[Warning: Philosophical waters ahead!]
Outlining one form of the well known cosmological argument, William Lane Craig states “a transcendent first cause is plausibly personal.” He then gives two reasons:

  1. “The personhood of the first cause of the universe is implied by its timelessness and immateriality.” Craig goes on to explain that the only entities possessing these qualities are (Platonic) abstractions like numbers, freedom, beauty, etc., but they do not stand in causal relations. Freedom, for example, does not cause humans to exercise freewill (that would be slightly contradictory) and numbers can’t cause anything. Yet, a divine Mind can possess immateriality and timelessness and cause things to come into existence. Thus, “the transcendent cause of the origin of the universe must be an unembodied mind.”
  2. “The cause is in some sense eternal yet the effect which it produced is not eternal but began to exist a finite time ago” (p. 16-17).

I’ve little issue with the 2nd proposal as Craig explains. After all, from the metaphysical intuition that “no physical state is ontically or temporally prior to itself” (Willard, Contemporary Perspectives on Religious Epistemology, p. 213), it follows there is at least one non-physical state that does not derive its existence from anything else and is, therefore, the ultimate cause of every physical state. In essence “The cause is in some sense eternal and yet the effect which it produced is not eternal but began to exist a finite time ago” (Craig, p. 17).

The first reason, however, is troublesome for me. It basically runs: Only entities possessing immateriality and timelessness and that stand in causal relationships can be the first cause of the universe. A divine Mind is the only entity that fits this criteria. And, since only persons possess a mind, it follows that God is personal. But, how do we know that the divine Mind stands in a causal relationship? It seems that Craig is sneaking in the notion of freewill to make this work, since minds cause events to occur by deciding freely (for my philosophy friends, a.k.a. “independent spontaneity”). Moreover, since Craig is importing Platonic notions, we must allow Plato’s metaphysics to have their way here. After all, abstractions are not temporally located and do not necessarily stand in contiguous causal relationships to other entities. To make them do so we must import not only freewill but some notion of chronology to make cause and effect work, since every cause precedes its effect.

I think that Plato did believe abstractions (a.k.a. “forms”) stood in some kind of contiguous relationship to the other forms or corresponding realities, but to say that relationship is causal is not at all clear. Allow me to elaborate.

Born out of dialectic discussion, Plato’s theory of forms is central to all of his thought. He wrote about it in Book X of The Republic, Phaedo, Parmenides, and Timaeus. Plato notes that the forms are:

  • Patterns after which the world is made
  • Abstract models or blueprints for which there are corresponding realities in time/space that “participate in” or bear the image of the Forms
  • Similar to Socratic definition, i.e., “What is the nature of X?” or “What is an essential defining property of X without which X would not be X?”

Characteristics of the forms are:

  • Theoretical: postulated from reason rather than demonstrated from empirical tests
  • Intelligible: the basis for all our knowledge claims
  • Immutable: Forms never change since they are perfect
  • Eternal: Have no beginning and no end
  • Objective: Forms are mind-independent entities.

Examples of forms include: A beautiful picture is a copy of the form “Beauty” (though Plato had little regard for aesthetics). When we recognize the common traits of beauty in objects, we move closer to apprehending the Form “Beauty.” Or when a student gets the grade they earned, it is an act of justice because “giving to others what they earn” follows the universal form Justice. Mathematical properties that are true for a particular geometric figure are true universally. For instance, the sum of interior angles in a triangle equals 180 degrees, whether or not any triangles exist on paper or screen.

In no instance do we have a causal relationship between Plato’s forms and their corresponding realities. A ground-consequent relationship maybe, but not a causal one (see William L. Craig, The Only Wise God, p. 135, for Craig’s explanation of ground-consequent).

Most importantly, if we grant Craig’s proposal that causal agents are personal because they freely “chose” to create, is this not tautological? Of course, causal agents cause things to happen. After all, barking dogs bark and causal agents cause. And, to move from causal agents “causing” to causal agents “choosing” is to equivocate the meaning of “cause”. It seems Craig must import freewill into the cosmological equation to make this move and I don’t see that as necessary nor “plausible.”

At the end of the day (or argument) I would say the most we get out of the cosmological argument is some Aristotelian notion of an Uncaused Cause of the universe. To introduce God as personal, we must turn to the Moral argument, which Craig and many others have rigorously defended. But I don’t think we can land where Craig does with a first-cause argument.

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