Building Arguments, Houses, and the Universe

Home ConstructionA while back, we looked at the Teleological Argument (the argument for the existence of God from the design observed in the natural world). You can click here to review that, but today I want to unpack a one-sentence version of this case presented in the Bible. Yes, one sentence. But first, we need some background on different ways of building logical arguments. Typically, these are put forward as a deductive argument called a syllogism: two premises and a conclusion that should necessarily follow from the premises. If it does, and the terms in the premises are unambiguous, and the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. Here’s a common version of the design argument in syllogistic form:

  1. Every design has a designer. (Major Premise)
  2. The universe was designed. (Minor Premise)
  3. Therefore, the universe had a designer. (Conclusion)

The typical design argument described above is called a deductive argument. Deduction uses the essential nature of something  to state a universal proposition and apply that with certainty to a particular case. The major premise that every design has a designer is the universal statement in the syllogism above. That is just part of the nature of design, so that will also apply to any particular object exhibiting design, even if that object is the entire universe. Because an essential characteristic applies to all members of a set, well-formed deductive arguments provide us with certainty about the conclusion. But deduction typically arrives at these universal propositions on the basis of a prior induction.[1] What’s that? Glad you asked…

Inductive arguments typically use sense perception to examine particular instances of a set of specimens and infer a general characteristic about the set. However, the inductive argument’s dependence on observing particulars means that its conclusion is never certain until we understand the essence common to all the particulars that explains why the conclusion must be so. Without that additional step of reasoning, the inductive conclusion can never be certain, only probable. [2]

Typically (for better or worse), we don’t take the time to organize our thoughts into formal inductive or deductive arguments. We take shortcuts. One very common shortcut is called argument by analogy. This is actually the most common form of inductive argument as everyone draws analogies at some point. Analogies actually combine four steps into one. That’s OK as long as the reasoning behind the shortcut is still valid. I came across a verse in the Bible that uses the analogy shortcut to condense the teleological argument into one sentence. Hebrews 3:4 tells us that “every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.” Let’s walk through the four steps together.[3]

  1.  Observation. The author observes that every particular instance of a house is the result of a builder.
  2. Induction. The author infers the universal principle that all houses require a builder.
  3. Understanding. The author understands why the universal principle is an essential and necessary part of the instances observed rather than just a coincidence. Anything which is built entails selection and assembly of parts by an agent so as to achieve an end-goal. That agent is the builder.
  4. Deduction. The author deduces an application to another instance from this universal principle. In this case, the principle of a required builder (agency), applies to “all things”, for we recognize assembly, and contingency, and purpose  – the signature of a builder – everywhere we look.

As in the modern teleological argument, it does not explicitly follow that God is the builder, but the author of Hebrews includes that credit in the conclusion based on the attributes of God that make Him the only possible option. While omnipotence and omniscience would be virtually required to build all things, it’s His immateriality and eternality that really make God the only logical possibility. These are the two attributes that would allow a potential builder to exist prior to the existence of space and time. For instance, even if a super-powerful, super-smart alien had the ability to design and construct a universe, as a material being, it would still require the existence of space in order to itself exist. Suppose that same alien were a truly immaterial, but non-eternal,  “ghost”. That might get around the dependence on space, but as best as we can determine scientifically, the universe had a definite beginning where space and time both came into existence together. Whatever begins to exist has a cause, and any potential designer constrained by time would therefore have to have a beginning along with the universe supposedly being designed by it. Shortening that law of causality to “whatever exists has a cause” is responsible for the typical misunderstanding of atheists like Richard Dawkins when they ask “Who made God?” They’re trying to demonstrate an infinite regress of causes, but forget that causality is predicated on something having a beginning. Eternality stops the infinite regress of causal events by allowing a first uncaused cause. That attribute can only be possessed by a necessary being, and there can only exist one necessary being. Therefore, God has to be the “builder” (or “designer”).

[1] Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic, Edition 3.1 (South Bend: St Augustine’s Press, 2010), p.314.
[2] One exception to this is the “complete induction”, where we have examined every member of a set, and can draw an inductive  conclusion with certainty without recognizing the common essence.
[3] ibid., p.329-331.

4 thoughts on “Building Arguments, Houses, and the Universe”

  1. Sound arguments, well reasoned.

    Now you have me contemplating the phrase, “there can only exist one necessary being” in relation to our triune God.

    Thank you, Jason!

  2. Thank you, Joe! I’m reminded of how, in abductive reasoning, one reasons “to the best explanation”. One of the measures of whether something is the best explanation is its “explanatory depth”. Can the proposed solution explain the various pieces of evidence needing to be explained? If it only explains some observations, then it may not be the best explanation. But I think the explanatory depth of the orthodox Christian view of God as “three Persons in one Being” still encompasses this question of necessary existence as well. By specifying that God is still one being*, the classic trinitarian view still explains this later philosophical extrapolation that there can only be one necessary being.That totally unique expression of one Being as 3 distinct Persons then doesn’t undermine the metaphysical impossibility of multiple necessary beings. Food for thought. 🙂

    * See, for instance, the Athanasian Creed: “The Father is eternal, the Son is eternal, and the Holy Spirit is eternal. Nevertheless, there are not three eternal beings, but one eternal being.”

  3. Hebrews 3 has nothing to do with any teleological argument. The point the passages are making is that Jesus is greater than Moses.

    The word “but” means “in contrast.” It does not mean “therefore.” Notice also that the word “for” indicates that the verse is in support of previous statements.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Simeon! I certainly agree that the point of the overall passage is that Jesus is better than Moses, but that doesn’t negate the implications of this one statement in the middle of that larger case. The entire letter of Hebrews has been summed up in the word “better”, and chapter 3 does reinforces that comparison between new and old covenants. But this statement still stands out with teleological content.

      Yes, I agree that “for” indicates a tie to the previous verse, in support of it, but that does not negate the teleological content of this statement either.

      As for the word “but”, this is the Greek conjunction δέ (de), which is translated a variety of ways depending on context and flow in English. Among the nearly 2800 times it’s used in the Greek New Testament, “and” and “moreover” are very common translations, although “then”, “now”, “when”, “however”, “wherefore”, “yet”, “notwithstanding”, and “but” are also used and interchanged between different translations with no impact on the meaning of the text. It is a conjunction, classed as a connective or adversative participle. In this case, I have no problem with the adversative categorization and translation as “but”. Although I haven’t found any indication of δέ being translated as “in contrast” specifically, that seems to be in keeping with the general intent of the word “but”. Therefore, I don’t see a problem if you want to substitute that; it doesn’t change the meaning of the text. Let’s try it out: “For every house is built by someone; in contrast, the builder of all things is God.” OK. Just as in the teleological argument, this statement is comparing the essential similarity of built things (all are the result of a builder), and contrasting the scope of the builder’s work (The homebuilder’s result is a house, but God’s result is all that there is). Since it appears that all 3 of your points (the overall chapter intent, the use of “for”, and the the substitution of “in contrast”) can be granted without losing the teleological content of verse 4, I must respectfully propose that your conclusion does not follow from your premises. But thank you for the challenge; I don’t want to put anything out there without due diligence, and that was a perspective I had not considered. 🙂 Take care, and may God bless you in your search of the Scriptures.

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