Possible Straw Man in Kalam Rhetoric

1 Every­thing that begins to exist has a cause.

Craig says that “…if things really could come into being uncaused out of noth­ing, then it becomes inex­plic­a­ble why just any­thing or every­thing does not come into exis­tence uncaused from noth­ing. Why do bicy­cles and Beethoven and root beer not pop into being from noth­ing?” (p. 186, Craig & More­land, 2009).

But is it really all of that to deny that every­thing that begins to exist has a cause? Per­haps an objec­tor could hold that nearly every­thing that begins to exist has a cause. Per­haps there is exactly one thing that began to exist, but with­out cause. Per­haps the uni­verse as a whole is the counterexample.

Let me try to put this more for­mally. To deny (1) is to assert ~(1), or:

(It is not the case that) (every­thing that begins to exist has a cause.)

Which is equiv­a­lent to affirm­ing that there is at least one thing that began to exist with­out a cause. How­ever Craig seems to accuse every­one who holds ~(1) of holding:

(2) Every­thing that begins to exist could come into exis­tence with­out a cause.

But ~(1) ≉ (2).

Unless Craig can cough up an argu­ment for why accept­ing that there is at least one thing that begins to exist with­out a cause log­i­cally leads to the propo­si­tion that any­thing could come into being with­out cause, I think he com­mits a straw man fal­lacy here.


Nat­u­rally I agree with (1), but I am begin­ning to think the rhetoric he offers up in sup­port of it might be in need of some reform.

11 thoughts on “Possible Straw Man in Kalam Rhetoric

  1. Derek

    A ques­tion.

    let -/​-​​> = “it does not entail” 

    let –> = “it does entail” 

    let Cp = “it is con­ceiv­able that p”

    let <> = “it is pos­si­ble that”

    let ~ = “not”

    _​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​_​

    (C1) Cp -/​-​​> <>p

    (C2) ~Cp –> ~<>p 

    When Craig says that the con­ceiv­abil­ity of the denial of (1) does not entail that the denial of (1) is pos­si­ble, he seems to assume the truth of (C1). 

    Later on, he says the denial of

    (2) The world began to exist 

    is incon­ceiv­able (because absur­di­ties are incon­ceiv­able), there­fore the denial of (2) is impos­si­ble, he seems to assume the truth of (C2). 

    My ques­tion is the following:

    Is the con­junc­tion [(1) & (2)] consistent?

  2. Louis

    So Craig’s crit­ics may be able to con­ceive of a sce­nario in which it is not the case that every­thing that begins to exist has a cause. How­ever Craig retorts that merely con­ceiv­ing of such a sce­nario does not entail that it is pos­si­ble. In reply­ing this way Craig seems to assume that con­ceiv­abil­ity in gen­eral does not entail possibility.

    But later Craig argues for the fini­tude of the past based on the incon­ceiv­abil­ity of an actual infi­nite. And this seems to assume that incon­ceiv­abil­ity entails impossibility!

    So your ques­tion is whether Craig can con­sis­tently believe that con­ceiv­abil­ity does not entail pos­si­bil­ity, and yet that incon­ceiv­abil­ity does entail impossibility.

    My answer is yes, and I believe like­wise, so long as “pos­si­bil­ity” in this case is under­stood to be some­thing nar­rower than meta­phys­i­cal possibility.

  3. Louis

    I took “Is the con­junc­tion [(1) & (2)] con­sis­tent?” to mean “Is the con­junc­tion [(C1) & (C2)] consistent?”.

  4. Derek Post author

    Here’s an intu­itive, even if ques­tion beg­ging, argu­ment for the view that that some words ought to mean more than they do and that con­cepts and words are not identical.

    To the first view, that some words ought to mean more than they do.

    Con­sider the eng­lish word ‘water’. Before the 19th cen­tury, the word water pre­sum­ably meant (at the very least) that “trans­par­ent sub­stance that can take the form of ice, liq­uid, or steam.” It did not mean, prior to the 19th cen­tury, “a trans­par­ent sub­stance that can take the form of ice, liq­uid, or steam that is made of two hydro­gen atoms and one oxy­gen atom.”

    Despite the fact that “water” did not include in its mean­ing “… made of two hydro­gen atoms and one oxy­gen atom”, in an alto­gether intu­itive, if yet unclear sense of “ought” or “should”, we can say, cor­rectly, that

    before the 19th cen­tury, the word “water” ought or should have included in its mean­ing “… made of two hydro­gen atoms and one oxy­gen atom”, even if, as a mat­ter of fact, it did not mean any such thing at the time.”

    Thus, some words at some times ought to mean more than they in fact do, and it’s highly likely that a lot our words we cur­rently use ought to mean more (and some­times less!) than they actu­ally do.

    Fur­ther­more, I take it that it’s a con­cep­tual truth that “water is h20.” I also think that no sane per­son could rea­son­ably hold that “water is h20” was not a con­cep­tual truth prior to the 19th cen­tury. That is, once we dis­cov­ered that “water is h20” we should not say that “water is h20” went from not being a con­cep­tual truth to being a con­cep­tual truth. Rather, we should say that the word “water” went from mean­ing less than it did before the dis­cov­ery that “water is h20” to mean­ing more than it did after the discovery.

    By the indis­cernibly of iden­ti­cals, the con­cept WATER is not the same thing as the word ‘water’.

    So much, I sup­pose, for much of con­tem­po­rary phi­los­o­phy of language.

  5. Louis Post author

    It is not intu­itive to me that “water” ought to have included in its def­i­n­i­tion “… made of two hydro­gen atoms and one oxy­gen atom”. Mainly the “ought” is what I take issue with. Who obliges us to make word def­i­n­i­tions so sci­en­tific? Your rhetoric here is begin­ning to sound alarm­ingly reduc­tion­is­tic. Fur­ther­more, what if “water” was only intended to be broad in its def­i­n­i­tion? Con­sider the anal­o­gous exam­ple of “liq­uid”. Mul­ti­ple sub­stances may sat­isfy the def­i­n­i­tion because it is intended to be broad, and yet we may still dis­cover prop­er­ties that hold of all liq­uids that we hadn’t real­ized before. But the term itself doesn’t seem to be lack­ing any­thing — it does the defin­ing work it is intended to do. And we are free to mod­ify it as we please if and when new infor­ma­tion is uncov­ered. We get to do what we want with our words, because we made them up and they are tools for us to use as we see fit.

    There are all kinds of sim­i­lar issues entan­gled in your other asser­tions, here, too. I am not con­vinced, for exam­ple, that water “is” h20 under cer­tain def­i­n­i­tions of “is”. Is the Pacific Ocean com­prised of water? If so, water is not, strictly speak­ing, h20. It is a solu­tion in which h20 is the sol­vent. Do you brush your teeth with water? The answer has to be “no” if water “is” h20 under cer­tain def­i­n­i­tions of “is”. I don’t mean to be slip­pery here but you are forc­ing me to definition-​​monger because you are hang­ing so much on “is”.

  6. Derek

    It is not intu­itive to me that “water” ought to have included in its def­i­n­i­tion “… made of two hydro­gen atoms and one oxy­gen atom”. Mainly the “ought” is what I take issue with. Who obliges us to make word def­i­n­i­tions so sci­en­tific? Your rhetoric here is begin­ning to sound alarm ingly reductionistic.”

    Con­cern­ing the reduc­tion­is­tic accu­sa­tion, I didn’t say that water should mean ONLY H20. I think its phe­nom­e­non qual­i­ties (e.g., trans­parency, sur­face ten­sion) are (a) not reducible (even if non-​​logically super­ve­nient upon) its mol­e­c­u­lar struc­ture and (b) thereby just as essen­tial to the nature of water as water’s mol­e­c­u­lar struc­ture. My claim is that if water is essen­tially H20, in the name of truth and ratio­nal­ity, we ought to include H20 in its mean­ing. And this answers your ini­tial objec­tion. I think a con­cern for truth and ratio­nal­ity have nor­ma­tive impli­ca­tions for our lan­guage. What I’m try­ing to get at here is that though there is an obvi­ous con­ven­tional aspect to our lan­guage, once our con­ven­tions are set, amended the con­ven­tions must not be arbi­trary. For exam­ple, I take it that it’s a pure con­ven­tion that the word ‘water’ came to des­ig­nate the phe­nom­e­nal qual­i­ties that we asso­ciate with the word. But once we bap­tized the word with such phe­nom­e­nal qual­i­ties, the mean­ing of the word ‘water’ acquired non-​​conventional nor­ma­tive con­straints. Because the word now picks out a sub­stance, any­one who say says that water is not the sub­stance with phe­nom­e­nal qual­i­ties asso­ci­ated with word is speak­ing falsely. For a yet inchoate rea­son, it seems to me that to say that we are free to define words how­ever we want after the words have taken on then mean­ing they do is to make it the case that no one speaks falsely. 

    “Further­more, what if “water” was only intended to be broad in its def­i­n­i­tion? Con­sider the anal­o­gous exam­ple of “liq­uid”. Mul­ti­ple sub­stances may sat­isfy the def­i­n­i­tion because it is intended to be broad, and yet we may still dis­cover prop­er­ties that hold of all liq­uids that we hadn’t real­ized before. But the term itself doesn’t seem to be lack­ing any thing — it does the defin­ing work it is intended to do. And we are free to mod­ify it as we please if and when new infor­ma­tion is uncov­ered. We get to do what we want with our words, because we made them up and they are tools for us to use as we see fit.”

    We do mod­ify words, but as your own exam­ple sug­gests, we can­not just mod­ify them willy-​​nilly. We seem to by JUSTIFIED in mod­i­fy­ing them only when new truths are dis­cov­ered. Prior to the dis­cov­ery that water has the mol­e­c­u­lar struc­ture H2O it would have been unjus­ti­fied to mod­ify the word “as we see fit” for it to mean “H20”. Again, we can and do mod­ify the mean­ing of words, but they should and ought not be arbitrary. 

    There are all kinds of sim­i­lar issues entan­gled in your other asser­tions, here, too. I am not con­vinced, for exam­ple, that water “is” h20 under cer­tain def­i­n­i­tions of “is”. Is the Pacific Ocean com­prised of water? If so, water is not, strictly speak­ing, h20. It is a solu­tion in which h20 is the sol­vent. Do you brush your teeth with water? The answer has to be “no” if water “is” h20 under cer­tain def­i­n­i­tions of “is”. I don’t mean to be slip­pery here but you are forc­ing me to definition-​​​​monger because you are hang­ing so much on “is”.”

    The def­i­n­i­tional sense of “is” is some­where between pred­i­ca­tion and identity. 

    You didn’t address the con­cep­tual truth issue. Prior to the 19th cen­tury, was it was it not the case that the state­ment “Water is h2o” (in a non reduc­tion­is­tic sense of “is”) is true?

  7. Derek

    Scratch every­thing I wrote and just answer me this. 

    You say “We get to do what we want with our words, because we made them up and they are tools for us to use as we see fit.”

    Going with the tool metaphor. It’s clear that we make tools and use them as we see fit. Two things to notice, though. 

    (1) We make tools to per­form a par­tic­u­lar func­tion, and the func­tion we have in mind shapes the tool. That is, sup­pose we want to cut wood. Who­ever was first to make a saw didn’t do so arbi­trar­ily, for the suc­cess­ful­ness of the tool depends entirely on whether it actual per­forms the func­tion it was designed to perform. 

    (2) Using some tools for some jobs just doesn’t work. We may attempt to use a ham­mer as a machine gun, but whether we can actu­ally use the tool and be suc­cess­ful isn’t up to us . That is, we can’t use some tools for some jobs, and this means that we can’t just use what­ever tools we want for what­ever job we want. 

    So tools are to their func­tion as words are to their mean­ings. Just as we could attempt to use a ham­mer as a machine gun, so too could the word ‘water’ mean some­thing other than h20. Of course, from the mere fact that we could do this, it doesn’t fol­low that we should. That is, we shouldn’t use ham­mers for machine guns, and we shouldn’t have ‘water’ mean ‘not-​​h20’.

    All this to say that the tool metaphor seems to at least cut both ways.

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