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Same Old, Same Old: Dallas Willard and the Unending Quest to Prove the Existence of God


In terms of sheer longevity, the effort to establish the existence of some sort of Supreme Being must be the record holder among the intellectual projects that have occupied Western philosophers. Such arguments date back at least to Plato’s postulation of the Demiurge and Aristotle’s inference to an Unmoved Mover. If we consider only the Christian God, “proofs” go back at least to St. Anselm (1033-1109). Subsequent centuries saw many notable efforts, including those of St. Thomas Aquinas, René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, John Locke, George Berkeley, Samuel Clarke, and William Paley. The production of theistic arguments continues apace, despite pronouncements on the part of some religious thinkers (e.g., McGrath, 2004) declaring such efforts passé.

As skeptics see it, the more recent theistic arguments, though advertised as “new and improved,” are in fact pretty much old hat. Except for those that argued from completely a priori premises, the basic modus operandi of theistic arguments has always been the same: represent the universe, or some aspect of it, as intractably perplexing, that is, as requiring an explanation that no naturalistic hypothesis can provide, and then propose God as the only possible or most satisfactory solution. Skeptical ripostes have followed suit, arguing that the alleged perplexities are pseudo-enigmas requiring no explanation, or that naturalistic accounts do or probably will suffice, or that God provides no uniquely satisfactory explanation. The details of these exchanges change over the centuries, but the pattern remains the same.

The typical pattern of theistic argument is instantiated once again in the work of Dallas Willard’s three-stage argument for the existence of God (Willard, 1992). Willard argues that God is needed because the natural universe is not enough. My reply will also follow the set pattern: naturalism suffices to answer all legitimate questions; the appeal to God is otiose at best and obscurantist at worst.

As his title indicates, Willard’s argument comes in three stages. He is not offering one argument with three parts, or three different arguments for the same conclusion:

Nor do the earlier stages establish conclusions which, in a straightforward manner, serve as premises in the later stages. Instead, what is shown or evidentially supported in the earlier stages only determines a framework of possibilities within which the considerations of the later stages are carried on. For example, the first stage shows that there actually exists something which might be God in a more conventional sense. (p. 212) [emphasis original]

In short, Willard intends that his arguments will have cumulative force with the earlier stages establishing preliminary conclusions necessary for his case for God, a case that achieves sufficiency only with the completion of the third and final stage.

Willard makes his strongest claim for his first stage. He presents it as a demonstration of the existence of something that is nonphysical, something that is also self-existent in the sense that it does not derive its existence from something else (p. 213). Consider any particular event in the physical cosmos, say the Voyager II spacecraft’s journey beyond Neptune’s moon Triton. The chain of causes leading to this event will stretch back into the distant past, but cannot go on ad infinitum and must ultimately end with an uncaused cause, something which does not derive its existence from something else:

If this were not so, Voyager’s passing Triton, or any other physical event or state, could not be realized, since that would require the actual completion of an infinite, an incompleteable series of events. In simplest terms its series of causes would never “get to” it. (As in a line of dominoes, if there is an infinite number of dominoes that must fall before domino x is struck, it will never be struck. The line of fallings will never get to it). Since Voyager II is past Triton, there is a state of being upon which that state depends but which itself depends on nothing prior to it. Thus, concrete physical reality implicates a being radically different from itself: being which, unlike any physical state, is self-existent…. It is demonstrably absurd that there should be a self-sufficient physical universe. (pp. 213-214)

Having, he believes, proven that metaphysical naturalism—the postulation of a self-sufficient physical universe—is wrong, indeed, absurd, and that there must therefore exist a nonphysical, self-existent being, Willard proceeds to the second stage of his argument, an inference to design. Willard admits that certain striking instances of teleology, such as the apparent design of organic beings in their exquisite and intricate adaptations to their environments, might well be due to the impersonal operation of evolution. Yet, he notes, organic evolution cannot account for the origin of order per se, but, on the contrary, depends upon a complex natural order to function as it does (p. 218). Further, says Willard, we have no experience at all of order arising spontaneously from chaos, therefore there is a probability of zero relative to our data that order will emerge from total disorder (p. 218). On the other hand, we have abundant experience of order entering the physical world from minds (p. 219). Hence, the origin of order in the physical universe can and surely should be attributed to mind:

[I]f we stepped onto an apparently uninhabited planet and discovered what, to all appearances, was a branch of the May Company or Sears—or even a Coke bottle or a McDonald’s hamburger wrapper—it would be both psychologically impossible as well as flatly irrational in the light of our available data to believe that they came into existence without a design and a mind “containing” that design. The extension of this conclusion to cover eyes, DNA structures, and solar systems, by appropriate modifications of premises, is only slightly less coercive. (p. 219)

At the conclusion of stage two of his cumulative case for theism, Willard believes that he has established that there exists a nonphysical, self-existent being that is, in all probability, responsible for the order in the physical world, an order that was, again in all probability, “contained” in the mind of that being prior to being replicated in the universe. Yet Willard does not believe that he has yet established the existence of the God of theism. We may at this stage have a “God of the philosophers,” but we do not have the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (p. 220). To take that final step, Willard contends, we must consider the course of human events, the alleged evidence of providential intervention into the course of history (p. 221).

Willard first lectures atheists about the need for an open mind when it comes to seeing the hand of God in history, warning them not to be like the 17th-century churchmen who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope because they “already knew” what was the case (p. 222). He instances Kai Nielsen, who says that even had he witnessed the resurrection of Jesus that this need not have convinced him that there was an infinite intelligible being that brought about this remarkable occurrence (Nielsen, 1990). Willard contends that if we have been convinced by the first two stages, careful study of the details of Judeo-Christian history will reveal God’s providential intervention:

[T]he existence of the Jewish people and of the Christian Church, when one goes into the fine texture of the histories, personalities, thought, and experience which makes them up, seems to me to be by far best explained by the existence of, roughly, the type of deity that Christians and Jews, among others, worship. (p. 223)

Willard’s three-stage argument for theism certainly is not burdened by false modesty or diffidence. As we have seen, he holds that the idea that there can be a self-sufficient physical universe is not only demonstrably false, but “absurd” (p. 214). He ridicules atheists for their purported attachment to what he calls “big bang mysticism,” that puts the Big Bang in the position of God as the creator ex nihilo (p. 215). He laughs at Nielsen for saying that the Resurrection would just be another weird event, since, after all, Nielsen and other atheists allegedly believe in the ultimate weirdness of a “nothing” that banged, and order somehow “congealing” out of chaos (p. 222). He quotes C. S. Lewis approvingly as a rebuke to those atheists who supposedly claim that a universe that came into existence from no cause is more “natural” than an eternally self-subsistent being: “An egg which came from no bird is no more “natural” than a bird which had existed from all eternity” (p. 215).

Actually, an egg that came from no bird is more natural than a bird that has existed for all eternity. The amniotic egg came into existence with the evolution of reptiles in the late Carboniferous period. Birds did not evolve until much later, at the end of the Jurassic. We have a scientific account of the origin of the amniotic egg; a bird that had existed from eternity would have no scientific explanation. I say this not to score a pedantic put-down, but in order to make a larger point: anything can be made to seem absurd when it is distorted by ignorance or, worse, intentional mischaracterization. An egg without a bird may sound ridiculous if you do not know anything about paleontology. Are atheists committed to the absurdities imputed by Willard? Let’s return to stage one of his argument.

Willard says that the chain of causes that precede any physical occurrence P cannot extend ad infinitum, but must come to an end because an infinite series is “incompleteable”; an infinite series of causes could never “get to” occurrence P. As Willard puts it: “As in a line of dominoes, if there is an infinite number of dominoes that must fall before domino x is struck, it will never be struck. The line of fallings will never get to it” (p. 214). Similar arguments against an actual infinity of events are made by J. P. Moreland (1990) and William Lane Craig (1980; 1992). Unfortunately, the repeated assertion of such arguments does not make them any less fallacious (see Martin, 1990 and Everitt, 2004). Why would an infinite series of causal events never “get to” a particular event? Get to it from where? Willard seems to be imagining a Zeno-type paradox where we start at a given point and can never get to another point because we have to perform an infinite number of tasks to do so. But if this is his problem, what does he conceive the starting point to be? Infinity? But infinity is not a point; to say that the past is infinite is not to postulate some starting point at a time T that was infinitely long ago. Saying that the series of past events was infinite means that there was no distant T, not even one infinitely remote, that marked the beginning of the series of causal events. An infinite past has no beginning. To say that the past is infinite is to say that for every finite period of time before the present, there was time before that. If these comments are completely off the mark and do not address Willard’s real qualms about infinities, this cannot be helped. His remarks here are so sketchy that it is impossible to see what his objection to an infinite series of causes really is.

Admittedly, actual infinites do not “feel” right to most of us; they conflict with our intuitions. But pointing this out is not the same as showing a logical incoherence in the idea, and this is what Willard needs to do if he is to accomplish his “demonstration.” Also, if there cannot be an infinite past, what do we say about God? Has he existed through infinite time? If so, then an infinite past must be possible. Presumably, then, Willard would say that God is “outside” of time, but this raises a host of intractable problems about how a timeless deity is supposed to interact with creatures in time. In particular, causality seems to require a temporal relationship between the cause and the effect; but if God, the putative creator of space-time, exists “outside” of time, then he must have timelessly caused the beginning of time. It just is not clear that this makes any sense.

Though infinity and its associated paradoxes are fascinating topics (see Rucker, 1982 and Moore, 1990), we can set aside this discussion for the present. The reason is that there is very strong empirical evidence that the universe is finite in age. In fact, cosmologists are now very confident that the universe is about 13.75 billion years old, within a margin of error of only 110 million years. Given this evidence, why is it wrong, indeed “absurd,” for atheists to hold that the universe, space-time itself, had a beginning, and that this beginning was not caused by some self-existent, nonphysical being? If we define “self-existent” as Willard does, as something that does not derive its existence from something else, then why cannot the physical universe itself, or at least its primordial state, be the self-existent entity? Where is the purported absurdity?

The specific nature of physical things, Willard tells us, is to be dependent (and, therefore, not self-existent) (p. 215). What justifies this assertion? Here is what Willard says:

There are, after all, general laws about how every type of physical state comes about. If we keep clearly before our minds that any “something” which comes into existence (including a however big “bang”) will always be a completely specific type of thing, then we will see that for that “something” to originate from nothing would be to violate the system of laws which governs the origination of things of its type. To suppose that an apple, for example, could come into existence without any prior states upon which it depends for its existence, is to simply reject all the laws we know to hold true of apple production. They are no longer laws. And it is not a matter of finding further conditions under which apple-laws apply, for the hypothesis is one of no conditions whatsoever. (p. 216)

But Willard here is not merely comparing apples to oranges, but apples to universes. If someone says that an apple exists uncaused, this would be absurd. Why? Because we are familiar with apples and the causes and regularities that account for their production. We have a good understanding of the botanical facts underlying apple generation as well, and the chemical laws and processes that underlie those facts. We never experience apples materializing out of empty space, or indeed coming about in any other way than by growing on apple trees. Our common-sense expectations about things (like apples) coming into or going out of existence are based entirely upon our experience within the space-time universe with all of its conservation and causal laws in force. What about the origin of the space-time universe itself? We know what to expect given the laws of nature, but what about the origin of those laws themselves? Willard complains that current discussions of the Big Bang treat it as different from any other bang that we know about (p. 215). Well, it was different. An ordinary explosion involves a rapid expansion of material into the surrounding space, space that is already there. The Big Bang was not an expansion into anything, but the primordial eruption of space itself. There is a time before and after an ordinary explosion. There is a time after the Big Bang, but none before; it was the beginning of time. If the physics of the 20th century has taught us anything, it is that our common-sense intuitions need not—indeed, will not—apply in many of the extreme situations (like the origin of the universe) that can, nevertheless, be coherently conceptualized by physical theory. Personally, I have no intuitions at all about the origin of space-time, and if I did, I would not trust them.

But, says Willard, even if we set aside our intuitions, we have no experience at all of a physical state or event coming into existence uncaused and “from nothing”; therefore, the probability that this will occur, relative to our data, is zero (p. 216). He ridicules the idea that a physical event or state can exist uncaused and “from nothing”:

And if anyone has observed such a thing, I am sure that our leading scientific journals and societies would like very much to hear about it. In fact, the idea is an entirely ad hoc hypothesis whose only “merit” is the avoidance is avoidance of admission of a self-existent being—which it achieves precisely by claiming an entity of a type which in every other case is admitted to be dependent; to be, “just this once,” itself self-subsistent (p. 216).

Three things should be said in reply. First, if in fact the probability relative to the data that something physical could exist uncaused and “from nothing” is zero, precisely the same has to be said about our evidence on data about a nonphysical, self-existent being bringing physical events or states into existence. I doubt that our leading scientific journals and societies would very much like to hear about the creative activities of alleged nonphysical entities. Thanks to the efforts of creationists and paranormalists, we have all heard such tales too many times before. Where are the data about nonphysical entities (self-existent or not)—ghosts, spirits, demons, angels, cherubim, seraphim, jinn, Manitou, gods, etc.—causing physical events or occurrences? Of course, Willard sententiously advises us to keep an open mind about the possibility of such events; but possibility is not reality, and the burden of proof is on him. By the way, when it comes to direct observational evidence about the origin of universes, atheists weren’t there, but neither were theists, so when it comes to such evidence, we all have the same amount: zero.

Second, Willard tells us that the postulation of a physical uncaused cause of the universe would violate “the system of laws which governs the origination of things of its type” (p. 216). But what type of thing was the Big Bang, and what antecedent “system of laws” governed its origination? Again, Willard fails to appreciate the distinct kinds of problems faced by a putative account of the origin of everything, including the laws of nature themselves. As Robin Le Poidevin notes, where we have no laws, we can have no causes:

A world in which there can be causal explanation is not a chaotic world; it is a world tightly constrained by the laws of nature. Causal generalizations are simply reflections of these laws; that is, they are true because of the existence of fundamental laws. Causal, explanation, then, takes place against a background of laws. But when we come to the explanation of the universe as a whole, part of what we are required to explain is the existence of the laws themselves. We cannot therefore help ourselves to any laws in order to explain the existence of the universe. Consequently, the explanation of the universe cannot take place against a background of laws. But, since causal explanation requires such a background, there can be no causal explanation of the universe. (Le Poidevin, 1996, p. 37)

Of course, some cosmologists do propose explanations of the Big Bang in terms of more fundamental entities and processes: fluctuations in a quantum vacuum, superstrings, the collision of “branes,” or whatever; but these explanations invoke other physical entities and other natural laws, which are in turn left unexplained.

Perhaps Willard would object that Le Poidevin begs the question. Of course physical causation needs laws, but the theist postulates supernatural causation: God just says “FIAT LUX!” and there is light! God’s creative act is a supernatural “basic action” that admits of no further explication; the only “law” operative here is that if God wills it, it happens. But in shedding dependence on physical law, such purported supernatural causation also sheds intelligibility. Willard’s causal “account” now appears to be that the universe came into existence when a timeless, nonphysical being wielding miraculous, occult powers in an inscrutable and incomprehensible manner—and for reasons we can only dimly grasp—willed (timelessly) the universe into being. Precisely how is such a causal “account” rationally superior to seeing the primordial state of the universe as uncaused?

Third, and finally, much of the apparent power of Willard’s case is rhetorical, arising from the apparent absurdity of saying that something could come from nothing. He adverts again and again to alleged assertions by atheists that the universe came “from nothing.” If this is what atheists are saying, then they look silly because we all supposedly know that ex nihilo nihil fit. Willard quotes the editors of the Time-Life book The Cosmos, who say that the universe “popped out of the void” (p. 216). Isn’t it simply absurd to think that a whole universe could just spontaneously “pop” out of nothingness? But if by “nothing” we mean literally nothing at all—not even empty space or the vacuum state that physicists talk about, but literally nothing at all—then the statement “out of nothing comes nothing” derives its apparent force from bad grammar. To say that the universe came into existence “from nothing” seems to be saying that there once was a something—which we call by the name of “nothing”—that existed prior to the universe, and from which the universe was somehow generated. But “nothing,” in the sense of nothing at all, does not name or refer to anything, not even emptiness. If we mean “nothing” in this sense, then there was no “nothing” for the universe to “pop” out of. If there is no “nothing,” then there is no question of how something could have come out of that “nothing.” Only those who illicitly reify nothing, turning it into a mysterious something, will be troubled by the pseudomystery of how that “nothing” could have generated the universe. If atheists carefully refuse to reify “nothing,” and insist that all that they are saying is that there wasn’t anything at all prior to or preceding the universe, then they can simply defy Willard to show any absurdity in their statement.

What, then, does Willard’s “demonstration” finally amount to? If we trace back the cause of any physical event in the space-time universe, and our chain of causes does not extend back ad infinitum, then we will eventually come to an uncaused cause, something that Willard calls “self-existent,” but, less grandiosely, we may call a brute fact: some logically contingent state of affairs that is not caused by, reducible to, conditioned by, supervenient upon, or in any other way dependent upon or derived from a prior state of affairs. Theists say that the ultimate brute fact is God. Atheists say it is the primordial state of the universe, whatever that might be (singularity, branes, quantum vacuum, space-time foam, etc.). Neither Willard nor any other theist has ever shown that the theistic candidate for the ultimate brute fact is more sensible, reasonable, or satisfactory than the atheistic one.

Since Willard’s whole argument rests upon his stage one “demonstration,” and we have seen that it does not amount to much, we may be more succinct with stages two and three. Why should we see the universe as designed? Willard tells us that if we stepped onto a planet previously believed to be uninhabited and found a Coke bottle or a McDonald’s hamburger wrapper, we would be incapable of doubting that these things were the products of designing minds (p. 219). Willard then assures us that the extension of this inference to eyes, DNA, and solar systems is only slightly “less coercive” (p. 219). The only thing to say about this statement is that it is a stunning non sequitur. Willard several times quotes Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion approvingly, but it is hard to see how anyone who had read that work with due attention could proceed with such insouciance to analogies between hamburger wrappers and solar systems. Perhaps the rebuke Hume’s Philo directs to Cleanthes should be addressed to Willard:

If we see a house … we conclude, with the greatest certainty, that it had an architect or builder; because this is precisely that species of effect, which we have experienced to proceed from that species of cause. But surely you will not affirm, that the universe bears such resemblance to a house [or hamburger wrapper] that we can with the same certainty infer a similar cause or that the analogy here is entire and perfect. The dissimilitude is so striking, that the utmost you can pretend to is a guess, a conjecture, a presumption concerning a similar cause… (Hume, 1779/1988, p. 144)

So when Willard says that the inference is not merely a guess, conjecture, or presumption, but is “coercive,” we may conclude as Philo does: “and how that pretension will be received in the world, I leave you to consider” (Hume, 1779/1988, p. 144).

Well, what about the purported evidence of providential involvement with human affairs? Willard indicates that we can detect such providential concern when we examine the details of the history of the Jewish people and the Christian church (p. 223). Which details? I presume that the reported details of the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth would take center stage were Willard to flesh out such an account. The most important sources for those reported details are the four canonical Gospels. But how much reliable historical detail can we extract from sources (a) written by persons unknown, with the possible exception of Luke, who admits he was not an eyewitness, (b) composed forty to seventy years after the reported events, (c) based upon oral tradition, and so subject to all the foibles and vagaries of human memory, (d) written with unabashed apologetic and propagandistic intent, (e) inconsistent with many known facts, (f) inconsistent with each other, (g) with only weak and unreliable support from nonbiblical sources, and (h) containing indisputably fictitious elements?

Even if we can extract a core of reliable detail from the sources, would that prove what Willard thinks it would? Recall the case of Kai Nielsen, at whose expense Willard had such a good laugh. Nielsen says that even were he to have witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, this need not have convinced him that the traditional theistic God exists (Nielsen, 1990). Nielsen argues at length, and with considerable sophistication, that the very concept of God is incoherent, so that a resurrection could no more prove the existence of such a being than it could prove the existence of a round square. Nielsen’s view may be wrong, but it is not risible. Even those who regard the God concept as coherent will, of course, interpret the ascertainable historical details of Jewish and Christian history in the light of their background beliefs. This is inevitable, even if we allow ourselves to be lectured by Willard about the need for keeping an open mind. Indeed, Willard himself indicates that his stage-three arguments are likely to have little effect if his first two stages have not been successful (p. 223). Since we have found no adequate grounds for the conclusions of those earlier stages, we need dwell no longer on the final one.


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Rucker, Rudy. (1995). Infinity and the Mind: The Science and Philosophy of the Infinite. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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Willard, Dallas. (1990). “Language, Being, God, and the Three Stages of Theistic Evidence.” In Does God Exist? The Great Debate (pp. 197-220) ed. J. P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson. Reprinted in Contemporary Perspectives in Religious Epistemology ed. Douglas Geivett and Brendan Sweetman (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1992): 212-224. (Page numbers in the text refer to the Geivett and Sweetman volume.)

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