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Dialogue With Cosmic Skeptic, Part Two

August 31, 2020


The dialogue has produced many more questions from listeners. Dr. Craig answers some of them in this podcast and in the Question of the Week.

KEVIN HARRIS: Bill, this dialogue[1] with this young man came to a crescendo, almost like it was scripted, by getting to the bottom line: are you willing to pay this kind of a price to have this?

DR. CRAIG: For me, I felt that happening in the conversation. It wasn’t scripted. I think the takeaway here is that this is a lesson for all Christian apologists who engage in the defense of the faith. The goal of apologetics is not to give a knockdown argument to your conversation partner that forces him to change his view. Rather, the goal of Christian apologetics is to raise the intellectual price tag that the unbeliever has to pay in order to resist the premises of your argument. For any argument you give, you can always avoid the conclusion if you're willing to deny one of those premises, but what we want to do is to simply raise the intellectual price tag as high as we can in the hope that our conversation partner will say to himself, “It's not worth it. Being skeptical of this premise has far too high a price tag, such as denying my own existence, to pay, and therefore I'm going to accept the premise.”

KEVIN HARRIS: You have chosen one of the questions of the week that we received as a result of this dialogue with Cosmic Skeptic.[2] Let’s talk about that for just a little bit. Let me read the question.

DR. CRAIG: This dialogue with Alex is remarkable in its reach. The last time I looked it had received nearly 170,000 views just on Cosmic Skeptic's own channel not to speak of on the Reasonable Faith channel. And, as you say, a couple of Muslims have responded to it. I’ve gotten numerous emails from people talking about it. It really has generated a lot of interest including, as you say, this question of the week that came in from someone in the Netherlands.


I very much enjoyed watching your discussion with Alex of CosmicSkeptic. All the disagreements were cordial, respectful, and impersonal.

However, I do have several questions (actually a lot but I'll only ask the important ones).

You said, "If you do take that view of mereological nihilism, then we wouldn't have any inductive examples of things that begin to exist. The first premise would still be true that whatever begins to exist has a cause. But we wouldn't have any examples of things that begin to exist other than these fundamental particles." There is a fundamental and crucial point of deconstruction of Kalam that it seems you're trying to escape, in two ways.

Before we get to those two ways – mereological nihilism. That’s a mouthful.

DR. CRAIG: Yes, that is the view, very simply, that there are no composite objects. So the things that you see around you that are made out of atoms and molecules don't really exist. There are no chairs. There are no people. There are no trees. No planets. These things do not exist because they are composite entities made up of fundamental particles like protons, neutrons, electrons, and so forth. The only thing that really exists are these fundamental particles. Because none of these things exist that enables the skeptic to say none of these things begins to exist because if they don't exist they never begin to exist. Right? So he can deny the premise that the universe began to exist by saying that nothing virtually – no composite objects – exists and therefore none of them begin to exist. Therefore you can deny the inductive argument that I give for the first premise – that the premise of “whatever begins to exist has a cause” is constantly confirmed in science and in our everyday experience. The mereological nihilist would say we don't have any experience of things beginning to exist because none of these objects really do exist. Now, I think that such a viewpoint is absurd because it would require you to say that you do not exist since you're a composite object, and that's, I think, the reductio ad absurdum of the position. As Descartes, I think, quite rightly saw, it is undeniable that I exist because to deny my own existence I would need to exist. Therefore one's own existence is undeniable. So I think it's undeniably true that mereological nihilism is false, and therefore every one of us has at least one example of something that began to exist – namely himself.

KEVIN HARRIS: Yeah, and I may be jumping ahead a little bit but I'm just making sure of a couple of things that I understand. I've seen some YouTube videos of people who object to the Kalam because they say that this cell phone is not a thing – it's made up of atoms. The atoms are the things but the cell phone is not a thing and so therefore the universe is not a thing subject to the Kalam. The universe is a composition of things – the atoms, the individual indiscrete parts.

DR. CRAIG: Yes. That would be a sort of mereological nihilism, although maybe what it's saying there is that while certain sorts of composite objects exist like me and you, nevertheless the universe doesn't exist. I have two responses to that. First, even if the universe is a sort of scattered object like, say, a school of fish or a flock of birds, nevertheless in its very early phases when the universe was very hot and very dense at that time it really was, I think, one object and not a sort of scattered object like a school of fish. So in its early history the universe was, I think, a bona fide object even if it then fractured apart and blew into dust and galaxies and stars and planets. Second thing is that even if you do deny that the universe is a genuine object you can reformulate the argument in terms of the fundamental particles. All the fundamental particles composing the universe began to exist. That will be then a revised version of the second premise, and the argument goes through as before. The same arguments – the same philosophical arguments, the same scientific arguments – used to prove that the universe began to exist will be used to show that the fundamental particles which are arranged universe-wise, so to speak, began to exist.

KEVIN HARRIS: Let's continue with the question of the week here. He continues,

There is a fundamental and crucial point of deconstruction of Kalam that it seems you're trying to escape, in two ways. Firstly, you avoid the critique of begging the question by the bald-faced reiteration that it would still be true that the Universe "has a cause" if the existence of the Universe is the only example of something beginning to exist. Alex properly reduced the causal argument to a presupposition rather than a premise by showing that it is a unique example with no causal determination. "Has a cause" no longer applies.

DR. CRAIG: Now, that assumes the truth of mereological nihilism and assumes that you do not exist. It also assumes that fundamental particles don't begin to exist which we know they do because that's what atom smashers do. When scientists in a nuclear accelerator make atoms collide you have new particles formed. For example, a proton might give rise to an electron and a neutrino or something of that sort. So we do have experience of things beginning to exist in these atom smashers, namely these fundamental particles in these experiments that take place in nuclear accelerators. But wholly apart from that, the reason this is not a bald-faced assumption is because I give two philosophical arguments for the truth of the causal premise in addition to the inductive argument. Indeed, the inductive argument from science and common experiences for me are the weakest of the three. My primary basis for affirming the causal premise is first and foremost that something cannot come out of nothing, and therefore anything that begins to exist has to have a cause. And then, secondly, we've already alluded to the second argument that if things can come into being without a cause then it becomes inexplicable why just anything and everything doesn't come into being without a cause. So it's quite mistaken to say this is an unsupported presupposition in the absence of the inductive argument. I give three independent reasons for the truth of the causal premise, and even if one of them or two of them should succumb to criticism you still have the other one which will provide grounds for affirming that premise.

KEVIN HARRIS: His second issue, he says (and bear with me; this is a little bit long to our listeners),

Building on that point, it's secondarily important to distinguish that—not only is the Universe the singular example of something beginning to exist—but that all other examples you would like to cite are crucially different than that which you set out to prove. We can grant that compositional things exist in reality and do begin to exist at a specified time as you argue.

DR. CRAIG: Let's just pause there. Now, notice here he has moved away from his mereological nihilism and now he is granting that, in fact, composite objects do exist and that they do begin to exist. OK, go ahead.


But the cause of those objects beginning to exist are predicated on the pre-existence of fundamental particles. We are not talking about creation ex nihilo. We might colloquially use the word "create" interchangably, but that is a limiting function of our language. I would argue that the two different types of creation bear no relationship to one another. Nothing that comes into existence based on the reformation of pre-existing building blocks is sufficient to prove a premise that asserts creation ex nihilo.

DR. CRAIG: Let's pause again. It's not enough, he said, to affirm a premise which asserts creation ex nihilo. Right? Those are his words?


DR. CRAIG: Is that what the first premise asserts?


DR. CRAIG: No, not at all! In fact, if the first premise asserted that whatever begins to exist is created ex nihilo, I would say that premise is manifestly false! Most things which come into being – which begin to exist – have material causes. So the first premise doesn't assert at all what our friend claims it does. It does not assert creatio ex nihilo. In fact, if it did it would be manifestly false. What it just says is that if anything begins to exist then there is some sort of cause for that thing’s coming into being.

KEVIN HARRIS: He wraps up the paragraph by saying,

So even if we accept your view of object realism, we still have this significant problem with the premise.

Well, like you just said, that's not in the premise.

DR. CRAIG: That's not the premise. In fact, I would have a significant problem with his version of the premise.

KEVIN HARRIS: It's as if he's trying to anticipate creation ex nihilo somehow and wants to . . .

DR. CRAIG: This is a very common mistake that Internet infidel-type critics of the argument make. They somehow think that implicit in the premise is creation ex nihilo, and that’s just not true.

KEVIN HARRIS: He goes on,

Where Alex didn't go, and I would have liked to hear you respond, to is the following consideration. Cause and effect are temporal labels. Cause and effect are constrained to work within, and only within, the known Universe. Throwing a ball against the wall (the cause) and watching it bounce back (the effect) only work for two fundamental reasons. (1) Time must pass in order that a cause precedes an effect and (2) space must exist for the ball to travel through. Remove either element and cause/effect becomes an impotent descriptor, nullified of its utility. It is a category error, therefore, to say that our understanding of cause and effect as well as our application of it can fairly be applied to the Universe.

We've probably ought to stop there.

DR. CRAIG: Sure. And what I would say in response is that his assertion that cause and effect are temporal labels is both false and irrelevant. I deal with this in my question of the week number 678[3] on the website. There I explain that the claim that causes necessarily precede their effects in time is not only unjustified but it's very plausibly false. Moreover, even if it were true that cause and effect must both be in time, God's creation of the universe can be simultaneous with the universe’s coming into being. They occur at the same moment of time, namely the first moment of time. In fact, when you think about it, when else could they both occur? There couldn't be a temporal separation between God's causing the universe to begin to exist and the universe’s beginning to exist. So I do think that God's causing the universe to begin to exist occurs in time, namely at the same moment of time at which the universe begins to exist.

KEVIN HARRIS: Just to wrap up what he said, he says,

After all, it was the Big Bang that created time and space. You can then deduce that cause and effect are functionally created as a part of the Universe. One cannot claim that cause and effect governs the creation of the Universe. Otherwise we have circularly applied the created thing to somehow legislate the process by which it was created. When the game of chess was invented, the rules of chess did not constrain how the game was designed. The application is then to obviously argue that the Universe cannot have a cause because the Universe created causality. Until and unless there is some way to demonstrate that causality is a metaphysical construct that supersedes the boundaries of the Universe, we have no license to apply it in the way that Premise 1 of the kalam does.

DR. CRAIG: The question that he's raising here is whether the causal principle that whatever begins to exist has a cause states a metaphysical principle or a merely physical principle. Is this causal principle like the laws of nature (say, Boyle's law of ideal gases or the second law of thermodynamics – laws which apply only within the universe) or is this a metaphysical principle that applies to being as such? Well, as I've already explained, my principal reason for believing in the truth of the causal principle is metaphysical. I think that this is a metaphysical principle that governs all of being and that there's no justification for treating it as though it were a physical law. So I would say that unless and until there is some way to demonstrate that causality is a merely physical construct confined to the boundaries of the universe we have no license to restrict its application in the way that the skeptic wants to do.

KEVIN HARRIS: OK. He asked a couple of more questions here, and he seems to understand the difference between an efficient cause and a physical cause.

DR. CRAIG: A material cause, you mean.

KEVIN HARRIS: A material cause. He says,

What are your thoughts on quantum mechanics, which imply there is no efficient cause (e.g. virtual particles, random atomic decay) to events even if there is a pre-existing matter?

DR. CRAIG: First and foremost, the causal premise in the Kalam cosmological argument is very carefully formulated. It does not say every event has a cause. It says every thing that begins to exist has a cause. So the premise is quite consistent or compatible with there being uncaused events like choices of free will or quantum indeterminate events. Those are not counter-examples to the premise which is that things cannot come into being without a cause. Secondly, though, it's simply not true that quantum mechanics provides a proven counter-example to the causal premise in either form. There are around ten or more different physical interpretations of the mathematical equations of quantum mechanics and all of these are empirically equivalent. There's no way to decide by experiment which of these interpretations is true, and several of these interpretations are fully deterministic. They are as deterministic as Newtonian physics. So it's simply false that quantum mechanics provides a proven counter-example to the principle that every event has a cause or that every thing that begins to exist has a cause.

KEVIN HARRIS: The next thing he brings up, he says,

Alex Vilenkin (a physicist that you respect) says it’s mathematically/physically consistent for a universe to arise without an efficient (freewill) or material cause (pure nothingness). How would you respond to that?

DR. CRAIG: I've responded to Vilenkin's claims in an article in the book The Story of the Cosmos edited by my friend Paul Gould and published in 2019 with Harvest House. The Story of the Cosmos, again, is the title of that book. In Vilenkin’s article that I interact with he mistakenly assumes that anything that is not prohibited by the laws of physics is metaphysically possible. He uses the laws of physics to determine what is metaphysically possible, and he says anything that is not explicitly prohibited by the laws of physics is metaphysically possible. And it's easy to provide counter-examples to that claim. You cannot determine the parameters of the metaphysically possible and impossible through the use of the laws of nature. Indeed, it's metaphysically possible that we could have had a universe governed by different laws of nature. So clearly there is a distinction between metaphysical possibility and mere physical possibility.

KEVIN HARRIS: He brings up the second premise again. He said,

I’d like also to question the second premise: whether the universe did begin to exist. Many physicists say time is not a line that starts at 0. Time gets warped and warps into a ball. So our concept of a point starting at 0 is confused. For this reason, Alan Guth, Anthony Aguirre & other physicists believe the universe is eternal.

KEVIN HARRIS: Here I think he's just misinformed. People like Guth and others do not think that time warps into a ball and therefore doesn't begin to exist. He might be thinking here of the Hartle-Hawking model where the initial stage of the universe is rounded off so that it doesn't go back to a singular point like a cone but it has a rounded hemisphere rather like a badminton birdie. But as Hawking explains in his book with Leonard Mlodinow called The Grand Design, even on that model in which you have the sort of rounded southern hemisphere the point represented by the south pole represents the beginning of the universe. It is not a singular point in the sense that the laws of nature break down there. On the contrary, his model allows you to give a physical description of the universe all the way back to its very beginning at that point of origin at the south pole. So he's mistaken if he thinks that this artifice is a way of avoiding the beginning of the universe. As for Alan Guth, well, he agrees with Sean Carroll and Anthony Aguirre that the best way to have an eternal universe in the past is to say that at some point in the past the arrow of time flips over and runs in the opposite direction so that the universe is sort of like an hourglass. We're the top half of the hourglass and then there is a kind of mirror universe in the lower half of the hourglass in which time runs in the opposite direction. Now, as Aaron Wall and several others have pointed out, even if such a model were physically possible (which it's not) this would not avoid the beginning of the universe. Why? Because that mirror universe in that time-reversed section is in no sense in our past. Rather, what you have here are two different universes with time running in the opposite direction and having a common origin at that point in the neck of the hourglass where the arrow of time flips over. So, in fact, this doesn't succeed in restoring an eternal universe; rather, what it gives you is two expanding universes originating from the same common origin.

KEVIN HARRIS: One more question that he asked, and I have to commend this questioner. He managed to get in enough questions for forty podcasts!

DR. CRAIG: Oh, I know it! He says at the beginning, “I've got a lot of questions but I'm not going to ask them all. I'll just ask a few.” And then boom!

KEVIN HARRIS: The final thing he asks is about disembodied, timeless minds. He says,

And finally, I want to know why you think disembodied, timeless minds could exist. Even if we concede minds are distinct from matter, that doesn’t imply minds could exist apart from matter. And even if they could, that doesn’t imply they are timeless/spaceless. Thank you.

DR. CRAIG: Right. Well, in my published work I give three independent arguments for thinking that the first uncaused cause of the universe is a mind which is invested with free will and consciousness. So he needs to attend to those arguments which can be found in Reasonable Faith in the third edition. Moreover, in my work Time and Eternity which was published by Crossway Books I argue that there is no incoherence at all in the notion of a timeless person. A timeless person would certainly be different than temporal persons in many ways. For example, it would not experience memory or foresight. It wouldn't go through deliberation in the sense of a successive series of thoughts. But nevertheless a timeless person can be invested with self-consciousness, intentionality, and freedom of the will, and those are sufficient conditions for personhood. So I give good arguments for thinking that the first cause of the universe is, in fact, an unembodied mind, and then defeat arguments intended to show that this is incoherent. You could supplement this by showing that arguments that try to reduce the human mind to the brain or a material substratum are also unsuccessful. So there's just no good reason to deny what my three arguments indicate, namely that the first uncaused cause of the origin of the universe is a spaceless, timeless, personal mind.

KEVIN HARRIS: Well, Bill, this is what happens when we're in quarantine, especially in the Netherlands! We send William Lane Craig huge reams of questions! I want to commend everyone to check out question of the week 692 and go through it because you go through and answer everything he says in order. You were succinct because there were a lot of questions there, but it’s an excellent overview on all of the things that he brought up. So I want to encourage people to check out question of the week 692.

DR. CRAIG: Very good.[4]


[2]           QoW #692: (accessed August 31, 2020).

[4]           Total Running Time: 31:22 (Copyright © 2020 William Lane Craig)