Must the Beginning of the Universe have a Personal Cause? (Part 2)

by Luke Muehlhauser on October 11, 2010 in Guest Post,Kalam Argument

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.

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This post is part of a series on Wes Morriston’s article “Must the beginning of the Universe have a Personal Cause?”. The article takes a long hard look at premises (1) and (4) of the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA), as defended by William Lane Craig.

As we all know, the KCA tries to establish that our finite temporal universe must have an atemporal personal cause. In other words, that the physical and temporal stage upon which we play out our tiny lives must have been constructed out of a non-physical and eternal void by God.

In Part 1, we saw how this gives rise to a curious understanding of God’s relationship to the universe: God must have been causally, but not temporally, prior to the universe, and then must become temporal so that he can interact in human history.

Morriston thinks that this conception of God’s relationship to the universe undermines the strength of the first premise of the KCA.

You Can’t get Something from Nothing

Before we get down to business, let’s make sure we’re all singing from the same hymnsheet.

Premise one of the KCA states:

(1) Whatever begins to exist must have a cause of its existence.

William Lane Craig offers a few, informal, lines of support for this premise. Most of them revolve around the idea that its truth blindingly obvious and that it takes blameworthy obstinacy to deny it.

And by the way, “blameworthy” was not a mistake.

One other way that Craig supports (1) is by appealing to the common sense principle that “you can’t get something from nothing.” This common sense principle can be rendered more impressive by translating it into the latin ex nihilo nihil fit.

To underscore the common sense nature of this principle, Craig will sometimes ask us to imagine a tiger “popping into existence out of nothing.” Surely, the very idea is absurd? And since the idea is absurd, the principle must be sound.

Or is it? The problem here is that the absurdity may stem largely from standard temporal interpretations of causation, i.e. the idea that at one point in time there is nothing and then suddenly there is something. Since we are dealing with the causal origins of time itself, we need to be careful with the ex nihilo principle.

Reformulating the Principle of Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit

One way of reformulating the ex nihilo principle in order to strip it of temporal connotations would be the following:

(i) If nothing existed, then nothing could exist.

This is a statement of pure logical or metaphysical necessity. The “could” is a necessity operator: it tells you what must be the case. There are subsequently two ways of interpreting the necessity expressed in (i).

The “wide” interpretation is the following:

(ii) Necessarily, if nothing existed, nothing could exist.

This is actually just a trivial analytic truth. It says “when nothing exists, nothing exists.” This provides no support for the first premise of the Kalam.

The “narrow” interpretation is the following:

(iii) If nothing existed, then necessarily nothing could exist.

This is more interesting because it is ascribing a conditional power to “nothing.” It is saying that nothing prevents the existence of something. The problem is that it is difficult to say why nothing would have such a conditional power. Surely it makes more sense to say that nothing has no powers at all, including the power to prevent something?

It is interesting to note that when Craig tries to defend the idea that nothing has the power to prevent something, he appeals back to a temporal formulation of the ex nihilo principle. This is derived from the work of Maimonides and Thomas Aquinas.

(iv) If, at a given time, there was nothing at all (apart from time itself), then at no later time could anything begin to exist.

We might have some worries about whether it is actually possible for nothing but time itself to exist. However, that is not the main problem with this version of the principle. The problem is that it does not support the first premise of the KCA. To see this, we need to distinguish between two ways an object can come into existence:

(a) “Intratemporal coming to be” = “X exists at t, and there is an earlier time at which x does not exist”

(b) “Extratemporal coming to be” = “X exists at t, and there is no time (at all) prior to t”

Now, at best, (iv) supports the notion that there cannot be an intratemporal coming to be out of nothing. It doesn’t even touch upon the problem of extratemporal coming to be out of nothing. But this is exactly what it must do if it is to be recruited in support of the first premise of the KCA.

There is one final way of interpreting the idea that nothing can come from nothing:

(v) Nothing begins to exist if nothing causes it to exist.

If this strikes you as being suspiciously familiar, your suspicions are right. It is simply a restatement of the first premise and so cannot support it.

That’s a lot of reformulations and objections to contend with. It might be helpful to summarise them in a diagram.

(click for full size)

In the next part of the series we will consider the idea that premise (1) is “intuitively” obvious.

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Reidish October 11, 2010 at 5:40 am

Hi John D,
Thanks for undertaking this series. You wrote, as a possible interpretation of ex nihilo nihil fit:

The “narrow” interpretation is the following:

(iii) If nothing existed, then necessarily nothing could exist.

This is more interesting because it is ascribing a conditional power to “nothing.” It is saying that nothing prevents the existence of something. The problem is that it is difficult to say why nothing would have such a conditional power. Surely it makes more sense to say that nothing has no powers at all, including the power to prevent something?

It seems your last sentence is correct, but not exhaustive. For indeed nothing has no powers at all, including the power to cause or instantiate anything. So I don’t think (iii) entails ascribing power to “nothing”, but rather is a consequence of the power that “nothing” lacks necessarily.

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Hermes October 11, 2010 at 7:39 am

Is there any evidence of a true nothing? It seems like at most someone could claim the gaps between things as nothing, but even those gaps have characteristics.

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Márcio October 11, 2010 at 8:25 am

Is the Cause of the Universe an Uncaused, Personal Creator of the Universe, who sans the Universe Is Beginningless, Changeless, Immaterial, Timeless, Spaceless, and Enormously Powerful?

http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/PageServer?pagename=q_and_a

question of this week on WLC website.

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Steven October 11, 2010 at 8:29 am

I must say, this is by far the most interesting article on the KCA I have read. To a degree, the nature of “nothing” must also be reached conclusively (and this is why I don’t put much faith in a priori logic when it is applied to things we can’t fully conceive).

If time is a dimension, then it is a property, and, as far as we can ascertain, whatever has a property is something. Therefore, nothing and time cannot co-exist. No doubt one can object to this, but this would involve admitting that a priori reasoning has huge limitations (such as: it can’t be applied to anything outside the universe or that we haven’t encountered) in which case it would seem to undermine the 2nd premise of the KCA, as it applies A Priori logic to something outside of the universe.

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Garren October 11, 2010 at 10:08 am

To echo Reidish, it’s not that nothing has “the power to prevent something,” but that if nothing exists there necessarily wouldn’t be “something” to prevent.

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Rob October 11, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Any attempt to speak of absolute nothingness is doomed to failure as the discussion is handicapped by our limited language. This is one language game I will not play.

Stenger avoids the meaningless down-the-rabbit-hole discussion of absolute nothingness by giving his concept of nothing a precise definition.

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Torgo October 11, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Rob,

I took issue with Stenger’s definition, even asked him about it in person, and I don’t think it makes any sense as a philosophical concept, which is what we’re dealing with in Craig’s argument. Stenger makes nothing into something, and thus isn’t talking about the nothing of the ex nihilo principle.

Lawrence Krauss does something similar in the widely cited lecture in which he claims you can get something from nothing. The nothing he’s talking about is the nothingness of physics, so to speak, not the nothingness of philosophy/theology. The latter may be nonsense, but we can’t really make a case against it by employing straw men like Stenger’s or Krauss’s nothingness.

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Mike Young October 11, 2010 at 6:27 pm

John D you said this :

“The “wide” interpretation is the following:

(ii) Necessarily, if nothing existed, nothing could exist.

This is actually just a trivial analytic truth. It says “when nothing exists, nothing exists.” This provides no support for the first premise of the Kalam.”

You have committed and egregious logical error. I will draw it out for you

Let us look at three clauses here.
(1) Nothing exists.
(2) Nothing does exist.
(3) Nothing could exist.

Please note that when I say “Nothing exists” or “nothing does exists” I do not mean there is some material called “nothing” which exists. “Nothing exists” is taken to have the same meaning as “There is nothing that exists.” and nothing does exists is taken to mean “there is nothing that does exist.” This is a note to avoid confusion

It is clear that (1) = (2). They mean the same thing and so (1) = (2) is a trivial analytic truth. if nothing exists, then it is true that nothing does exist. You however, argued that (1) means the same as (3). However if (1) = (2) and (1) = (3) then it follows logically from substitution that (2) = (3).
However that would mean the following:

Nothing DOES exist = Nothing COULD exist.

To recap If (a) Nothing exists = Nothing does exist
and (b) Nothing exists = Nothing could exist
Then by substitution
(c1) Nothing does exist = Nothing could exist.

please note here that(c1) is not the same as:
(c2) Nothing exists => Nothing could exist.

(c1) is an identity statement while (c2) is a conditional statement.

Now, if that is true then in those sentences “could” and “does” would have to mean the same thing because those are the only words in the sentences which are different. However, “does” is used as a state of being verb stating simple what is that case, where as “could” is a modal verb that is being used to introduce the modality of possibility. So either you must deny that “could” expresses a modality, or you have to argue that “does” expresses a modality.
However it it is clear that the “could” in the phrase “If nothing exists nothing could exist” is being uses for the express purpose of introducing the modality of possibility. To ignore this is to make the logical mistake of equivocating an “is” statement with a modal statement.

This kind of elementry is NOT what goes on at the highest levels of though.

The upshot of all this is that Nothing exists does not mean the same thing as Nothing could exist. And thus (ii) from your article cannot be a tautology, or a trivial analytic truth.

P.s
The actual meaning of the “wide” interpretation is to make the claim that (c2) Is a truth that is true necessarily, that is, to make the claim that (c2) cannot possibly be false. It is a claim of metaphysical necessity (if it were a claim of logical necessity it would have to claim that the denial of (ii) is incoherent, which it does not).
Your claim that (i) is a claim of metaphysical or logical necessity is false. (i)is a claim of fact about this world but does not deny the possibility of other possible worlds where (i) does not hold.

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Zak October 11, 2010 at 7:07 pm

What I have never understood is this:

If there is NOTHING, then there are no laws of nature that say “something can’t come from nothing.” So if someone says “it’s impossible for something to come from nothing”, they seem to be smuggling laws of nature into their alleged nothingness. So their nothingness isn’t actual nothingness. It’s simply “laws of nature and nothing else.”

So, if NOTHING exists, there are no laws of nature that say “something can’t come from nothing.” So why can’t something?

Now, I am not saying that is how I think things went down… I just am curious about that objection.

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AnonGradStudent October 11, 2010 at 8:08 pm

>>This is a statement of pure logical or metaphysical necessity. The “could” is a necessity operator: it tells you what must be the case.

If you accept S5 modal semantics, then yes, the “could” is a “necessity operator”. That is, the “could” is equivalent to “possibly”. And “possibly” is equivalent to “not necessarily not”. So in some attenuated sense, and given that you accept S5, the “could” is a “necessity operator”. But come on.

>>Necessarily, if nothing existed, nothing could exist.

>>This [the immediately above quoted sentence] is actually just a trivial analytic truth. It says “when nothing exists, nothing exists.” This provides no support for the first premise of the Kalam.

That’s so obviously false I can’t believe anybody would ever assert it. “When nothing exists, nothing exists” is a trivial analytic truth. And as Mike Young pointed out, only a fool would conflate that trivial analytic truth with “if nothing exists, then nothing could exist”. Can you read? “Nothing exists” doesn’t mean anything like “nothing could exist”. I should add that on S5 semantics for modal logic, “nothing exists” does not entail “nothing could exist”.

This post doesn’t come close to engaging with any interesting literature.

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Rob October 11, 2010 at 8:31 pm

Torgo,

I don’t think it is accurate to accuse Stenger and Krauss of straw manning anyone. They take science as the best way to figure out what is actually going on, then infer what would be the state of affairs if we removed all the “stuff” from the universe. They call that state “nothing”.

Now some theologians or philosophers want to conjure up in their imaginations some imaginary state of affairs they call nothingness. Who cares? I am not concerned with the wild imaginations of theologians.

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John D October 12, 2010 at 1:36 am

Hi guys,

My general feeling is that if you think the wide and narrow interpretations are guilty of committing egregious logical errors or don’t paint the full picture, take it up with Wes Morriston. I’m simply trying to summarise what he says in his article and I like to think I did a reasonable job.

[Wes's article, incidentally, is the (apparently uninteresting) literature with which I am engaging and the (apparently low) level of thought on which I am operating]

Now, I’m perfectly willing to accept that I may be misunderstanding what Wes is saying when he refers to the wide interpretation as a “trivial analytic truth, from which nothing of interest follows”. If that’s the case I would happily change it. I’ve read through Mike Young’s comment a couple of times and I (sort of) understand his point. However, I’m not sure if it means I misunderstood what Wes was saying (I’m not a philosophy student, I have no great familiarity with S5 modal semantics and the like). Maybe it would help if I outlined what I did.

Wes says the following to flesh out the idea that (ii) is a “trivial analytic truth”:

“If nothing at all existed, then there would indeed be nothing at all – not even a ‘springing into existence’ [a reference to something Craig said]. But this would be true even if the beginning of the universe lacked a cause. It therefore provides no support for premise (1) of the Kalam argument.”

That’s all he has to say on (ii). I reduced it to “when nothing exists, nothing exists.”

Was I wrong to do so?

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MichaelPJ October 12, 2010 at 8:19 am

Plea: can we not talk about “nothing” like it’s a thing!

“Nothing exists” is much more like “there are no things that exist” than “A horse exists”. This also affects the “wide” and “narrow” readings being discussed.

If we are talking about nothing like a “thing” then
“Necessarily ( nothing exists -> Possibly (nothing exists) )”
is indeed true, by analogy with
“Necessarily ( a horse exists -> Possibly ( a horse exists) )”
if something exists, then it must be possible for that thing to exist, and this is a necessary truth.
OTOH, treating nothing properly, we can’t say
“Necessarily ( there are no things that exist -> nothing could possibly exist)”
but we CAN say
“Necessarily ( there are no things that exist -> Possibly( there are no things that exist) )”
But it is a stretch to interpret “Possibly( there are no things that exist )” as “nothing could exist”! That sounds more like “it is not possible that anything exists”, which is quite different.

Basically, you’re getting scope confusions because you haven’t been clear enough about the sense of the sentences you’re discussing. Brackets help!

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Hermes October 12, 2010 at 10:20 am

Stephen, good points both here and elsewhere.

I started to write up a detailed response to your post here as well as in another thread, but time didn’t allow me to flesh them out properly.

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Torgo October 12, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Rob,

You may not like it, but science is subsumed within philosophy insofar as it rests on, and is made possible by, various non-scientific assumptions or premises. The KCA is not a scientific argument, so it’s not limited to scientific data or scientific interpretations of concepts like nothingness.

I wholeheartedly agree that science is the best way of understanding the natural world, and to some extent, the origin of the universe. But I don’t see how it’s fair to dismiss an argument or idea simply because it is different from the scientific version, or because science has no such equivalent. Nothingness is likely an incoherent concept, but not because science has defined it differently from the ways in which philosophers do.

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Steven October 12, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Hermes, if that was directed at me (not quite sure since it’s Steven and Stephen may be someone else), don’t worry about it. I realize we’re all stretched for time.

If you have spare time to finish up the responses, then just e-mail them, it’s d33p3stpurple@yahoo.com. It may take a while for me to respond, but I’d be very much interested to see what someone has to say (especially about the Morality Dilemma). If it was not directed at me, then excuse this post.

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Hermes October 12, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Steven: Hermes, if that was directed at me …

[ looks ] Oops. Yep. My mistake on the name in both threads. I’m not going to complete a response in either case, but I wanted you to know that I appreciated reading your efforts and in general I’m in agreement. I do remember that I had to stop and restart my initial response in each case a few times so it would actually add to the conversation.

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Rob October 12, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Torgo,

Your last comment, though addressed to me, is not relevant to anything I have said.

Suppose a philosopher asked this question: Why is the universe the way it is, rather than filled entirely with 5 trillion pink bowling balls? Now, I suppose a philosopher can imagine, sort of, a universe filled with 5 trillion pink bowling balls. But why should I care?

Likewise, a theologian can imagine, sort of, a state of absolute nothingness, and then ask why our universe rather than this imagined state of affairs. But why should I care?

There are an infinite number of imaginary states that our universe is not.

But the nothingness described by Stenger and Krauss is at least anchored and constrained by our best physics. The absolute nothingness of the theologian is more disconnected from reality than my pink bowling ball universe. Both scenarios can safely be ignored.

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Torgo October 12, 2010 at 6:40 pm

Rob,

I guess reality is limited to that which can be scientifically verified?

I agree that theologians especially tend to get lost in their own bullshit and need a dose of reality now and then. Philosophers, too. I was just trying to argue that changing the terms of the argument (about nothingness) doesn’t really advance the debate; it only encourages the theologian and the scientist to talk past each other. And that’s not productive for either side.

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Rob October 12, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Torgo,

How could we ever discover that reality is limited to that which is scientifically verifiable? Nothing I said implies that is my position.

I don’t think Stenger and Krauss were “changing the terms” of the debate. You seem to be suggesting that they are doing something sneaky. The vacuum state is just as close to nothingness as current physics constrains.

I realize other folks like to speculate wildly, unconstrained by reality. Plato’s forms or Aristotle’s theory of motion are notions disconnected from how our universe actually works. For me, these sorts of imaginings are historically interesting, but let’s not give them undue credit.

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Mike Young October 13, 2010 at 10:44 am

Rob

The nothing the Strauss and Stenger talk about is needless for the argument. You cannot define nothing is term of properties because nothing isn’t anything at all….and that’s the point. If you any definition of nothing that has any properties at all you have changed the terms. The error is the error of reification: which is to treat nothing as though it were a thing or an object. As per my earlier post…this is a mistake. This is a conceptual error and attempting to try to scientifically study “nothing” is like my trying to scientifically figure out the height of the alphabet….it makes no sense.

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Hermes October 13, 2010 at 11:15 am

Mike Young, so nothing is a concept only?

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MichaelPJ October 13, 2010 at 11:22 am

Hermes,

You just committed the error! Nothing isn’t anything. That’s the point. It isn’t a thing. It’s a grammatical locution that hides a quantifier, it isn’t a noun, really.

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Hermes October 13, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Questioner: “Does nothing have a nothing nature?”

Monk: “To ask if nothing has a nothing nature is to not understand nothingness.”

Questioner: “So, nothing has a nothing nature … and nothing does not have a nothing nature?”

Monk: “Yes.”

Questioner: “Does that mean that nothing is the Buddha or that the Buddha is nothing?”

Monk: “Yes.”

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Rob October 13, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Mike,

We agree. My fist comment in this thread explains why I won’t have conversations about nothing.;)

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Rosita October 17, 2010 at 8:38 pm

The problem seems to be whether a state of “nothingness” where no “thing” exists is actually possible. Physicists say that is isn’t possible. This means that the first premise of cosmological arguments is false because it includes the assumption that something can exist (a state of nothingness) that cannot be proven to exist.

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Rosita October 17, 2010 at 8:47 pm

An additional problem is whether a “state of nothingness” or a “state of vacuum” can exist for eternity. What about a state of absolute cold? Or infinite gravity? Or virtual particles?.

We could mess up the cosmological arguments with “self-evident” premises such as:

Anything that is real cannot be caused by something that is not real.
Anything that is real cannot be influenced by something that is not real.
Anything that is physical cannot be caused or influenced by something that is virtual. (Which happens to be false in the realm of quantum physics.)

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John G October 3, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Modern science has no answer — nor purports to have any — for what occurred before the big bang. Whether the universe existed in a different form (and therefore did not “begin” with the big bang) is simply beyond our present knowledge. Not knowing is not suitable warrant to insert a god, when this god cannot itself be investigated. It is more reasonable to say “we don’t know”.

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