August 05, 2013
Argument from Contingency
Hello Dr. Craig,
I have a question about the "mystery of existence" basically. I’m an agnostic who used to be a Christian and I continue to think about theological questions and am open minded (I also have listened to all your podcasts and am continually engaged with your work). I recently watched a part of the "Closer to Truth" Series with Robert Lawrence Khun which you appeared on, but this segment was with the Physicist Steven Weinberg. His statements help to formulate my question and get you to see what I’m driving at.
Robert was asking him, “Some people say that science will hit a wall where they will get to something that will be beyond the bounds of scientific explanation and that's where religion comes in and purportedly has an answer" (I’m paraphrasing). He said that he agrees about what they say about science but doesn't agree with the part about religion. He basically says that if science is lucky, it will hit that wall, and have some final theory that is as far as it can go and that at the end of it you can ask "why this?" He grants that there is an "irreducible mystery (which I think is interesting since you definitely wouldn't hear that from someone like a Lawrence Krauss) but he thinks that the religious person has an equal mystery. He says if you ask a religious person "What is God like?" and they say I have no idea, then the notion really has no content and is just a three-letter word. But if they go on to say things like, "He’s kind, all powerful, loving, merciful, or humorous etc..." then the question must come up, "Why that?"
I think you would probably respond with things like the ontological argument, moral argument, God's being a metaphysically necessary being etc. but as an agnostic I have (and even as a believer) wondered, if God exists, why does he exist? This led me to think about "mystery" concerning the view of the naturalist/atheist and the theist, and I think there might be a reason why the theist might have an upper hand in this case.
If the naturalist is a physicalist, and lets also say takes a tenseless view on the nature of time, thus leaving you with a 4 dimensional space-time block, there would just be this block existing inexplicably and timelessly. This would seem to remove the need to answer such questions as "What was before the Big Bang, or what caused it" and such problems, but you would still be left with this mystery of an inexplicable block.
But if there were a God as roughly conceived by Theists, it seems to me the Theist would have the following advantage over the naturalist as regards the mystery of existence. In the naturalists case (as I’ve conceived it) you have this block that exists timelessly and inexplicably in the sense that there's no reason why its there (and its not like you can ask it why it exists) but in the case of God, who lets say is something like a mind, and is therefore relational, and if we are also roughly minds as well, it seems that we could relate to this Being in a way that we couldn't to the ultimate reality of the b-theory naturalist's space-time block in that we could ask God why he exists. Granted its probably not possible that He/It could answer us in a language or a semantic sense, he could possibly make it known to us in a relational way, by knowing us intimately and communing with us so that we could in a sense "become apart of “or share in the knowledge of his necessary existence and eternality. In any case I think it would be less mysterious if God existed than the block because God is a mind and you can relate to a mind (even though there would be a lesser kind of mystery in the sense that God is infinite and thus cant be exhaustively known or comprehended).
I wonder if you think that the theist does have a advantage in this way and if you disagree with Weinberg about the theist being equally perplexed at the mystery of existence.
Christian, it sounds to me as if you’re perilously close to arguing your way back to theism!
After being initially sceptical of Leibniz’s argument from contingency for God as a necessary being (primarily because I thought it presupposed a strong version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason and because I didn’t think that existential propositions were necessarily true), I came to think that Leibniz’s argument is, indeed, a sound argument for God’s existence. Through the work of philosophers like Alvin Plantinga I came to see how God’s existence could be understood as broadly logically necessary, and thanks to Stephen Davis I came to see that the Leibnizian argument can be soundly formulated using a quite modest and plausible Principle of Sufficient Reason.
Here’s the argument:
1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence (either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause).
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’s existence is God.
I agree with Weinberg that the universe is not plausibly metaphysically necessary in its existence. But he’s mistaken to think that the theist is equally saddled with an ultimate brute contingent. Leibniz’s point is that God, as the explanatory ultimate, must be metaphysically necessary in His existence and so incapable of non-existence. Moreover, God has certain essential properties (properties He has in every possible world in which He exists), and so, given His necessary existence, it’s not contingent, and so no surprise, that He has such properties. He couldn’t be God without them.
So it makes no sense to wonder, “if God exists, why does he exist?” That sort of puzzle is appropriate only for a being that exists contingently. But with respect to a necessary being, it’s like wondering, “Why are all bachelors unmarried?”
I’m inclined to agree with you that if one adopts a tenseless or B-Theory of time, according to which all moments of time are equally real and temporal becoming is an illusion of human consciousness, then the kalam cosmological argument based upon the beginning of the universe is not the salient issue, but rather the Leibnizian argument from contingency: why does this four-dimensional spacetime block exist? This does, indeed, cry out for explanation! For the naturalist to say that it just exists inexplicably seems to commit what Alexander Pruss, following Arthur Schopenhauer, has called the taxi cab fallacy: it treats the Principle of Sufficient Reason like a hired hack that can be dismissed arbitrarily once one has arrived at one’s desired destination. No, the existence of a contingently existing spacetime requires explanation, too, just as do planets and dogs and periwinkles.
But I don’t see how God’s being a mind would make His existence any less puzzling if He existed contingently. You seem to be drawing in another argument for God’s existence, what I’ve called the noölogical argument, namely, that finite minds like ours fit into a theistic world much better than into a naturalistic world. Given naturalism it seems that states of intentionality would not exist, because physical objects are not about or of something else. Only minds exhibit such intentionality. So if God did not exist, it’s plausible that states of intentionality would not exist. But it’s undeniable that such intentional states do exist! Therefore, God exists.
But to provide a sufficient reason for why anything at all exists, we need to get to a metaphysically necessary being as our explanatory ultimate. Interestingly, there are good reasons to think that such an explanatory ultimate must be a Mind. First, how else could one get a contingent reality from a necessarily existing being, unless that being is a personal agent endowed with freedom of the will, who can freely choose to create a contingent universe? Absent free will, the effect of a necessary being must be as necessary as the being itself. I can’t think of any way to get a contingent effect from a necessarily existing cause unless that cause is a personal agent endowed with freedom of the will. Second, the only candidates that we know of for a metaphysically necessary being beyond the physical universe are either abstract objects or a Mind. But abstract objects do not stand in cause-effect relations to anything. That’s part of the definition of what it is to be abstract. Therefore, the explanatory ultimate is plausibly a Mind.
So while God’s being of the order of mind is not in itself sufficient to meet the demands of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, still theism’s conjunction of metaphysical necessity and the ultimacy of mind seems to give the theist a decisive advantage over the naturalist.