This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dr. Craig, I have finished reading your book, The Kalam Cosmological Argument, and I found it to be both fascinating historically as well as thought provoking philosophically. You have spent a considerable amount of time and scholarship devoted to modernizing this ancient argument for God, and it is truly one of the most compelling and formidable arguments in favor of God's existence. That being said, what first drew you to the intensive study of the Kalam cosmological argument? There are dozens of arguments that have been presented throughout history regarding the ontology of God, so what made this particular argument appealing to you as both a philosopher and a theologian?
Dr. William Lane Craig’s Response
Thank you, Spencer, for this personal question. I’m always delighted to share the story of how this life-changing discovery came about.
You need to appreciate that as a student at Wheaton College, I had been told by my theology professors like Robert Webber that there are no good arguments for God’s existence. He said that the traditional arguments had all been refuted. No natural theology, or even a positive apologetic of any kind, was taught in any of my classes during the four years I spent at Wheaton. At that time all we had was the sort of negative apologetics offered by Francis Schaeffer to the effect that if theism, and in particular, Christianity is not true, then individual human life and culture go down the drain and bottom out in despair or inconsistency. The problem with this sort of negative apologetic is that it still leaves you with no reason to think that Christianity is true, or that Bertrand Russell was wrong when he said that in order to come to terms with life, one must realize that the world truly is a terrible place.
One week before graduation I was browsing the clearance table at the college bookstore, and there to my surprise I spotted a few copies of Stuart Hackett’s The Resurrection of Theism (1957). I had heard rumors of this long out-of-print book and had even had Hackett as a professor in my Intro to Philosophy class the first semester of my freshman year. Unfortunately, that class was just a survey course of the history of philosophy, and so we never discussed arguments for God’s existence at any length (if at all!). But I had heard that Hackett presented a case for God’s existence in this book, and so I picked up a copy to read at a later time.
That summer after graduation I finally got around to reading Hackett’s book, and I was absolutely stunned by what I read. Here he was defending the traditional arguments for God’s existence such as the cosmological and teleological arguments and refuting every conceivable objection that might be brought against them! Moreover, he presented the objections to the arguments so powerfully, so convincingly, that I would repeatedly think, “Right; that does it! No way around that objection!” And then he would proceed to completely dismantle the objection. I had never read a book like his: every single sentence served to advance the argument, and you dared not skip a sentence lest you lose the train of thought. The book is a brilliant piece of analytic philosophy of religion written ten years before Alvin Plantinga burst on the scene with God and Other Minds. I’ve often said that if Hackett had published his book with Cornell University Press rather than Moody Press, the revolution of Christian philosophy would have begun ten years earlier.
As you’ve probably surmised, the centerpiece of Hackett’s natural theology was a version of the cosmological argument based on the finitude of the past. I immediately resonated with the argument: since boyhood the idea of a beginningless universe and an infinite past has seemed to me incredible. But I did not want to trust my own opinion of Hackett’s argument. I wanted to know what others thought.
In preparing for the Graduate Record Exam in Philosophy as an admittance requirement to the M.A. program in Philosophy of Religion at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I decided to read and take copious notes on Frederick Copleston’s monumental, nine-volume A History of Philosophy. Over the ensuing months, what did I discover in reading Copleston but that the argument defended by Hackett had a long and distinguished tradition in the history of Western philosophy, stretching back to early commentators on Aristotle and extending through medieval Islamic theology and to Immanuel Kant in his First Antinomy concerning Time! I had no idea that such a hoary tradition existed! I determined then and there that if I could ever do a doctorate in philosophy, I must write my dissertation on this version of the cosmological argument.
Fast forward a few years to when I was wrapping up my degree at Trinity. At that time there were scarcely any philosophers writing on arguments for God’s existence. But one notable exception was the British philosopher John Hick at the University of Birmingham, England. So I wrote him and asked if he would be willing to supervise a doctoral thesis on the cosmological argument. To my utter delight, he said that he would, and the rest, as they say, is history. In appreciation of the Islamic development of the argument, I dubbed Hackett’s argument the kalām cosmological argument, and the name stuck.
One final anecdote: When Jan and I arrived in Birmingham, Prof. Hick said to me, “Are you sure you want to write on the cosmological argument? Isn’t it rather like beating a dead horse?”
Here we had come all the way to England to study this argument, and he was suggesting that I change topics! Trying to retain my composure, I replied, “Oh, I think there’s still a good deal to be said.” So to my great relief he agreed to let me proceed.
A couple years later, after completing my doctoral thesis, Prof. Hick came to me prior to my orals and confided, “I gave your thesis to a member of the physics department to evaluate the physical evidence you present for the beginning of the universe.” He paused and then said, “He said that it’s completely correct.”
I said, “I know it is!”
He replied, “Why don’t the theologians know about this?”
I just laughed and then said, “Do you still think that the cosmological argument is like beating a dead horse?”
He smiled with his cherubic grin and said, “Oh, no, not at all!”