Playing gotcha with philosophical jargon

Philosopher Bill Vallicella has a response to what he calls an “outburst” by Jerry Coyne. He focuses on the following “sophomoric blunder”:

No theologian in the world is going to convince me that it’s impossible for God to fail to exist because he’s a “necessary being.” Science has shown that he’s not “necessary” for anything we know about the universe.

Vallicella responds:

Given the silly blunders and nonsensical assertions Coyne makes in his free will piece, I am not surprised that the man fails to grasp a very simple point.  To say that X is a necessary being is not to say that X is necessary for something.  Could he really not understand this?   If X is necessary for Y, it does not follow that X is necessary simpliciter.  Sunlight is necessary for photosynthesis, but the existence of sunlight is logically contingent.  And if X is a necessary being, it doesn’t follow that X is necessary for anything.  If Plantinga’s God exists, then he exists necessarily and does so even in possible worlds in which nothing distinct from God exists, worlds in which he is not necessary for anything.

What about Coyne’s second sentence in the above quotation?  Pure scientistic bluster.  One thing we know about the universe is that it exists.  Has science shown that God is not necessary for an explanation of the universe’s existence.  Of course not.  How could it show any such thing?  Or will Coyne make an absurd Kraussian move?

While it’s true that Coyne didn’t understand what philosophers mean by “necessary,” the rhetoric here is ridiculous. The issue isn’t that Coyne “fails to grasp a very simple point,” the issue is that “necessary being” doesn’t actually mean anything in ordinary English. It’s only in philosophical jargon that it means “being who could not possibly not exist.” Incidentally, that means that to say “it’s impossible for God to fail to exist because he’s a necessary being” doesn’t actually say much of anything. You may as well say, “God exists because he’s an existent being.”

And frankly, why should anyone care that Coyne didn’t know this particular piece of philosophical jargon? Unlike scientific terminology, there’s no reason to think it refers to anything in the real world.  If philosophers want to convince scientists to take them seriously, they need a better argument than pointing out scientists’ lack of knowledge of philosophical jargon.

As for Vallicella’s second paragraph above, this is just an example of a philosopher declaring science has certain limits without giving any evidence that science has those limits. The truth is there is no good reason for thinking we need God to explain anything, and this is true in part because science now explains many things once attributed to gods and spirits, though of course many arguments for the existence of God were never any good in the first place

The sentence Vallicella is playing gotcha with is just one sentence in a long, and otherwise spot on (in my opinion) post by Coyne. There’s also a mention of criticism of Plantinga’s latest book that’s “too scurrilous to refer to.” Since he doesn’t refer to it, I can’t know what it is, but I wonder if he’s read my review of Plantinga.

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