The Necessary Being

Last week I wrote a post in which I discussed whether it is possible to prove that God exists. To briefly review, I explained that since (according to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) God is the Creator of the universe rather than simply another object in the universe, God’s existence is not detectable by scientific means. But there is another avenue of evidence that it open to us. We can start with simple observations from our world, and using the principles of logic, put together a series of deductions that prove that God exists. I want to begin such a project with this post.

When my wife and I were selling our house in Tennessee, we signed a contract that stated that the purchase of the house was contingent on the buyers receiving final approval for a loan. What does “contingent” mean? It means that something depends on something else. In the case of our house, its sale depended on – was contingent on – the buyers’ loan approval. Something that is contingent doesn’t necessarily have to happen, a fact we painfully learned when our first contract fell through. So whether our house would sell was contingent and not necessary.

The argument that I am going to lay out begins with the obvious premise that for anything that exists, there are only two options. It is either contingent (and remember, that means it relies on something else for its existence) or it is necessary (meaning that it does not rely on something else for its existence). Those are the only two possibilities logically.

We can see many contingent things in our world, many things that depend on something else for their existence. You and I depend on parents for our existence, plants depend on seeds and sun for their existence, stars depend on dust and gas for their existence. All of these are examples of things that exist contingently.

But why does anything that is contingent exist at all?

Since they depend on something else for their existence, it is certainly possible that they would not have existed. That’s what makes them “contingent” in the first place, just as it was possible that our house would not be sold (and after eight months on the market it started to feel like it never would!). Many things that did not have to exist (people, plants, planets) nevertheless do exist.

So again, why does anything that is contingent exist at all?

It doesn’t answer the question to say that contingent things exist because of other things that also depend on something else for their existence, since that just leads to the same question – why do those things exist? If we explain the existence of one contingent thing by another contingent thing, we still haven’t answered the question of why it is that any contingent things exist. All we’ve done is shift the question from one contingent thing to another.

At this point, someone may suggest another answer: “Maybe there’s just an infinite number of contingent things!” Let’s grant for the sake of argument that this is the case. Does that suggestion really answer the question?

Think about the contract on our house again. Remember, it was contingent – it depended on our buyers getting approval for a loan. Let’s imagine that their bank (we’ll call it “Bank 1”) approves their loan application, but that the bank doesn’t have any money at all (which would be pretty weird in real life!). So, it will have to rely on another bank to provide it with money to loan out (in other words, whether it gets the money is contingent on another bank having it). So, Bank 1 contacts Bank 2 to borrow the money to give to the couple. But let’s imagine that Bank 2 has no money and must depend on another bank to obtain money for Bank 1. And so on…

If there are ten banks in town, one asking to borrow from another, but none of which has any money, will the couple receive a bank loan? Of course not. What about a hundred totally bankrupt banks trying to borrow from each other – will that solve the problem? Nope. What if there is an infinite number of banks that rely on another bank for money? Will that help matters? Of course not.

You see, the real issue is not whether the number of dependent banks is finite vs. infinite. The real issue is whether any bank actually has any money. The only way that the couple will receive a bank loan in my illustration is if there is a bank somewhere that doesn’t need to borrow the money, but simply has it. Or, to put it in the terminology we’ve been using, a bank that has money necessarily rather than contingently.

Here’s another simple illustration. I have a power strip on my desk that my computer relies on for power. But of course, that power strip does not inherently provide power – it has to be plugged in. Would plugging it in to another power strip do any good? No – because that power strip is also dependent on a source of electricity. What if I could string together ten power strips? Twenty? How about an endless line of power strips? Will I be able to turn my computer on? Obviously not. Power strips depend on a source of power in order to work, and without such a source, it would make no difference how many power strips I connected together.

And the same is true with regard to the question of why any contingent things exist. Contingent things must ultimately “borrow” existence from something that does not itself depend on anything for its existence, but simply has it. Something that exists necessarily rather than contingently. And that gives us our first building block in the case for the existence of God.

The only answer to the question of why any contingent things exist is that some necessary thing exists.

“But wait a minute – where did that necessary thing come from?” Hopefully by now you see the problem with this objection. By definition, something that is necessary doesn’t “come from” anything. It doesn’t rely on something else for existence – it inherently possesses existence. So to ask, “Where did the necessary being get its existence” is like asking, “What is the name of the bachelor’s wife?” By definition, a bachelor doesn’t have a wife. And by definition, a necessary being doesn’t get existence from something else – it necessarily has existence.

A more substantive objection to the kind of argument I have laid out is that modern science has demonstrated how it is possible for the universe to come from nothing, thus there is no need for God or any other sort of necessary being to explain its existence. One atheist physicist (Lawrence Krauss) has even written a book called A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. And yet, as you dive beneath the surface, it becomes clear that you cannot judge this book by its cover, since what Krauss describes as “nothing” is actually “a boiling brew of virtual particles that pop in and out of existence in a time so short we cannot see them directly” (page 153). Many scientists and philosophers (and people who can read) have pointed out to Krauss that this hardly qualifies as nothing, which he seems to grudgingly concede in the preface (pages xiv-xv). Nevertheless, in an interview in The Atlantic about the claims of his book, Krauss rationalizes:

“But if you can show how a set of physical mechanisms can bring about our universe, that itself is an amazing thing and it’s worth celebrating. I don’t ever claim to resolve that infinite regress of why-why-why-why-why.”

But you see the problem here, right? “A set of physical mechanisms” is not nothing. And Krauss doesn’t even purport to explain where such mechanisms come from. But it’s not really his fault. Science, by its very nature, can only show how one contingent thing leads to another contingent thing. It cannot explain why contingent things exist in the first place. Where Krauss should be faulted is in promising in the title (!) of his book that he will give such an answer when he knows he cannot. This reminds me of The Office episode in which Michael Scott has to admit that he cannot keep the promise he made to some elementary school children that he would pay for their college tuition when they graduated. As he prepares to face them now that they are seniors in high school, he eases his conscience with this rationalization: “I have made some empty promises in my life, but hands down that was the most generous.” I can imagine Krauss saying, “I’ve made some empty promises in my life, but hands down that title was the most audacious!”

The question of why any contingent things exist inevitably leads us to conclude that there must be some necessary thing that exists. But what is this necessary thing? Have we demonstrated that it must be God? No, not yet. It could be God, or it could be the universe, or maybe something else unknown to us. And we certainly haven’t demonstrated that it must be God as understood in Christianity. But this argument wasn’t designed to do any of those things. It was simply designed to show that some necessary thing exists, something that in principle does not rely on something else for its existence.

But that’s a good start, and in the next post, I promise (hopefully not in Michael Scott fashion!) to take us another step forward in showing why this necessary being must be God.


1 Comment

  1. Thank you, Shane. My son decided in college that there was no reason to believe in God, which, as you can imagine, is the worst thing a Christian mother can experience, worse even than the death of a child who is still a Christian. I look forward to reading the rest of your essays on this topic. God bless you and your ministry.

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