Adler’s proof of the existence of God

In browsing Wikipedia for some quick facts about something else, I came across this summary of Mortimer Adler’s rather more sophisticated version of the cosmological argument for the existence of God:

In his 1981 book “How to Think About God”, Adler attempts to demonstrate God as the exnihilator of the cosmos. The steps taken to demonstrate this are as follows:

1. The existence of an effect requiring the concurrent existence and action of an efficient cause implies the existence and action of that cause
2. The cosmos as a whole exists
3. The existence of the cosmos as a whole is radically contingent (meaning that it needs an efficient cause of its continuing existence to preserve it in being, and prevent it from being annihilated, or reduced to nothing)
4. If the cosmos needs an efficient cause of its continuing existence, then that cause must be a supernatural being, supernatural in its action, and one the existence of which is uncaused, in other words, the Supreme Being, or God

Two of the four premises, the first and the last, appear to be true with certitude. The second is true beyond a reasonable doubt. If the one remaining premise, the third, is also true beyond a reasonable doubt, then we can conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that God exists and acts to sustain the cosmos in existence.

The reason we can conceive the cosmos as being radically rather than superficially contingent is due to the fact that the cosmos which now exists is only one of many possible universes that might have in fact existed in the past, and might still exist in the future. This is not to say that any cosmos other than this one ever did exist in the past, or ever will exist in the future. It is not necessary to go that far in order to say that other universes might have existed in the past and might exist in the future. If other universes are possible, than this one also is merely possible, not necessary. . . .

The next step in the argument is the crucial one. It consists in saying that whatever might have been otherwise in shape or structure is something that also might not exist at all. That which cannot be otherwise also cannot not exist; and conversely, what necessarily exists can not be otherwise than it is. Therefore, a cosmos which can be otherwise is one that also cannot be; and conversely, a cosmos that is capable of not existing at all is one that can be otherwise than it now is.

Applying this insight to the fact that the existing cosmos is merely one of a plurality of possible universes, we come to the conclusion that the cosmos, radically contingent in existence, would not exist at all were its existence not caused. A merely possible cosmos cannot be an uncaused cosmos. A cosmos that is radically contingent in existence, and needs a cause of that existence, needs a supernatural cause, one that exists and acts to exnihilate this merely possible cosmos, thus preventing the realization of what is always possible for merely a possible cosmos, namely, its absolute non-existence or reduction to nothingness. . . .

Adler stressed that even with this conclusion, God’s existence cannot be proven or demonstrated, but only established as true beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in a recent re-review of the argument, John Cramer concluded that recent developments in cosmology appear to converge with and support Adler’s argument, and that in light of such theories as the multiverse, the argument is no worse for the wear and may, indeed, now be judged somewhat more probable than it was originally.

It’s interesting that the contingency of the universe–that it might be otherwise than what it is–is a key to the argument. Otherwise, one could argue that the universe itself is necessary and self-existing.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Ryan

    Does this line of argument imply that there must also be a “cause” for God himself?

  • Bruce

    Somewhat related, did anyone see the very excellent GOD ON TRIAL, presented by PBS Sunday evening? Jewish men in one of Hitler’s prisoner of war camps spend their last hours debating the problem of evil and the presence of God.

  • William

    Ryan: I don’t believe that would be the case. The supernatural being is “above nature,” and thereby above logical reasoning. In other words, the cause & effect premise need not apply to anything supernatural. It only applies to natural things. Furthermore, by limiting God to natural rules of logic would mean that logic is above God, and therefore God would not be the supreme being, but a lesser being, and therefore not God at all.

  • Anon

    Basically an effect cannot be greater than the sum of its causes. Chance plus energy plus time cannot give rise to a bacterium, let alone Bach.

    A personal-infinite being, triune – hence unity and complexity as one, uncreated; is an absolute infinite, which is the logically necessary first cause.

    That happens to be the Judaeo-Christian God.

    The alternatives all end up being violations of basic logic.

  • Joel

    Ryan, read #4 more carefully:

    “…then that cause must be a supernatural being, supernatural in its action, and one the existence of which is uncaused, in other words, the Supreme Being, or God.”

  • Greg

    Ryan you also need to pay close attention to premise #3. To consider God an effect in need of a cause you must give evidence to God’s radically contingent nature. #3 is the key to the whole argument. If the universe is contingent then the universe has a cause. That cause needs to be explained by another cause the “who made God” question only if that cause can also be shown to be contingent.

  • Fred

    I hadn’t realize I’d stumbled onto a William Lane Craig blog. ~ : )

    Mortimer Adler, ideed.

  • Fred

    I hadn’t realize I’d stumbled onto a William Lane Craig blog. ~ : )

    Mortimer Adler, INdeed.

  • Peter Leavitt

    There was a time, mainly in college, when these attempts at a purely rational proof for God interested me. Of all of them, the most satisfying is Anselm’s ontological proof : Now we believe that the Lord is something than which nothing greater can be conceived. Undoubtedly some souls have managed to refute this.

    Ultimately, since God exists beyond space and time in a realm about which we cannot have certainty we have to rely on our Biblical faith and good sense that God exists and that His cosmos is a profoundly moral one.

    GK Chesterton remarked that there are limits to reason and that only madmen rely solely on reason. The lunatic asylums are filled with people spouting reason. I understand that the folks at AIG relied on a wonderfully reasonable intellectual model that assured them that its risks were being managed just fine.

  • William

    Peter Leavitt: It’s true that reason should not be the only source for epistemic discourse (it seems we can’t even talk about epistemology without recourse to reason), but it can be a useful one and should not be underestimated. Quite frankly, there are many fools who champion reason but typically know nothing of it. In other words, it is often not logic that fails, but the misuse of it that fails. I don’t blame the hammer when I hit my thumb, and neither should I blame logic when I come up with an absurd conclusion.

  • Veith

    Fred, I’m going to be drawing on a William Lane Craig article all this week, starting today. Is there anything wrong with that?