Is the Kalam Cosmological Argument Persuasive? (Hot Seat, Part 2)

hot seat, persuasive, argument

An atheist (or maybe agnostic?) posed this question to me in the video below. Honestly, I do find the Kalam argument (KCA) powerful, but of course I first encountered it from the perspective of a believer. My response in the video includes more detail. If you aren’t familiar with the KCA, here is a version of it:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a transcendent cause of its existence.
  2. The universe began to exist at some point in the finite past.
  3. So, the universe has a transcendent cause of its existence.

The video is about 8.5 minutes and features me answering questions at a meeting of atheists and skeptics at the University of Missouri.

Persuasiveness Is Relative?

Here’s a point worth making, I think: the persuasiveness of an argument is relative to the individual. Each of us holds a collection of beliefs and desires inside us. How a new idea appears to us will depend, in large part, on the make-up of that collection. None of us can have exactly the same collection, and thus new ideas appear differently to each of us.

horse, dogFor example, I remember when my daughter Phoebe saw a horse for the first time. At that point, she only had categories for ‘cat’ and ‘dog.’ So, she pointed to the horse and said, “Doggy!” It wasn’t that she needed glasses–she was perceiving the horse according to the collection of beliefs and desires she possessed. In a much more complex way, we perceive and evaluate new ideas according to our collection. Another example: if I approached first a stranger and then my wife with photos of me dunking a basketball, the stranger might respond very differently than my wife. Based on what she knows, she might laugh harder than the stranger.

Be Kind

slow, patienceI appreciate the saying: “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I propose an epistemic corollary: “Be kind, because everyone you meet is working with a different set of evidence.” This principle encourages me not to get upset with those who disagree with me. Even those who just “can’t see reason,” deserve my patience and charity, since I generally don’t know where they’re coming from. Moreover, when I am slow to understand or accept an argument, I give grace to myself as well.

Here’s a takeaway: don’t be frustrated when others don’t see things the way you do. 

The person you speak with may be believing as well as he or she can, given the information, background, and psychology they have.

But Is It Persuasive?

Ultimately, you’ll have to answer that question for yourself. But I do think that some arguments are better than others, and probably should be persuasive to most reasonable, well-informed people. The KCA falls into that category. That doesn’t mean that a reasonable atheist will immediately become a theist. But it should make the idea of God’s existence a little more plausible.

big bang, evidence, persuasive, KalamThe biggest reason I hear for outright rejection of the KCA is a commitment to Stephen Hawking’s cosmology, or perhaps a denial of Big Bang cosmology. If Hawking is right, then perhaps the universe does not need a transcendent cause. And if the Big Bang model proves incorrect, then maybe the universe had no beginning. Unfortunately, I admit I’m in no position to evaluate these claims scientifically. I’ll let the experts duke it out. But regardless of the science, which changes from decade to decade, there are excellent philosophical reasons to accept both premises of the KCA. Given that, and the expert testimony I am familiar with, I find the KCA powerful.

(For an in-depth discussion of Hawking’s cosmology, listen to my podcast with Dr. Kenny Boyce. For more serious discussion of the KCA, I recommend William Lane Craig’s website, Reasonable Faith. Dr. Craig does an excellent job of responding to critics of the KCA. Here, for example, and here.)

The Special Significance of Testimony in Christianity

doubting thomas, evidence, belief, testimonyImagine the scene: you’re standing around at party with your friends, and out of nowhere, Jesus appears! And this isn’t the first time, either. But Tom missed all the parties where Jesus showed up, and he thinks you’re all having alcohol-induced hallucinations. This time, however, Tom sees Jesus himself. He reaches out and touches him to be sure. Then Jesus says, “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” (Cf. John 20:29)

People puzzle over this strange statement. Critics quickly take it to mean that Christian faith means believing without evidence. Even some Christians interpret Jesus as saying that people should “just believe” and stop asking questions. Take the proverbial “leap of faith,” even if it makes no sense whatsoever. They pair Jesus’ words with Paul’s frequently abused assertion, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” Is this “blind faith?” Is that what Jesus and Paul meant? (1) If so, this strikes a blow against the view that Christianity is a rational worldview! Thankfully, we can make sense of these statements in a way that doesn’t require abandoning coherence. 

Seeing vs. Evidence

kermit, testimony, evidenceThe main mistake we make here is in thinking that “seeing” and “evidence” are the same thing. But evidence comes to us in several forms, only one of which is sight. Epistemologists, who study how beliefs relate to evidence (among other things), agree that there are five primary sources of belief and justification (this includes evidence): perception, testimony, inference, memory, and introspection.(2) For our purposes, we can roughly equate sight with perception–that is, gathering data through the five senses. So, what Jesus and Paul might be saying is this, “It is better not to limit your yourself to the evidence of (physical) perception,” or even, “You should prioritize non-perceptual sources of evidence.” If I’m right, this supports the coherence of Christianity as a rational worldview. 

One question we might ask in testing this hypothesis is, “Why would Christianity favor the other four sources (esp. testimony) over perception? I mean, isn’t perception the best and most reliable way to gather information and evidence?” Well, let me offer two reasons in favor of this favoritism, and one response to the claim that perception is the best of the five sources.

Is (Physical) Perception the Best Source of Evidence?

forensic evidence, testimonyIn some contexts, I think we would say “yes.” Physical or forensic evidence can be more reliable in a murder case, for example, than testimonial evidence. (I’m no legal scholar, but this seems a safe assumption.) But what about outside the courtroom, in everyday life? Is there any reason to favor the evidence of my five senses over the evidence of testimony, inference, etc.? All five sources are vulnerable to error, and no single source can be set as judge above the rest. They must work in cooperation.

Why can’t I endorse one source as preeminent? The minute I try to set one source above the others, I run into problems. First, by what process did I determine that my preferred source is more reliable than the others? Whatever process I employ, it must, by necessity, involve the use of inference (one of my sources). And if it is inference (reason) that I set up as judge, then who evaluates the process I used to decide that? Reason? Ha! Circularity ensues. If some other source, then inference is no longer King. They must all be taken as a team, serving as checks and balances.

Why Would Christianity Favor the Other Four Sources?

So why would someone be “blessed” by relying on non-perceptual sources of evidence? Simply put, the fundamental beliefs of Christianity traffic in non-physical or abstract entities. Perception just isn’t very helpful in coming to know about such things. And this isn’t just true in religion. It’s true in mathematics, philosophy, ethics, cosmology, human value, and other areas. 

trinity, testimony, evidenceConsider some of Christianity’s most basic claims. God exists, God is a trinity, Jesus is God-incarnate, there is life after death, there are objective moral values and duties. Physical perception won’t (directly) tell you any of these things. So it’s no wonder that St. Paul, in the context of discussing life after death (“walk by faith” 2 Cor. 5:7), says that we can’t rely on our five senses to provide evidence of such things. This doesn’t mean that physical perception doesn’t play a role in faith–it can. Hundreds of people confirmed the physical resurrection of Jesus by empirical observation: sight, touch, sound, maybe even smell! Nature itself indirectly points to God’s invisible attributes. But non-perceptual sources, especially testimony, open to door to so much more. 

Blessed Testimony

family, relational, testimony, loveThe Christian faith favors testimony as a mean of transmitting belief and knowledge because, unlike other sources, testimony usually requires human interaction and is thus a relational means of knowledge transmission. The Christian God seeks to create a community of believers, not merely a mass of isolated individuals. By working through human relationships and conversation, God can establish bonds of trust and love between people, forming the basis of community. People can and do come to believe without relationships, but those who already have a connection to another person in the church will experience the benefits of belonging to a community of love. By analogy, imagine if babies just appeared in the world via magic, rather than through human reproduction! The sense of belonging and obligation created through reproduction in the human family provides far superior conditions for new humans. “Spiritual reproduction” via testimony also creates more “blessed” conditions for new believers. (Testimony also confers benefits on the messengers, but I’ll save that for another time.)

Back to Thomas

So I hope I’ve made some sense of Jesus’ words to Thomas here. By opening ourselves to other sources of knowledge, we increase the potential for a deeper experience of God and human community. We can experience the comprehensive revelation of God: written word, philosophical argument, inner awareness of moral conviction, indirect evidence through nature, etc. Testimonial conversations usher us into the Kingdom both spiritually and communally. Jesus’ words (“blessed are they . . .”) speak to all those who ponder the truth of Christianity, but who simply don’t have the benefit of Thomas’ proximity to the physical Jesus. Even Thomas might have been more “blessed” had he believed based on the testimony of his friends.


(1) For a careful look at the biblical context, see this excellent blog post.

(2) For more, see Robert Audi’s Epistemology: A Contemporary Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, Routledge, 2000.

Is There Scientific Evidence for God?

evidence, scientific evidence for God, science

I thought this would be a nice follow up on my recent podcast, where Dr. Kenny Boyce and I discuss this very same question about scientific evidence for theism. This video captures a message I gave at First Baptist Church of Holton, KS two years ago. In the talk, I aim mostly to encourage and equip Christians, but there are certainly great principles of persuasion applicable to anyone! Some will detect the influence of William Lane Craig on my presentation. I studied with Dr. Craig at Talbot School of Theology and he continues to be an intellectual and spiritual role model. Feedback is welcome. Do you think these arguments constitute scientific evidence for God? Why or why not? If not, what is your definition of ‘evidence?’

Feelings, Beliefs, and Evidence

In the iconic scene, Darth Vader tells Luke that his feelings will lead him to the truth. Is this true? My feelings aren’t helping here.

If you rely on feelings to tell you what is true, are your beliefs less stable? Are they less likely to be true? (This is a post about a post about a post about a podcast about beliefs and evidence. I’ll thank the relevant people as I go.)

Experience v. Evidence

In a recent Unbelievable podcast, hosted by Justin Brierley, this question jumps onto the table. Brierley interviews two sons-of-famous-Christian-fathers, Bart Campolo and Sean McDowell. Both grew up in the shadow of their father’s world-wide influence, charismatic speaking, and prolific publishing. Both followed their father’s trail into Christian ministry, but their paths diverge at that point. Somewhere along the way, Bart Campolo lost his belief in God, while Sean’s faith became even stronger. What made the difference?

house built on rock, faith, evidenceSome hay has been made on the blogosphere about this. I found out about the story from Jeremy Smith at Faith Ascent , and he read about it on Alisa Childers excellent blog. So thanks to both of them! The narrative being suggested is roughly this: one man built his faith on the sand of experience (feelings), and the other on the solid rock of evidence, so to speak. The former’s crumbled in the storm, and the latter’s held firm.

More To the Story

This narrative may capture one aspect of the stories involved, but surely we can (and should) say more. I’ll share two thoughts. The first is this: “feelings” or “experience” aren’t opposed to evidence, they are evidence. More precisely, I take them to be a kind of evidence, much in the way that chicken is a kind of poultry. I outline several kinds of evidence in this post (see #15-19).

investment, diversify, evidenceThis means that Campolo’s shift from theism to humanism may not be due to a simple lack of evidence. Instead, I think it may have been due to a lack of diversity in his evidence. Investors always advise their clients to “diversify.” I.e., they should invest in many companies so that if one company tanks, they will still have a stable portfolio. It’s the “don’t carry all your eggs in one basket” maxim. My hunch is that McDowell possessed a wider variety of evidence, including experience, philosophical arguments, testimony of reliable sources, and historical evidence. It’s certainly possible that Campolo had plentiful amounts (comparable to McDowell’s) of all these types as well, but I’m guessing this wasn’t the case.

Here’s the second thought: whether or not Campolo enjoyed a copious and variable evidence base, there is another factor that hasn’t been highlighted. Campolo experienced a decades-long struggle with the problem of evil. This experience holds significant evidential power, and can tip the scales against just about any collection of pro-theism evidence, perhaps with a few exceptions. Campolo mentions in the podcast that while ministering in the inner city, he saw horrible things happening to people, including children. He prayed and prayed, with no noticeable results. I can understand how his faith eroded over time in such a milieu. And I don’t know that McDowell ever experienced a “storm” of comparable magnitude. So, that’s a difference that should factor into the explanation.

Conclusion

storm, evidenceIn sum, stories are complex. Everyone’s evidence base is different, necessarily. Different evidence supports different beliefs. Still, I think the contrast between Campolo and McDowell illustrates the importance of a diversified evidential portfolio, if you’re wanting a stable belief set.

Burden of Proof

genes, microbes, evidence, burden of proofMatt, a PhD student, studies how microbes influence the immune system. Matt is also an atheist, and since he’s exceptionally smart, I thought it would be interesting to interview him about his beliefs. I wondered about the “whys” behind his atheism. During our conversation, the concept of the “burden of proof” came up. Matt believes that in the dispute over God’s existence, it is the theist who bears the burden of proof. In other words, atheism is the simpler, more natural position, and the theist has a lot of extra work to do in defending claims about gods. After all, “extraordinary” claims about supernatural entities and miracles should require extraordinary evidence.

Is this right? I pushed back a little on this claim in my interview with Matt, but I needed more time to think and research a bit. So, now after further reflection, I’m blogging my thoughts on the subject. I want to challenge, maybe even “debunk” this assumption that theists bear a burden of proof. I think that even if there is a burden of proof, theists have already satisfied it. But, in matters like theism/atheism, I don’t think there is any such thing as a burden of proof to begin with. This means that theists and atheists stand on equal footing, and both viewpoints must offer reasons to support their position.

Setting the Table

setting table, burden of proofNow, if you’re an atheist, don’t flip out here. I’m not trying to “shift the burden of proof,” as they say. We all want our beliefs to be rational, and we all want the same standards of rationality to apply to everyone—that’s fairness. So, to set the table for this discussion, bear with me for two quick bits of epistemic silverware:

  1. A proposition is a claim about reality, expressed by a declarative sentence.
  2. There are three (doxastic) attitudes one can take in considering a proposition: belief, withholding (undecided), and disbelief.

Here are some examples of propositions and my attitude toward each:

PROPOSITION MY (DOXASTIC) ATTITUDE
The earth has two moons. Disbelief
The universe contains an even number of stars. Withhold
All triangles have three sides. Belief

children, teacher, burden of proof, beliefsFor any given proposition that you’ve thought about, you “take” one of these three attitudes, sometimes without even realizing it. If someone asks you why you take that position, you ought to be able to say something in response if you want to be considered rational. Even if everyone in the world holds the same attitude as you, you still ought to be able to offer some reason (unless, perhaps, the belief is “basic”—see below). I think we can all agree that saying, “Well, that’s what everyone believes,” or “that’s what my teacher told me,” is no good unless you can explain why those are reliable sources of knowledge on the matter. Easy answers like those are fine for children, but once you begin an adult inquiry about the rationality of your belief, they will no longer do.

So let’s agree to endorse this principle of epistemic fairness:

Whatever attitude you take toward a proposition, you ought to have some good reasons for taking that attitude.

(Exception: some beliefs may be “basic,” which is to say that they are special in not needing the support of reasons to be rational, such as my belief that I exist. I may have reasons for this belief, but even if I didn’t, I’d be rational in believing that I exist.) This isn’t a trick, or some kind of apologetic sleight-of-hand. And I’m going to set aside the possibility that belief in God is basic, just for argument’s sake.

Applying the Principle

reasons, atheist, burden of proofSo, according to our principle, theists ought to have some good reasons for their belief in God, right? Fair enough. What about atheists? Do they need some good reasons for their atheism? Some argue that atheism is not a “belief,” but merely the “lack of belief” in gods. Well, that could be true, but atheists do take some attitude on the proposition “God exists.” They disbelieve it. So, in all epistemic fairness, they should possess some reasons for their position. This means that theists, atheists, and “agnostics” (those who withhold–neither believe nor disbelieve*) are all on even epistemic ground.

In my next post, I’ll address several questions and objections.

  • Is “not enough evidence” a good reason for disbelief?
  • Is atheism the “default” position?
  • Should we consider theism an “extraordinary” claim?
  • Is atheism simply “lack of belief” in gods?

*I know this use of the term ‘agnostic’ is controversial. But this is inconsequential.

Evidence Is Relative

legos, evidenceI love Legos. My wife says I only wanted kids so that I could buy Legos “for the kids” and play with them. That’s false, of course. I also wanted to buy video games. But Legos were truly my favorite childhood toy.  Nowadays, one fun game I play with the kids is when we each grab a handful of Legos from the box and see what we can build. We may end up with some of the same pieces–a 2×4 brick, a 6×10 plate–but our “sets” will be unique. Thus, our creations turn out unique. There’s an interesting parallel when it comes to forming beliefs. Evidence, and the conclusions we build from them, resemble Lego creations.

Evidence is Relative

In a previous post, I mentioned 5 sources of evidence. 3 based on experience: perception, testimony, and introspection. And two that aren’t (directly) based on experience: memory and inference. These 5 kinds of evidence provide the stranger things, evidence“building blocks” of belief. Testimony is when you get second-hand information from another person, like when your insensitive friend blurts out a spoiler about a Stranger Things episode you have yet to watch. Perception is first-hand experience of the world, physical or otherwise. Memories are just mental records of past experiences. Introspection is when you notice things going on in your own mind, like when you find yourself longing for chocolate donuts. Inference is when you put “2 and 2 together.” You see the torn up pillow, you see the fuzz in your dog’s mouth, and you infer that your dog ate your pillow.

The building blocks we have in our set differ for obvious reasons. I’m looking at the glass of juice on my desk, and you aren’t. You remember what you ate for dinner last night, and I don’t. The ones that differ most among people are the experiential ones. Our experiences are unique and hard to share. 

  • apple, evidenceseeing a green tree in my yard
  • tasting an apple at the cafeteria
  • feeling depressed
  • “seeing” something as morally wrong
  • sensing God’s presence on a mountain top
  • feeling a pain in my knee

I can tell you about my experience of the apple (testimony), but it’s impossible for me to exactly duplicate the experience in your mind. Especially if you’ve never tasted an apple yourself! But it’s no argument against the reality of color that I may struggle unsuccessfully to explain color vision to someone with only black-and-white vision.

Evidence and Religious Experience

religious experience, prayer, evidenceThis means that you and I necessarily possess different sets of total evidence, and thus the conclusions we draw and are justified in making will also be different. I’ve spoken to more than one skeptic who says, “Well, I can see why you believe in God, but I’ve never had an experience like that.” Exactly. And I don’t (epistemically) blame the skeptic who lacks some vital bit of evidence that would enable her to finally form a belief in God. My testimony should count somewhat, but it doesn’t come close to the weight of first-hand experience.

Sometimes you and I possess the same sub-set of evidence on some subject, and  so we ought to arrive at roughly the same conclusions, unless the evidence is ambiguous. If we both watched season two of Stranger Things, [MILD SPOILER ALERT] then we ought to both believe that “Steve” is still alive. Some disputes about evidence are purely public (and thus easy), but many aren’t, like religious belief. There is public evidence for religious belief, but private experience often constitutes a critical building block in the support system.

Bogus or Question-Begging?

Elvis, evidenceSome may object, “But religious experiences are bogus! So they can’t count as good evidence for belief in God.” There is a potential problem with this objection. Suppose we argued about whether Elvis is still alive. I believe he is, but you ask me for my evidence. I say, “I saw him yesterday.” You may doubt my seeing-claim for a host of reasons, but it would be rotten logic to reply, “Well, that isn’t good evidence because Elvis is dead!” That’s begging the question in philosophical parlance. Similarly, if Peter believes in God, and part of his evidence is that he’s had an experience of God, it won’t do to say, “Well, that doesn’t count, because there is no God!” You would have to offer other reasons (“defeaters“) to doubt the veracity of his experience, without assuming God’s non-existence. I.e., something like “even if God exists, you should doubt the veracity of your experience because you were tripping on acid at the time,” or “because you were having an epileptic seizure,” or something like that. Alternatively, you could offer arguments against God’s existence, such as the problem of evil, but simple denial of God’s existence won’t do. So, in the absence of a good “defeater,” experiences are rightly taken to be legit and a healthy part of a complete set of evidence.

The Upshot

lego sets, evidenceThe upshot of all this is simple: don’t be surprised or upset when a friend who is, by all accounts, reasonable and intelligent, just doesn’t see things your way. The disagreement doesn’t mean one or both of you wrenched yourselves off the rails of logic. It probably means you’re working with different sets of evidence (like Lego sets), and some of it may be incommunicable. Evidence is relative. Your set may logically support one conclusion, and theirs another. This doesn’t mean you both believe something true, of course, it only means that you may rationally disagree.