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Dan Barker's Kalam Konfusion | True Freethinker

Note: This was written by a fellow co-author named Josh when we both posted to the Atheism is Dead blog:

If salvation is the cure, atheism is the prevention.

Dan Barker’s recent book Godless contains Barker’s personal perspective on the issues between atheism and Christianity. The entire book is not a personal account per se, as his deconversion story only assumes the first 80 pages or so. While I read the entire book in about an afternoon (it is fairly short and easy to read) there were a few sections I read and re-read; In fact, I was so surprised at some of the things he wrote that I had to write down the page number and return later.

Now, I’m going to try and be as fair as I can in this review. I’ve gone through a few iterations of this book review and decided that too much of this book is too subjective to critically examine (I sincerely hope that you read this book for yourself) in entirety, so I’m restricting myself to one chapter: Cosmological Kalamity.

Don’t get me wrong here. I am not saying that the rest of this book is unimportant or un-scholarly or otherwise below a person of my intelligence. Rather, I don’t feel equipped to handle his personal life-story in a critical manner (maybe no one is). Furthermore, this is the one chapter where Dan “dives in”. From the mouth of the horse:

While Refuting God [Part 1] gives simple, thumbnail responses to most theistic arguments, Cosmological Kalamity (which you are welcome to skim if philosophy is not your cup of tea) shows how I deal in depth with one of those arguments. (xiv)

He is obviously fairly pleased with the work he did in this chapter, and because my relative familiarity with the argument dwarfs that of my familiarity with the other topics in this book I thought I’d concentrate my fire a bit. I will point out a few oddities I stumbled across in this book, but I won’t follow the rabbit trails too far.

Begging the question, begging the question, begging the question…

I hope you like reading those words because they officially represent Dan’s most favorite logical fallacy. In his chapter criticizing the Kalam Cosmological Argument he either says or hints at “begging the question” nearly a dozen times. Apparently, he thinks it begs the question. How so? Let’s look at the argument:

1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.2) The universe began to exist.

.: The universe has a cause.

Straight away Dan takes issue with the first premise. His claim is that we theists are hiding God by constructing a principle that would shield God from certain kinds of causal scrutiny. This is one of the oddest paragraphs I confronted in the book:

One approach has been to claim that only effects need a cause. Since a first cause is not an effect, it is exempt from causation. Another attempt conceives of a contingent cause of the universe, resting at the top of a pyramid of relationships rather than at the beginning of a chain of temporal events. But this a priori tactic of exempting the conclusion (a creator) from the causality required of everything else- with no evidence that any special “causeless” or “noncontingent” objects actually exist- makes the creator a part of the definition of the premise, which is circular reasoning. These versions fail to get God off the hook. (130)

Something ought to sound fishy to you. It isn’t his failure to recognize that a first cause is not exempt from causation (no law of causation I’m aware of says that absolutely everything must have a cause). Notice that in his desire to force the argument into a question-beggar, he has, in effect, declared that all deductive arguments are circular (and, with his last sentence, he implies that these circular arguments are useless/false). Of course, any good deductive argument will contain a bit of the conclusion in each premise. What is appalling is the fact that any first-year student of logic would be able to catch that. Further, he himself begs the question in this paragraph; he tries to use the “fact” that we have no evidence of any “causeless” or “noncontingent” against an argument that purports to show that there is at least one of these objects.

Putting all that bluster aside for a moment, let’s suppose that he is on target. Many theists AND non-theists believe that there are uncaused things that exist- numbers, propositions, forms, morality, etc. So saying that there are uncaused things does not smuggle God in anywhere, and his charge falls flat.

He claims that reality must be divided into two different sets- things that begin to exist and things that don’t. If God is the only thing in the set of objects that does not begin to exist, he says, then “things that don’t begin to exist” is merely a synonym for God. Further, this would mean that God is placed into the premise of an argument which would logically entail that we are begging the question (!). By now you are catching on to this begging the question deal, but this is really strange. Of course, there are a very large (an infinite number) of things that potentially never began to exist, so even granting his weird metaphysics one could satisfy his criteria.

He does return to this, though, and claims that there is nothing in our universe that we know of that could escape time (he claims, again, that allowing talk of “outside of time” amounts to begging the question). I assume that he means that to be in time is to have begun to exist. This is false, but we can let it go for now. He does think that causation is entirely contained within the universe such that any attempt to justify talk of God’s causing the universe to exist from observation is not allowed (I think). Here it seems plain that he just is not familiar with the literature surrounding the issues. There are many things that we can draw conclusions about that would “transcend” our universe (see here, for example). In fact, supposing he is right, he has adopted a principle (that what we learn inside the universe cannot be applicable outside of it) and defeated his own position. Does his principle apply to our universe? How does he know? Why can’t we apply the principles of causation to our universe in the same way?

He finally begins to move into the actual argument and claims that “experience within the universe shows us that many impersonal causes “create” many natural effects.” (134)

I don’t think this is true. We have never, to my knowledge, witnessed the creation of anything, but rather the rearranging of matter. This would be especially true if one is a non-dualist like Dan, in all probability, is.

He claims that Craig proves that a personal force was the cause of the universe because a cause has to be at least as complex as its cause. I’m going to say that this is patently false. I’ve never seen Craig say this before and I believe that he made it up. Unfortunately he does not tell us where he got this information, but I suspect it is not from any of his works. In light of his misrepresentation of Craig in the next section we’ll look at, it is perfectly plausible that he is getting his information of Craig 2nd hand (from the likes of Michael Martin, perhaps).

If an actual infinity cannot be a part of reality, then God, is he is actually infinite, cannot exist. (135)

No. Theists do not say that God is an actual infinite. An actual infinite is numerically infinite, whereas God’s infinity is qualitative. This is why we distinguish between potential infinites, actual infinites and absolute infinites. In no way does Craig suggest that we speak of God as an actual infinite; in fact, he goes out of his way to defend himself from such allegations.

Is the Kalam Cosmological Argument Wordplay?

According to Barker, the second premise of the KCA- The universe began to exist- says that a supernatural assumption has been made in the premise. In fact, he compares the argument with this:

1. All apples that fall from trees become bruised.2. This orange fell from a tree.

3. Therefore, this orange is bruised. (140)

Apparently, his point is that a set cannot be a member of itself. Of course, Dan’s problem here is that we don’t treat the universe as if it is the set of all things. Even if something like materialism is true, it is possible that there are other members of this set (propositions, numbers, assorted abstracta). What he is trying to say, apparently, is that the universe is not able to be categorized in causal language as all the members of the universe are able to. But that would be a burden that he would have to carry; everything we know and understand is subject to causal laws. Why the “universe” should be any different is not readily apparent, and we must view this claim of his with suspicion. If it isn’t for scientific or philosophical reasons, then his denial of causality seems to stem from his unwillingness to grant a perfectly plausible principle which carried theistic implications. Indeed, Barker does not touch a single one of Craig’s arguments for either premise. He literally ignores them.

Rather, he opts for begging the question (this time he is doing the begging):

What does “everything” mean? Standing alone, it is synonymous with the universe (or cosmos). But in the cosmological argument, “everything” does not refer to “all things that exist” because it is followed by the limiting cause “that begins to exist”. (141-142)

It seems to me that he is saying that the KCA fails because the universe is everything and God is not a part of the universe. He does not allow, because of his own “wordplay”, that there could be something that did not begin to exist. And he proves this by defining the universe as “everything”.

Let me be very clear about this- the laws of causation were not invented by the KCA, or William Lane Craig or Paul the Apostle. The first premise, “whatever begins to exist has a cause” is as philosophically and empirically sound as any principle could hope to be. Even if I didn’t believe in God I would believe this principle. In fact, if Dan does not believe this principle is true (and I don’t think he does) then I would be very interested in seeing his reason(s) for objecting to it.

You see this same kind of thing all over in the book. It would be interesting for someone with a lot of time to go through the text and count all the times he says “begs the question” and compare it to all the times he himself begs the question. Here, for example:

Words like “spirit” and “supernatural” have no referent in reality, so why discuss a meaningless concept? (104)

While this old logical-positivist sentence might have flown a half-century ago, there is a near universal consensus that much of what philosophers of religion do is quite meaningful, and it is not up to Dan to partition topics into these categories (especially as a way to “refute” God).

Lastly, Dan leaves us with three questions. Let’s have at them:

1. Is God the only object accommodated by the set of things that do not begin to exist? If yes, then why is the cosmological argument not begging the question? If no, then what are the other candidates for the cause of the universe and how have they been eliminated? (143)

Firstly, I don’t think it is proper to ask why something does not beg the question. Secondly, the entire list of abstract objects did not begin to exist (in my view). But there is a consensus that abstract entities do not cause anything. Easy enough.

2. Does the logic of Kalam apply only to temporal antecedents in the real world? If yes, this assumes the existence of nontemporal antecedents in the real world, so why is this not begging the question? If no, then why doesn’t the impossibility of an actual infinity disprove the existence of an actually infinite God? (143)

Well, the logic of the KCA applies exactly to what it’s premises say it does. You can tailor the argument (see here) to fit both a temporal timeline or a timeless series of events. However, Dan’s question is severely misguided because, as we saw before, not a single theist believes that God is a quantitative collection of things. And even if God was a collection of an infinite number of things, one could further say that God infinity wasn’t formed by successive addition as a temporal timeline would.

3. Is the universe (cosmos) a member of itself? If not, then how can its “beginning” be compared with other beginnings?

I think it is better to skip over his confused understanding of set theory for a moment and focus on premise one of the argument. Either he is propounding a mysterious view of causation that I am unaware of, or he flat-out denies that events require causes. If the latter is true, then it would have been nice to see him interact with some of the literature defending causality. Craig’s own work has popularized a lot of arcane philosophy (see here) and it certainly wouldn’t be hard to find resources and tell us what his problems with the first premise are. As it stands, I don’t know how to answer this question because I don’t know what he is asking. Does he want to know what evidence there is for events having causes? Does he want to know if there have been other beginnings to other universes that we can compare ours to?

In any case, I feel very confident that if this is the best he can do against theism, I’m not to worried about the Barker salvo. He’s a one-trick pony, and his rather unusual responses to an argument that has been carefully crafted and defended over the past few decades will not replace study and substance. Are there difficulties for the KCA? Sure. There are things about Christianity and God-belief that have kept me up at night. But I’m willing to engage the best and brightest on either side to understand the issues as best I can. Unfortunately, that leaves little room for this book.

Let this one go, folks.