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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.
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.
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.
It might not surprise you to learn that my answer to that question is “no.” If you read the paper and have comments or complaints, feel free to offer them here.
First, I want to point out that Zamulinski rejects the Divine Command Theory; his point in the post I am responding to is that my defense of the Euthyphro argument is unconvincing. However, he also criticizes the DCT for other reasons. (He also offers an interesting objection to Adams’ version of the DCT in a comment to Matthew Flannagan’s most recent article on the subject. And here on his own blog.)
Regardless, Zamulinski does believe that my arguments in support of the Euthyphro objection are unsuccessful. Here is the relevant quote again:
To repeat, Adam’s reformulated divine command theory is that morality is constituted by the commands of an essentially loving God. Now, if E (for “entity”) essentially possesses P (for “property”), then E possesses P in all possible worlds in which E exists. So, by hypothesis, God is loving in every world in which He exists. God is not just contingently loving, that is, loving in at least one possible world in which He exists
On the basis of an analogy, Thibodeau claims that “we may know with certainty that an all-loving being will not issue a command to torture children, but, given that he is omnipotent, it remains the case that he can issue such a command.” The analogy is to someone who will not but who could jump from the Empire State Building. The analogy is irrelevant because the possible jumper is only a contingent jumper. For the parallel to hold, it must be possible for an essentially non-jumping person to jump. Thus, Thibodeau equivocates between an essentially loving being and a contingently loving being.
Zamulinski’s point, in essence, is that I can either claim that God can command torture or that he is essentially loving, but not both. In claiming that God is essentially loving and that he can command torture I have contradicted myself. Since there is no world in which an essentially loving being commands torture, it is not possible that he commands torture; to assume otherwise is incoherent. Now I actually did not say that an essentially loving being can command torture (though perhaps I implied it; and I’ll argue below that perhaps it really is true). What I said is that an all-loving being that is also omnipotent can command torture.
There are actually two distinct points to be made here. One point concerns the meaning of ‘can’ and the relationship between motive and ability/capacity; the other concerns how we ought to conceive of the motivational attributes of an omnipotent being. Let’s take the issue of ‘can’ first. The original example that I chose was meant to show that the fact that a person may be unmotivated to do something does not imply that he cannot do that thing. That I am unmotivated to do something might imply that I won’t do it but it does not imply that I can’t. And even if my lack of motivation is due to some essential characteristic, while this does imply that there is no possible world in which I do that thing, it still does not follow that I can’t do it.
When we talk about God being all-loving, we are talking about the range of motives he will act from (or, perhaps more aptly put, the range of motives he can have). The point of claiming that God is essentially loving is that in every possible world his motivational set is such that he would never form the necessary motive to command something horrible like the gratuitous torture of a child. Given the plausible assumption that, for a free and rational being, performing an action requires having an appropriate motive (or pro-attitude) toward the action, it follows that if, in every possible world, God lacks pro-attitudes toward gratuitous violence (which is supposed to be a consequence of his all-loving nature), then, in every possible world, God does not command the gratuitous torture of children.
Does this imply that God cannot command the gratuitous torture of children? It seems to me that it does only if it is true that any statement of the form “P can a” (where ‘P’ is a person and ‘a’ is an action) implies that there is some possible world in which P does a. But I am not convinced that this implication holds.
It seems to me that it is possible for there to be a person who is constitutionally incapable of killing his own mother (in fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are many such people). To be more specific, such a person is such that he cannot form a pro-attitude toward the killing of his mother and this is true of him essentially. Call this person Smith. Even though it is impossible for Smith to form the requisite motive, and even though I just said that he is constitutionally incapable of killing his mother, I think that strictly speaking it remains the case that he can kill his mother. That is, he has the ability to acquire a gun and take it to his mother’s house, point it at her, and shoot it. This is something that Smith can do and that, for example, his dog cannot do. It is true that we might describe Smith as being incapable of killing his mother but when we compare this alleged inability to other things that Smith cannot do (such as fly unassisted, dunk on a 15 foot rim, swim across the Pacific Ocean, survive in a vacuum, etc.), I think that it is appropriate to make a distinction between the things that Smith can’t do because of physical (non-motivational) limitations, and things that he can’t do because of his motivational nature. About the latter group, it is more accurate to say that Smith won’t do those things than that he can’t, full stop. To say that Smith won’t is to say that he will never form the requisite pro-attitude; and it follows from this being an essential characteristic of Smith that, in every possible world, he won’t kill his mother. However, it remains true that, in many possible worlds (all those in which Smith is not severely incapacitated), he can kill his mother.
If I am right about this, then the fact that there is no possible world in which God commands torture has nothing to do with whether God can command torture. However, there is no immediate upshot as far as the Euthyphro dilemma goes. After all, even if we adopt my understanding of ‘can’ and the distinction between ‘can’t’ and ‘won’t’, it still remains the case that an essentially loving God won’t command torture, in every possible world. Zamulinski is certainly right about this much. However, there are some loose ends here that need to be cleared up, and in attempting to do so, I hope to show that this distinction between ‘won’t and ‘can’t’ really does reinforce the Euthyphro objection.
I’m arguing that ‘P can a’ does not imply ‘There is some possible world in which P does a.’ This is problematic because ‘It is possible that P does a’ is plausibly equivalent to (or at least implied by) ‘P can a.’ How can we maintain the intuitive link between ‘can’ and ‘possible’ given what I’ve said? One possibility is to lean on the notion of close counterparts. Let’s return again to Smith. Presumably, even though there are no worlds in which Smith kills his mother, there are worlds in which some person who is very much like Smith (is a male child of Mrs. Smith, born on Smith’s birthday, with many similar memories to Smith, the same of similar physical characteristics, etc.) who does form the motivation to kill his mother. Again, on the assumption that Smith is essentially incapable of having such a motive appear in his mind, any counterpart of Smith who does form such a motive would not be Smith. But this does not exclude the possibility that, in some world, there is a very close counterpart to Smith who does want to kill his mother.
So, my suggestion is that ‘P can a’ implies either ‘There is some world in which P does a’ or ‘There is some world in which a close counterpart of P does a.’* Where a-ing involves doing something that would entail the existence of a motive that is excluded from P’s motivational set because of P’s essential motivational traits, to say that P can a is to say that there is some possible world in which a close counterpart to P (who has the appropriate motivational set) does a.
Now obviously the notion of close counterpart needs some fine-tuning. How close does a counterpart need to be in order to be a close counterpart? But I don’t think that I need to worry about that here in order to make my point. On my analysis, to say that God can command the gratuitous torture of children is to say that there is some world in which a close counterpart to God (who is not God, given the requisite changes to His motivational characteristics) does command the gratuitous torture of children.
Now I think that if there is a possible world in which a close counterpart to God commands the gratuitous torture of a child, then the divine command theory implies that, in this world, torture is obligatory. I am certain that Matthew Flannagan will disagree with this claim. But rather than trying to predict the nature of his objection, I will let him respond (if he wants to).
I said that there are two points to be made in response to Zamulinski, and so far I’ve only made one. The second concerns the question of whether an omnipotent being can have essential motivational characteristics. I am going to put off this discussion for another post.
*We can probably clean this up with a suitable definition of ‘close counterpart.’ If ‘counterpart’ is defined so as to not excluded identity (but not require it either) then we can get rid of the first disjunct. I ought to point out also that by using the term ‘counterpart’ I am not intending to suggest a commitment to Lewis’ Counterpart Theory.