This blog is having an
existential crisis

While I tinker with a new design, I’m also pondering how, what, and why I write here. I don’t know how long that will take, but you’re welcome to email me and see how things are progressing.

Stress-testing the
mind of Christ

Where a recovering ex-atheist rams the Bible into other worldviews to see what breaks (note: Scripture cannot be broken)


series
80/20 arguments for God: the Why and Wherefore argument, part 2

Once we have the conclusion that something made physical stuff, there are at least 10 things we can infer about what that “something” must look like…

← continued from part 1 where I explain the argument itself

In the previous installment I walked through a simple kind of cosmological argument. The conclusion was that the explanation for why stuff exists must be that something else made it exist.

Btw, if you read the comments of the previous post, you’ll see an atheist named Steven who prefers to say that physical stuff just must exist in some way or other. So he avoids the conclusion of our argument—and he is within his rights to do so. But as I said in the last post, his alternative is a self-evidently poorer option than our conclusion.

To give an illustration, imagine if we found an obelisk on Mars whose proportions conformed perfectly to the golden ratio. It would just seem absurd to claim that it exists inexplicably, out of necessity, with no other explanation for its existence besides its being a well-proportioned obelisk on Mars. That’s obviously a terrible explanation—indeed, it is a science-stopper. It would remain a terrible explanation if we imagine the obelisk were much longer, or more massive, or even if we imagine that the laws describing its physical characteristics were different entirely—indeed, even if the obelisk were the only thing that existed. But in that case, there’s no significant difference between claiming that the obelisk must exist necessarily, and claiming that any physical state of affairs must exist necessarily. It’s obviously a non-explanation—especially when we have the alternative that something else made physical stuff.

But what would such a maker look like?

It’s all very well to say that physical stuff was made by something—but what? Well, let’s see what conclusions we can draw about the maker’s attributes, based on what is made. I see 10 major characteristics we can infer very reasonably. There may be more, but these are the ones I’ve been able to spot. So, the maker must be…

1. Non-physical

After all, if it were physical it would be a part of all physical things, and couldn’t therefore have made them. So the maker exists, but is non-material. This seems to be, by definition, the same thing that Christians call spirit. Indeed, the very reason we are not to make any kind of image of God (Exodus 20:4) is that God doesn’t have a physical form.

2. Unimaginably powerful

The maker was able to bring the entire, incomprehensibly vast physical universe into existence from nothing. It didn’t simply rearrange existing physical stuff (although that would, in itself, require unimaginable power). Rather, it gave the stuff existence in the first place. This is a distinctive hallmark of what Christians call omnipotence.

3. Supremely intelligent and imaginative

The maker made a staggering variety of things, many of which are so complex we’ve only just started to discover that we know virtually nothing about their intricacies. They, in turn, work according to rules that our brightest minds have been stumped for decades on decoding. This kind of intelligence and imagination are obvious hallmarks of omniscience. They also show that the creator is personal: a mind of some kind—not just an “it”, but, as Christianity would claim, a “he”.

4. Necessary

The maker must have its explanation within itself; something that cannot not exist. If it weren’t necessary, it wouldn’t be the explanation of why physical stuff exists after all. Necessity is what Christians refer to as God’s aseity—his existing “a se”, or “from himself”. He simply is. In his own words to Moses, “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14).

5. Unimaginably beautiful

It’s hard to find anything in the physical world that isn’t beautiful in some way, or to someone. If such beauty exists in what is made, how much more must it exist in the maker? And beauty is one of the hallmarks of goodness—or in Christian parlance, omnibenevolence.

Is the maker just beautiful, or actually beauty itself?

I think we can reasonably suggest that the maker is the actual standard by which we measure beauty. This is because if he is just beautiful according to some outside yardstick, this adds another necessary being into the mix, with all the attributes associated with beauty: moral goodness, creativity etc. This violates Occam’s Razor, which is a principle saying, in essence, that simpler explanations tend to be the right ones. We already know that the maker is necessary, intelligent, creative etc; so it makes more sense to think that he is also the standard of beauty, rather than that he merely conforms to some other standard outside himself.

6. Continually involved in the world

This is a particularly interesting implication of our argument: because physical things do not exist out of necessity, they do not exist out of necessity now any more than when they were first made. But this means the maker must be continually causing everything to exist. This is one of the hallmarks of sovereignty, and in Christianity relates back to the Word of God, who is “sustaining all things by the word of his power” (Hebrews 1:3). Or, as Paul puts it,

Because all things in the heavens and on the earth were created by him, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers, all things were created through him and for him, and he himself is before all things, and in him all things are held together (Colossians 1:16-17)

7. Possessed of complete knowledge of, and power over, what he has made

This follows logically from the maker’s continual involvement in the world. If everything exists only because he makes it so, then he must know and control everything which exists down to the last possible detail. After all, how could he make something to exist without knowing exhaustively what he was making? Again, these are hallmarks of sovereignty, omniscience and omnipotence:

He determines the number of the stars; he gives to each their name. Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is without limit. (Psalm 147:4-5)

8. Purposeful

If the maker made physical things for no reason, then we once again have no explanation of why there are physical things. His intelligence, imagination, beauty, and continual involvement in the world all point to his having a purpose in making it. To deny that the maker intends to achieve something through what he has made just seems to deny the obvious. Christianity ascribes the best possible purpose to the maker: namely, the manifestation of his perfections, including his creativity, goodness, beauty and so on. In Christian terms, God created the universe for his glory. Look at Psalm 19:1-4 for example:

The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands. Day to day they pour forth speech; night to night they tell knowledge. There is no speech and there are no words; their sound is inaudible. Yet in all the world their line goes out, and their words to the end of the world.

9. Good

Goodness seems to be a fundamental part of the world. It cannot be explained in terms of something other than itself—good just is good. When we try to explain it in terms of something else, we actually end up explaining it away, because it is no longer good, but something else entirely (like an evolved instinct, in the case of evolutionary psychology).

If goodness is so basic to reality, then presumably it must issue from the maker. As with beauty, we can infer that the maker just is good. (He cannot be evil because we can only explain evil by reference to goodness. A good maker can be the explanation of both good and evil; but an evil maker can be the explanation of neither.) In Christian language, God is holy:

But Yahweh of hosts is exalted by justice, and the holy God shows himself holy by righteousness. (Isaiah 5:16)

I saw the Lord sitting on a high and raised throne, and the hem of his robe was filling the temple. Seraphs were standing above him. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And the one called to the other and said, “Holy, holy, holy is Yahweh of hosts! The whole earth is full of his glory.” And the pivots of the thresholds shook from the sound of those who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said, “Woe to me! For I am destroyed! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I am living among a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the king, Yahweh of hosts!”

10. Loving

Since the creator is both good and purposeful, and since we are part of his creation, we can reasonably conclude that he has a good purpose for us. You might say he has an attitude aimed at what is best for us. More colloquially, he loves us. Again, Christianity claims in 1 John 4:16 that God is love.

Could the maker be some other God?

Possibly. He could be a god very like the Christian God in the attributes we’ve identified. He could perhaps be Krishna or Allah. But the list is rather short. And I think it’s unreasonable to imagine that he is some other, unknown deity—because we know he is loving and has a purpose for us, and therefore would presumably have revealed this to us in some way.

So while this is a very simple argument, its conclusion gives us a lot to work with in terms of showing that God, as we understand him to be, exists. But it is by no means the only such argument; and in the next installment I’ll walk through another.

To be continued…

6 comments

  1. Steven

    Clearly, it’s absurd to explain the existence of an obelisk whose proportions conform perfectly to the golden ratio by saying it exists out of necessity. But, is it comparably absurd to say that some, unspecified physical state of affairs exists out of necessity? I can’t imagine why. You seem to lose all of your intuitive traction the minute you start talking about an *unspecified* physical state of affairs. That is, I think you *need* highly specified traits such as perfect conformity with the golden ratio to render necessity-explanations absurd.

    So, I guess I don’t see any theoretical advantages in saying the concrete, necessary object that explains the existence of contingent physical stuff is non-physical rather than physical. But, I can see disadvantages in doing so: in positing an entirely new kind of substance, you unnecessarily break from parsimony.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Steven, the reason I mentioned the golden ratio is that it’s an obvious indicator of design. Rather like a universe whose laws are precisely tuned to allow human life.

    If some other physical state of affairs led to this universe, then that just seems to push the problem back a step.

    Mind you, even if design is not on the table, it’s just not a feature of physical things that they exist out of necessity. As I mentioned to James on the previous post, if all physical things are contingent, and “the universe” is just a label for the sum of all physical things, how could the universe be other than contingent?

  3. Steven

    Dominic: In trying to explain why contingent physical stuff exists you posit a necessary non-physical cause and I posit a necessary physical cause.

    Why is your explanation better? Well, it’s more amenable to your intuitions, which is fair enough. But, I don’t share those intuitions. So, are there other reasons to prefer your account, perhaps more intersubjective reasons?

    Well, you suggest that the fine-tuning of the laws of nature for human life is a feature of the universe better accounted for by your explanation than mine.

    But, the chances that nature’s laws would permit human life don’t seem to be any higher on your explanation than on mine. The deity you posit could fine-tune the laws for any number of non-human life forms, if it chose to create natural laws at all! It could create any number of different non-physical beings requiring no natural laws at all. What are the odds that it would choose humans of all possible creatures (physical and non-physical)? Mind boggling.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Steven, one obvious reason to prefer my explanation is that many non-physical things seem to exist necessarily (such as numbers), while no physical things seem to exist necessarily. Indeed, all the physical things we know of exist contingently.

    You could try to dodge that by saying that numbers don’t exist as non-physical things, but that kind of nominalism comes with its own set of problems.

    Another reason is that a non-physical, necessary mind explains the existence of other minds, while physicalism cannot (the hard problem of consciousness).

    A third, related reason is morality; a necessary mind who just is good is a sound explanation for morality, while again, physicalism cannot explain morality without explaining it away.

    A fourth is the fine-tuning argument. I don’t really get your objection here. For one thing, Christians believe God did create non-physical beings requiring no natural laws (or at least no physical natural laws). But since he also created humans as well, we should expect the universe to be fine-tuned for their existence — which it is. That’s an obviously superior explanation to blind chance.

  5. Steven

    Dominic: Great :) You’ve given four reasons to prefer a necessary cause that is non-physical to a necessary cause that is physical. How good are these reasons?

    First, you suggest that all physical things are contingent because every physical thing we know of is contingent. But, this assumes that the initial state of the universe is contingent, a claim we have no scientific or philosophical evidence for. More importantly though, my explanation claims that there is only one necessary physical thing, so if the overwhelming majority of physical things are contingent, then my account has successfully predicted reality & that can hardly count against it. Further, I could parody this objection by suggesting that all non-physical things are contingent since every non-physical thing we know of is contingent.

    Next, you say that non-physical minds are better accounted for on your explanation than on physicalism. But, all physicalism says is that every object is physical. Most physicalists believe there are irreducibly mental properties like consciousness. So, non-physical minds are not opposed to physicalism unless they’re substances. But, I’m no physicalist anyways, and my explanation certainly doesn’t entail physicalism.

    Your third reason is that morality is better accounted for by a just and good non-physical mind than by my explanation. But, your thesis is not that there is a just and good non-physical mind, only that there’s a necessary non-physical mind.

    Finally, you compare the Christian God to my explanation with respect to the fine-tuning for human life. But, we’re not comparing those positions, we’re just trying to see whether the necessary thing that explains contingent physical stuff is itself physical or non-physical. As I said, your non-physical cause is no more likely to choose to create humans than my physical cause is to indeterministically generate human life-permitting laws.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Steven…

    1. I think you need to explain what this initial necessary physical state looks like. What sort of properties does it have? If it has parts, what is the explanation of these? If it does not, how could it give rise to all the physical diversity we see? I suppose you could postulate that it is simply a brute fact, but that’s an obviously inferior solution to the sophisticated Aristotelian or Thomistic view, which has a ready explanation built in with no need for non-explanations like “brute facts”.

    Btw, not all non-physical things are contingent. Not by a long shot.

    2. If there are irreducibly mental properties, then every object is not physical. Properties are instantiated in the corresponding category of object. So if there are mental properties, there are mental objects (minds). I’m curious that you say you aren’t a physicalist. I take it you accept some form of dualism?

    3. As you can see from the article above these comments, my thesis is that if there is a necessary non-physical cause, then not only is that cause intelligent and personal, but it constitutes goodness. So as an overarching explanatory principle, my position seems to work much better than the alternatives.

    4. I don’t understand this objection given the various inferences I’ve drawn in the article above. If all we could say about the necessary thing that explains contingent physical stuff was that it is non-physical, you’d have a point. But that doesn’t seem to be all we can say. Indeed, we can say a great deal more which plainly points to it being a good explanation for the otherwise intractable problem of the statistical improbability of human life.

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