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I have been thinking a lot about the cosmological argument lately, in part because I am currently teaching it in my Introduction to Philosophy class and also because of some recent discussions at the Secular Outpost. My general view on cosmological arguments is that whatever the validity and/or soundness of the arguments (whether the Kalam, or arguments from contingency or any other version), the proper conclusion of such arguments can never be that God exists. That is, no cosmological argument implies that theism is true. I’m not prepared to fully develop and defend this view now, but a few brief remarks are in order:
This point is easiest to see with respect to the Kalam:
(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The universe began to exist.
(C) The universe has a cause.
Nothing about the premises guarantees that the cause of the universe is God. Even if we follow William Lane Craig and believe that other considerations show that the cause must be personal, nothing implies that this person is God. God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent creator. The person who created the universe, if indeed there is one, need have none of these features, which are essential characteristics of God.
In general, even if we are convinced that there must exist an uncaused cause or a necessary being, nothing forces us to believe that such being is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. So, the proper conclusion of a cosmological argument (CA) will always be something less than ‘God exists.’ And I take this to be a significant point.
In his, “The Cosmological Argument and the Epistemic Status of Belief in God” (reprinted in Philosophy of Religion: A Reader and Guide, W. L. Craig, ed.), Stephen T. Davis presents a version of the CA with precisely the conclusion that I said a CA could never have. Here is Davis’ argument, which he calls the “generic cosmological argument” GCA:
(1) If the universe can be explained, then God exists.
(2) Everything can be explained.
(3) The universe is a thing.
(4) Therefore, the universe can be explained.
(5) Therefore, God exists.
I think that premise (1) is fairly obviously ridiculous and that, if we are being careful, we should not formulate a premise like it. Why? Because, as I said, God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, creator. But nothing about the fact that the universe can be explained implies that the explanation of the universe involves an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent person. Indeed, nothing about the fact (assuming it is one) that the universe can be explained implies that this explanation involves a person. In other words, it is possible that the universe can be explained completely in terms of a non-personal force or forces. Furthermore, even if we had some reason to think that the explanation must appeal to the activity of a person, nothing forces us to believe that this person is omnipotent, omniscient, or omnibenevolent. The explanation of the universe could be that it was created by a supernatural omnipotent evil idiot.
But Davis thinks that Premise (1) is perfectly fine and he is a more successful philosopher than I am, so I had better give him the benefit of the doubt and carefully consider what he says in its defense. First, he admits that even if GCA is successful, it does not necessarily prove the existence of the God of theism. He does, however, think that, if successful, it does prove the existence of some kind of divine reality. In addition, he says,
Premise (1) simply claims that if there is any explanation of the existence of the universe, then God must exist and provide that explanation. This premise seems perfectly sensible because if God exists then the explanation for the existence of the universe is just this: “God created it.” And this seems about the only sort of explanation that could be given. If no God or Godlike creator of the universe exists, it seems that the universe will have no explanation whatsoever for its existence. Its existence will be what we might call a brute fact. It is just there, and that is all that can be said. (p. 83 of Craig)
This is really not very good. First, the fact, and I grant that it is one, that if God exists then the explanation for the existence of the universe is that God did it is really quite irrelevant for the truth of (1). All that it means is that God is a possible explanation for the universe, not that, if there is an explanation, God is it. There are other potential explanations. I mentioned a couple above: a non-personal force of some unknown kind, the activity of a supernatural being who is neither God nor divine. Suppose I asserted (1′) If the universe can be explained, then the Gnostic Demiurge exists, and then defended this with the following assertion: (D) if the Demiurge exists, then the explanation for the existence of the universe is just this: “the Demiurge did it.” Obviously (D) is not a reason to think that (1′) is true.
Now, as I said, above Davis recognizes the problem that his argument cannot prove that God (the god of theism) exists (or at least he recognizes part of the problem), hence his use of “God or Godlike creator.” But this is very slippery. If he is going to be completely clear, he needs to change premise (1) to read “If the universe can be explained, then God or a Godlike creator exists.” And the proper conclusion would be, “God or a Godlike being exists.” But now this is not an argument for theism, it is an argument for theism or some theism-like view. Even so, we still have a few problems. First, how much like God does this Godlike being have to be. Suppose, as I suggested earlier, that the explanation of the universe is that it was created by the Demiurge or by an evil omnipotent idiot (a being I’ll call Fod). Is Fod really Godlike? The demiurge of gnosticism pretty clearly is not. Would we say that Fod worshipers, if any existed, hold a view that is very much like theism? I doubt it. So, I don’t think that even “God or a Godlike being exists” is the proper conclusion of this argument. Rather, at best it is “A creator exists.” That is interesting, but much weaker than Davis’ original conclusion.
However, we still haven’t dealt with the possibility of a non-personal force. Without some argument that the explanation for the universe must involve the activity of a person, we had better weaken Davis’ Premise (1) and conclusion even further:
(1) If the universe can be explained, then either God exists or some other creator exists or some non-personal universe-generating force exists.
(5) Therefore, either God exists or some other creator exists or some non-personal universe-generating force exists.
This is pretty weak tea. And it is consistent with my view that no cosmological argument has, as its proper conclusion, the claim that God exists.
The primary reason that I wanted to write this post has to do with something that Davis says toward the end of the article. He considers the following objection to the GCA: “If GCA is a successful argument, the “god” or necessary being that it proves exists is not the God of theism or even any lesser god-like sentient being, but rather the universe, or physical matter itself” (88). In reply Davis says that it does not seem sensible to think that the universe is a necessary being but admits that he cannot prove it. He points to an argument from Richard Taylor that something can be both everlasting and contingent. (This, by the way is a very interesting claim, which warrants more consideration that I can give it here.) But his considered view on this issue is given in the following:
And a truly telling point against the objection to the GCA that we are considering is this:even if the universe were everlasting, it would still make sense to ask: Why should it exist at all? That is, why is there a reality at all? Why is there anything rather than nothing? There is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe. . . . It follows that there is nothing about the universe that implies or even suggests that it is a necessary being. (89)
I am particularly interested in Davis’ claim that “there is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe.” Now, this claim is ambiguous (an issue I will deal with below) but at first blush, Davis is admitting something that is devastating to his argument.
Davis is here indicating that there is nothing absurd in the idea that nothing exists. He is also inferring that since there is nothing absurd about the idea that nothing exists, there is nothing absurd about the idea that the universe does not exist. He is also relying on a general principle something like this: (A) If there is nothing absurd about the idea that something, s, does not exist, then there is nothing about s that implies or suggests that s is a necessary being. The problem is that all of this applies to God just as much as it does to the universe.
Davis is claiming that we can consistently suppose that nothing exists. Well, this supposition entails that God does not exist. In other words, when we suppose that nothing exists, we are supposing that God does not exist. So, if there is nothing absurd about the idea that nothing exists, there must be nothing absurd about the idea that God does not exist. Thus, by principle (A), there is nothing about God that implies or suggests that God is a necessary being.
So long as we allow that there is nothing absurd in the idea that nothing exists, I don’t see how we can escape this conclusion. Now, perhaps when Davis says, “there is no absurdity at all in the idea of there being nothing at all, no universe” he does not mean that there is no absurdity in the idea of there being nothing at all, full stop. After all, there is that comma and “no universe.” As I indicated above, I think that this statement is ambiguous. I have been reading Davis as claiming that the idea that nothing at all exists is not absurd. But perhaps all he means is that the idea that the universe does not exist is not absurd. If so, he faces a different problem.
Either he claims that there is some absurdity in the idea that nothing at all exists or he claims that there is no absurdity in the idea that nothing at all exists. If the latter, then he must admit that there is no absurdity in the idea that God does not exist and my conclusions above stand. If the former, he needs to explain what is is absurd about the idea that nothing at all exists. He might say that this is absurd because it implies that God does not exist. But then he needs to show why the idea that God does not exist is absurd. Presumably he will say that it is absurd because God is a necessary being. But this is a petitio principii if there ever was one. If we grant that God’s existence is necessary, then there is something absurd about the idea that God does not exist. But the same can be said about the universe. So, how do we know that God’s non-existence is absurd but the non-existence of the universe is not absurd?
The reason Davis gave us for thinking that the universe is not a necessary being, on this reading, is the fact that there is nothing absurd about the idea that the universe does not exist. If that is the only reason, then to suggest that there is something absurd about the idea that God does not exist because God is a necessary being is to beg the question. I have to assume that God is a necessary being in order to see the absurdity of the suggestion that God does not exist. Davis either needs some other reason for supposing that the idea that God does not exist is absurd, or else he needs some other reason for thinking that God is a necessary being.
As I was teaching the Euthyphro dilemma the other day, a question occurred to me that I don’t remember thinking about before: Why would God create morality?
The divine command theory claims that God’s commands constitute moral obligations. Thus God could have made it the case that there are no moral obligations by refraining from issuing commands. In order for there to be moral obligations, God must command something. So, why did he do it? It seems to unnecessarily complicate matters. What plan does he have that necessitates morality?
Even if there are no moral obligations, there might be actions that God wants us to do. Assuming the proper incentive structure, we would have reason to do the things that God wants us to do. From the perspective of the divine plan, what does making an action morally wrong add that is not already present in the action’s being something that God wants us to do?
Modern divine command theorists say that God’s commands flow from his essential nature. Since God is loving, we can know that he would never command horrible things, like the torture of a small child.
On the other hand, nearly all theists believe that God allows evil things to happen while simultaneously accepting the claim that God would prevent any gratuitous instance of evil. In other words, theists are committed to the following principle:
(E) Every instance of evil that occurs is such that either (a) its occurrence is necessary to prevent the occurrence of something equally bad or worse, or else (b) its occurrence is necessary to bring about some greater good.
If there is any instance of evil that does not satisfy either (a) or (b) (or both), then it is gratuitous. A perfectly loving God would eliminate any unnecessary evil.
Thus, what a theist believes is that if a person suffers, it is better that they suffered than had they not suffered because either (a) their suffering was logically required to prevent something worse from happening, or else (b) their suffering was logically required to bring about some greater good.
Suppose I have a close friend or family member who is addicted to heroin. He comes to me broke and suffering from severe withdrawals because he has been unable to purchase the drug or acquire it through other means. He asks to borrow some money and it is obvious to me that he intends to use the money to buy more heroin. Now, I submit that the right thing to do is to refuse to give him the money. I should do this even though I know that if my friend does not get his fix, he will continue to suffer greatly as his withdrawal symptoms get worse. This is because it would be better for my fried to go through the withdrawal on the path to losing his addiction than to relieve his suffering temporarily by feeding the addiction. That is, I should allow my friend to suffer because it is in his best interests to suffer (even if he doesn’t agree that it is). For the purposes of this discussion, the important uphsot of this example is that it is not the case that if I love someone, then I will prevent any instance of their suffering that I can prevent. However, we can even go further. Indeed, it is plausible that the best thing for me to do in this instance is to take my friend to a detox clinic where he can endure his withdrawal symptoms in a controlled environment. That is, the best thing to do is something that will cause my friend more suffering.
So, in general, it is not the case that if I love someone, I want to prevent every instance of their suffering. Rather, what I want is what is best for them. And, in at least some cases, what is best for them is that they suffer. Now, typically what is best for a person is that their suffering is minimized (at least that is what I think we have most reason to believe; I am not sure that a theist can accept this claim), but at least sometimes, a loving person will allow those they love to suffer.
Here is what is important for the present argument: That God is loving does not imply that he will want to prevent all suffering; it implies that he wants what is best for us. This is what underlies principle (E).
Now, if we are not in a position to know whether, for any instance of apparently gratuitous suffering, the suffer is better off than she would have been had she not suffered, then we are not in a position to know whether a loving God would command torture.
Atheists typically believe that cases of apparently gratuitous suffering really are cases of gratuitous suffering. The suffering endured by a dying cancer patient appears gratuitous. There does not appear to be any greater good such the the patient’s suffering is necessary to bring about that good; nor does there appear to be any evil equal to or greater than the patient’s suffering that the suffering is necessary to prevent. The atheist says that things are exactly as they appear; such an instance of suffering is gratuitous. The theist, however, has to believe that appearances are deceiving. The theist believes that the patient’s suffering is not gratuitous because he believes that God exists and that God is loving.
Given this, what reason can a theist give for believing that God would not command the torture of an infant? That God loves the infant? Well, we just saw that, in general, being loving does not entail wanting to prevent every instance of suffering. Rather, it entails wanting what is best for the beloved. So that God loves the child is not evidence that God does not want the child to be tortured. If the torture of the child will bring about what is best, then God, being loving, will command it.
So, what the theist needs is a reason for thinking that it is never best that children be tortured. Without that, we cannot know that God would not command the torture of an infant. But can the theist provide such a reason? I don’t see how. If theists are willing to believe that the cancer patient’s suffering is not gratuitous, that somehow the world is better off for that instance of severe pain, how can theists consistently maintain that they know that an instance of infant torture is gratuitous?
It is common for theists, during discussions of the problem of evil, to point out that, given our epistemic limitations, we are not in a position to know that God does not have reasons for failing to prevent the many horrendous and apparently gratuitous evils in our world (the name for this position is Skeptical Theism). Well, the same would seem to apply to any instance of child torture. If our epistemic situation is so limited that we cannot know that God does not have reasons for permitting the slaughter of children, then it must be so limited that we cannot know whether child torture is sometimes necessary to bring about some greater good or prevent something equally bad or worse. Thus, the theist cannot know that a loving God will not command the torture of infants.
This is a follow-up to my last post on the question of whether there are phenomena that theism can account for but which naturalism cannot. The Cosmological Argument can be thought of as an argument not just for the existence of God, but for the claim that a theistic worldview has the resources to explain something that a naturalistic worldview cannot explain (in its simplest form, this something is the fact that there exists something rather than nothing). I don’t think this is so and I am going to try to explain why.
Here is the Kalam cosmological argument.
(1) Everything that begins to exist has a cause.
(2) The Universe began to exist.
(3) The universe has a cause.
First, premise (1) is odd. Why say that everything that begins to exist has a cause, rather than everything, full stop? The answer is that the attempt to use the alternative,
(1*) Everything that exists has a cause
has an obvious and unfortunate consequence for theism: it implies that it is false. Since God is supposed to be uncaused, (1*) cannot be true (if (1*) is true, then there is no uncaused God, so theism is false). So, we get (1) as a means of avoiding begging the question against theism.
It is important to see that (1) depends upon a more general principle, the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) [I am just going to assume here that if PSR is false, then for that very reason, we should be skeptical of (1). But I would be happy to pursue this if anyone is interested]. PSR says (in one of its simpler formulations) that for everything that exists, there is a reason that it exists, in other words, there is an explanation for the existence of everything. Now, making the reasonable inference that, in the material realm, the explanation for the existence of anything will be in terms of causes, we can assume that if the PSR is true, everything that exists has a cause. But this supports (1*) doesn’t it? Well, the problem, again, is that this inference only works if we ignore the possibility that there exist non-material things. The explanation for their existence might not be in terms of causes. So we shouldn’t assume that everything that exists has a cause. However, certainly material things have causes, at least as far as we know. And, as far as we know, every material thing had a beginning. Roughly then, (there are a few other considerations that I will ignore here), that is one way of getting to (1) from the PSR.
But the PSR does imply that everything that exists has an explanation. So while it might be unreasonable to ask what the cause of God is (since, if he exists, he is immaterial, and so might not have a cause), that does not mean that it is unreasonable to ask for the explanation of God. So, if the PSR is true, then, if God exists, there is an explanation for the existence of God.
We’ve gotten a little bit side-tracked, so let’s get back to the main thread of the argument. There are actually two points to be made here. First, even if the CA is a sound argument, and even if it is true that God created the universe, none of that tells us what the explanation for the universe is. That is, saying that God did does not explain how it was done. If there is nothing more to the explanation that the claim that God did it, then what is the difference between saying that God did it and saying that it was magic?
The second point is that since the CA relies on the PSR, there is no reason to think that it is only the universe’s existence that presents a fundamental mystery that cries out for explanation. If the question is, “why is there something rather than nothing?” then theists should ask why there is a God.
So, what I am saying here is this: If the problem that theists point to is that there is no naturalistic account of the existence of the universe (or, even more broadly, why there exists something rather than nothing), then the theist does not have an answer to this problem either. The naturalist *might* always have to assume the existence of something in order to provide explanations, but so must the theist. The theist must fall back on the existence of God, something that is not explained by theism. Now, of course I am aware that theists have tried to avoid this. There is a long theological history to the claim that God contains the reason for his own existence. But, as I argued recently, that claim, even if it makes sense and it is true, does not tell what this reason is. The claim that God exists a se tells us nothing more than that there is a reason for God’s existence and that it is contained in his nature; it does not tell us what the reason is.
So, it is false that theism has an explanation for the existence of the universe. Thus, the argument that says that theism is to be preferred over atheism because the former can account for something that the latter cannot is a bad argument since the premise is false.
There are several arguments for the existence of God which share a common structure and similar premises that I would like to examine. These arguments point to some feature of our world and claim that there is no naturalistic explanation for this feature and that therefore, naturalism is false. There are supposed to be arguments for the existence of God, which is part of what I find odd about them. That naturalism or materialism cannot account for something is, at best, indirect evidence for theism. That we cannot account for some phenomenon under a naturalistic paradigm, even if it is true, does not imply that the correct explanation will involve the activity of a personal divine being. I will expand on this and other problems that I see with this style of argument in this post.
To start, here is a list of some examples of the kind of argument I am talking about, with a few relevant and interesting links:
- The Argument from Reason (see Victor Reppert’s blog for more)
- The Argument from Beauty
- The Cosmological Argument (Essentially, cosmological arguments involve the claim that theism can account for the existence of the universe while naturalism cannot. Take a look at a couple of apologist bloggers discussing the argument here and here.)
- The Design Argument (naturalism cannot account for the complexity (or certain kinds of complexity) of (parts of) the universe. Jeffery Lowder has an excellent analysis of a recent version of this kind of argument here.)
- The Argument from Morality
- The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (naturalism cannot account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.)
Now, most of these are not names for a single argument, but rather families of arguments. There is not one Argument from Morality, for example. Rather, there are a host of arguments that suggest that the existence of objective morality (or some related notion) is a reason to believe that God exists. Such is the case with most of the arguments on this list.
It is also worth pointing out that not all versions of each of the above arguments are formulated in terms of the claim that naturalism cannot account for the respective phenomena. There are popular versions of the argument from morality, for example, that do not depend on any claim that naturalism cannot account for morality. Watch this short (and rather annoying, I grant) video from William Lane Craig for an example. Craig doesn’t say here that naturalism can’t account for objective morality. However, when Craig and other apologists attempt to defend the key premise of this argument (If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist), they typically point to alleged facts about what naturalism implies about morality and value. (see my paper “Do Atheists Need a Moral Theory to be Moral Realists?” for more on this). In this post, I am directing my comments to those versions of these arguments that implicitly or explicitly rely on something like the following inference:
Naturalism cannot account for (insert difficult to account for phenomenon here). But (difficult to account for phenomenon) does exist (or is real, or did/does occur). Theism can account for it. Thus theism has an advantage over naturalism.[*EDIT* Commonly, something like the following additional conclusion is added: To be consistent, naturalists have to give up belief in (difficult to account for phenomenon)].
There are three general problems with these arguments. The first, and most obvious (at least it should be most obvious) is that the fact that we currently lack an explanation for some phenomenon does not mean that we have to give up believing in the phenomenon. That we lack a naturalistic account of morality (even if this is true) does not mean that naturalists have to disbelieve in objective morality. After all, the correct naturalistic account may be just around the corner. Apologists who wield these arguments seem to think that if your worldview does not currently account for some phenomenon, then you have to either disbelieve in the phenomena or reject your worldview and embrace one that can account for it. But this is not so, as we can see when we look at parallel examples that have no obvious connection to religious beliefs.
Biologists do not currently understand precisely how salmon, after years of living in the ocean hundreds of miles away from the streams of their births, are able to find their home streams in which to spawn at the end of their life cycle. So we do not yet have a satisfactory naturalistic explanation of this biological phenomenon. Does that mean that naturalists have to disbelieve in it, or give up naturalism in order to be consistent? The suggestion is clearly ridiculous. As is the claim that since there is no current naturalistic account of objective morality or human reason or beauty, etc., naturalists cannot consistently believe in these things. Human knowledge is not at an end; we continue to develop our understanding of reality and will do so indefinitely. The fact that we cannot currently account for something is not a reason to either disbelieve in that thing or to reject our worldview. It is a reason to keep looking for the right explanation.
Second, nothing about the falsity of naturalism implies the truth of theism. It is true that if metaphysical naturalism is true, then theism is false. But to go from the falsity of naturalism to the truth of theism would be to commit the fallacy of denying the antecedent. So, even if it were true that there are no naturalistic explanations of phenomena that we all agree are real (rationality, for example), this would not imply that theism is true. It is perfectly consistent to be a non-naturalistic atheist (Schopenhauer is a great example). Indeed, I do not espouse metaphysical naturalism. My view is that naturalism is best understood as a methodological principle. And there are good reasons to adopt this principle, as a commenter named Keith pointed out in my recent post about the EAAN. In a future post, I will have more to say about how odd it is that when apologists criticize atheism, they consistently attack naturalism rather than the claim that there is no God.
The third problem is the most destructive to this kind of argument. It just is not true that theism can account for the phenomena mentioned in any of the arguments. With all of these arguments listed above, proponents claim that there are theistic explanations of the relevant phenomena, but they either never provide the explanation or else the explanation they do provide is wrong or fundamentally flawed. In my next post, I will use the cosmological argument as an example to explain what I mean.
Nearly two decades ago, Alvin Plantinga developed an argument against naturalism (the Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, EAAN) that purports to show that naturalism and evolution are incompatible. You can find a version of this argument, as well as Plantinga’s responses to several objections in this paper.
It has become commonplace for apologists to lean heavily on this argument and to suggest that naturalism cannot account for the reliability of human cognitive powers. William Lane Craig makes such an argument in this op-ed article. It should be noted that Plantinga’s argument, if correct, shows only that naturalism together with evolutionary theory cannot both be true; one or the other can be maintained, but not both together. However, given that evolutionary theory is the most widely accepted naturalistic account of human origins and development, it has become commonplace for the argument to be stated more simply as the claim that naturalism cannot account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.
As readers of this blog might know, I have no interest in defending metaphysical naturalism. I suspect that it is probably true, but I grant the possibility that it is false and I see no reason to defend it against all comers. Naturalism is best understood as a methodological commitment; we should try to explain as much as we can, as best as we can without having to resort to phenomena that transcend the natural world. In general, commitment to any metaphysical account of ultimate reality is more of a hindrance to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom than a help. Since the state of our knowledge about reality is characterized by a great deal of ignorance and half-understood theory, I think that it is best to be humble.
So, my interest in Plantinga’s argument has to do not with whether it defeats naturalism, but in its use as an argument for the existence of God. Plantinga thinks, as do many apologists, that theism can account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties. As with many beliefs of a religious nature, I think that this one is the result of a failure of imagination. In the article “Naturalism Defeated” (linked to above), Plantinga says this:
Now according to traditional Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) thought, we human beings have been created in the image of God. This means, among other things, that he created us with the capacity for achieving knowledge—knowledge of our environment by way of perception, of other people by way of something like what Thomas Reid calls sympathy, of the past by memory and testimony, of mathematics and logic by reason, of morality, our own mental life, God himself, and much more. (pp 2-3)
But is it true that we should expect God to create creatures with reliable cognitive faculties? Why would we think so? If God had a good reason to create humans with unreliable faculties, then wouldn’t he do that? Perhaps there is some greater good that God can only realize by creating creatures with deficient cognitive faculties. How can we know that there isn’t? I suppose it is open to the theist to insist that God does not have a reason to create humans with unreliable cognitive faculties, but how would they know? It is certainly possible that God does have such a reason and that, given our epistemic position, we are unable to know what this reason is. I conclude, therefore, that there is no reason to suppose that God does not have such a reason. If he does have such a reason, then, if theism is true, our cognitive faculties are not reliable. Thus, theism does not account for the reliability of our cognitive faculties.
Perhaps you notice an affinity between the above argument and a certain kind of response to the problem of evil known as skeptical theism. Skeptical theism maintains that, given our epistemic situation, there is no reason to believe that we are in a position to know what reasons God might or might not have to engage in certain activities (such as, for example, refraining from saving children from tornadoes or deranged gunmen). Because we cannot know what reasons God might have, we are not in a position to say with confidence that God does not have a reason for permitting any instance of evil, no matter how gratuitous that particular evil might seem to us.
[Here is a very good discussion between three Christian philosophes about the problem of evil. They begin discussing skeptical theism at about the 16 minute mark.]
Regardless of whether a particular theist adopts a robust version of skeptical theism, many, if not most, agree that at some point in a response to the problem of evil, we will have to rely on the fact that we cannot discern all of God’s reasons. But if it is true that God might have reasons beyond our ken for engaging in some activity, then how can we know that God does not have good reasons for creating creatures with unreliable cognitive powers?
It is important to note that even theists who do not espouse skeptical theism are faced with a problem here. How does the theist get around this inference: For all we know God has very good reasons for wanting human cognitive powers to be less than reliable. Thus, if theism is true, for all we know, human cognitive faculties are not reliable.
The natural first question for a divine command theorist is whether God has the power to make horrible acts obligatory just by commanding that we perform them. So, some question such as this:
Can God make it the case that gratuitously torturing an infant is morally obligatory?
Following the work of Robert Adams, Edward Wierenga, and others, the standard response of divine command theorists has become something like this:
Since he is omnibenevolent, God would not command that we gratuitously torture infants.
Now it is important to note that this response only says that God would not issue such a command, it does not really answer the question. What we want to know is whether making gratuitous torture morally obligatory is something that God can do. Sure, God may be constrained by his love in such a way that some commands are beyond his capacity to issue (though how that squares with his omnipotence is an interesting question), but, regardless, he has the power to utter the words “Thou shalt torture an infant for no reason.” I know he has this power because humans have this power and God has the power to do anything that it is logically possible to do. So, we want to know, what would happen if God issued this command? Would gratuitous torture be obligatory?
Rather than pursue this tack, I want to suggest a slightly different direction to the inquiry. Let us now ask,
Is it logically possible to make an action morally obligatory just by commanding that it be performed?
The divine command theory says yes, there is one being for whom this is logically possible: God. God can (and has) made actions morally obligatory by commanding that we do them.
Is it logically possible to make treating one’s neighbor as one would like to be treated morally obligatory?
Again, the divine command theorist says yes, does he not? Some will even claim that God has done this.
Is it logically possible to make the gratuitous torture of an infant morally obligatory just by commanding that it be done?
How does the divine command theorist respond? This is a genuine question and I am curious to hear responses from those who espouse the theory. For now, however, I will continue the dialogue by making some educated guesses. The divine command theorist responds:
Such a thing is not logically possible. God would never give such a command.
Now the questions is:
Is it impossible to make the torture of infants morally obligatory because, since he is all-loving, God will not command that we torture infants, or is it impossible for to make infant torture morally obligatory because it is not logically possible for infant torture to be morally obligatory?
If the answer is (b) infant torture cannot be made obligatory because it is not logically possible for infant torture to be morally obligatory, then there is standard of wrongness that is independent of God and the divine command theory is false. (b) implies that, for some actions, it is just not logically possible that they are obligatory; no divine command is necessary.
If the answer is (a) infant torture cannot be made obligatory because God will not issue such a command, the next question is:
Suppose there exists a deity that has all the powers that God has but who is not constrained by omnibenevolence. If such a deity issues a command to gratuitously torture infants, would that make it obligatory to torture infants?
If the divine command theory is to escape the arbitrariness charge, the answer to this question had better be no. But the the question is why not?
Suppose that God exists, exists necessarily, contains the reason for his existence in his own nature, and that everything other than God owes its existence to God. This is granting quite a bit, and there are reasonable objections to all of the items on this list. However, for know I want to grant all of this for the sake of argument because I think we can shown that, even if such a God exists, it does not follow that God is the terminus of all explanation. More specifically, I will argue that even if theism is true in all of its details, there are still facts that theism cannot explain.
The argument is fairly simple but to understand it, we have to be very clear and precise by what we mean by ‘Theism.’ I shall take theism to be equivalent to the following:
Theism: There exists an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.
I maintain that even if theism is true, there still exist facts that theism cannot explain. Here is a list of some of these facts:
- that the creator of the universe is omni-benevolent rather than omni-malevolent, mostly good, or even indifferent
- that the creator of the universe is omnipotent rather than merely very very powerful
- that the creator of the universe is omniscient rather than merely very knowledgable
Do these facts require explanation? I believe they do. It is certainly conceivable that the creator of the universe could have been other than omni-benevolent. It is conceivable that the creator could have been merely knowledgeable enough to create a universe but would not be in a position to know everything about every aspect of the created universe. It is conceivable that the creator has tremendous but limited power. So it seems clear that these are facts that could have been otherwise; thus we need an explanation for why these facts in particular hold rather than a different set of facts.
It is helpful here to use the device (which I use often) of imagining different kinds of gods that might have played the role that God plays according to theism. So, here are some possible gods:
Yod: An omnipotent, omniscient, creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature. (The only difference between Yod and God is that Yod is only contingently omni-benevolent, while God is necessarily so.)
Asura: An omnipotent, omniscient, omni-malevolent creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.
Elo: A very powerful (but not omnipotent), omniscient, omni-benevolent creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.
Heway: A very powerful (but not omnipotent), very knowledgeable (but not omniscient) creator who exists necessarily and by his own nature.
And the list goes on . . .
So, one question that theism cannot answer can be stated thus: Why is it that, out of all the conceivable necessarily self-existent beings, God is the one that actually happens to exist?
That theism cannot answer this is clear: As Randal Rasuer has claimed (see my two most recent posts), theists build aseity into the very concept of God. That God exists a se is not something that theism explains, it is something that theism takes for granted because it is part of the definition of God. The same goes for his omniscience, omnipotence, etc.
In my most recent post, I quoted Randal Rauser saying the following:
And so for the person who wonders “But why should anything exist at all?” the answer comes: “Because the omnipotent, necessarily existent God brought it into being.”
But this answer does not answer this question: Why does there exist an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent creator rather than one who lacks one or all of these properties? So God, even if he exists, is not the terminus of explanation.
Why does the world exist? Why is there something rather than nothing? It is a non-trivial fact that people have been fascinated by such questions for thousands of years. Some theists believe that they have the answer: God. Randal Rauser, in the post that I began examining in my most recent post, says this:
And so for the person who wonders “But why should anything exist at all?” the answer comes: “Because the omnipotent, necessarily existent God brought it into being.”
Is this a satisfactory answer? If God does exist, is he the ultimate explanation for why there is something rather than nothing? At first glance, it seems obvious that this cannot be the answer. The theist’s answer presupposes the existence of something, God, and thus can hardly be taken as an explanation for why there exists anything whatsoever. If we are curious about the whys and wherefores of the universe, don’t we have to ask our why questions about every existing being? Doesn’t even the theist have to ask why there is a God (rather than no God)?
Rauser thinks that this reaction and the accompanying demand for an explanation for the existence of God involves a significant misunderstanding about the nature of God. God, says Rauser, is the terminus of explanation, he is the prime mover, the uncaused cause. God exists necessarily and so there is no question of explaining his existence; God just is. Here is Rauser explaining that some things just exist and need no explanation for their existence:
we should note that not all our intuitions about things are weighted toward asking “why”. In other cases our first intuition (at least the first intuition of philosophers who have thought long and hard about the relevant issues) is to reject the very appropriateness of the why question. The reason? Because it seems that some things just are.
Examples? Here’s a simple one. Think about the number “5″. What is this thing that was the object of the previous sentence? What were you thinking about when you thought about the number 5? The realist proposes that you are thinking of an abstract object or, to use a more traditional term, a universal. That is, 5 is a non-physical, atemporal object that can be multiply exemplified in concrete things (such as the conventional inscription “5″ on the chalk board). But it is itself distinct from all those concrete exemplifications.
Whether Rauser is correct about numbers is a topic for a different discussion. The point here is that he thinks that God exists necessarily in a way analogous to the existence of numbers. Just as numbers could not but exist, so too, God cannot but exist. But how does Rauser know this? How could we know that the creator of our universe, the inspiration for the Bible, the father of Jesus, is Himself uncaused? That he exists necessarily? That he just is? Rauser’s answer is that it is part of the very definition of ‘God’:
You see, theologians define God as existing a se, that is existing of and in himself and not drawing his life from anything else. Put another way, they have always understood him to have the property of independence or necessity, and thus to be the unmoved mover or first cause.
God exists necessarily. And, importantly, Rauser says that there is no need to argue for this conclusion and no question of providing evidence for it because God is a necessarily existence causal agent by definition.
In my previous post I tried to cast some suspicion on the concept of aseity and I also argued that the fact that a being exists a se does not imply that there is not a fuller explanation of its existence. Now I want to consider a different issue: Is it true that it is part of the concept of God that he exists a se?
I think that it is possible that there is a such a conception of God according to which it is just part of the concept that he exists of his own nature. However, I don’t think that this is the concept that most theists use. And, despite that fact that I am sure that he would vehemently protest, I am skeptical of the claim that this is the conception of God that Randal Rauser uses. Here is why:
If it is part of the concept of God that he exists of his own nature, then, if there is nothing that exists of its own nature, then nothing answers to the concept ‘God’ and hence God does not exist. Assume, then, that tomorrow scientists announce the discover of an omnipotent, omninbenevolent, omniscient, creator who sent his only begotten son to die for the forgiveness of since but that he does not exist of his own nature. I highly doubt that, in such an unlikely eventuality, Rauser would announce that he was wrong and that atheism has been vindicated.
Of course scientists are never going to announce such a discovery, but the point stands. By committing himself to the claim that God exists a se by definition, Rauser is committing himself to rejecting theism if it turns out that there is no being that exists a se. If Rauser is right about the meaning of ‘God’, then even if there exists a creator of the universe who inspired the Bible and sent his son Jesus to be crucified for the forgiveness of sins, if this creator does not exist a se, then he is not God (and, by the way, people who believe in such a being are, if Rauser is correct, atheists since they don’t believe in God). But, again, a world in which such a being exists is not a world in which atheism is true. Since I don’t think that Rauser would say that a world in which such a creator exists is a world without God, I find it hard to take seriously Rasuer’s claim that God is, by definition, a being that exists of his own nature.
Theists often want to build a lot of content into their conception of God. Rauser thinks that by building aseity into the concept of God, the theist is relieved of the responsibility of explaining God’s existence. But I think that this is a bit of a lazy way out of a really interesting problem: the problem of why there is something rather than nothing. Maybe there is a self-existent being and maybe there is not, maybe a self existent being created the universe, maybe the creator of the universe was himself created by some other being (maybe even a self-existent one), maybe a self-existent being sent his only son to die on Earth, or maybe a created being did, or maybe nobody did. Maybe the concept of self-existence makes sense and maybe it does not. But we don’t get to go around saying that we know that there is a self-existent being, that we know why there exists something rather than nothing, just because we have a concept with the very notion of existence built into it.
I have been reading The Mystery of Existence recently which reminded me of a recent conversation that I participated in at Randal Rauser’s blog on a topic that, for one reason or another, got connected to the larger issue of divine causation. At one point in the conversation Rauser linked to one of his past posts in which he explains that God is a necessarily existent causal agent. In that post, Rauser takes issue with the claim that theists need an explanation for the existence of God:
You see, theologians define God as existing a se, that is existing of and in himself and not drawing his life from anything else. Put another way, they have always understood him to have the property of independence or necessity, and thus to be the unmoved mover or first cause.
It is at this point that we can see the glaring error of Sam Harris. When he asks, “If God created the universe, what created God?” he shows that he does not really understand what “God” means. (Maybe he has gleaned his doctrine of God from congregants who attend church weekly rather than theologians. But that is as mistaken as deriving one’s definition of matter from the lay person rather than the physicist. The congregant or lay person may provide a good practical definition but not the technical one this kind of conversation requires.) After all, it makes no sense to ask “If the unmoved mover created the universe then what moved the unmoved mover?” or “If the first cause created the universe then what created the first cause?” or “If a necessarily existent agent created the universe then what created the necessarily existent agent?” All of these questions reveal nothing more than Sam Harris’ failure to understand what is meant by God since God is, by definition, necessarily existent and thus the terminus of explanation.
I am going to write a series of posts on this passage (and Rauser’s larger argument) because there is a great deal of confusion and error contained therein. In this post I am going to focus on the content of the concept of aseity and whether it does the work that Rauser wants it to do.
Randal seems to assume that the notion of aseity is the same as the notion of necessary existence. In other words, he assumes that a being that exists a se also exists necessarily. However, I am not sure that he is correct about this. Let’s start by noticing that the concept of aseity is, I think, a combination of two distinct notions: (1) the concept of absolute independence; (2) the concept of having the reason for one’s own existence in one’s own nature. I don’t think it is too difficult to show that these are distinct notions:
Suppose that there exists a being whose nature guarantees that it will be created. That is, the being is of a nature to be created. Thus, in every possible world in which one or more creators exist, this being will exist because it will be created. Let’s call the property that such a being would have, ‘compulsory createdness.’
Now, maybe you think that compulsory createdness is an absurd notion, that it is a property that no being could have. I sympathize. However, if we assume that aseity (in particular the idea of a being whose nature contains the reason for its own existence) is a coherent notion (or, indeed, that at least one being exists a se), I don’t see why we would not assume that essential createdness is equally coherent. If anyone thinks that aseity is a coherent notion but that complusory createdness is not, I invite them to provide us with an argument to this effect.
Here is the point: A being that is compulsorily created has the reason for its existence in its own nature. It exists because it is of a nature that guarantees that it will be created. However, it is not an absolutely independent being since, in every world in which it exists, its existence will be dependent on the being or beings that create it. This shows that the concept of aseity contains more than the concept of having the reason for one’s own existence in one’s own nature. This is something that we need to bear in mind when we consider questions about what the (alleged) aseity of God implies about God’s necessary existence and about whether there must be an explanation for God’s existence.
Let me talk briefly about necessary existence, understood as existence in all possible worlds. Does a being that is compulsorily created exist in all possible worlds? Obviously such a being would exist in every world that contains creators. But if there are worlds in which there are no creators, a compulsorily created being would not exist. So, unless it can be shown that there are no worlds that lack creators, it is false that a being whose nature contains the reason for its own existence must also be a necessarily existing being.
But what does this have to do with God? Well, Randal says that God, since he exists a se, not only has the reason for his existence in his own nature, God is also absolutely independent. If this is true, God cannot be a compulsorily created being. If he were created, he would not be absolutely independent. But now there are two questions to ask: Does the combination of (1) absolute independence, and (2) having the reason for his existence in his own nature, guarantee that God exists in all possible worlds? And does the combination of (1) and (2) show that the demand for an explanation of God’s existence is confused?
I’ll take the second question first. If God is absolutely independent, then there can be no explanation for his existence in terms of things that exist external to him. But I don’t see that this means that there can be no further and deeper explanation of his existence. Furthermore, merely saying that God’s own nature contains the reason for his existence does not tell us what that reason is. As we saw with the notion of a compulsorily created being, that a being contains the reason for its existence in its own nature does not entail that there is not, in addition, a further robust explanation of the existence of that being.
Suppose there exists a compulsorily created being, let’s call him Got. Since Got is compulsorily created, in any particular world in which he exists, Got has a cause. But here is the interesting point: in some worlds the cause of Got’s existence is different than in other worlds. Nothing about Got’s nature guarantees that he will be created by the same being in every possible world. Thus, there will be different explanations for Got’s existence in different possible worlds.
Again, God is not Got (at least not according to Rauser); God is not compulsorily created. But, and this is the key point, we don’t know the reason for God’s existence. We know that his nature contains the reason for his own existence. But, unless we have some inkling concerning what that reason is, we have no way of knowing whether, like Got, in the worlds in which he exists, there may be some further explanation of God’s existence.
What I am saying is this: Having the reason for one’s existence in one’s own nature is not enough of an explanation. All that it tells us is that part of the explanation for the being’s existence comes from that being’s nature. But that doesn’t exclude there being more to the explanation.
Now, my argument here is exploiting an ambiguity in the word ‘reason.’ Reason can mean ‘justificatory reason’ ‘motivation’ or ’cause.’ (Shopenhauer says there are four meanings of ‘reason.’ That is a story for a different day). But the ambiguity is not my creation, it is a feature of the word ‘reason.’ And, I think, that this ambiguity is exploited, wittingly or unwittingly, by theists who argue that God is the terminus of explanation.
In any event, let’s try to be more careful with our use of ‘reason.’ Got obviously does not contain the cause of his own existence in his own nature. Nonetheless, it is true that Got’s nature contains the reason for his own existence.
What we might say about Got is this: His nature provides a creator with a sufficient motivation to create him. This would be part of the explanation for his existence, but not the full explanation. The fuller explanation would include who created Got and how. Again, God is not Got, so the kind of further (causal) explanation offered for Got will not apply to God. However, once we understand the ambiguity inherent in ‘reason’ we need to think more carefully about what it means to say of God that his nature contains the reason for his own existence.
So, the question to ask about God is: What kind of reason is contained in his own nature: Is it a cause? Are we then to think of God as causing himself? Is that coherent? Or is the reason a motivational reason? For whom is it a motivation? If he is absolutely independent, it is hard to see how it could be a motivation for some other being. On the other hand, it is hard to see how a motivation, by itself, is sufficient to bring it about, without the assistance of anything external, that a being exists.
Until these questions are answered (and if they have been, I am not aware of the answers), it is difficult to know what to make of the claim that God exists of his own nature. At the very least, I think that I’ve shown that it is perfectly coherent to ask the theist to explain the existence of God even given the assumption that God exists a se.
Now, what about the question of God’s alleged necessary existence? Well, without knowing something more about the explanation for God’s existence, I don’t see how his aseity guarantees that God exists in every possible world. Again, since we know that Got is created, we know only that he exists in every possible world in which there is a creator; not that he exists in every possible world. Without knowing something more about the reason for God’s existence, how can we know whether he exists in every possible world?
So, the idea of being having the reason for its existence in its own nature is far too thin a notion to do the work that Rauser wants it to do.
In my next post I will ask whether Randal is right that it is part of the meaning of ‘God’ that God exists a se.