Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

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:

  1. Anything which begins to exist has a cause for its existence.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. 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.

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6 thoughts on “On Causal Simultaneity

  1. A core strategy in cosmological argumentation: equivocate on causation, but keep it under the table.
    All cosmological arguments could accurately and efficiently be replaced with a large placard reading, “HERE THERE BE MONSTERS’

    • I’m not so sure that I agree, here. I don’t necessarily think that it’s an equivocation, in all cases, but I think that cosmological arguments do often obfuscate their terminology to the point where the average Joe Theist who is regurgitating it doesn’t really understand the technicalities which underlie the argument.

      As a perfect case-in-point, here, check out my discussion of Dr. Craig’s definition of “begins to exist” in my article on Kalam. The average person thinks “begins to exist” means there was a time when something didn’t exist followed by a time when it did. However, that is not at all what Dr. Craig means by the phrase. In particular, Dr. Craig has explicitly crafted his definition for “begins to exist” so that it is possible even for something which was literally never non-existent to “begin to exist.”

      This obfuscation breeds huge misunderstanding when the average person tries to spout off Dr. Craig’s argument. I once had someone insist that there was no possible way that Dr. Craig would admit that the universe was never non-existent and that the Kalam necessarily implies that there was a time when it didn’t exist. Even after I pointed this person to Dr. Craig’s own words in which he stated, explicitly, his definition applies even to things which were never non-existent, and that this is necessary due to the incoherence in asserting that there was a time when time did not exist.

      So, for the TL;DR summary, it’s not necessarily equivocation. It’s simply that the technical definitions used in the argument differ vastly from the common understandings of those terms and this breeds confusion.

      • I stand corrected, mostly.
        Why retain the terminology of temporal events, then?
        Though it is quite possibly unconscious, the usage seems to distract, by reference to a subject which is safe conversational content, from the problems of atemporal priority, transcendence, whatever you want to call it.
        It is hard to see how you could ever speak of such a thing with any authority, whether or not it existed.

        • The problem is that these philosophers, and Dr. Craig in particular, are attempting to divorce their arguments from temporality by appealing to other language to describe causality while neglecting or being ignorant of the fact that temporality is implicit in that other language, as well.

          In fact, temporality is necessarily implicit in ANY language describing cause-and-effect, since an “effect” is a reference to the end result of a change over time.

  2. I think the question here is: is time necessary for there to be a potential? Can’t we have, for example, an abstract object existing without time? If it is possible, then it is fair to say that even if there was no time, the potential existed.

    • I think the question here is: is time necessary for there to be a potential? Can’t we have, for example, an abstract object existing without time?

      In the case of abstracts– perhaps considering something like the Platonic universals– while it might be conceivable for such things to exist without time, it doesn’t make sense to discuss them in terms of potentiality. Such objects do not undergo change, nor do they have the potentiality to change, nor is there even the possibility that they might have been different.

      Potentiality is a term which describes objects that change or could be different. That’s not the case for objects in the absence of time.

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