Okay, I’ve been correcting student papers for far too long now. The time has come to peer above the parapet and write some sort of blog post. Nothing too laborious today, I’m afraid. Just a quick attempt to formalise an objection to William Lane Craig’s Kalam Argument that I recently heard (where “recently” = about a month ago) on the Reasonable Doubts podcast.
The objection in question came from the presenter Justin Schieber (I think that’s how you spell it anyway) and was based on a series of questions and objections he put to Craig on the Unbelievable podcast (hosted by Justin Brierly). The full exchange was set out in Episode 92 of the Reasonable Doubts podcast pretty quickly, and on a first listen I wasn’t sure if it was particularly interesting. I became slightly more convinced of it merits on a second listen, and I decided to write up this blog post in order to see whether there is anything to it. After all, one only really understands something when one tries to explain it to others.
I’ll break the discussion here up into four sections. In the first section, I will briefly outline Craig’s argument (I apologise in advance for this), focusing on the oft-neglected second stage where he defends the personal nature of the cause of the universe. In the second section, I will discuss Schieber’s initial objection to this argument — the one that was actually put to Craig on the Unbelievable podcast. In the third section, I will present Craig’s response to Schieber’s objection. And, finally, in the fourth section, I will attempt to formalise Schieber’s response to Craig’s response. As far as I am aware, this fourth section brings us up to date with the current state of the dialectic.
To reiterate: my goal here is to see whether — through a reasonably careful formalisation — there is anything to Schieber’s objection. Comments from readers would be welcome on this.
1. The Kalam and Personal Causes
I appreciate this will be quite tedious for those who are already familiar with the argument, but to make sure we all start off from the same point, here is the basic version of Craig’s Kalam argument:
- (1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
- (2) The universe began to exist.
- (3) Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.
Craig usually defends premise (1) by appeals to incredulity — e.g imagine if a tiger just popped into existence without a cause? — or by appeals to intuitively compelling metaphysical principles such as ex nihilo nihil fit. I looked at some of Wes Morriston’s objections to these defences on another occasion.
Craig defends premise (2) with at least four different arguments. Two of which are a priori and based on paradoxes that would arise if the set of past events was actually infinite; and two of which are a posteriori and based on aspects of contemporary physics (namely, Big Bang theory and the second law of thermodynamics). Craig’s defence of this principle is certainly complex and, one has to say, philosophically impressive. Still, there are plenty of replies to his arguments in the philosophical literature some of which are equally impressive (e.g. those found in the work of Graham Oppy or Quentin Smith).
Premise (3) follows logically from the conjunction of (1) and (2). The problem for Craig — or, rather, the problem that we will be considering today — is that (3) does not provide support for the existence of God. If we left the Kalam at (3), the most we could say is that there has to be some cause for the existence of the universe; but we couldn’t say whether that cause is divine or non-divine. The Kalam needs a second stage.
Despite his usual penchant for formal arguments, Craig doesn’t seem to ever present a formal argument for a divine cause. In the 3rd Edition of Reasonable Faith he simply says that: “conceptual analysis of what it means to be a cause of the universe then aims to establish some of the theologically significant properties of this being [the first causer]” (p. 111). Nevertheless, I think it is possible to formalise Craig’s second stage argument as a series of (hopefully exhaustive) disjunctive syllogisms. In other words, Craig defines the theoretical space in which possible causes of the universe will be found; he identifies the main contenders within this space; and then starts eliminating contenders on various grounds until all but the theologically significant contenders are left standing.
For our purposes, the theoretical space of possible causes is defined by one key property: non-temporality (or eternality). In other words, all putative causes of the universe must, at a minimum, be non-temporal. This is for two reasons: (i) because Craig’s defence of premise (2) of the Kalam explicitly rules out the possibility of an infinite regress of temporal events and (ii) because the goal of the argument is to find the cause that kicked off the actual temporal sequence of events in the universe.
The main contenders within this theoretical space can then be reduced to two: (a) a non-temporal impersonal cause and (b) a non-temporal personal cause. If the cause is personal, then it is theologically significant since that is typically thought to be a key property of God. But further argumentation would be then needed to show that this personal cause has the other properties associated with God (e.g. omnibenevolence). That is something that the Kalam, by itself, cannot do.
Anyway, with all this in mind, we can offer the following as a formalisation of the second stage of the Kalam argument:
- (4) The cause of the universe could either be a non-temporal impersonal cause or a non-temporal personal cause.
- (5) The cause of the universe cannot be a non-temporal impersonal cause.
- (6) Therefore, the cause of the universe is a non-temporal personal cause.
Premise (5) is the key here. Craig supports this with the idea that impersonal causes are always sufficient to produce their effects. In other words, if the cause is present, so too must the effect be present. This is supposed to create a problem since it would mean that if the cause is eternal, so too must the effect be eternal. But since it is a key part of Craig’s argument that the universe is not eternal, the cause cannot therefore be impersonal.
There are some problems with this argument. Not least of which is the fact that it tends to confuse true eternity (non-temporality) with beginningless and endless duration. These problems are covered by Wes Morriston in his article “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?”, which I discussed on commonsenseatheism over a year ago. (Side note: It does slightly beggar belief that Morriston is not mentioned in Craig’s Reasonable Faith).
2. Schieber’s Initial Objection
In the question that he put to Craig on the Unbelievable podcast, Schieber presented a direct challenge to the second stage of Craig’s argument. The challenge is not directed at Craig’s defence of premise (5) but, rather, at the very concept of a non-temporal personal cause. Since this is the case, we’ll construe this as an objection to premise (4) (since premise (4) is supposed to accurately describe the space of possible causes, and since Schieber’s argument is that one of the proposed causes within that space could not possibly exist).
This objection derives its force from an analysis of what it means to be a personal cause. Schieber argues that persons cause events — events such as the beginning of the universe — through intentional action. I suspect this is a familiar notion to most readers, but perhaps a few clarificatory words are in order. Intentionality is the so-called “mark of the mental”. An intentional state, such as a belief, desire or intention, is something with the property of “aboutness”. To follow Searle’s analysis, all intentional states will have a direction of fit and a direction of causation.
Let’s use the example of a intention to illustrate what this means — this will be useful since intentions are crucial to the whole dialectic between Craig and Schieber. Suppose I intend to eat an apple. My intention has a world-to-mind direction of fit: in order for my intention to be satisfied, the conditions in the world must change in such a way that I consume and digest the apple. But my intention has a mind-to-world direction of causation: the mental state causes those changes to be brought about in the world outside the mind.
See the table below for a more complete taxonomy of intentional states with their associated directions of fit and causation.
Now we come to the crux of it. Schieber argues that in order for a person to cause an event to occur, they must first intend for this event to occur. And in order for them to do this, their intention must temporally precede the changes that are brought about in the world. This further implies that in order for there to be intentions, there must be a temporal framework in place (i.e. a sequence of moments that succeed one another). But if this a necessary condition of intention, then there cannot be a non-temporal personal cause of any event.
- (7) Personal beings cause events via intentions.
- (8) In order for an intention to cause an event, that intention must temporally precede the event.
- (9) If something temporally precedes/succeeds another thing, then there must be a temporal realm (obvious, but worth stating explicitly).
- (10) Therefore, personal causes cannot be non-temporal (from 7, 8, and 9).
If successful, this argument would defeat premise (4) of the extended Kalam.
Regular followers of Craig’s work can probably guess how he will respond to this. True to form, he doesn’t disappoint when asked to respond on the Unbelievable podcast. But this response leads Schieber to formulate an altogether more interesting version of his objection. Let’s see how all this plays out.
3. Craig’s Response
As I say, those who follow Craig’s work on the Kalam will be able to guess his response. For years now, Craig has been harping on about the distinction between “causal priority” and “temporal priority”, as well as the possibility of timeless eternal intentions. Combining these two notions, Craig can say that God’s intention to create the universe may have existed eternally and may have causally preceded rather than temporally preceded the beginning of the universe.
In the course of the podcast, Craig explains what he means by way of a thought experiment:
The Cliff-Hanger: Picture, if you will, a man who is hanging off the side of a cliff. To prevent his descent into oblivion, he grabs hold of a tree branch. He does so by intending to hold onto the tree branch. But here the intention is simultaneous with, rather than temporally prior, to the actual act of holding onto the branch.
This thought experiment reveals a flaw in premise (8) of Schieber’s objection. This premise states that in order for an intention to cause an event, the intention must temporally precede the event in question. But as the Cliff-Hanger example reveals, this need not always be the case: sometimes, intentions can be simultaneous with the events that they cause. Thus, we have to acknowledge the following rebutting premise:
- (11) Intentions can be simultaneous with the events that they cause; they need not always temporally precede them.
Furthermore, as Craig goes on to make clear, even if the intention is simultaneous with the event that it causes, this does not mean that it is not *causally* or *explanatorily* prior to the event: the man’s intention to hold onto the tree-branch is what explains his holding onto the tree branch, not the other way around. I see this as a “the dog wags the tail, the tail doesn’t wag the dog”-kind of point.
Two observations are worthwhile before moving on. First, Craig’s response is, I think, well-made. Indeed, it exploits a distinction that Searle and others makes in their analysis of intentions, namely: the distinction between prior intentions and intentions-in-action. The former must temporally precede the act; the latter must coincide with and sustain the performance of the act. I’ll use this distinction in the remainder of the discussion. Second, even if the response is well-made, I’m not sure how far it gets us: simultaneity is still a temporal relation and God is supposed to be non-temporal. Perhaps Craig thinks that along as any sort of chink is opened up to the possibility of intentions that are not prior to action, he has given the concept of an eternal intention some plausibility, but I’m not convinced. I think this raises more problems. I’ll try to return to this at the end.
4. Schieber’s Response to Craig’s Response
Taking Craig’s criticism onboard, Schieber refines his original argument. The refinement accepts that there are two kinds of intention — prior intentions and intentions-in-action — but adds further complexity to our understanding of intentions by focusing on two different kinds of intentional content. They are:
Intentions that Change a State of Affairs: These are intentions whose content specifies that, in order for them to be satisfied, the present state of affairs must be altered in one or more ways. To use the vocabulary introduced earlier, the world must be changed in order to fit with the content of the intention.
Intentions that Maintain a State of Affairs: These are intentions whose content specifies that, in order for them to be satisfied, the present state of affairs must remain the same. To use the vocabulary introduced earlier, the world must stay the same in order to fit with the content of the intention.
Scheeber’s claim is that while intentions to maintain a state of affairs can be simultaneous with their effects, intentions to change a state of affairs must precede their effects.
This then raises the obvious question: what kind of intention was God’s intention to create the universe have? What kind of content did it have? Surely it would have to be an intention to change a state of affairs, not an intention to maintain a state of affairs. After all, “prior” to the universe existing, God was the only thing in existence; “after” the universe began to exist, there were at least two things in existence. Thus, there must have been some change in the state of affairs. So if there was a change in the state of affairs, this change must have a cause, and this cause must be personal, then there must have been a prior intention.
In other words:
- (12) Persons can cause events via two kinds of intention: (i) intentions that change states of affairs; and (ii) intentions that maintain states of affairs.
- (13) Intentions to change a state of affairs must be temporally prior to the changes they bring about; intentions to maintain a state of affairs can simultaneous with the states of affairs they maintain.
- (14) An intention that caused the universe to begin must have been an intention to change a state of affairs.
- (15) Therefore, an intention that caused the universe to begin needed to be temporally prior to the beginning of the universe.
But, of course, according to the Kalam argument the cause of the universe must be non-temporal, so Schieber’s original objection to the Kalam will then go through, i.e.
- (16) Therefore, a personal cause of the universe cannot be non-temporal.
This is illustrated in the diagram below.
I’m pretty much done. I hope this post has been informative to those of you who have made it this far. It’s certainly helped me to clarify a few points in my own mind. I’m still not sure whether Schieber’s argument is a good one — and I’m still trying to imagine how Craig might respond to it (suggestions below please). Nevertheless, I do have two concluding observations that might stimulate some conversation, even if they don’t address all significant points arising from the preceding dialectic.
First up, there is this whole issue of intentionality and intentional states. Most analyses of intentional states — such as Searle’s — assume that there is a mental world and an external world. Indeed, this duality is what makes sense of the directions of fit and directions of causation proposed by Searle. This is not to say that intentional states are impossible unless they connect to an external world — I can imagine, for example, intending to change my beliefs about something — but it’s always difficult to grasp what an intentional state could be about unless at some point it joins up with the external world. This creates problems in our analysis of God’s creative act. Can we meaningfully talk about God’s intentional states as if they were similar to our own? This might also be thought to open up a potential challenge to Schieber’s refined objection since it still relies an analogies with our own intentions. But there’s something for the theist to worry about here too. Indeed, Schieber actually takes advantage of something like this in another argument he makes about God’s existence: we typically have intentions and desires because there are things in the external world that displease us and that we would like to change; but God is supposedly perfect; so when he exists on his own — as he must “prior” to the existence of the universe — he could not possible have desires and intentions like ours. So it’s difficult to understand why he would create a universe at all. (It also seems to me that divine simplicity would pose problems for divine intentionality).
Second, there is the whole issue of time and eternity. The more I’m forced to think about eternal persons (which, admittedly, isn’t very often), the more confused I become. It seems to be an incredibly difficult conceptual feat to make any sense of eternal minds or eternal intentional states. You could see this in my discussion of God’s creative act which made use of temporal words like “priority” and “before” even after I had accepted that God’s intentions must be non-temporal. Craig likes to object to an infinite regress of past events on the grounds that accepting such a possibility comes at the theoretical cost of accepting numerous paradoxes. But I’m not so sure that accepting the possibility of non-temporal persons comes at an even larger theoretical cost (I’m also not sure that all paradoxes are theoretically costly).
Anyway, I shall leave it there.