April 14, 2018


In Part 1 through Part 8, I argued that the last ten of Peter Kreefts twenty arguments for God in Chapter 3 of his book Handbook of Christian Apologetics (hereafter: HCA) are all bad arguments and fail to provide us with any good reason to believe that God exists.

In Part 9 through Part 20,  I examined the first five arguments in Kreeft’s case for God, arguments which he appears to think are the best and strongest arguments in his case. The first five arguments are Kreeft’s versions of Aquinas’s Five Ways.  These arguments also all fail, and they provide us with no good reason to believe that God exists.

One important theme in my criticism of Kreeft’s arguments for God is that nearly all of them are NOT actually arguments for the existence of God!  Thus, Chapter 3  of HCA appears to be one big BAIT-and-SWITCH maneuver.  The title of that chapter is “Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God” but there is hardly a single argument for the existence of God in this chapter.  In this current post,  I will spell out this key objection once again.  In the next post after this one, I will consider how Kreeft or a defender of Kreeft would be likely to respond to this Bait-and-Switch criticism.



A philosophical argument for the existence of God, ought to end with one of the following conclusions:

  • God exists.
  • There is a God.

So, one BIG CLUE that Kreeft’s case for God is seriously defective is that in the first ten arguments, which he appears to think are his best and strongest arguments, he almost never explicitly states the conclusion of an argument to be “God exists” or “There is a God”.

There is only ONE argument in the first ten arguments that has the proper conclusion.  Argument #9, the Argument from Miracles, has a proper conclusion:

4. Therefore God exists.  (HCA, p.64)

The conclusions of the other nine arguments fall short of making this claim:

Argument #1:
Therefore, there is some force outside (in addition to) the universe, some real being transcendent to the universe. (HCA, p.50)

Argument #2:
So there must be something uncaused, something on which all things that need an efficient cause of being are dependent. (HCA, p.51)

Argument #3:
…there must ultimately exist a being whose necessity is not derived, that is, an absolutely necessary being.  (HCA, p.53)

Argument #4:
…there must exist…a source and real standard of all the perfections that we recognize belong to us as beings.  (HCA, p.55)

Argument #5:
Therefore, the universe is the product of an intelligent Designer.  (HCA, p.56)

Argument #6:
Therefore, the universe has a cause for its coming into being. (HCA, p.58)

Argument #7:
Therefore, what it takes for the universe to exist must transcend both space and time. (HCA, p.61)

Argument #8:
Thus… [there exists] a Transcendent Creative Mind. (HCA, p.64)

Argument #10:
Therefore this intelligible universe and the finite minds so well suited to grasp it are the products of intelligence.  (HCA, p.66)

So, 90% of Kreeft’s best and strongest arguments “for the existence of God” fail to end with the conclusion “God exists” or “There is a God”, and those nine out of ten arguments all FAIL to be arguments “for the existence of God”; rather, they argue for the existence of a being that has one or two characteristics that are characteristics that are also (supposedly) possessed by God.

In some cases, Kreeft attempts to bridge the logical gap between the conclusion that he actually argues for, and the desired conclusion:

Argument #1:
This is one of the things meant by ‘God’. (HCA, p.50)

Argument #2:
Therefore, there must exist a God: an Uncaused Being who does not have to receive existence like us… (HCA, p.51)

Argument #3:
This absolutely necessary being is God.  (HCA, p.53)

Argument #4:
This absolutely perfect being…is God.  (HCA, p.55)

These additional claims are Kreeft’s attempts to provide a logical connection between the stated conclusions of those arguments and the desired conclusion that “God exists.”

However, Kreeft does NOT argue for or defend any of these key premises, and thus he BEGS THE QUESTION by assuming the truth of the most important and most controversial premises of those arguments.  Thus, even in the cases where Kreeft provides a premise that links the stated conclusion of an argument to the conclusion that “God exists”, he still FAILS to show that “God exists”, because he does not provide any good reason for us to believe those crucial and controversial premises.

Since the title of Chapter 3 is “Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God” we could simply INFER that the conclusion of every one of the twenty arguments is that “God exists.”   This would require adding missing premises to many of his arguments.  For example, Argument #5 has this stated conclusion:

Therefore, the universe is the product of an intelligent Designer.  (HCA, p.56)

We could add a further premise to turn this argument into an argument for God:

A. IF the universe is the product of an intelligent Designer, THEN God exists.

However, this additional premise is clearly FALSE.  We can imagine an evil designer or a designer who had no sense of right and wrong, and if the universe is the product of either an evil designer or an amoral designer, then that would imply that God does NOT exist, because God, by definition, is a perfectly morally good person who designed the universe.  So, if an evil person designed the universe, then the universe was NOT designed by a perfectly morally good person, and thus God does NOT exist.  Therefore, premise (A) is FALSE.  It is possible for the antecedent of (A) to be true while the consequent is false.

Kreeft might, with some justification, complain that we have saddled his argument with an obviously false premise.  But it is not our responsibility to try to construct a solid argument for God out of a crappy argument presented by Kreeft.  Kreeft is a professional philosopher who has taken on the responsibility to present solid arguments for God, and when he provides half-ass arguments that are logically incomplete, arguments that do not explicitly conclude that “God exists”, it is fair to simply point out that his arguments, as presented, FAIL to show the conclusion that they are supposed to show.  It is fair to simply point out that his arguments either BEG THE QUESTION by assuming the truth of controversial premises, or else that they are NOT actually arguments for the existence of God.



One reason why Kreeft presents so many half-ass arguments “for the existence of God” is that he misunderstands the Five Ways of Aquinas, which Kreeft takes to be the strongest and best arguments in his case for God.  The Five Ways of Aquinas are NOT arguments for the existence of God, and so Kreeft starts out with a very fundamental false assumption, which leads him astray.

God, as conceived of in the Christian faith, has many divine attributes.  Although it would be unreasonable to expect a Christian to prove the existence of a being that has ALL of the divine attributes that Christians have traditionally believed God to possess, there are a few divine attributes that are essential to a traditional Christian concept of God:

  • God is an eternally bodiless person (a spirit).
  • God is an eternally omnipotent (all-powerful) person.
  • God is an eternally omniscient (all-knowing) person.
  • God is an eternally perfectly morally good person.
  • God is the creator of the universe.

It is difficult to prove the existence of a being that has just ONE of these divine attributes, but it is much more difficult to prove that there is a being that has ALL FIVE of these divine attributes.  To prove that “God exists”, one must prove that there is a being that has ALL FIVE of these divine attributes, and there is not one single argument in Kreeft’s collection of twenty arguments that makes a serious attempt to do that.

The Five Ways of Aquinas are NOT arguments for the existence of God, because none of the five arguments presented by Aquinas even attempts to show that there is a being who possesses ALL FIVE of the above divine attributes.  However, after presenting the Five Ways in about two pages, Aquinas goes on for over one hundred more pages, in order to establish the existence of a being who has MANY of the divine attributes (or attributes that Aquinas believed to be important attributes of God).  Kreeft misunderstands the purpose of the Five Ways.  These arguments are NOT arguments for the existence of God, they are simply the opening moves of a lengthy and complex case for the existence of God, a case that includes dozens of arguments and that stretches over one hundred pages in Summa Theologica.

In fact MOST of Aquinas’s case for the existence of God is concerned with establishing that there is ONE being who possesses MANY different divine attributes beyond the attributes explicitly discussed in the Five Ways arguments.  One can compare, for example, Peter Kreeft’s version of the Argument from Change with Edward Feser’s presentation of that argument (which includes the rest of the logic from Aquinas found in the one hundred or so pages following the Five Ways passage) to see how badly Kreeft has distorted and misunderstood the reasoning of Aquinas.

In Part 10 I analyze Kreeft’s version of the Argument from Change.  There are eight explicit claims, and five unstated premises. The conclusion of this argument in my interpretation is as follows:

8a. There is exactly one being outside the material universe and that being is the unchanging Source of change.

In Feser’s presentation of the Argument from Change, something close to this conclusion is reached by premise 14:

14. So, there is a purely actual actualizer.  (Five Proofs of the Existence of God, location 494)

Feser is using more technical concepts than Kreeft, but a “purely actual actualizer” is basically the same thing as an “unchanging Source of change” in Kreeft’s simpler terminology.  Although Kreeft’s argument ends with statement (8a),  Feser’s Argument from Change has only just gotten started; it goes on until he arrives at statement number 50:

50. So, God exists.  (Five Proofs of the Existence of God, location 494)

In other words, less than 30%  of Feser’s Argument from Change is concerned with showing the existence of an unchanging source of change, and more than 70% of Feser’s Argument from Change is concerned with establishing that such a being possesses several other divine attributes.  But 100% of Kreeft’s Argument from Change is concerned with showing the existence of an unchanging source of change, and 0% of Kreeft’s Argument from Change is concerned with showing that such a being possesses several other divine attributes.

Feser’s version of this argument contains reasoning that is found in the one hundred or so pages of arguments that Aquinas presents AFTER the Five Ways passage.  Feser’s version of this argument is ACTUALLY an argument for the existence of God.  Kreeft’s version is NOT an argument for the existence of God, it is an argument for the existence of an unchanging source of change.  That is why there are only eight explicitly stated claims in Kreeft’s argument, but there are FIFTY explicitly stated claims in Feser’s version of this argument.  Kreeft simply leaves out most of Aquinas’s reasoning.  Kreeft ends the argument when Aquinas is just getting started.  Kreeft misunderstands and distorts the reasoning of Aquinas, mistakenly thinking that the Five Ways are five arguments for the existence of God, when they are merely the opening moves in a very long and complicated proof of the existence of God.

Robert Pasnau and Christopher Shields are two philosophers who co-authored a book called The Philosophy of Aquinas (hereafter: POA).  In Chapter 4 of POA, they provide a summary of the Argument from Change.  That summary strictly covers the reasoning from the Five Ways passage, and it includes just nine statements.  But the ninth statement does NOT assert that “God exists”:

9. Therefore, there exists an unmoved mover. (POA, p.86)

This is basically the same as the conclusion of Kreeft’s Argument from Change, and basically the same as statement (14) in Feser’s version of the Argument from Change.   However, later in the same chapter, Pasnau and Shields present “Phase Two” of the argument (POA, p.97-99), which begins with the previously arrived at conclusion that there exists “an unmoved mover”. They proceed to outline the reasoning of Aquinas in a series of FIFTY-ONE claims that attempt to show that the unmoved mover has several divine attributes.

So, in this summary of the reasoning of Aquinas, nine out of fifty-eight premises are concerned with showing the existence of an unmoved mover, while forty-nine premises are concerned with showing that an unmoved mover has several divine attributes.  In other words, only about 16% of this summary of Aquinas’s reasoning is concerned with showing that an unmoved mover exists, while about 84% of this reasoning is concerned with showing that an unmoved mover has several divine attributes.

The analysis of Aquinas’s reasoning about God by Pasnau and Shields confirms Feser’s analysis and understanding of Aquinas’s reasoning about God.  Namely,  the little bit of reasoning in the Five Ways passage about the existence of an unmoved mover is merely the opening moves of a long and complicated proof of the existence of God that spans over one hundred pages in Summa Theologica.  

Kreeft mistakenly believes that the very short Argument from Change found in the Five Ways passage represents an argument for the existence of God.  This is a gross misunderstanding of Aquinas.  Aquinas knew that he had a great deal more work to do in order to prove the existence of God.  Kreeft’s misunderstanding of Aquinas, his gross distortion and oversimplification of the reasoning of Aquinas, leads Kreeft to wrongly believe that he can present “Twenty Arguments for the Existence of God” in just thirty-seven pages, devoting less than two pages (on average) to each argument.

If Kreeft had presented just ONE actual argument for the existence of God, such as Aquinas’s Argument from Change (including the reasoning supporting several divine attributes)he would have found that even a very compressed summary of such an argument, without any explanation or justification, would require several pages, and that explaining and defending ONE actual argument for the existence of God would require most, if not all, of the thirty-six pages he used to present his twenty pathetic arguments.

January 23, 2018


Peter Kreeft and his co-author Ronald Tacelli open their Handbook of Christian Apologetics  (hereafter: HCA) with these words about their “reasons for writing this book”:

  1. We are certain that the Christian faith is true.
  2. We are only a little less certain that the very best thing we can possibly do for others is to persuade them of this truth, in which there is joy and peace and love incomparable in this world, and infinite and incomprehensible in the next. … (HCA, p.7)

Kreeft and Tacelli believe that heaven and hell are in the balance for every human being, when it comes to acceptance or rejection of “the Christian faith”.  So, it is very important that they try “to persuade” other people to accept the Christian faith in order for those people to gain a better life now, and a wonderful eternal life in heaven after death, and to avoid a life of eternal misery in hell.

Belief in the existence of God is one of the most basic beliefs in the Christian faith.  If God does NOT exist, then the Christian faith is just a fantasy.  Most of Christian theology rests upon the belief that God exists.  So, if Kreeft is to be successful in persuading others to accept the Christian faith, job number one is to provide good and solid arguments for the existence of God.  So, it is no surprise that after two introductory chapters (one on the idea of “apologetics” and another on the idea of “faith”) the very first Christian belief that Kreeft attempts to prove or show to be true is the belief that God exists.

As I have argued in previous posts, it appears that Kreeft has put his best foot forward by placing his best and strongest arguments for God up front in his case.  So, the first five arguments in Kreeft’s chapter containing twenty arguments for God, are presumably arguments that Kreeft takes to be the strongest and best arguments in his case for God.  If the first five arguments ALL FAIL, then we have good reason to suspect that his entire case will fail as well.

I have previously shown that the last ten arguments in his case all FAIL, so we have reason to suspect that his first five arguments will also fail.  But since these are arguments that he takes to be the best and strongest, we need to carefully examine and evaluate these first five arguments, in case one or more of them is in fact a good and solid argument for God.



Here is the explicitly stated conclusion of Argument #1: “…this being outside the universe…is the unchanging Source of change.” (HCA, p.51).  I have re-stated this claim to clarify it a bit:

8a. There is exactly ONE being outside the material universe and that being is the unchanging Source of change.

One of the first things I look at when analyzing an argument is the conclusion of the argument.  Argument #1 is presumably one of the very best and strongest arguments for God, in the view of Peter Kreeft.  But there is an OBVIOUS and SERIOUS problem with Argument #1: The conclusion does not mention God!

In fact, the word “God” does not appear in anywhere in this argument.  How can Argument #1 be a strong and clear argument for the existence of God, if it never once mentions God?  In order for an argument to be a clear and strong argument for the existence of God, the conclusion of the argument should be that “God exists” or “There is a God”.   Argument #1 fails to satisfy this basic and obvious requirement.

We can fix this obviously defective argument by adding yet another  premise to fill in the logical gap:

(F) IF there is exactly ONE being outside the material universe and that being is the unchanging Source of  change, THEN God exists. 

But this additional premise is highly questionable and, as is seen in Edward Feser’s version of the Argument from Change (in Chapter 1 of Five Proofs of the Existence of God), a fairly long and complex argument needs to be presented in order to support this questionable premise.

In Feser’s presentation of the Argument from Change, MOST of that argument (over 70% of it) is given in support of this one premise (or one very similar to it).  Feser’s presentation of the Argument from Change is a fairly accurate representation of the reasoning of Aquinas; it is also the case that MOST of Aquinas’s case for God is focused on establishing this premise (or one very similar to it).

So, Kreeft left out what appears to be the single most important premise in the Argument from Change.  Kreeft is attempting to save us from an eternity of misery in hell and he is presenting what he thinks is one of his very best and strongest arguments for the most basic belief of the Christian faith, and yet somehow he cannot manage to clearly state the conclusion that “God exists” nor does he manage to explicitly state or provide support for what appears to be the single most important premise of this argument.

Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that (F) is FALSE.   God is a person, if God exists.  But a person cannot be an “unchanging” being, so the existence of an “unchanging” being does NOT imply the existence of God.  In fact, if the phrase “the unchanging Source of change” is supposed to be a reference to the CREATOR of the universe, then the antecedent of (F), i.e. “there is exactly ONE being outside the material universe and that being is the unchanging Source of  change”,  implies that the CREATOR of the universe is unchanging and thus not a person.  But if the CREATOR is not a person, then it follows that God does not exist.  So, to assert that “there is exactly ONE being that is the unchanging Source of change” appears to imply that God does not exist.

I realize that many theologians and philosophers of religion would argue either that (a) God is not a person, or that (b) it is possible for a person to be an unchanging being.  However, both of these positions seem very implausible, so I have serious doubts about premise (F).  In order to adequately argue for (F), one must not only provide strong arguments to support (F), but one must also explain either how God can be a non-person, or else explain how an unchanging being can be a person.

If I die and appear before God and am asked why I rejected Christianity,  I’m going to point to Chapter 3 of HCA, and say:

You sent this incompetent philosopher to persuade me that the Christian faith is true,  so what did you expect me to do?  Blindly accept arguments that are complete crap? Arguments that don’t even state the conclusion on the main question at issue?  Arguments that fail to state the single most important premise of the argument, and that fail to provide support for the single most important premise of the argument?  Screw that!  I’m not going to pretend to be a freaking IDIOT just so that you will let me into heaven.  No thank you.  

An argument that does not end with the conclusion that “God exists” and that never even mentions God does NOT constitute a strong argument for God, especially when such an argument fails to state or defend the single most important premise in that argument, namely a premise that links the explicitly stated conclusion (8a) to the conclusion that actually matters: “God exists”.

Without any further analysis or critique, I can see that the Argument from Change, as presented by Kreeft is CRAP, because the success of the argument depends heavily on the DUBIOUS unstated premise (F), which in order for it to be rationally supported would require many further sub-arguments (at least a half-dozen further sub-arguments), and Kreeft has made no attempt to provide any of these additional sub-arguments to support premise (F).  Given that Kreeft makes no attempt to defend the dubious claim made by premise (F), and given that (F) is the most important, the most crucial, premise in the Argument from Change, this argument FAILS to provide any significant reason to believe that God exists.

These are just a couple of several problems with Argument #1, as we shall see.

Another serious problem with this argument is that (8a) is very unclear, even after my efforts to improve the clarity of this premise.  This premise contains at least two unclear phrases:  “outside the material universe” and “the…Source of change”.  The phrase “the…Source of change” pops up out of nowhere; this phrase does not occur anywhere else in the argument, and Kreeft provides no definition or clarification of what this phrase means.  The phrase “outside the material universe” arises from earlier premises, so I will deal with the unclarity of that phrase when I evaluate previous premises that also make use of that phrase.

Given the serious problems of unclarity with premise (8a) and given the absence of argumentation in support of the dubious unstated premise (F), we already have good reason to view Argument #1 as a complete failure.



Although premise (F) is the most important premise in the whole argument in relation to the ultimate conclusion that “God exists”, there is another very important part of the argument in relation to the explicitly stated conclusion (8a).  In viewing the argument diagram, which displays the reasoning supporting (8a), it is clear that the heart or core of that support is the two-premise argument supporting premise (6a).   The logical structure of the reasoning supporting (8a) is shown in this argument diagram (click on the image below for a clearer view of the diagram):

Diagram Argument 1








Here is what appears to be the core argument in the reasoning supporting (8a):

D. Anything that is outside the material universe is outside matter, space and time.

3a. There must be something outside the material universe.


6a. There is exactly ONE being outside the material universe and that being is outside matter, space and time.

This appears to be the core argument in support of (8a) because both premises of this argument are supported by arguments, and because (6a) is a key premise in the argument supporting (7a) and (8a).  So, this argument is firmly planted in the middle of the flow of logic moving from the initial premises to the stated conclusion (8a).

This core argument is clearly defective, because it is logically INVALID.  Premise (6a) does not follow from (D) and (3a).  We cannot infer that there is “exactly one” being outside the material universe from (D) and (3a).  At best, we can only infer that “at least one” such being exists, leaving open the possibility that hundreds or millions or trillions of such beings exist.

Both premises of this core argument are questionable, but Kreeft provides arguments in support of both premises, so we need to consider those sub-arguments before passing judgment on these two premises.  However, both (D) and (3a) make use of the phrase “outside the material universe” and the meaning of this phrase is UNCLEAR. Furthermore, Kreeft does not provide a definition or clarification of the meaning of this phrase, making it difficult to evaluate the truth of these premises.

The logic of Kreeft’s argument suggests that he is assuming (D) as a premise, in order to infer (6a) from (3a).  Premise (D) appears to be a conceptual claim, a partial analysis of the meaning of the phrase “outside the material universe”.

Since (D) implies that being “outside the material universe” is a sufficient condition for being “outside matter, space and time”,  this means that being “outside matter” is a necessary condition for being “outside the material universe” and that being “outside space” is a necessary condition for being “outside the material universe”, and that being “outside time” is a necessary condition for being “outside the material universe”.

Although Kreeft does not say so explicitly, this also suggests that these three necessary conditions are jointly sufficient.  In other words, if something meets all three of these necessary conditions, then it must be “outside the material universe”.

Based on this plausible interpretation, we can infer a definition of the key phrase in the core argument:

Something X is outside the material universe IF AND ONLY IF:

(a) X is outside matter,
(b) X is outside space,
(c) X is outside time.

Presumably by “outside matter” Kreeft means:  is not made of matter or energy.  Presumably by “outside space” Kreeft means:  does not have any spatial characteristics (does not have a size, a shape, or a location in space). Presumably by “outside time” Kreeft means:  does not have any temporal characteristics (does not have a beginning, an end, or a duration, and is unaffected by the passing of time).

Notice that, in theory, there are eight different combinations of these three conditions, and thus eight different types of beings (click on image below for a clearer view of the chart):

Eight Types of Beings




Ordinary things, such as people, animals, plants, and physical objects, are Type 1 beings.  God, on Kreeft’s view, is a Type 8 being.  But there are potentially six other types of beings besides Type 1 and Type 8 beings.  On Swinburne’s view of God, God is a Type 7 being, because although God is not made of matter or energy, and God does not have any spatial characteristics, God does exist inside time; God is affected by the passing of time, and some of God’s thoughts and actions occur prior in time to other of God’s thoughts and actions.

Another interesting case to consider is that of angels.  Angels appear to be outside matter (i.e. they are not made of matter or energy), but inside time, and perhaps inside space as well.  Angels began to exist at some point in time, according to Christian theology, and although many angels (perhaps all) will continue to exist forever, it is possible for God to annihilate  an angel, so it is possible for an angel to come to an end at a specific point in time; an angel can, at least in theory, have both a beginning at one point in time, and and end at a later point in time.  Angels also appear to have spatial locations.  They appear to particular people at particular times and particular places.  So, although angels are “outside matter”, they appear to be “inside time” and “inside space”; angels appear to be Type 2 beings.

Based on the definition of the phrase “outside the material universe”, it appears that angels are NOT “outside the material universe” because they are inside time, and inside space.  But angels are not made of matter or energy, so one might have been tempted to conclude that angels are “outside the material universe”.  It is odd and very surprising that something as supernatural as an angel would count as something that is inside the material universe.

Furthermore, if Swinburne is right that God is a Type 7 being, a being that exists inside time, then God too would be inside the material universe NOT “outside the material universe”.  Since I agree with Swinburne that God is a Type 7 being, I also reject the view that God is “outside the material universe”, given the definition of this phrase that Kreeft appears to be assuming.  In that case, proving the existence of a being that is “outside the material universe” would be irrelevant to showing that God exists, and thus (3a) and (6a) would be irrelevant to showing that God exists.

In any case, the core argument is INVALID, so it is an UNSOUND argument.

In the next post or two I will consider the sub-arguments that Kreeft gives to support the two premises of this core argument: (3a) and (D).  This will help to determine whether either or both or neither of these premises are true.  If one or both of these premises are false or dubious, that will provide another reason for rejecting the core argument supporting premise (8a).

March 17, 2014

Ed, for the convenience of readers, here is a link to your response to my answer to your first question.

Here is my response:

And thanks back to you for a very gracious and constructive reply! You clarify your position admirably. Also, you are right that philosophers do legitimately serve a role as “public intellectuals” in addressing popular arguments and claims. My friend philosopher John Beversluis published a superb critical study of C.S. Lewis, and I applaud him for doing so. His book was eminently justified by the enormous popularity and influence of Lewis and by the fact that nearly all published studies of Lewis were by admirers and were often tantamount to hagiography. Is further attention to (now not so new) “new” atheists by theistic scholars a needed public service or a redundant slaying of the slain? This is a judgment call, and Jeff and I judged that it was the latter, especially with so many much more formidable atheistic champions still in the field. Theists might reasonably judge otherwise and think that there is more that needs to be said in reply. I do think, as I have elsewhere said, that, though some of the “new” atheists’ arguments are overstated and intemperately expressed, with a bit of work some of these arguments can be made respectable. At any rate, I do not see any reason at all to press the point here. You clearly have tackled some of the “big boys” like Kenny, Oppy, and Mackie.

Also, I think that your final observation that we might have more in common than first appears is correct. Indeed, the unfortunate remark that I made that got us off on the wrong foot—that the case for theism was a “fraud”—was made with what you call the “personalist” accounts in mind, not the “classical theism” you defend (and “fraud” was a bad word choice even applied to those accounts). In 1989 I published a book, God and the Burden of Proof, that stated my criticisms of Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga. In my contribution to the book Does God Exist?, which contains the debate between Kai Nielsen and J.P. Moreland, I criticize Moreland’s argument. In two face-to-face debates with William Lane Craig I stated why I find his apologetic unconvincing. In a survey article on “Natural Theology and Analytic Philosophy” in The Oxford Handbook of Natural Theology, edited by Russell Re Manning, I set out my reasons for thinking that analytic atheists have adequate replies to the “fine tuning” arguments of Craig and Robin Collins. On the basis of these and other studies, I concluded that the “case for theism” as articulated by some of its ablest exponents, had been duly and thoroughly debunked by leading non-theist philosophers such as Oppy, Sobel, Le Poidevin, Schellenberg, Martin, and many others.

As you note, contemporary atheists give short shrift to Aquinas and classical theism. I, like others, have perhaps too quickly assumed that the critics from Ockham to Kenny had done the job and that further attention to the Quinque Viae would be another instance of slaying the slain. Fair enough. However, some recent secular philosophers have addressed Thomistic arguments. For instance, in his classic essay “The Quest for Being” Sidney Hook examines the concept of “Being” and finds it irremediably obscure. He notes that Thomists respond that “Being” is to be understood in terms of the “act of existing”:

“A critic writes: ‘When Sidney Hook and company ask St. Thomas what is meant by saying of this table: ‘It has being’ or ‘it is’—the answer is that there is being predicated of the table the real act and perfection which is the basic cause of all other perfections and predicates.’ On this view, Being is not a noun but a verb and modes of Being are modes of action. Metaphysics apparently is the study of action qua action (The Quest for Being, Dell Publishing Co., 1963, p. 153).”

He continues:

“This does not escape difficulties. It only multiplies them. It is just as unclear how we get from the action of this and the action of that as how we get from the Being of this and the Being of that to Being qua Being. The terms ‘act’ and ‘action’ are just as systematically ambiguous as the terms ‘Being’ or ‘existence.’ In many if not most usages, when we speak of ‘act’ or ‘action’ or the behavior of something it clearly presupposes the antecedent existence of some power, material, or subject matter. And when it does not clearly suppose this, it sets a problem for inquiry. Otherwise we suspect the presence of mystification. No matter how ‘pure’ the act is conceived to be, it is linked in our understanding to a preposition; it is an act of. What acts in the act of Being or existing? Certainly not possibilities, essences, or natures. The meaning of ‘death’ is not lethal; the nature of ‘fire’ burns nothing (153-154).”

I would go further and extend the critique to “essence” as well. To say that there is an “act of existing” that can be added to or done to or brought to (it is hard to know how to express this) an essence thereby causing it to be instantiated inevitably implies—however loudly it is asserted that essence and existence are not really separable—that essences are in some sense “there” prior to actualization. Clearly, the conceptual (and, honestly, the motivational) antecedent to this account is the theological idea of divine creation. Essences exist as divine ideas prior to God’s free choice to actualize some of them in the creation-event. Yet the essence-cum-act schema is hard to justify on non-theological grounds. It seems to have things backwards. It is not that things are as they are because of essences, but that essences are as they are because of things.

As far as I can tell, the only justification for speaking of essences with respect to extra-conceptual (non-abstract) reality—in a sense that is de re and not merely de dicto—is with reference to natural kinds. Water, it seems, is essentially H2O. It is not just that we would not call a particular kind of liquid “water” if it were not H2O; it would not be water if its chemical composition were not H2O. Yet the de re necessity that the substance we refer to by the term “water” (the term is irrelevant) is H2O seems to be purely a physical necessity that derives from the physical facts about oxygen and hydrogen atoms. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms are such that they combine in a particular way to produce a molecule with a characteristic molecular mass, geometric configuration, and set of chemical properties. The only necessity here is physical necessity. Those essential properties that make a water molecule THAT kind of molecule are explained wholly in terms of further physical facts about hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

Oops. Looks like I have slightly exceeded the word limit too. I hope to finish our exchange later this week by replying to your responses to my answers to your second and third questions.

March 5, 2014

Ed, I am going to take the liberty of first replying to your response to my answer to your fourth question. I am going to do this because I think that this is where we most significantly clash, that is, where our fundamental disagreements are most apparent. I want to address these points right away, and the others I will take up after the 15th when I will be back at my office.

Sorry if I was unclear and gave a misleading impression. I do, in fact, think that the laws of nature are best conceived in terms of the powers and liabilities of the entities and systems of entities that make up the natural world. That is, natural regularities are ultimately explicable in terms of the dispositional properties—the powers and the liabilities—of physical things. The most fundamental laws are the active and passive potentialities of the most fundamental physical things—whatever those are. If and when science reaches explanatory “rock bottom,” it will be in terms of some set of simple entities, i.e. some set of entities which, since they have no constituents, will be nothing other than a set of irreducible properties in virtue of which those entities possess their capacities to act or be acted upon. Along with Harré, Madden, Bhaskar, and Cartwright, I “…take the Laws of Nature to be about the powers, dispositions, or tendencies of natural systems to bring about observable phenomena (Harré, ‘Laws of Nature,’ A Companion to the Philosophy of Science, ed. by W.H. Newton-Smith, p. 218).”

In short, I think you and I agree that explanatory hierarchies will come to an end (if they do come to an end) with an uncaused cause—something that has no causal antecedents and is the original, fundamental, or primordial reality that possesses a set of distinctive properties which constitute the ultimate terms of every explanatory regress. I see no reason why that ultimate reality cannot be the original, fundamental, or primordial—and brutally factual—physical reality. Where is the incoherence? A brute fact would be a state of affairs that just is, with no cause or explanation of its existence or nature. There seems to be nothing about the idea of a brute fact per se that entails a logical contradiction.

You argue—quite correctly—that just because something is conceivable does not mean that it is realizable. You can conceive of impossible objects, and even illustrate them as in M.C. Escher drawings, but that does not mean that such objects are realizable in three-dimensional reality. But where is the incoherence or impossibility of the realization of a brute fact? What, if not logical inconsistency, would make brute facts unrealizable? Your answer is that a version of the PSR must be true. I quote your argument at length:

“Consider that whenever we accept a claim as rationally justified, we suppose not only that we have a reason for accepting it (in the sense of a rational justification), but also that our having this reason is the reason why we accept it (in the sense of being the cause or explanation of our accepting it). We suppose that our cognitive faculties track truth and standards of rational argumentation, and that it is because they do that we believe the things we do. But if PSR is false, then we can have no justification for supposing that any of this is really the case. We may in fact believe what we do for no reason whatsoever, and yet it might also falsely seem, again for no reason whatsoever, that we believe things for reasons. And our cognitive faculties may have the deliverances they do for no reason whatsoever — rather than because they track objective truth and standards of logic — and yet it might also falsely seem, for no reason whatsoever, that they do track the latter.

In short, either everything has an explanation or we can have no justification for thinking that anything does. No purported middle ground position, on which some things have genuine explanations while others are “brute facts,” can coherently be made out. If there really could be unintelligible “brute facts,” then even the things we think are not brute facts may in fact be brute facts, and the fact that it falsely seems otherwise to us may itself be yet another brute fact. We could have no reason to believe anything. Rejecting PSR entails the most radical skepticism — including skepticism about any reasoning that could make this skepticism itself intelligible. Again, the view simply cannot coherently be made out.”

For you brute facts are like Descartes’s evil genius. If we admit to such a possibility, it could show up anywhere, making us think that we have knowledge when we are really dead wrong. My first response will be a tu quoque: Affirming the PSR provides no protection at all against universal skepticism. It is one thing to think that things have sufficient reasons; it is something else entirely to say that we are in the epistemological position to discover them. We might go wrong every time we think that we have found the sufficient reason for anything. In Med. III Descartes famously attempted—using nothing but his own ideas and the PSR (or a principle very close to it)—to prove that a good God exists who will not allow us to be constantly deceived. By nearly universal philosophical consent, Descartes’s argument failed. So, to anyone who tries to succeed where Descartes failed—i.e. to prove the existence of a good God using only his own ideas and the PSR—I will only say “Lotsa luck!” It seems, then, that once the boogeyman of universal skepticism is set loose, merely affirming the PSR will not put him back in his cage again. Indeed, the very reasons we adduce for accepting the PSR could themselves be wrong (as, I maintain, they in fact are!).

But is it really so that “…either everything has an explanation or we can have no justification for thinking that anything does?” Why do we think that some things have explanations? Not for any a priori reason but just because we find that they do. Ancient astronomers discovered that the explanation of lunar eclipses is that the moon moves into the earth’s shadow. Finding that the moon sometimes moves into the earth’s shadow is simply the discovery of a fact about the world—a fact that explains another fact. When you stop and think about it, the early Pre-Socratic philosophers really went out on a limb to think that you could explain natural things in terms of other natural things. They had no a priori guarantee of success, and prior accounts had invoked gods and magic. Yet no Las Vegas jackpot has paid off as lavishly as that speculative leap. Success breeds confidence, and finding scientific explanations is the biggest success story the human race has to tell.

Could we be wrong about everything? Sure, if by “could” we mean “is a logical possibility”—and, again, the evil genius is not exorcised merely by invoking the PSR. But—and this is the only answer to the bogey of universal skepticism—the logical possibility that I could be wrong is insufficient reason to think that I might actually be wrong. All contemporary epistemologists of whom I am aware are fallibilists, that is, they hold that we can know that P even if possibly not-P. For skepticism to have any bite against a fallibilist epistemology, it must do more than simply indicate that we could be wrong. The skeptic must take on a burden of proof and show not just that mistakes are possible but that they have some significant degree of probability. Likewise, for your skeptical argument to be cogent, you would have to show that your scenario is not only possible but significantly probable. That is, you would have to show that, given the possibility of brute facts, they are likely to pop up even where they most clearly seem to be absent, i.e. where we seem most clearly to have reliable explanations (e.g. lunar eclipses).

Finally, what about the terms used to justify the claims that God is self-explanatory? Did I unfairly dismiss these as ad hoc devices? The fact that a concept has a respectable pedigree does not mean that it has legitimate application in a given context. As you note, the actuality/potentiality was developed by Aristotle to deal with the challenge of the Eleatics about change. There is nothing wrong with concepts of actuality and potentiality per se; indeed, as I indicate above, I endorse their use in the philosophy of science. But, as Kant argued at great length, even concepts that are quite innocent in one environment can become obscurantist in another. Such—or so it appears to me—is the case when the innocent actuality/potentiality distinction becomes the basis for saying things like “God is pure actuality” or “God is the act of existence.” It makes sense to say that something actualizes its potential, but even if something actualizes all of its potentials, it does not thereby become “pure actuality”—whatever that is. We speak meaningfully of tasks being completed but nothing is “pure completeness.” An empty vessel can be filled, but nothing is “pure fullness.” “Actuality,” like “completeness” or “fullness,” seems to me to be an abstract noun that has it uses but cannot constitute the identity of a substance.

BTW, saying, as I did, that these terms sounded obscure and fishy to me was a personal confession, not a blanket condemnation. The EPR paradox sounded obscure to me until Prof. John Earman explained it to me in grad school. Saying how these terms sound to me was not a dismissal but an invitation to be instructed. Tell you what: If you will send me a (signed, if you would) copy of your book Scholastic Metaphysics, I will read it carefully and give it a thorough review.

I will address your other responses after 3/15. Thanks much for this enjoyable and informative exchange.

February 28, 2014

Ed, Here is your fourth question to me:

“4. In response to another reader’s question, about Craig’s version of the First Cause argument, you wrote: “Both theists and atheists begin with an uncaused brute fact. For Craig it is God, and for me it is the universe.” Now, as you know, the expression “brute fact” is typically used in philosophy to convey the idea of something which is unintelligible or without explanation. And your statement gives the impression that all theists, or at least most of them, regard God as a “brute fact” in this sense.

But in fact that is the reverse of the truth. Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, Thomists, Leibnizian rationalists, et al. would denythat God is a “brute fact.” They would say that the explanation for God’s existence lies in the divine nature — for Aristotelians, in God’s pure actuality; for Neoplatonists, in his absolute simplicity; for Thomists, in the fact that his essence and existence are identical; for Leibnizians in his being his own sufficient reason; and so forth. (Naturally the atheist will not think the arguments of these thinkers are convincing. But to say that they are not convincing is not the same thing as showing that the theist is either explicitly or implicitly committed to the notion that God is a “brute fact.”)

But perhaps you think the standard interpretation of the views of Aristotelians, Neoplatonists, Thomists, Leibnizian rationalists, et al. is mistaken. Perhaps you think that these thinkers are in fact all explicitly or at least implicitly committed to the thesis that God is a “brute fact.” So, could you please tell us where you have spelled out an argument justifying the claim that all or at least most philosophical theists regard God as a “brute fact” or are at least implicitly committed to the claim that he is? Is there a book or journal article written by you or by someone else in which we can find this justification?”

The short answer is that my statement was not meant as a historical remark, but as an assessment of what I see as the genuine philosophical alternatives. As I see it, the choice between naturalism and theism comes down to a choice between ultimate brute facts: God or the universe. Which is the more satisfactory terminus of or explanatory chains, the primordial or fundamental features of the universe, on the one hand, or a supernatural being with the omni-predicates attributed by theism? My view is that the former choice is at least as defensible as the latter, and that each choice amounts to the selection of a brutally-factual end-point for our explanatory enterprises.

As for your historical analysis, you are, of course, exactly right. Traditionally, most theists have regarded God as in some sense self-explanatory. Recently, perhaps in response to accumulated skeptical responses to traditional metaphysics, some leading theists seem to be backing away from those claims. My reading of Richard Swinburne is that he concedes that the universe could be the ultimate, uncaused existent, but that theism is the preferred hypothesis because of its allegedly greater simplicity (an argument I challenge in detail in my 1989 book God and the Burden of Proof). Likewise, as I understand William Lane Craig, his argument does not rest on the Principle of Sufficient reason, or any definition of divine necessity, but upon the metaphysical intuition that whatever begins to exist must have a cause. When it comes to things that begin in space and time, I share Craig’s intuition. When it comes to the origin of space/time itself, I do not.

Why think that there could be brute facts? Two reasons: (1) Our ordinary explanatory practices definitely do not require total explanation, and (2) The alternative to brute facts—that anything could be self-explanatory—is highly dubious.

(1) In all of the modes of explanation in natural science and ordinary life, explanation proceeds piecemeal from explanandum to explanans, where the latter, at least temporarily, is left unexplained. There is nothing wrong with this procedure. I can know that the pipes burst because of the freezing temperatures and the fact that ice is less dense than water, even if I do not have detailed knowledge of the structure of the water molecule. In tracing back causes to effects we hope ultimately to come to some set of completely general and basic laws and some set of fundamental entities. Let’s suppose that the Holy Grail of physics is found and a satisfactory TOE is one day established. We will then have some set of ultimate facts for which no deeper explanation exists, and this is precisely what we have hoped all along to find. In explanation, something is always left unexplained, and that this is the case when we reach physical “rock bottom” should neither surprise nor chagrin us. Indeed, there are logically only two alternatives to reaching a brutally-factual explanatory “rock bottom”: Either the explanatory chain proceeds back ad infinitum, or it terminates in something that is not brutally factual but is, in some sense, self-explanatory. As for the first alternative (and pace Prof. Craig), we cannot know a priori that the chain does not extend forever. I am supposing that, in fact, it seems to terminate in a fundamental theory. The second alternative to a brutally-factual explanatory terminus is something that is self-explanatory.

(2) What could it possibly mean to say that something is self-explanatory? I know that, as you note above, Ed, many philosophers have made suggestions here. I find these to be very obscure. They sound to me like verbal formulas devised to obviate a problem rather than solve it. I am not even sure that it is coherent to say that “God is pure actuality” or “God is his own sufficient reason.” I would have to ask for a very careful unpacking of these phrases before I would concede that they are meaningful.

In the meantime, it seems to me that the most obvious way for something to be self-explanatory would be for its existence to be logically necessary. But this option leads us into all the notorious problems associated with the ontological argument. How can there be a concept that guarantees its own instantiation? It can never be contradictory to deny the exemplification of a concept, because that denial does not contradict any of the content of that concept, but only denies that such content is instantiated in extra-conceptual reality. “The non-existent necessarily existent being,” is, of course, a contradictory concept. However, there is, and can be, no contradiction in saying “The concept of the necessarily existent being is not instantiated.” In fact, as has long been known since Russell’s famous example of “the present King of France,” to deny that concept is exemplified is merely to say “There is no x such that x exemplifies predicates P1, P2, P3…Pn.” Such a statement in no way contradicts the mentioned concept, whatever its content.

In what other way, other than by being logically necessary, could an entity be self-explanatory? Well, it could be metaphysically rather than logically necessary. As far as I know, the best candidate for specifying a notion of metaphysical necessity is the PSR, which we may express as: “Nothing exists or is what it is unless there is a sufficient reason for its existence and its nature.” But why should we accept the PSR? As I say above, our ordinary explanatory practices do not presuppose it. Is it intuitively obvious, as I think that Leibniz held that it was? Not to me. On the contrary, with Hume, my intuition is that there very well could be something that exists without any explanation. As curious creatures we may hanker for an explanation for, literally, everything, but I can see no a priori basis for thinking that reality owes us such satisfaction.

The upshot is that if there are no indisputable principles requiring either a logically or metaphysically necessary being, then it is eminently rational to posit brute facts.

Ed, thanks for the chance to address these questions. As always, the subsequent discussion could go on forever, but life is short, and you and I both have many other pressing duties.

February 26, 2014

Ed, your third question and accompanying commentary was this:

In response to a reader’s comment, you wrote:

I think Bertrand Russell’s beautifully succinct critique of all causal arguments holds good: “If everything requires a cause, then God requires a cause. However, if anything can exist without a cause, it might as well be the universe as God.” Exactly.

Now, your Secular Outpost co-blogger and fellow atheist Jeffery Jay Lowder agrees with me that this is not in fact a good objection to arguments for a First Cause, because it attacks a straw man. Specifically, Lowder has said:

[N]o respectable theologian or theistic philosopher has ever made the claim, “everything has a cause.” Yet various new atheists have proceeded to attack that straw man of their own making. I remember, when reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, where he attacked that straw man and cringing. There are many different cosmological arguments for God’s existence and none of them rely upon the stupid claim, “everything has a cause.”

You won’t find that mistake made by Quentin Smith, Graham Oppy, Paul Draper, or (if we add a theistic critic to the list) Wes Morriston.

End quote. Now it would seem that what Lowder calls a “mistake” is one that you, Keith Parsons, have made. But is Lowder wrong? If he is, please tell us exactly which theistic philosophers who defend First Cause arguments – Avicenna? Maimonides? Aquinas? Scotus? Leibniz? Clarke? Garrigou-Lagrange? Craig? — actually ever gave the argument Russell was attacking.

My response: In effect, I responded to this in a reply I made to Jeff. Let me quote that:

“What about Russell’s claim, to which Ed adverts, that (paraphrasing): “If everything has a cause, then God has a cause. On the other hand, if something can exist without a cause, then it might be the universe rather than God.” Does this attack a straw man? Well, as usual, it depends on how we read it. Is Russell charging that theists make the following argument?

If everything has a cause, then there has to exist something without a cause.
Everything has a cause.
Therefore, something (i.e. God) exists without a cause.

I think it is safe to say that you will not find such an argument outside of the paper of a “C” student in Phil. 101. The conclusion contradicts the second premise and the first premise is necessarily false since the antecedent contradicts the consequent. If Russell is caricaturing theistic philosophers as the authors of this or a similarly bad argument, he is indeed attacking a straw man.

Once again, however, I think that there is a good idea here that can be turned into a much more challenging argument. I would propose the following quasi-Russell argument


QRA: If everything has an explanation, then God has an explanation, or, if it is possible that something does not have an explanation, then the universe might be that unexplained “something.” Symbolically, I would represent this argument as follows:

[□(∀x)Hxe → □Hge] v [◊(∃x)~Hxe) → ◊(x = u)]

I think Ed would have no problem with the left disjunct and would argue that God has an explanation in the sense that he is self-explanatory.

I would opt for the right since I consider brute facts to be possible, and that the universe (or, rather, its primordial state or fundamental aspects) can be brutally factual.”

The problem here, of course, involves the word “cause” which even philosophers often use imprecisely. The notion of “cause” has also changed over the history of Western philosophy. Penelope Mackie gives a succinct statement of some of those changes in here essay “Causality” in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy:

“In modern philosophy (as in modern usage in general) the notion of cause is associated with the idea of something’s producing or bringing about something else (its effect); a relation sometimes called “efficient causation.” Historically, the term ‘cause’ has a broader sense, equivalent to ‘explanatory feature.’ This usage survives in the description of Aristotle as holding ‘the doctrine of the four causes.’ The members of Aristotle’s quartet, the material, formal, efficient, and final cause correspond to four kinds of explanation. But only the efficient cause is unproblematically a candidate for a cause that produces something distinct from itself.”

My hypothesis is that Russell, an author of two comprehensive histories of philosophy, was using “cause” in the broader, historical sense that was much closer to “explanation” than to “efficient cause.” This was certainly the sense I intended when I endorsed Russell’s comment. In that case, I don’t think Russell’s statement, or my endorsement, was quite the straw man Jeff decries!

January 6, 2018

I had hoped to answer the question “Does God exist?” in 2017, at least to my own satisfaction.  No such luck.  That was a bit too aggressive of a goal.   However, I did make some good progress.  I learned that Norman Geisler’s case for God (in When Skeptics Ask) is a steaming pile of dog crap, and I learned that at least half of Peter Kreeft’s case for God (in Handbook of Christian Apologetics) is of a similar quality.

I also began to examine a third case for God by a third Thomist philosopher of religion:  Edward Feser (in Five Proofs of the Existence of God).  Feser’s case is much more extensive than either Geisler’s case or Kreeft’s case.  However, much of Feser’s case depends on the success of the first of his five arguments for God, and I am learning that Feser’s first argument suffers from serious problems of unclarity,  which was my main objection to every one of Geisler’s arguments and to most of the arguments of Kreeft (in the half of his case I have evaluated).  You would think that after more than seven centuries of intellectual effort somebody would be able to state a Thomistic argument for the existence of God with significant clarity and force, but Feser appears to have failed at this task, just as Geisler and Kreeft failed, even though Feser makes a much better effort at this than they have.

In 2017, my project of analyzing and evaluating Swinburne’s case for God has also moved forward significantly.  I am about 2/3 of the way through a revision of my initial draft article about Swinburne’s case for God.  Currently,  I’m revising a section on his Teleological Argument from Spacial Order (TASO), which is Swinburne’s modern inductive version of the classical argument from design.  The dozen pages or so that I have written on this particular argument are some of the best stuff I’ve ever written on the question of the existence of God (although I am mostly presenting Swinburne’s views and only add a couple of critical points of my own).

I plan to continue to work on analysis and evaluation of Kreeft’s case for God this year, and on analysis and evaluation of Feser’s case for God, and I hope to finally complete my article on Swinburne’s case for God, and submit it for publication.   Ideally, I will also find time for analysis and evaluation of William Craig’s case for God, and one or two other cases for God.  If so, then there is a good chance that in December of this year,  I will be in a good position to answer the question “Does God exist?”

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