Explanation versus superstition

(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.

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence.
  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  3. The universe exists.
  4. [Therefore:] The universe has an explanation of its existence.
  5. 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.

18 Responses to “Explanation versus superstition”

  1. mikespeir Says:

    Would you please stop making me feel so dang stupid?

    No, no! Just kidding. Keep making me feel stupid.

  2. J. Ash Bowie Says:

    Although obvious after reading it, your description of superstition is wonderfully concise and useful.

    Even if we grant #1 for the sake of argument, and also grant that a god actually exists, #2 still remains unestablished. How does Dr. Craig establish that among God’s features includes the desire and ability to create universes? If he were to answer (as I imagine he would), “Well, the universe is here, isn’t it. That’s proof!”, then he would simply be making a first grade circular argument error, right?

  3. Chuck Says:

    I really enjoy your writing.

  4. williamjannen Says:

    What you said here:

    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.

    …completely sums up my opinion. The guy who wrote those syllogisms is a three-headed quagmire.

  5. Hunt Says:

    For all the objections that many Christians have for Occam’s Razor, this is why they insist that real morals requires absolute morality and why they can’t abide the “theory” of evolution. If God can be shown to not be necessary, then he has lost “Necessary by Nature” status, which means he goes into the dustbin of history, along with the Egyptian gods (which existed far longer than Yahweh has) along with thousands of others.

  6. KG Says:

    An explanation describes a cause-and-effect relationship in a useful way.

    This is too restrictive: in general, it is facts, not things, that require explanation. Of course, the existence (or non-existence) of a specified type of thing is a fact, but there are many more facts that are not of this kind – facts about events, about probabilities, possibilities, numbers and other mathematical entities, thoughts, dreams, fictional characters… Even when we restrict ourselves to facts about the existence of some type of physical object, its non-existence, or if it does exist, its continuation and (if it has ceased to exist) its end, also call for explanation. What counts as a correct explanation is context-dependent: in science or mathematics a correct explanation for a fact will generally be an articulated set of more general facts (a theory), from which the fact to be explained can be deduced, or at least, shown to be a possible consequence. So, the existence of polar bears is explained (let’s say) by the prior existence of brown bears, an ice age, and the mechanisms of natural selection (even though in this case we cannot say their evolution was predictable). The existence (or non-existence) of chemical compounds is often explained in terms of their valence, which is explained in terms of electon orbits, which are explained in terms of quantum mechanics. The existence of exactly five Platonic solids is explained by proving that five exist by exhibiting them, and proving that no more can do so. So what counts as an explanation varies with what is being explained; and the explaining facts are themselves possible targets for explanation.

    So, I don’t think you can assume that the existence of the universe has no explanation just because (as you correctly say), it has no cause. But I don’t think this helps Craig, because there is simply no reason to believe his premise 1 true in any non-trivial sense. (If we counts “X exists because X exists” as an explanation, clearly Craig’s premise is true, but if we are any more restrictive, it’s not at all obvious whether the premise is true or false.)

  7. Alex SL Says:

    In what sense do number “exist”? Certainly not in the same sense as the earth or any supposed creator gods. They are abstract concepts, but I very much doubt that there is any way of producing material evidence for “2,075.38” in the way that you can produce material evidence for the existence of photons. Thus I think the problem with his argumentation is still why god should be exempted from needing an explanation, because it is not envisioned as an abstract concept but as person or force.

  8. Alex SL Says:

    Great blog, by the way. I find the posts very well written and interesting, although I do not yet see what is gained by anthropomorphizing uncaring reality into a goddess.

  9. Deacon Duncan Says:

    @Alex SL:

    Numbers exist as fundamental properties of material reality. They are not made of matter, of course, but they are part of the characteristics that describe some of the qualities that appear.

    We know that numbers exist independently of our perception of them because there are some numbers whose value is impossible to know exactly, yet they are fixed quantities such that we can arrive at various approximations of them, and can check our answers to see how close we are. The square root of two is one example, pi is another.

  10. Alex SL Says:

    I know that they are part of the characteristics that describe some of the qualities of the universe. I am just not convinced that it is meaningful to use the word “exist” for them, and especially not in the sense a theist would consider their god(s) to exist or in the sense in which you used it in the daylight example. As far as I understand, and I must admit that I am a biologist and not a mathematician, so my understanding is surely limited, 1+1=2 is valid even if there were only one particle in the entire universe. In what sense, however, would then the number 2 exist?

  11. Deacon Duncan Says:

    It sounds like you are deriving “2” from some ephemeral manifestation within the universe (i.e. the number of particles), rather than from the intrinsic properties of the material universe itself. But “two-ness” does not depend on having two particles. For example, suppose there were only one particle in the universe. Now you have two types of numbers: those that are represented by an actual count of concrete particles, and those that are not. The first type is a set containing only a single instance, the second is an infinite set. So you have the number two as well. “Numericity,” if I can use such a term, is an inherent property of the material universe itself; it is not derived from the properties (such as “count”) of specific concrete instances, but rather matter and other concrete manifestations of reality show up with numeric attributes because of the “numericity” that is inherent in material reality itself. Or so it seems to me, anyway.

  12. Alex SL Says:

    I don’t know how I can make clearer that I agree with everything you say about what numbers are, but that it follows directly from your (correct) view of numbers that you cannot compare them with photons or deities.

  13. jayman777 Says:

    (A) You (Craig?) misrepresent the Leibnizian cosmological argument. It should be summarized as follows (taken from Alexander Pruss’ chapter in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology):

    (1) Every contingent fact has an explanation.
    (2) There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.
    (3) Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact.
    (4) This explanation must involve a necessary being.
    (5) This necessary being is God.

    (B) I see no reason to believe that the cause must occur before the effect. For example, if I throw a brick through a window, the brick does not pass through the window before the window breaks. At the precise moment the window breaks the brick is acting upon the window. Cause and effect are simultaneous. Thus, even if we accept that time began with the Big Bang (and I do not accept that except for a very narrow definition of time) you still cannot assert the universe had no cause unless you are going to deny that every contingent fact has an explanation. If you take this route, I merely ask that you are consistent. In everyday life, please do not assume that there are causes for things you observe. Seriously entertain that things are uncaused. If that seems like an absurd suggestion then don’t deny (1).

    (C) The argument rests on metaphysical premises. (1) explains all cause and effect relationships in a useful way. It is verified every waking moment of our lives. Your digression into physical explanations has no apparent bearing on the metaphysics.

    (D) The universe needs an explanation because its existence is a contingent fact. God does not need an explanation because he exists necessarily. Stating that something exists necessarily is not equivalent to saying that a thing exists (though it includes that). It is stating that the thing must exist.

    (E) Whether a thing’s nature explains its existence or vice verse is beside the point if you already accept that there are both contingent and necessary things. I don’t see how that aside undermines any points of the argument.

    (F) How are numbers a part of material reality? They are abstract objects (I don’t think your subsequent comments make numbers material). Regardless, even if we assume that numbers exist necessarily, that does not skirt around the issue of providing an explanation for contingent things.

    (G) J. Ash Bowie, Craig does not need to establish that God desired to create a universe. DD’s (2) is poorly worded. As I worded the argument, I don’t see how the argument is circular. God’s existence logically follows from the premises.

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  16. jakc Says:

    The Craig/Leibniz syllogism is perfectly logical, but all it shows is that if you presume the existence of god then you can logically prove the existence of god. I can prove that god didn’t create the universe, or that god doesn’t exist through different syllogisms. Garbage-in, garbage-out. Of course, what Craig ignores is that proving god exists in no way implies that the Christian god exists. Indeed, since Craig disbelieves in almost as many gods as I do, he ought to be careful about logical proofs which demand the existence of god – he might not be happy with the final result. A final quibble – Leibniz invented calculus independently of Newton, and since he was better about publishing his work, had more of an impact on the practice of calculus.

  17. John Says:

    Not really sure what you’re arguing in this piece. Are you arguing that the universe exists necessarily (which no atheist philosopher supports and which Craig gives several arguments against that you just happened to leave out) or that the universe doesn’t have an explanation for its existence (the consensus position of most atheist philosophers)? I think you’re arguing the second, but I’m not sure.

    I’m asking because you phrased “exists necessarily” in a misleading way. Christians don’t say that God has no explanation for his existence, they say that he exists by virtue of his own nature. To use the “Why is a bachelor an unmarried man?” example, we wouldn’t say that there’s no explanation for why a bachelor is unmarried, we would say that he’s unmarried because he’s a bachelor and that’s part of the definition of a bachelor. Or the “Why doesn’t an eternal entity have a beginning or an ending?” example. Eternal entities don’t have beginnings or endings because they’re eternal. Now one could argue that eternal beings do or don’t exist, but no intelligent person would argue that an eternal being needs a beginning.

    However, like I said, it doesn’t seem that you’re claiming that existence exists necessarily, but rather that it exists without a cause/reason. And there is one of the things I never really understood about atheism (and I say this with as much complete objectivity as possible, and as someone who flirted with atheism about 6 months ago in the midst of doing all of this reading).

    It’s this: why on Earth would anyone think that “Existence just popped into being out of nothingness for no purpose and with no explanation whatsoever” is in any way a satisfactory theory? That’s an intellectual copout. If the universe is contingent (i.e. it doesn’t exist necessarily, which no atheist really seems to be arguing) then wouldn’t it make sense that it needs to be ultimately grounded on something that exists necessarily, regardless of what we call that entity?

    And no, I honestly don’t accept virtual particles as a example of things popping into existence uncaused, since they’re caused by the interaction of the space-time continuum and the energy-time uncertainty principle: in the absence of either, virtual particles wouldn’t pop into existence and thus they are caused by them. To put it another way, virtual particles require empty space, and without the universe there is no space at all. One could postulate an infinite multiverse that births our universe, but that has its own logical problems.

    In a way, I was tempted by atheism because I thought that all the really smart people who were truly honest with themselves about the world were atheists. I wanted the truth, regardless of its implications. I didn’t want to be a Christian simply because I wanted to believe it.

    Instead, I found out that atheism routinely embraces inherently irrational statements like “Existence just popped into being for no purpose and with no explanation whatsoever” or Dennett’s “No, existence does have an explanation: it created itself” (How could existence create something when it doesn’t exist yet?) or Smith’s “Existence began as an infinite causal chain of particles, with each particle causing the next and thus eliminating any particle’s need for an explanation” (Well, that explains why each individual particle exists, but why do any particles exist at all? Since the existence of each particle presupposes the existence of another particle, there’s no way to come from a state of non-being to being).

    Why are these obviously fallacious arguments embraced by so many? Something can’t come from nothingness uncaused. Something can’t create itself. Circular causality is not an explanation for existence. These theories aren’t just irrational, they’re stupid, and I’m really not sure why so many smart people embrace them.

    • Janney Says:

      Something can’t come from nothingness uncaused. Something can’t create itself.

      If you turn around and say, “But God can,” I’m going to scream.


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