I have spent many a quiet evening reflecting on the existence and nature of deities. Does God exist? Would there be one, many, none? And if God did exist, how could we prove it? Apparently, I’m not alone in my musings.
W.L. Craig’s search for answers to these age-old questions ultimately led him to revive an argument for God he called the kalām cosmological argument. To break down the name, a cosmological argument for God is one that tries to demonstrate God’s existence from facts about the universe’s nature; by naming it ‘kalām’ Craig is paying homage to the group of Islamic scholars the argument was previously associated with. While there have been many attempts to ‘logic God into existence’, few have been as popular as this in recent years. But does this popularity reflect its persuasiveness?
At its core, the kalām argues that something cannot be caused by nothing. More specifically, the universe cannot have been caused by nothing. This is the basis of the argument and is both intuitive and supported by modern science. According to the big bang theory, the universe did have a beginning at a fixed point in the past. At this moment, all time and matter began existing at once. We do not know, and perhaps cannot know, what, or if, anything came before the big bang. But if we hold that everything which begins to exist is caused, something must have caused it.
Contrary to those who view science and theism as incompatible, Craig’s version of the kalām would seem incomplete without any reference to the big bang theory. But more than stating something cannot be caused by nothing, the kalām also tries to demonstrate that something non-physical, consciously and without cause, i.e. something with free will, chose to create the universe at the point of the big bang. Its supporters hold that, because the laws of physics do not exist before the big bang in the scientific theory, science will not be able to adequately explain the universe’s origin, and so something with free will remains the best possible explanation. A being capable of such things would be analogous to God.
Interestingly, suggesting that there was a first historical event (such as the big bang) leaves the argument open to attack. How? One can argue that this was not the origin of all creation, but merely the furthest back in history we can investigate within an actually infinite past. In other words, there was no first point in history, and the past extends backwards in time forever. But does the concept of an actually infinite past really make sense?
While infinities are sometimes necessary in mathematical equations, they may not exist in reality. Davies lays out some problems with them by suggesting that one can express an infinite past as saying, 'it is possible that every event has a predecessor'. Put like this, he argues it could mean one of two things. Firstly, we could assume it means that the number of things that happened in the past could have been greater; that it is possible the past could have included more events. Or alternatively, it could mean it is possible that we cannot have a complete group of past events; that when we group together all of the events of the past, there could still be earlier historical events, which is paradoxical. If we take the first interpretation, it doesn't rule out the idea of there being a beginning to the universe, because it is only possible and not necessary that every event had a predecessor, so it’s not a problem for the cosmological argument. If we take the second line of thought, it doesn't make any sense; intuitively, it's impossible to group everything together and still miss some things out.
If we continue to assume, rightly or wrongly, that an infinite past is an unlikely reality, at some point there needs to be something outside of the universe that causes the universe to exist. We can therefore continue to engage with the kalām, which suggests that only something possessing free will is capable of the universe’s creation, where this something is best described as God.
Asking which particular God, or whether
this God is still active in the universe today are both irrelevant to the
argument. Perhaps more surprisingly, questions about the origins of God’s
existence are similarly irrelevant to the argument. Anyone who has themselves
argued that God caused the universe to exist, may have been asked
Reichenbach analogises by using the example of a girl raising her hand to ask a question. For us to understand that the girl raised her hand to ask a question, we do not need to understand how wanting to ask a question led to raising her hand. Similarly, if the kalām is correct that God is the best explanation, we do not need to understand how God was caused to know God was the best explanation.
With a small proportion of some key debates considered, we are left to question whether God really is the best explanation we have for the causation of the universe. Despite the above, Oppy suggests a divine being is not. He says either, the universe was caused by God (or gods) with a non-physical form and free will, or the universe was caused by something natural. If we consider, devoid of biases, that they are both equally likely to have been the cause of the universe, he says we should not commit to the theistic point of view. Theism assumes both natural and supernatural, whereas a naturalist explanation merely assumes something that indisputably exists. On Oppy’s view, a natural explanation would require fewer assumptions, even if we have no adequate natural explanation; therefore, it would be better to adopt the naturalist point of view.
If it is true that the argument commits us to believing in something that doesn’t exist, namely something supernatural, then it would follow that the kalām cosmological argument does not work. But whether or not the kalām does commit us to something that doesn’t exist, it seems that these age-old questions still need answers.
Craig, W.L. (2015) ‘The Kalam Cosmological Argument’, Reasonable Faith, available at https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/existence-nature-of-god/the-kalam-cosmological-argument/, accessed 19th February 2021.
Davies, B. (2004) An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion: Third Edition, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, pp. 48-54.
Reichenbach, B. (2021) ‘Cosmological Argument’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, available at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmological-argument/#KalaCosmArgu, accessed 19th February 2021