Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning
Premise 2: The universe began to exist
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe has a cause of its beginning
Premise 1’: If the universe began to exist, then the universe has a cause of its beginning
Premise 2: The universe began to exist
Conclusion: Therefore, the universe has a cause of its beginning
(For a fuller understanding of what the fallacy of the stolen concept is, see my blog entry Stolen Concepts and Intellectual Parasitism. In short, the fallacy of the stolen concept occurs when making use of a concept while ignoring or denying its genetic roots. A stolen concept assumes the validity of concept while ignoring its place in the hierarchy of conceptual knowledge. For example, if one claimed that he had a mathematical proof for the invalidity of mathematics as such, it should be clear that he’s making use of the validity of a concept in support of his case that it is not valid. Most instances of stolen concepts, however, are not so obvious. In the case of the cosmological arguments presented above, the arguer makes use of concepts – namely time and causation – while denying their genetic roots – namely the existence of the universe.)
Consider the first premise of the Al-Ghazali version, which states: “Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning.” This is troubling on its surface because it does not seem to apply to anything I have personally experienced, and I doubt Arul has either. I cannot think of anything I’ve ever observed which “begins to exist” and yet which was not assembled from pre-existing things or which was not arranged from pre-existing materials. In short, I have never seen some wholly new existent pop into being and “begin to exist.” While some may claim that this happens, they either seem to be ignoring the fact that the thing in question was assembled from pre-existing materials, or they have only hearsay to go on rather than actual hard evidence. Even when Congress spends money as though it just popped into existence (I can imagine some members of Congress asking “If money doesn’t grow on trees, why do banks have branches?”), the nasty secret is that that money will have to come from somewhere eventually (after all, that’s what tax livestock is for).
Hence my initial question here:
What does it mean to say that something “begins to exist”?
But again, I have never observed something beginning to exist in this sense. The first premise, then, seems to pertain to nothing that actually happens in reality.
My next question would be:
What would qualify as an example of something which “begins to exist”?
How about clouds? Clouds are formed from water vapor and other particles which accumulate under natural conditions in the atmosphere. The atoms and molecules of which the water vapor consists already existed. So again, when we see a new cloud in the sky that wasn’t there a short time earlier, we’re seeing a new arrangement of pre-existing materials. Similarly with mountains, ocean waves, stars, meteorites, raindrops, ice formations, dust, and so on. It seems that every example I can think of as something that might qualify as having “begun to exist” is something which is in fact just a new arrangement of pre-existing materials. I can think of nothing which I have ever observed in my several decades of life as having come into being and yet not from pre-existing materials.
So until we have an example of something that “begins to exist,” it seems that the first premise of this argument is about nothing that does actually exist. If that is in fact the case, then the cosmological argument, at least this version of it, has no philosophical value whatsoever.
In fact, it seems that the only place where we can observe some net new material or substance coming into being is in a cartoon universe. If apologists want to cite such a reference as evidence informing the validity of the notion of things beginning to exist, I’d say they’re right on schedule.
The second premise asserts that “the universe began to exist.” During Jason’s discussion with Arul, Jason rightly asked for a definition of ‘universe’. Of course, what ‘universe’ is taken to mean here is of critical importance, but it does not seem to be something Arul included in his presentation sheets. Arul responded, saying that by ‘universe’ he means “all of physical reality that exists” and then qualified this as “including all things covered by science.” Such a qualified definition seems deliberately crafted to allow for the existence of some thing or things outside the universe. If that is in fact the case, what concept would Arul propose we use to include everything which exists, not only those things he considers to be part of the universe as he understands it, but everything else which he might think exists outside the universe as well? The concept ‘universe’ as I would define it (i.e., the sum total of everything that exists) satisfies a legitimate conceptual need – namely the need for a concept which encompasses everything which exists without any exception. Arul’s definition of ‘universe’ does not satisfy this conceptual need. Is this because his worldview is not equipped to do so? On that note, it might be fruitful to ask how the Christian bible itself defines ‘universe’, or does it?
The definition which Arul proposes raises further questions which, if pursued, drag us into additional areas which may involve further controversies. If we’re not careful, this will only serve to distract us from the matter at hand. For example, what does ‘physical’ mean? “Physical reality” as opposed to what? Typically theists will contrast ‘physical reality’ with what they call “non-physical” (and “material reality” with “immaterial reality”). But such negating concepts do not help enlighten us as to what actually exists, for their purpose is to wipe out what we know exists rather than point to some actual observable alternative to what we know exists. To say that something is “non-physical” only tells us what it is not, not what it is. So it is positively unhelpful in the most literal sense.
Similarly with the added qualification that ‘universe’ includes “all things covered by science.” This qualifier then raises the question: What is covered by science? And pursuing this question will inevitably meet with the question: What is science? What’s important to note here is that the scope of scientific inquiry is constantly expanding; what is “covered by science” is not static and unchanging. Things that were not “covered by science” fifty or a hundred years ago are now under the purview of new disciplines within science. One article which I found quite readily lists several new fields of scientific discovery – e.g., neuroparasitology, quantum biology, cliodynamics, etc. In my own Glossary of Terms I define science as “the systematic application of reason to some specialized area of study.” On this definition, if something exists and we can discover its existence by means of reason, it should be accessible to scientific study. Arguments which seek to make allowance for things which exist but which are NOT open to scientific study strike me as rather suspect; in effect, such arguments are affirming the existence of things which are beyond the reach of reason and yet still expect us to consider assertions about such things as knowledge. But reason is how the human mind discovers and validates knowledge, for it is epistemologically suited to the metaphysical nature of human consciousness (see my entry Dawson’s Razor). We need a clear path of reason to the knowledge we secure and claim in order to guard against innocent mistakes as well as charlatans pretending to know something they don’t. By stipulating that an entire category of alleged existents is beyond the reach of science, apologists would in effect be stating that the “cause” they assert for the universe is beyond the reach of a systematic application of reason.
To restrict “universe” to include only “physical reality,” then, implies that some other undefined form of reality also exists outside the universe; otherwise, why the need for such qualification? So we would need to inquire into what that might entail as well as how we can know this. Specifically, what possibly might exist “outside” the universe and, very importantly, what specifically would be the epistemological steps by which we can know this? Also we might inquire as to what safeguards the cosmological argument puts into place – if any - to prevent us from mistaking what may in fact be merely imaginary with the “cause” of the universe which it purports to prove. Unfortunately, from what I watched in the discussion, Arul does not shed any light on any of these concerns. We cannot define things into existence, nor does restricting our definitions to deliberately allow for things outside the universe allow us to claim validly that things beyond the reach of reason exist. And by implicitly putting the alleged cause of the universe beyond the reach of reason by making science out of bounds, the potential for the imagination to camouflage itself as knowledge is indeed significant.
Thus we need to make it explicitly clear – Yes or No: does “non-physical reality” include dreams, visions and imagination? For clearly these things are not physical or material, and yet people do dream, have visions and imagine things. If ‘universe’ does not include dreams, visions and imagination because they are “non-physical,” how can the Kalam cosmological argument avoid the dubious implication that the “cause” of the universe might be imaginary? I see nothing in the way that the argument is constructed to protect against such an outcome, and yet the view that the universe was caused by something imaginary in nature can only warrant immediate dismissal.
Here I think it is instructive to revisit a point which I made at the end of my entry Presuppositionalism and Induction: Exhuming Hume, namely that while apologists seem to think that the problem of induction is a strong debating device because human beings apparently cannot know about things which exist that are beyond the reach of our senses (e.g., the one thousand swans I’ve observed are all white, but I have no justification for assuming the next one will also be white), they seem to ignore this very limitation when it comes to beings allegedly residing beyond the universe. If my experience of pain the two times I have touched the surface of a hot stove does not give me “warrant” for supposing a third time will not result in pleasure, and I can see stoves and feel pain directly, what gives me “warrant” for knowing what allegedly “caused the universe” billions of years ago? In such a way, the Kalam cosmological argument seems expressly geared to lead the human mind out of the realm of knowledge and into the realm of fantasy.
Now turning to support for the cosmological argument, three points were offered in support of its first premise (“Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning”):
1. Something cannot come from nothing.
2. If something can come into being from nothing, then it becomes inexplicable why just anything or everything doesn’t come into being from nothing.
3. Common experience and scientific evidence confirm the truth of Premise 1.
Looking at the last point first, note that it appeals to “common experience” and states that this “confirm[s] the truth of Premise 1.” I’d say that common experience confirms something even more damning. As I noted above, common experience is unanimous in that we do not experience things “beginning to exist,” which obviates the very first premise of the cosmological argument. Since things don’t begin to exist in the sense that the cosmological argument requires, there’s no reason to fuss over whether they have a cause or not.
Turning to the first point: If one holds that “something cannot come from nothing,” it’s unclear why we would need to examine the second point since it hinges on the first item not being the case. In consideration of the first point, then, we can agree and then ask: Why not start with existence in the first place? What necessitates explaining the fact that existence exists by reference to non-existence? It is a fundamental fact that existence exists, and there is no need to try to explain this fact. An explanation, to have any content, would need to refer to things which exist, for explanations which are informed by elements denoting nothing would simply be contextually empty. A call to explain the fact that existence exists, then, commits the fallacy of the stolen concept: such a burden would ignore the fact that explanations presuppose the fact that existence exist while at the same denying the fact that existence exists.
If we accept the statement “something cannot come from nothing,” and clearly something exists, then to ask for an explanation for existence as such is to performatively deny the statement we just accepted. Similarly, to argue that existence is the product of some prior cause makes use of a concept, namely the concept of causation, while ignoring the fact that causation is only possible in the context of existence. Causation is the identity of action, and action is something performed by something that exists. Only existing things perform actions. There is no such thing as action without an existent performing said action. As philosopher David Kelley once put it, “you cannot have a dance without a dancer.” If we suppose that the universe was caused to exist, then we’d have to posit something that did the causing, and this something would have to exist in order to perform the causing in question. But if ‘universe’ is the sum total of all that exists, that something said to have performed the causing in question would be part of the sum total of all that exists – i.e., part of the universe, and thus we have yet another stolen concept. There is no way for the theist to escape this self-defeating pickle.
Consider the following revision of Al-Ghazali’s formulation of the argument:
Premise 1: Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning.
Premise 2: Existence as such began to exist.
Conclusion: Therefore, existence as such has a cause of its beginning.
Either we start with the fact that existence exists, or we start with non-existence, a denial of the fact that existence exists. But since we know that existence exists, why would anyone start with non-existence? There is no rational justification for this.
Additionally, consider the meaning of ‘beginning’. “Common experience” tells us that what has beginning is action: the clouds begin gathering, I begin working, the cat begins chasing his toy, the rooster begins crowing, the refrigerator begins making that funny sound again, the mob begins rioting, Congress begins spending more of our tax dollars, etc. Even when we think of things as having a beginning, it is because some action is involved. For example, the washing machine begins its spin cycle, the road begins to curve around the mountain, the orchestra begins the second movement, etc. Beginning itself is an action performed by something, and that something has to exist in order to do any action. It would not make sense to say “this mountain began” or “that ocean began” or “the moon began.” If one were to make such statements, we’d immediately figure that he was uttering an incomplete thought: The mountain began what? The ocean began what? And in each case, we would be looking for a verb signifying some kind of action to complete the sentence. E.g., the mountain began to rumble, the ocean began to recede, the moon began to brighten, etc.
But, one might ask, doesn’t the premise “the universe began to exist” satisfy this need to express a complete thought? Structurally it appears to do so, but the problem here has to do with content and meaning. We need to keep in mind that ‘to exist’ is not an action verb, but a verb of being. The verb ‘to exist’ does not denote an action, but rather a state. So while the premise “the universe began to exist” has the semblance of a complete thought, the meaning of the statement falls apart under scrutiny.
At the fundamental level, existence is not an action which has a beginning or end. Rather, it is a state, and when we get to the grand level of all existence, i.e., the universe as in the sum total of all that exists, we are talking about a state which is literally eternal, since time and causation can only apply if existence exists. If there were no existence, there could be no time or causation, for both time and causation apply to action, and only existing things can be involved in actions. Since action is the action of things which exist, neither concept ‘time’ or ‘cause’ has any meaning outside the context of existence – i.e., outside the universe.
Existence is literally eternal – i.e., existence exists, and existence exists outside of time, and existence as such is not and cannot be the product of some prior cause. A brief review of what these concepts mean should clarify just why the cosmological argument errs by asserting a non-eternal universe which was caused to exist.
Consider the concept time:
Time is a measurement of motion; as such, it is a type of relationship. Time applies only within the universe, when you define a standard—such as the motion of the earth around the sun. If you take that as a unit, you can say: “This person has a certain relationship to that motion; he has existed for three revolutions; he is three years old.” But when you get to the universe as a whole, obviously no standard is applicable. You cannot get outside the universe. The universe is eternal in the literal sense: non-temporal, out of time. (Leonard Peikoff, The Philosophy of Objectivism lecture series.)
The universe is the total of that which exists—not merely the earth or the stars or the galaxies, but everything. Obviously then there can be no such thing as the “cause” of the universe . . .
Is the universe then unlimited in size? No. Everything which exists is finite, including the universe. What then, you ask, is outside the universe, if it is finite? This question is invalid. The phrase “outside the universe” has no referent. The universe is everything. “Outside the universe” stands for “that which is where everything isn’t.” There is no such place. There isn’t even nothing “out there”: there is no “out there.”(Leonard Peikoff, The Philosophy of Objectivism lecture series.)
Consider the concept of causation. As stated above, causation is the identity of action. Like entities, actions also have identity. Some thinkers argue that ascribing identity to action implies a denial of change as such. Yet those same thinkers seem to be unaware of how regularly and casually they themselves treat actions as distinct from other actions and from the existents which perform those actions. A swimmer is distinct from his swimming (he may also drive, sleep, sit, walk, run, read, eat, shower, etc.) just as his swimming is distinct from other actions he may perform (such as those already listed). Presumably thinkers who insist that actions cannot have identity recognize that there is a difference between reading a book and burning it in a bonfire, and yet they seem clueless to their own inconsistency between their explicit insistence and their own implicit recognitions. When Objectivism affirms causality as the law of identity applied to action (see here), this is essentially what is being affirmed: actions are distinct, they do have identity, actions have a nature and also the nature of an action depends on the nature of the existent performing it. (For more rebuttal to this objection, see my blog entry Does Objectivism Deny the Reality of Change?.)
If causation is the identity of action and action is something which can only be performed by an existent – by something which exists – then causation is not possible “outside existence.” Which means: there can be no cause outside the sum total of existence, which means: there can be no cause outside the universe. It is therefore conceptually incoherent to assert that the universe is the product of some prior cause. There could be no such thing as a cause “prior to the universe.” So we can construct an alternative to the Kalam cosmological argument, one exposing that argument’s fundamental conceptual deficiency:
Premise 1: If existence is a fundamental precondition for time and causation, then arguments to the effect that existence had a caused beginning in the past commit the fallacy of the stolen concept.
Premise 2: Existence is a fundamental precondition for time and causation.
Conclusion: Therefore, arguments to the effect that existence had a caused beginning in the past commit the fallacy of the stolen concept.
In their discussion, Arul did try to support Premise 2 (“the universe began to exist”) by stipulating that “actual infinities could not exist.” While much of the discussion got bogged down in hashing this out (which I consider a needless side distraction), it raises the question: What then are we to do with the many affirmations that the Christian god is infinite?
For example, Psalm 147:5 states:
Great is our Lord, and of great power: his understanding is infinite.
We are supposed to believe that this understanding which “is infinite” belonging to “our Lord” is also actual, are we not?
The Athanasian Creed states the following:
The Father is infinite; the Son is infinite; the Holy Spirit is infinite.
The Westminster Confession of Faith states:
There is but one only (1) living and true God, (2) who is infinite in being and perfection…
On page 92 of their Handbook of Christian Apologetics, Christian apologists Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli write:
God Is Infinite
We saw that it is finite or limited being that poses a question for us, that seems to require a condition or cause for its existence. So God cannot be limited or finite. In other words, God must be infinite, utterly limitless.
So here we have evidences from the Christian worldview which, in direct conflict with the claim that “actual infinities could not exist,” affirm the existence of something that is both actual and infinite. We might expect apologists to enumerate this as an example of “an apparent contradiction,” but in fact it could only be an example of a direct contradiction.
In a footnote on page 119 of his book Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig briefly wrestles with overt contradiction between the affirmation that an actual infinity cannot exist on the one hand, and the assertion that an infinite god is real on the other:
Students frequently ask if God, therefore, cannot be infinite. The question is based on a misunderstanding. When we speak of the infinity of God, we are not using the word in a mathematical sense to refer to an aggregate of an infinite number of finite parts. God’s infinity is, if you will, qualitative, not quantitative. It means that God is metaphysically necessary, morally perfect, omnipotent, omniscient, eternal, etc.
Arul’s point was to argue that the universe cannot be eternal because that would necessarily entail an infinite series of events. An infinite series of events would purportedly constitute an actual infinite, and since “actual infinities could not exist,” there could be no infinite series of events, and consequently the universe cannot be eternal. That seems to be the essence of the objection here. On one of Arul’s slides, the argument is presented as follows:
1. An actual infinite cannot exist
2. An infinite temporal regress of events is an actual infinite
3. Therefore an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist
Actual infinities could not exist merely within the dimensions available in our universe.
The argument presented above raises the question: what constitutes an ‘event’? I do not see where Arul addresses this, and yet since the argument has to do with series of events and the implications of their perpetual accumulation, one would think it imperative to provide a clear definition of this critical term. I wonder how the Christian bible defines it.
Again, much of this objection trades on what is meant by ‘event’. But even then, we are likely dealing with epistemological distinctions which are not only flexible but also sometimes quantitatively hazy and blurry. For example, the arrival of British troops at the Battle Green in Lexington can be considered an event just as the Battle of Lexington itself can be considered and event, and likewise the Revolutionary War can be considered an event. There is nothing in reality requiring us to treat the Revolutionary War as a series of 4,218 events as opposed to a series of 6,181,347,922,879,204,067,339,146 events as opposed to a single event. Much of how we divide events depends on contextual needs, which confirms that ‘event’ is more of an epistemological category, whereas the support proffered on behalf of the cosmological argument’s second premise necessarily treats ‘event’ as a metaphysical category.
Even more broadly, however, when it is understood that ‘event’ is really just a term denoting related actions in some collectivity, we can dismiss the support for the cosmological argument’s premise that the universe began to exist as an exercise in futility. For we have already seen that actions are actions of existents, which means actions must take place within the universe. If existence exists, then actions are possible. But nothing about existence necessitates the assumption that activity has been constant for all eternity. In other words, there is no contradiction in supposing on the one hand that the universe (qua the sum total of everything that exists) is eternal and, on the other, that activity within the universe is constrained to certain finitely distinguishable periods throughout its eternal existence.
Another point that is easily missed in all this is the fact that it is always now. Action takes place in the present and it is always the present. The concepts ‘past’ and ‘future’ have meaning only in relation to the present. The fact that it is always now is unchanging. Apologists have argued that an eternal universe implies an infinite series of events which in turn would mean we would never reach the present. But if it is always the present, such an argument is a non-starter. Existence is not composed of time or of events; time and events are possible only within existence. There is no limit to how many actions (or “events”) can happen in reality. The universe is not defined by an accumulation of events strung together end to end like knots on a string. What exists is in fact finite, and the only metaphysical limit to the quantity of actions which an existent can perform is the existent’s own nature and its relation to other things which exist. But whatever actions it performs and whenever it performs those actions, it always performs them in the present. There has never been, therefore, a need to “reach the present” from the past.
Ironically, the very argument which is presented in support of a non-eternal universe can similarly be turned around and applied against the notion of an eternal god. A god would presumably be a conscious being. But consciousness is in fact a type of activity. A non-active consciousness is a contradiction in terms. Thus an eternal god would be an eternally active consciousness. But then we’d face the very problem which Arul’s support for the cosmological argument’s second premise attempts to establish against an eternal universe: we would have in the case of an eternally conscious god the problem of an infinite regress of events in the form of conscious activity, which would be an actual infinite. And yet, we saw above in the very same argument that “An actual infinite cannot exist.”
I’m glad these aren’t my problems!
by Dawson Bethrick