I recently finished reading Robert Sawyer’s trilogy “The Neanderthal Parallax.” I found the plot intriguing, but the worldview issues the books brought up had great difficulties in how they were conveyed and the kind of hidden premises smuggled in. Every story has a worldview, and the worldview of these books was surprisingly hostile and disingenuous particularly to Christians. I have enjoyed Robert Sawyer’s work in the past, but feel forced to interact with these books in a fairly critical fashion. There will be SPOILERS in what follows. I’ll not summarize the plot, but interested readers can see summaries on Wikipedia. I have written a review of the books here.
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the books is that Sawyer seemingly did not put anything close to the amount of research and care into his portrayal of faith as he did his portrayal of biology, cosmology, and the like. On the latter topics, great detail is put into explaining aspects of various sciences and even invented science that Sawyer employs to support the plot. But people of faith are put up as frequently hypocritical but also lacking in erudition and thoughtfulness.
The central faith figure is Mary Vaughan, a specialist in ancient genetics. She consistently is put forth as the faithful counterweight to the faithlessness of the Neanderthals. However, she is a Roman Catholic who reveals objects to parts of her church’s official doctrines. She rejects the doctrine of original sin, for example. Having her put forward as the example of a religious person makes this even more difficult to swallow. I’m not suggesting that there are no people who have great cognitive dissonance in their beliefs–obviously many people do. The problem is that Sawyer uses Mary as the central image of Christianity throughout the novels, but she is woefully inept at even holding to the faith she claims for herself.
At one point in Humans, Ponter is talking to Mary at the Vietnam Memorial about life after death(188-207). He simply asserts that if you can’t see something it doesn’t exist. But of course this is as absurd as he claims “Gliskins'” (homo sapiens sapiens as opposed to the Neanderthals) belief in things like God is. I cannot see my own thoughts, yet they exist. Neither can I observe other people’s mental life, yet I am not irrational in believing that the people around me are also having thoughts.
In Hominids, Ponter speaks to Mary about the Gliskins’ viewing of a Mass taking place and again basically asserts that Christian belief in deity is absurd on its face. Mary struggles to articulate even the slightest defense of the Incarnation and other central Christian doctrines. Again, plenty of believers would struggle in this fashion, but Sawyer uses Mary as a kind of foil for all of Christianity. She’s got the best defenses Christians have to offer, and she can’t do anything but stutter when challenges to her faith are raised.
At several points, Big Bang Cosmology is challenged as something the Gliskins cling to because of their necessity of belief in a finite universe to support deity. Yet not only was Big Bang Cosmology initially rejected by the scientific community for this and other reasons (and only later accepted due to the mounting evidence for it), but even were the universe infinite, it would hardly follow that it is uncreated, as Ponter asserted without challenge. Sawyer seems to be unaware of–or at least makes his characters ignorant of–the entirety of Scholastic thought on the topic of continuous creation. Thomas Aquinas admitted this as a possibility. Thus, for Christians it is hardly an either/or of either eternal universe or finite universe. Either fits in with various strands of historic Christian theology. But again, Sawyer seems to have been either ignorant of this or willfully ignoring it to portray belief in deity in a more negative and indefensible light.
All of this wouldn’t be as unfortunate if Sawyer didn’t put discussions like this forward as if they were the best defenses Christians could come up with for their positions. Had they been simply believers who were also uninformed or insincere, it would not be as great an error. But Sawyer paints these interactions as though the defenses are the best Christians can come up with. As we have just surveyed very briefly, this is mistaken. I enjoyed the stories Sawyer put forward here, but his portrayal of people of faith is deeply flawed.
Sawyer uses the books to explore the notion of a God part of the brain which, when triggered, can set off religious experiences. In Humans, it is discovered that Gliskins have a part in their brain which is able to have “religious experiences” triggered through electromagnetic interaction, while Neanderthals do not have a corresponding part of their brains.
A central scene in the entire series is near the end of Hybrids in Times Square, New York City. The Earth’s magnetic field is resetting and it triggers religious experiences, UFO sightings, and the like among the crowd gathered as this part of the Gliskin (homo sapien, remember) brain is triggered. People are crying out to their deities, fending off invading aliens, and the like all over Times Square. From this, Mary Vaughan’s faith is finally shattered:
The Pope had some ‘splainin’ to do.
All religious leaders did…
“It’s all a crock, isn’t it?” [Mary] said [to Ponter].
…”Look, I’ve changed my mind. About our child… Our daughter should not have the God organ…” (389)
Thus, we find that in Sawyer’s universe, the notion that we can induce religious experiences in the brain (and other types of experience like UFOs) means that these experiences are baseless in reality. Mary decides that her child should not have the capacity to have religious experience because it is all “a crock.” The Pope and others have some “‘splainin’ to do.” Presumably they are expected to take this as some kind of major challenge to their respective faiths.
The main problem with this is that we can conceivably trigger all sorts of things in the brain. It does not seem too outlandish to suppose that if we triggered a certain part of the brain, we might bring up a memory. If we extrapolate more, Sawyer’s vision of electromagnetically triggered religious experiences could be on par with memories as well, which could (in this scenario) be triggered in the same way. Should we start to distrust our perceptions or memories if we are able to trigger them with various impulses? Certainly not. This way lies (true) madness: distrust in our own memories and senses.
So what is left? What does the notion that religious experiences might be triggered by various brain activity demonstrate? Just that: religious experience may be triggered through manipulation. Full stop. This doesn’t in any way undercut evidence for theism or other beliefs from religious experience any more than our capacity to trigger scents, sounds, or memories would undercut our rational basis for believing this things to be real (or about real events).
Sawyer uses the trilogy to attack all kinds of perceived and real social ills, from our treatment of the environment to gun control laws, and the like. But the question is how can he realistically put forward any kind of inter-cultural critique when the whole view he puts forward in the books is ultimately subjective. Mary Vaughan suffers a grotesque act of violence in a rape scene, but this is only used as an instrument in the plot (see my discussion here). Any moral critique Sawyer offers through his characters falls hollow because his only basis for it is some vague concept of pragmatism and self-preservation. Thus, it seems there is no ultimate basis for his criticisms of various ethical wrongs, and his use of several of these as mere instruments to advance the plot betrays this inability to provide an objective basis for right and wrong.
I’ve already written much on the difficulties with worldview in these novels. There are many more I could discuss. Again, I want to emphasize that it is very true that many Christians and believers would struggle to articulate their faith, be unable to defend various aspects of it, and not agree with at least some teachings of their church body. The problem is that Sawyer portrays this as the best Christianity can come up with. I was deeply disappointed to see that the overall thrust of the books was ultimately a kind of attack on my own faith, without any reasonable portrayal or interaction with stronger versions of it. Would that Sawyer had put the time into his depiction and study of faith as he had with the science behind this science fiction. For further reading, check out my reviews of the trilogy.
Book Reviews: “The Neanderthal Parallax” – Hominids, Humans, and Hybrids by Robert Sawyer– I wrote a review of the trilogy on my other interests site. This review brings up some of the other worldview issues in the books, in addition to a brief summary of the plot outline and look at the science fiction elements.
Aliens that believe in God: The theological speculations in Robert Sawyer’s “Calculating God”– I write about a different Robert Sawyer book that I did enjoy quite a bit, Calculating God. I even wrote a second post discussing abortion, fundamentalism, and other issues the book raised.
Robert Sawyer, Hominids (New York: Tor, 2002).
—, Humans (New York: Tor, 2003).
—, Hybrids (New York: Tor, 2003).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
The Really Recommended Posts this week have some mixed in that are sure to get your noodle going. Can a doctrinal system which emphasizes free human choice in salvation affirm total depravity? Is the Big Bang model wrong? Would evangelicalism label some of its “favorites” heretics? Do skeptics dehumanize Christianity? These, and more, are questions for you to ponder with this week’s reading choices. Let me know what you thought, and if you liked them, be sure to leave them a comment as well. That’s a major reason why we write–to get your feedback!
Skeptics Dehumanizing Christianity– Does the “New Atheism” affirm equality across lines of religion, culture, and the like? How do some skeptics talk about people of faith in ways which may dehumanize them? Check out this thought-provoking article to read some insights on these and other topics.
Do Arminians Believe in Total Depravity?– One constant point of contention between Arminians and Calvinists (and others like Lutherans) is the notion of “total depravity” and the charge that Arminianism denies it. According to this article (following Roger Olson), Arminius himself affirmed the doctrine. It was an interesting read, but I wonder how consistent it would be with the consequences of Arminianism after all. What are your thoughts?
One Very Misleading Article About Six “Heretics” Who Should Be Banned from Evangelicalism– Recently, I saw an article being passed around on how some prominent figures within Christianity often cited by evangelicals would allegedly be labeled as heretics by contemporary evangelicalism for some of their beliefs. I thought it was interesting, but also clearly mistaken on some of the figures mentioned therein. This article took the time I did not by outlining numerous errors in the argument about “consistency” and evangelicalism.
More Than a Piece of Jewelry (Comic)– The cross is more than a piece of jewelry to hang around your neck. Check out this poignant comment which puts that into perspective.
Selection Bias– The universe isn’t expanding after all! So said a lot of headlines around the web of late. Is that really the case? Check out this article from an astrophysicist explaining some difficulties with this supposed problem with Big Bang Cosmology.
The interplay between worldviews and science fiction is very strong. In any writing, an author’s viewpoint will show through, but I think that it is particularly true in sci-fi. For in science fiction, the author is most frequently presenting a view of the world as it should be or as it should not be. The speculative future can be used as a foil through which the reader views reality in a new way. Often, science fiction will touch upon theological issues.
Robert Sawyer’s Calculating God utilizes science fiction in an extremely thought-provoking way to discuss the possibility and meaning of God in our universe. Before diving in I need to make to things clear. First, just because I analyze a book like this does not mean that I think that everything in it is theologically sound by any means (and believe me, it is not). Second, there will be extremely HUGE PLOT SPOILERS ahead. For those who are just interested in seeing how science fiction can explore faith issues, read on!
The most immediately striking and pervasive theme of Calculating God is that aliens show up on earth, and they believe in God. In fact, they take the existence of God to be a scientific certainty. The main character of the book, a paleontologist named Tom Jericho, is very skeptical throughout. Here’s the kicker, though, the aliens have been convinced of the existence of God through the evidence–specifically, the fine-tuning argument. Said argument is presented throughout the course of the book in interactions between Tom and Hollus, an alien paleontologist.
What is surprising is how much depth the book goes into while exploring the argument. Yes, Sawyer does fudge the argument a bit by allowing the aliens the possibility of a grand unified theory of science as well as a few other fictionalized aspects of the argument, but overall the fine-tuning argument he presents is very similar to the modern fine-tuning argument.
Not only that, but the characters Sawyer created go to great lengths to explore objections to and defenses of the fine tuning argument. For example, there is a discussion on p. 144ff (mass market paperback edition) in which Hollus and Tom discuss some objections to fine tuning. Tom is arguing against the probability of God:
“All the actions you ascribe to God could have been the doing of advanced aliens” [said Tom].
“There are… problems with your argument,” said Hollus, politely. “[E]ven if you dispense with the need for a god in recent events–events of the last few billion years; events after other conscious observers had emerged in this universe–you have done nothing to dispense with the relative strengths of the five fundamental forces [its science fiction, so there is an extra force], who designed the thermal and other properties of water, and so on. And therefore what you are doing is contrary to the razor of Occam you spoke of: you are increasing, not reducing the number of entities that have influenced your existence…”
The book is replete with debates like this, and the inevitable conclusion is that, shock of all shocks, God exists. I don’t say that sarcastically, I mean that I was genuinely surprised that the book affirmed God exists. But what kind of God?
God Exists… but?
It should be clear that in Calculating God, God is nowhere near the God of classical theism. In fact, one could almost argue that what Sawyer has offered here is a materialistic supplanting of God. The “god” of this work is essentially a super-powerful alien which is capable of swallowing the enormous energy output of a supernova, while also capable of designing our biology and fixing the constants of the universe during the early stages of the Big Bang.
God’s action is described purely in non-transcendent language. For example, the aliens confirm that god caused ice ages and mass extinctions on all the planets with intelligent life. The way this was accomplished was a matter of some speculation–perhaps God generated a dust cloud by using particles from across the galaxy to shield the planets from light and lower the temperature, or perhaps God redirected an asteroid or two to send them hurtling at the planets with life that needed a ‘jump start’ of evolution (146ff).
So why think that this is an image of god supplanting the classical theistic God? Well, clearly many who use the teleological argument are intending for it to point towards a creator God. What Sawyer has offered is a more naturalistic explanations of these events. Yes, there is a ‘god’ in the sense of a being capable of tampering with the very fabric of our universe, but that ‘god’ is itself trapped within the spatio-temporal boundaries of the known universe. In fact, god is said to subsist by recreating itself via a kind of reproductive method and passing one generation through a Big Crunch (think of a bouncing universe model).
Calculating God offers a unique look at theology from a science fiction perspective. The fine tuning argument is presented in full force–even enhanced by some fudging of the science–and it leads to the inevitable conclusion that god exists. Yet this ‘god’ is not at all amenable to the god of Christianity or classical theism. So what should we do with this book?
Well, it is important to note that it is a work of fiction. The author clearly adds in some extra ‘fluff’ to make the fine tuning argument more powerful than it is (and I think it is quite powerful as it stands). And really Sawyer’s shoehorning in of a materialistic entity that is able to fiddle with physics boils down to hand-waving. Again, it is fiction, but it is important to note that Sawyer’s attempt to supplant the God of classical theism simply doesn’t work. Think of it this way: how would a purely physical being, however powerful, manage to transcend the physical universe in such a way as to literally rewrite the laws of physics? Extremely interesting science fiction? Yes. Compelling argument? No.
So where are we left? Sawyer does present the fine tuning argument in a way that is quite compelling, even when one strips away all the layers of fiction over it. It seems to me that, at a minimum, readers are left with a rock in their shoe: how do we explain away all this fine tuning without going beyond the cosmos? Sawyer’s own proffered answer, while entertaining fiction, remains that: fiction.
I have not yet even begun to delve into the depths of Sawyer’s Calculating God. The book covers an extremely broad array of topics related to science and faith as well as the secular-religious [false] dichotomy. For example, he discusses abortion in a few places, and I think the view the characters favor is very inconsistent. There is also some clear portrayal of the religious “other” as only a fundamentalist who seeks to halt scientific advancements. Yes, Sawyer panders to Christians in a few places, but the overall look at religious persons seems to be fairly negative (apart from Tom’s wife). I wish I could do justice to each of these topics, so I think I may follow this post up with another touching on more. For now…
Ultimately, Sawyer’s work is a simply phenomenal read. The amount of scientific, ethical, and religious issues upon which it touches is stunning, and readers will be forced to deal with the argument. Sawyer has done an excellent job using fiction for what I think it is called to do: inspire, entice, and force thought. Readers will be uncomfortable. The work will challenge people to really think about the arguments, and to think about the offered solutions.
I have discussed the use of science fiction in showing how religious persons act. Check out Religious Dialogue: A case study in science fiction with Bova and Weber.
What would it mean if we discovered life? I have reflected on the possibility: Alien Life: Theological reflections on life on other planets.
Our Spooky Universe– I make the case for the intelligent design argument for the existence of God, which is heavily used throughout Calculating God.
Check out my other looks at popular level books. (Scroll down to see more!)
Robert Sawyer, Calculating God Mass Market Paperback Edition (New York: TOR, 2000).
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
There has been much philosophical and scientific discussion on the topic of the multiverse. Recently, a lot of this discussion has been happening within philosophy of religion. Some attempt to use the multiverse to overcome classical theistic arguments like the Kalam Cosmological Argument, while others try to utilize it to avoid the teleological argument. Atheists and skeptics are not the only ones who are interested in the multiverse, however. Recently, a few prominent theistic philosophers have utilized the multiverse in inventive ways.
The Multiverse and the Problem of Evil
Some theistic philosophers have argued that the multiverse can provide a new type of theodicy. As eminent a philosopher as Alvin Plantinga writes:
…a theist might agree that it is unlikely, given just what we know about our world, that there is such a person as God. But perhaps God has created countless worlds, in fact, all the… universes… in which there is a substantial overall balance of good or evil… [A]s it happens, we find ourselves in one of the worlds in which there is a good deal [of evil]. But the probability of theism, given the whole ensemble of worlds, isn’t particularly low (Plantinga, 463).
Does such a theodicy help theists with the problem of evil? It seems to me that it may, but that it is not particularly strong. It could be included in a cumulative-case type of theodicy, however.
First, Michael Almeida offers a critique of this position. Suppose that God did, in fact, create such a multiverse. It seems plausible that such a universe would be infinite in the number of worlds (after all, for every “good” world, there seems one can always imagine a “better” world). Here Almeida ingeniously applies William Lane Craig’s arguments about the infinite, not to show that the set of universes cannot be infinite, but to show that in an infinite multiverse one could subtract specific worlds from this set without decreasing the good of the multiverse (Almeida, 305-306). Suppose God did in fact actualize an infinite multiverse–all the worlds which are, on the whole, good. If that’s the case, then God could easily not actualize any one (or infinite!) world(s) without decreasing the total good of creation. After all, it would remain infinitely good!
Timothy O’Connor offered a possible response to this argument, noting that “It may well be that [God] would have a distinct motivation to realize every fundamental kind of good-making feature, some of which are incommensurable. If so, this would put a further constraint on universe types… within a candidate infinite hierarchy” (O’Connor 2, 315). God could have chosen to actualize each individual type of good–some of which may exist in our own world to a maximal extent. This doesn’t seem implausible given the tremendous goodness of an event like the Redemption.
Some may be concerned that an appeal to the multiverse may undermine more traditional theodicies such as the “greater good theodicy” or the “free-will defense.” One might envision the multiverse as a kind of “throwing in the towel” on the traditional theistic defenses. I don’t see why this should follow, because any of these traditional theodicies would be just as applicable to our own universe whether it were one or one of many. There are, however, a few problems I see with this defense, which I’ll put off until the section “On the Possibility of a Multiverse” below.
Some have argued theism is irrational because they hold God is a perfect being, which would entail that God would create the best possible universe–itself an incoherent concept. It is possible that God need not create the best possible world. Robert Merrihew Adams, for example, doesn’t agree that God is obligated to create the “best possible world.” Rather, God could choose to create worlds which manifest His grace (Adams, 62). O’Connor cites William Rowe as providing an effective counter to this by arguing that there would then be a possible being better than the perfect being (O’Connor 1, 114). I’m unconvinced by this counter. If there is no best possible world, God cannot be obligated to create it (because it doesn’t exist).
O’Connor anticipates this response and seems to grant that it may be plausible (115). However, he among other theists, seems to believe that God would actualize a multiverse. He writes, “God’s choice isn’t between… single universes, but between the super universes [‘super universe’ being a ‘collection of one or more totalities that are mutually disconnected save for their common origin within God’s creative choice’]” (O’Connor 1, 116). God, on this view, actualizes many “good” worlds. He writes, “the creative motivation would be not to settle for a finite limit on the individual organic goodness of any of His products” (O’Connor 2, 315). God’s creation of many universes shows his “artisanship” (Ibid).
Such arguments are both interesting and compelling. Those who attack theism based upon the “best possible world” objection may be thwarted by the hypothesis of God’s creative multiverse.
On the Possibility of a Multiverse
Theistic proposals of a multiverse are clearly sometimes motivated for entirely different reasons than naturalists. What difficulties are there with such a proposal?
First, some theists object to the multiverse by arguing that it undermines several theistic arguments. It does not seem that the multiverse would do so, however. The cosmological argument would stand strong in spite of a multiverse, because any inflationary multiverse would still have a beginning in time. Design arguments would similarly be unchallenged because one would have to explain the fine-tuning of the multiverse. These objections to the multiverse, therefore, do not do much damage.
Other objections to the multiverse require more discussion of the meaning of the term “multiverse.” Jeffrey Zweerink notes several levels of multiverse. Some of these are uncontroversial. For example, the “Level I” multiverse is simply a description of other regions beyond the observable universe (Zweerink, 28). Of course, this is hardly what many mean when they refer to a “multiverse.” What is meant by multiverse here is a Level II or higher multiverse, such as inflationary bubble universes or other generative scenarios (Zweerink, 28-29). The difficulty with these is that there doesn’t seem to be any reason to hold that these universes exist. Zweerink notes that the Level II multiverse is predicted by some models of string theory, but to believe there are literally other unobservable universes on the basis of theoretical predictions alone hardly seems convincing.
Given these observations, it seems initially that while theism is unthreatened by the multiverse (and perhaps even bolstered by its possible existence), there is no better reason to think it exists on theism as on other worldviews. But perhaps that’s not the case. One can reflect once more on O’Connor’s belief that the multiverse shows God’s creative artistry (O’Connor 2, 315). Not only that, but one may even predict that God would actualize many worlds in order to bring about His desire to actualize various goods (O’Connor 1, 112ff). Perhaps one could argue that theism may even predict many universes. In that case, the multiverse is more likely than not.
Clearly, I think there may be some merit in the use of the multiverse in theistic arguments. I think it would amazing if, somehow, we made a discovery which confirmed the existence of other universes, and I do believe people could hold that theism might even predict such a discovery, but color me skeptical. I think it would generate an enormous amount of metaphysical baggage to hold to the existence of a multiverse. While the previous arguments may have shown that theism increases the likelihood of a multiverse, I don’t think it increases it enough to justify belief in a world ensemble. I remain open to the possibility, and indeed some compelling arguments have been offered in its favor, but for now I remain unconvinced. That said, I think theists could still utilize the multiverse in response to the problems illustrated above, because even a hypothetical multiverse could be used to bolster these defenses. Those opposed to theism might here object, saying that I condemn their own uses of the multiverse to try to get around theistic arguments. They would be incorrect. I condemn the use of the multiverse on competing views because I don’t think the other views can justify belief in the multiverse, nor do I think their usage actually defeats the difficulties with their own positions.
Is there a theistic multiverse? Maybe. Can theists utilize a hypothetical multiverse in their philosophical speculations? Absolutely.
Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (New York, NY: Oxford, 2000).
Timothy O’Connor 1, Theism and Ultimate Explanation (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2008).
Timothy O’Connor 2, “Is God’s Necessity Necessary? Replies to Senor, Oppy, McCann, and Almeida,” Philosophia Christi 12 (2010), 309-316.
Michael J. Almeida, “O’Connor’s Permissive Multiverse” Philosophia Christi 12 (2010), 297-307.
Robert Merrihew Adams, “Must God Create the Best?” in The Virtue of Faith and Other Essays in Philosophical Theology 51-64 (New York: Oxford, 1987).
Jeffrey Zweerink, Who’s Afraid of the Multiverse? (Reasons to Believe, 2008).
The Theological Attraction of the Multiverse– An interesting post on the theology of the multiverse.
Christological Implications of the Multiverse– Another post worth reading on theology and the multiverse.
Living in the Multiverse- Is It Science?– Discussion of scientific evidence for the multiverse.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
One of the most frequently cited and debated arguments for the existence of God is the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I have not written on the argument before because there is simply so much good material on it out there that I don’t think I can add anything new. I have, however, run into numerous people with questions on the argument recently, and felt the need to finally get around to a post on the Kalam. Those interested in the argument are highly encouraged to read the links included at the end.
The argument itself is quite simple:
1) Everything that began to exist has a cause
2) The universe began to exist
3) Therefore, the universe has a cause
The argument is deductively valid, so the question is whether the premises are true. If true, the conclusion is certain.
Defense of Premise 1
Why should we think that whatever began to exist has a cause? First, it seems a denial of this principle would undermine science. Science is an investigation of causation. If the anti-theist wishes to deny this premise, she is committed to a fallacy similar to that which she calls the “goddidit” fallacy: dismissing explanation for an event. (Interestingly, saying “God did it” is not a dismissal of explanation: it is, itself, an explanation. It’s saying the explanation which best fits the evidence is theism.)
Suppose premise 1 were false. In that case, things could and would be coming into existence for no reason whatsoever out of nothing. We would observe a remarkably different universe than that which we do, in fact, observe. A tiger would miraculously materialize in my room and eat me.
Now, it must be noted that some appeal to quantum physics in order to say this premise is false. They hold that certain quantum events bring things into existence without reason. Such an interpretation seems misguided at best, however, for a few reasons. First, the event would seem to have an explanation, namely, that it is a quantum phenomena of type x. Second, even were one to deny that this is a form of explanation or causation, the fact remains that these quantum events don’t originate from nothing. They originate from the laws and systems present within our universe. Third, these quantum events, on an examination of quantum theory, are not uncaused; they are merely spheres of probability. Finally, an exclusion of causal chains seems to undermine quantum theory itself or at least make it difficult to correctly interpret (on this, see William Wharton’s paper “Causation with Quantum Mechanics”). Like Wharton, I think the main reason causation is sometimes excluded from interpretations of QM is because of an avoidance of “metaphysical first causes.” Obviously, if this is the motivation for avoiding causation, it is not spurred by a commitment to science, but a commitment to avoiding the metaphysical implications of science.
Finally, consider what Wintery Knight points out about QM and the Kalam:
First, quantum mechanics is not going to save the atheist here. In QM, virtual particles come into being in a vacuum. The vacuum is sparked by a scientist. The particles exist for a period of time inversely proportional to their mass. But in the case of the big bang, there is no vacuum – there’s nothing. There is no scientist – there’s nothing. And the universe is far too massive to last 14 billion years as a virtual particle. (Wintery Knight, “How to defend the kalam cosmological argument just like William Lane Craig” April 8th, 2009).
The quantum events observed are caused: by the scientist. Therefore, they don’t undermine premise 1.
To sum up, the reasons for thinking the first premise true are clear: 1) to deny it undercuts science; 2) we don’t observe a universe with uncaused events; 3) the only reason found to deny the premise is an a priori commitment to anti-theism.
Defense of Premise 2
Did the universe begin? There are many arguments to support the premise that the universe did, in fact, begin, but I’m going to focus on only two: the impossibility of an infinite past and the empirical evidence of a finite past.
Impossibility of an infinite past
If the past is infinite, then we will have had to cross an infinite number of moments of time in order to come to the present moment. However, for any finite number of moments in time, x, there will always be a moment such that x+1 does not equal infinity. There is no way to start at any arbitrary moment in the supposedly infinite past and then add enough successive moments to arrive at the present moment. As such, it would be impossible to experience the present moment. However, we are experiencing the present moment, therefore, the past is finite.
Empirical evidence for a finite past
Despite misgivings from some Christians about the Big Bang theory, it has proven to be eminently valuable for arguments like the Kalam. I would go so far as to say the Big Bang serves as powerful evidence for a creator.
The reasoning behind this is that when we measure cosmic background radiation we can measure the expansion of the universe. Extrapolating backwards leads us to the conclusion that at some point in the finite past, the universe began to exist.
Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that both premise 1 and 2 are true. However, because the argument is deductively valid, it follows that the universe has a cause.
Okay, so the universe has a cause. That doesn’t prove God exists! Well no, it doesn’t, but it does show that whatever caused the universe has many of the attributes classical theism has attributed to God, and therefore lends credence to the claim God exists. For whatever caused the universe must have extraordinary power (omnipotence); it must have made a choice to create the universe out of nothing (personal causation/agency); it must have been outside of time (the universe came into existence along with space and time); it must have been outside of space; and it must exist necessarily. As such, the Kalam doesn’t prove Christianity true instantly; it just proves theism is more plausible than atheism. Not only that, but it does show that whatever caused the universe is remarkably similar to the God Christians claim exists.
Appendix: Who made God?
Perhaps the most common objection to the argument outlined above is “Okay, well who made God?” This common retort can be answered after a minute of reflection. Classical theism holds that God exists necessarily, which means that God is eternal and beginningless. The first premise asserts that “whatever begins to exist…” therefore, it doesn’t apply to God. Is this a mere ad hoc fix on theism? No, because it isn’t saying God has no explanation for His existence (which reason is found in His necessary existence); it is saying that he did not begin, and is therefore uncaused. The detractor at this point would have to establish that “everything which exists is caused”–a much more difficult claim to defend than the claim that “everything which began to exist has a cause.” In fact, the anti-theistic claim seems necessarily false, for things which don’t begin are uncaused.
Did the multiverse create itself? Who made God?– more objections to the KCA are answered.
Thinking Matters “The Kalam Cosmological Argument”
The Kalam Cosmological Argument by William Lane Craig
The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology edited by Craig and J.P. Moreland
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