Wes Morriston vs the Cosmological Argument (Part 2)

Last week we looked at Morriston’s objections to the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  You’ll find my response to his claims below.  The Kalam is stronger than Morriston’s objections and remains one of the best reasons to believe that God exists.

Where does Morriston go wrong?

“What can it mean to say that ‘prior’ to the beginning of the universe God was outside of time?'”

adult-alone-backpack-346764Morriston’s first charge against the argument falls flat.  He seems to think that every use of the word “prior” must mean chronologically prior, but this isn’t the case.  For example, your act of thinking is logically prior to your thoughts (your thoughts rely on your thinking).   Even though your thinking is prior to your thoughts in one sense, your thinking is simultaneous with your thoughts chronologically (if it wasn’t, then what are you thinking about?).  When we talk about God’s existing prior to the creation of the universe, we are placing God logically prior to the universe not chronologically prior.  This is why you’ll see William Lane Craig often refer to God “sans” (without) the universe rather than God “prior” to the universe.  It is challenging to talk about a timeless state of affairs in the context of a discussion about an event in the past, but we shouldn’t become distracted by these limitations in language.

I’d offer you another way to think about time that may help.  We might think of time as a relation between different states of affairs, an earlier state changing into a later state.  If we are thinking of time in terms of change, then of course a changeless God by himself would not have anything like what we refer to as “time”.  His “state of affairs” would never change.  Only when he creates something outside of himself is there a change.  Suddenly God goes from having no external relations to having an external relation to the universe (he is related to it as its creator).  That is to say that God “becomes” the creator of the universe with the creation of the universe.  In a logical sense, God was not the creator prior to creating the universe and becomes the creator simultaneous with the act of creation.  Apart from God’s act there is no change and no time, but there can still be God.

“And nothing at all has no power at all, not even the power to prevent things from existing.”

This seems to be a backwards way of looking at things.  If nothing existed then there would be no potential for anything to exist.  “Nothing” wouldn’t need any power to “prevent” something coming into existence because there would be no potential that such a thing would happen.  If there were nothing, then there would be nothing to be prevented.

Our experience of things coming to be in time doesn’t provide us evidence to make conclusions about the coming to be of time.

carlos-alberto-gomez-iniguez-480011-unsplashThis should be recognized for what it is, nothing but a semantic game.  There simply is no reason to think that effects can exist without causes just because one moves up the timeline to the first moment.  Morriston’s point about law-like processes falls flat because he seems to have a misunderstanding of law-like processes.  The laws that make up our natural order are not prescriptive but descriptive.  The law of gravity, for example, does not tell an apple how to fall out of a tree.  Instead it describes how an apple in fact falls out of a tree.  If there were no apples, then there would be no description of how apples fall, but so what?  Of course Morriston is right in saying that without any nature there can be no laws describing nature.  He needs to do a lot of work, however, to get from, “If there were nothing to be described then there would be no descriptions,” to “anything is possible.”  Morriston hasn’t given us any reason to think that cause and effect would work differently in the first moment of time than in later moments and so as William Lane Craig says, “this appears to be a distinction without a difference.” [1]

“a house ‘popping into existence out of nowhere’ doesn’t seem any less absurd just because somebody says (or thinks), ‘Let there be a house…'”

chair-close-up-daylight-116907Morriston points out that the theist is committed to the lack of a “material cause”.  Material causes are the stuff out of which things are made.  So wood is the material cause of a chair, for example.  The woodworker is the “efficient cause”, which is the person by which the chair is made.  Morriston’s claim, then, is that the theist who must deny a material cause is on no less shaky ground than the atheist who has to deny an efficient cause.  This is mistaken, however, as the atheist must deny both an efficient and a material cause.  Morriston has to say that the universe came out of nothing and by nothing.  Craig explains, “[Morriston’s] claim that the absence of a material cause is as troubling as the absence of an efficient cause backfires because in an un-caused origination of the universe we lack both, whereas in [the theist account] we have at least an efficient cause.” [2]  We are forced by our circumstance to accept the counter-intuitive fact that our universe is not made out of anything  because we know that matter had an absolute beginning, but we are not forced by our circumstances to accept that the universe was not made by anything.  So the theist has a reason to accept that there was no material cause but the atheist has no reason to accept that there was no efficient cause.

Morriston clarifies by saying that the whole enterprise ought to undermine our confidence in our intuitions. [3]  This doesn’t seem to help him, however.  If we take him seriously and are consistent then he would have us reject all of our intuitions.  If his point is that our whole process of intuition is untrustworthy then it seems we should doubt our intuitions in every circumstance (not just with respect to the beginning).  We intuitively believe, for example, in the existence of minds in the people we meet.  We don’t have any empirical reason to believe that the people we meet are not cleverly constructed robots, but we intuitively believe that they are people just like we are.  When was the last time you met someone and asked them to prove they were real?  If Morriston is right and our mere ability to be wrong in our intuitions should cause us to doubt all intuitions, then so should our intuition about other people be called into question.  If Morriston should be more reserved and say that not all intuitions should be doubted by the fact that one intuition must be doubted, then he must give us some reason to doubt our intuition that everything that begins to exist has a cause.  He has not yet done so.

“the ability to conceive something without apparent contradiction is evidence…”

jeremy-beck-405603-unsplashMorriston really seems to be saying that his ability to imagine something happening is evidence that it could really happen.  This seems pretty wild!  Even so, this completely misses the point.  It is not helpful to think about what is being proven in the sense that it should be impossible that it could be false.  Instead we should ask what is most reasonable to believe.  It certainly seems more obvious to believe that things cannot suddenly pop into existence un-caused than to believe that they can.  As Craig explains, “What Morriston needs to do to undercut the causal premise of the kalam cosmological argument is to show that its contradictory is as intuitively obvious as it is, which he has not even tried to do.” [4]  Morriston may need to rely on his imagination to think of a world beginning without a cause, but the theist has a careful philosophical argument.

“At least part of the total cause of every event precedes it in time.”

First off, this principle doesn’t seem obvious at all.  It seems that some object “A” acts on another object “B” at precisely the same moment that “B” is acted upon.  In other words, it seems more obvious that causes are simultaneous with their effects than that causes precede their effects.

That being said, the best that Morriston can hope for is to show that his maxim is inconsistent with the intuition that everything that begins to exist has a cause.  In this case we must ask which is more obvious, that everything that begins to exist has a cause or that all causes precede their effects in time.  I, for one, do not find Morriston’s maxim persuasive.

It is precisely Morriston’s focus on time that gets him into trouble.  If anything, our intuition is that part of the total cause precedes the effect, but why say it must precede it in time?  What if we were to obliterate every moment of time preceding the man’s sitting in the cushion?  Wouldn’t it still be true that the man himself is logically prior to his sitting in the cushion?  If we admit that the cause may precede the event logically but not necessarily chronologically then suddenly Morriston’s maxim has no bearing our discussion of the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  The Christian is not trying to argue that God does not precede creation.  We would say that God is logically prior to creation and in that way “precedes” it.

Next week we’ll look at Morriston’s challenges against the inference to a personal creator from the Kalam Cosmological Argument.  If you are interested in thinking through that aspect of this argument further, click the “Follow” button to sign up.

[1] William Lane Craig, “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder” http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/morriston.html accessed 5/27/2018.

[2] ibid.

[3] Wes Morriston, “Causes and Beginnings in the Kalam Argument: Reply to Craig” Faith and Philosophy 119:2 April 2002, pg 238.

[4] William Lane Craig, “Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder” http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/morriston.html accessed 5/27/2018.

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  1. Featured Image: David Huang on unsplash.com
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  3. Carlos Alberto Gomez Iniquez on unsplash.com
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  5. Jeremy Beck on unsplash.com


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