Cosmological Confusion: My issue with the Kalam Cosmological Argument

Among all the questions we can ask and reflect on, the one that always seems to trip people up concerns the Universe and the beginning of all space and time. Just where exactly did all of this come from? It’s an interesting question to ask, and a mind-boggling one at that. Modern cosmology has made the idea of a Steady-State (“static”) Universe untenable, so the leading model of the day is one in which the Universe began in a hot big bang and expanded, giving rise to everything we observe today. The science is very much sound and there is consensus among astrophysicists that this scenario is what happened 13.7 billion years ago. Given the model’s predictive power and overwhelming evidence (e.g. the existence of the Cosmic Microwave Background, cosmological redshift, etc.), it seems unlikely that the Big Bang theory will be refuted and replaced anytime soon.

Big Bang

Unfortunately, this is something the religious apologists are happy about, as it then raises the question: what caused the Universe to begin to exist? This has birthed a range of arguments for the existence of God given the fact that our Universe had a beginning moment. The arguments are known as cosmological arguments. The most popular cosmological argument among religious apologists today is known as the Kalam Cosmological Argument, or simply, the Kalam Argument. It can be summarized as follows:

P1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause

P2: The universe began to exist

C: Therefore, the universe had a cause

Though the argument makes no specific reference to God, it is assumed that this argument proves His existence by invoking Him as the only cause for the existence of our Universe. It is argued that because the Universe cannot be infinitely eternal in the past, it had to be created a finite time ago by a transcendent cause outside the Universe. This of course leads us to the conclusion that God brought the Universe into existence 13.7 billion years ago since, as the argument suggests, anything that begins to exist calls for a cause. While I do agree with the concept of causation, that everything needs a cause in order to yield an effect, one thing I never really grasped was how God was able to carry out acts of causation without the use of time. After all, thoughts precede our actions/other thoughts in a temporal sequence, so there’s really no harm in assuming that God operates the same way, with His thoughts preceding His actions, provided the theist wants God to be logically coherent and intelligible.

Perhaps it’d be useful of me to explain what I mean by temporal sequence and it’s relation to the principle of cause and effect. Think about everything you’ve ever seen come into existence. There is a preceding moment where the thing in question doesn’t exist, for example, a chair. Then there is a moment where the thing in question begins to exist that follows from preceding events. So the chair first doesn’t exist, but after a person puts together some plastic and screws, they’ve assembled a chair they bought from Ikea, thus bringing the chair into a state of existence. So there are moments where states of things change. The same can be said about mental states/states of mind because thoughts/ideas/motivations/etc. change since the mind is always changing.

The Kalam Argument basically builds off our intuition that parts of the universe are caused, therefore the whole, the universe itself, should be caused as well under the same principles of causation. The error that arises is that this argument assumes that the same principle of cause and effect that works within the universe must also be true for the entire universe itself when it began to exist. The theist however could argue that God has as part of His Nature the principle of cause and effect, as well as other principles of logic. If this is the case, then the those principles applied outside the universe in order for them to have been present at the inception of the universe; this would hardly be controversial for the theist if they accept that God is the ontological grounds for logic. If this is true, then God Himself is subject to the principles of temporal causation, as I will explain below, which then calls into question His ability to make changes in His mental states without the use of time. After all, if the Universe was created ex nihilo (for purposes of simplicity, I will just assume this), that state of absolute nothingness that preceded the Universe presumably shouldn’t contain anything, even something like the principle of cause and effect.

Note that premise one (“Whatever begins to exist has a cause”) states that whatever begins to exist has a cause since something cannot exist eternally in the past because it would be logically impossible. We’d invoke an infinite regress of causes or events, which would raise several logical problems that have been discussed by philosophers in the past. A respect for logic and coherence prohibits such an eternal universe to exist, but why does God get a free pass? As we’ve established previously, if the laws of causation apply outside the universe and are grounded in God, it follows that God must be bound by those laws. The theist might argue that God is bound by His own laws, but this would still beg for some concept of temporal causation that He is bound by. Consider this: Let’s say God is the cause of the universe and He existed in some state prior to the existence of the universe. Now, given this state, He creates the universe, but preceding the creation He must have the thought or motivation to create the universe, which means that there is some concept of temporal causation which God is bound by. We can express this in the following diagram, where A1 is the mental state of motivation to create the universe and A2 is the actual creation of the universe:

A1 A2

There is clearly a change in God’s actions and thoughts, as He moves from the motivation for creating the universe (A1), to the actual creation of the universe (A2). Therefore, there must be some causal principle that governs God’s ability to make such changes in His mental states that lead to actions. But this seems to conflict with the idea that God is a disembodied, immaterial mind, one that exists in a state of timelessness. As we’ve seen, there must be some principle of temporal causation that governs His ability to change states of mind, ideas, etc. This puts the theist in an awkward position, as they must be able to argue for a God that can change their states of mind without the use of some kind of mechanism of temporal causation.

But let us consider the objection that causes can be simultaneous to their effects, therefore A1 would occur at the same time as A2 (A1 + A2); we would escape the above issue by having both events happen at the same time, eliminating the need to change from state A1 to state A2. But even this doesn’t escape the need for temporal causality as God would still go from a state of action of not creating the universe, to the state of action of creating the universe. At best, all we do is invoke some other prior mental state (A0):

A0 A1 + A2

Thus, God’s change of states would require some use of temporal causation. But this would violate His timeless Nature! Thus, it becomes incoherent to suggest that God is timeless and yet is still able to move from states of mind and states of action without some use of temporal causation. More importantly, this has the potential to invoke the problem of infinite regress. What preceded the mental states God had before the creation of the universe? God is a thinking mind and, like all minds do, minds think thoughts. If there was thinking present, this too represents changes in mental states. But God then falls directly into the problem of infinite regress since it is supposed that He has been thinking for as long as He has existed (which is eternally):

-∞ → Ap +∞

 Recall that eternal universes are rejected given that infinite regress of causes and events raises several logical issues.  Similarly, if we cannot traverse an infinite regress of past states of mind, then how exactly did God reach the moment where He created the Universe? God is only allowed to do what is logically possible and if logic itself is grounded in Him, it would constitute an absurdity to think that He can just choose to defy what is grounded in Him. It should be quite clear at this point that God cannot escape the problem of infinite regress either. It follows that God cannot be the cause of Universe then. If God cannot change states of mind/action without the use of some principle of temporal causation in order to reach the moment of the creation of the Universe, then it’s quite clear that invoking Him as a cause for the Universe would be philosophically indefensible and incoherent. The theist however might say something like:

“But God’s mind works according to different principles!”

or something to that effect. But what other principles would God’s mind operate by? This can be dismissed as an instance of special pleading: God doesn’t just get a free pass merely because He’s God. It has to be argued rationally how He is able to carry out causation without time in some logically coherent way. After all, isn’t that the apologist’s job? If it is, then I’m sorry to say that I’m not convinced.

But there is still the concern about the Universe and its cause. If God is not the cause of the Universe, then what is? More importantly, why does the Universe exist in the first place? These are important and interesting questions to ask, ones which I cannot even begin to answer because I don’t know the answers. No doubt this will cause some uneasiness in the reader, but a position of justified uncertainty is much better than a position of unjustified certainty. Physicists right now are undertaking the project of explaining what caused the Universe to began to exist, with answers ranging from quantum tunneling from nothing into an inflationary Universe to eternally oscillating Universes. Whatever the answer turns out to be in the end, at best all we have now is the fact that we have an unexplained scientific question which will require time and curiosity to answer, and in my opinion, the best way forward is one devoid of unnecessary metaphysical baggage.

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About Jonathan Morales

I'm currently a second-year history and philosophy undergraduate student at UC Berkeley. Born and raised in Southern California in a community of Mexican-Americans, I've been an atheist since age 16 and have been on the search for answers to life's biggest questions from a secular perspective. My historical interests primarily deal with US international relations in the 20th and 21st century, while my philosophical interests primarily deal with meta-ethics and normative ethics. I am also an Officer Candidate in the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Class, heading to Officer Candidates School this summer.
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