Archive for February, 2010

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God’s Necessity and the Universe’s Contingency (Part 3)

February 22, 2010

In Part 2 of this series I explored propositions comprising a supposed inconsistent set regarding God’s necessity and the universe’s contingency, brought to my attention by “TaiChi” (see also Part 1 of this series where I introduced TaiChi’s initial argument).  But it turns out I had misunderstood how he was using the term “sufficient reason”, and that also we were operating with different notions of what it means to say that an act is “rational”.  So afterward, TaiChi and I came to agreement on a modified set of propositions that I think better represents the nature of his argument (hopefully he agrees).  In this post I’ll evaluate these propositions and any inferences we can make from them.

Before we get to the argument, we should define what a “reason” is in this context.  In this discussion we’ll take a “reason” to be something internal to an agent, that is an explanation for an agent’s choice and logically prior to an agent’s choice.  Now, here are the propositions:

(P0) The universe is contingent.
(P1) God had sufficient reason to create the universe as we know it.
(P2*) A sufficient reason is an all-things-relevant-to-the-choice reason for choosing to perform one action over any other alternative.
(P4) (No longer used)
(P5*) God would not have a sufficient reason to create the universe as we know it and refrain from creating the universe as we know it.
(P6) God is necessary – he exists in every possible world.

As a side note, witness the distinction between “sufficient reason” defined in (P2*), and the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which states that there must be an explanation for any contingent entity or event.  I highlight this difference only because it formed the basis for my original misunderstanding of how TaiChi was using “sufficient reason”.

INFERENCE EVALUATION

Excepting (P0), what inferences can we draw from the propositions provided?  We can deduce the following:

(C3) God had an all-things-relevant-to-the-choice reason for choosing to create the universe as we know it over any other alternative. (from P1 and P2*)
(C7) God would not refrain from creating the universe as we know it. (from P1 and P5*)
(C8) God would not refrain from creating the universe as we know it in any possible world (from P6 and C7)

Given the argument, can we say that the universe is therefore necessary?  First, we need to be clear about what “necessary” means.  Here I take it to mean that it is a metaphysical impossibility for the universe as we know it to not exist.  I think this is uncontroversial between myself and TaiChi.

With that in mind, I don’t think this argument actually proves that the universe as we know it is necessary.  Let’s examine (C8) a little more closely.  The conclusion proffered is not that God could not refrain from creating the universe as we know it, only that He would not.  So this argument does not prove the metaphysical necessity of the universe as we know it.

We can anticipate an objection to this observation, which is that it is a distinction without a difference.  Let’s suppose that SR is God’s sufficient reason to create the universe as we know it over any other alternative.  Now if God has SR, isn’t He bound to create the universe as we know it?  Here I think that we can agree He would be bound by His nature to perform an act for which He has reason to perform over any other alternative.

But why think that SR is necessary?  Put another way, is it entirely up to God which universe gets created?  I think the theist comfortably can maintain that the type of universe that comes into being is not entirely up to God.  For the universe contains free creatures who can act according to their own will, implying that external causal antecedents are not sufficient to determine their course of action.  Now although God has foreknowledge of His creatures’ free acts (and so we are not denying God’s omniscience), He cannot at the same time make them free and determine them to act in accordance with His will (a logical contradiction).

Now we are in a position to see that the features of each possible world depend on the choices of any free creatures in it.  Thus, although God had reason to create the universe as we know it (He actualized a particular possible world), He could have had reasons to create a different universe.  So the universe as we know it is not necessary because God need not have had the sufficient reason(s) for creating the universe as we know it.

Perhaps an illustration would help clarify the distinction.  Suppose there are two possible worlds PW1 and PW2, and Hazel exists in both of them.  Suppose all events prior to the following are identical between PW1 and PW2.  In PW1 at time t, Hazel could run over her neighbor on the way to work, and in PW2 at time t, she could offer her neighbor a ride on her way to work.  Next, suppose that God knows that Hazel would freely run her neighbor over.

We see that it is not feasible for God to create PW2, for He knows that Hazel would not offer her neighbor a ride to work, but instead would run her over.  Now, this small item of knowledge obviously serves as part of a reason for not creating PW2 (it may also serve as a reason for not creating PW1 when compared to other possible worlds).  But, if Hazel were to freely offer her neighbor a ride to work, then all else being equal, God would have reason for creating PW2 over PW1.

So we see that God’s reasons for actualizing a particular possible world are informed by the freedom of His creatures.  Therefore, God’s sufficient reason for creating the universe as we know it is not necessary, but is contingent.  If His free creatures were to act differently given particular circumstances, God might have had a sufficient reason reason for actualizing a different universe.  As a result, the universe as we know it is not necessary.

In closing, notice that premise (P6) presupposes possible world semantics to describe the way the cosmos could have been.  So if (P6) is to be maintained, it seems like we are committed to the idea that it really is a possibility that the cosmos could have been different; but this is simply another way of saying that the universe as we know it is not necessary.

PREMISE EVALUATION

We’ve shown that all premises can be held consistently without concluding that the universe as we know it is necessary.  But I reserve some doubt about whether (P1) is true, as I’ll explain below.

Doubted: (P1) God had sufficient reason to create the universe as we know it.

We grant that God had a reason (or reasons) to create the universe as we know it, but why think God would have this type of reason?  Instead, why can’t we affirm that God simply has reasons for creating the universe as we know it?  Possibly He has reasons for creating the universe as we know it, reasons for creating alternative universes, or reasons for not creating anything at all.  So suppose God had decided to create an alternative universe, not this one.  The objector responds, why would He have done do so?  Well, as was noted, He had reasons for creating that alternate universe, and His reasons, combined with His free will to choose and act on that choice, resulted in the alternate universe.

At this point the objector might say that if God didn’t have a sufficient reason, then that’s somehow not enough to explain how He decided to create the world as we know it.  If it’s true that He has reasons for choosing multiple possible universes, then doesn’t He need to have some criteria for selecting the one possibility that He instantiates?  Now, at this point a possible dilemma emerges.  If we offer a criteria, aren’t we admitting that God did have a sufficient reason, and therefore (C8) eventually follows?  But if we don’t offer a criteria, then aren’t we in some way diminishing our conception of God?  As in, does He perform a mental coin-flip, and then by way of chance out comes the universe as we know it?

I think we could deny that God had separate criteria for choosing among possibilities for which He had reasons to instantiate.  To posit this demand exposes specious grounds of questioning, in that it leads to chasing an infinite regress of reasons, and not just for God but for any free agent.  For as soon as we offer criteria, we might just as well ask ourselves what reasons God would have for choosing that particular set of criteria, and on and on we could go.

How does this not diminish our conception of God?  Well, it doesn’t deny that He is omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent, or personal, and so in fact I don’t think it does diminish it.  Rather it might help illuminate our incomplete understanding of free will.  For notice that the objection centers around how God chose to create the universe as we know it, not why He did.  We’ve already answered the “why” question by positing that He had reasons (just not “sufficient reasons”).  But we might not have a very good grasp on the process of choosing itself.  Yet as interesting a question as that may be, it is not the topic of this debate, as both TaiChi (and he can correct me if I’ve misunderstood him) and I have affirmed it for our purposes here.

CONCLUSION

This is a very intriguing argument, and I appreciate TaiChi’s development of it and patience with me as I sought to understand it.  I don’t think it proves TaiChi’s postulated conclusion that the universe as we know it is necessary (and thus there is no inconsistency in the set), but it does force the theist to carefully consider topics of necessity, contingency, and free will and how they relate to our understanding of God.  Finally, thanks to TaiChi (and if I flatter myself, a handful of others) for patiently waiting for this third post.