Commentary on my Catholic Answers call
On Monday night, I called into the Catholic Answers radio program to give the reason why I am an atheist. My stated reason was that I have not been offered any convincing reasons to believe that deity exists, and the discussion quickly turned to the subject of the Cosmological family of arguments. Unfortunately, a live call-in program does not offer the best forum for back-and-forth discussion, so I wanted to take some time to respond to a number of the things which Trent Horn said, in our dialogue.
Trent began by describing some of the more popular Cosmological arguments. Concerning the formulation put forward by Thomas Aquinas, he says:
What Thomas argues, in the Summa Theologica, he says, “Let’s suppose the universe were eternal– it’s always existed.” Uh, there’s still things in the universe that need explanation. For example, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Uh, why is there a universe of motion when, even if the universe is eternal, it could just be a static block.
I would agree that such things need explanation. However, this does not imply that the explanation needs to be found outside of the properties of the universe, itself. After all, even if the universe is contingent, and even if Trent is correct to assert that it was created by God, we have not answered the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” God is still something, rather than nothing. I think Trent would agree that the simple fact that we can ask, “Why does God exist rather than not existing?” does not imply that it is therefore possible God does not exist. Similarly, the simple fact that we have a question about the universe’s existence does not imply that the universe might therefore have not existed.
Another argument says, “Well, another reason the universe doesn’t have to exist is that, at one time, there was nothing. Nada. There was no thing, at all, and then suddenly the universe came into existence. And you can’t get something from nothing.
This begs a rather important question: was there a time when there was nothing? This formulation of the Cosmological argument seems to assume that there was, but I would wholeheartedly disagree with that claim. In fact, I would argue that it doesn’t even make any sense. Trent and I both agree that Time is not nothing. So if there is a time, then something exists, and it would be completely wrong to then claim that nothing exists at that time. In fact, it seems entirely incoherent to claim that the philosophical concept of Nothing could exist.
After this, I mentioned that I find the Leibnizian Cosmological argument to be the best form of that series, and so we moved on to discussing that part. Trent summarized my view as follows:
Joe’s objection, however, is that perhaps the universe is necessary, like God is. The universe– there’s never– there could have never been a state of affairs where the universe did not exist. Uh, maybe it’s just the case, there always has to be a universe
This is precisely my position. We have two options: either there could have been a state of affairs in which the universe did not exist, or else there could not have been. If one wants to support either option, he needs to rely on better arguments than, “we do not know that the converse is true.” I was not claiming that there could never have been a state of affairs where the universe did not exist. I was asking Trent to defend the claim that there could have been such a state of affairs, since all Cosmological arguments for God are predicated upon it.
TRENT: Here are some reasons that I would give to think that the universe– why think the universe is contingent, as opposed to necessary. Well, one reason that I would give would be a conceptual one, and that would be the fact that while one can imagine, uh, the universe not existing, uh, that’s not really the case with necessary objects…
Now, there is, this objection can go back to God but before we get there, what do you think of that? That being able to conceive that something doesn’t exist is evidence for its contingency?
BP: I wouldn’t really agree with that, because I– I mean, you– I would argue that I can, uh, I can imagine a world in which God does not exist–
TRENT: Right, Joe, I know the objection can go there, that you could imagine God doesn’t exist, and I have a rejoinder to that, but before that, I’m just talking– I’m not even talking about God right now, I’m just talking about whether the universe is necessary or contingent. And the fact that I can imagine it not existing makes it more like a contingent thing…
Unfortunately, Trent didn’t get the opportunity to elaborate on his rejoinder to the objection that one could imagine God doesn’t exist. Hopefully, this is in his book, Answering Atheism, and I’ll get a chance to respond to it after I receive my copy. However, I will still note, as I did previously, that the simple fact that we can imagine a thing not existing implies nothing at all about the actual possibility of its existence or non-existence.
For example, a triangle with three sides– you can’t imagine any other kind of triangle. You know, it’s three sides are necessary. Uh, but I could imagine a triangle that’s blue or red or purple or all kinds of colors. That shows whatever color a triangle might be is contingent. It could be– I could imagine it being different. And the same would go for anything else, but the sides– I can’t imagine it any other way.
…You know, we don’t ask, “Why does the square have four sides? Why is the circle round?” That’s just the way it is.
The reason one can’t imagine any other kind of triangle than one with three sides is that a triangle, by definition, is a plane figure with three sides. The reason we can imagine a triangle of different colors is that the definition of “triangle” implies nothing at all about the color of that plane figure. The fact that we can or can’t imagine it being different is a consequent of our understanding of the object’s properties. It is not the reason for those properties. Precisely the same thing can be said regarding the square’s four sides: a square is a quadrilateral by definition.
As for a circle’s roundness, we can say the same thing but in reverse. When we say something is “round,” we mean that it is approaching circularity or sphericality in shape. “Round,” by definition, references the shape of a circle. We can certainly ask why a circle has its particular shape as opposed to others– in fact, mathematicians have been doing so for thousands of years. You see, unlike a triangle or square whose definitions delineate the particular number of sides, a circle has a more abstract definition: it is the set of all points in a plane which are equidistant from another point. So, if we were given point O and distance r, we would say that all of the points which are exactly r‘s distance from O comprise a circle. We can then explore the implications which this definition has on the properties of that shape.
While I wasn’t able to be so verbose in my response, I did mention in my call that this was due to the defined properties of triangles as opposed to the force of our imaginative ability. Trent answered by saying,
Well, I’m not saying that the universe’s contingency is necessary, or that it– I mean– I guess there’s a way God could make the universe have to exist, somehow. Uh, I’m just saying there’s no reason to think the universe is necessary, and there are reasons to think it’s contingent, or it could fail to exist.
I was responding to one of the reasons which was given in support of the idea that the universe could fail to exist, and arguing that it does not actually demonstrate that the universe could fail to exist. Even if Trent was correct to assert that there is no reason to think the universe is necessary, I was asking what reasons there are to think that it’s contingent. I do not feel that the conceptual argument which he presented gives us a very good reason to think that the universe is contingent.
Trent then asked me about the example of Mars, and as to whether I thought Mars was contingent. I told him that I did, because there was a time when Mars did not exist.
Okay, so that– that’s one way to go about it. If something didn’t exist, it’s not necessary. And we could talk later, if we had more time, that I think that the universe– there was a time it didn’t exist.
This would seem wholly incoherent. Later in the discussion, Trent and I both agree that Time is a part of the universe. If this is the case, then it is logically impossible for there to have been a time when the universe didn’t exist. There cannot have been a time when Time did not exist– that’s a nonsensical assertion. I talk about this in more detail in my article, The Universe Has Always Existed, defending my position with a very simple logical argument:
- The universe is the set of all physical things which really exist.
- Time is a physical thing which really exists.
- If Time exists, then the universe exists. (1,2)
- Time is the set of all moments which exist.
- There exists some moment, t.
- If t exists, then Time exists. (4,5)
- Therefore, if t exists, then the universe exists. (6,3)
- The phrase “always” is defined as meaning “for all moments of time.”
- There are no moments of time in which the universe does not exist. (7)
- Therefore, the universe has always existed. (8,9)
Referring again to Mars, Trent asked me to consider a situation in which I was unaware as to whether or not there was a time in which Mars did not exist. He then asked:
Wouldn’t it follow that you can imagine a world without Mars or without your living room couch, or you could imagine certain things not existing, so it follows they are contingent?
No. I do not see how that follows, at all. Once again, the fact that we can imagine something not existing implies nothing at all about the nature of that thing’s ontology. Again, Trent is saying that the presence of the question implies the answer to that question. The simple fact that we could imagine things being different does not imply that they could be different, nor that the explanation for why they are not different is due to contingency. Allow me to give an example from mathematics.
We can ask the question, “Why is there an infinite amount of Prime numbers rather than a finite amount?” In fact, anyone who has ever taken even an introductory course on Number Theory has likely been asked this very question. However, the very fact that we can ask this question does not imply that the infinitude of the Primes is a contingent fact. It is, quite the contrary, most certainly a necessary fact, derived from the properties of numbers, themselves. Nor does the fact that we now know the answer to the question change the situation, at all. There was a time when Humanity asked about the infinitude of the Primes prior to having an answer to the question. The presence of the question no more implied that this infinitude was a contingent fact, at that point in time, than it does, now.
I then attempted to direct the conversation back to my main question. I admitted that it may be possible for the universe to be contingent, but I have not seen it demonstrated to be so. Trent then asked if I had any reason to think that the universe might be necessary. Giving an extremely brief summary of the position I elucidate above regarding Time, I stated that I cannot see any cogent way to present the idea that the universe did not exist, because the universe has literally existed for all moments of Time. Trent then responded:
Right, but– but you can have non-existence without Time. In fact, I would say that, uh, a state of affairs where there is nothing but Time doesn’t make sense. It’s not possible, because all Time is is a measure of change, and if nothing exists to change, you actually can’t have time at all.
I never argued that it was possible for a state of affairs to exist in which only Time, absent of any change, existed. What I said was that it is incoherent to claim that there was a time in which the universe did not exist. The universe has literally always existed, and it is incoherent to claim that there could have been a state of affairs in which it did not exist.
Trent moved on to the idea that all things within the universe are contingent, in order to attempt to expand that idea to the universe as a whole. He says:
There didn’t have to be Mars. There didn’t have to be a Milky Way. Eventually, when you say, there didn’t have to be all the stuff in the universe, there didn’t have to be a universe, at all. I mean, some people say, “Well, maybe the basic units of the universe, like quarks, they have to exist.” Maybe not. What if they were strings instead of quarks or some other– the fact that things could be different requires an explanation for why it’s not different.
This presents an extremely narrow view of the universe. Trent only discusses material objects, here: Mars, the Milky Way, quarks, strings. However, when we talk about “the universe” in philosophy (and also in cosmology) we’re not simply talking about matter. In fact, Trent himself defined the universe much more broadly, when he first began explaining the Cosmological family of arguments. He said that the universe is “all of space, time, matter, and energy.” So, even if one were to show that all of the matter in the universe is contingent, and he may put forth similar arguments for energy, Trent has done nothing at all to show that space-time, itself, is contingent. Since space-time is the very fabric of the universe, on modern cosmological models, it becomes necessary to show that space-time is contingent if one wants to demonstrate that the universe, as a whole, is contingent.
Now, God is a necessary and infinite being Who can’t be different, Who just is, and He serves, as I think, the best explanation for why there is a universe rather than that there isn’t one.
As I mentioned earlier, all of the same questions which Trent asked about the physical cosmos can also be asked about God. Why is there God rather than no God? Why does God have property X instead of not having property X? I think Trent and I will both agree that the presence of these questions implies nothing at all about whether God is necessary or contingent. I therefore find it very curious that he thinks the presence of these questions bear any sort of implication upon the necessity or contingency of the physical cosmos. Now, as mentioned, Trent says he has a rejoinder to this objection. If it is in his book, I will certainly address it when my copy arrives; however, if it is not, I’ll try to get in touch with Trent personally to find out if it can resolve this apparent discrepancy.
Once again, I do want to thank Trent Horn and Patrick Coffin for taking my call, treating me respectfully, and sincerely trying to address my concerns as I presented them. I greatly enjoyed the discussion, and found it immensely thought-provoking. It is wonderful to find an apologist who truly is concerned with having a fair and irenic dialogue with those who disagree. All too often, people on both sides of an argument talk at the other person, rather than with him– regurgitating canned responses and pat answers without regard for what the other person is actually saying. Trent Horn did not do this. He listened to what I had to say, and he addressed my questions and concerns as best he could in the time we had; and for that, he has my utmost respect and gratitude.
Thanks for leaving this commentary, it provides for a smoother read. One point I didn’t see you address was Trent’s argument against your time theory (P.S. I’m still processing your other post–time is a really complex component in history :D). Anyway, can you help with the idea Trent had: Time is a measurement of change, if nothing is changing time does not exist. Therefore, time has only been in existence as long as the universe. If this is true (I believe it is), then your 10 point argument is circular (the universe exists because time exists and time exists because the universe exists). Unless I’m missing something–which is VERY possible. Thanks for your help! You certainly don’t shy away from complexity *smile*
I actually did briefly address this. Trent didn’t argue that it was cogent to discuss something existing in the absence of space-time. He argued that it was not cogent for Time to exist in the absence of change– which is, actually, precisely my point.
I agree that it is true, which is why I fervently disagree with Trent when he claimed, “there was a time [the universe] didn’t exist.” That seems to be nonsensical.
However, the argument is not circular. A fallacious circular argument is one in which a person unjustifiably assumes his conclusion in order to deduce that very same conclusion. That is very different than an argument in which we all agree to the premises in order to follow the implications of those premises.
Also, you’ll note that my argument was not that Time exists because the universe exists. My argument was that it is incoherent to assert that there was ever a time in which the universe did not exist.
Thanks! I did miss that point but I’m glad you cleared it up. It actually helps in the other post as well. You have a very enjoyable style and I do appreciate your willingness to respond to questions (even the same question to help me understand). Thank you again friend. (Joe?)
My pleasure, certainly. I’m very glad you’re enjoying my work!
I would highly recommend looking into Ed Feser’s book “Five proofs of the existence of God” as he addresses a lot of what is being said in this post. For example, Feser notes that the standard question “why is there something rather than nothing” is misleading in that it suggests that there could have, in principle, been nothing. What classical theists have always argued is that God is pure actuality, whose essence IS existence, and that there could not, even in principle, have been nothing.
Therefore, the statement “I was not claiming that there could never have been a state of affairs where the universe did not exist. I was asking Trent to defend the claim that there could have been such a state of affairs, since all Cosmological arguments for God are predicated upon it,” is simply untrue. I agree that Horn’s thinking is muddled here, and I think part of the blame lies on him for misunderstanding the arguments.
Moreover, the issue of whether or not the universe had a beginning or always existed, is irrelevant for several important cosmological arguments (again, see Feser’s book or blog for the specifics). True, it applies to the popular Kalam argument, but that is the exception not the rule. What Aristotle, for example, argues is that regardless of whether or not the universe is infinite, it could not remain in existence, even for instance, unless there were something purely actual sustaining it.
Hope this clarifies a few things,
Thanks for taking the time to read and reply with some thoughtful comments, Michael! I’ll try to address them as best as I can but please feel free to let me know if I miss or misunderstand anything.
I am somewhat familiar with Feser’s work. I have read his “Aquinas” and I’ve heard several interviews and discussions with him. Unfortunately, Feser and I have wildly different foundational views of the world. He is, of course, extremely Aristotelian (or Neo-Aristotelian) in his metaphysics; whereas I’m of the opinion that, while quite interesting for the place and time in which it was conceived, Aristotle’s metaphysics is every bit as outdated now as is his physics.
That said, one point on which Feser and I most certainly agree is that there could not, even in principle, have been nothing.
I think you misunderstood me, here. I was no longer discussing a state of nothingness existing. Rather, I was discussing a state in which the universe does not exist. If it is possible for the universe to not exist, there may well still be something else which nonetheless exists necessarily (ie, the God of Classical Theology or pure-actuality or some other such entity). All Cosmological arguments most certainly ARE predicated on the notion that it is possible for the universe to not exist. Even Cosmological arguments which presume a universe which extends infinitely into the temporal past are predicated on the notion that something else is necessary for the universe’s existence, which they presume is not necessary.
I’m simply asking for a defense of this presumption. What reason do we have to think that the universe does not exist necessarily?
Ah, yes, my mistake. You, Feser, and I are all in agreement that something must exist necessarily. So you are right to ask “why think that the universe is contingent?” Or, to put it another way, “maybe the universe itself is the first cause/prime mover/pure actuality.”
The short answer would be that the universe lacks the properties (pure actuality, simplicity, etc.) that it would need to be the first cause. The universe is composite, rather than simple, and is a mix of potential and actual, both of which imply contingency. (As a side note, even if it were conceded that the universe is pure actuality, non-composite etc. then the resulting worldview would be pantheism, not atheism).
Of course, as you mention, the above paragraph rests heavily on Aristotelian metaphysics, which not everyone agrees with, and needs to be independently defended. Feser does defend this position in a few places (namely his books “Scholastic Metaphysics” and “Aristotle’s Revenge”) but I haven’t gotten around to reading those, so I cannot really comment too much.
Exactly. As I mentioned, I find Aristotle’s metaphysics to be just as outdated and ill-formed as is his physics, so I remain unconvinced that the universe must necessarily be a contingent entity. While I haven’t read “Scholastic Metaphysics” or “Aristotle’s Revenge,” yet, I have read some other Neo-Aristotelian works, particularly some scholarly papers, and they always seem to be awkwardly and unnecessarily shoehorning modern physics into Aristotelian metaphysics.