The Kalām Cosmological Argument for God’s Existence

This is the first article that I have been privileged to write for The Pangean on the existence of God. Some might be surprised at this. The Pangean, after all, is not a philosophical quarterly. How is this relevant, some might say? To put it simply: in every way. This is an immensely relevant topic because the question of whether or not God exists is surely one of the most significant questions we can ask (in fact, I consider it the most significant). The answer we give to this question will inevitably impact the rest of our worldview as well as influence how we choose to live our lives. Not merely that, this article shall be a bit of an introduction to the field of natural theology: that branch of philosophy devoted to arguments for the existence of God.

But before we proceed further, a few disclaimers must be made. Here’s the first one: I am not claiming to provide empirical evidence for God. Some people have quipped to me in the past, “Show me God, and I’ll believe in Him.” But this statement/challenge presupposes that God is an empirical entity that can be ‘shown’. But God is not an empirical entity; I would argue that He is immaterial and transcendent, not enclosed within space and time. As such, it is not possible for anyone to ‘show’ God to you. But empirical evidence is not the only valid source of knowledge. Logical and philosophical reasoning can play a crucial role too. In fact, the idea that only empirical observations are true sources of knowledge (also called Empiricism) is itself not an empirical observation – it is rather a philosophical assertion, based upon (I imagine) some kind of inductive (probabilistic) reasoning. To claim that only empirical observations can be true sources of knowledge is by its very nature self-defeating.

As this is an article tailored for a general audience, this article will not presuppose any prior philosophical or theological training. And thus, the argument that has been chosen for this paper is one of the simplest ones out there – the Kalām Cosmological Argument. However, its simplicity does not imply a lack of strength – quite the contrary, actually.

Now here’s the second disclaimer: this article is also not going to be extremely comprehensive. Yes, it will be to the point, but it is my hope to reach as broad an audience as I can. As such, the article will not be answering every possible objection that can be made to the argument; instead it will focus primarily on seeking to explain what it actually is rather than defend it in excruciating detail. Comprehensive defences of the argument have already been made by Christian philosophers and there is no need for a humble writer, such as myself, to add to the (quite frankly, saturated) bulk of scholarly literature that already exists on this subject. If you want to study deeper, look no further than Chapter 3 of The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, one of the most elegantly argued natural theology textbooks of our time (though this present author does not agree with everything that is asserted in that work). Or you can look here for an exposition of the argument, and here for responses to the most popular objections that have been made.

The main purpose of this article is to explain why God exists in as simple a manner as I possibly can. This will also give the reader an idea of how philosophical reasoning normally works and how classical theists have argued for the rationality of their faith in God. For, sadly, many of the popular YouTube ‘vlogs’ on the Kalām argument (usually made by posturing theatrical self-congratulatory millennials and other assorted hippies) clearly betray a pitiful lack of understanding of the argument itself, as well as the reasoning that runs through it.

And here is a third disclaimer, which may seem trivial, but which I feel must be made for the sake of conscience. While I heartily acclaim the argument itself, I do not endorse every aspect of the philosophy that has been put forward by some of its chief proponents. Particularly, I take issue with the philosopher William Lane Craig’s (one of the argument’s most vocal defenders) denial of God’s intrinsic immutability. However, this does not affect the core of the argument, and so there should be no issue in presenting it as is.

And so, without further ado, let us get into the argument. It can be formulated as follows:

P1. Everything which begins to exist must have a cause.

P2. The universe began to exist.

C1. (From P1 and P2) Therefore, the universe must have a cause.

P4. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, Personal Creator of the universe exists, Who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.

C2. (From C1 and P4) Therefore, an uncaused, Personal Creator of the universe exists, Who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.

Before we proceed, something very crucial in P1 must be pointed out. It is a common question, often posed by young internet atheists: “If everything which exists must have a cause, then what caused God?” However, this question misses the point of what we are saying. P1 does not say that everything which exists must have a cause – rather, it simply asserts that everything which begins to exist must have a cause. On the face of it, the syllogism is extremely simple and straightforward. P1 is obviously true – or, at the very least, it is far, far more probable than its alternative. As for P2, it can be verified by philosophical arguments as well as scientific evidence. Notice also that the argument is what philosophers call a deductive argument – meaning that if the premises of the argument are true, the conclusion necessarily and inescapably follows.

So, the universe has a cause. But, some ask, why does this cause have to be God? Richard Dawkins, for instance, argues that there is no reason at all to believe that this universal cause (if It indeed exists) possesses the attributes that have been traditionally ascribed to It by Jewish, Christian and Muslim theologians. However, in this, Dawkins is thoroughly mistaken. The divine attributes have been rationally argued for and logically defended for centuries now, and they go back all the way at least to Aristotle and Plotinus, philosophers who lived before the time of Christ and who – although they were neither Jews nor Christians in the formal sense of the term – did come up with a belief in a monotheistic God. It is therefore no wonder that Christian philosophers like St Thomas Aquinas took Aristotle with such enthusiasm (in fact, Catholic theology to this day makes use of Aristotelian terminology to describe spiritual realities).

So, why does the Cause of the Universe have to be God?

The argument can be laid out as follows:

Firstly, there must be an Ultimate Uncaused Cause of all things. In other words, we cannot postulate the existence of an infinite regress of causes (the idea that the Universe is caused by A, which is caused by B, which is caused by C… etc. all the way to infinity).

The philosophers William Lane Craig and James D Sinclair offer a simple reason: the reason is that actual infinites cannot exist in reality. Actual infinites do enjoy mathematical existence, that is undeniable. However, mathematical existence does not necessarily equate to metaphysical existence, or existence in the real world. The great German mathematician David Hilbert himself observed, “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”.

Actual infinites cannot exist in reality simply because, if they did, they would create insoluble absurdities. A good example of this is the famous paradox of Hilbert’s Hotel, an exposition of which you can see here.

Some, however, claim that infinites exist all around us. For example, they point to the fact that any given distance can be infinitely subdivided. However, here we must make the distinction Aristotle made between an actual and a potential infinite.

An actual infinite is something which, to put it bluntly, is actually infinite – that is, it is a completed infinite. For example, the set of all even numbers truly contains an infinite number of members. However, a potential infinite is quite different. It is anything which keeps increasing and which keeps moving towards infinity but which never actualizes or achieves infinity – it always remains an ever-increasing (or ever-decreasing) finitude. For example, the age of the universe which began to exist but which will never cease to exist in the future. The age would be increasing with every passing moment and be forever progressing towards infinity, but it would never actually reach infinity. It is the same with the example of a finite distance being potentially divisible infinitely. To quote Craig and Sinclair: “The only legitimate sense in which one can speak of the infinite is in terms of potentiality: something may be infinitely divisible or susceptible to infinite addition, but this type of infinity is potential only and can never be fully actualized”. So, “While one can continue indefinitely to divide conceptually any distance, the series of subintervals thereby generated is merely potentially infinite, in that infinity serves as a limit that one endlessly approaches but never reaches”. The same goes for time. “This is the thoroughgoing Aristotelian position on the infinite: only the potential infinite exists. This position does not imply that minimal time atoms, or chronons, exist. Rather time, like space, is infinitely divisible in the sense that division can proceed indefinitely, but time is never actually infinitely divided, neither does one arrive at an instantaneous point.”

To put it simply, when we seek to subdivide any given distance, we must remember that the distance we are seeking to divide is strictly finite – it is not infinite. We can keep dividing it for years and years if we please, but we will never actually reach an infinite number of divisions. At any given point in time, the number of divisions we will have created will still be finite, the size of each division will still be finite and the sum total of the divisions will still be what it originally was: the finite distance we set out to divide. We will never arrive at an actually infinite number of divisions; we will keep on moving towards the infinite without realising it. This is a potential infinite, not an actual one. For more on the paradoxes related to the infinite, readers can refer to the Oxford philosopher A W Moore’s book The Infinite.

So, an actual infinite cannot exist in reality. This naturally implies that the regress of causes cannot be actually infinite; it must terminate in a First/Ultimate Cause. And this First/Ultimate Cause must naturally be Uncaused (otherwise, it would not be a First/Ultimate Cause). So, we have established the first premise of all monotheistic religion – that there is an Ultimate Uncaused Cause of all things. Let us continue with the divine attributes.

In the second place, an Uncaused Cause must be beginning-less since everything which is uncaused has no beginning to it (we can derive this by contraposition of P1 of the original argument).

Thirdly, there is good reason to believe that the Entity is Immaterial and Timeless. This is powerfully suggested by the fact that it is, in fact, the cause of space and time (causation, it must be remembered, does not itself have to be temporal). But if the Entity is Itself the cause of space and time, it cannot itself be enclosed within space and time. Of course, this assertion itself probably doesn’t clinch the argument on its own. However, there are other arguments by other philosophers which have proven convincing to me that the Ultimate Cause is indeed immaterial and timeless. If you’re interested in reading up on this, refer to Chapters 1 and 3 of philosopher and former atheist Edward Feser’s book Five Proofs for the Existence of God. However, since the Immateriality and Timelessness of the First Cause is not – strictly speaking – crucial to the core of the argument, we shall carry on without dwelling on it for too long.

Fourthly, the Entity in question must possess enormous power, since it brought the entirety of the universe into existence quite literally from nothing. This is fairly straightforward.

Fifthly and finally, the Ultimate Cause of all Things must be Personal. This is the linchpin. Craig and Sinclair offer three arguments for this (though many, many more can be offered) in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.

In the first place, as the Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne notes, there are two types of causal explanations: “scientific explanations in terms of laws and initial conditions and personal explanations in terms of agents and their volitions”. For example, two answers can be given to the question, “Why is the kettle boiling?” We could say: “The heat of the flame is being conducted via the bottom of the kettle to the water, increasing the kinetic energy of the molecules such that they vibrate so violently that they break the surface tension of the water and are thrown off in the form of steam.” Or we could simply say: “I put the kettle on to make a cup of tea.” Both these explanations are true, and one does not necessarily exclude the other. However, one is scientific in nature; the other personal. The ‘First State of the Universe’ cannot have a scientific explanation, since there is nothing before it and it cannot, therefore, be accounted for in terms of laws operating on initial conditions. The only other explanation is in terms of an Agent and His volitions (the personal explanation).

Second, the Personhood of the Ultimate/First Cause also seems to follow from the other properties we have laid out in our argumentation. There are only two kinds of things which can be said to be uncaused, beginningless, timeless, spaceless and immaterial – either abstract objects or unembodied minds. However, abstract objects (like numbers for example, or things like roundness, redness, etc.) cannot cause anything at all – that’s part of what it means to be abstract. The only alternative that springs to mind is that of an Unembodied Mind. No other alternatives seem possible, and indeed none have been suggested so far by any major critic of the argument.

The third argument begins by observing that while the cause is clearly eternal, the effect is not. But this seems strange. Is it not reasonable to expect that if the cause is eternal, the effect would also be co-eternal with it? And yet, we see that the effect only came to be a finite time ago, instead of forever existing side-by-side with its eternal cause, like a person and her shadow, or a subject and his/her reflection in the mirror. The easiest way out of this dilemma, Craig and Sinclair argue, is to accept that the Cause is Personal and Free. That way, it can be Eternal, while still being the cause of a temporal and finite effect. God simply chooses eternally to create a temporally finite world. This does not, of course, mean, that God “one day woke up and decided all upon a sudden to create the world”. No, that assertion is deeply problematic philosophically. Rather, the classical theist position is simply to assert that God eternally wills to create/cause the temporal universe. This decision is eternal (as would be expected if God is omniscient and immutable – though that is a topic for another day), but still, free.

Those were the arguments made by some of the mainstream philosophers. In addition, I would boldly venture a suggestion of my own. Although I myself lack the credentials of an Oxford don, the example I am about to give I have thought about for some time and – so far – have found no flaw in it. You could take it as a personal insight, which is not too different from Swinburne’s argument described in point one above.

The example is that of a stone. A stone is an inanimate object. It can never think nor freely chose to do things. This means that it cannot do anything at all unless external forces act upon it. If a stone comes flying through the air and hits you on the head, you can legitimately say, “The stone has hit me!” But because the stone is inanimate (it can neither think nor take free will decisions of its own), you must also recognize that it did not hit you by its own strength or power or will.

However, if there is indeed an Ultimate/First Cause of all things, then it must be animate/living, personal, conscious and endowed with free will. Otherwise, it could not do (or, to be more accurate, cause) anything on its own unless external forces acted upon it – much like the stone. However, the Ultimate/First Cause has no such forces to rely upon – that is precisely why it is the Ultimate/First Cause to begin with! Therefore, Personhood and Freedom of the Will seem inescapable.

That, in a nutshell, is the Kalām Cosmological Argument. It is a very old argument, having roots in the Islamic tradition, but it has recently been popularised by philosopher of religion William Lane Craig.

It is up to you, dear reader, at the end of the day to judge whether or not the argument is sound. You must do your own research and make up your own mind. But even if you ultimately disagree, I hope you can at least see that the Classical Theist philosophical tradition is nothing like what it is so often made out to be by the New Atheists and their enthusiastic YouTube supporters. Al-Ghazali, Aquinas, Anselm, Aristotle, Augustine, Bonaventure, Scotus – these were not like the illiterate country bumpkins they are so often made out to be. They were brilliant and careful thinkers. Centuries later, their insights still remain true and science has, in fact, confirmed many of their philosophical deductions (for example: al-Ghazali argued centuries ago, on the basis of philosophical argumentation, that time is finite; modern cosmology largely seems to have vindicated him). If you want to see how the argument holds up in the context of debate, see here and here.

As I hope has become obvious, although I have peppered this article with hyperlinks that will prove useful to you, I have not taken it upon myself to answer every question or refute every objection. There are others who have done that and this article has already exceeded 3,000 words. You’ll have to be satisfied with this much for now, at least from me. Plus, since this is an extremely provocative topic, what better way to end it than with a provocative and cliff-hanging conclusion?

Soham Gupta

I believe that the relentless pursuit of truth is the most exalted goal a person could possibly strive for. And the truth, as far as I have experienced it, has only made me zealous for the greater glory of God.

The Pangean does not condemn or condone any of the views of its contributors. It only gives them the space to think and write without hindrance.