A Swift Response to Dan Barker's "Cosmological Kalamity"

Shandon L. Guthrie

Recently in the year 2000, popular theist-turned-atheist Dan Barker published a response to the Kalam Cosmological Argument entitled "Cosmological Kalamity". Since that publication, I have received several queries about it. I have decided to publish my set response to that article that I submitted to my questioners. In my response, I highlight five main errors Barker (and others) commit in a critique of this special version of the cosmological argument.

As far as Barker's critique of kalam, he makes five primary mistakes (let the secondary ones fall where they may):

(i) He is ignorant of the metaphysical claim "everything that begins to exist has a cause" used outside of theistic philosophy.  This claim is much older than David Hume who went to great lengths to defeat it (but to no avail).  Immanuel Kant (18th century) believed that this claim was a synthetic a priori truth and that it was unquestionable.  Barker's limited understanding of these sorts of claims is just made more evident.

(ii) Barker wants the same premise (premise 1) to wrongly imply "everything except God begins to exist" which is a straw man of the premise.  Here's how it is twisted.  The original premise is only about everything that begins to exist and that's all.  The revised premise a la Barker is not just about everything that begins to exist but about God's eternality, too!  So, it is only the poorly reconstructed argument that assumes what it ultimately tries to prove (actually, the initial kalam argument does not immediately prove God per se but that the universe has a cause!).  The original premise concentrates simply on a subset of all things, namely those things that begin to exist.  Nothing else is to be presumed in the first premise. Worse, the revised conclusion "Therefore, the universe is not God" is also a howling straw man since the argument is completely remade.

(iii) Barker resurrects the old challenge that the conclusion could just as equally apply to impersonal causes as God.  Those who have read presentations of kalam in their entirety know that this issue has been discussed and debunked.  Eternal impersonal causes would necessarily yield eternal effects.  Since the universe is a temporal effect, then the cause cannot be impersonal.  The idea about God possibly evolving from initial sources is just a red herring and a category mistake.

(iv) Despite controversies surrounding God and time, Barker commits another fundamental mistake about an "actual infinite."  In the context of the kalam, one of the subarguments to the second premise is that there are no actual infinites.  And Barker complains that God is supposed to be an actual infinite, So isn't the kalam self-refuting?  When proponents talk about an actual infinite, we mean "an infinite number of discrete segments."  The infinity of God is to be understood in terms of an undifferentiated infinite entity.

(v) Barker's analogy is simply false.  He argues that the kalam is comparing "apples and oranges."  But the original premise 1 mentions "everything" and the original second premise discusses "the universe" in particular --  presumably a thing of some sort.  In order for the analogy to be similar, it would have to say something like:

    (1*) Every fruit that falls from the tree becomes bruised.
    (2) The orange fell from the tree.
    (3) Therefore, the orange is bruised.

Far from being an apples-and-oranges comparison, the everything-and-universe comparison is about a set one of its subsets.  I'm actually embarrassed for atheists if Barker thinks he's on to something!  Moreover, his second illustration (ripped from the pages of David Hume) is that there is a difference between every member of the object and the totality of those objects (think of Barker's "nations" example).  Again, this is not the usage of the argument.  The original kalam is not reifying something like "every human being has parents; therefore, the human race has parents."  Instead, "everything" is a designation of "all things" and not something like "the Alliance of All Things" like a company or a parent organization.  Instead, it literally means "ever single thing."  And the universe is singled out as either a distinct thing or a set of all physical things (Barker means the latter) -- a desparate attempt at finding a fallacy of composition.  Since the issue is about finitude, then any aggregate of finite parts entails that the totality is also finite.  If I have stamps I've collected that began in 1985, it makes no sense to say that my stamp collection did not begin to exist (where "collection" is used in the manner Barker employs it). It is true that the whole is not always equal to the sum of its parts, but it does not follow that the whole does not share any characteristics with its parts.  For example, if each part of any given set of objects are material, then the totality of the set must also be material.  If Barker's
right, we could equally complain that the universe does not have materiality simply because it might violate the whole-is-not-equal-to-its-parts rule. Dr. Michael Labossiere writes:

"It is important to note that drawing an inference about the
characteristics of a class based on the characteristics of its individual
members is not always fallacious. In some cases, sufficient justification
can be provided to warrant the conclusion. For example, it is true that an
individual rich person has more wealth than an individual poor person. In
some nations (such as the US) it is true that the class of wealthy people
has more wealth as a whole than does the class of poor people. In this case,
the evidence used would warrant the inference and the fallacy of Composition
would not be committed . . . It must be noted that reasoning from the
properties of the parts to the properties of the whole is not always
fallacious. If there is justification for the inference from parts to whole,
then the reasoning is not fallacious."

Even atheistic sites on critical thinking admit this (e.g., see http://seercom.com/bcs/resources/criticalthinking/hcf.compfal.html).  What Barker has to show is that the analogy is not like the argument "every part of the human body is made of matter; therefore, the human body is made of matter," or, minimally, he would have to provide a counterexample to a finite universe.  But, again, all of this presumes Barker's assertion that "universe" can't simply mean "every single spatio-physical object." Further, it would mean that a novel revision of the first premise would be required; something like "every set of a physical aggregate of things has a cause" could replace it.  And this premise would still be true and would accommodate the hair-splitting advanced by Barker.  You see, finitude is still a feature of "universe" regardless of how it is understood.  But this only means that Barker's presentation is uncharitable, not that the argument is fallacious.  Finally, I believe that the universe can be seen to be an "object" in the strictest sense because the universe actually has spatio-temporal boundary points much UNlike aggregates like "stamp collection" and "human race."  So, the criticism becomes moot after all.

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Copyright © 2004 Shandon L. Guthrie