Saturday, October 9, 2010

An Omnipotence Argument and the Contingency of the Universe

Although few atheistic philosophers take such a view, I do occasionally hear opponents of the Leibnizian cosmological argument (LCA) suggest that the universe may exist necessarily. I want to argue against this in a somewhat unconventional way. First of all, to repeat the standard version of the LCA:

1. Every existing thing has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause. (Premise, PSR)

2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God. (Premise)

3. The universe exists. (Premise)

4. Hence, the universe has an explanation of its existence. (From 1 and 3)

5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe is God. (From 2 and 4)

Since the atheist in this instance rejects (2) by opting to conclude that the universe exists by a necessity of its own nature, we may argue the following:

6. Whatever exists by a necessity of its own nature is either omnipotent or not-omnipotent. (Premise, law of excluded middle)

7. Every not-omnipotent thing possibly has an external cause. (Premise)

8. Whatever is necessary cannot have an external cause. (Premise)

9. Therefore, whatever exists by a necessity of its own nature is omnipotent. (From 6 - 9)

10. The universe is not-omnipotent. (Premise)

11. Therefore, the universe does not exist by a necessity of its own nature. (From 9 and 10)

(6) is obviously true, so in confirmation of (9) we are left with (7) and (8). (7) is fairly benign, since even supposing that something not-omnipotent is uncaused, there is still a possible world in which it does have an external cause. (8), I think, is also indubitably true. If a necessary entity n1 were caused by another necessary entity n2, then n1 and n2 would have to be distinct entities. Yet, whatever is necessary must have an essence identical to its existence, for to exist non-essentially is to exist contingently. Since nothing can cause itself to exist, it follows that whatever is necessary is also self-existent and therefore cannot have an external cause.

(10) is true upon observation. There are many limitations inherent throughout the universe, so the universe cannot be omnipotent. Even if it were omnipotent, that wouldn't bode well for the atheist, since she presumably wants to deny that any existing thing is omnipotent. Of course, (11) follows logically from (9) and (10).


  1. Hi Doug,
    I'm unsure if you mean to say that some atheists grant de re necessity to the universe's existence or de dicto. If you mean latter, I’d respond that we need not understand the necessity of the universe's existence as a necessity of its nature (self-existence). Its existence could just be a necessary brute fact, which would deny (1) while leaving (2) unaddressed.
    As a point of curiosity, I’d like to know what you think the universe is. You speak of the universe as if it were an object which can take on properties or belongs to certain categories. Typically I hear the universe described as the totality of everything that is physical. But that doesn’t give reason to think of it as an object itself. It seems more abstract than anything.
    I'm also unsure what you mean by 'entity' when you speak of necessary things. if we grant that the laws of logic are God's ideas, and if we grant that they are distinct from God Himself (a denial of aseity?), then we have two types of necessary things with one dependent on the other; the other explains the existence of it since God's existence is more rudimentary than it.

  2. Hi Mickey,

    Usually when theists speak of God's necessity, they are referring to His de re existence. If the atheist wishes to substitute God with the universe, then she is presumably contending that the universe exists by a necessity of its own nature (de re). Otherwise, there would be a disanalogy.

    As for the definition of "universe," I'd say it is the totality of physical space, time, matter and energy. In short, it is the sum total of all that is physical, as you say. Potentially, one could reason that the universe is just an abstract object, much like the set of all squared objects is an abstract object. However, I think where concrete objects are inherently interconnected with one another this doesn't make sense. A house is a relatively large concrete object composed of smaller concrete objects. I think the universe is much like this.

    I'd have to think more about your question concerning the use of the term, "entity," but for now it seems to me that God doesn't explain the laws of logic in the same way He explains the universe. The latter is an example of God's creative and sustaining causality. The divine ideas (e.g. the laws of logic) are explained in a different way, albeit in a way I don't understand completely. Things that are explained causally are not co-dependent. For example, two paratroopers wouldn't be able to hold each other up; they need to have their parachutes.

    The universe, and all physical things at any rate, seem to fall into the latter category. Let's take the sum total of all acorns and oak trees and postulate their eternal existence in the past, where one acorn gives rise to an oak tree and the oak tree gives rise to another acorn, and so on. If this is the case, then the set of acorns causally explains the set of oak trees, and the set of oak trees causally explains the set of acorns. But, if we stop the explanation there, we are left with a circularity, and it doesn't explain why there are acorns and oak trees at all.

    I just can't think of abstract objects in the same way. The number 7 doesn't do anything, and it's not the type of thing that can be brought about either, assuming it exists at all.

    To answer your question in a much shorter way, though, I'm using "entity" synonymously with "being" or "thing" or "object." :)

  3. Hi Doug,

    Existence de re is just to say that existence, as a property, is essential to the thing itself. In the case of God, it’d just be to say that, necessarily, in whatever world God exists, he exists. But that’s hardly interesting if we allow for existence to be a property, since the same would apply to us. So, I don’t think of it in these terms. When I propose the universe or God as necessary, I mean it in the de dicto sense.

    What about self-existence? I take this to convey the idea that God’s existence is explained by his nature. This seems to implicate that God, a substance, is identical to his essence, a quality. I’m not sure what to make of this. Qualities of a concrete being inhere within that concrete being. But how can God inhere within himself? It seems to make better sense if we understand God’s existence as a necessary brute fact, and likewise for the atheists and their universe.

    Now, as for your depiction of the universe, I have my suspicions. The house-analogue was interesting although I’m unsure if it is decisive. Houses are not just the totality of their members. They demand a specific type of structure. I cannot just throw the parts of a house onto the floor and call it a house.
    These laid out parts wouldn’t be an object, and so it’s difficult to see how a universe could be an object if it is just a totality of stuff.
    But presume it is an object of the concrete or abstract type. If it is the totality of its parts, then, like a set, if one of its members change, then its identity changes. For instance, when new objects come to be and peter out of existence, are we then dealing with a new universe? If so, then the definite description found in a few of your premises (3, 10) is in danger. But if it is the same universe, then what accounts for the preservation of its identity through the change of its qualities/parts?


  4. For one who believes that God is Pure Act, it makes a lot more sense to me that God would have necessary de re existence. Now, you ask: how can God inhere within Himself? I think this assumes that if all of X's properties were removed, then X would still remain. But, I don't think that's at all possible. X is just is the set of its properties. So, God's necessary de re existence is indicative of His own being, not something that exists as an independent possession of God.

    Still, the LCA needn't assume de re existence. I know that Swinburne takes the view that God is metaphysically necessary, but logically contingent, and therefore the ultimate brute fact. Is this what you had in mind? If so, it's perfectly workable.

    You're quite right that we cannot just throw parts together and expect a house. I suppose it is more precise to say that a house is the totality of its parts interconnected in a specific way. We could then say that the universe is the totality and interconnectivity of all physical space, time, matter and energy.

    I tend to think that when the universe changes, it remains the same universe. It's just a reconfiguration of its parts. Presumably, it could be shown that the universe yesterday had the same quarks (or whatever particle is most elementary) it has today.