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