Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Can an eternal universe require a cause?

I had a couple of discussions recently regarding the Cosmological Argument, among various other topics related to that. As most should know, the Cosmological Argument is an argument that attempts to demonstrate the contingency of the universe. That is, it attempts to demonstrate that the universe requires a cause to bring it into or sustain it in being. Now on these aforementioned discussions the topic was brought up regarding the possibility of an eternal universe, and it was postulated that if the universe was eternal, then the cosmological argument would lose force.

Let me explain why this assertion might seem prima facie logical. If the universe is eternal—that is, existing infinitely into the past with no beginning—then it can have no events that temporally precede it. But if there are no events that precede the universe, then there can be no prior cause of the universe. Thus stated, the existence of the universe would not have been caused, and hence it would not be contingent. All this is to say that an eternal universe seems to logically side-step the cosmological argument.

But is this line of argumentation as logical as it seems? Spoiler alert: I don’t believe so. For everything here hinges on one’s ontology of causation. If causes must necessarily precede their effects then the line of argumentation above might indeed be valid. However, I maintain that causation is not this simplistic, and obviously I need to make a case for that here.

When we think of most causation, we tend to think in temporal, linear, and deterministic terms, such as when a billiard ball bumps into another. That is, we tend to think of (a) causing (b) which causes (c) etc., wherein this causation flows linearly as (a)→(b)→(c). But a lot of causation is non-temporal, simultaneous, non-linear, and non-deterministic. Let’s examine a few examples. Take the act of someone shaping a clay pot. The act of shaping the pot (the cause) is simultaneous with the effect of the pot being shaped. Notice that this is one event wherein the cause does not precede the effect, but is, rather, simultaneous with it. Or take the solidity of a table. This is an effect which is caused by the structure of the material constituents of said table. But the structure of the table does not temporally precede the effect of the solidity of the table. They are, once again, simultaneous. (Note: It seems, then, that Hume’s simplistic idea of causation as the constant conjunction of events, which could be ontologically loose and separate, is false.)

It should be apparent then that causation does not need to take place linearly, and causes do not always—and many times do not—precede their effects. So, what relevance does this have for the idea that an eternal universe is necessarily absolved of a cause? Well, it means that this proposition is false. For if causes do not need to precede their effects, then an eternal universe is still capable of being caused, as long as this causation is non-linear and non-temporal.

Now, this does not presently mean that I need to determine exactly how an eternal universe can have a cause, nor does it mean that an eternal universe necessarily does have a cause—the contingency of the universe would first need to be demonstrated. My current thesis is only that an eternal universe does not ipso facto evade talk of causation, and thus an eternal universe is not necessarily a refuge for naturalists from the efficacy of the Cosmological Argument.

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