Does the principle of determination show that the universe had a personal cause?

apologetics Philosophy of Religion


The universe has a personal cause, since God created the universe and God is personal. But does the “principle of determination” demonstrate that the cause of the big bang must be personal, or must we rely on other reasons for maintaining this? I’m currently (although tentatively) inclined towards the latter.

One of the striking things about the big bang when it was discovered is that it showed the universe to have a finite past. It came into being. On the face of it this is not particularly challenging if one believes (as most do) that God exists and brought the universe into existence. But as is no secret, theists have used the origin of the universe in the finite past as a potent challenge to atheism, since whatever comes into existence has a cause of its existence. With the discovery of the big bang, we no longer had to rely solely on philosophical reasoning to show that the universe had to have a finite past, now there was empirical confirmation (showing that the philosophers were right all along).

Since both space and time came into existence with the big bang, the cause of the big bang must itself be non-physical and timeless. Not eternal in the sense that it has always existed (since time came into being with the big bang), but eternal in the sense of being literally timeless.

According to Bill Craig, the cause of the big bang must also be personal. This is where things can become unclear for some people. The same is true of my version of the moral argument, when personal agency is introduced, so I think just the move of introducing a person into the argument can be a strange thing in the ears of some people, so it is here that we need to slow down and unpack things carefully.

In the world that we observe and measure and which is subject to the laws of physics, whenever all the necessary and sufficient conditions for a phenomenon exist, that phenomenon will occur. Take the boiling of water at sea level on earth. Whenever there is pure water at sea level on earth at 100 degrees Celsius, that water will boil. If the temperature had been 100 degrees for a century, then the water would have been boiling for a century (assuming it had not all evaporated). Assuming no other conditions had changed, we would not believe somebody who told us “this water has been at least 100 degrees Celsius for days, but it just started boiling this minute.” Once the necessary and sufficient causal conditions exist, the effect occurs. There is no decision to be made about whether or not the water will boil. When the temperature is met, the water boils.

The occurrence of the big bang is the same in this regard. Why did that event occur, some 13.77 billion years ago? Was it, as some say, the inevitable outcome of the laws of physics? Here William Lane Craig draws on the “Islamic Principle of Determination,” an argument made centuries ago by Muslim philosophy Al-Ghazali. Craig elaborates:

[Why] did the universe begin to exist when it did instead of existing from eternity? The answer . . . was carefully explained by al-Ghazālī and enshrined in the Islamic principle of determination. According to that principle, when two different states of affairs are equally possible and one results, this realisation of one rather than the other must be the result of the action of a personal agent who freely chooses one rather than the other. Thus, Ghazālī argues that while it is true that no mechanical cause existing from eternity could create the universe in time, such a production of a temporal effect from an eternal cause is possible if and only if the cause is a personal agent who wills from eternity to create a temporally finite effect. For while a mechanically operating set of necessary and sufficient conditions would either produce the effect from eternity or not at all, a personal being may freely choose to create at any time wholly apart from any distinguishing conditions of one moment from another.1

Notice Craig’s use of the phrase “from eternity” in this quotation. In order to make sense in context, this phrase must mean “in eternity past” rather than in some timeless state. If a mechanical (i.e. non-personal) cause had existed from eternity past, then its effect must likewise have existed from eternity past.

The implications of this argument are as follows: We cannot appeal to pre-existing eternal space or and laws of science to explain the origin of the universe in the big bang. If this pre-existing space and these laws of science were a sufficient explanation for the big bang, then the big bang would have occurred and the universe would already have died its heat death in eternity past, since, according to such a view, this pre-existing space and the laws of science are a sufficient cause for the big bang *and* this sufficient cause has existed eternally. But when a sufficient cause exists, its effects must also exist (in this case the big bang). The only way to get around this problem is if the cause of the big bang is personal, so that it can freely decide to bring about a new effect – a change.

The idea of change or a new effect (i.e. a state of affairs different from the previous state of affairs) supposes time.

Here is where eyebrows may be raised. The idea of change or a new effect (i.e. a state of affairs different from the previous state of affairs) supposes time, where some properties exist at t1 and different properties exist at t2. So at some point in time a personal agent, unlike a mechanical agent, can bring about a change. This is a decent argument against the view that there was an eternal span of time prior to the big bang and then the big bang occurred as the result of natural mechanical forces.

The big bang, however, is the beginning of time. In spite of the occasional sensational-sounding suggestion to the contrary, this is the “orthodox” consensus of scientists. To summarize the view of cosmologist, Alexander Vilenkin, “before our universe there was nothing, nothing at all, not even time itself.” Referring to the creation of the universe in the big bang, Vilenken adds, “Time begins at the moment of creation, putting to rest the potentially endless questions about “what happened before that.”2

How then is the Islamic Principle of determination supposed to help us? The existence (rather than the non-existence) of the universe is the only state of affairs that has ever obtained (since when considering what has “ever” been, we are scouring the passage of time to see if and when things exist). There was never a change from one state of affairs that had been at t1 and a new state of affairs (namely the big bang and the beginning of the existence of the universe) at t2, so why do we need to appeal to personal agency to explain the change? Craig employs two other arguments for the personal nature of the cause of the big bang (one employing Swinburne’s differentiation of types of causes and one from a taxonomy of the types of immaterial, uncaused, timeless things that can exist and which could exhibit causal powers of the relevant sort).

So while the principle of determination has some role to play in discussions about the origin of the universe, and can certainly be employed against the notion that eternal space and laws of science gave rise to the big bang, I’m currently at a road block seeing how this principle helps us to establish that the cause of the big bang is personal. There may, of course, be other reasons for thinking so.

Readers are welcome to step forward and give Dr Craig’s argument a helping hand – or perhaps give me a helping hand in understanding it better!

Glenn Peoples

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  1. Craig, The Kalām Cosmological Argument (London: MacMillan, 1979), pp. 150-51. []
  2. “What Came Before the Big Bang?” Discover September 2013, online at On another note, Vilenken moves from the established to the contentious, also saying that the universe came into being uncaused from nothing, using what is in my view the ludicrous argument that gravitational energy is negative and the energy of matter is positive. Since they cancel each other out adding up to nothing, the same nothing that gave rise to the big bang still exists now! []
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