May 13, 2012

The Causal Principle

Dear Dr. Craig,

I was wondering whether a plausible reason why naturalists reject the causal premiss of the kalam argument is that many of them hold a concept of causation in terms of "events", not of things.

This contrast with the Aristotelian and medieval concepts of causes in terms of "things", not of events.

In the recently published scholarly book "The Oxford Handbook of Causation", philosopher John Marenbon comments:

"Most medieval discussion about causation in the medieval Aristotelian and Neoplatonic traditions conceives causes as things -- in most cases, corporeal (a father) or incorporeal (the Agent Intellect) substances. The effects of causes are often things too (for instance, the father is the cause of his son), although causes of motion are also discussed." (p. 52)

As Marenbon explains, "things" (not events) were the relata of the causal relation.

But according most contemporary naturalists (as J.P.Moreland has explained so well), events (not things) are the relata of the causal relation, i.e., only events can be causes or effects.

I think this point has interesting implications, because in your formulation of the kalam, you're explicit that you're talking about things (not about events). In fact, explicitly you have written that the causal principle is fully compatible with the existence of uncaused events (quantum events, for example).

As I once commented to you in a letter, Mario Bunge also includes some spontaneous events in the brain (which are supposed to be "uncaused"), as evidence that the causal principle (regarding events) is not always valid. But Bunge agrees with the causal principle regarding things, because he thinks that the principle "out of nothing nothing comes" is a basic principle of metaphysics and science.

Is not possible that part of the denialism by naturalists of the causal principle in the kalam argument is due to notion of causes in terms of things and not of events which is inherent in your formulation of the kalam argument?

Do you think is it possible to defend a version of the kalam in terms of events alone?

See the "The Oxford Handbook of Causation" (Oxford University Press, 2012) for further discussions on medieval and contemporary philosophical theories of causation.



Mary, this problem was recently brought to my attention by my friend Chris Weaver. Contemporary theories of causation do not think of things as standing in causal relations, but events or states of affairs. For example, the brick’s hitting the window is the cause of the window’s shattering. So contrary to medieval analyses, things like people or horses or even God are not causes of other things. The kalam argument, as I’ve stated it, speaks of things’ having causes, specifically things that begin to exist, like the universe.

One way to respond to this problem would be to challenge the adequacy of contemporary analyses which exclude things from counting as causes. One needn’t deny that events or states of affairs can be causally related, but so can things. I think this is a reasonable response. I note that in Alfred Freddoso’s brilliant translation and commentary on Francisco Suarez’s “On Creation, Conservation, and Concurrence” (Metaphysical Disputations 20-22),* Freddoso argues that Suarez’s account of causation in terms of causal agents and patients is superior to any of the contemporary accounts of the causal relation.

But we needn’t needlessly butt heads either. One can simply reformulate the argument to take account of modern sensibilities:

1. If the universe began to exist, then the universe has a cause of its beginning.
2. The universe began to exist.
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause of its beginning.

In this formulation what stands in need of a cause is an event, namely, the universe’s beginning to exist. The cause will be God’s creating the universe, another event.

Because the argument is so easily reformulated in terms of events, I suspect that that is why no one to my knowledge has ever objected to the argument on the grounds that you mention.

The argument obviously doesn’t imply that every event has a cause. We can still, if we wish, support Bunge’s position, with which I find myself in sympathy, by holding that everything that begins to exist has a cause of its beginning (including virtual particles) but allowing movements or changes in already existing things to occur without causes precisely for the reason he gives.


* South Bend, Ind.: St. Augustine’s Press, 2002.