The Kalam Cosmological Argument: the complete rebuttal

I'm bad at this. I keep thinking that I don't want to retread various arguments I've addressed many times before. But every now and then, they just pop into my head and my brain can't turn off. Then I think of some new angle or something, and have this insatiable urge to blog about it. If you're tired of hearing about the Kalam Cosmological Argument, by all means just skip this post. Go watch some horrible videos on Youtube and come back when I've posted about something new and interesting.

Why am I retreading this? Because earlier today, I was thinking about the Kalam and thought of another objection that I hadn't used in any of my prior posts. But instead of just writing yet another objection to one specific part, I decided that this post will take sort of an outline format and summarize all the major objections to the Kalam. If you can read this post and still think the Kalam is a good argument, you've won. I'll be out of ammo. This is it. I'm gonna give it my best, and then I promise to never post about it again. Maybe.


The Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) is this:
  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Ergo, the universe has a cause 
This is basically a minor re-formulation of the classic cosmological argument, or First Cause argument. But in the original argument, the distinction of things that 'begin to exist' was absent, leading to a conundrum: you can't say that everything has a cause, then claim that God has no cause. So it was tweaked a bit to clarify that it means, well, everything that isn't God. Because, presumably, God exists eternally and uncaused. If you found that assertion a little presumptuous, well, you'd be right. But the Kalam isn't immediately concerned with what the cause actually is. There are other arguments for that. The Kalam itself aims simply to establish that the universe requires a cause.

Simply put, it's an unsound argument because it commits a fallacy of composition. "The universe", regardless of how it's defined (multiverses, etc.), is not the same kind of thing as objects within the universe. The fact that causality is observed to affect matter, energy or objects within the universe does not imply that causality must apply to the universe itself. Indeed, it doesn't make much sense to take about causality without time, space, matter, and energy; nor does it make any sense to talk about things "beginning to exist" without respect to time – a property of the extant universe.

That's really all that needs to be said to demonstrate the argument as unsound. Theologians have ways of trying to dodge these things though, so read on for a more detailed explanation if you wish – in handy bulletin format!

Premise 1

These kinds of arguments are tricky because they involve words that can have multiple meanings; to address the argument, we have to specify precisely which meaning of the words we're using.
  • "Everything"
    • What, exactly, is meant by "everything"? We can't be talking about supernatural things, because we don't know whether they exist. They might, but that's speculative, and you can't use speculative things as the basis for the premise in a logic proof. And we obviously can't be talking about the universe itself, because that would be assuming the conclusion in the premise – aka circular reasoning. So we have to be talking strictly about things within the physical universe, because we can observe them.
  • "begins to exist"
    • Here the argument runs into a problem. Little within the physical universe truly 'begins to exist'. You may decide that 'you' began to exist at the moment of birth, or conception. But the atoms that compose you are many billions of years old, forged in the crucibles of ancient stars that exploded in supernovae. What we think of as 'beginnings' are usually just arbitrary constructs. Matter and energy simply change. It's much more accurate to say the following: "all events and effects are the outcome of prior causes".
      • The problem though is that this isn't always the case – in a quantum vacuum, virtual particles pop in and out of existence without a prior cause. This is sometimes dismissed by the theist with the assertion that a quantum vacuum is not 'nothing', thus it has not been demonstrated that something can come from nothing. But it's a moot point – the argument is not that virtual particles are coming from nothing, but that they are coming into existence without a cause. Ironically, their instantaneous materialization is perhaps the best example of something 'beginning to exist'! (For a geek-tastic explanation of why the indeterminate origin of virtual particles doesn't violate Newtonian physics, read here)
  • "cause"
    • What is meant by the word "cause"? Causality is a physical phenomenon which we only know to exist within the universe. But just because causality works within the universe, it doesn't mean causality applies to the universe. For that to work, we have to posit some kind of 'supernatural causality', unbound by the physical laws of our universe. But again, such a causality, while possible, is purely speculative. If it does exist, how would we know? If it isn't constrained by the laws of the universe, why assume it's anything like physical causality at all? Because speculative phenomena cannot be used in the premise of a logical proof, the first premise must be strictly limited to observable physical causality.
Based on the everything above, we can re-formulate the first premise to be both linguistically and scientifically accurate, but theists aren't going to like it:
  1. All effects within the universe observed at Newtonian scales are the outcome of a prior physical cause.

Premise 2

How do we know that the universe began to exist? Well, point of fact, we don't. Theologians use the cosmic singularity – the moment at the epoch of the Big Bang when all the laws of physics break down – as the moment the universe began to exist. But it's not that simple.
  • Beginning and time
    • As Stephen Hawking has pointed out, it only makes sense to talk about the 'beginning' of something in reference to time. The universe cannot begin to exist because, if the universe did not exist, there would be no time in which it could begin to exist!
      • The theistic objection is that this is only valid if we are using physical measures of time. But as with causality, this only introduces another speculative quantity: 'non-physical time'. Perhaps it exists, but what is it? How might it work? How might it differ from physical time? Again: speculative things are not valid premises for a logical proof.
    • The use of the cosmic singularity as the 'beginning' is misguided. From Wikipedia: "Extrapolation of the expansion of the Universe backwards in time using general relativity yields an infinite density and temperature at a finite time in the past. This singularity signals the breakdown of general relativity." This distinction is pivotal: it is not the 'laws of physics' that break down, but the equations of general relativity. If we use the equations of quantum theory instead, the infinities of the singularity disappear; instead, the universe becomes smaller and smaller, eventually reaching the Plank Epoch. And until we have a theory of quantum gravity, we won't know what was really going on.
We can see clearly that the second premise is entirely unfounded. But, to be charitable, we can re-frame it in a way that more accurately reflects the science, and complete the argument:
  1. All effects within the universe observed at Newtonian scales are the outcome of a prior physical cause. 
  2. If we go backward in time, the equations of general relativity yield infinities when the universe reaches the end of the Plank Epoch, requiring us to formulate a quantum theory of gravity to understand the nature of the universe.
  3. Ergo, the universe has a cause
Obviously, once we phrase the argument in a way that is clear about the meanings of the words and is scientifically accurate, it becomes a hilarious non-sequitur that reminds me of this cartoon:

A quick thought on naturalistic alternatives

The reality is, we do not know how the universe got here. Atheists are often accused of arguing that something came from nothing, but we have no reason to believe the universe came from anything else at all. Perhaps the universe doesn't truly have an 'origin'. It may be, per Hawking's No Boundary proposal, that the universe simply is. Per some ideas in string theory, it may cycle infinitely in expansion and contraction. But we just don't know yet, and there are still some very big hurdles in physics to overcome before we'll even have a chance at knowing. 

In countless discussions with theists I've had over the years, they've asserted that, in the absence of God, the burden is on the non-believer to provide an alternative explanation. This is false. The fact that a naturalistic explanation is either unapparent or unknown does not render a theistic or supernatural explanation valid by default. The skeptic's only burden is to demonstrate (as I've tried to do) that an argument like the Kalam has failed to prove what its proponents claim it proves. "I don't know" is an epistemologically valid alternative. That's actually one of the most liberating parts about being a non-believer: realizing that it's okay to say, "I don't know!"

Got all that? Whew. Hopefully I'll be done with this one for a long, long time. I'm going to celebrate with pancakes.


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