In comments to my post on Dawkins and the Philosophers, atheist blogger Jonathan West has been pushing back against Michael Ruse's claim that Dawkins' prominent use of the "what caused God?" question is, as Jonathan puts it, 'fatuous.' Jonathan has also pushed this point in a recent blog post which considers this question in light of Swinburne's 'necessary being' arguments in The Existence of God. I will first make a few remarks about Swinburne's work in this area, and then proceed to show why the "what caused God?" question is indeed confused. To be fair, I admit that there are some other questions in the neighborhood of "what caused God?" which are neither confused nor easily answered. More on that later.
A quick perusal of Jonathan's blog (which I hope to read and respond to regularly in the future) will show that he has engaged quite seriously with Swinburne's book. (In his comments to my post he provides a table of contents.) For this I applaud him. It is true, as Jonathan notes, that Swinburne is "one of Britain's leading academic theologians." I would say "theistic philosophers" rather than "theologians," but the point stands. No one should be accused of attacking a strawman who is engaging Swinburne's arguments so seriously as Jonathan is. However, it should be acknowledged that this necessary being line is not Swinburne's strong suit. Swinburne is known for a posteriori natural theology, and especially arguments from miracles. In this area, he is especially known for his creative applications of Bayesianism. He is also well known for his defense of substance dualism (which, it should be noted, neither entails nor is entailed by theism or Christianity more broadly - this is one of the many reasons why we should call him a "theistic philosopher" rather than a "theologian"). Still I think most philosophers would agree that the best recent work on necessary being theology is due to Alvin Plantinga, rather than Swinburne, so while Swinburne is certainly no strawman, his is also not the best view on the market.
Second, we should note that there is no principled reason to restrict ourselves to living proponents when classical theism is a tradition twenty-some-odd centuries long. (Note that the development of classical theism begins earlier than Christianity; most of the basic tenets were around in, e.g., ancient Stoicism, and there are elements to be found in both Plato and Aristotle, as well as even some of the Presocratics.)
Now, I am not familiar with Swinburne's book The Existence of God. As I hope the above indicates, I have great respect for Swinburne as a philosopher. Of the works of his that I have read, my favorite is Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy. However, all this is simply to say that I don't think the quotes from Swinburne in Jonathan's post deal with the issue of divine necessity very well. In particular, I think Swinburne must be mistaken in his claim that "To say that 'God exists' necessarily is ... to say that the existence of God is a brute fact that is inexplicable - not in the sense that we do not know the explanation, but in the sense that it does not have one." The reasons why I think this is a mistake will become apparent later on. As such, I will give my own account of why the 'what caused God?' question (hereafter 'The Question') is confused, and will not base it on Swinburne.
There are three reasons for supposing that The Question is confused: God is non-physical, God is eternal, and God exists necessarily. I will run quickly through the first two because, while I think they do have some plausibility, the third is surely the most sophisticated and compelling reply. At the end, I will discuss some related questions that are left over from this line of reply.
God is non-physical. Causation, many people (especially philosophical naturalists) suppose, is a concept from physics, or perhaps from natural science more generally. On this view, if God is non-physical, then The Question doesn't make any sense. Many atheists do believe the premise of this line of argument, and some of them use this premise to argue against cosmological arguments: since physics begins from the Big Bang, and causation is a physical concept, it doesn't make sense to inquire about the cause of the Big Bang.
Still, this line of reply from the theist is not very good. This is because theists generally believe that God is the cause of the world, and this means that the concept of causation can be applied to non-physical entities and, specifically, to God. So the atheist can still propose The Question as a non-fallacious ad hominem - that is, the atheist can argue that from within the theist's own system The Question needs an answer.
God is eternal. This reply is, I think, a little better. Causation, according to this reply, is a temporal concept. That is, it is part of the concept of causation that the cause precede the effect in time. Since God is eternal, The Question doesn't make sense. Again, some atheists use this type of reasoning against cosmological arguments: since nothing precedes the Big Bang, it doesn't make sense to ask about its cause.
This reply will, I think, be strengthened if God is conceived as atemporal rather than (as Swinburne thinks) merely everlasting. Then a case can be made that the Big Bang does need a cause, but God doesn't. Or so one might think. I won't stop to defend this here, because, as I said earlier, I think the necessary being reply is better.
God exists necessarily. Nothing causes a necessary truth to be true. For instance, nothing is the cause of two twos adding up to four. Similarly, mathematical platonists would hold that nothing causes the number two to exist. (Plato's claim that numbers are caused by The One and the Indefinite Dyad - if he did indeed make that claim - should be attributed to the Greek word aitia having a broader semantic range than the English word 'cause'.) Asking for the cause of a necessary truth is a conceptual confusion.
Consider this simple argument, which is basically a standard cosmological argument:
Call the necessary cause G. Now, even if this argument proves that G exists, it doesn't prove that G is God. (Depending on how you think the reference of the name 'God' is fixed, you might think this argument is enough to support the claim that 'God' refers to G, but even if that's the case, it leaves open the possibility that religious believes are radically deceived about the nature of God.)
Now, I want to note that, in addition to the platonist example above, there are many atheist philosophers who think that contingent beings, events, or facts need causes or explanations of a type that necessary beings, events, or facts don't. For instance, Peter Unger thinks that it is a point in favor of David Lewis's (in)famous modal realism that it makes the existence of a world like ours a matter of logical necessity (see sect. 2.7 of Lewis's On the Plurality of Worlds). Other atheists have thought that the laws of nature should be thought of as necessary rather than contingent so that they don't need a non-naturalistic explanation. (Sydney Shoemaker provides an argument that this might be the case in his "Causality and Properties", originally in van Inwagen, ed., Time and Cause, reprinted in Mellor and Oliver, eds., Properties. After concluding that the laws are necessary, Shoemaker notes that "to some this may be an attractive consequence" (sect. 9), but he himself seems mostly to regard it as an objection.)
However, many people think that there is something more problematic about God, a bona fide substance, existing necessarily. It is all well and good for facts, or perhaps abstract entities like numbers of properties (on Shoemaker's view, certain facts about properties ground the laws; the laws are not necessarily existing entities), to be necessary, but surely there are no necessary substances. (Lewis of course thinks that possibilia are bona fide substances, and that everything possible is necessarily possible, and everything that is possible in some sense exists, so in the broadest sense, everything exists necessarily. However, he would object to this language on the ground that when we say 'exists' we usually mean 'actually exists', and possibilia do not actually exist, because they are not part of the actual world - i.e. the one we inhabit.)
Well, perhaps G is not a bona fide substance. The argument above doesn't say that it is, it just says that G is a cause. Perhaps there are non-substance causes, and G is one of them. If so, then G is not the traditional God. I won't try to answer this objection here.
The view that what is necessary needs no cause is not a uniquely theistic idea. In fact, nearly everyone who believes in absolute (as opposed to hypothetical) necessities believes it. However, as I indicated above, this is not the end of the story. What I have been arguing is that if someone asks what the cause of two twos adding up to four is, I can answer that 2+2=4 is a necessary truth, and this will show that the question is confused - there is no cause. Similarly, if someone asks what I have been calling The Question - "what caused God?" - and I respond that God exists necessarily, I will have shown that The Question is confused. Necessities don't need causes. However, there is another question that needs to be asked: why is it necessary? In the case of 2+2=4, some philosophers and mathematicians do actually try to answer this question, and they may do so in terms of the concept of unity, or in terms of the von Neumann ordinals, or the definition of the successor function, which is used to define the + operator, and so on.
So why is God's existence necessary? Even if the cosmological argument succeeds, it leaves this question open. While most philosophers don't think the ontological argument can be used to prove that God exists, it is my understanding that a few (Alvin Plantinga and James F. Ross) think that it can provide the kind of explanation that is wanted here. The strategy here would be to use a cosmological argument like the above to show the existence of G, and then use the ontological argument to show that something like the traditional God is a good candidate for being G. (Plantinga and Ross both think, if I understand them, that the ontological argument can be used to non-trivially derive necessary existence from the definition of 'God', which shows that the existence or non-existence of God is a matter of necessity, so that the possibility of God entails his actuality. Thus God is, in the Scholastic phrase, a being whose "essence includes existence.") I will admit to not quite understanding how this is supposed to work, so I will stop here, at least for now.Posted by Kenny at November 9, 2009 10:20 AM
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