Argument from Temporal Order

Richard Swinburne is a very well-known Christian philosopher, who has produced a massive collection of works on Christian apologetics and philosophical theology. He has developed design arguments from spatial and temporal order in the universe. Swinburne begins by distinguishing between “regularities of co-presence” and “regularities of succession. ”Regularities of co-presence are objects that are organized in specific patterns in relation to one another, such as books in a library being in alphabetical order. Regularities of succession are “simple patters of behaviour of objects” such as in accordance with natural laws.[i] “Regularities of succession are all-pervasive. For simple laws govern almost all successions of events.”[ii] Most basically, this is an appeal to the orderliness of the universe – the fact that things that happen in the natural world always happen according to determined patterns (natural laws). This fact is surprising on atheism, because, without some superintending purpose, disorder is more probable than order. There are many more ways for something to be disordered than for it to be ordered. You need to make an effort to clean your office and organize it according to specific principles (files go there, books go on that shelf). However, you don’t need to make any effort for your office to become disorderly and chaotic. In fact, if we don’t clean our offices every now and again, or if we don’t make a concerted effort to keep them tidy and organized, they quickly become disordered. Order only makes sense when you posit a mind. We know that minds with purposes can create order out of chaos, but mindless things cannot create order. They can only be ordered. Order requires action according to a purpose. Only persons can identify purpose and act in accordance with it. This order exists independently – it is not simply a product of our comprehension of the universe (or, at any rate, claiming that the order is really a product of our search for knowledge would commit you to some sort of metaphysical idealism or a very radical scientific anti-realism). I’ll briefly summarize the argument:

  1. The universe displays a great deal of temporal order.  Objects in the natural world always behave according to laws and are composed of just a few different kinds of fundamental particles. Its order can also be seen in that these objects behave according to these laws and are composed of these particles across vast differences of time and space throughout the universe.

  2. Phenomena have either a scientific or personal explanation.

  3. The consistent behaviour of natural objects according to natural laws cannot have a scientific explanation.

  4. Therefore, it has a personal explanation.

As was discussed in our consideration of the fine-tuning argument, no scientific explanation could account for natural laws, because this would result in a circular explanation. Science can only explain natural laws in general by appealing to more natural laws. This is not the same as explaining specific natural laws with more natural laws, which you can do scientifically. You can explain one natural law or set of natural laws (the drive for survival and reproduction in animals) with another higher-order natural law (natural selection and evolution). But we don’t want to explain a specific natural law or set of natural laws; we want to explain why there are such things as natural laws. We are not interested in explaining the content of a natural law, but the fact that there is a natural law (regardless of its content). Explaining the existence of natural laws in general with more natural laws, doesn’t explain why there are natural laws in the first place. The existence of natural laws, then, cannot have a scientific explanation. If something does not or cannot have a scientific explanation, then it must have a personal explanation (explanation with reference to the intentions of agents), because there isn’t any other type of explanation.

Why is the explanation God?

The argument has already established that the universe requires a personal explanation. Thus, it must be an agent that is responsible for natural laws. It is simplest to suppose that this designer is the creator as well (through ontological parsimony). Also, this agent would need to be extremely powerful if it created the universe. It would also need to transcend space, time and matter, because it cannot be dependent on any conditions of the universe if it made the universe (and so exists apart from the universe). Thus, we are looking at a spaceless, timeless, immaterial and extremely powerful personal creator.


Who Designed the Designer?

So shouldn’t God require a cause as well? As we saw in the last section, the designer responsible for fine-tuning must be spaceless, timeless, immaterial and personal. The designer cannot be dependent on anything that came into existence with the universe, since it created the universe. Time, space and matter came into existence with the universe, and so the designer cannot be dependent on those things. But perhaps God consists of a different kind of time, space and matter. Current scientific cosmology tells us that matter, space and time ( as we know it) came into existence with the universe. Moreover, if that time, space and matter is different from ours (as it would need to be, since ours came into existence with the universe) then we don’t know what attributes and properties it has at all. So it is accurate to say that the designer is spaceless, timeless and immaterial, since the designer wouldn’t possess these properties as we know them. Consequently, even if the designer consists of some form of space, time and matter, these would be completely different from our time, space and matter, making it accurate to say that the designer is timeless, spaceless and immaterial. (It needs to be different, because otherwise current scientific cosmology is wrong in suggesting that time, space and matter, as is familiar to us, came into existence at the Big Bang.) Finally, we have no reason to suppose that designer consists of some other sort of space, time and matter, and so it is unnecessary to suppose it.

Now we can only say that God would need a cause if we knew that God came into being. But we don’t know that, especially because God is supposed to be timeless (or possess a property that is as good as timeless from our perspective) and so it would make no sense to say that he came into being at some point. (He would need to come into being at some point in time, which doesn’t make sense in a timeless reality). Furthermore, God does not have the other properties that normally lead us to believe that something requires a cause, such as physicality. Thus, the argument implies that God has attributes which makes it doubtful that he has a cause. Secondly, as William Craig has noted, this objection distorts the real nature of explanation. If an explanation is proposed, one does not immediately demand an explanation of the explanation. If you always needed to provide an explanation of every explanation you come up with, you would never explain anything at all. You would, in every instance, need to explain your explanation, and then come up with an explanation of that explanation of that explanation… ad infinitum.

Why ‘God’ and not ‘Gods’?

Why shouldn’t we think that many gods came together to design the universe? The simplest conclusion is that there is only one. If we are satisfied that the argument proves some sort of designer, there is no need to multiply entities beyond what is metaphysically required (i.e. Ockham’s Razor). The principle of ontological parsimony would counsel us that where the evidence is the same for either of the above propositions, we should opt for the simpler one: the one that postulates the fewest entities. I could similarly postulate that many gods came together and then they had a huge supernatural fight. The universe was spawned out of this celestial clash of powers. This theory explains the conclusions of cosmological and teleological arguments, but it is invalid as a conclusion precisely because we have no evidence for such a complex story (and it therefore contradicts ontological parsimony). It is therefore unreasonable to suggest that natural theologians have to rule out every logically possible scenario of creation.  Similarly, scientists do not need to rule out every logically possible explanation of the evidence but can comfortably settle with the simplest one.

Natural laws are simply averages

Bertrand Russell objected to this sort of argument by saying that natural laws are simply statistical averages that arise from chance, presumably implying that they do not require explanation. But this doesn’t make sense. It is true of course that natural laws are sometimes not iron clad descriptors of how things are. There are exceptions. But this certainly doesn’t mean that they are therefore not in need of explanation. Simply because something obtains inductively ( it happens most of the time) does not mean it is not in need of explanation. All of science relies on the idea that inductive patterns require explanation, and could not exist without that assumption. The fact that natural laws are averages also doesn’t mean that they arise from chance. Things would not tend to be in such a specific way as implied by natural laws by mere chance. What does it mean to say that something happens by chance? It means that it happened without any determination by things  apart from the events themselves. The irrationality of saying that inanimate things obey certain patterns, not because there are natural laws, but simply by chance, should be obvious. It is like saying that people just happen to go to work everyday by chance, and not the more obvious explanation that there is purposive action and design involved ( on the part of the employees and employers). The fact that people sometimes don’t go to work ( when they go on holiday, or when there’s a public holiday or a weekend, or when they are unemployed) certainly doesn’t mean that the fact that they do go to work so consistently doesn’t require explanation.

[i]Richard Swinburne, “The Argument from Design”, in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology by Michael Rea and Louis P. Pojman, 5th ed. (Belmont: Thomas Wadsworth, 2008) 64

[ii] Ibid.,65

[iii] Ibid., 66 – 67