Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Argument from Degrees of Perfection

The fourth of Kreeft & Tacelli’s 20 arguments for the existence of God is the Argument from Degrees of Perfection. This is also one of Aquinas’s “five ways” — the weakest of the five, in my opinion.

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Summary of the argument

  1. We think of some attributes as being scalar in nature — that is, as admitting of various degrees of “more” or “less.” Examples include heat and cold, the light and dark of colors, and good and bad.
  2. Degrees of “more” and “less” imply the ideas of “most” and “least.” A continuum is defined by its two endpoints. For example, when we say one color is lighter than another, we mean that it is closer to the extreme of pure white and further from the opposite extreme of pure black. Without the extremes as standards of measurement, the idea of a continuum falls apart.
  3. Sometimes a degree of a particular attribute is communicated to an object by an outside source. For example, things are hotter when they are physically closer to a source of heat.
  4. Being itself, though it may seem like a binary quality, admits of degrees of perfection. An intelligent being exists to a more perfect degree than an unintelligent one; a being capable of love exists to a more perfect degree than one without that capacity.
  5. “But if these degrees of perfection pertain to being and being is caused in finite creatures, then there must exist a best,’ a source and real standard of all the perfections that we recognize belong to us as beings.”
  6. This perfect being is God.

There are an awful lot of things wrong with this argument, which I suspect was included in K & T’s list more for historical reasons (Aquinas!) than because anyone still finds it convincing. I mention a few of its faults below.

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The idea of a continuum is prior to the idea of its extreme endpoints.

Locke spells this out with great clarity in the second book of his Essay Concerning Humane Understanding. (No, I didn’t have that reference at my fingertips. I just so happen to be reading that book at the moment.) The above argument seems to imply that we begin with the ideas of the infinitely large and the infinitesimally small, and that only with those ideas in place are we able to say that a rhinoceros is bigger than a breadbox — meaning that it is closer to the one extreme and farther from the other than a breadbox is. This is the opposite of the truth. First we notice that some finite things are larger than others, and, extrapolating from such differences, we finally arrive at the idea of immensity.

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The infinite cannot serve as a standard of measurement.

Not only is it a psychological fact that we do not conceive of scalar attributes in this way; we cannot logically do so. Both the rhinoceros and the breadbox are infinitely distant from either extreme. It makes no mathematical sense to say that the rhinoceros is closer to being infinitely large than the breadbox is; therefore, that can’t be what is meant by saying that it is “bigger.”

Some continua have the form of a ray rather than line; one end terminates at some finite value, and the other extends indefinitely. For example, for temperature there is an absolute zero but no corresponding “absolute hotness.” Nevertheless, one fixed point of reference is enough. We could logically define colder as “closer to absolute zero” and hotter as “further from absolute zero.” (Psychologically, of course, that is not what we do. People who have no concept of absolute zero can understand “hotter” and “colder” well enough.)

In such ray-shaped continua, it is always the negative end of the scale which terminates in a finite and intelligible value — zero — which could be meaningfully used as a standard. “Closer to zero” means something; “closer to infinity” does not. Thus, even if we grant that degrees of perfection require some standard from which to be measured, that standard would have to be nothingness (“absolute zero”) rather than God (“absolute hotness”).

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Extremes are (at best) necessary for our understanding of intermediate degrees, not for the existence of the same.

In Aquinas’s original argument (if memory serves), he stated that any being which possesses a particular attribute to some intermediate degree necessarily receives that attribute from the being which possesses it maximally — that all warm things, for example, receive that warmth from “absolute hotness” (which Aquinas identified with fire). This is such obvious baloney that K & T drop it, granting only the logically irrelevant point that sometimes hot things receive their heat from some other hot thing.

With this premise dropped, all that can be argued is that the concept of the maximum is necessary in order for us to understand the concept of a continuum — not that an actually existing maximum is necessary in order for lesser degrees of the quality in question to exist. Even if we grant the validity of this psychological point (setting aside my objections to it above), it implies nothing about the actual existence of God.

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Is “being” really scalar?

Though further objections are superfluous at this point, I can’t help pointing out that the proposed scale of various degrees of perfection of being (point 4 in my summary above) seems pretty contrived, an attempt to force several qualitatively different characteristics into a quantitative continuum. Intelligence is one scale; capacity for love, another. And being itself isn’t a scale at all but a binary yes-or-no quality.

But this is not an essential point. If the argument were otherwise valid, it would still work even without this particular scale. (God would then presumably represent the standard/maximum for several different scalar attributes, such as power, wisdom, love, etc.)

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The Argument from Time and Contingency

This is the third installment in a series discussing and evaluating Kreeft and Tacelli’s 20 arguments for the existence of God. Having looked at the Arguments from Change and from Efficient Causality, I come now to the Argument from Time and Contingency.

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Summary of the argument

K & T’s formulation of this argument (which, like the previous two, originally comes from St. Thomas Aquinas) can be found online here. Below is my summary, which is logically equivalent to K & T’s version, though it is structured rather differently.

  1. “We notice around us things that come into being and go out of being.” These things are contingent beings; that is, it is possible for them not to exist.
  2. Given an infinite duration, anything that is possible (such as the nonexistence of a contingent being) must necessarily come to pass sooner or later. Therefore, no contingent being can continue to exist for an infinite duration.
  3. Since no contingent being can have existed for an infinite duration, there must have been some point in the finitely-distant past when none of the contingent beings in the world existed.
  4. Nevertheless, something must have existed at that time. After all, something exists now, and nothing comes from nothing.
  5. Since that “something” existed at a time when there were no contingent beings in existence, it must have been a non-contingent being — that is, a necessary being, a being for which nonexistence is impossible. And as such, it must still exist now.
  6. Since this necessary being has always existed, and since it must have caused the contingent world to come into being, it is natural to identify it with God, the immortal Creator of the universe.
That’s the argument. Now for my critique,

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No people a thousand years ago?

Suppose we accept the premise that it is impossible for a human being to live for 1,000 years. Could we then reason as follows?

  1. No human being can live for 1,000 years.
  2. Therefore, 1,000 years ago, none of the people in the world existed.
  3. Therefore, there were no people at all 1,000 years ago. The entire human race is less than a millennium old.

Obviously, this is fallacious. There could have been (and, of course, actually were) people 1,000 years ago — just different people, not the ones who are alive now. Even though no particular person can live for such a long time, people as a class can.

It is similarly fallacious to conclude that there must have been some time in the past when no contingent beings at all existed. Suppose, for example, that every time one contingent being ceases to exist, a new contingent being begins to exist. In that case, contingent beings as a class could continue to exist for an infinite duration, even though no particular contingent being can do so.

And in fact, that’s just what we observe: that when one contingent being ceases to exist, a new one comes into being. It’s called the law of conservation of energy.

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Nothing really begins or ceases to exist.

Another way of putting the same point is to deny the premise that “We notice around us things that come into being and go out of being.” K & T’s example of this is a tree, which “grows from a tiny shoot, flowers brilliantly, then withers and dies.” Although we say colloquially that the tree comes into existence and then ceases to exist, all that is really going on is that matter is assuming different forms and configurations. At the ontological level, nothing comes into being when a tree grows, and nothing goes out of being when it dies. A dying tree isn’t annihilated, just changed.

Like the second argument, this one is based on an equivocal use of the word “exist,” conflating mere change with creation or annihilation.

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K & T’s 2nd argument for God: Efficient causality

Continuing my project (begun here) of discussing and evaluating Kreeft and Tacelli’s 20 arguments for the existence of God, we come to the second one: the Argument from Efficient Causality. You can read K & T’s formulation of the argument in the Handbook of Christian Apologetics or online here.

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Summary of the argument

  1. “We notice that some things cause other things to be (to begin to be, to continue to be, or both). For example, a man playing the piano is causing the music that we hear. If he stops, so does the music.”
  2. But if everything is caused to exist by something else — if everything depends for its existence on something else — the result is an infinite regress of causes, which is absurd.
  3. Therefore, there must be something which exists without having to receive its existence from something else. That is, there must be an Uncaused Cause.
  4. The Uncaused Cause could be God. That would be one way of interpreting God’s role as “Creator.”

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Does anything actually “receive its existence” from something else?

I dispute the first premise. We do not notice that some things cause other things to be. Things cause other things to change, but nothing is observed to cause anything else to exist.

The one concrete example K & T give — that of a pianist causing some music to exist — is a case in point. “Music” is not an independent thing that exists; it is a pattern of vibrations in the air. It cannot be said to exist the way, say, a photon exists. When a pianist plays music, no new entity comes into existence in the universe; rather, existing entities are rearranged into a different pattern. This is change, not creation. The same goes for any other example you care to think of of something “receiving its existence” from something else. If I build a house, I don’t cause anything to exist in the strict sense; I merely change the arrangement of things that already exist.

The commonsense notion of “cause” has to do only with the causation of change. Of all the millions of examples of cause and effect we observe (and I will take it as a given that we do observe many such examples, despite the very legitimate questions raised by Hume), not one of them involves something causing something else to exist in the strict sense — that is, creatio ex nihilo. The assumption that existence itself requires a cause is just that: an assumption, an unjustified extension of the concept of cause-and-effect into a domain in which we have no reason to think it appropriate. And, as this very argument shows, it is an assumption which leads to absurdities.

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Kreeft & Tacelli’s 1st argument for God: Change

I recently read Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli’s Handbook of Christian Apologetics, an intelligent and well-written summary of various arguments for the truth of Christianity. It was recommended to me by Bruce Charlton, and I pass the recommendation on to anyone who has more than a passing interest in religious questions. Kreeft and Tacelli write in a very clear and engaging style, and they helped me see the force of some arguments that I had long dismissed.

The book begins with a series of 20 different arguments for the existence of God (available online), and I’ve decided to go through each of them, one at a time, and attempt to evaluate their validity. I’ll be posting my thoughts and conclusions on this blog.

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Why I’m doing this

God, as conceptualized by the philosophers and orthodox theologians, is an idea I’ve never properly considered.

Although I was formerly very religious, the religion I was raised in (Mormonism) worships a physical being which happens to exist as part of the universe but has no metaphysical significance — a God only in the sense that Hercules could be called a god. There is no place for the God of the theologians. Because the Mormon God plays no philosophical or metaphysical role, there can obviously be no philosophical argument for his existences. His existence is an empirical inference based primarily on the subjective data of personal religious experience. As a believer, I had of course encountered the classical “proofs” of God’s existence but dismissed them as irrelevant; the subject of the proofs obviously had nothing whatsoever to do with the God I knew.

Later, when I concluded that the available evidence wasn’t consistent with Mormonism after all, I slipped very naturally into the atheistic materialism to which Mormonism is (in theory, though of course not in practice) so closely allied. I continued to dismiss the arguments for God’s existence — after all, even as a believer I had been able to see they were bogus! It took me a long time to realize my fallacy, to realize that I had never really been a theist in the sense that creedal Christians are theists, and that I had never really given the question of God’s existence any serious consideration.

I now intend to rectify that omission. Kreeft and Tacelli’s list of arguments offers a convenient framework for doing so. I will begin, in this post, with the first of the 20: the Argument from Change.

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Summary of the argument

The original argument as it appears in the Handbook can be found here. (The real original comes from Aquinas, of course, but I will be evaluating it in the form in which K & T present it.) Below is my summary of the argument as I understand it. I’ve rephrased some things in more congenial terminology, but I think I’ve remained true to the substance of the original.

  1. Whenever a given system changes from one state to another, the change must have been caused by something external to the system itself. This is because “Nothing can give itself what it does not have, and the changing thing cannot have now, already, what it will come to have then.”
  2. The universe (“the sum total of all matter, space, and time”) is itself a changing system.
  3. Therefore, something (call it Q) must exist which transcends the universe (matter, time, and space) and causes it to change. Otherwise the universe could not change.
  4. Because Q transcends time, it does not itself change. (This obviates the need for an infinite series of meta-Q’s.)
  5. A “real being transcendent to the universe” is “one of the things meant by ‘God.'” So Q could be God.

This whole genre of argument — highly abstract, relying on seemingly obvious generalizations, and leading up to a counterintuitive conclusion — reminds of nothing so much as the famous paradoxes of Zeno of Elea, and for that reason alone I would be wary of leaning to heavily on it, even if I could find no fault with the reasoning itself. But I do find several apparent faults.

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“Nothing can give itself what it does not have.”

Given that any system consists of a number of interacting parts, why is it impossible for a change of state to be internally caused? Kreeft and Tacelli explain it thus:

Nothing can give itself what it does not have, and the changing thing cannot have now, already, what it will come to have then. The result of change cannot actually exist before the change.

This is a bit obscure, but what they seem to mean is this:

  1. Suppose system S comes to be in state p, a state it was not in previously.
  2. Suppose further that the change to state p was caused entirely by things internal to S; then we could say that S “gave itself” state p.
  3. Nothing can give what it does not have. Therefore, S already “had” state p before it “gave” it to itself.
  4. What can it mean for a system to “have” a state but for it to be in that state? Therefore S was already in state p before it came to be in state p, which is absurd.
  5. Therfore, the change must have been cause by something external to S.

If this is indeed what Kreeft and Tacelli intend (and I’m kind of hoping I’ve misunderstood them), the argument depends on a very strange conception of causality — one which views states as unanalyzable units which never come into being but are merely passed from one system to another. If a system comes to be in a particular state, that state must have been “given” to it by something which was already in that state.

A concrete example should make it clear that this is an inadequate way of conceptualizing causation. Suppose a billiard ball hits a wall and changes its velocity. What gave it the new velocity? It couldn’t have been the wall, because the wall didn’t have that velocity and therefore couldn’t have given it. Suppose nothing in the entire universe had that particular velocity until the ball came to have it. Then what? Did Q give the ball its new velocity? But if Q is immaterial and atemporal, it obviously can’t have any particular velocity and therefore (by this logic) can’t give anything any particular velocity. So even if we grant this very bizarre model of causation, it undermines the conclusion of the argument: that Q is the ultimate source of all change.

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Eternal cause, temporal effect?

But suppose we grant for the sake of argument that a changing universe cannot be accounted for without postulating something outside of the universe. Does Q — a hypothesized entity which transcends space and time — offer an adequate explanation of the changes we observe?

I don’t see how it possibly can. Q is supposed to transcend the universe and thus to be timeless — but each of the changes we observe in the universe takes place at a particular point in time. How can a change which takes place in time (as it must, that being part of the definition of change) be explained by a cause which is eternal and unchanging? If the sufficient conditions for a given change have always been in place and will always be so, world without end, then what accounts for the fact that the change takes place at this time rather than that one? How can an eternal and unchanging cause account for anything other than an eternal and unchanging state of affairs? Q just doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing that could possibly cause anything to change.

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Changing system + something else = a bigger changing system

But suppose we grant for the sake of argument that Q is in fact a necessary and sufficient explanation of the fact that the universe changes. Then is everything accounted for?

Apparently not. While Q itself does not change, the system comprising Q plus the physical universe (call it the meta-universe) does change — and, ex hypothesi, any changing system requires something outside of itself to account for the fact that it changes. So we need to postulate a meta-Q to explain the changing meta-universe, and so on ad infinitum. The series will necessarily be infinite because (1) if any part of a system changes, the system itself changes; and (2) a system plus something that interacts with it necessarily constitutes a larger system.

Since an infinite series of nested universes doesn’t explain anything, there must be something wrong with the premise that a changing system must be changed by something outside the system.

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Comments?

My goal here is to really understand and fairly evaluate these arguments, not to “win” on behalf of atheism. If I’ve misunderstood the argument, or if my objections miss the point, I hope someone will leave a comment and set me right.

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