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.

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

Morriston’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 existence prior to creating the universe, we place 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. 

There’s another way we can think about time. 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 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 universe’s creation. In a logical sense, God becomes the creator simultaneous with the act of creation. Apart from God’s action, 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 backward way of looking at things. If nothing existed, then there would be no potential for anything to exist. 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.

This should be recognized for what it is, nothing but a semantic game. 

There 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. 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 there can be no laws describing nature without any nature. He needs to do a lot of work 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 than in the following moments. 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…'”

Morriston 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 have to accept that our universe is not made out of anything because we know that matter had an absolute beginning. There is no reason to think the universe was not made by anything. So the theist has a reason to accept that there was no material cause. The atheist has no reason to assume 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, he would have us reject all of our intuitions. We intuitively believe, for example, in the existence of minds in the people we meet. We don’t have any empirical reason to think that the people we meet are not cleverly constructed robots. Still, 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 the simple possibility we are wrong means we should think we are wrong, we’ll need to re-think much more than just the beginning. We need Morriston’s criteria for trusting some intuitions and not others if he wants to avoid this outcome. He has not yet provided that criteria.

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

Morriston really seems to be saying that his ability to imagine something happening is evidence that it could really happen. Pretty wild! Even so, this completely misses the point. We’re asking what is most reasonable to believe. It certainly seems more obvious to think that things cannot suddenly pop into existence uncaused than to think 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. The theist has a careful philosophical argument for the first cause.

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

First off, this principle doesn’t seem obvious at all. Suppose that some object “A” acts on another object “B.” Are we to believe there is a delay after A acts on B before B is acted upon by A? It seems more evident 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? Cause and effect are more evident than Morriston’s maxim.

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 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 pillow? If a cause may precede the event logically rather than 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. 

[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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