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Debating Kalam

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Last Wednesday I took part in debate night, where a bunch of us St. Louis atheists get together and debate various things. It was an interesting experience since this is the first semi-serious debate I have done, and because I was the one arguing for the existence of God. My opponent was Dustin (Saint Gasoline) and the topic was William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument.

Since I didn’t think Kalam was a sound argument and had a long list of things I thought was wrong with it, I figured I should do some research to see how Craig would respond to those objections. I didn’t want to just concede the debate as soon as Dustin pointed out something I thought was a fatal flaw in Kalam. And I figured that I couldn’t get away with just evading or pretending to answer one of his criticisms since he’s pretty good with philosophy and great at lampooning absurdities:




So I decided to read a lot of the published work on Kalam, both pro and con. I tried to put myself in the shoes of a believer and focus not on finding fault with the argument but on finding the best arguments for Kalam and finding the best responses to arguments against it. I think I was able to do a pretty good job of this, perhaps because I would have no problem believing in God if I actually thought there were solid arguments for his existence. It was a pretty weird experience though. After reading many of Craig’s responses to objections to the argument, whenever I read a new objection I would feel sure that Craig would have a good response. And sure enough, he did, or at least one that seemed good when you were predisposed in favor of Kalam. Eventually though, I came across serious objections that neither I nor Craig seemed to have good answers to. Fortunately for my chances in the debate, Craig had reasonable responses to many of the most common objections to Kalam.

Does the fact that Craig has good answers to some of the most common objections mean they are bad objections? Not necessarily. If someone does not provide any support for the premises of the Kalam argument, then a reasonable objection is to say that you haven’t seen any reason to think that either premise is true. If someone provides some arguments for the premises, but those arguments have flaws, it’s perfectly reasonable to point out those flaws. It may be possible for a theist to get around some of those flaws by making a more complex version of the argument that has new and different flaws, but that doesn’t make the original objections bad. However, I think it is a big mistake for people debating William Lane Craig to focus on the more basic objections. Craig can respond by quickly rebutting these objections and can then use the rest of his time to make even more arguments in favor of Kalam. That’s what I hoped to do in the debate, and I think this strategy was pretty successful.

So it’s important for anyone debating Kalam to not only know a lot of objections, but to know how a proponent of Kalam will likely respond. Since Kalam is one of the most popular arguments for the existence of God, I think that anyone wanting to debate the existence of God should have a good understanding of the arguments for Kalam.

I’m planning on doing a series of posts which will hopefully give people a better idea of what to expect when debating Kalam. But before I get into arguments against Kalam, I’m going to post the opening speech I prepared for the debate so you can see Kalam at its strongest (or at least my attempt to present it as strongly as possible). Here’s the speech:

The question of whether God exists is one of the most important questions we will ever have to answer. The decision we reach has the potential to not only affect how we live our lives, but what will happen to us after we die. For that reason, I think that all arguments for and against God’s existence should be exposed to intense scrutiny. My opponent tonight is an atheist writer and cartoonist who has previously written on, and debated, the Kalam cosmological argument. I expect him to have a long list of objections, which I will do my best to answer. I believe that the Kalam cosmological argument will withstand his criticisms, but you will have to judge that for yourselves.

The Kalam cosmological argument is actually remarkably simple. Its first premise is that everything that begins to exist has a cause. Its second premise is that the universe began to exist. Therefore, we conclude that the universe has a cause. This is a valid argument, which means that if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. So an atheist must reject at least one of these premises if he wants to avoid believing that the universe had a creator.

I will begin by talking about why I think that the universe must have had a beginning. One argument in favor of this is as follows: Premise 1: An actual infinity cannot exist, Premise 2: an infinite temporal regress of events would be an actual infinity. Therefore an infinite temporal regress cannot occur. Something may be potentially infinite; you may be able to keep dividing it, or adding to it. But you can never reach the point where you actually have an infinite quantity of something. While the concept of an actual infinity can be expressed mathematically, as in Cantor’s system of transfinite arithmetic, mathematicians Kasner and Newman have noted that “’Existence’ in the mathematical sense is wholly different from the existence of objects in the physical world.” In the words of the influential mathematician David Hilbert, “The infinite is nowhere to be found in reality. It neither exists in nature nor provides a legitimate basis for rational thought… The role that remains for the infinite to play is solely that of an idea.”

For the existence of an actual infinity would have absurd consequences. Imagine a book whose first page is 1/2 inch thick, whose second page is 1/4 thick, etc. Although there is no last page, the book is of finite thickness and each page is still a finite number of pages away from the first page. Now take the book, close it, turn it over and lift up the back cover. There is nothing there to see! Now imagine trying to touch the last page. The problem is that after any page, there are infinitely more after it. So if you are able to touch any page at all, your hand must have somehow already penetrated infinitely many pages. This example demonstrates the absurdities inherent in having actual infinities exist in reality.

This point is further emphasized by the example of Hilbert’s Hotel. In a hotel of infinitely many rooms and with no vacancies, you could still find room for infinitely many new guests merely by shifting the current guests to the even numbered rooms and putting the new guests in the odd-numbered rooms (assigning the old guests to the rooms that are twice their old room number). And you could even have infinitely many guests check out (all those in odd numbered rooms) and still have a full hotel merely by shifting people to rooms that were half their old room number. But if the infinitely many guests that leave are all those in rooms numbered above 3, then the hotel would become virtually empty and there would be no way to shift the guests around to avoid this. Thus you can have the same number of people leave, and get radically different results. Can anyone genuinely believe that such an absurd hotel could exist in reality?!

And any infinite temporal regress must be an actual infinity because every event takes a certain amount of time, for an infinitely slow event would actually be a changeless state. Regardless of how long each event took, infinitely many events would have taken place given an infinite amount of time. Since an actual infinity cannot exist and an infinite temporal regress would be an actual infinity, the universe must have had a beginning.

There is also ample empirical evidence that the universe had a beginning. Over the last century, scientific discoveries such as cosmic microwave background radiation and the cosmological redshift have provided strong evidence in favor of the Big Bang model. We now know that the universe is expanding, and if you were to travel back in time, you would see the universe getting smaller and smaller. In the words of physicist P.C.W. Davies, “If we extrapolate this prediction to its extreme, we reach a point when all distances in the universe have shrunk to zero. An initial cosmological singularity therefore forms a past temporal extremity to the universe. …the big bang represents the creation event; the creation not only of all the matter and energy in the universe, but also of spacetime itself.” Under the Friedmann-Lemaitre model, which is the standard Big Bang model, matter and time originated ex nihilo a finite amount of time ago at the initial cosmological singularity. There have been countless attempts over the years to avoid the inescapable conclusion that the universe began to exist. The steady state model was proposed and then discarded. The oscillating universe model was proposed and then discarded. There have always been, and will continue to be, plenty of fanciful speculations, but none of them are realistic. Time does not permit me to explain the problems with every alternative ever conceived, but I would be happy to explain the problems I see with any alternatives that my opponent thinks are viable. Since there is no plausible way in which the universe could have existed for eternity and because of the strong philosophical arguments against a beginningless universe, we reach the conclusion that the universe began to exist.

Of course an atheist could still argue that maybe there’s some a-causal way in which the universe could have come about. To do this, he must argue that the entire universe just suddenly appeared for no reason whatsoever. But no one seriously believes that things like dogs and sports cars can just pop into existence without a cause. However, if things could come into existence from nothing, why just universes, why not airplanes, hamburgers and construction workers? Why is nothingness so discriminatory? How can there be some property of nothingness that favors universes, since nothingness has no properties? And believing that things do not need causal explanations would wreak havoc on the sciences. If scientists had simply assumed that things could appear uncaused out of nothing, there would not have been such a wealth of groundbreaking scientific discoveries over the last century. Scientists could always label something uncaused and never have to search for a causal explanation for it. We should be very careful not to cut off the search for explanations too soon.

While I do not think the universe could be eternal for the philosophical and scientific reasons I listed, if all my philosophical arguments turn out to be misguided and our current understanding of physics turns out to be merely a mythic narrative with no basis in reality, we should obviously reconsider. But barring this, I think we need to go with what seems like the only reasonable explanation, that some entity created the universe a finite amount of time ago.

Once we realize that there must be a creator of the universe, the next step is to try to figure out what properties this creator possesses. Since everything that begins to exist has a cause, we have (by contraposition) that the uncaused creator did not ever begin toexist. Since he is the creator of all matter, he must himself be immaterial. He must also be unbelievably powerful since he brought all matter, energy, and even space-time itself into existence without any material cause. There is also good reason to think that this cause is personal. There are two types of causal explanations: scientific explanations in terms of laws and initial conditions, and personal explanations in terms of someone’s will. For example, if you asked, “Why is the kettle boiling?”, I could say that heat from the burner is being conducted through the metal bottom of the kettle to the water, causing the water molecules to vibrate so violently that they break the surface tension of the water and escape in the form of steam, or I could say that I put the water on because I wanted some tea. In this case, both are legitimate explanations, though some people may look at me a little funny if I responded with the former. But with the universe, there cannot be a scientific explanation since there was no natural world before it came into being and therefore it cannot be accounted for by laws operating on initial conditions. So the most plausible explanation is in terms of an agent and their volitions. Therefore, we have good evidence for an uncaused personal creator of the universe who is beginningless, immaterial, and incredibly powerful. This is what we mean by God. Of course this does not prove that the Christian conception of God is correct while the Muslim one is false. For that we need to look at things like the historical evidence for Jesus’ resurrection, and the countless miracles that have taken place over the years. But if sound, the Kalam cosmological argument invalidates atheism. I urge you to carefully consider this argument, for the conclusions you reach tonight may have consequences far greater than you realize. Thank you.

3 comments:
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WAR_ON_ERROR said...
February 7, 2010 at 2:14 AM  

I agree, I think your approach worked quite well. Someone would have had to do a lot of research to follow through with meaningful rebuttals.

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Ignostic Morgan said...
August 1, 2010 at 11:57 AM  

Inquiring Infidel, I find fault WLG in that that successive addition itself underscores infinity rather than arguing against infinity! And as there was no necessary starting point Existence is eternal. Aquinas himself who begged questions here and Kyle Williams is right that every day arrives on time day by day!

Yes, astro-physics does indeed enter here: whether by quantum tunnelling or what other falsiable theory we do know that the quantum files are eternal in accordance with the law of conservation of matter-energy. One can be a creatonist evolutionist or a creationary evolutionist, agreeing thereto.
We do know that it was a mere retransformation of matter rather than creation ex nihilo.
Those hotels ,etc. are just an ignoratio elenchi- not germane. One cannot gainsay infinite numbers with ordinary ones!
I find that he and Alvin Plantinga and other theologians just make use of specious sophisiticated solecisms!
Yes, ti's painstaking to dissect fully the Kalam, and Nowaki has an entire book on it.

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kadir karabaƟ said...
February 22, 2013 at 10:10 PM  
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