I was doing some research on William Lane Craig’s website the other day when I stumbled on an interesting objection to the kalam cosmological argument (KCA) I had not heard before.  I thought it was interesting, so I’m passing it along.  It requires a brief set-up.

According to Aristotle there are four types of causes:

1.      Material cause (that of which something is made)
2.      Formal cause (a thing’s essence, form, or pattern)
3.      Efficient cause (the thing that produces the change)
4.      Final cause (the purpose for which something is caused)

Consider a marble statue.  The block of marble from which it was formed is the material cause, the precise shape of the statue is the formal cause, the sculptor is the efficient cause, and beauty is the final cause.

The two causes we are most familiar with are material and efficient causes.  Point to anything in the universe and we can tell you what it is made of, and what caused it to exist.  But what about the universe itself?  The origin of the universe marks the beginning of material stuff, so it cannot have a material cause.  It came into being ex nihilo.  The KCA argues, however, that the universe still needs an efficient cause.  Something outside the universe is needed to cause the universe to come into being because contingent entities don’t just pop into existence uncaused.

According to the objector, it doesn’t make any sense to speak of efficient causation in the absence of material causation:

“When we observe efficient causation we observe something acting on another thing to bring about some result.  I think that I can understand what it means, for example, for a person to act on a block to cause a statue.  I think that this is a perfectly intelligible notion of causation. But what would it be for a person to act upon nothing in such a way as to bring about an effect.  Efficient causation as creation or ‘bringing about’ is an acting upon a thing.  So whatever causation you have in mind here is radically different than anything we usually understand by the term.  And the less I understand this notion of causation, the less inclined I find myself inclined to consider the God hypothesis to be the better explanation.”

Craig responds in part:

“What I want to challenge is your justification for the stronger claim  (1´).  Why think that efficient causation without material causation is impossible?  We’ve seen that (A) doesn’t, in fact, justify (1´).  What (A) justifies is that there has to be some sort of cause of the thing that begins, but there’s no reason to think that it must be a material cause.  In your final paragraph you appeal to our normal experience of seeing efficient causes acting in tandem with material causes as justification for (1´).  But why think that this common concatenation must always be the case?

“Perhaps it would be helpful here to think of cases where we could have efficient causation without material causation.  I’ve been working heavily on the topic of abstract objects like numbers, sets, propositions, and so on.  Many philosophers believe that these immaterial objects exist necessarily and eternally.  But there are many abstract objects which seem to exist contingently and non-eternally, for example, the equator, the center of mass of the solar system, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and so forth.  None of these is a physical object.  Tolstoy’s novel, for example, is not identical to any of its printed exemplars, for these could all be destroyed and replaced by new books.  Nor can Beethoven’s Fifth be identified with any particular series of ink marks or any performance of the symphony.  Now these things all began to exist:  the equator, for example, didn’t exist before the earth did.  But if they began to exist, did they have a cause or did they come into being out of just nothing?  (Notice that it makes sense to ask this question even though these entities are immaterial and so have no material cause.)  Many philosophers would say that they did indeed have a cause: it was Tolstoy, for example, who created Anna Karenina.  So in cases such as these (and they are legion), we do, indeed, have instances of efficient causation without material causation.  You may not agree that such abstract objects really exist; but I think we have to say that the view defended by our philosophical colleagues is a coherent one.”