Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Special Pleading and the KCA

The latest episode of The Atheist Experience is online. Towards the end of the show, they took a call, which you can find here. The call included a discussion of the claim (which I have heard before) that the various cosmological arguments commit the fallacy of special pleading.

For those unfamiliar, the phrase “Cosmological Argument” refers to a variety of arguments for the existence of God which seek to prove the existence of God as a first cause. Probably the best known version these days is the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA). The KCA exists in a variety of forms, but at it's most basic, it's premises are:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The Universe began to exist.

From these premises, the conclusion is drawn that the universe had a cause. As I said, that's the basic argument. Most variations add premises to support the conclusion that the cause of the universe must be something recognisable as a God.

I must make clear, KCA is not my favourite version of Cosmological argument, but, for our purposes, it will serve as a model. The caller to the atheist experience mentioned his experience arguing with theists, their invocation of various forms of the cosmological argument. He said that he replied by asking who made God and they replied by saying that God, has always existed. The caller, host and co-host all agreed that this was an example of special pleading. I disagree.

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines special pleading thus:

Special pleading is a form of inconsistency in which the reasoner doesn’t apply his or her principles consistently. It is the fallacy of applying a general principle to various situations but not applying it to a special situation that interests the arguer even though the general principle properly applies to that special situation, too.

For this discussion, the key part of the definition are the words “even though the general principle properly applies to that special situation.” The special pleading objection would, quite reasonably, apply to the popular caricature of the cosmological argument which has, as its first premise, “everything must have a cause.” As as been pointed out, however, numerous times, no actual theist philosopher has ever put this argument forward.

Some will suggest that to apply a principle, in this case needing a cause, to everything in the universe other than God is automatically a case of special pleading. Not so. There are close on seven billion people on earth today. Of those seven billion, any one of them who believes that he or she is current President of the United States is suffering a serious delusion, with the one exception of Barack Hussein Obama. This isn't special pleading in President Obama's case, it's because there is a real principle which would legitimately apply to any other person who thought they were president but not to the person who actually is.

The principle “whatever begins to exist has a cause” legitimately does not apply to a being which has always existed. Now, I have heard atheists attempt to defend the special pleading charge with the claim that, theists get around this problem by arbitrarily defining God as having always existed.

Two things need to be said to that: 1) Even if the claim were correct, that isn't special pleading it would be closer to the ad hoc rescue fallacy. 2) More importantly, the claim is actually wrong. The theist is here not arbitrarily defining God as something that always existed but rather pointing out that the argument, if true, necessarily leads to something which has always existed.

A final point, I'll reiterate that the KCA is not my favourite form of the cosmological argument and not one I'd use a normal apologetic context. If anyone wants to comment on this post, I'd appreciate you restricting your comments to the narrow question of whether or not cosmological arguments in general or the KCA in particular commits the fallacy of special pleading. Id' rather not have this turn into a free-for-all of criticisms of the argument.


  1. Jason, why do you think it is that KCA-detractors often get the first premise so obviously wrong?

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  3. You say:
    "The theist is here not arbitrarily defining God as something that always existed but rather pointing out that the argument, if true, necessarily leads to something which has always existed."

    It seems like you're trying to defend against an argument of special pleading by relying on one that is circular. If "whatever begins to exist has a cause" is a premise, how can you use the argument itself in order to demonstrate that something can exist without having begun to exist?

    And, since I'm not a philosopher and the previous paragraph might be completely wrong, I'll add: People misunderstand the first premise because there is nothing in our experience to suggest that it's true. Everything that we have observed "beginning to exist" has merely been a rearrangement of some preexisting matter/energy. Why should we believe that either -
    1) the universe itself should be any different?
    2) the universe itself should follow the same rules as events *in* the universe, seeing as physics itself (as we currently understand it) breaks down at the singularity?