Must the Beginning of the Universe have a Personal Cause? (Part 4)

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 1, 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.


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.

In the previous entries we have focused exclusively on premise (1). We are now, finally, going to look at premise (4).

As you know, the basic KCA comes to the following conclusion:

(3) The universe has a cause of its existence.

Obviously this conclusion, by itself, says nothing about the nature of the cause. Further analysis is required for that. Craig thinks that the cause is God, but to say that he needs an additional premise:

(4) The cause must be an eternal, immaterial and personal being.

And what is an eternal, immaterial and personal being if not God? Q.E.D.

Not so fast. We want to know why it must be a personal cause.

The Personal Cause Argument and its Discontents

Craig doesn’t provide a formal argument in support of premise (4). Instead, he provides a conceptual analysis of what the nature of the cause must be, given the other premises of the KCA. Morriston thinks it is possible to reinterpret this conceptual analysis as a formal argument.

Before setting out that argument, we need to make two prefatory points. First, in the course of his conceptual analysis, Craig distinguishes between different types of causation: (i) event-event causation and (ii) personal or agent causation. (We can ignore the third possibility of state-state causation.)

The standard scientific concept of causation is event causation: one set of spatially distributed entities and activities brings about another set of spatially distributed entities and activities.

Agent causation will be familiar to those who have read up on the philosophy of free will. The idea behind it is that persons can cause their actions without themselves being caused by anything else. This makes it distinct from event causation.1

How exactly is it distinct? This brings us to the second prefatory point. Consider the following passage from Craig on why the cause of the universe must be personal:

If the cause were simply a mechanically operating set of necessary and sufficient conditions existing from eternity, then why would not the effect also exist from eternity? … The only way to have an eternal cause but a temporal effect would seem to be if the cause is a personal agent who freely chooses to create an effect in time.

The idea here is that non-personal (event) causes are simply sets of necessary and sufficient conditions. And because they are sets of necessary and sufficient conditions, whenever they exist so do their effects. As a result, an eternal non-personal cause would imply an eternal universe.

A personal cause is different. The presence of an agent does not imply the presence of any effects. An extra ingredient – free choice – is required to produce an effect.

Bearing these two prefatory points in mind, we can formulate the following argument.

(click for full size)

As noted in the diagram, there are two problems with this argument. First, when dismissing the relevance of quantum mechanics to premise (1), Craig seemed to accept the possibility of insufficient but necessary non-personal causes. This would mean that (f) is false and the possibility of the universe arising from, say, an eternal quantum vacuum cannot be dismissed.

The second problem requires more attention.

An Eternal Will to Create?

The essence of agent causation is that an agent’s intentions or willings (depending on how you like to carve-up mental states) can be the sufficient causes of events (usually, actions). This is problematic for Craig’s conception of God. For if God is eternal and has always intended (or willed) the creation of the universe, and if his intention (or will) is sufficient for the creation of the universe, then the universe must also be eternal.

This, if correct, would defeat the argument outlined above. How does Craig respond?

Craig accepts that God always intended to create the universe. God is not the kind of being who changes his mind or suffers from weakness of will (akrasia). He also accepts, as he must, that God’s intention is sufficient for the production of a universe. But Craig does not accept that this implies an eternal universe because God’s eternal, changeless intention has a specific content. It is the intention to create a universe with a beginning.

This is brilliant stuff, isn’t it? Perhaps not. As Morriston points out, this seems to commit Craig to an inconsistent set of propositions. As follows:

(i) The universe God intended to create has a beginning.
(ii) God’s willing-to-create the universe is eternal.
(iii) God’s willing-to-create is causally sufficient for the existence of the universe.
(iv) If a cause is eternal and sufficient for the existence of some object or event, then that object or event is also eternal. [This follows from (d) in the previous argument].
(v) If a thing is eternal then it does not have a beginning.

The problem is that these propositions would imply:

(vi) The universe both does and does not have a beginning.

Clearly one of the propositions (i) to (iv) has to go. But which one? (i) is essential to Craig’s argument; Craig has accepted the cogency (ii); denial of (iii) would deny God the power to create the universe; and (v) is a fairly trivial part of how we define eternity.

That leaves (iv). Craig could deny it but that would mean giving up his main objection to the possibility of an eternal, non-personal cause.

Two versions of Eternity

Morriston thinks that part of Craig’s problem may stem from the conflation of two quite distinct concepts of eternity: (i) eternity as beginningless and endless temporal duration and (ii) genuine atemporality.

When he speaks of God being causally prior to the universe, Craig is appealing to (ii). But when he speaks of God’s eternal intention, he is implicitly using (i). This is significant, as we are about to see.

Beginningless and Endless Duration

An agent existing in time can have plans for the future. For example, he could be sitting down at the moment but have an intention to stand up at a later moment in time. This could also apply to a being like God who could have existed forever but with an intention to do something at a later moment in time. This is illustrated below.

(click for full size)

The idea of intending to do something at a later moment in time provides Craig with the crucial difference between a personal and non-personal cause. Craig argues that a non-personal cause automatically gives rise to its effect. There is no way for it delay the exercise of its causal powers. Only a personal agent can do that.

It is this reasoning that allows Craig to say that an eternal non-personal cause would imply an eternal universe but an eternal personal cause — in the first sense of eternity — would not.

But Morriston is not sure that this works. Why couldn’t a non-personal cause delay its effect? Is action at a temporal distance any more problematic than action at a spatial distance? Maybe this is exactly what takes place in the quantum realm: the cause exists forever and only appears to give rise to a spontaneous effect at a later moment in time.

Genuine Atemporality

In any event, Craig needs to discard the temporal version of eternity. But this provides no succor for his defense of a personal cause because it completely erodes the distinction that Craig is trying to make between a personal cause and a non-personal cause.

Take the personal cause first. The idea must be that God is timeless and that he timelessly wills the creation of a spatio-temporal universe. There can be no temporal gap between his will and the creation, because there is no such thing as time before the creation of the universe. (Yes, this talk of “before” is confusing, but it’s impossible to avoid.)

Now consider a non-personal eternal cause, call it S (say it is quantum state/singularity, if you like), that is sufficient to bring into a being a spatiotemporal universe. This universe begins to exist in Craig’s sense of beginning to exist. Craig thinks S is impossible because, as outlined earlier, he thinks an eternal non-personal cause implies an eternal universe: if S always exists, so does its effect.

But this can’t work if we are adopting the second sense of eternity. According to this sense, there is no such thing as a temporal relation prior to the existence of the universe. Consequently, there can be no time at which S has failed to produce its effect, and no time at which S has already produced its effect.

In other words, there is no reason for thinking that a genuinely eternal non-personal cause could not produce a universe with a beginning.

(click for full size)

Craig’s argument only works because he slides back and forth between the two different senses of eternity. If he is forced to stick with one, the argument falls apart.

Some final observations

Based on the above, Morriston concludes that Craig’s argument for the personal cause fails. Is there anything Craig could do to improve it?

He could argue that only personal beings can be atemporal. However, this has clearly not been established and it is difficult to see how it could be: the idea of an atemporal personal being is at least as difficult to conceive of as the idea of an atemporal non-personal entity.

He could also argue that, even if atemporal non-personal causes are possible, the appeal to a personal being has certain explanatory advantages. This is far from obvious. As Gregory Dawes argues, explanations appealing to the person of God are more likely to face explanatory disadvantages.

To sum up, even if the first part of the KCA succeeds, the second part leaves a lot to be desired.

  1. There are serious issues we could raise about the legitimacy of agent causation. One of the better analyses of the whole debate is Clarke, R. Libertarian Accounts of Free Will (Oxford University Press, 2006). []

Previous post:

Next post:

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

lesiba November 1, 2010 at 5:52 am

This is an excellent rebuttal. If one sticks to atemporality when discussing the “first cause”, then the preference of a personal first cause idea really flies out the window.

Althoug, like Morriston stated, I wonder why a first cause that has an infinite temporal duration can’t be non-personal? Craig seems to assume that ANY effect this cause would have would result in the formation of a universe. With reference to the Version 1 diagram above, is it not possible that such a cause might have “failed” creating sustainable universes and only became successful at T2? Or perhaps the entity was successful in creating other universes all along and our universe is merely one of them? Seeing that we don’t know what’s “outside” our universe, any of these scenarios is a possibility!


John D November 1, 2010 at 5:52 am

Couple of mistakes in this. Numbering of some of the premises is wrong. There are two premises labelled (1) in the opening section. The second should be labelled (4). Also, in the collection of inconsistent propositions, the last premise should be (vi) not (i).

Finally, premise (f) of the argument in the first diagram should really be removed. I think I included it to try to flesh out Morriston’s reasoning but he doesn’t include it and, on reflection, he’s right. The sufficiency of agent causes is at issue in his second objection and including a premise stating that agent causes are non-sufficient, or insufficient is both confusing and mistaken. I’ll send a corrected version to Luke.


mojo.rhythm November 1, 2010 at 6:33 am

Well done Mr. Danaher.

I’ve certainly learned alot from reading this series. I think premiss 4 of the Kalam is the most inadequately supported of all, and you just showed why.

I’m so surprised Craig’s debate opponents have not yet called him out on his sneaky equivocation between “timelessness” and “infinite duration”.

I read Craig’s response to this article; there were good arguments that Wes made which he simply didn’t respond to. Many others he replied too simply with an obnoxious retort backed up with an appeal to authority (he really seems to have trouble distinguishing between an L.D. competitive debate and a scholarly philosophical dialogue sometimes). I filled up the margins of Craig’s response with scribblings like:
“No way!”
“Oh no he did not just say that!”
“Lots of people believe it’s true, therefore its true.”
“Arguments for dualism forthcoming or do you just presuppose it?”
“Another crudding, arsing, cocking appeal to bloody authority!”
“Do you think big words convey big emotions Bill?”
“I swear that you cannot get out of debate mode. Are you like this all the time? Are you like this in your off-duty hours? When your spending time with your wife and children?”
“Ok thank God I’ve finished reading this article.”


lukeprog November 1, 2010 at 6:46 am

John D,



Silas November 1, 2010 at 7:21 am

What the hell is personal causation? Has Craig ever tried to explain the mechanisms behind this mysterious phenomenon?


lukeprog November 1, 2010 at 10:30 am


It’s magic, duh.


Scott November 1, 2010 at 11:03 am

The accompanying cartoons are awesome. All philosophy should have little doodles like these to make it easier to understand.

I love this series, by the way. Easy to grasp and enlightening. The “personal cause” bit has always baffled me in the Cosmo Argument. I’ve never understood how one reaches that conclusion.


Bram van Dijk November 1, 2010 at 11:32 am

Thank you for this series, very interesting and illuminating.


Rick B November 1, 2010 at 1:06 pm


The “personal cause” bit has always baffled me in the Cosmo Argument.I’ve never understood how one reaches that conclusion.  

No need to wonder there. Just start with that conclusion and justify everything else post hoc.


Márcio November 1, 2010 at 1:09 pm

There is something i don’t understand. Is the Quantum System something that exists outside the universe or is it the universe itself in the very early stage? The quantum system is eternal?


John D November 1, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Well, a personal cause need not be obscure or magical if you take it to be a just a particular type of an ordinary physical (event) cause. Of course, Craig does not think a person is just a particular assembly of atoms.


Jeff H November 1, 2010 at 2:11 pm

Thanks for this excellent summary, John. You really make clear the important distinction between eternity as infinite time, and eternity as timelessness. I’ve always been baffled by Craig’s idea that an eternal person can be sitting from eternity and then choose to stand up, but that no non-personal object can do the same. Here’s a hint: It’s called an ALARM CLOCK.


Andrewr November 1, 2010 at 2:47 pm

I don’t see how WLC can appeal to ‘eternity’ in the sense of infinite time when he also expends so much effort claiming that an actual infinite is not possible


lukeprog November 1, 2010 at 3:31 pm

I echo all these praises for John’s exposition. And cartoons.


drj November 1, 2010 at 7:59 pm

I had always just assumed that I was misunderstanding something with all of Craig’s confusing talk of eternity and personal causes, because I just could not make sense of it.

Thanks to this incredibly lucid piece, its pretty clear exactly where my confusion is coming from – Craig is committing the fallacy of equivocation.


Jaydin November 3, 2010 at 1:35 am

After reading this rebuttal, it seems it can also be used to significantly weaken the support Craig gives for Premise 2 of the KCA. If, as this article shows, an atemporal cause cannot be the cause of the universe because it would mean the universe has existed eternally (and as Craig says this can’t happen), then the only way out of this dilemma is to say that either the cause of the universe is temporal but eternal, or the universe did not begin to exist. Which both mean, by Craig’s own reasoning, that an infinite number of temporal events is possible, leaving only the arguments of modern science and entropy supporting premise 2. And since the argument from modern science is exceptionally weak (most physicists have criticized Craig for misquoting them), that leaves the argument from entropy. How do most people rebut the argument from entropy Craig gives?


Muto November 3, 2010 at 2:22 am

As far as I know, nobody has figured out what would happen with entropy during a big crunch. Hence it is prematurely to assume that the 2nd law will apply. To say that the 2nd law proves the beginning of the universe is as naive as saying that the 1st law proves that the universe extends infinitely into the past.


Jaydin November 3, 2010 at 7:05 pm

Thanks for the reply Muto. Just checking, is the above argument valid? In formal presentation it would be:

(5.1) Any timeless cause of the universe would mean the universe has existed eternally.
(5.2) The universe cannot exist eternally, as an infinite temporal regress of events is impossible.
(5.3) Therefore the cause of the universe was not timeless.
(5.4) Therefore an infinite temporal regress of events is possible.


Leave a Comment