‘God Did It’ is a Terrible Explanation (round 2)

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 24, 2010 in General Atheism

Episode 3 of my Why Christianity is False podcast was a reply to an article by Jim Wallace: The Christian Worldview is the Best Explanation.

My first objection was that Jim’s use of explanatory criteria was non-standard, to say the least.

My second objection was that Jim never explained why he thought Christianity was a good explanation for things according to his own explanatory criteria.

My third objection was that there are many reasons to think that theism is a terrible explanation. As explanations go, theism has many qualities in common with other really bad explanations from pseudoscience and superstition, and almost nothing in common with our most successful explanations from the physical sciences. So it’s very hard to see how theism is a “good explanation” for anything, whether it be fine-tuning or cosmogenesis or the existence of moral facts.

But Jim’s article was very short, and Jim has now pointed me toward an older article of his that I will call The Christian Worldview is the Best Explanation (full version).

So let’s see if Jim’s position is improved with the extra words…

What of my first objection? Alas, Jim’s longer article uses the same strange explanatory criteria as in his shorter article. Luckily, Jim’s comment on my original post is more helpful. Here is my attempt to translate Jim’s criteria to those more successfully defended in the philosophical literature on inference to the best explanation:

  • What Jim calls “feasibility” or “explanatory viability” might be a small part of a criterion sometimes called “testability” (specifically, the crucial “passing the test” part of testability). Let us say we’re investigating a murder in Beijing. Someone proposes that Noam Chomsky did it. But Noam Chomsky was in Maine at the time. So the Noam Chomsky theory predicts that the murder happened in Maine, not Beijing. So the Noam Chomsky theory is testable, but it fails the test defined by its own predictions.
  • What Jim calls “simplicity” fits neatly with the usual criterion of “simplicity,” except that he also refers to the same criterion as “explanatory power,” which in the literature on explanatory virtues is an entirely different criterion than simplicity.
  • What Jim calls “exhaustiveness” or “explanatory scope” matches nicely with the usual criterion of “explanatory scope.”
  • What Jim calls “logical” or “explanatory consistency” matches what is usually an unspoken assumption of explanatory virtues. Obviously, a good explanation must be internally coherent. ‘Nuff said.
  • What Jim calls “explanatory superiority” seems to be similar to the usual criterion of “explanatory precision.”

So it turns out that with a bit of work, we can translate Jim’s criteria into criteria that actually are agreed to by most defenders of the “explanatory virtues” account of inference to the best explanation.

But this leads us right into my third objection that when using standard explanatory criteria like these, theism turns out rather terribly. Not surprisingly, Jim’s earlier article does not address the specifics of this objection, since it was written before my rebuttal, and perhaps even before Gregory Dawes’ Theism and Explanation (which lays out this objection in more detail) was published. As far as I can tell, theism as an explanation has many features of what we know to be really bad explanations, and none of the features associated with our most successful explanations. So it’s very unlikely that theism is a good explanation according to any usual set of features that constitute a “good explanation.”

To be more specific, Jim’s article does not explain how theism or Christianity as an explanatory theory (1) is simple, (2) is testable and test-passing, (3) has good explanatory scope, (4) is logically coherent, or has (5) explanatory precision.

Jim’s longer article does address my second objection. Specifically, Jim says that Christianity offers a better explanation than philosophical naturalism does for:

  1. The origins of our universe.
  2. Cosmic fine-tuning for life.
  3. The origins of life.
  4. Artifacts of “intelligent design.”
  5. Human consciousness.
  6. Contra-causal free will.
  7. The dignity and contemptibleness of humans.
  8. The existence of transcendent moral truths.
  9. Human belief that human life is precious.
  10. Why suffering exists.

But Jim’s (brief and interesting) accounts of why Christianity offers a better explanation than philosophical features for these (supposed) features of our world does not overcome my third and most important objection to his article.

As I see it, there are three ways the theist can defend against objection #3 (that theism is a very poor explanation according to the usual criteria of good explanations):

  1. The theist can show that theism is, in fact, a good explanation for things given standard criteria for what constitutes a good explanation.
  2. The theist can show that theism is a good explanation for things according to some other set of criteria, and justify why these criteria should be used.
  3. The theist can show that theism is a good explanation for things according by a different means, for example Bayesian confirmation theory rather than the ‘explanatory virtues’ approach.
  4. The theist can admit that theism is a poor explanation for things, but argue that theism is probably true for other reasons.

As far as I can tell, option #3 is the most promising, but it is not one that Jim Wallace has taken, as far as I can tell.

Still, I suspect that Jim Wallace has not previously encountered my central objection as stated. Perhaps he has a good response to it. If so, I would sincerely love to hear it!

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{ 118 comments… read them below or add one }

Taranu November 24, 2010 at 6:18 am

Luke,
is “explanatory superiority” or “precision” an explanatory virtue that an explanation has if it can account for the other virtues in a higher degree than it’s rivals?

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Luke Muehlhauser November 24, 2010 at 6:24 am

The criterion of precision refers to the precision with which the explanation explains the data. For example, explanations in quantum mechanics are highly precise and cannot very flexibly accomodate unexpected data, whereas many explanations in economics or sociology are fuzzy and can easily be stretched to accomodate almost any result.

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Tony Hoffman November 24, 2010 at 6:46 am

Aside from your dissection of explanatory process here, I’d say that Christianity offers much poorer explanations than philosophical naturalism for at least 5, 7, 9, and 10. I think that “Evolution, evolution, evolution, evolution” does a MUCH better job on those. In fact, I think it would be clearer if those were taken off the table and the questions confined to those where it could be more credibly debated that Christianity offers superior “explanation.”

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Peter November 24, 2010 at 7:30 am

The further along in life I get, I have steadily decreasing interest in whether someone has good answers to the questions Wallace poses, but increasing curiosity about why most of us seem to get along just fine without definitive answers.

It makes no difference to my life how the universe came into being, or even whether it had a definitive beginning. And I perceive no fine-tuning in the universe, nor intelligence in biology. How life or human consciousness originated is much less important to me than that there is life and consciousness (or is there?), in which I share. Things like “free will,” bizarre human behavior, the existence of “evil,” or even the idea that human life is “precious” (except for your own, is it, really?) are, for day-to-day purposes, ultimately just givens. Explaining those things would not change anything.

The much more interesting question, in my view, is why proponents of Christianity (and their adversaries) think that providing superior answers to these questions ought to recommend any outlook or worldview.

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RedKing November 24, 2010 at 8:10 am

I’m still unclear as to how Jim’s longer article addresses your second objection. Take for example, his discussion of the origin of the universe. He states that there are problems with a naturalist explanation, and then says that the Christian explanation is “consistent with the evidence for Big Bang cosmology.”

But still, nowhere does he detail how the Christian explanation for the origin of the universe is simple, testable and test-passing, logically coherent, etc. What am I missing?

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Luke Muehlhauser November 24, 2010 at 8:40 am

RedKing,

That’s precisely my objection, too. So you’ll have to ask Jim. :)

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Tony Hoffman November 24, 2010 at 9:04 am

It does seem that those who say they favor theistic explanations are required to justify this by framing questions in ways that discourage meaningful explanation. So often it appears that the theist who declares that naturalism is insufficient justifies the claim by saying that naturalism fails to explain why squares have four sides, or time does not happen all at once, or why gravity attracts rather than repels. Um, naturalism appears insufficient there because questions like that are not really meaningful.

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Charles November 24, 2010 at 9:26 am

Naturalism also does a better job at explaining 6. Free will (at least in the traditional sense) is an illusion. It doesn’t exist.

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justsearching November 24, 2010 at 9:30 am

In his answer to question 1, Jim states “The problem with these alternative cosmological models is that they are simply without evidential support, while the evidence for the ‘Big Bang’ continues to grow.” This is absurd. Jim mentions the terms “cosmic singularity” “multiverse cosmology” “quantum mechanics theory” as if these theories were completely incompatible with everything we know of the Big Bang. They are not. I think Jim is just trying to confuse his readers.

His answers to questions 2 and 3 posit God as an explanation for fine-tuning and the origin of life. He’s banking on scientists not being able to improve their current explanations.

Question 4 includes ID nonsense. Questions 7, and 9 are answered far better and with far more evidence by the theory of evolution, and we can (in response to question 5) also say that our consciousness is an evolved trait even if we probably won’t ever know exactly how this came about. If you believe in the sort of free will and absolute moral truths that require a God, then of course theism provides the best explanation for questions 6 and 8.

As for question 10 about why there is suffering/evil Jim has to put forward the idea that “[justice] is always served in the next life (our eternal life with God)” So when one is faced with suffering, instead of concluding by looking around you that life is drastically unfair and sometimes cruel, Jim suggests that life must be fair and that there must be an eternal afterlife where everything is rectified.

I think the tone of Jim’s piece is well captured in his Christian theist answer to question 6: “But you [Christians] and I know better, don’t we?”

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Jugglable November 24, 2010 at 9:31 am

Why are you comparing God to explanations from science? God is not a scientific hypothesis. This is a mistake that both fundamentalists and atheists make. I strongly suggest you go to youtube, check out the channel wordonfirevideo, and watch the response to Christopher Hitchens’ book, part 2 of 3. It’s a pithy video from an insightful Catholic priest. It’s a short video, and fascinating, and you keep making this mistake, so you need to see it.

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Kyle Key November 24, 2010 at 10:08 am

@Jugglable:
I looked at the video (here for anyone else: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZR3UVYeddg&feature=related )
It’s the same argument you advanced in the “Science Saved My Soul” post, and it’s a terrible argument. Since the content is logically equivalent, I’ll direct-quote your example from that post, rather than transcribing the video where Barron describes a cherry pie rather than a sandwich:

“If you ask an atheist how you make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he’ll say “You need peanut butter, and jelly, and bread.” You ask me, a religious person, how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I am NOT going to say “You need peanut butter, and jelly, and GOD, and bread.” We can explain A LOT of things without invoking God.”

This example, as goes Barron’s argument, proves to us that God isn’t a cause among many competing causes. It gives me a slight headache to even think that someone could take this seriously.

A Nascar driver also wouldn’t say that you need peanut butter, jelly, a race car and bread–so what? Of course we don’t need God as an explanation in almost every question in our everyday lives (I’d say ever). No atheist is going to think that you need God to explain a sandwich (although, as a theist, you should, since the sandwich is ultimately contingent upon the deterministic universe that your God put into motion, right? You do need God to explain the sandwich if you’re a theist), but the atheist should take issue when you do invoke God as a explanation of something, be it fine-tuning, moral values, or anything else; I would think that this would be fundamentally obvious to anyone, but I must be wrong.

Worse, Barron immediately invokes God as an explanation after saying that God isn’t one: “God is not what corresponds to that type of question [the cherry pie question,] but rather to this kind of question: Why is there something, rather than nothing?”
What am I missing here? God is still being taken as an explanation; there are no other choices than the four the Luke listed above. It seems you’re wanting to go down path four, “The theist can admit that theism is a poor explanation for things, but argue that theism is probably true for other reasons,” only saying that God isn’t an explanation, instead of saying that it’s a poor one.

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giantsteps November 24, 2010 at 10:34 am

Hi Jugglable,
I looked up the video that you recommended. Father Barron seems to think there are two different types of questions; those which God corresponds to and those that God doesn’t correspond to. He offers an example of a “God” type of question asking, “Where did the universe come from? Why is there something rather than nothing?” Okay, so we’ve got a couple of questions here. They are either misguided questions (like “why does my computer hate me?”) or they have answers. If they have answers we should look around and see if we can find the best answer, which is the one that best conforms with reality. But once we’re doing that, God is one of many options that could be the best answer, and we have to have some way to distinguish between which answers are good and which ones are bad. So far, Occam’s Razor, the scientific method, explanatory virtues, ect. have proven to be pretty good ways to determine good answers from bad answers.

I think the problem starts with trying to divide questions into those God is an answer for and those that he isn’t an answer for. A question is just a question; it represents a gap in our information about the world. A question or a gap might seem really mysterious and seem to need a God type of answer, but that gap and the mystery exist only in our minds, not in reality. Reality isn’t weird or mysterious at all, it just seems that way to the people who experience it. The revered offered the example of a question about the weather as a non-God type of question, but there was a time when people thought the weather was so weird and mysterious that it needed a God type of answer. We consider it a non-God type of question, now that we know the real answer.

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juhou November 24, 2010 at 11:18 am

The criterion of precision refers to the precision with which the explanation explains the data. For example, explanations in quantum mechanics are highly precise and cannot very flexibly accomodate unexpected data, whereas many explanations in economics or sociology are fuzzy and can easily be stretched to accomodate almost any result.

Luke,

I probably didn’t understand what you said or meant with that paragraph but I think you’re badly mistaken about economics. Economic models are build after the results are in not the other way around like in physics. It’s a bit more like climate science where the results are measured and than models are build to explain the results and make predictions. Economic predictions are actually pretty accurate in the long run, just like climate science even though the public which only looks at the short run doesn’t always agree.

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ayer November 24, 2010 at 11:21 am

Luke: “As explanations go, theism has many qualities in common with other really bad explanations from pseudoscience and superstition, and almost nothing in common with our most successful explanations from the physical sciences. So it’s very hard to see how theism is a “good explanation” for anything, whether it be fine-tuning or cosmogenesis or the existence of moral facts.”

The logic here seems weak: (1) theism has qualities in common with other bad explanations from pseudoscience and superstition; (2) it has almost nothing in common with explanations from the physical sciences; (3) so therefore theism is likely not a good explanation for anything (fine-tuning, cosmogenesis or the existence of moral facts).

This appears to presume that fine-tuning, cosmogenesis and the existence of moral facts are susceptible of scientific explanation (i.e., a falsifiable explanation making use of empirical evidence and the scientific method). If they are not so susceptible, then that is no mark against theism, since it would be a category error to apply scientific explanations to those questions. Thus we would need to examine non-scientific explanations. Of those, theism could well be the best explanation (i.e.,if it is superior to other non-scientific explanations like philosophical naturalism, polytheism, deism, Hinduism, Platonism, etc.).

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Kyle Key November 24, 2010 at 12:34 pm

@juhou:
I’m interested as to your thoughts on this:
“Is Economics a science?”
http://www.infoshop.org/page/AnarchistFAQSectionC1#secc12

Under the following assumption, the authors argue that marginal returns are not diminishing and that therefore many neo-classical (and some Marxian) economic theories are unscientific: “If marginal returns are constant rather than falling, then the neo-classical explanation of everything collapses. Not only can economic theory no longer explain how much a firm produces, it can explain nothing else.”
It’s far more involved than that (they explain why they’re operating under that assumption), but that’s the gist of it.
There’s one point in the article where they say that there are only two attributes a good theory has (I interpret what they’re saying as actually being five grouped together: scope/mechanism/precision, and testability/predictive novelty, but regardless…)–I disagree, but I think this is minor because inserting the rest of the explanatory virtues doesn’t fair any better for the particular theory they’re discussing (Pigou’s average cost curve). Anyway, your thoughts?

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juhou November 24, 2010 at 3:03 pm

@juhou:
I’m interested as to your thoughts on this:
“Is Economics a science?”
http://www.infoshop.org/page/AnarchistFAQSectionC1#secc12

Kyle Key,

I have to say I was very unimpressed by reading that. It seems to me that the person who wrote that is out to make a point without caring to learn about economics first. The factual mistakes and quite-mining in that article are pretty horrible plus the fact that his sources are way too old to be taken seriously.

Let me just one paragraph. The article says: “So the reason why the market become dominated by a few firms should be obvious enough: actual corporate price is utterly different from the economic theory. This was discovered when researchers did what the original theorists did not think was relevant: they actually asked firms what they did and the researchers consistently found that, for the vast majority of manufacturing firms their average costs of production declined as output rose, their marginal costs were always well below their average costs, and substantially smaller than ‘marginal revenue’, and the concept of a ‘demand curve’ (and therefore its derivative ‘marginal revenue’) was simply irrelevant. ”

The mistakes in that paragraph are as follows: Actual price is different from theory (I assume perfect competition) because perfect competition is a major simplification. Perfect competition theory was teached for me on first econ course I took and even in there it was said it almost never applies in reality. It’s just a simplification although it is very useful. Perfect competition in economic theory according to wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfect_competition and imperfect competition models that reflect the reality better http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperfect_competition. These issues are dealt extencively in field of economics called industrial organization which the author forgot to mention conviniently. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Industrial_organization

other mistakes in short: ” vast majority of manufacturing firms their average costs of production declined as output rose” which is a well known fact called economies of scale http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economies_of_scale

“average costs of production declined as output rose, their marginal costs were always well below their average costs” yes that can happen http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Costcurve_-_Combined.svg and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cost_curve

” ‘demand curve’ (and therefore its derivative ‘marginal revenue’) was simply irrelevant. ” I always thought marginal revenue was a derivate of TOTAL REVENUE. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marginal_revenue and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price_elasticity_of_demand

I think the fact that one paragraph has all those mistakes and I have to go no more professional than Wikipedia to debunk them shows the level of that article. I did some checking on some of those nice looking references on the article and found out their mostly old stuff that nobody cares about anymore. If you want to seriously study economics here is a nice place to start from a person who actually knows his field: http://www.minneapolisfed.org/publications_papers/pub_display.cfm?id=4428

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juhou November 24, 2010 at 3:04 pm

Btw, sorry for the off topic post. Will be avoiding those from now on.

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woodchuck64 November 24, 2010 at 4:50 pm

Looking at Jim’s list, I really don’t think there’s one statement he makes that would be accepted by experts in the fields in question; which may be fine for him if he believes the so-called “experts” are in denial, but it renders the article mostly preaching to the choir.
For example,

Philosophical Naturalism struggles to explain how creatures capable of genocide and cruelty are also capable of compassion and sacrificial generosity

I just finished Jonathan Haidt’s excellent “The Happiness Hypothesis” where he describes David Sloan Wilson’s group selection theory of religion:

Group selection creates interlocking genetic and cultural adaptations that enhance peace, harmony, and cooperation within the group for the express purpose of increasing the group’s ability to compete with othergroups. Group selection does not end conflict, it just pushes it up to the next level of social organization.

Group selection neatly explains the desire for compassion and sacrifice within the group as well as the desire to destroy perceived outsider threats by any means necessary.

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Tony Hoffman November 24, 2010 at 5:03 pm

Ah, Woodchuck64, you are so naive.

Philosophical Naturalism struggles to explain how creatures capable of genocide and cruelty are also capable of compassion and sacrificial generosity

Don’t you see that our being made in the image of an entity who exists outside of space and time (?) created us so that a talking snake would beguile us, causing us to eat an apple, procreate with our siblings, and drag all the animals and vegetables into our sordid, genocidal ways by association, subject to the manipulations of a an angel who thought he could defeat the creator of all things, all witnessed by the one who created us and loves us so much that he can’t conceive of any better things to roll, and… Anyway, that explanation makes WAAY more sense. Yup, it’s philosphical naturalism that struggles to explain compassion and cruelty.

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Jugglable November 24, 2010 at 7:37 pm

Kyle Key: “the atheist should take issue when you do invoke God as a explanation of something, be it fine-tuning, moral values, or anything else; I would think that this would be fundamentally obvious to anyone, but I must be wrong.”

Can you drop the condescension, friend? As frustrated as you may be, it doesn’t help to advance any of your arguments, or our conversation.

I would resist saying that God is always something that is “invoked.” It sounds like we’re conjuring him up. But we can use careful reasoning to find our way to God, the necessarily existing ground of contingency. If we start with the fact that things exist, we can reason step-by-step to a necessary existence.

God is a bad scientific explanation. But if we ask why there is something rather than nothing, science can’t even in principle begin to answer that question.

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Jugglable November 24, 2010 at 7:42 pm

Giantsteps:

A question is just a question; it represents a gap in our information about the world. A question or a gap might seem really mysterious and seem to need a God type of answer, but that gap and the mystery exist only in our minds, not in reality. Reality isn’t weird or mysterious at all, it just seems that way to the people who experience it. The revered offered the example of a question about the weather as a non-God type of question, but there was a time when people thought the weather was so weird and mysterious that it needed a God type of answer. We consider it a non-God type of question, now that we know the real answer.
“A question or a gap might seem really mysterious and seem to need a God type of answer, but that gap and the mystery exist only in our minds, not in reality.”
If we are asking why being is intelligible, or why contingent things exist, only a God-type-of-answer will suffice.

“but there was a time when people thought the weather was so weird and mysterious that it needed a God type of answer”
People didn’t think scientifically then. They had no inkling what kind of stuff caused the weather. But science can’t even in principle address the kinds of questions that God has been an answer to traditionally, even before science.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 24, 2010 at 8:25 pm

Jugglable,

Because scientific explanations are our successful ones. You can’t just make up new criteria and they say “See, God meets these new criteria I made up in my head that have never been demonstrated to be characteristic of successful explanations!” That is not impressive.

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Luke Muehlhauser November 24, 2010 at 8:27 pm

ayer,

But “best” in what sense? “best” according to criteria that have not been demonstrated to be characteristic of successful explanations? That’s not impressive, and that’s the whole point. Please give an account of why theism is the best explanation for these things.

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Kyle Key November 24, 2010 at 9:52 pm

@jugglable:
If you find my tone bothersome, feel free to disregard me as I’m disregarding your online psych evaluations; I won’t lose any sleep over your silence.

I do hope that you’re not just paying philosophical lip service with your admittance that “God is a bad scientific explanation” though. You’ve said that you’re Catholic (must’ve been an ordeal doing all of that “careful reasoning” to narrow it down from thousands of Christian sects and denominations to just Catholicism, by the way), so you believe in Yahweh, but Yahweh is described as having been engaged in a great many casual interactions with the natural world which would subject it to being a scientific explanation–and you certainly can’t believe in all that, right? “All that” being “most of the Bible.” I know I’d feel uncomfortable at Mass when the priest starts going on about what I know to be bad explanations–i.e. God-based explanations–of various Biblical events.

Oh, and to preempt the genetic fallacy accusation that I suspect’s coming, I’m not assuming that your belief is false because of its origin–just sayin’, I would’ve had a hell of time reasoning my way to Catholicism ;).

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ayer November 24, 2010 at 11:05 pm

ayer,But “best” in what sense? “best” according to criteria that have not been demonstrated to be characteristic of successful explanations? That’s not impressive, and that’s the whole point. Please give an account of why theism is the best explanation for these things.  

“Best” according to criteria that are appropriate to the phenomenon being investigated. “Test-passing” and “falsifiability” would be a crucial explanatory virtue for a scientific explanation, but not for a phenomena not susceptible to the scientific method. Thus, e.g., the multiverse theory–if other universes are in principle non-empirically-detectable, then it is not a scientific explanation of fine-tuning. However, it could still be evaluated against theism in terms of other explanatory virtues (e.g., explanatory power, scope, simplicity, etc.–would seem acceptable in such a case. I believe Richard Swinburne’s work is in this very area, as is (from a somewhat different approach, Edward Feser’s Thomistic work). But since falsifiability is not possible, the kind of “certainty” we have regarding, e.g., chemical reactions, will not be attained–but that doesn’t mean one explanation is not better than the other (just as in a civil trial, the standard of proof is “more likely than not” for liability). Similarly with the issue “why is there something rather than nothing at all?” or “what caused the beginning of the universe (or multiverse, whichever it may be)”?

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mojo.rhythm November 25, 2010 at 4:32 am

Similarly with the issue “why is there something rather than nothing at all?” or “what caused the beginning of the universe (or multiverse, whichever it may be)”?

Here is the problem Ayer,

Goddidit is not testable, but this is only one of its many problems. Goddidit is a terrible explanation for WITSRTN and the BOTU, because it is extremely ad-hoc, complicated, imprecise, ontologically spendthrift, uninformative and inconsistent with our background knowledge. Even if it is a domain of inquiry beyond the borders of science, magical explanations are not therefore automatically given some kind of prima facie plausibility.

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ayer November 25, 2010 at 6:36 am

Here is the problem Ayer,Goddidit is not testable, but this is only one of its many problems.Goddidit is a terrible explanation for WITSRTN and the BOTU, because it is extremely ad-hoc, complicated, imprecise, ontologically spendthrift, uninformative and inconsistent with our background knowledge.Even if it is a domain of inquiry beyond the borders of science, magical explanations are not therefore automatically given some kind of prima facie plausibility.  

I’m glad you appear to agree we are dealing with a domain of inquiry beyond science and therefore testability is inapplicable as an explanatory virtue with these questions. As to how theism fares under the other explanatory virtues, as I said above, Richard Swinburne (http://www.closertotruth.com/participant/Richard-Swinburne/103) and Ed Feser (http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2010/09/classical-theism.html) have developed approaches showing theism is superior to philosophical naturalism when evaluated by those virtues. The most interesting debate on these questions are between different approaches to theism, since naturalism, by tying itself to a scientific explanatory approach that is irrelevant to these questions, would appear to have nothing to say (maybe that’s why Dawkins sometimes dismisses the questions with “those are silly questions” and sometimes with “science is working on it”(see recent debate with Craig et al)–he can’t seem to make up his mind, but has some dim awareness of the limits of his method)

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Jugglable November 25, 2010 at 7:21 am

Luke said:
“Because scientific explanations are our successful ones. You can’t just make up new criteria and they say “See, God meets these new criteria I made up in my head that have never been demonstrated to be characteristic of successful explanations!” That is not impressive.”

Scientific explanations are “successful” at certain things. But scientific explanations can never in theory “successfully” answer other kinds of questions, such as why contingent things exist.

Do you explain your own existence, or do you breathe air, drink water, and have parents? If it’s the latter, your existence must be explained. Science can partly explain your existence, but if it does so by appealing to other contingent things, it hasn’t answered the fundamental question of your contingency.

I didn’t make up new criteria. These are the types of questions God has traditionally been an answer to in the formal arguments for his existence.

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Jugglable November 25, 2010 at 7:29 am

Kyle Key:

I’m not sure what you mean by my “online psych evaluations.” Asking you to drop the condescension isn’t a comment on your psychology.

Just because I’m saying God isn’t a SCIENTIFIC explanation doesn’t mean he’s not involved, because there is another way to be involved–not as one link in the causal chain, but involved intimately with the whole process. He’s simply not involved as one fussy competitive cause among many, but in a fundamentally different way. As an analogy, Shakespeare’s mind is intimately involved with each of his plays start to finish, but Shakespeare isn’t a character in the play. Michelangelo is not a fragment of paint on the Sistine Chapel. God is not one fussy competitive cause among many, but is what breathes life into all being here and now, he is what gives existence to contingency moment-by-moment. Based on the argument from contingency, God’s essence is his existence. This means God *is* existence itself, and exists in and through all things. So he is involved, more intimately that force that comes from “outside” the process and sticks his finger in like the ID people believe.

And as far as the way God is involved in Biblical stories, it depends how you read those. They anthropomorphize God. For example, they attribute limited knowledge to God; you must always read the stories against the background of reason and philosophy, etc.

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Tony Hoffman November 25, 2010 at 7:30 am

Ayer: The most interesting debate on these questions are between different approaches to theism, since naturalism, by tying itself to a scientific explanatory approach that is irrelevant to these questions…

You have an odd definition of interesting, then. These “explanations,” by casting their inquiry outside anything we would expect of an explanation, have made themselves meaningless. It appears that theologians who declare that science cannot explain certain questions are left with only one recourse: frame the question in a way that is meaningless. As long as you do that, you are correct; any bad “explanation” will suffice.

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Tony Hoffman November 25, 2010 at 8:30 am

Seriously, if any theist can show how a theological explanation for a question that science cannot answer is interesting or meaningful, please come forward. What effect does a theological explanation (say, for a question that science cannot answer) actually have?

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Kyle Key November 25, 2010 at 8:37 am

“If it’s the latter, your existence must be explained.”
No, there is nothing that must be explained. Being able to formulate a question doesn’t necessitate that there’s an answer to be found. And unless you have a preconception that needs to be supported ad-hoc, there’s not the slightest reason as to why one should accept your assumption that the universe as a whole is susceptible to our causal pigeonholing. Even assuming it could, one has no intellectual obligation to accept that atemporal thought, contra-causal free will, and immaterial beings are capable of successfully explaining anything.

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Bill Snedden November 25, 2010 at 9:15 am

@ayer: “Similarly with the issue “why is there something rather than nothing at all?” or “what caused the beginning of the universe (or multiverse, whichever it may be)”?”

But these are nonsense questions. What caused “god”? Why is there “god” rather than nothing? If you can answer these, then you can answer those. Neither theism nor its alternatives provide superior answers here.

And in terms of “explanatory power”, “scope”, “simplicity”, etc. I think Luke et al have done a pretty good job of demonstrating how theism fails here as well, at least in terms of providing a superior explanation.

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Jugglable November 25, 2010 at 10:08 am

“No, there is nothing that must be explained. ”

You exist, but it is not your very nature to be. You borrow your existence from external conditions. This does, actually, have to be explained. Why do you exist? If you exist for now, temporarily, but you are fleeting and evanescent, there is indeed an explanation of your existence. An appeal to other finite, conditioned things will only postpone our answer. We must come to a necessary existence, and seeing as there are contingent things within the universe, the universe is a lousy candidate for the necessary ground of being. It is logically impossible for something within a contingent part to be a necessary existence.

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Adito November 25, 2010 at 10:50 am

Jugglable

I think Kyle and Bill covered your objections quite nicely. Some questions simply do not have an answer. For the theist it’s questions about why God exists rather than not or why his essential nature is one way instead of another. Any reply a theist makes to this kind of question boils down to “God has property Y and that’s why He has property X” which doesn’t answer anything. For the atheist the unexplained are simply one more step down and involve questions related to why anything exists. Once you accept either God or the existence of matter as a brute fact (and you really don’t have much choice but to admit something is a brute fact) then you can explain the contingent existence of everything that exists. There is nothing about God that merits His insertion into a causal chain.

Now, about your Shakespeare analogy. This kind of logic leads us to conclude that in a given world so long as one non-god object exists then God exists. In other words in any state of affairs God must exist. What can be explained by an idea that includes every possible state of affairs? It’s completely plausible to reach the conclusion that some form of contingent evidence supports the idea of a God that’s always necessary for anything else to exist but we can’t do it by appealing to simply the fact that something exists. This is why theism has such terrible explanatory power.

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Eric November 25, 2010 at 11:40 am

Juggleable –
We must come to a necessary existence, and seeing as there are contingent things within the universe, the universe is a lousy candidate for the necessary ground of being. It is logically impossible for something within a contingent part to be a necessary existence.

Please explain how the existence of contingent things within the universe suggest the universe must be contingent? I fail to see how this follows. Remember that “contingency” in the sense that things within the universe are contingent upon a material cause make no sense when applied to the entire universe. Efficient causes (such as natural laws) may be contingent upon other laws but all that does it argue for a set of brute facts that are not necessarily God.
And induction may be a bad candidate to conclude the universe cannot have necessary efficient causes. Analogy:
Lets say I start at the north pole and move south. Everywhere on the earth there is a “south” direction. Obviously, if i continue to move south, i will eventually run into the south pole, where this property no longer exists.
or another analogy:
lets say I am somewhere “far into” a Fibonacci set. I know that the numbers in the spots where i “am” are continent upon earlier numbers. If i keep on moving back to the beginning of the set, I find numbers that are not contingent upon other numbers (the first 2).
Remember these analogies are only meant to show the problem with suggesting that “brute facts should not exist within the universe because everything else within the universe is contingent upon some other efficient cause”

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Eric November 25, 2010 at 11:55 am

Jugglable –
It is logically impossible for something within a contingent part to be a necessary existence.

That’s begging the question over why you consider the universe to be contingent.
There is a possible epistemological nightmare regarding the question “why is there anything and not nothing?” For one thing, there may be no basis for thinking pure philosophical “nothing” is even realizable, let alone the default state of affairs. No physical scientific models even include philosophical “nothing” as a possibility. So trying to answer the question of why there is something and not nothing may be similar to asking why unicorns don’t exist.
Because logically only “nothing” can come from “nothing,” we have reason to believe “nothing” is untenable. Even theists posit the existence of a God, which means there was always something (God). If we theorize the existence of some kind of brute facts that keep “nothing” from ever being realizable, then it would be as absurd to ask “why are there brute facts rather than nothing” as it would to ask a theist “why is there God and not nothing.”

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Jugglable November 25, 2010 at 12:46 pm

Adito:

Adito:
“Some questions simply do not have an answer. For the theist it’s questions about why God exists rather than not or why his essential nature is one way instead of another.”
If his nature is necessary, God himself is the answer to these questions. It’s hard to imagine, because with our 5 senses we’ve only directly accessed contingent things that do not explain their own existence. What would something that explains its own existence be like? Very mysterious and hard to imagine, but we can infer its existence confidently from the very contingency we’re so familiar with. Why do I exist? I’m contingent, so we must look outside of me to begin answering that question. And so it is for everything in the universe. But when you’re dealing with a necessary reality, its existence isn’t reliant upon external factors. It explains its own existence, so when you ask, “Why does God have the nature of existing,” or “why is God this way instead of that?” God himself would answer that question.
“It’s completely plausible to reach the conclusion that some form of contingent evidence supports the idea of a God that’s always necessary for anything else to exist but we can’t do it by appealing to simply the fact that something exists.”
Well no, given that something exists, there must be SOMETHING with a necessary existence. From nothing, nothing comes. But we don’t find ourselves in a state of nothingness. As long as something exists, there is something which exists as a brute fact, i.e. a necessary existence. The things of the universe are fleeting an evanescent, so they’re a crumby candidate for this necessary reality.
“There is nothing about God that merits His insertion into a causal chain.”
Right. He’s not one cause among many. He’s the reason why the causal chain exists at all.

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ayer November 25, 2010 at 12:48 pm

But these are nonsense questions.

And in terms of “explanatory power”, “scope”, “simplicity”, etc. I think Luke et al have done a pretty good job of demonstrating how theism fails here as well, at least in terms of providing a superior explanation

You can either reject the questions as “nonsense questions” (though I have seen no good reason to think they are–is this just recycling logical positivism?) or take the position that theism is a bad answer to legitimate questions–it can’t be both. You seem to be vacillating between the two positions just as Dawkins does.

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Jugglable November 25, 2010 at 12:54 pm

Eric:

You asked why contingent things in the universe mean the universe is contingent. Good question.

Could the universe be different than it is right now? Yes. It was different before I was born, for example. I exist in the universe right now, but the universe can exist without me. It is therefore conceivable for the universe to be different. It is is conceivable and demonstrably possible for it to have a DIFFERENT nature, there is nothing NECESSARY about its nature. Therefore, it is contingent. So as long as you have one single contingent thing in the universe, i.e. something which is capable of not existing, then the universe is contingent. But that’s not what we observe–the universe is RADICALLY contingent.

“For one thing, there may be no basis for thinking pure philosophical “nothing” is even realizable”

I agree. I don’t think metaphysical nothingness is realizable. I believe God is a necessary existence, i.e. it is logically incoherent to talk about him not existing, so absolute nothingness is not realizable.

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Tony Hoffman November 25, 2010 at 1:21 pm

You can either reject the questions as “nonsense questions” (though I have seen no good reason to think they are–is this just recycling logical positivism?) or take the position that theism is a bad answer to legitimate questions–it can’t be both.

Theism is a bad answer for biodiversity. “Is God Perfect?” is a nonsense question. One, two, yup, both.

There. That wasn’t so hard.

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Kyle Key November 25, 2010 at 2:09 pm

“Yada, yada, yada, God necessarily exists so it’s impossible for me to be wrong”
But what if matter and energy are the necessarily existing ground?
“No, everything’s contingent except God (by definition)! It’s God! And don’t worry about all of the other troublesome aspects that I have to introduce to get “God” off of the ground.”

Tale as old as time; no one here is going to be argued into Catholicism (Sorry, jugglable and ayer!) and this is a boring conversation that hasn’t progressed much in the last few decades, so how about we talk about something we can possibly converse about, eh?
We’re at an impasse so your only two options are: (1) To think that we’re lying and that your argument actually convinces us, so hurrah, we’re believers now, or (2) To think that we sincerely disagree, and thus we should move on.

So…uh…how about we tackle TaiChi’s logical problem of evil for fun?
http://omnisaffirmatioestnegatio.wordpress.com/2010/10/02/a-logical-problem-of-evil/
If no one’s down for that, I’ll have to bid farewell till Luke’s next post.

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ayer November 25, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Theism is a bad answer for biodiversity. “Is God Perfect?” is a nonsense question. One, two, yup, both.There. That wasn’t so hard.  

I guess I forgot a third option–”make up different questions so as to change the subject”

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Eric November 25, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Jugglable –
It is therefore conceivable for the universe to be different. It is is conceivable and demonstrably possible for it to have a DIFFERENT nature, there is nothing NECESSARY about its nature.

How does the fact that the universe could conceivability be different mean it isn’t necessary? Are you talking about logically necessity, such as the fact that a triangle necessarily has 3 sides? I’m not sure how logical necessity has anything to do with physical necessity… When you speak of abstract objects, you speak of an entirely different realm of reality with different rules. And how is it demonstrable that everything physical in the universe could be different (I specifically said EVERYTHING because your assertion fails if just one thing in the universe cannot demonstrably have been different). This leads me to your suggestion for brute fact:

Jugglable –
If his nature is necessary, God himself is the answer to these questions. It’s hard to imagine, because with our 5 senses we’ve only directly accessed contingent things that do not explain their own existence. What would something that explains its own existence be like? Very mysterious and hard to imagine, but we can infer its existence confidently from the very contingency we’re so familiar with.

So how does God answer the question of his own existence? If it is very mysterious and hard to imagine, then it sounds as if you cannot ACTUALLY conceive of such a being. Because you have stated that brute facts cannot be imagined to have any other nature than their nature, it is your responsibility, if you want to be consistent, to show that God must be this way. Else God fails as a brute fact under your specified conditions.

However, I am still not convinced that abstract necessity has anything to do with physical necessity. It would seem like you would have to show that any abstract necessity COULD directly translate into something physical without the use of any non-necessary facts, which itself would necessarily mean that physical something could not be anything else. If that physical something was something else, then something must have caused it to be something else. What caused it to be something else must be necessary. So that physical something else must be equivalent to the physical something. Therefore everything about the universe must necessarily be the way it is. Since we can conceive the universe is different than it is, then this premise cannot work.

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ayer November 25, 2010 at 6:27 pm

How does the fact that the universe could conceivability be different mean it isn’t necessary?

I’m not clear–are you arguing that the universe exists by the necessity of its own nature? That’s a somewhat radical position, as William Lane Craig has pointed out:

“The reason atheists are not eager to embrace this alternative is clear. As we look about the universe, none of the things that make it up, whether stars, planets, galaxies, dust, radiation, or what have you, seems to exist necessarily. They could all fail to exist; indeed, at some point in the past, when the universe was very dense, none of them did exist.”

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ayer November 25, 2010 at 6:30 pm
Rob November 25, 2010 at 7:03 pm

The necessary being/contingent being distinction is medieval legerdemain. And that calls for a pejorative quotation about the scoundrels who make this stuff up:

“(Metaphysicians are) men with no taste for exact facts, but only a desire to transcend and forget them as quickly as possible.”

- HL Mencken

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Tony Hoffman November 25, 2010 at 7:14 pm

I guess I forgot a third option–”make up different questions so as to change the subject”

I don’t understand — do you mean that you we were only to reference the questions in the post? When you referenced the questions on another site, I thought you meant to reference the questions on another site. But without an argument, it’s hard to tell what it is that you’re trying to say.

I see that you have still forgotten to respond to how a theistic explanation can be meaningful, however. The other theists here who defend the position seem oddly silent as well. Must be the holiday.

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Jugglable November 25, 2010 at 7:24 pm

Kyle Key:

Kyle Key:

““Yada, yada, yada, God necessarily exists so it’s impossible for me to be wrong””

I never said that. I suggest you read my comments again carefully, or use an actual quotation.

Energy cannot be a necessarily existing ground, because of the change and transfer inherent in energy. Energy is changing, so it is incoherent to talk about something like that being NECESSARY in nature. And nothing as malleable and changeable as “matter” can be a necessary existence.

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Jugglable November 25, 2010 at 7:26 pm

Eric:

“How does the fact that the universe could conceivability be different mean it isn’t necessary?”

Because that’s the opposite of what it means to be necessary. Your question is like asking, “Why does the fact that he’s married mean he’s not a bachelor?”

The answer to your question is right there in your question. If something has a necessary nature, it means it necessarily HAS to be that way. If it doesn’t have to be that way, i.e. if it can be different or could have been different, there is nothing necessary about its nature.

I am not necessary. I don’t HAVE to exist. Evidence of this? I didn’t exist for the vast majority of the past of the universe. It’s totally conceivable that I not exist. I am contingent.

If there were ever a point at which nothing existed, then there would be nothingness–ex nihilo nihil fit. From nothing, nothing comes . 0 + 0 + 0 = 0. But that’s not what we observe. Things exist. So there’s not nothingness, and there never was. Something has always existed.

There is something which just has to exist, with no prior cause, because that’s what it does, i.e. it simply has the nature of existing. Something which exists because it just does, because it is its nature, because it has to, because its nature is just necessary, because it’s impossible for it not to exist. Something which exists and has the nature it does just because it has it and that’s it’s nature and it has to have that. This thing didn’t come from anywhere. It’s just always existed the way it is and been the way it is. There were no conditions prior to it which could have produced it a different way. There were no prior conditions, so there is nothing that could have made it different, so it’s impossible for it to be another way.

So if something could have been another way, it is not a necessary existence.

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ayer November 25, 2010 at 7:29 pm

I don’t understand — do you mean that you we were only to reference the questions in the post? When you referenced the questions on another site, I thought you meant to reference the questions on another site. But without an argument, it’s hard to tell what it is that you’re trying to say.I see that you have still forgotten to respond to how a theistic explanation can be meaningful, however. The other theists here who defend the position seem oddly silent as well. Must be the holiday.  

I don’t understand either–the other sites I linked to deal with the questions under discussion, i.e, “why is there something rather than nothing,” “why is the universe apparently fine-tuned,” “what caused the beginning of the universe”? I don’t recall biodiversity being one of the questions at issue.

As to how a theistic explanation can be meaningful, I thought I mentioned above that it can be evaluated according to the explanatory virtues of explanatory power, scope and simplicity, just as other explanations not susceptible to scientific falsifiability should be (as Swinburne does in the link I cited).

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Eric November 25, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Ayer-
I’m not clear–are you arguing that the universe exists by the necessity of its own nature? That’s a somewhat radical position, as William Lane Craig has pointed out:

“The reason atheists are not eager to embrace this alternative is clear. As we look about the universe, none of the things that make it up, whether stars, planets, galaxies, dust, radiation, or what have you, seems to exist necessarily. They could all fail to exist; indeed, at some point in the past, when the universe was very dense, none of them did exist.”

If by universe, you mean all that exists then yes. And I already pointed out what was wrong with Jugglable’s and Craig’s necessarily wrong inductive fallacy of saying “because everything we have perceived in the universe is contingent, the universe must itself be contingent.” I gave two good analogies for why this is an erroneous way of thinking.
Here is the problem. If an infinite regress of explanations does not exist, then facts exist which have no explanation. Because of this, these facts are necessary. Now I may be causing some confusion with the term “necessary being,” as the reason I call these things necessary beings is not in line with the traditional philosophical use of the term necessary beings as it only really applies to abstract objects, so I will just call them brute facts. Brute facts are facts which have no explanation and are only theorized to exist because they are necessary to avoid the issue of an infinite regress of explanation. Now, if you consider the universe being all that exists, and brute facts must exist, then brute facts must exist in the universe. Since the theist supposes God exists, then by definition, the theist must suppose God exists in the universe. If there is a different definition of the universe the theist uses, please inform me, because I only really hear this one in Craig’s responses. So if these brute facts exist necessarily (due to the reason stated above), and the universe is all that exists, then the the universe exists necessarily.
Now Ayer and Jugglable say that these brute facts must have the property that one cannot conceive they can be other than they are. However, neither of you have demonstrated this is a necessary property. First you must show that, if you conceive something is a possibility, then it is an actual metaphysical possibility. Conceiving something being different than it is could merely be a sign of your ignorance as to why it is the way it is. For example, in a theorized universe where the laws of gravity are brute facts, a person who does not know of these laws could watch a science experiment where a feather and a bowling ball are dropped in a vacuum. They could conceive of the possibility the bowling ball would hit the ground first. Of course this is merely due to their ignorance of the laws of gravity which will ensure the bowling ball will necessarily hit the ground the ~same time as the feather. So Ayer and Jugglable thinking certain facts in the universe could be other then they are could merely be due to your own ignorance of why they are necessarily the way they are. If you say that just because you can conceive of the possibility these facts could ACTUALLY be other than they are, then they must be explained, then you run into a dilemma. It sounds as if, just because you can conceive of a metaphysical possibility, that possibility must be explained and (the explanations are necessarily not vacuous). However, if this is the rule, I can conceive of a universe where all facts in the universe are contingent upon material brute facts. Then by your rule, we must explain both possibilities. But then obviously any truth is vacuous until its shown that one possibility is significantly more probable. Here’s an analogy:
It is possible I will win a million dollars tomorrow. Because it is a possibility, you must now explain why I will win a million dollars. It is far more probable that the tooth fairy made me win then it happening by chance. This is evidence of the tooth fairy existing over it not existing.

i need to post this now cuz my computer hates huge posts, but I’m working on more responses.

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Eric November 25, 2010 at 11:13 pm

Jugglable –
If something has a necessary nature, it means it necessarily HAS to be that way. If it doesn’t have to be that way, i.e. if it can be different or could have been different, there is nothing necessary about its nature.

I am not necessary. I don’t HAVE to exist. Evidence of this? I didn’t exist for the vast majority of the past of the universe. It’s totally conceivable that I not exist. I am contingent.

I refer you to above where i talked about the term necessary and how I am using it.

Jugglable
If there were ever a point at which nothing existed, then there would be nothingness–ex nihilo nihil fit. From nothing, nothing comes . 0 + 0 + 0 = 0. But that’s not what we observe. Things exist. So there’s not nothingness, and there never was. Something has always existed.

There is something which just has to exist, with no prior cause, because that’s what it does, i.e. it simply has the nature of existing. Something which exists because it just does, because it is its nature, because it has to, because its nature is just necessary, because it’s impossible for it not to exist. Something which exists and has the nature it does just because it has it and that’s it’s nature and it has to have that. This thing didn’t come from anywhere. It’s just always existed the way it is and been the way it is. There were no conditions prior to it which could have produced it a different way. There were no prior conditions, so there is nothing that could have made it different, so it’s impossible for it to be another way.

Depending on how you are defining the terms impossible and nature. If we are talking about ACTUALIZED reality, then impossible and inconceivable are two different concepts, as I have explained in my previous post.

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Eric November 25, 2010 at 11:29 pm

Ayer-
I don’t understand either–the other sites I linked to deal with the questions under discussion, i.e, “why is there something rather than nothing,” “why is the universe apparently fine-tuned,” “what caused the beginning of the universe”?

“Why is there something rather than nothing” only needs explanation if nothing is to be expected, but there is instead something. I have already explained the contradiction for this. “Why is the universe apparently fine-tuned” can actually be explained by science; biology, physics, etc… It seems as though the only time a scientific explanation cannot work is if you assume the universe IS fine tuned, and that this is significant (unlike the low probability of a certain person winning the lottery). Of course this topic has already been discussed at length in other threads and theists have yet to solve the problem of infinite possible values, intrinsic value of life, nor the arbitrary nature of the Bayesian argument. What caused the beginning of the universe sounds like a restatement of the first question, which already has its own problems.
So it sounds like you are giving examples of problems that may not even be reasonable. I’ll admit philosophy may have a central role in figuring out if these are reasonable questions in the first place, but if they are reasonable, who is to say that whatever helped us consider them reasonable may not open up a scientific approach as to how to explain them.

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ayer November 26, 2010 at 7:00 am

Eric,

The first premise of the argument from contingency is:

Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence (either in the
necessity of its own nature or in an external cause).

I am trying to determine if by your definition “brute facts” exist by the necessity of their own nature (which you seem to say abstract objects do), in an external cause (like the contingent facts within the current universe–e.g., your existence and my existence), or neither.

You say they are “necessary”, but by this you mean that you must theorize them to avoid an infinite regress, not they they exist by the necessity of their own nature. But you also seem to believe that they exist eternally and could not be otherwise (even though we could conceive of them being otherwise). What would the qualities be of brute facts that are eternal and could not be otherwise, which would distinguish them from the contingent facts which are not eternal and whose existence is explained in an external cause?

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Jugglable November 26, 2010 at 9:27 am

Ayer,

I’m offering a different version of the argument from contingency.

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Jugglable November 26, 2010 at 9:31 am

Eric,

The universe has change within it. This means it is ontologically unstable, or to use a a different term, contingent. Nothing can move itself from potency to act, i.e. nothing can change itself, but given the change within the universe it’s a bad candidate for the prime reality.

Not to mention, if you heard a bang down the street you’d be curious what caused it. Don’t stop being curious when it comes to the bang that gave rise to our universe. I’m always amazed at how atheists want to stop asking questions when the answers become interesting.

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Bill Snedden November 26, 2010 at 11:39 am

@ayer: “You can either reject the questions as “nonsense questions” (though I have seen no good reason to think they are–is this just recycling logical positivism?) or take the position that theism is a bad answer to legitimate questions–it can’t be both. You seem to be vacillating between the two positions just as Dawkins does.”

You’re correct; I was being imprecise. Let’s take “why is there something rather than nothing?” first.

I consider this to be a nonsense question because it contains the necessary assumption that “nothing”, as a putative state of affairs, is logically possible. But there’s simply no reason to believe that’s the case and there’s very good reason to believe that it’s simply impossible. “Nothing”, properly understood, is the absence of everything, including potential. If “nothing” were ever to have existed, then “nothing” would still exist. As “something” now exists, it’s clear that this was not the case. Moreover, in order for “nothing” to have ever existed, “nothing” would have to be “something”, which it cannot be by definition. Essentially, the idea that there was ever or ever could have been “nothing” that existed is a simple reification error. Something has always existed.

Now, to the extent that theists insist that “why is there something rather than nothing?” is in fact a meaningful question, I argue that it is in fact the same question as “why is there “god” rather than nothing?” The theist will point to necessary being and the non-theist can certainly do the same (as I’ve done, above). This works for “what caused the multiverse?” as well.

So, that’s what I meant: that I consider them nonsense questions, but to the extent that theists consider them meaningful, I point out that they have the same answer the theist would give for the questions I asked.

@Jugglable: “I’m always amazed at how atheists want to stop asking questions when the answers become interesting.”

You’re being disingenuous or outright deceitful. “Goddidit” is the ultimate full-stop to questions; “atheists” don’t want to stop asking questions; they’re simply rejecting the one you have given (and for good reason, as we see it). To accuse “atheists” of doing the very thing that YOU in fact are doing is the height of hypocrisy.

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Eric November 26, 2010 at 11:58 am

Ayer –
Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence (either in the
necessity of its own nature or in an external cause).

I am trying to determine if by your definition “brute facts” exist by the necessity of their own nature (which you seem to say abstract objects do), in an external cause (like the contingent facts within the current universe–e.g., your existence and my existence), or neither.

As I have already stated, brute facts do not exist necessarily in the sense that abstract objects do. You cant conceive of abstract objects being other than they are (cuz then they would not be that abstract object). To avoid a painful debate in the philosophy of language, I will say you can conceive of brute facts being other than they are. If we use Craig’s first premise, then the only things that could exist by necessity of their own nature is abstract objects. But then we would have a discontinuity as to how abstract objects could be the sole cause of concrete objects. God is not an abstract object and would thus fail as a candidate unless one attempted a kind of “divine bootstrapping” (which could theoretically work for any concrete brute fact). So it seems as though, without a theory as to how abstract objects can be the sole cause of concrete objects, the first premise is not necessarily true.

Ayer-
You say they are “necessary”, but by this you mean that you must theorize them to avoid an infinite regress, not they they exist by the necessity of their own nature. But you also seem to believe that they exist eternally and could not be otherwise (even though we could conceive of them being otherwise). What would the qualities be of brute facts that are eternal and could not be otherwise, which would distinguish them from the contingent facts which are not eternal and whose existence is explained in an external cause?

Remember I justified why you conceiving they could be otherwise does not justify the assumption they could ACTUALLY be otherwise. I have already explained the qualities of these brute facts, they could not ACTUALLY be anything other than they are. This is a quality of necessity to avoid an infinite regress of explanation. I don’t need to know exactly what these brute facts are, only that they exist. God is a candidate for one, but I fail to see a successful argument for why God MUST be a brute fact.
Juglable –
The universe has change within it. This means it is ontologically unstable, or to use a a different term, contingent. Nothing can move itself from potency to act, i.e. nothing can change itself, but given the change within the universe it’s a bad candidate for the prime reality.

Before we continue, we need to be clear over what you mean by Universe. I already explained the definition of Universe I am using, that it is all that exists. This is different from the definition used in physics. Case in point:
It is possible the universe (physics) is just a quantum fluctuation. However, this quantum fluctuation didn’t come from philosophical “nothing,” as Craig put it in his criticism of Lawrence Krauss, this “nothing” is a rich energy field, which would be “something” under the definition of “universe” I am using (and I have good reason to suspect Craig and other apologists mean this definition of universe as well).
You cannot conclude that EVERYTHING within the universe is contingent just because you observe contingency within the universe. Once again, I have already explained why this is a fallacy. I have also already explained why the universe must contain these brute facts. And because these brute facts must exist in their own form eternally, for reasons I explained earlier, then the Universe must exist and posses certain facts that exist in their own form eternally.

Jugglable –
Not to mention, if you heard a bang down the street you’d be curious what caused it. Don’t stop being curious when it comes to the bang that gave rise to our universe. I’m always amazed at how atheists want to stop asking questions when the answers become interesting.

You may be confusing the physicist’s definition of the universe (Up) with the one I am using (U). The big bang only talks of Up, not U. Also, the Big Bang does not explain how our Up came into being, only how our Up expanded from a certain point. The big bang runs into an issue because taking the limit runs you into an asymptote. In other words, the volume of the universe approaches 0 but never actually becomes 0. So it is still a question of how the volume of the universe went from 0 to 0+. And atheists are very interested in the explanation fr the big bang. Remember that atheists don’t have to ever assume any fact we know of is a brute fact. We can theorize their existence but we may never know exactly what they are, so there is no reason to stop searching for explanation. The one downside is that we should expect at some point to search for an explanation in vain where none exists. As soon as a theist assumes God is the explanation for something, and God is brute fact, then the theists have effectively stopped all inquiry. Cases in point throughout history: The origin of life, the origin of the species, what “caused” the big bang.

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Eric November 26, 2010 at 12:03 pm

@Bill Snedden
It sounds like we are just repeating each other now, lol. Your explanations may be better than mine because obviously I am ignoring brevity in my responses. This may be why things I have said seem to be discarded without response. How may times have I said “I already explained before”? The theists don’t seem to have the patience to read them and try to decide if I already answered the questions they are about to ask….

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Jugglable November 26, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Bill Snedden:

“I consider this to be a nonsense question because it contains the necessary assumption that “nothing”, as a putative state of affairs, is logically possible.”

The question I’m asking could be rephrased as, “Why does the nexus of contingent things exist rather than nothing?” It is totally possible that I not exist. I wasn’t around the Jurassic era, for example. I don’t have to exist, but I do right now. So it does indeed make sense to ask of me, as it makes sense to ask of all contingent things, “Why?”

“I argue that it is in fact the same question as “why is there “god” rather than nothing?”

No, because if God is necessary rather than contingent, to ask why God exists is different than asking, “Why do contingent things exist?”

“they’re simply rejecting the one you have given (and for good reason, as we see it)”

No. Not for good reason. Contingent things, by definition, don’t have to exist. So if they do exist, it is a *good* question to ask why. If they don’t have to exist and they do, there is an explanation of why they do exist. I don’t exist independently of all conditions. I only exist in certain conditions. So to ask why I exist is justified; it’s asking what conditions give rise to my existence.

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Jugglable@gmail.com November 26, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Eric:

“You cannot conclude that EVERYTHING within the universe is contingent just because you observe contingency within the universe.”

If we observe a contingent thing in the universe, it does mean that the universe and everything else in it is contingent.

A contingent thing does not have to exist. So if the universe has a contingent part, then part of it does not have to exist. If part of it does not have to exist, it [the universe] could be different. If the universe could be different, there is nothing necessary about its nature, and it is contingent. Therefore, everything in the universe is contingent because a contingent entity cannot have necessarily existing parts.

“As soon as a theist assumes God is the explanation for something, and God is brute fact, then the theists have effectively stopped all inquiry.”

To say that God is a brute fact is not a bald assertion, but follows logically, precisely FROM philosophical enquiry.

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neil November 26, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Eric:“You cannot conclude that EVERYTHING within the universe is contingent just because you observe contingency within the universe.”If we observe a contingent thing in the universe, it does mean that the universe and everything else in it is contingent

Jugglable,

I think you need to re read what Eric posted.

He is using the term Universe to mean “all that exists” if God exists, then God would be part of the universe under this definition.

Surely you are not prepared to concede that God is contingent simply because he is part of the universe (all that exists) and that the universe contains contingent elements.

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Eric November 26, 2010 at 3:10 pm

Jugglable –
If we observe a contingent thing in the universe, it does mean that the universe and everything else in it is contingent.

A contingent thing does not have to exist. So if the universe has a contingent part, then part of it does not have to exist. If part of it does not have to exist, it [the universe] could be different. If the universe could be different, there is nothing necessary about its nature, and it is contingent. Therefore, everything in the universe is contingent because a contingent entity cannot have necessarily existing parts.

universe: the set of all that exists (U)
If x is an element of set U. If x exists, it must exist as an element of U.
If x exists necessarily then it must exist as an element of U necessarily. So U must exist necessarily, regardless of whether or not anything else exists necessarily. You cannot imagine a state where the universe fails to exists any more than you can imagine a state where element x fails to exist. That is the philosophical definition of “necessary.”

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ayer November 26, 2010 at 3:20 pm

I consider this to be a nonsense question because it contains the necessary assumption that “nothing”, as a putative state of affairs, is logically possible.

I fail to see which logical fallacy is implicated by the question; which one did you have in mind?

The fact that you did go on to address it indicates to me that the question is not logically fallacious, and can be addressed meaningfully. Now, while “nothing” (i.e., the absence of anything) may be logically possible, perhaps it is metaphysically impossible–of course that would require an argument, and yours is:

Snedden: “If “nothing” were ever to have existed, then “nothing” would still exist. As “something” now exists, it’s clear that this was not the case.”

But the theist, of course, agrees with you here, since he asserts that a necessary being, God, has always existed. The existence of the necessary being causally explains the existence of the contingent being (the universe).

Snedden: “The theist will point to necessary being and the non-theist can certainly do the same (as I’ve done, above).”

So it is your position that there is “necessary being” underlying contingent being? If so, what is the nature of necessary being do you have in mind?

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ayer November 26, 2010 at 3:23 pm

universe: the set of all that exists (U)

So you define “the universe” not as the entirety of space-time-matter but as anything that exists? I guess that is a way of dealing with the question, but since the theist asserts the existence of God outside of space-time-matter, how is that an argument against God’s existence?

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Adito November 26, 2010 at 3:41 pm

Jugglable

But when you’re dealing with a necessary reality, its existence isn’t reliant upon external factors. It explains its own existence, so when you ask, “Why does God have the nature of existing,” or “why is God this way instead of that?” God himself would answer that question.

Right, this is what I meant when I said that a theist must appeal to some property God has to explain why He has some other property. This doesn’t answer why the second (and thereby the first) property exists as it does. You’re simply describing a brute fact which is something I’ve already said must exist.

Nothing explains its own existence. Some things just have no explanation for their existence.

The things of the universe are fleeting an evanescent, so they’re a crumby candidate for this necessary reality.

I’m not sure why you say this. The nature of the universe is still unknown. There’s definitely a fact of the matter about what facts can’t be reduced into others (AKA, there is at least one brute fact). I don’t think it’s progress to say that a being as strange and contradictory to our current knowledge as God must be this brute fact.

Right. He’s not one cause among many. He’s the reason why the causal chain exists at all.

I didn’t mean to give the impression that I thought God would be one cause among many. He’s certainly one possible first cause among many possible first causes but I meant that I see no reason to say that He beats all the others. In fact I see plenty of reasons to say that positing God to explain anything gets us absolutely nowhere.

I think Eric, Bill and I are all hitting the same general thing so if you don’t want to reply to me specifically that’s fine. I just wanted to clarify my position.

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ayer November 26, 2010 at 4:12 pm

Some things just have no explanation for their existence.

I think this statement really sums of the essence of the atheist position.

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Jugglable November 26, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Neil–very good point. And Eric– we are getting abstract here, so I really do apologize if I am not understanding you.

“Surely you are not prepared to concede that God is contingent simply because he is part of the universe (all that exists) and that the universe contains contingent elements”

You are making a category error of thinking that God is “a part of existence” in the same way a horse or an apple of an atom is “a part of existence.” See my comment below.

Eric:

“If x exists necessarily then it must exist as an element of U necessarily”

I don’t think it makes sense to talk about a necessary existence being “an element of” something else. If something is necessary, it is its nature to be. Its essence is existence. If its essence is existence, it cannot be limited in any way. Because it is existence, i.e. reality itself, no real limit can be placed upon it, so it cannot be “a part of” something else. This is why God isn’t one thing among many. God doesn’t relate to contingent things the way contingent things relate to each other. If a necessary existence simply has the nature “to be,” it exists in and through all of reality.

“If x exists necessarily then it must exist as an element of U necessarily”

“U” can change, though. “U” right now is different than it was when I began typing this sentence. You are acting as if “U” has an inherent nature, when actually its nature changes from second to second.

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Tony Hoffman November 26, 2010 at 6:02 pm

Ayer: I don’t understand either–the other sites I linked to deal with the questions under discussion, i.e, “why is there something rather than nothing,” “why is the universe apparently fine-tuned,” “what caused the beginning of the universe”? I don’t recall biodiversity being one of the questions at issue.

Well, no. You linked to two apologist sites, which offer, I presume, some quasi-metaphysical questions and the predictable Christian “explanations” designed to persuade the credulous without providing, you know, a real explanation. I presume the contents because it’s not clear what I’m supposed to read or link to on these sites, and I have adopted a policy of not chasing rabbits when the rabbits provide no reason to be followed.

Regarding your being shocked that I would bring up biodiversity, the list in this post also includes “artifacts of intelligent design,” but perhaps you missed it. But you cannot be unaware that “God did it” was once the preferred theistic explanation for biodiversity, and for “artifacts of intelligent design,” and that some theists today still feel that it is still a good explanation.

I don’t think my point was that hard to grasp; either questions like those in this post are framed to be explained in a meaningful way, or they are not. They are interesting and meaningful to the extent they avail themselves of good explanations. You seem content to accumulate questions that lead to “God did it,” but that seems to provide us all with the same material with which we started, and evinces a real lack of adventure.

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ayer November 26, 2010 at 7:11 pm

I don’t think my point was that hard to grasp; either questions like those in this post are framed to be explained in a meaningful way, or they are not. They are interesting and meaningful to the extent they avail themselves of good explanations.

Ok, and I think it’s clear that the atheists here generally limit a “good explanation” to a “scientific explanation” (and satisfy themselves on other matters as Adito did above, that “some things just have no explanation for their existence”). That’s fine, scientism is one approach to the world; but it leaves those who adopt it with nothing to offer on what seem to me to be the most interesting and important questions (as Dawkins demonstrated in his recent debate with Craig). In that case, the most interesting discussions will be between different approaches to theism (e.g., between the Thomist and Leibnizian versions of the argument from contingency).

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Adito November 26, 2010 at 8:17 pm

Ayer

There’s no escape from the fact that some things have no explanation for their existence. Ask yourself why it is that Gods nature is the way it is rather than some other way. This is the exact same kind of question the atheist considers when he thinks about why the universe is the way it is (or whatever necessary being the atheist thinks is likely). What property does God have that a hypothetically necessary universe lacks that makes a difference here?

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Alex Petrov November 26, 2010 at 8:43 pm

“I think this statement really sums of the essence of the atheist position.” – ayer on “Some things just have no explanation for their existence.”

I find this statement ironic. Actually, most all of ayer’s statements are ironic and hilarious. This is, in essence, your position and almost all Christians’ position on God Himself. This entire conversation has revolved around God being the necessary being behind existence. Why is He so special? He just is. No one seems to care about this property of God. It seems to me this whole necessary trait of That Guy is but another excuse to shoehorn the Necessity of God(tm) in the explanation of how we got here.

Oh, and for another thing, how is the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” among of the most important questions? I can understand interesting, sure, considering the whole logic surrounding “nothing” (though, even then, most interesting is going pretty far). But important? How? How does answering that question truly help anything? What does it accomplish?

I mean, the other questions brought up were at least actually important. Knowing how the universe began and knowing why physics work the way they do (the so-called “fine-tuning” of the universe) actually allow us to further investigate what we can and can’t do as human beings. Any question or answer that doesn’t do this is particularly useless (e.g. the “God Did It” explanation).

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Jugglable November 26, 2010 at 11:11 pm

Adito:

“Ask yourself why it is that Gods nature is the way it is rather than some other way. ”

If God’s nature is necessary, that question doesn’t make sense. If his nature is necessary, it doesn’t make sense to think his nature could be another way.

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Eric November 27, 2010 at 12:20 am

Ayer –
So you define “the universe” not as the entirety of space-time-matter but as anything that exists? I guess that is a way of dealing with the question, but since the theist asserts the existence of God outside of space-time-matter, how is that an argument against God’s existence?

I’m assuming you meant to include energy. I didn’t meant THAT specifically as an argument against God’s existence. My aim is to show that a God is not necessary. The theist asserts that God is outside of space-time-matter-energy, which means that the theist says something concrete can exist outside space-time-matter. If we consider this even coherent, and we assume brute facts must exist this way (which I don’t think we are justified in believing), then the theist must still show that God must be the only concrete thing which can exist this way. So far, I have yet to find a reason this must be the case.

Ayer-
“Some things just have no explanation for their existence. ”
I think this statement really sums of the essence of the atheist position.

Do you accept that an infinite regress of explanation can exist? If not, this position logically follows.


I don’t think it makes sense to talk about a necessary existence being “an element of” something else. If something is necessary, it is its nature to be. Its essence is existence. If its essence is existence, it cannot be limited in any way. Because it is existence, i.e. reality itself, no real limit can be placed upon it, so it cannot be “a part of” something else. This is why God isn’t one thing among many. God doesn’t relate to contingent things the way contingent things relate to each other. If a necessary existence simply has the nature “to be,” it exists in and through all of reality.

How does it not make sense? What properties of a set (or any collection) do not make it make sense? If you think of the universe as all that exists, you can also call it a collection (calling this collection a set is arguable but not relevant to this discussion) of all that exists. If something exists, then it is part of this collection. What about this doesn’t make sense? And yes it can be classified as part of something. Anything necessary is already an element of the set of all necessary things. How does its “essence being existence” (you may have to specify exactly what you are saying) mean it cannot be an element of a collection (in this case a set)? How does putting something within a set limit it? I will comment on the God part later in this post…

Jugglable –
“U” can change, though. “U” right now is different than it was when I began typing this sentence. You are acting as if “U” has an inherent nature, when actually its nature changes from second to second.

The only property a necessary being must have is that it could not have failed to exist (philosophical use) I have already demonstrated how the universe could not have failed to exist if anything necessary exists. It sounds as if saying the universe isn’t necessary in the way you use the term “necessary” doesn’t accomplish anything useful. What conclusions can you come to as a result of this?

Jugglable –
If God’s nature is necessary, that question doesn’t make sense. If his nature is necessary, it doesn’t make sense to think his nature could be another way.

I can conceive of God having a different nature than the one he must have if he is theorized to have created THIS universe. He could have desired to create a different world. I can conceive of a God who is imperfect, evil, not omniscient, and not everywhere. In fact, I can conceive of God not existing (obviously by the fact that I am an atheist). So by your use of the word necessary, as well as the traditional philosophical use of the word necessary, God is not necessary. God could be necessary by MY prior use, but then it is in competition with anything else that COULD be necessary, in which candidates include ANYTHING we don’t KNOW to be contingent (at the very least).

Ayer-
Ok, and I think it’s clear that the atheists here generally limit a “good explanation” to a “scientific explanation” (and satisfy themselves on other matters as Adito did above, that “some things just have no explanation for their existence”). That’s fine, scientism is one approach to the world; but it leaves those who adopt it with nothing to offer on what seem to me to be the most interesting and important questions (as Dawkins demonstrated in his recent debate with Craig). In that case, the most interesting discussions will be between different approaches to theism (e.g., between the Thomist and Leibnizian versions of the argument from contingency).

We attempt to use consistent and demonstrably useful standards of explanation. Unless any useful question IN PRINCIPLE cannot POSSIBLY have explanations that make sense within the provided standards, then it is not a problem to hold possible explanations to these standards. Also, if an explanation particularly excels in one area but cannot be evaluated in another, then it could still be considered a good explanation.
In the case of testability, if it is in principle possible to test an explanation to a meaningful question, then non-testable explanations may not necessarily be lacking depending on how well they satisfy other criteria. If it is in principle not possible to test any explanation, then that criteria need not be used. However, the kind of meaningful questions in which God is suggested as an answer don’t seem to be lacking this principle of testable explanations. However, there are some questions in which explanations can be proved (or nearly proved) and therefore don’t need to be evaluated any other way (although this may be limited to the abstract).

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ayer November 27, 2010 at 7:54 am

Ask yourself why it is that Gods nature is the way it is rather than some other way. This is the exact same kind of question the atheist considers when he thinks about why the universe is the way it is (or whatever necessary being the atheist thinks is likely). What property does God have that a hypothetically necessary universe lacks that makes a difference here?  

God exists by the necessity of his own nature, and not by any external cause. If you are now saying that the universe exists by the necessity of its own nature, then you are saying it does have an explanation of its existence (and does not exist as a mere “brute fact” whose existence has no explanation). Those are very different positions–of course, each position would require an argument to sustain. I haven’t seen a good one here yet. A better atheist approach might be Alex Petrov’s position that, basically, “we just don’t care about the answer to that question”; but then why spend time evaluating whether theism is a “good” or “bad” explanation to a question which you don’t care about?

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ayer November 27, 2010 at 8:01 am

“Some things just have no explanation for their existence. ”
I think this statement really sums of the essence of the atheist position.

Do you accept that an infinite regress of explanation can exist? If not, this position logically follows.

No, I don’t, but that leads to the conclusion that a being which exists by the necessity of its own nature prevents the infinite regress. It is that property of “existing by the necessity of its own nature” which solves the problem of the infinite regress. “Having NO explanation of its existence” is not a “property” that makes a being “necessary.” It is the property of “necessary existence” (as opposed to “existence by an external cause”) that prevents the infinite regress. That is why your use of the term “necessary” is idiosyncratic and confusing. But it actually seems like when that confusion is resolved, you may be coming close to the theist position on the need for a “necessary being” (with “necessary” being used in the proper sense).

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Tony Hoffman November 27, 2010 at 8:10 am

Ok, and I think it’s clear that the atheists here generally limit a “good explanation” to a “scientific explanation” (and satisfy themselves on other matters as Adito did above, that “some things just have no explanation for their existence”).

This appears to be psychological projection. It’s obvious that theists have throughout history contented themselves thus:

“Ok, and I think it’s clear that the theists generally limit a “good explanation” to “goddidit” (and satisfy themselves on other matters that “godlike things just have no explanation for their existence”).

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Bill Snedden November 27, 2010 at 8:12 am

@ayer:

I fail to see which logical fallacy is implicated by the question; which one did you have in mind?

The one I stated specifically in my post: reification. The question treats “nothing” as though it’s logically on par with “something”, which it cannot be by definition. The question treats “nothing” as though it’s “something”, which is the fallacious reification of an abstraction.

The fact that you did go on to address it indicates to me that the question is not logically fallacious, and can be addressed meaningfully.

Not at all. My “address” of it was per arguendo for the purposes of which I set aside its apparent incoherency. That’s why I wrote, “Now, to the extent that theists insist that “why is there something rather than nothing?” is in fact a meaningful question…”

Now, while “nothing” (i.e., the absence of anything) may be logically possible, perhaps it is metaphysically impossible–of course that would require an argument, and yours is:

Not sure what you mean here. I’m arguing that “nothing” as a putative state of affairs is both a logical and metaphysical impossibility (the logically impossible is metaphysically impossible by definition; logical possibility being the broadest of subjunctive possibilities).

But the theist, of course, agrees with you here, since he asserts that a necessary being, God, has always existed.The existence of the necessary being causally explains the existence of the contingent being (the universe).

Sure, but in this particular context, “god” is extraneous. As Laplace said to Napoleon, “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.”

So it is your position that there is “necessary being” underlying contingent being?If so, what is the nature of necessary being do you have in mind?

Yes, although I would not say “necessary being” as that’s open to equivocation on the word “being” (not that you’re doing that). I would say simply that existence itself is necessary (although the existence of many given existents may be contingent). As to the nature of existence, as Eric has pointed out, the only property a necessary being MUST have is that it could not have failed to exist. I would also point out that this also entails certain corollaries in that existence could not exist EXCEPT that the logical laws of non-contradiction & identity be veridical descriptions of it.

Essentially, you could take what theists posit to be the nature of “god” and subtract all those characteristics related to consciousness (personality, will, intent, value, etc) and you’d be left with what we might consider a “bare minimum” nature of necessity. In fact, the nature of “god” is dependent upon those characteristics representing a veridical description of its nature (as they’re not and cannot be subject to its will).

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Tony Hoffman November 27, 2010 at 8:14 am

If God’s nature is necessary, that question doesn’t make sense. If his nature is necessary, it doesn’t make sense to think his nature could be another way.

WTF? Aren’t you the one upthread who said:

Don’t stop being curious when it comes to the bang that gave rise to our universe. I’m always amazed at how atheists want to stop asking questions when the answers become interesting.

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Tony Hoffman November 27, 2010 at 8:22 am

However, the kind of meaningful questions in which God is suggested as an answer don’t seem to be lacking this principle of testable explanations.

This is an interesting thing to say. It makes me wonder if theists, who purport to believe in a god that they simultaneously declare to be unfalsifiable and untestable, are not in fact the true atheists.

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Bill Snedden November 27, 2010 at 8:28 am

@Jugglable:

The question I’m asking could be rephrased as, “Why does the nexus of contingent things exist rather than nothing?”It is totally possible that I not exist.I wasn’t around the Jurassic era, for example.I don’t have to exist, but I do right now.So it does indeed make sense to ask of me, as it makes sense to ask of all contingent things, “Why?”

Well, of course that’s a different question than “why is there something rather than nothing”. I’d argue that we know a great deal about the wholly naturalistic processes that brought most contingent things into existence (evolution, thermodynamics, celestial mechanics, etc, etc). There’s simply no need to invoke a deity to explain them.

No, because if God is necessary rather than contingent, to ask why God exists is different than asking, “Why do contingent things exist?”

Yes, but that’s not how the question has previously been phrased. “Why is there something rather than nothing” IS the same question as “why does God exist?” And if the nature of existence is necessity, as I believe it is, then the answer is the same.

No.Not for good reason.Contingent things, by definition, don’t have to exist.So if they do exist, it is a *good* question to ask why.If they don’t have to exist and they do, there is an explanation of why they do exist.I don’t exist independently of all conditions.I only exist in certain conditions.So to ask why I exist is justified; it’s asking what conditions give rise to my existence.

As I’ve noted, we already have pretty good knowledge of the processes by which contingent things arise, no deity required. And the more we learn about existence, the more it simply reinforces that conclusion. Of course, that doesn’t dispositively rule out “god”, but it certainly does render the idea increasingly extraneous. And thus we do indeed have good reason to reject “god” as the answer.

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Bill Snedden November 27, 2010 at 8:36 am

@ayer

God exists by the necessity of his own nature, and not by any external cause. If you are now saying that the universe exists by the necessity of its own nature, then you are saying it does have an explanation of its existence (and does not exist as a mere “brute fact” whose existence has no explanation). Those are very different positions…

NO, they’re not. They’re EXACTLY the same position. In what possible way could they be different? Remember, we’re not talking about the “universe” of contingent existents, we’re talking about the “UNIVERSE” by which we mean existence itself.

And if you think that “god” isn’t a “brute fact”, then you simply don’t understand the meaning of “brute fact”. Any fact that contains within itself the explanation or cause of its own existence is, by definition, a brute fact.

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Neil November 27, 2010 at 8:56 am

Neil–very good point.And Eric– we are getting abstract here, so I really do apologize if I am not understanding you.“Surely you are not prepared to concede that God is contingent simply because he is part of the universe (all that exists) and that the universe contains contingent elements”

You are making a category error of thinking that God is “a part of existence” in the same way a horse or an apple of an atom is “a part of existence.”See my comment below.

“If x exists necessarily then it must exist as an element of U necessarily”I don’t think it makes sense to talk about a necessary existence being “an element of” something else.

I think it makes perfect sense to think that a necessarily existing thing forms part of the collection “all that exists”.

I think it is illogical to exclude it from this collection because anything that is excluded from this collection is by definition non-existent. And it is not coherent for a necessarily existing thing to be non-existent.

For clarity

If God exists he is part of all that exists.

If God is not part of all that exists then he does not exist.

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ayer November 27, 2010 at 9:25 am

The one I stated specifically in my post: reification. The question treats “nothing” as though it’s logically on par with “something”, which it cannot be by definition. The question treats “nothing” as though it’s “something”, which is the fallacious reification of an abstraction.

I see what you are getting at, and that is one of the problems with the use of the colloquial term “nothing.” However, I am using it in the traditional philosophical sense of “not-being” or “the absence of being”, i.e.:

“Clauses can often be restated to avoid the appearance that “nothing” possesses an attribute. For example, the sentence “There is nothing in the basement” can be restated as “There is not one thing in the basement”. “Nothing is missing” can be restated as “everything is present”. …However, “nothingness” has been treated as a serious subject worthy of research for a very long time. In philosophy, to avoid linguistic traps over the meaning of “nothing”, a phrase such as not-being is often employed to unambiguously make clear what is being discussed.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nothing

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ayer November 27, 2010 at 9:33 am

NO, they’re not. They’re EXACTLY the same position. In what possible way could they be different? Remember, we’re not talking about the “universe” of contingent existents, we’re talking about the “UNIVERSE” by which we mean existence itself.

And if you think that “god” isn’t a “brute fact”, then you simply don’t understand the meaning of “brute fact”. Any fact that contains within itself the explanation or cause of its own existence is, by definition, a brute fact.

No, I’m afraid it is you who do not understand the difference between a “necessary being” and a “brute fact”. Bertrand Russell did, though, and it was the key issue in his famous debate with Francis Coppleston:

“F.C. Copleston proposed his Cosmological argument in a famous BBC radio debate with Bertrand Russell. Russell however refused to accept the notion of a necessary being as one that cannot be thought of not existing, and concluded that the regress of causal events could not be held responsible for the existence of everything in the universe… He reduced the universe to a mere, brute fact, of which it’s existence does not demand an explanation. ‘I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.’”
http://tutor2u.net/blog/index.php/religious-studies/comments/cosmological-argument/

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Tony Hoffman November 27, 2010 at 10:20 am

Ayer, in your last two posts you appear to have in fact conceded both of Bill Sneddon’s points while pompously implying, through reference to trivia, that Bill’s criticism is somehow mistaken. I think that resorting to these little games trivializes your arguments.

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ayer November 27, 2010 at 12:09 pm

Ayer, in your last two posts you appear to have in fact conceded both of Bill Sneddon’s points while pompously implying,through reference to trivia, that Bill’s criticism is somehow mistaken. I think that resorting to these little games trivializes your arguments.  

I’m sorry you feel that way, but I disagree.

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drj November 27, 2010 at 12:17 pm

So do the theists have any hypothesis to describe what this self-contained explanation within the nature of a necessary being might be?

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Eric November 27, 2010 at 1:37 pm

Ayer –
God exists by the necessity of his own nature, and not by any external cause. If you are now saying that the universe exists by the necessity of its own nature, then you are saying it does have an explanation of its existence (and does not exist as a mere “brute fact” whose existence has no explanation). Those are very different positions–of course, each position would require an argument to sustain. I haven’t seen a good one here yet. A better atheist approach might be Alex Petrov’s position that, basically, “we just don’t care about the answer to that question”; but then why spend time evaluating whether theism is a “good” or “bad” explanation to a question which you don’t care about?

but I already showed how God does not exist by the necessity of his own nature. And I did get give an argument over why the universe could exist by mere brute fact. And if you consider the Universe to encompass all that exists, then it does exist necessarily. Take for instance the property that all interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees. This is an example of a necessary fact. It may be vacuous if a triangle doesn’t actually exist, but if you were to take that position, then you may not be able to justify all non-necessary facts being contingent upon necessary facts. If you cannot justify that, then you have to assume brute facts exist which are not necessary by the traditional philosophical definition. If you re-read my post, you can see that I have already justified this. So if you want to reject it, please comment on my justifications. If you need me to give a full syllogism then I can, although there are syllogisms embedded within my responses, which include the syllogisms and their explanations.

Also, if something exists by brute fact, then it doesn’t make sense to care why it exists. But since atheists have not specified what exactly is brute fact, it seems to be a meaningless accusation to say “we just don’t care about the answer to that question [of why it exists]” because we have not applied that to anything. In fact, as I showed before, since there should be no way to tell when something is a brute fact (unless it is necessary), we can expect to never apply that to any explanation we accept. However, “we just don’t care about the answer to that question” is justified if the question isn’t meaningful or coherent.

Ayer –
No, I don’t, but that leads to the conclusion that a being which exists by the necessity of its own nature prevents the infinite regress. It is that property of “existing by the necessity of its own nature” which solves the problem of the infinite regress. “Having NO explanation of its existence” is not a “property” that makes a being “necessary.” It is the property of “necessary existence” (as opposed to “existence by an external cause”) that prevents the infinite regress. That is why your use of the term “necessary” is idiosyncratic and confusing. But it actually seems like when that confusion is resolved, you may be coming close to the theist position on the need for a “necessary being” (with “necessary” being used in the proper sense).

Actually, I made an attempt to be consistent with my use of the word necessary reflecting the traditional philosophical use when I commented on the issue (necessary as it applies to necessary beings). I have made sure to differentiate between “necessary,” meaning it needs no explanation of its existence both METAPHYSICALLY AND in the EPISTEMOLOGICAL sense, and “brute fact,” meaning it METAPHYSICALLY HAS no explanation for its existence. Actually, my position is is necessary for the theist position because God is not actually a necessary being, as I have shown already. You cannot say “I cannot conceive of a God which doesn’t exist” in the same way you can say “I cannot conceive of a triangle who’s interior angles don’t add up to 180 degrees.” And no amount of “divine bootstrapping” can get the theist out of this problem. It is DEMONSTRABLE that you cannot conceive of a triangle whose interior angles don’t add to 180 degrees (it has been proven). All the theist has done is assert God has this nature but have not demonstrated this fact. “existing by the necessity of its own nature” does not solve the problem of infinite regress unless, at the minimum, you can show that that something that is not necessary CAN BE FULLY EXPLAINED by necessary facts (can concrete beings be fully explained by abstract beings) If someone can do this, please try because I do not see how it is possible. In fact, if you could, then you should theoretically be able to PROVE any theory. Since nobody seems to think it is possible to PROVE the laws of physics, I doubt anyone has solved this problem. And if the problem is not solved, then how can we conclude that all non-necessary facts must be explained by necessary facts? In fact, if we cannot say that, then we must hypothesize the existence of brute facts which cannot ACTUALLY (metaphysically) fail to exist, even if we CAN conceive of them failing to exist: non-necessary facts which cannot ACTUALLY fail to exist.

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Eric November 27, 2010 at 2:03 pm

@Ayer and Jugglable
Here’s your syllogism:

For reference:
P = an infinite regress of explanation does not exist
Q = facts which have no explanation exist*
R = all non-necessary facts must be explained by either other non-necessary facts or necessary facts
S = there exists at least one non-necessary fact which is FULLY explained by at least one necessary fact
T = for a non-necessary fact it must be possible (in general) for it to be fully explained by necessary facts
U = facts which have no explanation must be necessary facts

If [an infinite regress of explanation does not exist], then [facts which have no explanation exist].
[An infinite regress of explanation does not exist] ~assume to be true for the purpose of argument
Therefore [facts which have no explanation exist]

If [all non-necessary facts must be explained by either other non-necessary facts or necessary facts] then, by recursion, [there exists at least one non-necessary fact which is FULLY explained by at least one necessary fact]**
If it is possible that [there exists at least one non-necessary fact which is FULLY explained by at least one necessary fact] then [for a non-necessary fact it must be possible (in general) for it to be fully explained by necessary facts]**
It is not the case that [for a non-necessary fact it must be possible (in general) for it to be fully explained by necessary facts]***
Therefore it is not the case that [all non-necessary facts must be explained by either other non-necessary facts or necessary facts].

If [facts which have no explanation must be necessary facts] then [all non-necessary facts must be explained by either other non-necessary facts or necessary facts]
Therefore it is not the case that [facts which have no explanation must be necessary facts]
Therefore facts which have no explanation CAN be non-necessary.

* brute facts
** necessary, not sufficient
***i have explained this earlier. However, if it was possible, that would not be sufficient to prove S. And even if S were the case, it would not be sufficient to prove R. It seems as though I would need to be much more versed in cosmology to figure out what conditions are sufficient for S and R. But, as one can see, it is not necessary for my argument so long as T is not true.

The most I can do is quantify my statements, but it seems unnecessary.

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ayer November 27, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Actually, my position is is necessary for the theist position because God is not actually a necessary being, as I have shown already. You cannot say “I cannot conceive of a God which doesn’t exist” in the same way you can say “I cannot conceive of a triangle who’s interior angles don’t add up to 180 degrees.” And no amount of “divine bootstrapping” can get the theist out of this problem.

You are being thrown off track by failing to distinguish between “logical necessity” and “metaphysical necessity.” That a triangle’s interior angles add up to 180 degrees is a logical necessity; that is different from “metaphysical necessity”, which applies to God.

As David Efird explains at the “Prosblogion” blog:
“A statement is logically necessary just in case the denial of it is self-contradictory.

A statement is metaphsyically necessary just in case it could not have been otherwise.

Consider the statement: If Kripke is a sociologist, then Kripke is actually a sociologist.

This statement is logically necessary (one denies it only on pain of contradiction) but not metaphysically necessary (since it might have been otherwise–it’s false in a world in which Kripke is a sociologist, assuming of course, that Kripke is not actually a sociologist).

Now consider the statement: Water is H20. This statement is metaphsyically necessary (it couldn’t have been otherwise) but it’s not logically necessary in the sense defined above.”
http://prosblogion.ektopos.com/archives/2004/06/leibniz-necessi.html#comment-3732

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Eric November 27, 2010 at 2:54 pm

@ayer
I was using the traditional philosophical use of the word necessary as it applies to necessary beings. In this sense, it is logically necessary. Before I said I was only going to use it that way, I was talking of something being metaphysically necessary. As it was confusing, I stuck with logical necessity as that is how the term necessary is used when applied to necessary beings versus non-necessary beings.

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Eric November 27, 2010 at 3:16 pm

@ayer
I do like the way that is explained. I considered the difference to be between something being necessary in terms of epistemology and something being “necessary” in terms of metaphysics. This divide between metaphysics and epistemology is similar to the problem of Venus. I can conceive that Phosphorus and Eosphorus are different things. However, they are metaphysically the same thing. It is metaphysically necessary that they are the same but not necessary in an epistemological sense. However, the article has a better way of wording the issue. Of course, the article basically makes the same point I made that theists must accept that brute facts need not be “logically necessary” because God is not “logically necessary.” So because of this, the universe can be considered a good candidate for metaphysical necessity. If you consider the universe to be all that exists, then it is logically necessary as well. However, if you consider the universe as all concrete things that exist, then it can be metaphysically necessary (in fact my argument earlier shows that it must be). If you consider all of space-time-energy-matter to be the universe, then it still can be metaphysically necessary but it doesn’t have to be. From my earlier posts, it should be clear that arguments that the universe (space-time-energy-matter) is a bad candidate for metaphysical necessity:
1. Only apply to logical necessity and not metaphysical necessity
2. Are guilty of an inductive fallacy

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Kyle Key November 27, 2010 at 3:20 pm

@ayer:
How about some examples of metaphysically necessary things that’re actually, you know, in the teensiest way comparable to your god, and not simply identity statements? Something in the realm of immaterial “existence,” thoughts and desires, contra-casual free will, changelessness, and atemporal action capabilities. Oh, but also acts in time and communicates with humans, since you believe in the Catholic description of Yahweh, and not merely the philosopher’s god.
I know you weren’t just planning on smuggling all of those, and many more, in later, so a few examples will do me just fine. You know, so that I can wrap my head around what you’re sayin’, since right now it sounds like utter nonsense postulated ad-hoc to keep ancient religious deities afloat.

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Bill Snedden November 27, 2010 at 3:21 pm

@ayer:

No, I’m afraid it is you who do not understand the difference between a “necessary being” and a “brute fact”.

Hmmm…let’s see. G.E.M. Anscombe coined the term in 1958 to describe facts that obtain regardless of context. IOW, facts that require no additional facts as explanation. By this definition, provided by the person who invented the term, a “necessary being” or necessary existent, i.e. one that contains within itself the cause or explanation of its own existence, is, in fact, a “brute fact”.

I’m aware, of course, that others may use the term somewhat differently, but this is the understanding upon which I’m relying: that provided by its creator.

Bertrand Russell did, though, and it was the key issue in his famous debate with Francis Coppleston:“F.C. Copleston proposed his Cosmological argument in a famous BBC radio debate with Bertrand Russell. Russell however refused to accept the notion of a necessary being as one that cannot be thought of not existing, and concluded that the regress of causal events could not be held responsible for the existence of everything in the universe… He reduced the universe to a mere, brute fact, of which it’s existence does not demand an explanation. “I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all.”

Of course, Russell’s debate with Copleston took place in 1947, about a decade before the term was invented so the characterization of Russell’s view as a “brute fact” is not Russell’s, but that of the “tutor2U” admin who posted the article to which you link. I would say that both Russell and Copleston are appealing to brute fact. I would also note that the context of the discussion at the point your URL cites is somewhat different from what we’re discussing here. Namely, Copleston and Russell had already both agreed that they were talking about the “universe” of contingent existents, NOT the “universe” as understood to mean “all that exists”. Whether or not for Russell that might also have included “the ground of existence”, or anything of that nature we have no idea for that never came up.

Regardless, I certainly do not take the same tack as Russell and neither, it seems to me, do many others here. We’re not arguing, necessarily, that existence has no cause, but rather that it has no cause external to itself. Which is exactly the same statement theist make about “god”. Which is exactly why the questions (why something? why god?) are in fact identical.

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ayer November 27, 2010 at 5:57 pm

IOW, facts that require no additional facts as explanation. By this definition, provided by the person who invented the term, a “necessary being” or necessary existent, i.e. one that contains within itself the cause or explanation of its own existence, is, in fact, a “brute fact”.

We’re not arguing, necessarily, that existence has no cause, but rather that it has no cause external to itself. Which is exactly the same statement theist make about “god”. Which is exactly why the questions (why something? why god?) are in fact identical. 

Ok, then allow me to specify how I am using the terms “necessary being” and “brute fact”:

Necessary Being: A being who contains the reason for its existence within its own nature.

Brute Fact: a fact which has no explanation.

Now it appears to me that way you are using brute fact would be roughly the same as the above definition of “necessary being” (not very useful, in my view, since it makes it difficult to distinguish the two concepts defined above–but be that as it may). You then go on to say that “existence” has no cause external to itself. This would imply that all “existence” is necessary (as I am using “necessary” above). Or do you distinguish certain aspects or levels of existence that are necessary, and others that are contingent? Please clarify if I am misunderstanding.

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Adito November 27, 2010 at 7:00 pm

I was going to write a long reply but I think Eric nailed it. Good job.

To nobody in particular…would it be fair to say that God would only be a necessary being (in the sense of the term being used by the theists here) if something like the ontological argument is successful?

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ayer November 27, 2010 at 7:22 pm

I was going to write a long reply but I think Eric nailed it. Good job.

Eric’s comment is much clearer to me than most of the others, because he just bites the bullet and asserts that “brute facts” (and he appears to use the term as I have been using it, i.e., “facts which are not necessary but have no explanation, either in an external cause or in the necessity of their own nature”) exist. To me it’s really a “non-answer answer”, but at least it is consistent with atheist premises.

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Eric November 27, 2010 at 8:14 pm

Ayer
Eric’s comment is much clearer to me than most of the others, because he just bites the bullet and asserts that “brute facts” (and he appears to use the term as I have been using it, i.e., “facts which are not necessary but have no explanation, either in an external cause or in the necessity of their own nature”) exist. To me it’s really a “non-answer answer”, but at least it is consistent with atheist premises.

My comments show that brute facts exist, but that God is not necessarily THE BRUTE FACT. The point is to show that arguments that require a necessary being fail, specifically arguments that require God as a necessary being. Since the atheist is not asserting a position, merely denying a position, this is all an atheist needs. So now the theist is “back to the drawing board” over how to create an argument that God must exist (or is most plausible).
Both the atheist and the theist argue for the existence of brute facts. The theist says that God is a brute fact. The atheist does not say anything in particular is a brute fact, only that they exist (we may know very little of them, if any outside the abstract). I have argued before how the atheist position is beneficial for the pursuit of good explanations. Negative assertions about how the atheist treats a brute fact are vacuous at best since an atheist cannot know when he/she comes in contact with a brute fact. No epistemological method exists for determining that a particular fact, not logically necessary, is in fact a brute fact. So I fail to see anything wrong with the position I have argued for…

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ayer November 27, 2010 at 8:40 pm

Both the atheist and the theist argue for the existence of brute facts.

No, I argue that everything has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. Your own definition of “brute fact” is a “fact which has no explanation (and can be non-necessary).” So there is a clear distinction in what we are arguing for. The only thing “wrong” with your position is that it does nothing to answer the question “why is there something rather than nothing (in the sense of ‘non-being’)”; I don’t think that question CAN be answered on atheism (as has been demonstrated in this thread), which is why I view atheism as having nothing to offer on this vital question. But then I also don’t see that the case has been made that it is a “nonsense” question which should be ignored. Which means atheism has nothing to offer in terms of answering a question that is not nonsense, but is indeed existentially vital to humanity. I’m sure none of the atheist discussants here would agree with that summary, but that’s how I see it. At least the discussion has been clarifying of the positions and issues.

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Eric November 27, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Ayer –
No, I argue that everything has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. Your own definition of “brute fact” is a “fact which has no explanation (and can be non-necessary).” So there is a clear distinction in what we are arguing for.

By necessary in its own nature, do you mean “logically necessary?” If that is the case, then I have already shown:
1. God is not logically necessary so it cannot be the theist’s necessary being. So I’d wonder why you would argue for such a thing?
2. This position is untenable (via my syllogism)
So I may have misunderstood you when you said:
“You are being thrown off track by failing to distinguish between “logical necessity” and “metaphysical necessity.” That a triangle’s interior angles add up to 180 degrees is a logical necessity; that is different from “metaphysical necessity”, which applies to God.”
By the way, as I noted, I DID distinguish between the two, but i used the term “necessary being” and “brute fact”, to mean “logically necessary” and “metaphysically necessary” respectively. I have explained the distinction many times so I hope there is no confusion anymore.

So if you mean “metaphysical necessity” when you say “necessity of its own nature” then we ARE arguing for the same thing, as both a “brute fact” and a “fact which is metaphysically necessary” are the same thing.

Which one is it? Or do you have a third meaning that is not just word games.

Ayer –
The only thing “wrong” with your position is that it does nothing to answer the question “why is there something rather than nothing (in the sense of ‘non-being’)”;

I don’t see why this is a problem. It is not the intention of the argument. That is like saying there is a problem with the Theory of Evolution because it does not explain the origin of life or the existence of gravity. I don’t see how my argument for the existence of non-logically-necessary brute facts has anything to do with why there is something rather than nothing. However, I have also already made an argument for why there is something rather than nothing.

Interestingly enough,
The existence of brute facts may answer the question anyway…
In order for brute facts to exist, something must have always existed. If there was a time when not-a-thing existed, then brute facts never existed. Then we have an infinite regress of explanation. If an infinite regress of explanation is not possible, something must have always existed.

Ayer -
I don’t think that question CAN be answered on atheism (as has been demonstrated in this thread), which is why I view atheism as having nothing to offer on this vital question. But then I also don’t see that the case has been made that it is a “nonsense” question which should be ignored. Which means atheism has nothing to offer in terms of answering a question that is not nonsense, but is indeed existentially vital to humanity. I’m sure none of the atheist discussants here would agree with that summary, but that’s how I see it. At least the discussion has been clarifying of the positions and issues.

But atheists have answered the question. Just because it is meaningless doesn’t mean it should be ignored, only that it does not yet need an explanation. Interestingly enough, philosophy is still trying to figure out if it is a meaningful or “nonsense” question. Is nothingness a default state of affairs? Should we ask this occams razor? Or is the fact that this is a special case mean we don’t use rules we use in other cases? Does everybody agree that something exists? And if they do, does the existence of something at all answer the question?Notice how the answers to none of these questions would qualify as an explanation in any non-trivial sense. They only serve to help us decide whether or not the question is meaningful and thus in need of explanation, or if it need to be rephrased. If it is deemed a meaningful question, it may need to be rephrased like: “Why do concrete things exist?” or “Why does space-time-matter-energy exist?” If this is the case, then we may consider it a meaningful question. In this case, atheists will look for explanations as much as theists.

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Adito November 27, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Ayer

Even if your argument succeeds I don’t see why it should be the case that atheism has “nothing to offer on this vital question.” As with any worldview the best that we can expect from one including atheism is that it tells us the truth. If it’s the case that the only possible answer to a question is “there’s no explanation” then why should we say that anything is missing?

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Eric November 27, 2010 at 10:19 pm

oh crap, i just realized my syllogism has a fallacy:

If [all non-necessary facts must be explained by either other non-necessary facts or necessary facts] then, by recursion, [there exists at least one non-necessary fact which is FULLY explained by at least one necessary fact]

should read:


If [all non-necessary facts must be explained by either other non-necessary facts or necessary facts] AND [An infinite regress of explanation does not exist] then, by recursion, [there exists at least one non-necessary fact which is FULLY explained by at least one necessary fact]

I forgot about infinite recursion, lol. Well the argument still accomplished the same thing…

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Jugglable November 27, 2010 at 11:23 pm

Eric:

“I can conceive of a God who is imperfect, evil, not omniscient, and not everywhere.”

You cannot do it in a logically coherent sense. You say you can conceive of God not existing, but that’s not true. It doesn’t make sense, i.e. it’s logically incoherent and self-defeating, to say you can conceive of a necessary existence not existing.

Tony Hoffman:

Not sure at all what your “WTF” comment is driving at. I stand by everything I said that you quoted.

Bill Snedden:

“I’d argue that we know a great deal about the wholly naturalistic processes that brought most contingent things into existence (evolution, thermodynamics, celestial mechanics, etc, etc). There’s simply no need to invoke a deity to explain them.”

You are misunderstanding my question. I am asking why contingent things exist AT ALL. I am asking, why is there such a thing as contingency? Contingency, by definition, does not have to exist. But it does. And to answer the question about why there is such a thing as contingency, you *cannot* answer with more contingency. To answer that question you must indeed invoke necessary existence.

““Why is there something rather than nothing” IS the same question as “why does God exist?””

No, because if you ask, “Why does something necessary exist” the answer to your question is right there in your question–because the existence of the necessary thing is necessary.

“Of course, that doesn’t dispositively rule out “god”, but it certainly does render the idea increasingly extraneous.”

You can learn more and more about science, which describes contingent things, but no matter how precisely you learn to describe them, it does not change at all philosophically the fact that those contingent things require a necessarily existing ground. I am speaking PHILOSOPHICALLY when I say there must be a necessarily existing ground. So science cannot even in principle render a necessary being as “extraneous.”

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Eric November 28, 2010 at 12:14 am

Jugglable –
“I can conceive of a God who is imperfect, evil, not omniscient, and not everywhere.”

You cannot do it in a logically coherent sense. You say you can conceive of God not existing, but that’s not true. It doesn’t make sense, i.e. it’s logically incoherent and self-defeating, to say you can conceive of a necessary existence not existing.

Please demonstrate the contradiction that exists by conceiving of a God with these properties. If no contradiction exists, then these properties of God are not logically necessary. If I can conceive of of the case where no God exists and there is no contradiction, then God does not have the property of logical necessary existence. You need to use a “proof by contradiction” in order to prove God’s existence. Then God’s existence would be necessary. Merely asserting that God is logically necessary without demonstration is “divine bootstrapping” and, as thus, fails to show God is logically necessary.

Jugglable
You can learn more and more about science, which describes contingent things, but no matter how precisely you learn to describe them, it does not change at all philosophically the fact that those contingent things require a necessarily existing ground. I am speaking PHILOSOPHICALLY when I say there must be a necessarily existing ground. So science cannot even in principle render a necessary being as “extraneous.”

I have already given an argument for why all logically contingent things don’t necessarily require logically necessary things. I invite you to read my previous posts and respond before you give arguments I have already refuted.

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Tony Hoffman November 28, 2010 at 7:00 am

Eric’s comment is much clearer to me than most of the others, because he just bites the bullet and asserts that “brute facts” (and he appears to use the term as I have been using it, i.e., “facts which are not necessary but have no explanation, either in an external cause or in the necessity of their own nature”) exist. To me it’s really a “non-answer answer”, but at least it is consistent with atheist premises.

I am surprised that this notion would be unfamiliar to you. To me it seems the most obvious choice available.

I am not sure that I agree that there are “brute facts,” but I would call the existence of something to be a brute fact. I can’t think of anything else I would call a brute fact. In other words, it seems obvious to me that “Something” is the brute fact at issue here.

The theist does appear to be playing word games with the insistence that, “Well, um, my brute fact (God) is explainable in that it is necessary.” This seems to be a straightforward begging of the question in the same way that Something can be said to be logically necessary, seeing as how Something can’t also be not Something.

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Jugglable November 28, 2010 at 8:29 am

Eric:

Let’s get our terms straight. When I talk about God here I’m talking about the necessarily existing ground of contingency. It does not make sense to talk about this necessary being as imperfect, because: If it is a necessary being, it is its nature to be. Its essence is existence. If its essence is existence itself, there can be nothing “outside of it” that exists to delimit it. The intersection of existence and essence must therefore possess every ontological perfection.

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Eric November 28, 2010 at 11:13 am

Jugglable-
Let’s get our terms straight. When I talk about God here I’m talking about the necessarily existing ground of contingency.

When you speak of “ground of contingency,” do you mean logically or metaphysically contingent? Based on earlier statements, I assume you mean logical necessity. However, if you are talking about logical contingency, then only abstract facts qualify. God is concrete and not abstract and therefore cannot be a logical necessity for the reasons stated above. This is probably why Ayer said that God is metaphysically necessary and not logically necessary. I suggest you read my syllogism. It shows that facts must exist which are not logically necessary, but physically necessary. To appeal to a situation where this is not the case already fails. You may need to concede that God must be a metaphysical necessity, as Ayer did. In that case many of your arguments that revolve around logical necessity (“i can imagine something not existing therefore it is not necessary”) must be abandoned.

Jugglable –
It does not make sense to talk about this necessary being as imperfect, because: If it is a necessary being, it is its nature to be. Its essence is existence. If its essence is existence itself, there can be nothing “outside of it” that exists to delimit it. The intersection of existence and essence must therefore possess every ontological perfection.

I guess I’m confused by this whole statement. Once again you need to define what exactly you mean by “its essence is existence.” I’m also curious as to what qualifies as an ontological perfection? I can’t really comment on your post until you answer my questions… Also

Note:
Certain aspects usually attributed to God, such as intelligence, benevolence, and power don’t make sense when you speak of necessary facts. How can the rule “all interior angles of a triangle add to 180 degrees” have intelligence? These facts only make sense when you speak of a mind. As you can see, necessary facts do not need a mind. Also, unless you accept Cartesian dualism, suggesting that something a mind is contingent upon must have the qualities of a mind is false.

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ayer November 28, 2010 at 3:35 pm

You may need to concede that God must be a metaphysical necessity, as Ayer did.

It is not a “concession” to say God is a metaphysical necessity; I will let Jugglable speak for himself, but God as metaphysical (not logical) necessity is the classic position of Aristotelian-Thomism (see Ed Feser’s “Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide”). However, your mention of the notion of “physically necessary” makes me think your confusion lies there.

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Eric November 28, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Ayer –
It is not a “concession” to say God is a metaphysical necessity; I will let Jugglable speak for himself, but God as metaphysical (not logical) necessity is the classic position of Aristotelian-Thomism (see Ed Feser’s “Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide”).

I assumed it was a concession because the arguments from contingency you have presented seem to fail if God is not a logical necessity, as I have explained before. However, whether or not you want to call it concession is up to you.

Ayer –
However, your mention of the notion of “physically necessary” makes me think your confusion lies there.

Seems I had a typo:
“It shows that facts must exist which are not logically necessary, but physically necessary.”
should read
“It shows that facts must exist which are not logically necessary, but metaphysically necessary.”
I hope this clears up any confusion. However, I’m surprised that caused much confusion as I was basically just repeating stuff I had said over and over already, only this time with a typo. I would have thought it was pretty obviously a typo. Oh well. Anything more I need to clear up?

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Kyle Key November 28, 2010 at 8:47 pm

@Eric:
It was obvious; I realized it was a typo before ayer’s post.

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Bill Snedden November 29, 2010 at 10:00 am

@ayer

Now it appears to me that way you are using brute fact would be roughly the same as the above definition of “necessary being” (not very useful, in my view, since it makes it difficult to distinguish the two concepts defined above–but be that as it may).

You’d want to take that up with Ms. Anscombe, who coined the term. Unfortunately, she’s deceased…

You then go on to say that “existence” has no cause external to itself.This would imply that all “existence” is necessary (as I am using “necessary” above).Or do you distinguish certain aspects or levels of existence that are necessary, and others that are contingent? Please clarify if I am misunderstanding.

I would agree that Existence is necessary, as you use the term. What I mean by “Existence” however is not simply “all that exists” in terms of a “collection” of objects, but the totality of existence which would be, for lack of a better way of putting it, the base strata or substance out of which reality is comprised. As an example, we know that matter and energy are in fact the same thing (via Einstein). Assuming arguendo that this is the lowest level of existent this would lead us to infer some type of monism in which this substance (matter/energy) is the strata out of which everything else that exists in this universe is comprised.

So, if we go deeper than our universe (the Multiverse or whatever it might be), I believe it’s the same: that there’s some base strata out of which everything that exists is comprised and in which the explanation of all that exists is grounded. That’s what I mean when I use the term “Existence”. And this is the level of existence that is necessary (i.e., the “something” that has always existed and could not have failed to exist). There may indeed be other existents that are contingent but even that seems to me somewhat contentious (see my response to Jugglable).

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Bill Snedden November 29, 2010 at 10:41 am

@Jugglable:

You are misunderstanding my question.I am asking why contingent things exist AT ALL.I am asking, why is there such a thing as contingency?Contingency, by definition, does not have to exist.But it does.And to answer the question about why there is such a thing as contingency, you *cannot* answer with more contingency. To answer that question you must indeed invoke necessary existence.

Well, as I see it there are two (at least) possible answers to your question:

1) Contingency is, in and of itself, necessary. That is to say that it is part of the nature of Existence (which exists necessarily) that existents contingent to it will come into existence. In the same manner as we could say it is the nature of Oxygen to combine with Hydrogen when both are present in the proper quantities under the proper conditions, we could say that the strata of Existence necessarily gives rise to various other existents under certain conditions. Any particular existent might not itself necessarily obtain (e.g., that tree, this rock, etc), but contingent existents overall cannot fail to obtain (e.g., trees, rocks, etc).

2) The distinction between “necessary” and “contingent” is an illusion. Given a necessarily existing starting point and causality, determinism obtains and that which we perceive as contingent is in fact necessary. Interestingly, this somewhat counter-intuitive view would be consonant with the tenseless or B-theory of time which seems to be the prevailing view in the physics as well as the philosophy of time.

I’m not sure which of these seems to me more correct. I can see some issues with both, but it seems to me that one of the two is likely to be correct, even if it is the case that God exists. God’s will, after all is constrained by His nature (i.e., determined). So, if it’s in His nature to create contingent existents, He WILL create contingent existents. Essentially the same as my #1, above and consonant with #2 as well.

No, because if you ask, “Why does something necessary exist” the answer to your question is right there in your question–because the existence of the necessary thing is necessary.

Yes, and Existence IS necessary so they are, in fact, the same question.

You can learn more and more about science, which describes contingent things, but no matter how precisely you learn to describe them, it does not change at all philosophically the fact that those contingent things require a necessarily existing ground.I am speaking PHILOSOPHICALLY when I say there must be a necessarily existing ground.So science cannot even in principle render a necessary being as “extraneous.”

Yes, but we can see that a particularly defined “necessary being” might indeed be extraneous. In this case “intent”, “purpose”, “will”, “consciousness”, etc do not seem to be characteristics required of the “necessary being”. It is in this sense that I say that the idea of “god” is rendered increasingly extraneous.

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ayer November 29, 2010 at 11:40 am

that there’s some base strata out of which everything that exists is comprised and in which the explanation of all that exists is grounded. That’s what I mean when I use the term “Existence”. And this is the level of existence that is necessary (i.e., the “something” that has always existed and could not have failed to exist).

If you would like to use another term (other than “brute fact”) for “something which has no explanation for its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause”, I am game.

Ok, so if we call this “base strata” “quarks” (which would seem the most likely candidate according to subatomic physics), is it your position that each and every “quark” exists by the necessity of each own nature? Is that just an assertion, or is there a reason you believe that? For example, the theist asserts that God exists by the necessity of his own nature as an implication of “perfect being” theology (whether you agree with that argument or not, it is an argument for God’s necessity). Do you have an argument for why each “quark” exists by the necessity of its own nature, other than the need (similarly expressed by Eric) to end an infinite regress that seems absurd?

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Bill Snedden November 29, 2010 at 1:51 pm

@ayer:

If you would like to use another term (other than “brute fact”) for “something which has no explanation for its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause”, I am game.

I wouldn’t argue or agree that such things can even exist, so I don’t particularly care what others may choose to call them. ;)

Numbers inserted in order to track questions.

Ok, so if we call this “base strata” “quarks” (which would seem the most likely candidate according to subatomic physics), is it your position that each and every “quark” exists by the necessity of each own nature? (1) Is that just an assertion, or is there a reason you believe that? (2) For example, the theist asserts that God exists by the necessity of his own nature as an implication of “perfect being” theology (whether you agree with that argument or not, it is an argument for God’s necessity). Do you have an argument for why each “quark” exists by the necessity of its own nature, other than the need (similarly expressed by Eric) to end an infinite regress that seems absurd? (3)

1) Quarks may or may not be “at the bottom”…currently they certainly seem to be the lowest level we postulate, but of what is a quark composed? There appear to be different “flavors”, but are they composed of unique substances? My contention would be that whatever it is that is at the bottom or ground of reality is what I term “Existence” and THAT is the substance that exists by the necessity of its own nature. If it’s quarks, it’s quarks…if something else, then something else. Whatever it is, it exists necessarily.

2) It’s not simply an assertion. I’ve already established via retorsion that “nothing” cannot have ever been a putative state of affairs and thus “something” has always existed. For lack of a better term, I call that “something” Existence. It may in fact be what theists term “god”, but currently I see no convincing nor necessary reason to hold so. “Perfect Being” theology and other word games (like the OA) are unsuccessful as arguments insofar as they attempt to graft “personality” to Existence.

3) I don’t believe an infinite regress is either logically or metaphysically possible, so I’ve no need to postulate anything to “end” it. I’m convinced via logic that something must exist necessarily. Given what we know of the universe in which we exist, we can attempt to formulate some idea of the bare minimum characteristics such an entity MUST have. Given this context, I would say that while there’s certainly the possibility that the “something” could be “god”, there’s simply no reason to add such “god-making” qualities as “personality”, “will”, “purpose”, “consciousness”, &c. They don’t seem to be required for necessity and neither do they seem to be required for the beginning or ongoing maintenance of the universe.

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Eric November 29, 2010 at 4:54 pm

@ Bill Snedden
It seems as though God is attempting to satisfy 2 problems.
1. the problem of an infinite regress (as a brute fact)
2. The Ontological argument (as a perfect being)

Problem 2 is incoherent without Cartesian Dualism. However, even with Cartesian Dualism, there’s no reason to assume that concepts must be modeled out of anything that must exist. If the mind is separate from the body, that still doesn’t rule out the finding that our memories almost certainly come from our brain. If these concepts are at all rooted in our memories, and our memories are just brain chemistry, then these concepts would be contingent upon brain chemistry. If this is the case, then even with Cartesian Dualism, there’s no reason to assume something must exist because we can conceive of such a thing.

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ayer November 29, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Bill Snedden,

Very interesting. As to (1) a theist would agree with you that at bottom there is something which exists necessarily (as in the Thomist position that God’s “essence is existence”; but why would this “base strata” have causal powers such that contingent things come into existence (either at at at time of t=0 or eternally)? The theist would seem to have an advantage on that question. Of course, if contigency is an “illusion”, that would define away the problem, and your position would be interestingly similar to an impersonal version of Hindu monism. I don’t see that postulating a B theory of time renders the apparently contingent not-really-contingent, since contingency could still be dependent on the necessary being eternally (even if there was no t=0 beginning of the universe).

As to (2), I disagree (as noted above in my cite above) that “not-being” is a logically fallacious concept.

And as to (3), I generally agree with your notion of the need to formulate characteristics of the necessarily existent being. Of course, I believe such a procedure will result in a perfect being as the best explanation.

However, I appreciate the discussion, as it has been very clarifying.

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