Rasmussen’s New Argument for a Necessary Being

0. Introduction

Josh Rasmussen is a philosopher at Azuza Pacific University. He recently sent me a copy of a paper entitled ‘A New Argument for a Necessary Being‘ in which he lays out an ingenious cosmological argument. I have a response to it, which I will outline here.

  1. The argument

 Here is the argument:

  1. Normally, for any intrinsic property p that (i) can begin to be exemplified and (ii) can be exemplified by something that has a cause, there can be a cause of p’s beginning to be exemplified.
  2. The property c of being a contingent concrete particular is an intrinsic property.
  3. Property c can begin to be exemplified.
  4. Property c can be exemplified by something that has a cause.
  5. Therefore, there can be a cause of c’s beginning to be exemplified (1–4).
  6. If 5, then there is a necessary being.
  7. Therefore, there is a necessary being.

Part of the cleverness of this argument is how weak the premises are. This means that they are easier to motivate and harder to object to. Premise 1, for example, is a defeasible rule of thumb. It isn’t ruling out there being objects that don’t satisfy it; as Rasmussen explicitly says, his argument

“…allows for the possibility of uncaused natural objects” (p. 4)

The modesty of its presuppositions is a strength.

In some respects, this argument is similar to the modal ontological argument. That too has very modest premises. One supposedly only has to grant that it is possible that God exists to get that he necessarily exists, to the conclusion that he actually exists.

However, I have an objection. My objection is similar to the objection to the modal ontological argument, whereby one says that it is possible that God does not exist, from which it follows that he necessarily does not exist, and so actually does not exist.

I will essentially present a new version of premise 4, from which we get a new version of premise 5, from which we get the conclusion that there is no necessary being. I will argue that my new version of premise 4 is explicitly allowed because of the weakness of Rasmussen’s premises, and that the only way to avoid it would require tightening it up, which loses the distinctive appeal and novelty of his approach. In addition, my new version of premise 4 is a core doctrine of Christianity, and as such Christians cannot simply deny it in favour of Rasmussen’s premie (in fact, they must find a way to block one of the premises of my argument or deny its validity, else it would rule out Christianity from being true).

Before we come to that, we need to understand Rasmussen’s argument in more detail. He provides a useful summary of premise 1 as follows:

 “…any beginning of an exemplification of an intrinsic property can have a cause…” (p. 2)

As a defeasible rule of thumb, this is quite plausible. Rasmussen provides an a priori type of justification and an abductive justification. The a priori justification is as follows:

“…imagine an arbitrary, unexemplified intrinsic property i . Suddenly, something changes. Snap! Property ibecomes exemplified. At this point, you may wonder why isuddenly became exemplified. Your mind might thus be inclined to think that i ’s exemplification canhave a causal explanation (especially if ican have caused instances). I suspect that some philosophers who come to the table as sceptics of a necessary being will have this intuition.” (p. 2 – 3)

The abductive justification runs as follows:

“…when a scientist creates a new piece of technology, a new type of thing begins to exist, and the scientist thereby causes one or more intrinsic properties to begin to be exemplified. As another example, we can imagine hydrogen and oxygen atoms coming together to form the first water molecule, thereby causing the property of being waterto become exemplified. In general, when we consider a new type of object, we can coherently imagine a cause of the exemplification of the new intrinsic properties instantiated by that object. Thus, we might infer (1) as a plausible explanation of these cases of apparent causability.” (p. 3)

Thus, we can see the sorts of things that Rasmussen has in mind as being examples of what premise 1 is about. We can grant this for the purposes of my argument. It is not supposed to be a universal principle, and might have exceptional cases which are counterexamples to it, but:

If someone has reason to doubt (1) based upon certain exceptional cases, she could still accept (1) as a general rule of thumb. (p. 3)

I have no need to dispute this here.

Premise 2 just says that the property of being a contingent concrete particular is an example of an intrinsic property. The notion of being an intrinsic, as opposed to extrinsic property roughly means that the property is held of an object without relation to any other objects. It is an intrinsic property of me that I am 5’10”, but it is an extrinsic property of me that I am taller than my friend Joe, etc. It is tricky to spell this distinction out perfectly, and Rasmussen offers a simple sufficient (but not necessary) condition for being intrinsic, namely:

“p is intrinsic if one who grasps p does not thereby grasp any external”

We can grant this for the purposes of my response. We can also grant that being a contingent concrete particular is an intrinsic property.

Premise 3 says that the property of being a contingent concrete particular, i.e. c, can begin to be exemplified. The premise doesn’t say that it actually did begin to be exemplified, only that it is possible for it to be so. Rasmussen says as an example:

“…we can imagine a beginning to the existence of contingent bits of matter as they explode out of an initial singularity.” (p. 4)

Thus, in a broad sense, it is possible for contingent concrete things to have an origin point. We can grant this for now as well.

Premise 4, according to Rasmussen, says:

there can be a contingent concrete particular that has a cause. (p. 4)

In defence of this, Rasmussen says:

“Take me, for example: I am a contingent concrete particular and my existence was caused some time ago.”

That seems very reasonable. I won’t directly challenge this premise, but it is at this point that my argument will kick in (more on that in a moment). Before we get to that, let’s just see how Rasmussen ties these considerations together into a whole.

Premises 2, 3 and 4 establish that c is intrinsic, can begin to be exemplified, and can have caused instances. This means that it is the sort of property that premise 1 applies to; it is the sort of property according to which

“there can be a cause of [c]’s beginning to be exemplified” (p. 1)

But because c is the property of being a contingent concrete particular, this means that:

“…there can be a cause of a beginning of contingency” (p. 5)

This is premise 5, and it follows from premises 1 – 4.

The move to premise 6 is my favourite bit of the argument, and I think the most ingenious. So far, all we have established is that it is possible that there is a cause for the beginning of contingency. We have not established that there is a beginning of contingency, or that there is a cause; just that such a cause of a beginning is possible.

From this, Rasmussen says, it follows that a necessary being exists. Here is how he gets there.

First, suppose that no necessary being exists. If that is the case, then, Rasmussen says, there couldn’t be a necessary being. This is the familiar inference used in the modal ontological argument; necessary beings exist at all possible worlds, so if there is even one at which they don’t exist, they exist at none at all. But if it is not possible for a necessary being to exist, it is not possible for a necessary being to be to cause the beginning of contingency either. So if there is no necessary being, then it must be possible for a contingent thing to cause the beginning of contingency (for it to remain possible at all, as premise 5 states). But this is incoherent, and thus impossible. Rasmussen explains:

This is because c —the property of being a contingent concrete particular— would already have to be exemplified if a contingent concrete particular were to cause c to begin to be exemplified in the first place. In other words, the exemplification of contingency would be ‘prior to’ the exemplification of contingency, which is impossible. (p. 5)

Rasmussen concludes this section with the following:

Thus, if there is no necessary being, then it is not possible for anything to cause a beginning of contingency, which contradicts (5). Therefore, if there is no necessary being, then (5) is not true. This result is the contrapositive of (6). Therefore, (6) is true.
From (1)–(6), it follows that there is a necessary being. (p. 5)

Now, I must say, I think this is a brilliant bit of reasoning. It is ingenious and original. I really like it.

But I still think I have a problem for it.

2. Counter-argument

My response to this argument is not really to reject any of the premises or the inference to the conclusion. The type of response I am giving is a sort of stale-mate response, rather than a defeating response. I think that we have just as good a reason to think that the negation of the conclusion is true, and I have an argument which is almost exactly the same as Rasmussen’s. In this respect, it mimics a familiar response to Plantinga’s modal ontological argument. That argument can be stated as follows:

  1. It is possible that a necessary being exists
  2. Therefore, a necessary being actually exists

The response to this is to simply postulate an alternative argument, with premises that are just as plausible, but with the opposite conclusion:

  1. It is possible that no necessary being exists
  2. Therefore, no necessary being actually exists

The question then becomes which of the two premises is more plausible. Each premise is equally plausible. Without a way of deciding between the premises which does not beg the question, the argument ends in a stalemate. Plantinga seems to accept this stalemate, because he is merely interested in establishing the rationality, rather than the truth, of the conclusion:

“[modal ontological arguments] cannot, perhaps, be said to prove or establish their conclusion. But since it is rational to accept their central premise, they do show that it is rational to accept that conclusion” (Plantinga 1974, 221)

If my argument works, Rasmussen would be pushed into accepting merely this sort of less ambitious defence, or he would have to tighten up the premises and thus lose the attractiveness of them.

Here is my counter-argument:

  1. Normally, for any intrinsic property p that (i) can begin to be exemplified and (ii) can be exemplified by something that has a cause, there can be a cause of p’s beginning to be exemplified.
  2. The property c of being a contingent concrete particular is an intrinsic property.
  3. Property c can begin to be exemplified.
  4. Property c can be exemplified by something WITHOUT a cause.
  5. Therefore, there can be NO cause of c’s beginning to be exemplified (i.e. it is possible that there is no cause of c’s beginning to be exemplified).
  6. If 5, then there is NO necessary being.
  7. Therefore, there is NO necessary being.

The argument is the same up to premise 4. The new version of premise 4 mimics the form of Rasmussen’s fourth premise, but simply says that c can be exemplified by something without a cause. As we saw above, Rasmussen is explicit that his argument allows for “the possibility of uncaused natural objects”. This seems enough to buy us my new premise 4; after all we only need the possibility, not the actuality of such objects for this premise to work. We will come back to what reasons we might have to thinking that premise 4 is true, but for now, let’s see what affect this has on the argument if we were to grant it.

One way of the new premise 4 being satisfied is by there being a first contingent thing that just pops into existence uncaused. Let’s say that a teapot pops into existence uncaused, and thus exemplifies property c. Thus, property c is exemplified by something which itself has no cause. In this scenario, premise 5 is true, because the teapot is the first (and indeed only) contingent concrete particular. Thus, it is a case of c beginning to be exemplified without any prior cause. Again, we are not saying that this scenario is true; just that it is possible that it is true.

This scenario doesn’t directly rule out a necessary being, but it does indirectly. We might think that there may be a necessary being who exists necessarily, and a teapot spontaneously pops into existence, as it were, next to her; or it may be that there is no necessary being at all (and, indeed nothing at all) and then a teapot just pops into existence on its own. Either seems possible.

But, as the familiar modal ontological argument reasoning goes, if the second scenario is even possible, then the first one isn’t. So if it is possible that the teapot pops into existence on its own, then there necessarily isn’t a necessary being. And remember, the premise

“…does not assert that this is actually the case—only that it is broadly logically possible for this [scenario] to be the case”

The test of broad logical possibility that Rasmussen uses throughout the paper was just whether we can imagine it. Recall, he said in defence of premise 3:

 “…we can imagine a beginning to the existence of contingent bits of matter as they explode  out of an initial singularity.”

If that establishes the possibility that premise 3 needs, then my being able to imagine the teapot popping into being on its own establishes my new premise 4.

But what about Rasmussen’s ingenious bit at the end of his paper, where he seemed to rule out this scenario? Didn’t he establish that “it is not possible for a contingent concrete particular to cause a beginning of contingency without circularity”?

Well, we can actually grant that he did. My counter-argument doesn’t require that the teapot causes c to become exemplified. As Rasmussen said, premise 1 is a rule of thumb, and not an exceptionalness principle. The teapot coming into existence is a case of an uncaused thing beginning to exist, and of c being exemplified without cause. Thus, we do not get caught in the trap that Rasmussen lays. We are simply explaining one way that new premise 5 is satisfied, which is that c begins to be exemplified by something uncaused, and it is one of those rare cases that premise 1 does not rule out. The very modesty of Rasmussen’s argument allows for this sort of case to pop up (in the broad logical sense).

So, if it is possible that the teapot pops into existence with no cause, then there is no necessary being (via the modal ontological argument inference). As new premise 5 states, such a thing is possible; therefore there is no necessary being.

3. Justifying new premise 4

The strategy I am employing here ends up with a stalemate, or at least that is the intention. Rasmussen’s premise 4 leads to the conclusion that God (or at least a necessary being) exists, and my new premise 4 leads to the conclusion that no necessary being exists.

One response would be to suggest that Rasmussen’s premise 4 is more plausible than my premise 4. If so, that might tip the balance in favour of his conclusion. In the case of the modal ontological argument, the thought was that no non-question-begging reasons could be brought forward that favoured one argument over the other. But perhaps there are decent reasons for thinking that the original premise is more plausible than the new one. We have already seen Rasmussen’s reason for thinking that his premise is true, which are pretty straightforward, and don’t seem remotely question-begging. His own existence as a contingent concrete particular was all that seemed to be needed.

Why think that the new premise 4 is correct though? We already saw that nothing in Rasmussen’s argument ruled it out. The modesty of the premises, which is one of its great strengths, also means there is more room for premises like mine though. The mere possibility of uncaused contingent concrete particulars is all I need, and they seem compatible with his argument. To rule them out, he would have to tighten up the premises, which would be to surrender some of the distinctiveness of his approach, and would mean that his premises would be harder to justify. But that could be done in principle. He could also take Plantinga’s route, and fall back on his argument merely establishing the rationality of belief in a necessary being rather than establishing the truth of the claim. Something has to give though, it seems to me.

However, I have one further problems related to this, specifically relating to Christianity.

Christian theism seems particularly invested in the scenario I used to satisfy premise 4 not being merely possible, but being the actual world. On Christian theism, it isn’t just that a contingent concrete particular can be exemplified by something without cause; it is the central doctrine of the religion this happened. Jesus came to earth and took on a human form. As part of the trinity, Jesus is an uncaused necessary being; what happened when he took on human form was that he exemplified a contingent concrete particular. Thus, Christianity seems invariably committed to the truth of my new premise 4.

So, while it is true that someone could tighten up the argument to avoid my counterexample, it doesn’t seem possible for a Christian.

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8 thoughts on “Rasmussen’s New Argument for a Necessary Being”

  1. I read Rasmussen’s paper some time ago, so it’s not very fresh in my mind. It’s possible I missed something in your post, but I think your counterargument doesn’t work, because I don’t think your 4 establishes that there is no necessary being. Rasmussen can grant that it’s possible that there are some contingent beings that aren’t caused. All he needs is that there is some contingent being that is caused. For simplicity, let’s say there are 10 possible worlds, and in 9 of them the first contingent thing isn’t caused, but in 1 of them it is. From that 1 world, it would establish a necessary being.

    I wrote a response to this kind of argument before.
    https://hughjidiette.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/a-new-and-improved-argument-for-a-necessary-being/

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    1. Rasmussen agrees with you. On the other hand, I’m still not quite seeing it myself. My argument is very simple really. It has only two parts I think.

      I) Imagining something suffices to establish that it is possible, in the ‘broad logical sense’. This seems to be going on in the motivation of Rasmussen’s premises, such as on page 4 when he mentions the possibility of all contingent matter arising from a singularity as something we can imagine.

      II) The modal ontological inference (and the converse), which is used in the final pincer move by Rasmussen (the bit of his paper I like the most).

      So I can imagine a world where a teapot pops into existence with no cause, and in which no necessary being exists. Therefore, this is possible in the ‘broad logical sense’ (step I)

      If there is such a possibility, then there is a world where that is what happens. But there is no necessary being in this world. Therefore there is no necessary being in any world, including this one (step II).

      I guess Rasmussen might want to drop step I, because step II is needed in the final section. Then more needs to be said to motivate the premises.

      As I said, I think my argument has the effect of making Rasmussen’s argument harder to defend, in which case it loses some of its appeal, rather than as a defeated for it.

      Do you still think my point doesn’t hold?

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      1. Re I): Right. I think Rasmussen accepts the Humean conceivability to possibility principle. I don’t.

        Re II): You say, “I can imagine a world where a teapot pops into existence with no cause, and in which no necessary being exists.” As I recall the argument, Rasmussen would only grant the former for his argument. If he grants the latter, then the former part is otiose and the causal part of the counterargument can be dispensed with such that your counterargument is more aptly a counter to the MOA instead of Rasmussen’s argument. If you only use the former part of imagining an uncaused teapot (without imagining no necessary being), then that’s consistent with Rasmussen’s conclusion, which says that a necessary being exists that has causal powers. In the uncaused teapot world, the necessary being would exist, but it wouldn’t cause anything.)

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      2. I guess he could deny that I can imagine that no necessary being exists, but I would need some convincing (as it seems as conceivable as many other things). There is no hint of that in the paper, if he has an argument like that.

        But I don’t think the whole thing boils down to point II though. Imagine that the premises were more ambitious, and that there is a sub-argument which showed that the start of contingency must be caused (that the argument does not require this is part of the advertised virtues of the argument, according to the paper). Then it would follow that no contingent thing could cause the start of contingency, and thus there must be a necessary being.

        If that were the case, then you could not accept the premises of the argument and still just say “well, I can conceive of there being no necessary being, therefore there isn’t one”. Accepting the argument would mean that such an imagining would be plainly inconsistent. If that were the case, Rasmussen could easily say that this conceivability was faux, and didn’t represent a real possibility (due to the inconsistency).

        But things are very different. The fact that there can be (for all the argument shows) an uncaused contingent thing at the start of contingency means that I am free to imagine that without a necessary being accompanying it.

        So when you say “Rasmussen would only grant the former for his argument”, my question is: on what grounds could he deny me the latter? I can only see how that is done by strengthening the argument in something like the way I suggested.

        (I look forward to being talked out of this…)

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      3. Here’s how I see the dialectic. Let’s say someone comes into the argument 50/50 (or whatever) on whether there is a necessary concrete being, because they can equally imagine the possibility or a necessary being and the possibility of no necessary being. Rasmussen wants to push the confidence of the person in the direction towards the necessary being. So, the way I’d construct his argument (I haven’t read it in a while), is to ask you to keep your prior confidence in the existence of a necessary being, but to consider this new information: the possibility of the first contingent thing being caused. If you think that the first contingent thing is possibly caused, then it would follow that a necessary concrete thing exists such that your prior confidence is bolstered.

        I think the question will then boil down to whether it is legitimate to conceive of the first contingent thing being caused while ignoring in our imagination whether a necessary being exists or not. I suspect Rasmussen says yes to this, but don’t quote me on that. I’m inclined to think that this kind of modal imagining would require something like what you’re saying; that is, we should imagine in full detail all the relevant aspects—in this case, it would include imagining the existence or non-existence of a necessary being. (Chalmers has a relevant paper about conceivability an possibility, where distinguishes various kinds like ideal, positive, and negative conceivability.)

        If you read my blog post, I give some parodies to think that we should already consider the conclusion in order to properly address the premise. If we use a more detailed type of modal imagination, then the absurd consequences of my parodies can be avoided. So, I think Rasmussen’s argument doesn’t push your confidence in any direction from where it started.

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      4. “…keep your prior confidence in the existence of a necessary being, but to consider this new information: the possibility of the first contingent thing being caused. If you think that the first contingent thing is possibly caused, then it would follow that a necessary concrete thing exists such that your prior confidence is bolstered.”

        Right. So my argument works by mirroring this inference. My premise 4 is that it is possible that c be exemplified without cause, which leads to 5, that it is possible there is a cause of the beginning of c being exemplified without cause.

        Our agent, who is 50/50 about whether there is a necessary being, might get nudged towards one existing by Rasmussen’s information that it is possible that contingency was caused; but should be nudged back to 50/50 when she receives my information that it is also possible (for all anything Rasmussen has argued) that contingency was not caused. Rasmussen’s proposition leads to an application of the MOA inference to get to a necessary being existing, and mine leads to a similar situation and uses the reverse inference to arrive at the opposite conclusion.

        I think it nullifies the argument.

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      5. Just to be clear, I think the way your argument works is through the “indirect” part of premise 4. You say, “I am free to imagine that without a necessary being accompanying it.” What’s doing the work for your premise 4 is not merely imagining an uncaused, first contingent thing in isolation, but that in conjunction with imagining no concrete necessary being. This kind of imagination is not merely not thinking about a necessary being, but positively imagining its nonexistence. I think that’s what’s needed for your counterexample to go through.

        Rasmussen has a reply to this kind of imagining under “Objection 1” in his paper with Weaver:
        http://www.academia.edu/20392976/Why_is_There_Anything

        I think he’s saying he can grant this stalemate but his argument still has force from his premise that it’s possible that the totality of contingent events have a cause. I’d have to reread the paper to make sure.

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  2. I like the argument, it’s clever. The problem is that it has a modal ontological argument embedded, and most people reject that argument. On the other hand, most people don’t have a clear idea of why the modal ontological argument fails–the most common counterarguments take the form of defeaters or parodies, which only show a failure without identifying the failure.

    IMO, the problem with the modal ontological argument is that God is “necessary” in the sense that if God exists at a particular time, then he will also exist in all possible futures from that point onward, and all possible pasts, all possible pasts of all possible futures, etc. In other words, God is “necessary” from the standpoint of a particular accessibility relation (using Kripkean semantics). When we imagine that God might exist, or might not exist, we are imagining completely separate timelines which are inaccessible from one another. Thus, perhaps God is “possible” in the sense of existing in some possible world, but God might not be “possible” in the sense of existing in an accessible possible world (which is the sense required by modal logic).

    Likewise here, you can say that the first exemplification of c might have had a cause. But just because it’s “possible” doesn’t mean it’s possible in the sense required by modal logic.

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