(Book: On Guard, by William Lane Craig. Chapter 3: “Why does anything at all exist?”)
Last week, Dr. Craig wrapped up his First Cause argument for God by making an embarrassingly naked appeal to primitive and superstitious animism. What that argument lacks in validity, though, it makes up for in popularity, and at this point he’s sure he’s got the atheists on the run, scurrying to find some desperate last stand to rally around before their final and unavoidable defeat.
What can the atheist do at this point? He has a more radical alternative open to him. He can retrace his steps, withdraw his objection to premise 1, and say instead that, yes, the universe does have an explanation of its existence. But that explanation is: The universe exists by a necessity of its own nature. For the atheist, the universe could serve as a sort of God-substitute that exists necessarily.
Now this would be a very radical step for the atheist to take, and I can’t think of any contemporary atheist who has in fact adopted this line.
And that’s the best part about making a straw man, isn’t it? No real opponent to point out the flaws in your reasoning.
The reason no contemporary atheist tries to make the “necessity of its own nature” argument is because, as we’ve already discussed, it’s a vacuous argument: it takes an observation that something exists, and then adds nothing to it that was not already in the observation. And in the case of God, we don’t even have the observation! To call this an “explanation” is to seriously abuse the meaning of the verb “explain.”
But there’s a lot more that could be said about the flaws in Leibniz’s “necessity of its nature” flummery, and now that we’re talking about something that actually does exist, Dr. Craig has an ironclad proof that it’s bogus.
He starts off by looking at what the material universe is, or at least at what part of what the universe is.
As we look about the universe, none of the things that make it up, whether stars, planets, galaxies, dust, radiation, or what have you, seems to exist necessarily. They could all fail to exist; indeed, at some point in the past, when the universe was very dense, none of them did exist.
This is a bit of a wild goose chase. The material universe consists of space and time and matter and energy and all of the properties and behaviors thereof. If we’re going to explain the existence of the material universe itself, there’s no point in looking at the way an already-existing universe changes over time. The question is not whether some particular arrangement of matter has an explanation of its existence, but whether there’s an explanation for the existence of the context within which such arrangements take place.
Ok, so his first rebuttal fails to address the question. Let’s give him another chance.
But, someone might say, what about the matter that these things are made of? Maybe the matter exists necessarily, and all these things are just different configurations of matter. The problem with this suggestion is that, according to the standard model of subatomic physics, matter itself is composed of tiny fundamental particles that cannot be further broken down. The universe is just the collection of all these particles arranged in different ways.
Oops, now he’s even farther off track than he was before. Two pages ago, he could remember what we’re trying to explain:
For think of what the universe is: all of space-time reality, including all matter and energy.
Now all of a sudden, he’s forgotten about space and time and all of the other properties of the material universe. The universe is “just the collection of all these particles.” These things are part of material reality, but they’re not all of it. They do not exist in isolation, they exist in a particular context. And this context is the material universe whose existence Dr. Craig is trying to explain in a way that refutes atheism. But so far he’s not even close to addressing the question. Let’s give him another chance.
But now the question arises, couldn’t a different collection of fundamental particles have existed instead of this one? Does each and every one of these particles exist necessarily?
…Now it seems obvious that a different collection of fundamental particles could have existed instead of the collection that does exist. But if that were the case, a different universe would have existed…
It follows, then that the universe does not exist by a necessity of its own nature.
Some wag once remarked that a believer seems ready to believe almost anything, as long as it isn’t real. Dr. Craig is exposing the central flaw in the “necessity of its own nature” argument, which is that no matter what the nature of the thing is, it could conceivably have been different. Matter could conceivably have been composed of only 4 fundamental particles, or of 24, or of a million. Space might have 3 dimensions, or 11, or 42 (42? hmmm). The Creator might have been one God, or three gods, or 12 gods. Or a race of advanced alien beings from the 27th Dimension, etc.
When it comes to a God who cannot be observed in real life, Dr. Craig is happy to believe the “necessity of its nature” argument. When it comes to things that are actually real, suddenly he sees the flaw. That’s totally backwards! If anything has existence by necessity of its nature, it must first of all be something that exists, since the fact of its existence would have to be a part of its nature. Before you can use the “necessity of its nature” argument to explain the universe, you must first demonstrate that the universe exists, so that it can possess a nature of which real existence can be a part. Fortunately, that part’s easy, since the universe is all around us.
Likewise, before you can appeal to the necessity of God’s nature to explain His existence, you must first demonstrate that He exists. The term “God” has to mean something real, you see. When Dr. Craig says that “God” is explained by the necessity of His own nature, he has a particular God in mind. That concept could be wrong, however. A real God might exist with a different nature than the one Dr. Craig imagines. Since we cannot observe that any God does exist (except Alethea of course), and since any real God could be different than what Dr. Craig means by “God,” it follows much more surely that Dr. Craig’s God cannot be explained by any necessity of His own nature. As Dr. Craig argues here, that nature could have been different (and in the case of the Trinity, it almost certainly is different).
Ironically, Dr. Craig does not notice that, in attempting to refute the straw man, he has effectively demolished Leibniz’s argument, and his own, by exposing the fact that it rests on assuming the conclusion that God necessarily exists. Nor does he notice that he has substituted a false definition of the universe for the correct definition he himself gave only 2 pages earlier.
No one thinks that every particle in the universe exists by a necessity of its own nature. It follows that neither does the universe composed of such particles exist by a necessity of its own nature. Notice that this is the case whether we think of the universe itself as an object (just as a marble statue is not identical to a similar statue made of different marble), or as a collection or group (just as a flock of birds is not identical to a similar flock made up of different birds), or even as nothing at all over and above the particles themselves.
Saying that the material universe is composed of subatomic particles is like saying apples are composed of the color red. The particles are an aspect of material reality, as red is an aspect of the apple, but there’s more to the apple, and to the material universe, than just that one aspect. The nature of subatomic particles is part of the nature of the material universe, and the relationship between the universe and its properties is a non-causal relationship. The properties of the subatomic particles do not cause the properties of the material universe, nor do the properties of the universe cause the properties of the subatomic particles.
That may be a bit of an abstract distinction, so let’s think about something simpler: a circle. The properties of a circle are its diameter and its circumference, and the ratio between the two, which is pi. These are not causal relationships; the diameter does not cause the circumference to extend to pi times its own length, nor does the circumference constrain the length of the diameter to be it’s own length divided by pi. These two properties exist simultaneously (or rather, without reference to time), such that when one has a fixed value, the other has a corresponding and specific fixed value.
The same non-causal relationship exists between the material universe and its properties, including the properties of subatomic particles. These properties do not have a cause (and thus do not have an explanation) because there has never been a time when they were not the properties of the material universe. Necessarily so, since time itself is one of those properties! As such, neither God nor “the necessity of their own nature” is required or even possible as a genuine explanation for their existence.
You see how far off-base Dr. Craig is here. He’s trying to reduce the entire material universe—space, time, matter, energy, plus all their properties and behaviors—down to only subatomic particles, so that he can say that none of them necessarily have to exist, in order to refute his own straw man argument about the universe existing by a necessity of its own nature. All this little diversion actually accomplishes, however, is to expose the fatal flaw in Leibniz’s reasoning and to make Dr. Craig look like he can’t remember—for a mere two pages!—what the material universe really is. Bad straw man! No biscuit!
I think what he was probably shooting for is a kind of naive and fundamentalist variant of materialism—the caricature that says materialism means believing that only what is made of matter is real. I don’t think many genuine materialists would deny the existence of space and time, or of change, or of the relationships between things, none of which are made of matter themselves. True materialism is belief in all of material reality, including the properties and behaviors of things, and the material context of space and time in which they exist and interact. But the caricature version is more popular among believers, and so maybe that’s what Dr. Craig thought he was addressing here.
In any case, that pretty much does it for Dr. Craig’s attempt to derive God from Leibniz’s tautological calculus. From a Christian perspective, it’s been rather a disaster: he’s leading off with some rather blatant fallacies, and some appeals to modern physics that only blow up in his face. In the end, he’d have come out a lot better if he’d simply omitted this chapter completely.
From a skeptical perspective, of course, it’s been great fun.
There’s one last point I’d like to highlight here, and that goes back to the central flaw in Leibniz’s argument. God, as conceived by men, cannot exist by a necessity of His own nature, because God does not show up in real life, and we are therefore unable to observe even His existence, let alone His nature. All we have to go on are the fallible and limited concepts that men like Dr. Craig have about God, and at least most of these concepts are necessarily wrong, since they contradict one another, taken across theism as a whole.
You can’t make an argument about the necessity of God’s nature if that nature itself is not necessary. And it’s not: humans are neither omniscient nor infallible, and therefore no one can legitimately claim that his or her concept of God is necessarily correct. In the absence of a God who actually shows up in real life, anybody who tries to make any argument based on the qualities of God’s nature is inevitably putting their faith in human misconceptions and/or tautologies, just like Dr. Craig has done. That’s why Leibniz’s argument was doomed from the start. It was based on faith in human concepts of God, but reality itself is the only available infallible guide to the truth.