12 November 2010

The Kalam Cosmological Argument

Alright. I know I'm not the first to tackle this one. Lots of non-believers on Youtube have tackled it. It's been tackled by Bud at Dead Logic, Tristan at Advocatus Atheist, and Luke at Common Sense Atheism just to name a few. But far be it from me to leave myself out of the action.

But first, a word on my approach to these kinds of things. I don't have a PhD in physics or philosophy. I've read debates about the Kalam that are so full of obscure phrasings and terminology that I wonder if even the authors completely understand what they're talking about. When I'm reading, say, a book on theoretical physics, I try to break everything down into its simplest form. People who get off on arguing love wordiness and obscurity because it makes their arguments sound more intellectual, even if at their core they are unintelligible. I think that if we break it down to its most basic assumptions, the Kalam Cosmological Argument is ridiculously easy to dismiss.

The argument goes as follows:
  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  • The universe began to exist
  • Ergo, the universe has a cause 
Once the theologian believes the "cause" is firmly established, they then try to argue that it is a theistic god. But the Kalam Argument sucks, and despite its advocates posturing it as sophisticated theology, it makes several elementary errors in logic and it fails scrutiny from a scientific standpoint. So, let's look at the two premises:

  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause
The first premise fails scientifically because there are numerous phenomena – namely the entire field of quantum mechanics – in which causality, at least in any classical sense of the word, simply does not apply. Quantum mechanics functions in the language of probability and mathematical determinism, not classical cause and effect.

But, even if it could be successfully argued that quantum mechanics always obeys the laws of Newtonian causality, the premise still fails philosophically. When we talk about causality, we are strictly talking about a phenomenon within the observable universe. We have no epistemic grounds to make assertions about what kinds of laws, if any, hold outside of the universe. But in order for the first premise to work, it has to presume that the laws of causality that we know from our observable universe also hold independently of the universe. The argument is already presuming, in part, what it is trying to prove. This alone is sufficient to dismiss the entire argument, but I'm going to talk about the second premise anyway, because it is also fallacious and I love talking about cosmology.

  • The universe began to exist
This is supposedly derived from the Big Bang. Einstein's theory of General Relativity says that matter causes space-time to curve. If we went back in time toward the Big Bang, the matter in the universe would become more and more dense, and space-time more and more curved. Eventually it reaches a point of infinite curvature. This is known as the cosmic singularity, and colloquially we call this the beginning of the universe because – at least within the framework of classical physics – the laws of physics "break down". But there's one problem: the singularity is an artifact of the equations of General Relativity. The only way we can hold on to the idea of the singularity is to ignore quantum mechanics, which is like saying we're just going to brush off the bulk of physics from the last century.

If we take quantum effects into account, then this is what we know: the universe existed at the Planck Epoch. We really don't know what happened before that. We might be proud of the 27-kilometer Large Hadron Collider, but to probe the Planck scale directly we would need a particle collider larger than the solar system. Our only hope of understanding Planck-scale physics is by formulating mathematical models, such as String Theory, that make predictions about what we should observe at larger scales. What we do know is that the laws of physics do not require the universe to have a beginning. Maybe it did, maybe it didn't, but the laws of physics do not require it.

Generally, theologians reply with some argument about how the universe can't be infinitely old. I've heard physicists counter-argue it, but it's irrelevant, because beyond the Planck Epoch, time may behave very differently – functioning non-linearly, like another dimension of space. The universe would have no point that we could call the "beginning". When physicists say our universe "began" at the Big Bang, they are talking about our observable universe. The Planck Epoch and beyond remains a mystery, and until we have a successful theory of quantum gravity (String Theory being the most likely candidate, with Loop Quantum Gravity a distant second), theologians simply don't have the epistemic grounds to declare, unequivocally, that the universe had a beginning.

Thus the second premise fails as well, and the entire argument is a non-sequitur.  Theologians would have you believe this is sophisticated theology, but it suffers from elementary errors in reasoning and a misrepresentation of basic science. "Sophisticated theology", as usual, is an oxymoron.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.