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Simultaneous causation and the beginning of time

Messier-82
Published: 14 April 2018 (GMT+10)

Blake C. from the United States writes:

I have a question about simultaneous causation. Do we need simultaneous causation? If God is outside of time, he can create time and have a motive to do so without time passing, correct? Atheists would then be right however that the concept of "before time" is meaningless if that's true. They still can't explain how matter got there and clearly an eternal, non-time-bound and non-material God must be the uncaused cause, but the concept of simultaneous causation seems like a philosophical fudge-factor to me. So is simultaneous causation a possibility and can Atheists have a universe without a cause?

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

Do we need simultaneous causation?

You ask: “Do we need simultaneous causation?” For time’s beginning, yes. There’s no other logical option. Clearly, causes cannot happen after their effects in time, even when the effect is time’s beginning. But could the cause of time’s beginning occur before time’s beginning in time? Of course not! Nothing can occur before time’s beginning in time; such an idea is self-contradictory. Thus, we have only one option left: the cause of time’s beginning occurred when time began. In other words, cause and effect (since the effect is time’s beginning) were simultaneous.

Note that I’m talking here of time’s beginning, not necessarily the universe’s beginning. We can conceive of the two being distinct without contradiction. For instance, say that God counted to three before He created the universe. In this scenario, the universe began after time began. If God counted in sequence before He created the universe, time would’ve existed before the universe began.

Moreover, the relevance of simultaneous causation isn’t affected by how long ago time began. Of course, the Bible teaches that it began around 6,000 years ago. But even if time began with the supposed ‘big bang’ 13.7 billion years ago, simultaneous causation remains the only way for time to begin as an effect. The biggest problem with using the big bang as evidence for God is that it contradicts the biblical time frame and event order (Did God use a big bang?), not that it presupposes a faulty understanding of causality and time’s beginning.

Is simultaneous causation possible?

But is simultaneous causation a coherent concept? Since effects cannot precede their causes in time, it could only be incoherent if effects must follow their causes in time. But why think this is true?

First, there’s no obvious incoherence in the term ‘simultaneous cause’. When we look at the term ‘married bachelor’, a basic understanding of both words quickly shows that it’s an impossible idea. Bachelors are unmarried men. Not so with ‘simultaneous cause’. A ‘cause’ is in some sense ‘responsible’ for an effect; there’s nothing about this that immediately tells us cause and effect can’t happen at the same time. Thus, the burden of proof lies with those who would say simultaneous causation is impossible.

Could it be that we only ever experience effects following causes in time? Even if that were true (which is debatable), it wouldn’t show that effects must always follow their causes in time. A prince of a tropical nation who only ever experiences liquid water can’t thereby argue that ice is impossible. Indeed, if time began and had a cause, it must be an exception to this, as shown above.

And consider the theological consequences of saying an effect must follow its cause in time. If so, then time must be uncaused. This is true whether time began or not (though a beginningless past runs into philosophical problems—Doubt your doubts!). Without a moment preceding time’s beginning in which a cause could operate, time must be uncaused if time began. Similarly, without a beginning, time cannot have a cause preceding it. Thus, time can’t be an effect if it has no beginning. And if time can’t be an effect, then it must be uncaused.

But if time must be uncaused, not even God can be time’s cause. Can this be avoided by positing time as a divine attribute? No, that’s a category mistake. Eternity is a divine attribute, which describes God’s relation to time. However, the Bible teaches that God is the sole source of all things, and it strongly implies that time began (see Process theism and Did God create time?). Indeed, any theism worthy of the name must insist that God is the sole source of all being. But if time is uncaused, God is not responsible for time, and so is not the sole source of all being. Such a ‘god’ is no God at all. Thus, without any obvious incoherence in the idea, or any solid evidence against it, the theist has no reason to abandon simultaneous causation, and plenty of reason to embrace it.

Nonetheless, we can give examples of simultaneous causation: e.g. a ball sitting on a cushion. This example goes back to Immanuel Kant. In this example, the depression in the cushion (the effect) lasts as long as the ball is sitting on the cushion (the cause). This would be true even if the ball had been sitting on the cushion forever, or if God had created them ex nihilo so that they began to exist simultaneously. As such, at any given time cause and effect are both occurring; i.e. they are occurring simultaneously. Thus, far from being “a philosophical fudge factor”, simultaneous causation is both coherent and even something we regularly experience.

Is time’s beginning an uncaused cause?

Of course, if time began, then the atheist’s only way out is to say that time began uncaused. But if time began uncaused, it would be an inexplicable brute fact. And why think time’s beginning is inexplicable? Nothing comes from nothing. If it did, then anything could come from nothing, not just time or universes. Balls, angels, ducks, unicorns, and Sherlock Holmes could all just pop into being without cause. Even worse, saying that causes are not always needed ruins the potential for any explanatory discipline, including science. After all, how could we justify trying to explain anything if anything could pop into being inexplicably? Thus, something had to be responsible for time’s beginning (see In the beginning God created—or was it a quantum fluctuation?). God is the sole source of all being, exists necessarily, and is the greatest conceivable being. Therefore, God is the best candidate cause for time’s beginning. And since simultaneous causation is a coherent idea, there’s no causal problem with God doing so.

God and ‘before time’

Now, you ask: “If God is outside of time, he can create time and have a motive to do so without time passing, correct? Atheists would then be right however that the concept of ‘before time’ is meaningless if that's true.”

First, if God is outside time, can He be in time? If He can’t, can He create time? How you answer these questions will determine whether God can have a timeless intention to create time. However, your answer will depend crucially on how you view God’s relation to time. This is a difficult subject on which Bible-believing Christians disagree. On these questions, please see How does God relate to time?

Still, is it true that “the concept of ‘before time’ is meaningless”? It depends on what we mean by “before time”. Obviously, if we mean by it ‘temporally before time’, yes, that’s a meaningless self-contradiction. I said that above, and theists have said so (e.g. Augustine and Leibniz) as much as atheists. But we don’t have to read it that way, since ‘before’ can have connotations other than temporal priority. For instance, it can be stipulated to mean something like ‘logically prior’ or ‘explanatorily prior’ without temporal connotations. And God is certainly ‘ontologically prior’ to time in that He is ultimately responsible for it existing.

Conclusion

God is responsible for time’s beginning. But that means at least one effect occurred when its cause occurred. It could be no other way for time’s beginning. And there’s no logical problem with saying so. We thus can’t say that effects must follow their causes in time. As such, we can use causality and time’s beginning as arguments for God. God is the only plausible candidate for causing time to begin (If God created the universe, then who created God?).

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