What are “80/20 arguments”? Read the introduction →
I call this argument the “Why and Wherefore” argument, because it concerns the whys and wherefores of physical “stuff” existing. By “stuff” I mean really anything we might think of as physical, whether it’s matter, energy, physical laws, a quantum foam, etc.
If you’re familiar with the Kalam cosmological argument (which people like William Lane Craig use), this is similar. But I think it’s better in some ways. I’ll explain why as I go through it. But first, here’s the basic structure:
The bare bones
- There must be some explanation for why physical stuff exists (instead of nothing existing at all)
- The explanation for why physical stuff exists can either be that it must exist, or that something else made it exist
- But the explanation isn’t that it must exist
- So the explanation has to be that something else made it exist
Let’s go through each premise and expand a bit on what it means, and why it would be unreasonable or foot-shooting to deny it…
1. There must be some explanation for why stuff exists
This just seems obvious. If we know anything at all, we know that things don’t just happen without there being any reason for them happening—and that includes their existing in the first place. In philosophy, this is called the Principle of Sufficient Reason.
This premise is rather like the Kalam’s assertion that everything which begins to exist has a cause. But I think it’s better, because I’ve met a lot of skeptics who are willing to say that things can begin to exist without causes, and they point to virtual particles as an example from quantum physics. So let’s sidestep that issue. Even if virtual particles don’t have causes, they must still have explanations for coming into existence. (The laws of physics, perhaps.)
So there are only two ways out of this premise that I can see:
i. Deny that stuff exists
Obviously self-defeating. Even if you think the physical universe is an illusion, it is an illusion that exists, and so it needs an explanation. That’s why I used the word “stuff”. To cover every possible base. Even a quantum vacuum is some kind of stuff—it isn’t nothing as physicists like Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking mistakenly assume.
ii. Deny that we need explanations for stuff existing
A dedicated atheist might bite the bullet here. Take the example of virtual particles which are often used against the Kalam argument. He might say, no, there isn’t even an explanation for virtual particles coming into existence. But a dedicated atheist will pay most any price for his atheism. The important thing here is that a reasonable person can see the price for denying explanations is much higher than the price for denying causes. Too high, because aside from being intuitively irrational, it also self-destructs in some serious ways:
- It’s a bad hypothesis, scientifically speaking. If it were true that things could happen without there being any explanation for them, then anything could happen at any time. Pink elephants could fly through my lounge window right now without any explanation being required. The laws of physics could randomly change for no reason at all. Indeed, if things don’t need explanations, what constraint is there on anything and everything being the case all the time? But since anything and everything is not the case all the time, the “no explanations” assertion is effectively falsified.
- It’s a science-stopper. Science presupposes that everything it investigates has some kind of explanation. Yet if nothing in the universe has any explanation even for its very existence, the entire premise of science is scuttled. (Note also that if anything can happen for no reason, there could be no regularity in nature for science to rely on. Gravity might work now, but not in five minutes.)
- It conflicts with other beliefs the skeptic has. For instance, atheists almost always deny paranormal phenomena like miracles. But if things can happen without explanation, why should he deny anything that seems inexplicable to him? Shouldn’t he instead just assume that this is one of those things that doesn’t have an explanation?
2. The explanation for why stuff exists can either be that it must exist, or that something else made it exist
This also seems obvious. There are only two other options:
i. Stuff popped into existence without any explanation at all
But we’ve already agreed, in premise 1, that this is wildly implausible.
ii. Stuff made itself exist
This is logically impossible, because even if physical things had that kind of power, they would first have to exist in order to make themselves exist—an obvious contradiction in terms.
3. The explanation for why stuff exists isn’t that it must exist
Here we add a liiiittle more complexity to the argument than you’ll find in the Kalam. I think it’s worth it, because it squashes another very common objection straight up…
A lot of atheists I’ve talked with are keen to say that, although our universe had a beginning (the big bang), it came out of some prior physical state that just always existed. That gets around the second premise of the Kalam—namely, that the universe began to exist. They’ll just say, sure, the universe had a beginning and therefore had a cause, but that cause was some pre-existing physical state, and that did not have a beginning, so in your face.
Well, okay, let’s say that’s true. (I don’t think it is, but let’s assume it.) What is the explanation for the existence of this physical state before the big bang? Does it exist simply because it must, or does it exist because something else made it exist? You see how this keeps the argument moving forward when the Kalam comes to a standstill.
Neither option here is appealing to the skeptic. He’s on the horns of a dilemma:
i. Something else made stuff exist
This is the exact conclusion we’re gunning for—it leads straight to God, and the skeptic knows it. But the alternative is pretty hard to swallow as well…
ii. It is literally impossible for stuff (however we conceive it) to not have existed
Here the skeptic has to assert that physical things must exist, out of some kind of necessity. But this is extremely problematic for him:
- Firstly, it’s intuitively implausible. Even on the face of it, it just seems absurd to think physical stuff exists out of necessity. We have a commonsense intuition to the contrary: the physical world really doesn’t have to exist. So straight off the bat the skeptic, if he is honest, must admit that his explanation for stuff existing is no more plausible than ours. But things get a lot worse…
- Secondly, it’s self-contradictory. Implausible as it is to think the physical stuff must exist, it is outrageously more implausible to think that physical laws, for example, must be the way they are. But if stuff exists necessarily, then that includes the way it exists. You can’t separate that it exists from how it exists. This is the real problem with saying that things exist necessarily: to say X exists necessarily is to say that X exists necessarily in the way X exists. And that is something that just seems obviously wrong with respect to physical stuff.
To put this another way, if the skeptic is going to be fair-handed about the argument, he has to concede that it seems much more reasonable to think there must be an explanation for why physical laws are the way they are, than to think physical laws simply must be the way they are. As you may know from some fine-tuning arguments, there are a lot of variables in the formulas we use to describe quantum mechanics. We know that these formulas still work—physical stuff could still exist in some way—if the variables were different. Indeed, many of them have an infinite number of possible values. It is simply self-contradictory to say that physical variables could have other values, but that physical variables must be the values they are. Yet that is what a skeptic must assert if he wants to believe that physical things exist out of necessity.
Now, there may be a way of escape here—if the skeptic is willing to accept some kind of pantheism. This is the view that God is the universe, and it is quite a common view these days, with the rising popularity of some Eastern religions. I’ll talk about pantheism in another post, but I should also address it very briefly here:
Pantheism seems obviously wrong at least because, if the universe is God, then you and I (and everything else) are the same being. But you and I and everything else are just plainly not the same being. If pantheism is true, it seems to scuttle the idea that some stuff is distinct from other stuff; which makes it very hard to swallow, if not outright absurd.
4. Therefore, the explanation for why stuff exists must be that something else made it exist
This follows logically from the rest of the argument. Now the question becomes, what could this thing be?
On the face of it, we haven’t achieved much. To say stuff was made to exist by something is a far cry from saying it was created by God. But I’m taking things one step at a time. We actually can infer a great deal about what this “maker” must be like, from what is made. And in the next post, I’ll show you how. It’s easier than you might think.