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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.

Jason Thibodeau

thibodeau.jason@gmail.com

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