The Problem of Free Creation

Could God have created the universe?


I think that if we look closely at what this would mean, we run into a wall of logical problems that force us to answer no, God could not have created the universe. Consider the following argument.

  1. The word “choice” must imply a progression from a state of multiple possibilities to a state of a single actuality.
  2. The word “time” must imply a progression from one state to another.
  3. Since a choice is one such progression between states, time must exist in order for choice to be possible.
  4. Since there was no time before the creation of the universe, the creation of the universe could not have been a choice.
  5. Therefore God either didn’t create the universe or had no control over how it was created.

I call this the Problem of Free Creation.

Why does this matter?

For some context, see this Answers in Genesis article.

The power to create the universe is often given as a justification for God’s omnipotence, and reasonably so—the logic more or less is the following:

Having the power to create something implies having the power to control it.

God created the universe and its content.

Therefore, God has the power to control the universe and its content.

My argument exposes a problem in the second premise above. It can be stated in plain language in a variety of ways:

It is impossible to decide to create time, because a decision requires time to already exist.

It is impossible to decide to create the universe, because a decision can only be made inside of a universe. (Here I am using the word ‘universe’ to mean time & space)

The creation of the universe could not occur by the willful action of an agent.

What do we even mean when we say that God created the universe but had no control over how it was created? This seems to be even more pathological for the concept of God, since it implies that God’s power was used without his consent, that God’s power was manipulated for some higher purpose, or even that he might not have any power at all. This, of course, calls into question God’s standing as the arbiter of all things. Consider the following questions, which would otherwise be ridiculous, but are now legitimate questions:

If God did not govern the creation of the universe, what reason do we have to believe that he governs the universe at all?

If God was powerless before the creation of the universe, in what sense did he even exist before the universe?

When did God gain his free will? Obviously, he could not have been the one who decided to give it to him, so how did he get it? Does he even have free will today?

If God was at first powerless, can he be powerless again?

If God did not govern the creation of the universe, who/what did?

To quote the apologist William Lane Craig, “it is no secret that one of the most important conceptions of what theists mean by ‘God’ is Creator of heaven and earth“.

Craig’s best known philosophical work happens to come frustratingly close to realizing the argument I make above. Below is an outline of his Kalam Cosmological Argument:

  1. Whatever begins to exist must have a cause.
  2. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.
  3. The universe began to exist.
  4. Therefore an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.

Craig elaborates on why that which caused the universe’s existence must have the properties listed above in his book by the same name as the argument. He also elaborates on why the premise in (3) is justified, based on some absurd conclusions that result from the claim that the universe has always existed; Craig defends a position called temporal finitism (which I find compelling).

One can arrive at my argument by noticing just one subtlety here: these properties the Creator of the universe is alleged to have are mutually incompatible

How can something changeless be powerful? How can something timeless make the decision to create time? It cannot.

In the remainder of the post, I try to address some objections that I anticipate will be made. As always, I welcome your comments and questions below.

Objection: What do you mean when you say, “this word must imply _____”? Who are you to decide the definitions of words?

When I say that some word “must imply” something, I’m making the claim that any sensible definition of the word will have that implication. Of course, it is possible to craft a definition of time which does not imply a progression from one state to another, but it will no longer mean the same thing most people mean when they use the word. The point of using words to communicate ideas is that we have a common idea of the fundamental concept behind the word, even if our definitions have superficial differences. I’m claiming that if you attempt to define the words “choice” and “time” in a way that doesn’t have the implications stated above, you will simply be creating nonsense that departs from what the rest of us are talking about.

This is my claim, and just like any claim, it can be wrong. That’s why I’d like to challenge all readers to come up with sensible definitions for the words above for which my argument does not hold.

My intention with the premises above was to provide definitions which are general enough so that they do not grant my argument more validity than it deserves. I’m giving what I believe to be the most stripped-down definitions of the words, so that my argument will also hold for any more elaborate definitions.

Objection: The third point does not follow from the second.

I will offer a more thorough explanation of the logic here. Since a choice is a specific type of progression between states, and time is the progression between states in general, choice can be thought of as a special case of time, in the sense that choice is one particular way in which time can elapse. Since the specific can’t exist without the generic, choice can’t exist without time.

You can also think of it this way: choice is a specific type of progression from one state to another. Time is a broader concept, encompassing any progression from one state to another in general. Hence time must exist if choice exists.

This logical deduction is the same as the one in the example below:

A Corvette is one type of car.

A Corvette exists.

Therefore, cars exist.

Certainly, the existence of choice implies the existence of time, even though the existence of time doesn’t necessarily imply the existence of choice. I don’t expect much sustained objection to this point. As always, I’m willing to further clarify this if at all needed.

Objection: We can’t even fathom what it would be like for time not to exist. Hence we shouldn’t claim to know what is or isn’t possible in such a condition.

This is a much deeper philosophical objection, so I need to briefly introduce some terminology. In philosophy, we sometimes make a distinction between what is called a synthetic truth and what is called an analytical truth. Synthetic truths synthesize their validity empirically. That is, they are dependent on some correspondence with how the world is. In contrast, analytical truths derive their validity from the definitions of the words that make them up. Analytical truths do not rely on any observation of how the world is. They are logically necessary, and would be true no matter whatWhile synthetic truths can only be supported by evidence (in proportion to the strength of that evidence), analytical truths can be proven because they are logically necessitated by other analytical truths or axioms. Once an analytical truth is proven, there is no longer any uncertainty in the matter. Mathematics, fundamentally, is the discipline of discovering analytical truths. The pythagorean theorem must be true in all universes, and cannot be unproven, or proven false, because its proof is both logically consistent and independent of any empirical observation. We can trust that the pythagorean theorem will never be disproven because that would violate the law of non-contradiction, which states that two contradictory claims cannot both be true.

The law of non-contradiction is considered an axiom of philosophy. Axioms are considered epistemological bedrock, upon which entire analytical frameworks stand. Two features characterize axioms: that their proof is an insurmountable task, and that their proof is unnecessary. Axioms are self-evident. An attempt to prove the law of non-contradiction will inevitably fail, because the very act of proof depends on the law of non-contradiction in order to be meaningful. This sort of epistemological wall is run into when analyzing any system of knowledge, due to something known as the regress argument.

The argument which I presented above is entirely analytical. The conclusion follows from the logical implications of the definitions of certain words, which are themselves derived from the meaning that we agree the words represent—the semantic content of the words. To see this, observe that points (1) and (2) are simply claims about what certain words mean. Point (3) is a claim about how these meanings are related, which follows directly from (1) and (2). Point (4) invokes an assumption—that time did not exist before the creation of the universe; that the beginning of the universe coincides with the beginning of time. This point is not obviously analytical, but there are analytical arguments for making this assumption. For that, I encourage you to read William Lane Craig’s work on the philosophy of time. Point (4) then points out the implication of point (3) with respect to this assumption. Point (5) is just a statement of the implication of point (4) on the question of whether God created the universe. Nowhere in the argument is a reference to any observation, so the argument is entirely analytical; it deals only in concepts and the relations between them. Hence my argument should hold as long as these concepts are related in the way I claim. In this way the argument is analogous to a mathematical proof in which we might first state the meanings of “2” and “3”, then state that the meanings imply 2+1 = 3, and finally invoke an algebraic argument to conclude that 3-1 = 2. I am not claiming my argument is a mathematical proof, I just want to point out the similarities between mathematics and analytical philosophy.

Back to the original objection. Why can we reason about what it would be like for time not to exist, if this is a condition impossible to achieve? Since my argument is purely analytical, its validity doesn’t depend on any empirical facts, such as the fact that time does exist. This is similar to our ability to argue that a 4-dimensional cube of side length 2 would have a volume of 16, without ever having seen an example of a 4-dimensional cube. We can leverage the semantic content of the concept of a cube itself to reason about something outside the world empirically available to us.

As far as why these conceptual relations and deductions are justified, all I can say is that they result from the application of logical axioms, which are necessary in order to do philosophy of any kind (again, due to the so-called regress argument). If you dispute this, you either have found a novel response to the regress argument, or you are truly skeptical that any statement can be said with certainty. In the latter, it seems that your epistemological worldview prohibits you from making or evaluating truth claims of any kind, since you’ll need the logical axioms to do so. At that point I will concede that I am truly unable to convince you.

Objection: Maybe God is so great that we just can’t use the word “choice” to describe his actions. 

If the only solution to this problem is to fall back on the idea that God’s greatness is such that it is impossible to use certain words to describe him, then the entire project of theology can be thrown out the window. If, in the course of our theological research, we come to the conclusion that God could not have created the universe, only to later conclude that this apparent contradiction must have occurred because our words cannot describe an infinite being, then how can we hope to understand anything at all about God? The words “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” may not actually describe God’s actions either. Furthermore, if, when we stumble into an apparent contradiction, we simply retreat to the position that “some things may not make sense, but that could be because God is incomprehensible to us finite human beings”, then any position can be justified using the same retreat. I may claim, for example, that God has maliciously deceived Christians into believing moral claims that are actually false so that they are doomed to hell, and when someone says “that makes no sense”, I can reply “some things may not make sense, but that could be because God is incomprehensible to us finite human beings”. Clearly, if we allow this defense, all of theology (and much more) falls into question, since we would have no reason to prefer things which make sense over things which do not make sense. I think it’s obvious that we cannot allow ourselves to use this to cover up our unwillingness to change our minds.

Objection: So, how did the universe come to be, then? Did something come from nothing?

I’m not claiming to know how the universe began. But it seems to me that the argument presented above suggests that whatever did cause the universe to begin could not have been a willful agent.

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One thought on “The Problem of Free Creation

  1. Derry Tseng says:

    I’ll respond to each of your premises. As you know, in a deductive argument only one premise needs to be false for the conclusion to be false.

    The word “choice” must imply a progression from a state of multiple possibilities to a state of a single actuality.

    This premise is true. A choice involves a personal agent in a state of affairs in which there are multiple possibilities from which the agent can choose. Simultaneous with the first act or change of affairs and after the choice is made, the personal agent exists in a different state of affairs from the one made before the choice.

    When we apply this to God- He existed alone in a state of affairs that was a static state of aseity. Since He is omniscient, eternal without beginning, and omnipotent, He is fully aware of everything He has the power to accomplish. He is eternally aware of all of his options, and while he does not ever increase in knowledge, he possesses knowledge infallibly. God does not have to think things through like people do. He doesn’t sift through His options before coming to a conclusion. He has always fully known all of his possibilities as well as what He will do all at once. Nothing outside of Himself forces him to act or create.

    The word “time” must imply a progression from one state to another.

    This depends on what theory of time you are using. B-theorists (static/tenseless theory) of time would disagree because there are not genuine progressions. (therefore using the word “must” in that case would make this premise false) If you are discussing the A theory of time (dynamic or tensed time), this premise is correct as applied in the traditional sense.

    It’s a different story however, when we apply the premise to God (see the description of God under Premise 1). Using the A theory of time, and remembering God’s static state of aseity or mere existence as a divine Mind, His first act would be creating. This is the first moment of dynamic time and the second “moment” of all time. There was a choice made but not in the same manner that humans make choices. This is because God did not deliberate between options, having known from eternity past in His perfect knowledge what his options were and what He was going to do.

    (Incidentally, a similar scenario would be true on atheism where there is a static state of “nothing” then something happened, and a new state of affairs began to exist!)

    Since a choice is one such progression between states, time must exist in order for choice to be possible.

    This is true when applied to humans, but it is a premise that is false in regards to God. God, in the static state of aseity, knows the truth value to any and all propositions. He has known everything all at once from all eternity, including his options. He knows that he can create any number of specific and different logically possible worlds and in his omnipotence, He has the power to create these worlds or no worlds at all. Since He is omniscient, He knows all things about all of these possible potential worlds before creating any of them. This includes the counterfactual truths about how free creatures would freely choose if they existed in a particular world. In other words, He knows all things about each world that He has the option and ability to create. Since He did not have to deliberate (as a human being or other finite being would) or think His thoughts through in a series (because He is an omniscient being, fully knowing all things at once), He did not operate in a progression between states. Therefore dynamic time does not “necessarily” have to exist prior to God creating the universe, although dynamic time could have existed prior to the universe beginning to exist.

    Since there was no time before the creation of the universe, the creation of the universe could not have been a choice.

    This premise is now irrelevant based on the remarks from the last premise. If our universe is all that exists on naturalism/atheism, then it follows necessarily that the Big Bang was the beginning of dynamic time. The Big Bang also initiated the existence of all space, time, and matter. Anything that begins to exist requires dynamic time (at least in the sense of a “second moment of all time”).

    Now it is possible that dynamic time existed chronologically before the Big Bang if God created the angelic beings before creating the universe. Theoretically He also could have created other physical universes (perhaps the MultiVerse) before creating our space-time universe. These are two logically possible examples that also show this premise to be false and the possibility of dynamic time (one thing happening after another) existing even prior to the beginning of our space-time universe.

    Therefore God either didn’t create the universe or had no control over how it was created.

    Since Premises 3 and 4 are false (as applied to God), this conclusion is therefore false.

    *Incidentally, the concepts in the responses above are about to be published in a journal of metaphysics.

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