William Lane Craig: must the cause of the universe be a person?

I am posting this to prepare everyone for tonight’s debate between Sean Carroll and William Lane Craig. The cause of the universe is sure to come up in tonight’s debate, which is at 7 PM Central, 8 PM Eastern time!

I expect Dr. Carroll to raise many objections to the kalam cosmological argument in tonight’s debate. One that will come up for sure is the objection that the cause of the universe need not be a person (i.e. – the cause need not be personal).

Here’s a post from my friend Fred Woodbridge, who blogs at IFCONFIG blog, where he quotes from Dr. Craig’s book “Reasonable Faith”. The quote contains three arguments for why the cause of the universe must be personal.


First, as Richard Swinburne points out [in The Existence of God], there are two types of causal explanation: scientific explanations in terms of laws and initial conditions and personal explanations in terms of agents and their volitions. For example, if I come into the kitchen and find the kettle boiling, and I ask Jan, “Why is the kettle boiling?” she might answer, “The heat of the flame is being conducted via the copper bottom of the kettle to the water, increasing the kinetic energy of the water molecules, such that they vibrate so violently that they break the surface tension of the water and are thrown off in the form of steam.” Or she might say, “I put it on to make a cup of tea. Would you like some?” The first provides a scientific explanation, the second a personal explanation. Each is a perfectly legitimate form of explanation; indeed, in certain contexts it would be wholly inappropriate to give one rather than the other. Now a first state of the universe cannot have a scientific explanation, since there is nothing before it, and therefore it cannot be accounted for in terms of laws operating on initial conditions. It can only be accounted for in terms of an agent and his volitions, a personal explanation.

Second, the personhood of the cause of the universe is implied by its timelessness and immateriality. The only entities we know of which can possess such properties are either minds or abstract objects, like numbers. But abstract objects do not stand in causal relations. Indeed, their acausal nature is definitive for abstract objects; that is why we call them abstract. Numbers, for example, cannot cause anything. Therefore, the transcendent cause of the origin of the universe must be of the order of mind.

Third, this same conclusion is also implied by the fact that we have in this case the origin of a temporal effect from a timeless cause. We’ve concluded that the beginning of the universe was the effect of a first cause. By the nature of the case, that cause cannot have any beginning of its existence or any prior cause. Nor can there have been any changes in this cause, either in its nature or operations, prior
to the beginning of the universe. It just exists changelessly without beginning, and a finite time ago it brought the universe into existence. Now this is exceedingly odd. The cause is in some sense eternal and yet the effect which it produced is not eternal but began to exist a finite time ago. How can this be? If the necessary and sufficient conditions for the production of the effect are eternal, then why isn’t the effect eternal? How can all the causal conditions sufficient for the production of the effect be changelessly existent and yet the effect not also be existent along with the cause? How can the cause exist without the effect?

One might say that the cause came to exist or changed in some way just prior to the first event. But then the cause’s beginning or changing would be the first event, and we must ask all over again for its cause. And this cannot go on forever, for we know that a beginningless series of events cannot exist. There must be an absolutely first event, before which there was no change, no previous event. We know that this first event must have been caused. The question is: How can a first event come to exist if the cause of that event exists changelessly and eternally? Why isn’t the effect co-eternal with its cause?

To illustrate: Let’s say the cause of water’s freezing is subzero temperatures. If the temperature were eternally below zero degrees Centigrade, then any water around would be eternally frozen. If the cause exists eternally, the effect must also exist eternally. But this seems to imply that if the cause of the universe existed eternally, the universe would also have existed eternally. And this we know to be false.

One way to see the difficulty is by reflecting on the different types of causal relations. In event/event causation, one event causes another. For example, the brick’s striking the window pane causes the pane to shatter. This kind of causal relation clearly involves a beginning of the effect in time, since it is a relation between events which occur at specific times. In state/state causation one state of affairs causes another state of affairs to exist. For example, the water’s having a certain surface tension is the cause of the wood’s floating on the water. In this sort of causal relation, the effect need not have a beginning: the wood could theoretically be floating eternally on the water. If the wood begins to float on the water, then this will be a case of event/event causation: the wood’s beginning to float is the result of its being thrown into the water. Now the difficulty that arises in the case of the cause of the beginning of the universe is that we seem to have a peculiar case of state/event causation: the cause is a timeless state but the effect is an event that occurred at a specific moment in the finite past. Such state/event causation doesn’t seem to make sense, since a state sufficient for the existence of its effect should have a state as its effect.

There seems to be only one way out of this dilemma, and that is to say that the cause of the universe’s beginning is a personal agent who freely chooses to create a universe in time. Philosophers call this type of causation “agent causation,” and because the agent is free, he can initiate new effects by freely bringing about conditions which were not previously present. For example, a man sitting changelessly from eternity could freely will to stand up; thus, a temporal effect arises from an eternally existing agent. Similarly, a finite time ago a Creator endowed with free will could have freely brought the world into being at that moment. In this way, the Creator could exist changelessly and eternally but choose to create the world in time. By “choose” one need not mean that the Creator changes his mind about the decision to create, but that he freely and eternally intends to create a world with a beginning. By exercising his causal power, he therefore brings it about that a world with a beginning comes to exist. So the cause is eternal, but the effect is not. In this way, then, it is possible for the temporal universe to have come to exist from an eternal cause: through the free will of a personal Creator.

On the basis of a conceptual analysis of the conclusion implied by the kalām cosmological argument, we may therefore infer that a personal Creator of the universe exists, who is uncaused, beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and unimaginably powerful. This, as Thomas Aquinas was wont to remark, is what everybody means by “God.”

I’m sure that Dr. Carroll will raise many other objections to the kalam argument. If Dr. Carroll is clever, he might also object that the notion of  timeless person is incoherent, that the notion of an unembodied mind is incoherent, that we don’t know that non-physical minds can cause effects in the physical world, that matter can’t come into being out of nothing, that even if effects in the physical universe have causes that doesn’t mean the universe as a whole has to have a cause, and that the notion of causation doesn’t make sense unless time has already started. But these are objections that Dr. Craig answered in his debate with Peter Millican, so they shouldn’t phase him.

One thought on “William Lane Craig: must the cause of the universe be a person?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s