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God’s Too Complicated for Elon Musk

The explanation for everything in the universe should be simple, Elon Musk says. It turns out that God fits the bill, as well as anything possibly could.

Pat Flynn

There is a video of Elon Musk floating around where he expresses agnosticism. However, the Kinda-Sorta King of Twitter claims more than just being unsure whether God exists; at points, he turns toward skepticism. One thing he says is that if there is some cosmic consciousness (God, presumably), it makes sense to ask why that cosmic consciousness exists.

Let’s see what we can do with this.

The commitment to everything having an adequate explanation for its existence—that is, either from something else or through itself—is called the principle of sufficient reason. There are many reasons to think at least some form of the principle of sufficient reason is true, including that denial of the principle of sufficient reason undermines the possibility of empirical knowledge, which means goodbye, science.

Musk is thinking about what might “terminate explanation”—that is, what might (1) serve as the fundamental explanation for the existence of everything and (2) explain its own existence. “The most likely explanation,” he says, “is that complexity evolved from simplicity—that the simple elements over time combined to become more complex and arrived at what we are.” On the other hand, he’s “not convinced that there’s some super-consciousness watching over our every movement and evaluating it against some criteria and deciding whether we’re going to go to one place or another when we die. That’s unlikely.”

So it sounds as though Musk finds God—or at least his conception of God—wanting. Why? Apparently, the fundamental explanation should be simple, and God is not like that.

But in fact, there is reason for thinking God is a good candidate for terminating explanation. There is also reason for thinking explanation must terminate. For example, at least some things need to be caused. Contingent things (things that exist but need not have existed) and composite things (things composed of parts) are like this. If something exists, but its nature does not demand its existence, it makes sense to ask what caused it. If something is composed (such that it depends upon the prior existence and arrangement of parts), it makes sense to ask what composed it.

Like Musk, many ancient and medieval philosophers (Plato, Plotinus, Aquinas, etc.) thought complexity must ultimately be explained by simplicity. Unlike Musk, they did not think this excluded (or even made improbable) God. In fact, the old-timey understanding of God is a being of a simple necessary nature (a being that must exist no matter what), whose essence (what it is) just is pure existence itself (that it is). This being is incomposite (lacking parts), eternal (existing outside time), and immutable (cannot increase in perfection). These characteristics are hallmarks of classical theism. And the reason these characteristics are ascribed to God is because that is just where the line of argumentation for ultimate intelligibility—that is, the hunt for ultimate explanation—leads.

Here is another way to think about it. There are entities that fail to carry a sufficient reason for their existence intrinsic to themselves. They are dependent, requiring the fulfilment of conditions beyond themselves to exist. Like cats, or Yngwie Malmsteen, amazing as he is.

Of course, not everything could be like this, for if everything—that is, each individual member of reality—were such that it was utterly existentially needy, reality would be blank. Why? Because we would altogether lack a sufficient condition for being, in which case nothing would exist. Reality, however, is not blank. There is something. So there must be a sufficient condition for being, meaning that some entity—at least one, though maybe more—must carry the reason for its existence intrinsic to itself.

The above is a hasty sketch of the argument from contingency, famously associated with Willhelm Gottfried Liebniz, though sharing a common ancestry with arguments coming from Aquinas and Aristotle.

Interestingly enough, there is a connection between being dependent on something else for your existence and being composed of parts, which speaks to Musk’s intuition about looking for complexity to be explained (ultimately) by simplicity. Things are contingent (existentially needy, requiring a cause) precisely because what they are is distinct from the fact that they exist. So something must ultimately impart existence to their essence if they are to become and remain present in reality. There is nothing about the nature of a cat, for example, or Yngwie Malmsteen, that demands that it be included in reality.

To say, for example, that cats do not exist is to get something factually wrong, of course, but it is not to misconceive the nature of a cat, as if you were saying a cat is a type of canine. However, if existence were a part of cat-nature, then (1) cats would have to exist no matter what (which is false), and (2) one would misconceive what a cat is by saying cats do not exist (also false).

If that is all correct, then it should not be surprising to discover that any truly necessary being is, as well, an absolutely simple being, whose nature is simply “to be” (cue Exod. 3:14). This is to say, if we think explanations must terminate somewhere (which we should), we should prefer an absolutely simple and necessary being as our stopping point. And if you take the time to sufficiently understand the nature of an absolutely simple and necessary being—as, say, Aquinas did—then guess what: you are discovering the existence of God.

Musk was on to something. He just needed to lean in more.

Ultimately, Musk has a good explanatory instinct matched only with a faulty understanding of God. What Musk is skeptical of is worth being skeptical of: a notion of God that no classical theist endorses, nor is it the God Catholicism teaches of. Really, Musk’s impulse toward simplicity is what should cause him to embrace classical theism: the notion that we must return to something that could explain everything else while being able to explain itself. Conceptually, only an entity with a very special nature could accomplish this—a being that is metaphysically simple, with no real internal distinction between what it is and the fact that it is. Hence why Aquinas called God Existence Alone, or ipsum esse subsistens (subsistent existence itself).

In short: keep it simple, Elon. After all, that’s a big part of what makes the Tesla so popular.


Image credit: Steve Jurveston via Flickr, CC BY 2.0 (edited).

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