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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8 Comments

Filed under God, Philosophy

8 responses to “Kreeft & Tacelli’s 1st argument for God: Change

  1. Pingback: K & T’s 2nd argument for God: Efficient causality « Bugs to fearen babes withall

  2. Pingback: The Argument from Time and Contingency « Bugs to fearen babes withall

  3. ChrisB

    Thanks for launching on this discussion. I consider myself a Christian, but I have to admit I find K&T’s arguments less compelling than I would like to. But then, again, I don’t consider myself a great philosopher, so I may easily be missing key points.

    WRT to your counterpoint 2, I don’t see a problem. A being beyond time and space might act within time and space without necessarily acting in every part of space and at every moment in the time line. Think of him as an artist, and the universe as a four-dimensional canvas. Each brushstroke represents an act at a particular time and place, but some actions (sizing the canvas, say) might represent an action throughout all time and space.

    It’s more difficult to think of a changeless, timeless being “acting” at all, but I’m willing to give the obscurantists their due here: as time- and space-bound beings we can’t expect to understand the modalities of a changeless, timeless being, except through metaphors that reflect our time- and space-bound experience.

  4. imnobody

    I am a theist but I am no professional philosopher. I would like others to join this debate. I think it would be interesting and enlightening.

    Not that I think there will be any conclusion, though. The Internet is full of debates about the existence of Gods, which span for years. It’s something like this:

    – Argument.
    – Counter-argument.
    – Counter-counter-argument
    – Counter-counter-counter-argument.
    – Etc.

    After a couple of years, it’s something like:

    – Counter*50 – argument

    The discussion at that time focus on obscure philosophical topics that I don’t understand and I cannot follow it. But the debate goes on and on and on and on…

  5. i looked at this list and started my own list of analysises ( ? )
    drawing on my meager education in propositional logic
    i have attempted to reduce all 20 of the arguments to their bare bones
    propositional components and refuted them in a like manner.

    What i have discovered is that many of the arguments take the form :

    a) Create an Irrefutable Argument for (x by some mechanism (y
    b) Assert that (x exists
    c) Claim that in order for (x to exist
    d) There must be an Exception to the Irrefutably proven (y

    ???

    To spice things up; i have added ( so far ) 6 of my own ( much better )
    Ontological Arguments.

    i will post the whole slew in a few days
    Possibly as a .pdf in Google Docs.

    Do you know of any blogs that allow for Tab Settings ? !

    Sproogles !

  6. chrs campbell

    Another Pointless Rant

    Snippet From:
    Bugs to fearen babes withall
    A blog by Wm Jas Tychonievich

    The Argument from Time and Contingency

    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.


    Additional Commentary by The Translucent Amoebae
    – –

    This Criticism is -Probably- completely irrelevant to your point – –
    But;
    When The Ball hits The Wall; It transfers it’s ( Momentum / Velocity ) into The Wall, which then ‘Immediately’ returns it to The Ball.
    Why does The Ball ‘Bounce Off’ and a Very Predictable Angle?
    It ( Probably ) ( In full disclosure; i hate physics* and my understanding of these things is very superficial ) because of its ‘Sideways’ Momentum in relation to The Wall, Which may be ‘Preserved’ in The Ball to Some Extent.
    A Much Clearer example is watching The Balls attached to a Newton’s Cradle; In Which ( Say: ) Two Balls fall towards The other Three, and Then Stop Dead, as The Two Balls on The Far side Suddenly Recoil off The Remaining Three.
    This Clearly shows that The Momentum/Velocity was Entirely Transferred to The Surface they were hitting.
    Likewise; The Ball hitting The Wall Transferred a Great Deal of its ‘Angular’ motion to The Wall, Which Absorbed some it and Translates it into heat or distributes it to The Internal Frame as Vibrations, which later became heat, and Some of it was Returned to The Ball.
    All this is a small point; But when a Philosopher ( in full disclosure, i hate philosophers* ) attempts to provide an allegorical example using a simile, analogy or Metaphor that decidedly falls short or misleads The student to reaching erroneous conclusions; It makes my feet itch !

    – –
    The Reason that i hate Physicists & Philosophers is that i really would like to know true things, and neither of these disciplines is providing them for me.
    With Philosophers; This is obvious; But many believe that Physicists are genuinely finding significant truths that apply to The Universe; But consider for a moment that while they are very good at Labeling things, and Describing The Rudimentary Behaviours of This & That; They are completely impotent in actually understanding any of The underlying mechanics of anything! Physicists have no idea at all how any of The, So Far Discovered, Forces work; Such as Gravity or Magnetism. Their ‘Explanations’ only attach new ‘Labels’ to Crazy Unsupported Gibberish. While they claim that Life is merely Chemistry; They can not create The simplest self replicating molecule or begin to truly explain any of The Internal Cellular Mechanics.
    And Additionally; i find it mind boggling that Physicists readily accept many ideas as absolutely True that have absolutely No Supporting Empirical Evidence; Such as Worm Holes, Time Travel, String Theory or ‘Other Dimensions’; Never mind that they routinely use The Word ‘Dimensions’ whenever they can’t think of The Word that they actually meant to use; All The While; Ignoring and Persecuting Investigators that have Amassed Great Libraries of Empirical Data to Support what The Physicists call Heretical Science, Fringe Science or Hokum.
    Modern Science is Just as Absurdist as Catholicism or Scientology.
    Astronomy is The ‘Economics’ of The Hard Sciences and has less Empirical Data Than Astrology.
    Even within Its Own Criteria of Practical Discoveries; Physics has Added Nothing to The Physics Books in Over 50 years, And those Last Discoveries pertained to The Highly Dubious claims of Quantum Mechanics, which have routinely been Proven with Experiments that No One is Willing to Describe or offer Supporting Evidence for.
    i Fully Expect that in 50 years, or less, Einstein & his ilk will be considered in The Same Manner that we now dismiss Freud, Galen or Aristotle.

  7. Caleb Cumberland

    The argument is sound. It is saying that the system must be moved or changed by something else. So the system depends upon this thing to continually change it. The mover itself does not change (because then it would need a changer or mover and so on). So, since the mover moves the universe without needing anyhting else, it must be without lacking, and since it does it on its own continual initiative it must be ale to choose (meaning it is a personal being). It isn’t that complicated.

  8. Hi Wmjas,

    Respectfully, I believe that the traditional Christian philosophical proofs for the existence of God no longer hold after Kant’s subjectivist epistemological revolution. I grew up with these proofs, and restoring them was my obsessive aim. I did not succeed, but I believe I struck a useful blow for the Kingdom nonetheless. The result is here:

    http://www.potandphilosophy.com/t25/lets-get-high-and-prove-that-ghosts-exist/

    It’s a neo-Cartesian attack on materialism and a Randian assault on post-modernism. Sounds fancy, eh?

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