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.

Advertisements

There are several arguments for the existence of God which share a common structure and similar premises that I would like to examine. These arguments point to some feature of our world and claim that there is no naturalistic explanation for this feature and that therefore, naturalism is false. There are supposed to be arguments for the existence of God, which is part of what I find odd about them. That naturalism or materialism cannot account for something is, at best, indirect evidence for theism.  That we cannot account for some phenomenon under a naturalistic paradigm, even if it is true, does not imply that the correct explanation will involve the activity of a personal divine being. I will expand on this and other problems that I see with this style of argument in this post.

To start, here is a list of some examples of the kind of argument I am talking about, with a few relevant and interesting links:

Now, most of these are not names for a single argument,  but rather families of arguments. There is not one Argument from Morality, for example. Rather, there are a host of arguments that suggest that the existence of objective morality (or some related notion) is a reason to believe that God exists. Such is the case with most of the arguments on this list.

It is also worth pointing out that not all versions of each of the above arguments are formulated in terms of the claim that naturalism cannot account for the respective phenomena. There are popular versions of the argument from morality, for example, that do not depend on any claim that naturalism cannot account for morality.  Watch this short (and rather annoying, I grant) video from William Lane Craig for an example. Craig doesn’t say here that naturalism can’t account for objective morality. However, when Craig and other apologists attempt to defend the key premise of this argument (If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist), they typically point to alleged facts about what naturalism implies about morality and value. (see my paper “Do Atheists Need a Moral Theory to be Moral Realists?” for more on this). In this post, I am directing my comments to those versions of these arguments that implicitly or explicitly rely on something like the following inference:

Naturalism cannot account for (insert difficult to account for phenomenon here). But (difficult to account for phenomenon) does exist (or is real, or did/does occur). Theism can account for it. Thus theism has an advantage over naturalism.[*EDIT* Commonly, something like the following additional conclusion is added: To be consistent, naturalists have to give up belief in (difficult to account for phenomenon)].

There are three general problems with these arguments. The first, and most obvious (at least it should be most obvious) is that the fact that we currently lack an explanation for some phenomenon does not mean that we have to give up believing in the phenomenon. That we lack a naturalistic account of morality (even if this is true) does not mean that naturalists have to disbelieve in objective morality. After all, the correct naturalistic account may be just around the corner. Apologists who wield these arguments seem to think that if your worldview does not currently account for some phenomenon, then you have to either disbelieve in the phenomena or reject your worldview and embrace one that can account for it. But this is not so, as we can see when we look at parallel examples that have no obvious connection to religious beliefs.

Biologists do not currently understand precisely how salmon, after years of living in the ocean hundreds of miles away from the streams of their births, are able to find their home streams in which to spawn at the end of their life cycle. So we do not yet have a satisfactory naturalistic explanation of this biological phenomenon. Does that mean that naturalists have to disbelieve in it, or give up naturalism in order to be consistent? The suggestion is clearly ridiculous. As is the claim that since there is no current naturalistic account of objective morality or human reason or beauty, etc., naturalists cannot consistently believe in these things. Human knowledge is not at an end; we continue to develop our understanding of reality and will do so indefinitely. The fact that we cannot currently account for something is not a reason to either disbelieve in that thing or to reject our worldview. It is a reason to keep looking for the right explanation.

Second, nothing about the falsity of naturalism implies the truth of theism. It is true that if metaphysical naturalism is true, then theism is false. But to go from the falsity of naturalism to the truth of theism would be to commit the fallacy of denying the antecedent. So, even if it were true that there are no naturalistic explanations of phenomena that we all agree are real (rationality, for example), this would not imply that theism is true. It is perfectly consistent to be a non-naturalistic atheist (Schopenhauer is a great example). Indeed, I do not espouse metaphysical naturalism. My view is that naturalism is best understood as a methodological principle. And there are good reasons to adopt this principle, as a commenter named Keith pointed out in my recent post about the EAAN. In a future post, I will have more to say about how odd it is that when apologists criticize atheism, they consistently attack naturalism rather than the claim that there is no God.

The third problem is the most destructive to this kind of argument. It just is not true that theism can account for the phenomena mentioned in any of the arguments. With all of these arguments listed above, proponents claim that there are theistic explanations of the relevant phenomena, but they either never provide the explanation or else the explanation they do provide is wrong or fundamentally flawed.  In my next post, I will use the cosmological argument as an example to explain what I mean.

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.

At the Georgia Philosophical Society meeting this past Saturday, Dr. James Sennett presented a paper evaluating C.S. Lewis’ famous “Lord, Liar or Lunatic” argument. Very briefly, Lewis’ argument is directed at admirers of Jesus who would have us believe that even though Jesus was not a divine being, nonetheless he was a good moral teacher. In Mere Christianity, Lewis says that this is “the one thing we must not say” because, given the things that Jesus says about himself (e.g., to the effect that he is the Lord), Jesus is either a liar, a lunatic of the highest order, or else precisely who he says he is. If we reject Jesus’ claims to divinity as untrue, then there is no room to claim that he was a good moral teacher; for a person who falsely claims to be God is either liar or a lunatic on the order of someone who claims to be a poached egg.

Sennett argued that Lewis is appealing to a false trilemma; lord, liar, and lunatic-of-the-highest-order do not exhaust the possibilities. We can reject Jesus’ claims to divinity as the untrue, though sincere, delusions, not of a raving lunatic, but of someone suffering from a much milder form of delusional disorder. Sennett calls this fourth option “lunatic-lite.” The point is that if Jesus was merely suffering from delusion disorder of the grandiose type that would not necessarily impugn his moral wisdom or his moral character.

Undoubtedly Sennett is correct that the “lord, liar, or lunatic” trilemma is a false one. Others (e.g. Bart Ehrman) have suggested the possibility that the notion that the historical Jesus claimed to be God is merely the invention of early Christians (and thus we must add the option legend to the list). But I think that there is a serious flaw with the argument that has nothing to do with its logical form.  This has to do with what it means to say of Jesus that he was a good moral teacher.

When we say of someone that he is a good moral teacher are we expressing admiration for the person or for his teachings? If “Jesus was a good moral teacher” is meant to convey admiration for the content of what he taught, any concern with the man (or God) is completely irrelevant. There is no inconsistency in admiring Jesus for what he taught while simultaneously rejecting his claims to divinity. If Lewis believed that we cannot do this because, in rejecting Jesus’ claims to divinity we are committing ourselves to believing that Jesus was either a liar or a lunatic, then Lewis is guilty of an ad hominem fallacy.

From this perspective, Lewis’ argument looks something like this:

(1)    If you believe that Jesus was not divine, then you believe that he was either a liar or a lunatic.

(2)    The moral teachings of a liar or lunatic are not admirable.

Thus,

(3)    If you believe that  Jesus was not divine, you cannot reasonably believe that his teaching were admirable.

Premise (2) is clearly false and based on the fallacy that the truth of what a person says has something to do with the character of the person. But this is obviously not true; the truth of any claim is completely independent of the person who makes the claim. The content of most statements is something totally independent from the particular utterance of the statement (the exceptions involve certain peformative utterances that are successful only because of the person who utters them, as when a priest says “I now pronounce you husband and husband”).  Thus the moral teachings of Jesus can be completely divorced from the person and admired in their own right.

Before last week’s Presidential debate, I thought that Romney’s tax plan didn’t make sense. He said that he wanted to cut tax rates across the board by 20% and yet he also claimed that it would be revenue neutral because he would eliminate deductions and close loopholes that would make up for the lost revenue caused by the rate cut. Now I am well aware that several studies have suggested that this cannot be done; that is, that you can’t cut rates by that much and make up the lost revenue by eliminating deductions and loopholes because there just isn’t enough money to be saved even if all deductions and loopholes were eliminated. This is a sound criticism. However, I had a different concern and that is that this whole plan didn’t make sense. That is, I didn’t see the logic of it. Presumably, I thought, the reason you cut tax rates is to let people keep more of the money that they acquire. And there might be various reasons for this: claiming that doing so is fairer, that it will stimulate the economy, that it will reduce the size of government. But Romney’s plan, if it is revenue neutral, won’t put more money in the hands of American consumers. Sure, some people might end up paying less in taxes, but, if the plan is revenue neutral, this would require that other people end up paying more. But after Romney’s plan is implemented, it seems that, overall, the government will still be taking the same amount of money from American consumers as before. If the government is still taking the same amount of money, how would that stimulate the economy? How would that be fairer? How would that reduce the size of government? For example, I don’t know why we should think that any stimulative effect would occur unless we thought that, overall, American consumers would keep more money. But if the plan is revenue neutral, how does this happen?

I think that the only answer to my concern is to agree that the rate cut will reduce the amount paid in federal taxes (and thus reduce the income of the federal government) but that this reduction will only be temporary because this very reduction in the amount of money paid to the government will stimulate the economy to the extent that the government will ultimate end up with more tax income (because more people will be employed, e.g.). I suppose this is fine, except for the fact that the studies that I mentioned earlier have also suggested that even if you assume a large stimulative effect, you still can’t make the plan revenue neutral.

In the debate, Romney said that he rejects those studies and that he will not support a plan that is not revenue neutral. But he also said that he wants to cut the tax rates across the board. He has been criticized for not offering specifics about how he would accomplish this, and he deserves that criticism. But notice that, regardless of the details of his plan to stimulate the economy via tax cuts, the plan requires that some people pay less money to the federal government in taxes than they previously had and that, in aggregate, the government takes less money in taxes than it previously had (at least at the outset). This is the only way to put more money in the pockets of consumers and job-creators who could stimulate the economy.

So the perhaps somewhat simple-minded concern that I had last week before the debate was why would you want to pass a tax-cut that is revenue neutral? Why cut all these rates if, at the end of the day, people are still going to be paying the same amount in taxes (since their deductions will have been eliminated or lowered) and the government will still be taking the same amount of money from American consumers and job-creators? What is the point of shuffling things around like this?

In the debate, Romney answered my question directly:

And number three, I will not, under any circumstances, raise taxes on middle-income families. I will lower taxes on middle-income families. Now, you cite a study. There are six other studies that looked at the study you describe and say it’s completely wrong. I saw a study that came out today that said you’re going to raise taxes by 3(,000 dollars) to $4,000 on — on middle-income families. There are all these studies out there.

But let’s get to the bottom line. That is, I want to bring down rates. I want to bring down the rates down, at the same time lower deductions and exemptions and credits and so forth so we keep getting the revenue we need.

And you think, well, then why lower the rates? And the reason is because small business pays that individual rate. Fifty-four percent of America’s workers work in businesses that are taxed not at the corporate tax rate but at the individual tax rate. And if we lower that rate, they will be able to hire more people.

So the answer to my concern is that Romney wants to lower the rates across the board because that will lower the amount of money paid in taxes by small businesses. So, great! We have an answer and it is the one I sketched above: cutting the rates will stimulate the economy by putting more money in the hands of small businesses. Initially I thought this was a decent answer even though it still requires the assumption that the rate-cut will reduce the amount paid by taxpayers and that the revenue lost thereby will be made up for via the stimulative effect. But then as I thought more about it, it still didn’t make sense. Why, I thought, if what we want to do is to lower the taxes on small businesses do we not just lower the tax rates paid by small businesses (or add deductions to lower their taxes)? Why the across the board rate cut?

Romney was adamant in the debate that he did not want to lower the taxes on the wealthy. He said, for example “I will not reduce the share paid by high-income individuals.” Now part of the problem is that this is ambiguous or else highly misleading language (in addition to being vague). Is Romney saying that he doesn’t want to reduce the amount of taxes paid by the wealthy or is he saying that he doesn’t want to reduce the portion of the American tax burden paid by the wealthy. The latter is consistent with the wealthy getting a significant tax break since they can pay less in taxes and still pay the same portion of the tax burden if that burden goes down. But he also said, “I will not reduce the taxes paid by high-income Americans.” This makes it sounds as if he wants high income Americans to pay the same amount in taxes as they pay now, regardless of whether that affects the percent of the tax burden that they pay in aggregate. So it is not obvious what he wants to do, especially when he insists that he will not pass a tax plan that adds to the deficit (which would seem to require that the tax burden not go down, or at least not significantly).

In any event, if Romney’s only concern was to reduce the amount of taxes paid by small business, then he wouldn’t need an across the board rate cut to accomplish this. He could suggest that we reduce the rates only on small businesses. Unless I am widely wrong about tax laws, there is no reason that we could not treat individual rates differently than rates paid by businesses. So, if Romney’s concern really is with small business, then why does he not propose tax cuts targeted at small business? Why the across the board rate cuts? In short, his answer does not justify his plan.

 

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.

Jason Thibodeau

thibodeau.jason@gmail.com

Important Links

(video blog)
(student-edited blog)