Me and Steven Jake on metaphysics: bonus round

This is well-trodden territory, but I just spent some two hours typing up this massive reply to Steven's post Brute facts and naturalism, so I thought I'd repost the comment in full, and clean up the formatting a bit. It's long. Grab a sandwich.


Steven, I'm going to attempt to tie everything back together. I agree that things have strayed a bit and I applaud your patience and the not-insignificant time you've devoted to combing through my arguments, so I want to attempt to redirect and summarize. I'll quote you when I feel it's relevant to my reply, but otherwise I'll try to address your arguments more broadly.

If I were to phrase your original argument into a syllogism, I think a fair summary would look something like this:
  • An explanation is the process by which something becomes intelligible (your words)
  • The universe is something
  • Ergo, the universe must have an explanation, or it is unintelligible
But I think your definition of 'explanation' is both nebulous and idiosyncratic. When we describe something as needing an explanation, we are always referring to some particular process which accounts for its current state — i.e., there is a specific context by which we abstract the concept of an explanation as being meaningful and applicable. If the question is "What is the explanation for the universe", then we have to ask what about the universe demands an explanation. Is it the mere existence of the universe? Is it why the universe has certain physical laws and not others? Or perhaps why certain constants are not different?

My argument has been and remains that it is not clear (though perhaps not 'disprovable') that "The Universe" can coherently be said to be in the same ontological category of objects which demand explanations, since the very idea of an explanation is an emergent concept whose existence utterly and completely depends on the universe itself. You cannot derive a concept from the universe, then predicate it of the universe — to do so is inherently question-begging. Whether the properties, constants, or laws of the universe could be different isn't germane to the conversation, because we have no way of knowing whether they could be different. In order to be different, the universe would have to be subject to external causal forces, and we have no way of knowing if such forces can or do exist. And the fundamental properties of the universe do not admit to belonging in the same empirically-derived ontological category as "things which need explanation" simply because you demand it to be so.

This is also why I bring up transcendent realities and forces — because your arguments require them to exist, and there is no evidence that they do. For your conceptualizations of essence, act, and potency to be valid descriptions of reality, you have to operate on the assumptions that:
  • Physical objects have the invisible, undetectable property of 'essence'
  • The force of 'act' invisibly and undetectably affects physical objects' invisible, undetectable property of 'potency' to instigate observable change in the universe
  • This undetectable chain of act and potency (the only way to alter something's essence) somehow — i.e., ineffably — transcends physical reality and all spatiotemporality, terminating in a being which, frankly, you've only been able to define as paradoxically impotent.
When I pressed you on how we could know these properties and forces are real, you replied, "they're metaphysical". That response just takes us right back to the same points I've argued in the past, such as:
  • There is no agreed upon definition of 'metaphysical'
  • There is no agreed upon set of metaphysical axioms
  • There is no agreed upon criteria which defines a metaphysical problem, nor any criteria by which metaphysical dilemmas can be solved
In other words, calling those phenomena 'metaphysical' is just a deflection, because the term is so nebulous and pliable as to be virtually meaningless. In calling these mysterious properties and forces 'metaphysical', you've tacitly conceded that their exact nature and the means by which they comprise and influence the universe are unintelligible. This is textbook magical thinking!

This is also why I cannot take claims like this one seriously:
There is nothing about essence or existence that logically restricts them to this universe. Anything that exists has properties, and if it has properties then it has an essence. Contrary to your claim, essence can and must apply to all existents, ontologically in or out of the universe.
You cannot make statements like this without the question-begging assumptions that:

  • The concept of existence is just as meaningful in describing non-physical, non-spatiotemporal, timeless and changeless things as it is in describing empirical phenomena
  • The concept of 'properties' is meaningful in describing timeless, non-spatiotemporal yet literally real things (i.e., they are not merely abstractions)
  • The concepts of 'outside' or 'beyond' the universe are meaningful and,
  • Given that they are, that things actually can or do exist outside/beyond the universe.
Steven, in every single case you have to adopt the semantics of emergent phenomena whose very existence and coherency are derived from the universe and conjecturally cantilever them into speculative realities in which they not only cannot be observed, but their very context that gives those concepts their meaning in the first place is stripped away, rendering the concepts nebulous at best and meaningless at worst. Notice that you use the phrase "in or out of the universe". What does that even mean? In and out are spatiotemporal concepts, and the universe is not some sort of container in which the concept of "outside" can coherently apply — saying something is "out of the universe" is like saying something is "South of the South Pole".


And, this is already running long. Bathroom break.


Onto necessity and being. You claim,
My criteria of necessity is that one’s essence is identical to its
existence. The universe’s essence is it being all matter, energy,
space-time and physical laws. Notice that this essence is not existence, and therefore the universe is contingent.
Two things here. One is that (and forgive the backtracking) you said earlier that you're not relying on the ontological argument. You'll have to explain it to me then, because I do not see a meaningful difference between "God's existence is identical to his essence" and "Existence is an essential property of God" — the very crux of the ontological argument. The latter seems perfectly consistent with not only your own semantics, but with the arguments of a great many theologians. And it's utterly incoherent to demand that existence be described as a property of something, since 1) things which do not exist cannot have properties, merely conceptual properties, and 2) it would paradoxically suggest that "properties" are more fundamental than "existence", in which case it begs the question of what it means for properties to exist.

The other issue is that I'm not seeing why, given your own semantics, God can be said to have this essential property of existence but the universe cannot. Earlier in your reply you state,
The problem with this, which is demonstrated by your examples, is that when imagining God to be different ways, one needs to realize that
imagining something does not make it metaphysically possible—oddly you
seem to recognize this for the universe, but ignore it when it comes to
But Steven, you aren't providing any reason for me to think that what I'm proposing isn't metaphysically possible. You're just asserting that God is x, and could be no other way. God could be, using your semantics for example, both pure actuality and pure potency (which seems no more illogical to me than suggesting that Christ was both fully God and fully human), capable of infinite being and infinite change, thus possessing perfect free will and transcending limited human conceptualizations of good and evil. In fact something like this would have to be the case under Thomistic assumptions, since a being of "pure actuality" which possesses no potency is necessarily inert (absence of potency is, by definition, impotent!) and cannot instigate change in the universe or otherwise, rendering Aquinas' conclusions self-defeating. But even your argument regarding evil as a privation is question-begging, since good can just as coherently be argued as a privation of evil; only apathy and indifference are true privations of good or evil (a fine example of this is nature itself).

So.... if the question is simply whether it is metaphysically possible for either God or the universe to be different, adding God to the equation seems utterly superfluous. God, under your definition, clearly has essential properties besides "pure being" (goodness, omnipotence, omniscience, being a disembodied consciousness, being capable of transcending physical and supernatural realities, etc) that could logically be different, just like the universe would have other essential properties that could logically be different; you simply tack on "existence" to God's essential properties and ambiguously deny that the universe could have the same essential property. So not only have you inadvertently cornered yourself with the sheer absurdity of the ontological argument (despite your insistence that you're not employing it), but you've failed to provide any reason why, even given your own semantics, "existence" cannot be conceived as an essential property of the universe. Your continued assertion that the universe is 'contingent' is question-begging; you simply argue that it doesn't possess essential existence, but God does. That's not an argument! You have to demonstrate why it is logically (or... ugh... 'metaphysically') impossible for the universe to possess the same property that you ascribe to God, and you have thus far not even attempted to do so!

The best semblance of an attempt I can find from you is this:
So, you’re attempt to define energy and the universe into necessity does not work, especially since, contrary to your claim, they do not satisfy the criteria of necessity. The criteria of necessity, on Thomism, is for one’s essence to be identical to its existence, of which energy and the universe are not. That is, there is nothing inherently in the essence of energy that tells me it exists. I have to observe reality to know it exists.
You cannot directly observe the fundamental laws and properties of the universe; you can only reason their existence through deduction following the observation of empirical phenomena. How is this any different than Aristotle and Aquinas' reasoning about causes, essence, act, and potency to deductively infer God's existence following their observation of empirical phenomena?

In other words, the observation of empirical phenomena tells you that some underlying set of properties gives rise to them (i.e., they are emergent phenomena). If the properties of the universe could be different, our conceptualization of emergent phenomena would be different too (assuming they could emerge at all), making those fundamental properties necessary. If the universe as we know it did not exist, then the concepts of existence, causality, properties, etc., would also not exist as we know them. Bearing in mind that I think it's nonsensical to try to pigeonhole the universe into the framework of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, even adopting that outlook cannot lead to the conclusions you are asserting without an extra layer of unstated assumptions. There is simply no contradiction at all in saying that the universe itself has existence as an essential property, and thus no reason to add the extra layer of "God", along with the litany of unstated assumptions you must adopt in the process.

So, that's where we are. I see no reason at all to adopt your semantic framework or take your basic 'metaphysical' assertions seriously. But even if I adopt them, it becomes readily apparent that your conclusions don't follow from your assumptions — at least, not without a litany of unstated and unjustifiable assumptions you must pile on in order to make your metaphysics work. When you have to toss parsimony out the window to 'prove' God exists, and then your deductions lead you to infer a necessarily impotent being anyway, it's a good sign your core assumptions are fundamentally misguided.


I'm exhausted, so I'll leave it there save for a couple of quick footnotes:

• I'm not asserting that abstractions are spatiotemporal, but that they are representative processes of the conscious mind and thus not analogous to timeless, spaceless, transcendent things

• I agree that 'something' is best described as a fundamental state of reality over 'nothing', but my point is that you cannot assume what you are trying to prove. Necessarily existent things only exist if existence itself is necessary and fundamental, and while I see no reason to give 'nothing' any special metaphysical privilege over 'something', I also don't see any reason to do the opposite. The contention that 'nothing' is a privation is itself question-begging, as (like most things) the concept of a privation is only sensible in a specific context of already-extant things.


Popular posts from this blog

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 1: The Bible is stupid

Why Christianity is bullshit, part 2: The Bible isn't true

There is no such thing as sophisticated theology