The Argument from Contingency
(An Agnostic Analysis of the Rational Case for God)


Introduction: The Mystery of Contingent Existence

The classic question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” is often really intended in the more rigorous sense of “Why is there this particular something rather than either nothing or something else?” As I see it, this is the fundamental mystery that most rational arguments for the existence of God ultimately appeal to. The appeal is especially direct in a variation of the cosmological argument known as the argument from contingency, which claims that anything that exists but didn’t have to, or didn’t have to in the particular way that it does, must be ultimately caused by God.

When presented as an incontestable proof, the argument from contingency obviously goes too far. Most of us realize we cannot expect to find incontestable proofs or absolutely certain knowledge concerning such deeply philosophical subjects. We can still try to grapple with the possible solutions to the underlying mystery as rationally and open-mindedly as we can, however, in the hope of at least gaining some insight into the features and difficulties of each. I consider this a worthwhile endeavor for its own sake, regardless of whether we end up agreeing with the conclusion, or even arriving at any conclusion at all.

If we are to make any progress in this effort, we probably have to begin with the assumption that nothing can exist for absolutely no reason. This conviction, called the principle of sufficient reason, is admittedly not provable, and may possibly be false for such a fundamental question as why the universe exists, leaving us with simply nothing to say about the matter at all. But the principle of sufficient reason seems at least as reasonable as many other widely trusted principles, like the principle of Ockham’s razor, for example. Indeed, these two principles seem to be closely related, for if things could exist for absolutely no reason, then it would be difficult to see why a theory that postulates fewer entities should automatically be preferred over one that postulates many (all else being equal), which is what Ockham’s razor claims. The principle of induction is another related idea that is also not provable, but practically necessary for virtually all scientific thought. Reason simply breaks down if we don’t assume such principles at least as a general guideline. So let’s grant the plausibility of this assumption in the hope of finding a satisfactory ultimate reason or set of reasons for the existence of the universe, and ask what this reason or set of reasons we are seeking could possibly be like.

The quest for an ultimate reason or set of reasons cannot be satisfied by postulating chains of reasons that are circular or infinitely long, because that would simply beg the question in the form of why those specific chains of reasons instead of others. This means that if our assumption of the principle of sufficient reason is correct, then there must ultimately be some reason or set of reasons that is metaphysically necessary, something that exists or is true simply because it would be impossible for it not to exist or be true. Metaphysically necessary reasons are therefore exempt from needing any further explanation themselves. But what kind of “thing” could a metaphysically necessary reason be?

The only “things” that are obviously necessary are not physical things at all, but rather principles, like the laws of logic and mathematics. Whether or in what sense these principles can be said to “exist” in virtue of their necessary truth is a very debatable question, of course. Many philosophers and mathematicians subscribe to some form of mathematical Platonism, believing there is a very real sense in which the truths of mathematics do indeed exist in some abstract, nonphysical way, and can therefore be discovered by human beings, while others believe these truths are merely invented or are merely ways of talking about the physical universe. But we need not get into that debate here. We will just note that whatever qualifies as the necessary reason or set of necessary reasons for why there is something rather than nothing must have at least as much (and possibly more) claim to ontological existence as a necessary principle like a law of mathematics. Let us therefore call this unknown ultimate reason or set of reasons the ultimate principle of reality and acknowledge the plausibility of believing there must be some such thing, even though this idea cannot be proved and may possibly be false.

What can we say about the nature of this proposed ultimate principle of reality, whatever it might be? Probably not much, but I think we can at least reasonably argue that in whatever sense it has existence, it must not be in the sense of a dynamic existence in space and time, for how could something that exists dynamically in space and time be metaphysically necessary? Whatever is metaphysically necessary would presumably have to be necessary always and everywhere in exactly the same way, and thus in complete independence of space and time. So the ultimate principle of reality must be nonspatial and timeless, and therefore unchanging.

So far so good. Timeless, unchanging, necessary principles like the basic laws of mathematics seem like a reasonable model, or at least a reasonable analogy, for whatever the ultimate principle of reality might be. This model comes with a perplexing difficulty, however, as shown by a consideration of the kinds of things that can plausibly be explained by everything we know of that follows the model. Take the realm of mathematics, for example. Since every mathematical truth, no matter how complicated, follows necessarily from the basic laws of mathematics, the whole mathematical realm is clearly just as timeless and necessary as the basic laws are. But the existence of you and me and our entire physical universe does not seem to be very much like this at all. It is certainly not a timeless, unchanging existence, and it seems fairly obvious that we could very well have not existed at all. This is what we mean when we say our physical universe and all its inhabitants seem to have a contingent existence rather than a necessary existence.

So how can a timeless, necessary, ultimate principle of reality serve as the reason for this particular something, which seems so contingent, rather than just the reason for something that more closely resembles a purely mathematical realm? This is the mystery of contingent existence. As I see it, there are broadly three possible solutions:

Possible Solution #1: Necessity

Perhaps the most trivial possible solution to the mystery of contingent existence is to deny that there is any such thing as contingent existence after all. This was the view most famously articulated by the 17th-century rationalist philosopher Baruch Spinoza, building on the deterministic ideas of various predecessors including the ancient Stoics. Spinoza believed that the universe itself is metaphysically necessary in every detail; its apparent contingency is really just an illusion. We may not be able to explain why the universe is the particular way it is instead of another, but we can take it on faith in the principle of sufficient reason that it absolutely had to be so.

Spinoza further held that the entire universe was all a single necessary substance, and he sometimes referred to that substance by the phrase “God or nature.” He did not intend the word “God” here to mean a personal being who created the universe as proposed by theistic religion, and this predictably led some to accuse him of atheism. But that all comes down to how broad a definition one is willing to accept for the word “God.” In any case, it isn’t that Spinoza only believed in God as a synonym for the physical universe; he actually held that as the substance of all reality, God must possess an infinite number of unknowable attributes besides those that show up in the physical realm. This has led to some debate over whether his view should be classified as a form of pantheism, in which there is a strict identity between God and the universe, or as a form of panentheism, in which the substance of God is held to contain the universe in some sense but not to be limited by the universe. The truth is probably that Spinoza’s view doesn’t fit quite perfectly into either of those categories as they are traditionally defined, but is nevertheless closely related to both.

With or without Spinoza’s speculations about substance and God, however, his idea that everything that exists is metaphysically necessary is still admittedly very difficult for most people to take seriously. The way the world is, including the fact that you and I exist in a particular way on a particular planet, just seems too arbitrary to think that it couldn’t have happened any other way. But is this simple intuition really a good reason to rule the idea out?

One way we might weaken the psychological force of our intuition against the idea is by considering the possibility that perhaps it is only our very limited view of physical reality that makes it seem so particular and contingent. Even if all of reality is not a single substance or “God” of infinite attributes as Spinoza believed, for all we know it might still be infinite in other ways. The universe could be infinite in size, for example, containing an infinity of possibilities, or there might be an infinite number of different universes in a multiverse scenario of some kind. If this is so, then perhaps the ultimate principle of reality is just a simple law that causes every possible universe to exist. This is a mind-blowing concept, to be sure, but it has a kind of simplicity that might make it an attractive solution.

On the other hand, the concept of every possible universe actually existing may raise difficulties more substantial than just our natural intuition against the idea. For example, of the infinite number of universes that would presumably exist in this scenario, an infinite subset of them would presumably contain conscious, rational beings, and an infinite subset of those universes would presumably contain a human being who is utterly indistinguishable from you in every physical and functional way. In some of these universes, you (or your doppelgänger, if you prefer to think of it that way) might be the only living being on your planet, and in some you might even be endowed with false, solipsistic memories of seeing and talking with other people who don’t actually exist in these universes. If this is true, why should you believe you are not in one of these solipsistic universes?

Perhaps the answer is simply that there are more logical ways for a universe to turn out to include people with real memories than with solipsistic ones, and thus more universes in which we can generally trust our senses (and memories of senses) than universes in which we cannot. But if that’s a valid argument, consider all the possible universes where you share a planet or other local community with trillions or even googols of other people rather than simply with billions of other people as on our Earth. Surely there should be such universes in the infinite scenario we are considering; a googol is no more extravagant than a billion in comparison with infinity. And since larger conglomerations of things involve more possible combinations than smaller ones, wouldn’t we then expect there to be more logical ways for these larger universes with larger planets to exist than smaller universes with smaller planets? If so, the fraction of universes in which you live on a planet with only a few billion other people would be infinitesimal. So the fact that we find ourselves in a universe with only a few billion other people nearby, when there are presumably many more universes that have googols of people nearby instead, may well be a valid argument against this idea that every possible universe actually exists.

These are the kinds of problems we get into when we have to postulate infinite numbers of universes in order to make an idea more plausible. I would not claim they necessarily rule the idea out of contention, however. Perhaps there is some mysterious reason why universes with significantly more rational beings than ours turn out to be impossible, or at least very rare in comparison with more limited universes like our own, so that our existence in a limited universe is not an anomaly after all. And even if the ultimate principle of reality doesn’t cause every one of an infinite number of possible universes to exist, it might still necessarily cause just our particular universe to exist in the only way it possibly could for some admittedly mysterious reason. There’s simply no way of knowing, as far as I can tell. So let’s tentatively move on to the other possible solutions and see how they compare.

Possible Solution #2: Chance

The second possible solution to the mystery of contingent existence involves the appeal to random chance as at least one component of the ultimate principle of reality. This was the strategy of the ancient Epicureans, who held that all matter consists of “atoms” which necessarily exist for all time, drifting through an infinite void (or more literally “falling” in their terminology, lacking an accurate theory of gravity). But they went on to postulate that there was a fundamental indeterminacy or randomness in the nature of these atoms that caused them to suddenly swerve at some point in time, colliding with one another and thereby forming the universe. Why did they swerve in the particular fashion that they did? There is no reason to be given other than pure chance; they could equally as likely have swerved another way, but this is the way they just happened to go.

Modern science has rendered the Epicurean theory of atomic swerve obsolete, of course, but the idea that the ultimate principle of reality includes a fundamental indeterminacy or randomness at its core is still very much alive. Suppose the ultimate principle of reality includes the laws of physics, for example. It is perhaps the most traditional interpretation of quantum mechanics to say that the quantum wave function collapses upon measurement (however that is defined) to a definite state in a way that is metaphysically indeterminate, meaning the laws only determine the probabilities of each possible state, not the actual state itself. So there is no reason to be given other than pure chance for why it collapses one way one time and another equally probable way the next; it just does.

It’s difficult to see how chance alone could be the total explanation for the universe. After all, how can there even be a definite probability, no matter how small, for something to exist rather than nothing at all, where “nothing” means not even any physical laws or principles? But perhaps the ultimate principle of reality could include some physical laws that are metaphysically necessary, and that also incorporate some element of chance. Why any physical law would be metaphysically necessary is still a huge mystery, of course, but arguably not as problematic as the necessary existence of the whole universe in all of its particulars as Spinoza held, or even of just those strange atoms in Epicurean thought. At least physical laws can plausibly be thought of as existing outside of space and time, as we have argued the ultimate principle of reality must be.

Many physicists have indeed argued that the laws of quantum mechanics could be capable of conjuring up a physical universe by chance where none existed before—see the book A Universe from Nothing by Lawrence Krauss, for one notable example. But other physicists, most famously Albert Einstein, have been very suspicious of the idea of truly random chance. Einstein, who spoke freely and sometimes rather colorfully of God (though not as a personal deity but more in the sense of Spinoza’s concept), was convinced that the “Old One” does not “throw dice.” This doesn’t mean he disputed the idea that the world appears to be random at the quantum level. He just recognized that the appearance of randomness does not necessarily imply true metaphysical indeterminacy. Consider an algorithm to calculate the digits of pi, for example. The output would obviously not be indeterminate, because it is produced by a deterministic calculation, meaning each step necessarily follows from the previous one. Yet these digits appear to be completely random by every statisticalmeasure we have ever discovered, even though they are not truly random at all.

The point here is that there isn’t any way to distinguish between true randomness and merely apparent randomness that might actually be explained by a fully deterministic process. So we can’t claim that the laws of physics prove that randomness truly exists in nature; Einstein might have been right in his suspicion that it doesn’t. But even if the apparent randomness of the quantum world actually follows deterministically from all the way back to the initial conditions of the universe itself, or of the multiverse if there are many universes, we still have to ask why there were these particular initial conditions instead of others. And for this question the idea that random chance is involved might well be the most attractive answer. At least it lets us avoid the mind-bending infinities we had to postulate to make our first possible solution (the total denial of contingency) more palatable—which seems to me like a significant advantage for this view.

On the other hand, this advantage only takes us so far. Even if the initial conditions of our universe can be explained by random chance, we are still left with the puzzle of explaining the laws of physics, which seem too arbitrary to easily believe either that they were metaphysically necessary or that there was a definite probability for them. Or if our particular laws of physics are thought to be statistically variable in a multiverse scenario, with different laws holding in different universes, then the particular meta-laws that determine how these laws vary from universe to universe would seem arbitrary instead. So we still don’t seem to have a totally satisfying answer as to why this particular something exists rather than something else. At least it’s worth considering the remaining possibility.

Possible Solution #3: Choice

The final possible solution to the mystery of contingent existence is the idea that the ultimate principle of reality somehow selects the particular way the universe (or multiverse) is by a process that is neither metaphysically necessary nor random. But what does it mean for a selection process to be neither necessary nor random? Is this not the very definition of the concept we all know as free will or choice? So goes the usually unstated assumption behind the argument from contingency, at any rate.

Although the terms ‘will” and “choice” might seem awfully anthropomorphic, it is difficult to argue with them. After all, what alternatives are there to propose? We could perhaps suggest that the selection of what exists is made in some way by a totally abstract principle such as Plato’s “form of the Good,” but if we hold this principle to make the selection in a deterministic way we are back to our first solution of metaphysical necessity, and if we hold the principle to only guide the probabilities of the selection we are back to our second solution of necessity plus chance. So if the selection is neither necessary nor random, then there does seem to be something about it that is at least significantly analogous to what we call free choice.

Einstein was clearly intrigued by this possibility. “What really interests me,” he said, “is whether God had any choice in the creation of the world.” But even if the ultimate principle of reality does exercise choice in some significant sense, is it really fair to call it “God” as the argument from contingency claims, and as Einstein often did? As in the case of Spinoza, this all depends on how broad a definition one is willing to accept for the word “God,” and this is not a simple matter to find agreement on. Many would insist that God must be a personal being, for example, but that just pushes us to the equally difficult question of what we mean by the word “personal.” Perhaps anything that exercises choice counts as a personal being, since choice seems like such a personal thing, involving something like what we experience as purpose or will. At the very least it seems plausible to argue that exercising choice implies having or being a mind or intellect of some kind, in at least an analogous sense.

Perhaps the suitability of the “personal being” concept depends mainly on the specific choices we attribute to the ultimate principle of reality in order to explain contingent existence. Einstein was adamant that he did not believe in a “God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.” But if we view this being as deliberately choosing all that is contingent in this universe, that would presumably include these “fates and actions” of human beings, arguably making the “personal being” designation a reasonable fit. Even then we should be careful not to read too much into the terminology, however. If we mean anything more by it than just that God is something like a supreme mind or intellect that serves as the reason for our personal contingent existence through a process that is something like what we call free choice, we are going well beyond what the argument from contingency actually proposes.

Whether or not we see the supreme mind, or God, as a personal being, the big mystery of this idea is still why this mind or being would have a metaphysically necessary existence, of course. But perhaps this is no more mysterious than why the laws of physics and/or a principle of randomness should be metaphysically necessary. In fact, if God is held to be infinitely powerful and wise, as believers typically assume, then there is a kind of simplicity to the idea, not unlike the simplicity of the previously-discussed idea that every possible universe might actually exist. And with this idea of a God that makes free choices, we don’t have to deny our intuition that the universe is contingent as we had to do with that earlier idea. So perhaps this is indeed a more satisfactory solution to the mystery of contingent existence.

On the other hand, there are some significant difficulties with this proposal as well. For one thing, assuming we accept our previous argument that the ultimate principle of reality must be timeless and changeless, it isn’t exactly clear how such a God can even be intelligibly thought of on the analogy of exercising choice at all. To envision God’s choices as literally responding to contingent events in time, as many religious people do, would be very problematic and almost certainly taking the analogy too literally, for example. Perhaps God could be conceived of as timelessly willing certain choices to take effect at certain times, but with the will itself still being present in some unchanging sense at all times. This static picture of God’s will might count against the idea that we are talking about a personal being, however, at least for some people.

A more deeply philosophical difficulty is the question of whether the postulate of free choice, as an alternative to both necessity and chance, is even a coherent concept to begin with. Can there really be any kind of indeterminacy or metaphysical unpredictability behind our choices that is not ultimately just random in nature? Philosophers have debated this question almost forever. The claim that there is such a thing is known as the theory of libertarian freedom or libertarian free will. According to this theory, although our choices may be influenced to some degree by factors that are either deterministic or random, there is also a factor or feature of our minds that influences them in a way that is neither. Free choices are therefore not uncaused as the idea of freedom or indeterminacy might imply in other contexts, but are rather at least partly caused by this unique feature of our minds. The way the causation of this feature works is rather mysterious, to say the least, since the influence does not follow deterministically from any of our personal characteristics, or from anything else for that matter. But this mysteriousness is not in itself a disproof of the idea.

The usual argument for libertarian freedom is that it is presumed by many to be a requirement for moral accountability. A common argument against it is that it is very difficult to see how any indeterminate, nonrandom kind of causation could possibly operate in the human brain, since the function of individual neurons seems to be deterministic in all the relevant senses (though possibly with a few statistically random influences beyond our control making their way up from the quantum level). This seems like a persuasive argument to me, but our understanding of the brain is admittedly incomplete, so others may not find it as convincing.

Perhaps a more important argument, then, is that even if there is room for a nonrandom kind of indeterminism in the operation of the brain, it still doesn’t seem to me that libertarian freedom is necessary or even meaningful for moral accountability. In order for our choices to be morally meaningful, I think they must ultimately be explained by our properties or character, so that they don’t just stand independently on their own but rather reveal something about who we are, or what we are like. I can’t see any reason to consider a choice that is more independent from the characteristics of the chooser to be more meaningful than one that follows more decisively from those characteristics. I think if our choices were completely indeterminate, or even if they were only influenced by a metaphysically indeterminate factor to some degree, then to that same degree they would lose moral value instead of gaining it. The view I am expressing here is known as compatibilism, because it sees moral accountability as being compatible with determinism.

If compatibilism is true and the argument for libertarian freedom fails in the case of human beings, so that indeterminism is not actually an essential ingredient to what we call our “free will” choices, then why should we think libertarian freedom is a meaningful concept by which to describe God’s choices? I see this as a very difficult argument to make. But without libertarian freedom, God’s choices become either metaphysically necessary or random (or some combination of both), as in the previous possible solutions to the mystery of contingent existence, making the existence of God rather superfluous at least as far as the argument from contingency is concerned. And since we acknowledged the difficulties with those possible solutions, perhaps we should be open to the possibility that libertarian freedom is somehow a meaningful concept for God to have, even if we don’t see it as a meaningful concept for human beings. If this is indeed the case, it brings us to the question of what else we might reasonably believe about God, given the particular contingent universe we actually observe and the choices its existence must have involved.

The Theory of God and the Actual Universe

Perhaps the most respected empirical expansion on the argument from contingency is the argument from the apparent fine-tuning of the laws and constants of our particular universe. While the details of this argument are beyond the scope of this essay, the basic idea is simple to grasp. Certain physical constants in this universe appear to be very fine-tuned for the existence of life. It seems like they could have been different. But if they actually had been different, even by only a tiny fraction of a percent in many cases, life would almost certainly be impossible. Therefore, the existence of this particular universe rather than some other universe (with different values rendering it completely dull and lifeless) is held to be evidence of a purposeful designer, namely the same supreme mind or God that the more general argument from contingency proposes.

The validity of this argument is highly debatable, of course. Many scientists and philosophers contend that there may well be other explanations for the apparent fine-tuning of these constants. For example, they may not even be constants at all, but variables with different values in different universes. If this is so, then it is no surprise that we should find ourselves in one of the universes that happens to have just the right values to enable our existence.

On careful consideration, moreover, the question this fine-tuning issue raises might actually be a stronger argument against the idea of a purposeful God than for it. Specifically, if God’s choices are such as to either intentionally or unintentionally give evidence of a purposeful design, then why is this evidence so deeply hidden that it can only be seen possibly in the values of these highly technical constants? There are people who claim it is not so hidden, of course, that it can be seen in miraculous events explainable only as supernatural interventions by God all the time, but I will not dignify those claims with a response here. I am more interested in why the contingent features of the universe generally seem so random instead of following an apparently purposeful pattern, with just this one possible exception of the tuning of these constants. In everything else, from the collapse of the quantum wave function, to the distribution of galaxies and planets, to the timing and location of particular weather events, to the specific genetic mutations that are naturally selected from in the process of evolution, no purposeful pattern ever seems to jump out at those who study the phenomena most scientifically. If the universe was created by a supreme mind that had a definite purpose in view for how it would turn out, wouldn’t this mind have been able to accomplish its purpose more efficiently by making such things follow a more obviously designed pattern instead of one that appears so thoroughly random?

This question may be related to the previously-discussed issue of the implications of timelessness for the nature of God’s choices. Specifically, as a timeless being, perhaps God’s choices can only involve physical laws and constants that are not time-dependent in any way, even as they produce a universe that mechanistically unfolds in time. God could then be seen as purposefully designing the kind of universe that will result from the set of laws and constants “he” chooses (I use the traditional masculine pronoun here only for the sake of simplicity). But in this view he leaves all the exact details like which mutations will occur at what times to completely random chance. It’s a concept that seems closer to Einstein’s impersonal God who is unconcerned with the fates and actions of human beings than to the God of most theistic religions, but at least it lets us make sense of the empirical evidence.

Alternatively, we could speculate that God specifically chooses even the events that appear indistinguishable from random chance, but he does so in a very particular way that intentionally does not reveal any evidence of purpose or design. Why he might wish to remain hidden like this is a perplexing question, but it doesn’t disprove the idea. Perhaps he simply does not wish to be believed in.

Whichever alternative we prefer, the question they both lead to is whether a God whose choices are either so limited in scope or so strange in purpose can sensibly and meaningfully be thought of as morally good. On the face of it, this seems frankly doubtful. God’s choices appear more to be totally amoral in character. Clearly, they have produced a world that contains a whole lot more pain and suffering than can be easily explained as necessary or good in any straightforward way. This is not an absolute disproof of the idea of a good God, but it is a huge issue that the idea needs to contend with.

There is at least one common argument for why God must be good even if we can’t find any satisfactory answer to the problem of pain and suffering and so have to leave it as a complete mystery. This is the idea that God is the very source of moral goodness to begin with. Without a good God, the argument claims, there wouldn’t even be this concept of moral goodness at all. Neither good nor evil seem to be metaphysically necessary things like the principles of mathematics, after all, yet we all seem to believe there is a real difference between them. So perhaps the only way to make sense of the difference is if we see good and evil as contingent concepts, dependent on the choice of a morally good God.

This argument leads straight into an objection known as the Euthyphro dilemma. Named after one of Plato’s dialogues, the dilemma is whether God commands the good because it is good, or whether it is good because God commands it. On the first option, we cannot appeal to God’s choice as the explanation for the difference between good and evil after all. On the second option, we have an explanation for the difference between good and evil, but it seems like a totally arbitrary explanation, for it suggests that God could have decided to make murder a good thing instead of an evil thing.

A plausible way out of the dilemma starts with the idea that the concepts of good and evil are derived not from an arbitrary choice of God but rather from a concept of value, which is a property of various things like people. So helping people is good in a certain way, and hurting them is evil in a certain way, because people have a certain kind of value. In this way we can view good and evil as contingent concepts dependent on God’s choice to create beings with certain kinds of value. In fact, we might even plausibly argue that God’s choice to give something existence actually is what gives it value and makes it good. (Or, equivalently, God’s valuation of it is his choice to give it existence.)

If this is true, then we could hold that there is a certain way in which the entire universe in every detail is good, assuming we also hold that it was God’s choice to make the universe in the particular way that it is. We wouldn’t have to view every detail as being good in the exact same way. We could postulate instead that some things are good or have value only in the sense of how they contribute to the whole, while others are good and have value even for their own sake, considered independently of the whole. In other words, perhaps there is an overall good for which all things work together to realize, but some things can still be considered bad when looked at in isolation, apart from the overall plan.

This distinction between different ways in which the details of the universe can be good or bad is very similar to Spinoza’s view, even though he didn’t see “God or nature” as having a choice in the matter. But it’s also the only plausible way I can think of for a God with libertarian freedom to be seen as morally good in spite of his choice to create a world filled with so much pain and suffering.

The idea probably needs a few more assumptions before it can claim to be a complete theory of moral goodness. We could postulate that if God’s valuation is what makes things good, then it is also good to value things as God values them, for example. Actions that stem from valuing the good would therefore be good, and actions that stem from despising the good would be bad. And since people are beings who are capable of having such motivations and thus of performing good or bad actions, perhaps people have a unique kind of value that is different from the value of other things. Considerations like this could plausibly lead to the Golden Rule, some form of which is considered to be the basic foundation for morality in virtually every system of ethics there is.

This seems like an awful lot of speculation just to see God as the source of moral goodness, however. And the whole purpose of all this was just to have a counterargument to the problem of pain and suffering, without even attempting to have a satisfactory explanation for why so much suffering would exist in a world created by a good God to begin with. Perhaps pain and suffering and even outright evil are just mysterious metaphysical necessities for a world that unfolds in time in accordance with timeless divine choices. But why should that be so? Those who believe in a good God usually not only believe he could have created a perfect, pain-free, heavenly world instead, but also that he has created just such a perfect, pain-free, heavenly world, which they hope to inhabit for all eternity. But how could this be if pain and suffering are metaphysical necessities? These are the kinds of questions we would presumably just have to leave uncomfortably unanswered on the assumption of a morally good God.

Conclusion

In the end, I have no particular opinion to offer on the question of which is the best solution to the mystery of contingent existence. As none of the possibilities I can think of seem especially convincing or without significant difficulties, I cannot in good faith help but be agnostic. I do see the postulate of a timeless supreme mind, or mind-like being, or “God” by at least a broad definition of the word, as a legitimate and intriguing possibility. But I also have to skeptically wonder whether this mind would really count as a personal being in any meaningful sense, and whether the categories of good and evil would even apply to it. In any case, I see no reason to think “God” would particularly wish to be believed in even if “he” does exist as a personal and good being, much less that he would consider genuine agnosticism about his existence on the basis of these considerations to be an evil thing. And that is a very freeing realization, in my opinion.

For those who may not consider this approach to be so freeing, but were rather hoping to find a solid rational basis for belief in a morally good God who offers them the promise of eternal life, I offer the following final thought: If the idea of a supreme mind does indeed end up being the correct solution to the mystery of contingent existence, and if this supreme mind can legitimately be said to value the contingent beings it has created, then even if all the religious concepts of God that have ever been invented turn out to be utterly indefensible, I think God would still qualify as being good in at least the only way that really matters, the way that gives us hope for this life and perhaps even an eternal one to come. Those are pretty big ifs, to be sure, and I can’t say they seem particularly likely to me, but I see no harm in at least acknowledging their logical possibility and harboring a genuine hope that they might turn out to be true.


This page copyright © 2014-2017 Edward A. Morris.  Created August 28, 2014.  Last updated February 13, 2017.

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