Aquinas’ Third Way argument II – Another counterexample

0. Introduction

In the previous post, I looked at Aquinas’ third way argument, as presented by apologist Tom Peeler. He proposed a causal principle, similar to what Aquinas proposed. Aquinas said:

“that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing”.

Peeler said:

“existence precedes causal influence”.

But basically, they are arguing for the same principle, namely:

Causal Principle) For something to begin to exist, it must be caused to exist by some pre-existing object.

From now on, let’s just call that ‘the causal principle’. Peeler was using this principle to support the first premise of his argument, which was:

“If there was ever nothing, there would be nothing now”.

The idea is that if Peeler’s principle were true, then the first premise is true as well. In the previous post, I argued that even if we accept all this, the argument does not show that an eternal being exists. Rather, it is compatible with an infinite sequence of contingent things.

In this post, I want to make a slightly different point. Up to now, we have conceded that the causal principle entails that there are no earlier empty times. However, I want to insist that this is only true if time is discrete. If time is continuous, then the causal principle dos not entail that there are no earlier empty times. I will prove this by constructing a model where time is continuous and at which there are earlier times which are empty, and later times which are non-empty, yet there is no violation of the causal principle.

  1. The causal principle

I take the antecedent of this conditional premise, i.e. “there was ever nothing”, to mean ‘there is some time at which no objects exist’, which seems like the most straightforward way of taking it. Therefore, if the causal principle is to support the premise, the causal principle must be saying that if an object begins to exist, then it must not be preceded by a time at which no objects exist.

Strictly speaking, what the principle rules out is empty times immediately preceding non-empty times. Take the following model, where we have an empty time and a non-empty time, but at which they are not immediately next to one another on the timeline. Say that t1 is empty, and t3 is non empty:

jdksjdksjd

In order to use the causal principle to rule this sort of model out, we need to fill in what is the case at t2. So let’s do that. Either t2 is empty, or it is not. Let’s take the first option. If t2 is empty, then t3 is immediately preceded by an empty time, and we have a violation of Peeler’s principle. Fair enough. What about the other option. Well, if t2 is non-empty, then t3 is not a case that violates Peeler’s principle, because it is not immediately preceded by an empty time. However, if t2 has some object that exists at it, then it is a case of a non-empty time immediately preceded by an empty time, because t1 is empty. Therefore, this second route leads to a violation of Peeler’s principle as well.

The point is that if all we are told is that there is some empty time earlier than some non-empty time, without being told that the empty time immediately precedes the non-empty time, we can always follow the steps above to rule it out. We get to a violation of the causal principle by at least one iteration of the sort of reasoning in the previous paragraph.

However, this whole way of reasoning presupposes that time is discrete rather than continuous. If it is continuous, then we get a very different verdict. That is what I want to explain here. If time is continuous, we actually get an even more obvious counterexample than model 2.

2. Discrete vs continuous

Time is either discrete, or it is continuous. The difference is like that between the natural numbers (like the whole integers, 1, 2, 3 etc) and the real numbers (which include fractions and decimal points, etc). Here is the condition that is true on the continuous number line, and which is false on the discrete number line:

Continuity) For any two numbers, x and y, there is a third number, z, which is in between them.

So if we pick the numbers 1 and 2, there is a number in between them, such as 1.5. And, if we pick 1 and 1.5, then there is a number in between them, such as 1.25, etc, etc. We can always keep doing this process for the real numbers. For the natural numbers on the other hand, we cannot. On the natural numbers, there just is no number between 1 and 2.

A consequence of this is that there is no such thing as the ‘immediate successor’ of any number on the real line. If you ask ‘which number is the successor of 1 on the real number line?’, there is no answer. It isn’t 1.01, or anything like that, because there is always going to be a number between 1 and 1.01, like 1.005. That’s just because there is always going to be a number between any two numbers on the real number line. So there is no such thing as an ‘immediate successor’ on the real number line.

Exactly the same thing imports across from the numerical case to the temporal case. If time is continuous, then there is no immediately prior time, or immediately subsequent time, for any time. For any two times, there is a third time in between them.

This already means that there cannot be a violation of Peeler’s principle if time is continuous. After all, his principle requires that there is no non-empty time immediately preceded by an empty time. And that is never satisfied on a continuous model just because no time is immediately preceded by any other time, whether empty or non-empty. However, even though the principle cannot be violated, this doesn’t immediately mean that it can be satisfied. It turns out, rather surprisingly, that it can be satisfied.

2. Dedekind Cuts

In order to spell out the situation properly, I need to introduce one concept, that of a Dedekind Cut. Named after the late nineteenth century mathematician, Richard Dedekind, they were originally introduced as the way of getting us from the rational numbers (which can be expressed as fractions) to the real numbers (some of which cannot be expressed as fractions). They are defined as follows:

A partition of the real numbers into two nonempty subsets, A and B, such that all members of A are less than those of B and such that A has no greatest member. (http://mathworld.wolfram.com/DedekindCut.html)

We can also use a Dedekind cut that has the partition the other way round, of course. On this version, all members of B are greater than all those of A, and B has no least member (A has a greatest member). This is how we will use it from now on.

3. Model 5

Let’s build a model of continuous time that uses such a cut. Let’s say that there is a time, t1, which is the last empty time, so that every time earlier than t1 is also empty. The rest of the timeline is made up of times strictly later than t1, and they are all non-empty:

sdds

The precise numbers on here are just illustrative. All it is supposed to be showing is that every time up to and including t1 is empty, and that every time after t1 is non-empty. There is no first non-empty time, just because there is no time immediately after t1 at all. But there is a last empty time, which is just t1.

This model has various striking properties. Obviously, because it is a continuous model, there can be no violation of Peeler’s principle (because that requires time to be discrete). However, it is not just that it avoids violating the principle in this technical sense. It also seems to possess a property that actively satisfies Peeler’s causal principle. What I mean is that on this model, every non-empty time is preceded (if not immediately) by non-empty times. Imagine we were at t1.01 and decided to travel down the number line towards t1. As we travel, like Zeno’s tortoise, we find ourselves halfway between t1.01 and t1, i.e. at t1.005. If we keep going, we will find ourselves half way between t1.005 and t1, i.e. t1.0025, etc. We can clearly keep on going like this forever. No matter how close we get to t1 there will always be more earlier non-empty times.

So the consequences can be expressed as follows. Imagine that it is currently t1.01. Therefore, it is the case that some object exists. It is also the case that at some time in the past (such as t1) no objects existed. Whatever exists now could have been brought into existence by previously existing objects, and each of them could have been brought into existence by previously existing objects, and so on forever. So, it seems like this model satisfies Peeler’s version of the causal principle, that existence precedes causal influence, and Aquinas’ version of the principle, that “that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing”. Both of these are clearly satisfied in this model, because whatever exists has something existing earlier than it. However, it does so even though there are past times at which nothing exists.

4. Conclusion

The significance of this is as follows. If we assume that time is discrete, then the causal principle entails that there are no empty earlier times than some non-empty time. So if t1 is non-empty, then there is no time t0 such that t0 is empty. So if time is discrete, then the causal principle entails premise 1 of the argument (i.e. it entails that “If there were ever nothing, there would be nothing now”).

But, things are different if time is continuous. In that case, we can have it that the causal principle is true along with there being earlier empty times. The example of how this works is model 5 above. Something exists now, at t1.01, and there are times earlier than this which are non-empty. Every time at which something exists has times earlier than it during which some existing thing could have used its causal powers to bring the subsequent thing into existence. There is never any mystery about where the causal influence could come from; it always comes from some previously existing object. However, there are also empty times on this model, i.e. all moments earlier than or equal to t1. This means that the antecedent of the conditional premise is true (“if there ever was nothing”), but the consequent is false (“there would be nothing now”). So even though the causal principle looks true, the first premise is false. So if time is continuous, then the causal principle (even if granted for the sake of the argument) does not entail the first premise, and so does not support it being true.

Aquinas’ Third Way Argument

0. Introduction

I recently listened to a podcast, where the host, David Smalley, was interviewing a christian apologist, Tom Peeler. The conversation was prefaced by Peeler making the claim that he could prove that God existed without the use of the bible.

The first argument offered by Peeler was essentially Aquinas’ ‘Third Way’ argument, but done in a way that made it particularly easy to spell out the problem with it. In fact, Peeler gave two arguments – or, rather, I have split what he said into two arguments to make it easier to explain what is going on. Once I have explained how the first argument fails, it will be obvious how the second one fails as well. The failures of Peeler’s argument also help us to see what is wrong with Aquinas’ original argument.

  1. Peeler’s first argument

Peeler’s first argument went like this (at about the 23 minute mark):

  1. If there were ever nothing, there would still be nothing
  2. There is something
  3. Therefore, there was never nothing

As Peeler pointed out, the argument is basically a version of modus tollens, and so is definitely valid. But is it sound? I will argue that even if we grant that the argument is valid and sound, it doesn’t establish what Peeler thinks it does.

Here is the sort of consideration that is motivating premise 1. In the interview, Peeler was keen to stress that his idea required merely the fact that things exist and the principle that “existence precedes causal influence”. There is an intuitive way of spelling out what this principle means. Take some everyday object, such as your phone. This object exists now, but at some point in the past it did not exist. It was created, or made. There is some story, presumably involving people working in a factory somewhere, which is the ‘causal origin’ of your phone. The important part about this story for our purposes is that the phone was created via the causal powers of objects (people and machines) that pre-existed the phone. Those pre-existing objects exerted their causal influence which brought the phone into existence; or, more mundanely, they made the phone. The idea is that for everything that comes into existence, like the phone, there must be some pre-existing objects that exert causal influence to create it. As Aquinas puts it: “that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing”.

One way to think about what this principle is saying is what it is ruling out. What it is ruling out is that there is a time where no objects exist at all, followed immediately by a time at which some object exists.

Imagine that at time t0, no objects exist at all. Call that an ‘empty time’. Then, at t1 some object (let’s call it ‘a‘) exists; thus, t1 is a ‘non-empty time’. This situation violates Peeler’s causal principle. This is because a has been brought into existence (it has been created), but the required causal influence has no pre-existing objects to wield it. We can picture the situation as follows:

asdada

At the empty time, t0, there is nothing (no object) which can produce the causal influence required to bring a into existence at t1. Thus, the causal influence seems utterly mysterious. This is what Peeler means by ‘nothing can come from nothing.’ So we can understand Peeler’s causal principle in terms of what it rules out – it rules out things coming into existence at times that are immediately preceded by empty times, or in other words it rules out non-empty times immediately following from empty times. Let’s grant this principle for the sake of the argument to see where it goes.

If we do accept all this, then it follows that from the existence of objects, such as your phone, that there can never have been a time at which no objects existed (i.e. that there are no empty times in the past). That’s because of the following sort of reasoning. If this time has an object, such as your phone, existing at it, then this time must not be preceded by a time at which no objects existed. So the phone existing now means that the immediately preceding time has objects existing at it. But the very same reasoning indicates that this prior time must itself be preceded by a time at which objects existed, and so on for all times.

We can put it like this: if this time is non-empty, then so is the previous one. And if that time is non-empty, then so is the previous one, etc, etc. Thus, there can never be an empty time in the past if this time is non-empty.

This seems to be the most charitable way of putting Peeler’s argument.

2. Modelling the argument

For all we have granted so far, at least three distinct options are still available. What I mean is that the argument makes certain requirements of how the world is, for it’s premises and conclusion to be true. Specifically, it requires that a non-empty time not be immediately preceded by an empty time. But there are various ways we can think about how the world is which do not violate this principle. A model is a way that the world is (idealised in the relevant way). If the model represents a way that the world could be on which the premises and conclusion of an argument are true, then we say that the model ‘satisfies‘ the argument. I can see at least three distinct models which satisfy Peeler’s argument.

2.1 Model 1

Firstly, it could be (as Peeler intended) that there is a sequence of non-necessary objects being caused by previous non-necessary objects, which goes back to an object which has existed for an infinite amount of time – an eternal (or necessary) object. Think of the times before t1 as the infinite sequence: {… t-2, t-1, t0, t1}. God, g, exists at all times (past and future), and at t0 he exerted his causal influence to make a come to exist at t1 alongside him:

jkdjks

On this model, there are no times in which an object comes into existence which are immediately preceded by an empty time, so this model clearly does not violate Peeler’s principle. Part of the reason for this is that there are no empty times on this model at all, just because God exists at each time. Anyway, the fact that this model doesn’t violate Peeler’s causal principle means that there is at least one way to model the world which is compatible with Peeler’s argument. The world could be like this, for all the truth of the premises and conclusion of Peeler’s argument requires.

But, this is not the only option.

2.2 Model 2

Here is another. In this model, each object exists for only one time, and is preceded by an object which itself exists for only one time, in a sequence that is infinitely long. Each fleeting object is caused to exist by the previous object, and causes the next object to exist. On this model there are no empty times, so it is not a violation of Peeler’s principle. Even though it does not violate the principle, at no point is there an object that exists at all times. All that exists are contingent objects, each of which only exists at one time.

Think of the times before t1 as the infinite sequence { … t-2, t-1, t0, t1}, and that at each time, tn, there is a corresponding object, bn:

dssds

Thus, each time has an object (i.e. there are no empty times) and each thing that begins to exist has a prior cause coming from an object. No object that begins to exist immediately follows from an empty time. Therefore, this model satisfies Peeler’s argument as well.

2.3 Model 3

There is a third possibility as well. It is essentially the same as the second option, but with a merely finite set of past times. So, on this option, there is a finitely long set of non-empty times, say there are four times: {t-2, t-1, t0, t1}. Each time has an object that exists at that time, just like in model 2. The only real difference is that the past is finite:

sjkdsj

In this case, t-2 is the first time, and b-2 is the first object.

However, there might be a problem with this third option. After all, object b-2 exists without a prior cause. It isn’t caused to exist by anything that preceded it (because there are no preceding times to t-2 on this model). Doesn’t this make it a violation the causal principle used in the argument?

Not really. All that Peeler’s causal principle forbids is for an object to begin to exist at a time immediately following an empty time. But because there are no empty times on this model, that condition isn’t being violated. Object b-2 doesn’t follow an empty time. It isn’t preceded by a time in which nothing existed. It just isn’t preceded by anything.

Now, I imagine that there is going to be some objection to this type of model. Object b-2 exists, but it was not caused to exist. Everything which comes into existence does so because it is caused to exist. But object b-2 exists yet is not caused to exist by anything.

We may reply that object b-2 is not something which ‘came into existence’, as part of what it is for an object x to ‘come into existence’ requires there to be a time before x exists at which it does not exist. Seeing as there is no time before t-2, there is also no time at prior to t-2 at which b-2 does not exist. So b-2 simply ‘exists’ at the first time in the model, rather than ‘coming into existence’ at the first time. Remember how Aquinas put it: “that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing”. There is no prior time at which b-2 is “that which does not exist”. It just simply is at the first time.

No doubt, this reply will seem to be missing the importance of the objection here. It looks like a technicality that b-2 does not qualify as something which ‘comes into existence’. The important thing, Peeler might argue, is that b-2 is a contingent thing that exists with no cause for it. That is what is so objectionable about it.

If that is supposed to be ruled out, it cannot be merely on the basis of Peeler’s causal principle, but must be so on the basis of a different principle. After all, Peeler’s principle merely rules out objects existing at times that are preceded by empty times. That condition is clearly not violated in model 3. The additional condition would seem to be that for every non-necessary object (such as b-2), there must be a causal influence coming from an earlier time. This principle would rule out the first object being contingent, but it is strictly more than what Peeler stated he required for his argument to go through.

However, let us grant such an additional principle, just for the sake of the argument. If we do so, then we rule out models like model 3. However, even if we are kind enough to make this concession, this does nothing to rule out model 2. In that model, each object is caused to exist by an object that precedes it in time, and there are no empty times. Yet, there is no one being which exists at all earlier times (such as in model 1).

The existence of such an eternal being is one way to satisfy the argument, but not the only way (because model 2 also satisfies the argument as well). Thus, because model 2 (which has no eternal being in it) also satisfies the argument, this means that the argument does not establish the existence of such an eternal being.

So, even if we grant the premises of the first argument, it doesn’t establish that there is something which is an eternal necessary object. It is quite compatible with a sequence of merely contingent objects.

2. Peeler’s second argument

From the conclusion of the first argument, Peeler tried to make the jump to there being a necessary object, and seemed to make the following move:

  1. There was never nothing
  2. Therefore, there is something that has always been.

The fact that the extra escape routes are not blocked off by the first argument, should give you some reason to expect the inference in the second argument to be invalid. And it is. It is a simple scope-distinction, or an instance of the ‘modal fallacy’.

There being no empty times in the past only indicates that each time in the past had some object or other existing at it. It doesn’t mean that there is some object in particular that existed at each of the past times (such as God). So long as the times are non-empty, each time could be occupied by an object that exists only for that time (as in our second and third models), for all the argument has shown.

The inference in the second argument is like saying that because each room in a hotel has someone checked in to it, that means that there is some particular individual person who is checked in to all of the rooms. Obviously, the hotel can be full because each room has a unique individual guest staying in it, and doesn’t require that the same guest is checked in to every room.

When put in such stark terms, the modal fallacy is quite evident. However, it is the sort of fallacy that is routinely made in informal settings, and in the history of philosophy before the advent of formal logic. Without making such a fallacious move, there is no way to get from the conclusion of Peeler’s first argument to the conclusion of the second argument.

3. Aquinas and the Third Way

In particular, medieval logicians often struggled with scope distinctions, as their reasoning was carried out in scholastic Latin rather than in symbolic logic. That they managed to make any progress at all is testament to how brilliant many of them were. Aquinas is in this category, in my view; brilliant, but prone to making modal fallacies from time to time. I think we can see the same sort of fallacy if we look at the original argument that is motivating Peeler’s argument.

Here is how Aquinas states the Third Way argument:

“We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence — which is absurd.” Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, emphasis added)

This argument explicitly rests on an Aristotelian notion of possibility. The philosopher Jaakko Hintikkaa explains Aristotle’s view:

“In passage after passage, [Aristotle] explicitly equates possibility with sometime truth, and necessity with omnitemporal truth” (The Once and Future Seafight, p. 465, emphasis added)

This is quite different from the contemporary view of necessity as truth in all possible worlds. On the contemporary view, there could be a contingent thing that exists at all times in some world. Therefore, being eternal and being necessary are distinct on the modern view, but they are precisely the same thing on the Aristotelian view. We will come back to this in a moment. For the time being, just keep in mind that Aquinas, and by extension Peeler, are presupposing a very specific idea of what it means to be necessary or non-necessary.

We can see quite explicitly that Aquinas is using the Aristotelian notion of necessity when he says “…that which is possible not to be at some time is not”. This only makes sense on the Aristotelian view, and would be rejected on the modern view. But let’s just follow the argument as it is on its own terms for now.

The very next sentence is: “Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence.” What Aquinas is doing is imagining what would be the case if all the objects that existed were non-necessary objects. If that were the case, then no object would exist at every time, i.e. each object would not exist at some time or other. That is the antecedent condition Aquinas is exploring (i.e. that “everything is possible not to be”).

What the consequent condition is supposed to be is less clear. As he states it, it is “at one time there could have been nothing in existence”. We can read this in two ways. On the one hand he is saying that if everything were non-necessary, then there is in fact an earlier time that is empty. On the other hand, he is saying that if everything were non-necessary, there could have been an earlier time that is empty.

Let’t think about the first option first. It seems quite clear that it doesn’t follow from the assumption that everything is non-necessary that there is some time or other at which nothing exists. Model 2 is an example of a model in which each object is non-necessary, but in which there are no empty times. If Aquinas is thinking that “if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence” means that each object being non-necessary implies that there is an empty time, then he is making a modal fallacy. This time, the fallacy is the other way round from Peeler’s example: just because each guest is such that they have not checked into every room of the hotel, that does not mean there is a room with no guest checked in to it. Think of the hotel in which each room has a unique guest in it. Exactly the same thing applies here too; just because every object is such that it fails to exist at some time, that does not mean that there is a time at which no object exists. Just think about model 2, in which each time has its own unique object.

Thus, if we read Aquinas this first way, then he is committing a modal fallacy.

So let’s try reading him the other way. On this reading he is saying that the assumption that everything is non-necessary is compatible with there being an empty time. One way of reading the compatibility claim is that there is some model on which the antecedent condition (that every object is non-necessary) and the consequent condition (that there is an empty time) are both true. And if that is the claim, then it is quite right. Here is such a model (call it model 4):

sdsdsd

On this model, there are two objects, a and b, and they are both non-necessary (i.e. they both fail to exist at some time). Also, as it happens, there is an empty time, t2; both a and b fail to exist at t2. So on this model, the antecedent condition (all non-necessary objects) and the consequent condition (some empty times) are both satisfied.

However, while this claim is true, it is incredibly weak. The difference is between being ‘compatible with’ and ‘following from’. So for an example of the difference, it is compatible with me being a man that my name is Alex; but it doesn’t follow from me being a man that my name is Alex. If we want to think about the consequent following from the antecedent condition, we want it to be the case that every model which satisfies the antecedent condition also satisfies the consequent condition, not jus that there is some model which does. But it is clearly not the case that every model fits the bill, again because of model 2. It satisfies the condition that every object is non-necessary, but it doesn’t satisfy the condition that there are some empty times.

So what it comes down to is that the claim that there are only non-necessary objects is compatible with the claim that there are empty times, but it is equally compatible with the claim that there are no empty times. Being compatible with both means that it is simply logically independent of either. So nothing logically follows from the claim that there are only non-necessary objects about whether there are any empty times in the past or not.

So on the first way of reading Aquinas here, the claim is false (because of model 2). On the second way of reading him, the claim is true, but it is logically independent of the consequent claim. On either way of reading him, this crucial inference in the argument doesn’t work.

And with that goes the whole argument. It is supposed to establish that there is an eternal object, but even if you grant all of the assumptions, it is compatible with there not being an eternal object.

4. Conclusion

Peeler set out an argument, which was that if nothing ever existed, there would be nothing now. The truth of the premises and the conclusion is satisfied by, or compatible with, model 2, and so does not require that an eternal object (like God) exists. The second argument was that if it is always the case that something exists, then there is something which always exists. That is a simple modal fallacy. Lastly, we looked at Aquinas’ original argument, which either commits a similar modal fallacy, or simply assumes premises which do not entail the conclusion.

 

Molinism and the Grounding Objection, Part 1

0. Introduction 

Molinism is the view that there are true counterfactuals involving agents making libertarian free choices, and that these counterfactuals are known by God. See this for more background.

Perhaps the most common objection to Molinism is referred to as the ‘grounding problem’. The issue is just that there seems to be nothing which explains why true Molinist counterfactuals are true. They seem to be just true, but not true because of anything in particular. Here is how Craig puts it in his paper Middle Knowledge, Truth–Makers, and the “Grounding Objection” (henceforth MK, and from which all the Craig quotes will come in this post):

“What is the grounding objection? It is the claim that there are no true counterfactuals concerning what creatures would freely do under certain specified circumstances–the propositions expressed by such counterfactual sentences are said either to have no truth value or to be uniformly false–, since there is nothing to make these counterfactuals true. Because they are contrary–to–fact conditionals and are supposed to be true logically prior to God’s creative decree, there is no ground of the truth of such counterfactual propositions. Thus, they cannot be known by God.”

One way of thinking about this issue is that the grounding problem itself presupposes the ‘truth-maker’ principle. According to this principle, every true proposition is made true by something. If the truth-maker principle is correct, and if nothing makes Molinist counterfactuals true, it follows that they are not true. Hence, it follows that there are no such truths for God to know.

In response to this, a Molinist can either deny the truth-maker principle, or accept it and provide a truth-maker for the counterfactuals. As Craig makes explicit, he believes he can make the case that either strategy is plausible:

“For it is far from evident that counterfactuals of creaturely freedom must have truth-makers or, if they must, that appropriate candidates for their truth-makers are not available.”

Craig gives reasons that one might want to deny the truth-maker principle in general. He also explains how one might think about Molinist counterfactuals not having truth-makers. He also offers an account of how they could have truth-makers. If any of these works, it seems that the grounding objection has been rebutted. In this series I will look at his proposals, and argue against them. In this first post, I will just look at the positive case that Craig sets out for Molinism.

  1. The (supposedly) intuitive case

Craig mentions a comment from Plantinga that he agrees with, about how plausible it is that there should be true Molinist counterfactuals:

“No anti–Molinist has, to my knowledge, yet responded to Alvin Plantinga’s simple retort to the grounding objection: “It seems to me much clearer that some counterfactuals of freedom are at least possibly true than that the truth of propositions must, in general, be grounded in this way.””

Craig goes on to say that the grounding problem is:

“…a bold and positive assertion and therefore requires warrant in excess of that which attends the Molinist assumption that there are true counterfactuals about creaturely free actions.”

Plantinga is saying that the fact that there are Molinist counterfactuals is more plausible than the truth-maker principle. To show that we should prefer the truth-maker principle to Molinist counterfactuals, we need warrant for the truth-maker principle “in excess” of that for Molinist counterfactuals. Not an easy job, thinks Craig, who says that the warrant for Molinist counterfactuals is “not inconsiderable”.

In his ‘Warrant for the Molinist Assumption’ section of MK, Craig provides three aspects of the case which supposedly shows that Molinist counterfactuals have ‘not inconsiderable’ warrant already. These are as follows:

  1. First, we ourselves often appear to know such true counterfactuals.”
  2. Second, it is plausible that the Law of Conditional Excluded Middle (LCEM) holds for counterfactuals of a certain special form, usually called “counterfactuals of creaturely freedom.””
  3. Third, the Scriptures are replete with counterfactual statements, so that the Christian theist, at least, should be committed to the truth of certain counterfactuals about free, creaturely actions.”

In this post, I will focus on the first of these three.

2. The epistemic objection – Molinist counterfactuals are unknowable

The first one of these, along with the third and Plantinga’s quote from above, are all related. They are rebutted by what I will call the ‘epistemic objection’.  According to this objection, even if they were true, it isn’t possible for an agent to know Molinist counterfactuals.

It seems to Craig to be obvious that we “often appear to know” Molinist counterfactuals to be true. Yet, there seems to be good reason to think that we cannot know Molinist counterfactuals.

In order to help explain things, I want to make an important distinction, which is between Molinist counterfactuals and what I will call ‘probably-counterfactuals’. So, an example of a Molinist counterfactual is:

a) Had Louis been tempted, he would have given in.

An example of a probably-counterfactual is:

b) Had Louis been tempted, he probably would have given in.

The difference between a) and b) is merely the word ‘probably’. The difference it plays is huge though. I think that it makes the difference between being crucial to rational reasoning generally (like b), and being utterly useless (like a). I think that Craig’s claims about Molinist counterfactuals only really make sense if they are ultimately being made about probably-counterfactuals, and I will explain why I think this in what follows.

First of all, Craig thinks that we “often appear to know” Molinist counterfactuals, like a). But this is strange. Maybe God could know them (although, I don’t think that can be maintained either), but how could a mere mortal like me know them? All I can really know, we might suppose, is i) what I have some kind of access to empirically (a posteriori), and ii) what I can reason about abstractly (a priori). And neither of these routes can get me to the conclusion that Louis would have freely chosen to give in to the sin had he been tempted.

I don’t have empirical access to counterfactual situations, so that rules out the first epistemological route; nothing about the empirical world that I can investigate can tell me which of the two options Louis would have freely chosen to make.

But mere abstract reasoning cannot ever decide which of two options an agent with libertarian free choice would make either; it doesn’t follow logically from any purely a priori antecedent conditions. Thus, Louis’ choice seems literally unknowable to an agent like me. Not only that, but all Molinist counterfactuals become unknowable for the same reason.

On the other hand, knowing b) seems relatively straightforward, at least in principle. Let’s suppose Louis has a strong track record of giving in to sin when tempted, and that I know this because I have witnessed it personally. Perhaps he has also told me about how much he hates living in the stuffy confines of the monastery and yearns for some temptation to give into. Any number of scenarios like this could support the idea that I could come to believe with good reason that he probably would have given in had he been tempted.

Thus, a) seems literally unknowable, whereas b) is eminently knowable. They are therefore, epistemically asymmetric.

3. The utility objection – Molinist counterfactuals are useless

Craig says:

“Very little reflection is required to reveal how pervasive and indispensable a role such counterfactuals play in rational conduct and planning. We not infrequently base our very lives upon the assumption of their truth or falsity.”

He is right about the fact that counterfactuals play a “pervasive and indispensable” role in “rational conduct and planning”. But where is wrong is that it is probably-counterfactuals which are doing most of the work, and Molinist counterfactuals do none (and indeed, could not do any). The reason for this difference in utility is because of the epistemic asymmetry between probably-counterfactuals and Molinist counterfactuals.

Here is an example to play with to make this point clear. Imagine I am deciding whether or not to leave my bike unlocked or not while I go into the library. Let’s suppose that I see the well-known bike thief, Louis, lurking just round the corner. I decide to lock my bike up. When I return after finding the book I want, I am glad to find my bike is still there. I begin to unlock my bike, and at this point you ask me: “Why did you lock your bike up?” My answer is going to be something like this:

c) Had I not locked up my bike, Louis probably would have stolen it.

It is the likelihood of Louis stealing the bike that motivated me to lock it up. My reasoning process included the fact that I had good reasons to think that e) was true. The place that the probably-counterfactual plays in my reasoning is completely clear. It makes perfect sense for a probably-counterfactual to be what I am using here to come to my decision to lock the bike up.

The idea that I used a Molinist counterfactual is almost unintelligible though. Imagine my reply had been the following:

d) Had I not locked up my bike, Louis would have freely chosen to steal it.

It would be bizarre for me to say that, because there is no way for me to know that d) is true rather than false. Given that Louis has libertarian free will, he could have chosen to steal the bike, but he could have also chosen not to steal the bike. The scenario where he freely chooses to steal the bike, and the scenario where he freely chooses refrain from stealing the bike, are literally identical in every respect up to the point where he makes a decision. There is nothing at all, even in principle, that could justify my belief that one would happen rather than the other. Possibly, God knows something I don’t, but it is clear that I do not. Thus, there is no way it can be part of my (rational) decision making process, for I have no reason to think that it is true rather than false.

If this wasn’t bad enough, we can develop the worry. Imagine that standing next to Louis is Louise, who I know has never stolen a bike, or indeed anything, in her entire life. My belief is that she is unlikely to steal my bike. Her presence is therefore not a consideration I took into account when I locked my bike up. If you asked me when I got back to my why I did not consider her presence, I would have said that it was because of something like the following:

e) Had I not locked up my bike, Louise probably would not have stolen it.

I was under the belief that even if I had not locked my bike up, Louise probably wouldn’t have stolen it. While the presence of Louis plays a role in my reasoning, and the presence of Louise does not, and this is easily cashed out in terms of probably-counterfactuals.

But when we come to consider that it wasn’t probably-counterfactuals, but Molinist counterfactuals that were part of my reasoning, we run into a problem. This is because an entirely symmetric Molinist counterfactual can be created for Louise:

f) Had I not locked up my bike, Louise would have freely chosen to steal it.

Given that Louise has libertarian free will, she could have chosen to steal the bike, but she could have also chosen not to steal the bike. The scenario where she freely chooses to steal the bike, and the scenario where she freely chooses refrain from stealing the bike, are literally identical in every respect up to the point where she makes a decision. Each of Louis and Louise are perfectly symmetrical in this respect, so there is no reason for me to believe both that e) is true and f) is false. But unless I do have this (non-Molinist) asymmetric view about e) and f), my inclination to treat them differently utterly inexplicable.

The very thing that the counterfactual would need to do to be an ‘indispensable’ part of my reasoning process is inexplicable if they are Molinist counterfactuals.

4. A possible reply

There is a possible reply that could be made on behalf of the Molinist at this point though. Clearly, our Molinist friend might reply, we cannot know for sure whether a Molinist counterfactual like a) or d) or f) is true rather than false. Only God can know that for certain. However, I have set the bar too high. We can reasonably infer such counterfactuals from the truth of the probably-counterfactuals, which I already conceded are not problematic to know. So, for example, it is from the premise that Louis probably would have stolen the bike, that I infer that he would have freely chosen to steal the bike. Obviously, this is not a deductive inference (for it is not deductively valid), but it is a reasonable inductive inference.

Here is the inference:

  1. Had I not locked the bike, Louis probably would have stolen it
  2. Therefore, had I not locked the bike, Louis would have freely chosen to steel it

This reply has a lot going for it. Things can be known via such inductions. I think that premise 1 is true, and that it’s truth can be plausibly construed as something which increases the (epistemic) probability of 2. Thus, the inference, though inductive, seems pretty good.

I actually don’t think that 2 could be true, but that is for semantic reasons that we do not have to get into here. Let’s just say that for the sake of the argument, I accept this type of move. Where does it get us?

It might be thought that Molinist counterfactuals can indeed be known (via inductive inference from known probably-counterfactuals). Thus, the epistemic objection seems to have been countered. Indeed, once we make this move, counterfactuals like d) (i.e. had I not locked up my bike, Louis would have freely chosen to steal it) can be believed by me with justification. Thus, it is now no longer problematic to see how they might fit into my reasoning process. I believe (via inference from a probably-counterfactual) that Louis would have freely stolen my bike, and that belief is what motivates me to lock it up. Thus, the utility objection has a rebuttal as well.

5. The redundancy reply

As I said,  I think this is a good line of response. I think it is about the best there is to be had. But even if we concede it, I don’t think much has happened of any importance. Ultimately, they rescue Molinist counterfactuals at the cost of making them redundant. If they can known and can be put to work in decision making, then they necessarily do not need to be used, because there will already be something we believe (or know) which does all of their work for them.

Even if Molinist counterfactuals, like d), can be inductively inferred from probably-counterfactuals, like c), it is not clear that they can be derived from anything else. Consider the case where someone believes that Louis will freely choose to steal the bike, but does not believe that he probably will steal the bike. Such a belief can be had, but surely it is irrational. It is like holding that this lottery ticket is the winner, even while believing that it is unlikely to be the winner. Such beliefs may be commonplace (and maybe it is beneficial to believe that you will beat the odds when fighting with a disease, etc), but they are paradigmatically irrational nonetheless. Unless you believe that something is probably going to happen, you should not believe (i.e. should lack a belief) that it is going to happen.

If that is right, then it has a similar consequence for Molinist counterfactuals being used in rational processes. Unless I have inferred it from a probably-counterfactual, I cannot reasonably believe a Molinist-counterfactual. But the only way I can use a belief in a Molinist counterfactual as part of a rational decision-making process is if I reasonably believe it. Therefore, the only way I can use a belief in a Molinist counterfactual as part of a decision making process is if I already believe the corresponding probably-counterfactual.

Here is an example to make this clear.

Let’s say that I can infer that ‘Louis would freely choose to steal the bike if left unlocked’ from the premise that ‘he probably would steal the bike if left unlocked’, and from no other premise. Let’s also say that I use believe that ‘he would freely choose to steal the bike if left unlocked’, and that I use that as part of my decision process to lock the bike up. It follows that because I used that belief as part of my rational process, that I must also believe that he probably would steal the bike.

This means that even if Molinist counterfactuals played the role that Craig thinks they do in decision making, they must come with an accompanying belief about the corresponding probably-counterfactual.

And this means that, maybe Molinist counterfactuals can be known, and maybe they can be used in reasoning processes, but they can do so only if there is a reasonably believed probably-counterfactual present as well. This makes Molinist counterfactuals completely dependent on probably-counterfactuals from both an epistemic and decision theoretic point of view. You never get to rationally believe a Molinist counterfactual unless you already believe the corresponding probably-counterfactual. And you can never use your belief in a Molinist counterfactual in some reasoning process unless you also already believe the corresponding probably-counterfactual.

And as we saw, probably-counterfactuals can already do all the explanatory work in explaining why I decided to lock my bike up. I don’t need Molinist counterfactuals if I have the right probably-counterfactual, and I never have a Molinist counterfactual unless I already have the right probably-counterfactual. That makes them necessarily redundant. Maybe they can play the role Craig wants them to play, but only if the need not play it.

 

6. Conclusion

Craig’s first aspect of the warrant for Molinist counterfactuals was that we commonly know such counterfactuals. However, I showed how it seems quite hard to see how we could know such counterfactuals directly. They are not things we can experience ourselves, and they are not deducible a priori. Probably-counterfactuals, on the other hand, are eminently knowable. Craig also claimed that Molinist counterfactuals play an indispensable role in decision making, however their disconnection from our direct ways of knowing their truth-values makes them irrelevant to decision making, unlike probably-counterfactuals.

The only response to this seems to be to claim that Molinist counterfactuals can be known via inference from probably counterfactuals. While this may be true (although I still have problems with that), all it would get a Molinist would be something which can only be known because the probably-counterfactual was also known, and only does any work explaining decision making if that work could be done by the epistemically prior probably-counterfactual. They can only be saved by being made redundant.

A New Problem for Divine Conceptualism?

0. Introduction

Divine Conceptualism (DC) is an idea about the ontological relationship between God and abstract objects, defended by Greg Welty, in his M.Phil thesis “An Examination of Theistic Conceptual Realism as an Alternative to Theistic Activism“(Welty (2000)), his Philosophia Christi paper “The Lord of Non-Contradiction” (Anderson and Welty (2011)), and his contributions to the book “Beyond the Control of God” edited by Paul Gould (Welty (2016)). Put simply, (DC) identifies abstract objects as something like ideas in the mind of God.

Welty sees his view as being quite close to that of Morris & Menzel‘s (1986) ‘theistic activism’ (TA), according to which:

“…all properties and relations are God’s concepts; the products, or perhaps better, the contents of a divine intellective activity.” (Morris & Menzel (1986), p. 166)

Morris & Menzel’s TA asserts that God created everything which is distinct from God, and that includes the divine concepts themselves. However, as Welty (2000) p.29 observes, TA is vulnerable to ‘bootstrapping’ objections. If God is supposed to be able to create his own properties, then he creates his own omnipotence (because omnipotence is a property); yet it seems that one would already have to have omnipotence in order to be able to create omnipotence. Even more forcefully: God already needs to possess the property of ‘being able to create properties’ in order to create properties. The idea of self-creation is therefore seemingly incoherent.

Welty’s DC can be seen as a modified version of TA; it is TA without the troublesome doctrine of self-creation. On DC:

“…abstract objects … are uncreated ideas in the divine mind; i.e. God’s thoughts.” (Welty, (2000), p. 43

Postulating abstract objects as uncreated divine ideas is designed to avoid the bootstrapping objections from above.

There are of course lots of different types of abstract objects, including propositions, properties, possible worlds, mathematical objects, etc. Here we will only look at propositions. One of the motivations for thinking that propositions in particular are divine thoughts is the argument from intentionality (seen in Anderson and Welty (2011), p 15-18). Propositions are intentional, in that they are about things. So the proposition ‘the cat is on the mat’ is about the cat having a certain relationship to the mat; the proposition is about the cat being in this relation to the mat. In a similar manner, thoughts are also about things. Consciousness is always consciousness of something or other. In Anderson and Welty (2011), it is argued that the laws of logic are propositions, which are necessarily true and really existing things. Given the intrinsic intentionality of propositions, these are argued to be thoughts. However, they cannot be thoughts had by contingently existing entities, like humans, as humans could have failed to exist, whereas laws of logic could not. Thus:

“If the laws of logic are necessarily existent thoughts, they can only be the thoughts of a necessarily existent mind.” (Anderson and Welty, (2011), p.19).

However, I want to point out an objection to this picture, which I have not seen in the literature (a nice summary of existing objections is found here). It is about the definition of the word ‘thought’. (It may be that this problem has been adequately documented in the literature somewhere that I have not seen. Maybe someone can let me know in the comments section.)

  1. Thought

It seems to have gone unnoticed that Welty in particular oscillates between DC being construed in two different and incompatible ways. It has to do with the word ‘thought’. There is no completely standardised usage of this term in the philosophy literature. And it is a term which needs careful definition in a philosophical argument because in natural language the word ‘thought’ is sometimes used to refer to the thinking and sometimes the thought-of; it is either the token of a type of mental activity called ‘thinking’, or it is the content, or object, of the thinking. For example, we may have the intuition that my thought is private, and that it is metaphysically impossible for you to have my thought (which makes thoughts similar to perceptions in this respect). But we may also have the intuition that we can ‘put our thoughts on paper’ or ‘share our thoughts’ with other people. It seems to me that this ambiguity infects Welty’s version of DC due to his not clearly and carefully defining what he means by ‘thought’ so as to disambiguate the term between thinking and thought-of. Welty (2000), for example, doesn’t actually contain a definition of a ‘thought’ anywhere in it, even though it mentions ‘thought’ 135 times in 85 pages.

According to Anderson and Welty (2011), they seem to indicate that a thought is not the content of thinking, but the token of the act of thinking. In a footnote on page 20, they say:

We could not have had your thoughts (except in the weaker sense that we could have thoughts with the same content as your thoughts, which presupposes a distinction between human thoughts and the content of those thoughts, e.g., propositions).”

The distinction that is being made here is between thoughts, which are individualised occurrences not shareable by multiple thinkers, and the contents of those thoughts, which are generalised and shareable by multiple thinkers. I can have a thought with the same content as you, even though we cannot have the same thought. In Fregean terms, a ‘thought’ (as Anderson and Welty use the term above) is an ‘apprehension’. When one thinks about the Pythagorean theorem, one is apprehending the proposition. In order to be explicit about what I mean, I will disambiguate the term ‘thought’ by referring to the token act of thinking as an ‘apprehension’, and the content of the thought as the ‘proposition’.

2. Blurred Lines

However, in Welty (2000), this distinction is repeatedly blurred. One of the main thrusts of the position defended there is that God’s thoughts function as abstract objects:

“God and I can have the same thought, ‘2+2=4’, in terms of content. But my thought doesn’t function in the same way that God’s thought does. My thought doesn’t determine or delimit anything about the actual world, or about any possible world. But God’s thought does. Thus, it plays a completely different role in the scheme of things, even though God and I have the same thought in terms of content. Thus, God’s thought uniquely functions as an abstract object, because of his role as creator of any possible world. I am not the creator of the actual world (much less, any possible world), and thus my thoughts, though they are in many cases the same thoughts as God’s, don’t function as abstract objects in any relevant sense.” (Welty, (2000), p. 51)

Welty says that God and I can have ‘the same thought in terms of content’, which blatantly smudges the sharp distinction between the apprehension and proposition. We can each apprehend the same proposition. But can I share in God’s apprehension of the proposition? It seems that the answer would have to be: no. God’s apprehension of a proposition is surely private to God, just as my apprehension of a proposition is private to me.

Then Welty ends the passage with “my thoughts, though they are in many cases the same thoughts as God’s, don’t function as abstract objects in any relevant sense”. The only sense in which my thoughts are “the same thoughts as God’s” is in terms of the propositions that I think about being the same as the ones that God thinks about. In that sense they do function as abstract objects, precisely because they are abstract objects, namely propositions! The sense in which ‘my thoughts’ don’t function as abstract objects is in terms of the token act of thinking (the apprehension). That doesn’t function as an abstract object, but then that is not something I share with God. So Welty cannot have it that there is something, x, which is both something I share with God and which doesn’t function as an abstract object. The only reason it seems like this is possible is because of a failure to distinguish clearly between thought as apprehension, and thought as propositional content.

This confusion pops up again and again. Take the argument from intentionality, found in all three Welty publications referenced in this post. Part of the motivation for DC is that propositions are (supposedly) thoughts (because they are intentional) but that they cannot be human thoughts; a non-divine conceptualism, the doctrine that abstract objects like propositions are human thoughts, cannot do the job here. The reason for thinking that they cannot be human thoughts is as follows:

“There aren’t enough human thoughts to go around…, human thoughts don’t necessarily exist, and whose thoughts will serve as the intersubjectively available and mind-independent referents of propositional attitudes (referents that are also named by that-clauses)?”

There are three reasons given against human thoughts being able to play the role of propositions: a) there aren’t enough of them, b) their existence isn’t necessary, c) they aren’t intersubjectively available.

While these considerations look somewhat compelling when trying to think of a human conceptualism without the benefit of the distinction between apprehension and proposition, it quickly loses its force when we apply the distinction. The problem is the combination of two types of properties that propositions need. One type of property is associated with divine apprehensions, and the other type of property is associated with divinely apprehended propositions. Being of sufficient plentitude to play the role of propositions (a), and having necessary existence (b), are of one type, and being ‘intersubjectively available’ (c) is of the other. As I shall show, you cannot have both of these types at the same time, without smudging the distinction between apprehensions and propositions.

Firstly, let’s consider non-divine conceptualism, where thoughts are construed as apprehensions.

There are, of course, only finitely many human apprehensions of propositions; there are only finitely many times people have apprehended propositions. Also, human apprehensions of propositions are contingently existing things, because human minds are themselves only contingently existing things. Human apprehensions are also inherently private, and thus not intersubjectively available. So apprehensions cannot be thought of as ‘doing the job’ of abstract objects for these reasons. That much is quite clear.

On the other hand, there may be infinitely many divine apprehensions, so there would be ‘enough to go round’, and perhaps they each exists necessarily. In this sense, they seem suited to play the role of propositions. However, as apprehensions, they would not be ‘intersubjectively available’. Can I actually share in God’s apprehension of a proposition? Unless I can, they cannot play the role of an abstract object.

Thus, when considering apprehensions, although non-divine conceptualism is not suited to play the job, neither is divine conceptualism. The problem is just that apprehensions are private. So let’s compare non-divine and divine conceptualism, where we construe ‘thought’ as the contents of thoughts.

Right away it is obvious that there is no reason to think that the content of human apprehensions are limited in the same way as their apprehensions were. The contents of human apprehensions just are propositions, so of course they can play the role of propositions!

Equally, if divine thoughts are construed as divinely apprehended propositions, then there will be enough to go round, they will exist necessarily, and they will be intersubjectively available. But in both cases, this is just because propositions themselves are sufficiently plentiful, necessary and intersubjective to play the role of propositions. Obviously, propositions can play the role of propositions. Being apprehended by God, rather than humans, is not what bestows the required properties on them.

3. Begging the question?

But perhaps I have begged the question somehow. Maybe the defender of DC can stipulate that, although my apprehensions are private, God’s apprehensions are somehow intersubjectively available. Call this theory ‘divine accessibility’ (DA). So on DA, propositions are divine apprehensions (which are plentiful, and necessary existing) and crucially also intersubjectively available to humans; they can be the content of humans’ apprehensions.

So, let’s say that I am thinking about the Pythagorean theorem. Let’s say that my apprehension is A. According to DA, the content of my apprehension, what A is about, is a divinely accessible apprehension, D. But the question is, what is the content of the divine apprehension, D? What is it that God is thinking about when he has the thought which is the Pythagorean theorem? There seem to be only a few options:

Either God’s apprehension, D, has content, or it does not. If it has no content, then what is it about D which links it to the Pythagorean theorem, rather than to some other theorem, or to nothing at all? It would be empty and featureless without content.

But, if it does have content, then either the content is that ‘the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides’, or it is something else.

If it does have this as its content, then it seems like the content of D is doing all the work. It seems like the only reason God’s apprehension is linked in any way to the Pythagorean theorem is that it has the theorem as its content. If that is right, then we need to have the proposition itself in the picture for God’s apprehension to be in any way relevant.

Consider what would be the case if the content of God’s apprehension was of something else entirely, like the fact that it all bachelors are unmarried men or something. In that situation, there  would be no reason to say that this apprehension was the Pythagorean theorem. The only divine apprehension that could, even plausibly, look like it is playing the role of the proposition is one which has the proposition as its content.

And if we ask what role God’s apprehension plays here it seems that the answer is that it is just a middle man in between my apprehension and the theorem. It seems to be doing nothing. When I think of the theorem, I have an apprehension, A, and all this is about is one of God’s apprehensions, D, which is itself about the theorem. If p is the Pythagorean therem, and x ⇒ y means ‘x is about y’, then we have:

A ⇒ D ⇒ p

God’s apprehension is just an idle cog which does nothing. Why not just have:

A ⇒ p

Why not just say that I have the theorem as the content of my thought? It would be a much simpler suggestion. Given that for God’s apprehension to be in any way relevant to the proposition in question it has to have the proposition as its content, we seem to require the proposition in the picture anyway. Ockham’s razor should suggest shaving off the unnecessary extra entity in the picture, which is the divine apprehension.

4. Conclusion

Thus, there are really two problems with DC. If construed as the contents of God’s thoughts, divine ‘thoughts’ just are propositions. So for DC to be in any way different from the traditional Fregean picture (where propositions are abstract objects), we have no other option but to construe divine thoughts as divine apprehensions. However, it seems that apprehensions are inherently private, and so they are unsuited to play the role of propositions. Even if we postulate that somehow divine apprehensions are accessible to everyone, they seem to become idle cogs doing nothing.

Creation ex nihilo

0. Introduction

I have recently come across a blog written by Richard Bushey, which has lots of typical apologetical arguments summarised by the author. As such, it is an interesting place to look around to find typical bad arguments to straighten out.

Here I want to look at one in particular, not because there is anything original about it, but really because there is nothing original about it. The post is an example of the sort of regurgitation of arguments made by people like William Lane Craig that one often encounters on the internet. Here is the post, entitled ‘Can a universe emerge from absolutely nothing?‘. In it, Bushey explores the idea of the creation of the universe ex nihilo (or ‘from nothing’), and rehearses some of the common arguments for why this isn’t possible.

  1. Setting

The setting for the topic discussed in the post is ultimately the cosmological argument (probably specifically the kalam cosmological argument popularised by William Lane Craig, on which I have written before). The idea is that one of the arguments put forward to prove the existence of God is that the existence of the universe requires a causal explanation, which could only be God, as a necessarily existing being. The response to this that Bushey is addressing here is to basically call into question whether the universe requires causal explanation. As he explains:

Many people seem to take it for granted that things do not just appear with absolutely no cause. But it would be quite convenient for the atheist if it were the case that this were a possibility. Atheism would then be able to deflect one of the seminal arguments for the existence of God. We need to be able to provide some justification for thinking that universes cannot emerge from absolutely nothing.

Bushey offers five distinct points, and I want to look at three of them (I have nothing to say of any note about quantum vacuums, and am happy to grant that God doesn’t need a cause to exist, at least for now). The three points I will address here are labelled by Bushey as:

a) ‘Nothing’ has no causal powers.

b) What if universes could come from nothing?

c) A good inductive conclusion.

      3. ‘Nothing’ has no causal powers

As the title of this section suggests, Bushey is arguing here that the reason the universe has to be caused by something, such as God, is that nothing is itself not able to cause anything. As an intuition pump to get you in the mood to agree with him, Bushey offers the following examples:

If your co-worker was taking a day off, the boss would naturally ask, “Who is going to cover your shift?” If the coworker said, “Nobody,” the boss would be concerned. ‘Nobody’ has no causal powers. They cannot perform the function of the job because ‘nobody’ designates the absence of somebody. Similarly, if I said that “There is nothing to eat,” my stomach would be empty. If I said that there was nothing that could stop the invasion of a particular army, I would be expressing that the military force would go unchallenged. 

Now we have the idea of what it means to say that ‘nothing’ lacks causal powers. ‘Nothingness’ cannot play the role of a co-worker, satisfy an empty stomach, or impede an oncoming army. Nothingness can’t do anything. Given that primer, here comes the beef:

So when atheists tell us that a universe could emerge from absolutely nothing, or attempt to provide accounts of how nothing could have produced the universe, they are expressing an incoherent thought. If ‘nothing’ designates the absence of anything at all, then it follows that there are no causal powers. If there are no causal powers, then it lacks the capacity to produce universes.

Given that nothingness cannot fill-in for an absent waiter’s shift in a cafe, it seems perfectly reasonable to extend this to think that it cannot manufacture universes either.

So, what is wrong with this? Well, we might already be suspicious of the first example. The boss might be concerned with the fact that nothingness has no causal powers, but I would suggest that it is more likely that he is really concerned about the lack of something to fill in which has the relevant causal powers. And these are not two ways of saying the same thing. It is not like the co-worker said ‘Don’t worry boss – nothingness will fill in for me’, to which the boss replied ‘Oh no, not bloody nothingness again! It’s complete lack of causal powers always ends up causing me grief when it comes time to tidy up at the end of the evening!’ By saying that nothing (or nobody) is going to fill in for you at work, you are saying that there is no thing about which it is true that that thing is going to fill in for you at work; you are not saying that there is this thing called ‘nothing’, about which it is true to say that it is going to fill in for you at work. We must keep these two subtly different understandings entirely distinct when we think about this, or else we are led down a garden path of confusion by Bushey here.

Consider Russell’s treatment of negative existentials in On DenotingI might want to express the fact that I don’t have a sister by saying ‘my sister does not exist’. On face value, we might think that the best way to think about the semantic value of such a phrase is as a referent about which it is true that she doesn’t exist; as if I refer to a non-existent entity. However, says Russell, far better would be to think about it like this: we are simply saying that for all the things that do exist, none of them are my sister. The propositional function ‘x is my sister’ is false for all existing things.

Let’s apply this to the boss example. Is the boss worried that a) there is a non-existent entity, who has no causal powers, filling in for a shift, or is he worried that b) for all the things that there are with the relevant causal powers, it is false that any of them is filling in for the shift? I see no reason at all to suppose that the best way of reading that situation would be by stipulating a), and every reason to suppose that it would be b). Unless Bushey has some additional argument as to why this reading is not acceptable, we at least seem to have an unproblematic rendering of this example here.

Let’s apply this to the universe example. If an opponent of the cosmological argument (who may or may not be an atheist) suggested that maybe nothing caused the universe to exist, which of the following would be be better to render this as:

a) Before the universe existed, there was nothingness, and that caused the universe to come into being.

b) For all the things that there have ever been (in any sense whatsoever), none of them caused the universe to exist.

Again, I see no reason to think that a) would be the intended meaning of such a suggestion, and every reason to think that it would be b). When someone says that ‘nothing caused the universe to exist’, they just mean the propositional function ‘x caused the universe to exist’ is false for all values of x, not that there is a value of x, called ‘nothing’ about which it is true.

Even saying that ‘nothing lacks causal powers’ is already wrong. ‘Nothing’ isn’t a thing. It is shorthand for ‘it is not the case that there is a thing’, i.e. the negation of an existential quantifier: ¬∃. So, taken literally, the phrase ‘nothing lacks causal powers’, would be rendered as follows (where ‘Cx’ is ‘x has causal powers’):

¬∃x (¬Cx)

Using nothing but the definition of the universal quantifier, we can prove the following equivalence in classical logic:

(¬∃x (¬Cx))  ↔  (∀x (Cx))

This just shows that the phrase ‘nothing lacks causal powers’ logically just means the same as ‘everything has causal powers’. Reifying ‘nothing’ to the status of an abstract object, with no causal powers, is just to misuse language; a crime which is unforgivable when there is a logically straightforward, and existentially unproblematic, analysis available.

4. What if universes could come from nothing?

Bushey has another go at providing some reason for thinking that the universe could not have come from nothing. This time he picks up on another well rehearsed argument from William Lane Craig. The idea this time is that if someone wants to hold that the universe might have come into being out of nothing, then why think that only universes could come into being out of nothingness? Here is how Bushey puts it:

Suppose for a moment that it were true that things could appear without any cause at all. If that were the case, then our rational expectations for the universe would seem to be unjustified. It would become inexplicable why anything, and everything did not emerge without a cause at all. This point was charmingly made by Dr. William Lane Craig in his debate with Dr. Peter Slezek. He pointed out that nobody is concerned that as they are sitting in this debate, a horse may have appeared uncaused out of nothing in their living room and is currently defecating on the carpet as we speak.

The idea seems to be that if we grant special exemption to universes being able to come from nothing, we would be rationally compelled to extend this to cover everything. We should expect random things popping into existence all the time, yet we don’t. We implication is that we don’t have this expectation because we know that things require causes to come into being, and cannot come into being in the absence of causes.

So, should we give a special pass to universes? Isn’t that special pleading if we do so? I say it isn’t, and that again there is a subtle but powerful misunderstanding about nothingness which is driving this line of argument.

Take the idea of a horse just appearing in front of you and defeacting on the floor. We know this isn’t going to happen (setting quantum probabilities to one side). But why do we know this? I say that the reason for this isn’t because we know that things cannot come from nothing. That idea isn’t even relevant. If you are at home in your front room wondering if a horse is about to suddenly appear, that isn’t an example of nothingness! What you know is that the relevant causal properties of what exists around you isn’t sufficient to produce a horse. You know that a horse cannot be produced by this particular type of something.

Let’s turn to the idea of the universe. Given the understanding gained from section 3 above, we do not have to think of ‘nothingness’ as preceding and causing the existence of the universe. We could just say that there is no thing (in any sense) that preceded and caused the universe. The beginning of the universe is the beginning of everything. So, the context which was not conducive to a horse popping up in front of you in the previous example has no counterpart here. There is no ’empty space’ into which the universe pops. There is no ‘nothingness’ waiting to be filled with a universe.

Could an infinite empty void of nothingness suddenly give rise to a universe? I don’t know. Could the universe simply be all that there is? I don’t see why not. Pointing out that horses don’t suddenly appear in front of us randomly is completely irrelevant.

5. A good inductive conclusion.

This last point is quite similar to the previous one, and has a similar root of misunderstanding with it. Here is Bushey again:

Common experience indicates that things have an explanation. They do not just appear, uncaused, out of absolutely nothing. The entire project of science is predicated upon this premise. Science is the search for causes within the natural world. If we were to establish the premise that things appear without a cause, then the project of science would be wholly undermined. Scientists who searched for causes of natural phenomenon would be engaging in a fruitless endeavor. It may just be that their specimen emerged without a cause. Why does a fish have a particular gill? Perhaps it appeared, uncaused, out of nothing.

It is quite easy to spot the error here. Take the fourth sentence in that quote: “Science is the search for causes within the natural world”. I don’t think this is the best definition for science one could find, but it is particularly bad that it is the one Bushey uses in this context. If science is the search for causes within the natural world, then there is no reason to think that it applies to things beyond the natural world. Just because things in the universe behave a certain way, doesn’t mean that the universe itself has to display those behaviours. Say everything in the sea floats, would it follow that the sea floats? If there is no causal explanation for the universe, which simply is all that there is, it would not follow that things that actually exist could not be described by science, or that we would have no reason to think that every particular fact in the universe had a causal explanation.

6. Conclusion.

There is no reason provided in Bushey’s post to think that the universe has to have a cause. One should resist the temptation to reify nothingness into an amorphus blob lacking in certain properties. Don’t slide from a failure of reference to an existent thing, to a successful reference to a non-existent thing. The universe didn’t pop into existence from a pre-existent state of nothingness. It just has a finite past.

At least, maybe it does. I don’t know whether the universe was created or not. Maybe a loving personal god made it in order to teach me about morality. Maybe it popped into existence from a pre-existing state of nothingness. Maybe it is just all there is. My point is that you don’t get to prove the first of these by undermining the second, given that there is a coherent third. That would be a fallacy of false dichotomy.

The Compatibility of Omniscience and Freedom

I say even if God knows what you are going to do tomorrow, this does not stop you being free to act otherwise. You won’t act otherwise, but you could.

Let’s set out a few definitions. You are free to do an action if it is possible that you do it, and if it is possible that you don’t do it. If either of these options is removed, you are no longer free. So if ‘p’ is ‘you will do x’, then you are free to do x if and only if (iff):

It is possible that p, and it is possible that not-p

Alternatively, we will write this as follows (where ‘◊’ means ‘possibly’):

◊p &  ◊~p

The problem is that this freedom condition seems to be ruled out by the idea of God’s foreknowledge. The reasoning is that if God already knows that p, then it is necessary that p. We can write this as follows, where K = God knows, and □ = necessarily:

If Kp, then □p

And if it is necessary that you are going to do x, then it is not possible that you will not do x. If necessarily p, then it is not possible that not-p:

If □p, then ~◊~p

So let’s put this into an argument that seems to show that freedom and omniscience are incompatible by deriving a logical contradiction:

 

Premise 1) I’m free to do x     (i.e. ‘it is possible that p and it is possible that not-p’)

Conclusion 1) Therefore, it is possible that not-p.

Premise 2) God knows that p.

Premise 3) If god knows p, then p is necessary.

Conclusion 1) Therefore, p is necessary.

Premise 4) If p is necessary, then it is not possible that not-p.

Conclusion 3) Therefore, it is not possible that not-p

Conclusion 4) Therefore, it is possible that not-p, and it is not possible that not-p.

 

We can write exactly the same argument in symbols as follows (in the right I give whether each line is an assumption or how it follows from something previously assumed):

 

Premise 1) ◊p &  ◊~p                         (assumption)

Conclusion 1) ◊~p                              (from pr. 1, and conjunction elimination)

Premise 2) Kp                                      (assumption)

Premise 3) If Kp, then □p                 (assumption)

Conclusion 2) □p                                (from pr.2 and pr.3, and modus ponens)

Premise 4) If □p, then ~◊~p             (definition of □ and ◊)

Conclusion 3) ~◊~p                            (from con.2 and pr.4, and modus ponens)

Conclusion 4) ◊~p & ~◊~p                (from con.1 and con.3, and conjunction introduction)

 

So we have derived a contradiction; it is possible that I will not do x, and it is not possible that I will not do x. This means we have to either reject the truth of one of the premises, or reject the validity of the argument form. Now the validity is easy to address, as it uses nothing but inference rules from classical propositional logic and the duality of necessity and possibility (i.e. □ = ~◊~ and ◊ = ~□~). There is nothing controversial at all here. So we must reject the truth of at least one of premises 1, 2 or 3, on pain of having to accept a contradiction.

Premise 1.

We said that being free to do x requires that it is possible to do both x and to not do x. Not all definitions of freedom require this. In fact this is a strong condition, and ‘compatibilists’ (like Spinoza, or Frankfurt) will contend that one can be free even if only one option is possible, just so long as that option is chosen. So the prisoner is free to stay in the cell, even though it is not possible to leave, for example. So it is possible to reject this premise. I think we can keep it however, and still avoid the consequence. We do not have to be ‘compatibilists’ to argue that God’s foreknowledge is compatible with freedom.

Premise 2.

This says that God knows what will happen tomorrow. To deny this means either giving up on God’s omniscience, or on the fact that there is a truth about the future (i.e. giving up on the principle of bivalence). We could go the second route, and retain omniscience, given that there is no truth about the future for him to not know. It should be noted that if we go this route, we have to also also hold that God is located in time. In this case, he would find out what happens tomorrow with the rest of us. A timeless God cannot ‘find out what happens’, as this would be a temporal activity. Anyway, we do not have to reject bivalence or require God to be in time, as I say we can avoid the contradiction even if premise 2 is true.

Premise 3.

This, as I see it, is where the confusion sets in. It says that ‘If God knows that p, then it is necessary that p’. Why would we think this premise is true? One reason is as follows. If you know something, anything, then it has to be that it is true. After all, you can’t know something false. It’s part of the definition of knowledge that it is of something true. God, who is infallible, only makes this force stronger; he couldn’t be wrong about anything. So if he knows something is going to happen, it is definitely, necessarily, going to happen. How could he be wrong?

Well, we need to be careful about the logical form of what we are saying. It is necessary that God knows p, and truth is a necessary component of knowledge; but this doesn’t mean that what God knows is necessary. Here is the sentence that is doing all the heavy lifting conceptually:

If God knows that you will do x, then it is necessary that you will do x.

I agree that everything God knows is true, i.e. he is infallible, and that everything true is known by God, i.e. that he is omniscient. But this only amounts to the following:

Kp iff p

This says that ‘God knows that p  if and only if p’. I can even go all the way and say that this is a necessary truth:

□(Kp iff p)

Now, we can derive a conditional which is very similar to premise 3 (which I will call 3.1) from this, namely:

3.1) □(If Kp, then p)

But it is important to note that this is as far as we can go. There is no way to go from 3.1 to 3:

□(If Kp, then p), therefore (If Kp, then □p)

So premise 3 does not follow from 3.1. Moreover, I say that 3.1 is actually the correct logical form of: ‘If God knows that you will do x, then it is necessary that you will do x.’

Admittedly, the word ‘necessarily’ is in the consequent in the sentence, and that seems to count against my claim. But then we systematically leave it there when we express both de re (of the thing) and de dicto (of the word) modalities, which should have it in different places. This means we fail to distinguish between the scope of the modality in natural language. Getting the scope of the modality right will solve the problem.

Quine’s example in Word and Object (p120) is that about cyclists being necessarily two-legged (and mathematicians being necessarily rational). To adapt his example, we would say:

If x is a cyclist, then it is necessary that he has two legs.

This sentence also has the word ‘necessary’ in the consequent, when it should be prefixing the whole conditional. It expresses only that under the description of the word cyclist, x has two legs. It is possible that x falls and gets one of his legs somehow cut off, and then x would not have two legs. It is not a necessary truth about x that he has two legs, only a necessary requirement for being a cyclist. So it is necessary de dicto that x has two legs, but not necessary de re. If we speak carefully, we would say:

It is necessary that (if x is a cyclist, then x has two legs)

The above formulation is compatible with the fact that x could fall off his bike and lose a leg, because he would then stop being a cyclist. Neither him being a cyclist nor having two legs is necessary; what is necessary is the connection between being a cyclist and having two legs.

This shows that we regularly fail to state the correct logical form when expressing de dicto modal claims. Sometimes, even though the word ‘necessarily’, etc, is in the consequent, it should be prefixing the whole conditional. And I say that premise 3 is one of these cases.

So if 3.1 was used in place, it would say that it is necessary that if God knows you will do x, then you will do x, just like it is necessary that if x is a cyclist, then he has two legs. Just like with the cyclist example, you do not have to do x (and he could fall off his bike). x doesn’t have to have two-legs, its just that it is necessary that if he is a cyclist then he does. You don’t have to do x, it just that it is necessary that if God knows that you will, then you will. In each case, the conditional is necessary, meaning that the one condition is never true without the other, but the other can be false. If it is false, then the antecedent condition would be false too.

One way of putting this is that it God knows contingent truths, like that you will do x. It is necessary that he knows them, but he only knows them if they are true. It is contingent that you will x, so it is contingent that p is true, and thus God might not know it. All that is necessary is that if it is true, he knows it; and if he knows it, it is true.

If we plug 3.1 in place of 3 in our argument from above, it stops us being able to move from it being true that p, to it being necessary that p. We needed that to get our contradiction, so we have blocked the contradiction. Thus foreknowledge and freedom are compatible.

Conclusion.

So I gave an argument for the incompatibility between divine foreknowledge and freedom, making it as strong as possible, which showed logically that the two concepts lead to a contradiction. However, I suggested the the logical form of the third premise was incorrect, allowing us to keep all the strong assumptions and show that no contradiction is forthcoming.

The Matt Slick Fallacy

  1. 0. Introduction. Matt Slick; evangelical Calvinist, radio presenter, apologist. He has made something of a name for himself by promoting a version of the ‘transcendental argument for the existence of God’. His version is one of the easiest to refute that I have come across. However, in all the debates and online discussions I’ve seen Slick engage in, and to be sure he engages in a lot, I have never seen anyone offer what I consider to be the correct refutation. So I will present it here. 

    His argument was given on his radio-show/podcast, on 17th December, 2015, in an episode entitled ‘A Proof of God’. In fact only the last 14 mins of the show are dedicated to this topic, when Slick is prompted by a caller – ‘Hollywood dude’. I will use that version as a foil. Here is the link it on his official ‘CARM’ podcast site: http://carmpodcasting.blogspot.co.uk/2015/12/carm-podcast-1214.html

     

    Admittedly, the argument was given in a rather off-the-cuff manner by Slick in that show, and he could be forgiven for not being clear and careful with his words. On the other hand, his presentation on the show was very similar to many other times he has given the argument in the past, in situations where he had the opportunity to prepare and refer to notes as he spoke, such as:

     

     

     

    The argument is also given in written form on his website, here: https://carm.org/transcendental-argument. The version of the argument I am looking at here is found at the end of the written version (section 9).

     

    1. Disjunctive syllogism and true dichotomy

     

    At 44:15 into our show, Slick explains his argument. He says that he will use the argument form known as ‘disjunctive syllogism’, which is the following inference rule:

     

    Either p or q

    Not-p

    Therefore q.

     

    It says that if either p or q is true, and if it is also true that one of them is not the case (say, p), then the remaining one (q) is true. Disjunctive syllogism is valid in propositional logic, and its validity will not be challenged by me here.

     

    Slick also uses the notion of a ‘true dichotomy’, by which he means a strong type of ‘or’-statement. In propositional logic, ‘or’ is a connective that takes two propositions, e.g. p or q. It’s behavior is entirely logical. ‘p or q’ is true when p is true and q isn’t, when q is true and p isn’t, and when they are both true. It is false when they are both false. That is a disjunction.

     

    Slick’s ‘true dichotomies’ are a strong version of a disjunction; true dichotomies are always true, as by definition one of the options is true in exclusion of the other. The way this is achieved is purely logical; the propositional form of ‘true dichotomies’ is a disjunction between a proposition and its direct negation; ‘p or not-p’.

     

    So here is a normal disjunction:

     

    Either Sam or Alex will come to the party.

     

    If it is true, then one of them will be at the party; but it might be false because perhaps neither Sam nor Alex will come to the party. Consider, in contrast, the following:

     

    Either Sam will come to the party, or she won’t.

     

    In this case it has to be true, because there are no other possible options than Sam being at the party, or her not being at the party. A ‘true dichotomy’ for Slick is like this; it has to be true because it covers all possible options.

     

    1. Slick’s argument

     

    At 44:15, Slick gives the following monologue:

     

    “If you only have two possibilities to account for something … if one of them is negated the other is necessarily validated as being true … So we have ‘God and not-God’, so that’s called a true dichotomy, God either exists, or it is not the case that God exists, we have the thing and the negation of the thing. So now we have a true disjunctive syllogism … We have, for example, the transcendental laws of logic … Can the no-God position account for the transcendental laws of logic? And the ultimate answer is no it cannot. So therefore because it cannot, the other position is automatically necessarily validated as being true. Because, you cannot negate both options out of the only two possibilities; that’s logically impossible.”

     

    The argument structure being used is as follows:

     

    1) Either God, or not-God.

    2) Not-God cannot account for the laws of logic.

    3) Therefore God can account for the laws of logic.

     

    He then proceeds to examine objections to premise 2, such as some of the main ways an atheist (a representative of the not-God camp?) might try to account for the transcendental laws of logic. Are they discovered, measurable features of empirical reality? Slicks says they cannot be. Are they ‘linguistic constructs’? Again, no. Do we vote on them? (Sigh) No. Could they be constructs of human minds? No, no, no. No.

     

    At the end of it, Slick summaries how he speaks to his imaginary interlocutor, the poor atheist, who has had his every attempt at accounting for logic rebutted (this is at 48:22):

     

    “When we go through this with them, I’ll say: ‘See, you can’t account for it. Therefore, the other position is valid’. And then I say: ‘Next!’”

     

    1. Refutation

     

    So, what is my refutation of this argument? Well, it does not involve giving a better account for the transcendental laws of logic than our poor imaginary atheist. Nor does it require pinning Slick down on precisely what it means to have an account of something. Neither does it involve pointing out to Slick that the premise ‘God or not-God’ is not an instance of a true dichotomy because, strictly speaking, it is not a properly formed sentence at all[1]. Anyway, nothing as fancy as the metaphysics of logic is needed here. And we can forgive a badly formed sentence here and there. We can afford to be so magnanimous because there is a logical problem with the argument, and it is very simple. It is a slight of hand, which can go un-noticed, but is easy to spot when spelled out. It is an instance of the fallacy of ‘false dichotomy’.

     

    A true dichotomy, such as:

     

    1. a) ‘Either God exists, or it is not the case that God exists’,

     

    is substituted for the false dichotomy of:

     

    1. b) ‘Either God accounts for the transcendental laws of logic or not-God accounts for the transcendental laws of logic’.

     

    The second is not a genuine dichotomy, because it is quite possible that neither God nor his negation has anything to do with the laws of logic. Here is an example, meant as a reductio of Slick’s argument:

     

    1) Either toast, or not-toast.

    2) The absence of toast cannot account for the laws of logic.

    3) Therefore, toast can account for laws of logic.

     

    Obviously, the absence of toast cannot ‘account’ for anything, especially the notoriously murky metaphysics of logic. Does this mean though that toast itself can? It seems equally obvious that it cannot. Taking one out of the running is not all that is needed to show that the other is the winner by default. Neither toast nor ‘non-toast’ can account for the laws of logic. The unsoundness of the argument is painfully obvious when ‘toast’ is used in place of ‘God’.

     

    To make Slick’s fallacy apparent, let’s spell out the argument a bit more clearly:

     

    1. Reconstruction 1:

     

    1) Either God can account for the laws of logic, or not-God can account for the laws of logic.

    2) Not-God cannot account for the laws of logic.

    3) Therefore, God can.

     

    As we have seen, the problem with this is that the first premise isn’t a true dichotomy. Slick’s premise says:

     

    Either [x can do y], or [not-x can do y]

     

    This leaves the logical space available, where neither x nor not-x can do y, which stops the argument being sound. Maybe it is the case that nothing can play the role of x; i.e. maybe nothing can account for logic. If this were the case, then we could not prove one of these two options by eliminating the other (which is the whole point of using disjunctive syllogism). So if the first premise is as I have indicated, then we can rule out disjunctive syllogism as a useful argument form; that is, unless some independent reason can be produced for thinking that this form of the premise is true.

     

    The point about the first premise, when spelled out like this, is that it is in need of justification. Slick dangles the true dichotomy of ‘God or not-God’ in order to gain assent (as nobody can deny a tautology), but then switches focus to the false dichotomy above without conceding that he now needs to justify the new premise. This is the heart of the Matt Slick Fallacy; it is a bait and switch from a true dichotomy to a false one.

     

    It is clear that that [not-x can do y] is not the direct negation of [x can do y]. The direct negation of [x can do y] is:

     

    not-[x can do y].

     

    This would make the actual true dichotomy:

     

    Either [x can do y] or not-[x can do y]

     

    To get a feel of the distinction, consider the following:

     

    Either God can account for logic, or not-God can account for logic

     

    Either God can account for logic, or it is not the case that God can account for logic.

     

    It is a subtle enough point, but makes all the difference. It is a scope distinction about whether the negation should be thought of as ranging over the entire proposition (as in the true dichotomy), or just one element of the proposition (as in Slick’s false dichotomy). Slick’s mistake is rather like supposing that either the present king of France is bald, or the present king of France has hair. In reality, neither is true.

     

    1. Reconstruction 2:

     

    We could get around this problem by making the first premise a true dichotomy:

     

    1) Either God can account for the laws of logic, or it is not the case that God can account for the laws of logic.

    2) It is not the case that (it is not the case that God can account for the laws of logic).

    3) Therefore, God can account for the laws of logic.

     

    Now the first premise is a true dichotomy (and so definitely true). Also, the form of the argument is definitely that of disjunctive syllogism, so therefore definitely valid.

     

    This is where the good features of this argument end though. All disjunctive syllogisms with true dichotomies as the first premise are doomed to triviality, as is easy to show. This problem is due to the second premise of disjunctive syllogism. In this premise, either of the two options in the first premise (either p or not-p) is negated (it doesn’t matter which one is used). In the example above, it second premise uses not-p rather than p. So it is the negation of not-p, i.e. not-not-p. But this just means we already have our conclusion in our second premise. p is equivalent to not-not-p; the two ‘nots’ cancel each other out. This makes it a case of ‘begging the question’, where the conclusion of the argument is smuggled in as one of the premises.

     

    To make it crystal clear, here is the form of disjunctive syllogism with a true dichotomy as first premise:

     

    p or not-p

    not-not-p

    Therefore, p

     

    If we substitute ‘p’ for ‘not-not-p’ in the second premise (as they mean the same thing), the argument becomes:

     

    p or not-p

    p

    Therefore, p

     

    The first premise is now clearly redundant. We could drop it and the argument would simply be:

     

    p

    Therefore, p

     

    Thus, the argument just boils down to the derivation of p from p. If the argument is formed this way, it becomes entirely trivial. We are left with no reason to think that p is true, other than the simple assertion that p is true in the first place.

     

    1. Conclusion

     

    In conclusion then, Slick has presented an argument which commits the fallacy of false dichotomy, and if repaired so as to avoid that ends up committing the fallacy of begging the question instead. Thus, the argument is either unsound or trivial.

    [1] The sentence has no verb in it. Also, it is dubious that the negation of a noun, such as ‘not-God’, has any meaning whatsoever. In logic, it is propositions that get negated, not names.