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Any metaphysical system – that is to say, any account of the fundamental nature of things – must eventually grapple with the following challenge: Although it is perhaps possible to conceive of a universe in which everything is necessary (i.e. everything just is, and could have been no other way) it is certainly not possible to conceive of a world in which everything is contingent (i.e. everything could have been otherwise, and nothing just is).
Put thus, the point may seem very abstract, remote and hard to grasp. But we can make it much more concrete by considering a very well-known example of someone that began by attempting to claim that nothing need be necessary who eventually concluded that two things were: Richard Dawkins.
In his best-seller "The God Delusion", Dawkins makes repeated use of the "child's question": "Who made God?" and dismisses the notion of a God that is just there, by necessity, as a "sky hook". If one accepted that every coherent metaphysical system must have things that are just there, by necessity, the question "Who made God?" would be easily addressed – God would be a candidate (presumably the cardinal candidate) element of that necessity that must exist. But at that point in his argument, Dawkins appears to imagine no need of necessity.
However, later in his argument, Dawkins makes his system coherent by appealing to two elements of necessity: a creator of universes that he calls "Multiverse"; and a principle of the testing of things he calls "Natural Selection". For him, neither of these comes from anywhere or is made by anything else. They just are, by necessity. Multiverse generates new universes, with varying laws of physics, and Natual Selection chooses which of these universes flourishes and which fails quickly. Our universe is as it is not by cosmic accident (Dawkins denies absolutely and in terms that the existence of a universe fit for life and the evolution of life within it can be regarded as any sort of accident – he says the odds of that would be absurdly low), but because Multiverse created it and Natural Selection selected it.
There are those that accuse Dawkins of adopting a "faith position" with respect to Multiverse and Natural Selection, pointing out that no scientific experiment could identify any characteristics of Multiverse since it is not within our Universe. That seems harsh to me, since although one might not conduct any empirical test, that does not mean one cannot reason through to at least some of the features things not within our universe must have. And every serious metaphysical system includes both a creator and a tester.
What is peculiar about Dawkins' system, though, is that he does not appear to grasp that in arguing that both Creator and Tester are original and necessary, he has reasoned through to the classical Dualist pantheon. The Great Atheist argues against monotheism and concludes, in its stead, for…Dualism – i.e. ditheism. Such a conclusion would not have surprised C.S. Lewis or the many other thinkers that have concluded that the one serious competitor to monotheism is Dualism. But it ought, perhaps, to have surprised Dawkins.
Let us be clear here: calling Multiverse and Natural Selection "gods" is no idle wordplay or distortion. It has never been thought essential that a god had a "mind" or made choices – many gods in all kinds of pantheons simply acted according to their nature, coldly and piteously and without purpose. Think of Fate. It has never been thought essential that a god be complex, reflecting more than one principle (quite the reverse). It has never been thought necessary that a god take a human or animal form (indeed, it has often been thought impious to attempt to depict gods in such ways). (Indeed, strictly speaking gods do not even have to exist of necessity and from the beginning – something that a god begets, later, is still regarded as a god (e.g. think of the Olympians).)
Perhaps Dawkins does not like to call Multiverse and Natural Selection gods because he himself fails to grasp what a "god" is, or perhaps he grasps that perfectly well but assumes his readers will think of a "god" as being like the Christian god – a person with objectives and human-like characteristics such as loving-kindness – and does not want to confuse them. I suspect the latter, for what it's worth, since he sometimes refer to his position (correctly) as a form of "Deism". Dawkins is not an atheist – he is a dualist (or ditheist) deist. And that's good, of course, for atheism is not a serious intellectual position.
But by posturing as if he were an atheist, Dawkins does somewhat confuse the argument. For the key question is not: Are there gods? That's not a question that makes any sense – of course there are gods! As Dawkins' case study illustrates, it is simpy impossible to devise any serious account of things that does not have one or more original principles that are there of necessity, not created by others (i.e. gods). The key questions are: What gods are there, what are their natures, and what can we know of them?
Dawkins' dualist system has a Creator and a Tester, with neither being being the product of or prior to the other. That is an ancient and attractive pantheon. The main modern competitor is monotheism, in which both Creator and Tester exist, but the Creator (sometimes referred to as Jahweh – a word which simply means "the one that exists of necessity") also creates the Tester (sometimes referred to as Satan – a word which simply means "the accuser" or "the prosecutor"), though the Tester is usually thought at least to some extent independent of the Creator (e.g. it can act according to its own nature, even when that (at least temporarily) conflicts with the nature of the Creator).
In Christianity, there is some ambiguity as to the role of the Tester. In crude theologies the Creator is good and the Tester simply wicked, the father of lies (as the Serpent lied to Eve in the Garden of Eden) and the source of Sin and Death. In Christian theology, death enters the world with Sin, the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden. Some find it problematic, then, to accept Natual Selection as an form or driver of advance. How could we say both that Death is the driver of the improvement and evolution of life and yet also say that Death is the result of Man's sin?
Yet things are not always so simple – in the Book of Job, Jahweh grants Satan leave to test Job and in that testing Job proves himself in many ways but also finally discovers his own weaknesses and thence a new humility. In the Easter story, Satan seeks leave to sift Simon Peter like wheat (Luke 22:31) – a request that is not denied. This is part of a long Christian tradition that testing (even testing granted to be overseen by Satan) can be a source of improvement, in particular if the thing being tested rises to the challenge – changes and improves itself in response.
For Selection does not itself create. It only winnows – that is, it destroys or removes the bad to leave the good (sometimes accidentally eliminating the good in the procees). And winnowing is not the only way to improve things. There is a fundamentally more creative form of improvement – transformation or repentance, in which what was bad can be turned to the good.
That is part of the paradox of Easter itself. We want to say that death is bad, yet it is by Christ's death that we are saved, by his being damaged that we are healed. Christ is subjected to testing, but not subject to the Tester. An event that might seem like an incomprehensible metaphysical disaster – the Creator falling victim to the Tester – is its own proof that improvement does not come only through winnowing. For the death of the Creator – the ultimate Bad – is transformed into the pivotal event in history, the ultimate Good. That event grants each of us our own lever, our own axis of repentance. We are not simply created worthy or worthless, to be sieved by Selection and found useful or wanting or just unlucky. Instead, we are created as ourselves, and through the Cross can be changed to the Good – be we ever so worthy or worthless to begin with – as transformative Creation displays its lordship over Testing.