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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.
In chapter II of William Rowe’s The Cosmological Argument, Rowe presents Samuel Clarke’s argument for the conclusion that something has existed from eternity as follows:
1. Something now exists.
2. If something now exists and it is not the case that something has always existed then something has been produced out of nothing.
3. The proposition “Something has been produced out of nothing” is a contradiction.
4. Something has always existed. (pp 61-62)
Rowe’s criticism of the argument involves attacking premise (3). He provides the following quote that is supposed to capture Clarke’s reasoning in favor of premise (3): “For, to say a thing is produced, and yet that there is no cause at all of that production, is to say that something is effected, when it is effected by nothing; that is, at the same time when it is not effected at all.” And Rowe paraphrases that reasoning as follows:
3a. “Something has been produced out of nothing” entails “Something has been produced and not produced.”
3. “Something has been produced out of nothing” is a contradiction.
Rowe finds this reasoning unacceptable because (3a) is false: “although ‘Something has been produced out of nothing’ entails ‘Something has not been produced,’ it surely does not entail ‘Something has been produced.’”
William Rowe is clearly a philosopher of the highest caliber, and I agree with a great deal of what he says (especially in this book), however this has got to be one of the strangest things that a terrific philosopher has ever said. Just on the face of it, is it not obvious that “Something has been produced out of nothing” entails “Something has been produced“? “Something has been produced out of something” certainly entails “Something has been produced.” The very obvious parallel of form between “Something has been produced out of nothing” and “Something has been produced out of something” strongly suggests that the former should be interpreted as entailing that something has been produced.
I feel that this is fairly obvious, so much so that I find it incredible that Rowe would have asserted otherwise. I might be less sure of this conclusion were it not for the fact that there is a much more plausible line of criticism of Clarke’s argument that does not require making the odd claim that Rowe makes. Rowe’s reasoning is garbled because he denies an obvious entailment, however, his criticism is ultimately significant.
To say ‘Something has been produced out of [by] nothing’ us to say no more than ‘Something exists which has not been produced.’ If I say of something, a stone, for example, that nothing produced it, I certainly am not saying–nor does what I say entail–that the stone was produced. What I am saying of the stone is that it was not produced at all. (p. 63)
If you cut out the first sentence of this passage, then what Rowe says is completely cogent. But I do not see how Rowe is warranted in taking (I) Something was produced out of nothing to be equivalent to (II) Something exists which has not been produced. I need to be completely clear. I agree that it is possible that someone who asserts (I) might mean to assert (II), but it is also clear that, on its face, (I) is equivalent to (III) Something exists which was produced and it was produced out of nothing. So if someone wanted to assert (II), saying “Something was produced out of nothing” would be a poor choice of words. It seems fairly clear, in virtue of what he says about (I), that Clarke takes it to be equivalent to (III). And, given the parallel to “Something has been produced out of something” that I noted above, I think that (III) is the more obvious way to understand (I).
Clarke is claiming that (I) is a contradiction. And it certainly is if it entails that something has been produced. And it is completely natural to interpret (I) as entailing this. Rowe is merely substituting an alternative interpretation of (I) (an interpretation that involves denying that it says what it clearly does say) and showing that this interpretation does not entail a contradiction. This is not a model for the coherent analysis of an argument.
Fortunately, we can use what Rowe says about (II) “Something exists which has not been produced” to provide a coherent criticism of Clarke’s argument that allows us to grant Clarke’s interpretation of (I).
Premise (2) of Clarke’s argument is “If something now exists and it is not the case that something has always existed then something has been produced out of nothing.” Rowe says that this premise “seems to be a necessary truth.” But it certainly is not if we grant Clarke’s interpretation of (I). If something exists and it is not the case that something has always existed, then it does not follow that something has been produced out of nothing. What follows is that either something has been produced out of nothing or else (and here is where we apply Rowe’s insight) something exists that has not always existed and was not produced. So premise (2) is false.
So, the correct version of (2) would be “If something now exists and it is not the case that something has always existed then either something has been produced out of nothing or else something exists that has not always existed and was not produced.” Furthermore, the fact that “Something has been produced out of nothing” entails a contradiction does not imply that something has always existed. To arrive at this claim we would have to also show that “Something exists that has not always existed and was not produced” is false.
That the cosmological, ontological, and teleological arguments can rightly be considered arguments for the existence of God must be called into question in light of the considerations I have mentioned in my most recent posts.
At best the cosmological argument would prove that there must be a first cause (or ultimate ground of all existence, or some other such vague notion) but this is hardly the same as proving that there is a personal creator who cares about us and wants us to love one another. (This point has been made by many philosophers but it bears repeating since it is also a point that is all too easily ignored, as I will show below). In fact, only the teleological argument (and here I mean to include modern “fine-tuning” arguments) stands a chance of establishing even that the supernatural force is intelligent (a first cause can be completely inanimate; a designer, however, needs to be conscious and intelligent). But again an intelligent designer need not be all loving nor worthy of worship. (see Philo’s comments at the end of part V of Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion; and pay attention to Cleanthes’ response.)
I have tried to show that a genuine experience of the divine entails (at least for the major religions) both a sense that one is subject to external moral requirements and a sense that one’s own nature is in harmony with ultimate reality. But even if we could establish that the universe was designed by a supernatural intelligence (and, just to be clear, I don’t think this it is possible to establish this) this would not entail that the nature of this intelligence is in harmony with our own. Nor would it entail that we are subject objectively valid moral requirements. Prometheus’ defiance of Zeus is an excellent illustration of this point. For all that can be established via the teleological argument, the intelligent designer may be as capricious and amoral as Zeus. Prometheus most emphatically did not experience a fundamental harmony with Zeus.
So, if we understand God as an intelligent being who is the ultimate ground of all reality, who places moral demands on us, and whose nature is in fundamental harmony with our own, then I don’t think that it is correct to say that the teleological argument or the cosmological argument are arguments for the existence of God (the ontological argument presents a slightly more complex issue, one that I will put off for now). Furthermore, the current very public debate between the so-called new atheists (such as Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens) and traditional theists almost completely misses the point. Rather than arguing that science does not need the notion of an intelligent designer to explain the existence of complex life in the universe, and rather than debating whether Big Bang cosmology implies that the universe had a beginning and thus requires an external cause, atheists’ time would be better spent demanding that theists prove that there is an all-loving, intelligent being who is the source of all reality and whose nature is in fundamental accord with human nature.
As an example of the sort of mistake I have in mind, I offer the following quote from Keith Ward’s response to Dawkins, Why There Almost Certainly is a God. Ward says, “The question of God is the question of whether conscious mind can exist without any physical body, and whether that mind could account for the origin of the universe.” (p. 19) While that is an interesting question it is misleading to say that this is the question of God because a positive answer would not necessarily imply that this consciousness is all-loving, worthy of worship or even gives a damn about us. Ward also approvingly quotes Dawkins statement of the God Hypothesis: “There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” I don’t think that atheists (or theists for that matter) should let such definitions go unquestioned. Obviously the above hypothesis leaves some very central aspects of religious belief out. In fact, I would argue that it leaves out everything that is essential and valuable about religious belief since the religious experience is fundamentally about feeling a kinship with ultimate reality and understanding that one must work to improve oneself. This is what God is supposed to account for. When a skeptic says “Show me God,” this is what should be demanded.