The Case for a Creator: This Time It's Personal

The Case for a Creator, Chapter 5

To wrap up his cosmological argument, William Lane Craig comes to a laughably specific conclusion:

“A cause of space and time must be an uncaused, beginningless, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, personal being endowed with freedom of will and enormous power,” he said. [p.108]

(He didn’t add “who is three persons in one being and who sacrificed his son for the sins of the world”, but clearly he would have gotten there if this interview had been just a few pages longer.)

“After all, atheists have long maintained that the universe doesn’t need a cause, because it’s eternal. How can they possibly maintain that the universe can be eternal and uncaused, yet God cannot be timeless and uncaused?” [p.109]

Craig comes so close to grasping the point here, only to fall tragically short. As I discussed in the last installment, what atheists say isn’t that God “cannot be” uncaused; it’s that adding the extra step of an uncaused God has no explanatory power over and above just saying that the universe is uncaused. It multiplies entities beyond necessity. And Craig doesn’t get to plead ignorance of Occam’s Razor, because he himself discusses it in the very next paragraph, without even a glance back at how it applies to his own argument just a few sentences prior:

“Why does it have to be one Creator?” I asked. “Why couldn’t multiple Creators have been involved?”
“My opinion,” Craig answered, “is that Ockham’s razor would shave away any additional creators… Since one Creator is sufficient to explain the effect, you would be unwarranted in going beyond the evidence to posit a plurality.” [p.109]

But postulating just one supernatural creator isn’t “going beyond the evidence”? (I know, I know, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Sorry, can’t help myself.)

While I’m hardly going to argue for polytheism, what Craig doesn’t address is that we often see physical phenomena which are apparently at cross-purposes. There are galaxies that collide, black holes that consume stars, asteroid impacts that shatter planets, viruses that hijack cells’ protein machinery, and parasites that prey on nearly every species of living thing. If the universe is the product of intelligent design, it would seem that there are conflicting designs, which would imply the existence of multiple creators in a parsimonious way.

Now we get to the real craziness. Strobel points out, rightly, that there’s no way to establish if the first cause (if there was one) was a personal, conscious being, rather than an impersonal natural phenomenon like a vacuum fluctuation. Craig’s response is a masterpiece of apologist logic-mangling:

“You see, there cannot be a scientific explanation of the first state of the universe. Since it’s the first state, it simply cannot be explained in terms of earlier initial conditions and natural laws… So if there is an explanation of the first state of the universe, it has to be a personal explanation – that is, an agent who has volition to create it… He can create a new effect without any antecedent determining conditions.” [p.110]

In this little paragraph, Craig has smuggled in a whole theology textbook’s worth of Christian presuppositions. Let’s see if we can unpack some of them.

The model of free will he’s relying on is clearly agent causation, the idea that free will is some kind of supernatural substance that periodically bubbles up beliefs and decisions for no reason at all. This is a severely tendentious view, to say the least. There’s ample evidence that in the case of human beings, the only free-willed creatures we know of, our behavior absolutely does have prior causes, and in fact couldn’t be otherwise. We have no definitive proof that such a phenomenon as agent causation even exists, so for Craig to outright claim that this “has to be” the sort of thing that caused the universe is an attempt to pass off pure speculation as established fact. It’s as if I said, “If there’s an explanation of the first state of the universe, it has to be leprechauns.”

“…because the cause of the universe transcends time and space, it cannot be a physical reality. Instead, it must be nonphysical or immaterial. Well, there are only two types of things that can be timeless and immaterial. One would be abstract objects, like numbers… The second kind of immaterial reality would be a mind.” [p.110]

Again, this is just a set of Christian apologetic presuppositions thinly disguised as an argument. What on earth leads Craig to assert that a mind is an “immaterial reality”? Where have we ever seen a mind existing apart from a physical, material body? How can he so blithely assume that this is or ever can be the case!? (My margin notes on this section are filled with question marks and exclamation points, if you couldn’t tell.)

Following this Gish Gallop of rapid-fire assertions, Craig discusses some other models in cosmology – the oscillating universe, chaotic inflation, Hawking’s no-boundary proposal – and asserts that none of them can extend infinitely far back into the past. Even if all of this is true, which is a claim I don’t intend to examine in detail, it doesn’t matter. Craig’s argument only works if you assume that the hypotheses currently proposed to explain the beginning of the universe are the only ones that will ever be proposed, and that no alternative theory, regardless of its nature, could solve this problem. Both these assumptions are obviously false.

The ultimate origin of the cosmos is probably the most profound question that human beings will ever face, and we don’t yet know what the final answer is. It may be that one of the cosmological theories Craig dismisses is true despite him; it may be that one of these theories in modified form will do the job; or the truth may be something completely new, something that we haven’t even imagined yet. In no case, however, is it valid or legitimate to assume that our current ignorance is an indicator that the real answer is “God did it”. That hypothesis has proven itself false countless times in the past. Why should we accept this newest invocation of the God-of-the-gaps argument when all the previous instances of it have turned out to be untrue?

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • SteveC

    “in the case of human beings, the only free-willed creatures we know of”

    Eh? “Know” seems too strong a word here. Lots of people think that there is no concept of “free will” which is even coherent, much less anything which possesses such a property.

  • SteveC

    Oh, and if humans are to be granted “free will,” (whatever that is) I can see no reason that dogs, for one example, should not also be considered to have this “free will.”

  • John Nernoff

    Craig is quoted: “A cause of space and time must be an uncaused, beginningless, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, personal being endowed with freedom of will and enormous power,” he said. [p.108]

    and

    So if there is an explanation of the first state of the universe, it has to be a personal explanation – that is, an agent who has volition to create it… He can create a new effect without any antecedent determining conditions.” [p.110]

    I object to “personal being’ and “personal explanation. The universe is around 13.7 billion years old, the earth 4.5 billion years, life 3.5 plus billion years, mammals around 100 million years and humanoids 5-10 million years. Homo sapiens with “personal” attributes around 100,000 years.

    There was no life at all, much less anthropoid or humanoid creatures with “personal” characteristics at the beginning of the universe, whatever cause or causes were involved. For Craig to make this claim displays gross ignorance and philosophical and scientific malpractice.

  • http://www.skepticaloccultism.com/ pendens proditor

    So, a being outside of time performed a necessarily temporal act — creation. And this being possesses a thinking, planning, loving mind, but lacks a timeline for this stream of consciousness to occur within. I still can’t find a theist willing to explain that one to me.

  • keddaw

    I agree with SteveC. While this is a well reasoned argument against apologistic nonsense you shoot yourself in the foot when you move on to free will. Not only do you propose something which does not and cannot exist (as it is uncaused and exists outside our realm of explanation) you go further by asserting that only humans have been able to display this (non-existent) property/behaviour.

    Free will, as understood by the religious, is a mind outside of body, capable of making decisions that are influenced by ‘real’ events but are not decided by them. This is acceptable for religious people, but for so-called rationalists to make this claim is hypocrasy of the highest order. We are physical beings and every decision we make is predetermined by the state of our brains prior to making that decision. That state is likewise dependant upon things that have happened in the past and our expectations about what will happen in the future, all of which are physical systems obeying physical laws. Free will suggests something outside of those physical laws which may as well be God.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    The ultimate origin of the cosmos is probably the most profound question that human beings will ever face, and we don’t yet know what the final answer is.

    One of the things that cracks me up about creationists is that on the one hand, they will dismiss scientific evidence of evolution and an old Earth by retorting “You can’t know, you weren’t there!” and then they turn around and dismiss science for not being able to explain where the universe where you came from. Well, in that case, not only were we not there, but there are no frames of reference available to help explain what happened before the Big Bang. What an example of cognitive dissonance.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I explained my views on free will in a post series from 2006.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Yeah, they don’t get it. Had a long discussion with an IDer at another forum in which he insistently stuck to this line of argument, despite three entirely separate rfefutations, which were, of coure, ignored. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it think.

    Tommy, you’ll love this quote of his (english isn’t his first language):

    our universe , just to exist, without be able to form life, must keep in track with finely tuned physical constants, otherwise it will never be able to evolve. This is not possible by chance. The odds are too big. The only reasonable alternative is, that a tuner made the universe.

    This is what passes for rationality to far too many people.

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    If anyone responds, please omit the word God from your response…

    ..what atheists say isn’t that God “cannot be” uncaused; it’s that adding the extra step of an uncaused God has no explanatory power over and above just saying that the universe is uncaused.

    I thought there weren’t any overarching atheist doctrines? You seem to be speaking on behalf of all atheists here. That aside, Craig is just trying to re-run Aristotle’s Argument from Change, which Aquinas calls the unmoved mover. My personal distaste for Craig’s approach is that whenever I read iterations of his argument, he almost seems to purposely choose words that are ambiguous and convoluted at best: time, uncaused, God, etc.

    But postulating just one supernatural creator isn’t “going beyond the evidence”? (I know, I know, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Sorry, can’t help myself.)

    No, it’s actually not. Ebon smugly calls it “shooting fish in a barrel,” but Ebon is simply wrong here. Unless Ebon (or anyone) can show infinite regress or creation ex nihilo to be logically superior, the universe – represented as a series of transitions from potency to act – requires an unmoved mover (which I think most of us would agree to). It DOES NOT multiply entities beyond necessity to simply posit a conscious unmoved mover, any more than it would to posit an unconscious one, because a series of transitions from potency to act requires an unmoved mover whether it’s conscious or not. The question becomes which is more in accord with the evidence.

    Strobel points out, rightly, that there’s no way to establish if the first cause (if there was one) was a personal, conscious being, rather than an impersonal natural phenomenon like a vacuum fluctuation.

    I’d agree there’s no way to establish such, as in prove, but I believe the evidence is much more in accord with a conscious unmoved mover than an unconscious one, for several reasons. We have two types of objects in nature: those that can initiate a series of transitions from potency to act, and those that cannot. Humans can. Animals can. Rocks cannot. Natural phenomena represent matter and energy in flux, and nothing moves in nature unless moved by another.

    …if there is an explanation of the first state of the universe, it has to be a personal explanation – that is, an agent who has volition to create it… (Craig)

    Now this is where I take Ebon’s side, and say “Bah” to Craig: it’s not that the first cause has to be personal (conscious); it’s that the first cause has to be pure actuality of some sort – it cannot itself have been moved by another. That’s all the logic of the argument permits. Craig takes unjustified liberty, methinks, by simply asserting that which he ought to soundly demonstrate. I certainly think we can soundly demonstrate the superiority of a conscious unmoved mover, but simply demanding that atheists swallow the idea doesn’t fly.

    Craig’s argument only works if you assume that the hypotheses currently proposed to explain the beginning of the universe are the only ones that will ever be proposed, and that no alternative theory, regardless of its nature, could solve this problem.

    Aristotle’s argument works regardless of these conditions, because it’s founded in logic.

    Why should we accept this newest invocation of the God-of-the-gaps argument…

    Aristotle’s argument is founded on sound observation as well; there’s certainly no evidential vacuum that could justify your GOTG complaint against the original, Aristotelian argument.

  • nal

    How does one cause time? Our whole notion of cause and effect requires time. Cause and effect happening simultaneously make no sense. The idea that time is “caused” is nonsense.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    You see, there cannot be a scientific explanation of the first state of the universe.

    Assuming the thing he’s trying to prove.

    because the cause of the universe transcends time and space…

    And again.

    Sigh. We could do this all day.

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    Cl… doesn’t the Big Bang theory postulate a very simple first cause? Like, a single particle? Everything else evolved from that.

    Also, the complexity of the entity you are positing also counts. Positing a simple entity that has the minimum necessary qualities to solve the problem must be considered (by Ockham’s) to be superior to positing a complex entity that has addition unnecessary qualities. This should be easy to demonstrate: otherwise, you could simply package an infinite number of entities into a single meta-entity and call that your parsimonious answer.

  • http://timecube.com Oro Mezclado

    This is why I’m not a positive atheist: metaphysics is for the birds.

  • Stephen

    Ebon smugly calls it “shooting fish in a barrel,” but Ebon is simply wrong here. Unless Ebon (or anyone) can show infinite regress or creation ex nihilo to be logically superior, the universe – represented as a series of transitions from potency to act – requires an unmoved mover (which I think most of us would agree to). It DOES NOT multiply entities beyond necessity to simply posit a conscious unmoved mover, …

    No, cl, this is nonsense. A universe exists. One can postulate 0, 1, 2, 3 … prior entities to the universe. Unless and until someone can provide evidence for a prior entity, the only sensible number to assume is 0.

    The only conscious entities we know of are highly complex beings with a long evolutionary history, which can only survive in a complex ecosystem. To postulate such a being spontaneously arising, without evidence, and then assert that it “DOES NOT multiply entities beyond necessity” is utterly absurd and flagrantly disregards the evidence available to us.

    The question becomes which is more in accord with the evidence.

    Exactly. Exactly. It is unfortunate that you sometimes do not seem to be able to understand your own writing, as your previous sentences blatantly contradict this one. Philosophical posturing is not evidence.

    We have two types of objects in nature: those that can initiate a series of transitions from potency to act, and those that cannot. Humans can. Animals can. Rocks cannot.

    Oh dear. Try reading up on planetary formation sometime. Or plate tectonics. Or vulcanism.

  • paul

    “In this little paragraph, Craig has smuggled in a whole theology textbook’s worth of Christian presuppositions.”
    Indeed, my friend, you have nailed it here. I saw about 50 minutes of a hitchens vs. craig debate, and the amount of bullshit presuppositions this guy can pull out his ass was too much for me too keep up with. I now trully understand what hitchens means when he says all these people speak is white noise.
    After the fifty minutes of the 170 minutes or so debate I simply gave up…..

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    …so did Hitchens.

  • Snoof

    We have two types of objects in nature: those that can initiate a series of transitions from potency to act, and those that cannot. Humans can. Animals can. Rocks cannot.

    Really? How about ants? Plants? Bacteria? Viruses? Prions? Enzymes? Where do you define the line between “objects which can initiate a series of transitions from potency to act” and objects merely obeying the laws of physics and chemistry?

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org RBH

    Ebon wrote

    If the universe is the product of intelligent design, it would seem that there are conflicting designs, which would imply the existence of multiple creators in a parsimonious way.

    Multiple Designers Theory.

  • paradoctor

    Any attempted explanation of cosmic origin, theistic or not, runs afoul of the paradox of the first cause. What caused the first cause? Either it was uncaused – and hence chaotic, as are all consequences of it – or it is caused by something other than itself – and hence not the first – or it caused itself – and hence is deductively empty. Neither theism nor atheism has any bearing on this problem, which is ultimately a problem in logic, solved by admitting uncertainty.

  • Snoof

    Why would a first cause necessarily be chaotic? And what’s so bad about chaos, anyway? Lots of things are chaotic. Star formation. Protein assembly. Neural networks.

  • Paul S.

    cl said

    the universe – represented as a series of transitions from potency to act – requires an unmoved mover (which I think most of us would agree to).

    Maybe cl can help me figure out why the universe requires an “unmoved” mover. Why does the mover have to be “unmoved”?

  • http://bridgingschisms.org Eshu

    cl said,

    It DOES NOT multiply entities beyond necessity to simply posit a conscious unmoved mover, any more than it would to posit an unconscious one, because a series of transitions from potency to act requires an unmoved mover whether it’s conscious or not.

    cl, I went to the trouble of explaining this to you (or someone sharing your pseudonym) and you didn’t respond. I presumed (perhaps naively) that you had understood my argument.

    Now it you’re using the same arguments against other atheists, it seems you’re clearly not listening to what we’re saying. Are we wasting our time on you?

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Eshu: Gesundheit.

  • XPK

    @Eshu – thank you for that link.
    @cl – are you arguing in favor of a conscious unmoved mover because it makes just as much logical sense as an unconscious one? If so, aren’t you assuming that consciousness can survive outside of a physical brain as some sort of disembodied soul?

  • http://www.thewarfareismental.info cl

    Sorry to delay. I didn’t feel like dancing around Ebon’s silly thought / comment moderation rules, so I wrote a post elaborating my position – as well as answering questions from XPK, Paul S., Snoof, paradoctor, Stephen and Yahzi – here. The only person I didn’t address there is Eshu, so..

    ..I went to the trouble of explaining this to you (or someone sharing your pseudonym) and you didn’t respond. I presumed (perhaps naively) that you had understood my argument. Now it you’re using the same arguments against other atheists, it seems you’re clearly not listening to what we’re saying. Are we wasting our time on you?

    No, I understood your argument just fine. I didn’t agree with it, and I still don’t. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because somebody wasn’t persuaded by a particular argument of yours, that they’re “not listening.”