Mystification Destroys Clarity: Again with the ‘Kalam’

Look into my eyes, deep in my eyes. Just think about whatever challenges you the least...

It is a question that supplies its own answer: “What caused the universe?” becomes, with scarcely any imagination, “The universe was caused.” It is a bad question and so an even worse answer. To say that the universe requires a cause is to make certain assumptions about the universe as a whole while ignoring the contents of the universe.

A good argument is clear. It should contain no ambiguous terms and shouldn’t violate sense experience. A proper conclusion should (at least) flow from arguments. It should not just be plunked down at the end of a series of statements as though pretending to emerge from them. I insist that the so-called arguments of the Kalaam contain terms that are ambiguous and attempt to violate sense experience; the conclusion does not flow from the terms and is, in fact, merely plunked at the end, making it appear to flow from a logical argument.

The structure of the argument amounts to only three statements

Statement one
Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
Statement two
The universe began to exist.
Statement three (conclusion)
The universe has a cause.

Two meanings: The first “begin”

The very first statement is meant to appeal to your common knowledge of the way things work. This is the most important point within the series, so I think it’s worth taking a moment to turn it over.

Statement one
Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

The word “begin” in this first statement is by necessity a beginning of transformation. In other words, it is the kind of “begin” that corresponds to way in which you recognize a “type” or “form” emerge during development or transformation. This form is the “whatever” that emerges. It refers to things that are known to you: When a loaf of bread begins, you can probably think of the multiple causes that contributed to its emergence. The bread went through transitional phases in which it was not, strictly speaking, “bread”, then went through additional transitions afterward in which it “ceased” to be bread as it was sliced and eaten. Similarly, when a ceramic bowl begins as an object, you can imagine the culmination of several causes, the extraction of clay from the ground, the many manipulations of tools, the shaping and firing, and finally, the transitional phases of being (perhaps) merely “bowl-like” in which a bowl could finally be recognized and used for what it is.

So, “begin” and “cause” here are meant to be taken in such a familiar and uncontroversial way that you would be expected to nod your head in perfect agreement, perhaps even saying to yourself, “Of course. I see things ‘begin’ all the time. You’re talking about ’cause and effect’…”. It is meant to be construed, albeit vaguely, in this common way. That vagueness hides the way in which the singular, “a cause”, was slipped in without explanation.

Along the way to the second premise, who by now doesn’t know that matter and energy are always preserved? You know as well as anyone that all things simply come from what existed prior and in rearranged form. Matter is not made to appear; it does not pop into existence; it is transformed. And, while things may seem to come to an end, destroyed, in reality they are just transformed. Matter and energy are never created, never destroyed. The sand dune was once a mountain and the mountain was once a sea floor. The tree exchanges oxygen for carbon dioxide. The matter itself being exchanged in the tree; even the matter making up the tree itself was once matter flung from inside a star.

We shouldn’t have to get stuck in a discussion about, say, ideal forms — the perfect circle or  perfect nothing, both of which harken back to the most ancient philosophies, in order to understand the type of begin that is being used in the first statement. Since the premise appeals to our common experience right away, we can disregard special pleadings about that particular moment when something is recognized as being “the thing that it is” or about miraculous appearance of objects. This is not the tenor of the first argument and this is not the reality of anything we see which “begins to exist”.

Two meanings: The second “begin”

The second premise seems as uncomplicated and forthright as the first. But, a subtle change has been injected without explanation. The “begin” in the second sentence is contrasted artificially (and silently) with that in the first.

Statement two
The universe began to exist.

But first, just take a moment to note that “the universe” is not rigorously defined. We could take this to mean two completely different things: One, that of the familiar idea of “all that exists”, that is, all the separate “whatevers” collected together into a bunch; two, we could also take this to mean the “container” itself, the thing “holding all the whatevers”. This  is sort of like referring to the Earth as meaning the people who live on the Earth  (“I am sending a transmission to Earth, hoping they’ll answer.”) instead of the entire Earth itself (“The Earth orbits the Sun “), but using the same word in both cases.

So, the second statement is somewhat ambiguous. The definite way of referring to the singular object of “the universe” certainly makes it seem like this argument is meant to refer to the universe as a container, rather than “all things that exist”. But, whether referring to a container or to those things that are contained, the second premise makes two completely ambiguous assumptions nevertheless:

  • “The universe” is finite.
  • “The universe” began.

This is a disaster! We have to stop here! The argument cannot continue but must be construed as a conclusion. The second argument, if it is not meant to conclude should, of necessity, be construed as flowing logically from the first premise or to add new, unambiguous information without contradicting prior arguments!

So, why can we not continue? And why should the second statement be construed, instead, as a conclusion?

If nothing in our common experience truly begins in any way but that of transformation from what preceded; if all things are just constant shuffling of matter and energy (as we saw in the first premise above), then the “begin” in the second argument cannot be any different than that in the first! The final argument, that is, “The universe has a cause“, simply attempts to rephrase the question, “Does the universe have a cause?”, and to thus answer it only by redefining words.

Unless we’ve changed the meaning of the word “begin” after ending the first sentence and before beginning the second, the universe, according to the second sentence, should only be construed to have begun exactly as everything else is construed to have begun: By the inexorable shuffling of matter and energy, just like the “whatever” of common experience, like that which we always see “beginning” to exist — and, by the way, “ceasing to exist”, but never disappearing.

Implications of an interrupted argument

The only truly justified conclusion to flow from the preceding premises is the following, that:

  • We know nothing about the universe as a singular object.

We do, however, know that words like “cause”, “effect”, “beginning”, and “ending” are used to signify stages of continuous transformation. I might say these are “constructs”, but we do know that when we observe things changing, we can identify (sometimes arbitrarily) the degree to which they’ve changed and might think we can see the signs of the thing that will emerge. Here, the best we can say at any point is that the universe is not necessarily a “thing” that can be caused; it is an abstraction and a collection of all things beginning and ending individually and constantly.

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