I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of the Kalam argument. But recently I’ve had a change of sentiment: I now think the argument is defensible–at least to someone with my background beliefs about time and causation. Previously, there were three obstacles to my confidence in the argument: (1) seeing how to justify the finitude of the past; (2) seeing how to justify the inference from the finitude of the past to the universe’s having a genuine beginning to its existence; and (3) seeing why a cause of our universe should be a personal agent. (Others may face different obstacles.) Those obstacles have recently been removed for me. What follows is an autobiography explaining my shift in thinking.
The Finitude of the Past
Arguments against an actual infinity do not hold weight for me because I find it extraordinarily implausible that (i) propositions do not exist or that (ii) propositions exist, but there is only a finite number of propositions. I also have reasons to think that extended simples are impossible, and their impossibility coupled with the possibility of shaped objects entails the possibility of an actual infinite of concrete entities (because every top half of a shaped thing would itself have a top half, ad infinitum) So, I modus tollens the arguments against an actual infinite…
Arguments from physics hold some weight, but things get murky when it comes to events in the plank era, and there is always the question of whether our universe might have been caused by an event in a beginningless super-universe. It does seem to me simpler not to posit a super-universe whose contents can somehow produce matter ex nihilo, but an atheist can argue that this complexity is offset by the save in complexity from not having to posit a god. (I might argue back that the concept of a maximal being is theoretically simpler than any concept of a super-universe; a skeptic might counter-reply by pointing out that a maximal being introduces a new kind of thing; I might reply back by asking what is meant by “kind”; and so on.)
Arguments against the possibility of completing an actual infinite sequence of events have some intuitive appeal. But for me, the intuition is subtle, and there is always the question of whether I’m being misled by subconsciously conflating the scenario of completing an infinite task after starting it, on the one hand, and the scenario of completing an infinite task without starting it, on the other.
But recently, I’ve become convinced that an infinite series of past events is impossible after thinking hard about Alex Pruss’s argument from the grim reapers (see his entry here and further developments here ). Thus, I now consider this obstacle removed (for me).
From a finite past to a beginning
A bigger obstacle for me has been the inference from a finite past to a beginning of our universe. The worry here is that God is supposed to have existed for a finite duration of time (on Craig’s view anyway) yet lack a beginning. Why can’t the universe be like that? Craig answers that it’s because the universe never had a timeless state, whereas God has. I’ve had an idiosyncratic difficulty with this answer by virtue of my belief that there is no such thing as a timeless mode of existence (better: my lack of belief in the intelligibility of ‘timeless existence’). Plus, if there can be timeless states, then why couldn’t the universe itself have sprung from a timeless state? Why think state-event causation is impossible?
Staring out a car window, blurred trees and grass before me, a light-bulb flashed in my mind. I had been wrong–foolishly wrong–to think that something could exist for a finite amount of time, have no prior non-temporal state of existence, and yet not have begun to exist. If a pen cap has existed for a finite duration of time (and has no non-temporal state), then that pen cap just obviously had a beginning–no matter whether other things happened to exist earlier than it or not. Somehow that just seems as obvious as can be to me now. (If it isn’t to you, I can only recommend thinking hard about what it means for something to have existed for a finite duration of time, perhaps while looking out a car window.) This means that unless the universe is preceded by a non-temporal state, it had a beginning. I don’t think the universe was preceded by a non-temporal sate (because it’s essentially changing, I think), so I think the universe had a beginning.
However, suppose the universe was preceded by a non-temporal state. And suppose state-event causation is possible: a non-temporal universe can become temporal. Assume that’s what in fact happened, and call the event of its happening E. E is the transition from the universe’s being non-temporal to its being temporal. As such, it is intrinsically temporal. Since its duration is finite, E–like every event–had a beginning (to its existing or to its obtaining, depending on one’s view of events). I’ll argue in the next section that E must either record an uncaused, free will choice or be caused by a series of events initiated by a free will choice. So, this isn’t a way out for the naturalist (if I’m right below).
Ok, but if the universe had a beginning, what about God? If the only way to avoid having a beginning is to have a timeless state (assuming a finite past), what about my complaint that timeless existence is unintelligible? Well, I thought of a way to define ‘x is timeless’ that is consistent with my views about time (in particular my view that necessarily, whatever exists is present).
‘x is timeless’ =def ‘x exists, and there is no t, such that t is a time,’ where
‘t is a time’ =def ‘there is an x, such that t is earlier than x, or t is later than x’ (‘earlier than’ and ‘later than’ may be treated as primitives.)
I’m not out of the woods yet because I said that x exists and that whatever exists is present. How can something be present yet not exist at a time? Answer: by being included (its existence entailed) by the maximal proposition that is tenselessly true. In other words, analyze away tense the Tom Crisp way (see his Presentism and The Grounding Objection). The result is that a thing can be present without being in a state of becoming or change (perhaps the type of state that “irreducible tense” is supposed to pick out by those who think tense is irreducible). Times enter the picture when there is change, because as soon as there is a changing thing, there is, of necessity, a future and thus maximal propositions (times) related by earlier than and later than relations. But prior to change, there is no time in the sense defined above. All of this seems to me coherent and intelligible. Thus, I no longer have an obstacle to saying that the universe began to exist but God did not.
From a first event to a personal cause
I considered this to be the biggest obstacle. Why should a cause have to be a person just by virtue of having a timeless state? (I’ve sympathetic to Morriston’s published worries.) Nevertheless, I’ve come to find the following argument for personhood plausible:
(1) Every event has a cause.
(2) There was a first event E [by a grim reaper argument]
(3) Therefore, E had a cause.
(4) Circular causal chains are impossible.
(5) Therefore, the cause of E was not an event [because E was the first event].
(6) If the cause of E was not an event, then it was the action of a personal agent (what else?).
(7) Therefore, E was caused by the action of a personal agent.
If someone complains that actions are themselves events, then I suggest dropping (6) and modifying (1) to
(1*): Every event that isn’t the freely chosen action of a personal agent has a cause.
(Note: it is consistent with the argument that every freely chosen action has an explanation.)
I personally find each of these premises plausible (or supportable), independently of any beliefs I might have stemming from the conclusion. Therefore, I now think the kalam argument constitutes a good argument. At least that’s how things seem to me. Others, as I’ve suggested, may have different obstacles to contend with.