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.
  3. The universe has a cause. (From 1 and 2)
  4. The cause of the universe cannot be the universe itself.
  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.
  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.


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.




One thought on “Who Pushed the Domino? (Or, The Kalam Cosmological Argument)

Add yours

  1. 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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