(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 4: “Why did the universe begin?”)
Between Chapters 3 and 4, Dr. Craig shares a “personal interlude” in which he tells his readers all about how, at Wheaton College, he was skeptical when his conservative Christian theology professor told him that there were “no good arguments for God’s existence”. Such a view would have been perfectly consistent with the New Testament’s declaration that believers “walk by faith, not by sight,” but that prospect apparently wasn’t satisfying for the intelligent young man. As we saw before, he converted for social reasons, without ever finding (or seeking) solid, intellectually robust evidence for God, and now that he’d bought into Christianity, he seems to have been uncomfortable with his lack of a good justification for what he’d committed himself to.
Fortunately for his faith, he happened to pick up a book entitled The Resurrection of Theism by Stuart Hackett, in which Hackett laid out a number of arguments, the “centerpiece” of which became the core of Dr. Craig’s famous kalam argument. With his wife’s encouragement, he applied and was accepted as a doctoral student at the University of Birmingham (UK) under Dr. John Hicks. Lacking sufficient funds to pay for it, however, they began to pray, and eventually, through his wife’s family connections, they got a grant from a non-Christian businessman, which Dr. Craig attributes entirely to the Lord. (Apparently, God does not have any compunctions about tampering with people’s free will to get money out of them, as long as it doesn’t save their souls from eternal torment.)
During his doctoral studies, Dr. Craig unearthed the writings of a medieval Islamic philosopher named Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad Al Ghazali. A twelfth-century Persian, Al Ghazali disputed the claims of some philosophers who said that “the universe flows necessarily out of God and therefore is beginningless.” Some of this may sound vaguely familiar after Leibniz, but not to worry, there’s a lot that’s new and different here.
Here is Al Ghazali’s argument, condensed down to its simple, apologetics-friendly form.
- Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore the universe has a cause.
This one’s easy: since the earliest moment of time coincides with the earliest existence of the universe, there has never been a time when the universe did not exist, and therefore there is no point in time at which you can legitimately say that the universe began to exist. Al Ghazali, of course, knew nothing about the Big Bang, so we can probably excuse his ignorance. Dr. Craig, however, makes a big deal out of the Big Bang, so he has no such excuse. He drives on nonetheless, apparently unaware that there’s even a problem.
This argument is so marvelously simple that it’s easy to memorize and share with another person. It’s also a logically airtight argument. If the two premises are true, then the conclusion necessarily follows. So anybody who wants to deny the conclusion must regard either premise 1 or premise 2 as false… Let’s examine each premise in turn.
Premise number one seems reasonably intuitive, and wouldn’t necessarily be worth arguing about if it weren’t for Hawking radiation, quantum fluctuations, and similar phenomena. At the quantum level, the law of cause and effect may not hold. We may see things in the real world for which there is no cause. Dr. Craig appears to be unfamiliar with this observation, however.
For something to come into being without any cause whatsoever would be to come into being from nothing. That is surely impossible…
This isn’t rocket science. In The Sound of Music, when Captain Von Trapp and Maria reveal their love for each other, what does Maria say? “Nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever could.”
Ah, there’s the problem: Dr. Hawking and other particle physicists have been observing galaxies and particle accelerators when they should have been watching romantic musicals. Sigh.
But wait! He’s not actually unfamiliar with particle physics after all:
Sometimes skeptics will respond to this point by saying that in physics subatomic particles (so called “virtual particles“) come into being from nothing…
This skeptical response represents a deliberate abuse of science. The theories in question have to do with particles originating as a fluctuation of the energy contained in a vacuum. The vacuum in modern physics is not what the layman understands by “vacuum,” namely nothing. Rather, in physics the vacuum is a sea of fluctuating energy governed by physical laws and having a physical structure. To tell laymen that on such theories something comes from nothing is a distortion of those theories.
I think we’ll see in a moment who’s really distorting science here. But first, let’s do some thinking: we can’t possibly observe whether “something” comes from “nothing,” because “nothing” means nothing, which means no observers. The moment you posit the existence of a context in which observation can take place, there necessarily exists more than just “nothing.” Consequently we have no way to observe “nothing” to see if something can come from it or not. (Bear with me here.)
How, then, do we reach the conclusion that “nothing comes from nothing”? We infer it by applying the law of cause and effect: to say that the cause is “nothing” is the same as saying the cause does not exist, there is no cause. Since that violates the assumption that every effect does have a cause, we conclude that nothing can come from “no cause” (i.e. nothing). But wait! The premise we’re examining here is the assumption that everything must have a cause! We can’t use the assumption “everything must have a cause” to try and prove the principle that “everything must have a cause”! We need to find out first whether it’s really true that everything has a cause (or not).
In this context, therefore, it is highly relevant to note that not every effect has a cause. Since we cannot directly observe “nothing,” we must infer its abilities based on what we see in real-life cause and effect. And what physicists see is that some things do indeed happen without a cause: quantum fluctuations, radioactive decay, Hawking radiation and so on. Dr. Craig is trying to disqualify such phenomena on the grounds that the virtual particles are not created ex nihilo, they are pre-existing energy spontaneously transforming into particles. And that’s a good objection, and worth considering, but the point he’s over looking is this: what causes the fluctuations? The particles may be converted energy, but the fluctuation is something that happens (i.e. “begins to exist”) without a cause. Dr. Craig is using the particles as a red herring to distract from the real, uncaused phenomenon.
By the way, this would be a good time to visit skydivephil on YouTube and see what real particle physicists are saying about the Kalam Cosmological argument. It’s an excellent and informative video, not too long, and not too difficult to follow. Go ahead and watch it, I’ll wait.
Ok, back to Dr. Craig. He professes surprise that anyone, even in this modern day and age, would question his first premise. (In fact, this, plus his insistence that skeptics are citing quantum fluctuations as a deliberate misuse of science, makes me wonder whether Dr. Craig himself is being all that honest with us, or if he’s just projecting.)
This is simply the faith of the atheist. In fact, I think this represents a greater leap of faith than belief in the existence of God. For it is, I repeat, literally worse than magic. If this is the alternative to belief in God, then unbelievers can never accuse believers of irrationality, for what could be more evidently irrational than this?
In context, what’s happening is that skeptics are claiming that, since we have observed, real-world instances of uncaused effects occurring at the extreme boundaries of physics and cosmology, and since the beginning of the universe is arguably THE extreme boundary of physics and cosmology, we cannot assume that Premise #1 must necessarily be true as applied to the origin of the universe.
That’s it. There’s no magic here, no faith (except the kind that comes from repeated real-world validation of your observations). Skeptics are simply saying that we recognize the possibility that Premise #1 might not be true. Dr. Craig is protesting too much here, which is what makes me think he’s projecting. In fact, it’s possible that Dr. Craig is playing a little word trick here, and he might even be one of the victims of his own trick: he’s equivocating on the meaning of “nothing.”
A common thread in his argument is that, while he’s using the word “nothing,” he’s actually using it as though “nothing” were something, i.e. as some kind of thing that might try, at some point in time, to create a universe, with inadequate results. To say that nothing is the cause of the universe is simply to say that the universe has no cause. We’re not saying that somewhere “out there” is this vast, empty void called The Nothing, and that this Nothing (as opposed to some other Nothing) magically created the universe. Dr. Craig is right to mock this concept, because it’s silly and superstitious (like creationism)—but that’s not at all what we mean.
To put this in familiar Christian terms, imagine making the claim “God has existed forever, therefore nothing created God.” Well, wait a minute. You just said “nothing comes from nothing,” so how could “nothing” create God? It’s certainly consistent with Christian theology to say that nothing created God, meaning that God is uncreated. But then when you say “nothing comes from nothing, and therefore it’s impossible that ‘nothing’ created God,” now you’ve played Dr. Craig’s little word trick in reverse, and made it sound like “nothing” is really “something.” You’re implying a cause and effect relationship that must fail, but that’s not actually what the words mean. The words mean that the cause-and-effect relationship itself is not there.
You can take every one of Craig’s arguments for why the universe must have a cause other than “nothing,” substitute “God” for “universe,” and have an argument for why God must have some cause other than nothing. Christians can easily refute these arguments simply by explaining what they really mean by God being uncreated. But that’s the point. They’re not valid arguments, they’re simply word tricks based on treating “nothing” like it was a “something” in an implied (but bogus) cause-and-effect relationship with something else.
The idea to be refuted is that the universe is UNCAUSED, meaning it has no need for anything to cause it, since it has existed for all of time. In fact, if time has a beginning, then there is necessarily an earliest moment in time for God’s existence too. You can’t say God’s existence extends back through an infinite past if the past itself is not infinite. There is only a finite time during which God, like the universe, could have existed. We know that the universe, at least, has existed for all of that time. Since any cause of the universe would need to occur during some time when the universe (and time itself) did not already exist, it follows that the universe cannot have a cause, since this would require time to exist before time existed, which is nonsense.
That’s all that it means to say that “nothing created the universe.” We’re not saying that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between “nothing” and the universe, we’re saying that the cause-and-effect relationship itself does not exist. The universe has been around, in one form or another, for all time, and therefore there is no time when any purported cause would have an opportunity to create it.
Let’s close with two final rebuttals.
If something can come into being from nothing, then it becomes inexplicable why just anything or everything doesn’t come into being from nothing.
Maybe Dr. Craig can’t explain it, but that doesn’t stop the rest of us from doing so. Again, “nothing” is not a “something” that exists in a cause-and-effect relationship with some observed phenomenon. Since we’re not asserting that “nothing” is a “something” that participates in a cause-and-effect relationship with the cosmos, there’s no reason to think that it would participate in a causal relationship with anything else either.
Common experience and scientific evidence confirm the truth of premise 1.
I rather doubt many of us have the “common experience” of the Big Bang, frankly. But the scientific evidence, as we’ve noted before, merely confirms the behavior of phenomena that occur within the context of space and time, in cause and effect relationships that are possible precisely because of the existence of the universe. And even then, science is not limited to observing phenomena that occur within cause-and-effect relationships, since we can also observe uncaused phenomena like radioactive decay and vacuum fluctuations.
And that’s it for premise 1. The kalam argument can be refuted without rejecting it, as we’ll see next time. It’s interesting, though, that even this first premise, which seems so intuitively obvious, is not the “logically airtight” foundation Dr. Craig is advertising.