Monday, February 14, 2022

Countering the Contingency Argument & Defending Brute Facts

Note: What follows is a transcript of the video.

Theistic apologists point to things like the Principle of Sufficient Reason to try and argue that there must be a necessary being underlying all of reality. This principle draws a distinction between contingent things, i.e. things that seem as if they could have been different, and a necessary thing - something that has to exist in the same way in all possible worlds. 

In fact the PSR is premise one in the Leibnizian Cosmological argument, here’s a popular presentation of it by William Lane Craig:

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its nature or in an external cause

  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is god.

  3. The universe exists.

  4. Therefore god exists.

There are a wide variety of objections to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, and in turn a wide variety of modifications to the principle to try and work around those defeaters. What I want to do here is a bit different, to point to problems with what theists try to posit as “necessary”. 

First I want to draw some boundaries around what both sides should consider to be “off limits” in terms of how we argue about necessary things. It should be considered improper to draw a neat little circle around an entity and a description of its attributes and then simply say “well this thing is necessary”. 

This is pretty easy for me to illustrate for theists with an example. If an atheist pointed to the physical universe and our best description of the laws of nature - ie. the relatively short equation describing quantum field theory and then they said “well this is the description of the necessary entity unwriting all of reality”, the theists would object and say “that’s ad hoc!”. 

But why? Well because it’s not hard to conceive of those equations being slightly different, and the atheist can’t offer any formal, logical derivation showing the necessity of those equations. 

Simply put, it’s out of line to draw a neat little circle around the description of what appears to be contingent and then call it necessary.  This doesn’t really provide any explanatory advantage, all it does is arbitrarily call something necessary. 

My contention is that this is exactly what theists do when they posit god as a necessary being that provides an explanation for all of reality. 

I’m going to start with a great example from my Christian friends. After all Chrsitians will posit god as a “necessary being” but then also describe god as a trinity. The idea that god is three persons in one being, which frankly sounds incoherent - but they make a large amount of metaphysical assumptions about the nature of being and personhood so as to avoid those logical contradictions.

The problem with this is that by all rights a “trinity” appears to be a contingent property, especially once we grant the assumptions necessary to avoid it being contradictory in the first place. After all, why is god only 3 persons and not 2, 4, 5, or any natural number?

I’ve posed this problem before and another Christian YouTuber I have some fondness for, The Dry Apologist, took up the challenge to try and explain it. His attempt is admirable, but unfortunately for him, unsuccessful. I want to go through exactly why it not only fails, but how it is conceptually doomed from the start. Trying to explain why a trinity is necessary is like trying to have a non-violent shooting, it’s just not going to work.

Now to be clear, Dry Apologist doesn’t think this argument is the reason god is a trinity, but he wants to be able to present a plausible argument as to why god is a trinity to avoid being charged with having a brute fact on his metaphysic. You can watch the video this is quoted from here.

“The way that the trinity works is that god the father necessarily exists with unlimited being, which thereby includes having an intellect and will. And his intellect is so supreme that it reflects back upon itself like an ontological mirror and thereby sources another person from his intellect who then partakes in god the fathers being as well. The second person, god the son, then shares the same divine being with god the father and now their shared will is so supreme that it reflects upon itself and thereby sources a third person, god the holy spirit. Now if this explanation is correct, then it makes sense why god would be three persons.”

There are quite a few problems here, lets start with the conceptual basics.

We start with the idea that god exists necessarily with unlimited being, but then his intellect is somehow able to reflect on itself to literally source another person, where then the divine will is now even stronger and so sources another person in the same being. There’s a lot to unpack there, but there’s first the question on whether this is already being coherent in its own terms.

God is supposed to exist without limit, but then when the second person in the trinity is created the will somehow increases? If god was already supposed to be the maximal being, how could its will increase? But if the will increases and births a person, why then does the intellect also not increase enough to birth yet another person, and so on ad infinitum? Or perhaps just have the will increase yet again to produce the same birthing of new persons ad infinitum. How so is it that both intellect AND will can both reflect on themselves and create a new person?

There is still no real explanation as to why there are only three persons in one being rather than any other number, but the problem goes even deeper because god is supposed to be necessary.

Inherent in this explanation are these assumed metaphysical principles about being and personhood, the very things needed to save the trinity from incoherence, but then in addition to them are these new principles that somehow wills and intellect can “reflect on themselves” and in the process create another person - in the same being!

What’s worse is not only that these principles themselves seem ad hoc, but the Christian needs them not only to be true - the Christian needs them to be necessary. This is because if god is necessary then god must have the same properties in every possible world, meaning these principles must also hold in all possible worlds.

However all these principles seem as if they could be different! It seems possible that a will can not reflect on itself to birth a new person in the same being! Or perhaps the assumption about how there can be 3 persons in one being is possibly false and only one person could ever be one being. 

This isn’t some pie in the sky theorizing, these principles are far from being non-controversial. It’s not just non-theists who reject them, even non-Christian theists don’t hold to them. This is because they are plainly ad hoc rationalizations to prop up esoteric Christian doctrines.

It’s also not hard to see the beginning of an infinite regress problem here. The Christian might try to appeal to some other set of principles to explain the necessity of the principles necessary for the trinity to hold up, but then those in turn would need explanation and it is hard to see how one might derive all of this from one set of metaphysical principles that themselves would seem as if they couldn’t have been otherwise. 

So what the Christian is stuck with is what was supposed to be out of bounds – drawing a neat little circle around some arbitrary, contingent principles, and then calling it “necessary”.  If we can simply do that and call things necessary, then it is easy for a naturalist to do the same with the universe. I honestly don’t think that’s valid; I think it is far simpler to recognize that we must acknowledge that all worldviews are going to be stuck with some brute facts.

What About Non-Christians

Other theists might be nodding along sagely with my argument so far, thinking that they can avoid this problem as they don’t believe in a trinity – but the issue extends well beyond some weird Christian doctrines and affects a wide variety of theistic views.

Take for example theists who maintain a form of the moral argument – the idea that if god does not exist then objective moral values do not exist. Typically, the Euthyphro dilemma forces such theists into the position that “Goodness is determined by the attributes of god’s nature”.  The idea is that god is loving and truthful by nature, among other things, and so love and truthfulness are “morally good”.

This view is forced in turn by its own modified Euthyphro Dilemma: Are the attributes of god’s nature good because they are in god’s nature or are they in god’s nature because they are good?

Here the theist does not have a way to get out of the new dilemma – they are forced to either admit that a property being in god’s nature is what makes that property good, otherwise goodness must exist apart from god’s existence. 

One problem with maintaining that properties being good are only good by being in god’s nature is that it suddenly makes all the attributes of god’s nature into a brute fact!

After all, it is not hard to ask “Why is god’s nature loving rather than hateful? Or truthful rather than deceptive?” If the theist attempts to give a reason for this, then they are simply giving reasons outside of god’s nature for why love and truthfulness are good and so must give up the moral argument.

If they don’t, then they’re left with no explanation as to why god has one set of attributes in his nature rather than their opposites, and so are again drawing a neat little circle around some contingent properties and calling them “necessary”.

What About Other Theistic Views?

Perhaps there are some theists who are not Christians and who don’t hold that goodness cannot exist if god does not exist, who are themselves nodding along sagely with my argument, but think they can maintain the contingency argument.

There is another fundamental problem for theism that I think has broad applicability in terms of brute facts – namely the idea that god “freely chose” to create things in the way they are.

One might ask why god chose to create the universe or free creatures or basically picked any of the supposedly contingent things we see around us? If the answer is that god has Libertarian Free Will and simply “chose” to instantiate any of these contingent things AND there is no reason necessitating his choice – then those choices are brute. 

This is because if god had a reason that necessitated his choices, then it turns out all the things we think of as contingent are in fact necessary. In philosophy this is known as a modal collapse where literally nothing is contingent and everything is necessary.

A theist might reply that “Well that’s just what god chose to do, even though he could have chosen otherwise, we can’t go further than that” – basically the insistence that it is a valid explanation to point to god using libertarian free will to make an arbitrary choice as an ultimate explanation. 

They might argue that if you were to ask “Why did John get the chocolate iced cream instead of the vanilla?” it is a perfectly good explanation to say “Well John just prefers chocolate”. 

So why would it not be an explanation to say “well god just chose to make the world this way even though he didn’t have to”?

Well primarily because in this case it offers no real explanation compared to simply accepting the contingent things as brute facts in themselves compared to just being brute facts of god’s will.

After all, there simply can’t *be* a reason for god to create one contingent thing over the other, because again if he had a reason then it would have to be a necessary reason and we’re back to a modal collapse. This is disanalogous to preferences of humans where we at least give reasons for some of our preferences based on our biology or evolutionary history - all of which seem to be contingent themselves.  There’s a reason I prefer something that tastes like chocolate rather than say whatever rotting meat tastes like.

God has none of that, only necessary properties that can’t differ in any possible world. So if god has no necessitating reason for his choices then the various contingent things in existence being the way they are is effectively random – utterly brute among infinite possibilities. 

The idea of free choice in this way is not functionally different from a random number generator, there’s no explanation as to why any given number came out of the generator at any specific call, just as there’s no explanation for why a free agent chose what they did. This is part of the reason why philosophers argue that libertarian free will is incoherent and the existence of it is doubted.

Theists say that in the case of the agent we accept “well that’s what the agent chose” as an explanation in our daily lives, but if it was truly a LFW choice then that explanation serves no purpose beyond being able to assign blame, not provide an actual explanation for why one choice was made over others. 

As such, an atheist is perfectly justified in pointing out that if theists can get away with having these kinds of brute facts in their explanation, why is it that atheists are denied bruteness in their explanations?

I get that theists don’t like this and find it unsatisfying, but it’s not my fault that brute facts are inescapable on any worldview, that’s just the way it is.