Friday, June 5, 2020

Great Cost of the Kalam?

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Stephen Woodford has a YouTube channel called Rationality Rules and he posted a video titled Great Cost of the Kalam claiming that the kalam cosmological argument is incompatible with libertarian free will (I’ll explain what both are shortly). A popular version of the kalam cosmological argument, popularized by American philosopher William Lane Craig, goes like this:
  1. Anything that begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
There are other ways to word the first premise (e.g. “Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning” and “Everything that begins to exist has a cause”). Libertarian freedom is the ability to choose without being determined by prior causes; e.g. when choosing between chocolate and vanilla ice cream. Determinism is roughly the view that all events are determined by prior conditions, such that given the initial conditions only one outcome is possible. For example, determinism would say that when Sally selected chocolate over vanilla ice cream, given the initial conditions there was only one selection she could make, even if the initial conditions were that both were available at the grocery store and she had sufficient currency for both.

What is a cause?

At around 2:30 to 2:38 Woodford says this.
A cause is a person or thing that gives rise to a phenomenon, action, or condition. It is a synonym of determinism.
No, it’s not. Something bringing about the existence of something else is not synonymous with deterministically causing its existence. To give a hypothetical example, suppose a ray gun has a 30% probability of creating chocolate ice cream, with the outcome being truly indeterministic (i.e. identical initial conditions can produce different outcomes). Now suppose I turn on the ray gun and chocolate ice cream appears courtesy of the ray gun. Since the ray gun did indeed bring about the existence of the ice cream (albeit indeterministically) the ray gun caused the ice cream to exist. But if it is correct to say that in this scenario the ray gun caused the ice cream to exist, then it is not the case that causality is synonymous with determinism.

To be fair though, there is one sense in which determinism and causality are related, and that has to do with the cause of an event (as in outcome 1 coming about versus outcome 2) as opposed to a cause of the existence of a thing. The difference is subtle but important. To illustrate, consider the case of two physically identical uranium-238 atoms A and B, where atom A emits an alpha particle and atom B does not. It may indeed be true that identical physical conditions can produce different outcomes, and while this would rule out the uranium atom deterministically bringing about the alpha particle, it doesn’t rule out indeterministic causation (viz. the uranium atom bringing about the alpha particle, after all it’s the uranium atom that emits it!). So let’s consider the theory that the uranium atom indeterministically causes the existence of the alpha particle. This theory would entail that the existence of the alpha particle (the existence of the thing) has a causal explanation, but this theory would also imply that there is no causal explanation for why uranium atom A emitted an alpha particle and physically identical uranium atom B did not, i.e. there wouldn’t be a causal explanation for the different outcomes between the two physically identical atoms (though there would be a “random chance” explanation for the difference), even though the existence of the alpha particle would have a causal explanation (viz. the uranium atom).[1] The “anything that begins to exist has a cause” claim says that every thing that begins to exist has a cause, but allows for the possibility of uncaused events (e.g. outcome 1 coming about versus outcome 2) in the sense described earlier.

As William Lane Craig (the American philosopher who popularized the kalam cosmological argument in the 20th century) said:
But in any case the reader needs to recall that the premise of the argument is very carefully formulated. It is: everything that begins to exist has a cause. That is deliberately formulated so as to allow for quantum indeterminacy with regard to events. This is quite consistent with admitting that there are events that occur without a cause. And so events that are, say, movements of a libertarian free will or decay of an atomic isotope or emission of a photon, we can happily admit, at least for the sake of argument, that those are uncaused events, and it wouldn't affect the truth of the premise, which concerns whether or not things can actually begin to exist without any causes.
To reiterate, kalam’s causal premise prohibits things (alpha particles, mountains, people, root beer, etc.) beginning to exist without a caused, but does not prohibit uncaused events in the sense described earlier.

Libertarian Freedom

At around 5:11 to 5:32 Woodford says:
According to libertarianism, that is according to the vast majority of theists, the will of a free agent is at least partially non-determined. Thus, by freely stating that whatever begins to exist has a cause, you have demonstrated the contrary. You have proven its falsehood. You are contradicting your statement though the very means in which you express it.
Woodford mistakenly believes that libertarian freedom implies that free acts are uncaused, but this doesn’t follow. While some variants of libertarianism require that our acts be uncaused to be free, this isn’t true for all versions of libertarianism. One libertarian view called agency theory posits agent-causation whereby an agent (person, self) causes events without being determined by prior causes. So, a free act is not uncaused; it is indeterministically caused by an agent. The existence of the agent and its ability to have free will in turn could have been caused by something else.


Woodford’s objection to the kalam cosmological argument for the libertarian proponent is that causality is synonymous with determinism, and the libertarian must hold to their free actions being uncaused, which would thus require the libertarian to not believe the kalam’s causal premise. Three main problems are: (1) causality is not synonymous with determinism; (2) indeterministic causation is still an option (e.g. a uranium atom indeterministically bringing about the existence of an alpha particle); (3) not all versions of libertarianism require an act be uncaused to be free (e.g. agency theory). It would seem therefore that this objection fails.

[1] At the same time, there is a sense in which there is a cause of the event for why A emitted the particle and B did not: the cause is time and chance acting on inherent properties of matter indeterministically bringing about the two different events (the inherent properties of uranium-238 determine the probability, which is why it has a measurable half-life, as opposed to there being no consistent probability among atoms of the same kind). To some degree it boils down to semantics of what a “cause” is.