Existence of God (part 13)

December 19, 2010     Time: 00:34:29


The Kalam Cosmological Argument continued.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ II. Kalam Cosmological Argument
Lecture 8

We argued that whatever begins to exist has a cause and that both philosophical argument and scientific evidence suggest the universe began to exist. From those two premises, it follows that the universe has a cause.

What we want to do is unpack the theological significance of this conclusion that the universe has a cause. It would seem to point toward some sort of reality beyond the universe, a transcendent reality which brought the universe into being. But is that in fact the case? Well, not according to the prominent atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett! Dennett says, yes, the universe has a cause – he would agree with the Kalam Cosmological Argument that the universe has a cause. But he says the cause of the universe is: itself! Yes, the universe brought itself into being. He’s serious! He says, in what he calls “the ultimate bootstrapping trick,” the universe created itself. That is a reference to the famous Baron von Münchhausen who tried to pull himself up by his own bootstraps. He says this is similar to what happened with the beginning of the universe. The universe, in the ultimate bootstrapping trick, created itself.

I think it’s time for somebody to say that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. This view is simply nonsense. Notice what Dennett is not saying. He is not saying that the universe is self-caused in the sense that it has always been there, that it is eternal, and it is self-existent. No, he is saying the universe began to exist, it came into being, but it created itself. It came into being by creating itself. That is simply nonsense because in order to create itself the universe would have to already exist. It would have to exist before it existed in order to bring itself into existence, which is simply a self-contradiction. So Dennett’s view is really just logically incoherent. He is saying that the universe would have to exist before it existed, which is a self-contradiction.

It follows that the cause of the universe must be some sort of transcendent cause which is beyond the universe.


Question: (inaudible)

Answer: As far as I know, in his [Dennett’s] writings, I have never seen him say anything else than this in addressing this argument. Moreover, when I was at a conference in New Orleans at which he spoke on atheism and I presented this argument in refutation against him and he had a chance to get up and respond verbally, he didn’t give any further refutation. This did seem to be the extent of his response to the argument. It is remarkable, but that is as deep as it goes, it seems.

Question: (inaudible)

Answer: I think it is a metaphysical question, if you are talking about an absolute beginning of the universe. Those who would want to continue science through the Big Bang to some earlier state are really denying that the universe began to exist. They are really denying the second premise and saying this wasn’t an absolute beginning. But once you say that there is an absolute beginning of space and time, matter and energy, then you have reached the threshold of science. Science investigates the natural world, and if the natural world comes into being at that moment, then it is a supernatural explanation that is needed – something that is not scientific but metaphysical, beyond physics. So I think you are quite right in saying that if you agree that nature begins at that moment – the natural world begins at that moment – , then science, which only studies what is in the natural world, has reached its threshold, or its limit, which is eternity.

Question: On Dennett’s argument, couldn’t you then say the universe could uncreate itself?1

Answer: I suppose so, though he might not disagree with that. And that wouldn’t then solve the problem that we are getting at here, and that is to try to see if there is some theological significance in the cause of the universe. And I want to maintain that there is, and that [response] would leave that unrefuted. So I think we need to ask ourselves, is this an adequate explanation – that the universe created itself? I think it is just plainly self-contradictory.

Followup: He is trivializing it in saying anything is possible. But that is not science. The evidence doesn’t indicate that the universe can create itself.

Answer: But it is worse than that! It is not just that this isn’t science; it is that this is self-contradictory. So it is not possible. This is impossible. That is what a self-contradiction entails – that this is logically impossible.

Question: When you started with the Leibniz discussion, you explained the definition of an argument is 51% versus 49% certain.

Answer: What I said was, for the argument to be a good one, the premises do not need to be known with certainty. They just need to be more plausible than their opposites, or as you put it 51% to 49%. And you go with what is more plausible, the premise or its opposite.

Followup: Do your opponents buy into that?

Answer: Yes, I think so, by and large. That is a religiously neutral standard of argument.

Followup: But it sounds as if Dennett, to make that statement, can’t possibly be giving any weight whatsoever to the idea of a Creator. He isn’t even considering it.

Answer: Yes, I think you are making a very good point. What you are saying is that Dennett offers one interpretation of what the cause of the universe might be but that doesn’t show that it is the correct interpretation. What about there being a transcendent Creator? He doesn’t say anything to weigh the two against each other. He just simply throws this one out as a possibility, and in that sense I guess you are right. He says, “Here is a possible explanation – the cause of the universe is that it created itself.” But he gives no argument in favor of it. In fact, I like the way you are thinking. This is very, very good. See, what he is saying is, “It is not enough, Mr. Atheist, for you to give a possibility – give us an argument for why your view is right.” You are so correct to be thinking that way, to say, “You have the burden of proof to show why your alternative is better than mine.” It is not enough to throw out a possibility, if the idea of a Creator is a more plausible explanation. What I am arguing is that Dennett’s view isn’t even a possibility; it is nonsense. So there has to be some sort of a transcendent cause of the universe. But you are quite right in saying that he just sort of throws out possibilities and thinks that is enough to refute the argument; and that is not true.

[Q&A: Asks about the universe and reality’s just being an idea in the mind of God; rather then go off on a rabbit trail, Dr. Craig doesn’t answer this.]2

Question: A defining feature of a number of these people is that they a priori want to exclude anything other than a naturalistic argument on anything. As you talked about when you say science deals with the natural world and uses the five senses, they want to equate that as the only elements of truth. What they do is they identify science with materialism, and that is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. That is why he won’t let anything in.

Answer: Yes, quite right! I think you are right that, for many of these folks, the idea of a supernatural reality is just impossible, and therefore such an explanation cannot even be entertained. They would regard it as nonsensical as I regard his explanation. But then they owe us an argument. They need to give us a reason to think that a transcendent Creator of the universe is a self-contradiction or cannot be real. And until such an argument is forthcoming, that is not an objection; that is just a psychological bias against the supernatural.

If the Universe Has a Cause… A Conceptual Analysis

If we are compelled to conclude to a transcendent cause of the universe, what properties must this cause possess in order to be the transcendent cause of the physical space-time world?

First of all, this cause must itself be uncaused. It must be an uncaused First Cause. Why? Because we have seen that an infinite regress of causes is impossible. Remember that the philosophical arguments in support of the beginning of the universe were that you cannot have an infinite regress of causes, and, therefore, the series of causes must terminate in an absolutely first, uncaused cause.

Secondly, this being must transcend space and time because it created space and time. As the creator of space and time, it must exist beyond space and time because it brought space and time into existence. What does that have for further implications? That means that this being, therefore, must be a non-physical, or immaterial, being. This must be a spiritual reality; an immaterial, nonphysical being. Why? Because physical things exist in space – they have dimensions. Moreover, physical things exist in time. Physical things are always changing, at least at the atomic level, where there is just constant motion and change going on. So if you get back to an absolutely first, spaceless, timeless being, it must be an immaterial, non-physical, changeless reality.

Obviously, we can also infer that this being would have to be unimaginably powerful, if not omnipotent. Why? Because it created all of physical reality from nothing. It created the space-time material universe without any sort of material cause. So it is the efficient cause of the universe – it brings matter and energy, space and time into being, but it does so without any sort of stuff, or material, because it creates the universe out of nothing. So it would have to be unfathomably powerful, if not omnipotent.

Finally, this is plausibly a personal being. In our discussion of the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument that was mentioned a moment ago, we already saw one reason why a cause of the universe must plausibly be a personal being.

You remember that I said that there are only two kinds of things that we are aware of that can fit the bill of being an immaterial, timeless, changeless reality. One is an abstract object, like a mathematical entity such as a number or a set. Numbers are not material, physical things; if they exist, they are immaterial realities. They don’t exist in space – the number 7 isn’t hiding under a table here in the room or any place else in the universe.3 They are timeless as well – it is not as if the number 7 endures through time. So abstract objects, mathematical entities, can be immaterial, changeless, spaceless, timeless objects. The other candidate would be a mind. That is to say, an unembodied consciousness or self. The mind is not a material entity, and it need not be constantly changing as long as its thoughts are changeless and focused on a single intuition of reality. And a mind isn’t something that exists necessarily in space.

So we can either have an abstract object or an unembodied consciousness as a cause of the universe. And I argued that it cannot be an abstract object because abstract objects do not stand in causal relationships. This is part of the very definition of what it means to be an abstract object. The number 7 doesn’t have any effects, it has no causal impact upon the universe, nor do any other mathematical entities. So the defining property of abstract objects is their being causally impotent. They do not stand in causal relations. Therefore, it follows that the cause of the origin of the universe must be an unembodied mind – a personal self.

That was the reason I gave when we talked about the Leibnizian argument. Let me now share a different reason for the personhood of the first cause that was given by our friend al-Ghazali, who was the Muslim philosopher that propounded the KalamCosmological Argument during the Middle Ages. Al-Ghazali argued that the first cause must be a personal being because otherwise it is impossible to explain how you can get a temporal effect with a beginning from a changeless, eternal cause.

Here is the problem. If a cause is sufficient to produce its effect, then if the cause is there, the effect should be there. Otherwise, the cause isn’t really sufficient for the effect – you would need something else, and then that would be the cause. So if the cause is sufficient to produce its effect – if the cause is there in all its glory – , then the effect must be there as well. The cause cannot exist without its effect once the sufficient conditions for the effect are given.

Let me give you an illustration. Suppose that the cause of water’s freezing is the temperature’s being below 0°C. If the temperature were below 0°C from eternity past, then any water that was around would be frozen from eternity. It would be impossible for the water to just begin to freeze a finite time ago. Once the cause is given, the effect must be given as well. The problem is, if we have a transcendent and timeless cause that is there, why isn’t the effect also permanent as well? Why did the effect only begin a finite time ago if the cause is eternal? How can you have an eternal cause but an effect that only has a beginning a finite time ago?

Al-Ghazali’s ingenious answer to this dilemma was to say that this is possible only if the cause is a personal agent who is endowed with freedom of the will and who can therefore freely will to create spontaneous, new effects that aren’t determined by any prior antecedent conditions. The cause of the universe can be a personal agent who freely wills to create a universe with a beginning. This act of creating is a freely willed act that doesn’t have any prior determining conditions, so it can be something that is spontaneous and new. For example, to return to an illustration, let’s imagine a man who has been sitting from eternity, and he suddenly wills to stand up. You would have an effect with a beginning, namely, his standing, arise from a cause which is eternal and has always been there.4 Philosophers cause this kind of causation “agent causation.” The cause is a free agent who, through an exercise of his free will, can bring about a new effect. So we are brought not simply to a transcendent cause of the universe, but to its personal Creator.


Question: Two things: One, how would you respond, in a very quick and accessible way, when someone asks what created God. Two, what do you do when someone says they don’t even know what you mean when you talk about a disembodied existence – they don’t know how that is even plausible.

Answer: With respect to the first one, I would say that because an infinite regress is impossible, there has to be a first, uncaused cause. If every cause has a prior cause, then you see you immediately generate an infinite regress. But the whole point of those two philosophical arguments for the beginning of the universe was to show that an infinite regress of events or causes is impossible. So those arguments apply not just to the universe, they would apply to anything, even to God. You cannot have an infinite regress of causes if those arguments are correct. You have to get back to a first, uncaused cause. That would answer the question, “What is God’s cause?” – there is no such cause. He is an eternal being. Notice that doesn’t violate the first premise, which says whatever begins to exist has a cause. That doesn’t exclude that something that exists eternally can exist without a cause. In fact, that is what philosophers believe about, say, numbers and other abstract entities that exist timelessly – they don’t have causes; they are just eternal. That is what the atheist has traditionally believed about the universe – that it is just eternal and therefore uncaused. But in light of the evidence for the second premise, that is not tenable. So, I would say that the quick answer is just an infinite regress of causes is impossible.

Now the second part of the question is more difficult. I have encountered this again and again on college campuses when I speak. People have absolutely no idea what you are talking about when you talk about a consciousness or a mind without a body. We have become so materialized in our culture, so reductionistic, that people equate the mind with, say, the brain, which is an organ that sits in your cranium, rather than understanding the mind as a self. Theism cannot even get off the ground if you can’t conceive of a person without a body because that is what God is. So I think we would have to say something about ourselves as immaterial selves who happen to be connected with a body but point out that on reductive materialism, there are a number of problems. For example, the brain is not joyful, or happy, or cheery. Those are mental states and would not characterize a physical organ. Those are mental properties that could only characterize an immaterial self. You could also point to the phenomenon of intentionality, which is the idea of having thoughts about something. I think “about” lunch, or I think “about” my house or my pet. Physical objects don’t have intentionality; they don’t have “aboutness” – these are properties of mental states which cannot be reduced to the brain. Finally, freedom of the will is also something that we ourselves experience deeply, and yet that is not something that would characterize a physical entity that is simply the product of antecedent determining causes. To have freedom of the will you need an immaterial self that has the ability to influence brain states. Otherwise, if the causation is all one way – if it is just from brain to mind – , then everything you think is determined. But if you think you can actually cause things to happen in your body, like willing to lift your arm or willing to write with a marker or willing to take a step, then you have causation that goes from the mind to the brain – it is a two way street. It is not just brain-to-mind; you have mind-to-brain causation.5 That implies this non-reductive view of the self, and it implies that you are an immaterial entity that is conjoined or correlated with a physical brain but not reducible to it. Therefore, I think in our deepest introspective knowledge of ourselves, we already have acquaintance with an immaterial self. Many of us believe that when our physical bodies die, that immaterial self continues to exist. This has certainly been the majority view among the peoples of the world; this is hardly an obscure view. I think the atheist would need to give us some kind of argument as to why it is impossible to have an immaterial self without a body. But I think you are certainly right in saying that this is an obstacle that increasingly we, as Christians, are going to confront in our culture because of this reductive, materialistic view of human persons that seems to be so prominent.

Question: Can you conclude that there is only one mind? If there was more than one mind, then you’d have to re-introduce time.

Answer: This argument does not prove that there is only one self or one mind that has caused the universe. Here I would simply appeal to Ockham’s Razor, which says, “Don’t multiple causes beyond necessity.” Ockham’s Razor says you are only justified in inferring those causes which are required to explain the effect. What is required to explain the effect here, that being the origin of the universe, is an immaterial, transcendent, personal Creator. It would be unjustified to infer that there is more than one of these. So Ockham’s Razor will simply shave away these additional entities. On the basis of this argument alone, it doesn’t prove monotheism, but on the other hand, I think Ockham’s Razor would say that you would be unjustified in inferring anything more than one personal Creator of the universe.

Question: I found the easiest way to explain the personal nature of the cause of the universe is with the example of the person walking into the kitchen with a pot of water boiling and you ask why the water is boiling. You can get two answers, one is the scientific (how water boils) and one is the personal (“I wanted some tea”).

Answer: This is an argument that Richard Swinburne, the Oxford philosopher, has developed for the personhood of the cause of the universe. Swinburne says that there are two kinds of explanations. There are scientific explanations which are given in terms of laws of nature and initial conditions. On the other hand, there are personal explanations which are given in terms of an agent and his volitions, what he wills to do. Both of these are legitimate sorts of explanations, and in some contexts it would be totally inappropriate to give one rather than the other. When you walk into the kitchen and see the kettle boiling and ask “Why is the kettle boiling?”, clearly you are looking for a personal explanation, not a scientific one. It doesn’t mean a scientific one couldn’t be given, but the personal one is what is being asked for here. What Swinburne points out is that the first state of the existence of the universe, its beginning, cannot have a scientific explanation because there aren’t any laws of nature or initial conditions from which that first state could be explained because it is the first state – there is no antecedent state. For the first state of the universe, a scientific explanation is ruled out, and thus it has to be a personal explanation. And that will get you to a personal Creator of the universe. So I think we have three good arguments for the personhood of the Creator. One would be the argument from the dilemma: either an abstract object or a mind; not an abstract object; therefore a mind.6 The second would be al-Ghazali’s argument that it is only by a personal agent that you can explain how an effect with a beginning could arise from an eternal cause. And the third argument would be the Swinburne argument that you cannot have a scientific explanation of the first state of the universe, and therefore it has to be a personal explanation.

Question: In your book, you argue against an infinite regress of events as well as causes with the idea that would constitute an actual infinity. But if we consider God’s thoughts as events, which I don’t believe is much of a stretch, couldn’t you use that argument as God himself would have to have a beginning?

Answer: No, what you would have to argue is that God’s successive train of thoughts would have to have a beginning. And that is what I would affirm. I would say God existing alone, without creation, without the universe, isn’t in a stream of consciousness or of thinking one thought after another. He is in a changeless state, in which he has an intuition of all truth without change. This is one of the classical attributes of God – His changelessness or immutability – which means God doesn’t have a mental life that is characterized by succession. I think you are quite right that this argument would apply to God as well, and it would give you a concept of God’s mental life that is right in line with classical Christian theology about God’s immutability.

Question: I can believe that we have an uncaused Creator. But I have trouble thinking that the Creator had a cause to create the universe. Did he not have a cause in mind when he created the universe?

Answer: This is a very good question that requires us to draw a distinction between a cause and a reason. We want to distinguish between a cause and a reason. What I am saying is that there is no cause that made God create the universe. He freely brought the universe into being. There is nothing that caused God to create the universe. But that doesn’t mean He didn’t have a reason for creating the universe. When we use “reason” here we are thinking of something like motivation or goal or something of that sort. And certainly God had a reason for creating the universe, namely, to create finite persons in His image and invite them into the intra-Trinitarian fellowship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as adopted sons and daughters of God. So He bestows on creatures this incredible gift of knowledge of Himself – the supreme Good, the source of infinite goodness and love. Certainly God had a reason for creating the universe, but I do not think He had a cause that made Him create the universe because God is a free being and He didn’t have to create the universe – it was a free act of His will.

With that we will close the KalamCosmological Argument. This argument is very powerful because it gives us grounds for believing in the existence of a beginningless, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, enormously powerful, personal Creator of the universe, which is the core concept of what theists mean by “God.”7


1 4:58

2 10:05

3 15:02

4 20:03

5 25:16

6 29:58

7 Total Running Time: 34:29