Reflections on "Uncaused Beginnings"

William Lane Craig


Graham Oppy’s interesting analysis of the “causal shape” of reality conflates causal ordering with temporal ordering of causes and assigns the wrong causal shape to reality as conceived by many classical theists. His argument for the possibility of uncaused beginnings is also hobbled by his tendency to ignore the crucial issue of the objective reality of tense and temporal becoming. Oppy’s claims that only certain types of things can come into being uncaused at a first moment of time and that things cannot now come into being uncaused are examined and found implausible and explanatorily vacuous.

Faith and Philosophy

 27 (2010): 72-78. Reprinted with permission.


Although Graham Oppy’s interest in the possibility of uncaused beginnings springs from his concern with cosmological arguments for God’s existence, 1 the truth of the causal premiss featured in at least one version of the argument, namely, that everything that begins to exist has a cause, is of such general metaphysical importance that it ought to interest any metaphysician. Unfortunately, Oppy’s article gets off to an uncertain start as a result of certain problematic features of his characterization of fundamental notions in his introductory section.

First, there is the ambiguity of what is meant by an “initial state.” Later sections of the article make it clear that Oppy’s concern is with temporally initial states. But that is not how initial states are characterized in his introductory section. Rather, there states are repeatedly said to be ordered “under the causal relation.” Thus, the series of states so ordered could all be simultaneous. States which form a circle under the causal relation, for example, need not require that time is cyclical, for the states may all obtain at once, rather like the four-intercalated flaps of a box top, each holding down another. Thomas Aquinas’ argument against an infinite regress of causes, which plays so central a role in the first three of his Five Ways, similarly concerned causes which are, as he put it, “essentially ordered,” rather than temporally or “accidentally” ordered. On Aquinas’ view, it is a matter of indifference whether temporal states take the accidental causal shape of Regress, Circle, or Contingent Initial State—in each case states must be sustained in being by God, who is prior to all other states under the ancestral of the essential causal relation. In order to rule out such possibilities, Oppy must be assuming that causal directionality entails temporal ordering of cause and effect. But the metaphysician will rightly be sceptical of any such attempt to rule out the possibility of simultaneous, essentially ordered causes by mere stipulation.

Second, even if we suppose that states which are ordered under the causal relation are necessarily also ordered under the earlier than relation, it is unclear why “naturalism would be preferable to theism,” as Oppy claims, if states of reality had the causal shape of Contingent Initial State. 2 Indeed, a good many, if not most, contemporary theistic philosophers hold that this is the causal shape of reality. For the initial state prior to all others under the ancestral of the causal relation is taken to be God’s bringing the universe into being. Since God’s so doing is a free action, such a state is contingent, despite the metaphysical necessity of God’s existing. Reality thus has the causal shape of Contingent Initial State. Mutakallim, or proponents of the kalam cosmological argument, given their strong commitment to divine freedom, 3 embrace this view, rejecting Regress, Circle, and Necessary Initial State as possible causal shapes of reality. Ironically, then, mutakallim will reject the first premiss of the argument Oppy reconstructs, namely,

1. If it is possible for reality to have a contingent initial state under the causal relation, then it is possible for other (non-overlapping) parts of reality to have no cause.

Proponents of the kalam cosmological argument will maintain that while reality must have a contingent initial state if the existence of the universe is to be plausibly explained, it is impossible for any existing thing, whether occupying an initial state or a later state of reality, to come into being without a cause.

Third, Oppy’s reconstruction of the argument on behalf of the causal premiss of the 

kalam cosmological argument neglects a crucial assumption of kalam: the view that time is tensed and temporal becoming is an objective feature of reality. Oppy’s tenselessly formulated premisses are entirely compatible with a metaphysic of tenseless time, according to which the parts of reality referred to in the premisses do not come into being at all but simply exist tenselessly at their appointed stations. On such a tenseless view of time, it is far less obvious that parts of reality which exist later than the initial state must have causes and that the things existing tenselessly at the initial state cannot exist without a cause, since they do not come into being at that time. If Oppy is to allow the argument in question its full intuitive force, then it must be reformulated along tensed lines. For example:

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