June 24, 2012
“God” and “the Cause of the Universe”
Dr. Craig, I was wondering what the relationship between the proper name 'God' and the definite description 'The cause of the universe' is. A widely held belief amongst philosophers of language is that definite descriptions do not have the same referent in every possible world. For example, 'The man that won the election in 2008' is not necessarily Barack Obama. It may have been the case that John McCain won. So what about the definite description 'The cause of the universe'? If this doesn't have God as a referent in all possible worlds, then there is a possible word in which God is not the cause of the universe. Does this entail that there is no God? If God exists, does he have to be the cause of the universe out of necessity?
This is an interesting question, Haigen. To answer it straightforwardly, I’d say that God is the cause of the universe, where “is” is to be understood here, not as the “is” of identity (as in “Mark Twain is Samuel Clemens”), but as the “is” of predication (as in “Mark Twain is the most famous American humorist.”) “God” is in this case a proper name which we use to refer to God and the definite description “the cause of the universe” is a predicate which takes “God” as its subject.
So is there a possible world in which God is not the cause of the universe? Yes, indeed! Since creation is a freely willed act of God, God could have refrained from creation and so existed alone without a universe. In such possible worlds, God is not the cause of the universe because there is no universe! So God is not the cause of the universe out of necessity. He has this property contingently.
A more interesting question is whether there is a possible world in which the cause of the universe is something other than God. Traditionally, Christian theology has taken creation ex nihilo to be exclusively the prerogative of God. No finite creature has the power to create a material thing from nothing. (That’s why, by the way, we find no instances, apart from divine acts of creation, of material things beginning to exist without material causes. For a material thing to come into being without a material cause requires an efficient cause of infinite power. It follows that cause of the universe must be a being of infinite power.) So there is no possible world in which something other than God is the cause of the universe.
Obviously the possibility of a world in which God is not the cause of the universe doesn’t entail that God does not exist. On the contrary, in such worlds He’s the only thing that exists! On the other hand, if you think there is a world in which something other than God is the cause of the universe, then you should give up the principle that only God can create a material thing ex nihilo. In such worlds, God would be the cause of the cause of the universe (e.g., a super-powerful angel to whom God delegated the task of creation). But there is no reason to think that there are worlds like that.