July 13, 2020

In my first video in this series on the Kalam as pertaining to leading light of internet atheism, CosmicSkeptic, I looked at running a commentary that hoped to highlight the need for clarity in many of the points that Alex O’Connor made in a vide debunking his former self. In the second video, I have continued this but concentrated far more on his excellent interview of William Lane Craig that he recently gave.

This video focusses largely on the Kalam Cosmological Argument and the way proponents fail to deal adequately with criticisms from a conceptual nominalist position.

My last one in this three-part series will deal with God’s supposed free will and decision-making ability within a timeless and causeless scenario.

 


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June 26, 2019

I have said this many times before in different ways and as part of different posts, but I thought I would explicitly make this point on its own. Natural Law Theory and the essentialism upon which it depends, as part of a Thomistic/Catholic philosophy, depends on the negation of nominalism, and depends on the clarity of categories. Without these, the whole project falls apart. I wrote about this in my previous post:

Natural Law Theory (NLT) is an ethical theory derived from the thinking of people such as Thomas Aquinas that attempts to establish that humans, for example, have an ideal form or essence that dictates how they should act. The form of a particular species of bird is that it has feathers, a beak, two eyes, can fly, has a particular colouration and so on. The essence of a bird can be described by listing, one assumes, its properties. There is, in reality (so they would say), some objective notion of what these properties are.

For all of these thinkers, literally everything has this kind of essence, though those essences will differ between things. The idea that homosexual humans (I use this as an example, many other properties could also be used) are morally wrong is derived from the notion that they have an essence, a natural form, to which they should adhere, but do not. A good badger is a badger that most resembles the essence of a badger. A good human is a human who most resembles the nature or essence of a human. Homosexuals or some other group of supposedly morally bad people are morally bad because homosexuality is not a property of the human essence, or essential property.

To confuse matters, we could subcategorise humans in terms of male and female as well. In fact, one of the problems with essentialism and Thomistic philosophy is that you could subcategorise anything further and further to create more and more essences until you eventually have an individual instantiation of a thing. For example, you could subcategorise humans into males and females. But why not continue with other categories? Age, hair colour, size, geographical distribution, skin colour and so on but each of these categories could be sliced and diced even further. Who gets to define the categories? Of course, such advocates of NLT or Thomism would say that God gets to define this, but how do we know what those categories are? We can look around us at the natural world, but as I have at length set out before, categorising the natural world in light of evolution is utterly problematic.

There were some good comments on the piece. For instance:

Since almost everyone goes through a phase in childhood where they lie, should we categorize those who don’t go through that phase as unnatural or wrong?

and

They seem to allow variation in physical characteristics but not in mental characteristics.

I guess we should take some comfort in the fact that they’re only partially bigots. It’d be much worse if such Thomists also happened to see a dark skin color or epicanthal folds as “intrinsically disordered.”

Evolutionarily, of course, its the pale skinned humans (with a mix of neanderthal genes, no less) which adhere the least to what we might think of the essential, original (physical) form of homo sapiens. Something I take great joy in thinking about, when considering white supremacists. The folks arguing loudly about ‘mongrels’ turn out to be the mongrels. Oh, thank you nature for that delicious turn. :)

Nominalism, or conceptual nominalism, is the denial of such categories as abstract entities; such categorisations are invented by humans and exist only in our minds for pragmatic reasons. The simple fact of the matter is that we can invent and do invent any category we want. We categorise foetus through baby, infant, toddler, child, adolescent through to adult, pensioner and so on.

The simplified development of a human.

But it doesn’t mean that these stages have objective existence. I could invent any category I want but it doesn’t mean I magic that delineated category into existence. As I wrote in my book The Little Book of Unholy Questions (UK – presently on offer):

424. Many argue that there is no such thing as objective morality, because any idea is subjective, as I will set out. Abstract ideas (such as objective morality) do not and cannot exist objectively. It is anthropocentric to imagine they do. Imagine a more intelligent alien life-form comes to earth and sees a table. They have somehow not invented tables. This table is not a table to them. In other words, a table only has properties that make it a table within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items – i.e. tableness. Without humans existing on earth, for example, ‘tables’ would not exist. Thus the label of ‘table’ is a result of ‘subjectively human’ evolution. If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don’t exist materially. For example, a ‘forqwibllex’ is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have ‘made-up’). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does – have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don’t even have names, but to which they have assigned ‘mental labels’, for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A table, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely they same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker. Therefore, the question, God, is: do abstract ideas exist outside of the subjective mind of the thinking entity?

425. In what location do these abstracts exist?

426. What happens when we argue over the properties of an object / family of objects? I say a ‘hero’ has properties x, you disagree and say heroes have properties y. Who is right, and which abstract objectively exists?

The whole enterprise comes down to arguing that God must then design, create and thus define these categories. That is the only way to properly establish these categories in any objective fashion because we clearly can’t do it subjectively. This isn’t, then Natural Law Theory, but Divine Law Theory whereby things don’t arise naturally but under the guidance and resulting from the will and creative input of God.

As such, this all comes down to epistemology. How do we know a) what the categories are (human or homo sapiens, but not homo australopithecus, for example) and b) what the properties for each of those categories would be (homosexuality, lying as a kid, lying for the greater good – to stop a murder, etc.). And I am not sure that the only viable source of data on this, the Bible, is at all clear.

So, how does the Thomist navigate the epistemological minefield of essentialism? Do they, themselves, subjectively define the categories and properties to which we must adhere? It looks rather similar to the project of subjective morality!

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October 21, 2017

I have written about nominalism quite a number of times, both here at the blog and in my books (most recently in Did God Create the Universe from Nothing? Countering William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument). For those of you unfamiliar with the topic, let me briefly explain:

Abstract Objects

Abstract objects are incredibly important aspects within the context of philosophy. They include all of the labels and categories of things (tokens). These types are abstract. So, for example, a chair is both the token (actual chair) and the type (an abstract labeling as such). This can include numbers, universal ideas like redness, ideas like courage and justice, and even individual humans, such as Jonathan Pearce.

Because of their very nature, in being abstract, they can cause headaches for physicalism (and naturalism) and causality. Ever since the Greek times, there has been the famous problem known as the Problem of Universals. This deals with the problem in defining what the properties of objects are, ontologically speaking (i.e., what existence they have). Universals are common (universal) properties contained by more than one object. Two cars and a ball being red – what is redness? How can these different objects have an identical property and is that property real or in the mind of the conceiver, or indeed, contained within speech? Are these abstract objects and universals causally potent? Can redness take a position in a causal chain or relationship?

Platonism (realism)

Realists claim that these abstracta are real – that they exist in some tangible way. Plato, from whom the term came, believed that universals, like redness, existed separately from the particular objects (particulars) which contained said property. Platonic realism states that such entities exist independently from the particular, as opposed to Aristotelian realism states that the universals are real but dependent on the particulars.

Some arguments propose that, in order to have truth value in statements, universals must exist, such that “This apple is red” implies that the universal of redness exists for the proposition to be truthful.

One fundamental issue for such theories is: where is the locus of these universals? Where can they be found and what is their ontology?

Nominalism

Nominalism stands in stark contrast to realism in that the adherents state that only particulars exist, and not universals. Properties of particular objects can account for eventual similarity between objects (such as the green of grass and the green of a painted wall). Universals do not exist.

Conceptualism is sometimes called conceptual nominalism, such that universals and abstracts exist, but only in the individual minds of the conceivers (as concepts). (German) Idealism is close to this (think Kant, Hegel and Schelling) in believing universals to be in the minds of rational beings.

Nominalism can become VERY in-depth and confusing (when talking about the different types such as trope theory and resemblance theory). My opinion is that the discussions are crucial to the rest of metaphysics; it is just unfortunate that the discussion can be quite dry and dull. Here is an excerpt from the wiki entry on nominalism:

Nominalism arose in reaction to the problem of universals, specifically accounting for the fact that some things are of the same type. For example, Fluffy and Kitzler are both cats, or, the fact that certain properties are repeatable, such as: the grass, the shirt, and Kermit the Frog are green. One wants to know in virtue of what are Fluffy and Kitzler both cats, and what makes the grass, the shirt, and Kermit green.

The realist answer is that all the green things are green in virtue of the existence of a universal; a single abstract thing that, in this case, is a part of all the green things. With respect to the color of the grass, the shirt and Kermit, one of their parts is identical. In this respect, the three parts are literally one. Greenness is repeatable because there is one thing that manifests itself wherever there are green things.

Nominalism denies the existence of universals. The motivation for this flows from several concerns, the first one being where they might exist. Plato famously held, on one interpretation, that there is a realm of abstract forms or universals apart from the physical world (see theory of the forms). Particular physical objects merely exemplify or instantiate the universal. But this raises the question: Where is this universal realm? One possibility is that it is outside of space and time. A view sympathetic with this possibility holds that, precisely because some form is immanent in several physical objects, it must also transcend each of those physical objects; in this way, the forms are “transcendant” only insofar as they are “immanent” in many physical objects. In other words, immanence implies transcendence; they are not opposed to one another. (Nor, on this view, would there be a separate “world” or “realm” of forms that is distinct from the physical world, thus shirking much of the worry about where to locate a “universal realm”.) However, naturalists assert that nothing is outside of space and time. Some Neoplatonists, such as the pagan philosopher Plotinus and the philosopher Augustine, imply (anticipating conceptualism) that universals are contained within the mind of God. To complicate things, what is the nature of the instantiation or exemplification relation?

Conceptualists hold a position intermediate between nominalism and realism, saying that universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality.

Moderate realists hold that there is no realm in which universals exist, but rather universals are located in space and time wherever they are manifest. Now, recall that a universal, like greenness, is supposed to be a single thing. Nominalists consider it unusual that there could be a single thing that exists in multiple places simultaneously. The realist maintains that all the instances of greenness are held together by the exemplification relation, but this relation cannot be explained.

Finally, many philosophers prefer simpler ontologies populated with only the bare minimum of types of entities, or as W. V. Quine said “They have a taste for ‘desert landscapes.’” They attempt to express everything that they want to explain without using universals such as “catness” or “chairness.”

As ever, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on nominalism is great – here.

As is the SEP entry on abstract objects – here.

As is the superb SEP entry on properties found here.

Other useful SEP entries are Challenges to Metaphysical Realism, Platonism in Metaphysics, and the wiki entry on the Third Man Argument (an argument from Plato that shows an incoherent infinite regress in relational universals, which can be found in the SEP here).

How the area is relevant to the philosophy of religion – Craig and the Kalam

DidGodCreatetheUniverseI have written in the aforementioned book that largely deals with the idea of nominalism and how it affects the Kalam Cosmological Argument. As I set out in a post a few weeks back, this excerpt starts to set out the importance of nominalism/realisn to the debate:

Firstly, the only thing, it can be argued, that “has begun to exist” is the universe itself (i.e. all the matter and energy that constitute the universe and everything in it). Thus the first premise and the conclusion are synonymous—the argument is entirely circular.

So how do I establish that the only thing which has begun to exist is the universe? We may think that things like tables, chairs, humans, rocks, lemmings and so on exist. Well, they do in one sense (an arrangement of matter/energy), but in the sense of the abstract labels of “rock” or “chair”, they are exactly that, abstract labels. Their existence, in Platonic terms, as some kind of objective entity, requires the philosophical position of (Platonic) realism. Platonic realism, in simple terms, is the position that universals such as redness or doghood and abstractions (kinds, characteristics, relations, properties etc.) are not spatial, temporal or mental but have a different ontology, existing separately from the objects which instantiate such properties.[ii] The opposite position to this is nominalism, which can mean the denial of the existence of these abstract labels in some sense.

For example, in order for the statement “John Smith is a gardener” to hold a truth value, there must be some existence property defined by “gardener” such as “gardenership”. This universal is different from the instance of the universal property found in John Smith. This is not a position that Craig adheres to. All we have on a nominalist or conceptualist worldview (as opposed to realist) is a transformative coming into existence. What this means is that what makes the chair, the molecules and atoms, already existed in some form or other before the “chair” came to be. So the matter or energy did not “begin to exist”. This merely leaves the label of “chair”.

The nominalist, as stated, adopts a position which denies the existence of universals, such as redness or gardenership, and claims that only individuals or particulars exist. Conceptualism or conceptual nominalism, on the other hand, is a position which claims that universals only exist within the framework of the thinking (conceiving) mind. Most philosophers agree that abstract objects are causally inert, by definition. This means that, at best, the abstract label is unable to have causal power anyway (regardless of its ontology).

To illustrate this, let’s now look at the “label” of “chair” (in a very cogent way, all words are abstractions that refer to something or another, but nominalists will say that these abstractions, or the relationship between them and the reference points, do not exist, out there, in the ether). This is an abstract concept, I posit, that exists, at most, only in the mind of the conceiver. We, as humans, label the chair abstractly and it only means a chair to those who see it as a chair—i.e. it is subjective. The concept is not itself fixed. My idea of a chair is different to yours, is different to a cat’s and to an alien’s, as well as different to the idea of this object to a human who has never seen or heard of a chair (early humans who had never seen a chair, for example, would not know it to be a chair. It would not exist as a chair, though the matter would exist in that arrangement). I may call a tree stump a chair, but you may not. If I was the last person (or sentient creature) on earth and died and left this chair, it would not be a chair, but an assembly of matter that meant nothing to anything or anyone.[iii] The chair, as a label, is a subjective concept existing in each human’s mind who sees it as a chair. A chair only has properties that make it a chair within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human-derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items—i.e. chairness. The ascription of these properties to another idea is arguable and not objectively true in itself. Now let’s take an animal—a cat. What is this “chair” to it? I imagine a visual sensation of “sleep thing”. To an alien? It looks rather like a “shmagflan” because it has a “planthoingj” on its “fdanygshan”. Labels are conceptual and depend on the conceiving mind, subjectively.

What I mean by this is that I may see that a “hero”, for example, has properties X, Y and Z. You may think a hero has properties X, Y and B. Someone else may think a hero has properties A, B and X. Who is right? No one is right. Those properties exist, in someone, but ascribing that to “heroness” is a subjective pastime with no ontic reality, no objective reality.

This is how dictionaries work. I could make up a word: “bashignogta”. I could even give it a meaning: “the feeling you get when going through a dark tunnel with the tunnel lights flashing past your eyes”. Does this abstract idea not objectively exist, now that I have made it up? Does it float into the ether? Or does it depend on my mind for its existence? I can pass it on from my mind to someone else’s using words, and then it would be conceptually existent in two minds, but it still depends on our minds. What dictionaries do is to codify an agreement in what abstract ideas (words) mean, as agreed merely by consensus (the same applies to spelling conventions—indeed, convention is the perfect word to illustrate the point). But without all the minds existing in that consensus, the words and meanings would not exist. They do not have Platonic or ontic reality.

 Thus the label of “chair” is a result of human evolution and conceptual subjectivity (even if more than one mind agrees).

If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don’t exist materially. Without wanting to labour my previous point, a “forqwibllex” is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have “made-up”). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does—have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don’t even have names, but to which they have assigned “mental labels”, for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label as such (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A chair, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely the same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker! Perhaps it can, but it just seems to get into more and more needless complexity.

When did this chair “begin to exist”? Was it when it had three legs being built, when 1/2, 2/3, 4/5, 9/10 of the last leg was constructed? You see, the energy and matter of the chair already existed. So the chair is merely a conceptual construct. More precisely a human one. More precisely still, one that different humans will variously disagree with.

Let’s take the completed chair. When will it become not-a-chair? When I take 7 molecules away? 20? A million? This is sometimes called the paradox of the beard / dune / heap or similar. However, to be more correct, this is an example of the Sorites Paradox, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus. It goes as follows. Imagine a sand dune (heap) of a million grains of sand. Agreeing that a sand dune minus just one grain of sand is still a sand dune (hey, it looks the same, and with no discernible difference, I cannot call it a different category), then we can repeatedly apply this second premise until we have no grains, or even a negative number of grains and we would still have a sand dune. Such labels are arbitrarily and generally assigned so there is no precision with regards to exactly how many grains of sand a dune should have.

This problem is also exemplified in the species problem which, like many other problems involving time continua (defining legal adulthood etc.), accepts the idea that human categorisation and labelling is arbitrary and subjective. The species problem states that in a constant state of evolving change, there is, in objective reality, no such thing as a species since to derive a species one must arbitrarily cut off the chain of time at the beginning and the end of a “species’” evolution in a totally subjective manner. For example, a late Australopithecus fossilised skull could just as easily be labelled an early Homo skull. An Australopithecus couple don’t suddenly give birth to a Homo species one day. These changes take millions of years and there isn’t one single point of time where the change is exacted. There is a marvellous piece of text that you can see, a large paragraph[iv] which starts off in the colour red and gradually turns blue down the paragraph leaving the reader with the question, “at which point does the writing turn blue?” Of course, there is arguably no definite and objectively definable answer—or at least any answer is by its nature arbitrary and subjective (depending, indeed, on how you define “blue”).

So, after all that, what has begun to exist? A causally inert abstract concept.

You see, once we strip away the labels and concepts, all we have left is matter and energy which is only ever involved in what has been called transformative creation, meaning it doesn’t begin to exist, but is being constantly reformed throughout time. It only began to exist at the Big Bang or similar (in Craig’s model).

So where does this leave us? The implications are twofold. Firstly, as Grünbaum illustrates, with all effects being merely transformative creations (i.e. nothing comes into existence but is transformed from already existing matter or energy), then we have an equivocation of the term cause. In Premise 1 we are talking about transformative causality, whereas in the conclusion we are talking about creation ex nihilo or creation out of nothing.

What I eventually go on to show is the further ramifications of this:

This has some fairly crucial implications for the KCA necessitating a reformulation as follows:

1) The universe that begins to exist has a cause for its existence;

2) The universe begins to exist;

3) Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

If we then project the syllogistic changes from Section 3.1 over this reformulated syllogism then we get an even more tautologous and incoherent argument:

1) The universe that begins to exist has the universe as the causal condition for its existence.

2) The universe began to exist.

3) Therefore, the universe had the universe as a causal condition for its existence.

For this and other reasons, sorting out the abstracts debate is crucial as to whether the KCA holds.

Other relevant arguments

But nominalism is not restricted, in its relevance, to the KCA alone. It is pertinent to pretty much all areas of philosophy and theology that are connected to metaphysics. Let’s take morality. This is the ultimate abstract idea. Many religionists believe in an absolute, objective morality. However, if they fail to give a coherent account of objective, realist abstracta, then their account of objective morality falls apart.

This is replaying Kant’s thoughts about ding an sich – things-in-themselves. These things refer to nuomenon as opposed to phenomenon. The noumenal world may exist, but it is completely unknowable through human sensation.

We, as subjective minds, cannot access a thing-in-itself – say, a chair. We cannot know the chair since we are not the chair. We merely subjectively interpret it, its properties and its chairness. That is the best we can hope for. In this way, all experience is necessarily subjective. This has knock-on effects to truth or fact, depending on how we define them. What is the true colour of a fox? Well, it depends on who the observer is. The fox merely has properties – that much could be “objectively” (with caveats) established, at a fundamental level. But how those properties ontologically manifest is dependent on the sensor.

Even if God existed, and had some ideal moral law, it could only ever be interpreted subjectively. Moreover, there is little coherent way that it could be a  law in the Platonic sense – some floating ethereal thing out there in the ether. Objective morality fails from the very outset in that there cannot be “objective” – the metaphysical notion of these universal abstracta is flawed.

This is the case for any number of ideas, such as human rights. I have long argued that human rights don’t exist objectively, that they are conceptually constructed by human minds and codified into laws or charters. People argue over them – you only have to look at freedom of speech and hate speech to see the difficulty in defining such nebulous abstracta – and these arguments are reflective of the subjective properties of such ideas.

Any abstract notion (and there are so many) that theologians invest their time in expounding, explaining and re-jigging falls into the scope of arguments concerning nominalism. Theologians assume the building bricks and construct logical arguments therefrom. But if the building blocks literally don’t exist, then the edifices are equally fictive. Morality, atonement, and so on…

We live our lives as though this abstract reality really does exist alongside us, but that reality is inside our collective minds. The realisation of this is fundamentally terminal for much of what religion is based on – the ontic reality of metaphysics. Without a coherent case for some kind of ontic realism, then the basic foundations of religion and theology disappear, evaporating into conceptually, subjectively constructed phenomena.

October 13, 2017

As many of you will know, I have recently written a new book concerning the Kalam Cosmological Argument (Did God Create the Universe from Nothing? Countering William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument), which has had some cracking reviews. This post is an extract from the book that looks at the term “universe” and one of my favroutie topis: nominalism.DidGodCreatetheUniverse

The Kalam, as most commonly formulated is:

  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause for its existence
  • The universe began to exist
  • Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence

So, over to the book:

3.2 Nominalism and “everything” being “the universe”

Authors of the KCA, such as Craig, see the argument as dealing with the beginning of existence of all discrete objects as being the set described by the term “everything”. In other words, a chair, a marble, a dog and a mountain all begin to exist and have causes for their respective existences. This would be, admittedly, the commonsense understanding of the ontology of these objects—that they begin to exist at a particular point in time from having not existed at a previous point in time. What I am going to set out is very similar to one of Adolf Grünbaum’s objections that he set out in his 1990 essay “The pseudo-problem of creation in physical cosmology “.[i]

The problem for the KCA is the definition of “everything”. My claim is that everything is in fact “the universe” itself. As Grünbaum states:

…consider cases of causation which do involve the intervention of conscious fashioners or agents, such as the baking of a cake by a person. In such a case, the materials composing the cake owe their particular state of being in cake-form partly to acts of intervention by a conscious agent. But clearly, the very existence of the atoms or molecules composing the cake cannot be attributed to the causal role played by the activity of the agent. Thus, even if we were to assume that agent-causation does differ interestingly from event-causation, we must recognize that ordinary agent-causation is still only a transformation of matter (energy).…

Even for those cases of causation which involve conscious agents or fashioners, the premise does not assert that they ever create anything out of nothing; instead, conscious fashioners merely TRANSFORM PREVIOUSLY EXISTING MATERIALS FROM ONE STATE TO ANOTHER; the baker creates a cake out of flour, milk, butter, etc., and the parents who produce an offspring do so from a sperm, an ovum, and from the food supplied by the mother’s body, which in turn comes from the soil, solar energy, etc. Similarly, when a person dies, he or she ceases to exist as a person. But the dead body does not lapse into nothingness, since the materials of the body continue in other forms of matter or energy. In other words, all sorts of organization wholes (e.g., biological organisms) do cease to exist only as such when they disintegrate and their parts are scattered. But their parts continue in some form.

We can, here, start to see an issue with the idea, in the first premise, of things beginning to exist with the notion of transformative creation as mentioned previously. We have already discussed how all causes can be reduced to a single cause. Now I will set out, as Grünbaun hints at, to show that “everything” is a term which also refers to a singular object.

Firstly, the only thing, it can be argued, that “has begun to exist” is the universe itself (i.e. all the matter and energy that constitute the universe and everything in it). Thus the first premise and the conclusion are synonymous—the argument is entirely circular.

So how do I establish that the only thing which has begun to exist is the universe? We may think that things like tables, chairs, humans, rocks, lemmings and so on exist. Well, they do in one sense (an arrangement of matter/energy), but in the sense of the abstract labels of “rock” or “chair”, they are exactly that, abstract labels. Their existence, in Platonic terms, as some kind of objective entity, requires the philosophical position of (Platonic) realism. Platonic realism, in simple terms, is the position that universals such as redness or doghood and abstractions (kinds, characteristics, relations, properties etc.) are not spatial, temporal or mental but have a different ontology, existing separately from the objects which instantiate such properties.[ii] The opposite position to this is nominalism, which can mean the denial of the existence of these abstract labels in some sense.

For example, in order for the statement “John Smith is a gardener” to hold a truth value, there must be some existence property defined by “gardener” such as “gardenership”. This universal is different from the instance of the universal property found in John Smith. This is not a position that Craig adheres to. All we have on a nominalist or conceptualist worldview (as opposed to realist) is a transformative coming into existence. What this means is that what makes the chair, the molecules and atoms, already existed in some form or other before the “chair” came to be. So the matter or energy did not “begin to exist”. This merely leaves the label of “chair”.

The nominalist, as stated, adopts a position which denies the existence of universals, such as redness or gardenership, and claims that only individuals or particulars exist. Conceptualism or conceptual nominalism, on the other hand, is a position which claims that universals only exist within the framework of the thinking (conceiving) mind. Most philosophers agree that abstract objects are causally inert, by definition. This means that, at best, the abstract label is unable to have causal power anyway (regardless of its ontology).

To illustrate this, let’s now look at the “label” of “chair” (in a very cogent way, all words are abstractions that refer to something or another, but nominalists will say that these abstractions, or the relationship between them and the reference points, do not exist, out there, in the ether). This is an abstract concept, I posit, that exists, at most, only in the mind of the conceiver. We, as humans, label the chair abstractly and it only means a chair to those who see it as a chair—i.e. it is subjective. The concept is not itself fixed. My idea of a chair is different to yours, is different to a cat’s and to an alien’s, as well as different to the idea of this object to a human who has never seen or heard of a chair (early humans who had never seen a chair, for example, would not know it to be a chair. It would not exist as a chair, though the matter would exist in that arrangement). I may call a tree stump a chair, but you may not. If I was the last person (or sentient creature) on earth and died and left this chair, it would not be a chair, but an assembly of matter that meant nothing to anything or anyone.[iii] The chair, as a label, is a subjective concept existing in each human’s mind who sees it as a chair. A chair only has properties that make it a chair within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human-derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items—i.e. chairness. The ascription of these properties to another idea is arguable and not objectively true in itself. Now let’s take an animal—a cat. What is this “chair” to it? I imagine a visual sensation of “sleep thing”. To an alien? It looks rather like a “shmagflan” because it has a “planthoingj” on its “fdanygshan”. Labels are conceptual and depend on the conceiving mind, subjectively.

What I mean by this is that I may see that a “hero”, for example, has properties X, Y and Z. You may think a hero has properties X, Y and B. Someone else may think a hero has properties A, B and X. Who is right? No one is right. Those properties exist, in someone, but ascribing that to “heroness” is a subjective pastime with no ontic reality, no objective reality.

This is how dictionaries work. I could make up a word: “bashignogta”. I could even give it a meaning: “the feeling you get when going through a dark tunnel with the tunnel lights flashing past your eyes”. Does this abstract idea not objectively exist, now that I have made it up? Does it float into the ether? Or does it depend on my mind for its existence? I can pass it on from my mind to someone else’s using words, and then it would be conceptually existent in two minds, but it still depends on our minds. What dictionaries do is to codify an agreement in what abstract ideas (words) mean, as agreed merely by consensus (the same applies to spelling conventions—indeed, convention is the perfect word to illustrate the point). But without all the minds existing in that consensus, the words and meanings would not exist. They do not have Platonic or ontic reality.

 Thus the label of “chair” is a result of human evolution and conceptual subjectivity (even if more than one mind agrees).

If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don’t exist materially. Without wanting to labour my previous point, a “forqwibllex” is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have “made-up”). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does—have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don’t even have names, but to which they have assigned “mental labels”, for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label as such (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A chair, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely the same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker! Perhaps it can, but it just seems to get into more and more needless complexity.

When did this chair “begin to exist”? Was it when it had three legs being built, when 1/2, 2/3, 4/5, 9/10 of the last leg was constructed? You see, the energy and matter of the chair already existed. So the chair is merely a conceptual construct. More precisely a human one. More precisely still, one that different humans will variously disagree with.

Let’s take the completed chair. When will it become not-a-chair? When I take 7 molecules away? 20? A million? This is sometimes called the paradox of the beard / dune / heap or similar. However, to be more correct, this is an example of the Sorites Paradox, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus. It goes as follows. Imagine a sand dune (heap) of a million grains of sand. Agreeing that a sand dune minus just one grain of sand is still a sand dune (hey, it looks the same, and with no discernible difference, I cannot call it a different category), then we can repeatedly apply this second premise until we have no grains, or even a negative number of grains and we would still have a sand dune. Such labels are arbitrarily and generally assigned so there is no precision with regards to exactly how many grains of sand a dune should have.

This problem is also exemplified in the species problem which, like many other problems involving time continua (defining legal adulthood etc.), accepts the idea that human categorisation and labelling is arbitrary and subjective. The species problem states that in a constant state of evolving change, there is, in objective reality, no such thing as a species since to derive a species one must arbitrarily cut off the chain of time at the beginning and the end of a “species’” evolution in a totally subjective manner. For example, a late Australopithecus fossilised skull could just as easily be labelled an early Homo skull. An Australopithecus couple don’t suddenly give birth to a Homo species one day. These changes take millions of years and there isn’t one single point of time where the change is exacted. There is a marvellous piece of text that you can see, a large paragraph[iv] which starts off in the colour red and gradually turns blue down the paragraph leaving the reader with the question, “at which point does the writing turn blue?” Of course, there is arguably no definite and objectively definable answer—or at least any answer is by its nature arbitrary and subjective (depending, indeed, on how you define “blue”).

So, after all that, what has begun to exist? A causally inert abstract concept.

You see, once we strip away the labels and concepts, all we have left is matter and energy which is only ever involved in what has been called transformative creation, meaning it doesn’t begin to exist, but is being constantly reformed throughout time. It only began to exist at the Big Bang or similar (in Craig’s model).

So where does this leave us? The implications are twofold. Firstly, as Grünbaum illustrates, with all effects being merely transformative creations (i.e. nothing comes into existence but is transformed from already existing matter or energy), then we have an equivocation of the term cause. In Premise 1 we are talking about transformative causality, whereas in the conclusion we are talking about creation ex nihilo or creation out of nothing. As Grünbaum reasons[v]:

Since the concept of cause used in the conclusion of the argument involves creation out of nothing, we see that it is plainly different from the concept of cause in the premise. And for this reason alone, the conclusion does not follow from the premise deductively.

This amounts, then, to a fallacy of equivocation whereby the author is using two distinct meanings of the same term in a syllogism. This makes the argument logically invalid or fallacious.

The second ramification of this line of argument is that it means that the term “everything” is actually synonymous with “the universe”, with the universe being a set of finite energy and matter that has remained, in accordance with the Law of the Conservation of Energy, constant over time. We have agreed, then, that abstract concepts might begin to exist, but these are causally inert and do not exist objectively—only in the minds of the conceiver. One can then take this a step further and claim that, for a whole host of reasons (most of which I will not get into now), mental conceptions supervene on physical matter. That means that my mental states, and all the abstract concepts which they obtain, depend on the physical. One simple way of knowing this is whether my mental concept of a chair remains the same if I was to stick a fork into my eye and through into my brain. Our consciousness, in some way, is dependent on our brains states and matter. If you don’t believe me, try it out.

So that leaves matter and energy, which have existed for all of time because they are, in effect, the universe itself (as is time, when understood as spacetime). It is not that the universe is “made up” of lots of matter and energy making it something, it simply is a quantity of matter and energy. We can refer back to our previous talk of conceptual nominalism. The “universe” is not some distinct thing from what it is made up. “Universe” is an abstract concept made up by humans to refer to “everything”. Everything in existence that we can observe, that we can infer, and so on. This has some fairly crucial implications for the KCA necessitating a reformulation as follows:

1) The universe that begins to exist has a cause for its existence;

2) The universe begins to exist;

3) Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

If we then project the syllogistic changes from Section 3.1 over this reformulated syllogism then we get an even more tautologous and incoherent argument:

1) The universe that begins to exist has the universe as the causal condition for its existence.

2) The universe began to exist.

3) Therefore, the universe had the universe as a causal condition for its existence.

As we can plainly see, if we delve into the actual meaning of these terms and input these definitions back into the syllogism we are presented with an argument that amounts to little more than nonsense.

One could claim, however, that this argument relies at least partially on the establishment of nominalism, conceptualism or some other form of non-realism in order to work. To this we shall now turn.

[i] Adolf Grünbaum’s objections that he set out in his 1990 essay “The pseudo-problem of creation in physical cosmology “.

[ii] Aristotelian realism proposes that universals, such as redness, exist but are contingent upon the objects which instantiate them (such as a red apple).

[iii] Wittgenstein, in his later thought, would have claimed meaning in a word from its use. This of course hints at no objective overarching meaning for groups of things, but meaning derived from each individual usage of language in each context. If anything, this plays into the point I am making. Things only have meaning to the conceiver, thus don’t ‘exist’ objectively outside the mind of the conceiver, as abstract ideas.

[iv] This text is variously available online. I picked it up from: http://www.christianforums.com/t7536666/#post56778897 (Accessed 09/12/2015)

[v] Grünbaum (1989)

November 4, 2015

I am a conceptual nominalist, which I explain to some extent here. One of my favourite images to explain this is below. Also good for explaining the species problem, which reflects or exemplifies the nominalism/realism debate.

sorites

 

February 18, 2013

So having posted the Philpapers survey results, the biggest ever survey of philosophers conducted in 2009, several readers were not aware of it (the reason for re-communicating it) and were unsure as to what some of the questions meant. I offered to do a series on them, so here it is – Philosophy 101 (Philpapers induced). I will go down the questions in order. I will explain the terms and the question, whilst also giving some context within the discipline of Philosophy of Religion.

The second question, having covered a priori in the last post, the next question in the survey was:

Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism?

Accept or lean toward: Platonism 366 / 931 (39.3%)
Accept or lean toward: nominalism 351 / 931 (37.7%)
Other 214 / 931 (23.0%)

So what are abstract objects? What are Platonism and nominalism?

Abstract Objects

Abstract objects are incredibly important aspects within the context of philosophy. They include all of the labels and categories of things (tokens).These types are abstract. So, for example, a chair is both the token (actual chair) and the type (an abstract labeling as such). This can include numbers, universal ideas like redness, ideas like courage and justice, and even individual humans, such as Jonathan Pearce.

Because of their very nature, in being abstract, they can cause headaches for physicalism (and naturalism) and causality. Ever since the Greek times there has been the famous problem known as the Problem of Universals. This briefly deals with the problem in defining what the properties of objects are, ontologically speaking (ie, what existence they have). Universals are common (universal) properties contained by more than one object. Two cars and a ball being red – what is redness? How can these different objects have an identical property and is that property real or in the mind of the conceiver, or indeed, contained within speech? Are these abstract objects and universals causally potent? Can redness take a position in a causal chain or relationship?

Platonism (realism)

Realists claim that these abstracta are real – that they exist in some tangible way. Plato, from whom the term came, believed the universals, like redness, existed separately from the particular objects (particulars) which contained said property. Platonic realism states that such entities exist independently from the particular, as opposed to Aristotelian realism states that the universals are real but dependent on the particulars.

Some arguments propose that, in order to have truth value in statements, universals must exist, such that “This apple is red” implies that the universal of redness exists for the proposition to be truthful.

The problems for such theories are where is the locus of these universals? Where can they be found and what IS their ontology?

Nominalism

Nominalism stands in stark contrast to realism in that the adherents state that only particulars exist, and not universals. Properties of particular objects can account for eventual similarity between objects (such as the green of grass and the green of a painted wall). Universals do not exist.

I am unsure as to whether the philpapers survey included conceptualism in the ‘other’ category or not, since conceptualism is sometimes called conceptual nominalism, such that universals and abstracts exist, but only in the individual minds of the conceivers (as concepts). (German) Idealism is close to this (think Kant, Hegel and Schelling) in believing universals to be in the minds of rational beings.

Nominalism can become VERY in depth and confusing (when talking about the different types such as trope theory and resemblance theory). My opinion is that the discussions are crucial to the rest of metaphysics, it is just unfortunate that the discussion can be quite dry and dull. Here is an excerpt from the wiki entry on nominalism:

 

Nominalism arose in reaction to the problem of universals, specifically accounting for the fact that some things are of the same type. For example, Fluffy and Kitzler are both cats, or, the fact that certain properties are repeatable, such as: the grass, the shirt, and Kermit the Frog are green. One wants to know in virtue of what are Fluffy and Kitzler both cats, and what makes the grass, the shirt, and Kermit green.

The realist answer is that all the green things are green in virtue of the existence of a universal; a single abstract thing that, in this case, is a part of all the green things. With respect to the color of the grass, the shirt and Kermit, one of their parts is identical. In this respect, the three parts are literally one. Greenness is repeatable because there is one thing that manifests itself wherever there are green things.

Nominalism denies the existence of universals. The motivation for this flows from several concerns, the first one being where they might exist. Plato famously held, on one interpretation, that there is a realm of abstract forms or universals apart from the physical world (see theory of the forms). Particular physical objects merely exemplify or instantiate the universal. But this raises the question: Where is this universal realm? One possibility is that it is outside of space and time. A view sympathetic with this possibility holds that, precisely because some form is immanent in several physical objects, it must also transcend each of those physical objects; in this way, the forms are “transcendant” only insofar as they are “immanent” in many physical objects. In other words, immanence implies transcendence; they are not opposed to one another. (Nor, on this view, would there be a separate “world” or “realm” of forms that is distinct from the physical world, thus shirking much of the worry about where to locate a “universal realm”.) However, naturalists assert that nothing is outside of space and time. Some Neoplatonists, such as the pagan philosopher Plotinus and the philosopher Augustine, imply (anticipating conceptualism) that universals are contained within the mind of God. To complicate things, what is the nature of the instantiation or exemplification relation?

Conceptualists hold a position intermediate between nominalism and realism, saying that universals exist only within the mind and have no external or substantial reality.

Moderate realists hold that there is no realm in which universals exist, but rather universals are located in space and time wherever they are manifest. Now, recall that a universal, like greenness, is supposed to be a single thing. Nominalists consider it unusual that there could be a single thing that exists in multiple places simultaneously. The realist maintains that all the instances of greenness are held together by the exemplification relation, but this relation cannot be explained.

Finally, many philosophers prefer simpler ontologies populated with only the bare minimum of types of entities, or as W. V. Quine said “They have a taste for ‘desert landscapes.'” They attempt to express everything that they want to explain without using universals such as “catness” or “chairness.”

As ever, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on nominalism is great – here.

As is the SEP entry on anstract objects – here.

As is the superb SEP entry on properties found here.

Other useful SEP entries are Challenges to Metaphysical Realism, Platonism in Metaphysics, and the wiki entry on the Third Man Argument (an argument from Plato that shows an incoherent infinite regress in relational universals, which can be found in the SEP here).

 

How the area is relevant to the philosophy of religion – Craig and the Kalam

 I have written a 20,000 word paper on the Kalam and its problems, mainly concerning this area of philosophy. I have produced a post here and here detailing a small area of this. Here is a portion:

Authors of the KCA, such as Craig, see the argument as dealing with the beginning of existence of all discrete objects as being the set described by the term “everything”. In other words, a chair, a marble, a dog and a mountain all begin to exist and have causes for their respective existences. This would be, admittedly, the common sense understanding of the ontology of these objects – that they begin to exist at a particular point in time from having not existed at a previous point in time. What I am going to set out is very similar to one of Adolf Grünbaum’s objections that he set out in his 1990 essay “The pseudo-problem of creation in physical cosmology “.

The problem for the KCA is the definition of “everything”. My claim is that everything is in fact ‘the universe’ itself. As Grünbaum (1990) states:

…consider cases of causation which do involve the intervention of conscious fashioners or agents, such as the baking of a cake by a person. In such a case, the materials composing the cake owe their particular state of being in cake-form partly to acts of intervention by a conscious agent. But clearly, the very existence of the atoms or molecules composing the cake cannot be attributed to the causal role played by the activity of the agent. Thus, even if we were to assume that agent-causation does differ interestingly from event-causation, we must recognize that ordinary agent-causation is still only a transformation of matter (energy).

Even for those cases of causation which involve conscious agents or fashioners, the premise does not assert that they ever create anything out of nothing; instead, conscious fashioners merely TRANSFORM PREVIOUSLY EXISTING MATERIALS FROM ONE STATE TO ANOTHER; the baker creates a cake out of flour, milk, butter, etc., and the parents who produce an offspring do so from a sperm, an ovum, and from the food supplied by the mother’s body, which in turn comes from the soil, solar energy, etc. Similarly, when a person dies, he or she ceases to exist as a person. But the dead body does not lapse into nothingness, since the materials of the body continue in other forms of matter or energy. In other words, all sorts of organization wholes (e.g., biological organisms) do cease to exist only as such when they disintegrate and their parts are scattered. But their parts continue in some form.

We can, here, start to see an issue with the idea, in the first premise, of things beginning to exist with the notion of transformative creation as mentioned previously. We have already discussed how all causes can be reduced to a single cause. Now I will set out, as Grünbaun hints at, to show that “everything” is a term which also refers to a singular object.

Firstly, the only thing, it can be argued, that ‘has begun to exist’ is the universe itself (i.e. all the matter and energy that constitute the universe and everything in it). Thus the first premise and the conclusion are synonymous – the argument is entirely circular.

So how do I establish that the only thing which has begun to exist is the universe? We may think that things like tables, chairs, humans, rocks, lemmings and so on exist. Well, they do in one sense (an arrangement of matter / energy), but in the sense of the abstract labels of ‘rock’ or ‘chair’, they are exactly that, abstract labels. Their existence, in Platonic terms, as some kind of objective entity, requires the philosophical position of (Platonic) realism. Platonic realism, in simple terms, is the position that universals such as redness and abstractions (kinds, characteristics, relations, properties etc) are not spatial, temporal or mental but have a different ontology, existing separately from the objects which instantiate such properties[1]. For example, in order for the statement “John Smith is a gardener” to hold a truth value, there must be some existence property defined by “gardener” such as “gardenership”. This universal is different from the instance of the universal property found in John Smith. This is not a position that Craig adheres to. All we have on a nominalist or conceptualist worldview (as opposed to realist) is a transformative coming into existence. What this means is that what makes the chair, the molecules and atoms, already existed in some other form or other before the ‘chair’ came to be. So the matter or energy did not ‘begin to exist’. This merely leaves the label of ‘chair’.

The nominalist adopts a position which denies the existence of universals, such as redness or gardenership, and claims that only individuals or particulars exist. Conceptualism or conceptual nominalism, on the other hand, is a position which claims that universals only exist within the framework of the thinking (conceiving) mind. Most philosophers agree that the part of the definition of abstracts is that they are causally inert. This means that, at best, the abstract label is unable to have causal power anyway (regardless of its ontology).

Let’s now look at the ‘label’ of ‘chair’. This is an abstract concept, I posit, that exists, at most, only in the mind of the conceiver. We, as humans, label the chair abstractly and it only means a chair to those who see it as a chair – ie it is subjective. My idea of a chair is different to yours, is different to a cat’s and to an alien’s, as well as different to the idea of this object to a human who has never seen or heard of a chair (early humans who had never seen a chair, for example, would not know it to be a chair. It would not exist as a chair, though the matter would exist in that arrangement). I may call a tree stump a chair, but you may not. If I was the last person on earth and died and left this chair, it would not be a chair, but an assembly of matter that meant nothing to anything. The chair, as a label, is a subjective concept existing in each human’s mind who sees it as a chair. A chair only has properties that make it a chair within the intellectual confines of humanity. These consensus-agreed properties are human-derived properties, even if there may be common properties between concrete items – i.e. chairness. These properties are arguable and not objectively true themselves. Thus the label of ‘chair’ is a result of ‘subjectively human’ evolution.

If you argue that objective ideas do exist, then it is also the case that the range of all possible entities must also exist objectively, even if they don’t exist materially. For example, a ‘forqwibllex’ is a fork with a bent handle and a button on the end (that has never been created and I have ‘made-up’). This did not exist before now, either objectively or subjectively. Now it does – have I created it objectively? This is what happens whenever humans make up a label for anything to which they assign function etc. Also, things that other animals use that don’t even have names, but to which they have assigned ‘mental labels’, for want of better words, must also exist objectively under this logic. For example, the backrubby bit of bark on which a family of sloths scratch their backs on a particular tree exists materially. They have no language, so it has no label (it can be argued that abstracts are a function of language). Yet even though it only has properties to a sloth, and not to any other animal, objectivists should claim it must exist objectively. Furthermore, there are items that have multiple abstract properties which create more headaches for the objectivist. A chair, to me, might well be a territory marker to the school cat. Surely they same object cannot embody both objective existences: the table and the marker!

When did this chair ‘begin to exist’? Was it when it had three legs being built, when 1/2, 2/3, 4/5, 9/10 of the last leg was constructed? You see, the energy and matter of the chair already existed. So the chair is merely a conceptual construct. More precisely a human one. More precisely still, one that different humans will variously disagree with.

Let’s take the completed chair. When will it not become a chair? When I take 7 molecules away? 20? A million? This is sometimes called the paradox of the beard / dune / heap or similar. However, to be more correct, this is an example of the Sorites Paradox, attributed to Eubulides of Miletus. It goes as follows. Imagine a sand dune (heap) of a million grains of sand. Agreeing that a sand dune minus just one grain of sand is still a sand dune, then we can repeatedly apply this second premise until we have no grains, or even a negative number of grains and we would still have a sand dune. Such labels are arbitrarily and generally assigned so there is no precision with regards to exactly how many grains of sand a dune should have.

This problem is also exemplified in the species problem which, like many other problems involving time continuums (defining legal adulthood etc.), accepts the idea that human categorisation and labelling is arbitrary and subjective. The species problem states that in a constant state of evolving change, there is, in objective reality, no such thing as a species since to derive a species one must arbitrarily cut off the chain of time at the beginning and the end of a ‘species’ evolution in a totally subjective manner. For example, a late Australopithecus fossilised skull could just as easily be labelled an early Homo skull. An Australopithecus couple don’t suddenly give birth to a Homo species one day. These changes take millions of years and there isn’t one single point of time where the change is exacted. There is a marvellous piece of text, a large paragraph (see end), which starts off in the colour red and gradually turns blue down the paragraph leaving the reader with the question, “at which point does the writing turn blue?” Of course, there is arguably no definite and objectively definable answer – or at least any answer is by its nature arbitrary and subjective.

Now let’s take an animal – a cat. What is this ‘chair’ to it? I imagine a visual sensation of ‘sleep thing’. To an alien? It looks rather like a shmagflan because it has a planthoingj on its fdanygshan. Labels are conceptual and depend on the conceiving mind, subjectively.

So, after all that, what has begun to exist? A causally inert abstract concept.

You see, once we strip away the labels and concepts, all we have left is matter and energy which is only ever involved in what has been called transformative creation, meaning it doesn’t begin to exist, but is being constantly being reformed throughout time. It only began to exist at the Big Bang or similar (in Craig’s model).

So where does this leave us? The implications are twofold. Firstly, as Grünbaum illustrates, with all effects being merely transformative creations (i.e. nothing comes into existence but is transformed from already existing matter or energy), then we have an equivocation of the term cause. In Premise 1 we are talking about transformative causality, whereas in the conclusion we are talking about creation ex nihilo creation out of nothing. As Grünbaum reasons:

Since the concept of cause used in the conclusion of the argument involves creation out of nothing, we see that it is plainly different from the concept of cause in the premise. And for this reason alone, the conclusion does not follow from the premise deductively. (Grünbaum 1989)

 This amounts, then, to a fallacy of equivocation whereby the author is using two distinct meanings of the same term in a syllogism. This makes the argument logically invalid.

The second ramification of this line of argument is that it means that the term “everything” is actually synonymous with “the universe”, with the universe being a set of finite energy and matter that has remained, in accordance with the Law of the Conservation of Energy, constant over time. We have agreed, then, that abstract concepts might begin to exist, but these are causally inert and do not exist objectively – only in the minds of the conceiver. So that leaves matter and energy, which has always existed because it is, in effect, the universe itself. It is not that the universe is ‘made up’ of lots of matter and energy making it something, it simply is a quantity of matter and energy. This has some fairly crucial implications for the KCA necessitating a reformulation as follows:

1) The universe that begins to exist has a cause for its existence;

2) The universe begins to exist;

3) Therefore, the universe has a cause for its existence.

If we then project the syllogistic changes from Section 3.1 over this reformulated syllogism then we get an even more tautologous and incoherent  argument:

1) The universe that begins to exist has the universe as the causal condition for its existence.

2) The universe began to exist.

3) Therefore, the universe had the universe as a causal condition for its existence.

As we can plainly see, if we delve into the actual meaning of these terms and input these definitions back into the syllogism we are presented with an argument that amounts to little more than nonsense.

One could claim, however, that this argument relies at least partially on the establishment of nominalism, conceptualism or some other form of non-realism in order to work. To this we shall now turn.

RELATED POSTS:

#1 – a priori

#2 – Abstract objects – Platonism or nominalism?

#3 – Aesthetic value: objective or subjective

#4 – Analytic-Synthetic Distinction

#5 – Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism?

#6  – External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism?

#7 – Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will?

#8 – Belief in God: theism or atheism?

February 13, 2021

This was the question I sought to answer in my book of the same name, with the subtitle of Countering William Lane Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument [UK]. I often think this is my best book. It’s tight, aimed at just the right level and audience in a successful manner (in terms of writing for an audience), has fantastic reviews to attest it, and succeeds in the intentions I had for it. I was also very happy for Jeffery Jay Lowder to provide the foreword.

Here are some of the arguments contained within:

Please help out by grabbing a copy.

I forgot that people review on Goodreads too, so here are some to share with you:

A solid philosophical refutation of the nonsense that is William Lane Craig’s “Kalam Cosmological Argument” (a rehash of the classic cosmological argument with extra-Craigian holes). JMS Pearce is a new author to me, and the look of the book had me worried (looks like something they’d have for sale at revival meetings). But, as I find WLC’s K.C.Argument to be worthy of a good debunking, I had to check this out. And I am happy I did. Pearce does a really good job of considering the philosophical and physics-related issues that together tear up and toss away WLC’s cheap attempt to sound like an academic philosopher. The book is intense enough that it would help if you actually had a couple of undergrad philos. classes to follow the reasoning completely. But, I think the arguments are clear enough even if you don’t. And if you do happen to be a born-againer, you should read Pearce’s discussion of the topic just to see if you have a grasp of the complexities involved in what WLC tends to present as simple, obvious, and logically convincing (mostly what WLC presents is “simple” in another sense of the word). 
And (this one is on Amazon, too):

Did God Create the Universe from Nothing? Countering William Craig’s Kalam Cosmological Argument by Jonathan MS Pearce

“Did God Create the Universe from Nothing?” is a very good intermediate-level book that critically addresses the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA) to satisfaction. Jonathan M.S. Pearce provides the readers with a user’s guide on how to counter William Craig’s defense of the KCA. This useful 143-page book includes the following seven parts: 1. The Background, 2. The Argument, 3. Premise 1, 4. Premise 2, 5. The Syllogism’s Conclusion, 6. Potential Objections, and 7. Conclusion.

Positives:
1. A well-written, well-researched book.
2. Pearce tackles William Lane Craig’s favorite argument for the existence of a “God”, the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA).
3. Great use of reason and a strong philosophical background to dismantle the KCA.
4. Provides the history behind the KCA.
5. If you are going to debunk the KCA, might as well dissect it from its most prominent defender’s point of view, William Lane Craig.
6. Goes over the three steps of the KCA in detail, the syllogism.

7. Goes over key concepts that will help the reader understand the premises.
8. Goes over the many problems of the KCA. “We have no experience of the origin of worlds to tell us that worlds don’t come into existence like that.” “Craig is relying on mere human intuition, and this argument is at best, then, an intuitive argument (albeit one that he uses observation to support).”
9. A look at causality. “So the causality of things happening now is that initial singularity or creation event. As I will show later, nothing has begun to exist, and no cause has begun to exist, other than that first cause—the Big Bang singularity.”
10. The circularity of the first argument. “Firstly, the only thing, it can be argued, that “has begun to exist” is the universe itself (i.e. all the matter and energy that constitute the universe and everything in it). Thus the first premise and the conclusion are synonymous—the argument is entirely circular.” “Nothing comes into existence but is transformed from already existing matter or energy.”
11. The fallacy of equivocation. “This amounts, then, to a fallacy of equivocation whereby the author is using two distinct meanings of the same term in a syllogism. This makes the argument logically invalid or fallacious.”

12. Explains why the KCA and libertarian free will are incompatible.
13. A look at Hilbert’s Hotel and why its use is flawed as it relates to the KCA. “The story of Hilbert’s Hotel simply highlights another such property that distinguishes actual infinite collections from finite ones: just knowing that an infinite subcollection has been removed from an infinite collection of objects does not allow one to determine how many objects remain. But this property itself does not entail that actual infinite collections are impossible.”
14. Profound statements. “Therefore, if creation out of nothing (ex nihilo) is beyond human understanding, then the hypothesis that it occurred cannot explain anything.”
15. A list of scientific theories that the second premise must debunk in order to be upheld. “That an oscillating universe is impossible.” “However, it is worth noting that Sean Carroll, in his aforementioned debate with Craig, stated that there were over a dozen plausible models for the universe, and this included some eternal ones!”
16. One of the strongest arguments of this book and worth sharing, “In case after case, without exception, the trend has been to find that purely natural causes underlie any phenomena. Not once has the cause of anything turned out to really be God’s wrath or intelligent meddling, or demonic mischief, or anything supernatural at all. The collective weight of these observations is enormous: supernaturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always lost; naturalism has been tested at least a million times and has always won.”
17. Provocative questions. “If God was and still is perfect, what need, or why intend the creation of the world?”
18. Why science makes it worse for the KCA. “When it comes to physics, one physicist has told me they know of no working physicist who holds to Craig’s Neo-Loretnzian interpretation.”
19. Provides a chapter where Pearce sets out to what he thinks an apologist like Craig might claim as counter-arguments and proceeds to defend his arguments from such objections.
20. A satisfactory conclusion. “Indeed, the real aim of this book was not to disprove that God created the universe but to show that the KCA cannot prove that God did, using those premises and the resulting conclusion.
21. Notes and formal bibliography provided.

Negatives:
1. I fear that this book will have a limited audience because philosophy is not everybody’s cup of tea. Furthermore, this book’s focus is solely on the KCA.
2. Despite being a book that at worse is an intermediate level book, some concepts are still hard to follow.
3. Lack of visual supplementary material that may have helped the layperson better understand the concepts presented.

In summary, this is a solid effort from Professor Pearce. I like that he goes after William Lane Craig’s best arguments in defense of the KCA and has the integrity to state what we currently know and what we don’t know. In some respects, Craig makes use of the God of the Gaps fallacy to insert “God” where at best we must acknowledge our common agnosticism. Not the easiest topic to follow but those interested in it will find this book to be worth the read. I recommend it!

Further suggestions: “The Problem with “God”: Classical Theism under the Spotlight” by the same author, “God’s Gravedigger: Why no Deity Exists” by Raymond Bradley, “Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End” and “Christianity In the Light of Science” by John Loftus, “The Portable Atheist” by Christopher Hitchens, “Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists” by Dan Barker, “A Manual for Creating Atheists” by Peter Boghossian, “Jesus Interrupted” by Bart D. Ehrman, “Why I Am Not a Christian” by Richard Carrier, “The Soul Fallacy” by Julien Musolino, “The Big Picture” by Sean Carroll, “The Illusion of God’s Presence” by John C. Wathey, “The Not-So-Intelligent Designer” by Abby Hafer, and “The Universe” by John Brockman.

Finally, this balanced review:

This reviews the main modern cosmological argument, Craig’s Kalam. The argument is
1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause
2) The universe began to exist
3) Therefore, the universe has a cause

There are four main sections in the book: 1) premise 1 (causality), 2) premise 2 (beginning of the universe), 3) conclusion of the argument, and 4) potential objections. I thought the first two sections were very poor and the last two sections were very good and made the whole book absolutely worth reading for anyone interested in the argument.

Section 1 was a weak discussion on causation (both efficient and simultaneous causation) and a mostly pointless discussion on abstract objects (which Craig has written multiple books on). As expected, quantum mechanics and free will were invoked (incorrectly, in my view) as points of contention. Section two was a discussion that was not representative of the cosmology of origins, including some quote mining of physicists and leaving out important theorems and information. He included the worthless Quantum Eternity Theorem by Carroll and yet neglected the Generalized Second Law by Aron Wall and various proofs on finitude of supposedly eternal models.

The next two sections were extremely good and challenging. The third section’s discussion of causality and temporality was extremely helpful, and brought out why characterizing “cause” as “efficient cause” in premise 1 could be problematic for Craig. The most helpful part of this section was on the discussion on theories of time. This brought out the serious issues that the Kalam faces by being dependent on an A-theory of time. Relativity (special and general) strongly implicate B-theory, and Craig himself identifies the argument as depending entirely on A theory. Some philosophers seem to be trying to work on a kalam on B-theory, but Craig and some atheists are convinced that this is a fruitless endeavor because in effect creation is meaningless on B-theory. This is something I will need to look into, as I did not realize how out-their Craig’s neo-Lorentzian interpretation of special relativity was.

The final section was great for its discussion on mereological nihilism and making a parody argument with material causation to disprove creation ex nihilo.

All in all, the book is unquestionably worth reading.

 


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January 3, 2021

The following is a quote by Verbose Stoic, a regular commenter here with whom I often disagree but who substantiated his claims with detail and, well, substance. The sort of commenter I like – he probably does this because he has a blog of his own, and sometimes takes me to task. I only wish I had more time to discuss matters with him on the threads here.

His comment is one that seeks to take Richard Carrier, with whom I have recently been debating free will, to task (in its entirety, not pasted here). I am not so interested in that, but I am interested in what it says about me and confirmation bias. I will put my quotes in italics and will bold emphasise his points to discuss:

In fact, the more I read that paragraph, the angrier I get with Carrier for some disingenuous tactics (or sloppy work). And I like Carrier a lot.

The only reason I can think of for why you haven’t noticed his disingenuous tactics and sloppy work in the past is because he in general agrees with you. On my blog I’ve taken on some of his posts on topics that I care not one whit about — polyarmory and some mythicism (although from reading Carrier and others around the topics I have come to care about mythicism far less and come to the conclusion that polyamory is actually morally inferior to monoamory despite not caring at all about it going in) — precisely to show that his work is indeed sloppy and that he constantly misrepresents those he argues with while constantly and often viciously insulting them.

A prime example of that here is him constantly claiming that hard determinists are basing their conclusions on things determined from “the ivory tower”, while ignoring that a great many hard determinists rely on empirical results like the Libet experiments instead….

The whole comment is worth a read.

I rate Richard Carrier a lot. I love so much of his work, such as what he has written on the Nativity and Resurrection of Jesus particularly, to the point that I reference an awful lot of his work in my book on the Nativity and my upcoming book on the Resurrection. I am convinced his work is good and thorough. His work on Luke in Not the Impossible Faith is superb.

But then there is the issue that we all suffer from confirmation bias: do I think that his work is so good because I broadly agree with his conclusions? Perhaps. We are not perfect.

On the flip side, I am not a mythicist, though am fairly ambivalent and don’t think a mythicist position has any meaningful difference to my own historicist position as detailed here. This could indicate that whilst I rate him, I don’t always agree. But, to counter this, perhaps I am happy to disagree only where it doesn’t really matter – my disagreement is rather toothless.

We disagree quite publicly on free will as documented in my recent ongoing series. However, much of this disagreement is actually semantic and without huge ramification.

The problem is, to check on, say, Carrier’s work (but this could apply to any scholar or source with whom you agree), one would effectively have to do the work oneself, all over again, to verify the claims that he is making. Which is completely unpragmatic and defeats the object of short-cutting to an expert in the first place.

I suppose it is an inductive thing: if I have found a given expert to be useful and reliable on previous cases, then I am epistemically warranted to continue relying on them. But, is it that I ignore or give little value to counter-cases because it is just too much hard work to deal with and would undercut my reliance on that person in the past? It’s so hard to tell. Can someone be really good in a majority of cases but get it wrong occasionally here and there? Especially if they write on a vast landscape of topics? In other words, I shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Perhaps.

Being skeptical and being rigorous is a tonne of work. Being cognizant of the problems is at least a healthy first step. But doubting everything one reads and potentially relies on leads to a Pyrrhonian Skepticism that can be paralysing.

We should always steel man a position and we should always check our sources. But how far should this go? To what level of verification to we work? What are the best tools to arrive at the most robust and accurate conclusion? How do we mitigate confirmation bias without having to do all of the work again ourselves?

Questions, questions, questions. I’m leaving the answers up to you.

 

December 9, 2020

I was recently involved in a discussion/argument that started off with a Christian stating:

We want freedom from stupid govt. lockdowns for a non-pandemic.

[I will edit these quick Facebook comments only for grammar/punctuation.] Which then distilled down to a conversation about abortion. Because that’s what Christians do, right? I remained true to form:

If you think it’s decent not to have abortions, why is it that your God has literally designed into the system and allowed, for hundreds of thousands of years, literally billions of spontaneous, natural abortions? See my article God Loves Abortion.

It’s the classic comeback to which the Christian only ever has one answer, and, in this case, they obliged:

God gives life and has the right to take it away naturally at any time He wants. We are His creatures and are only allowed to take lives when authorized by Him to do so, such as self defense.
You can predict my next move, if you know me well enough:

Next, you will be using that to justify killing your children. I would like you to establish what that right is, what its ontology is and how it works. I’m serious. Literally, what is a right made of? Is it just a magic way to allow God to be a complete bastard?

The reply did not answer the question:

Scripture is His self-revelation about His own nature, our nature and limits and the history of redemption.
The Book Of Job says “the Lord gives and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Short answer: God has that right because the Bible says He does.
My reply, in calling out his might-makes-right approach:

Are you serious? How does that answer any of the questions? What is the ontology of a right? Why do you think God not only doesn’t have to follow his own rules, but he literally bakes the opposite into the system – designs and creates, knowingly, a system where up to 75% of fertilised eggs naturally die? Because he can? Because he has a right to be a “baby murderer”?

That’s the world’s worst answer.

He was still not having it:

Killing someone ISN’T murder if you have the right to do so. That’s why killing in self-defense and capital punishment are not murder. Those are circumstances where we have the right to take someone’s life.

Since God always has the right to take someone’s life whenever He pleases, his killing of someone is by definition never murder, since I get my principles and definitions on this from Scripture.

It’s not a matter of “not following His own rules”. Saying He has to “follow the same rules” presupposes He’s on the same level metaphysically as man. Those rules apply to us just as much to Him, right?… but that is precisely the issue in dispute: whether He exists as a transcendent Creator or not.

As far as baking into the system: there are all sorts of ways that Creation works that we may not like. That doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist.

The person who owned the thread, an atheist philosopher, was adding his own claims about intrinsic vs extrinsic rights, as the Christian was arguing we had intrinsic rights; the atheist said:

No, you clearly do not understand the word “intrinsic.” If God “gives us” our right to life, then we merely have an “extrinsic” right to life. Unless we have an INTRINSIC right to life, then you are simply a nihilist. You don’t actually believe in morality. You believe might makes right.

To say this is “There is no God and I hate Him” only further confirms what I said about you earlier. You’re a sophist pushing polemics from a sense of conviction rather than reason. You aren’t actually doing philosophy. You’re playing at it as a bad faith actor.

I mean, if you want to use that terminology then fine we have extrinsic right to life. But then you’re just playing word games.

It isn’t “might makes right”. The night that God has is Holy Righteous might, not arbitrary might.

I’m simply saying what your objection *amounts* to. I’m not saying you literally believe that.

For those unread on this. An intrinsic right to continued existence implies a CATEGORICAL right to life not merely a CONDITIONAL right to life ie we have a right to life IF AND ONLY IF God wants us to have one. No, a categorical right to life implies a right that is not conditioned upon facts about any subject.

The reason I am laying this out is that it lays the groundwork for a discussion I then had with my fellow atheist that shows atheists adhere to vastly differing views of moral philosophy, and I will set out something of his view tomorrow.

The Christian came back with:

Then we only have a conditional right to life, and it’s conditioned by God.

And my fellow atheist pointed out:

Then that’s nihilism.

That’s might makes right.

That’s arbitrary.

Welcome to moral philosophy.

Reason > authority.

Reason is, by definition, not arbitrary. Authority is, by implication of not being identical with reason, arbitrary [among other reasons].

The Christian opined to my fellow atheist:

I use reason but have an ultimate authority.

So do you. But your ultimate authority is different than mine. Your ultimate authority is your own human autonomy. My authority is God.

Quit characterizing this as Reason Vs Authority because we both have both of those.

The atheist replied:

If what matters morally depends on the arbitrary (ie morally unjustified) will of God or any other subject, then we would have no intrinsic right to life because God could justifiably take our lives at will. Since we do have an intrinsic right to life, this view could not be true.

My “ultimate authority” are considerations that count in favor of believing and acting in certain ways. Your “ultimate authority” is obeying the commands of a commander. This is absolutely a disagreement about reason and authority. You are flailing under the weight of the arbitrariness objection because you are insisting on the authority of God rather than reason-implying morality.

This is the classic problem with Divine Command Theory and the Euthyphro Dilemma (see my 16 Problems with Divine Command Theory). I suggest reading those arguments!

I chimed in with my usual:

I don’t believe rights “exist” – they are, like all abstract ideas, conceptual constructions with no ontic reality. I am a conceptual nominalist.

This should explain it all: “Human Rights Don’t Exist until We Construct and Codify Them

Perfectly encapsulated by the 2A debate. I don’t have that right, as a Brit. I don’t want that right, either. Indeed, I want the right not to be surrounded by people with guns.

That right is particular to the US because they conceived it, it is codified into the Consitution, and enacted into law.

 Finally, for the purposes of this piece, this is where we are at, with me replying to the Christian:

“If rights don’t exist it’s senseless to act on them.”

They do exist, just not in an ontic sense; they exist conceptually, in our minds, and we argue about them. When we agree on them, we write down our agreement in your case, the Constitution etc., and this then gets codified into law by your government. This, then, is only meaningful if enacted and enforced by the authorities.
This is DEMONSTRABLY what happens over time and geography; it is why you have the “right” to carry a gun and I don’t; it’s why some countries outlawed slavery and others didn’t; it’s why you have certain rules and rights in one state and can then cross an arbitrary line and they don’t maintain.
That’s what we do: argue, agree by consensus, pass laws by majority, enforce the laws; rinse and repeat and hopefully refine. But sometimes we go backwards.
Your position is this: rights exist in the mind of God. We have to guess what they are and then enact them. But even Christians disagree on this, so we have the problem of a lack of clarity and divine hiddenness.
If you are arguing they exist not-God-subjectively (outside of his mind), then we have the Euthyphro Dilemma.
This is what Benjamin [the atheist] is partly getting at. It is might makes right, unless God can defer to moral reasoning. If he can, then we don’t need God for the rights and reasoning – we have the moral reasoning objective and separate to God.

So, to return to the beginning, what are rights made of, ontologically, and how do they work?


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October 22, 2020

Here is a guest piece from author Gunther Laird, who recently wrote The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory (UK), which I edited and consulted on. Please grab a copy! This piece is particularly pertinent given what is going on in the Supreme Court right now. 

Actuality and Abortion

Gunther Laird

As readers of A Tippling Philosopher are well aware of by now (having read the previous entry I wrote for this blog, “The Problems of Pure Act”), Edward Feser is one of the most popular and prolific defenders of the Catholic religion writing today. Those same readers will, of course, be aware that I contest his efforts directly in the new book I have recently published, The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory. While Feser has written mostly on metaphysics, he has addressed matters of morality as well, and as you can expect, my book attacks his worldview on those grounds as well. Of particular interest to contemporary readers, given the current fracas over Roe vs. Wade, are Feser’s arguments that abortion is immoral. These arguments—the sort that other Catholics such as Amy Barrett prefer–might seem quite different from most other pro-life claims because they are actually based on pre-Christian philosophy, specifically the Greek thinker Aristotle’s theories revolving around essentialism, actuality and potentiality. This entry is an excerpt from chapter 3 of my book that refutes Feser’s pro-life position based on his own Aristotelian reasoning.[1]

For new readers who haven’t read my previous entry, “Problems of Pure Act,” I must first provide a brief overview of these Aristotelian concepts. Rest assured that I go into much more depth on all of these topics in the actual text of the book, but I must be as concise as possible for the purposes of a single blog entry.

According to Aristotle (and his teacher, Plato, and their intellectual descendants, such as Feser), there is no way to make sense of the world around us without accepting the reality of Essences, which can also be called Forms. An Essence or Form is what defines a thing and distinguishes it from everything else. The specific wavelengths of light associated with the color green, for instance, define it and distinguish it from other colors, and the equidistance of all points on its surface from its center defines a sphere and distinguishes it from other shapes.[2] Now, it’s not just colors and shapes that have Forms. According to natural law adherents, everything has a Form. Concepts (there’s something that defines justice and distinguishes it from tyranny), artifacts (there’s something that defines a PlayStation 5 and distinguishes it from a Game Boy), and even living things (there’s something that defines a human being and distinguishes her from a squirrel or jellyfish).[3]

For the purposes of argument and saving space, let’s skip over the arguments Feser presents for essentialism (and against its alternatives, such as nominalism) and concede that he’s right. This, by the way, is one of the strengths of my book—in the Unnecessary Science, I concede many of Feser’s starting premises, but use them to refute the arguments he makes using them—by generously agreeing to fight on his own ground and on his own terms, my own position is shown to be that much stronger. Anyways, it’s one thing to say that we can distinguish between colors by referring to wavelengths of light, or shapes by referring to their mathematical properties, but how can we distinguish between living things? What, precisely, makes a human different from a squirrel or jellyfish? According to Feser, the answer lies in actuality and potentiality (sometimes called act and potency).

Act and potency are more Aristotelian terms that were initially created to explain how change could occur. In Feser’s view, they also prove the existence of God, but I’ve critiqued that specific argument in “The Problems of Pure Act,” so I’ll ignore that now—let’s focus entirely on ethics for the moment.

To put it as concisely as possible, “act” or “actuality” is how a given thing is or behaves right now, and “potency” or “potentiality” is how it will (or might) be or behave in the future, and both actuality and potentiality are determined by its Form or Essence. For instance, the Form of a rubber ball entails it is shaped like a sphere and made out of rubber, which defines and distinguishes it from, say, erasers (which are made of rubber but shaped differently), ball bearings (which are spherical but made of metal), or plastic triangles (which are both made of different materials and shaped differently entirely). Now, “being made of rubber” and “being spherical” are the ball’s actualities—they are what it is right now. But being a rubber ball—that is to say, having the Form or Essence of a rubber ball—also entails it has certain potentialities, or things it might possibly do in the future. For instance, if our rubber ball is sitting motionless on the floor right now, it is potentially rolling across the room or potentially flying through the air, if someone in the future were to give it a push or pick it up and throw it. Note as well, however, that there are some potentialities it does not have, because it will never display those sorts of behaviors or have those sorts of effects. For instance, a rubber ball will never produce nuclear power like a rod of uranium might, nor will it ever float off to the moon or chase someone around a room all by itself. It simply doesn’t have those potentialities.[4]

Now, according to Feser, the Form or Essence of a human being, that which objectively defines us and distinguishes us from everything else, is that of a “rational animal.” In the Aristotelian view, humans are the only creatures on Earth that have ever existed with the capacity for rational thought. Obviously, that’s debatable, but again for the purposes of argument let’s accept it. Now, review the previous paragraph: A thing’s Form or Essence entail what it is right now and what it might possibly be in the future (its potentialities). One corollary of this is that you can tell something’s Essence by what potentialities it possesses, because actuality (what something is right now) always grounds potentialities. So, Feser asks us to look at the human fetus under this metaphysical schema. According to him, a human is a rational animal, which means that anything which is either thinking right now or can think in the future is a rational animal (and thus deserves the rights attending to rational animals, or in other words, human rights, most notably the right to live). At first glance, it might seem like a zygote, embryo, or fetus definitely isn’t a rational animal because such tiny, underdeveloped organisms can’t think like adults or even children can. But according to Feser, they have the “potential” to reason in a way nothing else does. In “the natural course of things” a fetus will be born, grow up, and start to reason. That differentiates it from, say, hair or skin cells, which will never grow into thinking beings (barring the invention of some sci-fi cloning technology), or individual sperm and egg cells, which contain only half of a chromosome or blueprint for an actual human being. In other words, a fetus can reason in the future, even if it’s not reasoning right now. And if future behavior is one of a thing’s potentialities, and you can tell a thing’s Essence from its potentialities, then it follows, in metaphysical terms (even if it’s not obvious), that a tiny little fetus is indeed an actual human being. This is because human beings are (by dint of our Essence) the only creatures who have the potential to think. And therefore, killing a fetus is killing an innocent human being, which is absolutely forbidden in all circumstances.

There are just a few clarifications to be made before advancing to my critique of Feser’s position. First, he believes in the death penalty, which also involves killing a human being. Isn’t that an inconsistency? Not according to Feser, because of the key word I mentioned above—innocent. Assuming a fetus is human, it has committed no crime, because it hasn’t intentionally done anything wrong (you could argue absorbing nutrients from its mother is sort of a theft, but the fetus had no choice in the matter, as it can’t stop doing that even if it wanted to). Thus, a fetus is innocent, whereas grown criminals assumedly aren’t, and thus, since they are not innocent, it is morally licit to kill them. Again, we don’t have time to get into that branch of ethics here, so let’s concede it to Feser for the purposes of this entry. Secondly, even taking that into account, some philosophers, particularly “consequentialists” might argue it is permissible to kill innocent humans in some circumstances—in this case, a mother’s right to bodily autonomy outweighs the right of an innocent fetus to life, which it gains only after it’s born (and no longer needs someone else’s body to live). Feser considers consequentialism to be an abominable ethical system; in his preferred “natural law” theory, certain actions (killing an innocent rational animal, in this case) are absolutely condemned under all circumstances no matter what.

Yet again, there’s not enough room here to closely compare consequentialism and natural law theory, so we can concede even this point to Feser as well. In this blog entry, and in The Unnecessary Science itself, I will argue that a thorough Aristotelian analysis implies that zygotes and fetuses, before birth and the severing of the umbilical cord, do not actually possess the potential to reason and thus do not possess the Essence of “rational animality.”

First let’s take a closer look at Feser’s anti-abortion argument in The Last Superstition. He states,

…the features essential to human beings…being able to take in nutrients…to think, and so forth—are not fully developed until well after conception. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there…Rationality, locomotion, nutrition, and the like are present even at conception…as inherent potentialities…[this] doesn’t even mean “potential” in the sense in which a rubber ball might potentially be melted down and made into something else, e.g. an eraser. It means ‘potential’ in the sense of a capacity that an entity already has within it by virtue of its nature or essence, as a rubber ball qua rubber ball has the potential to roll down a hill even when it is locked in a cabinet somewhere. And in this sense a zygote has the potentiality for or “directedness toward” the actual exercise of reasoning…that a rubber ball doesn’t have, that a sperm or egg considered by themselves don’t have.[5]

The most obvious problem with Feser’s argument, in my view, comes with the example he uses right at the very end of that paragraph. How, precisely, could a zygote be much more “directed toward” becoming a rational animal than an individual egg or sperm cell could? This might sound strange to you and me, dear reader, but it shouldn’t sound strange to Dr. Feser. As he describes elsewhere in The Last Superstition (which I critique very heavily and at much more length in the sections on gay marriage in The Unnecessary Science), one of his major hobbyhorses is the idea that our sexual faculties “are directed towards” the production of more human beings. If that really were the case, then every egg cell, at least, would be an actual human being. Feser himself would say that the only reason eggs exist is to create new human beings; if we didn’t have sex (say we reproduced by budding or parthenogenesis), we wouldn’t have those egg cells. That means the egg’s final cause (another bit of Aristotelian jargon, explained at length in “The Problems of Pure Act”) is to become a human being, which also means it is “directed towards” human rational activity, it just “hasn’t yet fully realized that inherent potentiality.” The only thing the little egg needs to realize that potential is a little help from a little sperm, followed by nine months in mommy’s tummy. What makes the egg’s situation metaphysically different from the zygote’s? The only meaningful distinction between an unfertilized and fertilized egg, in terms of the potentialities towards which they are directed, seems to be the split second when the sperm hits the egg. Unless Feser can provide some account of why that exact moment represents a tectonic shift in the “directedness” of the egg cell, he would be forced to concede that a mere unfertilized egg is an “actual human, just one waiting to actualize its potentials” in the same way a zygote is.

Might that tectonic shift be a matter of chromosomes? One of the points for a zygote having its own distinct Form (that is to say, being a unique human being instead of a mere part of one, like some skin cells) is that it has its own distinct set of genes, different from those of its mother. The egg has an X chromosome from the mother, the sperm carries either the father’s X or Y chromosome, so when they come together, the resulting girl (if an X-sperm created an XX zygote) or boy (for an XY zygote) would have a distinct genetic blueprint that differed from both of the parents. But on closer thought, this is not the whole story. Both eggs and sperm have distinct “blueprints” by themselves. There are always slight variations in the single chromosome of the sperm and eggs created by the father and mother—these gametes are never just clones or identical templates, so to speak, the way cells of other body parts are. Even without a background in biology, this can be easily understood by thinking about siblings. If every egg cell and every sperm were exactly alike, every male and female child of a single couple would be identical to his or her brothers or sisters, because the exact same X and Y chromosomes would be creating them. In reality, of course, that’s not the case—except for identical twins (which are two people made from a single egg), there are always little differences among fraternal siblings. This is proof that each individual egg and sperm has a slightly different set of genes, which means they really do possess genetically distinct Forms, in the sense of being distinguished and individuated from others of their general type. Given their “directedness towards” becoming human beings, they would therefore seem to be actual human beings in the same sense a zygote is. But even Feser would admit this would be absurd.

Similar problems arise with Feser’s conflation of a certain substance being “intrinsically directed towards” a certain thing (in this case, a rational animal, or more specifically, reasoning at some point in the future) and actually being that thing. To again riff off of one his favorite examples, imagine a glass of water sitting at room temperature. That water is “intrinsically directed” towards becoming ice at cold temperatures. There is something inherent to water that gives it the “potential” to be cold and solid—if it were to remain a liquid at 0 degrees Celsius, or turn into violets, or explode or anything like that, it would not really have the Form of water and therefore would not actually be a sample of water. But the fact that a glass of water has “iciness” as a potentiality does not mean it actually is a block of ice until the temperature has lowered and it has actually frozen.

Imagine how silly it would be if you asked a waiter at a restaurant for some ice in your lemonade and he instead brought you a glass of water along with it, his excuse being, “well, this water is an actual block of ice, just one that hasn’t fully realized its inherent potentials.” I somehow suspect even Edward Feser would have a tough time tipping the guy extra for being an astute Aristotelian. Unhappily for the pro-lifers, the same reasoning applies to zygotes. There may be something intrinsic, a potentiality or blueprint “directed towards” rationality in a zygote, but only in the same sense that there is something intrinsic, a potentiality or blueprint “directed towards” ice in water. Until that potential is actually realized, it seems as silly to treat a zygote as an actual human being as it would be for a waiter to treat a glass of lukewarm water as an actual block of ice.

Aristotle’s doctrines of “primary actuality” and “secondary actuality” are of little help to Feser here. Earlier in The Last Superstition, Feser describes the distinction as such:

Since you are a human being, you are a rational animal; because you are a rational animal, you have the power or faculty of speech; and because you have this power, you sometimes exercise it and speak. Your actually having the power of speech flows from your actually being a rational animal; it is a ‘secondary actuality’ relative to your being a rational animal, which is a ‘primary actuality.’

What this means is that “the zygote, given its nature or form, has rationality as a ‘primary actuality’ even if not yet as a ‘secondary actuality.’”[6]

The key phrase there is “given its form.” We can agree that a zygote has a “primary actuality” of rationality only if we agree it is an actually rational animal in the first place. But as the examples given above should hopefully show, it is far from obvious that a precursor to a rational animal actually is a rational animal itself. That being the case, if the zygote possesses a different Form, even if it has the potential to become a rational animal, it does not in and of itself have rationality as a primary actuality. The example of the block of ice comes to mind again: Ice has the “primary actuality” of being cold and solid, and also has the secondary actuality—that is to say, an ability that flows from its primary actuality but is not necessarily always expressed—to cool a drink. Any block of ice will have this power even if it isn’t in a glass of lemonade. But it must be frozen into a proper block first—a glass of lukewarm water does not have the primary actuality of iciness and therefore no secondary actuality of a capacity to cool. Only when the water has been given the Form of ice through freezing, and only when a zygote has been given the Form of a rational animal (a soul) through gestation and birth, can either be said to actually be icy or rational.

Admittedly, there may be a disanalogy here: The zygote is a living thing, whereas a glass of water would be an inanimate object. Doesn’t the zygote have some inherent principle of growth and operation that makes it different from water, which only has a principle of operation and no inherent tendencies of growth or autonomous behavior? This is most likely the argument that the Thomists John Haldane and Patrick Lee would use, and Feser relies quite heavily on their analysis to buttress the ones he gives in Aquinas and The Last Superstition. On closer inspection, however, a sharp-eyed reader can see that Haldane and Lee’s arguments are not entirely airtight either.

The pair tells us that “the case of foetal development involves an intrinsic principle of natural change in a single substance. This change involves the internally directed growth toward a more mature stage of a human organism, and so the cause of this change, the embryo itself, is already human.” According to the authors, an embryo can be said to be “internally directed” thanks to its “epigenetic primordium.” The term derives from two words: “the ‘primordium’ [is] ‘the beginning or first discernible indication of an organ or structure’, while ‘epigenetic’ is used to mean ‘being developed out of without being preformed.’”[7] Since this primordium—the first discernible indications of organs which will gradually develop as part of a final cause—is present only after the sperm hits the egg, that moment of conception can be considered the moment at which a new human being is formed (or Formed, or ensouled, whichever you like).

But at the same time, Lee and Haldane also mention, “In  mammals,  even  in  the  unfertilized  ovum,  there  is already  an  ‘animal’  pole  (from  which  the  nervous  system  and  eyes develop) and a ‘vegetal’ pole (from which the future ‘lower’ organs and the gut develop).”[8] This would seem to fulfill the criteria of an epigenetic primordium: The first discernible indications of organs, which are not pre-formed but will develop naturally after they have made contact with a sperm cell. Since one of these blueprints, so to speak, is of the nervous system, the individual egg could be said to be “directed towards” the rationality associated with that nervous system. That would mean an unfertilized egg would be an actual human in almost the same way Feser, Haldane, and Lee say a zygote is an actual human. But, again, this seems absurd.

Absurd, they might say, because an unfertilized egg contains no inherent principle of growth. An egg without a sperm attached to it will just sit there until it’s eventually flushed out (a process, I hear, that causes quite some inconvenience every month). An egg combined with a sperm, however, has its own unique genetic blueprint and something that makes it start to divide and grow in size. Since

…there is no extrinsic agent responsible for the regular, complex development, then the obvious conclusion is that the cause of the process is…the embryo itself. But in that case the process is not an extrinsic formation, but is an instance of growth or maturation, i.e., the active self-development of a whole, though immature organism which is already a member of the species, the mature stage of which it is developing toward.[9]

This would be convincing…if Haldane and Lee hadn’t forgotten about a very important extrinsic actress indeed: The zygote’s mother. A zygote is not really like an adult cat or dog or squirrel or other animal Feser uses as examples of natural substances or animal souls.[10] A grown, independent animal is capable of taking in nutrients, reproducing, and carrying out all its other behaviors (barking, meowing, burying nuts, whatever) on its own volition and does not necessarily rely on any other entity to do it for them. In other words, these animals operate entirely according to their intrinsic principles, though bad fortune (such as predators or local famine) can frustrate these principles. A zygote, on the other hand, relies entirely on its mother’s body to carry out its distinctive operations. It first must attach itself to the uterus before it will grow, and none of the “epigenetic primordia” it contains will ever actually become the organs (much less the rationality) they “point towards” unless the mother’s body provides it nutrients and proper direction 24/7 for nine months.

In a meaningful sense, while a zygote may be “directed towards” growing in that it possesses a certain genetic blueprint conducive to that end, the little thing is not actually growing itself. Rather, the mother’s body is actively stuffing nutrients into it and moving the process along. It does not seem to be an intrinsic principle of the zygote that spurs its growth, but the extrinsic action of the body in which it is found. If zygotes really did possess some intrinsic principle as Haldane, Lee, and undoubtedly Feser hold, they would be able to nourish themselves and grow into little rational animals entirely on their own. But as we all know, this is impossible—a zygote separated from its uterus in some way will quickly wither and die. Even if there were some way to keep it alive—an artificial womb from Brave New World, for instance—that womb would still be providing nutrients and direction for the organism’s growth. There would still be an extrinsic, external agent responsible for the changes the zygote experiences, it would just be an artificial, science-fiction agent rather than a natural mother.

Neither is it any good to say the “blueprint,” the full set of chromosomes (with two being XX or XY) contained in a zygote constitute the “intrinsic principle,” at least if merely having an “intrinsic principle” that is not yet fully realized makes an entity of the same type as a fully-grown example. As mentioned earlier, an unfertilized egg contains a sort of blueprint for the nervous system all on its own, it merely needs a handsome, dashing sperm to complete the blueprint and begin the next step of the process towards which it is “directed.” If the Thomist Trio wishes to say a zygote is an actual rational animal that is just waiting to realize its potentials after nine months and with the aid of many nutrients, we can say an unfertilized egg is an actual rational animal that is just waiting to realize its potential with the aid of a single sperm, nine months, and many nutrients. As Feser might say, an incomplete or damaged blueprint is still a blueprint, and the half-chromosomal-load of a human egg certainly counts as an incomplete blueprint.

Equally problematic is the word “blueprint,” as a blueprint itself contains no intrinsic principle that can be actualized without the aid of an external actor. Imagine you give a builder the blueprints for a house. It would be silly for either you or him to act as if the blueprint itself were an actual (if incomplete) house, because the blueprint is merely providing a set of instructions. The builder must provide the materials and do the work of building a house, even if the blueprints are directing him in a sense. By the same token, the zygote’s distinct chromosomes serve as a blueprint for a unique human being, but that human being does not exist yet. Only when enough time has passed and the mother’s body has provided enough nutrients (she is the builder in this case) can we really say a new human has come into being.

Under Feser’s own lights, then, a consistently Aristotelian outlook makes abortion more, not less, justifiable. When we accept three important Aristotelian views (Realism [that things in the world actually have mind-independent Essences or Forms], the idea that a thing’s potentialities tell us what Form it instantiates, and the idea that substantial Form is determined by an inherent principle of growth), we find that since a zygote lacks inherent (as opposed to externally-powered) growth, it does not truly possess the potentialities associated with the Form of a human, and thus is not truly a human. Consequently, it does not possess a right to life all humans do. I would say that’s a hefty metaphysical argument pro-choicers could add to their arsenal.

We are then left with one more problem: Where, precisely do we draw the line between a merely proto-human zygote and a fully human child? It is a very important question, at least to guys like Feser: If zygotes really aren’t rational animals, then it would be acceptable to destroy them, but since children really are rational animals (just immature ones), we can’t simply kill them. Aquinas thought that growing proto-humans took on the full Form of Humanity (that is to say, their souls) at about forty days into development, but this was due to the primitive knowledge of embryology available to him at the time. Given that the Form of Man is being a rational animal, an ethics based on Forms seems to entail that any human-seeming organism would only be truly human once it began to demonstrate rational activity. But as we all know, babies aren’t very rational, so this would imply the absurd conclusion that infants and toddlers weren’t really human (and that abusing or killing them would be less morally severe).[11]

In order to avoid this conclusion, Feser, Lee, and Haldane had to resort to the concept of “epigenetic primordia” and the assertion that a zygote containing a blueprint directed towards being a rational animal (eventually) counted as having an intrinsic principle—making it an example of an actual rational animal, merely an immature one. But, fortunately, even under my own riff on an Aristotelian framework, where zygotes are not rational animals, it is possible for me to maintain that newborns are fully human and deserving of rights.

The key lies in the intrinsic principle of growth and behavior mentioned earlier in relation to animals. We have established that zygotes do not possess this principle because their growth and development is dictated entirely by an external actor (the mother’s body). However, when a baby leaves the womb, loses the umbilical cord, and takes the first breath out in the world, he or she gains that intrinsic principle. Yes, it is true that babies and toddlers are just about completely helpless, and that they need to be fed and cleaned by external actors to avoid starving to death (which obviously entails they are entirely un-rational). But even though babies are helpless, they are not as helpless as a zygote, embryo, or fetus. Babies are capable of manifesting behaviors all on their own and exerting some control over their environment, even if only in a very thin sense of crying loudly to get someone to notice them. Their independent actions evince a sort of intrinsic principle influencing the world around them, analogous to the way a dog barking or a cat meowing for food evinces an intrinsic, independently-operating behavior influencing the world, which tells us those things are dogs or cats. A proto-human, however, cannot influence anything in that way. Even a developed fetus, no matter how much it kicks or rolls around in the womb, cannot change the chemicals of the uterus surrounding it, nor how many nutrients the uterus provides it. We can say the fetus’s principle of growth is extrinsic, located in the mother’s body, while the newborn’s principle of growth is intrinsic, rooted in its own behaviors (even if they only serve to get others to feed it). Since the Thomists require a “blueprint” pointing towards rationality (which babies certainly have, given they’ll grow to be at least somewhat rational in a few years), and an intrinsic principle propelling growth towards that goal, babies fulfill both conditions, while zygotes have only the former. So it is demonstrated that we can justify abortion on Aristotelian-Thomistic grounds without necessarily condoning infanticide.

As always, I hope you’ve enjoyed this piece—and if you did, you’ll consider buying The Unnecessary Science, where you’ll find this argument expanded on, as well as many others that will prove massively useful to anyone interested in refuting “natural law theory,” which has taken a great deal of contemporary importance thanks to the preponderance of right-wing Catholics such as Clarence Thomas and, soon, Amy Barrett on the United States Supreme Court. You can buy a physical copy here.

If you’d prefer an ebook, don’t worry, the ebook version will be out before the end of the month—please look forward to it! You’ll have everything you need to send Thomists packing at the touch of a button on your computer or even a few swipes of your smartphone if you have Kindle, Kobo or Nook!

NOTES

[1] As is the case in the text of The Unnecessary Science, I reference Feser’s work with acronyms since I cite them so much. Here, The Last Superstition is TLS and Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is AQ.

[2]TLS, 31-35, AQ, 16-24. Essence, Form, and Nature each connote slightly different things in the most technical usage, but the distinction isn’t important in this context, so here we will use the terms interchangeably. I should note here that I am capitalizing all these terms in my own text, though leaving them uncapitalized when directly quoting from other authors, to differentiate the specifically philosophical terms from the common verbs and adjectives which denote different things.

[3] Ibid.

[4] TLS, 50-55.

[5] TLS, 129.

[6] TLS, 56.

[7] John Haldane and Patrick Lee, “Rational Souls and the Beginning of Life (A Reply to Robert Pasnau),Philosophy 78 no. 4 (2003), 537.

[8] Ibid.

[9] John Haldane and Patrick Lee, “Aquinas on Human Ensoulment, Abortion and the Value of Life,” Philosophy 78, no. 02 (2003), 271.

[10] TLS, 121. The specific term Feser uses is “sensory soul,” but that’s not relevant to the discussion at hand.

[11] AQ, 141.

 

 


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