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.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    To say that X is a necessary being is not to say that X is necessary for something.

    Um…you can’t assert that X is “necessary” unless, and until, you can specify what it’s necessary FOR. That’s kinda what the word “necessary” means.

    Sunlight is necessary for photosynthesis, but the existence of sunlight is logically contingent.

    No, the existence of sunlight is EMPIRICALLY OBSERVABLE AND PROVABLE. What the fuck does “logically contingent” mean, anyway?

    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.

    He’s necessary even in worlds where he’s not? What a jucking foke.

  • Kevin

    I have a question regarding this area of philosophy. Is there a method or test for determining whether something is necessary? When applied to things that exist, it seems like a meaningless attribute since we can’t actually determine whether something is necessary or not.

    For example, is the water bottle on my desk necessary? Well, the materials could have been made into a different shape, or could they? If determinism is true, then it could never have been made into any other shape. When you start talking about cosmological arguments and semantically determine that there must be a necessary being, can you actually determine what it is? Is it space, time, a sea of virtual particles, etc.? Even if one of these things are necessary, we wouldn’t be able to determine it ourselves. If we add necessary to an object’s list of attributes, then we have simply made it impossible to verify it’s existence, which actually detracts from the person arguing for it’s existence.

    Usually, the response I get is that if you can imagine it otherwise, then it is not necessary. So, my water bottle is not necessary because I can imagine the metal being put to use for some other purpose. However, by this method, a necessary God can’t exist because there are many people who can imagine an atheistic universe. There must be some other way of verifying this attribute if believers want us to seriously consider such a proposition. Is there?

    • http://www.SketchSepahi.com sketch

      Hi, Kevin. Let me try to answer your questions:

      I have a question regarding this area of philosophy. Is there a method or test for determining whether something is necessary?”

      Easy level: yes, if the negation of something leads to a contradiction, then it’s necessary.

      Intermediate level: For all the possible worlds – ways the world could have been – if something is true in all of them, then it’s necessary. If something is false in all of them, it’s necessarily false – or impossible. If something is true in some and false in some, then it’s contingent.

      Madness level: It depends on whether you believe in possible worlds, and if you believe in them what you think they are: worlds just as real and existent as ours, complete propositional descriptions, actually existing abstract objects etc. It also depends on what you believe is the correct theory of the epistemology of modality. There are three currently competing theories, which you can read about if you want on the Stanford:

      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/modality-epistemology/

      When applied to things that exist, it seems like a meaningless attribute since we can’t actually determine whether something is necessary or not.

      Well, there aren’t many things, which any philosopher is willing to claim as a necessary existent. The list is pretty much limited to God and numbers. (With maybe a few extra number-like abstract objects thrown in for good measure.)

      For example, is the water bottle on my desk necessary?

      Probably not.

      Well, the materials could have been made into a different shape, or could they? If determinism is true, then it could never have been made into any other shape.

      Ah, now. This leads to intermediate level trouble. When philosophers talk about modality (possibility, contingency, necessity) they usually do so with the aforementioned possible worlds in mind. However, they may some times choose to restrict the number of worlds relevant to the topic. For instance, if talking about logic, there is no restriction. All the possible worlds count. But there is a lower rung reserved for discussions about just worlds that follow the same laws of nature as our worlds, since it’s generally accepted that it is (logically) possible that our laws of nature be different. This is called nomological modality. There is also something called “metaphysical modality” but there is wide disagreement on whether it’s the same as logical, the same as nomological, or completely separate from the two. If it is separate though, it would be “lower” than logical but “higher” than nomological.

      So your glass might be nomologically necessary on determinism, but it wouldn’t be logically necessary.

      When you start talking about cosmological arguments and semantically determine that there must be a necessary being, can you actually determine what it is? Is it space, time, a sea of virtual particles, etc.?

      No, I agree. I myself have argued that even if you can successfully run a modal cosmological argument, you can only get to it being necessary that there exist at least one thing. Which is different from one specific thing existing necessarily. That sounds idiotically convoluted, which is why possible world talk is useful. All possible worlds might contain things, but there is no single thing, (e.g. God or your water bottle) which is contained by all worlds.

      Even if one of these things are necessary, we wouldn’t be able to determine it ourselves. If we add necessary to an object’s list of attributes, then we have simply made it impossible to verify it’s existence, which actually detracts from the person arguing for it’s existence.

      Are you saying that necessary existents are unfalsifiable – and therefore untestable – because we can’t imagine how they would fail to exist, and therefore cannot devise an experiment? Because if you are, that’s a good point. Although, I must say, people who advocate necessary existents don’t usually ascribe to scientism anyway, so it wouldn’t bother them much. They would say they have non-scientific philosophical justifications for their belief in these things.

      Usually, the response I get is that if you can imagine it otherwise, then it is not necessary.

      If you read the Stanford link I gave you on the epistemology of modality, that falls under conceivability based accounts.

      So, my water bottle is not necessary because I can imagine the metal being put to use for some other purpose.

      As you yourself pointed out, it might still be nomologically necessary. You’d have to imagine the laws of nature and the initial conditions of the universe exactly as they are and see if you can still imagine the bottle not existing. No easy task.

      However, by this method, a necessary God can’t exist because there are many people who can imagine an atheistic universe.

      Yes. Excellent. The theists would have to attribute that to a failure of cognition or something on our part. They would have to say that we imagined wrongly somehow. Maybe we didn’t include all the relevant factors, or maybe we just haven’t imagined the non-existence of God clearly enough to make apparent the supposedly resulting contradiction.

      There must be some other way of verifying this attribute if believers want us to seriously consider such a proposition. Is there?

      Well, take a look at the counterfactual based accounts on Stanford, if you’re interested. Otherwise the short answer is: yes, there are some decent proposals, but no, there’s no consensus.

      Although, I believe many theists think some sort of ontological or modal-cosmological argument, or the question of “why there is anything at all” establishes God’s necessity.

      • Kevin

        “Intermediate level: For all the possible worlds – ways the world could have been – if something is true in all of them, then it’s necessary. If something is false in all of them, it’s necessarily false – or impossible. If something is true in some and false in some, then it’s contingent.”

        I presume that ‘possible’ simply means denotes permutations of events? If this is the case, then as I said before, a necessary God would be impossible since there are possible worlds which don’t necessitate a God. If this is the criteria and the God hypothesis fails miserably by this criteria, then why does the idea of a necessary God have so much traction among ‘sophisticated’ theists?

        “Are you saying that necessary existents are unfalsifiable – and therefore untestable – because we can’t imagine how they would fail to exist, and therefore cannot devise an experiment? Because if you are, that’s a good point. Although, I must say, people who advocate necessary existents don’t usually ascribe to scientism anyway, so it wouldn’t bother them much. They would say they have non-scientific philosophical justifications for their belief in these things.”

        My point is simply that even if we establish that there is a first cause and we actually bump into it (i.e. discover it), we don’t have a method for knowing that it is the first cause. When we find X, we can ask whether it is the first cause. It might be the first cause, or some unknown cause might have preceded it. It’s like what Feynman said, if he finds the ultimate answer to the universe, that’s fine, if he keeps peeling back layers like an onion, that’s fine too.

        Sure, someone can claim that when you have trouble peeling back a layer that you have reached the end of investigation and have found the first cause, but that would simply be an argument from ignorance. I have no doubt that they would say they have non-scientific philosophical ‘justifications’ (e.g. the farce of properly basic beliefs), but that doesn’t solve the problem anymore than describing the problem as scientistic.

        “Yes. Excellent. The theists would have to attribute that to a failure of cognition or something on our part. They would have to say that we imagined wrongly somehow. Maybe we didn’t include all the relevant factors, or maybe we just haven’t imagined the non-existence of God clearly enough to make apparent the supposedly resulting contradiction.”

        I don’t recall any theist proposing that atheism is not consistent. If it were, I think it would be routinely brought up during the discussions and debates. I don’t think they are using the criteria of the negation being contradictory to show that God is necessary. There must be some other rule being used to justify this attribute.

        • http://www.SketchSepahi.com sketch

          I presume that ‘possible’ simply means denotes permutations of events? If this is the case, then as I said before, a necessary God would be impossible since there are possible worlds which don’t necessitate a God. If this is the criteria and the God hypothesis fails miserably by this criteria, then why does the idea of a necessary God have so much traction among ‘sophisticated’ theists?

          I think the accurate but unhelpful answer is “because of St. Anselm.” But yes, you’re right. If God’s existence would entail God’s necessity, and God’s non-existence is possible, then we may conclude that God’s non-existence is necessary.

          My point is simply that even if we establish that there is a first cause and we actually bump into it (i.e. discover it), we don’t have a method for knowing that it is the first cause. When we find X, we can ask whether it is the first cause. It might be the first cause, or some unknown cause might have preceded it. It’s like what Feynman said, if he finds the ultimate answer to the universe, that’s fine, if he keeps peeling back layers like an onion, that’s fine too.

          I don’t think anyone is advocating a view that we would know God is the first cause if we found him lying under a rock in the garden or something.

          Sure, someone can claim that when you have trouble peeling back a layer that you have reached the end of investigation and have found the first cause, but that would simply be an argument from ignorance. I have no doubt that they would say they have non-scientific philosophical ‘justifications’ (e.g. the farce of properly basic beliefs), but that doesn’t solve the problem anymore than describing the problem as scientistic.

          I don’t think any argument for God’s necessity revolves around progressively peeling back explanatory layers until you call a stop – or proclaiming God as a basic belief for that matter. You seem to be getting the modal cosmological argument mixed up with the causal cosmological argument. The latter seeks to establish a first cause; the former a necessary being. A necessary being doesn’t have to be a first cause or vice versa.

          I don’t recall any theist proposing that atheism is not consistent. If it were, I think it would be routinely brought up during the discussions and debates.

          Oh, but it is brought up. That’s what the claim “God is necessary” amounts to. If God’s existence is necessary, then God’s non-existence would be somehow contradictory. And if that’s the case, then atheism would be an inconsistent position – i.e. holding as possible something that isn’t.

          I don’t think they are using the criteria of the negation being contradictory to show that God is necessary.

          It doesn’t have to be a criteria for determining God’s necessity. It’s just a consequence of God’s necessity. If you established God’s necessity somehow, then you’d also have established God’s non-existence to be contradictory.

          There must be some other rule being used to justify this attribute.

          Yeah, the “rule” is either the modal cosmological argument or the ontological argument. Or both. (None of which are good, but there you go.) Alternatively, some theists would hold that they can’t establish God’s necessity (and thereby his existence) by argument, but are nevertheless committed to the view that if God exists then he must do so necessarily. There are various reasons for that, but none of them are much relevant to our discussion.

          • Kevin

            “Oh, but it is brought up. That’s what the claim “God is necessary” amounts to. If God’s existence is necessary, then God’s non-existence would be somehow contradictory.”

            This is only if they are using the method of determining the negation to be contradictory. Since they never seem to make a case for a contradiction in atheism, it would seem to me that they are either not referring to modal properties when talking about God being necessary or are using a different method for saying that he is necessary (e.g. faith).

            “It doesn’t have to be a criteria for determining God’s necessity. It’s just a consequence of God’s necessity. If you established God’s necessity somehow, then you’d also have established God’s non-existence to be contradictory.”

            That’s a big if, especially since I’m saying that it can’t be done with any current methodology (barring showing atheism to be contradictory, which is what they don’t seem to be arguing for).

            “I don’t think any argument for God’s necessity revolves around progressively peeling back explanatory layers until you call a stop – or proclaiming God as a basic belief for that matter. You seem to be getting the modal cosmological argument mixed up with the causal cosmological argument. The latter seeks to establish a first cause; the former a necessary being. A necessary being doesn’t have to be a first cause or vice versa.”

            Well, wouldn’t the argument from contingency be an argument for a necessary being that sparked this universe. This is in a sense a cosmological argument (i.e. first cause/prime mover argument). I’m just pointing out that we have no way of verifying that an object is necessary. So when these arguments say that the universe (this could presumably be broken down to be saying that everything in the universe is contingent) is contingent, I’m saying that we have no means to establish this. If we discover a necessary object, we have no means of establishing that it is or is not.

            “I don’t think anyone is advocating a view that we would know God is the first cause if we found him lying under a rock in the garden or something.”

            But theists are advocating the view that because the universe is contingent, that then requires a necessary being to spark the match. If we did find a necessary object, say a quantum void, and determined that this is the prime mover, then this would appropriately quiet them. Instead, you get the Bill O’Reilly response of “How did it get there?” There was a expansion of space and time at the Big Bang. “How did the space get there?” Continue to ask this question infinitely. Herein lays a black box to insert God since we can’t determine whether space (or whatever the lowest layer of the onion is) is necessary, God is conveniently defined to be necessary, and we need a necessary being as an explanation.

          • http://www.SketchSepahi.com sketch

            Hmm. Blogging system doesn’t seem to allow further replies, so I guess that means this is the end. Nice chat, Kevin.

  • Ian

    I don’t really have anything to say about your post besides “good job,” however I did want to say that your blog is on my Google Reader, and is awesome. I’m always happy to have a philosopher on “our side.” Keep up the good work.

  • http://paperdove.org/ nigelTheBold, Abbot of the Hoppist Monks

    Raging Bee:

    He’s necessary even in worlds where he’s not? What a jucking foke.

    Yeah. That’s what happens when you allow philosophers to abuse modal logic. They make use of contentious axioms to go from “possibly necessary” to simply, “necessary.”

    I personally believe philosophers like Plantinga and Vallicella sit around trying to justify their own existence by seeing who can come up with the silliest logical argument possible. I imagine them sitting in a library that smells of rich mahogany, with shelves lined with many leather-bound books, sharing a smoking bowl of Longbottom Leaf, interrupting each other’s fits of giggles by saying, “Wait! Wait! This one’s even better.”

    It’s a fair game, I imagine, but not one which they should pretend actually means anything.

  • http://paperdove.org/ nigelTheBold, Abbot of the Hoppist Monks

    Vallicella:

    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.

    No — it’s saying that X is a necessary outcome, that an arbitrary world would not have the fundamental properties it has without X. Sunlight is necessary in a world in which photosynthesis exists.

    I understand that games being played with the meaning of “necessary” here. But that is something Plantinga does when he claims his modal syllogism is proof of the existence of God. I know he further claims it’s not a very convincing proof, but that’s because of the attempt to transfer the meaning of “necessary” in the syllogism to the colloquial meaning of “necessary.” He smuggles in the existence of God in a word-game.

    Coyne is perfectly correct on his use of “necessary.” In matters of actual existence, a thing is necessary only if reality could not exist as-is without it.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    Yeah, nigel, then the stoners come in — smelling of rich sinsemilla, of course — get an earful of what the philosophers were doing, shake their heads in sad puzzlement, and say “Dudes, none of that makes any sense. You should listen to more Grateful Dead. Maybe find some better weed to smoke, too…want some of ours?”

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    In matters of actual existence, a thing is necessary only if reality could not exist as-is without it.

    Well, yeah, like, a universe with a certain thing in it can’t exist as-is without, like, that thing. So the thing is necessary to make a universe with that thing a universe that really has that thing. Tautologies are like totally tautologous, man…

    • Patrick

      That’s not what “necessary” means in modal logic, which is what Vallicella is using, and probably what the quote Coyne was responding to was using.

      In modal logic, something is “necessarily” true if it would be impossible for it to be false. This generally includes things like basic principles of mathematics, which, as relationships between concepts, can’t be untrue without changing the concepts and therefore invalidating the comparison.

      Theists have appropriated this idea and applied it to their God. It isn’t clear why this is a justified move, nor is it clear that they’ve tried to justify it. They just seem happy applying anything that sounds like a pro-word to their religion, and in making elisions between “necessary” as used by medieval philosophers (which roughly matches your use of it) and “necessary” as used by modal logic.

      • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

        Sounds like a purely subjective proof: he can’t imagine a universe without God, therefore God is “necessary,” therefore, in his opinion, God has to exist. Makes perfect sense, as long as you don’t try to pretend it’s anything more than a personal feeling.

  • josh

    I’m not sure how familiar Coyne is with the jargony ‘necessary’ Vallicella is carping about, but it’s not obvious from the quote that he doesn’t understand it. Coyne’s point was that nothing theologians have come up with was going to convince him of God’s necessity, and you can make a pretty good case that making God necessary for something is the only way to make a convincing argument that he exists at all, much less that he would be ‘necessary simpliciter’. All these years and still some people don’t get ‘I have no need of that hypothesis’.

  • piero

    Lots of interesting comments here. I’d particularly like to thank Sketch and Kevin for their illuminating exchange.

    Ah, is the Internet necessary? Of course! The world would be a crappy possible world without it.

    • http://www.SketchSepahi.com sketch

      You’re welcome. Unfortunately the comment-posts become ever thinner as you reply to replies to…etc. I thought it was best to stop the exchange when the blogging system stopped allowing “deeper” replies. Otherwise it would just have been a mess to figure out the order of the replies.

      And I agree. Possible worlds without internet suck.