Can Theism answer The Deepest Question?
June 12, 2006 — 15:24

Author: Trent Dougherty  Category: Concept of God  Comments: 9

Last week I sent off a review of John Leslie’s _Infinite Minds_ (OUP) to Religious Studies Review. I was under very strict space limitations so I didn’t have room to muse. Readers might be familiar with Leslie due to his previous work–most notably in _Universes_–chronicling the evidence for the “fine-tuning” of our universe to allow for or possibly even to produce intelligent life.
In _Infinite Minds_ Leslie presents his own explanation of the data. It is not any kind of traditional theism, but rather a view called Axiarchism–no doubt from axios-“worth” and arche-“first principle”. It is a Platonic creation story with a Spinozan spin. The essence of the theory is this:
(T1) The universe exists simply because it is good that it should exist.
Underlying (T1) is a thesis about the causal effectiveness of value.
(T2) That a state of affairs is valuable can sometimes be sufficient to bring it about that it exists.
I’m sure that strikes you as being as odd-ball as it did me, but stick with me because the objections might bounce of him and stick on you. For, Leslie suggests, the same problem arises for theism in spades and, what’s more, theism still doesn’t have the advantages axiarchism. In particular, Leslie claims, axiarchism can–and theism cannot–give a good answer to The Deepest Question: Why is there something rather than nothing?


The two main contenders in contemporary analytic philosophy for an account of divine necessity are, unsurprisingly, those of Plantinga and Swinburne: 1. Plantinga’s broadly logical necessity–existing in all possible worlds, and 2. Swinburne’s “ontological” necessity–depending on no being other than oneself for one’s existence.
Swinburne is explicit that “[God’s] existence is an ultimate brute fact” (Coherence, p. 277). He considers the question “But then is it not fortunate chance that that is the nature of things?” I don’t fully understand the answer: “Fortunate maybe. But not chance, because that is how the world works. True, it is logically contingent that that is how the world works. But it is an ultimate principle of its operation.” In the same vein he says later in _The Existence of God_ after concluding that the creative activity of God is best explanation of the data he has treated, “It remains perhaps passing strange that there exists anything at all” (288, 1st revised edition).
But Plantinga’s broadly logical necessity may not fare much better. Consider Swinburne when considering the ontological argument to the conclusion that God exists as a logically necessary being: “[S]uch an argument proceeds from some general purported logically necessary principle and endeavours to show that it is a consequence of that principle that there is a God. It thus claims that it is becausee of something about god that–in virtue of that principle00he has to exist. The premises of such an ontological argument do not merely entail the existence of God, but provide a reason why he exists. The traditional version of the ontological argument is of this kind–it is, it claims, because the existent is more perfect than the non0existent that there must be a God. But God would seem less than totally supreme if he depended for his existence on something quite other than God–for instance, on such a general logically necessary principle.” (_Christian God_, p. 145).
Some might point out that God would seem to some to be less than totally supreme if he were not logically necessary (or simple, or atemporal, or what have you). But that’s beside the point. I’m interested in two things:
1. Does saying that God exists *because* he logically cannot not exist–explain anything?
2. How bad would it be if God was dependent for his existence on some abstract principle whether it be Leslie’s/Plato’s axiarchological principle or what Swinburne calls “such a general logically necessary principle?”
To the first question Leslie answers No. He recognizes that the idea of a principle of value being responsible for the existence of something sounds weird. However, he suggests that this is merely sociological. If we Anglophone analytic philosophers had a more Platonistic or Hegelian background, he claims, the idea of something existing “because” of logical necessity would sound just as weird. I don’t think this helps Leslie, but I do think it raises interesting questions as to whether theism answers The Deepest Question.
There is, perhaps, a third option. The scholastic doctrine of aseity. Medieval doctrines of aseity seem mysterious to modern philosophers, but this might also be a sociological fact. The property of aseity is defined scholastically in such a way as to be equivalent to Swinburne’s ontological necessity, though for the medievals there’s a deeper level of explanation for it in the doctrine of divine simplicity: God’s essence includes existence. I’m glad to see a resurgence in defenses of that venerable doctrine and it would be nice if someone brought the recent literature to bear on the present issue of aseity.
Finally, one might think that the notion that God as creating himself or his nature would address The Deepest Question. I think Morris and Menzel defend that God creates His own nature in “Absolute Creation” but I can’t remember for sure. When I think about whether self-creation would answer the Deepest Question I slip into this dialog again and again.
“But why does God exist to cause Himself in the first place.”
“Because he has always caused himself to exist.”
“But why has he always been there to cause Himself.”
“Because He’s always been there to do the causing and had the intention to do so.”
“Fine. This is going nowhere. How is it that God is such that when He wills something it occurs. Why is it a fact that *If God wills that X (and X is possible yadda yadda) then X obtains*?
“Because God wills it to be true.”
“But how comes it that God is there to will it? Oh, never mind I know what you’re going to say.
I don’t find this very satisfying, but I’m not sure I *couldn’t* come to see it as satisfying. I think I’d rather come to see the Plantinga, Swinburne, or Aquinas pictures as being satisfying. When it comes to The Deepest Question, it seems I just can’t get no satisfaction.

Technorati Tags: john leslie, religious studies review, infinite, t1, universe, oup, space limitations, odd ball, fine tuning, creation story, intelligent life, axios, theism, platonic, arche, state of affairs, muse, thesis, essence

Technorati Tags: john leslie, religious studies review, infinite, t1, universe, oup, space limitations, odd ball, fine tuning, creation story, intelligent life, axios, theism, platonic, arche, state of affairs, muse, thesis, essence

Comments:
  • I’m curious about your claim that Plantinga’s “broadly logical necessity” does not fare better that Swinburne’s “ontological necessity.” You quote Swinburne as saying that “[t]he premises of such an ontological argument do not merely entail the existence of God, but provide a reason why he exists.” What sense of “reason” is operative here? There is reason in the sense of cause and then there is reason in the sense of evidence. In the former case, we’re talking metaphysics; in the latter, epistemology.
    It seems to me that Swinburne supposes a metaphysical reading of “reason” in the above-quoted sentence. But I think that misconstrues what Plantinga is after. I think Plantinga would reject that the ontological argument somehow gets at the cause of God’s existence. Perhaps the ontological argument helps us understand why God exists, but not “why” in the sense of “cause.” After all, Anselm et al. were not interested in pointing out the cause of God’s existence.
    Another point, regarding the Deepest Question: why even suppose that there is an answer in the sense of an explanation (whatever an explanation might be)? What sort of desiderata do we have for a satisfying answer? Maybe this is a failure on my part, but I also fail to see how it is that Leslie’s position is somehow better than the theistic one.
    I’m interested in Leslie’s answers to these questions.

    June 12, 2006 — 22:47
  • “1. Does saying that God exists *because* he logically cannot not exist–explain anything?”
    Well, it explains why God exists, but it is not a typical causal explanation. You might consider asking the same question about any necessarily existing object. Suppose you think that numbers necessarily exist or propositions. Now there is small question that numbers exist, but what explains their existence? Leibniz would urge that denying their existence is contradictory. That’s an explanation, but it isn’t causal. If that is true, then it is an explanation alright. Are you dissatisfied with that? It might be all of the unfortunate causal talk that is confusing. It’s not as though God caused himself to exist under the prevailing causal laws and might not have done so.
    So it seems mistaken to me to think of God’s existence as being a brute fact. Nor would I think the existence of the universe (or island universes or the multiverse, or whatever we have around us) is a brute fact if it necessarily existed.
    But I think Leslie is right, if he’s urging that his axiarchic principle might itself be a necessary truth (i.e., ‘might’ epistemically). But it does have (or seem to) a radical consequence. If, necessarily, the goodness of what exists explains why it is exists, then worlds that are on balance bad are not possible.
    They could not be: if such worlds were possible, then (of course) they would be possibly actual. But, given the necessary axiarchic principle, they could not be actual. So when you exhaust logical space you find only on balance good worlds. Difficult to believe. It is *impossible* that this world of ours becomes on balance bad?

    June 13, 2006 — 3:52
  • jon kvanvig

    Trent, here’s a really bad form of argument:
    I assert “p”, which “sounds weird” to you. “Sounds weird” doesn’t mean, of course, “is voiced in such a way that the soundwaves created are quite unusual or strange in some other way.” It means “appears to be false” or “doesn’t appear to have anything to be said in its favor” or something like that. So your response is a request for a defense of “p”.
    Here’s the bad response: if you had been raised in the rain forest by people who walked around on their hands instead of on their feet, you’d be much more sanguine about my claim that “p” is true. Or: if we raised your body temperature to 105 degrees, you’d come to think that I’m right. Or: It’s just your cultural conditioning that makes you question me on this…
    Leslie needs something else than the sociological response you cite above…

    June 13, 2006 — 7:38
  • jon kvanvig

    On the “deepest question,” I think Mike is exactly right here. The question is “why is there something rather than nothing?” To *that* question, the appropriate response is: because the contrast is impossible. That is, it is impossible that there is nothing at all. This is as good an explanation as one could ask for; to fail to see this is to confuse explanations with causal explanations.
    The natural move in the dialectic at this point is to think we’ve misconstrued the question, and I think that’s right. What we want to know is why there is something contingent rather than nothing contingent. (Here van Inwagen’s answer is worth considering: there’s only one world in which nothing contingent exists, and infinitely many in which something contingent exists, so, odds are vanishingly small that nothing exists.)
    Note too, Trent, that you impose explanatory demands on theism (right after stating the deepest question) that you don’t impose on Leslie’s principle. If we need an explanation of divine necessity beyond simply remarking that God’s existence is impossible, then we need an explanation of the truth of Leslie’s principle. And if there is a problem for theism here, Leslie’s principle is problematic on the same grounds.

    June 13, 2006 — 7:47
  • Daniel

    Why would Platonists or Hegelians think it odd for something to exist because of logical necessity? It’s not like Plato was ignorant of Parmenides, with his “cannot not-be” bits, and Hegel states that all things happen according to (speculative) logic — and besides this, he endorses a variant of Anselm’s argument (the Absolute replaces the conglomerate of omni-properties as the stand-in for the Being-Than-Which-No-Greater-Can-Be-Thought).
    I’m also confused as to how anyone could think it’s a problem that God’s existence is dependent on abstract properties. “Being God” is an abstract property, but it hardly seems coherent to claim that God is reduced to less-than-God because he cannot exist without being Himself.
    (also abstract properties: identity, possibility, existence — is God less than God because He can only exist if He is Himself, it is possible that He exists, and He exists if He exists? This seems silly.)
    I think the root of this is the notion that abstract properties are “things” at all. I have the same problem with the notion that “the world’s hypothetical goodness” is causing anything.
    Another thing that rubs me the wrong way: If I hold that it is basically bad for the world to exist, I should not think I have thereby shown that there is no world. I am not seeing why this becomes less bizarre if the polarity of the value-judgement is switched — is it somehow plausible that goodness causes existence, while insane that badness causes inexistence?
    But then, I never saw what was so great about “Why is there something rather than nothing?” in the first place. Seems a silly question, to me.

    June 13, 2006 — 7:59
  • Jon, you note van Inwagen’s view,
    “…there’s only one world in which nothing contingent exists, and infinitely many in which something contingent exists, so, odds are vanishingly small that nothing exists”
    I don’t know. The card on the table is not a face card. PvI says, “no surpise, about 80% of the cards aren’t.” Well, right. It’s no surprise if someone’s throwing cards randomly. But the information that someone’s throwing cards randomly would itself be the (statistical) explanation for no face card. It would answer our question why. Similarly, the random choice (event) of world would be the explanation we’re looking for when we ask why there is some contingent thing. But it would be a surprise, I think, that the choice or event was random over possible worlds. Wouldn’t it?

    June 13, 2006 — 8:49
  • Alex,
    “Perhaps the ontological argument helps us understand why God exists, but not “why” in the sense of “cause.”
    I’m not sure I understand what that means.
    “regarding the Deepest Question: why even suppose that there is an answer in the sense of an explanation”
    I don’t. The question was whether theism did. Some people in the past have seemed to think so, or at least a casual reading of their work could easily lead an armature like me to think they thought that. For example I get this impression from Leibniz who’s Principle of Sufficient Reason seems to blur the line between epistemology and ontology. Explanation in general blurs this line as well since why questions which are not aimed at discerning an intention are typically answered causally.
    Mike,
    “Leibniz would urge that denying their existence is contradictory. That’s an explanation, but it isn’t causal. If that is true, then it is an explanation alright. Are you dissatisfied with that?”
    Not always, but Leslie was sucking away my satisfaction a bit and so I sort of enflamed that doubt to see where it led. I take it that this non-causal explanation is some kind of “logical” explanation. Causal explanations advert to the properties of entities. I can see that properties fit or don’t fit together in various ways creating a logical matrix of compossibilities. But explaining the *existence* of an entity in reference to laws of logic does, upon further reflection, seem unsatisfactory.
    Part of what’s going on here–autobiographically–is that Leslie’s comments brought to mind Swinburne’s comments who defends a Humean view of logical necessity. See “Platonism vs. Nominalism” in the chapter _Necessity_ in Swinburne’s _The Christian God_. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the level of Platonism in Plantinga, but thought nominalism worse. In the past two years I’ve taken a more nominalistic turn though and I suppose that that is part of the explanation why I no longer find the satisfaction I once did in “explanations” adverting to some kind of extra-linguistic logical necessity.
    Note further that if one asks “Why are the laws of logic what they are?” or “How do the laws of logic make things happen?” the answer could initiate a dialog not wholly unlike the one that ends my initial comments.
    Jon,
    Leslie’s argument is not good and I’m not endorsing it. I was using it–as perhaps he was–as a rhetorical device to get people to take off their incredulous stare goggles and look at the issue afresh. Compare the issue of religious pluralism. I might be heard to say “If you were raised in Iran, you’d think Islam were true.” That’s a true counterfactual. The radical pluralist infers from this that you are irrational to be what you are. That would be, as you say, “a really bad form of argument”. However, it might impart to you a desire to investigate the truth claims of Islam more closely (if you hadn’t done so already). So I think there’s aharmless way to interpret Leslie’s move. Out of charity, I was assuming he wasn’t making an argument parallel to the radical pluralist.
    And Leslie’s view is clearly subject to his own criticisms for which I rap him on the wrist in my review. I think it is a *major* oversight not to see this.
    “it is impossible that there is nothing at all”
    I think so too, but I’ve never been satisfied with my arguments. Since The Deepest Question lead me to ask what is perhaps
    The Deepest Theological Question: Why does God exist?
    It would be unsatisfying to give my usual defense of your statement: that it is impossible that nothing at all exist because God exists in all possible worlds! I take it that you and Mike are suggesting that the *same* answer works for both questions. My problem–and I hope it’s only a temporary bug caught from reading Leslie’s book–is that I want to go on questioning: *Why* does God exist in every possible world? Is it because nothingness is intrinsically impossible and so is universal contingency? Is it because “God cannot not exist”? Do some Platonic Laws of Logic *make* Him to exist, keep Him in existnece, prevent Him from not existing.
    What I’ve said to people who got this way with me was that the better part of wisdom is to know when you’ve got an answer and to stop asking further questions at that point.
    Perhaps the best thing to do is to make a frontal assault on the Humean dictum: Any really existing object could have failed to exist. Swinburne defends it and has got a part of me thinking that way. I’m going to read Adams’s “Has it Been Proved that All Real Existence is Contingent?” now.
    Daniel,
    In my question, I gave two examples to generalize upon to get the sort of principles to which I was referring. The class does not include the items you mention. So let me clarify:
    Q2: Would it be theologically untoward if the answer to Why does God exist? was Because of the causal effectiveness of the principle that the sufficiently valuable must exist combined with the fact that such a God would be sufficiently valuable.
    You are all very kind to visit me with these get-well cards as I suffer through these theological sniffles. I do hope I clear up soon. However, there is a chance that it’s a serious virus instilling doubt about extra-linguistic logical necessity in general. That’s my core concern here.
    Jon is absolutely right that Leslie’s Platonistic Pantheism is no the same plane with broadly logical necessity. Sadly, that make me worry the much more about broadly logical necessity. PVI says “there is no such thing as logical possibility” and that though there is logical impossibility it is “an epistemological category” and logical necessity is defined in terms of it. (_Ontology, Identity, and Modality_, 247-248) This doesn’t leave much room for much hope for an ontological argument. Nevertheless, PVI does say this:
    “There is one valuable lesson we have learned from our study of the ontological argument. If we could show that there was a necessary being, a necessarily existing individual thing, we should have an answer to our question. For if there were a necessary being, then it would be impossible for there to be nothing. And if we could show that it was impossible for there to be nohting, that, surely, would count as an answer to our question” (_Metaphysics_, 98).

    June 13, 2006 — 10:52
  • Interesting.
    “In the past two years I’ve taken a more nominalistic turn though and I suppose that that is part of the explanation why I no longer find the satisfaction I once did in “explanations” adverting to some kind of extra-linguistic logical necessity”
    I should have been clearer. I had in mind, rather, an extralinguistic metaphysical necessity. But I don’t imagine you’ll feel any better about that.
    I’m not entirely sure what you mean by linguistic necessity or why you would believe that is all there is to necessity. You might have in mind that all necessity is de dicto necessity. On the other hand you might have in mind a reduction of necessity to analyticity. Is there a good argument for such positivistic parsimony? I doubt it. But for a really nice set of arguments against reductionist strategies in modality, look for Tim O’Connor’s latest (not yet out) ‘The Necessary Shape of Contingency’.

    June 13, 2006 — 12:20
  • Otherwise, quickly,
    “But explaining the *existence* of an entity in reference to laws of logic does, upon further reflection, seem unsatisfactory”
    Yes, of course it is unsatisfactory. But no one (that I know of) claims that the laws of logic can explain the existence of anything except necessary truths. But not a big deal, since there’s really no question of existence here.
    Different for God. Leibniz was *maybe* the first to see that the fact that an (Anselmian) perfect being necessarily exists does not explain *why* a perfect being exists or entail *that* a perfect being exists. The properties of perfection might be uninstantiated in every world. But of course if a perfect being is possible then he’s necessary. The argument does not entail that logical laws explain the existence of anything. The necessity of a (possible) perfect being is metaphysical.
    There are qualms and there are qualms. I can live with the ones I have about metaphysical necessity.
    Maybe you’d like a brochure describing our 12 step program? You can have your metaphysical life back again!

    June 13, 2006 — 14:05