The Leibnizian cosmological argument (as told by William Lane Craig)

Here is the first argument Craig gives in Reasonable Faith, which he calls the “Leibnizian cosmological argument” (pp. 106-111):

  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, 3)
  5. Therefore, the explanation of the existence of the universe is God. (fromis t 2, 4)

I’m not sure (1) is true, but Craig’s arguments for (2) is especially weak. First, Craig claims that atheists already agree with him about (2), a claim which, I’m sorry, is bullshit. Actually, I’m not sorry to say that, because it needs to be said. I’ve never heard an atheist say what Craig claims, nor does he give a single example of an atheist who has said that.

And this is a typical example of how Craig misrepresents the views of atheists. It’s not the worst example, though; alone I might let it slide. But as this post series goes on, it will quickly become part of a pattern.

The other argument Craig gives for (2) is that the universe is by definition all of physical reality, so its cause must be non-physical, and therefore would have to be mental. But it would make just as much sense to “disprove” God in the following way:

  1. Define “the pan-immaterion” as all of non-physical reality
  2. Because the pan-immaterion is all of non-physical reality, it must have a physical cause.
  3. Since God is non-physical, He is part of the pan-immaterion
  4. Therefore, God’s existence must ultimately be traceable to a physical cause.
  5. But God having a physical cause is totally incompatible with the concept of God.
  6. Since God both must, and cannot, have a physical cause, He cannot exist.

I do not think  this argument against the existence of God is any good, but I think it is as good as Craig’s argument for the existence of God.

Craig would probably object that the explanation for God’s existence is “in the necessity of his own nature,” whereas the universe cannot be explained in that way, because we can (so Craig would argue) conceive of the universe being otherwise. But to me, it seems equally conceivable for God to not exist. (In fact, it seems to me that God does not exist.) Craig may disagree, but does he have an argument for treating God and the universe differently? Not that I can tell.

The main problem here is that Craig doesn’t have any decent reason for preferring “God created the universe, but God wasn’t caused by anything else” over “the universe wasn’t caused by anything else.” This is an example of a “sophisticated” argument for the existence of God that isn’t actually any better than Bill O’Reilly’s argument.

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  • vel

    It’s always amusing to watch people like WLC make such claims and intentionally not mention that his argument works for anyone’s claims for the existence of any god, not only for his Christian one. #2 always fails so dramatically, in a puff of unwarranted arrogance and indeed the usual special pleading.

  • One Thousand Needles

    Wow. I couldn’t get past point #1.

    Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.

    “In the necessity of its own nature”

    This seems like a classic example of Begging The Question. Has anything ever been demonstrated to exist solely because of its necessity? Or is WLC sneaking this into a premise so that he can later claim God to be a necessary being?

    “Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence”

    Aren’t explanations dependent on causality? That is, how could you say “this happened because of that” without cause and effect? If causality ‘began’ with the Universe, then how could the Universe have an explanation?

    It seems more likely that, from the perspective of a thing existing within the Universe, there could be no beginning, in the same way that there is no “center” of the Universe.

    Anyway, I’m only a layperson trying to follow along, but these seem like glaring inconsistencies, unless I’m mistaken.

    • eric

      Yup,#1 hung me up too. ‘An explanation’ is just how humans describe some phenomenon. Its our linguistic or mathematical model of what we observe or think to be true. ‘X has an explanation’ doesn’t imply anything other than humans (think they) understand X.

      • @blamer

        Also, WLC wants us to treat ‘explanation’ as binary, when only ‘existence’ is binary. So I think WLC means ‘best explanation’.

        For example, pick anybody who ever lived and the existence of their biological father is binary. Best explanation for existence is ‘nature’ for 100% of carpenters, even though we read the catholic explanation that history contains the ‘external’ divine miracle of Ever-Virgin Mary.

      • @blamer

        Even if we grant his premises, WLC’s argument fails to work for establishing the existence (or otherwise) of a person:

        1. The oral poet Homer presumably has “an explanation of his existence”.

        2. The Iliad has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is its attributed author Homer.

        3. The Iliad exists.

        4. Therefore, The Iliad has an explanation of its existence.

        5 Therefore, the explanation of the existence of The Iliad is Homer.

        Conclusion: This argument don’t get us any closer to establishing whether the attributed author Homer is in fact a historical figure or merely a fictional character.

  • Jonas

    Another problem with the argument i find is this:

    so its cause must be non-physical, and therefore would have to be mental

    I have never heard of a mentality not originating in a physical brain, so a god with a mentality should be physical. Unless, of course, it is a metaphor?

  • theschwa

    If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
    . . . . .
    Craig claims that atheists already agree with him about (2), a claim which, I’m sorry, is bullshit.

    To be fair, God IS an explanation for the universe, and atheists agree that it is AN explanation. Craig did not say “If the universe has a plausible explanation…”

    How about: “If thunder has an explanation of its existence, it is angels bowling.” It IS an explanation; but it is shitty one. Like Craig’s argument.

    • Iain Walker

      To be fair, God IS an explanation for the universe, and atheists agree that it is AN explanation.

      Even that is probably a generalisation too far. This atheist would regard the concept of God (or Craig’s God, at least) as being devoid of any explanatory value whatsoever. Unless of course “explanation” is taken to mean “a form of words that is offered as an explanation, irrespective whether it has any actual explanatory value”, in which case, fair enough.

      • theschwa


    • Paul King

      However, Craig claims that God is the only possible explanation for the universe, and his argument for that claim is the assertion that atheists agree. That would be a poor argument even if it was true !

  • busterggi

    WLC doesn’t define god though does he nor does he explain its existance.

    What is the point of calling a completely natural process (the possible beginning of the universe, and no beginning has been shown to be needed) by a supernatural title that can’t even be adequately described?

  • mnb0

    Statement 2 is simply wrong. There simply isn’t any theory of physics “explaining” the Universe that includes some god or another metaphysical entity.
    “the universe is by definition all of physical reality, so its cause must be non-physical, and therefore would have to be mental.”
    All candidate theories of physics that explain the Universe are acausal. Indeed, I saw immediately that it’s possible to inverse the argument.
    Craig can object as much as he wants, but he simply should ask a physicist. It’s very likely that “the Universe can be explained in the necessity of its own nature.” That’s what the quest for the GUT (Grand Unified Theory) is about.
    Anyone using this argument shows his/her ignorance of modern physics.

  • Lord Griggss[ Ignostic Morgan, Inquiring Lynn, Skeptic Griggsy, Carneades of Ga., Fr.or Rabbi Griggs]

    Leucippus of Ga. agrees – necessity rules!
    Feser should also talk to physicists but then he rules out modern science for medieval woo! The Prime Mover then turns out to be no less than the quanta,because matter and energy beomce one another, and energy is ” motion, and therefore intrinsically lawful/orderlyand by implication matter-energy without’motion” [e.g. unmoved mover ]is nomologically impossible,[e.g.unmoved mover, besides being conceptually incoherent.... To be is to vibrate, " states 180 Proof at the good site Philosopy Forums.
    And per Lamberth's argument from inherency, in line with all that, regularity, chaos and order inhere in Nature, and per the Flew-Lamberth the presumption of naturalism all natural causes themselves are the ,efficientPrimary Cause [Explanation in a hierarchy of explanations, not a chronoligical series], the necessary being and sufficient reason.
    Whilst Aristotle was a philosophical naturalist, he circumvented the truth with teleology, and his physics was wrong. Before him, Thales of Miletus and after him Strato of Lampsacus pled for mechanism. Perhaps, had Europe heeded them and other pre-Socratics and atomists, Europe would have had a better,earlier trajectory towards modern science.
    That intent is mere animism as noted and as noted mere superstition yet theists just have to invoke God, the Supreme Mystery, surrounded by still other mysteries, ostensibly for the Ultimate Explanation, but in reality the ultimate woo!
    And theists see the pareidolias of teleology and design instead of mechanism and patterns, those necessities.

  • BCat70

    @ arg #1- “Anything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.”

    Am I the only one that noticed that the ‘necessity of its own nature’ was not addressed AT ALL by WLC in spite of being both 1.) a completely valid statement in terms of several concepts of universal origins (quantum tunneling or Big Bounce as just two examples) and 2.) a better argument from Occam razor.

    The guy is perhaps unaware that he has no ability to use the same slick debating tactics in print that he can on stage, or did he actually think he could just slip that by?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Well, Craig claims that the universe can’t have an explanation in the necessity of it’s own nature since we can conceive of the universe being otherwise. Which is a terrible argument, but he does address the point.

      And I think decades of experience has taught Craig that he CAN get away with silly debating tactics in print, at least when writing for his fan base.

    • Kevin

      It’s quite simple, really.

      He’s trying to define god into existence.

      He’s been failing to do so for about 25 years, I think.

      • Rosemary

        Well said!

  • Patrick

    1: All cats are either mammals or magical ghost lizards from space.
    2: Twinkles is a cat.
    3: Twinkles is not a mammal.
    4: Therefore Twinkles is a magical ghost lizard from space.

    1: All cats are either mammals or sentient shades of the color blue.
    2: Twinkles is a cat.
    3: Twinkles is not a mammal.
    4: Therefore Twinkles is a sentient shade of the color blue.

    The trick here is purely psychological. Statement (1) is objectively true in both cases. If you make a coherent argument for (2) and (3), people’s minds will default to (4) automatically, even though the greater likelihood is that your cases for (2) or (3) were in some way faulty.

    • DSimon

      This is a cool trick but I’m not really seeing the similarity to Craig’s argument. In your your examples, Statement 1 sneaks in a connotation with a useless use of “or”, with one branch that’s guaranteed to be true.

      But looking at WLC’s first statement, I notice that I can come up with things that don’t have an explanation in “the necessity of [their] own nature”, and I can also come up with things that don’t have an explanation in “an external cause”. So both branches of WLC’s “or” statement are useful.

      • Paul King

        But can you come up with any existing concrete entity that has its existence correctly explained by “the necessity of it’s own nature” ?

        • DSimon

          I don’t think it’s necessary to come up with that. AIUI the trick you describe requires an or-branch with one side that is guaranteed to be true, so that the other side is unnecessary and the statement overall is basically just vacuous despite seeming to say something useful.

          But neither side of Craig’s or-branch in his Statement 1 is always true, so both branches have to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and therefore the statement as a whole isn’t obviously true.

          • Paul King

            You’re mixing me up with Patrick. But I din’t think that the fact that Patrick’s example used a disjunction where one half was always true is really significant. If he had used “all cats are tabby or…” instead of “all cats are mammals or…” I don’t believe that his point would be affected (although you could then raise the other irrelevant objection that his premise was false)?

            The trick, as I see it, in Craig’s argument is to offer a disjunction where one alternative is true for some entities, but cannot be true for all and the other alternative is mainly offered because it is the one he wishes to be accepted. In that respect Patrick’s examples failed to fully capture the essence of Craig’s approach but they did illustrate the possibility that Craig’s premise is a false dichotomy – and one where the desired alternative is not exemplified at all

          • DSimon

            @Paul, apologies for the mix-up. And I also see your point there, I think that makes sense.

  • Paul King

    I am going to argue that premise 1 is probably false.

    1) Only things that exist can have an actual nature, therefore no appeal to the actual nature of an entity can explain why it exists.

    2) We can instead appeal to the definition of the entity, but the only way that definitions can explain existence is through logical necessity. (i.e. we can define something as existing or even necessarily existing or having properties that would imply those claims, but such things can still fail to exist).

    3) Any other explanation would require something beyond the proposed nature of the hypothetical entity.

    4) There is no known entity that is logically necessary, nor any good reason to think that one exists (excluding the abstract entities of mathematics and the like, which exist in a different sense from the universe and its contents). God is a hopeless candidate for such, being a complex entity with many aspects to be explained. Logical necessity s a very strong claim and not one to be lightly accepted.

    5) The alternative is that there is something that exists as a brute fact, unexplained. While it might contradict the expectations engendered by ordinary experience we are discussing something far beyond ordinary experience where it is not a good guide. Besides, no logically necessary entities crop up in our ordinary experience of the real world (I am excluding mathematics and other abstractions here).

    Thus, it is less problematic to reject Premise 1 and accept that at the base of our reality there may be a brute fact, than it is to accept it and insist on a logically necessary entity.

    • @blamer

      Compelling. I wonder if WLC would be equally comfortable swapping in your ‘brute fact’ premise for his ‘necessity’ premise.

  • dukeofomnium

    In premise 1 of your counter-argument, you state: “Definite “the pan-immaterion” as all of non-physical reality.” Did you mean “define” instead of “definite”?

    • Chris Hallquist

      Yes. Fix’d!

  • Axxyaan

    I have a problem with his point #3. As I see it, the universe is the set of things existing. But in how far does the set itself exist, except as an abstraction in people’s mind? So I’m not sure I’m willing to grand this point. IMO it looks like he’s trying to extrapolate a characteristic for all members in the set to a characteristic for the set itself and that is a falacy.

    • dukeofomnium

      You’re describing the fallacy of composition, and it’s everywhere in cosmological arguments. Theists cannot avoid the “thinging” of the universe.

  • Alex SL

    but does he have an argument for treating God and the universe differently? Not that I can tell.

    And this is pretty much the problem with theism in a nutshell. I have recently come to the tentative conclusion that special pleading may well be at the root of every argument argument for the existence of god(s). Apply the same reasoning that we, unless we are literally insane, use successfully in all other areas of life consistently also to souls, gods and afterlife, and weak atheism is the only logical conclusion.