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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.

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11 comments

  1. Hello again, Thomas.

    Reid: 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.

    TaiChi: Actually, I’d deny this. If, in every possible world, God has a SR and would not do otherwise than to act on it, then in every possible world he acts on it. So there are no worlds in which he does not act on it. So there is no possiblity that God does other than he does. And so God does not have an ability to do otherwise, as an agent’s having an ability to refrain from some action implies a possible world where the agent does refrain from the action, and this we’ve already discounted.

    Reid: But why think that SR is necessary?

    TaiChi: Because traditional theism maintains it – God creates the universe because of what he is, i.e. his essence, but God is necessary, so his essence is necesssary, so his reason is necessary.

    Reid: Put another way, is it entirely up to God which universe gets created? … 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.

    TaiChi: If humans have libertarian free-will (I think you’ve already denied it to God, as per my first point), if the idea is coherent, then yes, God’s creation of a world according to his reason doesn’t entail its necessity.
    But while the response might do for this argument, I feel you’ve missed the point. It is not just human beings, and the world they manipulate that is supposed to be wantonly contingent according the purveyors of the cosmological argument, but everything except God himself. Further, human beings are supposedly contingent, not just in the sense that they do as they (indeterminately) will, but in the sense that they need not have existed in the first place. Your response leaves these contingencies unaccounted for, even if it were to suffice for a general response.
    There’s certainly an argument hereabouts that would do the trick. I could take a specific item, e.g. the Andromeda Galaxy, and run the same argument with this in place of the universe. I could take matter in general as my contingent-item-which-must-be-necessary-if-God-exists, which, since it cannot be created or destroyed by humans with free-will, suffices for my purpose. Or I could talk of the universe prior to the evolution of free human beings (I assume you’re not a creationist), and take that as my contingent item. Possibilities abound.

    Reid: 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

    TaiChi: No, because the reasons for creating the world are internal to the God, and God is necessary.


  2. Reid: 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.

    TaiChi: Sorry, but this is a fudge. Suppose we have a proposition, P, which is contingent, and turns out to be true in the actual world, @. We express this in the form of another proposition, “P is true at @”, and this proposition is not just true at the actual world, but is true in all possible worlds, for the fact that “P is true at @” is true in whatever region of modal space you like. For comparison “It is winter in Europe” is true, even though I’m asserting it from the Southern Hemisphere, where it’s Summer.
    Similarly, modal propositions concerning the actions of free agents at particular worlds are not just true in those worlds, but are necessarily true. If “‘Hazel offers her neighbour a ride’ at PW2” is true, then it is necessarily true. And it is this modal proposition which partially explains, and so partially forms God’s reason for, the instantiation of PW2 – the proposition that “Hazel offers her neighbour a ride” doesn’t do that, since unless it is indexed to a world it provides no reason for the instantiation of a world.

    Reid: 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.

    TaiChi: I think what you’re saying here is that possible world semantics implies contingencies which vary across possible worlds. So, you’re suggesting that the framework we have chosen is itself an argument against the suggestion that if God exists, the universe is necessary.
    But this isn’t my problem, it’s yours. If the framework of possible world semantics can’t accomodate necessitarianism, and God’s existence entails necessitarianism, then clearly somone who denies God’s existence is not going to be bothered. Someone who affirms God’s existence, on the other hand, has to revise his opinions on the framework or on God.


  3. Reid: Instead, why can’t we affirm that God simply has reasons for creating the universe as we know it?

    TaiChi: Notice that a mere reason wouldn’t suffice as a full explanation of the creation of the universe. In that case, you’re giving up the idea that there can be a sound cosmological argument – for, although God would have reason to instantiate a world, he would not have a reason to instantiate this world over all others, and so to explain why things are as they are and not otherwise.
    This is a significant admission. Do you recognize that you’ve made it, and that by emphasizing that God has less than compelling reasons for creating the universe, you admit that any principle which would demand his having full and complete reasons, such as the PSR, is false?

    Reid: 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.

    TaiChi: So, God chooses the world, in some measure, freely. This free choice is absent any explanation, for to postulate a reason behind it would lead to an infinite regress of reasons. So there is not a reason for every contingent fact. So the cosmological argument is not sound. That looks like a philosophical result to me.

    Reid: 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.

    TaiChi: The mental coin-flip, as you put it, threatens God’s status as a benevolent creator and overseer. No longer can we take it for granted that he does what’s best, but now we have to accept as possible that he could even perform the worst of actions. I forget who it was now, but there was a Christian theologian who speculated that the Holocaust was a morally good event due to the compassion it generated amongst sympathizers with the Jewish people. That just goes to show, you can find some good in just about anything, and therefore God would have a reason for just about anything. But I think we’ve covered this, and I’m repeating myself.

    Reid: Finally, thanks to TaiChi (and if I flatter myself, a handful of others) for patiently waiting for this third post.

    TaiChi: Thanks for critiquing it. As above, I think the argument still has teeth, or at least some minor variation on it, with which the theist will have to engage. But it’s been helpful to go through and see that it can be better.


  4. Hi TaiChi,

    I have just a few responses here, which probably will be all for the time being on this topic.

    TaiChi: There’s certainly an argument hereabouts that would do the trick. I could take a specific item, e.g. the Andromeda Galaxy, and run the same argument with this in place of the universe. I could take matter in general as my contingent-item-which-must-be-necessary-if-God-exists, which, since it cannot be created or destroyed by humans with free-will, suffices for my purpose. Or I could talk of the universe prior to the evolution of free human beings (I assume you’re not a creationist), and take that as my contingent item. Possibilities abound.

    Reid: I’d be interested to see you flesh that argument out some time. I’m not seeing how this would work considering only parts of the universe (either space- or time-constrained), as long as free agents exist at some in time in it.

    TaiChi: No, because the reasons for creating the world are internal to the God, and God is necessary.

    Reid: But the content of the reasons are contingent, and therefore the resulting universe is contingent.

    TaiChi: Similarly, modal propositions concerning the actions of free agents at particular worlds are not just true in those worlds, but are necessarily true. If “‘Hazel offers her neighbour a ride’ at PW2” is true, then it is necessarily true. And it is this modal proposition which partially explains, and so partially forms God’s reason for, the instantiation of PW2 – the proposition that “Hazel offers her neighbour a ride” doesn’t do that, since unless it is indexed to a world it provides no reason for the instantiation of a world.

    Reid: You are right about the nature of modal propositions, sorry if I was obscure in my meaning. While I agree that modal propositions are true in all possible worlds, my point is that the content of the modal propositions concerning free agents is contingent on what those free agents would do in each possible world.

    TaiChi: If the framework of possible world semantics can’t accomodate necessitarianism, and God’s existence entails necessitarianism, then clearly somone who denies God’s existence is not going to be bothered. Someone who affirms God’s existence, on the other hand, has to revise his opinions on the framework or on God.

    Reid: Right, if the theist accepts (P6), then it seems to me he is committed to finding out how the universe as we know it is not necessary (“our problem”, as you might say). I believe I’ve done that with my response.

    TaiChi: Notice that a mere reason wouldn’t suffice as a full explanation of the creation of the universe. In that case, you’re giving up the idea that there can be a sound cosmological argument – for, although God would have reason to instantiate a world, he would not have a reason to instantiate this world over all others, and so to explain why things are as they are and not otherwise.
    This is a significant admission. Do you recognize that you’ve made it, and that by emphasizing that God has less than compelling reasons for creating the universe, you admit that any principle which would demand his having full and complete reasons, such as the PSR, is false?

    Reid: A few points. First, I affirmed all the premises, it’s just that I was least certain about (P1), simply because I’ll have to think more about all possible implications. Second, as we discussed, a reason does not suffice as a full explanation for an agent’s act, you have to include the agent’s free choice to act. Finally, I’m actually rather skeptical that the PSR is true, influenced for instance by Van Inwagen’s work. I don’t defend Leibniz’ formulation of the cosmological argument, and I don’t think all arguments in this family rely on the PSR.

    [continued below…]


  5. […continued from above]

    TaiChi: So, God chooses the world, in some measure, freely. This free choice is absent any explanation, for to postulate a reason behind it would lead to an infinite regress of reasons. So there is not a reason for every contingent fact. So the cosmological argument is not sound. That looks like a philosophical result to me.

    Reid: No, it’s not absent any explanation, it just would not correspond to a sufficient reason, as I said in the post. You are saying none of the cosmological arguments would therefore be sound?

    TaiChi: Thanks for critiquing it. As above, I think the argument still has teeth, or at least some minor variation on it, with which the theist will have to engage. But it’s been helpful to go through and see that it can be better.

    Reid: My pleasure. Do you publish? I’d like to be on the lookout for this in journals. If not, you should at least have a blog!


  6. Oops, edit the comments above. I don't think all cosmological arguments rely on the PSR as formulated by Leibniz. I'm also skeptical that Leibniz' version is actually valid.


  7. Reid: I'd be interested to see you flesh that argument out some time. I'm not seeing how this would work considering only parts of the universe (either space- or time-constrained), as long as free agents exist at some in time in it.
    TaiChi: Well, whether or not an item is contingent doesn't depend on whether it exists in a contingent world, but whether the same item exists in all possible worlds. So the contingency of human free-will does not make everything else contingent by default, which seems to me what you might be thinking.

    TaiChi: No, because the reasons for creating the world are internal to the God, and God is necessary.
    Reid: But the content of the reasons are contingent, and therefore the resulting universe is contingent.
    TaiChi: I don't agree that the content of the reasons are contingent, since I think they are modal propositions as I've discussed, and modal propositions are necessary.

    Reid: You are right about the nature of modal propositions, sorry if I was obscure in my meaning. While I agree that modal propositions are true in all possible worlds, my point is that the content of the modal propositions concerning free agents is contingent on what those free agents would do in each possible world.
    TaiChi: Ah. But the inference you're making from 'contingent on' to contingent simpliciter isn't valid. Suppose numbers exist, and they exist necessarily. If so, the modal proposition asserting the existence of numbers in each and every possible world would be 'contingent on' the existence of numbers in those individual worlds. But numbers are, ex hypothesi, necessary. Then the content of the modal proposition, what it talks about, is necessary also. So we have a counterexample to your form of inference.


  8. Reid: Second, as we discussed, a reason does not suffice as a full explanation for an agent's act, you have to include the agent's free choice to act.
    TaiChi: I see this as a denial of the PSR, don't you? Libertarian free will is where the explanation for an agent's action runs out, where it should run out. The PSR demands that there is always an explanation. So the PSR and libertarian free will are incompatible. I think you can be more than merely skeptical of the PSR.

    Reid: Finally, I'm actually rather skeptical that the PSR is true, influenced for instance by Van Inwagen's work. I don't defend Leibniz' formulation of the cosmological argument, and I don't think all arguments in this family rely on the PSR.
    TaiChi: Then I've mistaken you – I thought you agreed with Ayer on Adler's cosmological argument. Looking back to that thread, I can see it isn't so. My apologies.

    Reid: No, it's not absent any explanation, it just would not correspond to a sufficient reason, as I said in the post.
    TaiChi: Ok, so the explanation for the free choice is not a sufficient reason. What are you suggesting it is?

    Reid: You are saying none of the cosmological arguments would therefore be sound?
    Taichi: If you include as species of cosmological arguments versions which do not include the PSR or something like it, then no.

    Reid: My pleasure. Do you publish? I'd like to be on the lookout for this in journals. If not, you should at least have a blog!
    TaiChi: 'Fraid not, but thanks for the compliment. It always seems like there's more I need to learn before doing something like that. In the meantime, I'm quite happy sharing my thoughts on CommonSenseAtheism.


  9. Reid: My pleasure. Do you publish? I'd like to be on the lookout for this in journals. If not, you should at least have a blog!
    TaiChi: 'Fraid not, but thanks for the compliment. It always seems like there's more I need to learn before doing something like that. In the meantime, I'm quite happy sharing my thoughts on CommonSenseAtheism.
    Reid: I look forward to continued encounters with you at CSA. I find the dialog there is frequently more respectful and insightful than most other blogs focusing on religion.Your profile says you're in New Zealand. Which is the best beer from down there?


  10. Reid: I look forward to continued encounters with you at CSA. I find the dialog there is frequently more respectful and insightful than most other blogs focusing on religion.
    TaiChi: It's an oasis, for sure.
    Reid: Your profile says you're in New Zealand. Which is the best beer from down there?
    TaiChi: Guinness, as everywhere. 😉 Seeya 'round.


  11. Reid: Your profile says you're in New Zealand. Which is the best beer from down there?
    TaiChi: Guinness, as everywhere. 😉 Seeya 'round.
    Reid: Brilliant! At least we agree on which is the best beer.



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