William Lane Craig CV


Existence of God (part 3)

Transcript of William Lane Craig's Defenders 2 class.

Excursus: Natural Theology
§ I. Contingency Argument
Lecture 3

We have been looking at premise (1), Every existing thing has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. And we saw that typically the atheist will want to deny this first premise and say the universe is an exception to this principle. The universe just exists inexplicably without any explanation of its existence. And I argued that that move is arbitrary and, indeed, commits what one person has called the taxi cab fallacy. This is thinking you can just dismiss the causal principle like a hack when you arrive at your desired destination. On the contrary, this principle would apply to anything that exists. And we do not say that it fails to apply to God either. As theists, we won’t make him an exception to the principle; on the contrary, we would say that God does exist by the necessity of his own nature. So the atheist is really being quite arbitrary when he applies this principle everywhere else in life but tries to exempt the universe.

Objection: Universe Is Exempt

Some atheists do try to justify making the universe an exception to premise (1). Sometimes they will say it is impossible for the universe to have an explanation of its existence. Why is that, you might ask? Basically, they reason as follows: an explanation of the universe would have to be a prior state of affairs in which nothing exists. Since the universe is just everything there is, if there is an explanation of the universe, it would have to be in a prior state of affairs in which the universe did not yet exist. But that would just be nothingness. And nothingness can’t explain anything. So therefore the universe cannot have an explanation of its existence – the universe must exist just inexplicably.

I hope you can see that that line of reasoning is just obviously fallacious. It is circular. It assumes that the universe is all there is, so that in the absence of the universe, there would be nothing. That assumes that the universe is everything. In other words, it assumes atheism is true. So the atheist is arguing in a circle, begging the question, in assuming that in the absence of the universe there would be nothingness.

By contrast, Leibniz would agree that the explanation of the universe must be in some sort of prior state of affairs – not chronologically prior, but explanatorily prior – there would have to be some prior state of affairs in which the universe did not yet exist. But that state of affairs would not be nothingness. It would be God and his will, and these would furnish the explanation of why the universe exists. That attempt to justify the universe as an exception to premise (1) is simply question-begging.

In conclusion with regard to the first premise, I think this premise is certainly more plausibly true than its opposite. Think of the illustration that Richard Taylor gives of finding the ball in the woods. It would obviously need an explanation of why it exists, and merely increasing the size of the object, even until it becomes co-extensive with the universe, neither explains its existence nor removes the need of an explanation of its existence.


Question: Why doesn’t the necessity of its own nature explain the universe for someone who wants to take this premise and simply say it is necessary?

Answer: We will get to that point later on. But most atheists don’t take that tack. By far and away, almost everybody who is an atheist will simply say the universe is a brute fact and it has no explanation for why it exists; it just exists. But you are right; they could take that tack, and we’ll have to look at that in a moment.1

Question: When God created the world in the beginning, there was water. Water was not part of his creative process. The Spirit hovered over water. How do you explain that?

Answer: I think that water is part of the creation. In [Gen. 1,] verse 1 it says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That is his creation of the universe. In ancient Hebrew there is no word for “the universe.” When the ancient Hebrew wanted to express “the universe” he would use this idiom “the heavens and the earth” – that meant everything that was. So that is what God creates in the beginning. Then in verse 2 the focus suddenly narrows dramatically, and it says, “and the Earth was without form and void.” And then what is described is how God turns the Earth into a habitable place. But that has already been created in verse 1. Similarly, in Proverbs 8, Wisdom personified as a woman says, “When there were no depths” – that is mentioned in Genesis, the Spirit hovering over the depths – “I was brought forth.” God and his Wisdom precede the existence of any sort of physical reality on Earth or in the heavens.

Question: Age old question – when my atheist friend asks, “Who created God?” or “How was God created?” I have no answer.

Answer: O.K., look at premise (1). How would you answer that question based on premise (1)? Look at premise (1). Which alternative would you pick? If you look at premise (1), you will see the obvious answer to the question, “What created God?” God cannot have an external cause – even atheists admit that – because that would be something greater than God, which is impossible. That thing would be God. So God, if he exists, exists by the necessity of his own nature. He has no cause. So the question, once you understand the premise, is very easy to answer.

[Q&A: Question about the meaning in Genesis of the term “void.” Dr. Craig refers back to the doctrine of creation discussions from Defenders 1 course.]

Question: My response to the answer of who created God – the way I have explained it – is God can exist on his own because he has a mind. But the universe doesn’t have a mind and the creative power that comes with that. That is why God is more reasonably the terminal being. Does that work?

Answer: I do not feel comfortable with that because having a mind does not mean you exist by a necessity of your own nature. We have minds, and yet we also have external causes. And we should not think of God as a product of his own creative power either. Notice that this does not say, “Every existing thing has an explanation, either by an external cause or its self-cause.” The idea of being self-caused is a contradiction. It is not that God created himself, that he somehow used his creative power to bring himself into being. He would have to be explanatorily prior to himself – and that would really be a problem. Rather, the idea is simply he exists necessarily.

Followup: The universe could not have created God, but God could have created the universe.

Answer: Clearly, that is right. There is clearly an asymmetrical situation there that makes it much more plausible to think of God as the cause. That is right.2

Question: Of the two explanations for existence, is it safe to say that necessity only applies to God, and everything else has an external cause.

Answer: In my opinion, as a Christian, I think it only applies to God. But historically philosophers have identified many different sorts of necessary beings. I mentioned numbers, for example – they are a classic case. Plato and other followers of Plato think that numbers exist necessarily. Other mathematical objects like sets and functions and geometrical figures have also been historically considered necessary in their existence. Also propositions and properties, too. There are all kinds of things that historically different philosophers have identified as being necessary of their own nature. Out of theological convictions, I think that, in fact, only God exists necessarily. But that is a theological conviction that doesn’t enter the argument at this point. Here we are having an open mind and entertaining the possibility there could be many such things.

Question: Was it Nietzsche that tried to define what nothingness was and how it existed?

Answer: That was Sartre, the existentialist. We are not using nothingness in a sort of existential sense of despair or meaninglessness and things like that. We are just meaning the absence of anything that exists. It is the common sense, ordinary word in which we say, “nothing” – we mean there isn’t anything.

Question: Can you comment how important it is, with the rise of Eastern mysticism, thought and pantheism, how they attach the necessity of God to the actual physical universe and that “he is all?” We really need to understand this. That is a growing belief system that is entering the Western world.

Answer: You are right in pointing out that in pantheistic religions, like Hinduism, Daoism, and certain forms of Buddhism, there is an identity between God and the universe. So the universe takes on the attributes of God, and certainly as Christians we need to have good reasons why we think that God is distinct from the world and is its creator rather than identical with the world. These arguments, as you will see as they unfold, will do that for you. If these arguments are valid, they will narrow down the range of the world’s religions to the great monotheistic traditions like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and perhaps Deism but will exclude these pantheistic religions.

Question: You spoke about numbers and functions. If these were not created by God, would he not be subject to those things?

Answer: That is the problem and that is why I said, on theological grounds, I do not believe that numbers exist. So, yes, I share your concern.

A Defense For Premise (2)

Let’s go to premise 2. What about the second premise? If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God. Is this premise more plausibly true than false? At first you might think that no atheist is going to agree with this; that this is going to be the controversial premise. In fact, what is really awkward for the atheist is that premise 2 of this argument is logically equivalent to the typical atheist response to Leibniz’s argument.

What do I mean that two statements are logically equivalent?3 What I mean by that is that it is impossible for one of them to be true and the other one to be false. They stand or fall together. If two statements are logically equivalent, they are either both true or they are both false. But you can’t have one be true and the other one false. So logically equivalent statements share the same truth value.

With that in mind, what does the atheist almost always say in response to Leibniz’s argument? As we have just seen, what the atheist typically asserts is:

A) If atheism is true, the universe has no explanation of its existence.

The universe just exists as a brute fact. It just exists inexplicably; it is just there, and that is all. This is what the atheist typically says in response to premise 1.

But this is logically equivalent to:

B) If the universe has an explanation of its existence, then atheism is not true.

If atheism is true, the universe has no explanation – that is (A). But that is logically equivalent to (B) – if the universe has an explanation, then atheism is not true. They are just the flip side of one another. They are logically equivalent statements.

So you cannot affirm (A) and deny (B). If you affirm (A) you also have to affirm (B). But (B) is virtually synonymous with premise 2 – just compare them!

Thus, in replying to premise 1, the atheist has implicitly admitted to premise 2. If the universe does have an explanation of its existence, then God exists.


Question: Couldn’t they just say we haven’t discovered enough or science hasn’t advanced far enough to know if there is anything outside of our universe?

Answer: That is fine. This is not a scientific argument. This is a metaphysical argument. So for whatever realms of reality that might exist outside of our observable universe, say, it is part of a multiverse, Leibniz would simply ask the same question of the multiverse. We could ask, “Why does the multiverse exist?” It must have an explanation of its existence and it will either be in an external cause or in the necessity of its own nature. So the size of the universe really is quite irrelevant to this argument. You could say it exists necessarily, but as I say, atheists are very, very loathe to say that. I do not know of any atheist philosopher on the contemporary scene who thinks that the universe exists necessarily. The typical response is to say there just is no explanation – it is just there. And that is equivalent to affirming premise 2.

Question: I have heard the argument that we should humbly acknowledge that there is no explanation and you should be humble, too, in that acknowledgment.

Answer: Yes, I have heard that, and that is a red herring. Arguments do not have personalities. Arguments aren’t arrogant or prideful or humble – people are. The validity or the soundness of this argument depends on two things – the truth of the premises and whether or not it is logically valid, that is, it must obey the laws of logic.4 Apart from those two tests, these other sorts of things are irrelevant. The question is, “Which premise will you deny, and why, Mr. Atheist?” It seems to me that he is committed to the second premise and his denial of the first premise is arbitrary. So I think he is in an awkward spot.

Let me say, in addition, I think premise 2 is very plausible in its own right, wholly apart from the fact that it is logically equivalent to what the atheist typically says. Think of what the universe is – it is all of space-time reality. That would include any other multiverse hypothesis that would encompass ours. It is all matter and energy. So it follows that if the universe has a cause of its existence, that cause must be a non-physical, immaterial being beyond space and time. Just imagine that! If there is going to be an explanation of space, time, matter and energy, this is going to have to be a transcendent cause beyond space and time and therefore immaterial and non-physical in its nature.

There are only two kinds of objects that can fit that description of an immaterial object beyond time and space. The first is abstract objects like numbers (numbers are immaterial and they are typically thought to exist beyond space and time). The second is an unembodied mind. Minds are immaterial and a mind can be timeless if it is not changing. But abstract objects cannot cause anything. The number 7 has no effects whatsoever. Numbers do not stand in causal relationships – that is definitive for what it means to be an abstract object, as opposed to a concrete object. An abstract object is an object that does not stand in any causal relationships. Therefore, the cause of the existence of the universe cannot be an abstract object. It must be a transcendent, unembodied mind. This is precisely what theists take God to be.

So, as I say, premise 2 seems to be very plausible in its own right, wholly apart from what the atheist admits. Just to repeat what I just said, the cause of the universe would have to be beyond time and space and therefore immaterial and non-physical. There are only two kinds of things we know of that can be like that – either an abstract object or a mind. Abstract objects cannot cause anything. Therefore, the cause of the universe must be a transcendent, unembodied mind.

I hope you begin to grasp the power of Leibniz’s argument. If it is successful, it proves the existence of a necessary, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, personal creator of the universe. This is not some ill-conceived flying spaghetti monster postulated to fill up our gaps in our knowledge. Rather, this is an ultra-mundane or transcendent being with many of the properties of traditional theism that we looked at in our study of the attributes of God. So this is really a mind-blowing argument, if it is successful.


Question: [comment on how the mind actually controls things]

Answer: When you think about causation, what is the most intimate causal mechanism that you are familiar with? What is the causal process with which you have the most intimate knowledge? Is it things in the external world moving about, bumping each other, as you observe them and their effects? Not really. The cause with which you are most intimately acquainted with is yourself. You have volitions in your mind. You will to do something, such as to lift your arm or to take a step or to utter words, and, lo and behold, those effects ensue as a result of your causal activity – you exert your will, and your causal power will produce these effects.5 This is an example of the mind’s ability to control physical things. In the same way that my mind exerts causal influence upon my body, God exerts immediate causal influence upon the world. He causes effects in the world in the same way that my mind causes effects in my body. Now I am not saying that the world is the body of God. Clearly, that is not what I am saying. The world is a creation; that is the whole argument here. It is caused by God, but God has the ability to act in the world through his mind in the same way that our minds work in our bodies. So it is a nice analogy, I think, that helps us to understand God’s relation to the world.

Question: [explain the characteristics that this argument leads to]

Answer: Necessary – because it exists by the necessity of its own nature. Uncaused – because it has no external cause. Timeless – because it must be beyond time to create time. Spaceless – because it must be beyond space to create space. Immaterial – because it is spaceless and timeless, it cannot be material. Personal – because only a mind can account for the existence of the universe. Those are the implications of the conclusion of Leibniz’s argument.

Question: You said there are only two things that can be outside of the universe. Abstract objects or minds. How can the mind affect the universe if it is outside the universe? Wouldn’t this same argument prove idealism, that we are all spirit?

Answer: I don’t think so. I think you and I have a different understanding of idealism. It sounds to me like you are talking about some kind of “pan-psychism,” where there is some sort of psyche that permeates the world. And I think my answer earlier answers your question about how could a mind, which is distinct from the world, exercise its causal ability in the world. It would be the same way that my mind exercises causal powers in my own body. I don’t think that God needs to be in space in order to produce effects in space. If somebody had an argument for that, I would want to see it, but I have never seen a good argument for that. Seems to me that a timeless, spaceless being can exert effects such as producing the existence of the space-time world.

Let me say this to conclude. I think both of these premises are plausibly true, and, given the obvious truth of premise 3 that the universe exists, it therefore follows that the explanation of the universe is God. What can the atheist do at this point? He does have a more radical alternative open to him. He can retrace his steps, go back to premise 1, withdraw his objection to premise 1 and say, “All right, yes, the universe does have an explanation of its existence, and that explanation is that the universe exists by a necessity of its own nature. The universe is a necessary being.” Thus, for the atheist, the universe can serve as a sort of God substitute which exists by a necessity of its own nature. That will be the objection to be dealt with in the next lesson.6


1 4:59

2 10:05

3 15:03

4 20:06

5 25:16

6 Total Running Time: 29:36