Refutations: The Cosmological Argument (Craig)

Craig’s argument runs as follows:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
  4. This cause is the God of Classical Theism, and is a personal being, because He chose to create the universe.

If claim 4 appears to come out of left field – if it appears to be far more specific than the previous assertions warrant, then you’re right.

I shall tackle Craig’s argument point by point:

1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

As Craig suggests, this is an intuitively obvious premise, but it is by no means certain. Indeed, while scientists usually work on the assumption that whatever begins to exist has a cause, this is only an assumption, and not something that has been shown to be universally true. Since the discovery of quantum mechanics, phenomena have been investigated that may, indeed, be without cause. Examples include individual radioactive decay events, and the spontaneous production of particle/anti-particle pairs. It is not known with certainty that these events are strictly without cause, but it cannot be ruled out.

There is another problem with this first premise. If the universe had an actual beginning (i.e., if it has not always existed), then the concept of time is meaningless before that beginning. Indeed, it makes no sense to even talk about anything “before” the beginning of the universe, because this implicitly assumes some flow of time prior to the existence of the universe, which is not possible (the flow of time is a fundamental property of the universe – it is built into the definition of the universe).

This is problematic for Craig’s premise because the concept of causality is intimately associated with the passage of time. For something to be caused, it must be triggered by an event occurring earlier in time. But if there is no “earlier in time” to speak of, as with the beginning of the universe, then it is impossible for there to be a cause. Thus, if the universe really did have a beginning, this beginning could not have been caused.

2. The universe began to exist.

Craig supports this argument using his sub-arguments, which I tackle below, but from a purely scientific point of view, it is in doubt. This is because cosmologists do not, in fact, agree that the universe ever had a beginning. Some theories propose that it did, while other theories (like the ekpyrotic theory) propose that it did not. It is therefore by no means obvious that Craig’s premise is true, and further uncertainty is added to his argument.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

As suggested above, the universe may, indeed, be uncaused.

4. This cause is the God of Classical Theism, and is a personal being, because He chose to create the universe.

This last step in the argument seems like an obvious leap to conclusions, which Craig is well aware of. He offers the following argument to support it:

Argument that the cause of the universe is a personal Creator:

1. The universe was brought into being either by a mechanically operating set of necessary and sufficient conditions or by a personal, free agent.

(The above quote, and those that follow, can be found here.)

The first option, for reasons already stated, does not appear to be reasonable. If the universe really did have a beginning (which is not clear), then it doesn’t seem to make sense to say it had a cause, because causality requires the flow of time, and no time existed before the beginning of the universe.

2. The universe could not have been brought into being by a mechanically operating set of necessary and sufficient conditions. Why? Because if the necessary and sufficient conditions were present from eternity, the effect would also be present from eternity. It’s impossible to explain how the sufficient conditions could exist timelessly or eternally and not also have the effect equally co–present. The only way that a temporal effect could arise from an eternal cause is if the cause is a free, personal agent who is able to freely create the universe without antecedent determining conditions.

Craig again makes the assumption that time existed before the beginning of the universe, which I have already argued is unsound. Second, Craig simply assumes that the necessary and sufficient conditions for the beginning of the universe were present from eternity, but why should this be the case? Why could the conditions of the pre-universe environment (itself a nonsensical concept) not have been changing constantly since all eternity, and only reached the necessary and sufficient state for universe initiation some finite time ago? Craig doesn’t say.

There are also problems with Craig’s conception of a personal agent. First, he assumes that it is possible to talk of an agent who can freely decide to perform an action without prior cause. But this is simply an assertion on his part. Looking at what we know of the natural world, the idea of a free agent is incoherent: the only agents we know exist are our minds, and perhaps the minds of certain animals, and these minds are driven by brains submerged in a deterministic universe of physical laws, implying that all decisions are affected by external causes. To assume the possibility of another type of agent is to assume some influence from the supernatural, yet this would require Craig to make assumptions about the existence of one supernatural phenomenon in order to prove the existence of another, which greatly weakens his argument.

The second point about Craig’s personal agent is that surely this agent, like the universe itself, might have a cause? And if this agent has a cause, then what (or who) caused the personal agent to come into being? A second personal agent, more powerful than the first one? This won’t do: if Craig’s argument is to work, he must show that his hypothetical personal agent has no cause. And this is where he runs into serious trouble.

His argument is very short:

The Creator is uncaused [because] an infinite temporal regress of causes cannot exist.

Unfortunately, even if we concede that an infinite temporal regress of causes cannot exist (a claim that is based largely on Craig’s personal sense of incredulity), the conclusion simply doesn’t follow from the premise. To see why, let’s make sure we keep in mind the first premise that Craig set forward, namely that everything that begins has a cause. We therefore have the following two premises that must (according to Craig, anyway) be satisfied:

Premise 1: An infinite temporal regress of causes cannot exist.

Premise 2: Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

Since Craig has not yet shown whether the Creator began to exist or not, there are two possible conclusions that can be drawn from the above premises, depending on which option we choose regarding the Creator’s beginning:

Conclusion 1: If the Creator has always existed, then by Premise 2 he did not have a cause. This is what Craig claims is the only possible conclusion – and we can see now that this is only possible if he assumes implicitly that the Creator never had a beginning, an assumption that he has yet to prove. (He tries to prove it later using the conclusion from this step, thereby falling foul of circular reasoning.)

Conclusion 2: If the Creator has not always existed – i.e., he had a beginning – then by Premise 2 he had a cause. (Furthermore, by Premise 1, that cause could not have occurred an infinite period of time in the past, but that is obvious given the assumption that he has not always existed).

If Conclusion 2 turns out to be true, and the Creator had a cause, then Craig has failed in his attempt to show that the Creator is uncaused. But Craig fails to show that Conclusion 2 must be taken off the table, because he only seems to be aware of Conclusion 1.

It is therefore possible that the (hypothetical) Creator was caused, in which case the Creator does not solve the problem of what caused the universe: we still have to determine what caused the Creator.

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