03 March 2014

The Kalam Cosmological Argument: not even wrong

During the Craig/Carroll debate, one of my favorite arguments that Sean Carroll used against the Kalam Cosmological Argument's first premise is that it's not just wrong; it's not even wrong.

The first premise is generally stated as:
  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence
... but was re-stated by Craig in the debate as:
  • If the universe began to exist, it has a transcendent cause for its existence

I devoted a post to explaining why I think the new formulation isn't just bad, but one that actually betrays the central problem with the KCA. Carroll took a unique approach in saying that classical notions of causality aren't even relevant to cosmological models, where quantum theory comes heavily into play. That's a good approach, and one I endorse. But, I think that Carroll's statement that the Kalam is "not even wrong" can be applied in an even more simple context.

Skeptics and theists alike are fond of squabbling over complex cosmological theories and theorems when debating the KCA, and I can't help but feel that once you're suckered in to that kind of a debate, you've already lost. Far better to cut to the heart of why the KCA doesn't even get off the ground.


The problem is simply that "causality", even if we are being very charitable and including the antiquated and scientifically irrelevant four forms of Aristotlean causality, is something that was gleamed from observation of the physical universe. Causality, as we understand it, is a principle governing physical objects within space and time according to well-known laws of physics. If we look at the second premise of the Kalam,
  • The universe began to exist
... we run into a similar issue. When we speak of something "beginning to exist", we do so within a very specific context – namely, that of the physical universe. There is a time at which something does not exist, and a time at which it begins to exist.

The Kalam is asking us to disregard the existence of the universe and still entertain the idea that concepts which we only are able to define, describe, and understand within that specific physical context somehow still exist. What does it mean to talk about "cause" when there is no space, no time, no matter, no energy, and indeed not even any physical laws at all? What does it mean to talk about "beginning" when there is no time in which something can begin?

The problem with the KCA is that it takes everyday concepts that sensibly describe the classical, Newtonian frame of reference in which we intuit our experiences and cantilevers them into realms in which they are stripped entirely of the very context that gives them meaning in the first place.

I should be charitable enough here to point out that Craig has indeed addressed these arguments, both here (on causality) and here (on beginnings). Craig's folly is perhaps no better represented by his baffling opening statement in the article on causality:

"I must confess that I'm baffled why atheists would think that causation presupposes time and space or at least time"
That's because, Dr. Craig, our very conceptualization of causality is derived from and made coherent by its context within space, time, and the laws of physics. As soon as you're talking about "transcendent causality" or "non-physical time" (as in the article on beginnings), you're no longer talking about our everyday, commonly-held conceptualizations of these things. You're talking about something possibly sort of like them, yet different in a very fundamental way.

That is why the Kalam Cosmological Argument is not even wrong. It doesn't even get off the ground with its most elementary concepts without becoming mired in equivocation. "Sophisticated philosophy" it most certainly is not. 

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