June 17, 2007

Causal Premiss of the Kalam Argument

You run the Cosmological argument as follows

(1) Whatever begins to exist must have a cause.

(2) The universe began to exist.

(3) Therefore the universe had a cause.

It is the first premise that confuses me. The support offered for (1) seems to undermine ex nihilo creation.  When pressed to defend (1) you say things like “being cannot come from non-being”, “something cannot come from nothing”, etc.  So (1) is true because (A) it is not possible for something to come from nothing.  You say that (A) is evident and call it “a first principle of metaphysics.”  What is the sense of “possibility” here?  It cannot mean physical possibility, for clearly natural laws will not apply to the creation event.  As far as I can see it must mean something like logical possibility. But if it is logically impossible for something to come from nothing, then it is not possible for God to make something come from nothing.  For surely God cannot violate logical laws, can he?

It seems that what you really want to say is something like (B) it is not possible for something to come from nothing—psst, without a cause.  But there is nothing of the self evidence and intuitive force in B as there is in A.  It is not the something coming from nothing uncaused that we find puzzling; it is simply the something coming from nothing.

This is evidenced by your own puzzlement over the ex nihilo doctrine.   When I see you pressed on this point the argument seems to become abductive.  You say something like “I do not know how God could have created the universe out of nothing, I only know that it is doubly absurd to say that it happened without cause.”  But there is no double absurdity, there is simply absurdity-and both explanations are absurd.  What is required is that God is a better explanation than an event without causation (if indeed that is the only other option).  I don’t know exactly what constitutes the necessary and sufficient conditions for a good explanation, but I think that it has something to do with removing confusion.  That is, a good explanation should leave us less confused about the phenomena.  But if it is confounding to the point of absurdity that something should leap into existence out of nothing, is it really any less absurd if someone is standing over it and “saying let there be...”.

I don’t know.

Furthermore, this is a radically different kind of causation.  I take it that whatever notion of causation is involved it must be something like efficient causation.  When we observe efficient causation we observe something acting on another thing to bring about some result.  I think that I can understand what it means, for example, for a person to act on a block to cause a statue.  I think that this is a perfectly intelligible notion of causation. But what would it be for a person to act upon nothing in such a way as to bring about an effect.  Efficient causation as creation or ‘bringing about’ is an acting upon a thing.  So whatever causation you have in mind here is radically different than anything we usually understand by the term.  And the less I understand this notion of causation, the less inclined I find myself inclined to consider the God hypothesis to be the better explanation.


In getting at your complex question, William, let me first review three reasons I have given for believing the first premiss of the kalam cosmological argument.  First and foremost, the causal premiss is rooted in the metaphysical intuition that something cannot come into being from nothing.  To suggest that things could just pop into being uncaused out of nothing is to quit doing serious metaphysics and to resort to magic.  Second, if things really could come into being uncaused out of nothing, then it becomes inexplicable why just anything and everything do not come into existence uncaused from nothing.  Finally, the first premiss is constantly confirmed in our experience, which provides atheists who are scientific naturalists with the strongest of motivations to accept it.

My first reason corresponds to your

(A)  It is not possible for something to come from nothing. 

I think that the principle ex nihilo nihil fit (out of nothing nothing comes)is as certain as anything in philosophy and that no rational person sincerely doubts it. But this principle does not in any way contradict the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), as the medieval thinkers who espoused both realized.  For only in the case of creation is there a cause which brings the relevant object into being.

Your first question is, “What is the sense of ‘possibility’ here?”  The answer is “metaphysical possibility.”  This is a modality in between physical possibility and strict logical possibility and is often called “broad logical possibility” by contemporary philosophers.  To illustrate, it is strictly logically possible that “The Prime Minister is a prime number” (there is no logical contradiction here); but, notwithstanding, such a thing is metaphysically impossible (incapable of actualization).  There are all sorts of truths—like “Everything that has a shape has a size,” “Nothing can be red all over and green all over,” “No event precedes itself,” etc.—which are not strictly logically necessary but are, I think, metaphysically necessary.  I think that the first premiss of the kalam argument is a metaphysically necessary truth.

As for your

(B) It is not possible for something to come from nothing without a cause,

I think it’s logically equivalent to (A).  They entail each other.  Just consider:  suppose someone proposed to refute  (A) by saying, “Something can come from nothing if it has a cause!”  The proponent of (A) would rightly think that the other person hadn’t understood him.  If something has a cause, then it doesn’t come from nothing.  To come from nothing is to lack all causal conditions, period.  Think of it this way:  if something comes into being uncaused from nothing, then obviously it comes into being from nothing  (B→A).  And if something comes into being from nothing, then it comes into being uncaused from nothing (A→B).  So (A) and (B) are logically equivalent.  So either  (A) or (B) can be used to support premiss (1).

Now it’s correct that two logically equivalent statements can have different intuitive force.  I exploit that in my statement of the first premiss of the moral argument.  It’s logically equivalent to say “If God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist” or “If objective moral values exist, then God exists,” but the first is more intuitively obvious.  So it may be more effective dialectically to use the more intuitive formulation.

Now is the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo absurd?  No, for it doesn’t contradict (A).  The universe has a creative cause.  By contrast the atheist who, like my friend Quentin Smith, asserts that the universe just sprang into being without any causal conditions whatsoever does contradict (A).

We can get some clarity on the question by recalling Aristotle’s distinction between an efficient cause and a material cause.  An efficient cause is something that produces its effect in being; a material cause is the stuff out of which something is made.  Michelangelo is the efficient cause the statue David, while the chunk of marble is its material cause.

If something popped into being out of nothing, it would lack  any causal conditions whatsoever, efficient or material.  If God creates something ex nihilo, then it lacks only a material cause.   This is, admittedly, hard to conceive, but  if coming into being without a material cause is absurd, then coming into being with neither a material cause nor an efficient cause is, as I say, doubly absurd, that is, twice as hard to conceive.  So it’s not open to the non-theist confronted with the beginning of the universe to say that while creatio ex nihilo is impossible a spontaneous origin ex nihilo is.

If I may speak for you, it seems to me that what you’re really arguing is the following:  The justification which I offer in support of premiss (1), namely (A), actually supports a stronger premiss, namely,

1´.  Whatever begins to exist must have both an efficient and a material cause.

But then the kalam argument would look like this:

1´.  Whatever begins to exist must have both an efficient and a material cause.

2.  The universe began to exist.

3.  Therefore, the universe had both an efficient and a material cause.

Not only is (3) incompatible with creatio ex nihilo, as you point out, but even worse, it is incoherent.  For the universe is here defined as the whole of material reality.  The whole of material reality cannot have a prior material cause because if it did, then it did not really begin to exist!  So the person who accepts (1´) cannot accept (2).  Now you evidently do accept (A), since, as you put it, things can’t “leap into existence out of nothing,” and therefore you also accept (1´).   So the premiss you really reject is (2).  Matter and energy, or the universe, must be eternal.

What I want to challenge is your justification for the stronger claim  (1´).   Why think that efficient causation without material causation is impossible?  We’ve seen that (A) doesn’t, in fact,  justify (1´).  What (A) justifies is that there has to be some sort of cause of the thing that begins, but there’s no reason to think that it must be a material cause.  In your final paragraph you appeal to our normal experience of seeing efficient causes acting in tandem with material causes as justification for (1´).  But why think that this common concatenation must always be the case? 

Perhaps it would be helpful here to think of cases where we could have efficient causation without material causation.  I’ve been working heavily on the topic of abstract objects like numbers, sets, propositions, and so on.  Many philosophers believe that these immaterial objects exist necessarily and eternally.  But there are many abstract objects which seem to exist contingently and non-eternally, for example, the equator, the center of mass of the solar system, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and so forth.  None of these is a physical object.  Tolstoy’s novel, for example, is not identical to any of its printed exemplars, for these could all be destroyed and replaced by new books.  Nor can Beethoven’s Fifth be identified with any particular series of ink marks or any performance of the symphony.  Now these things all began to exist:  the equator, for example, didn’t exist before the earth did.  But if they began to exist, did they have a cause or did they come into being out of just nothing?  (Notice that it makes sense to ask this question even though these entities are immaterial and so have no material cause.)  Many philosophers would say that they did indeed have a cause: it was Tolstoy, for example,  who created Anna Karenina.  So in cases such as these (and they are legion), we do, indeed, have instances of efficient causation without material causation.  You may not agree that such abstract objects really exist;  but I think we have to say that the view defended by our philosophical colleagues is a coherent one. 

The examples of literary and musical creation are suggestive.  Could God have analogously thought the universe into being, just as Tolstoy created Anna Karenina?  It’s a provocative idea. 

You say that appealing to God as the cause of the universe may not be the better explanation.  “Better than what?”  I ask.  If the alternative is spontaneous coming into being out of nothing, I think we both agree that’s impossible.  The only recourse for the atheist is then to deny premiss (2) of the kalam argument.  But if we have good evidence for the beginning of the universe, as I think we do, then the God alternative is looking better all the time.