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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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). [↩]
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