Jared asked:

Hello my question is about the Kalam Cosmological Argument. I personally do agree with the premises and the conclusion, however a person on YouTube said that you cannot say that an infinite regress does not make sense but an infinite being does. So my question is what is the difference between an infinite regress and an infinite being, can you say they are both absurd?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

What is ‘infinite’? What does that word mean? Do you know?

It’s relatively easy to say what an ‘infinite series’ is in mathematics. The simplest infinite series is generated by the rule ‘plus one’ — the series of natural numbers. The series of natural numbers is the same ‘size’ (infinite) as the series of even numbers, even though you’d think there would be twice as many. That’s one of the interesting properties of the mathematical infinite.

To talk about ‘infinity’ or ‘infinities’ is to talk about rules. However, the real world, the world of material objects, has a different sort of existence from numbers or sets. The real world isn’t the product of a mathematical rule but the arena of cause and effect, and the sequence of events in time. I don’t know what it would mean to say that THAT was ‘infinite’, do you?

You can say, ‘For every time however long ago, there is an earlier time,’ or ‘For any object however far away, there is an object further away,’ but the question is what it means for those statements to be true. For example, if stars or galaxies go on ‘for ever’ then if half the stars or galaxies were snuffed out of existence there would still be just as many as there were before.

And that’s before we even get to the problem of the ‘infinite’ regress from effects to causes. Imagine a line of falling dominoes going back into the far distance. Just a moment ago, the cascade passed us by. The line of dominoes supposedly goes back for ever. In that case, how do you explain the timing if there was no first falling domino to start the cascade?

On the other hand, if the real world can’t be ‘infinite’ it must be finite — finite in size and finite in duration. It follows that there was a time when the world (we can drop the ‘real’) didn’t exist. Then there was a time when it did. Based on the only notion we have of cause and effect, that doesn’t make any sense either. The Big Bang banged but nothing caused ‘it’ to bang. First, there was nothing, then bang. How? Why?

There is a possible way around this. Say that the laws of physics, such as gravity, are ‘real’ regardless of whether a physical world actually exists or not. Starting with a timeless truth — the truth of the laws of physics — it is held to be logically possible for matter to come into being as a so-called ‘quantum event’. That’s not ‘something’ from ‘nothing’ because the laws of physics are not nothing.

By this point, you may have noticed that the ‘timeless truth of the laws of physics’ plays, or is alleged to play, exactly the same role as the ‘infinite being’ posited by the Kalam Cosmological Argument. Either would be sufficient to generate our spatio-temporal world.

However, there is one huge difference. The laws of physics may be true, but they can at most be contingently true. There is no logical contradiction in supposing that the laws of physics might have been different, in small or large ways. The infinite being, on the other hand, can only be what it is. It’s existence is necessary. It exists in all possible worlds, exactly the same. It is a ’cause of itself’.

From now on, let’s just call it the ‘necessary being’, so that we don’t have to use the questionable term ‘infinite’. An infinite regress and a necessary being might both be absurd as your YouTube commentator claimed, but if they are, it is for different reasons.

Kant argued in Critique of Pure Reason that you can only make sense of the idea of a necessary being — a being that is the cause of itself — if you appeal to the Ontological Argument. If there can be a being sufficiently ‘perfect’ that it is a cause of its own existence, then the existence of a such being is necessary. If such a ‘perfect being’ exists any possible world, then it must exist in all possible worlds.

Because there is a necessary being, our world came into being at some specific time in the past. That’s what the Kalam Cosmological Argument states. The alternative theory, the one that posits the truth of the laws of physics, can get away with asserting that there is a probability that matter will form at one specific time rather than another specific time. That’s an interesting difference. But it leads to a conundrum.

The conundrum was first proposed by the Presocratic philosopher Parmenides two and a half thousand years ago. Speaking of what ‘is’, he asks rhetorically:

“And what need could have impelled it to grow
Later or sooner, if it began from nothing?”

As scholars have noted, what is interesting about this particular argument, is that Parmenides throws it in as an extra point, which isn’t strictly required by his case for One unchanging reality. But the point is devastating to anyone who proposes a beginning for the world in time.

Here’s the alternative: Either we have a ‘necessary being’ or ‘truth of the laws of physics’. The first implies a conscious choice, a selection: the world should be thus-and-so, it should come into existence at such-and-such a time. The other implies an inexplicably contingent throw of the dice — the thing that so annoyed Einstein about the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. Either way, there is a problem.

A necessary being does everything for a reason, as Leibniz insisted (the ‘Principle of Sufficient Reason’). But in empty time, there can be no sufficient reason for the world to be created at time t1 rather than time t2. All empty times are the same, there’s nothing to choose between them. On the other hand, if you’re relying on a throw of the dice — an inexplicable quantum contingency — you might as well chuck in the towel and just say that the world just came into existence for no reason at all.

In the case where we are relying on the truth of the laws of physics, one could claim that ‘time as we know it’ only begins with the Big Bang. So the notion of time ‘passing’ while one waits for the Big Bang to bang is meaningless. A similar move occurs with St. Thomas Aquinas’ version of the Cosmological Argument, where the necessary being timelessly ‘creates’ the temporal world from an eternal standpoint outside the temporal series.

However, we are still left with an impossible choice between implacable necessity and inexplicable contingency.

If a necessary being caused the world to come into existence, then it caused me — indirectly, through a massively long chain of causes and effects — to write this answer today. This world is the best of all possible worlds, and all the better for having my answer than not having it, Leibniz would say. If, on the other hand, the world began with a quantum event, then the only way to explain away contingency is to posit that all possible worlds are equally real. But if that’s the line we’re taking, then the problem of how or why the world began disappears altogether.