Theistic Critiques of Atheism, part 13

Continuing our look at William Lane Craig’s article on “Theistic Critiques of Atheism,” let’s see the next point he makes in regard to his Cosmological Argument.

Premiss (2), the more controversial premiss [that the universe began to exist], may be supported by both deductive, philosophical arguments and inductive, scientific arguments. Classical proponents of the argument contended that an infinite temporal regress of events cannot exist, since the existence of an actually infinite, as opposed to merely potentially infinite, number of things leads to intolerable absurdities. The best way to support this claim is still by way of thought experiments, like the famous Hilbert’s Hotel, which illustrate the various absurdities that would result if an actual infinite were to be instantiated in the real world.

Unfortunately, this argument does more harm to God than to materialism.

The problem with Craig’s argument is that, while physics seems to indicate that time itself has an absolute minimum value, time is a property of the material universe. The fact that time has an absolute minimum value simply means that there’s a finite amount of time in the past. If you travel to the south pole, you can go no farther south. If you come to an absolute stop, you can no longer slow down. If you travel back in time to the minimum possible value for time, you can go no earlier. It’s not that there’s some barrier between where you are and where you want to go, it’s that the place you want to go does not exist, even conceptually.

This conclusion is supported both by the inductive results of scientific research (e.g. Big Bang theory) and by philosophical deduction. As an example of the latter, consider what it would mean if time extended infinitely far into the past. That which is infinite is that which has no end, by definition. If time extends infinitely far backwards before the Big Bang, therefore, that means that the Big Bang lies at the end of an infinite period of time. An infinite period of time, however, has no end. If an infinite amount of time must pass before the creation of the universe can happen, then the universe can never be created, because an infinite amount of time takes literally forever to pass. Yet in order for there to be an infinite amount of time before creation, that infinite amount of time must pass before the universe can be created, because that’s what it means for infinite time to come before creation. And this is just one of the philosophical examples Craig alludes to.

The problem for Christian apologetics is that this alleged infinite amount of time before creation is not the domain of the material world, but rather is the domain in which God is supposed to have existed and acted before creation. For God to have existed for all eternity, there must have been a prior eternity in which His existence could have taken place. Such an eternity would have the effect of postponing creation for, well, all eternity. If there’s not a whole eternity before creation, then God Himself has not existed for all eternity, since there is no prior eternity in which He could have had this “eternal” existence.

There is thus a finite minimum absolute chronological value for the period of God’s existence as well. To the extent that the material universe has a “beginning,” God must also have a beginning, since there’s a point in time beyond which no earlier divine existence is possible. This brings Him under Craig’s point #1, “Whatever begins to exist has a cause,” and thus eliminates God as a contender for the role of First Cause. Or, alternately, we can admit that since time itself is a property of the material universe, the universe neither needs nor allows any prior cause, which also eliminates God as the First Cause.

We could speculate about some other property, let’s call it “tyme,” which measures some other dimension of some other n-dimensional space. And we could suppose, as some physicists are wondering, that our 3+1 dimensional space-time continuum might be the emergent property of some larger material context which would transcend the absolute minimums implied by the Big Bang. It makes for an interesting hypothesis and some very dense mathematical equations, but ultimately it’s irrelevant to the questions Craig is addressing here.

The mechanisms of cause and effect, as we observe them here and now, are dependent upon the chronological order imposed by material time. If some abstract dimension of “tyme” also exists in some larger n-dimensional continuum, it’s a moot point, since it plays no known role in the material cause-and-effect relationships that apologists are trying to exploit as an argument for a Creator. Indeed, it rather defuses the whole apologetic point: if we postulate a larger n-dimensional material context in which dimensions like our unknown “tyme” serve to produce phenomena like the original Big Bang, we have not made God more likely, we’ve made Him less necessary, by proposing contextual conditions sufficient to produce the creation of our cosmos spontaneously, without the need for what we perceive as material cause and effect.

Craig goes on to list a number of really very excellent arguments for why time cannot extend infinitely into the past, and it’s actually worth reading. There’s quite a lot that he gets right here, which makes it all the more ironic that his arguments deprive God of the opportunity to be Creator, without demonstrating any need for the cosmos to be created. The finite duration of Time Past merely makes it easier for the material universe to have existed for all of it. But, as we’ll see tomorrow, Craig is going to have a go at it anyway.

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Posted in Unapologetics. 5 Comments »

5 Responses to “Theistic Critiques of Atheism, part 13”

  1. jim Says:


    For some reasons that are too involved to go into here, I happen to have no problem with actual infinities, temporal or spatial. However, you’ve pinpointed the problem with positing these rather enigmatic constructs as proof of God’s existence; namely, that God’s logical existence gets stuck in the same devices. Of course, the way apologists have dealt with this is to propose that God exists outside of time. But what does it mean to say that God exists in ‘no-time’? Both thought and action imply sequence, and sequence, or succession, implies time, so unless God neither moved nor acted ‘before’ the ‘creation’ of the universe, He seems as dependent upon time as anything else. And like you’ve also pointed out, if God exists in ‘Tyme’, the same problems remain.

    Coincidentally, I wrote something about this same thing a while back…

  2. Steve Says:

    Thank you. That’s one of the better explanations of this topic I’ve read in some time. For some reason, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around these questions of time and beginnings; I usually default to the “universe as absurd brute fact” position and leave it there, not wishing to get lost in the philosophical tall grass.

  3. jim Says:

    As a side note, you actually CAN have an infinite time-line, even if we posit the present moment as an endpoint. All you really need is the lack of a ‘beginning’ to make it work. Seems a bit counter-intuitive, as a lot of these discussions do, but I think the whole idea of time ‘beginning’ in the first place is a lot more problematic, for some of the reasons you’ve discussed.

  4. Dominic Saltarelli Says:

    I’ve never seen an actual response to this particular line of reasoning other than “God is mysterious”. Theists run out of epicycles to draw once you start talking “time” and “infinity”. It’s the silver bullet that slays the supernatural as far as I’m concerned.

  5. Hunt Says:

    I don’t think you can say that time has a beginning without paradox, even if you impose some kind of compressed metric that fits an infinite amount of elapsed time into a finite interval. Invariably the question about what happened before that interval will arise. The only way I can think to escape this is to make time cyclical, that is, to make the future the past and the past the future — time as a Mobius strip. You could then, if you wanted, posit God as the grand master of the cycle. This instant of time would then correspond to an infinite number of goes around the cycle, and it wouldn’t matter one bit which it might be.

    This, of course, implies that we will all be here again one day, bitching at cl.