Friday, January 30, 2015

The principle of causality

It is no secret that causality places a central role in natural theology. That is to say, the notion of causality is central to arguments—mostly cosmological arguments—that attempt to prove the existence of God. It is because of this fact that most theologians work very hard to ground the principle of causality as an absolute. For if the principle of causality has exceptions, then natural theology will take a hit. Hence it is obvious that theologians have a vested interest in preserving the immutability of this principle. Because of this fact some, then, will claim that theists are extremely tendentious when it comes to talk of causality, and that such talk should be challenged, and put under the skeptical magnifying glass. I completely agree with this, though I do believe that the “skeptics” or non-theists can be charged with a bias as well (can’t we all?) since a denial of the principle of causality is central to their position, all things being equal.
I will not attempt to distance myself from the aforementioned theologian. I agree that the principle of causality is something that, perhaps through my own biases and wishful thinking, I am determined to defend. That being said, however, I do in fact believe that said principle is hard to deny, and I do believe that any attempt to do just that will run into absurdity and incoherence; And thus, my belief in the principle of causality is at least surely grounded in reason, and has just warrant.

It is my objective in this post to demonstrate why it has said warrant.
So, let me begin by articulating the principle of causality. The principle of causality states that whatever is moved from potentiality (potency) to actuality (act) is done so by something already actual. (Let the reader understand that the potentiality of a substance is just the potential that the substance could realize, and the actuality of a substance is just the way it currently is realized—that is, the way it currently exists or exhibits being. For instance, an acorn is actually an acorn and is potentially an oak tree, while it is not potentially a lizard.) Another way to formulate the principle is to say that whatever is changed is changed by another, since change just involves a reduction of some potency of a thing to an actualization of said potency. Thus, the glass of water on my table has the potential to be knocked over (among other things) but this potential can only become a reality--that is, it can only be actualized--if, for example, someone or something (actual) knocks it over.

Now, while one can conjure up all sorts of examples that satisfy the principle of causality, how do we know that this principle is an actual principle in the sense that it holds immutably, without exception? Well, to one who tries to deny the principle, there are only two other options: 1) a potential can actualize itself, or 2) nothing can actualize the potential. Obviously 1) is not possible because potency qua potency cannot do anything because it is not actual. In fact, the only way for it to actualize itself would be for it be actual before it is actual, which is a contradiction and an absurdity. Now, 2) is likewise absurd because nothing is, well, nothing, and nothing cannot do anything. Nothing is not actual and cannot act on anything, precisely because it is nothing--that is, because it is the absence of being. So, then by logical necessity we can see that that which is moved from potency to act must be done so by something already actual.

Another formulation of the principle of causality is that whatever begins to exist has a cause. And again, we can see that this formulation is necessarily valid. For if something comes into being, then there are only two options left over if one is to deny the principle: 1) the substance caused itself to come into being, or 2) the substance came into being from nothing. It should be obvious that these options fail for the same reasons as above. 1) is false because in order for a thing to be self-caused it would have to exist before it existed in order to cause itself to exist, which is incoherent. 2) is false because nothing cannot be a cause because nothing cannot do anything, since it is by definition the absence of anything. Thus, this formulation of the principle of causality is also necessarily valid.

So far then we have seen that the principle of causality is a metaphysically absolute principle. There simply is no logical room for any exception to said principle, for any alternative runs into absurdity and incoherence. It seems then that we can be completely certain of the validity of the principle of causality.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Science and explanation

Science works by uncovering certain conditional statements such as “If a occurs under certain ideal conditions, then b will occur” or “if a is present under certain ideal conditions, then b will be present.” For instance, every time water accumulates energy in the form of heat, once the water reaches a certain temperature (approximately 100 degrees Celsius) it will become gaseous. Thus, we can form the conditional statement that “if water reaches the temperature of 100 degrees Celsius, then it will become steam.”
Now this is generally how laws of nature come to be formulated. We run an experiment a few times under ideal conditions, and when a certain state of affairs reliably obtains, then we assume that this happens across the board and formulate a law of nature. This means that laws of nature are really just descriptions of the way nature tends to behave.

But what, then, is the explanatory use of laws of nature? For example, if one asks, per our example above, why when water reaches a certain temperature it subsequently tends to become gaseous, it won’t do any good to revert back to the law that states this very thing. For that would simply be to say that a tends to be followed by b because a law of nature says that b’s are reliably produced by a’s. Such an answer would thus amount to a tautology, and be explanatory vacuous.
Now, one could instead say that the boiling point of water is not explained by the law of nature, but rather that the boiling point of water is explained by molecular behavior, kinetic energy, and molecular forces. The problem, though, is that here a law of nature is simply being explained by more laws of nature—for molecular behavior, kinetic energy, and molecular forces are themselves simply physical descriptions. That is, this explanation is tantamount to saying that the reason a’s are followed by b’s is because c’s are followed by d’s, and e’s are followed by f’s etc. But, this only pushes the problem back a bit. For the original question was not how water becomes a gas, but, rather, why it does. And explaining laws of nature by other laws of nature only answers a “how” question, and not a “why” one. (Not to mention that if this method of explanation were valid, then eventually we would arrive at a law of nature which simply has no explanation whatsoever, which is absurd.)

This is to say that the ultimate question here pertains to asking why things tend to behave the way they do at all. And again, it will not do to answer this by reverting to any law of nature, because a law of nature is purely descriptive. But then what tool does science have for answering this “why” question, since all science can really do is formulate descriptive laws of nature useful for prediction and manipulation? The answer is that science simply does not have this tool, philosophy does. And this is why naturalist Bertrand Russell said the following:
[Physics] lays down certain fundamental equations which enable it to deal with the logical structure of events, while leaving it completely unknown what is the intrinsic character of the events that have the structure[…] All that physics gives us is certain equations giving abstract properties of their changes. But as to what it is that changes, and what it changes from and to—as to this, physics is silent.

The point here is that science can tell us about certain regularities in nature. But, it cannot tell us why these regularities happen without fail, or why the correlation between these regularities is necessary, or exactly why it is of the nature of substances to have certain dispositions to behave the way they do, or even why there is regularity at all.
Thus stated, we see that science does in fact have explanatory limits, and therefore we should not expect that science exhausts our knowledge of reality. Science is not the be-all end-all description of reality. It tells us nothing about the intrinsic nature of the things that it describes. It only tells us of the quantitative, and not the ontological.

Friday, January 9, 2015

The Bible and slavery

I was looking through some of my books recently, and came across a famous apologetic book that I bought back in my more theologically na├»ve days, namely the book Is God a Moral Monster? by apologist Paul Copan. When I read this book—I still accepted the doctrine of inerrancy at this point—I felt a relief that at least there were Christians attempting to grapple with the disturbing and seemingly immoral parts of the Bible. At the time I accepted the things that Copan wrote, but it didn’t take long for me to see the problems with his apologetic reasoning.
One of the difficulties that I immediately felt was not properly addressed or defended—and now I see that it cannot be adequately defended—was the issue of slavery in the Old Testament. Now, it’s not as if the Bible only makes short and vague allusions to the institution of slavery, but, rather, it gives explicit and unambiguous commands and laws about how slavery was supposed to be implemented by the Israelites. And this is where Copan’s apologetic comes in.

For Copan, the slavery alluded to in the Old Testament was not slavery as commonly understood in the antebellum South. Rather, Copan claims, slavery was more like indentured servitude: Israelite servitude was induced by poverty, was entered into voluntarily, and was far from optimal. (p. 127) Now this is half true. As critical Old Testament scholar John J. Collins states, “The most common cause of enslavement in the ancient world was debt: people who could not pay their debts were forced to sell their children, or themselves, into slavery.” The problem is that this was not the case with regards to foreign slaves. These slaves were pretty much captured against their will, and were treated much differently than Hebrew slaves, as we’ll see below.
Copan continues his apologetic by arguing that this “servitude” wasn’t all that bad.  Slave owners were not allowed to mistreat their slaves and were required to release these slaves after seven years. Not too bad, right? Wrong. This, again, only applied to male Israelite slaves, and not women, or foreign slaves. Women and foreign slaves were passed down through the slave owner’s family like property. Moreover, there was a loophole that allowed slave owners to keep male Israelite slaves for life. All they had to do was give their slave a wife, and hope that the slave, when freed, wanted to stay with his wife—since his wife was the slave owner’s property.

Then there’s this kicker:
And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property. (Exodus 21:20-21 NKJV)

These verses speak for themselves. You could beat a slave nearly to death, and as long as he didn’t die immediately you were free and clear. Not only that but this law applied, once again, only to Hebrew slaves. Who knows what was permitted of foreign slaves? The point is that there simply is no way to spin this apologetically. It is simply not right for one human to possess another, and it is not right for one person to beat another almost to death only to be acquitted of responsibility because he owns him.
Furthermore, even if one could provide a proper apologetic response, I don’t see that it would salvage much. The fact is that it’s quite obvious that these Old Testament laws are simply the product of their primitive and barbaric environment. We find these very same laws in surrounding ancient Near East cultures of the time. Sometimes the Old Testament laws are a bit more sophisticated, and sometimes they are not. But what is completely absent is any trace, or reason to think, that God Almighty actually commanded or ordered such laws to be followed in the first place.

Now, maybe it’s the case that God did command such things and simply accommodated himself to the traditions of the Israelites and met them where they were. Perhaps. However, for me it seems more likely that these were simply the tribal laws promulgated by a primitive culture. This culture was simply so steeped in the traditions of its surrounding nations that it couldn’t help but think just like they did. Hence these slavery laws were simply the norm, unfortunately. Now the interesting thing is that this culture, namely the Israelites, would eventually shed much of this aNE thinking and give us the first-fruits of a novel monotheistic theology that eventually culminated in the theology of the New Testament. But this gives us no warrant for ignoring, and not coming to terms with, these parts of scripture that we can, and should, so vehemently disagree with.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The argument from contingency

The cosmological argument for the existence of God has taken many different forms for hundreds of years. However, the version that I take to be the most powerful, as some readers of my blog know, is the argument from contingency. And it is this version that I will be presently defending, as well as answering common objections put forward against it.

The terms
Before promulgating the argument I feel it necessary to define the terms being used (i.e. contingency and necessity). Now, there are different (though not contradictory) definitions of contingency, so let me spell these out. Something is contingent if: (1) it exists, but could have possibly failed to exist, or (2) it is not of the nature of it to exist, or (3) its nature can be contemplated without simultaneously contemplating its existence.

Let me now expand these definitions so as to illuminate how they each entail contingency. If some existent X satisfies (1) then, to reiterate, it is possible that X could not have been. But this necessarily entails that it is not of the nature of X to exist. For if it was of the nature of X to exist, then it could not be possible for it to fail to exist. (My claim here is that if it is of the nature of X to be Y, then you cannot have X without Y. As an example, if it is of the nature of a triangle to have three sides then it is not possible for an triangle to fail to have three sides.) This point seems to lead us directly to (2), and thus our first two definitions go hand in hand. Now what this means is that if it is not of X’s nature to exist, then X does not contain the reason for its own existence, and thus it must derive its existence from something else.

 Let’s take a look at (3). If I can contemplate the nature of X without simultaneously contemplating its existence, then this entails the fact that it is not of the nature of X to exist—otherwise contemplating the nature of X would be to simultaneously contemplate its existence. Thus we see that (3) leads to contingency for the same reasons as (1) and (2).

From what precedes it should be obvious how we can define necessary. Something is necessary if it is non-contingent. That is to say, something is necessary if it is not possible for it to not exist (i.e. it must exist), or if it is of its very nature to exist, or if contemplating its nature entails simultaneously contemplating its existence.

The argument
It is now appropriate to state the argument from contingency, and note that the term contingency in the argument can take the form of any of the above definitions:

1) If something is contingent, then it derives its existence from something outside of itself.
2) The universe is contingent.

3) Therefore, the universe derives its existence from something outside of itself.
The argument is logically valid, that is, the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises. But the question can be posed regarding its soundness, so let us go about demonstrating the premises. Premise 1) seems to follow necessarily from the definitions of contingency given above. To reiterate, if it’s possible that X could (have) fail(ed) to exist, then the reason for its existence is not contained within its own nature, and thus it must be contained in the existence of something else—and this thing would be where X derives its existence from. Premise 1) then seems to be on quite solid ground.

Let us now turn to what is most likely the premise that a naturalist will find most fault with, namely, premise 2). The easiest way to demonstrate premise 2) is to demonstrate that the universe satisfies the definition(s) of contingency. So, the first thing we can ask is whether it is possible for the universe to have failed to exist. Here we might meet some resistance. First, what exactly is meant by the universe, and how do we know that we can conceive of it failing to exist? Well, by universe I simply mean “all matter, energy, and space-time,” and therefore this includes not only our observable universe, but any meta-universe(s), if you will. Subsequently, to say that we can conceive of matter, energy, and space-time not existing does not seem to bring forth any inherent difficulty. That is to say, there is no contradiction or incoherence in such a statement, and thus I see no claim for inconceivability that could be made here. (Note that something is said to be metaphysically possible if it is conceivable.)
What about the second definition of contingency? Does the nature of the universe contain the reason for its own existence? I don’t see how it does, in that having the nature of being all matter, energy, and space-time does not tell us why all matter, energy and space-time actually exist in the first place. That is, there is nothing in matter, energy and space-time together (or even apart) that tell us that it must exist. This goes hand in hand with the third definition of contingency. That is, I can contemplate the nature of the universe without simultaneously contemplating its existence. But if I can do this, then the reason for the existence of the universe is not found within itself.

What this demonstrates then is that the universe—all matter, energy, space and time—satisfies all three definitions of contingency, and thus the premises of the above argument seem to be vindicated. This obviously means that the conclusion is valid and sound, and therefore the universe necessarily derives its existence from something else.

It should go without saying that the naturalist will not take this argument lying down, nor would I expect one to do so. There are many arguments or objections that could be leveled against the argument from contingency, and while I cannot deal with all of them here, I will currently try to deal with the most penetrating and popular ones.

(a) How do we know that what the universe derives its existence from is God? There is nothing logically wrong with claiming that perhaps the universe derives its existence from something that is itself contingent. However, this only pushes the problem back a step further, for then this thing requires an account for its existence. The point here is that we must, at some point, admit of something which is non-contingent, that is, necessary—something that cannot fail to exist. This would be something whose nature contains the reason for its own existence, and whose nature we can contemplate while simultaneously contemplating its existence. This thing then just would be existence, that is, it would be pure existence, or pure being. And surely this is worthy of earning the name “God.”
(b) Why admit of something necessary? Why can’t we have an infinite series of contingent beings? I will not answer this objection by asserting that an actual infinity cannot exist. For this is something that it seems even mathematicians and philosophers cannot agree on. Rather, my argument is that a chain of contingent beings remains contingent. Now, before one levels a fallacy of composition at me, remember that not every inference from a part to a whole is fallacious. For instance, if every brick in a wall is red, then it does in fact follow that the wall is red. What this means is that claiming that a chain of contingent things is itself contingent commits the fallacy of composition would need to be demonstrated. Moreover, this could be avoided if one simply demonstrates that a collection of contingent things is in fact contingent, and this I plan to do currently.

Physicist Paul Davies explains the problem elegantly:

[I]t is quite wrong to suppose that an infinite chain of explanation is satisfactory on the basis that every member of that chain is explained by the next member. One is still left with the mystery of why that particular chain is the one that exists, or why any chain exists at all.

This point was also made a long time ago by the mathematician Leibniz when he gave an example of an infinite collection of books, of which each book was simply a copy of the content in the previous book. The point being that the content in the books is not accounted for simply because the collection is infinite, and there must be something outside this collection that does account for it. The big picture here, then, is that if we have an infinite collection of individual things of which it is possible for them to fail to exist, then it is possible that the collection in its own right could fail to exist, and thus the infinite chain is still contingent. Therefore something necessary must still be admitted.

(c) Why expect the universe to admit of explanation at all? Why can’t the universe simply be? To claim that the universe (or anything) might escape explanation in principle is to admit of brute facts—in fact, that’s exactly what a brute fact is, namely, a state of affairs which has no explanation for its existence. There are a few problems with this line of reasoning. First, since things are made intelligible by explanation then a brute fact does not have an explanation for itself, and it has no explanation to impart to anything else. This entails that a brute fact cannot be a participant in an explanatory chain, and therefore it certainly cannot be the end of an explanatory chain, as the universe would have to be. (Note that I have argued this at much greater length here.)
The second problem is that an object or substance can only either possibly fail to exist, or not. This is to say that something can only either be contingent or necessary. There is no middle ground here, of which a brute fact would have to be. To deny that something can either only be contingent or necessary is to deny the law of excluded middle, and would thus be illogical.

(d) It’s possible that the universe is eternal, and thus it would not be contingent. I have no problem with theoretically granting the possibility of an eternal universe. However, simply asserting that the universe could be eternal does not thereby make it necessary. Let us return to Leibniz’s example of the collection of books to see why this is so, except let us not imagine a collection of books but, rather, simply one book existing eternally. Does the fact that this book has always existed demonstrate that it is necessary? No, because one can still ask why this book exists, has the content that it does, and why this content was not different. The point is that it remains true that nothing about the book, not even its eternality, provides the reason for why it exists at all.  To always exist is not the same as existing necessarily, because duration of existence does not enlighten us to the reason of existence. Moreover, duration of existence does not affect a thing’s nature. A triangle is still a triangle, whether it exists for a second or for an infinite amount of seconds.
Similarly, it would remain the case that an eternal universe could possibly have been different, or it could have not existed at all. Moreover, it would still remain the case that contemplating the nature of the universe does not entail contemplating its existence. Thus, even an eternal universe satisfies the definition, not of necessity, but of contingency.

There are other objections that can be raised (e.g. “What created God?” or “Why does God exist?”) but I felt the need to only address, what I take to be, the most substantial ones. The point seems to remain that the universe is indeed contingent, and that it ultimately derives its existence from something which is necessary and which we call God. The argument from contingency then seems to be successful.