Grim reapers have recently been employed in an argument against an infinite past (see here and here). I’d like to see if grim reapers may similarly be employed in an argument against uncaused beginnings.
I will begin with a preliminary comment about the modal reasoning involved in a grim reaper argument. Then I’ll review the grim reaper argument against an infinite past. Then I’ll present a new, parallel grim reaper argument against uncaused beginnings.
As I see it, the grim reaper argument against an infinite past is an instance of modal reasoning in which one attempts to subtract credence from a modal claim by “connecting it” with a modal claim that’s evidently false. To illustrate, consider the following argument against the possibility of time travel:
(1) Suppose I could go back in time.
(2) Then I could go back to a time before I was born.
(3) If I could go back to a time before I was born, I could prevent my birth.
(4) If I could prevent my birth, then I could exist without having been born.
(5) I cannot exist without having been born.
(6) Therefore, I cannot go back in time.
In the above example, we start with a somewhat “unclear” (and controversial) modal claim about time travel and then attempt to connect it via a series of (arguably) plausible premises to a claim that is easier to assess. This argument is just an example. Even if this particular argument isn’t sound, you get the gist of the strategy.
The gist (or outline) of a grim reaper argument against an infinite past is something like this.
Continuing in the tradition of Helen De Cruz’s intriguing survey, I present an interactive survey to collect additional data. This survey asks you questions and determines if your answers logically entail that there is one or more necessarily existing concrete particulars (things with causal powers). Your answers will be recorded and analyzed.
Although this is pure metaphysics (on the nature of concreta), the question of necessary beings has of course been of interest to philosophers of religion who view arguments for a necessary being as a first stage in a multi-stage argument for theism. That said, I would like to emphasize that the prospect of necessary concreta can be interesting in its own right, and theorists of all stripes could welcome reasons to include necessary concreta in their ontology (especially since such things can do theoretical work, such as in the philosophy of science).
The link to the survey is here: www.necessarybeing.net. It’s been tested on IE, Chrome, and Mozilla (with the latter two providing a better presentation).
Feel free to report bugs/suggestions, either by comment or by e-mail.
The following argument parallels the Slingshot Argument expressed here.
(P1) If X is explicable (can be explained), and X is logically equivalent to Y, then Y is explicable (for any X and Y).
(P2) If X is explicable, and X is semantically equivalent to Y, then Y is explicable (for any X and Y), where semantically equivalent facts are ones that are expressible by syntactically identical sentences whose referring terms refer to the same thing: for example, ‘the fact that Socrates is happy’ is semantically identical to ‘the fact that the person who is identical to Socrates is happy’, since ‘the person who is identical to Socrates’ refers to the same thing as ‘Socrates’ (and everything else about the sentences are the same).
[Edit. P2 may be more plausible if stated this way: If X is explicable, and X and Y both say the same thing about the same things (and say nothing else about any other things), then Y is explicable (for any X and Y). Then the deduction below will need a premise to the effect that the cumbersome facts considered there ultimately say the same thing about the same things (and say nothing else about any other things)*.]
(P3) At least one fact is explicable.
From (P1) – (P3), we deduce the principle that every fact has an explanation has follows. First, there is an explicable fact F (by P3). Second, F is logically equivalent to this fact Q: the x, such that [x is identical to Socrates, and F obtains] is identical to the x, such that [x is identical to Socrates]. Third, for any fact, F*, Q is semantically equivalent to this fact R: the x, such that [x is identical to Socrates, and F* obtains] is identical to the x, such that [x is identical to Socrates]. This is because where F and F* are both facts (and so both obtain), ‘the x, such that [x is identical to Socrates, and F obtains]’ and ‘the x, such that [x is identical to Socrates, and F* obtains]’ both refer to one and the same thing: Socrates (if they refer at all). Finally, R is logically equivalent to F*. It then follows from P1 and P2 that F* is explicable (for any F*), since F is explicable. Therefore, every fact is explicable. To get to PSR, we add the premise that if a fact f has no explanation, then the fact that (f obtains and f has no explanation) is inexplicable.
Replies to the Slingshot Argument may (or may not) carry over.
Let ‘PSR’ stand for the principle that whatever is, but need not be, has an explanation for its being.
(PSR) Whatever obtains, but doesn’t obtain of necessity, has an explanation for its obtaining.
Equivalently: Every contingent state of affairs has an explanation.
One might think that PSR has both a priori and empirical support. Regarding the a priori, when we consider an arbitrary state of affairs that obtains but doesn’t have to obtain, we feel motivated to wonder why it obtains; and that wonder seems to reveal an inclination in us to think there ought to be an explanation.
As for empirical support, PSR is a simple (the simplest?) explanation of all the cases of explanation anyone has encountered.
The support is defeated, however, if there are counter-examples to PSR. And, my sense is that most philosophers these days think or suspect or worry that there are counter-examples.
Perhaps the most commonly cited counter-examples are these: (1) quantum events, and (2) the Biggest Contingent Fact. It turns out to be difficult, however, to get these counter-examples to stick, as I’ll attempt to explain. I’ll focus more on (2), since I take it to be the more serious candidate.
Let Contingentism be the thesis that no concrete thing must exist. Define ‘concrete thing’ as anything that can cause something, or leave it as primitive. (Side note: Contingentism is hotly debated among philosophers of religion. But surely it is a thesis of metaphysics; so why aren’t metaphysicians debating this?)
Arguments against Contingentism typically take the following form:
1. Every fact of type T has an explanation (else: is explicable)
2. If Contingentism is true, then there is a fact of type T that has no explanation (else: is not explicable)
3. Contingentism is not true.
Committed Contingentists usually either end up denying the principle of explanation employed by (1) or withholding judgment. After all, such explanatory principles tend to be very far-reaching.
But here’s another strategy. We count costs. Rather than searching for sound philosophical arguments for/against Contignentism, we identify costs and benefits of Contingentism. That may be a lot easier. And it can help us make progress without having to make converts: for a committed contingentist can, in principle, come to agree that there are certain costs of Contingentism.
I’m going to propose one cost–to get this strategy started. (I do not claim this is the most serious cost, or that there aren’t counter-costs that ultimately outweigh it.)
Here’s a reason to think not.
Premise 1: A perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has a 99.999999999999999% chance of suffering forever. (I’m assuming here that the “suffering” is to an extent that makes one’s life not worth living.)
Suppose you have a dream in which an “angel” tells you that 99.999999999999999% of the people in Gabon, Africa will end up suffering in hell forever given their background culture and innate personalities. Do you believe it? Probably not, and not merely because you don’t believe God exists. You’d probably think this: “A good God wouldn’t permit there to be a person whose chance of escaping infinite suffering is so terribly slim.” That’s the intuition behind Premise 1.
Premise 2: If a perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has a 99.999999999999999% chance of suffering forever, then a perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has ANY chance of suffering forever.
Think about it this way. The difference between 99.999999999999999% and any other percent is FINITE, whereas the consequence is always INFINITE. How could there be a percentage that permits risking infinite suffering but a finitely different percentage that doesn’t? Or think about it this way. For every percentage p, either p is worth the risk of infinite suffering, or it is not the case that p is worth the risk. None of these terms are vague, so if Premise 2 is false, then there’s a p, such that a perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has p chance of suffering forever but would create someone who has a slightly smaller chance of suffering forever. Why should a slight difference in chance warrant an INFINITE difference in the conseqence that may be risked? It seems it shouldn’t.
Therefore: a perfectly good God wouldn’t create someone who has ANY chance of suffering forever.
Objection: what about the value of free will?
Suppose there is a perfect being (God)–a being maximal in power, knowledge, and goodness. Then this being will likely “save” (restore relationship with) everyone (all humans) eventually because:
1. God desires that everyone enjoy union with Himself.
2. If (1) is true, then God will do everything he can, without sacrificing a higher good, to maximize the chances of everyone enjoying union with Himself.
3. Granting each person an indefinite number of times the capacity to enter such a union (through repentance, trusting in Jesus, whatever) doesn’t sacrifice a higher good.
4. Granting each person an indefinite number of times the capacity to enter such a union is something God can do.
5. Granting each person an indefinite number of times the capacity to enter such a union maximizes the chances of all his creatures eventually entering such a union.
6. Therefore, God will grant each person an indefinite number of times the capacity to enjoy union with Himself.
7. If (6), then everyone will eventually enjoy union with God (argument for this to come).
8. Therefore, everyone will eventually enjoy union with God (be “saved”).
Here’s why to believe each of the premises.
I’d like to share some recent thoughts I’ve had about testimony in relation to prior probability. In particular, I’d like to motivate the claim that in many important cases of testimony (including religious testimony, depending upon one’s background beliefs), one’s estimate of the the prior probability of a claim has no bearing at all on the credibility of the testimony expressing that claim. Disclaimer: The discussion to follow is tentative and expressed by one who hasn’t studied the literature on the epistemology of testimony.
I used to suspect that one important reason why certain testimonies are not credible is that the prior probability of the claim reported is very low–perhaps lower than the prior probability that the testifier hasn’t lied or made a mistake. But here’s some evidence against thinking that testimonies are defeated merely by virtue of their having a low prior probability. My wife says to me, “I just bought a book. The book says ….” She reads me the first page of the book. Suppose she reads 30 sentences and suppose for simplicity that for each sentence, the prior probability that the book really records that sentence or something similar is Â½. (Naturally, it would be much lower). Then the prior probability that the book contains all those sentences (or similar sentences) is 1/2^30 = about 1/(1 billion). That’s pretty low. If she reads another page of 30 sentences, the prior probability drops to 1/(1 trillion * 1 trillion * 1 trillion * 1 trillion * 1 trillion). That’s ridiculously low. It’s so low that if low prior probabilities can defeat testimony, my wife’s testimony should be defeated well before she completes the second page. But surely her testimony isn’t defeated. Sure, she may have gotten a word or two wrong, but most likely the book really does contain sentences approximately like the ones she reports. Her testimony isn’t defeated by the remarkably low prior probability of her claim.
I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of the Kalam argument. But recently I’ve had a change of sentiment: I now think the argument is defensible–at least to someone with my background beliefs about time and causation. Previously, there were three obstacles to my confidence in the argument: (1) seeing how to justify the finitude of the past; (2) seeing how to justify the inference from the finitude of the past to the universe’s having a genuine beginning to its existence; and (3) seeing why a cause of our universe should be a personal agent. (Others may face different obstacles.) Those obstacles have recently been removed for me. What follows is an autobiography explaining my shift in thinking.