Thursday, August 25, 2016

More Theistic Illogic

You have to hand it to Christians.  They have an uncanny knack for twisting logic to conform with their beliefs and making it seem reasonable.  At least, reasonable enough to have some appeal to anyone who is willing to forgo rigorous logical thinking for the sake of preserving of their illogical beliefs.  The desire to confirm beliefs that they acquired through non-rational means is what drives them down the path of irrational thinking.  The risk of suffering the possibly deep emotional impact that would result from abandoning their beliefs and their lifelong investment in that system of beliefs is too much to bear for the sake of gaining a better understanding of reality.  So they either go to great lengths to cover up the gaping holes in their thinking, or they simply ignore those holes and pretend they don't exist.  These tactics are clearly illustrated in two of Victor Reppert's recent posts - one that simply ignores a blatant logical hole, and the other that makes an effort to cover it up with obfuscation.

We'll start with an example of ignoring a logical flaw that should be perfectly clear to anyone who isn't wearing their theistic blindfold.  It is the argument of Doug Benscoter, presented here.  It starts with two definitions:
Something necessary is something that exists and cannot possibly-not exist.
Something contingent is something that possibly exists and possibly does not exist.
The argument itself is this:
1. Something presently exists. (Premise)
2. Something cannot come from nothing. (Premise)
3. Either everything that exists is contingent, or else there exists at least one necessary entity N. (Definition)
4. Necessarily, there was never a past time at which nothing existed. (From 1 and 2)
5. Possibly, there was a past time at which nothing contingent existed. (Premise)
6. Therefore, a necessary entity N exists. (From 4 and 5)
This argument commits the fallacy of the excluded middle, and it's not hard to see, provided you care to look objectively at the possibilities.  I'll start by granting the truth of all statements up to number 5 (for the sake of this argument).  Number 2 is not uncontroversial.  In my previous post, I took issue with that very statement.  But for this discussion, I'll grant that something cannot come from nothing.  And if that's the case, then statement 4 must be true.  Statement 3, by the way, is a tautology.  It simply restates what has already been defined.  Everything is either a necessary thing or a contingent thing, depending on whether it can possibly not exist.  Statement 5 simply says that because contingent things are not necessary, there could be a time when nothing contingent existed.  I take no issue with that statement. 

But then we come to statement 6, which is a non sequitur.  The blindfolded Christian asks, "Why?"  The answer is easy to see if you just remove the blindfold.  Statement 5 describes a possibility - but not the only possibility - of what might be the case if contingent objects come into existence.  We already know by statement 4 that something must have existed that gave rise to those contingent objects.  If there was a time when nothing contingent existed, then some necessary thing must exist.  But it might also be the case that there was never a time when nothing contingent existed.  Note that contingency is defined by whether the thing could possibly not exist, not by whether it began to exist.  So there could very well be something contingent that has always existed, otherwise known as a brute fact.  This if a perfectly valid logical possibility, and yet it is ignored by Christians in their zeal to prove their God.  And if you point out this hole in their logic, they dismiss it with a wave of their hand.

The other tactic is employed in the video offered here, where obfuscation is used to hide the fact that the argument attempts to define God into existence.  The argument is expressed this way:
1. It's possible that a maximally great being exists.
2. A maximally great being exists in some possible world.
3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.
4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.
5. A maximally great being exists in  the actual world.
6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.
The video recognizes a common objection to the ontological argument, which is that a similar argument can be used to "prove" the existence of other things besides God, simply by defining them as "maximally great", but then dismisses this objection on the basis that it is not logically coherent.  Well, of course it is logically incoherent, and that's precisely the essence of the objection.  No matter what quality or property is claimed for this maximally great object, it is always possible to conceive of (or define) another object that improves on that property.  Therefore, a maximally great object (no matter what it is) cannot exist.

But that video argues that this objection doesn't apply to God, because God's properties are different in nature.  You can't improve on omniscience, omnipotence, and omni-benevolence, they say.  But why should we think that's true?  If we consider the properties actually ascribed to the God that is presumed to exist in this world, we can easily conceive of another God that is a little better.  Perhaps it's one that manages to create fewer people who fail to achieve their eternal reward in heaven.  Yes, that is conceivable.  And the fact remains that despite all efforts to create the impression that the same logic doesn't apply to God, as soon as you actually describe any particular set of properties (even if you call them "omni"), it is always possible to conceive of some other being (that exists in some possible world) that has properties better than that.  So premise 1 is false, and the argument doesn't stand up to objective scrutiny.

But that's true of all arguments that attempt to prove the existence of something that doesn't exist.  They are all necessarily flawed in some way.  Whether the Christian simply ignores the logical flaw, or tries to cover it up by some clever obfuscation, it doesn't matter - he can't defy the rules of logic.  He's only fooling himself.


  1. Benscoter's argument equivocates between various definitions of the word "exists."

    You can demonstrate this for yourself. Scroll up to the argument, and wherever the word "exists" occurs, substitute some formal definition of the word.

    If you substitute "exists physically," for instance, the argument becomes a mere truism: if something cannot come to exist physically from nothing, there was never a past time at which nothing physically existed.

    Substitute "exists metaphysically," on the other hand, and the argument immediately becomes much more imprecise and contentious. "Something presently exists metaphysically" -- but does it? Are we talking about abstract objects, for instance? But it's usually agreed that abstract objects can't be contingent...

    In other words, the argument depends critically on the precise definition of "exists," and it only works the way Benscoter wants it to work if we ignore or conflate those important distinctions.

  2. Every time one of the variations of this argument pops up, I think "Hasn't this been debunked a thousand times before?" And just before my eyes cloud over and I go comatose, I try to remember which philsopher it was that did the most complete job demolishing it: Kant?, Hume?, Russel? But then I usually get distracted by Pokemon.

    1. I agree. But still, it keeps coming back again and again. I think they like this one because it doesn't purport to be based on any kind of evidence.

  3. You misunderstood the third premise.

    Premise 3 is not that "Either everything is necessary or everything is contingent". The third premise actually says this:

    Universe of discourse: everything that exists and has existed.

    Cx = x is contingent
    Nx = x is necessary

    Third premise - [It is either the case for all x that Cx or it is the case that there is some x such that Nx].

    The third premise is a sort of tautology but not for the reason you thought.

    I would not call a brute fact a contingent fact. A brute fact is any fact without an explanation. A contingent proposition could be a brute fact but so can necessarily true propositions. If you follow the misleading language of Joe Hinmann then you will say brute facts are all contingent but Joe is not careful or intentionally misleads.

    As for the validity of the argument, I don't know the sense of possibility used in premise 5 so I don't know if it's valid. I'm not sure if it's talking about possible worlds or not. I simply don't understand the premise.

    1. Ryan,

      Ypu misunderstood what I said about statement 3. I specifically did not say "Either everything is necessary or everything is contingent". I said every thing (individually) is either a contingent thing or a necessary thing. And that is exactly equivalent to your formulation of the statement.

    2. I mistyped before. I intended to type what you responded with.

      However, that appears to be the same confusion. The intention of the premise is essentially to say that if it is not the case that everything is contingent then there is one thing which is not contingent. i.e. It takes the form of saying that either all x are P XOR there is some x such that x is not P.

      The premise was this - [Either everything that exists is contingent, or else there exists at least one necessary entity N]

      Suppose we have three sets, E, C and N.

      E = {x: x existed in the past or x presently exists}
      C = {x: x is contingent}
      N = {x: x is necessary}
      Condition - if x ∉ C then x ∈ N

      The third premise states that either it is the case that E is a subset of C or there is some x such that x is an element of E but x is not an element of C, so there is some x such that x is an element of E and x is an element of N.

      This is distinct from saying that for every individual x in E it is either true that it is an element of C XOR it is an element of N.

      To think about it another way, suppose we take our universe of discourse simply to be E, and specify "Cx" to be "x is contingent" and "Nx" to be "x is necessary". Then we can phrase the point like this:

      Rephrasal - [if it is not true for all x that Cx then there exists some x such that Nx]

      Missing the intention of the premise is a huge issue because the argument basically wants to do this:

      1. If it is not true for all x that Cx then there exists some x such that Nx.
      2. It is not the case for all x that Cx.
      3. Therefore there is some x such that Nx.

      On your interpretation we would be missing premise 1 so the argument wouldn't make any sense.

    3. No confusion on my part. Everything is either a contingent thing or a necessary thing. It is obvious that if something exists that is not contingent (ie.not all things are contingent) then it must be necessary (ie. there is something that is necessary). That's the same thing you are saying. I don't phrase things the same way you do, but so what? And I certainly did not forget statement 1. It is a requirement for his argument (not mine), because if nothing presently exists, then there is no necessary thing, and there never has been. In my argument, there is another option: something contingent could have existed for all time. Nothing necessary is required, because whatever exists today could have come from something else that is contingent.

      I would add that it is not valid for him to conclude that "It is not the case for all x that Cx." That does not follow from his argument, for the reason I gave.

      I really don't know why you're trying to mince my words. I understand his argument the same way you do.

    4. "something contingent could have existed for all time"

      I would clarify that to say "It could be the case that for any point in time there exists at least one contingent thing".

      That avoids the ambiguity of there being a single contingent thing that exists across every point in time. We could make the contingency claim in two ways:

      Way 1 - [Infinite causal regress of contingent beings]

      Way 2 - [Finite causal regress of contingent beings]

      Theists would likely dispute way 1 by arguing that an infinite causal regress is in some important sense impossible. This has never successfully been done imo and cannot be imo. Theists would likely dispute way 2 by saying it implies the first contingent thing came from nothing, so you already know both of their responses are unsatisfying to you.

    5. Yes, you're right about that. I did not mention the additional possibility of an infinite regress.

      My comment with regard to their rejection of the infinite causal chain would be that it is impossible within the confines of our finite universe with its finite timespan, to have some infinite set of things. But we're talking about something that exists outside the universe. It it no more illogical to speak of an infinite chain of events than it is to speak of single thing that exists long enough to cause an infinite series of events (such as God, who supposedly exists eternally).

      As for the objection to a single contingent thing that exists for all time, I would hope that they don't complain that it must have come from nothing, because if you say that about God, they will call you ignorant. They don't have to explain where God came from, because God just exists. I may say the same about a contingent object. In fact, in terms of necessary existence, I don't see the difference, except for the fact that one is called necessary, and the other one isn't.

    6. Joe recently had a post against infinite causal regresses and I think it highlights a core problem with arguments against infinite causal regresses; the arguments beg the question.

      Joe, essentially, says infinite causal regresses are impossible because there must be a first cause. Well that's question begging. You might find that the arguments for 'something cannot come from nothing' are question begging in a very similar sense. As a metaphysical principle, 'ex nihilo, nihilo fit' seems unprovable without begging the question just as 'an ICR is impossible' seems unprovable without begging the question.

    7. The briefest article he has ever written. I could actually get through it in one sitting. His main complain seems to be that it isn't satisfying to him, because it doesn't have an ultimate origin. I find that amusing, because I can say the same about his God. So it's OK for God to just exist, bit not OK for anything else. Joe's just not satisfied unless God is the answer.

      And he says: "It's [the ICR] only real function is to avoid a God argument." He might be on to something, given that many of us see the God argument, with its teleology and its self-contradictory omni- this and that, as patently absurd.