Kalam: Does anything at all come into existence?

angry atheism apologetics Philosophy of Religion

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The kalam cosmological argument is a version of the argument from first causes. It is part of a philosophical case for the existence of God, and goes like this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence (This is the major premise)
  2. The universe began to exist (This is the minor premise)
  3. Therefore the universe has a cause of its existence (This is the conclusion)

A response has been offered to the argument. You won’t find this response in textbooks or peer reviewed journal articles on philosophy of religion, but it’s out there – on movie and video game discussion forums, in YouTube clips (and in the comments section of YouTube clips) and the like.

Here’s an example:

And another:

The point being made in each of these clips is to undermine the first premise of the kalam argument. Whereas the kalam argument depends on the fact that everything that begins to exist has a cause, this general line of response is to say, in effect, “well – nothing every really begins to exist, so this argument’s going nowhere!”

In the first clip, the speaker is getting at the idea of the conservation of energy, that matter and energy aren’t ever created or destroyed, they are merely converted from one form to another. Similarly, the second clip appeals to the fact that the matter that now makes up an object (like a shoe) existed prior to being part of the shoe.

But does any of this even get close to refuting the kalam cosmological argument? Not at all. Remember, the argument does not claim, “Whatever begins to exist has all of the the matter that makes up that thing come into existence at the same time.” On the contrary, the premise is that “whatever comes into existence has a cause of its existence.” This is quite a different claim! Object P’s coming into existence is perfectly compatible with some or all of the bits of matter that make up P already existing – as in the example of the shoe. So that line of argument just has no promise at all.

Having said that, shoes are a perfect example of the kind of thing referred to in premise 1. Shoes do, after all, come into existence in shoe factories. While the rubber and leather (or the particles that would later become that rubber and leather) might have existed years, decades, centuries, millennia or aeons ago, it would be ludicrous to get into a time machine, travel five million years back in time, get out of the machine, and then announce “those shoes exist now!” Obviously they do not. Now imagine that you’re in the present, holding a pair of shoes that have just been made in the factory. A friend asks you “are those new shoes?” You tell her “Yes, they’re brand new.” She says, “what are they made of?” You answer, “Mostly rubber and leather, with a few bits of other stuff.” Now, your friend has never heard of shoe factories before. She asks you, “Oh, so how did that rubber and leather and stuff get made into a shoe? What caused the new shoe to come into existence?”

Here comes your reply: “Nothing! Nothing caused the shoe to come into existence. No forces were at work, nobody was involved, and no events lead to the shoe being formed. Nothing at all caused it. It just happened.”

Your friend now thinks you’re insane. Do you see how the first premise of the kalam argument still applies, quite regardless of whether the matter that would make up the shoe existed previously or not?

If we take seriously the claim that nothing comes into being, then we end up saying some downright absurd things. It commits us to the claim that “whatever exists has always existed.” Well, I exist right now. Let’s say that I’m constituted by various bits of matter. Fine, but what those bits constitute is something: Me. If everything that now exists has always existed, and if I now exist, then I have always existed. It would mean that when the earth was cooling and before there was any life on its surface, I existed. It means that when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I existed. It means that before my great great great grandfather on my father’s side was born, I existed. The consequences of this line of response are absurd.

Now, if the two fellows respond, as I suspect they would, by saying that this is not what they meant, and that they were not saying that things that now exist have always existed – and that they only mean that the matter that makes up things has existed since the beginning of the universe, then we’re back to the shoe factory example again. In that example, it’s simply irrelevant that the things that now exist are made from pre-existing matter, because the first premise of the kalam argument still applies.

So the proponents of this response to the kalam cosmological argument have two options: Accept either that the response is absurd, or that it’s irrelevant. I’ll leave that decision in their hands.

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{ 15 comments… add one }
  • Leonhard May 17, 2010, 1:34 am

    I might sound like a philosophical ignorant (arguably I probably am), but what’s a Major Premise and a Minor Premise? The first premise is the one that I see William Craig Lane do the smallest amount of defense of, and its the other than gets the biggest treatment. He goes so far as to try prove at length that an infinite collection of items can’t exist to achieve that. His argument from the physical sciences seem fine though. Where as the “Major Premise” gets a relatively short treatment based on an observation that we never see the opposite and that’s it seems very intuitive. Don’t know if he’s formally proven that the opposite can’t happen.

    However, since the Major Premise took the shortest amount of work and the Minor Premise got the greatest treatment. What’s the difference?

  • Ilíon May 18, 2010, 1:06 am

    Leonhard, I would say that one’s major premise tends to get the least treatment because it tends to be of the sort considered (or one considers it to be of the sort) so blindingly self-evident that to deny it is absurd.

  • Glenn May 18, 2010, 10:59 pm

    Leonhard, a major premise has an antecedent and a consequent (whether stated explicitly or not). The antecedent is the “if” part of a statement, and then “then” part is the consequent. For example:

    If something is square (antecedent) then it has four sides (consequent).

    Sometimes “if” and “then” are not used, but they are implied. For example “All squares have four sides” could be a major premise, and it can be re-written “if something is a square, then it has four sides.”

    A major premise thus sets out a condition. The minor premise picks out an example of that condition being met (or not met). So a very simple argument along these lines would be:

    1) If something is square, then it has four sides. (major premise)
    2) That object is square (minor premise)
    3) Therefore that object has four sides.

    A moral example:

    1) It’s always wrong to kill people (major premise – equivalent to “if something kills people then it’s wrong”)
    2) War kills people (minor premise)
    3) Therefore war is always wrong

  • Joey May 19, 2010, 8:59 am

    You know Glenn, I also see this argument regarding matter and existence used on occasion against annihilationism, though from the other side of it. Whereas here the point that matter is never created is used, traditionalists point to the laws of conservation of matter/energy as proof that matter and energy are never destroyed, and that therefore people will always exist. It also fails for all the same reasons it fails here against the Kalam argument, as it does not take into account the obvious difference between a created entity and the matter that makes it up.

    (That all aside from the fact that once we grant the existence of a Creator, as traditionalists obviously do, one could argue that the law need not necessarily apply to Him but only His creation).

  • Glenn May 19, 2010, 9:21 am

    Agreed on all counts Joey 🙂

  • Archena May 20, 2010, 12:00 am

    “Now, if the two fellows respond, as I suspect they would, by saying that this is not what they meant, and that they were not saying that things that now exist have always existed – and that they only mean that the matter that makes up things has existed since the beginning of the universe,…”

    Um, wouldn’t that argument refute their original premise? Wasn’t the beginning of the universe the subject of the argument? The question that immediately comes to mind is ‘what existed prior to the beginning of the universe’? If it wasn’t the matter and energy we now know then the ‘it always existed’ argument becomes even more absurd.

  • Glenn May 29, 2010, 12:25 am

    Well to be fair, Archena, I was describing their position in my own words when I said that matter has existed since the big bang.

    The reason I worded it that way is that there was no time “before” the big bang, since time and space came into existence with the big bang.

  • Peter Byrom January 5, 2011, 2:29 am

    Good critique.

    I have heard proponents of this silly objection respond by saying “ah, but we’re not talking about the labels we apply to re-arrangements of matter, we’re talking about the matter itself. It always existed”.

    To which my response is, hang on, then aren’t they just denying premise two after all? They’re using the first law of thermodynamics to assert that matter cannot be created or destroyed, thus its silly to talk about the universe beginning to exist, from a material point of view.

    All one needs to do is point out the sheer naivete of their assertion: that physics acknowledges a beginning to all space, time, matter and energy while ALSO affirming the first law. Why? Because the first law only describes the state of the universe as it is post-Big Bang: a closed system which, in such a state, cannot be added or subtracted from materially speaking. Do these guys really think that all the scientists out there haven’t considered whether or not this is a contradiction? LOL.

    So, indeed, a silly objection. It’s silly to say “nothing begins to exist” and, if they want to focus specifcally on the material universe, it’s just an ordinary run-of-the-mill objection to premise 2.

    Do try harder guys.

    Cheers! 🙂

  • AgeOfReasonXXI April 13, 2011, 9:52 am

    what is the “cause” of virtual particles?
    and don’t say the stupid ala-WLC response “they don’t come from nothing”! cause, please.
    if it’s irrelevant whether they are constituted of pre-existing energy, as your “shoe example” argues, then the 1st premise is false: QM tell us there’s no cause for them. the objection “they don’t come from nothing” refers to them having a “material cause” (i.e. the stuff out of which they’re made existed before), but you argue that’s irrelevant.
    check-mate 🙂

  • AgeOfReasonXXI April 13, 2011, 9:54 am

    “QM tell us there’s no cause for them”
    here by *them* I obviously meant the VIRTUAL PARTICLES

  • Glenn April 13, 2011, 7:30 pm

    Age of Reason, actually you’re mistaken when you say that “QM tells us there’s no cause for them.” QM tells us nothing of the sort!

    This is commonly claimed on the internet, mostly for anti-religious reasons. But the reality is that when people talk about quantum particles coming to existence of out “nothing,” they’re using a bizarre meaning of the word “nothing.” What they basically mean is something like undifferentiated background energy. needless to say, energy bringing things into existence is not really the same as something coming into existence with no cause!

  • AgeOfReasonXXI April 14, 2011, 12:53 am

    “QM tells us nothing of the sort!”
    sorry, you’re wrong. QM tells us that virtual particles (or, for that matter, the particles emitted during radio-active decay) do NOT have an external cause, and they appear spontaneously: the vacuum is not a cause.
    it’s clear that what Craig means by “cause” is an external(i.e. efficient) cause, so any retort like “they don’t come from nothing”(which means they’re made out of pre-existing matter/energy) is irrelevant, hense just rhetoric.
    if you disagree, please tell me what is the external(efficient) cause for virtual particles or alpha patricles that originate during radio-acive decay.

    “people talk about quantum particles coming to existence of out “nothing”
    no, they say the particles are “uncaused”, not that they come “from nothing”. they are made of pre-existing energy (like your shoe), but that doesn’t mean that(like the shoe) they are caused! that’s the whole point. physicists say QM reveals virtual particles appear spontaneously, hense they lack an external cause. now you may argue that QM simply haven’t found the cause, but you can’t say that what QM currently tells us includes such a cause.
    what’s so hard to understand?

  • Quinton October 25, 2011, 11:41 am

    Ha! I love those youtube clips! Priceless.

  • Glenn October 25, 2011, 7:22 pm

    I missed this comment somehow. AOR, you are just going on groundless faith here. QM does not tell us what you clearly want it to. It doesn’t set out to tell us this, but run into problems. No, it doesn’t even point in that direction. It’s silent. Indeed it cannot tell us that there isn’t a cause for quantum events. In fact even your own language masks some of the relevant information. What you call a “vacuum” is background energy. Calling it a vacuum in the hope that people will associate it with the idea of literally nothing is just not helpful. It’s not nothing, it’s something. We know that there’s background energy, and we know that against this backdrop quantum events happen. You will agree, surely, that QM tells us this.

    But you’re going way beyond any evidence to declare that “QM tells us that virtual particles (or, for that matter, the particles emitted during radio-active decay) do NOT have an external cause, and they appear spontaneously.” This is just fiction. Is there a cause in this background energy? It’s certainly the best candidate, but for some reason you, in an act of what looks like dogmatism, have ruled it out – no, you say, QM shows that there isn’t a cause.

    Again: No. QM doesn’t show this. It just doesn’t specify the cause. At least be open minded about it and don’t go beyond the evidence.

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