We've moved!

Check out our new site at
and be sure to update your bookmarks.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Arguing God From First Cause

FROM ALISTER MCGRATH, PROFESSOR OF THEOLOGY AT KING'S COLLEGE: We’ve all seen it done: You start by observing nature and then argue that this points to the existence of a God. Of course, it raises as many questions as it answers. Is this the god of deism, theism, or Trinitarianism? Or a committee of gods (not what Christians mean by the Trinity, by the way)? In the past, writers such as William Paley argued that the existence of God could be deduced from the apparent wisdom of the ordering of the created order.
Yet long before Darwin came along, pulling the rug from under Paley’s argument, Christian theologians were expressing doubts about Paley. John Henry Newman famously stated that he believed "in design because I believe in God; not in God because I see design." Paley’s argument, of course, could be restated, and salvaged to some extent. Charles Kingsley, for example, noted that it could be salvaged by declaring that God did not simply make things, but made things make themselves. But for many, the idea of arguing God’s existence from first causes, whether physical or biological, was in terminal decline once Darwin’s theories gained the ascendancy.
Yet the passing of time has raised new questions, which have reopened this old debate. The growing realization that the universe is not eternal, but came into being in an astonishingly short time, has raised again the question of whether it was “created.” How could it have caused itself, if there was nothing there to initiate a causal process? If the universe was “created,” then surely there is a “creator”? Things don’t just happen; they are made to happen.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Critics argue that “creation” and “origination” are totally different ideas. The universe may have come into being from nothing, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone got it going. Yet the growing interest in anthropic phenomena, such as the apparent “fine-tuning” of the universe, has injected new energy into what some had prematurely regarded as a closed debate.
But this is only one way of looking at things. Some have turned instead to the idea of the quest for the “best explanation.” This approach doesn’t require a causal explanation of things. Instead, it looks for a good fit between theory and observation. British philosopher of religion Ian Ramsay likened the idea of "empirical fit" to trying on a hat for size rather than a precise causal account of things. So the question is now: Does belief in a creator God make more sense of what we observe in the world than does anything else? C. S. Lewis certainly thought so: “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,” he said. The jury’s still out on this one, but there’s no doubt that many believe this is the best framework within which to discuss the whole question of whether nature points us to God.

Alister McGrath appears with William Lane Craig, Quentin Smith, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, David Shatz, and Charles Harper Jr. in "Arguing God From First Cause," the 12th episode in the Closer to Truth: Cosmos, Consciousness, God TV series, hosted and created by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. The series airs Thursdays on the PBS HD network and many other PBS stations. Every Friday, participants will share their views on the previous day's episode.