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Does This Argument Prove God?

Jimmy Akin

Audio only:

Jimmy Akin joins us and we gave him two simple tasks—explain the Kalam Cosmological Argument and tell us whether it proves that God exists. Jimmy obliged.


Cy Kellett:
Does the Kalam cosmological argument prove God exists? Jimmy Akin explains. Hello and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers podcast for living, understanding, and defending your Catholic faith. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. The Kalam argument has become very popular in recent decades, actually after some neglect. It has done so as you’ll hear in this podcast because it’s been promoted by a certain apologist, particularly William Lane Craig, and also because it’s one of those arguments that you can make relatively easily. Most people can hear the Kalam argument and make up their mind about whether or not they believe this proves God exists which is what we want to do. We get into some deeper questions with Jimmy about whether it in fact does what it claims to do. I think it does, but you have to decide for yourself.

Of course, the best argument for God’s existence is the one that’s convincing, and this is indeed convincing to many, many people because God does exist and God loves us. If we can maybe break through some of the modern skepticism and caution about God based on what people hear, what people read, and also kind of the modern mentality which is cut off a bit from God, cut off quite a bit from God, whatever can help us kind of chip away at that and help people to reflect in a serious, grave way about God’s existence and about their relationship to God, I think is good and helpful. Let’s hear what Jimmy has to say. Before we talk to Jimmy, I want to remind you to subscribe to Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, wherever you get your podcasts. Then you can be notified whenever new episodes are released. Here’s our conversation with Jimmy about the Kalam argument.

So I guess let’s start right from the beginning, Jimmy. What is the Kalam argument?

Jimmy Akin:
It’s an argument for the existence of God and it’s part of a class of arguments for God’s existence that are known as cosmological arguments. In a cosmological argument, you look at either the cosmos itself or at some aspect of the cosmos, something that’s in the cosmos or characterizes the cosmos, and then you reason from that to it must have had a creator. So the Kalam argument is one version of how you do that.

Cy Kellett:
Okay. So now, there are some arguments that are just arguments, say, of probability or whatnot and some are proofs. Is this an attempt to make an actual metaphysical proof of the existence of God?

Jimmy Akin:
Yes. Yeah.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
It doesn’t prove everything about God, but it tries to prove that the universe has a creator, has a cause-

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
… that can meaningfully be understood as God.

Cy Kellett:
Okay. So where does it come from? Where did we get the Kalam argument?

Jimmy Akin:
Well it has been around in a variety of forms down through history. The name Kalam comes from Medieval Islamic theology. In the Middle Ages in Islam, there were a couple of schools of thought. One of them was called [falsafa 00:03:20] and the other was called Kalam. The falsafa school, as you can hear in the name, comes from philosophy.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
So after Islam began, there was this massive translation effort where Muslim scholars were … And not just Muslims, but Muslim scholars and potentates, rules, and stuff were paying for scholars, some of whom were not Muslim, to translate the works of literature from Greco-Roman culture into Arabic and other languages that they spoke. So they translated the works of the Greek philosophers like-

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
… Plato and Aristotle. In fact, a lot of Aristotle’s works were not known in the West at this time, but they were known in the Muslim world because of this great translation effort. So that led Muslim thinkers to embrace aspects of Greek philosophy and to try to push it further, and that led to the falsafa school. There also though was an attempt to do sort of the Muslim equivalent of scholastic theology which wasn’t purely philosophical because it incorporated items of divine revelation or what was taken to be divine revelation. So this is the Muslim equivalent of like what Thomas Aquinas or St. Bonaventure were doing, and this became known as the Kalam school. Kalam is an Arabic word that means discourse-

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
… and so the idea was you want to do speculative theology by discoursing or reasoning, not only on the philosophical material, but on the revealed material as well. This particular argument, the Kalam argument, became popular with that school of thought. So when it was reintroduced in the West, it became known by that name which is why it’s called the Kalam argument today.

Cy Kellett:
Okay. So how does it work? What’s the basic structure of the Kalam argument?

Jimmy Akin:
You can frame it different ways, but basically it says everything that has a beginning needs a cause. The universe had a beginning. Therefore, the universe needs a cause. Whatever the cause of the universe is we can meaningfully call God. Therefore, God exists. So that’s the basics of the argument. Everything has a beginning, needs a cause, the universe has a beginning, the universe needs a cause, and so that causes God.

Cy Kellett:
Okay. So why does that not mean that God needs a cause?

Jimmy Akin:
Because God doesn’t have a beginning and this is a very common mistake when people first hear the Kalam argument. They think, “Oh, well then why doesn’t God need a cause?” Well because He doesn’t have a beginning. The claim is not everything needs a cause.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
It’s only that things which have a beginning need a cause, and God doesn’t have one of those. Depending on how you understand God, God is either everlasting, meaning He has no beginning and goes infinitely far back in time, or on the Orthodox Christian view, God is outside of time altogether. So He experiences everything in an eternal now with no beginning and no end. So He doesn’t have a beginning because time does not pass from one moment to another for God. So either way you understand God, He doesn’t have a beginning and therefore, He doesn’t need a cause.

Cy Kellett:
Okay. Okay. So you said that it got the name Kalam argument from the school when … Christians just accepted that name for it, the Kalam cosmological argument. So how did it get into the Christian circles and what’s its history among Christians?

Jimmy Akin:
Well it’s kind of come and gone at different phases in history. I mean there are even some people exploring the idea before Islam arose. In the Middle Ages, there was another interaction where you had some discussion of it in scholastic theology. So you had, for example, St. Bonaventure talking about it. St. Thomas Aquinas talked about it. He did not favor it.

Cy Kellett:
He didn’t?

Jimmy Akin:
No, he made quite a number of points in response to the advocates of the Kalam argument, and as a result, the Kalam argument didn’t really have a lot of advocates for a long time. Now, Aquinas is famous for his five ways of proving God’s existence. You often hear them just called the Five Ways and they’re right there at the beginning of the Summa Theologica in a kind of summary form, but none of them is the Kalam argument because he didn’t think it worked. Consequently since he’s the most influential thinker in Western Christendom, although I mean he’s a doctor of the church, so is St. Bonaventure by the way. So you have doctors of the church on different sides of this question.

Cy Kellett:
Because Bonaventure accepted it?

Jimmy Akin:
Yes, Bonaventure was an advocate of it.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
So you can accept it or not. That’s up to you, but because Aquinas was more influential than Bonaventure and other people were convinced by Aquinas’s criticisms of the argument, it didn’t end up becoming a staple or popular argument in the history of Christendom.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
In recent decades, and this is just like the last three decades-

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
… it has experienced a resurgence because of a Protestant apologist named William Lane Craig. William Lane Craig is a very popular Protestant apologist and he has written a few books devoted to the Kalam argument. I read them back in the 1990s, and it’s been very popular in Evangelical circles in recent years and to some extent, that spilled over into Catholic circles too. It’s also become popular in Catholic apologetic circles to some degree.

Cy Kellett:
So does that mean that Aquinas’s objections were overcome in your mind or it’s just that people are looking at it in different ways now? Or is it just the tide comes in and tide goes out?

Jimmy Akin:
Well to some extent, you could say it’s all of those. It also has one other advantage which is that it’s very easy to present to an audience.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
Compared to some of the other arguments, it is very easy to understand. I think that’s one of the reasons that apologists, whether they’re Protestant or Catholic, are attracted to it because it’s so easy to present to people that it’s not hard to follow. Some of the other arguments, arguments from contingency and First Movers and change and everything like that, it gets kind of complex kind of fast with some of these other arguments, and this one is so simple that makes it very attractive for apologists to present to people. If it will work, it’s definitely one you want to use. Also, there have been some scientific developments in the 20th century that have made it easier to argue than in previous centuries because … So we have this … The argument basically has two premises. The first premise is that everything that has a beginning has a cause.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
That typically, you don’t need to do a lot of work to defend-

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
… because people’s intuitions correspond to that. When we see things and we look at their beginning, well there’s something there causing them. A baby has parents.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
If you’ve got someone’s built a pyramid, well someone built it.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
So we see causes for things that have beginnings. So that premise is not too controversial. The second premise that the universe had a beginning is the one that’s more controversial because this has not always been accepted. Now, it is part of the Christian faith and the Jewish and Islamic faiths as well as an item of faith. The question is can you prove it by reason, and this is not something that has always been accepted. In fact, as science developed and after the Scientific Revolution occurred, it became popular in astronomical circles to assume that the universe has always existed, that it just goes infinitely far back in time. So you would have lots of astronomers in recent centuries assuming the universe has just always been here. Even Albert Einstein initially assumed that because it’s hard to imagine, “Well what would it be like if the universe hadn’t always been here?” We have a hard time imaging boundaries-

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
… on things like the universe. It’s kind of like saying, “Well how would the universe have an edge?” Because you immediately want to say, “What’s on the other side of that edge?”

Cy Kellett:
Right. Right.

Jimmy Akin:
And the universe just had a beginning. “Well what’s on the other side of that beginning?” It’s hard to imagine that and so a lot of astronomers just assumed the universe has always been here, but then in the 20th century … And this is actually something that some people had an inkling of previously because if the universe really were infinite in history, if it just always went back, well you look at the night sky and we’re surrounded by stars. Some of them are so far away, they’re very faint, but even if you look with bigger and better telescopes, the farther out you look, the more stars you see.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
So if the universe has been here for an infinite amount of time and we’re surrounded by an infinite sea of stars on all sides, then the light from those stars would have had time to reach us and the night sky should be … Each little patch of light, each little patch of sky, there’s a star our there at some distance.

Cy Kellett:
Oh.

Jimmy Akin:
So why isn’t the night sky blazing with light like the surface of the sun is?

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
Because if there’s this infinite sea of stars around us and it’s been there long enough for the light to reach us, then it should-

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
… be just as bright as the surface of the sun and it’s not. So the question of why is the night sky dark is sometimes called Olbers’ paradox after a German astronomer named Olbers who talked about this. It’s a sign that the universe does not have an infinite history.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
So the light from really distant stars has not reached us yet and that’s why the night sky does not blaze like the surface of the sun. In the 20th century, we got evidence for the Big Bang. Astronomers like Vesto Slipher and Edwin Hubble observed that the light from distant galaxies is red shifted which means they’re moving away from us, and the farther out you look, the faster the galaxies are moving away from us. So it’s like the whole universe is increasing in size-

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
… over time. If you run that backwards as the Belgian priest Father Georges Lemaitre pointed out, originally our whole universe was in a hot, dense state. He called that the primordial egg. Later, some people also called it the primordial atom. Basically, all of the matter in the universe was compressed in this thing which then began to expand and that got, at first, derisively called the Big Bang, but that became the name for it. But now we have evidence scientifically-

Cy Kellett:
Yes.

Jimmy Akin:
… for something that looks like a beginning to the universe.

Cy Kellett:
Right. Right.

Jimmy Akin:
So that’s something they didn’t have back in the 1200s when Aquinas … In the 12th century or the 13th century when Aquinas and the other Medievals were writing. So we now have scientific evidence for this that they didn’t. Back then, they just had to look at this with philosophical arguments and say, “Can we philosophically prove that the universe had a beginning?”

Cy Kellett:
Right. Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
Now, there’s a caution about the Big Bang though because even though … And this is something Father Lemaitre pointed out and he had to actually … Pius XII, he gave some speeches back in the 1950s about this and he was really big on the Big Bang and the evidence it provided for God, and Lemaitre had to kind of talk him down a little bit about, “Don’t make too much out of this Big Bang evidence because the results of science are always provisional.”

Cy Kellett:
Sure. Right. Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
We can always get new data that can point in a different direction, and today if you listen to scientists about this, they will pretty consistently say, “We don’t really know what happened before the Big Bang.”

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
It is possible there were previous universes. It is possible there are models that don’t have a beginning. Now, there are also arguments about do those models work or not and so forth.

Cy Kellett:
Sure.

Jimmy Akin:
But we do at least have something that looks like a beginning, but we don’t want to really bet the farm-

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
… on this because we could have a new scientific fashion come in 10 years from now that says, “Oh, no, no, no. There’s been this eternal inflation going on and we’re just in a little pocket of it that happens to look like a beginning, but really there’s no beginning to the whole thing.” There are cosmologists who argue things like that now and 10 years from now, the balance of opinion could shift in their favor.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
So in arguing scientifically for the beginning of the universe, we want to be optimistic and say, “Hey, looks like we got some evidence here,” but we don’t want to say, “Oh, this is conclusive-”

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
“… and we should base our faith on that.”

Cy Kellett:
Right, but the combination of the science being more amenable to this view and then William Lane Craig popularizing it, this generated kind of more enthusiasm for the argument-

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah.

Cy Kellett:
… in contemporary world? How do people go about supporting these premises then? Is there anything else you want to tell us about that? Because it does seem to me, and I may be wrong about this, Jimmy, but it seems to me the premise that says anything that has a beginning has a cause, that seems very close to almost obvious.

Jimmy Akin:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). It’s very intuitive.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
That premise is very intuitive.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
So you don’t get a lot of dispute on that. I mean there are ways to try to dispute it.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
Some people will appeal to quantum mechanics and so forth where we can’t assign a specific cause to a particular event, but I don’t think that really works. I think that premise is quite sound. The question is can you prove the second premise because it’s not as intuitive-

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
… that the universe had to have a beginning because as soon as you try to imagine the beginning, you try to imagine well then what was one minute before the beginning.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
So our intuitions don’t support that one as easily. I think the scientific evidence is interesting and points in the direction of the universe having a beginning, but it can’t be treated as conclusive. What could be treated as conclusive would be a philosophical argument based on reason alone that doesn’t depend on the changing evidence that science has available to it. Here is where you have kind of a parting of the ways-

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
… among thinkers-

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
… because people like Bonaventure thought they did have philosophical arguments for why the universe must have a beginning and people like Aquinas said, “Sorry, but those arguments don’t work.” To give the most famous and the easiest to understand of the arguments philosophically for the universe having a beginning, the idea, the claim is that you cannot form … So if the universe had no beginning, that would mean it has an infinite history. There’s an infinite. You start now. Going backwards in time, there’s an infinite series of moments. So the claim is you couldn’t traverse an actual infinity of moments by successively adding new numbers. So let’s say you start at minus infinity. Okay?

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, you can never get to here.

Jimmy Akin:
And you add one. Okay. So now, you’re at minus infinity plus one, and then you’re at minus infinity plus two and minus infinity plus three. No matter how long you keep counting, you will never arrive at zero.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
That’s true. That is not controversial. You cannot traverse an actual infinity from beginning to end by successively adding new units. So that was Bonaventure’s argument and Aquinas would say, “You’re absolutely right. You cannot traverse an actual infinity from beginning to end by successively adding new units, and that’s irrelevant because that’s not what would have happened if God had created an infinite history for the universe.” There would be no beginning to its history. Notice if we’re talking about traversing an infinity from its beginning to its end, it presupposes it’s got a beginning.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
So they’ve snuck back in the concept of a beginning. They’ve just tried to push it an infinite number of moments into the past. Aquinas would say, “That’s your mistake. You’ve assumed-”

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
“… perhaps not realizing it, that this infinity has a beginning and it doesn’t. In fact, it couldn’t if it’s a genuine infinity.” What infinity means is unending or unlimited. I mean that’s where the Latin term comes from. It just means not limited or not ending. If you think about a number line, it can be unlimited in a few different ways, three really. It can be unlimited if it has no end going into the future.

Cy Kellett:
Sure.

Jimmy Akin:
So like one, two, three, four, and so on. That’s unlimited because there’s no end to the number of positive natural numbers. Also, it can be unlimited in the negative direction going into the past, minus one, minus two, minus three all the way to minus infinity. There’s no end there and so that’s also infinite in a different direction. So that’s the second way a number line can be infinite. The third way is it’s unlimited in both.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
…to both positive infinity and negative infinity. There’s no limit on either end, but if you put a limit in here, let’s say you only count one, two, three and three is the end-

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
… that you’ve got a limit and you count minus one, minus two, minus three and you put a limit, well then it’s limited in both directions so it’s finite.

Cy Kellett:
Sure.

Jimmy Akin:
If you imagine the number line before zero and say, “Okay. It goes minus one, minus two, minus three and so on,” and you’ve got some limit even infinitely far back there, it’s not … You’ve just defined a finite set of numbers-

Cy Kellett:
Sure. Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
… because you put a limit on both ends.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
So Aquinas would say that’s it’s true you couldn’t traverse an actual infinity one unit at a time, but at that point, it wouldn’t be actually infinite because it’s got a limit on both sides. It’s got a beginning and an end.

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
And so the argument that Bonaventure and others would make is has a true premise, but it’s irrelevant to this question because they’re unwittingly sneaking in the concept of a beginning again.

Cy Kellett:
That’s some intense Medieval discussion of infinity, but okay.

Jimmy Akin:
So the alternative, Aquinas would say, if God … Aquinas as a Christian didn’t believe this was what had happened. He believed the world does have a beginning.

Cy Kellett:
Because that’s revealed.

Jimmy Akin:
Yeah, and we know that by faith-

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
… because God has revealed it, but he would say if God had chosen to give the universe an infinity history, then it just always goes back with no beginning. No matter how far back you go, the universe just go back endlessly.

Cy Kellett:
Okay. Okay. So you got to argue over that one. To your mind then just as Jimmy Akin looking at this as an argument, an attempt to prove the existence of God, where do you assess it overall as far as its success?

Jimmy Akin:
I think that it is a useful argument and I use it myself. In fact, right now I’m writing a short book that has some arguments for God’s existence in it and I include the Kalam argument.

Cy Kellett:
Okay.

Jimmy Akin:
But I include it in a cautious form based on the scientific evidence. I say, “We have this scientific evidence. It points to what looks like a beginning and that would indicate the existence of a cause for the universe and thus God if this scientific evidence is correct, but we shouldn’t hang out hat on that and we shouldn’t base our faith on that because science is always provisional and it may go in some other direction in the future.” So I think we can cautiously use the scientific form of the Kalam argument. I agree with Aquinas though. I think the different arguments of a philosophical nature that have been proposed don’t work, but that’s my personal opinion and other apologists have different opinions, including even other apologists here on staff at Catholic Answers. So you make your own assessment-

Cy Kellett:
Right.

Jimmy Akin:
… of where you think the evidence points and you’re not a bad Catholic whether you like or don’t like or have kind of a middle position like I do on the Kalam argument.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah. Whether or not it succeeds, God does in fact exist.

Jimmy Akin:
Oh, yeah. We wouldn’t be here otherwise.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, but just real quick on Aquinas’s other five proofs, you said he knew the Kalam argument. Of course, he could have used it. He didn’t use it because he wasn’t convinced by it. Does that mean that Aquinas believes that the other five ways are philosophically solid, that they are-

Jimmy Akin:
Oh, sure.

Cy Kellett:
He does? Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
He wouldn’t have proposed them if he didn’t think they were solid.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah, he’s not saying these are pretty good. He’s saying these are metaphysically certain proofs of the existence of God.

Jimmy Akin:
That is a Aquinas’s view, yes.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah.

Jimmy Akin:
That is not necessarily everybody’s view because the church does not have a set of official arguments for God’s existence, not even Aquinas’s. So if you look at Aquinas’s fifth way or whatever and say, “Eh, I don’t buy that one,” you’re not a bad Christian or a bad Catholic. It is not church teaching that you need to use these arguments-

Cy Kellett:
Gotcha.

Jimmy Akin:
… rather than others.

Cy Kellett:
Right. Okay. Jimmy, thanks a lot. I feel much better acquainted with the Kalam argument. It’s very hard to think about infinity. It’s very … The mind wants to put some kind of limit and go, “Okay. I get infinity, but what happened right before infinity?”

Jimmy Akin:
Exactly.

Cy Kellett:
Yeah. All right. Thanks, Jimmy. That was fun. I appreciate it.

Jimmy Akin:
My pleasure.

Cy Kellett:
Sometimes it’s amazing to me the way that philosophers can drill down on the meaning of word and a meaning of the part of a word or a part of a phrase. Is this really proven? Is this really not proven? Can we accept that premise or do we have to defend that premise? It can go on and on and on in some ways ad infinitum. Sometimes I think we do that because we actually want to avoid getting an answer, but other times, it’s out of sincere desire to really have a thing proven to us, to really have a certainty about a thing. Myself as I said at the beginning, I find the Kalam argument quite helpful and understandable and I think in general persuasive because I do accept the premises and I understand that you can attack the premises, but I don’t find the attacks as convincing as I find the premises themselves. I wonder what you think about that.

You can always email us. [email protected] is our email address. [email protected] We’d love to get your emails and also we’d love it if you would support this podcast. You can do so by going to givecatholic.com. Givecatholic.com helps us pay for all those people who make this work, put it on the internet so that other people can get it, and all of that. It does have a cost associated with it, and your support is very, very welcome. Don’t forget if you’re watching us on YouTube, like and subscribe. I’m Cy Kellett, your host, and we’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

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