Contingency Argument

William Lane CraigThe theologian William Lane Craig presents a version of Wilhelm Leibniz’s contingency argument 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).

All evidence for premise 1 is drawn from our success in finding explanations within the natural realm—material explanations translatable into the language of physics. Let me emphasize that these explanations, these physical causes, are invariably within the natural realm. Yet premise 4 presumes that, if there is anything beyond the natural realm, it must (via premise 1) have an explanation as well.

Extrapolating outside the relevant domain is an error that is well understood by statisticians studying phenomena within the natural realm. Premise 4 commits this blunder in the worst imaginable way by assuming that we can extrapolate from premise 1 to draw conclusions completely beyond the natural realm.

Given that all evidence supporting premise 1 consists of material causes, we might be tempted to conclude that all causes are material. We might conclude that, no matter how far back we look in the chain of causation, we will always find another material cause. That would be an unwarranted conclusion. But Craig commits a far more egregious error by saying that premise 1 supports the speculation that the cosmos has an immaterial cause.

In support of premise 2, Craig properly points out that 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.
He goes on to say that for something to be the cause of the material realm, that cause must be immaterial. In other words, 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.

Craig offers this supporting argument to bolster premise 2. The supporting argument takes a form that philosophers call a disjunctive syllogism. In this case, Craig is arguing that (1) M or Not-M is the first cause, (2) M is not the first cause; therefore, Not-M is the first cause. The second premise of this supporting argument is logically equivalent to saying “Not-M is the first cause.” That statement, as you will notice, is the same as the conclusion of the supporting argument. Placing the conclusion of an argument in one of the argument’s premises is known as “begging the question.” This kind of argument proves nothing—or more precisely, it can be used to prove anything. For that reason, philosophers dismiss this kind of argument as ineffective.

Insisting that the cause of the material realm must be immaterial discounts the possibility that the material realm has no cause—that it is material causes all the way back, which is a conclusion perfectly congruent with our experience. It also presumes that there is such a thing as an immaterial cause, despite the fact that no immaterial cause has ever been identified or even adequately defined.

It also presumes that the “material-immaterial” dichotomy is comprehensive—that there aren’t, say, ten categories rather than just two. I understand that these two terms are defined so as to be comprehensive. That’s not my point. I’m not talking about definitions. I am saying that by using these two terms, we are assuming a particular ontology. It may turn out that this is the ontological equivalent of classifying all multi-cellular life forms as schnauzer and non-schnauzer. The non-schnauzer category might have lots of variety in it, so that the single label is inappropriate and undescriptive. Similarly, the immaterial realm (or even the material realm, for that matter) might contain more variety than we can currently imagine.

The more plausible possibility, backed up by all the available evidence, is that the actual ontology contains only one kind of entity: material. So when we use the terms material and immaterial, that may be a mistake analogous to creating two classifications of humans: warm-blooded and cold-blooded. As far as we know, there are no cold-blooded humans, there never has been, and there never will be. Likewise, as far as we know, there are no immaterial entities, there never has been, and there never will be. In fact, the suggestion that there are cold-blooded humans is much more congruent with our experience than is the suggestion that there are immaterial entities.

Since no one has ever identified an immaterial cause, the concept of immaterial cause is a fiction. Craig tries to distract us from this fact. He says that if the material realm has a cause, it must be immaterial. That might sound impressive, but it really is a trite statement. All it means is this: if both material and immaterial causes exist, and if we filter out all material causes, we are left with only immaterial causes. That is a trivial bit of logic. It tells us nothing whatsoever about the actual origin of the natural realm. To suggest otherwise is logical legerdemain.

Let’s set aside Craig’s supporting argument and return to his main argument. Craig refers in premise 2 to “God.” He has defended doing this by saying that the terms “immaterial cause” and “God” are equivalent. I beg to differ. God is a lot more to most people than an immaterial cause. God is surely taken by most people in Craig’s audience to be a conscious being, whereas “immaterial cause,” to the extent that it has any meaning, doesn’t imply any such thing. An immaterial cause might be a transient or impermanent cause. Craig is trying to smuggle in a portrait of the Christian divinity by using the heavily-freighted term God.

Let me say something else about premise 1. According to Craig, premise 1 refers, not to material causes, but to efficient causes, a notion that traces back to Aristotle. Craig does not use the term “efficient cause” in quite the same way as Aristotle. He uses the term to include both natural and supernatural causes.

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. It may sound as though efficient causes are just a convenient shorthand for things or events that can be resolved into material causes — not the material itself, but the material causation.

Efficient causes generally are reducible to material causes, but not always. One might say, for instance, 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 guardian angel, though it is a cause, is not a material cause. The term efficient cause is broad enough to cover both material and immaterial causes.

That’s why interpreting premise 1 as talking about efficient causes is troublesome. Whatever credibility premise 1 has is owed strictly to our experience of material causes. Craig himself, when he defends premise 1, provides examples only of material causes, never of immaterial causes.

We can’t infer immaterial causes on the basis of having observed only material causes. That is like predicting that a truck driver will violate the speed limit because, on countless occasions (in fact, every occasion throughout his driving career), we have witnessed him obeying the speed limit. Likewise, it would be completely absurd to say, “Ooh, 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.”

Craig usually doesn’t even use the term efficient cause until he is challenged to clarify his argument. He typically just uses the term cause, which most people naturally interpret as meaning material cause. Craig relies on material causes to establish premise 1. Then he switches to immaterial causes in premise 2, without alerting the audience that he is no longer speaking of material causes. Applying the term efficient cause covers up his substitution of meanings. He thereby commits the fallacy of equivocation.

Craig denies that he is guilty of equivocation, insisting that he meant efficient causes all along. Well, if he meant efficient cause, he should have consistently said efficient cause, rather than just saying cause. The rule against equivocation is meant to prohibit speakers from tricking listeners by switching between different meanings of words that have multiple meanings.

Suppose I said to you, “Yesterday I saw a huge boa and took a fancy to it. Today I bought a boa.” I might be talking about a snake. I might be talking about a fluffy pink stole made of feathers. Whichever I am talking about, I should try to be clear. Right?

But what if I snickered and told you that I meant snake in the first sentence and stole in the second? My bet is that you would think I was being purposely deceitful. Anyone who uses a word in a context where the audience likely won’t recognize this switching back and forth between meanings is equivocating. The difference between a material cause and an immaterial cause vastly exceeds the difference between a snake and a stole. Craig’s approach, if practiced by a door-to-door salesman, would be classified by the legal profession as a bait and switch scam.

Suppose we had a term like “efficient boa,” which encompassed both kinds of boas (snake and stole). I could then construct an argument that illustrates Craig’s equivocation as follows.

We have seen efficient boas (by which I mean snakes) within the park (a snake in the meadow, a snake in a tree, and a snake by the stream); therefore an efficient boa (by which I mean a stole) exists outside the park.

That’s a fallacious argument, but Craig’s argument engages in precisely this sort of wordplay.

Once we understand that premise 1 refers to efficient causes, we see that premise 1 presupposes that immaterial causation exists. That’s a fatal problem for Craig’s argument because the whole point of the argument is to establish that immaterial causation exists. As we discussed a moment ago, embedding an argument’s conclusion in one of its premises is known as begging the question. Sometimes it is called petitio principii or circular reasoning.

Craig defends himself from the charge of circular reasoning by saying that all deductive arguments are circular, “In a deductive argument, the conclusion is implicit in the premises.” I am astounded that he would offer such a frail defense. Craig knows that in a valid deductive argument the conclusion is derived by combining the logic of the various premises. In contrast, his conclusion that immaterial causation exists is directly encompassed by the very term efficient cause. To state in premise 1 that efficient causation exists (entailing both material and immaterial causation) is to directly affirm that immaterial causation exists.

The only way Craig could defend himself from the charge of circularity is by insisting that a plain reading of his premises does not affirm the existence of immaterial causation. But if he opts for this defense, then he is implicitly admitting that he equivocates between material and immaterial causes. The bottom line is that Craig’s only defense against the charge of circular reasoning is to plead guilty to the charge of equivocating.

Craig has offered us a botched rendition of the first cause argument. Unfortunately, no other apologist has offered a better rendition.

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