(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 3: “Why does anything at all exist?”)
We’ve made it to chapter 3 (finally), and things are going to get just a bit meatier. Dr. Craig starts us off with Leibniz.
G. W. Leibniz, codiscoverer of calculus and a towering intellect of eighteenth-century Europe, wrote: “The first question which should rightly be asked is: Why is there something rather than nothing?“
In other words, why does anything exist at all? This, for Leibniz, is the most basic question that anyone can ask. Like me, Leibniz came to the conclusion that the answer is to be found, not in the universe of created things, but in God. God exists necessarily and is the explanation why anything else exists.
Dr. Craig breaks Leibniz’ argument down into a simple, easily-understood syllogism.
- Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
- If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
- The universe exists.
- [Therefore:] The universe has an explanation of its existence.
- Therefore, the explanation of the universe is God.
Dr. Craig assures us that “this is a logically airtight argument,” but I daresay he’s being overly optimistic. There is an obvious fallacy in point 2 (which he is going to try and address later in the chapter). Before we get to that, though, we need to look at the somewhat less obvious fallacy in point 1.
If you’ve heard or read any of Dr. Craig’s arguments before, you may have expected him to say “Anything that begins to exist has an explanation.” That would have simplified things for us a bit, since the easy rebuttal is to point out that the material universe (space, time, matter, and energy) goes all the way back to the Big Bang. Since there is no such thing as “before the beginning of time,” and since the material universe has existed for as long as time has, the material universe did not begin to exist. Or to put it another way, there has never been a time when the universe did not exist, therefore it cannot have a cause, divine or otherwise.
That’s assuming, of course, that the Big Bang is indeed the beginning of the material universe, which might not be the case. Even if the Big Bang should turn out to have a material cause, though, the general principle will still hold true: time is a property of material reality, and the law of cause and effect is bound to time (since the cause must occur before the effect in order to be an actual cause), and therefore there will never be a time when material reality, in some form, does not exist. Ultimately, material reality must be an uncaused cause, which has no beginning, no cause, and no “explanation.”
I’ve put “explanation” in quotes here because we need to look more closely at how Dr. Craig is using the term. If we are seeking to understand real-world truth, as opposed to seeking a rationalization for our preferred beliefs, then we must understand what a genuine explanation is, what superstition is, and how to distinguish between the two.
An explanation describes a cause-and-effect relationship in a useful way. That is, it describes a known set of initial conditions in which the effect is not already present*, and a verifiable process by which the initial “cause” conditions can be transformed into the eventual “effect” conditions. This is useful because it provides us with the means to predict what future “effect” conditions we will see whenever we see the “cause” conditions occurring.
In order to be a genuine explanation, though, the process it describes must be verifiable. That is, it must provide us with enough specific details to allow us to determine what specific consequences will result if this process occurs in real life. Let’s take daylight as an example. The explanation for daylight is that light energy is continuously radiating from a nearby star, and as the photons travel away from the sun, some of them strike the earth and are refracted and/or reflected by the atmosphere, the clouds, and other things on earth. This is a process that we can verify, because we can work out what consequences would result from photons streaming away from the sun and colliding with the earth. For example, we know that light moves in a straight line, so we know that daylight should only appear on the side of the earth that’s currently facing the sun. The other side should be dark. When we observe the real world, we see that the actual effects are consistent with the consequences “predicted” by the explanation, and therefore we know that the explanation is correct.
A genuine explanation, thus, contains a description that gives us enough detail to work out what consequences ought to result if it is true. More importantly, it also gives us enough detail to work out what consequences should not result if it is false. This is frequently expressed by the term falsifiability. An “explanation” that explains everything explains nothing, because a genuine explanation must be a useful description of what consequences we should expect given a particular cause. If literally anything could result, the “explanation” is useless.
Thus, there’s much more to “explanation” than simply attributing something to an arbitrary cause. Merely attributing something to a cause, without documenting any verifiable connection between the cause and the effect, is what we call “superstition.” You see that people have shoes, you don’t know where shoes come from, so you attribute them to the work of a magical elf living in Europe somewhere. You can’t provide any verifiable connection between the shoes and the elf, you just arbitrarily give the elf credit for making the shoes, and then claim shoes as evidence for the existence of the elf. That’s superstition.
Likewise with people who can’t provide any verifiable connection between their “lucky” shoes and their golf score, or between Friday the 13th and their flat tire, or their astrological sign and the friend who left them an unexpected treat. The defining characteristic of superstition is that it is useless: it offers us no reliable means of predicting future effects from given causes, because it can’t even describe what the cause-to-effect process ought to be, or what consequences should result, let alone giving us any reliable means of verifying whether the process even works. It is purely and simply an attribution—arbitrarily giving credit to something that has no verifiable connection to the thing being explained.
If we understand the difference between superstition and genuine explanation, therefore, we can see that Premise #1 has some problems. It’s clear that genuine explanations exist for only some of the things that exist. Explanations describe cause-and-effect processes, for things that exist in time, for things that are the result of a change in some initial set of conditions. That’s only a subset of all the things that exist.
The earth exists, and has an explanation for its existence, because at some point in the past there was an initial set of conditions in which the earth did not exist. The same cannot be said for, say, the number 2, because there was no point in the past where there was ever an initial set of conditions in which the number 2 did not exist. Likewise for time: there was never a time when time did not exist. Or the law of cause and effect: what law of cause and effect could govern the causation of a law of cause and effect, if no law of cause and effect existed?
Even Christians have this dilemma, because of course the atheist will immediately ask, “What is the explanation for God’s existence?” If the believer replies that there is no explanation for God’s existence, then the skeptic will simply ask why the universe needs an explanation if God does not. Stalemate, eh?
Not so fast! This obvious objection to premise 1 is based on a misunderstanding of what Leibniz meant by an “explanation.” In Leibniz’s view there are two kinds of things: (a) things that exist necessarily and (b) things that are produced by some external cause. Let me explain:
(a) Things that exist necessarily exist by a necessity of their own nature. It’s impossible for them not to exist. Many mathematicians think that numbers, sets, and other mathematical entities exist in this way. They’re not caused to exist by something else, they just exist by necessity of their own nature.
(b) By contrast, things that are caused to exist by something else don’t exist necessarily. They exist because something else has produced them…
The explanation of God’s existence lies in the necessity of His own nature. As even the atheist recognizes, it’s impossible for God to have a cause.
Got to love the hand-waving doubletalk in that sentence, “Things that exist necessarily exist by a necessity of their own nature.” It’s the erudite and scholarly way of saying, “Why does it exist? JUST BECAUSE!!!1!” It’s a useless and non-explanatory “explanation”—it conveys absolutely nothing more than the simple observation that the thing exists. If we strip away the doubletalk and hand-waving, Leibniz’s first premise boils down to “Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, unless it doesn’t.” Philosophers can be so deep sometimes.
Notice, too, that the nature of the thing cannot explain the existence of the thing. If God does not exist, then He does not possess a nature that could explain anything. If He does exist, then His nature is determined by the characteristics of His existence. If He exists as a three-headed quagmire beast on Procyon V, then that existence defines His nature as a three-headed quagmire beast on Procyon V. The nature depends on the existence, and is thus the result of it, not the explanation for it.
In making this rebuttal, Dr. Craig inadvertently bears witness to the fact that there exists an uncreated reality that is greater than God is. Notice how he tries to make a case for God’s “uncreatedness” by comparing God to numbers, which do exist without cause or creation. Numbers are a property of material reality, something that exists apart from God and without any need for God. Dr. Craig uses that as the basis for arguing that God Himself needs no creator, but the fact that he can make that analogy shows that material reality does not need one either!
Time and space and energy and matter and numbers and so on are all uncaused and uncausable aspects of material reality. They have no genuine explanation, nor do they require any. Dr. Craig is merely being superstitious when he arbitrarily decides to give God the credit for creating them. And that’s what he wants us to do too. Not consciously, of course, but superstition is an inherent and unavoidable component of Christian faith, and that’s what he wants us to embrace. Christianity compromises Dr. Craig’s ability to distinguish between explanation and superstition, and consequently he believes superstition is a valid explanation for the universe. This allows him to embrace the premise that “Everything that exists has an explanation for its existence,” without acknowledging (or even noticing) that a number of fundamental properties of the material universe fall into the same “uncreated” category he puts God in, and that these properties are sufficient to explain the rest without the need for God.
If we are careful with our explanations, and make a careful and accurate distinction between “explanation” and mere “superstition,” then we must reject Premise #1 as given. Not everything that exists necessarily has a cause—and the “necessity of its own nature” excuse is a meaningless non-explanation. Some things exist simply because they are properties or manifestations of some aspect of material reality, and material reality is existence. That’s as far as we need to pursue it, and that’s as far as it’s possible to pursue it. At that point, we’ve gotten down to the bedrock of existence itself, and there’s no deeper to dig.
Dr. Craig is going to keep digging himself in deeper, though. It’s likely to take us a while to get through all his attempts to rationalize Leibniz’s argument despite the fallacies in its premises. But it should be fun. Stay tuned.