This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Visiting Scholar in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.
I very much enjoyed watching your discussion with Alex of CosmicSkeptic. All the disagreements were cordial, respectful, and impersonal.
However, I do have several questions (actually a lot but I'll only ask the important ones).
You said, "If you do take that view of mereological nihilism, then we wouldn't have any inductive examples of things that begin to exist. The first premise would still be true that whatever begins to exist has a cause. But we wouldn't have any examples of things that begin to exist other than these fundamental particles." There is a fundamental and crucial point of deconstruction of Kalam that it seems you're trying to escape, in two ways.
Firstly, you avoid the critique of begging the question by the bald-faced reiteration that it would still be true that the Universe "has a cause" if the existence of the Universe is the only example of something beginning to exist. Alex properly reduced the causal argument to a presupposition rather than a premise by showing that it is a unique example with no causal determination. "Has a cause" no longer applies.
Building on that point, it's secondarily important to distinguish that—not only is the Universe the singular example of something beginning to exist—but that all other examples you would like to cite are crucially different than that which you set out to prove. We can grant that compositional things exist in reality and do begin to exist at a specified time as you argue. But the cause of those objects beginning to exist are predicated on the pre-existence of fundamental particles. We are not talking about creation ex nihilo. We might colloquially use the word "create" interchangably, but that is a limiting function of our language. I would argue that the two different types of creation bear no relationship to one another. Nothing that comes into existence based on the reformation of pre-existing building blocks is sufficient to prove a premise that asserts creation ex nihilo. So even if we accept your view of object realism, we still have this significant problem with the premise.
Where Alex didn't go, and I would have liked to hear you respond, to is the following consideration. Cause and effect are temporal labels. Cause and effect are constrained to work within, and only within, the known Universe. Throwing a ball against the wall (the cause) and watching it bounce back (the effect) only work for two fundamental reasons. (1) Time must pass in order that a cause precedes an effect and (2) space must exist for the ball to travel through. Remove either element and cause/effect becomes an impotent descriptor, nullified of its utility. It is a a category error, therefore, to say that our understanding of cause and effect as well as our application of it can fairly be applied to the Universe. After all, it was the Big Bang that created time and space. You can then deduce that cause and effect are functionally created as a part of the Universe. One cannot claim that cause and effect governs the creation of the Universe. Otherwise we have circularly applied the created thing to somehow legislate the process by which it was created. When the game of chess was invented, the rules of chess did not constrain how the game was designed. The application is then to obviously argue that the Universe cannot have a cause because the Universe created causality. Until and unless there is some way to demonstrate that causality is a metaphysical construct that supersedes the boundaries of the Universe, we have no license to apply it in the way that Premise 1 of the kalam does.
Othere questions: What are your thoughts on quantum mechanics, which imply there is no efficient cause (e.g. virtual particles, random atomic decay) to events even if there is a pre-existing matter? Also, Alex Vilenkin (a physicist that you respect) says it’s mathematically/physically consistent for a universe to arise without an efficient (freewill) or material cause (pure nothingness). How would you respond to that? I’d like also to question the second premise: whether the universe did begin to exist. Many physicists say time is not a line that starts at 0. Time gets warped and warps into a ball. So our concept of a point starting at 0 is confused. For this reason, Alan Guth, Anthony Aguirre & other physicists believe the universe is eternal. And finally, I want to know why you think disembodied, timeless minds could exist. Even if we concede minds are distinct from matter, that doesn’t imply minds could exist apart from matter. And even if they could, that doesn’t imply they are timeless/spaceless. Thank you.
William Lane Craig's Response
I’m glad you enjoyed my conversation with Alex O’Connor, Fieonne. You don’t exaggerate when you say that you have a lot of questions! If I’m to respond to them all in a brief compass, my answers will be necessarily succinct. I’ll try to organize your questions by numbered points.
1. Escaping the Causal Premiss via Mereological Nihilism. The dialectical background to this question is the sceptic’s assertion, in response to the argument’s second premiss that The universe began to exist, that in fact nothing, including the universe, ever begins to exist. Why? Because the material constituents out of which a thing is composed existed before it. The irrelevance of this claim is made evident by offering an explication of “begins to exists” that does not depend on something’s coming into existence without a material cause:
For any entity x and time t, x begins to exist at t iff x exists at t and t is the first time at which x exists.
This explication leaves it entirely open whether or not x has a material cause. The notion that something composed of prior material constituents never begins to exist is, frankly, nutty, since it would require you to affirm that you existed prior to your conception, indeed, that you have always existed.
The next move in the dialectic is a desperate one: in order to defend his assertion that nothing ever really begins to exist, the sceptic says that no composite material objects exist and therefore never begin to exist. If they never exist, then they never began to exist. This is the doctrine of mereological nihilism: there are no composite objects. Now, as I explained to Alex, we already begin to discern the high intellectual price tag exacted by the sceptic’s line. Do you really think, Fieonne, that there are no people, no tables and chairs, no planets, etc., that you have no parents? But it gets even worse: you have to deny that you yourself exist. But this is mad; as Descartes rightly saw, the one indubitable datum is one’s own existence. So composite material objects undeniably exist.
Now, admittedly, if mereological nihilism were true, then we’d have no clear example of things’ beginning to exist, at least in everyday experience (there remains the question of fundamental particles’ beginning to exist, which are not composed but are simple). So my inductive argument from experience that things which begin to exist have causes would not have force for the mereological nihilist because those things don’t really exist! Mais n’importe, since mereological nihilism is not a reasonable option.
But, then, do I beg the question in claiming that the causal premiss is still true even if the mereological nihilist is correct that there are no composite objects? No, because the inductive argument was but one of my three arguments in support of the causal premiss, the first two being metaphysical arguments that are unaffected by the assertion that there are no composite objects, namely, that something cannot come into being from nothing and that if things could come into being from nothing, then it is inexplicable why anything and everything does not come into being from nothing. So even given mereological nihilism, the causal premiss is not a mere presupposition, but is supported by arguments, which the sceptic must address.
2. The Causal premiss and Creatio ex nihilo. You quite sensibly proceed to grant, at least for the sake of argument, that “compositional things exist in reality and do begin to exist at a specified time.” But you object that “Nothing that comes into existence based on the reformation of pre-existing building blocks is sufficient to prove a premise that asserts creation ex nihilo.” The problem with this objection, Fieonna, is that the causal premiss asserts no such thing. As our explication of “begins to exist” makes clear, it is a matter of indifference whether the things that begin to exist have material causes or not. Indeed, if the causal premiss asserted that everything that begins to exist is created ex nihilo, I should regard it as obviously false.
3. Causation and Time. You assert that “One cannot claim that cause and effect governs the creation of the Universe” because “Cause and effect are temporal labels.” I reply that your assertion is both false and irrelevant. As QoW #678 explains, the claim that causes necessarily precede their effects in time is not only unjustified but plausibly false. Moreover, even if both cause and effect must be in time, God’s creation of the universe can be simultaneous with the universe’s coming into being, namely, at the first moment of time. In any case, the causal principle is not a physical principle like Boyle’s Law that applies only within the universe. As explained above, it is a metaphysical principle that governs all of being. So I should say in response to your contrary claim, “Until and unless there is some way to demonstrate that causality is a merely physical construct confined to the boundaries of the Universe, we have no license to restrict its application in the way the sceptic does.” Your argument from temporality is just such an attempt, but it fails.
4. Causation and Quantum Mechanics. Does quantum mechanics “imply there is no efficient cause . . . to events even if there is a pre-existing matter?” No, it does not. There are at least ten different, empirically equivalent physical interpretations of the equations of quantum mechanics, some of which are fully deterministic. So quantum mechanics does not furnish a counter-example to the causal premiss. Moreover, the causal premiss has been carefully formulated to allow uncaused events for the fans of indeterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics (and proponents of free will). For it does not assert that Every event has a cause, but that every thing that begins to exist has a cause. The causal premiss concerns, not events which happen, but things which begin to exist. It is therefore fully compatible with indeterministic interpretations of quantum mechanics.
5. Miscellaneous. As for Vilenkin, see my response to him in “Creation Ex Nihilo: Theology and Science,” in The Story of the Cosmos, ed. P. Gould and D. Ray (Eugene, Ore.: Harvest House, 2019), pp. 183-200. Vilenkin mistakenly assumes that anything not prohibited by the laws of nature is metaphysically possible, an assumption to which it is easy to provide counter-examples.
As for time’s being linear, it’s not true that “Many physicists say time is not a line that starts at 0. Time gets warped and warps into a ball.” You can craft mathematical models of circular time but they are grossly unphysical. (Or are you thinking of the Hartle-Hawking model in which spacetime near the beginning is rounded off like a badminton shuttlecock? Such a model still has a beginning at the non-singular point t = 0.) As for Aguirre, Guth, and Carroll, as I explain in the above article, they try to postulate a past eternal universe by having the arrow of time at some point in the past flip over and run in the opposite direction! Not only is this scenario wholly unphysical, but it is also unavailing. For as physicist Aron Wall explains, that time-reversed, mirror universe is in no sense in our past. What you actually have here are two universes each expanding from a common beginning point.
As for the Cause of the universe‘s being an unembodied mind, in my published work, such as Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. rev. (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008), I give three arguments in support. It is now up to the sceptic to show that mind is somehow inherently dependent on matter, which he has failed to do (see J. P. Moreland’s arguments for mind/body dualism in our Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. 2d rev. ed. [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2017]). The timelessness and spacelessness of the Mind that created the universe is an implication of its being the cause of time and space. On the coherence of timeless personhood see my chapter in Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2001).
I’m glad you’re thinking about these questions, Fieonna. These are difficult and fascinating issues. But I’m confident that if you continue to read and explore with an open mind, you will come to see the plausibility of the theistic perspective in contrast to the alternatives.
This Q&A and other resources are available on William Lane Craig's website.