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#184 Must the Cause of the Universe Be Personal, Redux

October 25, 2010

Dr. Craig,

There has been considerable discussion on your forum about your response to Question #182. Particularly, I have some concerns with your response that mainly center around your use of the Islamic principle of determination. I am asking on behalf of Cyrus, with some of my own inquiries added.

Our first question is: what exactly do you mean by “eternal” in the argument from the principle of determination and in the general context of the kalam cosmological argument? In the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, you write:

“The cause [of the universe] is in some sense eternal, and yet the effect which it produced is not eternal but began to exist a finite time ago. How can this be? If the necessary and sufficient conditions for the production of the effect are eternal, then why is not the effect eternal?”

As Cyrus pointed out, if one takes “eternal” to mean “existing at all moments of time” and interprets the question as asking “If the cause of the universe is existing at all moments of time, then why did the universe come into existence only a finite time ago?,” then this question cannot be used with the KCA. If the cause existed “at all moments of time,” then it would be temporal, which would imply a Newtonian view of time. The second premise of the argument, though, guarantees that no time exists before the universe and that the cause must be timeless. You replied:

“This surprised me, since I thought my position has always been that that question is meaningless, since I hold to a relational view of time. In the passage you cite, the point was to prove precisely that the big bang did not occur in a super dense pellet existing from eternity! Time (and space) came into being with the big bang, and so it’s meaningless to ask why it didn’t happen earlier.”

But notice that if this is correct, then the principle of determination no longer works. According to the principle of determination, the creation of the universe requires a particularizer (a being with free will who decides the course of an action between various choices) to will the universe into existence at a particular moment. But if you are right there is no time before the big bang, then it makes no sense to rhetorically ask why the cause of the universe, if a mechanical one, did not create the universe an infinite time earlier, because there was no time earlier. The principle of determination only, then, works within time. This is most evident with your examples of the freezing water and the seated man  both instances are not timeless like God, but are in fact temporal and have existed beginninglessly for an infinite time, (which the KCA says is impossible)! Only in a temporal framework is the principle of determination meaningful. To illustrate, suppose that the cause of the universe was in fact mechanically operating, with all of the necessary and sufficient conditions in place to create the universe. You say that this would not work because this mechanical cause would have created the universe an infinite time earlier, making the universe also as eternal and beginningless as the cause. But is it clear now where the error is? To object by saying that a mechanical cause would have created the universe an infinite time earlier assumes that time existed before the universe, which you argue is impossible. If you do not mean this when you state the principle of determination, then I think you will need to clarify then in a way that does not suggest time before the universe. Now, if you define “eternal” as “timeless,” it does not make sense either to ask why the effect is not eternal (timeless), since the universe in the KCA is by definition the totality of all of spacetime and is by definition temporal.

Our second question is: why could not the cause of the universe be imdeterministic yet impersonal? Such a cause could escape the alleged problems with a mechanical cause just as well as a personal cause could. The indeterministic, impersonal cause of the universe could have generated an indeterministically produced creation event that caused the universe and was simultaneous with it as well. You state that because Cyrus has not given a detailed explanation of what such an indeterministic, impersonal cause could be, such an explanation is not valid or worth considering. But in your outline of the KCA, you explicate in argument 4.1 that:

4.11 The universe was brought into being either by a mechanically operating set of necessary and sufficient conditions or by a personal, free agent.
4.12 The universe could not have been brought into being by a mechanically operating set of necessary and sufficient conditions.
4.13 Therefore, the universe was brought into being by a personal, free agent.

Since this is a deductive argument, the mere possibility of an indeterministic, impersonal cause shows this argument to be a false dilemma, meaning that you can neither use the argument to show the personhood of the cause of the universe nor use it as a deductive proof against the inductive evidence against the existence of an unembodied mind. But furthermore, an atemporal initial singularity could be a plausible candidate for this cause, for the singularity is lawless, indeterministic, and impersonal, and, due to its atemporality, is timeless, meaning that it did not begin to exist. Because the singularity did not begin to exist, it would not need to have a cause. Now, I see that you have responded in Question #131 by saying that the singularity, though out of physical time, comes into being with time and therefore needs a cause. But this appears to contradict your analysis of what it means to begin to exist. One of the conditions for x to begin to exist is that there is no state of affairs in which x exists timelessly. But, if the singularity is atemporal, then it would exist in a timeless state of affairs and therefore would not have begun to exist under your analysis. These, Cyrus and I feel, are the biggest flaws in the KCA that we think you have not adequately addressed, and we would be happy to see them given justice.


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Dr. craig’s response


These are important questions, Shah, so I’ll try to clarify my positions in response.

1. What do I mean by “eternal” in the argument from the principle of determination? In a word, permanent. Something is eternal if it exists permanently, or without beginning or end. But eternal existence can take two forms: timelessness or infinite omnitemporal existence (sometimes called sempiternity). God is essentially eternal, but on my view whether He is timeless or omnitemporal is contingent, depending on His will.

So the reason for my gloss “in some sense eternal” is precisely to indicate that the argument for the cause’s being personal works on either construal of eternity.

Recall that by this point we’ve already proved that the first cause exists beginninglessly and changelessly without creation. That is the key to the argument, not whether this cause is timeless or in a sort of eventless, undifferentiated time before creation. (You know my own view is the former, though I’m prepared to fall back to the latter if my preferred position is shown to be untenable.) The point is that if the causal conditions sufficient for the universe were permanently present (whether timelessly or sempiternally), then the universe should exist as permanently as the cause. Here’s how I put it in Reasonable Faith:

One way to see the difficulty is by reflecting on the different types of causal relations. In event/event causation, one event causes another. For example, the brick’s striking the window pane causes the pane to shatter. This kind of causal relation clearly involves a beginning of the effect in time, since it is a relation between events which occur at specific times. In state/state causation one state of affairs causes another state of affairs to exist. For example, the water’s having a certain density is the cause of the wood’s floating on the water. In this sort of causal relation, the effect need not have a beginning: the wood could theoretically be floating eternally on the water. . . . Now the difficulty that arises in the case of the cause of the beginning of the universe is that we seem to have a peculiar case of state/event causation: the cause is a timeless state but the effect is an event that occurred at a specific moment in the finite past. Such state/event causation doesn’t seem to make sense, since a state sufficient for the existence of its effect should have a state as its effect.

There seems to be only one way out of this dilemma, and that is to say that the cause of the universe’s beginning is a personal agent who freely chooses to create a universe in time. Philosophers call this type of causation “agent causation,” and because the agent is free, he can initiate new effects by freely bringing about conditions which were not previously present.

Now you object that “saying that a mechanical cause would have created the universe an infinite time earlier assumes that time existed before the universe, which you argue is impossible.” Be careful here, Shah. The question is not why the universe wasn’t created earlier (regardless of how much earlier). I agree that it makes no sense to ask why the universe didn’t begin at an earlier point of time. But it doesn’t follow from that that it is meaningless to ask why a universe with a beginning exists rather than an eternal universe with no beginning. Nor is it meaningless to ask how an effect with a beginning can originate from a changeless, permanent cause. That’s the real head-scratcher! I think al-Ghazali and those medieval Muslim theologians were dead on concerning this argument for a free agent as the cause of the universe.

2. Why could not the cause of the universe be indeterministic yet impersonal? Again, you need to recall what has already been established prior to this point. If the argument so far is correct, then we have proved that there exists an uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, enormously powerful, indeterministic cause of the universe. Now the question is, what is it? What entity fits this description? The answer, it seems to me, is clear: a person, an unembodied mind.

We can think of this conclusion as an inference to the best explanation. In inference to the best explanation, we ask ourselves, what hypothesis, if true, would provide the best explanation of the data? The hypothesis that there is a personal Creator of the universe explains wonderfully all the data. By contrast, as I said, there’s nothing like this in a naturalistic worldview. Even given quantum indeterminism (itself a moot point), such indeterminacy is a property of changing, spatiotemporal, physical systems. I don’t know of any competing explanation to, much less better explanation than, the hypothesis of a personal Creator. Notice that it is not legitimate to offer as an explanation a hypothesis which simply repeats the data to be explained—for example, explaining that opium induces sleep because it has “dormitive powers.” Saying that the cause of the universe is an uncaused, . . . , indeterministic, impersonal being is like that. It is not to offer an explanation at all. Therefore, it could never be the better explanation. Similarly, it is no good appealing to unknown entities. That just is to admit that one has no explanation, no alternative hypothesis to offer. It would be like saying that fossils are not best explained as the vestiges of organisms that once lived on Earth but were instead the effect of some mysterious, unknown fossil-forming power in the rocks. Again, that could never count as the best explanation.

There are two ways to defeat such an inference to the best explanation: (i) provide an equally good explanation that does not involve the existence of a personal Creator; or (ii) provide overriding reasons to think that a personal Creator does not exist. The arguments against the coherence of an unembodied mind would be examples of strategy (ii), while our present discussion concerning an alternative explanation is an example of strategy (i). It remains to be seen whether either strategy can be successfully carried out. We’ve yet to see any evidence that the notion of an unembodied mind is incoherent or even any evidence against mind-body dualism in human beings. On the contrary I think that we have good reason to think that anthropological dualism is true; but that’s another story, since it’s the atheist who bears the burden of proof here.

Now as to the formulation of my dilemma, remember that in order for a disjunction to be true all that is required is that one of the disjuncts be true. So long as the true disjunct is included, you don’t need to include all the other logical possibilities as well. So, for example, a political observer might justifiably reason, “Either Cuomo or Paladino will win the New York governor’s race. But Paladino’s negatives are too high. Therefore, Cuomo will win.” The argument is a good one, despite the fact that the major premiss ignores all of the other fringe candidates on the ballot in New York! Their winning is so improbable that the premiss as the pundit states it is very likely true.

Similarly, think of (4.11) as drawing from the pool of live explanatory options those candidates for the best explanation of the cause of the universe. Since I’m not aware of any candidate at all for an impersonal, indeterministic cause of the universe that fits all the other properties already proved thus far, I just ignored that idea.[1] Indeed, the lack of any such candidate is what led to my abbreviated argument that the cause of the universe is either a mind or an abstract object. Now of course, if someone adds to the pool of live options another explanation (see below on the initial cosmological singularity), then we’ll have to consider it.

In any case, Shah, don’t get hung up over the mere form of the argument. One can always reformulate it inductively. For example, we could say that the probability that the cause of the universe is personal (P) is much higher given the evidence (E) for the deduced cause of the universe than it is on our background information (B) alone, that is, Pr (P|E & B) >> Pr (P|B), which cannot be said of the probability that the cause is impersonal (¬P). This is, in large part, because the probability that there should be a cause of the universe such as we have described is so much higher given the hypothesis that the cause is personal than it is if the cause is impersonal, that is, Pr (E|P & B) >> Pr E|(¬P & B).

Finally, as for the suggestion that the singularity is the cause of the universe, this has the merit of at least positing some explanatory entity. But in question #182, I explained why the initial cosmological singularity cannot be the ultimate cause of the universe, since it is either unreal or else part of the universe and therefore itself in need of explanation of its coming into being. The sense in which the singularity is “timeless,” Shah, is a highly technical sense in that in the General Theory of Relativity, it is not a point in spacetime. Rather it is a point on the boundary of spacetime. But it is not eternal in the ordinary sense of the term, namely, it is not permanent. On the contrary, it is fleetingly evanescent. It is therefore temporal and began to exist and therefore requires a cause.



  • [1]

     I have, by contrast, discussed at some length the hypothesis that the cause of the universe might have been an indeterministic, quantum mechanical, physical cause. See, e.g., my contribution to the volume Mere Creation (1998), pp. 332-359.

- William Lane Craig