Who Pushed the Domino? (Or, The Kalam Cosmological Argument)

Note: This blog post is the first in a series called ‘The God Series’. To view the entire series (including the introduction), click here.

Imagine you enter into a room where you see a long series of falling dominoes. Given that you weren’t there to observe the first domino being pushed, you turn to your friend (who was in the room before you) and ask, “Did you push the first domino?”

Shaking  his head, your friend responds, “No, I didn’t. As a matter of fact, nobody did. This series of falling dominoes is infinitely long and has been forever.”

At this point, you intuitively know that it is either the case that your friend is lying, or he/she is a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Our minds seem to know that an infinitely-long series of falling dominoes are not possible, and that there must be a first domino and someone to push this first domino to make any number of successive dominoes to fall.

A similar intuition is what led to the formulation of a theistic argument called the ‘Kalam cosmological argument’. Like the domino example, it crucially relies on the idea that an actual infinite series of events is an absurdity; however, it attempts to logically prove the impossibility of an infinite series, rather than dismissing the idea as merely counter-intuitive. This argument was originally proposed by a group of Islamic philosophers (Kalam being another name for medieval Islamic scholasticism) like al-Kindi and al-Ghazali, but has been popularized in recent years by analytic philosopher William Lane Craig. Atheist philosopher Quentin Smith has commented that “a count of the articles in the philosophy journals shows that more articles have been published about Craig’s defense of the Kalam argument than have been published about any other philosopher’s contemporary formulation of an argument for God’s existence.”

As formidable as this may make it sound, the actual argument is very short and very simple to understand. Let us examine it in its standard form, before examining it premise by premise for its strengths and weaknesses.

The Argument

This is what the argument looks like:

  1. The universe began to exist.
  2. Everything that begins to exist must have a cause.
    Therefore,
  3. The universe has a cause. (From 1 and 2)
  4. The cause of the universe cannot be the universe itself.
    Therefore,
  5. The cause of the universe must be external to the universe. (From 4)
  6. The attributes of such a cause only fit the definition of God.
    Therefore,
  7. The cause of the universe is God. (From 6)

If you remember our prior discussion of validity and soundness (if not, you can find it here), you will note that this is a valid argument, that is, the conclusion of the argument directly follows from the premises; hence, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. But the argument has not yet been shown to be sound, and to be successful, it must be both valid and sound.

Let’s examine each premise of this argument for its truth to ensure that it is both valid and sound.

Premise 1: The universe began to exist

The Argument from Mathematics

Evidently, this premise is only true if the universe had a beginning or a starting point; it is false if the universe has existed forever.

If the universe has existed forever, it means that time is infinite in both directions; in other words, there are an infinite number of moments that both precede and succeed the ‘present’. This would constitute the existence of an actual infinity (an infinity that exists in reality), rather than a potential infinity (or a theoretical infinity). But the existence of an actual infinity results in several unsolvable paradoxes. Allow me to demonstrate two of them.

Suppose that there were an infinite number of moments existing into the past. The fact that results is that you would never get to the present moment. Why? Because every moment substracted from an infinite number of moments still gives you an infinite number of moments (or infinity minus one is still infinity). Put simply, it is impossible to traverse an actually infinite number of moments. This has been used as an argument against the possibility of the universe extending infinitely into the past.

Another paradox that is a result of holding to the existence of actual infinities is a fun one to discuss. Imagine a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, numbered ‘Room 1’, ‘Room 2’, ‘Room 3’, and so on. Also, imagine that all the rooms are occupied. A new guest arrives at the hotel and signs up for a room. How can one accommodate this new guest if all the rooms are occupied? Quite simply, you ask the guest in Room 1 to move to Room 2, the guest in Room 2 to move to Room 3, the guest in Room 3 to move to Room 4, etc. Given that there are an infinite number of rooms, every resident will be able to find a new room. This can apply to any number of new guests. If two new guests arrive, the guest in Room 1 would have to move to Room 3, the one in Room 2 would move to Room 4, and so on, and you would always end up with enough rooms for all the guests, even though the hotel was ‘full’ prior to the arrival of the new guests. Further suppose that all the guests in the odd numbered rooms decided to check out. That would involve an infinite number of guests checking out. Even then, there would still be an infinite number of guests left, yet if all the guests checked out at once, there would be zero guests left. The two cases result in a very strange paradox, for in the first, infinity minus infinity gives you infinity, but in the second, infinity minus infinity gives you zero!

Called the Hilbert’s Hotel paradox (after the German mathematician David Hilbert who first proposed it), it has been used by proponents of the Kalam cosmological argument like Craig to show that holding to the existence of actual infinities result in absurdities. Given that an infinite past is an example of an actual infinity, they argue that the past cannot be infinite. Hence, they say, the universe must have a beginning.

Even though it seems intuitively true that actual infinities are impossible, there has been a raging mathematical debate over this idea. For instance, there are those who argue that some infinities are greater than others, hence the paradox of substracting infinity from infinity resulting in different answers can be explained. I’m no mathematician myself, so a lot of this debate involves things that go over my head, and so I’m not going to bother you with it either.

Isn’t that a cop-out, you might ask, given that I haven’t proved that the universe cannot be infinitely old because I haven’t conclusively shown you that actual infinities aren’t possible? Well, not exactly, because another field has come up with what can be considered conclusive proof that the universe did indeed have a beginning.

The Argument from Science

For the longest time, scientists held that that the universe was static and infinitely old. In fact, Albert Einstein fudged his theory of  general relativity in 1917 with what is called the cosmological constant to preserve this static view, when his original equations seemed to imply otherwise.

It was in 1929 that astronomer Edwin Hubble observed that the light of distant galaxies was shifted toward the red end of the light spectrum (commonly referred to as the ‘red shift’). The implication of this fact was that the universe was not static; in fact, it was expanding. Going back, then, the universe, including time, space, and matter, had a beginning in a mathematical point called a singularity, that then ‘exploded’ in what is known today as the Big Bang, marking the beginning of all time, space, and matter; in other words, the universe began to exist at this event called the Big Bang. Later developments such as the BGV theorem proposed by Arvind Borde, Alan Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin provide theoretical support to this claim. The universe cannot be static and infinitely old.

Thus, premise 1 is sound; the universe did indeed have a beginning. We have proved this with evidence from mathematics  and even stronger evidence from recent scientific discoveries.

Premise 2: Everything that begins to exist must have a cause

This premise does sound intuitively true to most of us; after all, all of our experience tells us that if something has a beginning, it must have a cause. But there are those hyper skeptics who are willing to question even that, either out of a desperate need to see this argument go down, or just because they are hyper skeptics by nature.

Their claim goes something like this:

“You cannot prove that it is true that everything that begins to exist must have a cause. While it is true that in your experience, everything that begins to exist must have a cause, it is possible that there is an effect that does not have a cause, and you or the rest of the human race just haven’t experienced it.”

The weakness of this claim lies in the use of the word possible. A lot of things are possible. Just as it is logically possible that cause-and-effect don’t work the way we perceive them, it is also logically possible that unicorns exist or that all cats are good philosophers. As long as something isn’t a logical contradiction, it is logically possible. The question to be answered is whether it is probable. And the answer to this question is that at the moment, it is not probable. It is up to the hyper skeptic to demonstrate to us an exception to the case that cause-and-effect work differently from the way we perceive them every day. Until then, we are rationally justified in continuing to believe that everything that begins to exist has a cause.

As to the hyper skeptic, I repeat the advice that philosopher Thomas Reid gave them a couple of centuries ago: More than metaphysics and logic, hyper skeptics are in need of good regimen and a working laxative. You know, because they are full of, well, I’ll let you complete that sentence.

Premise 3: The universe had a cause

This is a direct logical inference from the truth of premises 1 and 2. More accurately, it should be treated as a sub-conclusion, not merely a premise.

Premise 4: The cause of the universe cannot be the universe itself.

Once again, this is a fact that is intuitively true; to claim something is the cause of itself is a contradiction. Causes precede their effects. To claim that the universe is the cause of itself, it would require the universe to exist before it began to exist to cause itself into existence. That is a logical contradiction. Thus, the cause of the universe cannot be the universe itself.

Premise 5: The cause of the universe must be external to the universe.

If the cause of the universe isn’t the universe itself, then the cause of the universe must be something that is outside of the universe that caused the universe to come into being.

Premise 6: The attributes of such a cause only fit the definition of God.

At face value, this is a very controversial premise. We seemed to have ushered in God out of thin air, and the atheist can very well pounce on this and accuse the proponent of cheating. But let’s take a look at our previous premises and see if there is anything that we can try to get to know about this ’cause’ of the universe.

We know that this cause is external to the universe from Premise 5. Thus, this cause must be spaceless, timeless, and immaterial. Why? Because the universe consists of space, time, and matter, all of which came into existence at the moment of the Big Bang. If anything, the cause of the universe is responsible for the creation of space, time, and matter, thereby making it causally prior to space, time, and matter; hence, it cannot be made of space, time, and matter.

There is also a way to infer that this cause must be personal, rather than impersonal, because  it is the only way in which a timeless cause can produce an effect that has a beginning. If the cause is impersonal and is sufficient to cause the effect, then if the cause has always existed, the effect has always existed as well. The only way in which you can have an eternal cause with a non-eternal effect is if the cause is personal, that is, the mere existence of the cause is not sufficient to produce the effect. Instead, the cause must make a decision to cause the effect at a point, so that it has a beginning.  I am certain that many of you might not have grasped the concept, so allow me to explain this with an analogy that William Lane Craig uses. Imagine that there exists this freezer that has existed for all eternity, set at a temperature of zero degrees Celsius. If there were water in that freezer for all eternity, there would be no point at which the water begins to freeze; it would always remain frozen. Why? Because the freezer is an impersonal cause and temperature being set to zero degrees Celsius from eternity is sufficient for the water to be frozen from eternity; the impersonal cause here is incapable of making it such that the water begins to freeze at some particular point. Instead, if we had a personal agent that existed from all eternity, perhaps a personal freezer with a will that was capable of turning down the temperature to zero degrees when it wished, you would now have a case in which an eternal cause can have an effect with a beginning. In the same manner, an impersonal cause of the universe would imply that the universe existed forever. But as we have seen, the universe began to exist, hence the cause of the universe must be personal.

So, the cause of the universe has been seen to be timeless, spaceless, immaterial, and personal. Add to that extremely powerful, and you have a description of what could only be a God or a God-like being that transcends the natural world.

Thus, the proponent of the Kalam cosmological argument concludes:

Conclusion: The cause of the universe is God.

This is the Kalam cosmological argument in its most modern form. I have attempted to show you that it is a successful argument in both its logical validity and the truth of its premises (soundness). Nonetheless, it is not without its criticisms, and that is where I would like to leave you today.

Criticisms of the Kalam Cosmological Argument

1. The argument does not specifically identify a God that fits in the traditional understanding of the three Abrahamic faiths.

One common criticism that is raised against many theistic arguments in general and can be raised against this argument in particular, is the objection that it does not prove the God that the proponent ultimately worships.

Let’s assume the proponent is a member of one of the three Abrahamic faiths, namely Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These three religions have a distinctive view of God as compared to other religions, in that they believe in a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent, among other things.

The Kalam Cosmological Argument, however, tells us nothing about such a God. It certainly has nothing to say about God’s omniscience or omnibenevolence, and fails to go as far as to show that God is omnipotent or maximally powerful.

At best, we get a being that is transcendent, very powerful (although not necessarily maximally powerful), very intelligent (although not necessarily omniscient), and is the cause of the universe. One cannot narrow this down to the God of the three Abrahamic faiths, much less the God of any one of these faiths, and yet it is commonly used by proponents of these faiths to prove the existence of God.

One response given by William Lane Craig states that his only intention is to prove the existence of ‘a God’, rather than ‘the God’ of a certain religion. Once he has proved the existence of ‘a God’, he then launches into an examination of the specific claims of the Christian faith, including the reliability of Scripture and the historicity of the Resurrection, building a cumulative case to show that Christianity is true. I believe the representatives of other faiths can argue that they too use a similar mechanism. This suggests that the Kalam cosmological argument alone is insufficient to prove the claims of any one religion, but might be capable of doing so in tandem with other arguments that then form a cumulative case.

2. The argument could merely prove a deistic God, rather than a theistic God.

An objection that is similar to the one above, this one states that while the Kalam cosmological argument does prove the existence of some sort of God, the best it can do is prove the existence of a deistic God, or a God that sets the universe in motion but does not interact with it. The argument is incapable of proving the existence of the God of the three main monotheistic religions that interacts with the universe, does miracles, etc.

Once again, a similar response as given to the objection above can be given; the argument by itself does not prove that this is the God of a certain religion, but used in a cumulative case, it might be more effective.

3. Alternative theories could explain the beginning of the universe at the Big Bang.

Several alternative theories have been suggested for what could have caused the Big Bang.

One such theory is that of an oscillating universe, or a universe that explodes in the Big Bang, expands, then contracts back into a singularity (in what is called the Big Crunch), and then expands once again. This is a possible theory, although it is highly improbable, given things like the Second Law of Thermodynamics that states that the entropy within an isolated system increases over time, and this can only be explained by the ultimate heat death of the universe, rather than a ‘Big Crunch’. I’m sure the physicists who continue to hold to this view have their own justifications for doing so, but I’m no physicist, so I will leave you to look into the scientific details at your leisure. I will admit, though, that if plausible, it poses a significant challenge to the claim that God caused the universe.

A less impressive claim is made by astrophysicists like Lawrence Krauss, who claim that it was possible for the universe to come out of nothing, caused by nothing. The only problem is, Krauss dedicates a large amount of his time and ink to describing what this ‘nothing’ really is, making one wonder whether this ‘nothing’ is really nothing or is actually something.

Conclusion

To sum up, we have seen the Kalam cosmological argument in its standard form, we have examined each of its premises, and we have looked at plausible objections to it, including some possible responses to these objections. It is up to you, now, to make up your mind on whether this argument succeeds. What do you think? Did God push the domino? Did the domino fall by itself? Or is there a third explanation?

In my next post, we will be going over a very different kind of cosmological argument; an argument that questions not how the universe began, but why it exists at all.

 

 

 

11 thoughts on “Who Pushed the Domino? (Or, The Kalam Cosmological Argument)

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  1. As someone very interested in the KCA, but from the other side of the argument, it’s nice to see someone put forth their own take on it rather than simply linking to Dr. Craig. That said, I hope you’ll allow me a few responses.

    Because every moment substracted from an infinite number of moments still gives you an infinite number of moments (or infinity minus one is still infinity).

    “Infinity” is not a number. The phrase “infinity minus one” is every bit as incoherent as the phrase “blue minus one” or “deliciousness minus one.” There are systems of mathematics in which one can discuss infinite numbers, but infinity, itself, is not a number.

    Put simply, it is impossible to traverse an actually infinite number of moments.

    It’s worth noting that this claim is reliant upon a Tensed Theory of Time, which is far from clear to be true.

    Even though it seems intuitively true that actual infinities are impossible, there has been a raging mathematical debate over this idea.

    The debate hasn’t really been a “raging” one for around 100 years. Those philosophers of mathematics who oppose the idea of actual infinites tend to be in the minority. And even among those that do, they usually oppose actual infinites on the strength of arguments which you and Dr. Craig are probably unlikely to accept– for example, by denying the Law of Excluded Middle from Logic.

    Later developments such as the BGV theorem proposed by Arvind Borde, Alan Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin provide theoretical support to this claim. The universe cannot be static and infinitely old.

    This isn’t quite right. Given certain assumptions, the BGV shows that a space time manifold which has been undergoing inflation on average over its history must have an initial moment. It is not clear that those assumptions actually hold for our universe, nor that our universe has, on average, been inflating over its whole history.

    Furthermore, even if the BGV does hold for our universe, that simply tells us that time had an initial moment. It does not claim that the universe was ever non-existent. Quite the contrary, if the universe had a first moment, the universe certainly existed in that moment; and there are no moments of time prior to the first. Whether time is past-infinite or past-finite, it remains true that the universe has existed for all time.

    That’s already a lot to deal with, so I will leave it with those responses, for now. If you’re interested, I’ve written a great deal about the KCA on my own blog, and I’d welcome your input.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, for your comment, sir.
      Just to preface this, I do not actually believe the KCA succeeds in proving what it has to prove, for reasons I did not wish to bring up in the post for the sake of my target audience (laypeople who have close to no formal philosophical education). I just wanted to put up a traditional defense of the Kalam (mostly borrowed from Craig and a few other apologists) with a defense of the premises that comes from the way they defend it, not necessarily from the way I would defend it.

      Thank you for pointing out my misunderstanding of the mathematical concepts. I’m not a mathematician and so I left in whatever I’ve understood from reading a few works on the Kalam argument (including al-Kindi’s original argument and Craig’s most recent formulation in Reasonable Faith). My personal denial of actual infinities came from an intuitive understanding of what they were, for reasons similar to the ones Craig delineates, and so I’m not familiar with the more theoretical ideas. I’d love to read up on it, though, so if there is anything that you could recommend, I would be most grateful. Something at a beginner’s level, though, given that my understanding of anything in mathematics beyond the Grade 12 level isn’t that great.

      About the BGV, my understanding of it came from watching a few videos about it online, and reading Craig’s accounts of it, including an email that Vilenkin sent him that stated that Craig was using the BGV correctly, except that Vilenkin wouldn’t go as far as to say the cause was God. You can find that email here: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/question-answer/honesty-transparency-full-disclosure-and-the-borde-guth-vilenkin-theorem/
      It is all too plausible that I’ve misunderstood it, but I don’t think that I’ve said anything that isn’t consistent with the above source.

      You’d also be interested to hear that I’m not a presentist like Craig is. As a matter of fact, one of my objections was supposed to be that this argument doesn’t work under the more plausible B-theory of time (and Craig admits as much, except the ‘more plausible’ part). It’s also one of the reasons why I don’t think the KCA is a good argument in the first place. I just didn’t want to extend the post even more by going into what each theory of time entails, why the A-theory doesn’t work (which would require talking about special relativity, etc.), and I was well over 3000 words (my target limit is usually 2,500 words), so I just left it at the three objections I discussed. The KCA, as such, does presuppose the A-theory, and I thought I’d just present it as such. As a theist, it wouldn’t be the first argument I’d use, even though it sounds more intuitive than other stronger arguments like the contingency argument. I’ve read something about work being done to show that the KCA does work under a B-theory, albeit slightly differently, and I was thinking about doing a blog post comparing the two once I’ve had time to study the latter view. I might actually discuss the theories of time in there.

      I will take a look at your blog. Thank you once again for the clarifications. I really appreciate it.

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      1. I just wanted to put up a traditional defense of the Kalam… with a defense of the premises that comes from the way [other apologists] defend it, not necessarily from the way I would defend it.

        Entirely understandable. I have a big interest in both the Philosophy of Time and the Philosophy of Mathematics, so posts on the KCA always tend to catch my eye.

        I’d love to read up on it, though, so if there is anything that you could recommend, I would be most grateful. Something at a beginner’s level, though, given that my understanding of anything in mathematics beyond the Grade 12 level isn’t that great.

        I’ve written a few articles which you might find helpful. Firstly, there’s my Introduction to Set Theory, which I tried to write for a lay-audience:
        https://boxingpythagoras.com/2018/05/01/what-do-we-mean-by-numbers-a-simple-introduction-to-set-theory/

        Then I’ve written a few articles explicitly responding to claims which apologists have made regarding the impossibility of actual infinites. I’ll recommend this one, in particular, as I spent a good deal of time trying to make sure that I was very clear and that I referenced all my sources:
        https://boxingpythagoras.com/2017/11/04/theology-and-the-actually-infinite/

        There are also some really great resources on YouTube. Numberphile and a few other channels have done some awesome intro videos on infinities that I highly recommend. You might try searching for “Cantor’s diagonalization proof” for some good info on the different cardinalities (or sizes) of infinities which exist.

        About the BGV, my understanding of it came from watching a few videos about it online, and reading Craig’s accounts of it, including an email that Vilenkin sent him…

        I am very familiar with that email from Vilenkin. It is notable that, in that very email, Dr. Vilenkin mentions that the Aguirre-Gratton model does avoid the problematic singularities which are found in the BGV; he also notes the same thing I mentioned regarding the assumptions upon which the BGV makes its case.

        Dr. Craig does a decent job of summarizing the BGV when he says things like, ‘any universe which has been expanding on average over the course of its history cannot extend infinitely into the past.’ However, I think his responses to objections regarding the assumptions of the BGV or models of the universe which are not expanding on average over their histories have been somewhat trite and dismissive.

        You’d also be interested to hear that I’m not a presentist like Craig is. As a matter of fact, one of my objections was supposed to be that this argument doesn’t work under the more plausible B-theory of time.

        That is definitely something upon which we agree! Incidentally, I’ve also heard about efforts to re-formulate the KCA for a B-Theory of time, but I haven’t seen such an argument laid out, yet. If you come across one, I’d certainly be interested in it!

        As a theist, it wouldn’t be the first argument I’d use, even though it sounds more intuitive than other stronger arguments like the contingency argument.

        I’ve actually always found the Leibnizian style of contingency-focused cosmological argument to be stronger than the Kalam (though I still have a few objections there, as well).

        Thanks again for taking the time to respond to me! I look forward to any input you might have on my own writings.

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      2. You’re going to make me spoil a conclusion I was going to demonstrate at the end of the series, but I don’t think any of the theistic arguments can prove the existence of God beyond a doubt, especially not to someone who is convinced otherwise.

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      3. and that’s the excuse that all Christians give. You want to make a false claim that I will not consider your arguments. I have and they do fail, not because I simply want them to, but because they do not match reality.

        You are correct that theistic arguments cannot prove the existence of any gods. You, and other theists, use the same arguments and assume only your version of your god exists. None of you have any evidence. If you doubt someone else’s claims of a god, then you doubt your own. The only reason you believe in your god and not others is that you are convinced that you are right and everyone else is wrong.

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      4. Now, considering BPBs post, the problem with it is ‘how do you show that the universe is a concept?” Concept means “something conceived in the mind : thought, notion ”

        where is this mind? How does a mind exist without a brain? How do you define mind? What evidence do you have that doesn’t end up being a circular argument? I have a brain and can conceive of a universe very unlike this one, does that mean I’m a god? And what prevents a powerful being, but not omnipotent god from making a universe?

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    2. thanks for posting Craig’s interaction with Vilenkin. It’s quite interesting to see how he ignores the parts that don’t agree with him, and tries to drag some victory that he described things right, though it doesn’t match his religion’s claims at all. It seems that Craig has now decided to chuck the whole Genesis nonsense as no more than metaphor in favor of trying to have some scientific validation of his claims.

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  2. The argument as usually presented and stated above assumes metaphysical realism. To reformulate the argument in idealist terms, one might say:

    The universe is a concept.
    Concepts are produced by and exist only in minds.
    Since the concept of the universe did not originate with human minds, the concept therefore originated in another, superhuman Mind.

    Liked by 1 person

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