LCA: Responding to 3 important challenges

I intend to discuss three problems here:

1. In what sense does God have a will, since God necessarily chooses the best possible world.

2. In what sense are there possible worlds, since God necessarily creates only the best possible world.

3. In what sense is God omnipotent, since God in some sense can only bring about the best possible world, and no others.

These problems are serious ones, and do need to be responded to. This is especially important given the large corpus of literature claiming that these problems spell the end of contingency arguments, or for any conception of theism.

First, let’s run a little thought experiment. Suppose we have a deterministic chess AI, name it A: given the same position, and the same outside factors like underlying hardware and time remaining, it will always make the same move. There is no randomness inside the AI. Suppose that A’s opponent is a fairly weak engine, and A has been able to perfectly predict all of their opponent’s moves. There is a sense in which A “knows” about all these possible outcomes and futures, despite the fact that none of them can come about.

Now I don’t think that at this point it’s too controversial to extend the thought experiment. Suppose that A is not just deterministic, but is actually necessary. That is: not only can it not do otherwise given the nature of its programming and its situation, but those programs and situations could not be different. Does this fundamentally change A’s knowledge? I don’t see how it does. The internal state of A is identical, it’s just a fact about the external world that has changed. But not, in a sense, A’s world. Since A’s world consists only of the board, the rules, and the opponent.

Even though A is necessary, there is a sense in which it “knows” about “possible” future outcomes. How can this be? I claim this: A’s “knowledge”, though it appears to be based on counterfactuals, does not depend on possible worlds at all. This knowledge that A has is not based on any kind of access to “possible worlds” since A and its opponent are necessary.

An agent, when considering the impacts of their actions, can simulate possible outcomes of all the actions that agent could take. Even if the agent is necessary, it can simulate these outcomes, since that agent itself is the thing that determines them. Now perhaps you and I do not, because our knowledge is imperfect. But our chess AI has in a sense a perfect knowledge of its world, and God has a perfect knowledge as well. So God can perfectly internally simulate the outcomes of the actions that He could take. And note that this is true regardless of whether God necessarily takes a particular action. Each of these simulations is technically metaphysically impossible: God, being perfectly good, won’t choose to create them. But that’s the only impossibility present in them: they contain no other contradictions. God’s will, God’s choice, is the only thing restricting these worlds from being possible. And so God can perfectly simulate them.

Now we have reconstructed a possible world: not as a meaningfully real metaphysical possibility, but as a specific kind of thought in God’s mind. And using these possible worlds, we can engage in all our normal counterfactual reasoning, which we have come to love Lewisian worlds for. But now, possible worlds aren’t primitive, God’s knowledge and God’s power are ontologically prior.

Where did that notion of power come from? Again, worlds are simulations of the consequences of God’s actions. And so the totality of all those actions in each of those worlds is the totality of God’s power. Normally we want to frame omnipotence as “the ability to bring about any possible world”, but now we’ve gone the other way: omnipotence is primitive, and a possible world is a simulation of the consequences of an action of which God is capable. So now: what is omnipotence? What makes God omnipotent rather than just very potent?

It is the density of possible worlds. The denser they are, the more powerful God is. If there are only, say, 3 possible worlds, God is not very powerful. But if they are more unrestricted perhaps every logically possible world, or every world that would be metaphysically possible apart from God’s will, then God is more powerful. What we have now is: God’s power is as unrestricted as His knowledge, and God’s knowledge is as unrestricted as His power. So now an argument for omniscience also suffices for omnipotence. Arguments for God’s omniscience have been given elsewhere, and perhaps they will be elaborated on further later. But for now, we will move on.

God’s will is mixed in here too: God must will because God has a reason for one world becoming the actual world, and God acts on that reason. That reason being that that world is the best possible world. Seems like having a reason and a goal, simulating outcomes, and choosing an action is having a will. God chooses among alternatives based on His beliefs (or in this case, knowledge) and desires. The content of those desires is moral goodness, and God is necessarily good, so God necessarily creates the best possible world. But despite (and in my argument, because of) this, God chooses, and God has a will.

Why believe this? So far all I’ve done is tell you a story about the attributes. I hope I’ve convinced you that they are possible, compatible, and reinforce and illuminate one another. But so far, I’ve given you no reason to think God has them.

Here’s one: We need counterfactuals to ground our everyday reasoning. But given the PSR, as Van Inwagen argues, there is modal collapse. Only one truly possible world, therefore necessitarianism. So there are no other possible worlds to ground our counterfactuals. Are we dead?


No: possible worlds do exist, but only in the mind of God. And that’s the only place they could exist: no other being can simulate these “almost possible” worlds, since no other being is the means by which they are possible or impossible. It is solely because of God that they are possible or impossible, so only God can have proper simulations of them. But under that, the only way we can ground our counterfactual reasoning (if we rely on possible worlds) is via God. So God is a necessary part of our everyday reasoning. Combined with the rest of the LCA, we ought to believe in God.


Contingency Argument Stage 2: Perfection-based Argument

In our posts on Leibniz’ Cosmological Argument, we have what Rasmussen identifies as two stages. Stage 1 argues for the existence of some necessary explanation of the conjunctive contingent fact. Stage 2 argues that this necessary explanation has all the properties we normally attribute to God, such as omniscience or omnipotence or moral perfection.

Here I will present an alternative to some of our stage 2 arguments. Here we will argue that the necessary explanation of the conjunctive fact (called “God” from now on, since that’s a lot shorter. We will retroactively justify it) holds all properties perfectly. Perfection here meaning something like “completely” or “fully”. Not necessarily in the sense of moral perfection.

Suppose for contradiction that there is some perfection that God lacks. That is, suppose there is some property that it is possible to have in a perfect sense, which God does not have perfectly. Either God holds the property in an imperfect capacity, or God does not hold that property at all.

Is this imperfection contingent or necessary? If it is contingent, then the necessary explanation of contingent things holds a property contingently. But if it holds a property contingently, it is not necessary. So God cannot hold any properties contingently. Therefore if God has an imperfection, it must have this imperfection necessarily.

But suppose it does have this imperfection necessarily. That is, suppose that necessarily God holds a property that God could have held perfectly. This seems incoherent: if God necessarily lacks this property, then that property wasn’t a perfection in the first place since it couldn’t have been held perfectly.

Therefore it seems that God must hold every perfection. For every property that can be fully or completely or perfectly held, God holds it perfectly.

Precisely which properties does this argument work for? It is not obvious that it works for all of them. Further work must be done on demonstrating that knowledge and power, for example, are actually perfections (though I think this is relatively obvious). We must also respond to the objection that there might be symmetrical “anti-perfections”, such as being perfectly powerless or perfectly ignorant. We certainly want to avoid claiming that God holds these.

More worryingly, perhaps evil or malevolence is in a technical sense a “perfection”. I think we can argue against this, but it will have to wait for another post. For now, this is another method of approaching stage 2 of contingency arguments.

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.

The PSR is almost true, there’s only one brute fact: The BCF

This is a common objection. We can get all the benefits of the PSR, without being forced into accepting God. But it has some unfortunate implications. Consider a weakened PSR: every fact possibly has an explanation. It turns out that this is sufficient to prove God. Suppose the BCF is possibly explained. If it is explained, it’s explained by a necessary God (as we have already shown). So possibly a necessary God exists. But by S5 modal logic, this means God exists. So the objection is no good. Instead, the objector has to say that necessarily the BCF has no explanation. Now first, it seems to me that if a fact necessarily has a property, that fact is necessarily true. But further, it is a hard burden to take onto yourself to say that the BCF is necessarily unexplained. The one who claims that it is necessarily unexplained must give a coherent and non-arbitrary reason why it is necessarily unexplained. No such reason has yet appeared.

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.

 

 

If God is omniscient, all possible universes exist in his mind, and you shouldn’t expect any specific afterlife.

This is the title of a reddit post which presents a fascinating and original argument against God. It contains some premises that many Christians will be reluctant to accept, but given my particular idiosyncratic ontology and philosophy of mind, it does seem to be effective against me. Unless I can come up with a good response, I may be forced to change some of my beliefs. But it is early days yet. Here is the argument:

  • P1: God exists and is omniscient.
  • P2: Omniscience entails fully detailed, perfect knowledge/representation of everything.
  • P3: “Everything” includes all “possible/hypothetical worlds” (if this is not true, God can’t entertain counterfactuals, which is a pretty weird hole in omniscience).
  • P4: These possible/hypothetical worlds would be known in full, perfect detail/representation (P2)
  • P5: A perfect representation of a person would experience itself as an actual person with consciousness (like a simulation or “matrix”).
  • P6: Some portion of these worlds contain holy books telling them that God has such and such plans for it and the people within (P3).
  • P7: Some percentage of the worlds in P6 in which a given person experiences going to hell, or just living on forever in their body, in whatever sorry state they died in, and every other possible afterlife. Regardless of what they did in life (P3).
  • P8: There are more undesirable afterlives than desirable ones, as there are more ways for something to be miserable or suffering-inducing than for them to be perfect and happy.
  • P9: There is no way to determine whether one is in the specific world God created (if he even created any), or instead exists within a “simulation world” (P5 & P6).
  • P10: There are more “hypothetical/possible” worlds than actual, specifically created ones (trivially true unless he creates all of them, in which case the conclusion is still valid).

 

I give some suggestions towards a response in the thread, but I am not yet convinced I have a good response. Probably there is something simple which I am missing, but I thought I’d share it to praise it for being original, and to get the opportunity to hear other people’s opinions on it.