*The content of essay was originally published in the book, The Divine Reality: God, Islam & The Mirage of Atheism (2016, 2019).
Imagine you walk out of your house and on your street you find a row of dominoes that stretch far beyond what your eyes can see. You start to hear a noise that gets slightly louder as time passes. This noise is familiar to you, as you used to play with dominoes as a child; it is the sound of them falling. Eventually, you see this amazing display of falling dominoes approaching you. You greatly admire how the basic laws of physics can produce such a remarkable spectacle; however, you are also saddened because the last domino has now fallen a few inches away from your feet. Still excited about what has just happened, you decide to walk down the street to find the first domino, hoping to meet the person responsible for producing this wonderful experience.
Keeping the above scenario in mind, I want to ask you a few questions. As you walk down your street, will you eventually reach where the chain of dominoes began? Or will you keep on walking forever? The obvious response is that you will eventually find the first domino. However, I want you to ask why. The reason you know that you will find the first domino is because you understand that if the domino chain went on forever, the last domino that fell by your feet would never have fallen. An infinite number of dominoes would have to fall before the last domino could fall. Yet an infinite amount of falling dominoes would take an infinite amount of time to fall. In other words, the last domino would never fall. Putting this in simple terms, you know that in order for the last domino to fall, the domino behind must fall prior to it, and for that domino to fall, the domino behind it must fall prior to it. If this went on forever, the last domino would never fall.
Sticking with the analogy, I want to ask you another question. Let’s say, walking down the street, you finally come across the first domino which led to the falling of the entire chain. What would your thoughts be about the first domino? Would you think this domino fell ‘by itself’? In other words, do you think the falling of the first domino can somehow be explained without referring to anything external to it? Clearly not; that runs against the grain of our basic intuition about reality. Nothing really happens on its own. Everything requires an explanation of some sort. So the first domino’s fall had to have been triggered by something else—a person, the wind or a thing hitting it, etc. Whatever this ‘something else’ is, it has to form a part of our explanation of falling dominoes.
So to sum up our reflections thus far: neither could the chain of dominoes contain an infinite number of items, nor could the first domino start falling for no reason whatsoever.1
This above analogy is a summary of the argument from dependency. The universe is somewhat like a row of dominoes. The universe and everything within it is dependent. They cannot depend on something else, which in turn depends on something else, forever. The only plausible explanation is that the universe, and everything within it, has to depend on someone or something whose existence is in some ways independent from the universe (and anything else for that matter). Put differently, this thing must not be ‘dependent’ the way the universe is, because that would just add one more domino to the chain, which would then require an explanation. Therefore, there must be an independent and eternal Being that everything depends upon. Simple as this sounds, in order to understand this argument, I will have to define what I mean by ‘dependent’.
What does it mean when we say something is dependent?
The word ‘necessary’ has a specific, technical meaning in philosophy. Contrary to popular use, it does not indicate something you need. Rather, when philosophers say something is necessary, they mean that it was impossible, inconceivable for it to not have existed.2 I understand why this may be a bit of a difficult concept to grasp. This is because nothing in our empirical experience is ever necessary. We can, however, get an adequate understanding of what ‘being necessary’ means by thinking about the opposite. A thing or object not being necessary implies that it does not have to exist. In other words, if it is conceivable that a thing could have not existed, it is not necessary. The chair you are presumably sitting on is clearly not necessary—we can imagine a thousand different scenarios where it might not have existed. You may not have chosen to buy it, the manufacturer may not have chosen to make it, or the dealer may not have chosen to sell it. Clearly, your chair very easily could not have existed. Now this possibility of ‘not-having-been-there’ is a key feature of dependent things. Something that has this feature requires an explanation for its existence. This is because for something that might not have existed, you can easily ask: Why does this thing exist? That perfectly legitimate question calls for an explanation. It cannot be that the thing exists on its own, because there is nothing necessary about its existence. To say that the thing somehow explains itself would be to deny the property of dependence we just discussed. Thus, the explanation must be something external to it. An explanation in this context means an external set of factors that provide a reason for why something exists. Going back to our chair analogy, the collection of a number of factors—e.g., the manufacturer making it, the dealer selling it, and you buying it—form the explanation for the chair’s existence. Therefore, if something requires an external set of factors, it means that it is dependent on something other than itself. Consequently, its existence is dependent on something external. This is a basic, intuitive and rational form of reasoning. This is because questioning something that exists that could not have existed, is the mark of a rational mind.
Think about what scientists do. They point to different features of reality and ask—why is this flower a certain way? Why does that bacteria cause this disease? Why is the universe expanding at the rate that it is? What gives these questions legitimacy is the fact that none of them are necessary; all of them might not have been the way that they are. To facilitate a greater understanding of this concept, consider the following example:
Waking up in the morning, you go down the stairs and walk into the kitchen. You open the fridge and on top of the egg box you find a pen. You obviously do not close the fridge door and conclude that the pen’s existence is necessary. You do not think that the pen in the fridge got there by itself. You question why the pen is on top of the egg box. The reason you ask this question is because the pen’s existence on the egg box is not necessary. It requires an explanation for its existence and for the way that it is. The explanations can vary, but the fact that an explanation is needed means that the pen is dependent. The pen requires an external set of factors to provide a reason for why it is placed in the fridge, and why it is the way that it is. For instance: the fact that the pen was made, and your son bought the pen from a stationary shop, and then put the pen in the fridge provides the external set of factors responsible for the pen. The pen is therefore dependent on these external factors, and these factors explain the pen’s existence.
This is because there must have been something external to that thing which determined its specific arrangement.3 Let me elaborate with an example:
You are driving home and you pass a roundabout. You see a bunch of flowers arranged in the following three words: ‘I love you’. You can conclude that there is nothing necessary about the arrangement of the flowers. They could have been arranged in another way—for example, the words ‘I adore you’ instead of ‘I love you’ could have been used. Alternatively, the flowers could have not been arranged at all—they might have been randomly scattered. Since the flowers could have been set in a different way, some force external to them must have determined their arrangement. In this case, it could have been the local gardener or the result of a local government project. This point holds true for pretty much everything you observe. The components of everything, be it an atom or a laptop or an organism, are composed in a specific way. Furthermore, each basic building block does not exist necessarily. The basic components of something cannot explain themselves and therefore require an explanation (see the first definition above).
This is a common sense understanding of the word. Another way of explaining that something is dependent is by stating that it is not self-sustaining. An example includes a pet cat. The cat does not sustain itself; it requires external things to survive. These include food, water, oxygen and shelter.
These can include shape, size, colour, temperature, charge, mass, etc. Why is this so? Well, if something has a limited physical feature, that feature must be limited by something external to itself, such as an external source or external set of factors. The following questions highlight this point: Why does it have these limits? Why is it not twice the size, or a different shape or colour? The thing did not give itself these limitations. For example, if I picked up a cupcake with its limited physical qualities of size, shape, colour and texture, and claimed that it existed necessarily, you would think I was foolish. You know that its size, colour and texture have been controlled by an external source: in this case, the baker. Things with limited physical qualities did not give rise to them. There must be an explanation to explain the existence of these limited physical qualities.
It is reasonable to assert that all things with limited physical qualities are finite; there must have been something prior that was responsible for their qualities. This means that all limited physical objects at one point had a beginning, because it is inconceivable that limited physical objects are eternal. This is due to the fact that an external source or set of factors must have existed prior to any limited physical object and caused its limitations.
Imagine if I picked up a plant and claimed that it was eternal. How would you respond? You would laugh at such an assertion. Even if you didn’t witness the plant’s beginning, you know it is finite because of its limited physical qualities. However, even if limited physical objects (including the universe) were eternal, it would not change the fact that they are dependent and do not exist necessarily. This argument works regardless of whether or not objects are eternal or have a beginning.
Applying the above comprehensive definition of what it means to be dependent leads us to conclude that the universe and everything within it is dependent. Reflect on anything that comes to mind—a pen, a tree, the sun, an electron, and even a quantum field. All of these things are dependent in some way. If this is true, then all that we perceive—including the universe—can be explained in one of the following ways:
I will take each explanation and discuss which one best explains the dependency of the universe and everything within it. The universe and all that we perceive:
Could the universe and everything that we perceive exist eternally and depend on themselves? This is not a rational explanation. The universe and all the things that we perceive do not necessarily exist; they could have not existed. They also have limited physical qualities. Since they could not give rise to their own limitations, something external must have imposed these limitations on them. The universe and all the things we perceive do not explain themselves by virtue of their own existence, and their components could have been arranged in a different way. Therefore, they are dependent, and dependent things do not exist independently.
Even if the universe were eternal, it still stands that there must have been an external set of factors that gave rise to its limited physical qualities. In addition, the universe’s components or basic building blocks could have been arranged in a different way, and the universe could have not existed. The universe cannot explain itself by virtue of its own existence. With these considerations, we can safely reject the view that the eternity of the universe somehow provides an explanation for its existence (this point is explained further below).
The existence of the universe and all that we perceive could not depend on something else which is also dependent. Since the universe and all that we perceive do not explain themselves, then postulating another dependent thing to explain them does not explain anything at all. This is because the dependent thing that is supposed to explain the universe and everything that exists, also requires an explanation for its existence. Therefore, the only way to explain things that are dependent is by referring to something that is not dependent and therefore necessary.
Despite this, someone may argue that the existence of all we perceive depends on something else, which in turn depends on another thing, ad infinitum. This is false. For instance: Could this universe be explained by another universe, which in turn is explained by another universe, with the series of explanations continuing forever? This would not solve the problem of requiring an explanation. Even if there were an infinite number of universes all dependent on each other, we could still ask: Why does this infinite chain of universes exist? Whether or not the universe is eternal, it still requires an explanation for its existence.
Consider the following example. Imagine there are an infinite number of human beings. Each human being was produced by the biological activity of their parents, and each of these parents was in turn produced by the biological activity of their parents, ad infinitum. It would still be perfectly reasonable to ask: Why are there any human beings at all? Even if this chain of human beings had no beginning, the fact remains that this chain requires an explanation. Since each human being in the chain could have not existed and possesses limited physical qualities, they are dependent and not necessary. They still require an explanation. Just saying the chain of human beings is infinite does nothing to change the need for an explanation.4
This option also assumes that an infinite regress of dependencies is possible. However, this is inconceivable. To illustrate this point, imagine the existence of this universe was dependent on another universe, and the existence of that universe was also dependent on another universe, and so on. Would this universe ever come to be? The answer is no, because an infinite number of dependencies would need to be established before this universe could exist. Remember, an infinite number of things do not end; therefore, this universe could not exist if there were an infinite set of dependencies.
Since everything we perceive is dependent in some way, then the most rational explanation is that the existence of everything depends on something else that is independent, and therefore eternal. It has to be independent because if it were dependent, it would require an explanation. It also has to be eternal because if it was not eternal—in other words, finite—it would be dependent as finite things require an explanation for their existence. Therefore, we can conclude that the universe, and everything that we perceive, depends upon something that is eternal and independent. This is best explained by the existence of God.
The argument from dependency is supported by the Islamic intellectual tradition. The concept of an independent Being that is responsible for bringing everything into existence is highlighted in various places in the Qur’an. For example, God says:
“God is independent of all that exists.”5
“O mankind! It is you who stand in need of God, whereas He alone is self-sufficient, the One whom all praise is due.”6
The classical exegete Ibn Kathir comments on the above verse: “They need Him in all that they do, but He has no need of them at all… He is unique in His being free of all needs, and has no partner or associate.”7
Islam’s intellectual tradition produced the like of Ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna), who articulated a similar argument. He maintained that God is Waajib al-Wujood, necessarily existent. Ibn Sina argued that God necessarily exists and He is responsible for the existence of everything. Everything other than God is dependent, which Ibn Sina described as Mumkin al-Wujud.8 The argument from dependency has also been adopted—and adapted—by many other influential Islamic scholars, some of whom include Al-Razi, Al-Ghazali and Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni.
Al-Ghazali provides a concise summary of this argument:
“There is no denying existence itself. Something must exist and anyone who says nothing exists at all makes a mockery of sense and necessity. The proposition that there is no denying being itself, then, is a necessary premise. Now this Being which has been admitted in principle is either necessary or contingent… What this means is that a being must be self-sufficient or dependent… From here we argue: If the being the existence of which is conceded be necessary, then the existence of a necessary Being is established. If, on the other hand, its existence is contingent, every contingent being depends on a necessary Being; for the meaning of its contingency is that its existence and non-existence are equally possible. Whatever has such a characteristic cannot have its existence selected for without a determining or selecting agent. This too is necessary. So from these necessary premises the existence of a necessary Being is established.”9
In summary, according to Islamic theology, God is:
I will now address some of the key objections against this argument.
A typical atheist contention is: If we are saying that God is independent and necessary, why cannot we say the same thing for the universe? This is a misplaced contention for the following reasons. Firstly, there is nothing necessary about the universe; it could have not existed. Secondly, the components of the universe could have been arranged in a different way. Whether one considers these components to be quarks or some type of quantum field, it still raises the question: Why are they arranged the way that they are? Since a different arrangement of quarks or fields could have existed instead of the collection that does exist, it follows that the universe is dependent.10 Everything we perceive within the universe has limited physical qualities; this includes the galaxies, stars, trees, animals and electrons. They have a specific shape, size and physical form. As such, these things that we perceive around us—the things that make up the entire universe—are finite and dependent.
Another contention suggests that we should not ask any questions about the universe. During his famous radio debate with Father Copleston, the philosopher Bertrand Russell said, “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all”11. This position is frankly an intellectual cop-out. Consider the following hovering green ball analogy:12
Imagine you were walking in your local park and you saw a hovering green ball in the middle of the children’s playground. How would you react? Would you walk by and accept it as a necessary part of the playground? Of course not; you would question why it exists and how it is the way that it is. Now, extend the ball to the size of a universe. The question still remains: Why does the ball exist and why is it the way that it is? Hence, the validity of questioning why the universe is the way that it is.
Furthermore, this contention is absurd because it undermines science itself. Within the scientific community is a field of study dedicated to trying to explain the existence and basic features of the universe. This field is called cosmology. This is a perfectly legitimate field of scientific enquiry, and to label the universe as a ‘brute fact’ does a disservice to an established scientific practice.
This objection argues that what has been presented in this chapter is a form of the ‘God of the gaps’ fallacy. It argues that our ignorance of scientific phenomena should not be taken as proof of God’s existence or Divine activity, because science will eventually provide an explanation. This is a misplaced objection because the argument from dependency does not aim to address a scientific question. Its concern is with metaphysics; it seeks to understand the nature and implications of dependent things. This argument can be applied to all scientific explanations and phenomena. For example, even if we were to theorise many universes as an explanation for natural phenomena, they would still be dependent. Why? Because the components of these explanations could be arranged in a different way andcannot be explained by virtue of their own existence, or they require something else outside of themselves to exist and have limited physical qualities. Therefore, they are dependent, and—as discussed in this chapter—you cannot explain a dependent thing with another dependent thing. If members of the scientific community claim to have found something that is independent and eternal, and in turn explained the existence of the universe, I would ask for proof. Interestingly, the minute they provide some empirical proof would be the moment they contradict themselves, because things that can be sensed have limited physical qualities, therefore qualifying as dependent.
Science cannot ever discover anything independent and eternal, not only because it would be empirical, but also because science only works on observable dependent things. Therefore, it makes no sense to say that science would discover an unscientific object! Let’s take a moment and think about what science is. Science, as a discipline, is in the business of providing answers and explanations. Only dependent things can have explanations. With this in mind, we realise the scope of science is restricted to the realm of dependent objects. Therefore, science can only provide an answer that would relate to another dependent object. It cannot address the metaphysical nature of this argument. As we have explained, you cannot explain a dependent object with another dependent object, because that dependent object would also require an explanation (and if you recall, we have already discussed that there cannot be a thing that depends on something else to exist, which in turn depends on still another thing, ad infinitum). Since the explanation is something that is independent and eternal, science can never enter into the discussion because it has a limited scope of empirical, dependent things.
The argument in this chapter has not assumed God. The argument has not made up the idea of necessity in order to lead to God. Rather, the dependency of the universe and everything that we perceive has led to the idea that there must be an eternal, independent being that exists necessarily. This conclusion makes sense of the Islamic definition of God. The ideas of necessity and dependency are well known and discussed in philosophy (the use of the word dependency in this argument is usually referred to as contingency in philosophy). They are not made up concepts to try and sneak the God explanation via the backdoor.
The argument presented in this chapter has concluded that there must be an eternal, independent being that exists necessarily. This makes sense of the Islamic conception of God. A necessary being doesn’t require an explanation. Technically, such a being doesn’t require an explanation that refers to something external to it (unlike dependent things). Rather, a necessary being is explained by virtue of its own existence. In other words, it was impossible for it to have not existed. Therefore, it doesn’t require an explanation external to itself.
The fallacy of composition is a fallacy of reasoning that mistakenly concludes that the whole must have the same properties as its individual parts.13 However, making such a claim is not always fallacious. It could be that some wholes contain the properties that exist within its individual parts; however it is not always the case. For example, a wall (the whole) is made of bricks (individual parts). Bricks are hard, therefore the wall is hard. This is true. Conversely, take into consideration a Persian rug. The rug (the whole) is made up of threads (individual parts); it would be false to conclude that since the individual threads are light the rug is also light.
With respect to the above, the objector may argue that it does not logically follow the universe is dependent because it is made up of dependent parts. Nevertheless this is a misplaced objection. From our experience dependent things always form dependent wholes. For example, a house is made up of dependent materials and a house is dependent. It has limited physical qualities, it could have not existed and its fundamental building blocks could have been arranged in a different way. Similarly the universe is made up of dependent things therefore it is dependent. The onus of proof is on the objector to show that dependent things do not make up dependent wholes.
Before I end this essay, I advise reading the book Necessary Existenceby Professor Alexander R. Pruss and Professor Joshua L. Rasmussen.14 The book addresses similar and other academic objections to this argument. I also recommend reading Mohammed Hijab’s book Kalam Cosmological Arguments for an in-depth Islamic perspective.15
This understanding of God is not just an intellectual exercise; rather, it should instil a deep sense of yearning and love for God. In this chapter, we have concluded that God necessarily exists and everything can only exist because of Him. In this sense, we as human beings are not only dependent on God in the philosophical sense, but also in the normal use of the word; we couldn’t be here without Him, and everything that we have is ultimately due to Him alone.
The following marvellous short story teaches us that, since we are ultimately dependent on God, and our success in this life and the hereafter lies with His boundless mercy, we should submit to God and accomplish His will:
“One day I set out to tend my fields, accompanied by my little dog, sworn enemy of the monkeys which ravaged the plantations. It was the season of great heat. My dog and I were so hot that we could scarcely breathe. I began to think that one or other of us would soon fall in a faint. Then, thank God, I saw a Tiayki tree, the branches of which presented a vault of refreshing greenery. My dog gave little cries of joy and turned towards this blessed shade.
When he had reached the shade, instead of staying where he was, he came back to me, his tongue out. Seeing how his flanks were palpitating, I realised how completely exhausted he was. I walked towards the shade. My dog was full of joy. Then, for a moment, I pretended to continue on my way. The poor beast groaned plaintively, but followed me none the less, his tail between his legs. He was obviously in despair, but determined to follow me, whatever might come of it. This fidelity moved me profoundly. How could one fully appreciate the readiness of this animal to follow me, even to death, although he was under no constraint to do so? He is devoted to me, I said to myself, because he regards me as his master and so risks his life simply to stay beside me. ‘Oh my Lord,’ I cried, ‘Heal my troubled soul! Make my fidelity like that of this being whom I call, contemptuously, a dog. Give me, as You have given to him, the strength to master my life so that I may accomplish Your will and follow—without asking, Where am I going?—the path upon which You guide me! I am not the creator of this dog, yet he follows me in docility, at the cost of a thousand sufferings. It is You, Lord, who has gifted him with this virtue. Give, O Lord, to all who ask it of You—as I do—the virtue of Love and the courage of Charity!’ Then I retraced my steps and took refuge in the shade. Full of joy, my little companion lay down facing me so that his eyes were turned to mine, as though he wished to speak seriously to me.”16
1 Many concepts of the argument presented in this chapter have been adapted from and inspired by the Islamic scholarly tradition and contemporary Christian philosophical work.
See Al-Ghazali, A. (2003). Al-Itiqaad fi Al-Iqtisaad. Beirut: Al Maktabah Al Sharqiyah; Ibn Sina, A. (1957). Al Ishaarat wa Al-Tanbihaat. Cairo: Dal al Mar’rif; Ibn Sina, A. (1982). Kitaab Al Najaat fi Al Hikmah Al Muntiqiyah wa Al Tabia wa Ilahiyah. Beirut: Dar Al Afaaq; Taymiyyah, I. (2009). Sharh Al-Ishbahaniyah. 1st Edition, Riyadh: Maktabah Dar Al-Minhaaj; Craig, W. L. (2011). Contingency Argument for God. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=A7CE655E55212940. [Accessed 20th October 2019].
2 For an in-depth discussion on necessity please see Pruss, R. and Rasmussen, J. L. (2018). Necessary Existence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 11-32.
3 This section is inspired by and adapted from Craig, W. L. (2011). Contingency Argument for God – Part 4– William Lane Craig. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lb275fbEpic [Accessed 20th October 2019].
4 Analogy adapted from Wainwright, W. J. (1988). Philosophy of Religion.2nd. Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.
5 The Qur’an, Chapter 3, Verse 97.
6 The Qur’an, Chapter 35, Verse 15.
7 Ibn Kathir, I. (1999). Tafsir al-Qur’an al-‘Adheem.Edited by Saami As-Salaama. 2nd Edition. Riyadh: Dar Tayiba. Vol 6, p. 541.
8 Hossein, S. (1993). An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines.Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 197-200.
9 Al-Ghazali, A. (1964). Fada’ih al-Batiniyya.Edited by Abdurahman Badawi. Kuwait: Muasassa Dar al-Kutub al-Thiqafa, p. 82.
10 Craig, W. L. (2008). Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics. 3rd Edition. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, p. 109.
11Godwin, S. J. (no date). Transcript of the Russell/Copleston radio debate.Available at: http://www.scandalon.co.uk/philosophy/cosmological_radio.htm [Accessed 4th October 2016].
12 Adapted from Craig, W. L. (2011). Contingency Argument for God – Part 2 – William Lane Craig. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iTCbQnVlYSo& [Accessed 20th October 2019].
13 Parts of the answer to this objection has been adapted from and inspired by Rasmussen, J. (2017). 8 best objections to the “contingency” argument (episode 10 of 20). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asCqyTCaoNM. [Accessed 20th October 2019].
14 Pruss, R. and Rasmussen, J. L. (2018). Necessary Existence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
15 Hijab, M. (2019). Kalam Cosmological Arguments. Independently Published.
16 Eaton, G. (2001). Remembering God: Reflections on Islam. Lahore: Suhail Academy, pp. 18-19.