Thursday, January 14, 2016

Richard Carrier on the argument from contingency

I’ll be blunt. I’m not a big fan of Richard Carrier. Read almost any reply from Carrier responding to a critic of his work, and you’ll notice how arrogant, condescending, and antagonistic he is with his interlocutors. It can be very difficult at times, for me, to read through a polemic work of his without being extremely put-off. (Just survey his articles wherein he claims that the late Maurice Casey, Joseph Hoffman, Stephanie Fisher, and Robert Eisenman are all literally insane.) However, while I dislike him, I do find that many of his theses are well-thought out, well-argued, and worth responding to—I think this specifically about his book Sense and Goodness without God  and what I’ve seen from his arguments for Jesus-mythicism (though I haven’t yet read his On the Historicity of Jesus yet).

Now, the other day I was writing an upcoming post regarding atheist responses (and mischaracterizations) of the cosmological argument, and I realized that I had never read what Carrier’s specific replies were regarding said argument. (I have surveyed Carrier’s thoughts on God as an ultimate explanation here, but I had never seen him directly address the cosmological argument.) I decided to look up some of his responses, and one response I came across consisted of a handful of Carrier’s supposed refutations of the argument from contingency (the argument I find most persuasive, and have defended here) promulgated in a rebuttal, which was part of a debate he engaged in with Tom Wanchick in 2006 (see here). I (obviously) found Carrier’s rebuttal to be inadequate—though to be fair his opponent Wanchick formulated the argument poorly—and I will argue presently that he failed to refute the argument from contingency, when the concepts are formulated properly.  

So, let’s dig in by surveying Carrier’s first objection:

First, Wanchick has not shown that the universe does not exist necessarily. Contrary to what Wanchick falsely claims, scientists now agree that we cannot know whether the whole of existence had a beginning, even if the observable part of it did, nor do scientists agree that everything that exists (including all space-time) will end, even if the present cosmos will.

While Wanchick might have attempted to ground his argument in a universe which had a beginning, the argument from contingency need not assume such a thing. For the claim “the universe does not exist necessarily” does not require a universe that must have had a beginning. That is to say, the eternality or non-eternality of the universe is completely peripheral. For the theist argues that even an eternal universe can still be contingent.

But how can we actually establish whether the universe, or any other existing thing, is contingent or necessary? Well if it is not of the nature of X to exist, then X must derive its existence from something outside itself, and therefore it is contingent. That is, if the nature or essence of X does not provide the reason for its existence, then X is contingent. Another way to think about this is that if I can contemplate the nature of X without simultaneously contemplating its existence, then the reason for the existence of X is not contained within its nature, and it is, again, contingent. (There are many other criteria that can be applied: if something is ontologically composed of parts, or if it is a composite of act/potency etc.) Therefore, we need only apply these criteria to the universe to determine whether is satisfies said criteria. And indeed, what does happen when one applies this standard? Well, the nature of the universe is that it is all space-time, matter, and energy. But obviously, contemplating all space-time, matter and energy does not clue us in regarding why space-time, matter, and energy exist in the first place. That is to say, contemplating the nature of the universe does not provide us with the reason for why it exists at all—and it certainly doesn’t tell us why this universe exists and not another, or why any universe exists instead of none at all. Therefore, the universe’s nature does not contain the reason for its own existence, and thus it is, by definition, contingent.

So while Carrier might have been correct that his interlocutor did not demonstrate why the universe is contingent, we surely have. And none of our arguments need rest on the premise that the universe had a beginning, or will come to an end.

Carrier moves to his second objection:

Second, Wanchick has not shown that "every substance [including the universe] has an explanation." Wanchick only offers as evidence our observations regarding the effects of a universe. But he hasn't demonstrated that these observations hold for a universe itself. The only way we can logically infer that what is true of "the effects of a universe" is probably true of the universe itself is if we assume the universe is an effect, since otherwise we only have knowledge of effects, and whether the universe is an effect is precisely the matter in dispute. Wanchick hasn't demonstrated that the universe is an effect, and if the universe is not an effect, what we conclude about effects within a universe will not necessarily apply to the universe.

Carrier’s point here is spot on. However, it’s only adequate based on the fact that his interlocutor is (again) doing a poor job promulgating the argument from contingency. We can do better. For the way to demonstrate that the universe necessitates an explanation is to demonstrate 1) that the universe does not contain the reason for its own existence (which we have done); and 2) that the existence of brute facts is impossible. For if one cannot logically rule out brute facts, then it is always possible that the universe just exists with no rhyme or reason, end of story. Luckily I’ve already argued that brute facts are logically impossible (here), and therefore we’ve demonstrated that the universe requires an explanation for its existence, contrary to Carrier.

Carrier articulates his third objection:

Third, Wanchick claims "only minds" can cause any time or location to exist, but this cannot be true. It is logically impossible for a mind to think or act without a time in which to think or act, and a mind that has no location exists nowhere and what exists nowhere does not exist.[2] Therefore, he has offered no logical explanation for space-time. Likewise, Wanchick claims "there was no nature prior to the universe" as a reason to reject natural causes of the universe. But if "the universe" includes time, then there can never be a time when the universe didn't exist--even if the universe began--and therefore it is logically impossible for anything to exist at any time "before" the universe, whether a person or a thing. So if there was no nature prior to the universe, there was no person, either.

Here Carrier is implicitly begging the question. (Let us ignore the Scholastic doctrine of analogy presently since Carrier was not debating a Thomist.) It is not clear that one cannot act without time or space unless you a priori assume metaphysical naturalism. That is, to act must be to be actual, or to exist, in some way—you cannot act and not be actual—and thus Carrier is essentially saying that there cannot be existents without space-time—meaning there can be no existence outside of the natural world—which begs the question in favor of naturalism. He does the same thing with regards to time. I agree that it is nonsensical to say that anything existed “before” there was time, but this only means that temporal existence is nonsensical “before” the universe. However, we cannot assume that existing things can only be temporal unless we assume naturalism beforehand—that is, unless we assume that existents can only exist inside space-time and the natural world. Carrier is simply begging all the questions he possibly can.

Carrier moves to his last objection:

Finally, it's not logically impossible that "it is in the nature of a universe to exist," and if it's in the nature of this universe to exist, then the existence of this universe is self-explanatory. Even if we accept that "the explanation of the universe must be a metaphysically necessary, uncaused being," which "metaphysically necessary, uncaused being" would that be? Wanchick hasn't demonstrated that this "being" can't be the universe (or some part of it), nor that it could be a god.

A few responses. First, while it might not be logically impossible that it be of the nature of the universe to exist—though I would challenge this as well [1]—this tells us nothing about whether the actual universe is indeed necessary. And reasoning this way, though I’m not claiming Carrier is, is exactly the fallacy that the ontological argument commits. Second, if we accept a necessary being as an explanation of the universe I don’t understand why Carrier thinks the question “What necessary being would that be?” is efficacious. For if we arrive at a necessary being we arrive at the ultimate explanation of everything. That is, we arrive at the terminus of explanation itself in that which explains itself as well as everything else. And unless Carrier thinks there can be more than one of these necessary existents then I fail to see how his question makes any sense, or has any force against his interlocutor’s argument. Moreover, while Wanchick might not have successfully demonstrated that this necessary being cannot be the universe (or part of it), we certainly have.

So we have surveyed Carrier’s arguments against (a specific formulation of) the contingency argument. While some of Carrier’s objections pose a problem for his interlocutor’s formulation of the argument, I think this is due to the lack of said interlocutor’s ability to promulgate a more persuasive version of said argument. For we have seen that Carrier’s objections really pose no problem whatsoever when compared against a more rigorous formulation.
[1] While we might be able to imagine a universe which is necessary I don’t see that we can conceive of one. For by universe I, again, mean that which is all matter-energy, and space-time. But to reiterate, contemplating all matter, energy, and space-time cannot tell you why this matter, energy, and space-time exists in the first place—for if it could then matter, energy and space-time would be self-explanatory already, and this current universe would be necessary, which we saw above it isn’t.

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