The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

The Argument from Consciousness and the Kalam: An interesting parallel


If I reject the argument from consciousness for dualism, do I also have to reject the kalam cosmological argument?

As I have noted elsewhere at the blog and in the podcast series called “In Search of the Soul” back in 2009, some dualists say that materialism (the view that we are material creatures without an immaterial soul added) has a problem because materialists cannot explain conscious experience. How can matter be “aware”? In reply, I have said that if the argument is driven by the fact that materialism lacks an explanatory account of how consciousness arises, then dualism should be rejected too, because it doesn’t have an explanatory account of how consciousness arises either. Saying that we have a soul does not explain how consciousness arises. In fact we should reject all philosophies of mind! But they can’t all be false, since here we are with minds! Since the objection proves too much, it must prove nothing at all. We don’t have to know how a view of human nature offers an explanatory account of consciousness in order for it to be true after all. (As an aside, a dualist might opt for the line of argument that there is no explanation, consciousness is just a brute fact of what souls are like. If this is the way to go, then he surrenders his argument about explanatory accounts.)

But when I first decided that this was the case, a parallel issue and potential problem occurred to me, and today my friend Hugh raised it. Curses, I was hoping nobody would spot this! (I jest.) The parallel issue is this: Does this mean we have to reject the kalam cosmological argument? How is this a parallel issue? In the following way: The kalam cosmological argument is that since whatever begins to exist must have a cause and the universe began to exist, it follows that the universe has a cause. The universe, so the argument goes, cannot be self-caused since this is incoherent. Rather, the cause of the universe is God, who brought the universe into being out of nothing.

But – and here is where the parallel becomes apparent – you can object at this point that positing God as the cause of the universe doesn’t explain how the universe came into being out of nothing. It merely assures us that however the universe came into being, God did it. Granted, there may not be a material explanation of how this can happen, but the divine alternative isn’t an explanation either. And this, it might seem, is exactly the type of response I am offering to the critic of materialism. They are saying that there is no explanatory account of consciousness on my view, but on dualism there is an explanation. My reply is to say that all they are doing is saying that the soul does it but not really explaining how. How can I offer this response while accepting the kalam argument (or anything like it)?

That’s a good question! Since noticing the objection, I’ve had a few thoughts about it.

First, the fact that a) my response to the dualist objection seems to me to be pretty watertight and b) at least on the surface this objection to the kalam argument appears very similar to my response means that I should not dismiss the objection to the kalam out of hand. Even if it does not win the day, it is clearly a sensible objection.

Second, there is one sense in which I agree with the objection to the kalam, and it is the sense in which I agree with my own response to this dualist argument. It is quite true that in concluding that God is the cause of the universe, we are not offering an explanation for how God creates things. If we think we are offering that sort of explanation then we are mistaken and make ourselves vulnerable to this response.

Third, and here is where the two examples split apart as quite different, if God exists then there exists an omnipotent being. If some state of affairs is possible then God has the power to bring it about by willing that it be. The universe, obviously, is a possible state of affairs so if God exists then God can bring the universe about. Just being immaterial does not tell us anything about what God can bring about. Similarly, saying that there exists some immaterial thing (call it the soul) does not imply that this thing can produce consciousness.

Fourth, the kalam argument is accompanied by an argument for what the cause of the universe must be like. Since matter came into being with the universe, so the argument goes, the cause must not be material. Since time came into being with the universe, the cause must be timeless or eternal. In other words, even without an explanation of how God brings things into being out of nothing (if we suppose that omnipotence explains nothing), we have reasons for supposing that the cause of the universe must be something like God. There is no parallel argument (or at least, I think, no convincing parallel argument) for why the cause of consciousness must be the soul. Saying that since mental events are not physical events, the cause cannot be physical, will strike many as question begging (by assuming without argument that the physical cannot cause the mental).

So I agree that there is a sensible parallel to make here. My response to this positive argument for dualism resembles a particular line of response to the kalam cosmological argument. And that objection has merit against some ways of offering the kalam argument. But I also think the kalam argument and this argument for dualism are sufficiently different that my objection to the latter does not apply to the former. Whether or not the kalam cosmological argument is sound is of course a different matter, but there are no arguments standing or falling together here.

Glenn Peoples


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  1. I disagree with both arguments, even your “watertight” one against dualism. And I also don’t feel happy with your implied definition of dualism – “material creatures with an immaterial soul added”. I think dualism is simply the view that the mind is more than the brain, and thus the human being is more than the physical. No need to postulate “souls”, whatever they may be.

    I think both your arguments are based on knowing HOW something occurs, but I don’t think either argument needs to be framed that way. They can be framed in terms of whether it is logically POSSIBLE for things to be that way. So, one can argue that if the physical is all there is, we can have no freewill, and consciousness is illusory. You can find famous quotes by Francis Crick and William Provine to that effect. So if we don’t believe these things are illusory, then there must be something more than the physical.

    Likewise, one can argue that everything that begins to exist has a cause, not because we need to understand what the cause is, but because that is logically true (e.g. by the Principle of Sufficient reason).

    So both arguments can be based on logic, not on understanding mechanisms. Whether you or anyone else thinks such formulations are convincing is another matter. But I find them convincing, and I think WL Craig’s formulation of the Kalam accords with what I have said, and he certainly seems to win a lot of arguments with it.


  2. “I disagree with both arguments, even your “watertight” one against dualism”

    I didn’t offer any arguments against dualism, let alone a watertight one.

    “So, one can argue that if the physical is all there is, we can have no freewill, and consciousness is illusory.”

    One could offer that argument, but of course that’s not like any argument that I’m considering here.

    “Likewise, one can argue that everything that begins to exist has a cause, not because we need to understand what the cause is, but because that is logically true (e.g. by the Principle of Sufficient reason).”

    The argument that I discuss in regard to the kalam argument is not the argument that there must have been a cause of the universe, rather the claim that the cause must be God, who explains the universe.

    And if you’re positing arguments that are not based on mechanisms, well that’s not the argument against materialism / for dualism that I reply to here. 🙂

  3. Silly me! 🙂 I thought you were talking about “the argument from consciousness for dualism”.

  4. Eric, I responded to that argument for dualism. But I didn’t offer any argument against dualism. There’s a difference!

    [EDIT: Although I probably should have been more hospitable… I sometimes get ahead of myself in my excitement that people have any comment at all to offer. Thanks for commenting. 🙂 ]

  5. That’s OK. I thought what I said was relevant. If you don’t, or don’t want to discuss it further, that’s OK too.

  6. Julien

    I am basically in agreement with you in regards to the typical arguments for dualism. No materialist theory can at present explain consciousness, but it is difficult to say whether this is because no materialist theory could in principle explain it, or simply because the problem is very complex and our current science is inadequate. That dualism fares no better in explaining consciousness is a salient point, and I am not sure why so many apologists are convinced of the argument from consciousness. I think that there are significant problems with materialism, not least of which is the difficulty of giving a plausible account of how human reason could even exist on such a view. The argument from consciousness, however, seems to be more of an appeal to ignorance.

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