How do proponents of the Cosmological argument respond to the nature of time?

Is asking what occurred before the Big Bang like asking what is north of the North Pole?


It is argued that a challenge to the cosmological argument is the nature of time, "One finds that time just disappears from the Wheeler–DeWitt equation". The Big Bang theory states that it is the point in which all dimensions came into existence, the start of both space and time. Then, the question "What was there before the Universe?" makes no sense; the concept of "before" becomes meaningless when considering a situation without time. This has been put forward by J. Richard Gott III, James E. Gunn, David N. Schramm, and Beatrice M. Tinsley, who said that asking what occurred before the Big Bang is like asking what is north of the North Pole. However, some cosmologists and physicists do attempt to investigate what could have occurred before the Big Bang, using such scenarios as the collision of membranes to give a cause for the Big Bang.


4 Answers 4


I don't think this is the best approach to tackling the cosmological argument. The Kalām version of the argument seems immune to the counter-argument by design. It's less concerned with "What was there before the Universe?" and more concerned with:

(2) The universe has a beginning of its existence.

A better objection1 is that the first premise is far from certain:

(1) Everything that has a beginning of its existence has a cause of its existence.

If you reject (1), you don't need another case against the argument.

(All terms of the argument are quoted from Wikipedia.)

To loop back to your question, a proponent of the cosmological argument would be unperturbed by the objection that time began to exist along with everything else since that's one of their premises: (2). And in fact, scientists speak as often as anyone else about what happened before the Big Bang, so it seems like a specious counterargument. At this point, arguments against (1) seem more likely to succeed.


  1. Alvin Plantinga makes essentially this case in God, Freedom, and Evil, if I understand correctly.
  • Right. But of course, if you reject 1, then the cosmological argument falls as well. You don't need a first cause. The universe may very well just pop into existence. Jun 24, 2011 at 13:41
  • 2
    @Lennart: I think we are in violent agreement. ;-) I think I said the same thing: "If you reject (1), you don't need another case against the argument." I'll edit to make that line stand out a bit more. Jun 24, 2011 at 17:06
  • 1
    It can be argued, that the most reasonable inductive inference from evidence is that (1) is true, something we accept in all common and scientific settings.
    – danielm
    Jan 19, 2013 at 0:41
  • 1
    Lennart it takes more faith to believe in things coming into existence uncaused than it takes to believe in a Deity as a cause. Proving once and for all I do not have enough faith to be a atheist.
    – Neil Meyer
    Apr 25, 2013 at 7:29
  • Dear Neil Meyer, Things either exist of their own necessity of by contingent brute fact or they exist by necessity by a being or by this beings own contingent choice but this second option just complicates things. Why go a further step backwards? Also things are either caused or uncaused and I fail to see why things could not exist uncaused. Dec 5, 2019 at 16:31

I don't see why you think there is any reason to respond. In metaphysics, when one says something is prior to something else, we mean prior in the causal order. The question isn't "what came before the universe in time?", only what caused the universe. Causality is not the same as succession in time. The North Pole analogy as a strategy to render meaningless causal questions by invoking temporal notions of cause is nothing short of a profound misunderstanding of causality.

  • Explain how "order" works without time.
    – philosodad
    Jan 2 at 19:13

Is asking what occurred before the Big Bang like asking what is north of the North Pole?

Only if you assume naturalism. If the idea of super-naturalism is considered then the question has merit. The people who make these claims do so with a naturalistic presupposition that they are more then likely unaware of. If we see the world through our naturalistic lenses then maybe they do not seem reasonable but their people who hold to different positions. Ones who hold to a finite universe. People who are open to ideas of God and to them trying to discern the qualities of this first cause is important.

Then, the question "What was there before the Universe?" makes no sense;

It makes sense to me seeing as we are trying to discern a transcendent cause for the universe. One that may very well not be bound by the limits of space and time. One that is eternal where the universe is not.

Before the discovery of the background radiation the universe was thought to be eternal (Or static). Why was it not unreasonable to think the universe eternal then yet now when religion posit a eternal cause for a non eternal universe I have to read "witty" quotes on why asking question about eternal causes is illogical.

However, some cosmologists and physicists do attempt to investigate what could have occurred before the Big Bang, using such scenarios as the collision of membranes to give a cause for the Big Bang.

If this is true then they and Thomas Aquinas did and are doing the same thing.

  • 4
    I'm afraid your premises don't follow. Supposing there were a "cause" prior to the Big Bang, there's no need for that cause to be eternal, immaterial, knowledgeable, or powerful. Furthermore, the philosophical concept of causality is much more complex (and fraught with difficulty) than you let on; a simple reading of Hume will suffice to get you started. Nov 28, 2011 at 12:09
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    This answer is insufficiently well reasoned to be useful. Also, answers should address the question, not comments of other answers.
    – Rex Kerr
    Nov 28, 2011 at 14:33
  • I asked a related question about whether there are any arguments against the idea that all events are caused. You might be interested in reading the answers there. I also asked elsewhere if the Bible itself proposes the teleological argument, which is a subset of the cosmological argument. Personally, I agree with you, but it's surprisingly difficult to make an airtight, philosophical case. Nov 28, 2011 at 22:16
  • Would you like us to merge your registered/unregistered accounts together? (Assuming this is you: philosophy.stackexchange.com/users/1660/neil-meyer)
    – Joseph Weissman
    Mar 15, 2013 at 17:06
  • Yes please. Merge away
    – Neil Meyer
    Apr 2, 2013 at 9:13

TL/DR Yes. This is an absolute killer for the cosmological argument, which is an incoherent argument.

The incoherence of the argument is that it conflates two different definitions of "begin to exist". One refers to a change in how matter is organized over a period of time (the everyday definition) and the other refers to matter and time coming into existence at all.

The Beginning of the Universe is a Singular Thing

The cosmological argument states: The universe had a beginning to its existence, everything that has a beginning to its existence has a cause, the universe has a cause. There are a lot of definitional problems here.

The universe is everything, and we have one example of it, and we postulate that it has existed for somewhere around 14 billion years. If by "begin to exist" we are referring to the beginning of existence itself, we have only one example of this and the cosmological argument is just an assertion about that example, and not a syllogism at all.

In order for it to be a syllogism, we have to have a definition of "has a beginning" that applies to the universe and to some other example.

This is where we have a problem.

What's a thing?

What do we mean when we say that a galaxy or a supercluster or a uranium atom or a bicycle is a "thing".

What all of those things have in common is that they are all relatively discrete bunches of stuff. "Stuff" in this context, means matter, energy, dark matter, dark energy, basic forces... the "stuff" of our universe. "Discrete" means that we can separate that bunch of stuff from another bunch of stuff by some criteria. We can call this criteria a "pattern", and say that a "thing" is a relatively discrete bunch of stuff in a pattern.

How does a thing begin?

When we say that a galaxy cluster or a bicycle or indeed any RDBS has a "beginning", what we are describing is a point in time that occurs during a transformation. So there is a big cloud of stuff in space, which is one pattern, and then over time that cloud of stuff collapses into a star, and that's a new pattern. We pick some point or some range of time during that transformation and say that the star "began" at that point.

So a "beginning" is a transformation of stuff from one pattern into another pattern. To "begin", for a star or a bicycle or a baby, requires stuff, time, and a change of pattern.

What's a Cause?

So we have stuff, and we can identify relatively discrete bunches of it, and we can see how those relatively discrete bunches of stuff can transform over time, sometimes combining, sometimes separating, sometimes merely changing from one identifiable pattern to another. This is the process that we are describing by saying that "things begin to exist".

When we observe relatively discrete bunches of stuff in patterns, we can often predict what new patterns will result from the interaction of some previous patterns. This predictability allows us to say that one thing "causes" another thing to happen. A interaction of things is a cause of a pattern if the observed pattern is a predictable result of a specific interaction.

Everything Already Exists

So we have a fairly good idea of what we mean by a thing (its some relatively discrete pattern of stuff) and beginning and cause. Notice that all of this describes a continuous process. Stuff interacts constantly, everywhere, and is always changing from one pattern to another. What it isn't doing is coming into existence and staying in existence. We don't get new bunches of stuff above the quantum scale.

And we need a prior state to say that something has a "cause", so we not only need there to be stuff, we need there to be time for the stuff to interact in prior to the beginning.

"Beginning to exist" is always a description of existing stuff being transformed. Causes always involve stuff and time. That is what these words mean. And it is what these words must mean if they are going to be used to refer to events like a statue being created by a sculptor.

The only justification that we have to assume cause and effect relationships is to use those definitions.

So did the universe begin to exist?

When we refer to the "beginning" of the universe, what we are talking about is a point which has no before. As far as we know, the universe had no preceding state before time and space existed. If it did, it's in a way that we don't currently understand and may not be capable, as a species, of understanding, any more than an amoeba can understand chess. What we know for certain is that the beginning of the universe was not the predictable result of some patterns of universe-stuff interacting, because "prior" to the zero moment, there's no stuff and no time for the stuff to interact in.

Change within the universe and the beginning of the universe are very different things. When we say that the universe "has a beginning" and something inside the universe "has a beginning" we aren't talking about the same type of event. The argument itself is incoherent because the definitions of what words mean change in the middle of the argument.

In truth, we have no justification to declare with any certainty that the universe either is an effect or has a cause. Cosmology is in part the science of figuring out whether the universe has a cause or is an effect, and the current answer is "we don't know".

A set is not a member of itself

Some specific things that have come up in comments on this and other answers. Jon Ericson, in a comment on his top ranked answer, says in a comment:

Picture the set of positive whole numbers. It has a definite start and no particular end. The number 1 is interesting because nothing comes before, but it has all the properties of all other positive whole numbers. It might have additional properties but surely not fewer. If every beginning has a cause, why is the universe different?

This, I think, illustrates exactly the problem. If we were to draw an analogy from some set to the universe, the Universe is the set of all things (in this case, the set of whole numbers). So the universe, or the beginning of the universe, isn't "1". 1 is something that exists inside the set.

Continuing the metaphor, we know that every number in the set (except 1) has a cause. What we mean by "cause" in this case is that we follow a production rule of adding one to a number, and we get a new number. So given the set containing 1 ({1}), we can see how the rules of cause and effect (add a number to a number, get a new number) produces all of the numbers in the set.

{1} is a set containing 1 and a production rule. If we existed inside the set, our entire concept of what a cause would be would be that production rule, because that's the only thing there is.

But you can't use a production rule to create {1}. By the definition used inside the set for the word "cause", {1} can't have a cause.

We're in a similar boat inside the universe. All of our concepts of cause and effect, of how basic logic works, of how thing happen... they are all production rules inside the system. We can't use the word "cause" the same way, or with the same implications, beyond the boundaries of our universe. The Kalam is simply incoherent.

  • Are expressions in mathematics beyond an expression with natural language?
    – 8Mad0Manc8
    Jan 2 at 22:23
  • Isn’t it giving the game away special-case the universe itself from ordinary laws of cause and effect? I’m not sure why math would be privileged to answer the question in any case. Jan 2 at 22:47
  • @JonEricson No, it isn't, and I explain pretty well why in my answer. As to why math, because math is the language in which research into this question is done.
    – philosodad
    Jan 3 at 2:25
  • @8Mad0Manc8 To express 2+2=4 without math I have to explain what "2" means, what "+" means, what "4" means, and what "=" means, at which point I'm just re-creating addition. So... yes, sort of?
    – philosodad
    Jan 3 at 2:41
  • Some people use math to research this question. That's because it has been helpful for discovering the ordinary laws of nature that include causes and their consequent effects. If the beginning of the Universe is unrelated to ordinary beginnings, why would we believe the ordinary tools are useful for researching the origin of the Universe? Jan 4 at 3:41

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