One of the members of Cornerstone, Forrest DeVita, has done a good bit of work thinking through various arguments for (and against) the existence of God. This is a personal study of his and also connected to his evangelistic work at NCSU with Ratio Christi. We invited him to share on one particular argument for God's existence. Enjoy!
How can you demonstrate to others that God exists? Enter the Kalam Cosmological Argument.
The Psalmist writes:
The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. (Psalm 19:1-2).
This is reiterated by the Apostle Paul when speaking of those who, in their unrighteousness, suppress truths that God has made plainly available to them:
For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)
How do the skies above proclaim the handiwork of God? What knowledge do the heavens above reveal? What attributes are made evident by the things that have been made? These are the questions that the study of Natural Theology attempts to answer. Natural Theology involves reflecting upon the existence and nature of God through the examination of His creation. This is contrasted with Revealed Theology, which derives its truth claims through the study of revealed Scripture. Natural Theology has been studied and developed throughout the millennia by those such as Plato, Aristotle, St. Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, and many more. It is a subject within Natural Theology that we will be exploring today.
The Person on the Street
If you were to poll random people on the street and ask them why they believe that God exists (if, in fact, they do), they may answer by saying something like,
“I just don’t think life was able to suddenly pop into existence.”
“Well, everything had to come from somewhere.”
Those who answer this way are grasping at some of the truth that Paul talks about in Romans 1. Yet, when pressed on their answer, the average person would likely not be able to elaborate. They are merely giving the answer based upon the experience of this truth (that some higher power exists) that Creation itself is impressing upon them. The goal today is to lay out a path that leads from this intuitive understanding that many have, to an intellectually robust answer to the question, “How do you show that God exists?” Enter, the “Kalam Cosmological Argument.”
As the name implies, the Kalam belongs to a class of arguments known as “Cosmological” arguments. These arguments attempt to look at the existence of the cosmos, and from there demonstrate the existence of a first cause ― namely, God. Among these are also the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument, which argues for a Sufficient Reason for why something exists rather than nothing, and the Thomist Cosmological Argument, which argues for a sustaining Ground of Being of the world. As for the Kalam, it argues for a First Cause of the beginning of the universe.
Before getting into the argument itself, I want to briefly talk about what is meant by the word “argument.” Firstly, whenever an “argument” is talked about in this context, it is not meant to convey imagery of a heated discussion, where two opposing sides are just throwing intellectual spaghetti at each other and hoping something sticks. Rather, what is meant by “argument” is a line of reasoning that takes various statements about reality (premises) and puts them together in such a way that they lead logically to a conclusion. In this way, the goal is to create more light than heat.
The Kalam Argument Itself
With that said, let us now dive into the Kalam cosmological argument itself. The argument, in its simplest form, is as follows:
Premise 1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
Premise 2: The universe began to exist.
Conclusion 3: Therefore, the universe has a cause.
At a high level, this argument is simple and easy to memorize. It is logically valid in the sense that if the premises (1 & 2) are true, then the conclusion (3) is necessarily true. The question then becomes, why think that premises 1 and 2 are true? We will examine the evidence and reasoning for each premise in turn. Let’s begin with the first premise:
Premise 1: Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
With a little reflection, one will see that this can be said in a slightly different, but logically equivalent way:
Premise 1 Restated: Something can not come from nothing.
This is one of the first principles of metaphysics ― ex nihilo nihil fit (out of nothing, nothing comes), dating back to the times of Aristotle (4th century BC). But why think this principle reflects reality?
First, this is a principle that is continually confirmed by our common, everyday experience, as well as a fact that underlies all of modern science. As scientists attempt to learn more about our world and how it functions, they are constantly looking for causes of things. Why do objects attract each other? Where do clouds come from? What causes lightning? Why do living organisms spontaneously appear in containers of still water? If things were able to come into being from nothing, then this would undermine all scientific inquiry, and thus, scientific progress.
Second, if it were true that something could come from nothing, then why doesn’t anything and everything come into being, from nothing, all the time? Why do we never see this happen? The fact that we don’t is confirmation that things just don’t work that way.
When talking to people about this premise, someone will invariably say something along the lines of “but according to quantum mechanics, subatomic particles pop into existence from nothing all the time!” There are a few things to say about this. First, is the recognition that when physicists talk about “nothing”, they do not mean the same thing that most people, including philosophers, mean. When we talk about “nothing” we are using that word as a term of universal negation, such as “nobody,” or “nowhere.” On the other hand, when the physicist uses the term, they are referring to the “quantum vacuum” or “quantum foam,” which is not “nothing” in the traditional sense but is rather a writhing sea of potential energy from which subatomic particles arise.
Lastly, the rejection of this first premise is, in fact, worse than magic! For at least in magic you have a magician and a hat the magician produces the rabbit out of. But in the case of something coming from nothing, you don’t even have that! Instead, this would be analogous to the rabbit just appearing on stage out of thin air.
Premise 2: The universe began to exist.
For centuries, the prevailing thought among scientists was that the universe has always existed. No matter how far back into the past one goes, the universe would always be there. However, this all began to change in 1917 when Albert Einstein attempted to apply his General Theory of Relativity to cosmology. He discovered that his theory would not allow for an unchanging, eternal universe unless he added in a “fudge factor”. In the following decade, Russian mathematician Alexander Friedman and Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître were able to formulate solutions to Einstein’s equations which predicted an expanding universe—one which was changing rather than static. Shortly after, in 1929, American astronomer Edwin Hubble discovered what is called the “red-shift.” He noticed that the light from distant galaxies was shifted toward the red end of the spectrum. The explanation of this was a type of Doppler effect, where the frequency of the light decreases as the light source moves away from us (conversely, that means the wavelength of the light increases, which causes it to shift towards the red end of the light spectrum). This is similar to how the frequency of an ambulance’s siren increases as it approaches you, and then decreases as it passes you and drives away. What this showed was that wherever we looked, we saw distant galaxies moving away from us. This became the first empirical piece of evidence for an expanding universe.
Of course, as the universe expands, the distance between galaxies continues to grow, and the overall density of the universe continues to decrease. That means that if one were to “roll back the clock,” they would see galaxies moving closer and closer and the density of the universe increasing. Eventually, one would reach a point where the distances cannot shrink any more, and the density has reached critical mass. English physicist Paul Davies writes:
If we extrapolate this prediction to its extreme, we reach a point when all distances in the universe have shrunk to zero. An initial cosmological singularity therefore forms a past temporal extremity to the universe. We cannot continue physical reasoning, or even the concept of spacetime, through such an extremity. For this reason most cosmologists think of the initial singularity as the beginning of the universe.
The Friedman-Lemaître model thus describes a universe that is not static and eternal into the past, but rather one that came into being a finite time ago.
Over the decades, there have been dozens of attempts to create alternative models of the universe that exclude an absolute beginning. Time and time again, these models have been shown to be unviable. Conversely, the only models that have succeeded are those that involve an absolute beginning of the universe. For an in depth analysis of many of these models, one can refer to James Sinclair’s article on the Kalam cosmological argument in Blackwell’s Companion to Natural Theology.
The last nail in the coffin for models that wish to include a past-eternal universe came in 2003 when Alvin Borde, Alan Guth, and Alexander Vilenkin penned the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem. This theorem proves that classical space-time, in a universe which has been (on average) in a state of cosmic expansion throughout its history, cannot be extended to past infinity, but must reach a boundary at some time in the finite past. Alexander Vilenkin, commenting on his theorem, remarks
It is said that an argument is what convinces reasonable men and a proof is what it takes to convince even an unreasonable man. With the proof now in place, cosmologists can no longer hide behind the possibility of a past-eternal universe. There is no escape: they have to face the problem of a cosmic beginning.
On the basis of the scientific evidence from astrophysics, as well as a great deal of philosophical evidence (not mentioned here for brevity), one is quite justified in accepting the premise “the universe began to exist”.
Conclusion 3: Therefore, the Universe has a cause.
With the foundation for our premises now in place, we are led naturally to the conclusion of the Kalam cosmological argument. At this point, you may be thinking “what does any of this have to do with whether or not God exists?”
Properties of the Cause
Let’s think about it: if the universe is all of space, time, matter and energy, then what does that say about whatever caused it? Well for starters, whatever caused space to exist could not itself exist in space, so it must be spaceless. Similarly, whatever caused all of matter to exist cannot itself be made of matter, so it must be immaterial. Following the same reasoning, it’s easy to see that the cause must also be timeless. Taking this further, one would rightly conclude that whatever had the ability to cause the entirety of the universe to exist must be enormously powerful.
So by doing a conceptual analysis of what it means to be the cause of the universe, one arrives at an immaterial, timeless, spaceless, enormously powerful cause of the universe. Of course, this is much of what the Christian means when they say “God.” That being said, many people might be uncomfortable giving such a label to this cause—but to paraphrase Shakespeare, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
If we stopped our analysis here, we would already be talking about a being that a naturalistic/atheistic worldview is completely incapable of giving an account for. That should be enough to give any intellectually honest atheist pause. But we can go one step further and show that this cause must also be personal.
Is the cause also Personal?
There are a few, independent ways of showing this, one of which will be mentioned here. Let us first recognize that causes can fall broadly into two categories—personal and scientific. To illustrate this, imagine walking into your house and hearing water boiling on the stove. You ask someone you live with “Why is the water boiling?”, to which they reply, “Well, there are electric coils in the stove that are radiating heat. That heat is then transferred through the stove’s face and into the pot resting on its surface. Likewise, the heat is then transferred from the pot to the water. When the water reaches roughly 212 degrees, it causes the water molecules to move in such a way as to cause the roaring boil that you see.” Now…if you are a sane person, you would probably not find that scientific answer satisfying—no matter how true it may be! This is because you were likely looking for a personal answer such as, “Because I’m making tea. Would you like some?” Scientific explanations are those which can be described by laws of nature acting on matter/energy. Personal explanations are those that describe the actions of free agents. However, seeing as the beginning of the universe was the beginning of the laws of nature and the matter they would act on, it seems impossible that the cause of this beginning could be a scientific explanation. This leaves us with a personal explanation.
An Argument to Convince?
The last thing I would like to mention is that there is no such thing as an argument that is guaranteed to convince someone. For any argument, all one must do to deny the conclusion is to deny one of the premises. That being said, what makes for a truly good argument is the argument's ability to raise the intellectual cost that one would incur if they were to deny one of the argument’s premises. One can imagine an intellectual price tag associated with denying each of the argument’s premises. The goal of a good argument is to raise the value on this price tag to such a high degree that denying the truth of that premise would amount to intellectual suicide. When it comes to Kalam, I believe it does this beautifully. In order to deny the conclusion, one would have to say one of two things:
- Something can come from nothing—which is, as mentioned above, absurd.
- The universe is eternal—which flies in the face of not only philosophy but the consensus of modern science.
The fact that this argument actually causes some people to make these kinds of wild claims is a good indication of the weight of the argument. As such, we are left with a compelling and intellectually robust answer to the question, “How can you demonstrate to others that God exists?”
For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance, he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.
Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers