I can’t escape the feeling that this week’s post is going to expose a fundamental misunderstanding on my part. I say this because the argument I want to examine is one that many apparently smart people find compelling, and yet I’ve never been able to see how it works, except at a rhetorical level. Maybe this is because the argument is indeed much weaker than many assume, or maybe it’s because I haven’t fully understood it. If the latter, hopefully someone out there will explain to me the error of my ways.
The argument in question is the argument that says God is the best explanation we have for the fact we exist at all. A simplified version of it goes something like this. In the world, we experience events and circumstances as things which have causes. Why are you wet? I stood out in the rain. Why did that cliff face erode? Wind and rain and wave action from below ate it away, etc. Everything we experience can be traced back to a prior cause. Why then the universe? Why does anything exist? We can trace physical existence all the way back to the Big Bang if we like, we might even be able to show, given the nature of our universe, that the Big Bang was itself inevitable, but still we might ask, well why is this the physical nature of the universe? Why is it not some other way? What is it that caused the circumstances that made it come into being?
We might at this point posit another universe, from which our own inevitably sprung, but this shifts the argument to that universe. Why did it exist? Either, the reasoning goes, we stretch back through infinity, or we must stop with a prime mover, some thing that was not caused, but nevertheless caused creation. And this, according to some theistic lines of reasoning, is God. God, some argue, makes more sense than an infinite regress, and so believing in God is more reasonable than not.
And I have to admit I find this argument unimpressive at every level (hence the sneaking suspicion I’m misframing it.) To begin with, the idea that all things must have a cause strikes me as more of a psychological quirk than a fact of existence. Yes, we understand the world best by thinking in terms of cause and effect, but does that really make it a necessary law of existence? Might it not be that some things just do happen for no reason whatsoever, and might not existence be exactly that sort of thing? Some of our most accurate physical models work by treating events as essentially causeless, so for example at the level of the very small, we describe the characteristics of sub-atomic particles using probability functions, where on average they conform to certain patterns, but in the individual case their behaviour is purely random. This is not to say that there can’t be some hidden level of causation at work, but it does give us at least reason to pause before announcing that causality is part of the universe’s very fabric.
Next up, the linear model of causation, where the preceding event causes the current one, works well within a framework of time that has one event happening strictly after another. But, move outside of time and space (notice we have no word to make that sentence sensible, ‘outside’ beyond’, whatever term you choose is tethered to time and space) and what are we even talking about? What came before the big bang? If we think in terms of the big bang event creating time and space, then before the big bang there was no before, nor any outside or beyond. The question itself becomes meaningless. People speak of this prime mover causing existence as if the idea of being outside of space and time makes perfect sense to them, and I’m suspicious of that.
How weird might reality really be? I suspect we have nothing like the capacity to sensibly answer that question. Existence might be to our brains what calculus is to the mind of a garden snail. And yet we, with typical overconfidence, are happy to assert that whatever existence is like, it will conform to this rather human-centric rule of cause and effect. (Could the effect not even be the cause, if we allow causation backwards through time? And if not, why not?)
My other big problem with the argument is that it doesn’t give us God, in any traditional sense. All it gives us is some thing that must, by its very nature, exist. So, if we accept, for reasons unknown, the idea that every thing must have a cause, apart from the one thing that is uncaused and hence allows all other things to be, then what characteristics must we assign to that concept? It seems to me, for the argument to work, the only quality this God figure needs to have is that it necessarily exists. So, on that basis, is the most parsimonious explanation not that the universe itself necessarily exists? God is existence. God’s qualities then are simply the qualities of the universe. There need be no purpose, no love, no moral qualities, just being. At this point the universe the naturalist believes in and the God the theist believes in are identical.
The real import of the existence argument then, I suspect, is not as much logical as psychological. We can not say, for there to be existence, there must be a God, nor can we argue reasonably that existence makes God more likely. The more honest argument is that a particular type of God helps us make sense of existence, and I have no doubt that for some people this is true. It’s not true for me, my nature is such that the choice appears to be between a universe I can’t make proper sense of, or a delightful range of Gods I can’t make sense of either. And so I am forced to live with mystery. And that suits me very well indeed.