Oppy on Theism, Naturalism, and Explanation
December 9, 2013 — 21:51

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 19

In his contribution to Goldschmidt’s The Puzzle of Existence, Graham Oppy argues that, “as [a] hypothes[i]s about the contents of global causal reality” (p. 51), naturalism is ceteris paribus preferable to theism. Oppy’s strategy for defending this claim is to consider three hypotheses about the structure of global causal reality, and argue that naturalism is superior to theism on each hypothesis. Here are his three hypotheses:

  1. Regress: Causal reality does not have an initial maximal part. That is, it is not the case that there is a part of causal reality which has no parts that stand in causal relations to one another and (b) is not preceded by some other part of causal reality which has no parts that stand in causal relations to one another.
  2. Necessary Initial Part: Causal reality has an initial maximal part, and it is not possible that causal reality had any other initial maximal part. On the assumption that the initial maximal part involves objects, both the existence and the initial properties of those objects are necessary.
  3. Contingent Initial Part: Causal reality has an initial maximal part, but it is possible that causal reality had some other initial maximal part. On the assumption that the initial maximal part involves objects, at least one of the existence and the initial maximal properties of those objects is contingent (p. 49).

According to Oppy, given Regress theism has no explanatory advantage over naturalism, since both appeal to infinite regress, but naturalism is more parsimonious than theism, hence it is preferable.

The idea that causal reality has an initial part, whether necessary or contingent, might be thought most favorable to theism, but Oppy thinks the case here is really no different than Regress. The reason for this is simple: he doesn’t see why an initial supernatural state is any better, from an explanatory perspective, than an initial natural state (regardless of whether we take the initial state to be necessary or contingent). So, from an explanatory perspective, the hypotheses are again equal, but from a simplicity perspective naturalism wins again.

In my last post, I promised to return to O’Connor’s discussion of the ‘all things considered’ preferability of theism to naturalism. O’Connor concedes Oppy’s claim (in previous work) that naturalism is preferable in terms of parsimony, but insists that “Naturalism simply is not a rival explanatory scheme for existence to Theism” (p. 39). In other words, naturalism, according to O’Connor, does not even try to explain what theism tries to explain. What Oppy gives in his article here is an “anything theism can do naturalism can do better” retort. If the theist posits a necessarily existing supernatural being, naturalism can posit a necessarily existing natural state/being. If the theist posits a contingently existing supernatural being, the naturalist can posit a contingently existing natural being.

Now, as Oppy concedes (p. 51), there is some difficulty about this natural/supernatural distinction. But what Oppy essentially has in mind, is that we are better of positing ‘more of the same’ than positing something totally different (like a God).

Oppy’s key point is that positing God as one more ‘billiard ball’ in the sequence of causes studied by science yields no explanatory advantage. Surely he is right about this. As long as God is considered as one more billiard ball, we are better off with a natural billiard ball than a supernatural one. In my view, insofar as O’Connor is considering God as a cause among causes (and he seems to be), Oppy’s critique is devastating.

However, the point that there is no explanatory advantage to positing God as one more billiard ball was already recognized by classical theistic metaphysians such as Aquinas and Leibniz. This is, after all, precisely the point of the traditional distinction between primary and secondary causation: God is not a cause among causes, but rather stands outside the secondary causal sequence and makes that sequence, rather than another, actual. As has long been recognized, this is consistent with the sequence of secondary causes being either finite or infinite, for even if there was an infinite sequence, we could ask, ‘why that sequence and not another?’ and we could still answer, ‘because God so chose.’

Oppy will quite rightly respond that it is incumbent on the theist to render this notion of ‘primary causation’ intelligible. However, recent work in analytic metaphysics on ‘grounding’ and ‘building relations’ (as Karen Bennett calls them) suggests that this can be done. In brief, it is now (again) recognized that there are a plurality of metaphysical relations that can ground explanation. The theist wants to say that this causal sequence exists because God chose it. This ‘because’ need not signify the same causal relation by which (literal or metaphorical) billiard balls are regularly related to one another. Just exactly what the theist should take primary causation to be, and exactly how it should be seen as relating to other grounding or building relations, is an interesting topic for further research. But the long and short of it is, even if not much can be said about exactly what primary causation is, if primary causation is a species of building relation, and we understand building relations in general, and we are independently committed to a plurality of them, then it seems to me that the ideological cost of believing in primary causation is not so great as to offset the benefit of explaining something the naturalist doesn’t even try to explain: namely, why this causal sequence is actual.

Now, that theism can overcome this ideological cost is not enough to show that it is preferable, for this is not the only cost of theism. God is supposed to be a really (fundamentally) existing entity, and hence positing a God is itself an ontological cost. If God is a sui generis entity in a fairly strong sense (as opposed to, for instance, to literally being a mind), then there is also a significant ideological cost here. One alternative is to posit some necessary laws of nature (or something like that) to make the causal sequence go the way it does, but if one uses the word ‘God’ in such a way that ‘impersonal God’ is not a contradiction in terms, then this sounds like an impersonal God. Let’s set that aside. There’s a more basic issue to concern us. One way or another, we’re paying a lot to get an explanation of why this causal sequence is actual. If, as Shieva Kleinschmidt argues in the very next chapter, the Principle of Sufficient Reason is false and explanatory comprehensiveness is merely one theoretical virtue among many, then perhaps the cost is greater than we should be willing to bear. More on this next time.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

  • As stated in the post, I had that feeling reading Oppy’s argument, that it was just a rehash of an older well debated argument. However, the way Oppy puts the onus on the theist seems to make this issue much more difficult. Theism is approaching a different aspect of existence from naturalism. But it has to explain this aspect. When the theist turns the tables and says to the naturalist ‘why this universe and not another’, naturalist philosophy does not require that this question be taken seriously. Granted, I think it is more interesting if the naturalist does take it seriously.

    December 10, 2013 — 8:25
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    ” we are better of positing ‘more of the same’ than positing something totally different (like a God)”

    Right. Only what we actually are and what we actually know is conscious states. Things like perception, will, goodness, reason, beauty, etc. And God is not “totally different” than all of that, but is rather their limit and ontological ground. In contrast matter is totally different than what we are and what we know. Mindless physical things blindly following sophisticated mathematical rules is totally different. If parsimony is cashed out ontologically, then it seems to me, theism is far more parsimonious than naturalism.

    December 13, 2013 — 7:35
  • RD Miksa

    Dear DG,

    I could not agree more with your comment. In fact, it has always seemed to me that naturalists like to use the idea of parsimony inconsistently and arbitrarily; in essence, they are never willing to take Occam’s Razor far enough. After all, given that—as you say—what we actually know are conscious mental states, meaning minds (and most naturalists admit that mind exists), then it seems that the principle of parsimony actually supports something like the non-naturalist position of subjective idealism rather than any form of naturalism. After all, why bother unnecessarily positing the existence of this metaphysical substance called “matter” when there exists no need to; subjective idealism, after all, can account for all our experiences as well as naturalism can, so, given Occam’s Razor, why bothering positing the existence of matter whatsoever. So it does seem to me that the naturalist only wants to take parsimony so far, but then he balks when the non-naturalist wants to take it even further.

    And theism fits easily and readily into a worldview such as subjective idealism. God, after all, would be just one mind among others, albeit a more powerful and knowledgeable one.

    December 13, 2013 — 9:35
  • RD Miksa

    In fact, and as a corollary to this discussion, it seems to me that there should even exist such a thing as a “Presumption Against Naturalism”, much like Antony Flew’ famous Presumption of Atheism. After all, it is the naturalist who is claiming that this metaphysical substance called “matter” exists over and above mind (which all rational individuals believe exists), so it should be on the naturalist to first properly and adequately define what this matter stuff is (a difficult task in and of itself), and then to provide evidence for the existence of this metaphysical substance. Until and unless the naturalist does so, the non-naturalist is perfectly rational in remaining agnostic about the existence of matter if the non-naturalist wishes to do so (perhaps the non-naturalist is something like a subjective idealist). So again, it seems that in this discussion, the burden of proof in on the naturalist to support his claims, rather than on the non-naturalist, for the non-naturalist simply affirms that which all rational people do (that mind exists) while it is the naturalist who affirms the additional claim that not only does mind exist, but also that mind either just is matter (the brain) or supervenes on matter.

    He who makes the claim (the naturalist), has the burden of proof (showing that the mind either is matter or depends on matter).

    December 13, 2013 — 9:48
  • I actually considered including some remarks on the relevance of idealism in the post. I certainly take idealism very seriously as an option (after all, I’m a Berkeley scholar). I agree that if one is already an idealist (especially of a broadly Berkeleian variety) on independent grounds then theism is going to make a lot more sense than anything the naturalist can offer. But in most of the debates in the literature, including the debate between O’Connor and Oppy, both sides agree on physical realism.

    I think it’s an independently interesting question whether, for instance, a good defense of theism can be made without first showing that the human mind is immaterial (or has immaterial aspects). For those who are physicalists about human persons, God is a radically different posit from anything already in their ontology. Is it necessary to defeat physicalism before arguing for the existence of God, or is there another route?

    December 13, 2013 — 10:34
  • Dianelos Georgoudis

    Any complete theistic explanation, i.e. any theodicy, will be cashed out in moral terms. But then, if the theist takes parsimony seriously she must reject physical realism as superfluous.

    But even on physical realism the point I made previously stands:

    On theism mind is primary and matter secondary, since God has created it. And it is easy to conceptualize an infinitely powerful mind creating inanimate matter which blindly follows God-made rules.

    Now consider naturalism. Here matter, which is totally different from what we actually know, is primary. And, in a rather mysterious fashion, matter, in some particular complex configurations, somehow brings forth mind.

    Clearly the latter view posits the “totally different” stuff, including a totally opaque grounding relation between mind and matter. And if positing totally different stuff is deemed by Oppy to be less parsimonious, then Oppy should have concluded that naturalism is less parsimonious than theism.

    December 14, 2013 — 11:54
  • Any good argument should include both mind and matter. Would God create such a rich physical world for us to experience if it were superfluous? Well, actually maybe. God could certainly do anything.

    However, matter, science, the natural world, they are all so compelling. Nature has so many elegant beautiful systems. Scientific research has been able to show a large amount of consistencies within these systems, hence why so many are convinced of some kind of naturalist view.

    Idealism serves a great purpose. Consciousness is indeed mysterious and proof of an unobservable element of the universe. This certainly leaves some leeway for speculation. But any explanation of the universe that rules out the physical, (such an enormous and consistent part of our experience) as ‘superfluous’, seems very limited.

    December 14, 2013 — 18:47
  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    Our *experience* of the physical world is not at all superfluous, since it plays the role of the stage for the moral purpose of creation. The existence of the physical world as a metaphysically separate substance is what’s superfluous.

    Everybody agrees that part of creation is the experience of the physical world which includes the marvelous mathematical order which the physical scientists discover and describe as the existence of elementary particles having particular mechanical properties etc. According to idealism that physical world and its mathematical order exist only in the mind of God as ideas.

    Now, there is really little difference between idealism and the “official” theistic view of substance dualism. According to the official version particles exists in a distinctly physical sense, but their existence and behavior is continuously sustained by God’s mind through general providence. According to idealism the same particles exist just as ideas in God’s mind. Since the theme in our discussion is parsimony, it is immediately obvious that idealism’s view is by far the most parsimonious.

    December 15, 2013 — 2:07
  • I agree with you that consciousness and experience are primary. From here stem all the possible ways we could understand the world. The problem is, even though this starting point leaves much more room for God than a naturalist starting point, it does not mean that God is necessary at this starting point. Past the fact that we experience, all explanations are extrapolations, including naturalist explanations and including idealist theistic explanations. Both explanations are adding something.

    The thing is, this purely parsimonious starting point opens up a lot more than a theistic interpretation. It opens up a virtual infinity of interpretations. Perhaps one God could be argued as more parsimonious than a multitude of Gods. But then why even have a God at all (if we’re going to be parsimonious)?

    And even from this perspective, scientific discovery remains consistent and hence convincing to a certain extent. Do people latch on to this and essentially treat this as a religion? Absolutely. Science is barely touching the tip of the iceberg, and there are some essential questions of existence that it does not even pretend to answer.

    If we are to be completely parsimonious, then we must realize that the starting point, consciousness, that something is perceiving something, is a state with a whole lot of potential. God, Gods, naturalism, some other possibility no one has ever thought of, any of these could be true. From our parsimonious starting point, why should we believe one over the other?

    December 15, 2013 — 11:47
  • Two difficulties with conceiving of the relation between God and creation (or, as you have it in the post, between God as primary cause and the series of secondary causes) is, first, that the grounding relation is supposed to be one of necessitation (here I’m referring to ground as a specific relation, not a family of building relations). But the theist typically doesn’t want to say God’s act of creation was necessary. Second, most think the grounding relation is non-causal, but is analogous to a causal relation in that it is explanatory. God of course explains creation, but God also causes creation. I’m warm to the idea that God is the ‘ultimate ground’ of all reality distinct from himself, but appealing to the recently discussed grounding relation to cash that out will have to take such concerns into account.

    December 17, 2013 — 22:47
  • Chad, I think your first problem, about necessitation, is easily solved, for it is God’s act of willing this world that necessitates this world’s existence, and that act of willing is itself contingent. Now there are problems about the contingency of God’s act of willing, but this, I take it, is a different family of problems from the one under discussion.

    As to your second problem, I believe some people think of causation as one of the building/grounding relations. Karen Bennett, in the paper I linked, wants to exclude ‘garden variety’ causation from the class of building relations, but isn’t sure how to do so (pp. 93-94). Historically, causation was viewed in this general sort of way (e.g. Aristotle, Spinoza, Kant). Furthermore, precisely the point of the primary/secondary causation distinction is to deny that God is a cause univocally, i.e., to deny that God bears to anything the relation the first billiard ball bears to the second. Since primary causation is atemporal, and it is the relation of a more fundamental entity to a less fundamental entity, it actually looks a lot more like a grounding relation than ‘garden variety’ causation does.

    December 18, 2013 — 8:35
  • Dianelos Georgoudis


    The mind (actually one’s mind) is epistemically primary. The question at hand is whether it is also metaphysically primary, as theism has it, or not, as naturalism has it. Further there is disagreement about the very nature of mind. So, on theism, it is substantially free, but on naturalism it is not (for naturalism is a mechanistic view of reality). It is weird that there isn’t even agreement on what we really know, i.e. our mind. The naturalist will tell a story of how a mechanistic reality will produce the illusion of freedom. By the same measure of course a mechanistic reality will produce many other illusions, such as the illusion of reason.

    Now, as you point out, there are many different realities that are compatible with the whole of our experience of life. The only way forward then is to first argue which view is more reasonable, and then argue that what is more reasonable is more probably true. The naturalist has problems on both these steps. On the first step I observe that there is not a single generally accepted epistemic principle on which naturalism fares better than theism. Indeed, as I argue above, it does not fare better on Oppy’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the principle of parsimony, which in any case should only be used when evaluating two views of the same explanatory power. The second step is even more problematic for naturalism, since on naturalism reason need not lead to truth but only to the multiplication of the genes (I am thinking of Plantinga’s EAAN), and, worse, on naturalism it may well be the case that reason leads to error, at least in the context of metaphysics. Naturalists more or less concede this when they plausibly describe how in a naturalistic reality people will be led to religious beliefs, which in such a reality are by definition false.

    I conclude that naturalismis not a view a reasonable person can hold, even if happens to be true.

    December 18, 2013 — 10:11
  • I agree, mind is epistemically primary. I like your steps, but I’m not sure I agree with your interpretation. The first step, agreeing on the most reasonable view is extremely hard. And it is not at all clear to me, even given your previous arguments, that Theism has the one up at all on Naturalism here, because both beliefs have strengths and flaws.

    You’ve stated the strengths of Theism. The mind is epistemically primary, so it makes sense that it should be metaphysically primary and thus Theism falls into this worldview very easily. This is the very flaw of Naturalism, that even though the mind is epistemically primary, it claims metaphysically that the machinations and patterns of the world are primary. This appears less consistent. These are excellent arguments, but if we take them into account, we need to consider that there is a bit more relevant to this argument.

    The element that levels the playing field is that, though our mind is epistemically primary, it appears to be experiencing what feels like an ‘outside world’. And in this outside world the disciplines of science and math appear to be able to make utterly accurate observations and predictions, while backing them up with heaps upon heaps of empirical evidence. We get to the point where perhaps, despite how round about it seems, maybe our rich, colorful and deep personal consciousness could have arose from this absurdly complex system. And thus people start to lean towards naturalism. Yes, there is still a logical difference between that and our primary mind experience, but the consistency and the empirical data just seem to balance it all out.

    On the other hand, while idealist Theism may be more consistent with the primary nature of the mind, saying that the argument is only between Theism and Naturalism is a false dichotomy. When we place the mind as central, an entire can of worms is opened: solipsism, polytheism, the giant spaghetti monster, the suggestion that we are all in fact God, and these are only examples involving gods. There could be some kind of existence beyond our possible imagination of understanding, that is in no way like something we would describe as God or a God. Even considering the mind as primary both epistemically and metaphysically, there could still, easily enough, be no God and no purpose to the universe or any kind of existence at all.

    So when you compare Naturalism and Theism from this lens, you can see how Naturalism’s first step here looks a little bit better.

    For your second step, arguing that the more reasonable choice is probably true, well, I think all explanations just get messier there.

    December 19, 2013 — 18:29
  • Josh

    Nice post. I take Oppy’s insightful chapter to ultimately to reduce to the charge that a one-stage cosmo argument (such as an arg. for a necessary being) doesn’t give us theism. And that seems right. (In fact, this point is valuable for widening the appeal of arguments for a necessary concrete thing: atheists and theists alike can accept their conclusion.)

    What wasn’t clear to me from his article is why one should think that there is no pathway of reason that moves from a necessary first cause to a maximal being of the theistic sort. There are many alleged pathways not addressed, and I didn’t see any principled reason to rule them out. On the other hand, Oppy’s piece targets those who argue for God from premises about the causal structure of reality. A successful reply, I think, would require a detailed articulation of a stage II argument…

    January 3, 2014 — 23:10
  • Josh

    I also wondered whether Oppy’s conception of “natural” object rules out the option that there is a natural object of a maximal sort (maximal in power, knowledge, and goodness)… One might think: God is the limit case of natural objects–a maximally perfect “natural” being.

    January 3, 2014 — 23:18
  • Hassan

    Thanks for your insightful post, Dr. Pearce! I had a question which might not be directly relevant, but I didn’t know where else to put it. Also- do forgive me if the question seems too ignorant or sophomorish, I’m a layman when it comes to philosophy!

    My question relates to this excerpt:

    “The theist wants to say that this causal sequence exists because God chose it. This ‘because’ need not signify the same causal relation by which (literal or metaphorical) billiard balls are regularly related to one another.”

    If we accept, for example, the cosmological argument by Gale and Pruss (1999) which concludes that the collection of contingent facts in the actual world is explained by the free intentional action of a necessary being, does that entail that this necessary being stands in some sort of a causal relation with each of the proposition in the BCCF, over and above the causal relation that holds among the propositions within the BCCF themselves? If so, what is the nature of this “Necessary Being-contingent propositions” causal relation? Has any work been done on its precise nature?

    My question dovetails into another concern: if the necessary being arrived at via the Gale-Pruss cosmological argument is somehow ontologically responsible for each contingent proposition in the actual world, would it be safe to ascribe the teleological features of this world- if any- to the action of this necessary being?

    Thanks again for your patience,

    September 24, 2014 — 5:31
  • Kenny Pearce

    Hello Hassan,

    This is not an ignorant question, it is a deep one. I am working on a paper related to this right now, but it won’t be ready for a while. My position, in brief, is that a non-causal explanation in terms of the free and intentional action of a necessary being is possible. So the relation of the necessary being to the contingent facts is, on my view, not a (literally, univocally) causal one. What exactly the relation is is not easily explained in a short space.

    On the second question, it is crucial to the G-P approach that the explanation appeal to the free and intentional action of the necessary being. Intentional action is teleological so, yes, we ought to expect teleology in the world and we ought to hold that that teleology is grounded in the intentions of the necessary being.

    September 24, 2014 — 7:35
    • Hassan

      Thanks again for taking the time to reply, Dr. Pearce! I’m really looking forward to your paper, I think it would put most of my doubts to rest.

      I have a tiny follow-up comment/question concerning the second one (it’s a reductio of sorts): Since each contingent proposition of the actual world (from building of the pyramids to the fall of a leaf) is explained by the action of this Necessary Agent (through a relation you are currently working on), wouldn’t it mean even the teleological features of human artifacts are to be explained by reference to the Necessary Agent? This seems somewhat counter-intuitive to me, seeing we don’t usually use teleological features of human artifacts as premises for teleological arguments. Or is there a disanalogy between human artifacts and natural objects?

      Thanks again,

      September 24, 2014 — 11:45
      • Well, on the classical view (which I endorse), primary and secondary causation do not compete. They are two different kinds of explanation, and everything has both. I do think this will give rise to dual teleology. Of course, this is just what we expect on a theistic view. Cf. Genesis 50:20: “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”

        September 24, 2014 — 15:44
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