The Cosmological argument, in its various forms, is a common line of evidence that points to the existence of God. The idea is simple; the universe is the kind of thing that needs an explanation and God is the most plausible candidate to explain it. An incredibly common objection to hear is the idea that if the universe needs a cause then so does God! During William Lane Craig’s presentation on March 7 at the University of Calgary he made the claim, as he often has, that the explanation for one effect does not, itself, need an explanation. This claim was greeted, as it usually is, with snide chuckles. It sounds as though it is a diversion, I’ll grant that first impression, but the question is whether or not it truly is a diversion? Is it true that explanations do not need to be explained?
To end or not to end?
The assumption that explanations must have explanations rest on an assumption about explanations that deserves consideration; does the string of explanations have an end or not? To say that all explanations require an explanation assumes that there cannot possibly be an end to the string of explanations. Of course, if we were to answer that God was created by Uber-God the Atheists would still not be satisfied, it seems to me, because they would simply turn around and ask what made Uber-God.
But one of the very definitions of God is the “first cause.” Put another way, he is a “necessary being” that cannot have another cause. Put more bluntly, he’s the only guy who can rightly say, “the buck stops here.” Explanations need explanations right up to the point when you reach the very first explanation. That very first explanation, the one without any further explanation behind it, is what we call God.
However, Atheists don’t buy that. They keep asking for explanations. Why? Frankly, because they have already assumed that God does not exist. They refuse to accept a “buck stops here” explanation precisely because that explanation would be God and they refuse to accept the existence of God. When they ask for an explanation for God they are implicitly saying, “since God does not exist, give me an explanation of God.” They are, frankly, begging the question by assuming the very thing that they are trying to prove.
Explanations can have unanswered questions
To further help answer this question of whether or not an explanation needs to be fully explained in order to be a reasonable explanation, I draw on the insights of a master of present day philosophy and cultural commentary, Weird Al Yankovic. In an epic tale of a family vacation to a destination that can only be properly described as one of the world’s great monuments (rivaling the Pyramids and the Taj Mahal), the song describes an heroic journey, complete with various unexpected twists and turns, to the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota. This “glorius huge majestic sphere” was obviously the product of human creative impulses, right? It’s not the kind of thing animals would create and we know of no alien civilization that hurls huge balls of twine at our planet. No, it would seem some representative of the human race was responsible for this particular example of fine art.
But that theory raises a problem. After all, positing that a human is the explanation for the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota (BBTM) raises a whole series of questions that Yankovic lays out with great literary insight.
Oh, what on earth would make a man decide to do that kind of thing?
Oh, windin’ up twenty-one thousand, one hundred forty pounds of string
What was he trying to prove, who was he trying to impress?
Why did he build it, how did he do, it was anybody’s guess
Where did he get the twine, what was goin’ through his mind?
Did it just seem like a good idea at the time?
If we follow the reasoning of the Atheists with respect to the greater sphere we call our “universe” then any explanation that is not, itself, completely explained is no explanation at all. Therefore, the fact that we have so many outstanding questions with respect to the explanation that “a man” made the BBTM can lead a reasonable person to one conclusion, and one conclusion alone; “a man” is not a suitable explanation for the BBTM.
Or, alternatively, an explanation can be a perfectly legitimate explanation even if questions remain. Even if some unimaginably powerful, immaterial being outside of our universe created our universe and, itself, had a creator (this being would not be God, but let’s put that aside for a moment), if we knew absolutely nothing about the creator’s creator would we be in a significantly different position than if we knew nothing about the parents of the man who made the BBTM? Given that lack of knowledge, are we justified in concluding that “a man” could not possibly have created the BBTM, or that an unimaginably powerful, immaterial being could not possibly have created the universe?
Now there could be some hypothetical outstanding questions that would destroy a theory. Suppose, for instance, that the BBTM was discovered among a tribal society with no access to twine and no previously recorded interaction with the civilized world. Well, then the theory that one of them did it certainly does raise some questions that would likely kill that theory. Similarly, if it could be shown that there is good reason to believe that an unimaginably powerful and immaterial being was incapable of creating a universe (I’m not sure how this would be shown, but let’s use our imagination caps) then certainly that would be the death knell of any such theory.
So to say that questions remain about the cause of the universe is not necessarily catastrophic to the theory that the universe was created by God any more than the fact that questions remain about the cause of the BBTM is catastrophic to the theory that some guy with access to a lot of twine and too much time made the BBTM. The Atheists need to do more than keep telling us “I have questions” as though that is supposed to somehow be problematic to the God-theory of the cause of our universe.
And, of course, chuckling whenever William Lane Craig reminds us that explanations do not themselves require explanations is not persuasive either.