Must Everything that Begins to Exist Have a Material Cause?

After your recent rebuttal of another hopeless objection, the author, TheoreticalBS on youtube, claimed that you took his argument out of context and you have done that to many of your critics in the past. My question is do you believe that there is any validity to TBS's statement, and do you plan on refuting his full argument in its entirety? (This is meant as a legitamite question, because I am intrigued to hear your full response and hopefully a continued print between both of you)


- country not specified

Judging from the number of questions that came in this week about this exchange, Reasonable Faith ought perhaps to be looking to TBS for marketing advice!

The history behind this controversy is that a few weeks ago a Question of the Week came in, asking me what I thought of the following argument:

The Kalam Argument AGAINST God:

P1: Nothing which exists can cause something which does not exist to begin existing.
P2: Given (1), Anything which begins to exist was not caused to do so by something which exists.
P3: The universe began to exist.
P4: Given (2) and (3), the universe was not caused to exist by anything which exists.
P5: God caused the universe to begin to exist.
C1: Given (4) and (5), God does not exist.

No context was provided. As I pondered these premises, it struck me that we have here another choice candidate for my forthcoming article “Objections So Bad I Couldn’t Have Made Them Up (or, the World’s Ten Worst Objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument)!” For as I explained in Question of the Week #214, the argument not only assumes that there are non-existent objects but concludes that God is such an object and caused the universe to come into existence. (This could lead to a whole new brand of atheism, one which holds that God does not exist and that worship and service is due this non-existent being!)

Finding the argument to be so ludicrously bad, I figured that it didn’t merit discussion as a Question of the Week; but, having invested some time teasing apart this mare’s nest, I decided to go ahead and post my reflections on it as a Note on my Facebook page. But when I began to receive more questions like #214 from John, I figured that perhaps it was worth pointing out the shortcomings of this line of argument in a Question of the Week after all. It seems that a great many people misunderstand creation to be a non-existent object’s trading in the property of non-existence for existence and, hence, to be an impossibility.

Alas, it now turns out that according to TBS, the argument sent me was not intended to be serious but was something of a joke (about that, at least, we can agree!). Although TBS tries to compare his facetious argument to the simple premises of the kalam cosmological argument, the analogy is altogether wanting. The premises of the kalam argument are coherent, waiting only to be defended. TBS’s argument is a mess and will require for its defense all sorts of retractions about what the premises assert. In fact, TBS now offers a reformulation of his argument, but unfortunately it still retains the mistaken assumptions of the original.

For example, he says, “We’ve never seen something which doesn’t exist caused to begin existing. Things which don’t exist can’t be caused to ‘do’ anything, since they aren’t *there* to be influenced by a cause.” His first statement is patently false. Since at one time in the past you didn’t exist, it would follow from TBS’s principle that either (i) you came into being without a cause or (ii) you do not exist, both of which are absurd. (Yes, yes, I know that TBS says that a thing’s material constituents interact causally with one another; but on his view they do not stand in any causal relation with the thing itself, which therefore begins to exist uncaused.) You must have been caused to begin to exist (perhaps precisely by the prior interaction of your material constituents!). TBS’s argument against this alternative is nothing but a rehearsal of his same fallacious argument based on the assumption that causing something to begin to exist involves acting upon a non-existent object.

I once expressed bewilderment that people like TBS could be taken in by such sloppy thinking. I think I know part of the reason now: such folks are wrestling with significant and difficult philosophical questions but lack the skills to do so rigorously. They do not have the metaphysical and logical training to formulate their ideas and arguments properly. Unfortunately, rather than ask probing questions, they presume to pronounce confidently, even smugly, on these matters.

Am I being uncharitable in so saying? Not at all! There is no peer review on the internet, and incompetents are everywhere, ready to take in the unsuspecting. Sam Harris has warned, “the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for.” Unfortunately, he complains, “anyone with a computer and too much time on his hands can broadcast his point of view and, often enough, find an audience.”i

Let me therefore leave TBS aside and get to the really serious point lying behind his objection that I believe he’s struggling to express. What he really seems to be asserting is that

1. Everything that begins to exist has a material cause.

or perhaps

1*. Every physical thing that begins to exist has a material cause.

This is a really substantive metaphysical question--so important, in fact, that I address it in almost every published defense of the kalam cosmological argument I have ever written! That’s right! In other words, what I’m saying is that when you cut to the chase, the really serious question raised by TBS’s objection is one that I’ve dealt with again and again (e.g., Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, p. 189; Reasonable Faith, p. 152; QoW #215, etc.).

So why are TBS and apparently so many of our readers unaware of this fact? I surmise that the reason is that, as I’ve lamented in the past, people know my work mainly though videos of debates, where substantive objections are rarely raised by opponents, and do not know my published work, where I routinely deal with questions like this (including rigorous explications of locutions like “begins to exist”). If, as TBS alleges, I have made a hobby of responding to internet atheists, then I have made a career of responding to substantive critiques by philosophers like Quentin Smith, Adolf Grünbaum, Graham Oppy, J. Howard Sobel, Wes Morriston, et al. in professional, peer-reviewed journals. There you will find substantive discussion of the objections to the kalam cosmological argument, including the present objection.

Briefly, the causal premiss of the kalam cosmological argument , namely,

1´. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

leaves it an open question whether that cause is efficient or material and is, therefore, a much more modest premiss than (1) or (1*). It is the objector, then, who has the burden to prove that every instance of efficient causation of a (physical) object must be coincident with an instance of material causation as well. TBS’s lame argument against the possibility of influencing non-existent objects was just such an attempt.

Notice that of the three arguments for (1´) that I present, namely,

(i) Something cannot come from nothing.
(ii) If something can come into being from nothing, then it becomes inexplicable why just anything or everything doesn’t come into being from nothing.
(iii) Common experience and scientific evidence confirm the truth of premise 1´.

only the third is an inductive argument from experience which one might think could be matched by the inductive evidence in support of (1) or (1*)—though the evidence of contemporary cosmology, noted below, provides an apparently powerful counterexample to (1) and (1*). The point is that the main grounds for (1´) are metaphysical, not inductive, and are not matched by comparable metaphysical grounds for (1) or (1*).

Once we reach the conclusion of the kalam cosmological argument, towit,

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

we can now inquire as to the nature of that cause. Is it, or can it be, a material object? Both the philosophical arguments and the scientific confirmations of premiss

2. The universe began to exist.

preclude that the cause of the universe is a material object. For if there cannot be an infinite regress of events, it is physically impossible that the cause of the universe be a material object or objects; likewise the scientific evidence supports the conclusion that the origin of the universe was absolute in the sense that all matter and energy, even physical space and time themselves, came into being a finite time ago. So we have really good grounds for affirming the immateriality of the First Cause. The origin of the universe requires, then, an efficient cause of enormous power which created physical time, space, matter, and energy. It is an instance of efficient but not material causation. If this is thought to be metaphysically impossible, then some compelling, overriding argument needs to be given for that conclusion. I have yet to encounter such an argument.

I trust that it’s clear that I have from the beginning of my work on the kalam cosmological argument been engaged with the real objection that underlies TBS’s recent, clumsy expression of it. I’ve been somewhat surprised, therefore, by the tone of many of the questions and comments I’ve received on this head. (Daniel’s was one of the nice ones!) It seems that there are some people out there, whom I’ve never even met, who dislike me intensely and are all too ready to believe the worst about me. As a professional philosopher, it would hardly do for me to misrepresent my interlocutors’ arguments or to erect straw men, nor would such work be accepted for publication in peer-reviewed professional journals. The problem is that internet atheists often ineptly misrepresent their own objections or concerns. I comment on their work only as you bring it to my attention and I find it interesting or instructive.


i Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape (New York: Free Press, 2010), p. 123.