839854_52144388“You do not possess the truth; it is the truth that possesses you.”

St. Thomas Aquinas, Quaestiones disputatae de Veritate (1259)

I. TO BE OR NOT TO BE

“Why,” asks Leibniz, “is there something rather than nothing?”[1] This question is not unique to Leibniz; Baron Rees of Ludlow, an English astrophysicist and current president of the Royal Society, echoes Leibniz’ words: “The preeminent mystery is why anything exists at all.”[2]According to Rees (who is not a theist), “Such questions lie beyond science…they are the province of philosophers and theologians.”[3]

With the blistering pace of scientific progress over the past two centuries, however, many have posited (often aggressively) that Leibniz’ question has no answer. Victor Stenger, a physicist and prominent atheist at the University of Hawaii, expresses this view bluntly: “The universe is an accident.”[4] It has no explanation.

It should be noted that the central tenet of this etiological nihilism – namely, that the universe is fundamentally causeless – is not, strictly speaking, a scientific statement, but a philosophical (or, if you prefer, meta-scientific) one. Science can only answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” with subdued silence. Consider C.S. Lewis’ words:

The laws of physics, I understand, decree that when one billiards ball (A) sets another billiards ball (B) in motion, the momentum lost by A exactly equals the momentum gained by B. This is a Law. That is, this is the pattern to which the movement of the two billiards balls must conform. Provided, of course, that something sets ball A in motion. And here comes the snag. The law won’t set it in motion. It is usually a man with a cue who does that. But a man with a cue would send us back to free-will, so let us assume that it was lying on a table in a liner and that what set it in motion was a lurch of the ship. In that case it was not the law which produced the movement; it was a wave. And that wave, though it certainly moved according to the laws of physics, was not moved by them. It was shoved by other waves, and by winds, and so forth. And however far you traced the story back you would never find the laws of Nature causing anything.

The dazzlingly obvious conclusion now arose in my mind: in the whole history of the universe the laws of Nature have never produced a single event. They are the pattern to which every event must conform, provided only that it can be induced to happen. But how do you get it to do that? How do you get a move on? The laws of Nature can give you no help there. … [T]he source of events must be sought elsewhere.[5]

Given a certain set of initial conditions, scientists can generally predict with impressive precision what will happen. But they cannot explain the initial conditions themselves.[6]

It is impossible to ignore the implications of such an assertion: Either so-called “Why?” questions are (as Stenger proposes) unanswerable, or their answers will be of the non-scientific variety. This essay primarily concerns itself with the non-scientific answers to these questions.

II. PRIMUM MOVENS[7]

Given the two horns of the dilemma – either fundamental questions cannot be answered, or they must be answered non-scientifically – it is not difficult to see why non-theists, especially non-theistic scientists, go so far as to say that there cannot be an answer to Leibniz’ question. After all, many who do answer it do so by postulating a First Cause – and once we invoke a First Cause, we cannot help but sound suspiciously religious in our thinking. Indeed, philosophers and theologians have formulated several arguments for the existence of a creative[8] God based on the existence of a First Cause. Christian philosopher William Lane Craig summarizes one variation, the Kalām[9] cosmological argument, in the following manner:

1.Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2.The universe began to exist.

3.Therefore, the universe has a cause.[10]

St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle (whose ideology may not have been strictly theistic) also postulated what were essentially cosmological arguments.

Though these cosmological arguments may be useful, they do not address the true source of the conflict. They are too physical to be truly metaphysical, for they are couched in spatiotemporal reasoning and dependent upon certain interpretations of the universe’s beginnings. In particular, Aquinas’ and Aristotle’s versions both define causality in terms of motion; Aquinas’ First Cause is the primum movens,[11] and Aristotle’s is the τι ο κινούμενον κινε[12](“something which moves without being moved”). Because both arguments are based on motion, they are limited; they hinge upon a non-eternal universe.[13] If the universe is infinitely old – if it has always been – we can hardly invoke a primum movens to explain its existence. Something more is needed. This “something more” is Gottfried Leibniz’ argument from contingency.

III.THE PRINCIPLE OF SUFFICIENT REASON

What is contingency? Richard Gale and Alexander Pruss distinguish between contingent entities and necessary entities in the following manner: A contingentproposition (or being) is one that possibly, in the broadly conceptual or logical sense, is true (or existent) and possibly is false (or nonexistent). A being is a necessarybeing (or has necessary existence) if and only if it is necessary that it exists.”[14] For example, “A bachelor cannot be married” is a necessary truth because it is, by definition, impossible for a bachelor to be married, but “George Washington was the first president of the United States of America” is a contingent truth because someone else hypothetically could have been the first president.[15]

According to Leibniz, contingent truths (and, by extension, contingent things) must have explanations: “[W]e can find no true or existent fact, no true assertion, without there being a sufficient reason why it is thus and not otherwise…”[16]This idea is known as the principle of sufficient reason, or causal doctrine, and it forms the linchpin of Leibniz’ argument from contingency. In Leibniz’ mind, reality is a “series of contingent things”[17] – things which do exist but could have not existed – and this “series” of contingencies must be rooted in a necessary (non-contingent) cause, the source of all things, an ens causa sui:

Now, all of this detail implies previous or more particular contingents, each of which again stands in need of similar analysis to be accounted for, so that nothing is gained by such analysis. The sufficient or ultimate reason must therefore exist outside the succession of series of contingent particulars, infinite though this series be. Consequently, the ultimate reason of all things must subsist in a necessary substance, in which all particular changes may exist only virtually as in its source: this substance is what we call God.[18]

Without some necessary being that “[bears] the reason for its existence within itself,”[19] there cannot be a complete explanation for the existence of contingent beings; and if a set of contingent beings cannot be exhaustively explained, they cannot exist. But we know that contingent beings exist, and consequently a necessary being must exist.

Because Leibniz distinguishes between “reasons” (explanations for truths) and “causes” (events which precede and lead to other events), his argument from contingency does not hinge upon a non-eternal universe.Instead, Leibniz’ argument depends only on the aforementioned principle of sufficient reason and the contingency of the universe.

That the universe is contingent seems relatively uncontroversial; the fact that modal logicians speak of possible worlds at all implies that the actual world is not the only possible world, which itself implies that the actual world is not necessary.[20]But even the contingency of the universe is by no means uncontested.

Can we know that other worlds possibly exist? Positing other possible worlds could conflict with a deterministic understanding of the universe that would allow for only one possible world, given certain “laws of Nature” and initial conditions. If everything that happens in the universe is determined from the beginning – if, as Darwin said, “[e]verything in nature is the result of fixed laws”[21] – how can other hypothetical worlds be possible at all? And if other worlds are not possible, is our world necessary and not contingent?

The problem with this line of reasoning is that few things are as arbitrary – as contingent – as the initial conditions and physical “laws” of our bizarre universe. Consider fundamental physical constants. John Baez estimates that there currently exist twenty-six arbitrary fundamental constants in the Standard Model of physics.[22] For example, the fine-structure constant α, which characterizes the strength of the electromagnetic interaction, is approximately 7.297 x 10-3. Is there justification for the belief that this constant must be what it is, rather than, say, 8.297 x 10-3? If not, then the fine-structure constant is contingent. It is not 7.297 x 10-3 of necessity; it could be any real number. If this is the case, then the fine-structure constant, and thus the entire Standard Model of physics, is contingent and not necessary.

But what if our current understanding of physics is incomplete?[23] Perhaps there exists some Theory of Everything which would explain even the allegedly “fundamental constants.” Even if there were such a theory, it would still be as contingent as the fine-structure constant, because other Theories of Everything would be just as plausible as the actual one.

Furthermore, none of this would even begin to explain why the initial conditions of the universe are exactly what they are. Why did the universe begin with x amount of initial matter and energy instead of y? A Theory of Everything could hypothetically tell us how exactly a universe of x matter and energy would behave; it still would not be able to explain why the universe began with that exact amount of matter and energy.[24] Put another way, the exact structure and composition of the singularity which began our universe preceded the existence of time itself; as something which was true, so to speak, “before” time, it cannot be contingent upon physical laws which govern how reality operates within time.

IV. QUO ERRAT DEMONSTRATOR?[25]

Leibniz’ invocation of a contingent universe is not, however, the main point of dispute with his critics; according to Alexander Pruss, “in the Cosmological Argument [Leibniz’ argument from contingency] it is the invocation of the PSR [principle of sufficient reason] that gives the most difficulty to the contemporary philosophical atheist.”[26]

Interestingly, the principle of sufficient reason was not widely (if ever) contested until recent centuries. (As recently as 1847, Schopenhauer listed it as one his laws of thought.)[27] However, contemporary analytic philosophy has increasingly called it into question.

Why is the principle of sufficient reason so criticized today? Pruss says that “there is a developing consensus in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion that once one grants the PSR [principle of sufficient reason], the Cosmological Argument [Leibniz’ argument from contingency] for the existence of God is sound. … At the same time, the PSR is widely denied in analytic philosophy circles. One reason for the denial is simply this developing consensus together with the wide-spread denial of the existence of God: ‘The PSR can be used to prove the existence of God,’ the argument goes, ‘but there is no God, and hence the PSR is false.’”[28] While he admits that this is not the only argument, I must agree with him that many people, rather than rejecting God after rejecting the principle of sufficient reason, reject the principle of sufficient reason because they are unwilling to accept God.

Pruss believes that the theistic defender of the principle of sufficient reason has two alternatives: “[T]he theist would do well either to try to justify the PSR or to make-do with a weakened version of the PSR.” He either must argue for the principle of sufficient reason or modify it in some fashion.

V. A NEW ARGUMENT

In this essay, I will not attempt to defend the principle of sufficient reason as articulated by Leibniz (though I believe it is ultimately defensible);[29] instead, I will delve into two arguments based on modified versions of the principle of sufficient reason. One, the “new cosmological argument,”[30] is predicated on a weak principle of sufficient reason (W-PSR); the other is predicated on a restricted principle of sufficient reason (RPSR).

Pruss and Gale’s “new cosmological argument,” based on the weak principle of sufficient reason, posits a being who, “although not proved to be the absolutely perfect God of the great Medieval theists…[is] just powerful and intelligent enough to be the supernatural designer-creator of the exceedingly complex and wondrous cosmos that in fact confronts us.”[31] Their argument is “intended to appeal to an atheist who is willing to accept that even if there were a brute fact, i.e., a true but unexplained contingent proposition, the brute fact would be something that could have an explanation.”[32]

They begin by defining possible worlds. According to Gale and Pruss, “Apossible world is a maximal, compossible conjunction of abstract propositions. It is maximal in that, for every proposition p, either p is a conjunct in this conjunction or its negation, not-p, is, and it is compossible in that it is conceptually or logically possible that all of the conjuncts be true together.”[33] In other words, a possible world is a coherent collection of propositions in which any proposition p is either affirmed or denied. Each possible world has a Big Conjunctive Fact. “The Big Conjunctive Fact for a given world comprises all the propositions that would be true if this world were to be actualized.”[34] It is the set of all propositions that would be true in a certain world.

Necessary propositions (such as “2 + 2 = 4”), by definition, are true in all possible worlds, and thus every world’s Big Conjunctive Fact will include them.[35] Because all possible Big Conjunctive Facts share the same necessary propositions, necessary propositions “will not serve to individuate or distinguish between worlds.”[36] The set of necessary propositions in each possible world is identical. Therefore, each Big Conjunctive Fact is uniquely individuated by all the contingent (i.e., non-necessary) propositions contained within it, or by its Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact. In the same manner, “[a] possible world is uniquely individuated by its Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact.”[37]Simply put, two possible worlds cannot share identical Big Conjunctive Contingent Facts (and, by extension, Big Conjunctive Facts).

For example, “2 + 2 = 4” (a necessary proposition) will be true in every possible world. But “George Washington was the first president of the United States” (a contingent proposition) will not be true in every world; in some possible worlds, Thomas Jefferson (or Clint Eastwood or Paris Hilton) will be the first president of the United States. Thus, every possible world is unique because every possible world has a unique set of propositions.

After this exposition, Pruss and Gale present the weak principle of sufficient reason: “[F]or any proposition, p, if p is true, then it is possible that there exist a proposition, q, such that q explains p.”[38] (Compare this to the strong principle of sufficient reason, which states that, for any true proposition p, there necessarily – not possibly – exists a proposition q that explains p.) Everything possibly has a reason.

In “terms of a possible worlds semantics,” the weak principle of sufficient reason can be restated: “For any proposition, p, and any world, w, if p is in w’s Big Conjunctive Fact, then there is some possible world, w1, and proposition, q, such that w1’s Big Conjunctive Fact contains p and q and the proposition that q explains p.”[39] To simplify, for any proposition p, there must exist at least one possible world which contains p, another proposition q, and the affirmed proposition that q explains p.

Let A be the set of all true contingent propositions, or the actual world’s Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact. So “George Washington was the first president of the United States” is in A, but “Thomas Jefferson was the first president of the United States” is not. Let B be the Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact of the possible world w1 that contains A and its explanation.

By the weak principle of sufficient reason, we know that A possibly has an explanation; however, we do not know (yet) that A does, in fact, have an explanation. To demonstrate that A has an actual explanation, we must prove that the possible world w1 (which contains A and its explanation) is identical to the actual world in which we live.

Remember that every possible world has a unique Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact; each will have a unique set of responses to propositions such as “George Washington was the first president.” Given this principle, we will have established that w1, the world which contains A‘s explanation, is identical to our world if we can show that B, w1‘s Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact, is identical to A, our world’s Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact.We can prove this in the following way:

Recall that every possible world is maximal.Then A, the actual world’s Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact, contains either q or not-q, but not both.B, w1‘s Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact, must by definition contain within it A.In addition, we have chosen w1 such that B contains q.Now assuming that A contains not-q results in a contradiction.If A contains not-q, then B must also contain not-q because B contains A.But we have supposed that B contains q, so B does not contain not-q.So A must contain q.Therefore, there exists a proposition q that explains A, the Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact of the actual world. There exists an explanation for every true contingent proposition.

“What kind of proposition is q? … q is either a personal explanation or q is a scientific explanation,”[40] because a scientific explanation would simply be an impersonal explanation. Gale and Pruss claim that “[i]t cannot be the case that q gives a scientific explanation of p.”[41]Therefore, “q is a personal explanation.”[42]

“Since q is a personal explanation, q will explain p in terms of the intentional action of either a contingent or a necessary being.”[43] It is intuitive (and demonstrable) that q must report the intentional action of a necessary being, not a contingent being:

[I]f it did [report the intentional action of a contingent being], there would be in the Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact a proposition reporting the existence of the contingent being in question. But q itself is not able to explain why the contingent being it refers to exists, since a contingent being’s intentional action evidently must presuppose, and hence cannot explain, that being’s existence.[44]

A contingent creator would require further explanation, making q insufficient.

Therefore, q reports the intentional action of a necessary being.”[45]In other words, there exists a being who has intentionally actualized our universe. This being, though not necessarily synonymous with the theistic God, is free, intelligent, and powerful enough to have created it.[46]

There exist a few objections to this argument, which Gale and Pruss address, but the main objection is that the weak principle of sufficient reason begs the question. Gale and Pruss are highly critical of this objection:

Our atheistic opponent might have been willing initially to grant us this premise, but after it is seen what results from this acceptance it no longer will be granted. The opponent might charge W-PSR [the weak principle of sufficient reason] with begging the question. When confronted with a valid deductive argument for the existence of God, the atheist can always charge one of its premises with being question-begging. The problem with this facile move is that it lays the foundation for charging every valid deductive argument with begging the question in one or more of its premises.[47]

The weak principle of sufficient reason posits only that explanations are possible. Thus, to reject the weak principle of sufficient reason is to assert dogmatically that it is necessary that certain contingent propositions do not have explanations. As G.K. Chesterton said, “Atheism is indeed the most daring of dogmas…for it is the assertion of a universal negative.”[48]

VI. THE RESTRICTED PRINCIPLE OF SUFFICIENT REASON

Of course, there are other objections both to the weak and to the strong principle of sufficient reason. Pruss considers the

interlocutor who finds the PSR [principle of sufficient reason] very plausible, but who is unable to consent to the PSR because she thinks there are serious counterexamples to it. For instance, she might think that random quantum mechanical phenomena cannot be explained. Or she might be a libertarian who thinks that although one might explain why Smith died by saying that Jones freely chose to kill Smith, one cannot in turn give an explanation for why Jones freely chose to kill Smith: the availability of an explanation would undermine the freedom. … Such an interlocutor would accept the PSR either if the apparent counterexamples could be taken care of or if there were some way of restricting the PSR in a way…that would move the apparent counterexamples beyond its scope.

The position I am imagining is a quite reasonable one if there are counterexamples to the PSR. The PSR does very much appeal to us. The ordinary person has a very strong intuition that it is true. In the case of a principle like this, when faced with counterexamples that one cannot refute one would like to restrict the principle in some plausible way to get around the counterexamples. It would be irrational to dismiss the principle entirely.[49]

He then proceeds to restrict the principle of sufficient reason, using the libertarian objection (essentially, that free will is incompatible with the principle of sufficient reason) as an example:

If we accept this line of reasoning, then we have a very natural way to restrict the PSR: … If p is a true proposition and possibly p has an explanation, then p actually has an explanation.

[T]he RPSR [restricted PSR] immediately takes care of all the counterexamples that present propositions that cannot have an explanation.[50]

From this principle, a simple argument can be formulated for the existence of a necessary causal being:

Letp be the claim that there exists at least one contingent being. Then, possibly p has an explanation. Hence, by the RPSR, p in fact has an explanation. Since the agency of a contingent being cannot, without vicious circularity, explain why there exists at least one contingent, it follows that the explanation of p invokes the agency of a necessary being which is a first cause.[51]

This line of reasoning is similar to Pruss’ previous arguments.

But it is not the only argument that can be made with the restricted principle of sufficient reason. Pruss asks us to imagine our world’s Big Contingent Existential Proposition (BCEP), which he refers to as p. This BCEP, or p, is the collection of all true propositions of the form “r exists”: “Bill Clinton exists and Napoleon exists and Bucephalus exists…” for each actual contingent being.[52]

Imagine a world, Ghost-World, containing all the contingent beings that exist in our world (e.g., Bill Clinton, Napoleon, etc.). Imagine that Ghost-World also contains “an infinite number of contingent and powerful ghosts,” such that one unique ghost created each contingent being that exists in our world: “Ghost g1 created Bill Clinton and ghost g2 created Napoleon and ghost g3 created Bucephalus…” for each being.[53] If Ghost-World possibly exists, then p (our world’s BCEP) is possibly explained. Because p is possibly explained and is true, it is actually explained.

That the ghosts from Ghost-World possibly explain p does not mean that they actually explain it: “[I]f there is a possible explanation, there is an actual explanation, but nothing is said about whether the two are the same or not, as indeed nothing should be said, since a given proposition might have one explanation in one world and another in another.”[54] The ghosts prove that p has an explanation, but that does not mean that they are p‘s explanation.

From here, Pruss continues much like he did before:

Now, the explanation of the existence of a concrete contingent being involves the causal efficacy of another concrete being. Thus, the explanation of p must involve the causal efficacy of at least one concrete being. Moreover, the beings whose causal efficacy is invoked in the explanation of p cannot all be contingent. For then these beings by explaining p end up explaining their own existence. However, neither the individual existence of a contingent being is self-explanatory nor is the existence of a bunch of contingent beings self-explanatory. Thus, the explanation of p must involve the causal efficacy of at least one necessary being, a first cause.[55]

We have seen this before: Because contingent beings cannot explain themselves, there must be a necessary being whose existence explains p.

VII. DENIAL

At this point, it will be helpful to consider the implications of denying the principle of sufficient reason (and its variations).

I can easily grant that the existence of God is a boggling prospect to consider. Karl Barth, perhaps the most famous theologian of the twentieth century, said, “God is inconceivable.”[56] God Himself proclaims as much: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”[57]

But however incomprehensible God (and religion) may be, He is certainly no less incomprehensible than the claim that the universe self-created or appeared ex nihilo. The idea that our orderly, intelligible universe (capable of sustaining conscious life, no less) arose spontaneously is flabbergasting. “It is absurd for the [atheist] to complain that it is unthinkable for an admittedly unthinkable God to make everything out of nothing, and then pretend that it is more thinkable that nothing should turn itself into everything.”[58]

Consider what atheism is – not the affirmation of a philosophy, but the negation of one. It is incomplete. If someone asks me my name, “not Peter” is not an adequate answer; in the same way, atheism in and of itself is not an explanatory philosophy.In fact, by necessity, it denies that the universe has any sort of explanation; it is not merely non-explanatory, but almost counter-explanatory.

Suppose that you woke up one day to discover a Lamborghini on your driveway, leading you to believe that a criminal stole it and was forced to abandon it there. You would probably not be overly surprised if your neighbor said, “I disagree with you; I don’t think it was a criminal. Maybe someone in your family won it and wanted to give it to you as a gift.” If he were to suggest this alternative, the two of you could reasonably discuss exactly how the Lamborghini came to repose on your driveway. But if your neighbor told you he did not believe that there was, in fact, an explanation for the Lamborghini’s presence on your driveway, you would probably be astonished.

This, essentially, is what the atheist generally does – not just for a Lamborghini, but for the entire universe; he denies the very possibility of an explanation.

Pruss believes that position should not be maintained:

Finally, observe that someone who thinks that perhaps there are some contingent entities that could not have a cause, for instance the realities that undergird the lawfulness of laws of nature, should still accept a modified version of the argument that shows the existence of an immaterial cause for the aggregate of all material entities. To see this, instead of enumerating in our explanandum p [the aforementioned BCEP] all contingent beings, just list all the material ones. Plainly, each material being can have a cause, and as before there can be an explanation of p. Thus by the RPSR, there is an explanation of p. Since the existence of a contingent being is to be explained causally, at the pain of vicious circularity, this explanation must involve the causal efficacy of an immaterial being.[59]

Essentially, restricting the restricted principle of sufficient reason even further does not detract from the argument.

VIII. BY FAITH, NOT BY SIGHT[60]

Many people, unwilling to decide between theism and atheism, opt for agnosticism – a beast quite unlike the other two.In a sense, agnosticism concerning God is perfectly justifiable. After all, it is impossible to consider such a weighty question as “Why is there something rather than nothing?” without experiencing a profound sense of awe – and this awe reveals, not our grandeur and wisdom, but our puniness and our ignorance.

Therefore, the modern agnostic asks, how can you know that God exists? For that matter, how can you know that you exist? What is existence? Can reasonable people not disagree? Or, as Pontius Pilate asked Jesus: “What is Truth?”[61]

This is not mere existential conjecture; ironically, philosophy has given us a proof that certain knowledge is impossible. There is no perfect epistemology, or theory of knowledge. Hans Albert considered this fact through what became known as the Münchhausen-Trilemma:

  1. If we attempt to justify certain knowledge with other knowledge, we must justify the justification with a further justification. This leads to an infinite regression.
  2. We can attempt to justify with circular reasoning, but circular reasoning does not justify.
  3. We can speak of “self-evident” truths, but since these cannot be proved, they cannot be certain.[62]

Of course, a “proof” denying the existence of certain knowledge cannot itself be certain: “Il n’est pas certain que tout soit incertain.”[63]This skepticism has profoundly impressed our modern rational and emotional consciousness. How is the theist to answer it?

One important point to make is that self-evident truths, though not provable, are inescapable. Perhaps I cannot “know” that “2 + 2 = 4,” but I also cannot avoid believing it. The classical Muslim philosopher Avicenna highlighted this fact somewhat graphically: “Those who deny the first principle should be flogged or burned until they admit that it is not the same thing to be burned and not burned, or whipped and not whipped.”[64] It is one thing to claim that you do not believe in “absolute truth”; it is quite another actually not to believe in it.

There exists a popular and egregiously false notion that we have substantial control over our beliefs – as if, by saying that we do not believe in absolute truth, we can actually not believe in it. “My religion,” people often say, “is a personal choice,” as if we can choose whether or not to believe in God or Jesus Christ or gravity or, for that matter, Santa Claus. But our beliefs are not switches that we can turn on or off at will; they are complex responses to our experiences, our thoughts, and our emotions.

If people cannot control their beliefs, why bother with arguments for the existence of God? The answer is that, though people cannot control their beliefs directly, they can control their exposure to information and experiences that affect their beliefs. Polemarchus asked Socrates, “Can you persuade us, if we refuse to listen?”[65] We must, as Horace suggests, dare to know.[66]

Another important point to notice is that agnosticism is a statement of knowledge, while atheism and theism are statements of belief.And of course, people believe many things without knowing them.In fact, if certain knowledge is impossible, then everything that we believe is also something that we do not know. In the same way, I can be classified as an agnostic theist; though I do not epistemically “know” that God exists, I certainly believe that He does.

If belief exists without knowledge, what is justifiable belief? How can we say that certain beliefs are “better” than others? If we are truly committed to pursuing the Truthas our institutional motto, Veritas, boasts we are – we will be committed to exposing ourselves to as much experiential and rational information as possible.

Can my “agnostic theism” be reconciled with what the New Testament writers say about faith? According to Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews, “[F]aith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”[67] At first glance, the two seem incompatible. But they can be reconciled – if we make the extremely important distinction between epistemic certainty and what I call “spiritual certainty.” Faith is not epistemic certainty – perfect, “rational” knowledge of God’s existence – but spiritual certainty – a perfect trust in a loving Father.

If Faith is mere epistemic certainty, it is indistinguishable from fideism.[68] This, unfortunately, is how many people would define faith. They would agree with Mark Twain: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”[69]

But Faith is not primarily a matter of “reason.” Faith does not come from cosmological arguments; instead, Faith comes from “hearing the message … [which] is heard through the word of Christ.”[70] Faith is experiential; after all, Jesus told his disciples that they would know the Truth if they held to his teaching.[71] The obedience does not spring from the Faith; Faith springs from the obedience. And what teaching are we commanded to obey? We are commanded to love the Lord our God and our neighbor.[72] There is no such thing as faith without Love: “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness.”[73]

Based on their erroneous understanding of Faith, skeptics have lambasted Christianity’s supposed emphasis on unjustified belief. They do not understand that Faith entails emotional trust manifested in action: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? … Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.”[74] James’ words are meaningless unless Faith is, not merely rational belief, but a spiritual assurance in God’s love and sovereignty.

IX. THE PERSON AND THE IDEA

Arguments for and against the existence of God, though useful, must by their very nature reduce Him to something which He (putatively) is not: an idea. The God of Christianity is not an idea; He is a person.

This is the fundamental difference between the religious and the non-religious. It is anathema to the non-religious mindset that the Ultimate Cause of the universe is personal. For this reason, deists, who believe in an impersonal God, identify much more with agnostics and atheists than they do with theists.

Consider the hypothetical case of a person who believes that God exists, that Jesus is the resurrected Son of God, and that the Bible is God’s message to mankind. Is such a person necessarily a Christian? Absolutely not! For such a person could believe that God gave us the Bible as a sort of hoax to trick us into thinking He loved us.

To be a Christian is not to believe that God, once upon a time, said He loved Mankind. It is to believe that God, now and forevermore, actually does love Mankind – to the point that He Himself became a man to die for Man.A Christian cannot only believe that God has said things; a Christian must also believe that God meant what He said. Christianity is not belief in an idea, but trust in a Person – and the particular trust that we place in our Creator we call Faith.

Most people who reject the idea of God have never truly experienced the person. (Perhaps even most people who accept the idea of God have never truly experienced the person. Tolstoy speaks of “confessing Christ in words and rejecting Him in reality,”[75]and the pandemic hypocrisy and – even worse – apathy prevalent in Christendom lead me to believe that he was far from alone.) They have never truly attempted to regard Him as a living (in the truest sense of the word), emotional, loving being.

This almost inevitably leads to unbelief – for the Christian God, if considered only as an idea, is relatively stale and unappealing. “I exist,” He thunders, “and if you believe this and perform certain actions, you will receive a reward.” He is then a being indistinguishable from a cosmic employer who provides a product in exchange for our services. This understanding of Christianity (and, indeed, of religion in general) is hopelessly impoverished. To understand Christianity, you must seek to understand the person (or, technically speaking, persons) God claims to be.

X. THE BEAUTIFUL TRUTH

If you are looking for faith in Christianity through “reason” and evidence, you will be hard-pressed – not because Christianity is not grounded in reason and evidence, but because Faith is the fruit of walking as Jesus did. “We live by faith, not by sight”[76] – this, because the Christian does not (primarily) seek to understand God as he does a mathematical theorem, but to know Him as he does a friend.

It is not enough for the non-believer to say, “I do not believe in God the idea, and so it is impossible for me to know God the person.” How you feel about God the person will invariably affect how you think about God the idea; the one cannot be divorced from the other. And if you have never experienced God, and have never sought to obey Him, you will probably be bewildered by the mysticism, ritual, and emotion inherent in almost all human manifestations of religion.

This understanding of God will probably require a commitment few people, even religious people, have ever undertaken. Our Lord warned us of this himself: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.”[77]

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”[78] Christianity is not a checklist of beliefs and promises, but a radical lifestyle – and thus, to test it requires one to test not only Christianity’s tenets, but also its impact on one’s personal life.

It is dishonest to pretend that the primary divide between atheists and Christians is philosophical. For the most part, people do not believe in the Christian God because they cannot believe in modern American Christian religiosity; they are unable to reconcile religious hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and inertness with Jesus’ promise of “life to the full.”[79]

C.S. Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[80]

The Christian way of looking at the world may be utterly different from your own. But I urge you, at the very least, to consider it. I have attempted to demonstrate in this essay that Christianity (and religion in general) can have a “rational” basis; I hope this will encourage you to investigate it further. Read some books by Christian scholars; talk to Christians on campus (or to me); be willing to hear their side of the story. Above all else, do not pretend Christianity is an emotional crutch for feeble-minded people. It is a religion that has informed and inspired some of the world’s greatest thinkers – Pascal, Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Planck, Goethe, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Heisenberg, and others. It is a religion that has transformedlives in a way nothing else I know can.For me, it is and ever will be the Beautiful Truth.[81]


[1]G.W. Leibniz, “Principes de la nature et de la grâce fondés en raison” (1714)

[2]The Sunday Times, December 24, 2006

[3]Ibid.

[4]V.J. Stenger, Not by Design: The Origin of the Universe (1988)

[5]C.S. Lewis, “The Laws of Nature” (1945). Note that Lewis’ argument does not depend at all upon his relatively Newtonian interpretation of the “laws of Nature.” It does depend upon a somewhat deterministic view of Scientific Law – but I hope to address this point later.

[6]Nor can they explain why events can be predicted with impressive precision.

[7]“First Mover”

[8]Used here, “creative” means causal, not artistic.

[9]Kalām (Arabic الكلام, “speech”) originally referred to the pursuit of Islam’s theological principles through dialectic.

[10]W.L. Craig, “Theistic Critiques of Atheism” (2007)

[11]Summa Theologica (1272)

[12]Metaphysics (c. 322 BC)

[13]This concern was more relevant in the first half of the twentieth century, when many people still believed that the universe did not have any sort of beginning.

[14]R.M. Gale and A.R. Pruss, “A New Cosmological Argument” (1999)

[15]Put in the terms of modal logic, this means that, in the set of all possible worlds, there exist worlds other than our own in which George Washington was not the first president of the United States of America. Of course, what it means to invoke “all possible worlds” (assuming that more than one world could possibly exist) is not always clearly defined.

[16]La monadologie (1714). Interestingly, Leibniz adds that “most of the time these reasons cannot be known to us.”

[17]“Principes de la nature et de la grâce fondés en raison” (1714)

[18] La monadologie (1714)

[19]“Principes de la nature et de la grâce fondés en raison” (1714)

[20]I should note that some philosophers believe that all other “possible worlds” exist as much as our “actual world” does. This view is known as modal realism.

[21]C.R. Darwin, Recollections of the Development of my Mind and Character (1876)

[22]J.C. Baez, “How Many Fundamental Constants Are There?” (2002)

[23]Given the fact that scientific thought is consistently subject to revision (or complete replacement), this claim is not too far-fetched.

[24]This is, admittedly, a sort of argument from ignorance, in the sense that I cannot prove that an unknown Theory of Everything would be constrained in this way. But at the very least, a Theory of Everything that necessitates a certain amount of matter and energy would be completely unlike any other scientific theory ever proposed by anyone.

[25]“Where does the one who proves err?”

[26]A.R. Pruss, “A Restricted Principle of Sufficient Reason and the Cosmological Argument” (2003)

[27]A. Schopenhauer, On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (1847)

[28]A.R. Pruss, “Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit: Arguments New and Old for the Principle of Sufficient Reason” (2002)

[29]For a more thorough (but by no means) exhaustive discussion of arguments for and against the principle of sufficient reason, I recommend Pruss’ “Ex Nihilo Nihil Fit: Arguments New and Old for the Principle of Sufficient Reason” (2002), which I have quoted from here. Pruss himself recommends Thomas D. Sullivan’s “On the Alleged Causeless Beginning of the Universe: a Reply to Quentin Smith,” from his Dialogue (1994). Suffice it to say that I can hardly conceive of a logical system that does not include the principle of sufficient reason.

[30]R.M. Gale and A.R. Pruss, “A New Cosmological Argument” (1999)

[31]Ibid.

[32]A.R. Pruss, “A Restricted Principle of Sufficient Reason and the Cosmological Argument” (2003)

[33]Ibid.

[34]R.M. Gale and A.R. Pruss, “A New Cosmological Argument” (1999)

[35]Ibid.

[36]Ibid.

[37]Ibid.

[38]R.M. Gale and A.R. Pruss, “A New Cosmological Argument” (1999)

[39]Ibid.

[40]Ibid. According to Gale and Pruss, “The only sort of explanations that we can conceive of are personal and scientific explanations, in which a personal explanation explains why some proposition is true in terms of the intentional action of an agent and a scientific one in terms of some conjunction of law-like propositions, be they deterministic or only statistical, and one that reports a state of affairs at some time. There might be types of explanation that we cannot conceive of; but, in philosophy we ultimately must go with what we can make intelligible to ourselves after we have made our best effort.”

[41]Ibid. Gale and Pruss provide the following rationale: “The reason is that q must contain some law-like proposition, as well as a proposition reporting a state of affairs at some time, but such propositions seem to be contingent, especially the latter. And, since they are contingent they are members of the Big Conjunctive Contingent Fact. But then they would have to explain themselves, since q must explain each and every contingent proposition in this Fact, as well as the Conjunction as a whole. But law-like propositions cannot explain themselves.”

[42]Ibid.

[43]Ibid.

[44]Ibid.

[45]Ibid.

[46]I have omitted here a significant portion of Gale’s and Pruss’ argument, which contains (among other things) their assertions (1) that q is a contingent (non-necessary) proposition and (2) that the necessary being who intentionally brings about the universe does so freely.

[47]Ibid.

[48]G.K. Chesterton, Twelve Types (1902)

[49]A.R. Pruss, “A Restricted Principle of Sufficient Reason and the Cosmological Argument” (2003)

[50]Ibid.

[51]Ibid.

[52]Ibid.

[53]Ibid.

[54]Ibid.

[55] Ibid.

[56]K. Barth, Dogmatik im Grundriß (1947)

[57]Isaiah lv. 9

[58]G.K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas (1933)

[59]A.R. Pruss, “A Restricted Principle of Sufficient Reason and the Cosmological Argument” (2003)

[60]2 Corinthians v. 7

[61]John xviii. 38

[62]This trilemma paraphrases Albert’s original one, found in his Traktat über kritische Vernunft (1991).

[63]“It is not certain that all is uncertain.” B. Pascal, Pensées (1662)

[64]Avicenna, The Book of Healing (1020)

[65]Plato, The Republic (c. 380 BC)

[66]Horace, Epistularum liber primus (20 BC)

[67]Hebrews xi. 11

[68]Fideism is the view that belief in God (and in religion) cannot be predicated upon reason, observation, or evidence.

[69]S.L. Clemens, Following the Equator (1897)

[70]Romans x. 17

[71]John xiii. 31-32

[72]Mark xii. 30-31, et al.

[73]1 John ii. 9

[74]James ii. 14,18

[75] L.N. Tolstoy, My Religion (1885)

[76]2 Corinthians v. 7

[77]Matthew xvi. 24-25

[78]G.K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World (1910)

[79]John x. 10

[80]C.S. Lewis, “Is Theology Poetry?” (1945)

[81]I thank Collin Jones, Christopher Martin, and James Pickens for their suggestions, advice, and commentary.


J. Joseph Porter ’12 is a freshman in Wigglesworth Hall. He is Features Editor of The Ichthus.

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