On Causal Simultaneity
Several times over the life of this blog, I have discussed the Kalam Cosmological Argument– as well as other, similar cosmological arguments for God. They are exceedingly popular topics within theistic apologetics and are therefore levied quite often. As a reminder, the Kalam is often formulated as follows:
- Anything which begins to exist has a cause for its existence.
- The universe began to exist.
- Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.
The theistic apologist will usually then argue that the only possible cause for the universe’s existence must be God. Detractors and critics of these cosmological arguments, like myself, often point out that this doesn’t seem to make much sense when applied to the universe, as a whole. After all, “the universe” includes time, and if the universe began to exist, then that implies that there must have been a first moment of time. However, if there is a first moment of time, the universe exists in that moment; and since there are no moments prior to the first, there is literally no time prior to the universe’s existence during which it could have been caused.
There cannot have been anything which existed before the universe because there is literally no such thing as “before the universe.”
The prolific philosopher and theologian, Dr. William Lane Craig, addresses this issue in a manner which I find to be rather curious. Dr. Craig acknowledges that it is nonsensical to assert that there must have been something before the universe which caused the universe to exist. Instead, he invokes the notion of causal simultaneity— that is, the idea that a cause can be simultaneous with its effect. With such a notion in place, Dr. Craig argues that the implications of the Kalam are salvaged and that God must still be the cause of the universe.
Now, setting aside the possible objections to the notion, I will grant Dr. Craig’s proposition that a cause can be simultaneous with its effect for the sake of argument. Even with such a premise in place, there still seems to be a rather large issue for the Kalam Cosmological Argument. This rather glaring problem is the question of what it means, precisely, to cause something to exist.
In common dialogue, if a person says that X caused Y to exist, that person means that X changed a state of affairs in which Y does not exist into a state of affairs in which Y does exist. However, this obviously cannot be the case if the Y in question is “the universe,” because there cannot have been a state of affairs in which the universe did not exist. As previously noted, if there is a first moment of time then the universe exists in that moment and there is no time prior to that in which the universe did not exist. The universe was quite literally never nonexistent.
Rather than directly invoking the notion of causality as a temporal issue, Dr. Craig instead phrases the situation in the Aristotelian terms of potentialities and actualities. On Dr. Craig’s view, a cause is that which causes a potentiality to become actualized. He then states:
A pure potentiality cannot actualize itself. In the case of the universe (including any boundary points), there was not anything physically prior to the initial singularity. The potentiality for the existence of the universe could not therefore have lain in itself, since it did not exist prior to the singularity.
However, the same problem exists, here, as does when solely appealing to temporal notions of causality. Using these terms, the universe was an actuality already in the first moment of time. There exist no prior moments of time in which the universe was an unactualized potentiality. I agree with Dr. Craig that it cannot be the case that the universe actualized itself but for markedly different reasons: the universe was never a potentiality to be actualized. Indeed, for this reason, it seems quite clear that not even God, should such a being exist, could have been the cause of the universe.
Perhaps, however, Dr. Craig’s invocation of simultaneous causality is meant to imply that even potentialities and actualities can be simultaneous with one another. However, if this is the case, then Dr. Craig’s subsequent argument becomes unsound. The reason he concludes that the universe cannot have been its own cause is that it was not an actuality when it was a potentiality. So, it seems quite clear that Dr. Craig is not trying to say that a potentiality can be simultaneous with its subsequent actualized reality.
Appealing to a notion of causal simultaneity does not salvage the very clear problems of theses sorts of cosmological arguments. Despite Dr. William Lane Craig’s claims to the contrary, it cannot be the case that even God could have caused the universe’s existence, even simultaneously.