Tag Archives: Ronald K. Tacelli

The Kalam Argument

The next argument for God on my list is the Kalam Argument — the argument that the universe cannot always have existed and therefore must have been created. Kreeft & Tacelli summarize it as follows:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause for its coming into being.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause for its coming into being.

In establishing the first premise, K & T rest content with the dubious assertion that most people “outside of asylums and graduate schools” consider it obvious — a one-liner which (to quote C. S. Lewis, who was speaking of someone who had named his country after himself) “was meant to be witty but really only showed his conceit.”

For the second premise, the argument is as follows:

  1. Time elapses finite step by finite step — one day at a time.
  2. No number of finite things can add up to something infinite; therefore, it is impossible for an infinite amount of time to elapse.
  3. But if the universe is infinitely old, an infinite amount of time must have elapsed before the present.
  4. Therefore, the universe is not infinitely old.

So something must have caused the universe to come into existence. And that something must be outside of the universe, non-spatial and non-temporal in nature, and must therefore exist eternally. But is the cause personal? Can we really call it God? K & T argue that it must be personal.

Suppose the cause of the universe has existed eternally. Suppose further that this cause is not personal: that it has given rise to the universe, not through any choice, but simply through its being. In that case it is hard to see how the universe could be anything but infinitely old, since all the conditions needed for the being of the universe would exist from all eternity. But the kalam argument has shown that the universe cannot be infinitely old. So the hypothesis of an eternal impersonal cause seems to lead to an inconsistency.

Is there a way out? Yes, if the universe is the result of a free personal choice. Then at least we have some way of seeing how an eternal cause could give rise to a temporally limited effect.

I was very impressed with this part when I first read it, since it’s the first real argument I’ve found for the paradoxical idea of free will — of causation without determinism. If the rest of the kalam argument holds, then, yes, it would seem to follow that the universe must be the result of free will. It must have been caused by conditions which could just as well not have caused it — by conditions which did in fact hold for an eternity without causing the universe to come into existence, but which then suddenly did cause the universe to come into existence. (The very same conditions, mind you. Nothing changed. Nothing could have changed, since we are talking about non-temporal things here.) This sounds an awful lot like complete gibberish, a gross abuse of the word cause, but it nevertheless has two things going for it: (1) it fits with many people’s intuitive idea of “free will” and (2) it seems to be the only way out of the corner the kalam argument paints us into.

But is the kalam argument valid? Here are a couple of criticisms.


Does everything that begins have a cause?

Certainly it’s common sense that every change has a cause, and that the change from no-universe to universe should be no exception. But in fact it’s not clear that the logic of change and causation really applies in this particular case.

If the universe (that is, the system of space-time and matter-energy) had a beginning, that means that time itself had a beginning. The commonsense idea of causation (which is what is being appealed to here) is that any given change must have caused by something which took place before the change occurred. But if we’re talking about the creation of the universe, there was no “before the change occurred.” The logic of causation — that B was preceded by A, and that B would not have happened if it had not been preceded by A — simply doesn’t apply here. No time, no causation — at least, not as we understand it. There may of course be some obscure atemporal mechanism which is analogous to causation, but if that’s what we’re talking about K & T need to make a case for it; it’s not enough to appeal to the common knowledge of all non-institutionalized persons.


Does time need to “elapse”?

We experience time as “passing,” but actually (according to one theory) time is just another dimension, not fundamentally different from the spatial dimensions. A particular dimension can be infinite, even if it is not possible for any actual thing to traverse an infinite distance. No “traversing” needs to have taken place.

A temporally infinite universe is no more or less problematic than a spatially infinite one. Of course the latter is problematic as well, since there are philosophical problems with the idea of an actually existing infinity. All in all, I think I agree that the universe probably has to be finite (I’m not entirely confident in that judgment) — but K & T’s particular argument for its temporal finiteness is not a good one.

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Filed under God, Philosophy, Time

The Argument from Aesthetic Experience

After a break of a few months, it’s time to get back to my project of evaluating Kreeft & Tacelli’s 20 arguments for God. Since I’m not feeling up to plowing through the Kalam Argument at the moment, I’ll jump ahead a bit to the shortest argument in the series: the 17th, the Argument from Aesthetic Experience.

Here it is in its entirety, as it appears in K & T’s book:

There is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Therefore there must be a God.

You either see this one or you don’t.

And if you don’t (this is what the “argument” not-so-subtly implies), you’re a philistine. If Bach’s music doesn’t move you at a metaphysical level, forcing you to rethink the ontology of the universe, you are obviously incapable of appreciating the full power of his art.


Well, I readily grant that I am a musical philistine, one who has received more genuine pleasure and inspiration from third-tier rock-and-roll acts than from most of the greatest music ever composed. After several unsuccessful attempts to cultivate a taste for classical music, I wear my Midas-ears, if not with pride, at least with a certain resignation.

(Bach himself may be the one exception. When I give his music my full attention, the reaction it induces in me is extraordinary, though I’m not sure I’d call it “aesthetic.”)

Anyway, I’m not one of the people who automatically “see this one.” I’m not even sure it’s intended to be a serious argument. Does anyone really believe that God’s existence somehow logically follows from whatever intense aesthetic experience they may have had, or is this just a way of saying that Bach is awesome, an upmarket version of “Clapton is God”?

At the risk of making a fool of myself, I’m going to give K & T the benefit of the doubt, treat this as a serious argument, and try to make sense of it. Even if the argument is mostly just a joke or a pose, the fact that people can be expected to get the joke — the fact that people naturally understand the underlying idea that the existence of awesome things proves there is a God — suggests that this line of thinking has some grounding in common sense and may therefore be based on some underlying, unarticulated logic.


Here are some possible ways of unpacking K & T’s elliptical little syllogism.

  1. Our capacity for intense aesthetic experience, especially when induced by things that have nothing to do with inclusive fitness, makes no evolutionary sense. Therefore we must have been created with said capacity by a God, perhaps as a means of increasing our happiness or of giving us intimations of heaven.
  2. Intense aesthetic experience is spontaneously interpreted in otherworldly terms, and we naturally reach for otherworldly metaphors when we try to describe it. Instincts generally have some grounding in the way things really are.
  3. Bach was a serious Christian who dedicated all his music to the glory of God. So were many other great musicians and other artists. That has to mean something.
  4. The feelings that Bach induces in some people are so powerful and so unlike ordinary feelings that it is reasonable to hypothesize that they come from some out-of-the-ordinary — supernatural, even — source.
  5. The existence of God is part of the content of some aesthetic experiences. They are as inseparable from the idea of God’s existence as a visual image of a tree is inseparable from the idea of that tree’s existence. No bridge of induction from one to the other is necessary.

If anyone has any other ideas for possible “Bach, therefore God” arguments, I welcome comments. I’ll try to evaluate the various arguments in a later post.


Filed under God, Music, Philosophy

The Incarnation as the author appearing in his work

If you conceive of God in the orthodox way — as a non-spatial, non-temporal thing (or, rather, non-thing) without body, parts, or passions, and with essentially no traits in common with human beings — then it’s very hard to understand what is meant by the Incarnation of God as Jesus Christ. The idea that a man could be God seems about as coherent as the  idea that a zebra could be time. (More anthropomorphic conceptions of God do not run into this difficulty. The Incarnation makes perfect sense to a Mormon.)

Recognizing this problem, Kreeft and Tacelli try in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics to make sense of the Incarnation by way of an analogy.

There is analogy in art to the possibility of the Incarnation; an answer to the objection that it is impossible and self-contradictory. Suppose an author inserted himself into his own novel or play as one of his own characters. This character would have a double nature, and would have “come down from heaven,” so to speak — the heaven of the author’s mind — yet he would be a completely human character interacting with the other characters in the story. Alfred Hitchcock frequently did this, inserting himself into his own movies as a character for a fleeting moment. If he can do it, why can’t God?

Forget the Hitchcock reference, which is misleading. Every character in a movie is played by an actor and thus has a “double nature,” and the characters Hitchcock played in his cameos were “himself” only in the superficial sense that he was the actor who played them. As characters, within the world of the story, they are not Hitchcock himself in any sense. Read the screenplay for Easy Virtue, and you would never guess that the fellow who walks past the tennis court is “really” Hitchcock. The actor is not the character. Mel Gibson once played Hamlet, but it would be nonsense to say that Hamlet, as a character, has a double nature as Hamlet/Gibson, or that Shakespeare inserted Mel Gibson into his play. Likewise, if Shakespeare himself once played the ghost of Hamlet’s father, that by itself does not mean that the ghost character is Shakespeare or that Shakespeare wrote himself into the play.


Setting aside plays and movies, then, where the apparent “double nature” of the characters is misleading, let us concentrate on written narratives in which the author appears as a character — for example, the narrators of Three Men in a Boat, Operation Shylock, or The Divine Comedy.

It’s hard to see how such characters have in any special sense “come down from the heaven of the author’s mind.” Obviously, every character in a novel comes from the author’s mind, and this would seem to be more true for characters whom the author invents from whole cloth, without basing them on himself or on any other one person in the real world.

In what sense can we say that the character of J. in Three Men in a Boat “is” Jerome K. Jerome? Well, he is called J.; he lives in England; he has a friend named George who works in a bank; he presumably has a personality similar to that of the author; and so on. The so-called “identity” of the character with the author boils down to a list of similarities or correspondences — and of course there are differences as well. The real Jerome had neither a dog nor a friend named William Samuel Harris (though Harris is based on his real friend Carl Hentschel), and presumably he didn’t really do or experience many of things the novel depicts him as doing and experiencing.

To say that a particular character “is” the author is only to say there are certain similarities or morphisms between the two — and similarity is a scalar quality, not an absolute one. The narrator of a straight-up autobiography like Rousseau’s Confessions “is” the author in a much stronger sense than is true of the narrator of Three Men in a Boat. The title characters in Don Juan and Manfred and pretty much everything else Lord Byron wrote “are” Byron to a lesser but still important degree. That is, there are striking similarities and correspondences but equally striking differences. Perhaps all characters in all fiction “are” the author to some non-zero extent, though some correspond more closely than others.

The same is true of paintings which include the painter. The head of Holofernes in Michelangelo’s painting has a “double nature” only because it represents Holofernes but physically resembles Michelangelo. Michelangelo could have made that head a little more or less “himself” by increasing or decreasing the degree of resemblance.


Applying this logic to the Incarnation is obviously problematic. Jesus would not really “be” God in any absolute sense but would merely be highly similar to God, perhaps (as in the cases of Manfred and Holofernes) intentionally so. All you could say of Christ would be that he was more similar to God than anyone else had ever been — not that he in actual fact was God.

And how “similar” can anyone really be to God, anyway? An artist can only write himself into his novel or paint himself into his picture as a human being — or as something very close to a human being. Orwell wrote real people (not himself, but the principle is the same) into Animal Farm as animals — but as anthropomorphized animals, human in all but name. Can you imagine writing a story about animals — real animals, thinking and doing only such things as real animals can think and do — and making one of the pigs recognizable as Leon Trotsky? I didn’t think so.

But the “novel” God is writing is not about Gods but about creatures which are so fundamentally different from their Author as to have virtually nothing in common with him. What could it possibly mean if E. O. Wilson were to say that he had written himself into his novel Anthill — as one of the ants? How could a fictional ant “be” Dr. Wilson in any remotely meaningful sense? How much could they possibly have in common? And the difference between God and a man is far vaster than the difference between a man and an ant.


But of course all characters in books are fundamentally, metaphysically different from their authors. Rousseau was a man, but the character “Rousseau” in Les Confessions is a pattern of French words, instantiated perhaps as marks on paper or pixels on a screen — or even as corresponding words in English or some other language. What could that abstract pattern of data possibly have in common with a man? How can it be meaningful to say that certain parts of a book bear a striking resemblance to a certain man who lived in 18th-century Geneva? Yet of course there is a meaningful sense in which Rousseau himself appears in his book. The principle is not similarity in the strict sense, but correspondence (which is why I hedged with “similarities or morphisms” some paragraphs ago) — and correspondence, unlike similarity, is possible in principle even between entities which are metaphysically unlike — possible, perhaps, even between man and God.


Douglas Hofstadter writes in Le ton beau de Marot about trying to “translate” chess to a hexagonally tiled board. What would be the hex-chess equivalent of a bishop? What would “move diagonally” mean on a board where “diagonal” has no meaning? (He comes up with a pretty good solution to that particular problem — though of course not a perfect one, since it is not in the nature of translations to be perfect.) The Incarnation would mean something much more challenging: “translating” the idea of God to the human world. What would “eternal and uncreated” mean in a world in which everything is time-bound and created? Since all humans have bodies, parts, and passions, what would be the human equivalent of not having them?

These are insoluble questions. Equivalency requires context, and God has — can have — no context.


But suppose it could be done. Suppose there could be a human being which, while necessarily dissimilar to God in virtually every way, somehow corresponded to God, had qualities which could be mapped non-arbitrarily to the qualities of God. Would this be, for Christians, an adequate way of conceptualizing the Incarnation.

I think not. Actual similarity is indispensable. Jesus would have to actually have the attributes of God in a way that Rousseau-the-character does not and cannot have the attributes of Rousseau-the-man. Rousseau was (say) six feet tall; no part of his book is six feet tall. Rousseau composed music; no part of his book can compose music. If I saw Rousseau drowning in a lake, I would have a moral duty to save him; if I saw his book in a lake I would have no such duty. In contrast, people assume that if God is good and wise and powerful, Christ must also have been good and wise and powerful; if we have a moral duty to obey God, we also have a moral duty to obey Christ; and so on. The Incarnation cannot be reduced to Christ’s being a mere allegory of God, to his being Truth only in the rather feeble sense that Una in The Faerie Queene is truth.


And yet mere similarity is not good enough, either. If Christ has some of the attributes of God (such as wisdom and power) and lacks others (such as timelessness and non-physicality), that’s not enough to make him God in any real sense.

The Incarnation has to mean more than similarity, more than correspondence. Christ has to actually be both God and a man — which makes no sense. And the analogy of an author putting himself into his book does nothing at all to clear it up. This line of thinking takes us nowhere.


Theology is a mug’s game, and one of these days I’ll finally decide I’ve had enough of it. So a lot of smart people in the past believed something incoherent, just as smart people have always done and always will do. Get over it, and move on. There’s no need to keep giving their ideas another chance, and another, and another. But somehow I keep doing just that.


Filed under Christianity, God, Philosophy

The Design Argument

The fifth of Kreeft & Tacelli’s 20 arguments for the existence of God is the Design Argument. This is perhaps the most important argument in the whole collection. It’s the one that seems the most obviously valid to most theists and the most obviously invalid to most atheists, who consider it to have been definitively debunked by Darwin.


Summary of the argument

  1. The universe shows a remarkable amount of intelligible order.
  2. Either this order came about by chance, or it was designed by something intelligent.
  3. Chance is not a credible explanation because “we can understand chance only against a background of order.” Darwin’s theory of the nonrandom survival of random variation also assumes the prior existence of intelligible order (“The survival of the fittest presupposes the arrival of the fit”) and can therefore not explain it.
  4. Therefore, the universe was designed by something intelligent.
  5. In order to have designed the entire universe, the designers must exist outside the universe and be non-physical in nature. It is therefore natural to identify them — or, rather, “him” — with God.

The intelligent design (ID) hypothesis is usually presented as a stripped-down version of creationism, an alternative to Darwin’s theory of the origin of species. However, while K & T appear to be evolution skeptics themselves (they cite Michael Denton and Phillip E. Johnson with approval), they maintain that the Design Argument would still be just as valid and convincing if the Darwinian hypothesis were true. In my critical comments below, I will therefore assume biological orthodoxy: that all organisms arose from a common ancestor via descent with modification driven primarily by natural selection.


Chance and design do not exhaust the possibilities.

Why does my reflection look like my face? Should we ascribe the correspondence to chance or design? (Note that I am not asking about the origin of the reflective surface, which could just as well be a naturally occurring puddle as an intelligently designed mirror, but about the reflection itself.) We unhesitatingly ascribe the resemblance between Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 and Anna Whistler to design, and my reflection resembles my face far more exactly than any portrait resembles its subject — so should we infer that there is some unseen intelligent agent busily designing all the reflections we see? After all, the only other option — that the incredibly detailed, point-by-point correspondence between my face and my reflection is just a coincidence — is even more absurd.

Clearly this is a false dichotomy, and the true explanation for the correspondence is what we might call blind regularity. (Another term which suggests itself, necessity, carries too much philosophical baggage to be suitable here.)

A detailed discussion of chance, regularity, and design is beyond the scope of this post (as I realized after typing out a very long tangent on the subject, which I decided not to include). The point I want to make is just that “chance,” as it is used in this argument, doesn’t really mean chance; it covers anything that isn’t intelligent design, including mindless adherence to the laws of physics. The dichotomy K & T are advocating would force us to say either that the sun always rises in the east and never in the west just “by chance” — an absurdly improbable coincidence — or else that it is guided in its path by an intelligent agent — Phoebus in his chariot, essentially. The parody theory of “Intelligent Falling” comes to mind.

So, wherever K & T write “chance,” read “unintelligent forces” — not necessarily chance as that word is ordinarily understood.


What Darwinism presupposes — and what it doesn’t

“The survival of the fittest presupposes the arrival of the fit” sounds right at first but is actually a misrepresentation of Darwin’s theory. K & T write:

If the Darwinian theory has shown anything, it has shown, in a general way, how species may have descended from others through random mutation; and how survival of these species can be accounted for by natural selection—by the fitness of some species to survive in their environment.

This makes it sound as if natural selection plays no role in the actual origin of new species but serves only to explain why some species, after having come into existence by pure chance, continue to survive. This is obviously not what Darwin had in mind when he wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. Although it is true that natural selection is a wholly negative process, weeding out some of what comes into being by random mutation, it nevertheless plays a creative role. Without natural selection, new “fit” species would never come into existence in the first place because every random change for the better would be canceled out by thousands of random changes for the worse. Natural selection functions as a ratchet, preserving only the good changes and allowing them to accumulate in a way which would never otherwise be possible. Or, to vary the metaphor, random mutation would never serve up anything other than a structureless hunk of marble were it not for natural selection chipping away everything that doesn’t look like David.

So Darwinism does not presuppose the arrival of the fit; it is a true theory of the origin — not just the survival — of species. It explains a great deal of the apparent design in nature. However, it does presuppose the existence of DNA or something like it — bodies capable of creating copies of themselves with not-quite-perfect fidelity. That alone implies a pretty impressive level of intelligible order, perhaps enough to motivate the ID hypothesis even without the help of eyes and hearts and brains and all the other things for which natural selection is an adequate explanation.


Everything, including design, presupposes order.

Obviously the Darwinian theory itself cannot explain the origin of all the intelligible order in the universe, since it presupposes the existence of self-replicating structures.

Even more obviously, intelligent design cannot explain the origin of all the intelligible order in the universe, since it presupposes the existence of intelligent designers.

However, evolution and design do show us broadly what kinds of explanations of intelligible order are possible.

Watches, and the watchmakers who make them, show us that it is possible in principle for intelligible order to be the creation of an intelligent designer. Of course it’s not possible that life and the universe were designed by, say, George-Emile Eberhard — but perhaps by something like Eberhard, by some as-yet unknown intelligent agent.

Likewise, living organisms, and the Darwinian mechanism that makes them, show us that it is possible in principle for intelligible order to arise from a combination of random chance and blind regularity. Of course it’s not possible that life and the universe were created by natural selection as we know it — but perhaps by something like that, by some as-yet unknown unintelligent process.


Unfortunately, neither evolution nor design can offer a real answer to the ultimate question of why there is order rather than no-order. This is probably just as unanswerable as Leibniz’s “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Any conceivable answer to Leibniz’s question would itself be a “something” in need of explanation — and in the same way, any conceivable explanation of the origin or order would imply a mechanism of cause-and-effect, and thus some underlying order.


Design is an empirical question, not a philosophical deduction.

None of this means that there is anything illegitimate about the design hypothesis. Obviously, intelligent design is the correct explanation for the existence of a great many things — watches and computers and motorcycles and so on — and there’s no a priori reason why it couldn’t be the correct explanation for the existence of life or even of the entire known universe. Evolutionists who dismiss ID as unacceptable even in principle because it presupposes a creator and thus explains “exactly nothing” (Dawkins) are going much too far. Evolution may be more elegant and philosophically satisfying than ID because it explains more complex things in terms of simpler ones rather than vice versa, but none of that changes the fact that ID undeniably is the correct explanation for many things, and therefore cannot legitimately be ruled “meaningless” or “unscientific” or otherwise intellectually non-kosher.

However, creationists who assume that ID is the only possible explanation for complexity or intelligible order are also going too far. Design is a legitimate hypothesis — but that’s all it is. Like any other hypothesis, it must stand or fall on empirical grounds. “Order, therefore design” is not good enough because (1) design cannot logically be the source of all order, since it presupposes order; and (2) we have in Darwinian evolution an actual example of order arising without design, showing that this is possible in practice as well as in theory.

Proponents of ID often try to use Sherlock Holmes’ maxim from “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” — that once you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth — in an invalid manner. The argument goes something like this:

  1. X must have come into being either through intelligent design or through unintelligent processes (“chance”).
  2. No known unintelligent process can adequately explain X.
  3. Therefore, even in the absence of any positive evidence of design, we can conclude that X was designed.

This is invalid because there are actually four possibilities. X could be the work of (1) a known intelligent agent, such as Eberhard or some other human being; (2) an unknown intelligent agent, such as the “designer(s)” postulated by ID proponents; (3) a known unintelligent process, such as Darwinian evolution; or (4) an unknown unintelligent process. Of course no one takes the first possibility seriously where life or the universe is concerned; however, it’s hard to see why the fourth should be excluded from consideration. A more logically valid form of the above argument would be

  1. X must have come into being either through intelligent design or through unintelligent processes.
  2. No known agent or process — intelligent or unintelligent — can adequately explain X.
  3. Therefore, the cause of X is unknown and could be either intelligent or unintelligent in nature.


Filed under Evolution, God, Philosophy

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.


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.


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.


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”).


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.


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.)


Filed under God, Philosophy

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.


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,


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.


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.


Filed under God, Philosophy

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.


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.”


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.


Filed under God, Philosophy

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.


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.


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.


“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.


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.


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.



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.


Filed under God, Philosophy

The Argument from Desire

I’ve recently read two discussions — one by philologist Edward M. Cook (of Ralph the Sacred River), and one by Christian apologist Peter Kreeft — of what is being called the Argument from Desire. Then, by a strange coincidence, John C. Wright also came out with a post about it while I was in the process of composing this one.

The argument, though not the name, comes from C. S. Lewis, who summarizes it as follows in the tenth chapter of Mere Christianity:

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

This is not strictly speaking an argument for the existence of God, but for an undefined something which is beyond all known human experience. As Kreeft puts it, “What it proves is an unknown X, but an unknown whose direction, so to speak, is known. This X is more: more beauty, more desirability, more awesomeness, more joy.” Still, if even this much can be proved — if we have reason to believe in something beyond this world which is nevertheless intimately connected with human desires and interests — it gives us at least a starting point from which to theologize.

Of course no one would argue that every human desire — including my desire for an ansible and a cloak of invisibility — implies the existence of an object that would satisfy it, only that we are not born with vain desires. Lewis’s argument only applies to natural, innate, instinctive desires, so the first question that arises is how to distinguish these from artificial ones. Kreeft proposes the following criteria:

  1. We generally “recognize corresponding states of deprivation” for natural desires, but not for artificial ones. “There is no word like ‘Ozlessness’ parallel to ‘sleeplessness.'”
  2. Because natural desires come from our shared human nature, they “are found in all of us, but the artificial ones vary from person to person.”

Kreeft’s first point seems not to favor Lewis, who was so far from seeing his unsatisfied desire as a state of deprivation analogous to sleeplessness that he actually dubbed it “Joy” — not the desire for Joy, mind you, but Joy itself. As far as Lewis was concerned, his desire was not for Joy; it was Joy. The desire was itself intensely desirable. In that respect it seems more like an artificial, fanciful desire than a natural, biological one. Are intense hunger, loneliness, sleep deprivation, and so on ever joyous experiences? Wouldn’t it be odd if they were? Fantasizing about the land of Oz, on the other hand, can be rather pleasant.

The second point is also problematic, since so many obviously fanciful desires are nevertheless near-universal. As Wright (who, despite his Lewisian sympathies, finds this particular argument weak) puts it, “Who has not longed to fly to the stars . . . to speak to the trees and rivers and hills, . . . or peer into the thoughts of another, or live his life?” And who has not felt Lewisian Joy, the “desire which no experience in this world can satisfy,” a persistent longing which is no less intense for being vague? All of these must be in some sense “natural,” since they come so naturally to us, but it hardly follows that there must exist something which can satisfy them.

Desires, after all, do not exist to be satisfied; they exist to motivate behavior. Often the behavior elicited by a desire will result in its satisfaction (e.g., hunger motivates eating, and eating satisfies hunger) but this need not always be the case. Take for example the proverbial method of motivating a donkey to move by dangling a carrot in front of it, where the donkey’s desire serves its purpose (making the donkey move) even if it is never satisfied. In fact, the minute you actually let the donkey eat the carrot, it will stop walking and the purpose of the desire will be frustrated. You should only let it eat the carrot after you have reached your destination and no longer want the donkey to move; if you want it to keep moving indefinitely, you should never let it eat the carrot. Creating a desire serves to make the donkey move; satisfying the desire serves to make it stop. (Of course this is a highly artificial example, but in principle there’s nothing to stop nature from doing something similar.) So in thinking about desire and satisfaction, we need to keep in mind two important points — important enough to be bulleted:

  • To understand why a given natural desire exists, the correct question to ask is not what would satisfy it, but what evolutionarily useful behavior it serves to motivate.
  • Other things being equal, we should expect a desire to be satisfied only when, and only for so long as, the behavior it serves to motivate is no longer useful.

If there were some behavior which it were evolutionarily beneficial for us to perform only once, or only a specific finite number of times, then we could expect to find a natural desire which could be satisfied in the fullest sense of that word — we reach the intended goal, the desire is completely and permanently quenched, and we move on to other things. Mission accomplished. It’s hard to think of any clear examples of this in the real world, though, which is perhaps only to be expected. The evolutionary project — ensuring that copies of as many of our genes as possible continue to exist for as long as possible — is inherently open-ended, a race with no finish line, and we might expect a similar open-endedness in the desires which were created to serve it.

More typically we find that our natural desires can be satisfied, but only for a time. The satisfaction is temporary, and the desire is quenched and rekindled, quenched and rekindled, in a cycle that can continue indefinitely. We eat, we drink, we sleep — but hunger, thirst, and fatigue are never banished for long. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. This is a confusing state of affairs if we see satisfaction as being the purpose of desire, but it makes perfect sense if we keep in mind that desires exist to trigger behavior and satisfaction exists to turn it off. When the body needs fuel, the desire to eat is turned on; when it has enough, and eating more would actually be detrimental, the desire is turned off — satisfied — but only until fuel supplies begin to run low again.

The on-again off-again nature of hunger is explained by the fact that eating regularly is evolutionarily useful but eating until you burst is not. But what if there were a behavior which, unlike eating, was always useful and never needed to be turned off? Well, in that case we would expect that behavior to be motivated by a desire which could never be satisfied. The most obvious example of this in nature is our desire for life itself. Nature has given most of us an insatiable desire to go on living indefinitely, not because immortality is actually on offer, but to motivate us to extend our finite lives for as long as we possibly can. Other ways of coping with our unacceptable mortality — having children, trying to bequeath something of lasting value to posterity, and so on — also tend to serve evolution’s ends. So long as we keep chasing the carrot of eternal life, pulling our wagonload of selfish genes behind us, the desire serves its purpose, even if satisfaction remains forever out of reach.

Lewisian Joy isn’t as straightforward as a desire for immortality — it’s a vague desire for a certain je ne sais quoi — and so the behavior it serves to motivate is less easily characterized. However, I suspect that it still does serve to motivate broadly predictable patterns of behavior. Someone who is motivated by Joy is likely to seek, as Kreeft puts it, “more awesomeness” — where our idea of awesomeness will tend to be drawn from our other, more straightforward (and more clearly evolutionarily useful) desires. The inchoate longing for “something more” is not as open-ended as it might seem, since our human nature will predictably direct it towards certain goals (such as power, wisdom, and beauty) rather than others (such as trying to ensure that the number of turnips in the world is prime). Given how clever our species is, and how good we are at finding ways to cheat evolution by satisfying our desires without reaching the goals for which those desires were created (see my post on the Genie scenario) — Joy may be a broadly effective way of keeping us from resting on unearned laurels.

I’m getting into just-so-story territory here, but all that’s really necessary to counter Lewis is to come up with an explanation for vague unsatisfiable desires which, however hypothetical and ad hoc it might be, is at least less far-fetched than his own “most probable explanation” — namely, that there must exist some “other world” than the known universe and that it was for this hypothetical world that we were “made.” And, that, I think, is a pretty easy standard to meet.


Filed under Evolution, God, Philosophy, Psychology