Contingency argument dialog

ContingencyArgumentDialogThe theologian William Lane Craig defends religious belief by citing a version of Wilhelm Leibniz’s contingency argument. The argument is laid out as follows:

  1. Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  3. The universe exists.
  4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1 and 3).
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the existence of the universe is God (from 2 and 4).

To explore some problems in this argument, I composed a dialog between a believer and an atheist. Both parties in this dialog express sensible ideas as well as dubious ideas, so the reader must be attentive to what each party says. Think for yourself. Neither the believer nor the atheist represents a particular real-life person. Note that throughout this dialog, both disputants use the term material as synonymous with natural, so that immaterial implies extra-natural.

Believer: Do you agree to the premises of the contingency argument?
Atheist: No, I reject both premises 1 and 2.
Believer: What’s wrong with premise 1?
Atheist: In daily life we seek explanations, and we have had a lot of success finding explanations. But that does not entail that everything must have an explanation.
Believer: It sounds as though you are arguing that premise 1 is not deductively true. That’s correct. It is not deductively true. Premise 1 is nevertheless more probably true than false.
Atheist: How so?
Believer: As you said yourself, we seek explanations and we often find explanations. We have never confirmed any case where there was no explanation.
Atheist: Agreed. Of course, we often fail to find explanations. The universe is full of mysteries. But I agree that we all strive to find explanations and we think there are explanations out there.
Believer: Right. And although we are often without explanations, we can never confirm that no explanation exists. In cases where we have not yet found an explanation, we keep trying. We assume as our working hypothesis that an explanation exists.
Atheist: It is important to note that we assume an explanation exists only as a working hypothesis, not as a philosophical commitment.
Believer: That’s a distinction without a difference. We wouldn’t seek an explanation if we didn’t expect to find one, or at least think it is likely that we will find an explanation.
Atheist: It’s not a trivial distinction. What we are talking about is analogous to the difference between methodological naturalism and metaphysical naturalism. It actually is a big deal.
Believer: In certain contexts it’s a big deal. But not for the point I am making about premise 1. My point is that it is more probably true than false that explanations exist within the natural realm.
Atheist: I will go along with that statement. But that doesn’t establish premise 1.
Believer: Surely it does.
Atheist: No. Premise 1 attempts to apply this probabilistic reasoning beyond the natural realm. We have no experience beyond the natural realm.
Believer: That sounds like gobbledygook to me, another distinction without a difference.
Atheist: Let’s say that you are blowing up a balloon, and every time you exhale into the balloon, it gets bigger. Would you agree that every exhalation into a balloon will make it bigger?
Believer: Sure.
Atheist: Every exhalation makes the balloon bigger?
Believer: Yes. Try it. Do an experiment. Calculate the probability. You will find that every time you blow into the balloon it will get bigger. Or, at least it will until it pops.
Atheist: So, the probability is very high that each exhalation will increase the size of the balloon at first, but if you apply that probability estimate outside a particular range it will fail. Right?
Believer: I see where you’re going. You are saying that things in our everyday experience probably have explanations, but that we can’t extend that logic to things outside our everyday experience. For instance, just because we find explanations throughout nature does not mean that things outside nature probably have an explanation. Is that your point?
Atheist: Exactly.
Believer: But your balloon analogy is not a good analogy. We know what to expect with a balloon. We know it will tend to grow bigger, and then it will pop. We know that with balloons there’s a threshold beyond which things work differently. But we don’t have any reason to suppose that explanations will suddenly cease when we go back to the creation of the natural realm. You are simply speculating. I mean, you might be right, but there’s no actual reason to think you are right. Our knowledge of probabilities may not be infallible, but they are all we’ve got. These probabilities should still lead us to expect that the explanations would continue far enough back to encompass the genesis of nature.
Atheist: All the probabilities we know about are derived from the regularities we find within nature. If you trace back prior to nature, we have no reason to suppose those probabilities apply. You’re applying probabilities accumulated within the scope of nature and trying to extrapolate into a mysterious realm preceding nature. This error, extrapolating outside the relevant domain, is well understood by statisticians even in the natural realm. It’s crazy to extrapolate completely outside the natural realm.
Believer: It seems to me that you are treating the threshold between the natural and the supernatural as a hard-and-fast barrier. You have a mental block against the supernatural.
Atheist: It’s not some psychological inhibition on my part. This is logic. We expect to find explanations owing to the regular patterns we find in nature. That’s our only reason for expecting causes. And these expectations are built up exclusively by natural causes. What reason do you have to suppose that these expectations will be fulfilled when no natural explanations are available?
Believer: Because God is consistent. He would not lead us to false expectations.
Atheist: Now you are invoking your theological predilections to bolster an argument intended to justify belief that a god exists. That’s arguing in a circle.
Believer: No, I am not. You asked what I personally believe. I’m not claiming that my personal reason for believing this is necessarily a good reason for you to believe it. My answer had nothing whatsoever to do with the contingency argument.
Atheist: Well, do you have a better answer, one pertinent to the contingency argument?
Believer: We will return to this topic later, but for now let’s move on. Tell me why you reject premise 2.
Atheist: I just don’t see how this premise could be defended.
Believer: Easy. The material realm cannot have a material cause. After all, if a cause is a material cause then it is, itself, part of the material realm. Therefore it cannot count as the cause of the material realm. For something to be the cause of the material realm, that cause must be immaterial. That immaterial cause is what we term God.
Atheist: The material realm might not have a cause. It might be eternal.
Believer: That’s a separate issue. The premise says that if the universe has a cause, it must be immaterial.
Atheist: The universe came from a quantum fluctuation, a material cause.
Believer: In the context of the contingency argument, the term universe means the entire material realm.
Atheist: So what premise 2 is really saying is that if we trace back through all the causes within the material realm, and if we encounter the very first material cause, which we can call M, then if we find the cause of M, that cause must be immaterial. Right?
Believer: Absolutely. This is pure deductive logic. It is beyond reasonable dispute. We can call the cause of M by the letter G. That stands for God.
Atheist: If we trace back to the cause of G and discover that G has a material cause, we can call that material cause M2.
Believer: No. G is not externally caused.
Atheist: You’d need to prove that, just as you’d need to prove that M was caused.
Believer: Let’s stick to one issue at a time. Even if G had a cause, material or immaterial, that would not diminish the soundness of premise 2. Whether or not we go on to quibble over the pedigree of G, you must concede that if M has a cause, it is immaterial.
Atheist: That is not what the premise is saying. It says that the cause of the material realm is God. It does not say that the cause of the material realm is an immaterial cause.
Believer: Once again you’re focusing on a distinction without a difference. God is an immaterial cause. They are equivalent.
Atheist: They definitely are not equivalent. God is a lot more to most people than an immaterial cause. You’re trying to smuggle in a lot of other godly qualities by using the heavily-freighted term God. For example, God is taken to be a conscious being, whereas “immaterial cause” doesn’t imply any such thing. In fact, “immaterial cause” does not imply anything more than a transient or impermanent cause. I think it is downright devious to stick the word god into the contingency argument. That kind of verbal trickery bespeaks a failure to argue on the up-and-up.
Believer: Fine! Don’t get your panties in a wad. We can rephrase premise 2 as follows: If the material realm has a cause, that cause is immaterial.
Atheist: Let’s rephrase it like this: If we trace back to an immaterial cause, we will have found an immaterial cause. Rephrase it like that and I will agree to it.
Believer: But that rephrasing misses the key point. The key point is that if any cause exists for the material, it must be immaterial.
Atheist: Not any cause. The material realm could have a material cause. It could be material causes all the way back.
Believer: But to be a cause for the material realm as a whole, it cannot be material. Otherwise the cause would be part of what we’re trying to explain.
Atheist: So you are, by your restrictive definition of cause, reflexively excluding any cause that is material. The only thing you will accept as a cause is something immaterial. What you are saying is that if we filter out all material causes, we are left with only immaterial causes.
Believer: The premise is deductively sound, whether or not you like the so-called filtering. If the material realm has a cause, that cause is immaterial.
Atheist: I will grant you that if there are material and immaterial causes, and if you filter out all the material causes, then all you have left is the immaterial causes. That is not very profound, my friend.
Believer: It doesn’t have to be profound. It just has to be true. And you just admitted that it is true.
Atheist: Is there evidence for any immaterial cause? We see material causes all the time. When have you ever seen an immaterial cause?
Believer: I have seen miracles. Those come from an immaterial cause, namely God. But if you mean to ask whether I routinely see immaterial causes within nature, the answer is no. I wouldn’t expect to. Nature is the realm of material causes. If you are suggesting that immaterial causes don’t exist merely on the basis that we don’t typically see immaterial causes within the material realm, then that would be a terrible argument. I don’t see fish in the clouds, either. That doesn’t disprove fish. And, by the way, whether or not anyone has actually witnessed an immaterial cause is completely irrelevant. Premise 2 is deductive, not empirical.
Atheist: Okay, but bear with me for a moment. How do you distinguish a material cause from an immaterial cause?
Believer: It is a subtle thing. It requires some spiritual discernment.
Atheist: Are you sure you are not just imagining that there is a difference between material and immaterial causes? Maybe it is you who is focused on distinctions without a difference.
Believer: Look, I don’t claim to be infallible. But, yes, there is a difference, whether I can successfully distinguish it in every case or not.
Atheist: Do you think that only a person with – what did you call it, spiritual discernment – can recognize immaterial causes?
Believer: Yes. I would agree to that.
Atheist: So only a spiritual person can know when an immaterial cause—
Believer: —No. No. I see where you are going. Look, the contingency argument does not require any spiritual judgment. It is a straightforward piece of mundane logic that anyone, believer or atheist, can examine and confirm. It doesn’t presuppose belief. It justifies belief on a strictly rational basis.
Atheist: That’s not where I was heading. Are you going to let me finish my point?
Believer: Proceed.
Atheist: In premise 1, you said that everything has a cause.
Believer: Premise 1 says explanation, not cause.
Atheist: Okay, but I took that to mean cause.
Believer: Well, alright then. I think those are synonymous.
Atheist: In fact, I took premise 1 to be talking about a material cause.
Believer: Not necessarily. It could mean an efficient cause.
Atheist: Please explain the difference.
Believer: With a material cause, we are ultimately, at the smallest level, talking about the transfer of force carrier particles like photons and W and Z bosons. Material causes account for everything we find throughout nature. Got it?
Atheist: Yes. And how do efficient causes differ from material causes?
Believer: The notion of an efficient cause comes from Aristotle. We might say, for instance, that the efficient cause of a painting is the painter. The efficient cause of my sunburn was my decision to stay out in the sun too long.
Atheist: It sounds to me as though efficient causes are just a convenient shorthand for significant things or events that can be resolved into material causes.
Believer: Well, that’s generally true, but not always. We could say that a child’s guardian angel was the efficient cause of the child’s stepping onto the sidewalk just in time to avoid a speeding car. The term efficient cause is broad enough to cover both material and immaterial causes.
Atheist: Then we have a problem.
Believer: What’s the problem?
Atheist: Whatever credibility premise 1 has is owed strictly to our experience of material causes. Remember, you said that the contingency argument does not require one to be able to distinguish material from immaterial causes. So it is only the material causes that are used to bolster premise 1. The whole strength of premise 1 rests on material causes.
Believer: What’s your point?
Atheist: Our discovery of material causes can only plausibly establish the probability of there being other, as yet undiscovered, material causes. The fact that every single cause we have ever discovered is material suggests that all causes are material.
Believer: I don’t follow.
Atheist: Premise 1 is based on the assumption that knowledge gleaned from nature applies to the cause of nature itself. We have experience only with material causes, so that is probably the only kind of causes that exist. That’s using your own logic.
Believer: No. There are immaterial causes.
Atheist: You said that you could evaluate and rationally embrace the contingency argument even if you didn’t possess your so-called spiritual discernment to detect immaterial causes.
Believer: So?
Atheist: Premise 1 is based on probabilities derived strictly from observing material causes. Yet surely you can’t predict immaterial causes on the basis of your having observed only material causes. That is like predicting that some truck driver will violate the speed limit because, on countless occasions, you have witnessed him obeying the speed limit. It’s insane to say, “Oooh, I found a material cause! And another! And another! And another! Since I found this abundance of material causes, there logically must be an immaterial cause.”
Believer: Wait a minute. Are you suggesting that our extensive experience of material causes means that the material realm must have a material cause?
Atheist: No, I’m not suggesting that. I’m saying that would be the conclusion we must draw if we use the logic you used to defend premise 1. But I think the logic you used to defend premise 1 is mistaken. I don’t think that our knowledge of material causes within the material realm justifies any conclusion about whether the material realm must itself have a cause. Just because stuff within nature needs a cause doesn’t prove nature needs a cause. You have committed the fallacy of composition.
Believer: Wrong! One commits the fallacy of composition by saying that if all the parts have a quality, then the whole must also have that quality. Premise 1 merely says that the whole probably has a cause. It doesn’t say that it must have a cause because the parts individually have causes.
Atheist: You may not be saying that the whole logically must have a cause because the parts do, but you are saying that it probably has a cause because the parts do. That still falls under the rubric of the fallacy of composition.
Believer: Come on. This is common sense. Tell me one thing that you know with certainty has no cause.
Atheist: You’re asking me to prove a negative. Nobody can do that. Besides, I didn’t say that things within the natural realm aren’t caused. I think they are caused. At the beginning of our conversation I told you that. I also never asserted that the material realm has no cause. I said that, whether or not it has a cause, material or immaterial, I’m in no position to judge. I am trapped here within the material realm. I am part of the material realm. I have never ventured outside the material realm. I don’t know if there is anything outside the material realm.
Believer: But everything you’ve seen has a cause or probably has a cause.
Atheist: Maybe so.
Believer: Maybe so? If you saw a roadside fire, you would never engage in that kind of wimpy talk: “Maybe the fire had a cause.” You would be confident that it had a cause.
Atheist: I would. But when you say “everything,” that’s different.
Believer: I don’t think so. I could keep naming things, not just fires, but waves in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, satellites zooming through low Earth orbit, French fries, elephants, supernovae, and I could go on for years. Each one of these items you would say has a cause—not that you personally know the cause, but that it has a cause.
Atheist: But when you say everything, you mean the material realm itself. That’s a completely different ballgame.
Believer: Why?
Atheist: Because all those other things you mentioned, like elephants and fires, occur within the material realm where we know cause-effect relationships occur. But when you talk about causes that transcend the material realm, that’s something no one has experience with. We don’t even know if there is anything beyond the material realm.
Believer: It’s a frigging analogy! We extrapolate from what we know to what we don’t know.
Atheist: You don’t take your own analogy seriously, so why should I?
Believer: What does that mean?
Atheist: If the origin of the material realm is analogous to the origin of material objects within the material realm, then the origin of the material realm would be material, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t that be sticking closer to your analogy?
Believer: Well, it wouldn’t be the origin of the material realm then, would it? It would be merely a continuation of the material realm. The origin of the material realm must take us back to a time when there was no material realm.
Atheist: And that is precisely where your analogy fails. Neither of us is convinced that one can plausibly argue, on the basis that material causes exist throughout nature, that nature itself probably has a material cause. But you are arguing for something far more incredible than that. You argue, on the basis that everything we know has a material cause, that nature has an immaterial cause. Yet no one – except you specially gifted prodigies – has ever even seen an immaterial cause.
Believer: You keep splitting hairs over the distinction between material and immaterial causes. I am talking about efficient causes.
Atheist: Of course you are, because you know the argument collapses if we make that distinction. The term “efficient” cause is so broad that it conceals an equivocation. You are relying on material causes to bolster premise 1. Then you switch to immaterial causes in premise 2. Applying the term “efficient” cause is a ploy to cover up your tricky substitution of meanings. The contingency argument is persuasive to people only when they fail to notice this verbal sleight-of-hand.
Believer: Let me get this straight. You contend that premise 1 is deceptively persuasive because we have learned to expect material causes throughout nature.
Atheist: Right.
Believer: But you say that finding material causes throughout nature does not make it probable that nature itself has a cause. You say that because, in your judgment, we can’t extrapolate from observations performed within the confines of nature to the origin of nature, itself.
Atheist: Right.
Believer: Then you complain that premise 2 is talking about immaterial rather than material causes. This is objectionable to you because you think it is an equivocation.
Atheist: Right again. I thought you weren’t listening, but apparently you were.
Believer: Explain to me why we can’t lump material causes and immaterial causes into the same bucket labeled efficient causes. What difference does it make if premise 1 speaks of material causes and premise 2 speaks of immaterial causes? How does that insignificant little difference undermine the contingency argument?
Atheist: Premise 1 says everything probably has a cause. Since the defense of that premise relies solely on our observations of material causes, the statement of premise 1 overreaches its supporting evidence. It could be rephrased to say that everything has a material cause. Of course, I wouldn’t even agree to that rephrasing of the premise—
Believer: —because you think it extrapolates beyond its proper domain when it speculates about the cause or potential cause of the material realm.
Atheist: Yes. Plus there’s that nasty little fallacy of composition thing, in which premise 1 assumes that events within nature being caused proves that nature itself is probably caused.
Believer: So, I guess premise 1 ought to be rephrased to say simply that everything within the material realm has a material cause.
Atheist: Exactly. You’re catching on.
Believer: I’m not agreeing with you. I am merely making sure I understand my adversary’s position before I launch my counter-attack.
Atheist: Fair enough. But notice that rejecting premise 1 as it was originally written means that we must reject conclusion 4. Rejecting conclusion 4 means we must reject conclusion 5. That means the contingency argument fails.
Believer: Hold off on that for a moment. Let’s back up. You explained why you think we should stick to using the term “material” cause in premise 1, but why should that block us from using the term “efficient” cause in premise 2?
Atheist: Bear in mind that I said premise 2 should be rephrased to say that if the material realm has a cause, that cause must be immaterial.
Believer: I remember that, not that it makes any difference. I am okay with either phrasing. I had a problem only when you tried to rephrase it to say “if we trace back through the chain of causes until we find a cause that is immaterial, then we will have found an immaterial cause.”
Atheist: Remind me why you didn’t like that rephrasing.
Believer: Because it’s too weak. Any cause we find for the material realm must be immaterial.
Atheist: If you believe the cause must be immaterial, why would you want to describe it as an efficient cause? You said that an efficient cause could be material or immaterial. Surely you don’t want to imply that the cause of the material realm could be material. You made a big deal earlier that it logically can’t be material.
Believer: Right. The cause of the material realm logically must be immaterial.
Atheist: So we agree to the rephrasing of premise 2 as follows: If the material realm has a cause, that cause must be immaterial.
Believer: We do. But you haven’t answered my question. I asked why you object to my using the term “efficient” cause in premise 2. You told me why you think I would want to opt for the term “immaterial” cause, but that doesn’t explain why the choice of terms matters to you. Suppose we say “material” cause in premise 1 and “efficient” cause in premise 2. What harm does that do to the logic of the contingency argument?
Atheist: The final conclusion of the contingency argument, line 5, cites premise 2, so it would be referencing efficient causes. The final conclusion also cites the conclusion on line 4, which cites premise 1, and thereby references material causes. The conclusion on line 5 makes no distinction between these two types of causes, but rather treats them as equivalent. In fact, it implicitly uses the term efficient cause when it means specifically an immaterial cause in one case and a material cause in the other case.
Believer: So what?
Atheist: Okay. A helicopter and a bus are both vehicles, right? If I proved to you that Joe traveled to the beach in a red helicopter, you would agree with the statement “Joe was at the beach in a red vehicle.” Now, if I argued that Joe went to the beach in a red bus, you would not be persuaded if I said, “Look, you already agreed that Joe was at the beach in a red vehicle.” In this case I would have committed the fallacy of equivocation. And that’s what the contingency argument does by using the vague notion of efficient cause to plaster over the difference between material causes, for which we have evidence, and immaterial causes, for which we have no evidence.
Believer: I am getting a headache. Maybe I need to go to the beach in a red helicopter.
Atheist: But you understood my point about the equivocation, didn’t you?
Believer: Not really. I just understand that the argument from contingency makes sense to me when I read it. The argument seems solid.
Atheist: The contingency argument is essentially saying this: Our success in finding in nature many material causes makes it probable that nature itself has an immaterial cause. How in heaven’s name can you find that convincing?
Believer: There’s no point in talking to you any longer. You are the typical atheist, spewing your twisted atheist logic rather than real logic. You guys always resist knowledge of God because you want to live a sinful lifestyle. Boo-yah!

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