Brute facts and classical theism

The modal cosmological argument, or MCA, deals with the concepts of necessity and contingency. I'll leave more formalized versions for your reference here and here. For this post, it'll be sufficient to summarize it as follows:

  • Something that could exist in a different state or fail to exist at all is contingent, in that its state of existence must be explained by something else, such as another contingent thing. For example, a chair is a contingent object. It could have different properties (i.e., be a different type of chair) or not exist at all. It was brought into existence by something else, such as a carpenter. 
  • There can't be an infinite regress of contingent things, otherwise the existence of the contingent set is not explained.
  • Therefore, the existence of the contingent set must be explained an entity whose existence is explained by its own necessity. 
There's a lot of nuance in these arguments that is beyond the depth of this post — the semantics of 'necessary existence' requires one to assume Essentialism, and the argument from contingency requires one to assume some version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. If you don't assent to either of those views, you won't find the modal argument persuasive. 

But today, I'm going to ignore all that and grant the underlying assumptions of the MCA. I'm going to grant that "necessary existence" is a real thing, and that the criteria for "contingency" is not only accurate, but applies to the Universe itself. What happens when we follow the MCA to its logical conclusions?

Importantly, the MCA rejects the existence of 'brute facts'. Brute facts just are. There is no "explanation" for them. In my experience, most secular philosophers agree that brute facts exist. They view "explanations" as a human cognitive construction that has limited coherent application; they believe it's nonsensical to demand an explanation for the existence of the universe itself — perhaps it simply is. A proponent of the MCA would tell you that brute facts are incoherent for two reasons: first, they admit of no explanation; and second, if one accepts the proposition that explanations are hierarchical, then the brute fact can impart no explanation onto anything else. I would argue that such conceptualizations of "explanations" are entirely metaphorical, and that we can have perfectly coherent world views without them. But for now, as with the other underlying assumptions, concepts, and semantics embedded within the MCA, I'm going to grant them.

One final thing: while the temporal cosmological argument (popularly known as the Kalam) requires the universe to be past-finite, the MCA allows for either an infinite or past-finite universe. God may or may not 'create' the universe, but God definitely 'sustains' the universe as a logically prior first cause. And while I know my fellow atheists are chomping at the bit to tear apart the notion that the universe needs to be causally 'sustained' and the dubious semantics of 'logically prior' in such a context, for the purposes of this post I'm going to grant that rather massive assumption as well.
Got all that? Let's see where granting the assumptions of the MCA lands us.

Two bad options for the classical theist

There are two ways in which the MCA leads to unappealing options. Both are coherent, but undesirable for the theist for reasons that will be apparently pretty quickly.

Option 1: God is necessary and brute facts do not exist, but there are no contingent facts

If God is timeless and unchanging, God cannot 'decide' to create the universe. Nor was there an 'act' of creation. Decisions, acts, or even any process of thought whatsoever, would reflect a change of God's conscious state as well as indicate that God exists temporally. Time can be expressed as a relationship between events, or an expression of change. This means God cannot 'think' or 'do' anything at all, as we'd conceptualize those things. God just is. Thomists describe God as "pure act", relating to the concepts of "act" and "potency" in which all change is conceptualized as "act moving to potency" [note: Thomists take this description as literal, but it's dependent on an embodied primary metaphor: "change is movement"]. If God could think, act, or change in any way whatsoever, then he would be contingent and his existence would have to be explained by some other entity.

This means that God's desire and act of creating/sustaining the universe is literally part of his necessary being. From this we're forced to infer that God could not have created or sustained a different universe. Since the creation/sustenance of the universe is part of God's nature, and God exists necessarily, it follows that the universe and all within it is also necessary. Contingent facts cannot arise from a necessary cause, because the if the cause is necessary then it could be no other way. Everything had to happen exactly as it has happened, from the Big Bang all the way to your annoying neighbors who have a flood light in their back yard and a Trump sign in their front window (well... maybe that's just me).

This results in a universe in which God's necessity is preserved, but we live in a universe that is completely and totally deterministic.

Option 2: Contingent facts exist, but God is contingent and brute facts exist

The second option is that God could have decided to create a different universe, and He doesn't necessarily govern everything that happens within it. We've left the hard determinism of the first option behind. But if God could have different desires and take different actions, then by the definitions laid out in the MCA, God is contingent. The theist is then forced to accept that God's particular desires admit of no explanation — they are brute facts.

Both options are unappealing to the theist. The first preserves God's necessity, but entails a kind of hard determinism that renders all choice illusory. Calvinists might be fine with that, but most theists want to believe that God can actually think and act in some anthropomorphic way. Otherwise God is not really answering prayers, intervening in the world, or whatever. God is more like some ever-present unchanging force, and we're just puppets on a stage.

The second option gets rid of God as a necessary being, but entails that the basis for assenting to the underlying assumptions of MCA in the first place — that is, the rejection of brute facts — is an incoherent position. In that case, the theist might as well just toss out the MCA entirely and hope they have better luck with the Kalam (they won't).

Option 3: Ad Hoc the hell outta this one

But of course, when you've been debating theists as long as I have, you know what's really going to happen: ad hoc rationalizations to make the initial assumptions fit the desired conclusion. Something like this:
Well, you see, God actually can have thoughts and act, but not in the way we think of those things; only analogously. Because we don't know what a timeless unchanging existence is like, a clear conceptualization of God's mind and being is beyond our epistemic horizon. But we can at least know that the arguments lead us to deduce God's existence; his exact attributes, or our ability to conceptualize them, are of secondary importance. 
As long as you avoiding clearly defining your terms of engagement, you can make any argument fit your conclusions. You can imply that words like change, thoughts, and actions have one meaning in your premises, but then take on an analogous meaning in your conclusions. It's a fallacy of equivocation, but y'know, whatever. Checkmate, atheists!


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