William Lane Craig and Kant’s First Antinomy: The Evasiveness of the Apologist

There are those who will criticize the tone of my writing here as inappropriate to addressing a work of scholarship, to whom I point out I am not confronting a work of scholarship. Others may complain that I am not properly respecting an important work of philosophy, to whom I respond that I am not responding to a any sort of philosophy at all. Moreover, as a simple semi-literate biker I am unconstrained by the timid conventions of the academy.

In the guise of serious writing, Craig is rather addressing a naive audience whose credulity he exploits to sell Christianity. What he presents is no more than base apologetics, dressed up in guise of philosophy, and aimed at believers in search of reinforcement and those mediocrities traipsing the backwaters and swamps of Philosophy of Religion while searching for the ghosts of dead ideas amidst fever-inducing mosquitos.

Immanuel Kant’s First Antinomy in Book 2 of the Critique of Pure Reason has long been the bête noire of apologists, who have yet to honestly confront it. Typically, the apologist evades the topic entirely, distorts it beyond recognition, or attempts to facilely dismiss Kant himself.

In the Book: The Kalam Cosmological Argument, which he claims includes his serious academic response to the First Antinomy, Craig resorts to all three but never gets around to addressing the point of the Antinomies itself. We will examine where Craig purports to address the First Antinomy in the penultimate chapter: “First Premise: Everything that Begins to Exist has a Cause of its Existence”. Craig includes an entry in the Appendix that claims to address this Antinomy further, but for reasons explained below, we need not consider it.

Kant’s First Antinomy

Toward the end of the Enlightenment, Kant published The Critique of Pure Reason — one of the greatest events in Philosophy and the seminal epistemological work for modern philosophy. No matter one’s opinion of Kant’s argument, it is impossible to join in the discourse of philosophy without an honest confrontation of this great work, the purpose of which was to rescue objective knowledge of the world from Hume’s skepticism by finding a middle way between Skepticism and Rationalism. The result was what Kant called his “Copernican Revolution” in which we know the external world by creating representations from crude sense data through innate a priori categories of understanding under the direction of pure reason, which are drawn in the imagination via the innate and purely subjective sensations of space and time. While Reason is deduced transcendentally and ultimately linked to Will (his nod to Rationalism), its legitimate purpose is limited to creating a coherent understanding of the manifold of sense data impinging upon our consciousness. In keeping with Enlightenment Empiricism, true objective knowledge is only possible by applying reason to the sense data, but in his revolution, Kant demonstrates this knowledge to be subjective constructions from sense data that do give us reliable information about the objective world, but can never tell us anything of things-in-themselves as they exist outside our subjective conditions of thought as space, time, and the categories of understanding. As long as we remain within the the sensible world, our objective understanding is reliable. Once we transgress the boundary of sense data, however, we merely create transcendental illusion — a groundless metaphysical world of empty speculation where we have illegitimately imposed our conditions of objective thought on the unimaginable noumenal realm.

In the second half of the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant demonstrates the problems created by Transcendental Illusion which result from empty metaphysical speculation. In doing so, he presents four antinomies, which consist of contradictory thesis and antithesis to a metaphysical question, each of which is equally plausible – and each of which results from an error in reason itself and our subjective limitations. On the side of the thesis, we have reason relentlessly pushing thought to totality. Reason is pure will to unify and knows no bounds, but continues to push for order and resolution of conflict beyond what we can know through they senses. The competing error of the antithesis is to assume that objective knowledge necessarily extends beyond the objective world. For that reason it would be wrong to dogmatically support either side of the argument since both are illusions spun off by an empty metaphysical question.

The first of the four Antinomies concerns the question of whether the universe is finite or infinite, which goes directly to the premise in the Cosmological Argument that everything that exists has a cause of its existence. The thesis of the antinomy is that an infinite regress is impossible, therefore there must be an initial unconditioned cause that began the universe. This is a metaphysical illusion stemming from reason’s pure will toward totality, i.e. it must bring everything under one unifying perception, which requires a beginning. The antithesis is that since all we know is causation rather than initial creation, that can be all that exists. We cannot possibly experience anything but a chain of conditioned events because we are limited to objective knowledge. In Kant’s term, the continuous synthesis of conditioned objects, which would negate any beginning.

Our limited experience tells us that the universe is infinite without first cause. Our Cosmological Ideas from reason tell us that beyond experience there must be a first cause. Both are illusions, however; the former caused by the inviolable limitation of objective experience, and the latter from the error caused by the unconditioned nature of the ideas of reason themselves.

This error is compounded in both cases with the imposition of our purely subjective senses of space and time onto the noumenal realm, to which space and time do not apply, rendering the question itself nonsensical.

Craig’s approach is to largely ignore the underlying metaphysical problem at the core of the antinomies, and instead attempts to strengthen the thesis and undermine the antithesis rather than, as Kant cautioned, refrain from dogma on either side of an illusory problem. To the extent he does recognize the underlying metaphysical problem demonstrated in the First Antinomy, rather than confront it head on, Craig attempts to obliquely undermine it through appeal to the authority of two very obscure Christian academics. We will trace this attempt in his penultimate chapter:

First Premise: Everything that exists has a cause of its existence.

Craig begins with a suggestion that this premise can indeed be defended:

“Although we have declined an elaborate defense of the proposition that everything that exists has a cause of its existence, two possible lines of support might be elucidated.

The argument from empirical facts: The causal proposition could be defended as an empirical generalization from the widest sampling of experience. The empirical evidence in support of the proposition is absolutely overwhelming, so much so that Humean empiricists could demand no stronger evidence in any synthetic statement. To reject the causal proposition is therefore completely arbitrary. Although this argument from empirical facts is not apt to impress philosophers, it is nevertheless undoubtedly true that the reason we —and they—accept this principle in our everyday lives is precisely for this very reason, because it is repeatedly confirmed in our experience…” (p.145)

There are two serious flaws in this suggestion. The first is he gives no justification for attributing objective knowledge to a noumenal realm (the creation of the universe, the cause of which lies outside the observable universe). The second is that within the observable universe no first cause of creation has ever been observed, only the chained synthesis of conditioned objects.

Thus his empirical argument fails. Throwing Hume into the mix only obfuscates his failure to ground causation as anything outside our objective representations. No matter how many examples of synthesis in time, the conclusion of causality remains a matter of habit based on the assumption that nature never changes. So no, it would not convince Hume that causality is ontologically real.

The admission that his argument is not apt to impress philosophers reveals his real intended audience: naive believers looking for reinforcement of faith; and his method: appeal to naive common sense of the sort Kant showed to be illusory. This book is no serious piece of scholarship or philosophy, but mere pandering and salesmanship.

He then moves to his second possible line of support:

“The argument from the a priori category of causality: Hackett formulates a neo-Kantian epistemology and defends the validity of the causal principle as the expression of the operation of a mental a priori category of causality which the mind brings to experience. Kant had argued that knowledge is a synthesis of two factors: the sense data of experience and the a priori categorical structure of the mind. The categories are primitive forms of thought which the mind must possess in order to make logical judgements without which intelligible experience would be impossible. Kant attempted to compile a list of these categories by correlating a category with each of the types of logical judgement; the category associated with the hypothetical judgment type is the category of causality. Kant argued that these categories are not simply psychological dispositions in which we think, but that they are objectively valid mental structures which the mind brings a priori to experience. For without them no object of knowledge could be thought; if the mind does not come to experience with the a priori forms of thought, thought could never arise. Therefore, the categories must be objectively real. Kant made two crucial limitations on the operation of the categories: (1) the categories have no application beyond the realm of sense data, and (2) the categories furnish knowledge of appearances only, but not of the things in themselves.” (pp.145-146)

Here Craig introduces the first of two obscure Christian academics, Stewart C Hackett, whose conclusions he goes on to cite without argument. He takes these from Hackett’s The Resurrection of Theism: Prolegomena to Christian Apology, a book of apologetics, not philosophy; i.e. proselytizing, not dispassionate analysis. In relating Hackett, Craig presents his own distortion of Kant. His claim that the category of causality leads to objectively valid knowledge is literally true, but takes full advantage of the naïveté of his audience to create the impression that it is thus true in itself. Most of his readers would lack the sophistication to understand “objectively valid” within Kant’s limited meaning. Keep in mind that the categories are the very conditions of thought through which we create representations and order out of sense data. That creates the objective world, which we know as a coherent constructed representation of reality, although this reality in itself is manifold and beyond our objective determination. But for Kant, causality, like all categories, does not actually exist noumenally and can tell us nothing about the world in itself or anything prior to our observable universe. Therefore, causality is objectively true but with no real ontology outside our subjective ordering of sense data. His conclusion of “Therefore, the categories must be objectively real” really says nothing at all other than they are our conditions of thought objectively observed introspectively, with no reason to ground them in the physical reality of things-in-themselves.

Craig does end that paragraph by singling out Kant’s two issues that undermine Craig’s premise (no applicability beyond sense data, and knowledge of appearances only), but only to slide into a facile denial. He goes on to rely further on Hackett’s unargued but suspiciously convenient assertions:

“Hackett makes three critical alterations in Kant’s formulation of a categorical epistemology. First, the number of the categories must be reduced. It is universally recognized that Kant’s tables of categories and logical judgment types are highly artificial; accordingly, Hackett eliminates the categories totality and limitation and equates the category of existence to that of substance. The remaining categories he regards as validly derived.

Second, the remaining categories have application beyond the realm of sense data.” (P.146)

Merely on the assertion of an obscure apologist, Craig declares Kant’s inconvenient underlying arguments to simply be artificial and invalid — one more example of facilely dismissing Kant’s Antinomy instead of facing it head-on. There is no justification for the claim that categories must be reduced, just the desire to do so to maintain his premise. Second, there is no “universal” recognition that the categories are highly artificial. To the contrary, they were carefully derived from first enumerating the possible forms of judgment. He starts with Aristotles four categories of quantity, quality, relation, and modality, and derives three categories of judgement under each of these for 12 systematic categories of the understanding. Anybody who has studied Kant’s lengthy and methodical deduction of these categories in Book 1 of The Critique knows how ridiculous this statement is, and can see it as nothing more than a weak excuse to remove the obstacle Kant poses. Again, one can disagree with Kant’s schemata if one has a plausible counterargument, but never honestly dismiss it as arbitrary. Having claimed to remove the offending categories of totality and limitation (the very categories defining this particular antinomy), he goes on to proclaim that the remaining categories are not limited to sense data, therefore we can simply restore empty metaphysical claims.

Craig then resorts to the following tired canard of self-refutation, mindlessly repeated by apologists whenever scientific thought confounds their claims:

“Kant’s position is self-refuting: for if the categories are restricted in operation to the realm of sense data alone, then no knowledge of the categories themselves would be possible, since they are categorized by the very absence of sense data…” (p.146)

This is another outright distortion of Kant’s methodology. The whole point of critiquing Pure Reason is that, as our innate a priori conditions of thought itself, they are the only things that can be directly studied absent external information by objectifying our conditions of thought through introspection. That being said, it still is drawn out in the sensibilities of time and space in order to become intelligible to us. For example, we draw all synthetic propositions in time sequentially, and all analytic proposition in space, such as geometry. It is simply the objectification of our innate cognitive ability.

He follows with this:

“Third, the categories do furnish knowledge of things in themselves. For either things in themselves exist or they do not. If they do not, we are reduced to solipsism. Besides the obvious problems of solipsism, the crucial point is this: since the categories do apply to the phenomena and these are all that exist, it follows that the categories do give a knowledge of reality in itself. But suppose things in themselves do exist;…then it becomes impossible to deny that the categories provide knowledge of things in themselves. For at least the categories of reality and causality must apply to them (since they cause the phenomena which we apprehend), unless one is willing to relapse into solipsism. Thus, to assert ‘no knowledge of the noumena is possible’ is self-refuting since it itself purports be an an item of knowledge about the noumena, This means, concludes Hackett, that the categories are both forms of thought and forms of things — thought and reality are structured homogeneously.” (pp.146-147)

Once again Craig egregiously distorts Kant’s argument to claim a homogenous relation between thought and reality. Here he blurs the boundary between our reception of sense data and the thing-in-itself by insisting that since the thing-in-itself “causes” the sense data it must exist and include causation. First, to cite Kant from another occasion, existence is not a predicate. The point is we have no predicate for the thing-in itself, and assuming its existence therefore provides no information to us leading to knowledge. Second, that what we perceive as energy impinging our senses in no way indicates causality outside our innate categories. Craig is merely projecting our category of causality on something he knows nothing about. How our senses acquire data is only known form the workings on our side of the boundary. To say the things-in-themselves cause it is again a transcendental illusion intended to plug the gap of unobtainable knowledge.

He then summarizes Hackett’s argument and moves on to his other obscure Christian commentator, Bella Milmed:

“The argument, which is basically Kant’s, is not that without the categories we could not experience sensation much as an animal does, but that self-conscious thought could not arise unless the human mind were structured so that it could.

Since the categories are objective features of both thought and reality and since causality is one of these categories, causal relation must hold in the real world, and the causal principle would be a synthetic a priori proposition, It is a priori because it is universal and necessary, being a precondition of thought itself. But it is synthetic because the concept of an event does not entail the concept of being caused. Hackett’s attempt to thus found the causal principle on an a priori mental category merits further investigation outside the scope of this book; for as Bella Milmed observes, although much of Kant’s work is obsolete,

‘…surely most if not all of his categories are still recognizable as relevant to the interpretation of the empirical world; and the increased flexibility of logic means that it should be easier to find logical foundations for such categories, avoiding those of Kant’s derivation that appear strained. Moreover, some of the most important of his derivations, e.g., those of substance and causality, do not appear strained at all.’ (pp.147-148)

He begins with more sleight of hand through the inexact use of the term “reality”. Kant indeed claims that without the categories we could not construct a coherent representation of the world, and in fact we can conceive of the world in no other way. This constitutes objective reality. That does not imply that the world we represent has any knowable reality outside our objective representation, but merely that within that objective realm our thoughts can be seen as knowledge. There is no basis at all for Craig’s implication that it has any validity for things-in-themselves. Craig again resorts to obfuscation and distortion, and adds facile dismissal by claiming Kant obsolete — an odd objection from a man who makes a living peddling an obsolete primitive worldview and long abandoned Medieval metaphysics.

And now we move to Craig’s conclusion:

These two arguments suggest possible ways of defending the principle that everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence. But probably most people do not really need convincing. In summary, we have concluded that (1) it is intuitively obvious that anything that begins to exist, especially the entire universe, must have a cause of its existence; (2) Hume’s attempt to show the universe could have sprung uncaused out of nothing fails to show this to be a real possibility, and (3) the causal principle could be more elaborately defended in two ways. Therefore, we conclude our first premises: everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence.

It would be hard to imagine a weaker or less satisfying conclusion. His great and vaunted confrontation with Kant comes down to the meek suggestion that we may discover possible ways of defending his key premise that everything that exists has a cause to its existence, based on the non-arguments of two obscure theists, and that no proof is necessary since his premise is intuitively obvious. That apologists just might come up with a way to defend the claim does not quite make for a compelling premise, and non-compelling premises prove nothing. He utterly failed to address Kant’s demonstration that the “intuitively obvious” in this case is transcendental illusion. (P.148)

Craig does include an appendix: “The Kalam Cosmological Argument and the Thesis of Kant’s First Antinomy.” While on first glance it would seem relevant for critique here, it adds nothing further. You might remember that the thesis of that antinomy was that the world had a finite beginning. Once again, Craig fails to address Kant’s intent in presenting the antinomies, and dogmatically attempts to further argue for that thesis and undermine the antithesis, thereby continuing his habit of evading the real issue at play.

Modern Aspects

Philosophical

Since Francis Bacon, philosophy has traced a trajectory of reducing the metaphysical by gradually moving subjects of inquiry from the metaphysical to the empirical. Since Kant, a second prominent trajectory appeared limiting the validity of reason itself and elevating esthetic knowledge. In short, the Enlightenment announced an age in rejection of Medieval Scholastic Metaphysics, which proved a mortal wound to religion. Western Christianity is essentially a creation of Scholastic Metaphysics, and relies to this day on its arguments and constructed worldview. The ascending secular world, however, moved on.

The two great thinkers of the 20th Century, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, went on to reject their philosophical roots: Wittgenstein admitting the failure of propositional logic and Analytic Philosophy to explain reality, and Heidegger rejecting the inherent metaphysical residue of Phenomenology. Both declared philosophy to have reached an inglorious end and abandoned the 2500 year enterprise as a metaphysical and linguistic error. While certain mediocre denizens of publication-demanding academic departments yet ply this obsolete trade, serious thought has move onward. Wittgenstein claimed the only legitimate activity left to the thinker is to undo the tangled errors and illusions of our philosophical history by, as he put it, helping the flies back out of the bottles. Heidegger, on the other hand, urged an esthetic/poetic engagement with Being itself as we encounter it firmly with the discipline to refrain from flights of metaphysical fancy and hearkening faithfully to the mystery of Being itself.

Both great men used the term “das Mystische” to describe the lure of deeper reality, and most importantly, warned us not to speak what cannot be spoken. That means: know the limits of what reason can understand and be ever-vigilant against slipping into metaphysical fancy.

Science

The most astounding aspect of modern understanding of our world is that we still have no satisfying interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the likelihood of having one appears increasingly remote. The only fully honest interpretation is no interpretation at all: The Copenhagen Interpretation. Neils Bohr took Kant extremely seriously and refused to speculate on any description of the world that QM seemed to imply as mere empty metaphysical speculation of the noumenal realm. Since John Bell’s experiments in the early 60’s, it is confirmed that the subjective conditions of thought — time, space, and causality — do not pertain to the most fundamental level of reality and any attempt to interpret that realm inevitably leads to metaphysical fancy, such as Multiworld theory. Einstein’s theory of relativity showed the non-existence of anything resembling one universal time, and the equation of modern Loop Quantum Gravity does not even contain the variable “T”. As the preeminent physicist of Quantum Gravity and time, Carlo Rovelli, reminds us in The Order of Time: “The laws of elementary physics do not speak of “causes” but only of “regularities”…” (p169). He does speak of causality as a useful notion at higher emergent levels coupled with our consciousness, but not as an elemental property of nature in its own existence, and certainly not something we could posit at a quantum event such as the creation of a universe. And as for questions of eternity and infinite regression, he tells us that “time is ignorance”. It is only through remaining ignorant of the vast reality other than the focus o one small quantum system – a small eddy in a vast ocean – that our own perspective creates the impression of time.

Rovelli then encapsulates the our latest understanding of the universe and our place in it:

“On closer inspection, in fact, even the things that are most “thinglike” are nothing more than long events. The hardest stone, in the light of what we have learned from chemistry, from physics, from mineralogy, from geology, from psychology, is in reality a complex vibration of quantum fields, a momentary interaction of forces, a process that for a brief moment manages to keep its shape, to hold itself in equilibrium before disintegrating again into dust, a brief chapter in the history of interactions between the elements of the planet, a trace of Neolithic humanity, a weapon used by a gang of kids, an example in a book about time, a metaphor for an ontology, a part of a segmentation of the world that depends more on how our bodies are structured to perceive than on the object of perception—and, gradually, an intricate knot in that cosmic game of mirrors that constitutes reality. The world is not so much made of stones as of fleeting sounds, or of waves moving through the sea.” (pp.98-99)

The most elemental reality of our universe is one of interacting quantum waves and spinfoam. Medieval notions of substance and accidents, things, material, causality, universal time are illusions no longer taken seriously by serious thinkers. As Kant glimpsed long ago, fundamental reality is not imaginable because we are bound by our categories and sensibilities of time and space. Modern physics has taken us to that very edge beyond which we can make no further representations. Any talk of finite/infinite, substance, uncaused cause, infinite regress, or presentism is empty prattle. Any system or order is fleeting and dependent on perspective. Any rational understanding is approximate, arbitrary, and severely limited in time, space, and chosen events. Talk of the beginning of existence is mere nonsense.

All that remains is our esthetic sense of mystery. Nietzsche’s Madman panicked as the realization of god’s death overwhelmed him and the world in vertigo. He knew full well that for hundreds of years there would be those dark souls attending the corpse of their god in caves; many more overcome with nausea as they succumb to their imbalance, and a few brave enough to reorient themselves toward an embrace of that mystery, free from the myths and dry monotonous dreams of empty men.

References

William Lane Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument, The MacMillan Press Limited, London, 1979

Carlo Rovelli, The Order of Time, Riverhead Books, 2018

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