God as a ‘Necessary Being’ – Part 3

Richard Swinburne analyzes the concept of ‘necessary being’ into two implications (COT, p.241-242):

1. It is not a matter of fortunate accident that there is a God; he exists necessarily.
2. God is necessarily the kind of being which he is; God does not just happen to have the properties which he does.

In his simpler and more popular book on God (Is There a God?), Swinburne clarifies these implications further in terms of the concept of ‘essential properties’:

But theism does not claim merely that the person who is God has these properties of being everlastingly omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly free. It claims that God has these properties necessarily–these are essential properties of God.
(ITAG, p.18)

Swinburne also defines this concept for us (see ITAG, p.18). Here is my formulation of Swinburne’s definition:

Definition 3:
Property P is an ESSENTIAL PROPERTY of a thing or a person X if and only if X could not cease to have property P and yet continue to exist.

In a comment on Part 2 of this series, Eric Sotnak points out a serious problem with this definition in relation to ‘necessary existence’. If we treat existence as a property and draw the implication that ‘necessary existence’ equates with having existence as an ‘essential property’, then every thing that exists would have necessary existence, and thus there would be nothing special about God possessing ‘necessary existence’.

I’m not sure how Swinburne would respond to this objection. However, for now, given that there are two parts to Swinburne’s analysis of ‘necessary being’, I’m goin to suggest that existence is not a property, and therefore Swinburne’s discussion about ‘essential properties’ does not apply to the concept of ‘necessary existence’.

That still leaves us with the question of whether part 2 of Swinburne’s analysis makes sense, given his definition of ‘essential properties’.

Before I begin working through a specific example, let me share a key passage from Swinburne that I’m struggling with:

By contrast, theism maintains that the personal being who is God cannot lose any of his powers or knowledge or become subject to influence by desire. If God lost any of his powers, he would cease to exist, just as my desk would cease to exist if it ceased to occupy space. And eternity (that is, everlastingness) also being an essential property of God, no individual who had begun to exist or could cease to exist would be God.
(ITAG, p.19)

Note how Swinburne relates the concepts of ‘eternity’ and ‘everlastingness’ to the concept of existence. By itself that makes perfect sense. If God is ‘eternal’ that implies that God has always existed and that God will always continue to exist. But then being ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’ implies existence, and Swinburne’s definition of essential properties does not work with the concept of existence.

Let’s suppose that ‘eternity’ is a property, and that some person P has this property. Can P be eternal on Monday, cease being eternal on Tuesday, and yet continue to exist for the remainder of Tuesday and the next day (Wednesday) as well?

This doesn’t seem to make sense to me. If P is eternal on Monday, that means that P will continue to exist forever. If P will continue to exist forever, then P will exist every day following that Monday. If P ceases to exist the next day, on Tuesday, then P will NOT have continued to exist forever, and the statement “P will continue to exist forever” (made on Monday) will have been dispoved, shown to be false. But that means that it was also false to say “P is eternal” (on Monday). In sum, if there is ever a day where P ceases to exist, then the claim “P is eternal” will be a false claim for any day prior to the day when P ceases to exist.

Now something like resurrection does seem logically possible, so it might be possible for a person to cease to exist for a period of time, and then come back into existence. If this is logically possible, then there is a sense in which ‘P is eternal’ might be correct, even if P later ceases to exist. If P ceases to exist for a period of time, and then P is brought back into existence and then continues to exist forever, without interruption, it is tempting to say that the claim “P is eternal” was correct even though there was a period of time (after that claim was made) in which P did not exist.

This particular complexity can be set aside by means of a definition. The meaning of ‘eternal’ in terms of this being a divine attribute implies that there will be no interruption of existence. In asserting that ‘God is eternal’ the theist means that God has always existed (without interruption) in the past, and that God will always continue to exist (without interruption) forever into the future.

Thus in supposing that a person P is eternal on Monday, in the sense intended when theists use this concept to describe God, it follows that P will also be eternal on Tuesday, and eternal on Wednesday, and so on forever and ever. Once you are eternal there is no going back to being non-eternal, at least not in terms of continuing to exist in the future.

What about the implication of having always existed in the past? Being eternal does not just mean existing forever into the future, it also means having always existed forever in the past.

Suppose again that a person P is eternal on Monday. We have previously determined that P cannot cease to exist on some day in the future, after that Monday, for that would mean that P was not really eternal on Monday. But what about P’s having always existed in the past? Could it be the case that on Monday P had always existed in the past, but that on Tuesday it was no longer the case that P had always existed in the past? Could this property of having always existed in the past go away?

The past cannot change. Let’s assume that this not a matter of physics, but is a matter of logic. Let’s assume that it is logically impossible for the past to change. So, if on Monday it was true that P had existed the previous Friday, then on the day after Monday (on Tuesday) it must still be the case that P had existed on the previous Friday. And if it was true on Monday that P had existed for every previous day back into eternity, then on the day after Monday (on Tuesday) it would still be the case that P had existed on each of those days prior to Monday.

Of course, P might cease to exist on Tuesday morning, and if so then on Wednesday it would be incorrect to say that ‘P has always existed’ since P would not have existed on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning. But the possibility of P ceasing to exist on Tuesday morning is ruled out, because if it was in fact true on Monday that ‘P is eternal’ then P could not cease to exist on any day after Monday, including Tuesday.

So, it seems to me that if we treat ‘eternity’ or being ‘eternal’ as a property, this is an odd sort of property that one cannot eliminate or get rid of, in the way that one can eliminate or get rid of the property of being dirty or of being hungry. Once a person is eternal, that person will always be eternal; there is no going back.

OK. What about the idea of some person having the attribute of being eternal as an essential property? Does this make sense?

Suppose that there is a person Q who is essentially eternal, who possesses this property as an essential property. That means that Q is not only eternal but, according to the definition, if Q loses the property of being eternal, then Q will cease to exist. Do you see a problem here?

Q cannot lose the property of being eternal, because it is logically impossible for any person to lose the property of being eternal. So, we might as well say “If Q loses the property of being eternal, then Q will turn into a giant fire-breathing dragon”. The antecedent of the conditional statement will always be false, because it is logically impossible for any person to lose the property of being eternal. Because the antecedent is necessarily false, the conditional statement is necessarily true; it is a logically necessary truth.

Thus, it seems to me that ANY person who has the property of being eternal is also a person who has the property of being eternal as an essential property (given Swinburne’s definition above). Thus, there does not appear to be anything special or unique about having this property as an essential property. There cannot be any person who has the property of being eternal, but has this property as an accidental property rather than as an essential property.

To be continued…

  • kraut2

    A practical question. If a person is eternal, meaning there is no beginning for that person or end – how can time exist for that person.

    Time has a beginning, and time elapses. No beginning – time cannot exist. How then can a timeless being create anything with a beginning? How can he even know “when” to create? We know now that the universe began (lets start from the point of inflation past the Planck’s boundaries) so the timeless person suddenly must have become aware of time? If a timeless eternal person becomes aware of time..what happened then? Death by boredom?
    The next question – How can an eternal being that cannot experience time can be omniscient? Omniscient means that even before time began with the creation of the universe he was aware of all the future actions within that universe, the complete history of it,

    So even before time began that being had (had to have by definition of a god, at least of the abrahamic variety) knowledge of actions, actions only being possible when time elapses.
    The conclusion I draw that an eternal god can not create a non eternal universe, he cannot create anything, as creation implies action in time, and time cannot exist for an eternal being that has no beginning or end.
    Please point out where I am wrong.

    • Bradley Bowen

      Kraut2 said:

      A practical question. If a person is eternal, meaning there is no beginning for that person or end – how can time exist for that person.

      Time has a beginning, and time elapses. No beginning – time cannot exist. How then can a timeless being create anything with a beginning? How can he even know “when” to create?

      ====================

      Response:

      Rhetorical questions are fine for rhetorical effect, but they cannot substitute for actual argumentation. Your reasoning would be clearer if you set aside the rhetorical questions and stuck to just making straightforward assertions and inferences.

      One straightforward claim you do make is as follows:

      1. Time has a beginning.

      This claim is puzzling to me. If time began to exist, then I would infer that something caused it to begin to exist. Otherwise you have an event without a cause for the event. But if something caused time to begin to exist, that implies that some event or events took place prior to the beginning of time, in order to get time going. But events cannot take place apart from time elapsing. So, it seems to me that your claim (1) reduces to absurdity.

      Here is my argument in standard form:

      1. If time has a beginning, then the beginning of time is something that happened.
      2. Everything that happens was caused to happen.
      Therefore
      3. If time has a begining, then the beginning of time was caused to happen.
      4. Whenever something is caused to happen, events took place prior to what was caused to happen.
      Therefore,
      5. If time has a beginning, then events took place prior to the beginning of time.
      6. All events require time to elapse (during the event).

      Therefore,
      7. If time has a beginning, then time elapsed prior to the beginning of time.
      8. It is FALSE that time elapsed prior to the beginning of time.
      Therefore,
      9. It is FALSE that time has a beginning.

      If your claim that time has a beginning is crucial to your reasoning (and it seems like it is a crucial assumption), then your reasoning is based on a false assumption, if my argument above is sound.

      • kraut2

        Sorry, no further discussion. Had it stated more clearly, and then the internet ate my paper.

        • Bradley Bowen

          Time is a difficult topic. I was trying to offer constructive criticism, not chase you away.

          Please feel free to continue your thoughts on God and time.

          • kraut2

            I really appreciated your response as it forced me to formulate more clearly in my reply.
            Spent 20 minutes on it, and then the internet ate my posting.

          • Greg G.

            My compliments to the chef. It was delicious! (Urp)
            Signed
            The Internet

    • Bradley Bowen

      Kraut2 said:

      The conclusion I draw that an eternal god can not create a non eternal universe, he cannot create anything, as creation implies action in time, and time cannot exist for an eternal being that has no beginning or end.

      ================
      Response:

      I agree with a key claim you make here: “he [God] cannot create anything, as creation implies action in time”. At least, I agree with part of this claim, namely that “creation implies action in time”. In fact all actions are events and thus all actions imply the passing of time.

      What this means is that since God is a person, and since persons must perform actions, God must exist in time. That is the conclusion that Richard Swinburne argues for, and I agree with him on that point.

      The idea of God existing ‘outside of time’ is incoherent, it makes no sense. Persons cannot exist ‘outside of time’, because persons must think, and act, and have experiences, and respond to their experiences. All of these basic aspects of being a person require the occurance of changes, and thus the passing of time. No time means no persons; therefore, no time means no God.

      If God exists, then God exists in time. If time began to exist, then God began to exist. But the word “God” implies a person who did NOT begin to exist. Therefore, If time began to exist, then there is no God.

      The only way that God could exist is if time has always existed.

  • ccas

    The Lord knows you don’t believe in Him, but do you really want to risk being wrong? If you are, your body will spend the rest of time in unquenchable fire. At least check it out. If you have the courage, ask Him if He is real. If you are afraid to, that is proof enough that He exists.

    • Greg G.

      If there is a god, it has gone to great lengths to make its existence indistinguishable from nonexistence. Believing it exists anyway would be the worst risk. Stop believing before it’s too late.

      • ccassidy2006

        Maybe no one ever told you, but when you give your life to HIM, you can ACTUALLY feel His presence and IT’S AWESOME. Peace beyond anything you can imagine. I wouldn’t trade the most intelligent brain of any human for the incredible peace that comes from Him. That’s why many Christian’s are willing to die for Him. His presence is overwhelming and undeniable. Turning away, once you experience that, would be the dumbest thing a person could do.

        • Greg G.

          Muslims claim the same sort of thing happens when you accept Islam. Buddhists have the feeling when they achieve Oneness or Enlightment. I know the feeling because I once was a Christian. It’s the same feeling I got when I fell for a multilevel marketing scam. That feeling is powerfully intense but don’t be misled by it. Religion exploits every foible of human emotion. “Don’t trust your feelings or Luke. Use your brain.” –Anti Wan Kenobi

        • Bradley Bowen

          Trying to sell Christianity on the basis of good feelings is like trying to sell a car on the basis of good feelings. What about gas mileage? insurance costs? safety? durability? reliability? performance? comfort?

          It is irrational to make a car purchase on the basis of feelings (unless you are a billionaire and have no plans to actually drive the car). Similarly, it is irrational to accept a worldview on the basis of feelings.

          We know that purchase of a car on the basis of good feelings is very likely to result in buyer’s remorse, and could well result in purchasing a car that is expensive to use and maintain, that is unsafe, unreliable, and/or uncomfortable.

          The same goes for religions or worldviews. If you let your emotions guide such a basic and important decision, then you are likely to end up worshiping a false god, constraining you opportunities by following rules and practices that have little benefit and no basis in reality, and making poor decisions based on false worldview assumptions.

          Obviously, basing the choice of worldview on short-term emotional high or good feelings is short-sighted. In order to make your sales-pitch even remotely reasonable, you need to claim that Christian faith brings significant long-term psychological benefits to all or nearly all people who accept the Christian faith (and also claim that such benefits are not available by other means, such as adopting some other religion or other worldview or seeing a counselor or psychologist on a regular basis).

          If such significant long-term psychological benefits were in fact a reality, then we should expect the suicide rate and the rate of depression for Christians to be significantly lower than for Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, atheists, and agnostics.

          I’m not aware of such significant long-term psychological benefits resulting from Christian faith. If such psychological benefits were a reality, Christians would be shouting this information from the rooftops, providing actual facts and data, and not making cheap “It works for me” testimonials that sound like every other diet advertisement on TV.

          One last point. As a human being I want to be happy and optimistic and not be depressed, but as an atheist and a skeptic, I care more about truth and knowledge than about good feelings.

          If the truth about reality is bad news, then I want the bad news. I don’t want to sacrifice truth and knowledge for the sake of good feelings. I have no interest in being a happy idiot.

          So, even if you had facts and data that proved that Christian faith brings significant long-term psychological benefits to all or nearly all Christian believers, and that such benefits are unavailable through other means, that would not move me towards Christian faith. I would still insist on being provided with a strong case for the TRUTH of the basic claims and beliefs of Christianity.

          • ccassidy2006

            A long time ago I made up my mind that I didn’t want to waste my life believing in lies, but to know the truth about who I am and why I am here. I too want truth, good or bad. When my husband was severely brain-injured in a car accident,and many more terrible events happened,, I looked up and said ‘If you are there, you can have me” I wanted to die. The next thing I know all these crazy miracles started happening to me. I was in shock, it was like I was living in an entirely different world. If you haven’t tried it, then you have no knowledge to base your beliefs on. Try it, if you don’t hear from God, then you have the proof you need to speak against Him. Believe me when I tell you God is SOOO COOL.

          • Bradley Bowen

            Your attempt to sell Christianity is no different than TV ads for ‘miracle diets’:

            1. It’s amazing!
            2. It worked for me! I lost 100 pounds.
            3. My life is wonderful after going on this miracle diet!
            4. Try it, and see for yourself how amazing this diet really is!

            No sale.
            Come back when you have some facts and data.
            Testimonials won’t work for me.

          • Bradley Bowen

            Here is an interesting bit of information from a web article published by Christianity Today:

            “As the suicide of Rick Warren’s son Matthew brings renewed attention to mental health, depression, and suicide, we see that his case is not uncommon. Every 15 minutes, someone in the United States takes his or her own life. That’s 35,000 suicides every year in this country—and likely more,since many suicides are disguised as accidents. Sadly, suicide occurs among Christians at essentially the same rate as non-Christians.”

            When Suicide Strikes in the Body of Christ

            Posted 4/9/13

            http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/april-web-only/when-suicide-strikes-in-body-of-christ.html

            viewed 7/23/13

            ccassidy claims that becoming a Christian dramatically transformed her experiance of life:

            “Maybe no one ever told you, but when you give your life to HIM, you can ACTUALLY feel His presence and IT’S AWESOME. Peace beyond anything you can imagine.”

            The implication is that if I gave my life to Jesus, then I too would feel His presence and experience “Peace beyond anything” that I can imagine.

            But if this is what usually happens when someone becomes a Christian, then why is it that the suicide rate for Christian believers is “essentially the same rate as for non-Christians”? This makes absolutely no sense. If most Christians are generally feeling the presence of Jesus and if most Christians are experiencing “Peace beyond anything” that I can imagine, then this ought to significantly reduce the rate of suicide among Christians as compared to non-Christians. But the suicide rate is in fact “essentially the same”.

            ccassidy – Please explain how this can be so.

    • kraut2

      “but do you really want to risk being wrong? If you are, your body will spend the rest of time in unquenchable fire”
      the argument of those who are held by fear of the unknown, who’s best argument for their belief is eternal damnation if you do not believe? That is the best you have to offer? This kind of platitudes is what drives one away from any discussion with “believers”. Childish crap.

      “If you have the courage, ask Him if He is real. If you are afraid to, that is proof enough that He exists.”

      Please advise which of the several thousand gods you want me ask.

      • ccassidy2006

        You don’t need to know which god to ask. But it takes courage and open-mindedness to even look up to the sky and say “I don’t believe in You, but if You are real, please show me”. If He answers, He will show you which God he is. Can’t hurt. But IF YOU ARE WRONG….

        • Brian Westley

          If you are wrong, you please the ironic god Loki, and live in paradise.

        • Greg G.

          But if God doesn’t want people to believe in him, and this idea is most consistent with our evidence for a god, then the worst thing you could do is to ask him to show himself simply because some god-botherer on the internet told you to. If there is a god, we should be coy and wait for him to make the first move by making himself evident.

  • ccas

    If He answers you and you repent of your sins and surrender your will to His, welcome to His family. He loves you and will help you the rest of your life. He is our comforter, provider, healer, deliverer. Hallelujah! A lost soul returns to Him!

  • Rayndeon

    Swinburne’s definition of an essential property seems fairly standard: a property P is essential some object a such it is impossible that a exist and a not exemplify P. Or, somewhat more formally, ¬◊[∃t(t=a) ∧ ¬Pa]. By the dual of the possibility operator, that ◊p ≡ ¬□¬p, and double negation it follows that □¬[∃t(t=a) ∧ ¬Pa]. Applying DeMorgan’s Law, □[¬∃t(t=a) ∨ Pa]. By definition of the material conditional, it follows then that □[∃t(t=a) → Pa]. In other words, to say that “a is essentially P” is to say that necessarily if a exists, then a is P. Now, the property of essential existence versus necessary existence is a subtle but real distinction. Many actualists think that everything has essential existence, but clearly not necessary existence. Applying the above schema to existence, we might say that “a essentially exists” iff necessarily if a exists then a exists. For simplicity’s sake, supposing we define E!a as ∃t(t=a) as an existence predicate, we have stated □(E!a → E!a). And to say that there is some object that essentially exists as simply ∃x□(E!x → E!x). Necessary existence as an essential property here comes down to an additional necessity operator as can be seen. Taking the same scheme, “a essentially exists necessarily” iff necessary if a exists, then a necessarily exists. In other words, □(E!a → □E!a). And to speak of some object having this property, ∃x□(E!x → □E!x).

    Interestingly though and specifically with necessary existence here, ∃x□E!x is logically equivalent with ∃x□(E!x → □E!x). In other words, if anything has necessary existence essentially, it has necessary existence and if anything has necessary existence, it has it essentially. This can be seen somewhat intuitively in terms of possible worlds, but we can also show it formally. To prove this, I’ll use S5 with varying domain semantics in a first-order free logic base as well as necessary identity. As a result, the Barcan Formula and Converse Barcan Formula are invalid in this logic.

    So, we want to prove that ∃x□(E!x → □E!x) ≡ ∃x□E!x and so we can separately prove ∃x□(E!x → □E!x) → ∃x□E!x and ∃x□E!x → ∃x□(E!x → □E!x). Let’s prove the left-to-right direction of ∃x□(E!x → □E!x) ≡ ∃x□E!x first.

    Assume for contradiction that ¬[∃x□(E!x → □E!x) → ∃x□E!x]. That is, ∃x□(E!x → □E!x) and ¬∃x□E!x are true in the actual world @. By the dual of quantifiers, that ∃xϕ ≡ ¬∀x¬ϕ, and double negation, it follows that ∀x¬□E!x is true at @. Given the dual of the necessity operator, that □p ≡ ¬◊¬p, and double negation, it follows that ∀x◊¬E!x at @. Now, given ∃x□(E!x → □E!x) at @, it follows that □(E!a → □E!a) and E!a at @, instantiating this to some constant a in @. Given □(E!a → □E!a) at @, it follows that (E!a → □E!a) at @. Now, here the tableaux splits. Either ¬E!a at @ or □E!a at @. The left hand branch closes because ¬E!a at @ contradicts E!a at @ from earlier. The right hand branch gives □E!a at @.

    Now, continuing down the branch of □E!a at @., given ∀x◊¬E!x at @, either a previous constant we’re instantiating to isn’t in the domain of @ or it is and we can instantiate to it. So, either ¬E!a at @ or we can instantiate ∀x◊¬E!x at @ to a as ◊¬E!a at @. If the former, then we get a contradiction as we previously obtained that E!a at @. If the latter, then there is some world w1 such that ¬E!a at w1. But this branch is along the earlier branch with □E!a at @, from which it follows that E!a at w1, contradicting ¬E!a at w1. Hence, the entire tableaux closes and therefore ∃x□(E!x → □E!x) → ∃x□E!x.

    Now, let’s prove the right-to-left direction of ∃x□(E!x → □E!x) ≡ ∃x□E!x. Assume for contradiction that ¬ [∃x□E!x → ∃x□(E!x → □E!x)]. That is, ∃x□E!x and ¬∃x□(E!x → □E!x) are true at @. Again by the dual of the quantifiers and double negation as well as the dual of the modal operators and double negation again, ∀x◊¬(E!x → □E!x) at @. Given ∃x□E!x at @, we can instantiate this such that □E!a and E!a at @. Now, given ∀x◊¬(E!x → □E!x) at @, as before, either a previous constant we’re instantiating to isn’t in the domain of @ or it is and we can instantiate to it. So, either ¬E!a at @ or we can instantiate ∀x◊¬(E!x → □E!x) at @ to a as ◊¬(E!a → □E!a) at @. The former closes because it contradicts E!a at @ as we had earlier. The latter results in ¬(E!a → □E!a) at some world w1. Given that furthermore, it follows that E!a at w1 and ¬□E!a at w1. By the dual of the necessity operator and double negation, ◊¬E!a at w1 and hence ¬E!a at some world w2. Recall that earlier we had □E!a at @, from which it follows that E!a at w2, contradicting ¬E!a and closing the last branch. Hence, ∃x□E!x → ∃x□(E!x → □E!x)].

    And therefore, ∃x□(E!x → □E!x) ≡ ∃x□E!x. We could also prove the above by not taking E!x as primitive and using ∃y(y=x) instead, but the above would have become even more complicated than it already is, so I think this suffices. So anything that has necessary existence has it essentially and anything that essentially has necessary existence has necessary existence. Although, of interest here is that Swinburne in fact denies that God is necessary in this sense. Swinburne believes that there is a possible world at which God does not exist and hence God is not a metaphysically necessary being i.e. existing in all possible worlds. Instead, Swinburne interprets God’s existence as sort of the ultimate brute fact – something for which no further explanation can be offered.

  • Steven Carr

    ‘God does not just happen to have the properties which he does.’

    God does not ‘just happen’ to have the property of having forgiven Mr X for sin Y?

    How does that work?

    How can a necessary being have contingent properties?

    That makes no sense at all.

    Obviously this hypothetical ‘necessary’ god’s property of having forgiven Mr. X for sin Y is contingent upon Mr, X having repented for sin Y.

    Which makes Swinburne’s hypothetical ‘necessary’ god a walking, talking contradiction.

    • ibc

      Perhaps ‘having forgiven Mr X for sin Y’ does not have to be construed as a property?


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