Why Think Whatever Begins to Exist Has a Cause?
Dr Craig answers questions on the Kalam Argument's crucial first premise! Whatever begins to exist has a cause!
Why Think Whatever Begins to Exist has a Cause?
Kevin Harris: Hey there, you're plugged into the podcast—the Reasonable Faith podcast with Dr. William Lane Craig. I'm Kevin Harris. Dr. Craig, there doesn't seem to be an end to the questions that come up about the kalam cosmological argument. In fact, if an actual infinite actually exists it's comprised of the questions that come up about the kalam argument. [Laughter]
Dr. Craig: Yes. [Laughter]
Kevin Harris: It really is a nuanced, compelling argument.
Dr. Craig: It is an intriguing argument that just fascinates people, both laymen and scholars alike. It's one of the most discussed arguments today for God's existence. I've been thinking about these things for a long time and so I welcome questions over this argument.
Kevin Harris: Well there's a serious questioner about the kalam whom I've come to know and love, and he interacts with it a lot. Let me read some of his concerns. He asks,
How did Dr. Craig come to know that something cannot come from nothing? Fortunately for us, Dr. Craig makes no secret of his epistemology on this matter—intuition. He has a “metaphysical intuition” that something cannot come into being from nothing.
He goes on to say,
But is that really it – he intuits it? Because human intuitions about the nature of reality have a less than impressive track record. This is why I'm guessing Dr. Craig fortifies his admission with a bit of intellectual intimidation by warning that anyone who disagrees with him has “quit doing serious metaphysics and resorted to magic” [quoting you there, Bill]. Of course this leaves us wondering why Craig would cite philosophers such as Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, and Adolf Grünbaum as having lodged substantive critiques of kalam's first premise when according to him these men have quit doing serious metaphysics and resorted to magic.
Dr. Craig: Alright, I give three reasons why I think the premise is true, that everything that begins to exist has a cause. The first one is, that it is a kind of first principle of metaphysics that something cannot come from nothing; out of nothing nothing comes. Aristotle put it that being only arises from being, it doesn't come from non-being. And I think that this is a metaphysical truth that we do intuit rationally when we think about it.
Now I think that the questioner doesn't understand, perhaps, what philosophers mean when they talk about intuition. It's not like women's intuition, some sort of mysterious feeling or something; rather this would be a way of knowing some sort of a truth that is so basic, it's so primitive, that it is grasped as evidently true without needing to provide some deeper proof of it. Examples would include, for example, the truths of logic: p implies q; p; therefore q. Now how do you know that that logical truth is in fact true? There's no way to prove it because any proof would have to appeal to logic. So the truths of logic are something that one simply knows by a rational intuition when you look at them; it's just clear that they are true. Or modal truths, for example, that I could not have been an alligator. When you think about that I think it's obvious that being a person is something that someone has essentially, so that I could not have been a non-person like an alligator or a chair; that would be a different being than me. How do I know that? Well, you can't prove that but it just seems evident when you think about it, that I could not have been an alligator, for example. Or other sorts of intuitive truths. This table could not have been made of ice. When you think about it that seems intuitively true; it's not that you can prove it but it just seems evident.
And I would say in the same way when you think about the metaphysical principle that something cannot come from nothing, that seems to me to just be evidently true. And I don't think that this is idiosyncratic to me; on the contrary this is one of the oldest principles of metaphysics, Kevin, that has been recognized since the time of ancient Greek philosophy right up through the present day, so that I stand well within the mainstream of philosophical thought in saying this. To quote from Plato himself in his Timaeus sections 27 and 28, he said,
We must in my opinion begin by distinguishing between that which
always is and never becomes from that which is always becoming but
never is. . . . everything that becomes or changes must do so owing to some cause; for nothing can come to be without a cause.
. . .
As for the world – call it that or ‘cosmos’ or any other name acceptable to
it – we must ask about it the question one is bound to ask to begin with
about anything: whether it has always existed and had no beginning, or
whether it has come into existence and started from some beginning.
The answer is that it has come into being . . . And what comes into being or changes must do so, we said, owing
to some cause
This fundamental metaphysical principle has been recognized down through history. Even David Hume, the great Scottish skeptic, wrote to John Stuart in 1723 I believe it was, “I have never asserted so absurd a proposition as that something might come into being without a cause. I only maintained that our certainty of the falsehood of that principle stems neither from intuition nor experience but from some other cause.” So even Hume recognized the truth of the principle even though he disputed the typical basis upon which we know it. So I think that this is a fundamental metaphysical first principle that anyone who thinks about it ought to see is true.
Now that does not mean that this is known infallibly. I noticed that later in his question he equates intuition with an infallible certainty that whatever begins to exist has a cause. Well, I'm not claiming that, and the argument doesn't depend on that. All it depends on is your seeing that this principle is more plausibly true than not, and that's enough for the argument to go through. Ask yourself, if you were on a sort of serious game show where you can win five hundred million dollars and the question to you was “Can something come into existence uncaused out of nothing?” how would you answer? Well, I think you ought to answer, “No, it can't; whatever begins to exist has a cause.”
Kevin Harris: Yeah, and assume further the host had all-knowledge and actually knew the answer. Where would you place your bet? [Laughter]
Dr. Craig: Right. Now that's the first argument that I give for the causal premise, but it's not the only one. My second argument is one that stems from Jonathan Edwards and was repeated by the great philosopher of time Arthur Prior at Oxford University. And what Prior and Edwards pointed out is this: if something can come into being without a cause then why doesn't just anything and everything come into being without a cause? Why doesn't root beer and bicycles and Beethoven pop into being uncaused out of nothing? There can't be anything about nothing that would constrain what pops into being because nothing isn't anything, it has no properties, no potentialities, no being whatsoever. So if something can truly just pop into existence uncaused out of nothing then it's inexplicable why just anything and everything doesn't pop into being out of nothing. Why is it only universes that can pop into existence uncaused out of nothing? What makes nothingness so discriminatory?
Kevin Harris: Yeah, it would predict that we would see it.
Dr. Craig: Yes; all the time, this could happen.
Kevin Harris: A raging tiger could show up in your bathroom while you're in there, you know. [Laughter]
Dr. Craig: Yeah, exactly. So I find this argument from Prior and Edwards to be very persuasive, and that would be my second line of defense for the premise that everything that begins to exist has a cause. And then finally the third line of defense would be as an inductive inference, namely, as we look around the world, as we explore the natural world, we see that things don't just pop into existence uncaused from nothing. Things that begin to exist do have causes. So even the scientific naturalist ought to agree with this premise, and in fact, I think, most of them do. The philosopher of science Bernulf Kanitscheider has said that this principle – that out of nothing nothing comes – is a principle which has been the most certain guide for empirical science down through the ages. And therefore we ought to be very reluctant before we assert of anything that it can come into being without a cause. And the scientific naturalist Mario Bunge has made the same statement, that this first principle is indispensable to science and therefore ought not to be given up.
So on the basis of all three of those reasons I think that the proponent of the kalam cosmological argument is really well within the mainstream of metaphysics and good common sense in asserting that everything that begins to exist has a cause.
Now I think, frankly, it's a cheap shot for the questioner to say that I exercise intellectual intimidation to shore up the argument by saying anyone who disagrees with me has quit doing serious metaphysics and resorted to magic. What my claim is there is that the assertion that something can pop into being uncaused out of nothing is to quit doing serious metaphysics. It's to abandon this fundamental metaphysical principle and to resort to something worse than magic. Just think about it, Kevin. In magic, when the magician pulls the rabbit out of the hat, at least you've got the magician. But for the universe to pop into being out of nothing, for anything to pop into being without a cause from nothing, is worse than magic because you don't even have the magician. Nothingness has no properties, no potentialities, no powers, so it is worse than magic for the atheist to simply assert that the universe pops into existence uncaused out of nothing. I think this really is to resort to something worse than magic out of desperation.
And I think it is out of this sort of desperation that someone like my friend Quentin Smith will say that the universe and being just popped into existence uncaused out of nothing. As for Adolf Grünbaum, he doesn't assert that. I think the questioner has misunderstood Grünbaum. Grünbaum’s critique of the argument is that the universe doesn't really come into being in beginning to exist because Grünbaum holds to a tenseless theory of time or a so-called B-theory of time according to which temporal becoming is illusory. So, contrary to Plato, Grünbaum would say nothing ever comes to be, nothing ever becomes or comes into being, the universe or the four-dimensional spacetime manifold just has a front edge, and so it doesn't really come into being at its beginning point, if it has one. And I think this is a serious critique. This involves deep issues in the metaphysical nature of time. Similarly Graham Oppy, the Australian philosopher from Monash University, offers serious criticisms. He doesn't just assert blithely that things pop into being uncaused out of nothing. So while there are certainly serious criticisms that can be offered, I don't think that these in the end of the day undermine the three reasons that I have given in support of the first premise, and I have responded in print to all three of these authors in my published work.
Kevin Harris: His next question seems to ask if the causal principle is just an extrapolation. The questioner says,
What I'd like to know is how Craig has managed to convince himself that his intuition is not ultimately reducible to induction. How could this causal principle be anything other than an inference, conscious or subconscious, Craig has derived from his empirical knowledge of ex materia causality in the physical world. Does he honestly expect us to believe something like this is knowable in the absence of any and all sensory experience? Try this as a thought experiment for a moment. Imagine what it would be like never to have had any sensory experience at all; imagine never having seen anything, heard anything, tasted, smelled, or touched anything from the moment you were conceived. Let the reality of that sink in. What would it mean to be conscious? How would it be different to think, not only without a single instance of exposure to the external world, but without any language to represent it, which we also learn from experience? Now imagine how strange a notion it is, how utterly bewildering it would be, to feel, despite all of this, an infallible certainty that whatever begins to exist has a cause.
Dr. Craig: Here I think he's clearly misunderstood what philosophers mean when they talk about a priori versus a posteriori knowledge. He thinks that what I'm saying is that this intuition is entirely divorced from any sort of sensory experience; that it is pure a priori knowledge apart from sense experience. Now, I don't carry any brief for whether this principle is a metaphysically necessary a priori principle or a metaphysically necessary a posteriori principle. Whether we learn it through a priori means or a posteriori means is really quite a matter of indifference to me. My main contention is simply that it's true.
But even if you take it to be a metaphysically necessary a priori truth, when philosophers talk about a priori knowledge, Kevin, they don't mean what he thinks of in his thought experiment as though you had no sensory experience – you'd never heard or thought or smelled anything, you couldn't even imagine what it would be like to be conscious. That's not what a priori knowledge means. For Immanuel Kant who talked about synthetic a priori knowledge, such knowledge might be learned through experience but it's not ultimately based on experience. So, for example, take the truth that 2 + 2 = 4. That's plausibly a candidate for a metaphysically necessary a priori truth, but that doesn't mean that you could grasp that proposition if you'd never had any experience of the world, if you were some sort of isolated contentless brain or consciousness. Not at all. It's perfectly consistent to say that this is a truth that one would only come to grasp if one were a sensing being in the world, but, that once you come to grasp it you can see this isn't based on experience, it's a kind of conceptual truth. Or take, for example, the truth that no bachelor is married. You would need to have experience in order to conceive that but nevertheless once you grasped the concept of a bachelor you can see immediately that no bachelor is married. So when philosophers talk about a priori knowledge they're not imagining what our questioner is thinking of as this consciousness that is devoid of all experience. Again, a priori knowledge can be learned through experience but it's not ultimately based on experience.
Now, in addition to that though, the insight of Saul Kripke is that there are metaphysically necessary truths that are based on experience. We only come to know them through experience. An example Kripke gives would be that gold has the atomic number 79. This is not something you grasp conceptually, like all bachelors are unmarried. Just having the concept of gold won't tell you what its atomic number is. But once you learn through science that the atomic number of gold is 79 you see that this is a metaphysically necessary truth. If there were some other yellow, malleable, metallic substance that didn't have the atomic number 79 it might look like gold but it wouldn't be gold. Similarly, one of my favorite illustrations from Alvin Plantinga: no prime minister is a prime number. I think once again, once you have experience of the world and understand what a prime minister is and a prime number is, you see that that is a metaphysically necessary truth. So you can learn metaphysically necessary truths through experience, and that doesn't make them inductive. It's not as though you survey all the prime ministers of all the countries that have ever sat and you determine, “Ah ha! None of them was a prime number!” So you see the difference between learning something on the basis of experience and some sort of induction?
So I think that the first premise is a metaphysically necessary truth and whether it's a priori or a posteriori is really quite a matter of indifference to me but I don't think it is reducible to induction, if it's a posteriori. Now I did appeal to induction; that was my third argument, remember, for the causal premise. That's my attempt to reach out to the scientific naturalist who accepts only truths that are established by science. I'm saying that here is a truth that is constantly confirmed, never falsified, and therefore even on the basis of scientific induction we have every reason to believe that this premise is true.
Kevin Harris: He goes on to ask:
How is it possible that true propositions about the ultimate nature of reality would just pop into the minds of our primate brains uncaused? How is this not purely a human delusion of grandeur? How is this not resorting to magic? Of course, Dr. Craig would argue that with an omnipotent creator such propositional knowledge comes factory installed in each human being, but not without inditing himself for textbook question-begging. So how is it sensical or even possible to treat this causal principle as anything other than an inference, conscious or subconscious, that has been derived from our empirical experiences of ex materia causality in the physical world?
Dr. Craig: I think that here the questioner has become very uncharitable, and it's very evident what his misunderstanding is. To say that the causal principle is a metaphysically necessary truth that we can grasp either a priori or a posteriori isn't to suggest that true propositions pop into the brains of primates, uncaused. That would indeed be resorting to magic, to think that things just pop into your brain, uncaused. So obviously I don't hold to that. Neither do I take this to be an item of innate knowledge which is what he thinks of as factory installed. It could be innate knowledge. This is what Plato believed – that we have innate knowledge that simply then comes to consciousness on the occasion of experience. But again, I'm not holding any brief for that. I'm not ruling it out, but I'm not holding to it. So in answer to the question “How is it sensical to treat the causal principle as anything other than an inductive inference?” I think I've given three reasons for why I think this principle is more plausibly true than not. Only the last one appeals to induction, but I think even if it is an inductive inference, it's a sound one that we ought to believe. And it isn't just based on inductive inferences about material causes, Kevin; we grasp ourselves as efficient causes – for example, of our own thoughts. When mental states are causes of subsequent mental states, these mental states don't just pop into being uncaused. There is efficient causation between mental states, or when my soul causes a movement in my body. So it's not just a matter of appealing to material causes here, it's a matter of thinking about efficient causes.
So I hope that the questioner will agree with me that we've got good grounds for thinking this causal premise is more plausibly true than not, and that therefore the attention in this argument must turn to that second premise, that the universe began to exist.
 Total Running Time: 23:37 (Copyright © 2013 William Lane Craig)