Causation and Spacetime
Dear Dr. Craig
I have a question regarding the cause of the universe. We Christians hold God to be the cause and explanation of the natural world, yet Atheists frequently respond to me saying that you cannot apply causality to the universe itself. Because the universe is all of time and space, and since causality presuposses time and space, therefore the universe cannot have a cause.
So asking what the cause or the explanation of the universe is becomes meaningless.
So how can we say that God caused the universe or is the sufficient reason for the contigent existence of the universe if you cannot apply causality outside of time, or better said, if you cannot apply causality to time and space itself?
Could you help me out? Does the whole notion of causality indeed require the existence of spacetime?
The notion of causality seems to imply time. But if time began to exist, how can we sensibly speak of time (or space-time) needing a cause?
In order to deflect the question of how everything came from nothing, many non-theists reverse the burden of proof and ask us who then created God. While I know THEY must answer our objection adequately, what's an adequate answer to their objection. Thanks!
I must confess that I'm baffled why atheists would think that causation presupposes time and space or at least time. Janey and John, you need to ask them what they mean by "causality" and what reason they have for believing that it presupposes time and space. They're the ones raising the objection, so make them shoulder their burden of proof. After all, it's not just obvious that causality presupposes time and space. So ask them for their argument.
You could also do a thought experiment. Ask them why one timeless entity—say, a number—could not depend timelessly for its existence on another timeless entity. Why is that impossible? Why couldn't God timelessly sustain a number in existence? That would clearly be an asymmetric causal relation. Why is that impossible?
Maybe they'll say that causes always precede their effects in time. But then ask them if they think simultaneous causal relations are impossible. Why can't the cause and effect exist at the same time in an asymmetric dependency relation? For example, a heavy chandelier hanging on a chain from the ceiling. The ceiling and chain hold up the chandelier; the chandelier and chain don't support the ceiling!
Indeed, you could ask them if all causation isn't in the end simultaneous. Imagine C and E are the cause and the effect. If C were to vanish before the time at which E is produced, would E nevertheless come into being? Surely not! But if time is continuous, then no matter how close to E's appearance C's disappearance takes place, there will always be an interval of time between C's disappearance and E's appearance. But then why or how E came into being when it does seems utterly mysterious, for there is no cause at that moment to produce it.
They might say that even simultaneous causation presupposes time. Yes, the cause and effect occur at the same time. But then why couldn't such a causal dependency exist timelessly? In simultaneous causation the cause and effect exist co-incidently. But in a timeless state two things can exist co-incidently in a dependence relation. So if simultaneous causation is possible, I see no reason to think timeless causation is impossible. At least we'd need an argument to show that it is.
In any case, even if time is a precondition for causality, why should that preclude God's being the cause of the universe? Many Christian philosophers and theologians, perhaps the majority today, think that God has existed for infinite past time and created the physical universe a finite time ago. This was Isaac Newton's view as well. He thought absolute time was just God's duration, which is from eternity to eternity. Ask your friends why they think Newton's view was wrong.
If they say, Janey, that "the universe is all of time and space," ask them how they know that. Maybe God existed prior to His creating the universe. Are they begging the question by assuming that the universe is all there is? If they say that time cannot exist without space, then point out to them that even a sequence of mental events, thoughts passing in succession, is sufficient to generate a before/after sequence and, hence, time. If God has a stream of consciousness, then there would exist time prior to the beginning of the universe. So what's the problem?
Suppose they say that God must be the Creator of time if He exists. You could say that God creates time from eternity, just as a chandelier could being hanging from the ceiling from eternity; or you could say, as I think, that God is timeless without (not before!) the universe and that time comes into being at the moment He creates the universe. In that case we're back to simultaneous causation again: God's creating the universe is simultaneous with the universe's coming into being (what could be more obvious?). So what's the problem?
Maybe they'll say that a timeless being can't cause something in time. But then you can say that perhaps God became temporal at the moment He created the universe. He's timeless without the universe and in time with the universe. Ask them to show you any incoherence in that idea.
In fact, here you should turn the tables and ask them how time could come into existence with no causal conditions whatsoever. That is truly bizarre. Why did time and the universe begin to exist at all? How could they begin to exist in the absence of any causal conditions?
If they pose your question in reply, Andrew, then point out that God never began to exist and so doesn't need a cause. Indeed, in thinking that God must have a cause, aren't they admitting what they at first denied, namely, that causation is applicable outside of space and time after all?