The Cosmological Argument, The Composition Fallacy, And More Reasons Not To Believe In God

The Cosmological Argument, The Composition Fallacy, And More Reasons Not To Believe In God July 3, 2010

Shane Wilkins, a graduate student in philosophy at Fordham (where we were fellow students and colleagues until just recently), has been an invaluable regular commentator at Camels With Hammers. He has served as my primary theistic foil since the beginning, when our 7-part debate (which started with my post Objections to Religious Moderates and Intellecuals 1) propelled this site’s first week.  Now, he has launched a new blog, Everything Makes Less Sense Than It Appears (at  One of his first posts lays out a 14 step argument cosmological argument for the existence of God, in reply to an argument I made here and (which also takes variant forms here and here), and in reply to Eric Steinhart’s summation of 6 Basic Kinds Of Answer To The Question “Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?”.

Here is the crux of my argument with which Shane takes issue:

All it intelligibly means to say that you cannot get something from nothing is that the sorts of ordinary objects of our experience do not magically appear without a recombination of the elements of prior existing things. To then look at the elements of which those things we experience are composed or of space itself and say that those things must be obedient to the kind of principle we employ for objects on the ordinary objects (the dishes didn’t just “appear” in the sink, someone put them there) is to let common sense dictate to our entire metaphysics.

There must be some uncaused something in some respect as far as we know. But what we do not know is that the essence of space is “contingent” or that the essence of matter or elements is “contingent” and in need of some outside “necessity” which simply exists according to its own necessity. That attempt to determine such ontological statuses is a huge leap, rooted more in common sense and pre-modern physics, than a chastened, empirical, look at the universe working from the inside out based on experiments.

It is a mistake to base a strong ontological claim about the inherent contingency of the universe just on account of the observable contingency of particular forms it takes. It is unnecessary and so unwarranted to posit a distinct being from the universe, rather than a yet unquantified feature of the universe which accounts for its uncaused existence.

Essentially, I am arguing that the theist commits the composition fallacy.  Shane also takes issue with Eric’s argument claim the other day that:

you can interpret all the cosmological arguments as just being arguments for the existence of the physical world, rather than for God. Why is there something rather than nothing? Because the totality of physical things necessarily exists.

Shane replies to both of these points as part of his clearly, lucidly, and perceptively written overall argument. His specific replies to Eric and to me read as follows:

First, to say that the physical world is necessary is to say that it is not possible for it not to be. Although controversial, the standard test for possibility is conceivability. If the existence of the world were necessary, then I could no more conceive of the world failing to exist than I could conceive a circle failing to be round. But I can conceive of the world not existing; therefore the world doesn’t not exist necessarily; therefore the world exists contingently.

Second, you can run an argument from the contingency of all of the part of the universe to the contingency of the whole without committing the fallacy of composition just by noting that composition is a fallacy only when the specific structure of the parts contribute to the whole’s having a property P which each individual parts lack. So, it would be committing the fallacy of composition to move from “Neurons are unconscious” and “brains are composed of neurons” to “brains are unconscious” just because it’s precisely the combination or structure of the unconscious parts that make the brain conscious.  Individual molecules of water don’t freeze, but collections of molecules of water do freeze because the chemical properties of the individual molecules allow crystalization at temperatures below 0 C.

However, necessity and contingency don’t seem to be that way. How would a combination or structure of non-necessary parts combine to give the totality the property of necessity? It’s utterly unclear. This seems to be a case of validly inferring a property of the whole from the property of the parts. There are other clear cases of when composition isn’t a fallacy. For instance, if every piece of a gold bar is gold, then the whole bar is gold too.

I think it would be the other way around.  It is not that the structure of non-necessary parts combine to give the totality the property of necessity, but that ultimately all there most fundamentally is is the totality which exists necessarily but which is shaped into the merely contingent temporal forms which we observe.  And to say that they are contingent is to speak from our perspective and only in a relative way.  They are contingent in that they depend on the universe being configured a certain way to be as they are.  But it is possible the universe necessarily had configure itself that way, by its own necessity, and therefore the contingency might be essentially only apparent, or only a localized way of looking at things.

So, no, I’m not arguing that you can take numerous contingent beings and lump them together and, voila!, bootstrap your way to something that is necessary despite being made of contingent parts.  I’m saying that the fundamental reality may very well be a necessary being and all apparently contingent beings simply its modifications.  In other words, I am something of a Spinozist.

Shane also, justifiably, reads my quickly written and somewhat imprecise attacks on the possibility of extending our concepts of contingency and necessity to the totality of the universe, to be a denial of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, but I did not intend to go that far.  What I was trying to insist was that our impressions of “contingent” beings as contingent are rooted in our everyday conceptions of them which are inherently perspective-bound.

I think the logical concept of nothing is strange because we never actually experience situations of “nothing”.  We understand the concept but have no experience with nothing and all the routes to answering this question of why there is something rather than nothing seem to lead to the conclusion that there never could have been nothing.  So, in light of that, I am suspicious of the inclination to take the contingency of possible natural states of affairs (that they conceivably could not have been, had other conceivable states of affairs obtained)  and think that that implies that all natural states of affairs could have not obtained.

And I also do not know how we can really know that the world actually could have turned out otherwise than it has in any case or whether what appear to us to be contingencies really are the necessary manifestations of a necessary world.  Or, even if the world has variability in it, how would we know that all the possible variations are not just the possible rearrangements of the one nonetheless necessary being?

While it is possible to argue that the cosmological argument from composition that Shane makes is valid and not a fallacious one and that it is possible that everything in the world we know is contingent in every respect and therefore requiring an external source of its being, I want to stress (a) that it is more parsimonious to simply assume that the world has some eternal, necessary dimension than to posit an entire extra and mysteriously “non-natural” being and (b) that our feeling that the contingent beings must be contingent “all the way down” to the most basic levels of our reality possibly arises from our overestimation of our knowledge of the exact nature of their contingency from the psychological way that we experience them.

In other words, the idea of nothing is so persuasive to us as an actual “possibility” because we constantly construe real world experiences as experiences “of nothing” (“there was nothing there”, “nothing happened”, “nothing comes to mind”) when in reality those experiences are just experiences of negating an expectation or a possibility while positively having an actual experience of something. So, for all our experiences with the objects of the world that make us feel like we can imagine any of them “not being” and imputing to each and everyone a possibility of their total nothingness, we are just, in fact, awash in actual being and making all our “nothing” and “something” statements relative to that context, to our expectations, and to our references to one or another combination elements actually there that they were not other more interesting ones that would have been relevant “somethings” to us.

So, I’m deeply suspicious of taking all these experiences with existing things and inferring that the rudiments of which they are composed have a nature that permits their possible nothingness—their possible complete annihilation or their prior non-existence.  I think it is a trick of our minds to extrapolate from the transience of forms which matter takes to the certainty that we have seen something necessarily the case about its essence is like apart from all variations of observable finite form.

The genuinely “psychologistic” part of my thinking on the matter is that I think that we need to take seriously that our reason evolved to deal with specific local realities and that, as powerful as our logic is for interacting with the world, nonetheless the misleading foreground estimates we needed to make to survive are more naturally intuitive for us and that other very weird and counter-intuitive truths are constantly being discovered by science, from quantum mechanics to natural selection, which require us to think against our common sense to think truthfully.

We need to trust the principle of sufficient reason because we have evolved it as our most indispensable tool for distinguishing reliable conceptions of the world from unreliable ones.  Whether it has this power because we have achieved a precise isomorphism with the world in every respect, I do not know—and neither do I know how we could know about that precisely without begging the question through our reliance on the Principle of Sufficient Reason itself to prove it.  But what I do know is that its sheer effectiveness for explaining the world in a way that does not get us routinely killed but rather allows us to navigate the world remarkably efficiently tells me that even though it is “only” a highly refined perspective resulting from naturally selective processes which honed more and more efficient tools for grasping the world by favoring those which were more successful over those which were not, that that is not bad.

We have a real form of knowledge, in any meaningful sense of term, in relying on our human all too human perspective.  It fits us for the world in a “true” way to the extent that it makes so much coherent sense of an experience within the world.  What could be truer about our grasp of the world than that it enables so many successful predictions and engagements within it?  And the principle of sufficient reason is crucial to this pragmatic engagement as an indispensable heuristic without which we cannot think and which we really cannot even reject coherently on its own terms.

Now maybe the principle of sufficient reason works so extraordinarily because we essentially have within it a way of directly understanding the very logic which structures being itself.  Maybe our minds’ categories have been selected not only for efficient conceptualizations for navigating and dominating the world but are also in principle capable of perceiving all possible truth, given the addition of sufficient information and reasoning skills.  I do not know.  There’s more to say about these matters but I’ve already gone too far off of the original topic, so I’ll leave it there for now.

In closing, there are several key objections that I want to put in the form of questions on which I think the theist has the burden of proof:

(1) Even if we were to accept that there is a distinct principle of necessity which is different from all aspects of either directly or indirectly perceived experience, why should we think this being supernatural and not just a further feature of the natural which just happens to be in principle imperceptible.  In other words, why equate the natural with the contingent and perceptible?  Maybe that’s where the question is begged in favor of theism—every being insofar as it is perceptible has features which at every moment are perceived within contingent circumstances, any of which seem alterable, and then the inference is that if the perceptible being could conceivably lack have any one of its present features, it could conceivably lack all of them and so entirely not exist.

Maybe then perceptibility is the real culprit in making us think that the beings around us cannot be eternal.  Our perception locks us into understanding them entirely in terms of the features about them which can change (since these are the only perceptible ones at all) and therefore makes us leap to the conclusion that nothing about them is unchangingly necessarily there.  So, even if we nonetheless do concede that all the seen things are contingent ones capable of not being, why assume it is something beyond nature and not within it but some distinct or distinguishable part of it which is its principle of necessity?  Isn’t it more parsimonious to infer that the principle of necessity is another feature of nature than to invite the puzzle of “supernaturalness”?  Or is this just semantics?  Is “not contingent” all you mean by “supernatural”?

(2) Why think that we can move from a “principle of necessary being that is distinct from nature as its source” to make any other propositional claims about any other properties this being might have, especially considering none can be empirically observed or tested?  Why think, in other words, that knowing there is a principle of necessary being and that it must not be part of this reality (assuming you are correct), would tell us anything more about this principle of being than the bare fact of that it must necessarily exist?

(3) And, more specifically, if we posit that the principle of necessity is a distinct being from the universe (rather than an imperceptible principle within the universe, or an imperceptible feature of observable parts of the universe, or an imperceptible feature of the totality of the universe) why think that it is personal when personhood is an attribute of contingent beings and one seemingly contingent on very precise arrangements of precise forms of matter in those beings?

(4) And, even if we were to have a good reason to think the principle of necessity to be a distinct personal being from the universe, why should we think that this being would intervene in our history?

(5) And even if were to have good reasons for believing in a personal, interventionist, supernatural principle of necessity, why should we think that it would favor some groups of people as “chosen people” over others when such historically made claims that this has happened are far more readily explicable in terms of all sorts of facts about human tribalism, superstition, and a host of other cognitive errors and moral failings?

(6) And even were we to have good reasons for believing in a personal, interventionist, supernatural principle of necessity that selected the Jews to reveal Himself (while leaving the Hindus and the Egyptians and the Greeks, et al., with complete confusions in their ideas about multiple deities, etc.), what are the good reasons for thinking this being would or could incarnate itself as a particular contingent human being without violating its very ontological nature which constitutes the one supposedly inferable thing about it?  We conceivably only know it is there at all because of its supposed essence as the necessary and necessarily non-contingent being.  Why then think we also know that it can also be contingent?  How is that remotely logical?

(7) What about the problem of evil for the hypothesis of an omnibenevolent personal principle of necessity, the problem of biblical evil for the hypothesis that the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition is a true witness to an omnibenevolent personal principle of necessity?

(8) What about the problems of religious evil, religious moral regressiveness, and religious traditionalistic lack of progressive moral imagination for the hypothesis that religion communicates any special moral guidance or access to the omnibenevolent being through its rituals, traditions, books, or institutions, etc.

(9) What about the problem of religions’ demands for personal, intellectual, and moral commitments beyond epistemic warrant?  Even if you can marshal arguments to demonstrate the minimum plausibility of any of the hypotheses I challenged above, why think that you have sufficient warrant to commit yourself to religious traditions when they require of you far more deference, allegiance, agreement, and control than your merely plausible but inconclusive and contestable should permit you to accept?  Why be religious?  Why add faith to make up the difference in the knowledge gap?  On what grounds is that epistemically defensible?  On what grounds is it responsible to participate in religious traditions which in order to keep the pews stocked with people, have always historically nurtured and exploited people’s cognitive errors (from their superstitiousness to their credulity to their tribalism to their scary willingness to trust bad unjustified authorities)?

Why not be essentially like me, an agnostic who only partially assents to a position on the question of what the necessary principle is, but just lean in favor of the god hypothesis instead of against it the way I do?

All of these questions boil down to one essential question:  Unless you can demonstrate a personal, omnibenevolent, interventionist principle of necessity which has actually turned a specific religion, or religion in general, into a uniquely necessary and uniquely successful vehicle for knowledge and morality, what difference in the world does it make whether the principle of necessity is distinguishable from nature or just a part of it?

I am agnostic on the question of whether the principle of necessity is a distinguishable entity from all of nature or whether it is a feature of a part (or parts) of nature or a feature of the totality like in a Spinozistic conception.  My best inference is the Spinozistic solution is soundest but I am not confident enough to appropriately call it a matter of knowledge.  But beyond that point of relative agnosticism, I do not see any reason to be anything but a gnostic atheist who knows all the other, actually culturally and morally relevant propositions about God, are either highly likely to be false or nearly certainly false.  Why not be an atheist, with just an asterisk of agnosticism on the principle of necessity question?

Outside of metaphysics class, that seems to me the only important question about belief in God.

Your Thoughts?

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