Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mortimer Adler's Cosmological Argument

Mortimer Adler came to the Christian faith fairly late in life, and to the Catholic faith in particular, even later. Nevertheless, even before his conversion and throughout his professional career, Adler made no apologies for defending his belief in God (or a Supreme Being of some kind) based on the existence of a contingent universe. His own argument goes roughly like this:

1. If X is an effect in need of a sustaining cause Y, then the existence of X implies the existence and action of Y. (Premise)

2. The universe is an existing effect. (Premise)

3. The universe is radically contingent. (Premise)

4. Whatever is radically contingent requires a sustaining cause. (Premise, PSR)

5. Therefore, the universe has a sustaining cause. (From 1 - 4)

(1) and (2) are indubitably true. (3) seems fairly benign upon consideration. Adler distinguishes between radical contingency and superficial contingency, the former of which entails the possibility of one or more alternative states of affairs. For example, the universe as it presently exists could logically exist differently. The laws of nature could be different; my desk could be yellow instead of black; the Steelers could have beaten the Packers in the Super Bowl; and so forth.

(4) is Adler's interpretation of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). Instead of going into a defense of the PSR, it is worth considering a common objection. It is often alleged that these arguments commit a composition fallacy. Just because each part of a mountain is small, that doesn't mean the mountain as a whole is small. Likewise, it is thought, even though each part of the universe has a sustaining cause, that doesn't mean the universe as a whole has a sustaining cause.

The disparity in this analogy is evident whenever we try to apply causal explanations. Would it be wise to suggest that even though each part of the mountain has a causal explanation, the mountain as a whole does not? Surely the mountain itself has been formed by geological processes, etc. What this illustrates is that while there are cases in which the whole is not like its parts, there are other cases in which the whole is like its parts.

Adler then reasons that the sustaining cause of the universe must have the usual transcendent attributes of timelessness, immutability, and immateriality, in addition to enormous power.

It turns out that Adler's argument is pretty close to Leibniz's own formulation of the cosmological argument.

12 comments:

  1. "(4) is Adler's interpretation of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). Instead of going into a defense of the PSR, it is worth considering a common objection. It is often alleged that these arguments commit a composition fallacy. Just because each part of a mountain is small, that doesn't mean the mountain as a whole is small. Likewise, it is thought, even though each part of the universe has a sustaining cause, that doesn't mean the universe as a whole has a sustaining cause."

    When people insist upon trying that route to escape the conclusion, one might point out that there is actually no such concrete thing as "the universe." "The universe" is a concept, an abstraction.

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  2. Walter Van den AckerFebruary 16, 2011 at 8:26 AM

    OK, this is a bit more challenging than some other arguments. Just some quick remarks

    "2. The universe is an existing effect. (Premise)"

    This is not ‘indubitable’. Sure, the universe exists, but saying that it is an effect is question-begging.

    "3. The universe is radically contingent. (Premise)"

    This isn’t so indubitable either, as I will explain later

    "4. Whatever is radically contingent requires a sustaining cause. (Premise, PSR)"

    It has never been proven that contingent things require a cause, not an originating cause and certainly not a sustaining cause

    But there is a more radical criticism to be made on the second part of the argument.

    "Adler then reasons that the sustaining cause of the universe must have the usual transcendent attributes of timelessness, immutability, and immateriality, in addition to enormous power."

    Well, either this sustaining cause of the universe is contingent or necessary. If it is contingent, then it too requires a sustaining cause. So it is probably necessary.
    And here comes the problem (not exclusive for this argument but for most cosmological arguments)
    1. If the SC is necessary then it exists in every possible world

    2. If the SC is immutable it is completely the same in every possible world

    3. Hence its mind is also completely the same in every possible world

    4. If the SC is immutable it cannot change its mind.

    5. Hence the SC thinks completely the same in every possible world.

    6. The universe is the result of the SC’s plans.

    7. The SC’s plans are the same in every possible world (from 3,4 and 5)

    8. The universe is the same in every possible world (from 6 and 7)

    9. The universe is not radically contingent. (from 9)

    10 The universe does not require a sustaining cause (from 9 and Adler’s premise 4)

    Well, not so challenging after all.

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  3. Walter: "This is not ‘indubitable’. Sure, the universe exists, but saying that it is an effect is question-begging."

    It's a bit subtle what Adler means here. The fact that the universe is an effect (something changing) doesn't automatically imply that it has an external cause, but I can understand why one might read it that way.

    How does immutability imply that God's mind (or the thoughts of God's mind) is/are the same in every possible world?

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  4. Hi Ilion,

    It's an interesting response to claim that the argument commits a composition fallacy. If every part of a mountain is made of rock, then the mountain as a whole is made of rock. Likewise, if every part of the mountain is concrete, then the mountain as a whole is concrete. Finally, if every part of the mountain is causally explained, then the mountain as a whole is causally explained.

    The same would then apply to the universe.

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  5. Walter Van den AckerFebruary 19, 2011 at 1:42 AM

    Doug:

    "It's a bit subtle what Adler means here. The fact that the universe is an effect (something changing) doesn't automatically imply that it has an external cause, but I can understand why one might read it that way."

    Then why not just say 'the universe exists'? I've never heard 'something changing' describe as 'an effect', so it just confuses things.

    "How does immutability imply that God's mind (or the thoughts of God's mind) is/are the same in every possible world?"

    Not just the SC's immutability, but the combination of the SC's immutability, its radical necessityand it's timelessness. There just seems no logically possible way for such a being to be different in any possible way in any possible world. If you can show me how it can be different, Adler's argument might be worth considering. If not, then it's a waste of time.

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  6. Walter: "Then why not just say 'the universe exists'? I've never heard 'something changing' describe as 'an effect', so it just confuses things."

    It's not my argument. Rather, it's my interpretation of the argument Adler himself puts forward in "How to Think About God."

    Walter: "Not just the SC's immutability, but the combination of the SC's immutability, its radical necessityand it's timelessness. There just seems no logically possible way for such a being to be different in any possible way in any possible world. If you can show me how it can be different, Adler's argument might be worth considering. If not, then it's a waste of time."

    You have it backwards. It's not my responsibility to show you how God can be different in a different possible world. Instead, you are the one making a positive claim about what cannot be the case. If you have some argument that shows, and not just asserts, that the conjunction of God's immutability and necessity require that He be the same in every possible world, then we can take a look at it.

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  7. Walter Van den AckerFebruary 21, 2011 at 6:04 AM

    A being is immutable if it cannot change in any possible way.
    A being is necessary if it exists in every possible world
    A being is immutable and necessary if it is the same in every possible world.
    Seems like basic logic to me.
    If it's not, it's definitely your responsibility to show why God would be an exception.

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  8. Walter Van den AckerFebruary 21, 2011 at 6:25 AM

    Doug
    "You have it backwards. It's not my responsibility to show you how God can be different in a different possible world."

    Actually, the reason why it's your responsibility is because you are the one making the claim that "For example, the universe as it presently exists could logically exist differently" and that therefore, the universe is radically contingent.
    So, why, if "God, as He presently exists could logically exist differently" God would not ne radically contingent? That looks like double standards to me.

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  9. Walter: "A being is immutable if it cannot change in any possible way.
    A being is necessary if it exists in every possible world
    A being is immutable and necessary if it is the same in every possible world.
    Seems like basic logic to me."

    What law of logic are you using to derive the conclusion from the premises? Law of excluded middle? The transitive axiom? Please tell me.

    Let's say that a necessarily existent God exists and is immutable in w1. Now, let's say that God exists and is immutable in w2. Why is God required to will the same thing in w1 that He wills in w2?

    Walter: "If it's not, it's definitely your responsibility to show why God would be an exception."

    I don't have to, since your conclusion doesn't even follow from the premises.

    Walter: "Actually, the reason why it's your responsibility is because you are the one making the claim that 'For example, the universe as it presently exists could logically exist differently' and that therefore, the universe is radically contingent."

    The alternative is that the universe exists as it does necessarily, which is equal to claiming that it is impossible for the universe to exist in any other way. The latter is just as controversial as anything I've said, and that's being extremely generous. Yet, for someone who is so opposed to the concept of necessary existence, it seems odd that you would prefer a universe that exists necessarily.

    Walter: "So, why, if "God, as He presently exists could logically exist differently" God would not ne radically contingent? That looks like double standards to me."

    For one thing, you're confusing what God is with what God does. God can (and I believe does) exist both immutably and necessarily, but from that it doesn't at all follow that He wills the same thing in every possible world. If you think it does, please cite the law of logic you're using to make this inference.

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  10. Walter Van den AckerFebruary 23, 2011 at 8:22 AM

    "What law of logic are you using to derive the conclusion from the premises? Law of excluded middle? The transitive axiom? Please tell me."

    The law of non-contradiction.
    I happen to think that if a green ball exists in every possible world and cannot change, there is no possible world in which the green ball is a red cube.

    "Let's say that a necessarily existent God exists and is immutable in w1. Now, let's say that God exists and is immutable in w2. Why is God required to will the same thing in w1 that He wills in w2?"

    Because if God wills something else in w2, it's not completely the same God and He is, by your definition, radically contingent.

    "I don't have to, since your conclusion doesn't even follow from the premises."

    Maybe it doesn't, but if that's the case, that the universe is radically contingent does not follow from the premises either.

    "The alternative is that the universe exists as it does necessarily, which is equal to claiming that it is impossible for the universe to exist in any other way."

    No, the universe could exist necessarily, but turn out differently in different possible worlds, just as God can apparently be a different God in every possible world.
    Anyway, I'm glad you admit that what you say is controversial, I was under the impression that it was indubitable.

    "God can (and I believe does) exist both immutably and necessarily, but from that it doesn't at all follow that He wills the same thing in every possible world."

    Sure it does, unless He can be a different God in every possible world, which, by your definition would make him radically contngent.

    Or do you actually believe that a God who prefers a black desk for Doug Benscoter is exactly the same as a God who prefers a yellow desk for DB?

    Anyway, if the universe is not completely deterministic, it follows that the same universe can turmn out differently in every possible world, and if the universe is completely deterministic, it will be the same in every possible world, just as , if God's mind is not completely deterministic, He can have different thoughts and preferences in every possible world and if His mind is deterministic, He can't. There is no difference between the universe and God in this respect. Either the fact that both can change from world W1 to W2 means that both can be necessary, or that they both are radically contingent.
    But declaring one necessary and the other contingent on this basis, is just special pleading.

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  11. Walter: "The law of non-contradiction.
    I happen to think that if a green ball exists in every possible world and cannot change, there is no possible world in which the green ball is a red cube."

    Okay, and now will you explain why you think this is parallel to the argument you offered? I have a feeling you're confusing God's mind (which exists necessarily) with what God wills with His mind.

    Walter: "Because if God wills something else in w2, it's not completely the same God and He is, by your definition, radically contingent."

    Not so fast. Why is this not the same God?

    Walter: "Maybe it doesn't, but if that's the case, that the universe is radically contingent does not follow from the premises either."

    What? The fact that the universe can and has existed in different ways is enough to say that it is radically contingent. There's no parity between that argument and the one you offered.

    Walter: "No, the universe could exist necessarily, but turn out differently in different possible worlds, just as God can apparently be a different God in every possible world."

    Again, you need to show that God would be different.

    Walter: "Or do you actually believe that a God who prefers a black desk for Doug Benscoter is exactly the same as a God who prefers a yellow desk for DB?"

    I absolutely believe that. Why wouldn't I?

    Walter: "Anyway, if the universe is not completely deterministic, it follows that the same universe can turmn out differently in every possible world, and if the universe is completely deterministic, it will be the same in every possible world . . ."

    No, the universe could be completely different, despite being entirely deterministic. Determinism is a metaphysical principle, not a logical one.

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  12. Walter Van den AckerFebruary 26, 2011 at 5:27 PM

    "Okay, and now will you explain why you think this is parallel to the argument you offered? I have a feeling you're confusing God's mind (which exists necessarily) with what God wills with His mind."

    No, Doug, you are the one trying to differentiate between the two. What God wills with His mind is the result of what His mind is.
    Or, what God wills with his mind is the result of God's will with his mind, which is a result of what God wills that he wills with his mind which is a result of God's will of what he wills with his mind etc. If God's mind is different from what He wils with His mind, we get an infinite regress. God's will does not contriol God's mind, God's will is the result of God's mind.
    And even if you don't agree with this: if God is necessary then God's will is neceesary too. If God wills a yellow desk, he necessarily wills a yellow desk and thre is no possible world in which he wills a black one. You are trying to give God's will a special status apart from His mind.
    That is impossible under divine simplicity, but even if it were possible, a God with will A would still be different from a God with will B, no matter how subtle the difference is, you simply cannot deny it's a difference. Which is all I need for my argument to work.

    "I absolutely believe that. Why wouldn't I?"

    OK, then a universe with a black desk is the same as a universe with a yellow desk, why wouldn't I believe that? Or a universe in which Doug wants a yellow desk is the same as a universe in which Doug wants a black desk. No difference at all AKAICT.


    "No, the universe could be completely different, despite being entirely deterministic. Determinism is a metaphysical principle, not a logical one."

    That's indeed an epistemic possibility, if the initial conditions of the universe can be different, of course. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing that. But if the initial conditions of the universe are necessary and everything is deterministic, the universe cannot possibly be anything else than it is, and the same holds for God.

    I think it's obvious now that Adler's arguments relies entirely on special pleading and double standards. I don't see any reason to continu discussing it here. So I rest my case. Let the jury decide.

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