The argument over the existence of God has raged for centuries. Theists and atheists have continually debated the possibility of even presenting a rational argument on the issue. Admitting that the traditional arguments for God’s existence may be flawed, I think I may have an argument that avoids both the potential logical fallacies of the past and the alleged lack of good evidence.
JONATHAN DOLHENTY, PH.D.
The question of God’s existence has a long and controversial history. There are many books entirely dedicated to proving God’s existence and many books just as dedicated to proving that God does not exist. I have always suspected, and am now convinced, that the traditional philosophical arguments for the existence of God may be flawed.
Now, I did not say the arguments were illogical or invalid, just that they may be flawed. The traditional arguments from causality, change, motion, contingency, finality, and so on, are valid arguments; but I’m now convinced that each of these arguments contains at least one premise which is highly questionable at least and possibly false at most.
The question of God’s existence is an extremely important one for obvious theological, philosophical, and moral reasons. Since space doesn’t permit a full account of the importance of this question, I leave it to the reader to fill in that gap in this discussion.
There are many philosophies which deny the existence of God on philosophical grounds. One need only be acquainted with the rudiments of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, modern mechanistic Materialism, or Karl Marx’s Dialectical Materialism, to appreciate their advocacy of atheism.
Is there an argument, philosophically grounded and presented, which can rationally prove the existence of God and avoid committing the logical fallacy of “begging the question”? This is the fallacy that the traditional arguments for God’s existence tend to commit; we are not permitted to assume the existence of that which we are attempting to prove. Is there an argument for God’s existence that can avoid this fallacy? I believe there is and I’m going to present the argument here.
STATEMENT OF THE ARGUMENT
If anyone can point out a fallacy in this argument, or show that one of the premises in the argument is flawed, I would like to know about it. I invite anyone to challenge the argument. I only ask that the basic axioms of realistic philosophy be accepted: we exist, the world exists independently of us, the principle of contradiction is true, and our minds are capable of knowing objective reality. With that proviso, this is the argument to be investigated:
If the existence of the universe as a whole needs to be explained, and if it cannot be explained by natural causes, then we must look to the existence and action of other than a natural cause for its explanation.
Note that this statement of the argument is presented as a hypothetical proposition. We have not yet established that the universe as a whole even needs to be explained. Those readers who assert that the universe does not need, or cannot even have, an explanation, please be patient. At the moment, the first clause in the proposition does not assert the universe needs an explanation, only that if it does, the second clause in the proposition must necessarily follow from the first.
THE BASIC ASSUMPTION
The basic assumption we are going to make is that the universe always existed. There is nothing unreasonable about this assumption. Even if the universe always existed, however, we can still ask whether the uncreated universe needs a cause of its eternal, continuing existence. We are not considering at this point whether or not the universe was created, but whether or not the existence of the universe needs to be preserved.
It is clear that the individual things which make up the universe do not need other than a natural cause of their continuing existence. Natural causes and the principle of inertia are sufficient to explain their continuing existence. When it comes to the universe as a whole, however, we may ask whether the universe as a whole does need other than a natural cause for its continuing existence.
FUNDAMENTAL AND PROXIMATE CONTINGENCY
Before continuing, we need to understand a few terms which are vital to this discussion.
A contingent being is any existing individual thing which has its existence from, through, and in another. This means that its existence is dependent upon the existence and action of another; its existence is caused by the action of another.
A necessary or non-contingent being is any existing individual thing which has its existence from, through, and in itself. This means that its existence is independent of the existence and action of any other thing; its existence is uncaused and does not require the action of any other being. For the moment, we will leave aside the question of whether or not such a necessary or non-contingent being can or does exist.
Now we need to consider the distinction between fundamental contingency and proximate contingency.
The individual things in the universe have only a proximate contingency. By this, I mean that when an individual thing perishes or ceases to be, the matter of which it is made does not perish or cease to be, but is simply transformed into some other individual thing. The individual thing is not transformed into nothingness; it is not reduced to nothing. Furthermore, what comes into existence by natural processes does not come into existence out of nothing. Individual physical things in the universe have proximate contingency.
A consideration of the universe as a whole brings us to a different situation. If the universe perished or ceased to be, it would not be transformed into something else. It would cease to exist absolutely. It would be annihilated and reduced to nothing and be replaced by nothing. This is fundamental contingency.
Summing up, we can say: It would be a fundamental contingency if the contingency went to the very basis of an individual’s existence, with the consequence that, deprived of its existence, the individual would be reduced to nothingness or replaced by nothing. And if, when it perishes, an individual is not reduced to nothingness, but is replaced by the same matter transformed into something else, then its contingency is merely proximate, and not fundamental.
If the existence of the universe as a whole is fundamentally contingent, and if its ceasing to exist would not consist in its transformation into another universe but, instead, into its replacement by absolutely nothing, then the cause needed to sustain the universe in existence would act to prevent it from being reduced to nothingness. It would be a cause that is preservative in its action.
If a cause initially brought the universe into existence, this cause would be creative in its action. Regardless of whether we are considering a creative action or a preservative action, the cause of either one must be beyond natural causes. No natural cause brings anything into existence out of nothing and sustains it in such a way so it is prevented from being reduced to nothing. A cause which is not natural is, by definition, supernatural.
THE FOUR PREMISES OF THE ARGUMENT
We come now to the propositions which are the four premises constituting the argument for God’s existence. They are:
1. The existence of an effect requiring the concurrent existence and action of an efficient cause implies the existence and action of that cause. (An efficient cause is that by which something is produced.)
2. The universe as a whole exists.
3. The existence of the universe as a whole is fundamentally contingent.
4. If the universe needs an efficient cause of its continuing existence to prevent its annihilation, then that cause must be a supernatural being, supernatural in its action, and one the existence of which is uncaused; in other words, a supreme being, God.
The first premise is self-evidently true. This is basically the principle of causality. If an effect requires a cause, that cause must exist or have existed.
The second premise is true beyond a reasonable doubt. Deny the premise and all discussion comes to an end.
The fourth premise is true as stated. Note, however, that it is a conditional proposition, that is, it is true with certitude only if all the other premises in the argument are true.
That brings us to the third and critical proposition. This is the premise upon which the entire argument hangs. If this premise is true beyond a reasonable doubt, we can conclude that God exists and acts to sustain the universe in existence. We would have reasonable grounds, in other words, for believing in God.
THE THIRD AND CRITICAL PREMISE
Any support for the truth of the third premise rests on the answer to this question: Is it possible for the universe that now exists to cease to exist and be replaced by nothing at all?
As we have already seen, the individual existing things that are part of the universe have only proximate contingency. They come into existence and pass away, enduring only for a limited period of time. These individual things do not come into existence out of nothing and when they cease to exist they are not reduced to nothingness. The physical matter of which these individual things are constituted has been transformed, but not annihilated. Natural causes can be seen to bring these individual things into existence and are sufficient to explain their continuing existence.
Now we come to the universe as a whole. Since we have assumed that the universe has always existed and will continue to exist forever, we cannot use its coming into existence and passing out of existence as a mark of its contingency. What can we point to, then, as a mark of the universe’s contingency and, moreover, its fundamental contingency at that?
We have assumed that the universe as a whole is uncreated; no initial creation of the universe took place. Assuming that, we are left, however, with a question regarding the continuing existence of the universe and an efficient cause for its perpetuation in that state. We need a justification for thinking that the continuing existence of the universe needs an efficient cause.
Can we find such a justification? Can we find a reason for such an assertion? The answer is yes, and here is the argument for it. It involves the existence of possible universes, a topic which has intrigued scientists and philosophers alike.
THE EXISTENCE OF POSSIBLE UNIVERSES
The fact is that the universe which now exists is only one of many possible universes that might have existed in the infinite past and might still exist in the infinite future.
If other universes are possible, then this present universe is merely possible, not necessary. It is not the only universe that can ever exist in infinity.
How do we know that the present universe is only a possible universe? We can infer this from the fact that the current order and disorder of the universe might have been other than it is, that is, different from what it currently is. This is both philosophically and scientifically defensible.
Whatever might have been otherwise or different is something that also might not exist at all. That which cannot be other than what it is must necessarily exist. And that which necessarily exists cannot be other than it is. Whatever can be other than it is can also simply not be at all.
A universe that could be other than what it is could also not exist in the first place. Conversely, a universe that is capable of not existing at all is one that could be other than what it is now.
This universe, therefore, is merely one of a number of possible universes. We are forced to the conclusion that the universe, as a being fundamentally contingent in existence, would not exist at all were its existence not caused. A merely possible universe cannot be an uncaused universe.
A universe that is fundamentally contingent in its existence requires a cause of that existence. The only possible cause is a supernatural cause, one that exists and acts to bring into existence this merely possible universe. It is also necessary to prevent the realization of what is always possible for a merely possible universe, namely, its absolute non-existence or reduction to nothingness. This supernatural cause exists as the preservative cause of the continuing actual existence of a merely possible universe.
Why the necessity of a supernatural cause rather than a natural cause? Because no natural cause is capable of accomplishing the task.
First, to bring something into existence out of nothing, something which would not otherwise exist, requires a creative action.
Second, to maintain the existence of something, which otherwise would not be maintained, requires a preservative action. Without such preservative action that something would cease to exist and be reduced to nothingness.
Neither creative action nor preservative action is within the power of natural causes. There must exist a supernatural cause to accomplish either result, the creative and/or the preservative.
Let’s apply this specifically in reference to the existing universe.
First, if the universe didn’t always exist, it had to have come into existence out of nothing. Otherwise the universe would not exist. If the universe came into existence out of nothing, then some creative act must have taken place to bring it into existence.
Second, to maintain the existence of the universe, which otherwise would not be maintained, requires a preservative action. Without such preservative action the universe would cease to exist and be reduced to nothingness.
Neither the act of creating the universe nor of preserving the universe is within the power of natural causes.
If creative action was a natural power, the creative agent would have to exist prior to the creative effect itself. A natural effect cannot exist prior to its natural cause. This is simply impossible.
If preservative action was a natural power, the preservative agent would have to exist within the preserved effect itself. Without the action of a preservative cause, no natural effect could continue to exist. Since a natural preservative cause, in this case, must be contained within a natural effect, the preservative agent itself would not exist. This is simply incomprehensible.
In summation, the universe could cease to exist at any time and, of course, we would also cease to exist. What prevents this possibility from happening is the preservative action of a supernatural power. It is this supernatural power, the action of a supreme being, that we call God.
THE NECESSARY AND CRITICAL CAVEATS
Anyone using this argument for the existence of God needs to be aware of some limitations. The only proposition asserted here is that a supernatural power, a supreme being, commonly called God, exists.
This argument does not directly assert the proposition that God created the universe. That proposition is a theological assertion, not a philosophical one. The argument does provide support for the proposition that God could have created the universe. But the universe could exist as long as God exists and, since God exists eternally, the universe could exist eternally. It is, in other words, reasonable to propose either that the universe was directly created by God out of nothing or that the universe exists eternally. The matter cannot, as far as I can see, be resolved philosophically.
The argument shows that the proposition “God exists” is reasonable and not irrational, as some thinkers have maintained. But to assert philosophically that “God exists” does not tell us that the Christian God exists, or the God of the Old Testament exists, or the Muslim God exists, or a personal God exists. It does not directly assert that God spends his “time” concerned about his creatures. This is, quite frankly, not the God that most religious men and women actually claim to believe in. This is a philosophical God, not a theological one, although the two may, in fact, be the same God. Philosophical thinking by itself cannot tell us that for sure.
REPLY TO SOME POSSIBLE OBJECTIONS
Conditions of Proof
George H. Smith, in his book Atheism: The Case Against God, lays down three conditions of proof that must be met in arguing for God’s existence. These are:
- Arguments for the existence of god cannot contain theistic presuppositions. The theist cannot assume as true something that requires demonstration.
The existence of a supernatural being must be decided solely on the basis of evidence and arguments; there is no room for an appeal to faith.
A distinction must be drawn between “rational theism” and “rational theists.” The possibility of “rational theism” depends solely on the possibility of demonstrating the existence of a supernatural being. A “rational theist” is one who is motivated to believe in god because he believes that god’s existence can be established through reason.
Regarding the first condition. There are no theistic presuppositions in my premises as presented. There is only the assumption (which I doubt Smith would argue with) that the universe exists eternally.
Regarding the second condition. This I think is complied with in my argument. There is absolutely no appeal to “faith.” The appeal is strictly to evidence and rational inference.
Regarding the third condition. I am somewhat perplexed by this condition. Smith is not clear what he means by a demonstration. A demonstration and a proof are not exactly the same thing. I can present proof that Christopher Columbus landed in America in 1492. I cannot, however, demonstrate this or provide a demonstration. No one can. Historical propositions cannot be demonstrated; they can, however, be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. I cannot demonstrate the existence of God in this sense of the term demonstration. However, I think the premises of my argument provide adequate proof. By Smith’s standards, I would maintain that my argument is based solely on the possibility of a rational proof and would meet this condition on his terms. I guess that would make me, then, a “rational theist.”
Does the existence of the universe as a whole need to be explained?
My answer is yes. The answer of the Objectivist philosophers and some others is no.
The Objectivist, for example, maintains that the universe as a whole is an irreducible primary, that is, it is eternal, it just is, and does not come into existence or pass away. The concept of “cause” is not applicable to the universe because there is nothing outside the totality to act as a cause. The universe does not need an explanation because it simply exists and could not not exist.
Now, I will agree that there is no philosophical reason why the universe couldn’t have always existed and continue to exist forever. I submit, however, that it does not follow that the concept of “cause” does not apply to the universe. Whether or not there is anything outside the totality to act as a cause (such as a supernatural cause) is simply assumed here and not proved. Since this is so, at least at this point, whether or not the universe needs an explanation for its existence is still up for grabs.
Stating, as Objectivists do, that the universe is a “metaphysical primary,” they argue that this specific universe is the only possible universe, that it is absolutely necessary and not contingent in any way, it must exist as it does, exactly as it does, there is no other possibility. When asked, “But couldn’t another kind of universe, say a ten-dimensional universe, exist instead of this one?” &emdash; the answer is “no.”
But why is this so? The Objectivist answers because “existence exists.” Need I point out that this is no answer? Why couldn’t a different sort of universe exist instead of this one that does? The Objectivist will sometimes say that such a question cannot be asked. Why? Why can’t I ask this question? The Objectivist will answer, “Because this is the way things are, existence exists.” I grant that. Existence exists and this is the way the universe is constituted now.
But, I persist, why couldn’t it be a ten-dimensional universe instead of a three-dimensional one? What is wrong with asking this question? And if the universe could have been a ten-dimensional one, then why is it a three-dimensional one? What is the explanation? This is a legitimate question even though the Objectivist says it can’t be asked. But I just asked it and I maintain it demands an answer. Why can’t I ask for an explanation of a “metaphysical primary”? What “rule” or “law” forbids this?
(This is simply an example of an “intellectual trick” that some philosophers, like the Logical Positivists and the Analytic Empiricists, have been famous for, and for which they have been severely criticized. The “trick” is to assert that either a question cannot be asked about some reality or that the question asked is metaphysical nonsense. Now it seems that the Objectivists want to play the same game. I call this the “fallacy of the loaded dice.” You claim that certain questions cannot be asked or are nonsensical to ask in order not to have to face them and have your argument challenged. In other words, you “load” the argument by prohibiting certain questions. It’s very difficult to discuss something rationally when the opponent is willing only to confront questions he ordains are appropriate!)
Ayn Rand says: “Any natural phenomenon, i.e.., any event which occurs without human participation, is the metaphysically given, and could not have occurred differently or failed to occur…” As an example, she says: “a flood occurring in an uninhabited land, is the metaphysically given…” Does this mean we cannot ask why the flood occurred? Are we simply to accept as an answer to this question, “The flood occurred because it is”? If we can’t require or demand an explanation or a reason for the occurrence or existence of any natural phenomenon, what is it that scientists are doing? If science is prohibited from asking questions about “metaphysical primaries” or that which is “metaphysically given,” there’s not much for scientists to do.
If, on the other hand, we can require an explanation or a reason for some “metaphysically given” realities, such as the existence of a flood or an earthquake, then why can’t we ask for an explanation or a reason for any “metaphysically given” reality? Such as the existence of the universe as a whole?
Furthermore, Ayn Rand’s conception of the universe doesn’t permit any chance or randomness, a view which is at odds with virtually all of modern physics. A metaphysically given “could not have occurred differently or failed to occur.” A metaphysically given “is absolutely necessary, must exist, and could not have existed otherwise.” These are assumptions par excellence. I cannot find anywhere in Rand’s writings, or in the writings of her disciples, any evidence supporting or justifying such assumptions. Taken literally on their face, these assumptions amount to saying, “a thing exists if it exists,” which is nothing more than a tautology of the first order; basically, it means nothing while meaning everything.
The Status of the Principle of Sufficient Reason
Does the universe require an explanation? George Smith, in his book Atheism: The Case Against God, argues that not everything requires an explanation and certainly not the natural universe. His reason for saying this is that the natural universe sets the context in which explanation is possible, so the concept of explanation cannot legitimately be extended to the universe as a whole. But this is the same argument given above by the Objectivists and it assumes that no supernatural cause exists outside the physical universe. There is no justification given for this assumption; it is simply stated as a given. It is not, however, self-evident on its face.
Smith also argues against the “dogma” of the principle of sufficient reason, claiming it can’t be used to demand an explanation for the existence of the universe. He claims the principle of sufficient reason is false. I am not sure he completely understands, however, what is meant by the principle of sufficient reason.
The principle of sufficient reason simply states that everything without exception must have an adequate reason or ground for its being and existence. Note that it asks for an “adequate reason” or a “ground,” not what we normally mean by “explanation.” Let’s consider the real meaning of this principle in detail.
Everything, in so far as it is a “being,” has reality. Whatever reality a being has, it must have it either of and by itself or from and by another being. In the first instance it has the sufficient reason for its reality in itself, and in the second instance it has it in another. This seems so obvious it’s difficult to see why someone would say it’s false.
Consider this. If something has no reality, it is not a “being” at all, and this simply because it has not received reality either of itself or from another being; in both cases it is a “not-being” because it has no sufficient reason for its reality. If it could have reality nevertheless, it would have to receive it from “nothing.” But “nothing” has no reality itself and can, therefore, never give reality to anything.
Consequently, were such a reality without a sufficient reason, it would both “be” and “not be” at the same time; it would “be,” because that is the supposition; and it would also “not be,” because having no sufficient reason to account for its reality except “nothing,” it could receive only that which “nothing” could give, which is precisely nothing.
But “to be” and “not to be” at the same time is a violation of the principle of contradiction; and that is an absurdity. Hence, if being has reality, it must have it either of itself or from another, that is, it must have a sufficient reason for itself. Nothing is without a sufficient reason. Everything must have a sufficient reason for its being and existence. Otherwise there would be no difference between “being” and “not-being.”
Mr. Smith either does not really understand the principle of sufficient reason, or he denies the truth of the principles of causality and contradiction, which are necessarily attached to the principle of sufficient reason.
This is one of the dangers of an incomplete metaphysical system or a metaphysical system which begins with mistaken initial premises. It is not, strictly speaking, “existence” which exists, as Objectivists Ayn Rand and Leonard Peikoff and atheist philosopher George Smith would have it. It is “being” which exists; “existence” is simply predicated of a being or an entity when it is actualized. “Existence” means that state of a being in virtue of which it is present as an actuality, and not merely as a possibility, distinct from the mind and, if it be a produced being, distinct from its producing cause.
Objectivism is also mistaken when it states that the metaphysical primary (or given) or primary truth is that the universe or nature exists and that the principle of identity (A is A) is the first principle of metaphysics. Misunderstandings in the beginning of a metaphysical system can have dire consequences later on in the development of the total system. Objectivism begins with some unwarranted assumptions, such as the non-existence of other than natural beings and causes, for which it offers no evidence.
Actually, the first fact of reality is my own existence&emdash;I exist. Then the first principle of reality is the principle of contradiction (with the other primary principles being derived from it, including the principle of identity). And, finally, the first condition of reality is the essential trustworthiness of my reason&emdash;I am capable of knowing truth.
Lastly, Objectivism and, for that matter, any atheistic philosophy, carried out to its logical conclusions, ends up being nothing more than philosophical Materialism, that is, nothing exists but matter in some form or another. If anything other than matter exists, it must be nonmaterial and this, of course, means “spiritual.” A philosophy of Materialism, carried out all the way to its extreme conclusions, actually becomes a philosophy of Idealism because it cannot avoid falling into Subjectivism. We have, then, the strange situation of the philosophy of Objectivism, as Rand and others propose it, becoming in reality a philosophy of Subjectivism.
NOTE: I received an e-mail regarding this article with a request to clarify some of the issues. Some specific questions were asked and I answered them in the Ask the Academy section.
I also wish to acknowledge the influence of Dr. Mortimer Adler’s thought about this issue in the preparation of this essay.
REFERENCES AND NOTES
George H. Smith, Atheism: The Case Against God (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1979), pp. 223-227.
Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (New York: Meridian, 1991), p. 16.
Modern physics has proposed universes with other dimensions than the three we are used to. Indeed, a new theory called the “superstring theory” has been proposed and is causing much excitement among physicist. This theory includes the possibility that the original universe was a ten-dimensional universe which then split into two, one part of which formed our universe of three dimensions. For more on this, I refer the reader to: Michio Kaku and Jennifer Thompson, Beyond Einstein: The Cosmic Quest for the Theory of the Universe (New York: Anchor Books, 1995).
One of the major problems with Objectivism, as I see it, is its inability to adjust its views to modern scientific findings. This, I suspect, is a weakness in its metaphysics, which appears to be incomplete or, at least, not very comprehensive. Indeed, Ms Rand appears not to be very knowledgeable with nor concerned with the empirical sciences at all, something I find strange for an allegedly “objective” and “realistic” philosophy.
Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: New American Library, 1982), pp. 23-34.
What Some Scientists Are Saying
Quantum mechanics, perhaps more clearly than any religion, points to the unity of the world. It also points to something beyond the physical world. It matters little which interpretation you choose – parallel universes, Feynman paths of action, quiffs that flow and pop, or consciousness as the creator. All of these interpretations point to the mystery of the physical world from a nonphysical perspective.
-Fred Alan Wolf,
Taking the Quantum Leap
God and the Astronomers
If the universe has a finite stock of order, and is changing irreversibly towards disorder – ultimately to thermodynamic equilibrium – two very deep inferences follow immediately. The frst is that the universe will eventually die, wallowing, as it were, in its own entropy. This known among physicists as the “heat death” of the universe. The second is that the universe cannot have existed for ever, otherwise it would have reached its equilibrium end state an infinite time ago. Conclusion: the universe did not always exist.
God and the New Physics
Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty was the Founder and President of The Center for Applied Philosophy and the Radical Academy, and is Honorary Philosophy Editor at The Moral Liberal. The Moral Liberal has adopted these projects beginning with a republishing and preserving of all of Dr. Dolhenty’s work.
The Moral Liberal recommends: Great Books of the Western World