Two Objections to Inferring a Personal Cause of the Universe

The Problem

The kalam cosmological argument proceeds in three stages:  first, it provides evidence that the universe had a beginning. Second, it maintains that the universe had a cause and that this cause must have existed in a spaceless, timeless, immaterial state. Third, it gives reasons for why the cause was a personal agent. [The kalam argument also presupposes a “relational” and “A-theory” of time[1]]

In today’s post, I will consider one of the reasons why William Lane Craig (1991) thinks a personal cause is the best explanation for the beginning of the universe.[2]

Craig uses the analogy of frozen water to illustrate the need for a personal cause. We know that water freezes at temperatures below zero. Yet, “if the cause of water’s being frozen is the temperature’s being below zero degrees, then if the temperature were below zero degrees from [all] eternity, then any water present would be frozen from eternity.”

If the temperature were below zero degrees from all eternity, then any water present would be frozen from eternity

The frozen water analogy illustrates that when the necessary and sufficient conditions for an effect exist, the effect arises immediately and inevitably. If those conditions have existed from eternity past, then the effect would be co-eternal with its cause. But this is precisely what is so puzzling about the beginning of the universe from a timeless state – that is, a state containing no events. If the cause of the universe is just a timeless set of necessary and sufficient conditions, then why isn’t the universe also timeless, or at least past eternal, like its cause?[3]

Craig’s Solution

Craig (1991) believes we can solve this problem by appealing to a different kind of causation. So far, we have been assuming that the factors responsible for the universe are impersonal. Impersonal causes do not act freely or intentionally; they simply produce the effects they must produce, under the conditions that determine them.

But personal causes are not determined in this way. Suppose that all the conditions needed for me to freely raise my arm are present: my arms aren’t tied behind my back; I am not paralyzed; and my limbs are in good working order.  If I am truly free, then none of these conditions can make me raise my arm. I am truly free to raise my arm (or refrain from doing so) because I am not fully determined to act by my circumstances. My action does not follow inevitably from my circumstances.

Now, how does personal causation help to explain the beginning of the universe? It helps in this way: if the universe was the inevitable result of an impersonal set of necessary and sufficient conditions, then it would be just as timeless as the conditions which produced it. But since it isn’t timeless, it follows that it did not result inevitably from those conditions.

But what kinds of conditions produce effects that aren’t inevitable? Indeterministic ones! And according to Craig, the best candidate for an indeterministic cause of the universe is a personal agent (like God), because God (existing in a state of no events) can “will” to bring about a first event.

An Objection

What can be said in response to Craig’s argument? One objection is that the problem of accounting for a temporally finite universe simply reappears in a new form when a timeless person is introduced to explain it. To illustrate why, suppose that God timelessly wills that a finite universe exists. If so, then wouldn’t the universe be just as timeless as God’s “willing” is? If the necessary and sufficient conditions for the universe were grounded in God’s timeless will, then wouldn’t we likewise expect the universe to be just as timeless?

To my knowledge, Craig (2002) has satisfactorily answered this objection. He faults the objection for confusing two aspects of divine agency: i.e. God’s intention to create a universe and his act of willing to do so.[4] God may have a timeless intention to create a universe, but his intentions and reasons for acting are not sufficient to bring about a universe. Only his act of willing is sufficient. In Craig’s (2002) own words,

“It is insufficient for P to have merely the intention and power to bring about R. There must also be a basic action on the part of P, an undertaking or endeavoring or exercise of power. Thus, it is insufficient to account for the origin of the universe by citing simply God, His timeless intention to create a world with a beginning, and His power to produce such a result. There must be an exercise of His causal power in order for the universe to be created.”

In Craig’s view, God’s act of “willing” is not a timeless act, as the objection presupposes, but rather the act corresponds to the first event of time, simultaneous with the beginning of the universe and causally sufficient for it.  Therefore, since God’s willing is not a timeless act, the original objection fails.

Reformulating the Objection

Perhaps the objection can be reformulated by appealing to God’s knowledge rather than to his will. Suppose, as some theists do, that God knows all truths, including all truths about what He would do in various circumstances.[5] This implies that without creation, God timelessly knows which universe he would bring about. But if he already knows this, how can his “willing” a universe be any less timeless than his knowledge is? Doesn’t the timeless nature of his knowledge make his “willing” timeless as well?

Unfortunately, this objection rests on a confusion between the circumstances of one’s knowledge and the circumstances of one’s willing.  To illustrate, suppose that a man has been reclining on a chair and knows that he will stand up in one hour; the hour elapses and he stands up, just as he knew he would.

If the man knew he would stand up while reclining in an inactive state, must his decision to stand up be an inactive decision?

Now, ask yourself – if the man knew he would stand up while reclining in an inactive state, must his decision to stand up be an inactive decision? Of course not! The decision to stand is simply the cessation of inactivity.

Likewise, if God exists in a timeless state when he knows which universe he would create, it does not follow that his act of willing must be a timeless act. Indeed, his “willing” is best understood as the first event of his activity. Therefore, the objection from God’s knowledge fails to undercut Craig’s rationale for thinking the cause of the universe is personal.


[1] According to the relational view and the A-theory, time is the measure of change (or events) and temporal becoming is an objective feature of the world.  When these views are combined, it follows that God is only relatively timeless. That is to say, without creation God is timeless because there are no changes and therefore no events.  But when He initiates change (by creating a universe), God becomes temporal by virtue of being newly related to that event, and all subsequent events.

[2] William Lane Craig, “The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe.” Truth: A Journal of Modern Thought 3 (1991): 85-96.

[3] I am using the words “timeless” and “eternal” interchangeably here because Craig’s analogy does not discriminate between the two. Despite this defect, the analogy helps us to grasp Craig’s point that when causal conditions are sufficient for an effect, then (barring any external constraints) the effect arises immediately.  This is true whether the conditions exist in a timeless state of no events, or have existed over the course of a beginningless series of past events.

[4] William Lane Craig, “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause? A Rejoinder.” Faith and Philosophy 19 (2002):  94-105.

[5] This objection assumes that God can know counterfactuals of divine freedom, a view which many theists deny.

2 thoughts on “Two Objections to Inferring a Personal Cause of the Universe”

  1. First, the first problem with the Kalaam argument is that it violates the 1st law of thermodynamics. If we can agree that matter and energy exist, then the question becomes whether it is possible to create them. Said first law says no. As soon as you say “But with God all things are possible” you make your theory (god) the exception to the first law, when in fact the whole point of the game is to play by the rules. Interposing magic genies to overcome difficulties is called “cheating”.

    Second, all verbs in language require the presupposition of time already existing. If saying “Julie baked a cake” necessarily implies the time before she baked it and the time after she baked it, then saying “God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1)” also necessarily implies the time before the creation and the time after. Your article doesn’t answer the problem: Is it logically possible for God to do something that is accurately described with verbs in human language, if the doing of the act had occurred in circumstances where time was completely absent? Does performing an act “in eternity” even make sense? Can God say “Worship me” in eternity without necessarily implying the “time before” he said that?

    Are most Christians deceived when they say to according to God, everything is in an eternal “now”?

    Finally, Paul’s answer to the problem of Divine Sovereignty and human freewill responsibility sounds nothing like Craig’s “counterfactuals of creaturely freedom”. It sounds like he intended to push the pot v. potter analogy and resolve the problem by demanding that it is more spiritually enlightened to shut up about it, than to try and figure it out.

    The Kalaam argument is an absurdly unconvincing argument. “whatever comes into existence has a cause” is not intuitively obvious because there is no such thing as something coming into existence from nothing in the first place, and the sense of “from nothing” is what Craig must mean in order for his argument for the beginning of the universe to have meaning. He did not mean the universe came into existence by God rearranging preexisting material.

    1. Hi Barry!
      Thanks for your reply. It’s always refreshing to get comments on the blogging I do. Here are some of my thoughts in reply:

      Regarding your first objection to the Kalaam, the 1st Law only stipulates that the total amount of matter/energy in a closed system is conserved, not that matter cannot have a beginning. So the 1st law poses no barrier to an absolute beginning.

      Regarding tensed language, I would caution against building a metaphysics of time and causation based on language. This is especially true for those B-theorists who view tensed language as a useful, but ultimately fictitious, model of what time is. This caution ties in with your question about God’s creating entailing a “time before time”:

      On an absolute view of time, God’s creating would only be the beginning of physical time (as measured by the universe) not metaphysical time – so there would be a time before physical time, not metaphysical time.

      On a relative view of time, God’s creating would the first event of time, but God’s being timeless without creation would only entail his being causally prior (not temporally prior) to the first event. This is only a problem for the Kalaam if causal priority entails temporal priority, a view I find unsatisfactory for various philosophical reasons since I hold that the concept of causation is bedrock and unanalyzable, and therefore nothing in terms of temporal order has to follow from that concept. So the need for a cause still arises even if (on the relative view) there is no time prior to the first event.

      Finally, you are correct to note that the beginning of the universe involves a beginning without any material pre-conditions, and that this is unlike what we normally experience in terms rearranging pre-existing materials. But to say the universe began “from nothing” without any cause whatsoever is not merely to say it lacked a material cause, but also that it lacked an efficient cause, a view which I find more counterintuitive than the view that it had a non-material efficient cause.

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