Several months ago the Discovery Channel aired a television series featuring Stephen Hawking called Curiosity.  Whereas in his book The Grand Design Hawking claimed that God is not necessary to explain the origin of the universe given the existence of physical laws such as gravity, in Curiosity he argued that God could not have created the universe because there was no time in which God could have done so:

[D]o we need a God to set it all up so a Big Bang can bang? … Our everyday experience makes us convinced that everything that happens must be caused by something that occurred earlier in time.  So it’s natural for us to assume that something—perhaps God—must have caused the universe to come into existence.  But when we’re talking about the universe as a whole, that isn’t necessarily so.

The role played by time at the beginning of the universe is, I believe, the final key to removing the need for a Grand Designer, and revealing how the universe created itself. … Time itself must come to a stop [at the singularity].  You can’t get to a time before the big bang, because there was no time before the big bang.  We have finally found something that does not have a cause because there was no time for a cause to exist in.  For me this means there is no possibility of a creator because there is no time for a creator to have existed.  Since time itself began at the moment of the Big Bang, it was an event that could not have been caused or created by anyone or anything. … So when people ask me if a god created the universe, I tell them the question itself makes no sense.  Time didn’t exist before the Big Bang, so there is no time for God to make the universe in.  It’s like asking for directions to the edge of the Earth.  The Earth is a sphere.  It does not have an edge, so looking for it is a futile exercise.”[1]

Expressed in deductive form, Hawking’s core argument appears to be as follows:

(1)   Causes must precede their effects in time
(2)   There is no time prior to the beginning of time (the origin of the universe)
(3)   Therefore, the universe cannot have a cause

By extension he argues:

(4)   Theism requires that God be the cause of the universe
(5)   The universe cannot have a cause
(6)   Therefore, theism is false

If this argument is successful it would disprove the existence of a Creator God.[2]  But is it?  I think not.  Both premises are dubious.

Before I assess the premises of Hawking’s argument, it is important to note that Hawking seems to be responding to premise 1 of the kalam cosmological argument (KCA) for God’s existence.  The KCA argues as follows:

(1)   Everything that begins to exist has a cause
(2)   The universe began to exist
(3)   Therefore, the universe has a cause

While Hawking agrees that everything within the universe that begins to exist has an external cause, he does not think the universe itself could have an external cause because, he says, causal entities must precede their effects in time, and since there is no time prior to the origin of the universe, there is no opportunity for a causal entity to exert its causal influence.  But is this true?  Does this provide a genuine defeater to premise 1 of the KCA?  To answer that question let us turn to an examination of the key premises in Hawking’s argument.

Must causes precede their effects in time?

The first premise in Hawking’s argument is that causes must precede their effects in time.  Said another way, causal relationships necessarily entail temporality.  If this assessment of causality is correct, then the causal principle does not apply to the question of cosmic origins because the principle came into being in tandem with the universe, thereby exempting the origin of the universe itself from its influence.  I think we have good reasons, however, for rejecting this premise.  While temporal priority may be a common property of causation—and even common to our experience of causation—that does not mean it is a necessary feature of causation as Hawking assumes.

1. Two types of causality

Causes can be prior to their effects in one of two ways: temporally or logically.  As an example of logical causal priority, Immanuel Kant invited us to imagine a heavy ball resting on a cushion from eternity past.  The physical proximity of the ball and cushion will form a concave depression (indentation) in the cushion that is coeternal with the ball and cushion.  What is the cause of this concavity?  Neither the ball nor the cushion enjoys temporal priority over the other (the ball never began to rest on the cushion, and the cushion never existed apart from the ball’s resting on it), so if Hawking is right, then there can be no cause of the concavity.  But this is absurd.  As a contingent property, the concavity of the cushion begs for a causal explanation.  It is obvious that the weight of the ball resting on the cushion is the cause of the cushion’s concavity (surely the concavity of the cushion does not cause the sphericity of the ball), and yet it never began to do so.  We have, then, an example of a cause that does not precede its effect in time.  It precedes its effect in a different manner: logically.  If the ball did not exist, the concavity of the cushion would not exist.  The ball is logically prior to the ball, though not temporally prior to it.

This demonstrates that the concept of causation outside of a temporal framework is coherent, and if causation is possible outside of a temporal framework, then the absence of time prior to the origin of the universe does not exclude the possibility that the universe also has a cause.  Hawking rightly points out that the universe cannot have a temporally prior cause, but falsely concludes that this excludes the possibility of any cause whatsoever because Hawking falsely believes that there can only be one form of causation.  Even atheistic philosopher Alexander Pruss says it is “dubious” to suppose that causation requires temporal priority because “apart from full or partial reductions of the notion of causation to something like Humean regularity and temporal precedence, …there is [not] much reason to suppose that the cause of a temporal effect must even be in time.”[3]

2. Why is time necessary to causal relationships?

A moment’s reflection on the nature of time and causation should make it clear that causal relationships do not entail temporality.  After all, does time cause anything to happen?  While our experience of cause and effect surely occurs within a temporal framework, time itself is not involved in producing the effect.  Time is not part of the causal equation.  Time is incidental to cause and effect, not essential to it.  So how could the absence of time eliminate the possibility of causal relationships?  If time is not part of the causal relationship itself, then there is no reason to think causation is dependent on time.  The only relationship required between cause and effect is one of explanatory priority.  The cause must be explanatorily prior to the effect, but something can be explanatorily prior to an effect in a logical and/or temporal manner.

3. What about simultaneous causation?

We might even question the assumption that causes necessarily precede their effects in time even within the temporal framework of the universe.  Perhaps it is better to understand some instances of cause and effect as being simultaneous with each other.  As William Lane Craig points out:

Imagine C and E are the cause and the effect. If C were to vanish before the time at which E is produced, would E nevertheless come into being? Surely not! But if time is continuous, then no matter how close to E’s appearance C’s disappearance takes place, there will always be an interval of time between C’s disappearance and E’s appearance. But then why or how E came into being when it does seems utterly mysterious, for there is no cause at that moment to produce it.”[4]

Arguably all causal relationships entail some sense of simultaneity between cause and effect.  If that is so, then it is perfectly rational to understand God’s causing the universe to come into being as occurring simultaneous to the universe’s coming into being.  God’s causal act of creation constituted the first moment of time, being simultaneous to the effect of the universe coming into being (See “Creation was a Temporal Act”).

4.  Hawking’s argument proves too much

Hawking argues that “since time itself began at the moment of the Big Bang, it was an event that could not have been caused or created by anyone or anything.”  But wouldn’t “anything” include physical laws as well?  How, then, could the law of gravity cause the universe to create itself as Hawking claims?  Wouldn’t it have to exist before the universe existed in order to cause the universe to come into being?  And wouldn’t it have to exert causal influence prior to the beginning of time in order to cause a temporal universe to come into being?  It seems so.  So why is it rational to see gravity as preexisting the origin of the universe and exerting causal influence “before” time began, but not rational to extend the same privilege to God?  Hawking seems inconsistent.  He will not allow for God what he allows for in the case of gravity.

Is it impossible for time to exist independent of the material universe?

Hawking’s second premise is that “there is no time prior to the beginning of time (the origin of the universe).”  But he just assumes that the only kind of time possible is physical time.  It is possible that in addition to physical time is another kind of time: metaphysical time.  For example, we can imagine God existing prior to the universe—in the absence of matter, space, and physical time—counting down to the moment of creation in His mind: “3, 2, 1, Let there be!”  Even a sequence of mental events requires the existence of time.  If it is even possible to imagine counting in the absence of the material world, then it proves that it is at least possible that time could exist apart from physical time.[5]  And if that is possible, then Hawking’s second premise can also be undercut.

In summary, there is ample reason to think Hawking’s first premise is false.  Temporal causation is not the only kind of causation possible, and it may not even be the case that temporal causation requires temporal priority.  As for his second premise, there is good reason to think that physical time is not the only kind of time possible.  And if there can be time apart from physical time, then it is possible for God to have existed before the universe, and to have exerted causal influence to create the universe that was temporally prior to the universe.  There is no good reason, then, to adopt Hawking’s conclusion that the universe cannot have a cause.  It can, and arguments such as the kalam cosmological argument and the principle of sufficient reason give us good reason to think the universe does have a cause, and that cause is God.

See also:


[1]See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQhd05ZVYWg&feature=player_embedded#!, 32:45—33:09 and 37:25—41:17.
[2]
It’s important to note that Hawking’s argument only serves to disprove the existence of a creator God, not all gods.  It is still possible that a deity of some sort exist—so long as that deity did not create the universe, and/or does not stand in any causal relationship to the material world.  But Hawking thinks that the absence of time “prior” to the Big Bang not only eliminates the possibility for causal activity prior to the origin of the universe, but also the possibility of existence itself: “We have finally found something that does not have a cause because there was no time for a cause to exist in.  For me this means there is no possibility of a creator because there is no time for a creator to have existed.”  Unfortunately for Hawking, it does not follow that if causality is impossible in a timeless state, that existence is also impossible.  Even if causal activity requires temporality, why think that existence does as well?  Causality and existence, while related, are distinct concepts.  The impossibility of one does not imply the impossibility of the other.  Indeed, I would argue that it is possible for causally effete entities to exist.  Many scientists and philosophers think abstract objects such as logical laws and mathematical principles existed timelessly “prior” to the origin of the universe.  The defining feature of abstract objects is that they are causally impotent; i.e. they do not stand in any causal relationships.  If it is even possible that abstract objects exist, then it is illegitimate to assume that the impossibility of causal relations implies the impossibility of existence itself.
[3]
Alexander R. Pruss, “Leibnizian Cosmological Arguments” in Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.  Chapter available via pdf at http://bearspace.baylor.edu/Alexander_Pruss/www/papers/LCA.html; Internet; accessed 15 July 2011.
[4]
William Lane Craig, “Causation and Spacetime”; available from http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7935; Internet; accessed 17 Deceber 2010.
[5]
My personal view is that God existed in a timeless state without the universe, but became temporal when He created the universe.  This does not pose a problem for God’s casual relationship to the universe because God’s causal act to create the universe was simultaneous with the origin of the universe, and constituted the first moment of physical time.  See Does God Know When Now Is?: Revisiting God’s Relationship to Time and Creation was a Temporal Act.

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