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Can Atheists Avoid a Cause of the Universe?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

That is exactly what Sean Carroll attempted to do in his recent debate with William Lane Craig. Here is what Carroll said:

Why should we expect that there are causes or explanations or a reason why in the universe in which we live? It’s because the physical world inside of which we’re embedded has two important features.

There are unbreakable patterns, laws of physics — things don’t just happen, they obey the laws — and there is an arrow of time stretching from the past to the future. The entropy was lower in the past and increases towards the future. Therefore, when you find some event or state of affairs B today, we can very often trace it back in time to one or a couple of possible predecessor events that we therefore call the cause of that, which leads to B according to the laws of physics.

But crucially, both of these features of the universe that allow us to speak the language of causes and effects are completely absent when we talk about the universe as a whole.  We don’t think that our universe is part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws.  Even if it’s part of the multiverse, the multiverse is not part of a bigger ensemble that obeys laws.  Therefore, nothing gives us the right to demand some kind of external cause.

If Carroll’s argument works, then atheists have discovered a clever way to avoid any form of the cosmological argument for God’s existence. But does his argument really work? According to philosopher Ed Feser (in this blog post), it does not, at least not if Carroll is arguing against classical Christian theology.

Feser takes up Carroll’s argument:

Now in fact it is Carroll who has said absolutely nothing to establish his right to dismiss the demand for a cause as confidently as he does. For he has simply begged all the important questions and completely missed the point of the main traditional classical theistic arguments . . . .

One problem here is that, like so many physicists, Carroll has taken what is really just one species of causation (the sort which involves a causal relation between temporally separated events) and identified it with causation as such. But in fact, the Aristotelian argues, event causation is not only not the only kind of causation but is parasitic on substance causation.

Feser continues:

But put that aside, because the deeper problem is that Carroll supposes that causation is to be explained in terms of laws of nature, whereas the Aristotelian view is that this has things precisely backwards. Since a “law of nature” is just a shorthand description of the ways a thing will operate — that is to say, what sorts of effects it will tend to have — given its nature or substantial form, in fact the notion of “laws of nature” metaphysically presupposes causation.

So what does causation look like if it is not essentially about tracing a series of events backwards in time?

On the Aristotelian-Scholastic analysis, questions about causation are raised wherever we have potentialities that need actualization, or a thing’s being metaphysically composite and thus in need of a principle that accounts for the composition of its parts, or there being a distinction in a thing between its essence or nature on the one and its existence on the other, or a thing’s being contingent.

The universe, however physics and scientific cosmology end up describing it — even if it turned out to be a universe without a temporal beginning, even if it is a four-dimensional block universe, even if Hawking’s closed universe model turned out to be correct, even if we should really think in terms of a multiverse rather than a single universe — will, the Aristotelian argues, necessarily exhibit just these features (potentialities needing actualization, composition, contingency, etc.). And thus it will, as a matter of metaphysical necessity, require a cause outside it.

Thus the universe requires a cause outside it. As Feser explains, only that

which is pure actuality devoid of potentiality, only what is utterly simple or non-composite, only something whose essence or nature just is existence itself, only what is therefore in no way contingent but utterly necessary — only that, the classical theist maintains, could in principle be the ultimate terminus of explanation, whatever the specific scientific details turn out to be.

In the end, Carroll has simply not addressed the arguments from classical Christian theology and philosophy. He has not, therefore, successfully avoided the need for the universe to have a cause.

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  • GamerFromJump

    The problem is, you end up with an infinite regress if you assume that every effect must have a directly congruent cause. Apologetics place god as that 1st cause, but conveniently excuse themselves from the regress by creating an exception to the very requirement of preceding causal agents that they demand of the scientists studying the question.

    Therein lies the essential dishonesty. You demand that the sciences follow their own requirements of evidence, but excuse yourselves from same, and still expect people to believe you are arguing a “controversy”, You state that Carroll has not “addressed the arguments”, yet you fail to do so, and lie about it.

    Essentially, your whole argument comes down to “No you!”

  • I think Feser is fundamentally misunderstanding Carroll’s position– as well as the 4-Dimensional manifold concept of space-time.

    On this view, the Aristotelian idea that potentialities become actualized is completely inapplicable. The whole of space-time– including that which we label past, present, and future– are actual, on Carroll’s view. Future events are not potentialities to be actualized; they are actual.

    On such a model, the classical Aristotelian view of causation adequately describes localized phenomena within the universe, but is not applicable to the universe as a whole.

  • Read the Comments Policy and consider this to be strike 1.

  • I’m not sure if he’s misunderstanding Carroll or not, but claiming that past, present, or future are all actual is a highly controversial position that is rejected by most physicists and philosophers of science. Carroll can play this card if he wants, but it’s fraught with all kinds of additional baggage that has to be defended.

  • Actually, it’s not rejected by most physicists and philosophers of science. In fact, it’s a fairly common understanding of the nature of time in cosmology, and is implicit to the standard 4-Dimensional model of space-time.

    This view of the nature of time is, in fact, so commonly held and so intrinsic to physics that William Lane Craig has spent a great deal of his career attempting to find viable alternative scientific models which would support a Tensed theory of time.

  • If you are saying that you think the vast majority of physicists and philosophers of science believe that temporal becoming is an illusion, then that would be news to me. The very fact that a person has to “come” to that conclusion illustrates the self-refuting nature of this theory of time.

    What’s funny about all this is that Carroll pulls this B-theory of time out of the hat when it suits him to deny that the universe needs a cause. For the rest of his every day life, he is quite happy to be an A-theorist.

    This reminds me of David Hume (I think it was him), who said that his conclusions about reality were so out of whack with human experience, that he had to pretend he was wrong to live his every day life. Otherwise, he would go crazy.

  • I think the problem is that you are conflating the human experience of time with the nature of time. Human experience tends to be a fairly terrible indicator of the underlying nature of reality.

    So, while it would appear that consciousness carves out a preferred direction in space-time, this does not necessitate the A-Theory of time. The function f(x) = 2x carves out a preferred direction in a Cartesian plane, but all of the points on that curve are co-extant. There is no need for an x-axial becoming.

    The A-Theory does an adequate job of explaining localized phenomena within space-time, but suffers greatly when one attempts to extend it.

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