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God’s existence and ours: He’s necessary, we ain’t

Is it true that if God isn’t a necessary part of our equations he isn’t necessary to our universe? Fundamentalist atheists and fundamentalist Christians think so. In this essay the question of the existence of God is investigated from a philosophical perspective. At the end are some tables summarising the main points.

 

Two of the most important questions we can ask are “Is there a supreme being, a God, who made and rules over everything? And if there is, what does he have to do with us and us with him now?” Many people make it difficult for themselves even to start on a journey towards an answer to those questions by having an image of God as, literally, an “old man in the sky”, a kind of super-Zeus. He supposedly occasionally interferes with things down here by performing a helpful miracle, but otherwise just watches (disapprovingly!). They probably even think this is what the Church teaches. However, this misunderstanding fails to do justice to the Church’s genuine teaching. Indeed, this way of thinking reduces God to basically the same kind of thing as us, just a bigger or more powerful version! This is the viewpoint expressed in the inscription on one Scottish tombstone:

“Here lie I, Martin Elginbrodde;

Ha’e mercy o’ my soul, Lord God,

As I would do, were I Lord God

And ye were Martin Elginbrodde.”

But, of course, to treat ourselves and God as interchangeable is, quite apart from being possibly disrespectful, basically silly! As we will see, God is completely different to anything or anyone else.

 

Another problem people have is that they see science and God as competitors. God vs the logical Mr Spock from Star Trek. This, too, is a misconception. Let’s look at this one first.

 

Many people believe science can explain everything and we don't need to think about God at all. They point to the progress of science and the fact that more and more things which seemed to be beyond natural explanation in the past are now understood as the result of natural causes.  (E.g., lightning or life.) Others claim that there must be “gaps” in nature which cannot be filled by science but only by divine miracles.  For example, they point to the big-bang at the very beginning of the universe and ask “Ah, but who caused that, if there was nothing before it in time!” So, who is right? Neither, as it turns out!

 

In the end, science can do absolutely nothing to help us answer the two most important questions of all about the cosmos: Why does anything exist, rather than nothing? And why this particular something, this universe? The reason for this is that science is about explaining change. It shows how we get from one state in nature to another using the concept of scientific laws, which describe the patterns or regularities that natural processes follow. In other words, science needs 2 things to start with to explain or predict anything:

  1. A set of natural laws.
  2. Something for the laws actually to describe (since a mere set of equations don't have the power to do anything or make reality).

Now, obviously, this means science can never explain why there is a universe described by these laws.  Indeed, the ultimate goal of physics is to work out the one great equation that governs the whole material universe and includes within it all the other equations. (They already have a name for it.  The T.O.E., “theory of everything”!) Therefore, when science has gone as far as it can go, the biggest questions remain untouched.

 

Let's have a look at this fundamental question of existence.  Now, either something exists because it has to, by its own very nature, or it doesn't have to exist, but does exist because of something else. Philosophers say the first kind of being is necessary, while the second type is contingent[i]. 

 

Contingent Nature

 

Clearly, none of the particular things that make up the universe have to exist. They are contingent, not necessary.  There is no reason that the clothes you are wearing must exist: as you would soon see if you took them off and set them on fire. (This is not a recommendation!) However, somebody could claim that while none of the individual bits and pieces that make up the universe are necessary, and so need “something else” to cause them, they cause each other. And so the universe as a whole is necessary. This could be represented by the following diagram:

 

Each arrow represents the process of one thing/being/event leading to, or causing, another. Where arrows begin or end there is a thing/being/event.

 
 

 

 

 

 

A self-explanatory universe?

 
 

 

 


Notice that there are no “loose ends” in this network, nor things without a cause. Well, except for one thing: the network itself! The universe as a whole does not explain itself, so to speak.  Why is it there at all? Drawing a clever little web does not get us any closer to answering this basic question.

 

(In fact, a similar idea to this has been proposed by Professor Stephen Hawking, where the apparent “loose end” of the beginning in time of the universe, the start of the Big Bang, is re-attached as an effect (more or less) to the space-time matrix by virtue of some sublime mathematics associated with a branch of Physics called quantum mechanics. In other words, the beginning of the universe no longer looks like an inexplicably unique point which explains everything coming after it, but cannot be explained naturally itself. Professor Hawking has provocatively implied that nature might then be self-sufficient, with no need for God, as there is nothing left for him to do, not even set the ball rolling, so to speak! On the other hand he has admitted that such clever mathematics does not solve the fundamental problem of accounting for the existence of the universe. Indeed, he asks "[w]hat is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?” and admits that "[t]he usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the question of why there should be a universe for the model to describe.")

 

To say a set of contingent beings can explain or cause each other is rather like this. Imagine you came across a circle of people holding hands — but all apparently hovering with their feet a metre above the ground! You ask them how they are managing this, where are the strings or ropes? What will be your reaction if they answer “No, no, each of us is able to be up here because the person on our left is pulling each of us up, and since we are in a circle, that means we can all be pulled up”? I hope you wouldn’t accept the explanation! Try it if you like!

 

Necessary God

 

Therefore we need to go outside the contingent universe to explain its existence. Yet, if we just go to another contingent being such as a previous universe or a cosmic nursery of universes (a super-universe which develops into ours and many others) we make no progress: we just extend the extent of contingency, of nature. We need to get back to a necessary being to account for all these contingent beings. How could a being be necessary, though? It’s relatively easy to see that an apple, a brick, the Moon, or even this specific universe as a whole have nothing about them that makes their non-existence inconceivable or impossible. It’s harder to work out what could make a being necessary! We can start by going beyond particular things like those just named to what philosophers call universals; concepts like truth, love, or even the idea of a sphere. But these are all just that, concepts, ideas. While they seem independent of the particular characteristics of particular material universes, how they would actually exist outside a mind or cause anything on their own is the key question. So we must leave them to one side for the moment, since they are not the solution to our problem, even if they are in some sense necessary.

 

A clue to the solution to our problem is a property all contingent beings have in common: their existence (that they are) is separate from their essence (what they are). The difference between the conception of an apple (that is, the set of qualities or properties of the apple, not the mental act) and a real apple is in the existence, not the essence, so existence and essence must be different: and thus the imagined apple does not have existence, while the real one does. There is no quality or property an apple in itself has that makes it impossible for it to cease to exist or accounts for its existence in the first place. In other words, apples can either exist or not exist. They are not necessary. That means we require, for a necessary being, one where the essence and existence are inseparable, identical. We require a being whose very essence is to exist. A philosopher’s name for such a being would be Existence Itself. When I said we require it, remember that we are forced to find a real necessary being to explain all the undeniably real contingent (unnecessary) ones.[ii]

 

Eureka! We have found it: an explanation for the existence of the universe! Only trouble is, it raises as many questions as it answers. What else can we know about this mysterious Existence Itself? Does it not have any other characteristics? And how does this explain why we have this particular universe, and not some other type?

 

Fortunately, it turns out that a lot can be derived from this rather bare definition and the fact that the necessary being caused all other beings. Since this being is not limited by particular characteristics, it isn’t this thing instead of that thing, it is unlimited. Anything which hints at the inferiority of limits or particularity is out. Also, we know this being had to have caused everything else, so all the positive qualities exhibited in Creation must be represented in superior form in the Creator[iii]. So it cannot be any kind of object with a specific shape or size or temperature or composition[iv]; nor can it be in any way “dead”, ignorant, unable to choose, powerless or evil[v]. This means we are dealing with a non-material (spiritual) living being who is perfectly good, all-knowing, all-powerful and able to do whatever it wants. Hence, he[vi] could freely choose to create or not to create, and what kind of Creation to bring into existence. Thus the reason we have the universe we do can best be expressed by the statement “it just took the Creator’s fancy to do it that way: he doesn’t need a reason”[vii].

 

By now you should recognise the common name for this being: God.

 

It should be noted that God is not just another good “thing”, he is goodness itself. Otherwise he would be limited to a particular manifestation of goodness; he would be good in “this way”, and therefore not in “that way”. Indeed, other theological descriptions for God are “the (absolute) good” and “the (absolute) truth”. In summary, God is Goodness Itself, Existence Itself[viii], Cause of every thing.

 

Does any of this have anything to do with Christianity? Yes! In the Old Testament we have the God revealing his name as “I Am”. Not “I am this” or “I am that”, but just “I Am”{{ — which translates as Yahweh in Hebrew or Jehovah in Latinised Hebrew}}. He simply is. This is all the more compelling because the culture that recorded this was at that time one of the least philosophical in history: Ancient Israel[ix]. And in the New Testament we are told “God is Love”. And of course he is called the Creator throughout.


 

What Science does well

What it needs to be there already to do this

What it therefore can’t do

Discovers the patterns Nature follows as it undergoes processes of change and how these patterns relate to make up “big picture” patterns (eventually, one big pattern!)

Fundamental Law/s (mathematical equations)  which the universe obey/s.

Account for the most fundamental laws, or why these particular laws (out of an infinite number of possibilities) are the ones which describe the universe.

… by, among other things, observing and experimenting with real natural processes, with material events and entities

A physical, material universe of some kind for the Laws to govern. (We say “of some kind” because the processes described by the Laws could lead to huge changes in the form of the universe.)

Explain why the universe exists at all; why the Laws are more than ideas and actually describe a real thing.

 

The Big Questions science cannot answer

A philosophical answer

The Bible’s perspective

Why does the universe exist at all?

An Absolute Being exists necessarily and is the epitome of every Perfection, and hence may be called Existence Itself or Goodness Itself. He caused all limited, finite, contingent beings, according to his perfectly free choice.

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” Genesis 1:1

 “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, ‘I AM hath sent me unto you.’” Exodus 3:14 

And why this universe?

“our God … hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” Psalm 115:3

Truth, beauty and goodness are not physical things, but they exist in a physical universe. Where do they come from?

“God is love” 1 John 4:8

“I am … the truth, and the life” John 14:6

 

God
Everything else

Unlimited (Infinite)

Limited (Finite)

Is existence

May or may not have existence

Necessary

Contingent (not necessary, dependent)

Is Good(ness), Love

Can be good, but can also fail to be good in some way, and thus be evil to some extent. (Note: Evil does not exist on its own, it is the deprivation/lessening/perverting of good; and so it is a parasite on goodness, rather than an equal and opposite “being”. Indeed, evil is a failure to be, to exist fully or properly.)

 



[i] That is, it depends on something else, and won’t exist if that “something else” doesn’t happen or exist.

[ii] It might be objected that we have failed to differentiate God from everything else because we could say “the difference between a conception of God and a real God is in the existence, not the essence”, just like I did for the apple! But if God is equivalent to Existence Itself, he cannot be coherently conceived as simultaneously non-existent. A hypothetical God is a contradiction in terms, in a sense. There is no difference between the conceived and real God because, if Existence Itself exists, the idea of It will in fact be the conception of the real Being. If Existence Itself does not exist (!), however, it can only be because Existence Itself is a meaningless nonsense, as existence cannot be ‘itself’. In this latter case, the essence is as empty as the existence and the difference disappears again. The concept or essence of God is one that must be exemplified in reality if it is a coherent, that is, possible essence at all.

[iii] Based on the common-sense idea that an effect is proportionate to its cause.

[iv] All these are indications of particularity.

[v] All these are limitations.

[vi] We should now refer to the Cause personally, due to these characteristics. Why we use He rather than She is another story. God is not, of course, biologically male or female. However, in his relationship to Creation, including us, he is more like Father to child than Mother to child, because he makes us outside himself, rather than out of his substance; and because he is quite capable of separating himself from us and punishing us even in his love for us – thus exemplifying an identifiably masculine parenthood! Also, when God compares his love for us to the love between spouses, without exception he places himself in the role of husband and his people in the role of wife. Why? Because he is the initiator and leader in this love, which is justifiably seen as the natural, normal role of the male in human courtship and coupling due to the influence of testosterone and other factors.

[vii] Before God creates there is nothing outside himself, so there are no “conditions” to provide reasons for any actions. He has greater freedom to be creative than any human artist.

[viii] Existence is superior to non-existence, so existence is a “good”, in a sense.

[ix] If you don’t believe ancient Judaism was non-philosophical, just read and compare what is called wisdom in the Old Testament — the moral platitudes of Proverbs — with the wisdom of the ancient Greeks!