Using the Kalaam Argument Correctly
In recent years, one of the most popular arguments for the existence of God has been the Kalaam cosmological argument.
Ultimately, I think this argument is successful, but many of the ways it has been employed are unsuccessful.
It is an argument that needs to be used carefully—with the proper qualifiers.
Stating the Argument
We can state the Kalaam argument like this:
1) Everything that has a beginning has a cause.
2) The universe has a beginning.
3) Therefore, the universe has a cause (which would be God).
Is this argument valid? Is it sound?
Valid arguments are ones that use a correct logical form—regardless of whether their premises are true. The Kalaam argument falls into this category, which is not disputed by its critics.
If a valid argument has true premises, then its conclusion also will be true. Valid arguments that have true premises are called sound arguments, and I agree that the argument’s premises are true:
1) It is true that whatever has a beginning has a cause.
2) And it is true that the universe has a beginning (approximately 13.8 billion years ago, according to Big Bang cosmology).
Since the Kalaam argument is valid and has true premises, it is a sound argument.
Using the Argument Apologetically
The Kalaam argument is sound from the perspective of logic, but how useful is it from the perspective of apologetics? There are many arguments that are sound, but sometimes they are not very useful in practice.
For example, in their famous book Principia Mathematica, Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead spend the first 360 pages of the book covering basic principles that build up to them rigorously proving that 1 + 1 = 2.
While their book is of interest to mathematicians, and their proof extremely well thought-out, it is so complex that it is not of practical use for a popular audience. For ordinary people, there are much simpler ways to prove that 1 + 1 = 2. (If needed, just put one apple on a table, put another one next to it, and count the apples both individually and together.)
Complexity is not the only thing that can limit an argument’s usefulness. Another is the willingness of people to grant the truth of its premises. Here is where some of the limitations of the Kalaam argument appear. While it is very simple to state and understand, defending the premises is more involved.
The First Premise
The first premise—that everything that has a beginning has a cause—is intuitive and is accepted by most people.
Some object to this premise on philosophical grounds or on scientific ones, such as by pointing to the randomness of quantum physics.
Both the philosophical and the scientific arguments can get technical quickly, but a skilled apologist—at least one who is actually familiar with quantum mechanics (!)—would still be able to navigate such objections without getting too far over the heads of a popular audience.
This—plus the fact that a popular audience’s sympathies will be with the first premise—mean that the argument retains its usefulness with a general audience.
The Second Premise
The second premise—that the universe had a beginning—is also widely accepted today, due in large part to Big Bang cosmology. A popular audience will thus be generally sympathetic to the second premise.
That’s apologetically useful, but we need to look more closely at how the second premise can be supported when challenged.
Since “The Bible says the universe has a beginning” will not be convincing to those who are not already believers, there are two approaches to doing this—the scientific and the philosophical.
The Scientific Approach
For an apologist, the approach here is straight forward: For a popular level audience, simply present a popular-level account of the evidence that has led cosmologists to conclude that the Big Bang occurred.
On this front, the principal danger for the apologist is overselling the evidence in one of several ways.
First, many apologists do not keep up with developments in cosmology, and they may be relying on an outdated account of the Big Bang.
For example, about 40 years ago, it was common to hear cosmologists speak of the Big Bang as an event that involved a singularity—where all matter was compressed into a point of infinite density and when space and time suddenly sprang into existence.
That view is no longer standard in cosmology, and today no apologist should be speaking as if this is what the science shows. Apologists need to be familiar with the current state of cosmological thought (as well as common misunderstandings of the Big Bang) and avoid misrepresenting current cosmological views.
Thus, they should not say that the Big Bang is proof that the universe had an absolute beginning. While the Big Bang is consistent with an absolute beginning, cosmologists have not been able to rule out options like there being a prior universe.
One way apologists have dealt with this concern is to point to the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin (BGV) theorem, which seeks to show that—on certain assumptions—even if there were one or more prior universes, there can’t be an unlimited number of them.
It’s fair to point to this theorem, but it would be a mistake for an apologist to present it as final proof, because the theorem depends on certain assumptions (e.g., that the universe has—on average—been expanding throughout its history) that cannot be taken for granted.
Further, apologists should be aware that authors of the theorem—Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin—do not agree that it shows the universe had to have a beginning. Guth apparently believes that the universe does not have a beginning, and Vilenkin states that all the theorem shows is that the expansion of the universe had to have a beginning, not the universe itself.
It thus would misrepresent the BGV theorem as showing that the scientific community has concluded that the universe had to have a beginning, even if it were before the Big Bang. (It also would be apologetically dangerous and foolish to do so, as the facts I’ve just mentioned could be thrown in the apologist’s face, discrediting him before his audience.)
Most fundamentally, the findings of science are always provisional, and the history of science contains innumerable cases where scientific opinion as reversed as new evidence has been found.
Consequently, apologists should never sell Big Bang cosmology—or any other aspect of science—as final “proof.”
This does not mean that apologists can’t appeal to scientific evidence. When the findings of science point in the direction aspects of the Faith, it is entirely fair to point that out. They just must not be oversold.
The Philosophical Approach
Prior to the mid-20th century, Big Bang cosmology had not been developed, and the scientific approach to defending the Kalaam argument’s second premise was not available.
Consequently, earlier discussions relied on philosophical arguments to try to show that the universe must have a beginning.
Such arguments remain a major part of the discussion today, and new philosophical ways of defending the second premise have been proposed.
Authors have different opinions about how well these work, but in studying them, I find myself agreeing with St. Thomas Aquinas that they do not. Thus far, I have not discovered any philosophical argument—ancient or modern—that I thought proved its case.
This is not to say that they don’t have superficial appeal. They do; otherwise, people wouldn’t propose them.
But when one thinks them through carefully, they all contain hidden flaws that keep them from succeeding—some of which are being discussed in this series.
I thus do not rely on philosophical arguments in my own presentation of the Kalaam argument.
The Kalaam cosmological argument is a valid and sound argument. It does prove that the universe has a cause, which can meaningfully be called God.
As a result, it can be used by apologists, and its simplicity makes it particularly attractive.
I use it myself, such as in my short, popular-level book The Words of Eternal Life.
However, the argument needs to be presented carefully. The scientific evidence we currently have is consistent with and suggestive of the world having a beginning in the finite past, though this evidence must not be oversold.
The philosophical arguments for the universe having a beginning are much more problematic. I do not believe that the ones developed to date work, and so I do not use them.
I thus advise other apologists to think carefully before doing so and to rigorously test these arguments: Seek out counterarguments, carefully consider them, and see if you can show why the arguments don’t work.
It is not enough that we find an argument convenient or initially plausible. We owe it to the truth, and honesty in doing apologetics compels us not to use arguments just because we want them to be true.
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