I get taken to task by Jeffery Jay Lowder over the Cosmological Argument

Jeffery Jay Lowder, founder of Internet Infidels, has objected to a post of mine, William Lane Craig’s eight Special-Pleading arguments for God’s existence, that was in turn a reply to an article by theologian William Lane Craig in Philosophy Now. Craig’s article presented a number of arguments for the existence of God, including the “cosmological argument”.

Lowder’s charge is that I didn’t take a serious enough approach to Craig’s article, and didn’t respond carefully to how Craig had laid out his argument. I accept that my article was dismissive in tone, and, rather than giving a thorough examination of each of Craig’s points, I attempted to highlight a “special pleading” element running through all of them. But, I still regard my post as being fair; essentially, I regard the whole cosmological argument as being one big whopper of special pleading.

The argument for a “first cause” notices that if something had a cause, and that cause then needed something to cause it, et cetera, then you either get infinite regress or you need a starting point: a cause that wasn’t caused.

But how to explain the un-caused cause? The theologians’ usual tactic (which Craig employs) is to declare it to be “metaphysically necessary”, something that must exist because it could not not exist.

Craig’s argument asserts that everything requires a cause (he calls all such things “contingent”). He then makes one exception. That exception he declares to be “metaphysically necessary”, and that exception is, of course, the god he believes in.

In my original post I paraphrased this argument as:

1. Everything needs an explanation of its existence.
2. Except God, of course, which doesn’t.
3. Therefore God created everything else.

I described this as “special pleading”, which Rational Wiki defines as:

… a logical fallacy asking for an exception to a rule to be applied to a specific case, without proper justification of why that case deserves an exemption.

Am I being fair? Well, what is Craig’s actual argument for God being “metaphysically necessary”? Is this concept of metaphysical necessity something that is accepted and verified in some other area of science or philosophy? Well, no it isn’t, it’s a concept invented solely for the cosmological argument. Is the existence of entities that are metaphysically necessary verified by empirical data? Well, no, not at all. Is the existence of things that are metaphysically necessary mandated by logic? Well, no, they aren’t.

Thus, the assertion that God is metaphysically necessary is adopted purely to make the cosmological argument work. Without it the argument falls apart. Indeed Craig gives the whole game away, telling us that he declares his god to be metaphysically necessary since “otherwise its existence would also need explaining”.

The claim that one and only one entity is metaphysically necessary (whereas everything else is contingent), and claiming so purely to make the argument work, is the very essence of special pleading. Indeed, slapping on the label “metaphysically necessary” is just a by-fiat declaration that: “I don’t need to provide further explanation”, and to slap that label on Craig’s god, as opposed to on anything else, is entirely arbitrary.

You could just as arbitrarily declare that the occurrence of the Big Bang was metaphysically necessary. Surely everyone could see that if I merely asserted that the Big Bang was “metaphysically necessary”, without further justification, then I’d be making an empty assertion that begged the whole question?

Thus, unless someone produces actual evidence or argument for the validity of the concept of metaphysical necessity, I’ll regard it as pure special pleading adopted by theologians who cannot think up any actually good arguments for their god.

So, to Lowder’s post, where he suggests that:

This argument is the Leibnizian cosmological argument, based upon the distinction between necessary and contingent existence. Hellier, however, is apparently not familiar with either this distinction or the argument.

No, I am familiar with it, and it is exactly this distinction that I am addressing. (And I’m not sure why Lowder suggests that I am “not familiar” with the distinction, given that he quotes my two points above which are essentially paraphrases of the concepts “contingent” and “necessary”.)

More important, Hellier doesn’t clearly identify which premise(s) of Craig’s argument he rejects or why he rejects it (them).

I reject the whole distinction between “necessary” and “contingent” beings, given that it is a distinction invented solely to make the argument work. If this distinction had been established and justified in some other way, and was now being imported into the cosmological argument, then that would be valid reasoning. But inventing it precisely to make the cosmological argument work is the very essence of special pleading.

If I were to say to Craig, please now present your evidence that this distinction exists and that the concept of being metaphysically necessary is valid, he could only reply that if it didn’t exist then the cosmological argument wouldn’t work. Thus the necessary/contingent distinction is predicated on the cosmological argument and the cosmological argument is predicated on the necessary/contingent distinction.

Lowder suggests that Craig would only be committing the fallacy of special pleading if he were to assert both of:

1. Every contingent thing has an explanation of its existence.
2′. God is a contingent thing that does not require an explanation of His existence.

But the word “contingent” here means “occurring or existing only if (certain circumstances) are the case; dependent on”, and so is synonymous with the event having an explanation of its existence. The two assertions would thus be better put as:

1. Everything has and requires an explanation of its existence, except:
2′. God does not have or require an explanation of His existence.

That, right there, is the special pleading at the heart of the cosmological argument. Unless those two assertions can be evidenced or established independently of the cosmological argument, their use is nothing but special pleading. Indeed the whole business of the distinction between “metaphysically necessary” and contingent is merely dressing up the special pleading in philosophical language.

We need to be careful about theologians getting away with making un-evidenced assertions as though they were actual arguments. Another such assertion is that an entity that can listen to the prayers of a billion people simultaneously can be “simple”. We should not allow theologians to set the framing of theological questions, and then play by their rules, and I reject the whole framing of the cosmological argument in terms of the non-concept “metaphysical necessity”.

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15 thoughts on “I get taken to task by Jeffery Jay Lowder over the Cosmological Argument

  1. Pingback: William Lane Craig’s eight Special-Pleading arguments for God’s existence | coelsblog

  2. richardwein

    Hi Coel,

    It isn’t only religious apologists who make the necessary/contingent distinction. It’s used more broadly in metaphysics. It makes some kind of sense when it’s applied to facts, where necessary facts can be roughly equated with so-called “analytical” facts, such as mathematical facts (e.g. 2+2=4). But it becomes incoherent when applied to beings, like God. To me this is an example of philosophers taking a word which makes sense in one context and applying it in another context where it’s not appropriate.

    A similar point was famously made by Bertrand Russell:
    http://www.openculture.com/2012/11/bertrand_russell_and_fc_copleston_debate_the_existence_of_god_1948.html

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Richard,

      It isn’t only religious apologists who make the necessary/contingent distinction. It’s used more broadly in metaphysics. It makes some kind of sense when it’s applied to facts, where necessary facts can be roughly equated with so-called “analytical” facts, such as mathematical facts (e.g. 2+2=4).

      Good point, but wouldn’t one call that logical necessity (following from axioms) rather than metaphysical necessity?

    2. richardwein

      Coel:

      Good point, but wouldn’t one call that logical necessity (following from axioms) rather than metaphysical necessity?

      I wasn’t talking about metaphysical necessity in particular, though you did, so perhaps I should have done so too. With regard to metaphysical necessity, here’s an example of its use in secular philosophy:
      http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/modality-varieties/

      I’m not saying that I approve of this talk of metaphysical necessity, just that it isn’t limited to religious apologists.

    3. Coel Post author

      Your examples of “necessity” are all good examples of necessity *within* some scheme. They are of the form: because of X, it is necessary that Y. So, yes, I agree on this sort of necessity.

      But that’s pretty distant from any entity’s existence being metaphysically necessary. Perhaps I should have worded that bit a little narrower. The more general point remains, though, that Craig has not given any justification for this claim of “metaphysical necessity” other than it being necessary for his argument to work.

    4. richardwein

      I’d put it this way. To disguise his special pleading, Craig doesn’t directly exempt God from needing an explanation. Instead, he creates a category of “necessarily existing causes” (of which God is apparently the only member) and exempts that category from needing an explanation.

      Not only is the term “necessarily existing cause” an incomprehensible misuse of language, Craig makes no attempt to explain why such a thing should be exempted from the need for an explanation. Aren’t we entitled to an explanation of why it “necessarily exists”? Did something necessarily cause it to exist? The unstated assumption seems to be that, because it “necessarily exists”, it doesn’t need a cause. Why so? Moreover, Craig needs to forestall the possibility that something other than God could be declared to be the initial “necessarily existing cause”, so he arbitrarily declares that it has to be a “transcendent personal being”. There’s no substance to any of this; it’s just smoke and mirrors to disguise the special pleading.

    5. Coel Post author

      Aren’t we entitled to an explanation of *why* it “necessarily exists”?

      Guessing a bit as to his answer, if there were an explanation of *why* it necessarily exists, then the thing would be contingent on that explanation, and thus not necessary. Therefore, there can be no explanation for the necessary existence of a necessary thing, and thus Craig need not provide one! What a great argument! I think I could pass muster as a theologian. 🙂

    6. richardwein

      P.S. I dimly recall reading a much longer version of the argument by Craig. An intelligent well-read person like Craig can create an awful lot of smoke and mirrors, especially using the resources of philosophy. I respect anyone who wishes to take the time to carefully dispel every element of the smoke. But life is short, and sometimes it’s enough just to puff away a little smoke and move on.

    7. Coel Post author

      He’s written a whole book on this set of arguments for God, so I suspect that there is indeed a longer version of the argument. Not that I’ve read it. 🙂

  3. richardwein

    Also… Lowder wants you to identify particular premises that you disagree with. But the whole approach and language of the argument is misguided. People without a good argument often create the appearance of an argument through muddled language and unnecessary complications. In such cases it can make more sense to identify the main flaw in the argument than to go through it line by line. Perhaps you could have done that better, but broadly speaking I think your response was a reasonable one.

    I think Lowder’s approach to philosophy is rather old-fashioned and misguided, with too much emphasis on deductive arguments from intuitively appealing premises. You can’t settle anything much in philosophy by deductive argument. At best one can use a deductive presentation to partly clarify the argument, with all the real work of the argument lying in justifying one or more of those premises. But very often, with bad arguments, the deductive presentation serves not to clarify but to distract the reader from an absence of substance. The premises are often worded in misleading ways that them seem more intuitively appealing than is warranted. (John Searle’s so-called “deductive proof” against Strong AI is another example of a vacuous argument from misleadingly worded premises.)

    It’s worth asking what is the goal of your response. If you hope to persuade an adherent of the argument, then you’re going to have to be a lot more thorough to have any chance of success. (And you probably still won’t have much chance.) But, if that’s not your goal, then a brief summary of the main flaw might be appropriate.

    Reply
  4. richardwein

    More… Given that Craig’s article was behind a pay wall, it might have been a good idea to quote more of it, including probably the whole of the 5-proposition summary. That would have forestalled any accusations that you were misrepresenting the argument. I had the benefit of your link above to a non-pay version, so I could see the argument for myself. To me it was obvious that your 3-proposition summary was intended to communicate what was left of the argument once its smoke and mirrors were dispelled. (I couldn’t so the same with the Chinese Room argument, because in that case there is absolutely nothing left once the smoke and mirrors have been dispelled!)

    Reply
    1. Coel Post author

      Given that Craig’s article was behind a pay wall, it might have been a good idea to quote more of it, including probably the whole of the 5-proposition summary. That would have forestalled any accusations that you were misrepresenting the argument.

      Yes, good point. From possibly inaccurate memory, Craig’s article in Philosophy Now was openly readable when it was new and when I wrote the piece (I wouldn’t normally link to a paywall article without at least mentioning it; it’s possible it has since gone behind the paywall). I was thus writing it on the presumption that anyone could click and read Craig’s original if they wished, and thus that I didn’t need to quote it extensively.

  5. keithnoback

    Dr. Craig discovered long ago what lies at the bottom of a singularity – a little man who is not a little man, but is just like a little man. Why this has not made a bigger splash in the world of physics and the world of philosophy, is a mystery (maybe the only one remaining)…

    Reply

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