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.