On Causation and the Ethics of Discourse

Published 15 June 2011 by lordgriggs

Recently, Dr. William Lane Craig posted a short note on his Facebook page in which he purported to refute what he called “Another Hopelessly Bad Objection”1 to the Kalam Cosmological Argument. This objection takes the form of a syllogism (consisting of premises and a conclusion) entitled “The Kalam Argument AGAINST the Existence of God,” and came to Dr. Craig as a submission to his “Question of the Week” blog on the Reasonable Faith website. Even more recently, Craig referred to this syllogism again on Reasonable Faith, this time in his response to a different but related question.

But here’s the thing about this “hopelessly bad” objection to the Kalam Argument: I wrote it. It’s mine, verbatim. And it comes from a video I made for YouTube, entitled “I Kalam Like I See ‘Em”.

But the syllogism you see, the one Dr. Craig represents in his blog as my hopelessly bad objection… wasn’t my objection at all. It was a cute little tongue-in-cheek accessory to my objection thrown in at the very end of a 13-minute video exploring the nature of existence, causality, and metrology, totally stripped of it’s context. So much for that.

Now the worst-case scenario is that Dr. Craig himself made the conscious decision not only to keep my words liberated from their proper context, but to withhold from his audience the source of the objection to which he was responding; a source which would have illuminated just how misleading Craig’s treatment really was.

But even if that’s not what happened; even if this a case of the dumbest atheist in the universe submitting this syllogism to Dr. Craig thinking it would stump him as a stand-alone argument, or maybe one of Dr. Craig’s loyal fans coming across my objection and deciding to pass along only the decontextualized version of it…

The point is that you’d think Dr. Craig would decline to comment on an argument without an understanding of what the premises are in fact referring to and how they are supported.

Take the Kalam argument itself. Two simple premises and a conclusion, that’s it, and yet Craig has devoted a 224-page book to supporting the premises of this cute syllogism. Imagine how easily this argument would have been laughed off the academic stage had no one of scholarly repute been afforded the opportunity to elaborate upon it. Heck the argument doesn’t even conclude with God’s existence. Throw that one out with all the other pop internet trash, right?

Even more so, if the syllogism from my video were truly the comically absurd rhetorical junkyard Craig claims it to be, why is he wasting his time drawing so much attention to it? The guy gets a hundred Q&A submissions a week, and this hopelessly bad, supposedly anonymous pop internet objection is the one he finds most pressing? I call bullshit. After all, Craig himself claims:

I read scholarly criticisms of my work, but I tend to ignore popular stuff on the internet, since I figure the internet critics are not likely to say anything of substance that the scholars have missed.

This is at least an understandable principle (albeit snobby and cynical) so long as Craig actually stood by it. But he doesn’t “ignore” pop arguments on the internet. On the contrary, Craig has made a hobby of regularly drawing attention to arguments presented by the YouTube community and other forums, distorting them to a point of unrecognizability (while conveniently leaving their authors and sources anonymous), and then tearing those mischaracterizations to shreds with a nearly uncomfortable degree of mockery and condescension.

I mean it’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy isn’t it? If you begin with the assumption that certain critics are so unsophisticated and ignorant that their arguments should at face value be given the least charitable interpretation possible, then you’ve already predestined those arguments to confirm your prejudice.

In any intellectual or academic community, there is a courtesy extended to those of opposing views, especially once we make the commitment to engage them in discourse. And that courtesy is the honest attempt to represent their objections as fairly and generously as possible before taking them on. Not only is this the ethical thing to do, it’s efficient. It saves us the time and embarrassment of having to correct our own strawman fallacies.

But it would almost seem that Dr. Craig believes he is not only justified, but entitled, to treat non-scholarly objections with a dismissive carelessness and uncharitability that he wouldn’t dare subject his academic peers to (at least in principle). And I think that’s remarkably disingenuous.

But let’s be honest, I’m not doing myself any favors by “scolding” William Lane Craig for his debate etiquette.

What I can do is use this time to re-present my actual objection to the Kalam argument, and hopefully I won’t be leaving any room for ambiguity or misinterpretation. In fact, the more I reflect upon the video that originally spawned all of this, I’m secretly grateful that Craig hasn’t directly addressed it, because I really think that I can now do a much better job of articulating the concepts therein.

…So let’s get started:

Anything material we’ve ever seen come into existence (babies, sculptures, cars) has been a reconfiguration of previously existing material which was once *not* that thing. This matters because the only way we’ve ever seen causality work is in the form of actions and reactions between stuff which already exists.

We’ve never seen something which doesn’t exist caused to begin existing. Things which don’t exist can’t be caused to “do” anything, since they aren’t *there* to be influenced by a cause.

You may be thinking, “But that’s absurd, a carpenter causes a previously nonexistent table to exist!”.

Well no, not in any literal sense. To say that a carpenter “caused a table to exist” is more or less a figure of speech, and a misleading one at that. The carpenter didn’t cause “the table” to do anything, since the table didn’t didn’t exist yet. What the carpenter DID was cause material which was not the table to *become* the table. THIS is how the table comes into existence: When non-table material is assembled by a carpenter into a table. But if what you’re acting upon–what you are causally affecting–is already a “table”, then the table existed before you ever got to it and thus you didn’t cause it to begin existing.

After all, what is a table? Well, it’s a combination of different material (wood, nails, lacquer), none of which is a table in itself. Likewise, what is a baby? A baby is a combination of different material (bone, tissue, cells), none of which is a baby in itself. William Lane Craig has argued this point himself many times, so he shouldn’t find it all too controversial.

So when we say that babies or tables are “caused to exist”, what we are really referring to is the phenomenon of non-baby, non-table material being reassembled into babies and tables. You can’t causally affect a baby before it’s a baby. No baby exists yet, only an egg, and a sperm. But that sperm can be made to affect that egg… causing them to assemble INTO a baby. This is how children–and any other material thing–come into existence, so far as we’ve ever observed.

In the past, Dr Craig has responded to a misleadingly literal understanding of this very simple observation, claiming that atheists on the internet:

…Say nothing ever begins to exist, because everything has material out of which it’s constituted, and those atoms and particles existed before the thing did, and so nothing ever begins to exist, the first premise is false. And I think, what is the matter with these people? Have I always existed? Didn’t I begin to exist at the moment, say, when my father’s sperm and my mother’s egg came into union? If so, where was I? Was I around during the Jurassic age when the dinosaurs were about? Have I always existed? That is so absurd to think that I never began to exist, even though the material stuff out of which I am made existed before me. So I don’t know what’s the matter with these people.

He goes on to say:

It’s just irrational, and yet people think that refutes the premise that whatever begins to exist has a cause, when it doesn’t do so at all. So I’m just utterly bewildered by how people are taken in by this lack of rigorous thinking.

No, Dr. Craig, you did not always exist. But the only way you could have begun to, was if previously existing stuff was caused to reassemble INTO you. Your parents didn’t cause you to magically pop into existence out of nothingness. Nor has anything else in the observable the begun existing in this way.

And yet… this is how you think the universe came into being.

How did you arrive at that conclusion? To propose that a being “caused the universe to begin existing” should infer–so far as we understand causality to work–that non-universe material was reassembled in such a way as to become the universe. That’s the only way we’ve ever seen things come into existence, so that would obviously be the most parsimonious explanation.

But this is not what you are proposing. You believe that God brought the universe into being without having ever caused anything, of any kind, to become the universe. The stuff from which the universe was made, you believe, was literally nonexistent: There was no stuff, there was only an absence of any material or substance to act upon. You believe that all of the stuff of which the universe is composed just “popped” into existence, out of nothing, and that God somehow facilitated this event.

So the criticism–the real criticism–is that we have two distinct concepts here; two very different notions of what it means to “come into existence”, which are being fallaciously conflated by Dr. Craig:

1) Something caused to come into being wholly separate from previously existing stuff. (i.e., “creatio ex nihilo”, or creation from nothing.)

And…

2) Something caused to come into being NOT wholly separate from previously existing stuff. (i.e.,”creatio ex materia”, creation from material)

Now bear in mind that nobody, anywhere, ever, has verifiably observed the former. Something coming into existence ex nihilo is 100% conjecture. We’ve only ever seen things begin to exist ex materia–from previous stuff. So how do we know that if anything ever began to exist ex nihilo, it have a cause? We don’t, we know that things that begin to exit ex materia have a cause. And that’s all we know.

But Craig is plainly and explicitly arguing that the universe was caused by God to come into existence from nothingness. In other words, Craig is arguing that the universe is an example of (1), and NOT (2).

And yet, how does Dr. Craig attempt to demonstrate this? Amusingly, he does so by appealing to examples of (2), instead of (1). Astonishingly, he regularly uses the beginning of his own existence as an example!

Now what do you suppose would happen if we were to factor this profound distinction back into the Kalam Argument?

P1: Whatever begins to exist from previously existing material has a cause. (That much we know.)
P2: The universe began to exist, but not from any previously existing material.
C: Therefore, the universe has a cause.

That’s an invalid argument. The conclusion does not follow from the premises.

Now one response I can anticipate to this is that even though we have no empirical evidence we can point to in support of ex nihilo requiring a cause, it just seems intuitively true, because it seems more plausible than the alternative: something coming into existence ex nihilo uncaused. It’s just easier to picture in your head, right?

Well I’d say the repeatedly demonstrable failure of our intuitions to grasp matters of physics is enough to dismiss this complaint outright. But my objection to the Kalam argument goes a step further. I can make a positive case that creatio ex nihilo is a mythical phenomenon; that it is less plausible than it’s alternative. Because not only is it unsupported by evidence, it requires us to commit the fallacy of redefining causality into meaningless incoherency, in order to save creationism from being falsified, ad hoc.

There’s only two ways you can look at this as a causal event.

If we’re talking about a state of affairs in which the universe doesn’t yet exist, you can’t say that God caused “the universe” to do anything (such as “start existing”), because there is no universe. That’s absurd. The only thing God is capable of causally influencing is existent, non-universe stuff. In the same way that a carpenter can only causally influence existent, non-table stuff in order to create a table.

But what existent, non-universe stuff was available for God to causally influence? According to Craig, there was nothing. God literally caused “nothing” to become the universe. Or to put it more accurately, God didn’t cause anything anything to become the universe. (Nothing, after all, is the absence of anything by definition.)

So we can’t say that God “caused the universe to begin existing” in any literal sense because that’s absurd, and we also can’t say that God “caused nothing to become the universe” in any literal sense, which is equally absurd. So what does the good doctor actually mean when he says that God was the cause of the beginning of the universe?

Well it turns out, Craig doesn’t know what he means any more than I know what he means. All he knows is that he wants to attribute the universe’s existence to the deity of his particular religion, somehow. We have a moment at which the universe didn’t exist, and another moment at which it did exist, and God existing at both of these moments, and therefor God must be causally responsible for this change in states of affairs. I’m sorry, but that doesn’t follow.

Simply being present for a change in states of affairs does not establish something as the efficient cause of that change. If you’re going to assert that the universe began to exist at a finite point, and that God caused this event to happen, you have to actually demonstrate that God caused it. Unfortunately, we’ve already ruled out any meaningful way in which this could possibly be the case.

Let me digress for a moment to be perfectly clear about what I’m arguing here. I don’t claim to know whether the universe began to exist at a finite point or whether this is even a sensical question to ask in light of our advancements in physics. The point I am making is that even if the universe began to exist ex nihilo and God was present for this change in states of affairs, God cannot have been the efficient cause in any logically intelligible way.

Just think of any possible causal interaction, and you’ll notice that there are three necessary elements:

A: Something exerting causal influence. That which is doing the causing; the “affecter”.

B: Something being influenced; that which the “affecter” is acting upon; the “affected”; and

C: That which results from the interaction of A and B; the effect.

Go ahead and mull this over, test it out in your own head for a minute. See if you can come up with an instance of causality in the real world in which all three of these elements are not present. Does it even make sense posit a causal event without an A, a B, and a C?

Because this is exactly what Creationism postulates. In the case of God creating the universe ex nihilo, we go right from A to C… skipping B altogether. Dr. Craig believes there was literally nothing at all for God to causally influence. This is no different from admitting that God didn’t causally influence anything. And that is no different from admitting that God didn’t cause anything.

If the universe did come into existence ex nihilo, God couldn’t have been the cause.

So remember that syllogism I mentioned in the beginning? The one Dr. Craig called “another hopelessly bad objection to the Kalam Argument”? Let me wrap this up by taking another look at that with fresh eyes, and this time I’ll amend some of my language, just so certain satirically-challenged people can’t run a muck with it like last time. I’ve already spent this entire video arguing for the first premise. So let’s go from there:

P1: Nothing which exists can cause something which does not exist to begin existing ex nihilo.
P2: Given (1), Anything which begins to exist ex nihilo was not caused to do so by something which exists.
P3: The universe began to exist ex nihilo.
P4: Given (2) and (3), the universe was not caused to exist by anything which exists.
P5: God is defined as a being which caused the universe to begin to exist ex nihilo.
C1: Given (4) and (5), God does not exist by definition.

A while back I made a video called “Klarifying Kalam Kraziness” as a follow-up to the video in which I first presented this argument, and the idea was to unpack my reasoning behind each step of the syllogism. For example, a lot of people thought my third premise was a personal endorsement of P2 in original Kalam argument, and it’s not. It’s about forcing the theist into a position of having to choose their battles. So I strongly recommend checking that video out, especially if you have any intention of responding to this.

That said, while I’m confident that at this point in his career, no criticism could or would ever persuade Craig to abandon his arguments or your position, my wish is that he would come to appreciate this objection as one that merits a thoughtful response.

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