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Theology, philosophy & apologetics from Reformed marketing expert Dominic Bnonn Tennant


80/20 arguments for God: the Why and Wherefore argument, part 1

By D Bnonn Tennant

This first argument is both easy and persuasive because it makes good intuitive sense. It involves finding the most likely answer to why there is something rather than nothing.

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

  1. There must be some explanation for why physical stuff exists (instead of nothing existing at all)
  2. The explanation for why physical stuff exists can either be that it must exist, or that something else made it exist
  3. But the explanation isn’t that it must exist
  4. So the explanation has to be that something else made it exist

Walkthrough

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:

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:

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.

Continued in part 2, where I show all the suspiciously God-like attributes we can deduce about the maker →

16 comments

  1. Greg Schneeberger

    B,

    Please keep these up. I plan on posting each one as you finish it. This is very helpful and a great service to the church (as well as many others).

  2. James Mayuga

    I agree that a fair-minded person would find your arguments thought provoking (to say the least). A hardcore skeptic might argue that your arguments don’t address other possibilities like some form of pantheism, or modal realism, or ultimate ensemble, or appeal to the B-theory of time and a block universe view.

    The hardcore skeptic could, like Parmenides, argue that whatever is, IS. And it is so eternally and unchangeably. And so, the universe or the multi-verse (world ensemble) is itself the ultimate or supreme being which needs no explanation outside of itself. There would be no need for God. This is an objection that Cornelius Van Til often made (when he played the anti-theist advocate). It always made sense to me and so why also the use of presuppositional arguments are so necessary. Van Til also pointed out that the anti-theist would be consistent in saying that things and events can come to pass without cause or explanation. Though, you’re right that it comes at a great cost to the skeptic. It would undermine his trust in science and his ability to argue against the paranormal. Van Til also pointed out that the cause of the universe need not be a personal God but something like Anaximander’s apeiron. Something which Ron Nash pointed out has many of the attributes of “nothing”. Which itself reminds me of Lawrence Krauss’ use of “nothing” (though, his “nothing” isn’t true no-thing-ness). heh

    Regarding your premise #2, if the skeptic appealed to eternalism or the B-theory of time, it seems it would make an explanation unnecessary. Things just are eternally, unchangeably and necessarily. Regardless of whether one rejects or accepts the multiverse theory. All appearances of temporality or causality are illusory.

  3. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Greg, thanks. Where are you posting them? I’m very happy for you to share them—I’m just curious.

    James, yeah, hardcore skeptics can come up with all kinds of silly “refutations” to simple arguments :) I think pantheism is the most promising, and certainly there are a lot of people who would take that kind of a view, so I’ll be addressing it separately. I don’t think moral realism or the ultimate ensemble sidestep this argument (they obfuscates the problem rather than removing it). And I definitely don’t see why a block universe would eliminate the problem. Eternality is a pain for the Kalam argument, but as I discussed under premise 3, I don’t think it affects this argument very much. Indeed, I’m very sympathetic to the B-theory…yet I can’t imagine how it would eliminate the need for an explanation of the universe.

    Btw, while I don’t take a Van Tillian approach to apologetics, presuppositional arguments played a huge factor in overcoming my unbelief as a new atheist. So you can look forward to seeing some decidedly presuppositional logic in future posts.

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Btw James, I’ve made some tweaks to the argument, and the walkthrough structure, based on your comments—thank you :)

  5. James Mayuga

    I look forward to the future installments in the series :-)

  6. BobF

    Fyi, it’s inaccurate to say Craig doesn’t use this (although I grant you don’t explicitly say that). As a matter of fact, Craig sometimes uses a different presentation from his usual 5-point presentation (with Kalam) and instead uses the exact same Leibnizian approach you have here.

  7. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Bob, thanks for stopping by :) Yeah, Craig used the Leibnizian approach in his recent debates with Krauss. I assume for the same reason I advocate it. I think that was a smart move. But I think most people know him for the Kalãm version. Most Christians I’ve talked to who know “the” cosmological argument know the Kalãm, and they know it from him.

  8. Steven

    I guess I don’t find (3) plausible. As a naturalist, endorsing your first premise tells me that something natural exists necessarily. But, why should we expect to know what this is? We hardly know anything about the universe. Perhaps it’s the initial state of the universe, who knows. I honestly see nothing implausible about this, especially when I consider the alternative: the arguments against God’s existence are simply too conclusive to consider theism a viable option.

  9. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Steven, I guess my first question to you would be, did you have a choice in finding premise (3) implausible?

    If the natural world exists necessarily, in the state that it does…and you are part of the natural world…then it seems you necessarily find (3) implausible. Do you not?

  10. Steven

    Hey Dominic, I don’t think rejecting (3) commits us to determinism. (3) is false either if some natural thing is necessary, or if every natural thing is necessary.

    Because determinism seems false to me, I’m committed to there being a necessarily existent natural thing, such as the initial state of the universe or some such.

    But, I don’t think any of us really has a choice in what we believe, whether determinism is true or false. That is, I reject direct doxastic voluntarism.

  11. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Fair enough. I’m curious as to whether you’d find a metaphysically necessary physical state intuitively implausible if you didn’t have other reasons for rejecting theism? Ie, do we just have wildly different intuitions in this regard, or are your antecedent presuppositions attenuating your intuitions in this case?

    Btw, I’d be very interested to know which arguments against the existence of God you think are conclusive. I’m not planning to rebut them or anything; I just think it would be helpful in terms of doing another series perhaps, or providing insights that could improve this series.

  12. Steven

    It seems unintuitive that our universe had to exist, or that its laws take the values they did: determinism is extremely counterintuitive. But, I’ve never thought it unintuitive that some, unspecified thing be physical and necessary. I’d probably need to learn more about it.

    As far as arguments against God that strike me as conclusive, here’s one:

    1. If God exists, then every child ultimately benefits from any suffering it endures.
    2. If every child ultimately benefits from any suffering it endures, then no child may undergo a suffering so bad that it provides morally sufficient reason to prevent it.
    3. But, a child may undergo a suffering so bad that it provides morally sufficient reason it.
    4. Therefore, God doesn’t exist.

  13. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Thanks Steven, I appreciate it.

  14. James Mayuga

    I understand you’re not aiming for an absolutely certain argument. But, if you don’t mind, I’d like to use both Van Tillian apologetics and play the atheist advocate to critique your argument. My goal is to sharpen both our apologetical knives.

    “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.”

    Not everyone shares this intuition. Intuitions can be false. Especially commonsense ones. I do think there’s a place for appealing to intuition in evangelism, but I’m wary of its use in apologetics. We may only have the intuition that the physical world doesn’t have to exist because *inside* the universe we’re constantly seeing the rearrangement of atoms that results in the appearance of conglomerate things coming into and out of “existence”. From which we understandably (but wrongly) infer that since the things IN the universe is contingent, therefore the ENTIRE universe is contingent. But that commits the Fallacy of Composition.

    “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 Kal?m comes to a standstill.”

    Gordon Clark seems to me to have demonstrated that there’s nothing logically contradictory in the idea of there being an infinite regress of causes.

    “Indeed, if things don’t need explanations, what constraint is there on anything and everything being the case all the time?”

    I think there’s something to Van Til’s point that given atheism, it’s not inconsistent to believe that things happen contingently and causelessly for no reason or explanation. We might not like it, and it might destroy the possibility of science, but if there is no rational almighty God who consistently/faithfully upholds the universe, then why assume the universe should be orderly, predictable or rationally accessible or explainable/explicable? An atheist will ask, “Why must the universe conform to our expectations?”

    “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.”

    I think it’s useful to repeat something Bahnsen often pointed out. Namely, perceptions of plausibility/implausiblity, possibility/impossibility, probability/improbability are both 1. a function of and 2. rated by one’s worldview.

    “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.”

    An atheist would say it “seems” that way to you, but not to him.

    “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.”

    An atheist could say our universe is the way it is with its specific laws because the multiverse generator produced it that way. If you’re asking for why the generator itself is the way it is, then your previous statement would be a sufficient answer. Namely, “to say X exists necessarily is to say that X exists necessarily in the way X exists.” There may be variability in the kinds of universes that the generator spits out, but the generator itself need not be other than the way it is. Meaning, it may be the case that the universe generator itself must exist in the way it does. If the generator is eternal, then it may have been producing universes forever. In which case, by random chance alone the existence of our universe with its specific laws wouldn’t be implausible. W.L. Craig argues for the finite temporal existence of all of physical reality (which includes the generator) using the BVG Theorem. It’s disputed whether he succeeds, and by his own admission he doesn’t aim for certainty in his argument for the actual beginning of the universe. Also, he presupposes the A-theory of time.

    “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.”

    Perceptions can be deceiving. Given the B-theory of time and the block view of the universe, then some form of monism might be true. I listed a few in my previous post.

    Both your first premise and your conclusion doesn’t give a reason why you leave out of your definition of “stuff” God Himself. If you did include Him, then God Himself might need to be made by something else. Obviously, you’re limiting yourself to the physical universe. But then, maybe monism is true and that one being (i.e. all of physical reality) is itself that supreme (but impersonal) being which must necessarily exist and that needs no external cause.

    Similarly, I also get the impression that you equivocate in your use of the word “stuff” and when referring to the physical universe. Either that or you aren’t specific enough in what you’re referring to. Sometimes you’re referring to (merely) OUR universe, sometimes to all of physical reality (including our universe, the multiverse generator, and all other possible universes).

    That’s why I prefer the way W.L. Craig phrases his Contingency Argument. Especially, the way he phrases the first premise.

    “Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.”

    Here’s a link to a video to Craig’s Contingency Argument http://youtu.be/KbbE8ZLzcRk?t=4m19s

    His whole argument hinges on the assumption that the universe is an effect. Since, effects logically require a cause, the physical omniverse (which includes the generator) must therefore have a transcendent immaterial cause. However, an atheist would ask why assume the universe is an effect in the first place?

  15. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey James, thanks for your comment. Let’s see how I do against your atheist advocate :)

    Not everyone shares this intuition. Intuitions can be false. Especially commonsense ones.

    I think it’s quite easy to draw this intuition out. Here’s an illustration I used in part 2, to further explain why appealing to physical necessity is a non-explanation, and a science-stopper to boot:

    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.

    I think a dedicated atheist will still bite the bullet and take physical necessity over a maker, but there are plenty of other arguments we can also employ against such a person (I was personally convicted by epistemological arguments when I was a dedicated atheist). Remember, this is just one argument in a series. But if we can show that there is no difference in principle between claiming physical necessity for the obelisk on Mars, and claiming physical necessity for whatever state of affairs led to our universe (as I think is quite easy to do), then I think we can show just how unreasonable an “explanation” the atheist is opting for in the teeth of a much better one that he doesn’t like.

    I do think there’s a place for appealing to intuition in evangelism, but I’m wary of its use in apologetics.

    Look, I’ll be a bit blunt here, and I don’t by any means intend offense — but most of the unsaved world is not comprised of university-educated atheists with a reasonable knowledge of philosophy and the detachment to evaluate an argument without concern for its effect on their lives. Most people are swayed when their intellects follow their feelings, because their feelings don’t tend to follow their intellects. So most people find the moral argument much more persuasive than, say, the argument from logic, because the argument from logic is incomprehensible to them, while the moral argument uses concepts they understand well, and appeals to their deepest intuitions about right and wrong.

    I agree with you that intutions are not infallible. But they are very useful, because they’re the software God built into us so we can understand basically what the world is like. As such, I don’t think it’s possible, nor desirable, to avoid using them in apologetics. What we should focus on is using them carefully and well.

    we understandably (but wrongly) infer that since the things IN the universe is contingent, therefore the ENTIRE universe is contingent. But that commits the Fallacy of Composition.

    It only commits the fallacy of composition if the property of the parts in question does not distribute to the whole. But existence does distribute from the parts to the whole; indeed, “the universe” is just a label we use to describe the totality of physical stuff. If “the universe” just is shorthand for “the sum of contingent physical stuff”, then I’m at a loss to even understand what it would mean to say that the universe could have properties, like necessity, which are distinct from the sum of contingent physical stuff.

    Gordon Clark seems to me to have demonstrated that there’s nothing logically contradictory in the idea of there being an infinite regress of causes.

    I’m not sure I’d say there is anything logically contradictory in the notion. The problem with regress is not logical possibility, but nomological possibility, and I think that’s something Craig shows quite effectively. But my argument really has nothing to do with that. The question my argument would raise is simply: what explains the infinite regress of causes? There can’t be no explanation, surely?

    I think there’s something to Van Til’s point that given atheism, it’s not inconsistent to believe that things happen contingently and causelessly for no reason or explanation. We might not like it, and it might destroy the possibility of science, but if there is no rational almighty God who consistently/faithfully upholds the universe, then why assume the universe should be orderly, predictable or rationally accessible or explainable/explicable? An atheist will ask, “Why must the universe conform to our expectations?”

    If the atheist wants to cut off his nose to spite his face, I’m all for that. There’s nothing more silly than for an atheist to complain that Christianity is irrational or unbelievable while opting for an alternative that undermines his entire approach to knowledge-acquisition. If this argument is so strong it can force an atheist to give up science rather than admit that something made the universe, then I’d say I’ve done a damned fine job :D Bear in mind that without regeneration, people are inclined to avoid God at all costs. We want to make the cost as high as possible to clear away the intellectual debris that obstructs faith in the first place. But we can’t manufacture faith itself.

    I think it’s useful to repeat something Bahnsen often pointed out. Namely, perceptions of plausibility/implausiblity, possibility/impossibility, probability/improbability are both 1. a function of and 2. rated by one’s worldview.

    No argument here. And I’d absolutely be ready to start asking followup questions of someone who had a different sense of plausiblity here, so I could find out what governing assumptions were skewing his perception so badly, and expose them in turn. But that’s rather beyond the scope of this post. I’d have to write like, a whole book to deal with that kind of thing ;)

    There may be variability in the kinds of universes that the generator spits out, but the generator itself need not be other than the way it is.

    Since the generator is also physical, this just pushes the problem back a step. Indeed, this is exactly why I refer to “stuff” in my argument, rather than “the universe”. A “generator” is still “stuff”.

    Perceptions can be deceiving. Given the B-theory of time and the block view of the universe, then some form of monism might be true. I listed a few in my previous post.

    Sure, and I’ll go into more detail on this in another post. I think monism collapses under its own weight, but the argument there is more complex and philosophical, and I only had space for a much simpler appeal to common sense here.

    Both your first premise and your conclusion doesn’t give a reason why you leave out of your definition of “stuff” God Himself.

    Well, that’s just an issue of clarification, which I’ve now taken care of. Since God is not physical, he is not comprised of “stuff” :)

    “Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.”

    I prefer this formulation too, but the purpose of this 80/20 series is to appeal to 80% of Christians, not the 20% who feel comfortable parsing a sentence like that :) Still, maybe “stuff” is not the ideal word. I’m open to suggestions. Perhaps “physical states”?

  16. Chip Fleury

    Personally for people (simple) like myself the word “stuff” is useful and understandable. My vote .. keep it.

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