Guest blogger John D of Philosophical Disquisitions summarizes contemporary articles in philosophy of religion in plain talk so that you can be up to speed on the God debate as it ensues at the highest levels of thought.
Readers of Common Sense Atheism will no doubt be aware of William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA). Indeed, Luke has been putting together a series that aims to map out every thrust and parry in the philosophical debate surrounding this argument.
This series has a more modest aim. It takes a detailed look at a paper by one of the chief thorns in the side of the KCA, the softly-spoken, previously-interviewed Wes Morriston. The paper in question is “Must the Beginning of the Universe have a Personal Cause?”
I’m sure everyone reading this has had the KCA recited to them thousands of times already but, in the interests of completeness, I feel obliged to provide a sketch of it.
This is a slightly extended version of the KCA, divided into two parts. The first part (if successful) establishes that the universe has a cause of its existence; the second part (if successful) establishes that the cause must be God.
It is said — and I think this is correct based on my own limited reading — that most of the philosophical attention has been directed towards the second premise of the argument. Indeed, Craig himself has developed four distinct arguments supporting the second premise, which must be some indication of its contentious nature.
I can’t really say why the second premise has warranted so much attention. Perhaps, it is because the concept of the infinite is the most philosophically interesting concept invoked by the argument.
Whatever the reason, it has meant that (1) and (4) have been left relatively unexamined. This is unfortunate because these premises are equally crucial to the success of the KCA. Fortunately, Morriston’s article offers a detailed and systematic dissection of these two premises. We will follow his discussion step-by-step, beginning with the first premise.
Craig’s Defense of the First Premise
There is another post on CSA offering a lengthy analysis of how Craig has changed his defense of the first premise over the years. Morriston’s article was written some time before Craig’s latest defense but, as far as I can tell, nothing substantial has changed since then.
Morriston notes that Craig does not offer a formal argument in defense of the principle that everything that begins to exist must have a cause of its existence (as he does for the second premise). Instead, Craig appeals to its intuitive obviousness, its potential empirical verification, and the principle of ex nihilo nihil fit. He then proceeds to chastise those who would doubt it for their dishonesty and philosophical pigheadedness.
Morriston takes these claims one at a time, but before doing so details how Craig conceives of (i) God’s relationship to the universe and (ii) the notion of something beginning to exist. The reason Morriston does this is because he thinks that the strength of the first premise may derive largely from a naive understanding of these two issues.
God’s Relationship to Time
Craig has a particular conception of God’s relationship to the universe. To quote from the man himself:
In my opinion, God was timeless prior to creation, and he created time along with the world. From that point on God places himself within time so that He can interact with the world He has created.
This is illustrated, in a somewhat garish fashion, below.
As Morriston is anxious to point out, there is something odd about Craig’s description of God’s relationship to time. Although Craig invokes an atemporal God, he seems to speak of God being one way and then being another, i.e. prior to creation God existed in one state and then after creation God existed in another state. How can this be right?
Craig has a well-rehearsed answer: the sense of priority being invoked in his description is causal not temporal. This, he argues, is perfectly intelligible because causes can sometimes be simultaneous with their effects.
Morriston has his doubts about this response: philosophical theories of causation often explicitly rely on the idea of temporal priority, and simultaneity is itself a temporal relation, not something applicable to a timeless domain. Nonetheless, if he’s going to pick a fight with Craig it’s not going to be on this issue. He will concede the intelligibility of atemporal causation.
His objections lie more in the problems that this understanding of God’s relationship to time makes for the plausibility of premise one of the KCA.
Begins to Exist?
But before we get to those objections, there is one further clarification to be made: what does it mean for something to begin to exist?
Christian and atheist philosophers, such as Richard Swinburne and Adolf Grunbaum, have objected to Craig’s argument on the grounds that something cannot begin to exist unless there was an earlier time at which it did not exist. If this is correct, it would seem to cast doubt on Craig’s idea that the universe “began” out of a state of timelessness.
Craig responds with a formal definition. He says:
“x begins to exist” = ‘x exists at t and there is no time immediately prior to t at which x exists.’
You may be scratching your head at that one. I know I was, but I think the reason for my abraded scalp was that the phrase ‘no time…’ is somewhat ambiguous. It could mean “time exists, but no unit of that time includes x’s existence” or it could mean “time itself does not exist.” For the definition to work in Craig’s favour, the latter meaning must apply.
And if you’re still confused, remember that “prior to” comes in causal and temporal flavours.
Anyway, Craig’s definition might allow him to wriggle free of Grunbaum and Swinburne’s objection, but we must ask whether it does so at the expense of undercutting the plausibility of premise one. We will answer that question in part two.