Friday, 27 February 2015

Cosmological Arguments: A Gentle Introduction

Cosmos= The universe, all of existence. Cosmological arguments constitute a family of arguments for the existence of God.


In understanding the cosmological arguments, the first mistake people make is thinking there's just one of them i.e. the so-called Kalam cosmological argument popularized by William Lane Craig. An understandable mistake, no doubt- this is the only cosmological argument (or any argument for God for that matter) that's been popularized to this extent. It's easy to equivocate between this and cosmological arguments simpliciter. That's why it's common to hear things like "Oh I've heard all about the cosmological argument, it's completely unconvincing". Last I checked, not only are there a bunch of cosmological arguments, but each argument have been formulated and re-formulated many times throughout history.

So, what is a cosmological argument?

Throughout history, thinkers and reflective people have noticed that there is something fundamentally mysterious about reality. Something about reality itself calls out for some sort of extra-natural explanation. And it's not just certain aspects of reality- like the earth being habitable or living organisms being works of engineering- that call out for such an explanation, but every part of reality. Reality itself is mysterious. Philosophers throughout the ages have tried to put their finger on what is it about reality that makes it so mysterious, so explanation-worthy. Myriad answers have been offered- the phenomenon of motion, the phenomenon of change, the contingency or ephemeral nature of all objects, causality, and so on. Why is it that all things in the cosmos follow a strict, regular, universal order, as if guided towards some end?- asked the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, while Newton's contemporary Leibniz wondered about the contingency of all things (more on both soon). When you think about it, it is indeed mysterious that all of reality would be uniformly characterized by such features, where things could clearly have been otherwise. Things could have worked without the least whiff of regularity and lawlikeness, for example, or reality could have been a mosaic of necessary and contingent parts. These philosophers reasoned- the only way to account for these mysterious yet ubiquitous properties of the cosmos is to invoke the creative action of a being with properties similar to those of the God of Abrahamic theism, broadly conceived. That is the basic, intuitive thrust of a cosmological argument.

More precisely though, a cosmological argument uses as premise some large-scale feature of the cosmos- motion, change, order, contingency, causality, incidental properties, what have you- to argue for the existence of God.

Why "argument"?

This is a question that concerns the entire discipline of natural theology- why is it that philosophers always speak in terms of arguments and premises and conclusions and explanations and these debate-centric terminology? Why can't we just use our intuitions as guides to God? So in the case of the cosmological arguments for example- why don't we just appeal to the intrinsic mystery of these cosmic features as they are, instead of making rigorous, formulaic argument out of them?

The concern is valid. Indeed, sometimes the arguments of natural theology become so convoluted that we lose sight of its fundamental intuitive thrust. That's bad news. An evidence for God shouldn't only appeal to the logician in you, but also satisfy you at an intuitive, even emotional level. Understood this way, an argument is only as good as the level of faith it produces in you. And faith is as much a matter of the heart as it is of the intellect. That's why I'm a big proponent of exploring the intuition behind an argument before entering the more formulaic discussions concerning it. That's also why I find ontological arguments distasteful- not necessarily because they're weak, but because they are so hard to relate with and intuit.

That said, I'd say arguments are still important. You see, intuitions can only go so far as guides for truth. The human psyche is rife with potential logical fallacies and cognitive biases. It thus becomes difficult to tell a genuine intuition from an artificial, socially constructed one. Non-theists are cognizant of this fact, and for many of them the sole reliance of intuition as evidences for God may not just cut it. They may claim to not have those intuitions, saying there's nothing mysterious about the order in nature. Note that it's possible to 'talk yourself out' of even self-evident propositions. Especially in today's context where God is such an unpopular hypothesis, intuitions commonly associated with theism like order in nature and universal causality have largely fallen out of favor. Such a society is not conducive to theistic intuitions, and even if these intuitions are widely shared- people may explain them away as evolutionary spandrels.

That's where arguments come in. For someone who doesn't appear to share your intuitions, you need something more precise and objective. Arguments are what can demonstrate or prove the rational legitimacy of intuitions. This exercise is often taxing because you sometimes need to employ quite a set of terminology and analytic tools to lay out your intuitions in detail, and then defend them cogently. Trust me though, it turns out to be rewarding.

Arguments are even more required in the context of cosmology, since these arguments work with very little scientific data. They are primarily exercises in metaphysics, the branch of philosophy which deals with the ultimate truths of reality. The scope of metaphysics is so broad and unwieldy that there's little scope for scientific experimentation for confirming or disconfirming hypotheses. Sometimes such scopes do present themselves, however- physical cosmology is making it possible to test some metaphysical claims like whether the universe had a beginning. But this is the exception, not the rule. With so little data to work on, the only tool we have to sharpen our intuitions and 'quantify' them in some way is by employing structured arguments.

Examples of some cosmological arguments

As was alluded to above, many features of the cosmos are deemed to be mysterious by many, and used as fodder for cosmological arguments. Here are my three favorite examples. I'll just explain briefly their intuitive thrust here. The specific argument structures are for another day.

1. Contingency. Think about the chair you are (presumably) sitting in right now. Could it not have existed? Of course- the maker of the chair could simply have chosen not to make it, you could have chosen not to buy it, the human civilization could have evolved in such a way so that a chair were never invented- there are so many alternative possibilities. Same goes with the street in front of your house, or the building across it, or even you. Or even the whole neighborhood. Or even the earth. It seems that for all of these things, the possibility of them not existing is open. We can easily conjure up scenarios in the world's history which led to their non-existence. When you think about it, nothing in the world is such that it must have existed. Even laws of nature could have been different were the initial conditions of the cosmos different. Provided we live in a multiverse, perhaps there's another space-time continuum patch where gravity doesn't exist. All of the cosmos is characterized with this possibility of having been different than how they are now. This possibility of having been different is what philosophers call contingency.

Now clearly there are facts which are not contingent, but necessary. A circle could not for the life of it have possessed sides. A thing cannot but be identical to itself. The whole is necessarily greater than the part. These and many other facts are examples of facts which could not conceivably have been any different. A simple but imprecise way of characterizing necessity vs. contingency is thinking about them in terms of independence and non-self-dependence. Contingent facts seem to be dependent on something else for their obtaining, while necessary facts are true just because they are. They are true by virtue of their own nature, as they say. You can imagine necessity and contingency being two modes of being. Something can exist necessarily or it can exist contingently. A fact can be true, but it can be true in two modes- necessary or contingent.

When you think about the cosmos though, it seems to be characterized by just one mode of being- contingency. If everything were necessary, it wouldn't have been significant because necessary things are self-explanatory. There is nothing surprising about a circle having no sides, that's just the way it necessarily is. Reality could have also been a mosaic of necessary and contingent things. But the cosmos consists exclusively of things of one modality. Doesn't that call out for some external explanation? If reality consisted of human beings and nothing but human beings, it would be a perfectly legitimate question to ask- why are there human beings at all?- even if we had an explanation of each human being in terms of her parents. Similarly, since reality consists of contingent things and nothing but, it seems a plausible question to ask- why are there contingent things at all?

The theistic answer, of course, is that there is a Necessary Being- who exists not because of any external circumstance or explanation but because of its own nature- chose to bring about the existence of contingent things.

2. Causality. Instead of contingent vs. necessary, think of caused vs. uncaused things (the properties of 'being caused' and 'being contingent' are close, but not exactly identical). As with the previous example, our cosmos seems to consist exclusively of caused things. The property of causedness characterizes literally all of reality. Again, whence cometh caused objects? The answer closest at hand seems to be that an Uncaused being chose to bring about caused things in existence.

3. Order. Think of the coin that I'm holding in my hand. I have a firm conviction that if I were to drop it, it would fall to the ground. Where does this conviction emerge?

We human beings have an important and profound belief in the uniformity of natural laws. Not only is this belief necessary for functioning in everyday life, but it's crucial for the most advanced sorts of scientific research. I know if I jump from the rooftop, I will not randomly oscillate through the air but fall hard to the ground. Instead of turning into a green dragon, the sun would indeed faithfully rise in the East the next day. Sodium and chloride will continue to react to form table salt. Copper will continue to expand when heated. Justin Bieber will continue being uncool.

The reason we trust these intuitions is probably because these intuitions are a reflection of how things really are. There are actual solid laws of nature set in the fabric of the cosmos, and all things being equal, they wouldn't fail to obtain. If these regularities were just descriptions of nature as they are and not something deeper, as the Scottish philosopher David Hume famously believed, then our intuitions about the laws continuing to hold amounts to nothing. On Hume's view, the sun rising in the west has just as much probability as the sun rising in the east. One cannot escape the belief in laws, an universal order that governs all things.

Now how to explain this order? Scientific explanations clearly wouldn't suffice, since they assume the existence of laws beforehand. Science uses laws to explain things, although those things could be other laws. But to explain the existence of laws in general- that's where science would fall short, because there wouldn't be any law to explain the laws with. Some philosophical accounts of the law tried to explain this in materialistic terms, but I believe those explanations fail. The only way to explain them, again, is to posit a lawmaker and/or a law-upholder, an extra-natural being who preserves this order in nature. Et hoc decimus deum, as they say- all know this to be God.

Recommended reading/listening

Time for me to give some material on cosmological arguments.

1. First five podcasts from here
2. Paul Herrick, Job Opening: Creator of the Universe, here
3. Alexander Pruss and Richard Gale, A New Cosmological Argument, Religious Studies 35, 1999
4. Robert Koons, A New Look at Cosmological Arguments, American Philosophical Quarterly 34, 1997
5. Alexander Pruss, Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment
6. Alexander Pruss, The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument, in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, eds. William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland
7. Emanuel Rutten, Towards a Renewed Case of Theism: A Critical Assessment of the Contemporary Cosmological Arguments
8. John Foster, The Divine Lawmaker: Lectures on Induction, Laws of Nature, and the Existence of God.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Understanding Divine Necessity

Recently, a brother mailed me about confusions he was having about God's necessity and self-existence. I sent this response:

"Brother, note that one of the very cornerstones of Islamic theology is that God is inconceivable. You can't understand His modality. This is not a claim made by Muslim theologians in the face of these problems, but it's one of the central religious claims being made from day one. You'll never find any Muslim- be it a sahaba or a scholar- making a claim to the contrary, thinking the nature of God can be grasped. That's why it's not surprising that we find the concept of God being necessary so mysterious. Come to think of it, all other reality (apart from God) is contingent, dependent on something else. God is the one and ultimate example where this rule doesn't work. This central feature of God goes against virtually all of our experiences. That's one of the reasons why the mystery of necessity is so profound. God is over and above all of our experience. He is really and truly transcendent. But then again, Islamic theology never made the claim that you can understand this transcendent God. You can't. You can believe in Him, have some sort of a conception of Him, experience Him in your life- but you can never understand him fully with your intellect. This is why one of the great preachers of our time has said- you can understand theology when you put your intellect to the ground.

But does all of this mean God or Islam is irrational and contrary to the intellect? Of course not. Islam is very clear on this- there are certain aspects of the deen that you can grasp with your intellect clearly, while certain other parts you can't. In this context, we can clearly see why a necessary being is required for all contingent reality to exist. However, we can't see precisely how this necessity works. It is beyond our limited, contingent intellect. At the same time, we can find good reasons to believe that God created all of reality apart from Himself. But we can't really hope to understand how this creation was done. This is because we don't see creation, we never do. In all our experiences, all we see are change, conversions, transformation of one thing to another. But true creation from nothing- we have never observed that and never will, unless Allah wills. And yet Allah created this universe in specifically this mysterious way. Does this mystery mean we shouldn't believe God is the creator? No, what we should believe is God is indeed the Creator for XYZ reasons, but we don't- and can't- understand how is it that He creates.

The same can be said for so many things. If you study the problem of induction and the existence of laws of nature, you'll reach the conclusion that the only way to account for the laws of the universe is to believe God actively "upholds" these laws. And yet, it's profoundly mysterious to think that a being could "uphold" laws. We don't see this anywhere. We see all things subject to laws, but not upholding laws. Simply put, every aspect of philosophy of religion you read, you'll be faced with even deeper mysteries concerning God. And for me, that fact only strengthened my faith, as opposed to weakening it. I guess it would weaken it were we told to believe in some sort of a limited, immanent god, a god we're supposed to understand with intellect. But Islam never made that claim. Islam is a very strong proponent of the transcendence of God, the sheer inconceivability of His being.

With that said, there have been efforts to render God's necessary existence somewhat intelligible. Here's something Paul Herrick wrote which goes to the heart of the topic:

The question is: Doesn't NB [Necessary Being] simply bring up the question of existence all over again, causing us to ask, "But what accounts for the existence of the necessary being?" And doesn't this just generate an infinite regression of necessary beings, leaving us no better off than when we started—saddled with unexplained existences? Doesn't NB just make "re-askers" of us all? These are very good questions, indeed profound questions. But I believe there is a very good reply, indeed a profound reply, one which was put concisely by Peter van Inwagen in his textbook Metaphysics:
But [to ask, of a necessary being, "Why does it exist?" or "What explains its existence?" ] is to neglect the fact that a necessary being is one whose non-existence is impossible. Thus, for any necessary being, there is by definition a sufficient reason [i.e., explanation] for its existence: there could hardly be a more satisfying explanation for the existence of a thing than that its non-existence was impossible.[23]
This reply may sound too simple at first, but its surface simplicity belies its true depth. I submit that once one carefully mulls over van Inwagen's answer, and once one fully understands its meaning and significance, necessary existence comes into focus as the only existentially self-subsuming mode of existence, and necessity grounded explanation is revealed as the only self-subsuming, self-explanatory form of explanation we possess. Let's see why.
A necessary being, if one existed, would by hypothesis be a being whose essential nature is such that its nonexistence is absolutely impossible. It follows that in the case of a necessary being N, the explanation of it existence (the explanatory ground of its existence), is a necessary logical fact internal to its own being—internal in the sense that it obtains independently of all possible circumstances. And what is that internal fact? The impossibility of N's nonexistence. Van Inwagen is right: Surely the impossibility of some being N's nonexistence would be a logically sufficient condition of N's existence. (This is a matter of pure logic.) In this exact sense, a necessary being contains within itself the sufficient condition of its own existence. This is self-explanation if there ever was such.
The reflective mind reaches out beyond the category of contingency because, as we have seen, if all things are merely contingent, then there is no explanation for why contingent things exist, nothing that might account for the existence of contingent beings as a whole. And what is the only place to land outside of contingency? Explanation in terms of noncontingent being—in other words, explanation grounded in a necessary existence.
Given the reasoning above, it seems clear that the necessary being hypothesis, if true, would leave behind no existential facts "considered brute for the purposes of the explanation"—contrary to Mackie's claim that all explanations presuppose something brute. I conclude that NB seems to be just the type of explanation we need in order to bring a regress of explanations of contingent existence to a rationally satisfying conclusion. What other explanatory option do we have?
So, the concept of necessary existence presents us with an existentially self-subsuming explanation, one that could form a rock-bottom endpoint for a universal explanatory regress. This is an existential basis that would account at once both for its own existence and for the contingent existence of everything else, leaving no brute existence in its wake. Many philosophers have thought that if contingent existence were to be explained by reference to a metaphysically necessary ground of being (or, à la Parsons, if all contingencies are ultimately grounded in something necessary), then no existence would be left brute. All existence would then be accounted for, since a necessary being, if one were to exist, would be existentially self-explanatory in the sense defined above (and in contrast to a contingent being, whose existence can only be explained in terms of something external to it). Although Parsons does not examine and drill into this explanatory option, this is the explanatory advantage we get if we postulate a being whose essence is such that its nonexistence is simply, fundamentally, absolutely, and metaphysically impossible.
Perhaps it is now clear why many philosophers maintain that if explanations of contingent existence ultimately regress back to a metaphysically necessary ground of being, then all existence, including the rock bottom level, is accounted for, and brute fact is conquered. In Metaphysics, van Inwagen also wrote:
Why should there be anything at all?... If we could show that there was a necessary being ... we should have an answer to our question. For if there were a necessary being, then it would be impossible for there to be nothing. And if we could show that it was impossible for there to be nothing, that, surely, would count as an answer to our question.[24]
Alexander Pruss brings more to the table:

"Perhaps a necessary being is impossible. Abstracta [i.e. abstract things] such as propositions and numbers, however, furnish a quick counterexample to this for many philosophers. However, one might argue that there cannot be a causally efficacious necessary being, whereas the unproblematic abstracta such as propositions and numbers are not causally inefficacious. A radical response to this is to question the dogma that propositions and numbers are causally inefficacious...."

...And then he goes to a deep philosophical tangent into how sometimes even abstract things like numbers can cause objects. His argument essentially says: if numbers can be causally efficacious and necessary, why can't God be necessary as well? He then moves on to say that even if numbers are held to be causally inefficacious, there still is no good reason to think a necessary being can't exist. We might have emotional restraints against accepting such a being, but how much can we trust our gut-feelings when it comes to truth?

Additionally, the phenomena of logical and arithmetic truths present another way of solving the dilemma. Think about the following statements:

* 7+5=12
* Socrates is identical to himself
* Something cannot be completely red and completely blue all at the same time
* A part is smaller than its whole, and so on.

None of these statements have any further explanations. They are *just* true, and that's all that can be said about it. In modal terms, they are true because of the necessity of their own nature. In spite of there being no further explanations, we use these concepts regularly in our everyday reasoning, ranging from crossing the road to sending rovers to other planets. Yet, their necessity is something profoundly mysterious. Do the fact that they have no further explanations- are necessary- lead us to reject them? If not, why should we reject God?

Finally, if you study the ontological argument for God's existence, it argues that from the concept of God the necessity of His being can be derived. It's a very complex philosophical argument, but some of the most recent versions of the argument (i.e. by Robert Maydole) have been successful on the whole.

To sum up, then:

1. The concept of God is inherently mysterious. This shouldn't lead us to despair, but rather make us appreciate God's concept even more.
2. God's existence can be rationally derived from the signs in the universe, but that doesn't mean His nature can be understood due to who He is and who we are.
3. As Paul Herrick said, there can hardly be a better explanation than a Necessary Being, since it leads us to the conclusion that it's non-existence is impossible. There is, then, nothing left unexplained by it.
4. The mystery of God's necessity can be understood somewhat (although there is no comparison between God and anything else) when we think about how necessary truths and numbers are used everyday in our life, and the mystery inherent in them doesn't lead us to reject them.
5. An ontological argument can sufficiently explain God's necessity, although it requires very hairy philosophical reasoning.

Hope this helps."

Monday, 9 February 2015

The Argument from contingency- random thoughts

So I was reading Al Plantinga's Nature of Necessity, and some thoughts crossed my mind.

First, note that an argument from contingency can be either about (concrete) things or propositions. We're gonna talk about the argument that concerns itself with propositions.

Second, here's the basic strategy of the proponent of the argument.

1. Isolate some basic causal/explanatory feature of the world, based on everyday experiences. It could be that objects are always dependent on other objects (contingent objects), propositions are never self-explained but they are always explained by other propositions, and so on.

2. Generalize this feature maximally. The generalized proposition would look something like "every proposition/thing is explained by virtue of its own nature or by some external object/proposition".

3. Characterize the world as just one entity- one object, one set, one class of things/propositions. In other words, define, say, all of the contingent reality as just one entity bound by some property. Joshua Rasmussen characterizes the world as a "actual maximally contingent state", while Gale and Pruss define the world as a "Big Contingent Cosmological Fact (BCCF)".

4. Apply the generalized causal explanatory principle of 2 to the world arrived at 3. The argument at this point would say, for example, that the BCCF has an explanation since it cannot be self-explained.

5. Characterize this explanation/object arrived at by the exercise in 4 with relevant theistic properties. The fact that the BCCF's explanation entails a necessary concrete being follows obviously. The philosopher would then have to delineate other properties of this necessary concrete being, like personhood and free will for example.

And you have your contingency argument.

Roadblocks.

The rooms for attack against such a contingency argument are:

1. A causal/explanatory principle that can be generalized maximally is hard to come by. Leibniz's "Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR)" came pretty close, but it has recently faced mounting objections from theists and non-theists alike. Two of the most potent objections are a reductio ad absurdum argument presented by Peter van Inwagen, and the empirical data from quantum mechanics. This is why atheist William Rowe advices theists to find warrant for the PSR. However, theistic philosophers have sidestepped this problem by formulating weaker forms of PSR which are much more plausible. In Gale and Pruss' paper on the topic, they formulate a new principle called W-PSR (weak PSR), which states that all contingent propositions possibly have explanations, instead of saying that they necessarily have explanations.

2. Characterizing the world as just one entity runs into problems. When you think about it, this step is perhaps the most problematic in the whole argument. Can the cosmos really be viewed as just one entity, any more than "my left foot, your right ear, a bottlecap in the road and the upper part of the statue of liberty" together make up an entity? In other words, ascribing entityhood to the entire contingent cosmos seems to be somewhat ad hoc. Many people, if you ask them "what is the one property that all of the items/propositions in our known cosmos have in common?", would probably answer- nothing. In light of this intuitive ad hoc-ness, there needs to be a solid argument which backs up step 3. Unfortunately, such an argument has not been very forthcoming. Gale and Pruss doesn't consider the fact that the BCCF may be implausible. One way the BCCF can be thought to be a single proposition or entity is the fact that all of it shares the modal property of contingency (some people would say contingency is not a property, but I'd say that's hard to argue since necessity is clearly a property). In light of this one unifying attribute, perhaps the BCCF can be viewed to be just one entity. Emanuel Rutten in his brilliant PhD thesis "Towards a Renewed Case for Theism: A Critical Assessment of Contemporary Cosmological Arguments" develops a rigorous criteria for entityhood of different objects based on some mereological principles. An interesting question would be- can this be applied for propositions? If so, then it would be relevant to the Gale-Pruss cosmological argument. Also, some arguments against the plausibility of BCCF have been proposed by some philosophers, but they are of a complex reductio ad absurdum form and I haven't explored them. Some other philosophers have suggested that if the BCCF is infinite, then it may be absurd based on some arguments.

3. Attribution of theistic properties to the "God" arrived at by the argument may be a tall order. In his essay on the topic in Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Alex Pruss makes the point that this step in the argument- what he calls the gap problem- is the least researched thus far (perhaps for sociological reasons). Without the entity having some theistic properties, it wouldn't be very useful as an argument in natural theology. Gale and Pruss thus try and characterize this entity with personhood and free will. As for personhood, the argument is essentially a process of elimination- the ultimate explanation of the BCCF cannot be a nomological/scientific one, since that would involve laws- and laws are never necessary. Two questions arise- one, what if there are some fundamental necessary laws? And two, what if the process was stochastic? These are not insurmountable problems, the first question can be rebutted by appeal to the contingency of laws in general (as per the deliverance of our observations), and the second can be answered by refuting possibility of purely random processes. I believe Rutten does the latter in his thesis, albeit briefly.

4. Problems in generalizing. A very important objection to such arguments is the Humean self-explanatory thesis- perhaps the universe even perceived as an entity is self-explained in the sense proposition A explains proposition B, proposition B explains proposition C, and so on. If this is true, then not only does the universe not have an external explanation, but it simply cannot have an external explanation. One would need to refute this argument to preserve the causal principle invoked at step 1 and later applied at step 4. Gale and Pruss has a controversial and (in my opinion) long-winded refutation to this. Rutten, however, in his thesis invokes an argument by James van Cleve who argues that such internal explanations are circular, in that they cannot explain why contingent objects in general exist. But then the problem is the same as roadblock #2 above- can the collection of all contingent objects be said to make up an entity such that questions like "why do contingent objects exist (cf. why does water exist?)" are feasible? Or is such an ascription of entityhood to all contingent objects/propositions ad hoc?

5. Competing intuitions. Finally, one may suggest that the conclusion arrived at by the argument (the existence of a necessary and personal being) invokes a degree of mystery which cannot be explained by the intuitive nature of the premises of the argument. In other words, one may suggest that rejection of the causal principles and other premises of the argument may be of a greater explanatory virtue than positing a necessary being. The latter invokes questions like- why is a being necessary? In a personal correspondence, professor Rutten had this to say: "...a philosophical or scientific explanation doesn't require an explanation of the explanation. For it that were the case, we would end up in an infinite regress, and even science itself would become impossible. Given some fairly plausible premises, a necessary being explains the existence of a world of contingent beings. This explanation is proper, even if one cannot provide an explanation of this explanation, that is to say, even though one cannot explain what makes this necessary being necessary."