This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, Dr. William Lane Craig.
Dear Dr. Craig,
A hidden assumption in the Kalam Cosmological Argument seems to be that if one accepts the universe had a beginning, but posits that the universe had no cause, then one is committed to the position that the universe popped into existence out of nothing. I have to disagree. I am willing to grant for the sake of argument that if originally there “was” nothing (no space, time, laws, energy etc.), that the universe cannot just pop into existence... But why should one assume such a scenario if they affirm a beginning but reject a cause? This scenario treats “nothing” as some sort of starting point. Basically, if we start with nothing, nothing will come.
This makes me wonder.... Why start with nothing? Why not just start with with the initial universal state that existed for that split moment then expanded (whatever that first state turns out to be)? If you say “at first, nothing existed, then the universe just popped into existence” then it sounds like an absurd scenario, because it is. However, one could just say “at first, the initial universal state existed”. There doesn’t seem to be anything absurd about that once so ever.
So, to clarify the question, if I was to admit the universe had a beginning, but reject that it had a cause, why am I committed to the position that “originally, nothing existed, and the initial universal state popped into existence out of nothing”... Why can’t I just say “originally, the initial universal state existed”? Now, one might be tempted to claim that there either had to be nothing or something “prior” to the initial universal state. This is a false dichotomy though, a third option is that there was no “prior” (either temporally or ontologically) at all. Thank you very much for taking the time to read my question.
Dr. William Lane Craig's Response
Jason, your question exhibits a misunderstanding that is, I suspect, all too widespread, despite my best efforts to correct it.
According to the Big Bang theory, the universe did not begin with nothing in the sense that at first there was nothing and then the universe came into being. Here a little philosophy of language is helpful: The word “nothing” is not a singular term referring to something. Rather it is a quantifier, a term of universal negation, just like “nobody,” “nowhere,” “no one,” etc. It means “not anything.”
So when cosmologists say that there was nothing prior to the Big Bang, they do NOT mean that there was something prior to it, and that was a state of nothingness. Rather they mean that there was not anything prior to the Big Bang.
So time and the universe start with the first physical state of affairs, before which there was not anything. This is, in fact, the view that you quite rightly want to affirm. The question is, what is causally (not temporally) prior to that first physical state? I have in my published work given reasons why it is not plausible that that first physical state came to be uncaused.
In saying that the universe came into being at the first moment of its existence, I am not presupposing a prior state of nothing but rather affirming that the fact of the universe’s beginning to exist is a tensed fact. That is to say, the first state of the universe is not a tenselessly existing state but an instance of objective temporal becoming.
The best run for its money that I can give to the view that the first state of the universe was uncaused is to adopt a tenseless theory of time, according to which temporal becoming is an illusion of human consciousness. So the first state of the universe, like every other state, just exists tenselessly. On such a view the universe has a beginning only the sense that a yardstick has a beginning at its first inch.
Now many partisans of a tenseless theory of time would feel very uncomfortable in claiming that the first state of the universe exists uncaused and, hence, inexplicably. After all, if the universe began (tenselessly) five minutes ago, we would surely demand a cause for its beginning, just as we demand a cause for that state when it is preceded by other states. Otherwise, we’d be left wondering why a universe exists at all, much less one with a beginning. But on a tensed theory of time, according to which temporal becoming is real, the need for a cause of the first state of the universe becomes, I think, patent because that is the moment at which the universe comes into being.
This Q&A and other resources are available on Dr. William Lane Craig's website.