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#66 Personal God

July 21, 2008

Dear Dr. Craig,

I just read your article in Christianity Today about the arguments for the existence of God, but one question above all stands out to me as unanswered: why must there be a PERSONAL God, and what do you mean by 'personal' anyway? Can this be supported by natural theology and natural theological methods? Plato's "Good", after all, is not a person.

The fact that the cosmos, through the Big Bang, comes from some unified generative principle (about which we are unable to know much) does not seem to prove anything about God being a person. Please let me know where I may turn for answers to these questions.



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Dr. craig’s response


I agree with you, Pete, that showing one's explanatory ultimate to be personal is a crucial element in any successful, cumulative case for the existence of God. By "personal" I mean endowed with rationality, self-consciousness, and volition—the usual sort of qualities associated with being a person.

It's striking that all of the arguments I summarized in my CT article imply the existence of a personal being. If even one of these arguments is successful, then, the natural theologian has succeeded in showing that his explanatory ultimate is personal.

The personhood of the explanatory ultimate is most obvious in the case of the teleological argument, for it leads to an intelligent designer of the cosmos. This argument gives you directly what you were looking for.

But even in the case of the other arguments, the personhood of the explanatory ultimate is given indirectly. In the case of the cosmological argument, if you'll re-read the CT article, you'll find that I actually provided the argument for the personhood of the cause of the universe:

For an external cause of the universe must be beyond space and time and therefore cannot be physical or material. Now there are only two kinds of things that fit that description: either abstract objects, like numbers, or else an intelligent mind. But abstract objects are causally impotent. The number 7, for example, can't cause anything. Therefore it follows that the explanation of the universe is an external, transcendent, personal mind which created the universe, which is what most people have traditionally meant by "God."

Personal God – the need for agent causation

The cause of the universe must be an ultramundane being which transcends space and time and is therefore either an unembodied mind or an abstract object; it cannot be the latter; hence, it must be the former, which is to say that this being is personal.

In the case of the kalam cosmological argument, the very same reasoning holds with respect to the cause of the origin of the universe. Moreover, there is an additional argument for the personhood of the first cause which I didn't mention in the article that arises from the peculiarity of a temporal effect's arising from an eternal cause. As I explain in Reasonable Faith,

We've concluded that the beginning of the universe was the effect of a first cause . . . . Now this is exceedingly odd. The cause 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 isn't the effect eternal? How can all the causal conditions sufficient for the production of the effect be changelessly existent and yet the effect not also be existent along with the cause? How can the cause exist without the 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. For example, a man sitting changelessly from eternity could freely will to stand up; thus, a temporal effect arises from an eternally existing agent. Similarly, a finite time ago a Creator endowed with free will could have freely brought the world into being at that moment. In this way, the Creator could exist changelessly and eternally but choose to create the world in time. By "choose" one need not mean that the Creator changes his mind about the decision to create, but that he freely and eternally intends to create a world with a beginning. By exercising his causal power, he therefore brings it about that a world with a beginning comes to exist. So the cause is eternal, but the effect is not. In this way, then, it is possible for the temporal universe to have come to exist from an eternal cause: through the free will of a personal Creator.

Personal God – why God must be personal

In the case of the moral argument, the concept of God involved in the argument is that of a personal being, since moral values, if they exist, reside in persons, not in inanimate things, and since only a personal being can be a source of moral duty by issuing commands to us. This is the failing of Plato's impersonal form of the Good. Justice, for example, is not itself just, being merely an abstract object, nor can it issue imperatives requiring us to be just. Christian theologians like Augustine advanced Plato's ethical theory by identifying Plato's Good with God himself.

Finally, the ontological argument requires God, as the maximally great being, to be personal, not only because personhood is entailed by the properties that make up maximal excellence such as omniscience, omnipotence, and moral perfection, but also because being personal is itself a great-making property, which a maximally great being cannot lack.

Thus, you can see that the natural theologian is in very good shape when it comes to demonstrating the personhood of his explanatory ultimate.

Personal God – Defeating the Euthyphro Dilemma

Now let's return to Brandon's question. By way of reminder, the version of the moral argument I presented in the CT article goes as follows:

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
3. Therefore, God exists.

As I noted in the article, non-theists will typically try to counter the moral argument with a dilemma designed to show that objective moral values are independent of God. The so-called Euthyphro Dilemma asserts that moral values are either independent of God (if He wills them because they are good) or they are arbitrary (if they are good just because God wills them). Since they aren't arbitrary, they must be independent of God. The logic of the Euthyphro Dilemma is as follows:

1. A or B.
2. Not-B.
3. Therefore, A.

Now this is the non-theist's argument; it's up to him to prove its two premises to be true. To defeat the argument, all the theist has to do is offer a third possible alternative, so that instead of premise (1), we have

1.′ A or B or C.

But now it no longer follows from (2) that therefore A. Rather, to carry his argument, the non-theist must now prove

2.′ Not-B and not-C.

So, Brandon, you need to provide some argument for (2′)—in particular, some argument for not-C. It's insufficient to say to the theist, "What is your evidence for C?" The theist has no burden of proof to show that C is true; he has only to offer an alternative to A or B. Once the theist has done that, he has discharged his entire responsibility. It's now up to you to disprove C if you are to carry (2′) and so force the theist to adopt A.

In other contexts, I'm sure you would recognize where the burden of proof lies. Look at my argument above for the personhood of the cause of the universe demonstrated by the cosmological argument. It, too, has the form of a dilemma:

1. Either the cause of the universe is an abstract object or the cause of the universe is an unembodied mind.
2. The cause of the universe is not an abstract object.
3. Therefore, the cause of the universe is an unembodied mind.

The non-theist who disputes this argument will try to defeat premise (1) by suggesting some impersonal alternative C as the cause of the universe. It would be maladroit for me to retort at that point, "But what is your evidence for C? You haven't proven C to be true." The non-theist would shake his head and say, "I'm sorry, but it's up to you to prove that my alternative C is false. You're the one who's arguing that the cause of the universe is personal. I'm just saying that you haven't proved that because you haven't excluded C."

You find yourself in exactly the same boat with your dilemma. The classical theist has enunciated an alternative to your A or B, so if you're to prove that moral values, if they exist, are independent of God, you need to show why alternative C offered by classical theism fails.

I think you do now recognize the failure of the Euthyphro Dilemma, but you try to trivialize this result, saying,

If you want to suggest that God's character is essential and that his character serves as the paradigm for what is good ONLY to show the Euthyphro dilemma is not a dilemma—that's fine—you can go along your merry way.

Yes, that's exactly all I want to show, and this conclusion represents real progress because your initial claim in Question 65, you'll recall, was

I still haven't found a good response to this dilemma. . . . It's not a false dilemma . . . . Craig defines God as perfect and then says God must be perfect because that's the definition of God. That's circular logic.

Now I think you see that the Euthyphro Dilemma is, indeed, a false dilemma, given the possibility of C, and that there's no circularity involved because the theist is not trying to prove C but simply offers it as an alternative to A and B. So now you have found a good response to this dilemma.

Now this result is enormously significant, Brandon, because, as I explained, one of the most common non-theistic responses to the moral argument is the Euthyphro Dilemma. With the failure of that dilemma, one of the principal objections to premise (1) of my original moral argument, towit,

1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.

falls away.

Now I couldn't help but be struck by the fact that in your current question you actually agree with premise (1). It's premise (2), namely,

2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.

that you really dispute, for you say,

I do not think morality is based on anything objective (a logical reason that doesn't appeal to emotional values).

So you actually admit (1) but deny (2). But here, Brandon, I find it hard to believe that you do more than merely give lip service to your denial of (2). I don't know if you have a girlfriend, but if you do, do you really think that it would be morally permissible for you to attack her with a screwdriver, mutilating and killing her? Do you really think that such an act would be morally indifferent, on the same ethical plane as loving her? (If you do, I'd advise you not to let her read this exchange.)

Personal God – the reasonableness of holding to objective moral values

In our moral experience we apprehend a realm of objectively existing moral values and duties, and we have no good reason to doubt the veridicality of all such experiences. As Louise Antony rightly points out in our exchange in God and Ethics (ed. Nathan King and Robert Garcia. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008), any argument for moral nihilism will be based on premises that are less evident than the reality of objective moral values and duties themselves. That's why neither she nor almost any of the philosophers I have debated on this subject deny premise (2) of the moral argument.

Now certainly you're right that the Christian ethicist who wants to develop a theistically-based theory of ethics will have a lot more to say about these topics, such as the three questions you raise in your second paragraph. I have myself addressed these questions in the section on the goodness of God in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downer's Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 2003). But that's not my project here. Here our concern is merely to support premises (1) and (2) of the moral argument. You agree that (1) is true, and your denial of (2) flies in the teeth of our moral experience, without any argument, so far at least, for denying the veridicality of that experience. So the moral argument, it seems to me, is looking pretty good.

- William Lane Craig