July 12, 2015

Lessons from Time and Creation

Dear Dr. Craig

I am Samuel, I am 20 years old, and I am currently studying for a science degree in Biology and Chemistry at the university of Malta.

An argument which was brought up by my Atheist friend, which is currently studying physics and Chemistry, regarding the origins of the universe. My friend argued that because there was no time prior to the big bang, therefore there was no causal relation involved, because causes require time in order to occur. My response was that this thus implies a cause which transcends time, and I brought up an analogy to help explain it. I said that when a writer writes a story, the cause of the story goes beyond the reality of story timeline. But that does not mean that the story timeline lacks a cause because the cause didn't happen within the parameters of the story's reality. Anyway, my friend was not convinced, so I wanted to see how you would respond to such an argument.

Does the universe have a cause, even when time didn't even exist prior the big bang?

Please let me know, I am truly delighted to see a true Christian being able to defend the faith with such efficiency and humility. I deeply desire in becoming a Christian apologist myself one day. Keep up the good work Dr. Craig, I am sure that God reached many troubled teens through your works.




I don’t think I’ve ever received a letter from Malta before, Samuel! It’s encouraging to know that Reasonable Faith is touching lives on your island. Thank you for writing!

Although I’ve already addressed your question in the number of places, I have chosen it this week because of the broader lessons we might learn from dealing with it.

For example, I’ve often been puzzled by the fact that Christians frequently seem to think that an argument they have shared with an unbeliever is no good because the unbeliever remained in the end unconvinced by it. This is a mistake. The soundness of an argument is not determined by whether the unbeliever with whom you’ve shared it is convinced. On the contrary, remaining unconvinced may be nothing more than a manifestation of his closed-mindedness.

Someone who is deeply invested in his position will strongly resist attempts to convince him otherwise. A Christian campus minister at Simon Fraser University in Canada once remarked to me that he had observed in talking with students that we all have a sceptical dial inside which we tend to turn way up when confronted with claims that run contrary to our own beliefs but which we dial way down when it comes to our own beliefs. For that reason, one cannot infer because your unbelieving friend found your argument unconvincing that therefore the argument was not a good argument.

I understand your frustration because we want so badly to convince the unbeliever of the truth and so want arguments that “work.” But whether an argument works is a person-relative matter. Some people will simply refuse to be convinced. Perhaps we could infer in such a case that the argument was not effective (though it may be effective with someone else!), but we cannot say that the argument is unsound or weak. And even if the argument was ineffective, it doesn’t follow that the argument was useless. The argument may serve as a sort of spiritual thermometer which reveals to you the coldness of heart of the person toward God. This fact can be very helpful to know in your effort to share the Gospel with him.

Now in your case, it seems to me that your response to his objection is prima facie a decent and provocative response which at least merits consideration. The idea is that the time-line in a novel may have a beginning at some point (say, 1868), but one cannot infer that the novel’s author must therefore have existed in 1868 or earlier in order to cause the novel to come into existence. Just as the author of the novel transcends the timeline of the novel, so God as the Creator of the universe may transcend our timeline and yet be timelessly its cause.

My misgiving about the analogy is that while it works well on a tenseless view of time, according to which all moments in time are equally real and temporal becoming is merely a subjective feature of human consciousness, the analogy fails on a tensed view of time, according to which not all moments of time are equally real and temporal becoming is a real, objective feature of the world. (Ironically, the tenseless view is widespread in physics, so that your friend should have resonated with the idea of a cause which transcends the four-dimensional spacetime manifold.) Be that as it may, notice that mine is a reasoned reply, not simply a personal psychological report that I’m not convinced. You didn’t explain why your friend was unconvinced, but if he had nothing more to offer than a psychological report, then his response is philosophically uninteresting.

A second lesson to be learned from this exchange concerns the burden of proof. Your friend’s argument against the universe’s having a cause depends upon the bold claim that “causes require time in order to occur.” You rightly dispute this premiss, offering an analogy to make sense of a timeless cause. But I don’t see that you asked your friend for the warrant for his claim. The argument is, after all, his argument, and so he has to support its premisses. You need to ask what evidence he has for his crucial premiss.

Instead, you have assumed the entire burden of proof yourself of supplying a defeater of his premiss. Now maybe in your conversation, he gave some evidence for this premiss, but there’s no mention of it in your letter. You need to challenge him to provide some warrant for his claim. Notice that it’s not enough for him to say that in physics all causes are temporally located. For then you can reply, “That’s because physics is concerned only with physical causes. But in the case of a cause of the universe, we’re talking about a cause which is metaphysical, not physical. I can’t see any reason to think that such a metaphysical cause must be temporally located—can you?”

A third lesson that emerges from your exchange is a reminder how complex the issues really are. For example, your friend assumes that “there was no time prior to the big bang.” Doubtless he makes that assumption because he is equating time with physical time, the time featured in theories of physics. But a beginning of physical time does not entail a beginning of time itself. Imagine God existing alone without the universe. Would such a state be timeless? Not if God experiences a succession of states of consciousness! For a series of mental events alone is sufficient for time to exist, wholly in the absence of the physical world. God could thus exist temporally prior to creation in a sort of metaphysical time and then create physical time at the big bang. If your friend assumes that physicalism is true, that all that exists is spacetime and its contents, then he is begging the question in favor of atheism and his argument is worthless.

Moreover, our alternatives are still not exhausted. You yourself proposed that we could take God to exist timelessly and to tenselessly create the spacetime manifold. He need no more exist before the big bang than the novel’s author above had to exist before 1868.

Or how about this? Maybe God’s causing the universe to begin to exist is simultaneous with the universe’s beginning to exist. Indeed, when else could it be? Certainly not earlier or later! Some philosophers have therefore argued that all causation is ultimately simultaneous causation. Even physics sometimes speaks of “contact causes” which do not operate until particles actually come into contact with each other. If God’s causing the universe and the universe’s coming into being are simultaneous (or coincident), then there is no problem with holding that all causes are temporally located and that God is the cause of the universe.

I think you can see that the issue is much more complicated than either you or your friend imagine. The lesson to be learned from this is that things are usually not as simple as they appear. We need to avoid simplistic dichotomies and to familiarize ourselves with the many options open to the Christian theist regarding various questions. That will help us to open up a range of alternatives for the unbeliever in the hopes that he may find at least one of them plausible.

But if he doesn’t, too bad for him! That doesn’t show that your reply is no good.