The blog of Dr Glenn Andrew Peoples on Theology, Philosophy, and Social Issues

The principle of determination and the personal cause of the universe


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 it seems that the move of introducing a person into the argument can be a strange thing in the ears of some people. For that reason, 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 reached, 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.

When a sufficient cause exists, its effects must also exist.

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

  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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  1. Is there not some equivocation about time here? I am pretty sure that Craig has said that there is an absolute time, which isn’t the same thing that is discussed in physics. For instance, if the multiverse exists it is a reasonable question to ask about temporal succession or ask “how old is it?” Maybe I’m missing something.

    • Blake, I don’t think there’s a problem of that nature with the criticism I have offered. The model that I am talking about isn’t a multiverse model, and I’m taking as true the description quoted in this post, namely that there had never been anything prior to the universe. Even if we’re thinking about absolute time, the problem is the same. It’s not just the “time” associated with this universe that must have had a beginning, if Craig’s argument about the impossibility of an actual infinite works. Time – any sort of time that involves duration and which enables the possibility of sequential events – is what’s in view here. If your objection that I’m overlooking the idea of “absolute time” is to be a successful objection, you must mean that there was a duration of absolute time prior to the Big Bang. Is that what you mean to say?

  2. Jeremy

    “The idea of change or a new effect (i.e. a state of affairs different from the previous state of affairs) supposes time.”
    This is a fundamental problem with all our thinking about God and understanding anything about how He operates.
    If God is eternal, ie timeless (being the creator of time, and not subject to it) then everything He does or has done is apparently done in contradiction to this principle.

    • Jeremy, I’m not sure what you mean. When I talk about a “new effect,” I’m talking about an effect occurring in a time-bound context, changing a state of affairs from one thing into another.

      There isn’t a problem with the idea of a timeless God causing effects in a time-bound universe, unless we suppose that material causation is the only kind possible.

  3. Jeremy

    As long as you are only talking about effects within creation then ok no problems. As time limited and bound humans it can be difficult to explain God deciding to make the universe create men think through the implications of freedom the inevitable fall the need for salvation etc all these ideas have logical priorities even causes and effects yet all happen in eternity not in time. Back when we thought eternity was forever and forever rather than timeless these things were easier. Of course other problems occurred

  4. Glenn,

    Yeah, I meant an absolute time before the big bang. Something similar to Padgett’s view of Divine Duration. However, now that I think about it, I would be going from one problem to another. On Padgett’s view I think the issues Craig raises for an actual infinite number of moments before the present become insurmountable. So, I guess I will be thinking more about the issues you raise with the principle of determination.


  5. What sort of impersonal thing would start the universe? It seems we would have agents and abstract objects as candidates. Is there some other thing that would bring the universe into existence?

  6. Blake, Oh I think the other candidates are highly implausible, don’t get me wrong. I believe in a personal cause of the universe, after all. I think fine-tuning may push the evidence in that direction (other than much less direct evidence – e.g. arguing for theism and then arguing for the genuineness of the claims of the historical Jesus, and then projecting our findings back onto the origin of the Universe). That’s where Craig’s dilemma of chance / necessity / design suggests a personal cause of the universe, since design (in the ordinary teleological sense) is tied to personal agency.

  7. Gary

    This is a very complicated subject and I don’t pretend to understand all the philosophical arguments. So as in all areas of knowledge about which I am not an expert, I look to see if there is a consensus among the experts (cosmologists, physicists). Yes, there is an expert consensus on the Big Bang. The experts say that the universe DID have a finite beginning. I accept the consensus expert opinion regarding the Big Bang.

    But what caused the Big Bang? The experts are divided. There is no consensus. And if there is no expert consensus on an issue, my policy is to remain undecided until they reach one.

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