This is the weekly Q & A blog post by our Research Professor in Philosophy, William Lane Craig.
Bonjour Dr. Craig, Thank you for your work and everything that you do for the Christian faith. My question is in regards to atemporal causation. Many skeptics will assert that God could not have created the universe because there was no time in which he could have created it. But I do subscribe to your notion that instead of saying that “God existed before the universe existed”, we say “that God existed timelessly without the universe.” I am, however, struggling with an analogy that was given by Trent Horn, and I was hoping that you could address it.
Horn says that “the cause of an effect does not always have to occur before an effect”, and he supports this with Kant: “The greater part of operating causes in nature are simultaneous with their effects...if the cause had but a moment before ceased to be, the effect could not have arisen.” Horn then uses the analogy of the brick going through the window: “In this case, it is clear that the brick is thrown before the window breaks, and the window doesn’t break before the brick hits it. But notice that there is a brief overlap where the cause (the brick flying through the air) is simultaneous with the effect (the window breaking). If the brick disappeared even a microsecond before it touched the window, then the effect would never happen. So there has to be a moment where the cause and effect happen at the same time.” In this example, wouldn’t the cause not be the brick itself, but the action of throwing the brick, thus making the cause and effect not simultaneous events? And if so, what other examples could we give our skeptic friends of causes and effects being simultaneous events?
Merci et que Dieu vous bénisse.
William Lane Craig's Response
Thank you for your good wishes, Paul! I take your question primarily because you have argued so convincingly that the simultaneity of cause and effect is not only plausible but virtually inescapable, thereby pulling the rug from beneath popular critics of the doctrine of creation and of the kalām cosmological argument in particular.
It’s worth noting in passing that I don’t defend atemporal causation, the view that in creation the cause (God) is timeless and the effect (the world) is temporal. On the contrary, I argue against that view. But it’s also worth noting that if one believes that causes are necessarily temporally prior to their effects, the theist is at liberty to hold that although physical time (time as it plays a role in physics) may have begun at the big bang, God existed literally prior to the big bang in a metaphysical, non-metric time in which seconds and minutes and hours and days cannot be distinguished, a view defended by John Lucas, Richard Swinburne, and Alan Padgett.
My own view is that in creation the cause is simultaneous with the effect, that is to say, they both occur at the same moment of time, namely, the first moment of time. God existing alone without the world is timeless but co-existing with the world is temporal. The moment God causes the universe to come into being is the moment at which the universe comes into being. What could be more obvious? How could the cause and effect not be simultaneous?
So I completely agree with Horn’s Kantian claim that “the cause of an effect does not always have to occur before an effect.” Indeed, how could the cause and its effect not be simultaneous? As Horn says, “If the brick disappeared even a microsecond before it touched the window, then the effect would never happen.” I’d love to have the critics of simultaneous causation explain to us how a causal influence can leap across such a temporal gap to produce an effect at a later time. In a causal chain, the last link in the chain seemingly has to be simultaneous with the effect or the effect would not occur.
“In this example, wouldn’t the cause not be the brick itself, but the action of throwing the brick, thus making the cause and effect not simultaneous events?” No, the cause of the window’s breaking is the brick’s hitting the window. You’re responsible for throwing the brick that hit the window and so may be criminally liable for breaking the window. You are the agent cause who initiated the causal chain resulting in the window’s breaking. Your throwing the brick is the remote cause of the window’s breaking, but the proximate cause is the brick’s hitting the window.
Now in creation there is no difference between remote cause and proximate cause because there is no causal linkage between God and the world: God immediately brings about the world. His acts are like basic actions I take with regard to my own body. If I will to think about my summer vacation, I do so immediately without having to cause something in between first.
The only caveat to be added here is that God’s act of creating is the event cause of the universe’s coming into being, while God Himself is the agent cause responsible for the universe’s coming into being. Imagine by way of analogy that you broke the window, not by throwing a brick, but by hitting it yourself. Then your hitting the window would be the event cause of the window’s breaking, and you would be the agent cause responsible for the window’s breaking. Similarly, God is the agent cause who acts to bring the universe into existence.
This Q&A and other resources are available on William Lane Craig's website.