This question, tbc, is about the first three steps of the cosmological argument, because without those steps, the remainder of the argument just doesn't matter.

As William Lane Craig formulates the first three steps, they are:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

What I don't understand is what is meant by begins to exist.

When something within the universe begins to exist, like a star or an atom of carbon or a pizza, the process being described is change. There is no brand new stuff, all the stuff that exists in the universe (that is, all the matter and energy) has been here for the entire history of the universe. If I make a pizza, each atom in each molecule in each shred of cheese was forged from hydrogen in the heart of a star, and those hydrogen atoms were either created through proton decay or, more likely, formed when the universe was only a few thousand years old from a soup of sub-atomic particles that formed from the plasma that made up the early universe. The pizza "begins to exist", but it's just the latest configuration of stuff that has existed for billions of years.

Premise Two states that the universe began to exist. The universe is the sum total of all the stuff, including time. So if we claim the universe began to exist, do we mean that the universe, as we know it, is a change in the configuration of stuff that already existed? If that's the case, the Kalam can't account for the origin of stuff itself.

But perhaps the idea is that the universe beginning to exist isn't just a state change in existing stuff, but the creation of brand new stuff. If that's the case, we've got a second problem.

With this new definition of begin to exist, we have no referents. We have no epistemic justification for Premise 1, I could just as easily say "Everything that begins to exist has no cause" and there are no counterfactuals to be presented. In fact, since every cause we're able to reference involves existing stuff interacting with other stuff over time, I'm more justified in claiming that there is no cause for stuff beginning to exist. Causes, at least as far as we can observe, require stuff. No stuff, no cause.

What it looks like to me is that P1-P3 are just rhetorical sleight of hand. The argument wants to apply the same words to two fundamentally different things in an attempt to justify a conclusion.

How should I be understanding the phrase begins to exist such that it applies to the universe and a carbon atom and a pizza?

  • The original formulation of the kalām argument is valid (or, valid in normal logic), little more than modus ponens going on in the inference. However, challenges to the soundness of either premise have been quite forthcoming, and Craig is not a particularly compelling writer, in abstract or moral terms, so I wouldn't worry that he pushes this agenda so much. Jul 4 at 18:53
  • I do not find the argument to be structurally valid, for the reasons stated. I'm apparently wrong, so I guess my question is how is this argument valid, given what I see as sleight of hand with definitions between the premises?
    – philosodad
    Jul 4 at 18:57
  • 1
    Essentially, yes. The argument appears to me to be of the form: if A, then B. The Universe is C. Therefore D. But as I said, not a philosopher, and this is such a glaring problem that clearly it can't exist, and I guess my question is: why doesn't that problem exist?
    – philosodad
    Jul 4 at 19:01
  • 1
    @DavidGudeman these are comments. Comments are not for extended discussion. If you have a detailed response, please phrase it in the form of an answer. Thank you.
    – philosodad
    Jul 5 at 12:11
  • 1
    @DavidGudeman I do not find the argument to be coherent, despite your declaration that it is. If you are able to explain why it is coherent, I again invite you to do so in the form of an answer. Thank you.
    – philosodad
    Jul 5 at 12:31

3 Answers 3


I will devide the answer into two parts. The first part will be explanatory in nature, i.e. explain what the argument and its explicit premises are and where they come from. It is important to fully understand what you are dealing with and how the terms are used, and my understanding is that you are asking for an intelligible explanation of how someone would reason that way. Therefore, I think it is crucial to give you the context in terms of what validity means and how the premises are to be understood. The second part will try to address your criticism more directly and explain where the argument has problems.

Basically, your assumption "As far as we know, all the stuff (classically, matter or energy) has always been here in some form or another." is not as clear-cut as you seem to take it, but one step at a time.

Explaining the argument

The actual argument

I think the first step should be to formulate the argument in a form that is coherent. As per the corresponding SEP article already linked in another answer, a rather recent version of it by Craig is:

1 Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
2 The universe began to exist.
3 Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.
4 No scientific explanation (in terms of physical laws and initial conditions of the universe) can provide a causal account of the origin (very beginning) of the universe, since such are part of the universe.
5 Therefore, the cause must be personal (explanation is given in terms of a non-natural, personal agent).

On the form of the argument

The argument part 1-3 is a valid modus ponens, which just means that the conclusion does follow iff both premises are correct:

  1. For all x, if x at some point in time began to exist, x has a cause for its existence.
  2. The universe at some point in time began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

where x = "the universe" in steps two and three.

Mind, validity does only look at the structure of the argument and the logical relations between its elements. It is not concerned with whether these elements themselves do have some hidden relations. The argument does have the form "For all x, if x is A, then x is B; X is A; therefore x is B" (modus ponens), therefore, it is valid. Whether it is true is a question of soundness, not validity. And if you are to criticise the argument, you need to attack one or both premises and show why they are (or one of them is) wrong.

Also, this does not say anything about the actual nature of causation. It just states that there is a cause that caused the existence.

The last two steps now basically address the meaning of how we can understand "beginning of existence" and "cause". These two aspects of the argument cannot be discussed in isolation since causation and becoming are closely related. But this is where the first three steps are filled with life, as it were.

Premise one: Nothing comes into existence ex nihilo

Premise one is known since Parmenides and basically is an expression of the Latin phrase ex nihilo nihil fit: It says that given something is not eternal, this something did not pop into existence out of nothing (or: for no reason whatsoever). Its existence must have an origin, a reason, a cause. While not exactly easy to argue for as such, this seems to be how our thinking is hard-wired so most of us take this as granted.

Premise 2 and conclusion: Different forms of causation?

The conclusion and how premise two is to be understood cannot be looked at in isolation. Both only work together if we have a certain understanding of what "the universe" means and why everything, including the universe has to have a beginning.

You seem to assume that all causation (and thus beginning) has to be transformative, ie. has to transform stuff A into stuff B. After all, this is the kind of causation we build our very idea of causation on: natural laws governing the transformation from state A of matter/energy and spacetime to state B of matter/energy and spacetime. The Kalam argument actually argues that this cannot be how causation works for the universe. This has two aspects which only work in unison:

Form A: The conceptual argument regarding "the universe"

If "the universe" is taken to mean "all of material existence", then the beginning of the universe literally means that we come from a state A where there was no material existence (no matter/energy nor spacetime) at all to state B where material stuff began to exist in spacetime in the first place. Since Aristotle, people therefore assume that other than after the beginning of existence of the universe, the causation of the existence of the universe itself, if it has a beginning, has to work without material causation, ie. without the transformation of stuff into other stuff.

Craig does use a variant of this in point 4: Since there is no form of causation within the universe (laws of nature, the nature of matter/energy itself) which can explain how all this energy began to exist in the first place (no matter its form or distribution), we have to assume a form of causation from without, ie. a causation from something fundamentally different from matter/energy.

Form B: The infinite regress argument

The first three steps of the argument cannot be understood without the infinite regress argument. This argument basically says that there cannot be an infinite chain of (transformative) causation where the beginning of the universe is simply one step. There has to be a starting point for each causal chain. Actually, Craig does use this, as the SEP article points out:

In defense of premise 2, Craig develops both a priori and a posteriori arguments. His primary a priori argument is

1 An actual infinite cannot exist.
2 A beginningless temporal series of events is an actual infinite.
3 Therefore, a beginningless temporal series of events cannot exist.

You can read up the actual arguments (and counter-arguments) in the article, but the main point being is that no definite entity (and the universe is "definite" in the sense of a more or less stable, albeit changing, system with particular states of affairs) can be an actual infinite since infinites by definition contain everything of a certain class. In the case of the universe (all energy and matter in space-time), it would be every possible reality at every point in time, everywhere, which runs against what we experience.

Therefore, the infinite regress argument bolsters the premise that the universe (in the sense of all material existence) has to have a beginning.

If correct, this means nothing less than that, together with the conceptual argument, there has to be a creation/causation/beginning of the universe not out of matter/energy in spacetime (which would mean out of itself) because it cannot be thought otherwise.

A posteriori, he additionally uses the big bang theory as supporting premise two: If science says the universe came into existence out of a singularity some specific time ago and there was no spacetime nor energy distribution as we know it before that (and many physicists say so indeed), who are we to question that? This is, by the way, a problem with your assumptions: It is all but clear that stuff has always been there.

A short word on "causation"

I basically can hear you saying something along the lines "but wait, this is not how causation works!"

I think it is worth pointing out at this point that causation is just a conceptual relation between two states where the occurence of state A leads to the occurence of state B. Since Hume, we generally assume that this is basically only a habitual relation, something we observed so often that we take A to be the cause of B. As a shorthand, in a sense.

In the realm of laws of nature, this came to mean that there is a transformation of stuff into other stuff via a certain mechanism. That is a very peculiar sense of causation though which implies some "real" thing going on that exactly corresponds to this "causation" instead of what it really is: Two events between which we make a link. The physics "just happen" in a steady process, there is no isolated "causation" between two states. We just choose to take two distinct states more or less arbitrarily and inquire what happens in between, making the "causation" very detailed or, as in most cases, just a coarse approximation of what actually happens on a physical level.

It also does not mean that when we say "I willed this statue to come into existence, and so it came into existence" that the will to make the statue cannot be seen as a cause for its existence. Indeed, scientific explanations of causation break down as a viable explanation e.g. for the existence of pieces of art (at least for the time being). If you think about it, it becomes very handwavy very fast.

Thus, I would say that a concept of causation that only involves the transformation of states of energy in spacetime may be too narrow (for the time being).

Why natural vs. personal causation?

Now I will shortly address why there are natural/material and personal causation put up against each other as the only two possible kinds of causation in Steps 4 and 5. This has two reasons: historical and theological.

The historical reason is that basically since the writing of history, humankind does assume a duality of the material world and the spiritual/ideal/mental world and that they were following different laws. Therefore, it is natural to assume that if we need to assume a kind of causation different from material causation, this kind of causation would be one of agency: A will that works into the material world.

The theological reason is that not only since the victory march of the sciences, people feel that in a material world of nature, ruled by laws of nature, there is few to no space for God(s). Thus, if we are to make space for an acting God, it is natural to put this outside of the material world. And if that is true, and we need the universe to be caused, this person outside of the material world is the prime candidate to do so.

Weaknesses of the arguments

Generally, the whole part 7 of the SEP article discusses all weaknesses and points brought up for and against the argument, including variants for the formulation. I would like to stress and simplify two main weaknesses which are closely intertwined:

Metaphysics and epistemology

This argument makes assumptions about a state we simply cannot know anything about. Given there was a big bang with no matter/energy nor spacetime, for which there are indeed strong arguments to be made, we cannot infer anything about what there has been or how that was caused since all our ways of inference and our laws of causation break down until many milliseconds after the big bang.

A category error

I think your criticisms come down to one basic thought: These terms do not make any sense in this context. And there are good arguments in support of this intuition (apart from the "eternal stuff" part, as shown above). Basically, the argument uses different category errors, i.e. applies concepts to a domain where the concept loses its viability:


The concept of beginning relies on the existence of (space-)time. If there is no space-time, talking of a beginning does not make any sense. One of the logical problems is that the universe literally cannot have a beginning in the sense of point 0 from where its existence unfolds since there was no spacetime until after it came into existence. Beginning is normally taken to mean the point of time in which stuff was caused to exist, with the existence stretching from thereon. If there is no time before the existence of the universe, that makes it hard to apply the concept of beginning properly. It becomes an analogy.


The argument implies that personal agency was just a different kind of causation. This is problematic. Not only Kant, but modern definitions as well, say that causation has to follow laws. Thus, even if there was something like "causation out of freedom (personal agency)", it would have to follow laws and not be based on a whim of God thinking "It shall be" and thus it was. It is questionable whether the term "causing the universe" does make sense at all without some kind of law/mechanism which explains how there is a transition from state A to state B. And "some personal agent created the universe, we just can/do not know how" does, if we think about it, not explain the existence of the universe any better than "it just happened to begin to exist, we just do/can not know how" (creation ex nihilo). In a sense, it is creation ex nihilo through the back door.


Oftentimes in metaphysics, the existence of actual infinites is rejected as paradoxical/nonsensical. Actually, the historical arguments for a beginning of the universe strongly rely on this conceptual reasoning. The problem here is that constructs of the highest possible level of abstraction (mathematics, logics) are in a sense re-applied to the material realm directly, without any intermediate mappings - and this is bound to fail. The paradoxical thought only occurs in our application of concepts on how we think about physical reality. Just because it blows our minds if we try to imagine it as "real", it doesn't mean "we" and "our universe" are not only a local state in an infinite manifold.


I think the main itch you got is that we cannot possibly know or understand what it shall mean to be a cause of the existence of the universe. Even if we take it to be true that the universe is not eternal, thinking and laws just break down as soon as we reach point zero and the terms "existence", "beginning", and "causation" do not make any sense any more. As this is frightening to many, a lot of persons do not accept this as truth but search for consolation in an alternative that does not exactly bear any more explanatory power but fills the gaps with our everyday experience (personal agency) and longings, ie. a benelovent theological entity with the promise of eternal life.

Taken this way, the kalam argument only makes sense in the context of faith: If I believe in an entity that is eternal and can cause whatever it wants, then existence, causation, etc. can bear a specific sense in the argument which allows us to accept the premises. If not, the argument runs into several problems. But this is not because of the reasons you presented in your question.

  • So the first three premises are the same as my formulation. I find them incoherent for the reasons in the question. How are you defining the terms in a way that makes the argument makes sense?
    – philosodad
    Jul 5 at 20:37
  • @philosodad Does my overhaul help you?
    – Philip Klöcking
    Jul 6 at 10:10
  • It does. However, I think you've misunderstood what I mean by "stuff has always been here". What I mean is that thermodynamics is, as far as we know, true, and the energy/matter contents of the Universe are constant. You can change them around, but you can't create them.
    – philosodad
    Jul 6 at 10:45
  • Also, as a side note, I consider premise 4 to be simply incorrect on its face (the universe can logically create itself, and this has been exhaustively demonstrated) so I'm not really worried about anything past 3.
    – philosodad
    Jul 6 at 10:49
  • 1
    My argument is essentially that the phrase "begins to exist" changes definitions between premise one and premise two, though. I'm not assuming anything, I'm saying that if you keep the definition constant, we must assume an eternal universe, and if you don't, the argument is invalid.
    – philosodad
    Jul 6 at 11:01

The SEP article on cosmological arguments goes over this one, among others, addressing your concerns at sec. 7.6:

Finally, something needs to be said about premise 3 and conclusion 5, which asserts that the cause of the universe is personal. Defenders of the cosmological argument suggest two possible kinds of explanation.[3] Natural explanation is provided in terms of precedent events, causal laws, or necessary conditions that invoke natural existents. Personal explanation is given “in terms of the intentional action of a rational agent” (Swinburne 2004: 21; also Gale and Pruss 1999). We have seen that one cannot provide a natural causal explanation for the initial event, for there are no precedent natural events or natural existents to which the laws of physics apply. The line of scientific explanation runs out at the initial singularity, and perhaps even before we arrive at the initial singularity (at (10^{-35}) seconds). If no scientific explanation (in terms of physical laws) can provide a causal account of the origin of the universe (premise 4), the explanation must be personal, that is, in terms of the intentional action of an intelligent, supernatural agent.

Morriston (2000: 163–68) questions whether Craig’s argument for the cause being personal goes through. Craig argues that if the cause were an eternal, nonpersonal, operating set of conditions, then the universe would exist from eternity. Below freezing temperatures will always freeze whatever water is present. Since the universe has not existed from eternity, the cause must be a personal agent who chooses freely to create an effect in time. However, notes Morriston, if the personal cause intended from eternity to create the world, and if the intention alone to create is causally sufficient to bring about the effect, then the universe would also exist from eternity, and there would be no reason to prefer a personal cause of the universe over a nonpersonal cause. For a timeless eternal being before creation, which is Craig’s view, “There can be no temporal gap between the time at which it does the willing and the time at which the thing willed actually happens” (2000, 167). So the distinction in this respect between a personal and a nonpersonal eternal cause disappears. Craig (2002) replies that it is not intention alone that must be present, but the personal agent must also employ or exercise its personal causal power to bring about the world. However, Morriston retorts, exercising personal causal power is an action in time, a view that is unavailable to Craig, for there is no time when God would restrain his causal powers.

Paul Davies argues that one need not appeal to God to account for the Big Bang. Its cause, he suggests, is found within the cosmic system itself. Originally a vacuum lacking space-time dimensions, the universe “found itself in an excited vacuum state”, a “ferment of quantum activity, teeming with virtual particles and full of complex interactions” (Davies 1984: 191–92), which, subject to a cosmic repulsive force, resulted in an immense increase in energy. Subsequent explosions from this collapsing vacuum released the energy in this vacuum, reinvigorating the cosmic inflation and setting the scenario for the subsequent expansion of the universe. However, what is the origin of this increase in energy that eventually made the Big Bang possible? Davies’s response is that the law of conservation of energy (that the total quantity of energy in the universe remains fixed despite transfer from one form to another), which now applies to our universe, did not apply to the initial expansion. Cosmic repulsion in the vacuum caused the energy to increase from zero to an enormous amount. This great explosion released energy, from which all matter emerged. Consequently, he contends, since the conclusion of the kalām argument is false, one of the premises of the argument—in all likelihood the first—is false.

Craig responds that if the vacuum has energy, the question arises concerning the origin of the vacuum and its energy. Merely pushing the question of the beginning of the universe back to some primordial quantum vacuum does not escape the question of what brought this vacuum laden with energy into existence. A quantum vacuum is not nothing (as in Newtonian physics) but

a sea of continually forming and dissolving particles that borrow energy from the vacuum for their brief existence. A quantum vacuum is thus far from nothing, and vacuum fluctuations do not constitute an exception to the principle that whatever beings to exist has a cause. (Craig, in Craig and Smith 1993: 143–44)

Hence, he concludes, the appeal to a vacuum as the initial state is misleading.

One might wonder, as Rundle (2004: 75–77) does, how a supernatural agent could bring about the universe. He contends that a personal agent (God) cannot be the cause because intentional agency needs a body and actions occur within space-time. However, acceptance of the cosmological argument does not depend on an explanation of the manner of causation by a necessary being. When we explain that the girl raised her hand because she wanted to ask a question, we can accept that she was the cause of the raised hand without understanding how her wanting to ask a question brought about her raising her hand. As Swinburne notes, an event is “fully explained when we have cited the agent, his intention that the event occur, and his basic powers” that include the ability to bring about events of that sort (2004: 36). Similarly, theists argue, we may never know why and how creation took place. Nevertheless, we may accept it as an explanation in the sense that we can say that God created that initial event, that he had the intention to do so, and that such an event lies within the power of an omniscient and almighty being; not having a body is irrelevant.

The issues raised by the kalām argument concern not only the nature of explanation and when an explanation is necessary, but even whether an explanation of the universe is possible (given the above discussion). Whereas all agree that it makes no sense to ask about what occurs before the Big Bang (since there was no prior time) or about something coming out of nothing, the dispute rests on whether there needs to be a cause of the first natural existent, whether something like the universe can be finite and yet not have a beginning, and crucially the nature of infinities and their connection with reality.

[Apologies if I missed some italics when I transferred the text. Also, not sure why but my browser didn't code the LaTeX inline even on the SEP site, like it usually does.]

  • I'm afraid I don't understand how this applies... as I said, I'm not a philosopher, but it seems like in order for the argument to work, it either implies that stuff created itself (which is logically, or at least mathematically, possible) or the whole thing boils down to "stuff couldn't have created itself", which isn't supported by the argument.
    – philosodad
    Jul 4 at 18:00
  • The generic sense of creation is "caused to exist." That which does not exist, does not cause anything; if something causes something else, it exists (as a cause). Earlier parts of the SEP article discuss whether infinite regressive causation is possible, or whether a finite but unbounded past works things out, here. But you asked what the reason is supposed to be, why "nonstuff" is the required cause of "stuff." This is the only explanation possible; I don't mean to defend the cosmological argument, but if this citation doesn't answer your question, what IS your question? Jul 4 at 18:11
  • It clearly isn't the only explanation possible (see citation), but that isn't the problem. The core problem is that what we mean by "cause to exist" or even "exist" changes between premise one and premise two. That's the question I'm asking: does this structural problem I'm seeing exist in the argument or does it not?
    – philosodad
    Jul 4 at 18:22
  • I should've been more precise about "only explanation": I meant "only" as in the disjunct is between personal and impersonal explanatory types, and those are the "only" disjuncts. Internally, either disjunct can be finessed (e.g. polytheism vs. monotheism, say, on the one hand, or infinitely-regressive vs. finitely-unbounded on the other). Jul 4 at 18:47
  • In any case, as I mentioned, that isn't the problem, the problem is one of basic coherence which I've tried to elaborate on in the question.
    – philosodad
    Jul 4 at 18:54

“My problem with that is that there is no known class "things that begin to exist ex-nihilo"”

That’s one problem. There are at least two others the Kalam hopes to solve.

One is saying the universe caused itself seems too circular, Ouroboros-like, or an assumption itself. So coming from something else, even nothing or God may seem like a better choice. The other is if didn’t cause itself and was always here, what other class of things never begins? It never began so had no cause external nor internal. But, do you really want to be committed to nothing truly begins? That’s just stuff changing into stuff. It is an assumption too to say strong emergence doesn’t exist. And maybe even wrong in light of examples (consciousness, evolution, technology, etc) that just reductionism or weak emergence are enough. And you’re still assuming stuff can just always exist.

So it leaves one problem and solves two in this respect.

  • I understand that it is asserted that the Kalam solves problems. My issue is that as far as I can tell, there is no coherent definition of terms within the Kalam that allows it to solve any problems... it is either trivial, incoherent, meaningless, or circular.
    – philosodad
    Jul 5 at 15:12
  • @philosodad It’s not clear to me why you think “stuff changes into stuff” isn’t also circular. It also seems equally as assumptive to saying nothing comes into being-that’s what stuff changes into stuff is saying. The kalam argument isn’t saying nothing comes into being. You can’t rephrase these things. To say stuff changes into stuff is one thing, and one assumption. To say things do come into being is another thing and is an assumption.
    – J Kusin
    Jul 5 at 15:23
  • I'm asking a question: how can terms be defined in this argument in such a way that it implies a non-stuff based cause of stuff without the argument becoming either incoherent, circular, or meaningless?
    – philosodad
    Jul 5 at 15:23
  • @philosodad I think it’s because you are rephrasing things. Start from the possibility, even if wrong: things just change or things can come into being. Assume that is a meaningful distinction. If you can understand that disjunction, the Kalam argument just gives some justification for taking the former path rather than the latter (yours). Is a step forward?
    – J Kusin
    Jul 5 at 15:27
  • By all means, please define the terms in such a way that the argument accomplishes its goal!
    – philosodad
    Jul 5 at 15:28

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .