A Weaker Version of the Principle of Material Causality Yields the Same Conclusion

Recent versions of the cosmological argument deploy weaker causal and explanatory principles to make them more plausible: Perhaps the evidence isn't strong enough to support the claim that, necessarily (or at least, actually), every object or state of affairs (or some proper subclass thereof) has a sufficient reason or efficient cause of their existence or obtaining. And perhaps such principles beg the question against the atheist by assuming the causal or explanatory structure of a theistic universe. But surely (so the thought goes) the atheist's intuitive evidence supports the weaker claim that everything can have an efficient cause or sufficient reason. Such arguments go on from there to argue that a theistic conclusion can be gotten from such weaker principles.

In the same spirit, I think the principle of material causality can be weakened so as to be adequately supported by even the theist's intuitive evidence:
Weak PMC: Possibly, every concrete object (and aggregate of such) that has an originating or sustaining efficient cause has an originating or sustaining material cause, respectively. 
In simple terms, Weak PMC says that it is possible that all made things are made from or out of other  things. A bit more carefully, it says that there is at least one possible world in which all concrete individuals and stuffs that are made are made from or out of other concrete individuals or stuffs.

Now my own view is that a much stronger version of PMC is true -- viz., that it holds of metaphysical necessity. However, I'd be willing to bet that most people believe that PMC is non-vacuously true in at least the actual world, and for good reason: it's intuitive, it has no uncontroversial exceptions, and it's encoded in the well-confirmed conservation laws of physics. A fortiori, then, I think that even the theist has enough intuitive evidence to warrant the claim that there is at least one possible world W in which such a principle is non-vacuously true. But if so, then in W, there are concrete objects that are made, and all concrete objects that are made are made out of other things or stuff. And if so, then no concrete objects in W that are made are made ex nihilo, in which case no god or gods made them ex nihilo in W. But on classical Anselmian theism, for any world that contains concrete objects or stuffs distinct from God, at least some of those objects or stuffs were made ex nihilo.  It follows that the god of classical Anselmian theism doesn't exist in W. But if so, then by (i) the fact that classical Anselmian theism entails that God is a metaphysically necessary being, and (ii) Axiom S5 of S5 modal logic, it follows that such a God doesn't exist in the actual world, either.

Therefore, one can generate a successful argument from material causality against theism with even  a very weak version of PMC. How powerful of an argument is it?

Very powerful, I'd say. To see this, consider the following line of reasoning. Leaving aside formal and final causes, there appear to be four possible scenarios for causal principles that govern a universe:

(i) Both an efficient cause principle and a material cause principle
(ii) An efficient cause principle without a material cause principle
(iii) A material cause principle without an efficient cause principle
(iv) Neither an efficient cause principle nor a material cause principle

Here's the rub: our grounds for a material cause principle are at least as strong as our grounds for an efficient cause principle (I would say they're stronger for a material cause, as there appear to be counterexamples to the efficient cause principle in cases of certain quantum phenomena). But if so, then starting from the neutral standpoint of agnosticism, there is a default presumption in favor of (i) as one's epistemic starting point. Rejecting it in favor of one of the other three options therefore requires adequate grounds for doing so. But it's unproblematic for the atheist to start at (i).  By contrast, the theist has their work cut out for them: They must find grounds to reject (i) in favor of (ii).  But prima facie, it looks like no such grounds can be forthcoming.  For prima facie, any argument for theism will run afoul of Weak PMC, as Weak PMC blocks cosmological, ontological, and design arguments, and arguments from substance dualism as arguments for theism (as opposed to arguments for, at best, pantheism, panentheism, and demiurgism). It therefore looks as though the argument from material causality holds out the promise (or peril) of constituting an intrinsic defeater-defeater against classical Anselmian theism.

By contrast, it's not obvious to me that the same can be said of the standard arguments for atheism. For such arguments seem to be resistible if the theist can provide other grounds for theism, such as those mentioned above. But the problem is that, unlike the argument from material causality, the arguments from evil and hiddenness can't hamstring those arguments. It therefore seems to me that the argument from material causality holds out the prospect of being the most powerful argument against theism.

The argument from material causality also has other epistemic functions that are slightly weaker, yet still important. First, it can show that the theist incurs a theoretical cost by rejecting Weak PMC, as it seems to be supported by just about anyone's intuitive evidence (at least prior to reflecting on its implications and revising one's web of beliefs). Second, it can function as an undercutting defeater for the newer versions of cosmological arguments mentioned at the beginning of our discussion. 

In at least these ways, then, it seems to me that the argument from material causality is very powerful indeed.

Notes on Morriston's "Creation Ex Nihilo and the Big Bang"

Notes on Morriston’s “Creation Ex Nihilo and the Big Bang”, Philo 5:1 (2002), pp. 23-33.

0. Introduction (fill in later)

1. Craig’s First Argument: Infinite Density = Nothing
1.1 According to the Big Bang theory, the universe began with a great explosion from an infinitely dense point-particle.
1.2 There can be no object having infinite density.
1.3 So, “infinite density” is synonymous with “nothing”.
1.4 Therefore, the Big Bang theory requires that the universe had a beginning and was created out of nothing.

2. Criticisms of Craig’s First Argument
2.1 First, an infinitely dense point-universe is not nothing
2.1.1 the initial singularity is not nothing Nothingness can’t begin expanding, since there is nothing there to expand. By contrast, the “point-universe” began expanding. Even if the point-universe lacks spatial and temporal spread, it yet has other properties, e.g., being a point, being infinitely dense, being capable of expanding, etc.
2.2 Second, 'infinitely dense entity' is not synonymous with 'nothing'
2.2.1 Compare: (a) There can be no round squares; therefore, (b) 'round square'; is synonymous with 'nothing'. 
2.2.2 In general, from the fact that there can be no entity E, it doesn’t follow that ‘E’ is synonymous with ‘nothing’.
2.2.3 Therefore, even if there can be no infinitely dense point-universe, it doesn’t follow that ‘infinitely dense point-universe' is synonymous with ‘nothing’
2.3 Third, if nothing can be infinitely dense, then the universe was never infinitely dense
2.3.1 But if so, then premise 1 is false as stated
2.3.3 Craig’s argument is therefore subject to a dilemma: Either we change Craig’s description of what the Big Bang theory says, so that it doesn’t involve a state of infinite density, or we don’t if we do, then the argument loses its basis for inferring that the universe was created out of nothing If we don’t, then the criticism above (viz., that if (2) is true, then (1) is false) goes through either way, the argument is unsound
2.4 Fourth, few Big Bang cosmologists today think the universe was ever infinitely dense and point-sized
2.4.1 It’s true that, on the standard Big Bang model, the geometry of the universe’s expansion, when traced backward in time, continually decreases toward a limit of a diameter of zero
2.4.2 However, the limit diameter zero is thought of as an ideal, and not an actual, limit
2.4.3 Furthermore, we have no theory that allows us to infer the universe’s behavior  as we approach this limit Relativity theory breaks down prior to Planck time (i.e., 10-43seconds), and quantum effects become dominant prior to that point we need a quantum theory of gravity (which we don’t yet have) to accurately infer what happened prior to Planck time Until then, any claim about the earliest stage of our universe’s history is “sheer speculation”

3. Craig’s Second Argument: No Time Prior to the Singularity Entails Creation Ex Nihilo
3.1 The initial singularity exists at the earliest point of space-time.
3.2 There is no time prior to the earliest point of space-time.
3.3 Therefore, there was nothing temporally prior to the initial singularity.
3.4 So, the initial singularity must have come into existence out of nothing.
3.5 If, therefore, the initial singularity was created, it must have been created out of nothing

4. Criticisms of Craig’s Second Argument
4.1 First, the Big Bang theory doesn’t entail that there was no time “prior” the singularity
4.1.1 Craig himself has argued that it’s possible that there is a more fundamental “metaphysical time” that can exist independently of the physical time of our universe.
4.1.2 Craig’s thought experiment: Suppose God led up to creation by counting “1, 2, 3, … fiat lux!” 
4.1.3 In this scenario, time is elapsing, and yet no physical objects exist.  Its moments are individuated by the succession of contents in God’s mind.
4.1.4 Craig thinks this thought experiment shows that a time “prior” to physical time is metaphysically possible.
4.1.5 In fact, given Craig’s theism, he thinks this metaphysical time is actual
4.1.6 According to Craig, metaphysical time is absolute, tensed, and dynamic
4.1.7 But if so, then Craig’s view of metaphysical time entails the metaphysical possibility of time prior to the Big Bang singularity
4.1.8 The epistemic possibility of metaphysical time prior to the singularity is thus an undercutting defeater for premise 2
4.2 Second, there being nothing temporally prior to the singularity doesn’t entail there being nothing ontologically prior to the singularity
4.2.1 What follows from (3) is not (4), but rather the weaker claim that the universe didn’t come from something that existed  at an earlier time.  It's therefore compatible with the possibility of the universe created from timeless stuff
4.2.2 To close the logical gap between (3) and (4), then, we need another premise, viz.,
(3 ½) If there was nothing temporally prior to the initial singularity, then it must have come into existence out of nothing.
4.2.2 But it’s not clear that (3 ½) is true Craig is already committed to saying that, ontologically prior to the singularity, God exists timelessly It’s therefore not clear what principled grounds he could have to rule out the epistemic possibility that, ontologically prior to the singularity, other things besides God exist timelessly (e.g., a timeless stuff from which the universe was made) And if that’s right, it’s not clear how Craig can rule out the epistemic possibility that God created the universe out of a timeless stuff Therefore, even if there was no time prior to the singularity, it doesn’t follow that God created the universe out of nothing
4.2.3 Anticipated reply: Craig thinks he can rule out the epistemic possibility of timeless stuff because he thinks: (a) the only possible stuff from which God could make the universe is matter/energy; (b) timeless stuff is quiescent; and (c) matter/energy is never quiescent.
4.2.4 Rejoinder: it’s not clear that (a) is true: it’s epistemically possible that God created the universe out of some timeless stuff that’s distinct from matter/energy
4.2.5 Third, the grounds for a requirement of a timeless efficient cause of the universe is on an epistemic par with the grounds for a requirement of a timeless material cause The evidence for both causal principles is the same Both are intuitive Both enjoy strong empirical confirmation [N.B., actually, the case for material causes is stronger, given apparent counterexamples to the need for efficient causes in quantum mechanical phenomena. --EA] The theoretical costs of both is the same We’ve never observed timeless stuff, but we’ve never observed a timeless person, either. It’s odd to think that the material cause of the universe was timeless sans creation, and then entered time with its creation, but then Craig thinks the same is true of the efficient cause of the universe: God is timeless sans creation, but entered time at the moment of creation Given epistemic parity, we have a dilemma: Either our commonsense intuitions about ordinary cases of causation can reasonably applied to the beginning of the universe or they can’t. If they can, then creation of the universe out of timeless stuff is more plausible than creation ex nihilo. If they can’t, then we can’t draw any conclusion whatever about the existence and nature of the cause of the universe. Either way, Craig’s argument fails

Important New Book

Here. Not quite on point for a philosophy of religion blog, but important nonetheless, and no doubt of interest to some readers of this blog. A nice review of the book can be found here.