Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Whatever begins to exist has a cause to its existence

The Kalam Cosmological Argument begins like this:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause to its existence.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause to its existence.

Today, I want to respond to two objections I hear frequently to the first premise.

Objection #1: The first premise equivocates on the phrase "begins to exist." In all of our experience, we only witness things coming into existence in the sense that matter or energy is restructured in some way. My car is made up of pre-existing material. The material that I am made of came out of star dust billions of years ago. When something comes into existence in this sense, our uniform experience tells us that there is always a cause. But when the Kalam argument uses the phrase "begins to exist" it isn't talking about the universe being made out of pre-existing material. It's talking about all the material of the universe coming into existence from nothing. Since we have no experience of anything coming into existence from nothing, we are not in a position to say whether it would require a cause or not.

Answer #1: My biggest problem with this objection is that it assumes our knowledge of causation is based on experience. I think that is a mistake. As David Hume pointed out, all we ever witness is contiguity in space and time. We don't actually witness causation. We assume causation when we witness contiguity in space and time. I think our knowledge of causation is a rational intuition. I know for a certainty that something cannot come into existence out of nothing without a cause, but my knowledge isn't based on anything I've experienced.

Objection #2: Some things do come into existence uncaused out of nothing. Pair production is an example. Electrons and positrons spontaneously pop in and out of existence. The universe could have, too.

Answer #2: When electron/positron pairs pop in and out of existence, they don't do so from and to absolute nothingness. Electron/positron pairs are produced from pre-existing material, namely gammas. And when they annihilate each other, they are converted back into gammas. So pair production and annihilation does not provide a counter-example to the principle that something cannot come into existence uncaused out of nothing.


At 8/02/2011 11:50 PM , Blogger Boz said...

"I know for a certainty that something cannot come into existence out of nothing without a cause,"

"so pair roduction and annihilation does not provide a counter-example to the principle that something cannot come into existence uncaused out of nothing."

These two responses assume that the BB came in to existence out of nothing(absolute nothingness), (undefined?).

It is currently unknown whether the BB came in to existence out of nothing or out of something.

At 8/02/2011 11:56 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Boz, neither of these statements entail that the big bang came into existence out of nothing.

At 8/07/2011 6:58 PM , Blogger Boz said...

apologies, I must have misunderstood you.

At 8/09/2011 11:31 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...

I would say the equivocation occurs on the word “begin.” The second premise states, “The universe began to exist” is not quite accurate. As time itself initiated at the Big Bang, there was no time before. Any use of a word entailing time—such as “begin” or even “initiated” as I just did” or “started” or whatever one chooses, is incorrect when applied to the Big Bang.

For conventions sake--since we have no English word adequately defining something “beginning” without the use of time--we use the word “begin.” Dr. Craig capitalizes on this equivocation to make what appears to be an intuitive argument, but when cosmology is fully inspected, simply reveals our own inability to enunciate what happened at the Big Bang.

At 8/10/2011 2:37 PM , Blogger Sam said...


What you're describing doesn't sound like a fallacy of equivocation, and I need to correct what I said, too. The fallacy of equivocation happens when you use one word with two different meanings in the same argument. If "begins to exist" means something different in the first premise than it means in the second, then the argument commits the fallacy of equivocation. The real objection that I should've responded to was that in the first premise, "beings to exist" means something coming out of something, but in the second premise, it means something coming out of nothing. While we have lots of empirical verification for things coming into being from pre-existing material, and there always being a cause, we have no empirical verification of something coming out of nothing with or without a cause.

Your objection just seems to be that "begin" is the wrong word to use when we're talking about the "beginning" of the universe (and we have to put "begin" in quotation marks since we don't have a word for it). That doesn't strike me as being a good objection to the Kalam argument for a few reasons.

1. Because Craig has explicitly said in various publications what he means by "begins to exist." In one of his Q&A's on his web page, he defines it this way:

A. x begins to exist at t iff x comes into being at t.
B. x comes into being at t iff (i) x exists at t, and the actual world includes no state of affairs in which x exists timelessly, (ii) t is either the first time at which x exists or is separated from any t*< t at which x existed by an interval during which x does not exist, and (iii) x's existing at t is a tensed fact.

This definition is consistent with time having a beginning. It doesn't require there to be a "time" before time. Now, you might object that with this definition the first premise isn't true (or can't be shown to be true), but that's a different objection.

2. I just don't think that the way people ordinarily use the word "begin" that it requires there to be a "before" the beginning. It may be that in most cases where people say that something began to be that there happened to have been a "before," but I don't see that that is part of what it means for something to begin. So I don't think it's necessary that we put quotation marks around "begin" when we talk about the beginning of time or the beginning of the universe. I think "begin" is a perfectly acceptable word to use.

3. Even if "begin" is the wrong word to use, and even if the "beginning" of time or of the universe cannot appropriately be called a "beginning" by the ordinary meaning of the word, the argument could easily be tweaked just by using a word that is more appropriate. If there isn't a word, we can make one up and have it refer to the earliest moment of something's existence, or the boundary of its past, or something like Craig's definition above. Let's use use the word "degin," and recharacterize the argument like this:

1. Whatever degins to exist has a cause to its existence.
2. The universe degan to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause to its existence.

It seems to be Craig's position that the first premise is known by intuition, not by empirical observation. I happen to agree with him. I don't think it's even possible for something to degin to exist without a cause.

I don't find the cosmological argument to be as persuasive as I once did, though, for other reasons. Anyway, thanks for your response.

At 8/11/2011 10:37 AM , Blogger DagoodS said...


To be honest, I didn’t comprehend what Craig was getting at with his definition of “begins to exist.” As near as I can tell, it is still within time—it very likely is my lack of understanding philosophical language.

Unfortunately, even re-defining “begins” (or creating a new word) to mean “earliest moment of one’s existence” still gives us trouble.

I would agree Premise one is known by intuition. The problem is, we live in a chronology; we are already IN time. For every moment something exists, we can go back to the moment before. So when the premise says, “Whatever begins to exist..” there was a moment—a time—where that thing did NOT exist. Time moved forward, and it “began” to exist. I would think for 99%+ of all causation, the cause existed in time before the thing that began. (To be honest, I cannot think of anything that “begins to exist” after its cause, or even simultaneous as its cause, but perhaps there is such a thing.)

However, this intuition does not apply to the Universe’s initiation. As much as it would be simplistically easy to do so, and our minds, unwittingly, default to a “time before time”—it is simply not accurate.

IF (and Hawking would argue it could not happen) time started, then we would have a moment, at the earliest moment of the universe’s existence, where t=0. But how do we get t (time) to move forward if there is no time to make time move?

Even saying “earliest moment of existence” provides the problem that at t=0 (the universe’s “earliest moment of existence”) there is no time to move it forward. If you want to take it to 1 Planck time, the question arises as to what happened between t=0 and the 1 Planck. Not to mention it still leaves us with t=0 (albeit unobservable), and no time to move it forward.

Understand, I am not trying to convince you; I am pointing out why I believe Kalam’s equivocates on the word “begin.” Intuition is convincing on Premise One because we operate within a time chronology. To attempt that same intuition on an event not in a time chronology (i.e. the universe with t=0) is the equivocation.

At 8/15/2011 9:37 PM , Blogger Sam said...


I don't understand what you mean when you say that given an earliest moment, there is no time to make time move forward. It sounds like you're saying there would have to be "time" that is the cause of time moving forward. Could you explain that a little more?

Does Hawking think time did not have a beginning, or even an earliest point? Are you referring to his model where he uses imaginary time, creating kind of a curve instead of a point? Or are you saying that Hawking thinks time is infinite in the past?

It seems to me that all effects are simultaneous with their causes. For example, if you apply a force to a mass, the acceleration is instantaneous. As soon as the force is applied, it accelerates. We have an equation to express it.

F = ma

…where 'F' is force, 'm' is mass and 'a' is acceleration. If the force is positive, and the mass is positive, the acceleration is positive. There's no delay.

It is possible for there to be a cause and effect where the cause does not precede the effect in time. Craig uses an analogy where a bowling ball is sitting on a cushion from infinity. The bowling ball is causing an indentation in the cushion even though the bowling ball didn't exist before the indentation.

I said earlier that I don't find the cosmological argument to be as convincing as I once did. Let me explain my reason because I think it may be what you're getting at.

For simplicity, let me just define the universe as the sum total of space, time, and matter. Since the cause of the universe must be other than the universe, it must be spaceless, timeless, and immaterial without the universe. Craig thinks that God was timeless without the universe, but that he entered time simultaneously with the creation of the universe.

But the problem is that there couldn't have been any such thing as a state of affairs in which God existed but the universe didn't since such a state of affairs couldn't have happened before creation, nor after creation. Once the universe begins, there is time, and God is not alone. But there is no such thing as "before time" since the notion is incoherent. So it doesn't look like there could be a state of affairs in which God exists, but the universe doesn't.

I submitted a question about this to Craig's web page several months ago but never got a response. I also submitted it to some Christian apologists I know. Nobody really gave me an answer that I was satisfied with.

But Craig did respond to this problem in his book, Time and Eternity on pages 233-236. The bottom line of his solution is in the second to the last paragraph. This is what he said:

"Perhaps an analogy from physical time will be illuminating. The initial Big Bang singularity is not considered to be part of time, but to constitute a boundary to time. Nevertheless, it is causally connected to the universe. In an analogous way, perhaps we could say that God's timeless eternity is, as it were, a boundary of time which is causally, but not temporally, prior to the origin of the universe" p. 236.

You said that our intuition that whatever begins to exist has a cause only applies to situations where the beginning of something's existence is preceded by a time when it did not exist, but that it does not apply to a situation where something has an earliest moment that is not preceded by a time when it did not exist. For me, the intuition is just as strong in both cases. The only difference is that a beginning of time creates other problems.

No matter how you look at it, reality is a very strange place, and my inability to wrap my head around it makes the cosmological argument seem less persuasive than it used to.

At 8/18/2011 1:14 PM , Blogger DagoodS said...


I think we are saying the same thing. If not, we are certainly swimming in the same pool. (To use a summer analogy.)

Imagine you are outside the universe. Before the Big Bang. (To continue using words I don’t think are accurate, but have no choice. We are communicating well enough, I think you understand.)

You are staring at a clock indicating “12:00:00.” As it happens, the Big Bang will occur at 12:00:01. However, because there is no time, the clock will never move from 12:00:00 to 12:00:01. Part of time is measurement of change. Every single 12:00:01 that has ever existed from the beginning of time is different (perhaps only in a very small way) from 12:00:00. Therefore, as you stare at the clock, the Big Bang will never occur. The clock can’t move from 12:00:00 to 12:00:01 and it is only at 12:00:01 we can have clocks moving.


There is an issue within my analogy as well. Where did the clock come from? Where did you come from? Without time, we can never have a moment where there wasn’t a clock and then one appeared, nor can we have a moment where you didn’t exist and then you did. You and the clock must always have existed. However, because there is no time, you are not changing. You can’t be different from 11:59:58 to 11:59:59 because, as noted, there is no time to have our clock change. The clock must ALWAYS state 12:00:00. You must ALWAYS be staring at the clock.

You would be in stasis. If you realized the clock was at 12:00:00—you would always be realizing that. You could only know your current condition. You could never be in a condition where you didn’t realize the clock was at 12:00:00, because that requires change, which requires time. You could never be in a condition where you realized the universe would exist—it would either exist or not within your condition of stasis.

Now one could move from here, and attempt to create a God who, within the stasis has past, present and future knowledge, but I think it becomes extremely speculative, and necessarily pure deterministic.

If I am reading Hawking right, he has time with an infinity past. His illustration (from memory) is time moving around a globe. There is no “end point” on a globe. I would have to go back an re-look at his claim.

I do have a minor quibble—I don’t think even under F=MA, cause and effect are simultaneous. I think they are very, very close in time, to such a fraction of a second we would use the vernacular “instantaneous” (and for a practical application it would be), but if we start to break our time down to millionths of a second or more the mass and acceleration come together first and then generate the force. While mathematics (and physics) utilize pristine instantaneous, I think in reality causes come before effects.

At 8/19/2011 11:48 AM , Blogger Sam said...


I wonder if part of our "disagreement" is just that this is such a complicated subject to talk about without misunderstanding each other. I'm not fully convinced that I understand what you're saying, but I do think we are swimming in the same pool.

I'm just going to make a few comments.

Every single 12:00:01 that has ever existed from the beginning of time is different (perhaps only in a very small way) from 12:00:00. Therefore, as you stare at the clock, the Big Bang will never occur.

This sounds suspiciously like an appeal to Zeno's paradoxes of motion. I don't know if that's what you're getting at, but that's what it sounds like. Quentin Smith made a similar argument (I don't know where it's published, but I heard him explain it on a youtube video). I don't find this argument at all persuasive (assuming I'm even understanding it right) because the same principle can be applied to motion, yet we know motion is possible. A car stopped at a red light begins moving even though at every point arbitrarily close to its starting point is a point at which it is already moving, which means it couldn't have begun to move. Yet we know it still goes from rest to motion. So I don't see any difficulty in imagining time beginning at 12:00:00, and moving forward from there.

Without time, we can never have a moment where there wasn’t a clock and then one appeared, nor can we have a moment where you didn’t exist and then you did. You and the clock must always have existed.

I think we agree here, and this is my major problem with the cosmological argument. There is a sense in which the universe has always existed. It has always existed in the sense that there was never a time in which it didn't exist, even if its existence had an earliest moment.

I say "a sense in which" because when I think carefully about it, there has to be at least two different senses in which something might have "always existed." Usually, when we say something has always existed, we're implying that it had no beginning, no earliest moment, it's infinite in the past, etc. But we clearly don't mean that when we're talking about time (unless you actually think time is infinite in the past). In the case of time, "always" is just a way of referring exhaustively to the whole time line. If there were only a one hour interval of time in all of reality, that one hour would be "always."

So I don't think this observation really undermines the cosmological argument. It does create some difficulties for sure, but Craig's explanation in Time and Eternity seems to have some viability even if I can't fully wrap my head around it.

While mathematics (and physics) utilize pristine instantaneous, I think in reality causes come before effects.

Let me try a philosophical argument and see what you think. An effect is, by definition, the result of a cause. A cause is, by definition, what brings about an effect. If there is no effect--if nothing is happening as the result of a cause--then there is no cause. By the very definition of a "cause" and an "effect" it's impossible for there to be a delay between a cause and an effect. If the cause and the effect were separated by time (no matter how small) that would lead to a contradiction. So causes and effects must be simultaneous.

At 8/19/2011 6:12 PM , Blogger Kyle Hendricks said...

I think the Quentin Smith argument you're talking about, Sam, is here.


At 9/03/2011 10:29 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

On objection #1 and your answer, I'm not sure you have really captured the sense in which this objection is raised. I think Hume was always keen to avoid extending intuition or analogy to situations outside those warranted by our experience. So the point of objection #1 as I have encountered it does not rely on our witnessing causation. Rather, the point is that our intuition or inference of causation works pretty well in situations we are likely to encounter, and by analogy to situations like that. Since we have no experience of the situation of something from nothing, the intuition of cause has no warrant.

Of course we could both be subject to confirmation bias here, but I lack the intuition that the first premise of the Kalam is correct.

I agree with your answer #2.

On the nature of time, I agree that Craig's formulation of 'begins to exist' does not require a time before t=0 and that Dagood's objections have a certain Zenoesque quality. I wonder how these arguments would play out in a B-theoretic context where there are no tensed facts.

At 9/03/2011 11:22 AM , Blogger Sam said...

Psiomniac, Hume's view on causation always struck me as being odd. I'm going to stand by my answer to objection #1 because the intuition is as plain and obvious to me as any intuition I have. I don't know what to make of people who don't have this intuition.

I think in a B theory of time, the "beginning of time" would be analogous to "the beginning of the yard stick."

At 9/03/2011 11:37 AM , Blogger Psiomniac said...

I think that Hume's view can seem odd because we have a strong intuition of mechanism behind simple conjoined events. But I think his idea still comes into play at the lowest level of description when we have to cash out the concept of cause. For example, Hume might have said that in our experience, when a hammer hits a window at high speed, it will smash. Our intuition is that there is a mechanism behind this and we can describe what is happening at an atomic level, say. Sooner or later, we at some level, will get to some regularities of interaction between particles, forces or energy that are inferred as invariant. We don't observe the invariance, just the repeated conjoining in our experience.

I agree it is difficult to argue somebody into or out of a strong intuition, but I still think your answer #1 hits the wrong target, and that's a separate issue to whether you think premise 1 is true


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