This post first appeared on Kineti and is authored by Judah Gabriel Himango, one of Tabernacle of David’s teachers.
The kalam cosmological argument for God’s existence says that:
- Everything that begins to exist has a cause. (Things don’t pop into existence from nothing.)
- The universe began to exist. (Cosmology science confirms the universe had a beginning: the “Big Bang” and its evidence.)
- Therefore, the universe has a cause. (An immaterial, timeless, extraordinarily powerful cause.)
“But what caused God?” is the usual atheist retort.
When I first had read about the cosmological argument and talked to an atheist work colleague about it, this was his exact objection. What’s our response?
In his book, On Gaurd: Defending Your Faith With Reason and Precision, cosmological argument proponent William Lane Craig says this is a misunderstanding of the first premise:
At this point the atheist is likely to retort, “All right, if everything has a cause, what is God’s cause?”
I’m amazed at the self-congratulatory attitude of students who pose this question. They image that they’ve said something very important or profound, when all they’ve done is misunderstand the premise. Premise 1 does not say that everything has a cause. Rather it says that everything that begins to exist has a cause. Something that is eternal wouldn’t need a cause, since it never came into being.
[11th century Islamic philosopher] Ghazali would therefore respond that God is eternal and uncaused. This is not special pleading for God, since this is exactly what the atheist has traditionally said about the universe: It is eternal and uncaused. The problem is that we have good evidence that the universe is not eternal but had a beginning, and so the atheist is backed into the corner of saying the universe sprang into being without a cause, which is absurd.
Craig addresses a few other common objections to the cosmological argument. Atheists sometimes claim that premise 1 is invalid because subatomic particles come into being from nothing. Craig writes,
Sometimes skeptics will respond to this point by saying that in physics subatomic particles (so-called “virtual particles”) come into being from nothing. Or certain theories of the origin of the universe are sometimes described in popular magazines as getting something from nothing, so that the universe is the exception to the proverb “There ain’t no free lunch.”
This skeptical response represents a deliberate abuse of science. The theories in question have to do with particles originating as a fluctuation of the energy contained in the vacuum. The vacuum in modern physics is not what the layman understands by “vacuum,” namely, nothing. Rather in physics the vacuum is a sea of fluctuating energy governed by physical laws and having a physical structure. To tell laymen that on such theories something comes from nothing is a distortion of those theories.
Craig writes that he was surprised to see atheists most often go after premise 1 as it empirically true:
When I first published my work on the kalam cosmological argument back in 1979, I figured that atheists would attack premise 2 of the argument, that the universe began to exist. But I didn’t think they’d go after premise 1. For that would expose them as people not sincerely seeking after truth but just looking for an academic refutation of the argument. What a surprise, then, to hear atheists denying premise 1 in order to escape the argument! For example, Quentin Smith of Western Michigan University responded that the most rational position to hold is that the universe came “from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing”—a nice close to a Gettysburg Address of atheism, perhaps!
This is simply the faith of an atheist. In fact, I think this represents a greater leap of faith than belief in the existence of God. For it is, I repeat, literally worse than magic. If this is the alternative to belief in God, then unbelievers can never accuse believers of irrationality, for what could be more evidently irrational than this? 2. If something can come into being from nothing, then it becomes inexplicable why just anything or everything doesn’t come into being from nothing. Think about it: Why don’t bicycles and Beethoven and root beer just pop into being from nothing? Why is it only universes that can come into being from nothing? What makes nothingness so discriminatory? There can’t be anything about nothingness that favors universes, for nothingness doesn’t have any properties. Nor can anything constrain nothingness, for there isn’t anything to be constrained!
Another objection is, while everything in the universe has a cause, maybe the universe itself doesn’t need a cause. Craig writes this too is fallacious,
I’ve heard atheists respond to this argument by saying that premise 1 is true of everything in the universe but not of the universe. But this is just the old taxicab fallacy that we encountered in chapter 3. You can’t dismiss the causal principle like a cab once you get to the universe! Premise 1 is not merely a law of nature, like the law of gravity, which only applies in the universe. Rather it’s a metaphysical principle that governs all being, all reality.
Common experience and scientific evidence confirm the truth of premise 1. Premise 1 is constantly verified and never falsified. It’s hard to understand how anyone committed to modern science could deny that premise 1 is more plausibly true than false in light of the evidence.
So I think that the first premise of the kalam cosmological argument is clearly true. If the price of denying the argument’s conclusion is denying premise 1, then atheism is philosophically bankrupt.
I told my atheist colleague that God doesn’t have a beginning, so there is no requirement that He have a cause. He responded by changing his argument: “OK. I concede we don’t know why the universe came into existence. But we will eventually, and like everything else, there will be a natural explanation.”
This answer seems reasonable on the surface: everything in nature has a natural explanation. But on further thought, this requires a leap of faith, doesn’t it? “I don’t know, but eventually we will have a naturalistic explanation” is a statement of faith; a belief. Even if it seems true of the natural world, the origin of nature itself — why there is something rather than nothing — may not have a natural explanation. Indeed, this might be a category error: there are natural explanations for natural phenomena. But the very existence of natural things cannot be caused by nature; the universe cannot cause itself.
One other objection I’ve heard from atheists is that the phrase “begins to exist” is doing a lot of heavy lifting. Does a table “begin to exist”, or does it just change form of something that already existed? And the tree from which the table was fashioned, did the tree begin to exist, or did it change form from a seed to a tree?
On one hand this feels true: maybe things don’t really begin to exist, they just change form. But on the other hand, it feels intuitive and true that some things truly begin to exist. For example, I often tell my kids, “Mom and I did such and such before you were born.” There was a time they did not exist, and now they do.
Likewise in death, there is mourning because someone who did exist on this earth most definitely does not exist any longer. Their physical shell may still exist in decay, but that human being, that mind, that conscious being, is no longer.
Thinking about this deeper, atheists would likely respond that the person exists but just changes form, their body going into decay. But then might we say the same thing about the person’s consciousness, their mind, their soul?
I need to think more about this. (And, more likely, people smarter than me already have.)
I’ve only just gotten into this book by Craig, and there is so much here that is valuable to defending faith in God. So often I hear from folks in the technology space, “There is no evidence for God. Zero. None.”
This is so obviously false to me, but so many people genuinely believe it.
I think this book will help me speak to such folks.