Friday, July 30, 2010

A Simple Version of the Modal Ontological Argument

Let "God" = a maximally great being (omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect in every possible world).

1. God's existence is either necessary or impossible. (Premise)

Implicit in (1) is that God cannot exist contingently. If God were contingent, then He wouldn't be maximally great, since it is greater to be necessary than to be contingent. The very understanding of God, then, requires that God is either a necessarily existent entity, or else impossible.

2. God's existence is not impossible. (Premise)

(2) is the more controversial premise. More on this below.

3. Therefore, God's existence is necessary. (Conclusion)

In short, it follows from (3) that God actually exists.

It remains to be seen whether (2) should be accepted. Intuitively, most of us probably grant that God's existence is at least possible; and obviously, if it is possible, then it is not impossible. However, a skeptic could easily reverse this:

(2'): God's existence is not necessary.

In support of (2'), one might appeal to the intuition that there is a possible world in which God does not exist.

One relevant question, then, is this: is the intuition of (2') as strong as the intuition of (2)? Both premises are question-begging, barring any additional argumentation that would either prove or make it likely that one premise is correct.

Perhaps the theist cannot prove that (2) is correct and that (2') is false, yet still be within her epistemic rights in believing that. This is Alvin Plantinga's position - e.g. the modal ontological argument is rationally acceptable, even if it is not a conclusive proof.

In any event, there have been some notable attempts to prove that God's existence is possible. Clement Dore and Robert Maydole immediately come to mind. Being someone who accepts the actual existence of a maximally great being (God), I'm especially interested in the developments of a proof of the possibility premise.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Michael Martin and the Thomistic Cosmological Argument

Arguably the best philosophical defense of atheism, in my opinion, can be found in Michael Martin's book, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification. A successful response to Martin's arguments, therefore, will go a long way in providing evidence for the rational acceptability of belief in God. In his work, Martin treats the topics of negative atheism (giving objections to theistic arguments) and positive atheism (giving affirmative reasons to justify atheism, e.g. the problem of suffering). In this post, I would like to explore Martin's reasons for rejecting the Thomistic Cosmological Argument (TCA) [1] and provide an answer to these criticisms.

Martin begins, "In this argument [the Second Way] Aquinas attempts to show that there could not be an infinite series of efficient causes and consequently there must be a first cause. . . . An efficient cause of something, for Aristotle and Aquinas, is not a prior event but a substantial agent that brings about change." [2]

Martin is correct to point out that efficient causality is not envisaged as something that takes place in time necessarily. A house that exists from eternity still needs a foundation, even though the foundation doesn't precede the rest of the house in time. Rather, the foundation is causally prior, but not temporally prior, to the rest of the house.

Nevertheless, Martin is mistaken in saying that efficient causality has to do with change. The argument from change is Thomas' First Way, and not the Second Way. The Second Way has to do with why some thing X exists, and not why X changes. With that said, this observation is not detrimental to Martin's case, so we will continue without further comment on this point.

"[Thomas] believed that the here-and-now maintenance of the universe could not be understood in terms of an infinite causal series." [2]

This is a correct summation. Now onto Martin's objections:

"The first cause, even if established, need not be God . . ." [3]

Unfortunately for Martin, this rather swift dismissal of Thomas' conclusion completely overlooks the many additional arguments that Thomas offers in support of the first cause's possession of the divine attributes. The Five Ways are not the totality of Thomas' philosophical defense of theism. In fact, the vast majority of the Summa Theologiae in which Thomas argues specifically that the first cause is God is virtually ignored by Martin. As I have argued in my own echoing of Thomas' arguments, the first cause (Pure Being) is necessary, unique, eternal, all-present, and distinct from every other existing entity.

If Martin, or any other skeptic for that matter, is going to advance an objection that states the first cause is not God, then he will need to interact with the arguments pertinent to the establishment of the divine attributes. We will explore these in a moment.

"[A]nd Aquinas gives no non-question-begging reason why there could not be a nontemporal infinite regress of causes." [3]

This is one of the most common objections to the TCA. However, it's important to realize that the Summa Theologiae is literally a summary of theological and philosophical arguments. I maintain that Thomas' definitive argument against an infinite regress of causes can be found in De Ente et Essentia ("On Being and Essence"), which I summarize as follows:

1. Something exists. (Premise)

This is undoubtedly true, and Martin would agree. In order to doubt that I exist, I would first have to exist in order to doubt it.

2. Something exists only if there is such a thing as existence. (Premise)

It is at this point that Martin may simply disagree that existence is a thing at all. [4] Of course, existence can easily be shown to be a thing in at least one sense, even if it is not a thing in the sense that Kant meant. To illustrate, what is the difference between a real dollar bill and an imaginary one? Obviously, the essence (essence = what a thing is, its nature) of each is the same, but the real dollar bill has existence! Would Martin maintain that things can differ by a non-thing? Maybe he wouldn't go that far, but if so, I think he would simply be mistaken.

Existence is at least a thing insofar as existence is real. If existence were not real, then nothing would exist, which is patently false.

3. The essence of existence is Pure Being. (Premise)

If the essence of a dollar bill is a dollar bill (e.g. it has a specific shape, size, color, smell, etc.), then what is the essence or what-ness of existence? The essence of existence is existence itself, or what metaphysicians call Pure Being. [5]

4. Therefore, Pure Being exists. (Conclusion)

The argument is logically valid, and we have seen that each premise is correct, so the conclusion is likewise true: Pure Being exists. Pure Being is the first cause that Thomas alludes to in his Five Ways. In fact, even granting that there could be an infinite regress of causes, Pure Being is still needed in order to explain the existence of that regress, or of anything at all.

Now, let's consider whether Martin's objection that the first cause may not be God holds after further scrutiny. The first cause (Pure Being) must as a matter of necessity possess at least five additional qualities: necessity, unicity, eternality, omnipresence, and distinction from everything else that exists. I defend these attributes in my defense of the TCA as linked to above. Nonetheless, I will reproduce these arguments here.

Imagine a state of affairs in which nothing exists. In this case, there would be an existing state of affairs in which nothing exists, which is self-contradictory. This means that something must exist. But, since Pure Being is needed to ground the existence of anything, Pure Being must exist by necessity.

Pure Being must also be unique. For, if there were more than one Pure Being, then there would be distinctions between them. However, whatever is distinct from existence is non-existence, and because non-existent things simply do not exist, it follows that there is only one Pure Being.

Next, Pure Being is eternal and all-present. For every time and place that something exists, Pure Being must ground those times and places in which something exists. Therefore, there is no time or place in which Pure Being does not exist, so Pure Being is eternal and all-present.

Finally, Pure Being is distinct from everything else that exists. Other entities, such as a dollar bill, have an essence distinct from their existence. In short, a dollar bill is not existence itself. Now, if A is X, and B is not X, then A and B must be distinct. Hence, given that Pure Being is existence itself, and everything else is not existence itself, it follows that Pure Being is distinct from everything else.

One question about this final attribute is that if everything else is distinct from Pure Being, then how can anything else exist? The answer is that these other things do not differ from Pure Being in existence. Rather, they differ only in essence. Everything that exists does so because it participates in the single existence that there is, in Pure Being. Things differ in their essences, or natures, or what-nesses.

Of course, one could still maintain that Pure Being is not personal, etc., so that Pure Being is possibly not the God of classical theism. However, Pure Being is at least demonstrably like God. [6] For now, I will leave that for another discussion.

In sum, Martin has not successfully refuted the TCA, nor has he even attempted to analyze the most pertinent aspects of the Aristotelian-Thomistic metaphysical arguments for the existence of Pure Being and its divine attributes. With that said, I maintain that the TCA is a sound argument for God's existence.

[1] Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification, Temple University Press, 1990, pp. 97-100.

[2] ibid., p. 98.

[3] ibid., p. 99.

[4] ibid., p. 81.

[5] Also known as Pure Existence and Pure Actuality.

[6] Maybe it is something like the Hindu concept of Brahman. I don't think so, but either way, we're not left with atheism.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Thomism and Creatio Ex Nihilo

As mentioned before, the TCA is neutral on the question of whether the universe had a beginning or not. In fact, Thomas adamantly denies that the universe's beginning could be demonstrated by reason alone (although he did affirm it by faith). Whatever one's thoughts on this are, the Biblical teaching is that the universe did begin to exist (Gen. 1:1) and that God created it out of nothing (creatio ex nihilo).

Now, if out of nothing comes nothing (ex nihilo nihil fit), then how did God create the universe out of nothing? One might argue that this is an impossibility. Could a Thomistic perspective on metaphysics benefit us in any way? I think so.

An actuality is something that is real. A potentiality, on the other hand, is something that is not real but could be real. For example, an acorn is merely an acorn in actuality, but in potentiality it is an oak tree.

This deserves some additional consideration. Even though I just said that potentialities are not real, in another sense they are quite real. After all, if the potentiality for an acorn to become an oak tree does not exist, then in what sense is it possible for an acorn to become an oak tree? We might revise our earlier statement by saying that potentialities are not real-qua-actualities, but that potentialities are real-qua-metaphysical-possibilities.

Imagine now the state of affairs in which God exists without the universe. The potentiality for the universe's existence is real-qua-metaphysical-possibility, so God's creative act, or actualization, of the universe does not entail creation out of nothing per se. Rather, it entails creation out of nothing already actualized.

Maybe this viewpoint is persuasive, and maybe not. Nonetheless, the above does allow the theist to affirm both creatio ex nihilo and ex nihilo nihil fit, since the former allows for potentialities to be real-qua-metaphysical-possibilities and the latter only denies that something could come from nothing in a more absolute sense.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Illegal immigration - is racism even relevant?

This is first and foremost a blog dedicated to philosophy and theology. With that said, I won't actually be endorsing any political view in this post. Whether our borders should be closed or not, whether illegal immigrants should be deported or given amnesty, etc., is entirely beyond the scope of what I'm about to argue.

What the opponent of illegal immigration argues is this:

1. Those who do not enter the U.S. legally should not be granted amnesty. (Premise)

"Amnesty," in this context can be used broadly. Of course, it is not always used this way, but it can refer to any action (or lack thereof) that results in the absence of discipline for those who enter our country illegally.

2. Persons X, Y, and Z have entered the U.S. illegally. (Premise)

The discussions most often refer to our neighbors to the south, in Mexico. There are approximately eleven million illegal immigrants from Mexico, so most of the news coverage focuses on this demographic.

3. Therefore, persons X, Y, and Z should not be granted amnesty. (Conclusion)

Now, whatever you think of this argument, it is clearly valid. Premise (2) isn't even up for debate, since we have laws governing immigration in our country and there are some who have not obeyed these laws. (Maybe the laws should be changed? I leave it to the reader to decide.)

The controversial premise, of course, is (1). There are many who believe that anything less than amnesty, or something less than full-blown deportation or criminal charges, are either morally wrong or impractical. This is a debatable point. However, it is often asserted:

4. Those who believe (3) are racist. (Premise)

5. Therefore, (3) is wrong. (Conclusion)

Obviously, (5) does not logically follow from (4). Even assuming that those opposed to illegal immigration are the most bigoted, racist members of the Ku Klux Klan, it doesn't follow that their arguments against illegal immigration are incorrect.

To put it another way, X cannot justify action A by appealing to the wrongdoing of action B. Racism and bigotry are morally wrong. (I'm glad I could get that out of the way.) But, even granting that many (most? all?) who are opposed to A also engage in B, it doesn't follow that the arguments against A are thereby invalidated.

What I propose is nothing more than a principle we're all taught in kindergarten: play nice. Let's focus on the issues, and not on the persons who adhere to them.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Concept of Hell in Philosophical Theology

There is no single concept of hell among theologians. Some prefer to do away with the idea of it entirely, in which case we are left with either annihilationism in which only those who are destined for heaven are raised and the rest remain dead, or else universalism, in which case all are destined for heaven.

Of course, these aren't the only alternatives to a literal interpretation of the Biblical teaching on hell. Many have interpreted the fire and brimstone imagery as figurative. I agree with this attitude, both for philosophical and exegetical reasons, but the exegetical reasons are not my concern in this post. Rather, I want to ask: what is hell supposed to be under this figurative interpretation?

A common view put forward is that hell is the absence of God; it is the separation from God. While this statement may shed some light for us, it also raises some difficulties for those of us who adopt an Aristotelian-Thomistic concept of God. For, under Thomism, God is Pure Being - the very essence of existence itself. This means that if one is entirely separated from God, he/she is entirely separated from existence. But, doesn't that mean that those in hell simply don't exist? If this is so, this should logically lead us to adopt annihilationism, in which case there really is no hell in the first place.

1. God is Pure Being. (Premise)
2. Pure Being is the essence of existence. (Definition)
3. Hell is the complete absence of God. (Premise, definition)
4. Hence, hell is the complete absence of existence. (From 1, 2, and 3)
5. Therefore, hell does not exist. (Conclusion)

What I propose as a solution is that we think of hell not as the complete absence of God, but rather one's subjective separation from loving God. Imagine two persons listening to jazz music. Person A loves jazz music, whereas person B does not. This will lead A to experience joy and B to experience dissatisfaction.

By analogy, imagine that at the point of death, and more pronounced at the resurrection, all experience the fullness of God's presence. Those who love God will experience heaven, and those who hate God will experience hell. The various degrees of love/hate will then determine the extent to which either heaven or hell is experienced.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Cartesian Ontological Argument

Descartes' ontological argument is distinctive in that it makes use of a concept of causality that is not present in Anselm's version. Roughly-stated, Descartes argues:

1. I have the mental concept of a perfect being. (Premise)
2. The mental concept of a perfect being is either caused by a perfect being or an imperfect being. (Premise)
3. The mental concept of a perfect being cannot be caused by an imperfect being. (Premise)
4. Hence, the mental concept of a perfect being is caused by a perfect being. (From 1-3)
5. Therefore, a perfect being exists. (Conclusion)

This argument is one of several proofs of God's existence found in Descartes' treatise, Meditations on First Philosophy. I take it that Descartes, like Anselm, conceives of a perfect being as an entity that possesses omnipotence, omniscience, moral perfection, and necessary existence.

Unlike contemporary modal treatments of the ontological argument (usually a refurbishing of Anselm's proof), Descartes' argument does not make use of S5 or the Barcan Formula. Nevertheless, one who challenges the possibility premise of (1) won't accept the argument anyway. On the other hand, one who accepts (1), but rejects S5 for whatever reason, may find Descartes' argument more appealing. There are, in fact, some notable modern defenders of the argument. [1]

(2) assumes that there really is a causal relation between the mind and the mind's concept of a perfect being. This is generally granted, unless one adopts a radical Humean position with respect to causality.

Since (4) and (5) are deduced from the first three premises, the most likely premise to be rejected by skeptics is (3). It is at this point that Descartes is tapping into the intuition that imperfect beings, such as ourselves, are incapable of actualizing any perfection whatsoever, at least by ourselves. Since I lack the power to do certain things, I cannot make myself omnipotent, for instance. This aspect of (3) is probably uncontroversial, but what about mere concepts? Should our imperfections lead us to believe that we cannot be the source of our ability to conceptualize a perfect being?

I will simply let the reader decide for him/herself.

[1] See, for example: Clement Dore, Theism, Springer, 1984.