Thursday, January 14, 2016

Richard Carrier on the argument from contingency

I’ll be blunt. I’m not a big fan of Richard Carrier. Read almost any reply from Carrier responding to a critic of his work, and you’ll notice how arrogant, condescending, and antagonistic he is with his interlocutors. It can be very difficult at times, for me, to read through a polemic work of his without being extremely put-off. (Just survey his articles wherein he claims that the late Maurice Casey, Joseph Hoffman, Stephanie Fisher, and Robert Eisenman are all literally insane.) However, while I dislike him, I do find that many of his theses are well-thought out, well-argued, and worth responding to—I think this specifically about his book Sense and Goodness without God  and what I’ve seen from his arguments for Jesus-mythicism (though I haven’t yet read his On the Historicity of Jesus yet).

Now, the other day I was writing an upcoming post regarding atheist responses (and mischaracterizations) of the cosmological argument, and I realized that I had never read what Carrier’s specific replies were regarding said argument. (I have surveyed Carrier’s thoughts on God as an ultimate explanation here, but I had never seen him directly address the cosmological argument.) I decided to look up some of his responses, and one response I came across consisted of a handful of Carrier’s supposed refutations of the argument from contingency (the argument I find most persuasive, and have defended here) promulgated in a rebuttal, which was part of a debate he engaged in with Tom Wanchick in 2006 (see here). I (obviously) found Carrier’s rebuttal to be inadequate—though to be fair his opponent Wanchick formulated the argument poorly—and I will argue presently that he failed to refute the argument from contingency, when the concepts are formulated properly.  

So, let’s dig in by surveying Carrier’s first objection:

First, Wanchick has not shown that the universe does not exist necessarily. Contrary to what Wanchick falsely claims, scientists now agree that we cannot know whether the whole of existence had a beginning, even if the observable part of it did, nor do scientists agree that everything that exists (including all space-time) will end, even if the present cosmos will.

While Wanchick might have attempted to ground his argument in a universe which had a beginning, the argument from contingency need not assume such a thing. For the claim “the universe does not exist necessarily” does not require a universe that must have had a beginning. That is to say, the eternality or non-eternality of the universe is completely peripheral. For the theist argues that even an eternal universe can still be contingent.

But how can we actually establish whether the universe, or any other existing thing, is contingent or necessary? Well if it is not of the nature of X to exist, then X must derive its existence from something outside itself, and therefore it is contingent. That is, if the nature or essence of X does not provide the reason for its existence, then X is contingent. Another way to think about this is that if I can contemplate the nature of X without simultaneously contemplating its existence, then the reason for the existence of X is not contained within its nature, and it is, again, contingent. (There are many other criteria that can be applied: if something is ontologically composed of parts, or if it is a composite of act/potency etc.) Therefore, we need only apply these criteria to the universe to determine whether is satisfies said criteria. And indeed, what does happen when one applies this standard? Well, the nature of the universe is that it is all space-time, matter, and energy. But obviously, contemplating all space-time, matter and energy does not clue us in regarding why space-time, matter, and energy exist in the first place. That is to say, contemplating the nature of the universe does not provide us with the reason for why it exists at all—and it certainly doesn’t tell us why this universe exists and not another, or why any universe exists instead of none at all. Therefore, the universe’s nature does not contain the reason for its own existence, and thus it is, by definition, contingent.

So while Carrier might have been correct that his interlocutor did not demonstrate why the universe is contingent, we surely have. And none of our arguments need rest on the premise that the universe had a beginning, or will come to an end.

Carrier moves to his second objection:

Second, Wanchick has not shown that "every substance [including the universe] has an explanation." Wanchick only offers as evidence our observations regarding the effects of a universe. But he hasn't demonstrated that these observations hold for a universe itself. The only way we can logically infer that what is true of "the effects of a universe" is probably true of the universe itself is if we assume the universe is an effect, since otherwise we only have knowledge of effects, and whether the universe is an effect is precisely the matter in dispute. Wanchick hasn't demonstrated that the universe is an effect, and if the universe is not an effect, what we conclude about effects within a universe will not necessarily apply to the universe.

Carrier’s point here is spot on. However, it’s only adequate based on the fact that his interlocutor is (again) doing a poor job promulgating the argument from contingency. We can do better. For the way to demonstrate that the universe necessitates an explanation is to demonstrate 1) that the universe does not contain the reason for its own existence (which we have done); and 2) that the existence of brute facts is impossible. For if one cannot logically rule out brute facts, then it is always possible that the universe just exists with no rhyme or reason, end of story. Luckily I’ve already argued that brute facts are logically impossible (here), and therefore we’ve demonstrated that the universe requires an explanation for its existence, contrary to Carrier.

Carrier articulates his third objection:

Third, Wanchick claims "only minds" can cause any time or location to exist, but this cannot be true. It is logically impossible for a mind to think or act without a time in which to think or act, and a mind that has no location exists nowhere and what exists nowhere does not exist.[2] Therefore, he has offered no logical explanation for space-time. Likewise, Wanchick claims "there was no nature prior to the universe" as a reason to reject natural causes of the universe. But if "the universe" includes time, then there can never be a time when the universe didn't exist--even if the universe began--and therefore it is logically impossible for anything to exist at any time "before" the universe, whether a person or a thing. So if there was no nature prior to the universe, there was no person, either.

Here Carrier is implicitly begging the question. (Let us ignore the Scholastic doctrine of analogy presently since Carrier was not debating a Thomist.) It is not clear that one cannot act without time or space unless you a priori assume metaphysical naturalism. That is, to act must be to be actual, or to exist, in some way—you cannot act and not be actual—and thus Carrier is essentially saying that there cannot be existents without space-time—meaning there can be no existence outside of the natural world—which begs the question in favor of naturalism. He does the same thing with regards to time. I agree that it is nonsensical to say that anything existed “before” there was time, but this only means that temporal existence is nonsensical “before” the universe. However, we cannot assume that existing things can only be temporal unless we assume naturalism beforehand—that is, unless we assume that existents can only exist inside space-time and the natural world. Carrier is simply begging all the questions he possibly can.

Carrier moves to his last objection:

Finally, it's not logically impossible that "it is in the nature of a universe to exist," and if it's in the nature of this universe to exist, then the existence of this universe is self-explanatory. Even if we accept that "the explanation of the universe must be a metaphysically necessary, uncaused being," which "metaphysically necessary, uncaused being" would that be? Wanchick hasn't demonstrated that this "being" can't be the universe (or some part of it), nor that it could be a god.

A few responses. First, while it might not be logically impossible that it be of the nature of the universe to exist—though I would challenge this as well [1]—this tells us nothing about whether the actual universe is indeed necessary. And reasoning this way, though I’m not claiming Carrier is, is exactly the fallacy that the ontological argument commits. Second, if we accept a necessary being as an explanation of the universe I don’t understand why Carrier thinks the question “What necessary being would that be?” is efficacious. For if we arrive at a necessary being we arrive at the ultimate explanation of everything. That is, we arrive at the terminus of explanation itself in that which explains itself as well as everything else. And unless Carrier thinks there can be more than one of these necessary existents then I fail to see how his question makes any sense, or has any force against his interlocutor’s argument. Moreover, while Wanchick might not have successfully demonstrated that this necessary being cannot be the universe (or part of it), we certainly have.

So we have surveyed Carrier’s arguments against (a specific formulation of) the contingency argument. While some of Carrier’s objections pose a problem for his interlocutor’s formulation of the argument, I think this is due to the lack of said interlocutor’s ability to promulgate a more persuasive version of said argument. For we have seen that Carrier’s objections really pose no problem whatsoever when compared against a more rigorous formulation.
[1] While we might be able to imagine a universe which is necessary I don’t see that we can conceive of one. For by universe I, again, mean that which is all matter-energy, and space-time. But to reiterate, contemplating all matter, energy, and space-time cannot tell you why this matter, energy, and space-time exists in the first place—for if it could then matter, energy and space-time would be self-explanatory already, and this current universe would be necessary, which we saw above it isn’t.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Theoretical Physicist David Deutsch on the limitations of science

One of the most important limits of science is that it isn't philosophy. [...] Scientism is the purported application of science to problems that are really philosophical. Such as the question of whether animals really feel pain or not. We can tell whether animal's nerves are excited and whether their brains react to that. But whether an animal feels pain in the sense that humans do, or merely react in the sense that a robot does, that is ultimately a matter of philosophy, because it's only philosophy that can determine the criterion for science to use when trying to distinguish between those cases. So that's a limit of science--trying to reach into philosophy is scientism. [...] I would say to [those who claim that the only good explanations are scientific explanations] that that theory is not part of science, and therfore it rules itself out.

Taken from an interview with Robert Lawrence Kuhn.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The rise of Aristotle

Many of those with whom I encounter through comments on the internet usually turn their nose up when confronted with the Aristotelian-Thomistic (Scholastic) philosophy that I espouse. To them, Scholasticism is simply a relic of an antiquated and outdated philosophy. It was what a group of people were forced to think about the world before the advent of science, before we became “enlightened.” They say that terms like actuality, potentiality, final causality, essence or form, have long been relegated to the dustbin of failed and superfluous philosophies, especially since science no longer has any use of them. As physicist Sean Carroll has said, “This kind of Aristotelian analysis of causation was cutting edge stuff 2,500 years ago. Today we know better.” Moreover, others also claim that the only people who even resurrect these antiquated and esoteric ideas and concepts are apologists, trying to mask their arguments in obscure and archaic terminology so as to confuse their interlocutor—while simultaneously making their philosophy seem sophisticated.
I maintain that all this is false. First, the individuals I know who are Thomists espouse this philosophy precisely because they genuinely find it to be the only valid metaphysic, and not because they simply want to prove God’s existence. I myself was sincerely enamored with the Thomistic concepts that I read in Edward Feser’s book Aquinas, and found said concepts and philosophy to be a convincing and necessary ontological description of reality.

Second, and more importantly regarding this post, it is actually the case that Scholastic philosophy is seeing a major revival as of late. Now this might not seem like a big deal to the “skeptic” currently reading, since the number of adherents of a position does nothing to entail the validity or efficacy of said position—and I would agree. However, what’s interesting about this resurgence is the fact that most of the individuals who are returning to the concepts inherent in Scholasticism are not theists, and are not really in the Scholastic “camp” at all. Rather, this revival is mostly led by philosophers of science (yes, science) who see that a return to certain Aristotelian concepts is a necessary step towards a valid ontology.
Let us survey this resurgence. First, there are philosophers who claim that efficient causality necessitates that objects must have intrinsic dispositional properties—what they call “powers”—that are directed towards the generation of certain effects. While they don’t refer to this as final causality, this is essentially a return to that very notion. This has been promulgated by analytic philosophers like John Heil, in From an Ontological Point of View, C. B Martin, in The Mind in Nature, George Molnar, in Powers: A Study in Metaphysics, and Stephen Mumford, in Getting Causes from Powers and Dispositions. Furthermore, biologist J. Scott Turner, in The Tinkerer’s Accomplice, and philosophers of biology Marjorie Grene and Andre Ariew, in The Understanding of Nature, argue for a return to an Aristotelian notion of inherent teleology.

Second, essentialism—the belief that things have an inherent nature or essence that accounts for them being what they are—has seen a revival among secular philosophers as well. Philosopher of science Brian Ellis, in The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism, and philosopher of science Nancy Cartwright, in Inference, Explanation, and Other Frustrations, put forward an Aristotelian essentialist interpretation of the results of the hard sciences like chemistry and physics.
Moreover, in recent analytic philosophy there has been talk of what are called categorical and dispositional properties (see here). As Edward Feser notes, these are really just different names for act and potency. The categorical properties of a thing being the properties that it actually instantiates—that is, the way it actually is—and where dispositional properties of a thing are properties that will manifest under certain conditions—that is, the way something can potentially be. These properties are discussed at length by Ellis, Mumford, Martin, and Molnar, all mentioned above, as well as analytic philosophers Galen Strawson and D.M. Armstrong,

Note again that these philosophers are secular and are not Scholastics, Thomists, or even Aristotelians. They are simply analytic philosophers who see that something like an Aristotelian philosophy—though they use different jargon than Aristotelians—of nature is a necessary framework for intelligibility of reality. The claim, then, that Scholasticism is nothing but an outdated and antiquated philosophy, mostly promulgated by apologists and charlatans, is blatantly false. Aristotelianism is on the cusp of a resurgence, and the naysayers would do well to sit up and take notice.