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.

Therefore:

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.”

Therefore:

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.

Rowe says,

To say ‘Something has been produced out of [by] nothing’ is 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.

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