligence of his opponents rather than mathematically or logically demonstrating impossibility. I hope modern proponents are a bit sharper on their math.

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Jeff H May 24, 2009 at 6:33 pm

Wow, I had no idea the argument went back that far in time. Learn something new every day, I guess. Thanks for the history lesson :)

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lukeprog May 24, 2009 at 6:34 pm

Reginald,

Please do share your criticisms when we get to these types of arguments as presented by Craig and Sinclair in 2009. See the bibliography to download their article if you’d like to dig in.

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Reginald Selkirk May 25, 2009 at 6:22 am

lukeprog: …as presented by Craig and Sinclair in 2009. See the bibliography to download their article if you’d like to dig in.

Downloaded. 101 pages! I don’t know if I have the fortitude to wade through the entire thing.

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Shane May 25, 2009 at 12:54 pm

The KCA has a problem, and it is (unfortunately) fatal. If the state of the universe “s” at time “t” is contingent on the state at t-1, then presumably s can be represented as a number, and s[t+1] is another number into which s is transformed by the application of function f.

We can say: s[t+1]=f(s[t]).

If we are structures *internal* to the universe, we are somehow embedded in s, but since s is a number, it means that *we* are mathematical, and indeed the entire universe is a *mathematical* structure. Platonism resurrected! The universe would appear “real” to us, because we are *in* it.

So Kalam implies Platonism, but in doing so, it actually obviates the need for a Primary Intelligent Creator-Complex (PIC-C) in the first place.

Max Tegmark has explained this in the “Mathematical Universe Hypothesis” – I find it rather compelling; sorry if I haven’t explained things very well.

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lukeprog May 25, 2009 at 1:58 pm

Shane,

Is there a specific one of Tegmark’s papers in which he raises the points that are relevant to your objection of the KCA?

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Jeff H May 25, 2009 at 6:29 pm

Shane: If we are structures *internal* to the universe, we are somehow embedded in s, but since s is a number, it means that *we* are mathematical, and indeed the entire universe is a *mathematical* structure.

Can you see the Matrix, Neo? :)

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Shane May 26, 2009 at 12:39 am

Luke, here is Tegmark’s paper. He does not refer specifically to the KCA (or indeed any cosmological argument), but it is pretty obvious that it makes them entirely redundant (I think!):
http://arxiv.org/abs/0704.0646

As to whether “god” is the ultimate reality, rather than subservient to it, I think the theists can get back to us and let us know if god can change the value of Pi.

Is this the Matrix, well, yes – the Matrix does not need to be “hosted” on any specific system for it to appear real to those inside it. Other perfectly valid Universes in this model might be the Fibonacci sequence, Conway’s Game of Life (all the versions thereof), etc. If Tegmark is right, then the universe is exactly as real as the Fibonacci sequence, and simply requires no “causation”.

Another minor point is that Craig & Co would do well to come up with an example of something that begins to exist. For example, a table doesn’t begin to exist – it is a system of pieces that begin to display a certain set of behaviours when configured in a particular way. Even most of the atoms in the table have been around for billions of years. But that’s just nit-picking. An example would be nice though.

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Reginald Selkirk May 26, 2009 at 6:18 am

Shane: I think the theists can get back to us and let us know if god can change the value of Pi.

But he already did. In Old Testament times it was 3.0, and since then it has increased.
;>

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Shane May 26, 2009 at 7:18 am

Reginald, LOL!

I think the point remains valid; mathematical “truths” have an objective quality that is independent of/transcendent to any supposed god, so the potency of a god (omni or otherwise) is actually constrained by the mathematics. That being the case, in the KCA, all a god can be is a middle-man between the maths and “reality”, in which case a “god” becomes an unnecessary assumption, and the KCA fails. Or, rather, a god cannot be “argued for” – it needs to be formulated as a testable hypothesis in properly scientific terms.

Craig, Plantinga and the others are fond of ARGUMENTS for god; these can be debated all day (and I’m not saying they are fruitless – some good stuff can come from the debates), but in a sense this is angels-on-pins material; if we are to “believe” in gods, we need evidence, not philosophical arguments, most of which just boil down to pixies of the gaps.

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NathanielFisher May 26, 2009 at 2:57 pm

I’m most interested in the first premise of the Kalam: I’m wanting to know all the responses and counter responses.

Looking forward to it…

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Facilis May 27, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Shane: Luke, here is Tegmark’s paper. He does not refer specifically to the KCA (or indeed any cosmological argument), but it is pretty obvious that it makes them entirely redundant (I think!): http://arxiv.org/abs/0704.0646As to whether “god” is the ultimate reality, rather than subservient to it, I think the theists can get back to us and let us know if god can change the value of Pi.Is this the Matrix, well, yes – the Matrix does not need to be “hosted” on any specific system for it to appear real to those inside it. Other perfectly valid Universes in this model might be the Fibonacci sequence, Conway’s Game of Life (all the versions thereof), etc. If Tegmark is right, then the universe is exactly as real as the Fibonacci sequence, and simply requires no “causation”.Another minor point is that Craig & Co would do well to come up with an example of something that begins to exist. For example, a table doesn’t begin to exist – it is a system of pieces that begin to display a certain set of behaviours when configured in a particular way. Even most of the atoms in the table have been around for billions of years. But that’s just nit-picking. An example would be nice though.

Tables do begin to exist. You are conflating what a thing is with the material that makes up a thing. Just because the atoms that make up your body existed during the time of the dinosaurs does not mean you are 65 million years old!! If I was to burn down a tree I doubt anyone would say a tree is still there.

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Jeff H May 27, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Facilis, you’re right, but only to a point. Yes, the specific collection of atoms that make up the size and shape of a table “begin to exist”, but all this really means is that someone has gone and rearranged those atoms into a different form. The atoms themselves don’t begin to exist when the table does. Therefore, we have no evidence of something that “begins to exist” outside of the universe itself – all the other examples we could give are just rearrangements.

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Lorkas May 27, 2009 at 6:34 pm

In other words, there is a difference between talking about the origin of a wall (a distinct arrangement of bricks) and the bricks that make up the wall (which existed before the wall was made).

The KCA looks at examples that are analogous to the wall beginning to exist (whenever we say a thing like a wall, planet, or table begins to exist, what we mean is that the atoms that make up the thing were moved into that particular arrangement), and saying that the origin of the wall tells us something about the origin of the bricks (the origins of the atoms that make up the universe).

It’s true that every time a specific arrangement of atoms “begins to exist”, it has a cause, but it doesn’t follow that the atoms themselves had a cause when they began to exist.

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