Another argument for the PSR

The PSR is the Principle of Sufficient Reason, the most controversial premise of the LCA which we have defended here previously. We will here provide another argument for the PSR. That is, for the claim that for every contingent thing (or perhaps indeed every single thing, contingent or not) has a sufficient explanation.

The argument I intend to motivate is this: we should extend reasoning principles as far as possible, until we have a good reason. The PSR is a principle we use in many areas, and so we should extend it to all objects unless we can come up with a good reason why we should not.

Now we all know how we apply the PSR in physical situations. There is currently light hitting my eye, as an explanation I posit a computer monitor in front of me as an explanation. An apple falls from a tree, and we posit gravity. Celestial objects move across the sky, and we posit heliocentrism. In none of these cases do we say “perhaps there’s no explanation”, we always immediately begin looking for one. If there’s some phenomenon we can’t find an explanation for, we conclude that we aren’t smart enough, or our equipment isn’t precise enough. We assume that there is one we just haven’t found.

So now we might be tempted to say “The PSR only applies to physical phenomena”, and then we wouldn’t be forced to admit that God exists. And there may be some cause for this since intuitively, physical objects are the kinds of things which seem like they’re causally closed. But maybe other kinds of phenomena (if they exist at all) are “spooky” and not causally closed, so maybe there’s no PSR there.

Let’s consider another domain then: ethics. Take the famous trolly problem: suppose it turned out to be the case that it was morally wrong to pull the lever to save five while condemning one. Suppose this was morally impermissible. And an interested interlocutor would ask “Why?” Suppose we answered, “It just is, there’s no reason”. Is that an acceptable answer? Clearly not. And in fact many ethicists have spent their lifetimes looking for answers to such ethical question: what is right and what is wrong, and why are those things right and wrong. Again, there is the presumption of explanation.

Now a third domain: mathematics. We observe some mathematical phenomenon, and we ask “why”. That “why” often comes in the form of a proof, or at least a sketch of a proof. Often the “why” is actually hidden in the proof, almost as if the author of the proof went to great effort to obscure the deep intuition. But sometimes it’s on the surface. And this doesn’t only apply to theorems, we can ask why a theorem is true, but we can also ask why something more general is the case. Here’s one such question: why does the sum of the series of inverse square numbers involve a pi term? Pi has to do with circles, but this doesn’t appear to be related to circles. And indeed, there is an explanation.  This kind of question is often asked by mathematicians, why is something the case? And often the answer is intuitively satisfying, deep, and can lead to new ways of thinking about problems. Much of mathematics, rather than hunting for proofs of theorems, is hunting for these more intuitive, conceptual explanations of a more general class of phenomena.

Now we go back to our PSR. It holds in the domains of physics, ethics, and mathematics. Our natural, everyday reasoning assumes that the PSR holds when we consider physical objects, abstract objects (such as numbers), and moral facts. So how might we restrict it? If we say “All physical, ethical, and mathematical phenomena have sufficient explanations”, but that seems extremely arbitrary. And again, we normally want to expand principles until we have a good reason not to. What good reason do we have for restricting the PSR to these classes of phenomena, but not others?

And we can take this argument even further. We can follow Della Rocca, and point out that unless you can give a sufficient reason for that restriction, you’ve begged the question. I covered that particular argument in the original post on the PSR, but it is worth reiterating because I think it is indeed a strong one.

 

 

Common Objections to the LCA

In our previous three posts here, here, and here, we have gone through a brief summary of Leibniz’ Cosmological Argument. And of course, many objections are likely to arise, mostly from misunderstandings of the argument. Here I would like to briefly respond to some of those common objections.

 

What if the universe had no beginning?

You’ve got this argument confused with another argument. My argument says nothing about the universe as a whole, and only needs one contingent object to succeed. My argument also says nothing about anything “beginning”. This argument would work just fine if the universe had no beginning.

 

What explains God?

The way we have used the word “God” is by meaning “The non-contingent object”. But given our definition for contingent, this means “The object that does explain itself”. So if you ask “What explains God?”, you are asking “What explains the thing that explains itself?”. The answer is obvious: God does.

 

How do you know there are contingent things?

Consider a simple fact: things fall down. The first scientists asked: why do things fall down? They needed an explanation. The fact that things fell down wasn’t self-explanatory. And they found an answer, coming up with a theory of gravity. But then again: why do things have mass? The fact that things have mass requires and demands an explanation. It is contingent. And we built the Large Hadron Collider looking for that explanation.

 

You’re just defining God into existence!

What I am doing is inferring the existence of something by looking at the effects it has. For example, I might look at a clock and infer the existence of a motor behind the arms, because it is making those arms move. Am I defining the motor into existence by doing this? No I am not.

 

This only proves a deist God, not the Christian God!
True, this is not a sufficient argument for Christianity. It gets us to theism, but we need further arguments to get to Christianity. But it’s a step in the right direction, ruling out atheism.

 

This is a God of the gaps argument!

What I am doing is inferring the existence of something by looking at the effects it has. A God of the gaps argument goes something like “We can’t explain this thing, therefore God did it”. I am not doing that at all. Instead, what I’m doing is arguing that God is the only possible explanation for something. Suppose I have a car that works. Am I right in inferring the existence of a motor inside the car? Is that a motor of the gaps argument? No.

 

Believing the PSR commits us to denying libertarian free will/accepting necessitarianism

This doesn’t bother me much, since I am a Calvinist and therefore a compatibilist, and I am a modal necessitarian. However I do need to maintain that God is totally free, so I have to engage with it to some degree. A good argument can be found here, it is reasonably well explained and I will not reproduce it.

 

We should only believe things we can test, how did you test this?
I reject the claim that we must test every claim. I only think we should test scientific claims. If you can test this, go ahead, but I think it is fundamentally impossible. Just like it’s fundamentally impossible to test whether the square root of two is irrational. But that doesn’t mean the proofs that the square root of two is irrational fail, nor does it mean that Leibniz’ cosmological argument fails. The simple fact is that logic works, and we can use deductive logic to work out truths from true premises. If you think my premises are false, or my arguments for why they are true fail, then feel free to tell me why. But if you think my premises are true, then you must accept the conclusion, it’s the result of simple and easy to follow logic.

 

The necessary thing is the universe/big bang/laws of physics

That’s a reasonable suspicion when we get up to (4), but falls flat after (5). We not only prove that there is a necessary object, but we prove that it has all the properties we normally think of God as having. And none of the suggestions above for the necessary object have these properties.  We cannot merely attach the description “necessary” to whatever we please, we must discuss what properties the necessary thing must have.

LCA Point 5: The Necessary Object is God

This is our third post in a series on Leibniz’ Cosmological Argument. You can find the first post here and the second here. The full argument is:

(1)               Every contingent fact has an explanation.

(2)               There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.

(3)               Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact.

(4)               This explanation must involve a necessary object.

(5)               This necessary object is God.

Today we will be examining…

(5)               This necessary object is God.

This is much like the first point, in that it’s not obvious and requires some argumentation. First, let’s talk about what it means to be a necessary object. A necessary object is an object that explains its own existence. It does not “depend” on any other object to exist. Using the possible world terminology we introduced last post, a necessary object is an object that exists in every possible world. 

So what properties can we deduce about the necessary object? Well it’s clearly not material, as material objects depend on matter to exist and are contingent. In fact, it’s not composite at all, since composite objects depend on their components to exist. So the necessary object must be entirely simple.

Whatever necessarily exists must always exist, since the fact that it necessarily exists is true no matter what time period you are in. So the necessary object is everlasting.

The necessary object must be unchangeable. Suppose that the necessary object were to change. That change must either be caused by the necessary object itself, or something else. It cannot be caused by something else, because that would make the state of the necessary object contingent on that thing that caused it. So if it changes, it must cause that change itself. If something changes itself, either part of it changes another part, or the whole changes the whole. Since the object in question has no parts, the whole necessary object must change the whole necessary object. But if this were the case, it would have already been the thing it was going to change into. So it cannot change.

Now Leibniz presents an argument that the necessary object has understanding, a will, and power. He argues that it has understanding, as it can survey all possible worlds it can create. It has a will, as it selected one possible world. And it has power, as it actually created that world.

Is this argument reasonable? Consider first the understanding argument. Can the necessary object survey all possible worlds? A possible world is a world that could exist. If such a world contains any contingent objects, then the necessary object must exist. And if it doesn’t contain any contingent objects, and only the necessary object, then the necessary object must still exist.

Our necessary object explains all contingent objects. That means it must in some way contain information about those objects. And it contains information not only about contingent objects that exist, but also all possible contingent objects, since it would also explain them. And clearly it contains information of itself, since everything does. This kind of containing information is understanding.

Does it have a will? Of all the possible worlds, it chose one. Is simply choosing one possibility out of many having a will? Probably not, since my computer also does this and does not have a will. Instead, it seems more reasonable to say that having a will, or maybe a free will, is choosing an option apart from any outside compulsion. My computer chooses what it was programmed to choose, and so doesn’t have a will in this sense. But the necessary object is not compelled by anything external to it, and its choice comes entirely from within. So it seems it has a will.

And power? This one is more clear: it did in some sense create the world. It chose this possible world, and actualised it over other possible worlds. That is power.


Since the understanding, will, and power are directed towards all possibilities, they are infinite. The necessary being understands all possibilities, can will to create any of them, and has the power to carry out that will, whatever it may be.

And since choosing is to judge that the thing you choose is the best thing among the alternatives, and since the necessary object has full knowledge (knowledge of all possible worlds), it judges which is actually the best among infinitely many alternatives. This means that it is in a sense infinitely good.

Another argument can be made for a more general agency of the necessary object. As far as we understand explanations, there are three types: scientific, conceptual, and agential. The necessary object is clearly not a scientific explanation, since it cannot be material, due to simplicity. Further, science only explains things in terms of contingent things, or at least it has in every case we know of.

Nor is it a conceptual explanation. Among the contingent things we find substances, the stuff that other things are made from. Dualists will argue that the soul is a different kind of substance to matter, for example. Matter/energy is the substance that physical objects are made of. But the activity of a substance cannot be conceptually explained by the activity of something other than that substance. A conceptual explanation can tell us why things behave the way they do, in terms of what they are. But a conceptual explanation cannot give an account of why they are in the first place. So a conceptual explanation is insufficient for the big contingent fact.

So the only option remains is an agential explanation: an explanation in terms of some agent. So the necessary thing must be an agent in some sense.

We can also demonstrate uniqueness: every property the necessary object has must be a property it necessarily has, by a similar argument to the simplicity argument above. So if there are two necessary objects, they have the same properties. But two objects with identical properties are actually just one object. So there is only one necessary object.

At this point, we have proven that there exists a necessary object, which has infinite knowledge, infinite power, is infinitely good, is simple, eternal, unique, immutable etc. I know no name we could give this object other than “God”. And of course we have not yet arrived at Christianity. But I claim that after proving that this God exists, we may go looking for it in the world.

We find this: there exists a religious tradition spanning thousands of years who claim to worship something with all of these properties. They record centuries of interactions with this thing, who behaves exactly as we’d expect God to behave, including giving and fulfilling prophecy. And in the end we see the man Jesus who comes claiming to be God come in the flesh, who behaves as we’d expect God to behave, with a supremely good moral character, who fulfills prophecy given over the last few thousand years. I believe Him.

LCA – Points 2 to 4

In our previous post on Leibniz’ Cosmological Argument, we examined the first premise, the PSR. I would summarize the PSR with the claim “reality is fundamentally intelligible”, though we go into more technical detail in that previous post. To remind you, here is the full argument:

 

  1. Every contingent fact has an explanation.
  2. There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.
  3. Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact.
  4. This explanation must involve a necessary object.
  5. This necessary object is God.

 

Here we will examine points 2 to 4. These are reasonably simple, and although they are sometimes disputed there shouldn’t be anything too controversial here. Most skeptics who deny this argument will take issue with premises 1 or 5.

(2)               There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.

It is at this point that we must define what a “contingent” fact is. Briefly, a contingent fact is a fact that does not explain itself. For example, we might say “a cat exists”. Is that self-explanatory? Can we coherently ask “why does a cat exist?”. In the case of my cat, explanations may include: me and my brother asked my parents for one, and also the cat has parents, and also the cat is composed of molecules, and also the species “cat” was created by God. These are all partial explanations for the contingent fact “my cat exists”. Here, a contingent fact is any fact like this, any fact X that has an explanation Y, where Y and X are not identical.

This definition is a bit vague, and purposefully so. There are multiple conceptions of precisely how we cash out contingency, and I want my argument to be general enough to cover all of them. But if you are after a more specific definition, try this one: a contingent fact is a fact that is true in some possible worlds, but not all possible worlds. There are some worlds in which there is no cat (or no matter), and some that include a cat. Note that I am not talking about a multiverse here, some worlds contain one universe, some contain multiple, some contain none. A possible world is a way that reality could have logically possibly been, but isn’t. A possible state of affairs that could have attained, but didn’t. If this is a new idea for you, perhaps study this SEP article. We will occasionally make use of this definition during our argument, but I will attempt to stay as general as possible.

Some of you are necessitarians and reject possible worlds. I am. If that is you, then we will need a different notion of contingency. I intend to publish my thoughts on that once we have completed the entire LCA series.

The actual premise is relatively easy. If it’s true that “x is a fact” and “y is a fact”, then it’s true that “both x and y are facts”. So we can construct a true statement such as “x is a fact and y is a fact and……..” and so on until we’ve covered every contingent fact. This fact that we’ve constructed is contingent because all of the incorporated facts are contingent. If any of them could possibly be different, then so could the constructed fact. In some other literature, this fact is called the BCF or BCCF (Big Contingent Fact, or Big Collected Contingent Fact).

There is a minor concern here that the BCF could be self-referent. That is, the BCF includes the BCF. Some of you will be familiar with Russel’s Paradox, which relies on this kind of self-reference. So there are two solutions, I think either works. Either we say that this isn’t a set, and we call it a “collection” or something, and then we aren’t bothered by self-reference. Or we construct the BCF by including every contingent fact that isn’t the BCF, we include every other contingent fact. This is a relatively minor issue, it is in a sense just nitpicking. But it seems important to include it so people don’t get grumpy at me.


(3)               Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact.

 

This follows from (1) and (2). Every contingent fact has an explanation due to the PSR, so the fact we just constructed has an explanation

(4)               This explanation must involve a necessary object.

Let’s suppose it isn’t true, suppose the BCF is explained by a contingent fact. Given the PSR, then this explanation still has to exist. We’re supposing it’s not necessary, which means it must be contingent. But if it’s contingent, then it’s part of the fact that we’re trying to explain.

This means that the explanation is its own explanation. It doesn’t depend on anything else to be true. This means it’s not contingent, and is instead necessary. So by reductio, the explanation for the constructed contingent fact must be necessary.

Some complain that I’ve equivocated between “fact” and “object” here. But this is not a big problem, like the self-reference above. Every fact refers to at least one object, and for every object X we have the fact “X exists”. We can travel between “facts” and “objects” freely. I choose the term which best primes the intuition of the person reading it.

This will conclude the middle section of the LCA. Next time, we will investigate what the necessary explanation is, we will work out what properties and attributes it must have, and end up concluding that it is God.

 

 

Laying the Groundwork for the LCA: The PSR

The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument is one of my favourite arguments for God. The LCA can be summarised in this way:

  1. Every contingent fact has an explanation.
  2. There is a contingent fact that includes all other contingent facts.
  3. Therefore, there is an explanation of this fact.
  4. This explanation must involve a necessary object.
  5. This necessary object is God.

 

Today we are only going to discuss point 1. And this will probably not be our only discussion of this point, as there are many levels of counter arguments and responses to those that we will need to discuss at some point. This premise is called the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

A more general formulation (Taken from the SEP) is given as: For every fact F, there must be an explanation why F is the case. There are several good arguments for accepting the PSR, but so far there’s no proof of it.

First, if we do not accept the PSR, I would argue that we must accept some unfortunate consequences. I believe that I’m currently sitting in front of my laptop typing things into it. I believe this because I can see it. Because there are photons bouncing off my laptop (or emitted from the screen) and entering my eyes. But if the PSR is false, then there’s no reason to think that anything actually caused those photons to exist. Not just that I might be a brain in a vat being fed sensory information, or deceived by an evil demon like Descartes might suggest, but that there may be no explanation for the sensory information at all.

If we don’t take the PSR, then we can’t look at facts and try to work out the best explanation. Sherlock, for example, takes in a lot of details and provides usually a good explanation for why the facts are that way. But he never includes in his reasoning the option that there’s no explanation. Neither should we. We should look for explanations, and so we must always assume that there is one.

If the PSR is not true, why don’t we see lots of violations of it? If I saw a soccer ball materialize in front of me, I’d probably look for an explanation. But if the PSR weren’t true, there’d be no reason to look for an explanation. It could just be a brute fact that the soccer ball exists there. No explanation for why it is there.

Which brings me to the next argument: even if there’s not always an explanation, we ought to believe that there is one and look for it. Consider the example of the theory of evolution: what is the explanation for the variation of species? Normally, we’d say something like evolution via random mutation and natural selection. We’d justify that claim by pointing out the large number of observations that confirm it. But how do these observations confirm it? They confirm it via the PSR: we believe that evolution is true because it is the best explanation for our observations.

But how did we determine that there was an explanation here? The fact is that we didn’t, and we would have no way of doing so. We assumed there was, and we looked for it. But a Creationist who responds to the evidence for evolution with “Perhaps there’s no explanation” would be rightly ridiculed. We value explanations over no explanation, even if we can’t conclusively show that there is no explanation. We ought to believe there is one, even if there isn’t.

A more complex argument comes from Della Rocca. I link his paper below, and I will give a summary (and occasionally steal parts verbatim) of his argument here. First, he establishes that in every-day reasoning, we use something he calls “explicability arguments”. Something like this: no explanation for a state of affairs means that state of affairs cannot attain. Consider this: we have a scale with a weight on either side. If the weights are equal (and the scales are fair, and there are no outside influences), we know the scale will be balanced. How do we know this? Because there is no reason the scales would be unbalanced, there is no explanation as to how that would happen, so it cannot be the case. We reject the possibility of an unbalanced scale because it has no possible explanation. Or another example: suppose we have two substances. Suppose they are identical in every way, that they have the same chemical makeup, same structure, etc. One dissolves in water. We know that the other will dissolve in water too. Why? Because there is no reason why it would not, if one has the disposition to dissolve in water, how would the other fail to have this disposition? If they are identical, nothing could ground this difference, so we reject the possibility of them behaving differently.

In fact, it seems like avoiding inexplicability is a main motivator to naturalism or physicalism or materialism. We want to avoid believing in things that can’t be explained (such as the supernatural). The naturalist says that if it cannot be explained naturally, it does not exist. Again, they affirm the PSR in this context.

If we can use these arguments in general, then the PSR follows easily. Clearly we want to take a limited PSR in some local contexts. But can this kind of reasoning apply in general? Someone who denies the PSR might claim that it applies to some situations, but not others. But we claim that there is one example where we use inexplicability arguments where we can’t appeal to a local PSR without doing so arbitrarily and question-beggingly. And it is precisely the case in question in this argument.

What is it in virtue of which something exists? The existence of each thing that exists must be explicable. When we have causation, we ask why it is that this is a case of causation. So when we have something that exists, we ask why it is the case that this thing exists. The denier of the PSR attempts to draw a line somewhere, and explain why we can use a PSR in some contexts, but not in the existence context.

The denier of the PSR must draw this line in a principled, non-arbitrary way. This is because to draw the line in an unprincipled, arbitrary way is to say that there is no explanation or no reason why the law is drawn in this place. But to say that there is no explanation is to say that the PSR is false. And surely people cannot be allowed to assume the PSR is false when they are trying to argue against the PSR. That would be circular, I may as well assume God exists when trying to argue that God exists.

So of course, this line must be drawn in a principled, non-arbitrary way. And of course there is no such way. If you and I want to use the kind of explicability arguments above, then you and I need to come up with some reason why they work in some cases and not others. And unless we do come up with such a reason, we must accept the full PSR.

Further reading:

More fine tuning quotes

Here is a collection of more quotes from notable scientists that support our fine tuning argument. Here are some of my favourites:

  • Drs. Zehavi, and Dekel (cosmologists): “This type of universe, however, seems to require a degree of fine tuning of the initial conditions that is in apparent conflict with ‘common wisdom’.”
  • Ed Harrison (cosmologist): “Here is the cosmological proof of the existence of God – the design argument of Paley – updated and refurbished. The fine tuning of the universe provides prima facie evidence of deistic design. Take your choice: blind chance that requires multitudes of universes or design that requires only one…. Many scientists, when they admit their views, incline toward the teleological or design argument.”
  • Frank Tipler (Professor of Mathematical Physics): “When I began my career as a cosmologist some twenty years ago, I was a convinced atheist. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that one day I would be writing a book purporting to show that the central claims of Judeo-Christian theology are in fact true, that these claims are straightforward deductions of the laws of physics as we now understand them. I have been forced into these conclusions by the inexorable logic of my own special branch of physics.”
  • Vera Kistiakowsky (MIT physicist): “The exquisite order displayed by our scientific understanding of the physical world calls for the divine.”
  • Arno Penzias (Nobel prize in physics): “Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.”

Fine Tuning: Why Privilege Life?

When presenting the fine tuning argument, skeptics may respond that we are unduly privileging life as something special in the universe. For example, someone might object that the universe is also fine tuned to produce iPads. Why is the existence of life significant in a way that entails God, but iPads are not? The restriction to life is ad hoc. So here I will give an attempt to respond to this claim, and give some reasons why theism predicts life.

The claim of theism here is that there exists a deity, and by this we mean that there exists an all powerful, all knowing, always good creator of the universe. Or something along those lines. Importantly, we think that God is in some sense the goodest thing possible, perhaps even Goodness Itself. And we also think that God is intelligent. Perhaps God’s intelligence is somewhat different to our intelligence, since God is timeless and unchanging and simple. But still rightly called intelligence.

Since God is good, we can say that in creation, He is pursuing something good. In fact if we believe Leibniz (and I do, this fits well with Calvinism) then we can say that the world God creates is actually the best possible world. The best possible world must include some good things.

I claim now that intelligent beings are some of the goodest things. Since God is Goodness Itself and is intelligent, the least we can say is that intelligence is very good. We can indeed go further and say that intelligence is fundamentally linked to goodness, as all of God’s attributes are. And further still, we can argue that in creating the best possible world, God would create beings in His image. He is Good, so His image bearers must be at least very good.

Given this, we have some pretty good reasons to think that God would design a world that could support not just life, but intelligent life. Many atheists, especially Kantians, think there is something special about humanity, namely: reason. Our ability to reason is unique, and morally significant. Kantians think that reason is the basis for morality. So it seems like the Kantians would agree that if there is a God, then God would create beings with reason. Intelligent beings.

Since we can demonstrate that if theism is true, then the universe will support intelligent life, we can indeed rightly use a fine tuning argument. This is not ad hoc, we have not arbitrarily selected intelligence to examine, we have shown how intelligence is significant for God.

Historical Evidence for the Resurrection

Introduction

This argument is largely an adaptation of arguments previously made by many apologists, so if it seems familiar I have likely stolen some ideas. I’ll investigate some facts around the supposed resurrection and try to work out what the best explanation is.

Before we begin I will state that for the purposes of this discussion I will be treating the works contained within the bible as historical documents (that is, documents from history), not as scripture or inerrant or even reliable. I hold these positions, but to assume them here would be circular reasoning. I shall attempt to come at them from a neutral position, without assuming anything about their reliability that I can’t back up with sources from respected historians. I will also attempt to take the consensus of experts in their field as the default position for the purposes of this argument.

Also before we begin, I will just state that we are certain that Jesus existed. Ehrman is the most respected non-Christian NT historian I can think of and he compared the belief that Jesus didn’t exist to belief in Young Earth Creationism. There is virtually unanimous consensus that Jesus existed among NT scholars, and even the rare proponents of Christ Myth Theory admit that they are basically alone in their beliefs. It is not a hypothesis worth considering, given scholarship on the issue. If this is a problem for you, you should probably read some more on the issue. Ehrman dealt with this issue here and here.

 

Empty Tomb

The first thing we have to establish is that Jesus was crucified and buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. This first point is largely uncontroversial, Ehrman writes that the crucifixion is as sure as anything in history1 and that Jesus was most likely buried in the aforementioned tomb2. Ehrman has since changed his mind on the tomb for what I consider to be dubious reasons (read here for more on why I disagree with Ehrman), but other important scholars like Géza Vermes3 and Dale Allison4 still assert that Jesus was buried roughly as the Gospels describe. Gary Habermas is a noted expert on the facts surrounding the resurrection, and has surveyed that around 75% of relevant scholars affirm the empty tomb.5

Looking at the claim that the women who found the tomb found it empty, we have a few ways of evaluating it. When discussing biblical events, scholars have come up with a few heuristics that allow us to determine reliability. The empty tomb accounts satisfy the criteria of multiple attestation, lack of legendary embellishment, embarrassing features of the narrative, use of proper names, public knowledge of the burial and the tomb’s location.

It is notable that throughout history, from Celsus to modern scholars, opponents of Christianity have tried to explain the empty tomb rather than deny it. According to reports that are found in Matthew 28:11-15, Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 108) and Tertullian (On Spectacles 30), for almost two centuries or more, the Jewish leaders tried to explain that the tomb was empty because Jesus’ disciples stole His body. This means that the Jewish hierarchy even acknowledged the fact that Jesus’ body was no longer there.

It is attested to in every Gospel, and a strong argument can be made that the creed discussed in the next section also includes the implication of an empty tomb. According to the late historian of ancient Rome and fellow at Oxford, A. N. Sherwin-White, “even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition.” And with respect to historical reconstruction, he says that “we are seldom in the happy position of dealing at only one remove with a contemporary source.” The empty tomb, in light of the multiple reasonably close sources attesting to it, is quite likely. If you are still unconvinced of the empty tomb, I’d like to hear an alternate explanation for the early beliefs and accounts, and why your explanation is better than mine.

 

Apostle’s Beliefs

Ehrman also tells us that the legend of the resurrection began at the latest two years after Jesus was crucified6. Ehrman refers to an early Christian source, a creed found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5. A very early Christian creed, which James Dunn dates to 18 months after Jesus’ death.7

So we have an early belief that Jesus rose from the dead. Given what we know about the early church from Acts, this must have originated from the Apostles. There is no other plausible source for this creed. Let’s examine the claims of the Apostles as they appear in Acts. Acts 2:29-32 records Peter’s words:

“Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it.”

I contend that Acts is fairly reliable in relating to us church history. The accuracy of Acts in most areas is attested to by NT historians, with Martin Henge stating8:

‘Luke-Acts looks back on the destruction of Jerusalem, which is still relatively recent, and moreover is admirably well informed about Jewish circumstances in Palestine, in this respect comparable only to its contemporary Josephus. As Matthew and John attest, that was no longer the case around 15-25 years later; one need only compare the historical errors of the former Platonic philosopher Justin from Neapolis in Samaria, who was born around 100 CE.’

There are some passages of disputed accuracy in Acts, but the above mentioned section is not one of them. I’ve been unable to find any scholar who takes issue with the above passage. And non-Christian scholar Gerd Lüdemann believes that the section is historical9.  We have no reason to doubt it, and it is in line with what we know about the 11 from other sources.

So the disciples that Peter refers to, the 11, believed they were witnesses to the risen Christ. They believed it so strongly that some would die for it, and all would have reasonably believed they would die for it. Notably Peter himself, whose death is recorded by Clement of Alexandria. The 11 are threatened with death or imprisonment as early as Acts 4.

All this points to the fact that the Apostles truly believed what they claimed. We will investigate soon whether they could be correct. It should be noted that I am not claiming “They died for their beliefs, therefore their beliefs are true”. That doesn’t follow. My claim could be better summarized as “They died (or believed they would die) for their beliefs, therefore they truly believed them”.

 

Possible explanations

We have now established that the Apostles all believed they had seen the risen Christ, and that the tomb was empty. Let’s begin then trying to explain these facts

Perhaps the Apostles simply hallucinated Christ’s appearances. This would be plausible, except for the fact that 11 of them would have had to hallucinate simultaneously. And not just hallucinations, but detailed coherent hallucinations that were completely outside the realm of what they expected. This is unlikely. And does nothing to explain the empty tomb.

Some have speculated that someone pretended to be Jesus, or was at least mistaken for him. This again fails to account for the empty tomb. It also seems unlikely given that the 11 knew Jesus well, after spending 3 years with him. It is unlikely they would have all mistaken someone for him, especially to the extent where they would die for it. Remember that these are fairly rational, intelligent people, judging by what they wrote.

Others have speculated that Christ did not really die on the cross, but was taken down and recovered in the tomb. This would be almost as great a miracle as the resurrection itself. Jesus was scourged before he was crucified, a process that often killed. And then there is only one known person to have ever survived crucifixion, who did so after being up there only a few hours and receiving medical attention. Two other people were taken down at the same time and died. It is unlikely Jesus could recover on his own in a cold wet cave.

Some have suggested grave robbers to explain the empty tomb. This does nothing to explain Christ’s appearances to the 11, and is just unlikely. They weren’t all that common, and probably wouldn’t carry off a body with no reason.

Perhaps the women went to the wrong tomb. This is possible, but it doesn’t explain the appearances to the 11. It also doesn’t explain why Peter and John also found the tomb empty, unless they made the same mistake. It is unlikely both groups would.

Now it is true that a combination of these unlikely partial explanations can explain the facts that we’ve looked at. But postulating multiple unlikely events multiplies their already low probabilities, and the resurrection becomes the best explanation.

The McGrew’s (Tim McGrew is the chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Western Michigan University) that I referenced earlier did a similar but more detailed investigation10 to the one I have done and came up with a Bayes factor of 10^44 which is an incomprehensibly huge number. If you think this evidence is weak, then let’s quantify our discussion, and give me an alternative analysis. 

So it seems that based on the evidence at hand, the resurrection of Jesus is the best explanation for the facts we have investigated.

References

  1. A Brief Introduction to the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman 2008 ISBN 0-19-536934-3 page 136
  2. Bart Ehrman, From Jesus to Constantine: A History of Early Christianity, Lecture 4: “Oral and Written Traditions about Jesus” [The Teaching Company, 2003].
  3. Geza Vermes, The Passion (Penguin, 2005)
  4. Dale Allison, Resurrecting Jesus
  5. Gary Habermas and Michael Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004
  6. http://www.philvaz.com/apologetics/p96.htm
  7. James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2003), page 855.
  8. Hengel & Schwemer, ‘Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: the unknown years’, pp. 7-8 (1997)
  9. Lüdemann quoted by Matthews, ‘Acts and the History of the Earliest Jerusalem Church’, in Cameron & Miller (eds.), ‘Redescribing Christian origins’, pp. 165-169 (2004)
  10. http://www.lydiamcgrew.com/Resurrectionarticlesinglefile.pdf

Introduction to Cosmological Arguments

In the history of theism, cosmological arguments have been some of the strongest and most widely used justifications for theistic belief. They are very old arguments, some form of the argument was even put forward by Aristotle. In this article I will not put forward any particular cosmological argument, but I will go through the general pattern of cosmological arguments.

Cosmological arguments derive their name from the Greek word “cosmos” which means “world”. The general idea is that we look at some feature of the world, combine it with a logical principle that we call the Principle of Sufficient Reason (or some similar principle), and deduce the existence of God. While some forms of the argument make claims about the entire universe (such as WLC’s famous defence of the Kalam argument), not every cosmological argument considers the universe as a whole. For example, Leibniz’ argument only considers a single contingent object, and Descartes’ argument deduces God from the existence of thoughts about God. So when presenting or criticising these arguments, don’t fall into the trap of always thinking about the universe, just because WLC made that particular argument famous.

So what is it about the world that we can observe? Here are the features that some of the arguments consider (the list is far from exhaustive):

  • Aquinas: Change
  • Descartes: Thoughts about God
  • Leibniz: Contingency
  • Kalam: Things beginning to exist

 

And here are the various principles or forms of the PSR that the arguments use:

  • Aquinas: Things are changed by things external to them
  • Descartes: Thoughts are invented, told to us by someone else, or about something real
  • Leibniz: All contingent things have explanations
  • Kalam: Everything that begins to exist has a cause

 

And each of these attempts to infer from their observation and their principle that God exists. Aquinas, therefore, argues that there is an unmoved mover, Leibniz argues that there is a non-contingent thing that explains contingent things, Kalam argues that there is something outside the universe that caused the universe. Descartes’ case is a bit more complex, where he first rules out inventing the idea of God and shows that using the “someone else told us” explanation only pushes the problem back a stage.

And then the argument goes on to attempt to prove that the thing they deduce, perhaps pre-emptively called “God”, has all the attributes that we normally assign to God. Aquinas shows that God is unchanging because He must be pure actuality and no potentiality, Descartes shows that God is perfect because the idea of perfection can’t have come from anywhere else, Kalam shows that God exists outside the universe to cause it, Leibniz shows that God is all knowing and all powerful because He saw all possibilities and could have created any. They all provide long and detailed explanations of each of the divine properties.

Whether or not these arguments succeed is a matter for further blog posts, Leibniz’ argument is my favourite and I will probably provide an in-depth defence of it at some point. But this gives you a general idea of how cosmological arguments work, with a particular observation, a particular principle relating to that observation, deducing God, and then deducing the properties of God.

Against Deism – Goodness, Consistency, and Evil

Many people object that philosophical arguments for theism such as the cosmological argument do not arrive at the God of any particular religion, but instead prove the existence of a deistic God: who created the world or who upholds existence but who does not interact at all with humanity. I think we can make a good argument against this by looking at Christianity and arguing that this does appear to be the God of philosophical arguments.

But I think also we can extend the philosophical arguments to rule out deism. We can extend the cosmological arguments to show that God actually would interact with humanity, based on what we’ve already concluded about God. And not only that, but I think we can extend them in a way that rules out several of the other contenders for claims about God.

From the philosophical arguments, we conclude that God is good, and indeed perhaps Goodness Itself. At the very least, God is the highest good. We also conclude that God is all knowing and all powerful. So we take these conclusions as premises now.

Supposing that God is all good, He must want good for the entire universe. He wants the galaxies to be good galaxies, He wants the atoms to be good atoms, and He wants the people to be good people. And it seems that for people to be good people, the goodest people they can be, He has to direct their affections towards the good. That is, God must direct their affections towards God. Perhaps not each individual person (He may have other purposes in mind for individuals, see Romans 9), but people in general. It seems that God, being good, must draw the world to Himself. And so He must reveal Himself to them, so that they can pursue Him.

By being good and rational, God must be incapable of lying and self-consistent. So that means that all of God’s revelations must be consistent with each other, and they must be truthful. I believe this rules out Islam, which is inconsistent with the previous revelation from God. Muslims will claim that the previous revelations have been corrupted, but not only is there no evidence of this, there is significant evidence that they have remained in their original form. The Old Testament and New Testament were written over centuries by ~40 different authors, while the Quran was written by one man over a few decades. The New Testament is a perfect fulfilment of all prophecy in the Old Testament, is perfectly consistent with the Old Testament, and presents itself as the final revelation. This is of course only a summary of a fuller argument against Islam that I may one day make, but it gives us plenty of reason to prefer Christianity over Islam.

Returning to deism, I claim that deism does not have a sufficient response to the problem of evil. Remember that if there is a deist God, then that God is still good. So we’d expect some pretty convincing reasons as to why the deist God knowingly (because the deist God is still omniscient and omnipotent) created a universe that contains evil and suffering. Theists appeal to God’s purpose for the universe in explaining why evil exists: in order to bring about some higher order good. Some appeal to free will as a specific higher order good, but I don’t think we need to do that here.

But under many conceptions, the deist God is a God who doesn’t have any specific purpose for the universe, or at least for the rational beings within the universe. But if there is no purpose for the rational beings in the universe, then there cannot be a sufficient reason to ordain that evil would exist.

So it seems that on the whole deism is significantly less plausible than theism, and that Christianity provides the most plausible theism.