Monday, April 6, 2020

Is the Kalām Cosmological Argument Slyly Circular?

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Cosmic Skeptic wrote an article called The Sly Circularity of the Kalãm Cosmological Argument. Before getting into the objection let’s review what the kalam cosmological argument (KCA) is.

The kalam cosmological argument (KCA)

A material cause is the stuff something is made out of, and an efficient cause is that which produces an effect. For example, when an artist creates a wooden sculpture, the wood is the material cause and the artist is the efficient cause. The relevant version of the KCA, popularized by William Lane Craig, is this:
  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
Let’s unpack the two premises further. For Craig, the first premise “Everything that begins to exist has a cause” includes both material and efficient causation. You can see that in this Reasonable Faith webpage. So to say that the universe began to exist without a cause would mean beginning to exist with no efficient cause and no material cause, i.e. coming into being from nothing.

For the second premise, it should be noted that William Lane Craig defines “the universe” in way so that it “comprises all contiguous spacetime reality.” If for example there were some pre-existing physical reality that caused the big bang to occur, that physical reality would itself be part of “the universe” as Craig is defining the term.

This KCA is logically valid, i.e. the conclusion follows from the premises inescapably by the rules of logic such that it’s impossible to have true premises and a false conclusion. Since a sound argument is just a valid argument with all true premises, the only way this argument can fail to be sound is with a false premise.

Cosmic Skeptic’s Rebuttal

In his article he said this:
However, I will stress that in granting that ‘the universe began to exist’, we are really granting that ‘the universe began to exist out of nothing’. If the universe were created out of preexisting material, we would be left with the question of where this material itself came from, and the argument would prove nothing important.
Charitably, by “the universe began to exist out of nothing” he actually means the universe began to exist without a material cause, i.e. beginning to exist without arising from pre-existing material (it could still have an efficient cause). Recall though that by “the universe” Craig means it in such a way that it includes all contiguous space-time, so there can’t be any pre-existing material that the universe arose from since by definition that “pre-existing material” would itself be part of the universe.

Cosmic Skeptic then says this:
If ‘beginning to exist’ means anything philosophically significant in this context, it must mean beginning to exist ex nihilo.
That’s not quite true; we could just define “the universe” in way so that it “comprises all contiguous spacetime reality” as William Lane Craig has done and the conclusion of the KCA would be theologically significant, since among other things the universe beginning to exist (in the normal sense of the phrase) implies the universe did not arise from pre-existing material given Craig’s definition of “the universe.”

With Cosmic Skeptic defining “begins to exist” as “beginning to exist without using pre-existing material to form it,” he interprets the first premise to mean “Everything that begins to exist [without using pre-existing material to form it] has a cause,” even though this is not what the first premise actually means.

Having redefined “begins to exist” as “beginning to exist without using pre-existing material to form it,” he notes how we’ve never seen anything “begin to exist” because all the things that have begun to exist (in the normal sense of the term) were made out of pre-existing material.
What, then, within the universe, has truly begun to exist (from nothing) at a particular point in the past?

Nothing. The answer is nothing. Energy cannot be created or destroyed, and thus nothing in physical existence ever ‘began to exist’ in the sense we are interested in.
It’s a widespread myth that energy cannot be created or destroyed. The expansion of space means that photons can lose energy from redshifting (the wavelength of the photons gets longer as space expands, and the photons lose energy as a result; the cosmic microwave background radiation used to be orange and it lost energy to become microwaves), and the expansion of space also means more dark energy. You can see this fun Science Asylum video for more on that.

But for sake of argument let’s pretend energy is always conserved, and that nothing in the universe begins to exist in the redefined ex nihilo manner. Cosmic skeptic says this leads to a circularity in the KCA because the only thing that began to exist is the universe, so “Everything that begins to exist [without using pre-existing material to form it] has a cause” becomes “The universe has a cause” and we get this argument.
  1. The universe has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. The universe had a cause.
But this argument is circular, since the conclusion (3) just reiterates (1).

Now sure, if you mutilate the first premise of the KCA from “Everything that begins to exist has a [material or efficient] cause” to “The universe has a cause” then you get a circular argument, but at that point you’re no longer talking about the same argument! The original KCA is still not circular even if Cosmic Skeptic’s mutilated version of the KCA is.


Cosmic skeptic makes some points that, even if true, don’t really go anywhere in establishing the relevant point. (For more on this sort of maneuver, I made a video about red herrings.) For example, he says that for the first premise to be “philosophically significant” it needs to mean “beginning to exist without using pre-existing material to form it.” But even if that’s true, and as a sort of rescue effort (to make the KCA philosophically significant?) one modifies the KCA so that the first premise becomes “Anything that begins to exist without using pre-existing material to form it has a cause” and this modified first premise renders the modified KCA slyly circular, this modified KCA is not the original argument. One isn’t establishing that the original argument is “slyly circular” but is instead establishing a different point, viz. that the modified KCA is slyly circular.

If it is true that on the actual meaning of the KCA’s premises and conclusion, the KCA’s conclusion isn’t “philosophically significant,” one can object to the KCA’s utility for theism on that grounds. As it stands, the alleged circularity doesn’t arise until one mutilates the KCA into a straw man.