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This is a follow-up to my previous post about my on-going conversation with Randal Rauser and followers of his blog about whether the moral atrocities described in the Bible are evidence that the Bible is not a sacred text.

I have been attempting to defend the position that the fact that the Bible contains episodes in which God commands or approves of or brings about moral atrocities (such as genocide) is evidence that the Bible is not the word of God. My reasoning is fairly simple. Since God, if he exists, is omnibenevolent, he would abhor genocide (and slavery, and the killing of every person on Earth save one family, etc.). He would be horrified by the depiction of himself as commanding/approving of/bringing about such things. So, he cannot regard these texts as his Word and thus nor should we.

I should point out something that I made clear when the discussion at Randal’s blog began: Though I find it difficult to believe that the Bible is sacred, based on the depictions of God that I mentioned, I am humble enough to recognize that people that I admire, people that I care deeply about, and people that are manifestly smarter and better educated than I believe that the Bible is sacred. Thus I am more than willing to listen to those who disagree with my conclusion.

It is important to note that Rauser shares my moral intuition about the Biblical episodes in which God is portrayed as commanding, e.g., genocide. Randal believes that an omnibenevolent being would not make the commands attributed to God in 1 Samuel 15:3. He agrees that the command presented there is a genocidal command and that it is impossible that it accurately reflects the will of God. Of course, that does not mean that Rauser accepts my conclusion that the Bible is not sacred.

Rauser has been pushing back against my postition by offering a series of literary analogies, examples in which artists present moral atrocities in their texts but do not explicitly condemn them (or make their own views concerning these atrocities known in any other way). He has mentioned, for example The Red Badge of Courage. Stephen Crane, says Rauser, is not obligated to make his own views about the morality of warfare. Indeed, Crane’s novel is an indictment of war despite the fact that the author does not make his own views clear.

Another example that he provided is fictional: Suppose a group of editors decided to put together a collection of texts that collectively tell the history of the United States. Rauser calls this the American Omnibus

So imagine for the moment that the Americana Omnibus exists and there are many diverse reading communities that regularly read and study the text in a quest to understand what it means to be American. These reading communities disagree on how to read the text at various points and thus on just what it means to be American. Some read the text as supportive of manifest destiny, for example, while others read it as an indictment of manifest destiny. I am not an American, nor am I committed to studying the Americana Omnibus to discern what it really means to be an American. But recognizing the diversity and complexity that exists in the Omnibus and the diversity and complexity that is predictably mirrored in the text’s various reading communities, at the very least I will withhold any magisterial statements on whether the Americana Omnibus is “good” or “bad”, on whether it is worthwhile to form oneself as an American by reading it or not. I certainly wouldn’t call for the text to be trashed. Such a claim would reflect nothing more than my own hermeneutical dullness.

The problem with both of these examples is that they are importantly disanalogous to the Bible. It is not just that the Bible contains morally problematic episodes. It portrays God as commanding moral atrocities and bringing about moral atrocities. For the American Omnibus analogy to work, it would have to include depictions of the editors themselves as supporting or bringing about moral atrocities. Similarly, The Red Badge of Courage does not contain depictions of Stephen Crane doing horrible things and so it is not relevantly analogous to the Bible either.

Now, if the finished American Omnibus somehow did contain episodes in which the editors themselves were depicted as approving of or bringing about moral atrocities, surely they would want to do something about that, assuming, that is, that they are morally upright and believe the depictions to be in error. Presumably the editors would disassociate themselves from the work. Similarly, I maintain that God would disassociate himself from the moral atrocities that he is portrayed as commanding or bringing about in the Bible.

This suggests a principle (which Randal dubbed “JMAP,” “Jason’s Moral Artist Principle”) that lies behind my suggestion that the moral atrocities portrayed in the Bible are evidence that it is not sacred:

JMAP: A morally upright editor/compiler/author would disassociate himself from any any passages within his/her text which depict him/her as commanding/approving of/bringing about moral atrocities.

After initially misinterpreting my claim, Randal offered the following relevant scenario as a potential counterexample to this principle:

Imagine that Jones is a black man who is charged with raping and murdering a white woman. Jones happens to be an editor, and in the wake of the charge he flees town, goes underground, and edits and publishes a volume called The Guilt of Jones which collects all the evidence against him. Jones knows that some people will read the book and conclude that Jones is guilty of the crimes, and he contains within the book no repudiation of the evidence.

According to J-MAP, Jones’ action is not “morally upright” because he failed to condemn the false attributions in the edited volume. But this is an absurd charge, for Jones could easily have morally serious reasons consistent with his upright moral character for undertaking the publication of this volume. Imagine, for example, that he envisions that others will read the text and conclude the evidence is flimsy and the charge motivated by nothing more than racial prejudice. Imagine, in addition, that he believes many of those who initially read the volume and conclude he is guilty will later be forced to reconsider their own conclusion based on further evidence, and that this will serve as a spotlight illumining the racial prejudices within their own hearts.

Is this a counterexample to JMAP? I argued that it is not. I claimed that by publishing such a volume, Jones would be violating a duty he has to himself and his readers. To himself he has the duty to not present false and misleading information about his alleged crime without at least attempting to correct the record. To his readers he has the responsibility to present the entire truth about the allegations, at least to the best of his ability. That Jones might believe that some of his readers will conclude that the evidence is flimsy is not a reason to not present any exculpatory evidence that he has. After all, if readers would conclude that the evidence is flimsy, then by adding the exculpatory evidence, Jones could only be aiding their discovery of the truth. Surely presenting the entirety of the evidence is more likely to convince readers that the case is flimsy and based on prejudice.

Furthermore, regardless of what he might believe, if Jones does not include any attempt to refute or at least deny the charges, some readers are going to conclude that he is guilty (I can imagine many readers asking, “Why else would someone accused of such crimes publish a volume that detailed the evidence against him?”). This is a disservice to those readers. They deserve the truth, even if they are unable to process it because of their racial prejudice.

Rauser claimed that in asserting that Jones would have done something wrong, I have endorsed the absurd. He also claimed that I offered nothing to support my contention other than my own personal incredulity that a person in Jones circumstances would publish such a volume. But he is wrong on both counts. I offered arguments in comments to his posts similar to the one I provided above (actually my arguments at his site are much longer and more involved). Nor is it absurd to think that Jones has done wrong; that is, it is not absurd to believe that a writer of a non-fiction work (which is what Jones’ volume would be) has a duty to present the whole truth, at least to the best of his ability.

The most bizarre aspect of my exchange with Rauser concerns his charge that in dismissing the Jones example, I expressed confusion about how philosophical argument works. He claims that my response to the Jones example was to say that I found it highly improbable. But, says Rauser, the likelihood of the scenario is beside the point; the point is that it is possible for someone to act as Jones does in the example. That is enough to show that JMAP is false.

But Randal couldn’t be more wrong about this. For one thing, while it is true that I did say that I found it implausible that anyone would do what Jones is described as doing in the example, that was not intended as an argument that the example is irrelevant to JMAP. The example is irrelevant to JMAP, but that is not the reason.

Here is the reason: since JMAP is a moral principle, you cannot prove that it is false by describing a possible scenario in which someone violates it. That would be like claiming that abortion cannot be wrong because doctors abort pregnancies every day. JMAP says only that a morally upright person will disassociate himself from texts in which he is described as committing a moral atrocity. In other words, JMAP  implies that not disassociating yourself from such texts is wrong. For the Jones example to be a counterexample to JMAP, it must be the case that, in publishing the volume, Jones does not commit a wrong. If it is wrong for Jones to publish the volume, then he is not morally upright in doing so. I agree that it is possible (though unlikely) that someone might do what Jones is described as doing. But that is not relevant. The question is whether doing so is wrong.

I argued above, and in comments on Randal’s blog, that if a person knows that the charges against someone are false, then it is wrong to publish a volume that contains descriptions of the evidence against him but contains no attempt to refute the evidence, present exculpatory evidence, or deny the charges. Randal did not respond to these arguments (indeed, he falsely claimed that I did not offer them). Instead he said that I was confused about how counterexamples work. He claimed that in describing the scenario, he had defeated JMAP; the mere possibility that someone might act as Jones is described as acting is enough to show that JMAP is not true. I, says Randal, don’t understand that this is how thought-experiments work.

But, as I said, the Jones example only works as a counterexample to JMAP if, in publishing the volume, Jones does no wrong. To repeat, I am not claiming that the implausibility of the Jones thought-experiment suffices to show that it cannot falsify JMAP. Rather, I am claiming that it does not falsify JMAP because Jones is not morally upright if he publishes the volume. So, I am not the one who is confused.

Now, Randal is more than welcome to argue against my claim that it is wrong for Jones to publish The Guilt of Jones. But he did not do that. Instead he chose to charge me with confusion.


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

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