Theism and Material Causality

DRAFT: DO NOT COPY IN WHOLE OR IN PART. FAIR USE RULES APPLY. COMMENTS WELCOME!


1. Introduction
Call classical theism the view that there is a necessarily existent personal god who is omnipotent, omniscient, and morally perfect, and call the classical view of creationthe view that consists of the following three theses: (i) God is wholly distinct from the natural world: the world is not identical to God or made from the stuff of God’s being. Nor is it an idea in the mind of God or a mere feature or mode of God’s being. Rather, it is a concrete object that exists in its own right (or an aggregate of such[1]); (ii) God is the originating or sustaining cause of the natural world; and (iii) God created the natural world ex nihilo, i.e., without the use of pre-existing materials. Finally, call classical theismcvc any version of classical theism that includes the classical view of creation.[2]In this paper, I offer a new argument against classical theismcvc. In particular, I shall argue that creation ex nihilo is impossible, and that since the classical view of creation is constitutive of classical theismcvc, classical theismcvc is false. 

2. The Argument
The problem of creation ex nihilo can be expressed in terms of the following argument: 
1. All concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause have an originating or sustaining material cause, respectively.
2. If classical theismcvc is true, then the universe is a concrete object that has an originating or sustaining efficient cause with neither an originating nor a sustaining material cause.
3. Therefore, classical theismcvc is false.
The argument is valid, and so the conclusion follows from the premises of necessity. What, then, can be said on behalf of the premises? 
Premise 1 expresses a causal principle, which I shall call the principle of material causality, or PMC for short.  In simple terms, PMC says that all made things are made from or out of other things. A bit more carefully, it says that concrete objects have an originating or sustaining material cause whenever they have an originating or sustaining efficient cause, respectively.  Before I defend the premise, some preliminary remarks about terminology are in order. 
First, concrete object denotes at least the sorts of entities classically individuated by the ontological category of Substance, and to distinguish the entities at issue from those of other ontological categories (e.g., properties, relations, events, tropes, and the like). Examples of concrete objects thus include atoms, stars, rocks, planets, trees, animals, people, and (if such there be) angels, Cartesian souls, and gods. They are thus to be distinguished from concrete entities in other ontological categories (shapes, surfaces, events, and the like) and abstract objects (propositions, numbers, sets, and the like). 
The next two key terms in premise 1 are those of originating cause and sustaining cause. By the former, I mean an efficient cause of the temporal beginning of a thing’s existence[3](if it should have such), and by the latter, I mean an efficient cause of a thing’s continued existence. So, for example, matches and lighter fluid are at least partial originating causes of the existence of a flame, and the oxygen that surrounds it is at least a partial sustaining cause of the flame’s existence.
Finally, material cause aims to capture (roughly) Aristotle’s notion of the term, and to individuate the type of cause in play from the other three sorts of causes distinguished by Aristotle, viz., formal, efficient, and final causes. In particular, by material cause, I mean the temporally or ontologically prior things or stuff from which (though not necessarily of which) a thing is made.  So, for example, the originating material cause of a shiny new penny is the parcel of copper from which it was made; the originating material causes of a new water molecule are the hydrogen and oxygen atoms from which it was made; and the sustaining material causes of a flame are the reacting gases and solids from which it is made. 
Two points about the causal premise merit special emphasis. First, PMC is restricted to concrete objects as we’ve defined them. As such, it is neutral as to whether entities in other ontological categories require a material cause. Second, the requirement of a material cause is restricted further to just those concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause. It therefore allows for the possibility of concrete objects that lack a material cause, namely, those that lack an originating or sustaining efficient cause. So, for example, the premise allows that the universe may lack a material cause of its existence if it is both beginningless and also lacks a sustaining cause. It also allows that a universe with a temporal beginning may lack a material cause if it also lacks an originating and sustaining efficient cause. An example of the latter sort of case might be a temporally finite, four-dimensional “block” universe. As such, the causal premise is neutral as to whether all concrete objects begin to exist, and to whether all concrete objects that begin to exist have a material cause. The causal premise only rules out concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause, but lackmaterial cause. 
            Is PMC plausible?  It certainly seems so.  First, PMC enjoys abundant empirical support. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the case of the extremely well-confirmed law of the conservation of mass/energy. The law states that if there is a given quantity of mass/energy at a given time, then it must have been caused by exactly the same quantity of mass/energy at any earlier time. In general, though, our uniform experience is such that whenever we find a concrete object with an originating or sustaining cause, we also find it to have a material cause.  Furthermore, there seem to be no clear counterexamples to the principle in our experience.  What explains this? PMC is a simple, conservative hypothesis with wide explanatory scope, which, if true, would best explain this data. Experience thus provides significant abductive support for PMC.[4]
Second, consider a version of PMC with stronger modal force:
(PMC’) It is metaphysically impossible for a concrete object to originate or be sustained by an efficient cause if it lacks a material cause. 
 It seems that PMC’ is supported by rational intuition or rational seemings. In particular, PMC’ appears true on reflection, where the notion of reflection at issue is broad enough to include thought experiments or intuition pumps.  Rational intuition has traditionally been taken as evidence of metaphysically necessary truths. Perhaps such intuitions aren’t enough to demonstratethe impossibility of an originating cause without a material cause, but we ordinarily take such seemings to be at least defeasible, prima facie evidence for what can or cannot be the case. Therefore, if rational intuition supports PMC’, then since PMC’ entails the modally weaker PMC, then rational intuition thereby provides at least prima facie support for PMC as well. 
We can support PMC’ by means of the following thought experiment. Suppose that while walking through a meadow, you came upon a glass blower with a translucent glass sphere that is six meters in diameter. Suppose further that the glassblower told you the sphere has the following special characteristic: he created it out of nothing without the use of pre-existing materials – not from molten glass or any other concrete objects or stuff external to the glass blower; nor from some internal reservoir of energy or stuff internal to him; nor yet from the stuff of his own being. Rather, he created it merely by saying, “Let there be a glass sphere.” Most, I imagine, would likewise find such a claim strongly counterintuitive or absurd: Absent materials internal or external to the agent from which to create things, it seems that even the most strenuous attempt can only result in creative “dry heaves”, as it were. 
A similar intuition obtains when we consider any other concrete object arising from an originating cause without a material cause. Furthermore, the intuition doesn’t seem to depend on whether we take the glassblower to have limited power: Saying that an omnipotent glassblower can create a translucent glass sphere without pre-existing materials seems on an epistemic par with saying that an omnipotent being regurgitate a lunch from a completely empty stomach with a sufficiently strenuous dry heave. 
We have similar grounds for thinking that concrete objects that depend upon a sustaining cause for their existence have a material cause. So, for example, the continued existence of a flame depends upon an efficient sustaining cause for its continued existence. But here we find that the flame’s sustenance also crucially involves a material sustaining cause, viz., reacting gases and solids. Furthermore, our intuitions in support of the causal principle are triggered when we attempt to imagine the flame’s continued existence without the presence of reacting gases, solids or some other material cause; the intuition does not diminish when we imagine the flame to be past-eternal. 
In addition, it doesn’t require a full-blown Aristotelian metaphysic to find the materials for a compelling thought experiment for PMC in the apparent relationship between what actually exists and what merely has the potential to exist. Thus, the possibility of the origination or sustenance of an object requires the prior potential for its existence. But it seems that this potential must “reside” in some actually existing thing or stuff. So, for example, the potential existence of a penny “resides” in a parcel of copper. By contrast, nothingness lacks the capacity or potential for becoming anything, since nothingness, being nothing at all, has no capacities or properties whatsoever. Prima facie, then, concrete objects can’t come into being from nothing, but only from other concrete things or stuff. 
Finally, the same conclusion can be gotten from an extremely weak version of PMC:
Weak PMC: Possibly, every concrete object (and aggregate of such) that has an originating or sustaining efficient cause has an originating or sustaining material cause, respectively.
 In simple terms, Weak PMC says that it is possible that all made things are made from or out of other things. A bit more carefully, it says that there is at least one possible worldin which all concrete individuals and stuffs that are made are made from or out of other concrete individuals or stuffs.  Now my own view is of course that a much stronger version of PMC is true -- viz., that it holds of metaphysical necessity. But we’ve also seen that there are strong grounds for thinking PMC holds in at least the actual world: it's intuitive, it has no uncontroversial exceptions, and it's encoded in the well-confirmed conservation laws of physics. A fortiori, then, there is intuitive evidence to warrant the claim that there is at least one possible world W in which such a principle is non-vacuously true. But if so, then in W, all concrete objects that are made are made out of other things or stuff. And if so, then no concrete objects in W that are made are made ex nihilo, in which case no god or gods made them ex nihilo in W. But on classical Anselmian theism, for any world that contains concrete objects or stuffs distinct from God, at least some of those objects or stuffs were made ex nihilo.  It follows that the god of classical Anselmian theism doesn't exist in W. But if so, then by (i) the fact that classical Anselmian theism entails that God is a metaphysically necessary being, and (ii) Axiom S5 of S5 modal logic, it follows that such a God doesn't exist in anyworld, and therefore, a fortiori, such a God doesn’t exist in the actual world. Therefore, the same conclusion can be gotten from even a very weak version of PMC. For those who remain unconvinced, however, I will argue shortly that the same conclusion follows even if one rejects all forms of PMC. I therefore urge those readers to sit tight.
            All that remains is to defend premise 2. Why should we accept it? Premise 2 follows from our partial stipulative definition of ‘classical theismcvc’.  It is therefore a conceptual truth. This causes no trouble for the argument’s significance, for the partial definition captures several theses that are prima facie constitutive of classical theism. Such theses are among those that individuate theism from neighboring views about God, such as pantheism, panentheism, demiurgic theism, Berkeleyan idealism, and Spinozistic monism. They are also among the theses about God that have been accepted and defended by most prominent philosophers within the theistic tradition, including Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, (and, more recently) William Alston, Alvin Plantinga, and Richard Swinburne. Indeed, it is safe to say that most contemporary analytic philosophers, both inside and outside the theistic tradition, would consider them essential theses of any account of classical theism worthy of the name. I therefore think it’s safe to say that the stipulative truth of the premise won’t undermine its relevance for evaluating classical theism’s epistemic merits.
We’ve seen that the argument from material causality is valid. We’ve also seen that premise 1 -- the principle of material causality – is well supported from both a priori and empirical sources, and that premise 2 is a conceptual truth. It therefore looks as though the argument poses a formidable problem for classical theism.[5]
How might the classical theist respond? Premise 2 is non-negotiable, as we’ve seen that it is a stipulative, conceptual truth. That leaves open only two types of response for the classical theist: a non-concessive response, which would require providing a defeater for premise 1, and a concessive response, which grants the soundness of the argument, but rejects classical theismcvc. In the next two sections, I will consider and criticize both sorts of response. Briefly, I will argue that (i) the non-concessive responses are unsuccessful, that (ii) most of the concessive responses require rejecting classical theism, and that (iii) the remaining theism-friendly concessive responses are of dubious religious significance and epistemic merit.
3. Non-Concessive Responses
As mentioned above, the only sort of non-concessive response to the argument is to provide principled grounds for rejecting or resisting premise 1. This would require principled grounds for thinking the principle of material causality is false or without adequate justification – that is, to undercut or rebut the claim that all concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining cause have an originating or sustaining material cause of their existence, respectively. I can think of seven ways in which one might attempt to do so, which I shall consider below.
            First, one might appeal to God’s omnipotence as a way of defeating premise 1. Thus, one might argue that omnipotence is also constitutive of classical theism, that omnipotence entails the ability to do anything metaphysically possible, and thus that God can create the universe ex nihilo. The problem is that the argument is missing a crucial premise, viz. that creation of the universe ex nihilo is metaphysically possible. And we’ve already seen that there are burden-shifting epistemic grounds against it. As such, even when the enthymatic premise is added to avoid invalidity, the objection begs the question at issue.
            Second, one might reply that it’s conceivable that a god creates the universe ex nihilo, that conceivability is prima facie evidence for metaphysical possibility, and thus that divine creation ex nihilois metaphysically possible. However, this line of reasoning would seem to prove too much. For by the same token, one could argue that it’s conceivable that a universe pops into existence ex nihilo without any cause whatsoever, that conceivability is prima facie evidence for metaphysical possibility, and thus that a universe popping into existence ex nihilo without any cause whatsoever is likewise metaphysically possible. But then we have a new argument against classical theism. For it’s also constitutive of classical theism that for any possible world, if there is a universe distinct from God in that world, then God created it. Therefore, the conceivability of an uncreated world that pops into existence ex nihilowithout any cause whatsoever provides equally compelling grounds against classical theism as the prima facie impossibility of creation ex nihilo.
            A third response is related to the second, and goes back to Hume. To get at the response, consider the following principle, which I'll call the Impossibility of Uncaused Concrete Objects(IUC):
(IUC) It's metaphysically impossible for a concrete object to come into existence out of nothing without a cause.
IUC is just an instance of the more general principle, ex nihilo nihil fit.And as far as widely accepted metaphysical principles go, the latter is about as good as it gets. For not only does it seem self-evident, but all of nature appears to conform to it without exception. 
            However, some philosophers remain skeptical. Philosophers in this camp tend to sympathize with Hume that anything that can be imagined or conceived without contradiction is prima faciemetaphysically possible (or, more weakly, such imaginings defeat conflicting modal claims). And since one can imagine, say, a quark -- or even the whole universe -- popping into existence uncaused out of nothing, and can do so without a contradiction in one's conception, that's enough to call the principle into question. On the basis of this line of reasoning, philosophers of this stripe take it to be a live possibility that ex nihilo nihil fit is false, and thus that it's at least a live possibility that the universe popped into existence uncaused, out of nothing.
            Now consider the following simplifying gloss on PMC’: 

(PMC’) It's metaphysically impossible for a concrete object to originate or be sustained by an efficient cause if it lacks a material cause. 

PMC’ looks to be on an epistemic par with IUC: Both seem self-evident, and both enjoy the support of universal experience. However, neither principle is analytic, and so one can deploy the Humean gambit above to resist them if one is so inclined. Given that IUC and PMC’ are in the same epistemological boat, therefore, it seems unprincipled and arbitrarily selective to accept one while rejecting the other. It therefore looks as though one should treat them similarly: either accept both, or use the Humean gambit to reject both.
            Here's the rub. Either option entails a defeater for classical theism. For consider the first option: accept both principles. If you do that, then you accept PMC’, in which case you accept something that entails that God can't create concrete objects ex nihilo, in which case you accept something that entails that classical theism is false. On the other hand, suppose you reject both principles. Then you reject IUC, in which case you accept that it’s at least a live epistemic possibility that there is a metaphysically possible world at which concrete objects pop into existence out of nothing without a cause. But since classical theism entails that God is the creator or sustainer of all concrete objects outside himself in all possible worlds in which he exists, you accept something that is a defeater for classical theism. Therefore, either way, you accept something that entails a defeater for classical theism.In short, rejecting PMC’ is just as problematic for classical theism as accepting it.
A fourth sort of response one might raise against premise 1 is one heard from some in the field of quantum cosmology, viz., that there are plausible models of the origin of the universe according to which the universe arose from nothing without any cause whatsoever.[6]One might reasonably worry that upon closer inspection, the claim supported by the scientific evidence is not that the universe popped into existence ex nihilo, but rather much weaker claims, such as that it arose from a random fluctuation in a quantum vacuum.[7]  I will not pursue this worry here, however.  For, strictly speaking, the possibility of concrete objects popping into existence ex nihilo without any cause whatsoever is compatible with PMC. For PMC does not require that all concrete objects have an originating and sustaining material cause. Rather, it only requires that they do if they have an originating or sustaining efficient cause. In this regard, PMC treats universes that pop into existence out of nothing without an efficient case as on a par with past-eternal universes and four-dimensional block universes. 
In any case, and perhaps most saliently for our purposes, the truth of the current objection would provide no relief for the classical theist. For such evidence would likewise seem to provide a defeater for classical theism as well. For, again, classical theism entails that for any world in which there are concrete objects distinct from God, God created them. But if the present objection is correct, then there are possible worlds where concrete objects pop into existence without a cause, in which case God does not create them at that world, in which case classical theism is false.
Fifth, the theist might resist premise 1 by appeal to agent causal views of the self. Thus, they might argue that there are good reasons to think that (i) humans possess libertarian free will, that (ii) this is best explained on the assumption that the physical realm isn’t causally closed, that (iii) the agent can thus cause things via energy from “outside” the natural causal order[8], and that (iv) this is sufficient justification for the existence of genuine creation ex nihilo, in which case premise 1 is false. This reply won’t work, however. For even if (i)-(iii) could be adequately supported – contrary to the opinion of the majority of analytic philosophers[9]– the falsity of the causal closure of the physical wouldn’t require positing the creation of concrete objects ex nihilo. Rather, at most, it would require the transfer of pre-existing energy from the agent (who acts from “outside” of the natural causal order) to the physical realm.  
            Sixth, one might object that (i) our intuitions and experience regarding material causes have been conditioned by our experience of causation within the physical universe; (ii) the case of the origin of the physical universe itselfis quite different from such cases; and therefore that (iii) such evidence is insufficient to support PMC when applied to the origin of the universe. But this objection is of little help to the classical theist. For if it’s sufficient to undercut our intuitive and empirical evidence for the requirement of a materialcause, then it also seems sufficient to undercut our intuitive and empirical evidence for the requirement of an efficientcause. But then we have an equally powerful defeater for classical theism. For as we’ve seen in our response to previous objections, it’s likewise constitutive of classical theism that for any possible world in which God exists, if there is a universe distinct from God in that world, then God is its efficient cause. Therefore, the epistemic possibility of a universe that pops into existence ex nihilo without an efficient cause provides equally persuasive grounds against classical theism as the prima facie impossibility of creation ex nihilo.
Finally, one might reject premise 1 via an appeal to theoretical cost-benefit analysis. In particular, one might argue that while denying PMC is a theoretical cost for classical theismCVC, it can compensate for that cost if it turns out that classical theismCVCembodies the theoretical virtues (e.g., simplicity, scope, conservatism, etc.) better than other competing hypotheses (e.g., naturalism, pantheism, panentheism, deism, demiurgism, etc.). And if that should turn out be so, the classical theistCVC would then be warranted in rejecting PMC in favor of a qualified version of it — say, one that asserts that all things with an efficient cause besides the creation of the universe require a material cause.     
It is beyond the scope of this paper to assess whether classical theismCVC wins out over competing large-scale hypotheses in terms of a comprehensive theoretical cost-benefit analysis.[10]  But for the purposes of this paper, it is enough to note that to respond in this way is just to grant that the argument is an undefeated defeater for theismCVC unless or until it can be shown that the explanatory merits of the latter warrant rejecting PMC. But that is all that the argument aims to do. 
4. Concessive Responses
If one finds the non-concessive responses implausible, one might finally turn to a concessive response; that is, one might accept a view of God that denies the classical view of creation. There are three basic versions of such a response, each one corresponding to a rejection of one of the three clauses of the classical view of creation as we have defined it. I will briefly consider each sort of response below.
The first type of concessive response is to reject thesis (i) of the classical view of creation as we’ve defined it, thereby denying that God is wholly distinct from the natural world. According to this sort of response, one allows that the world is either (a) identical to God, (b) made from the stuff of God’s being, (c) a mere feature or mode of God’s being, or (d) an idea in the mind of God. Unfortunately, options (a)-(c) come at the high cost of abandoning classical theism altogether, as embracing one of these options amounts to embracing something in the neighborhood of pantheism, panentheism, or Spinozistic monism, respectively. And while (d) is arguably a version of theism, it requires embracing something on the order of Berkeleyan idealism. It would take us too far afield to evaluate the case for such a view, but it’s enough for our purposes to note that few have found the case for Berkeleyan idealism persuasive, in which case it seems unlikely that many are likely to accept a concessive response of this sort.
The second type of concessive response is to reject thesis (ii) of the classical view of creation.  According to this sort of response, God may or may not be omnipotent[11], omniscient, and morally perfect. However, he does not play the role of creator of the universe in any sense. Call this sort of view hands-off theism.
It seems antecedently unlikely that there will be many takers for hands-off theism. This is for at least two reasons. First, hands-off theism looks epistemically unmotivated. For many standard lines of evidence for theism depend upon inferences from the natural world to God. Examples include design arguments from the fine-tuning of the universe to a cosmic designer, as well as cosmological arguments for a first cause, ground of being, and sufficient reason for the existence of contingent concrete reality. But the god of hands-off theism plays none of these roles with respect to the universe. As such, accepting hands-off theism commits one to rejecting many of the core arguments of natural theology.  It’s also arguable that it causes trouble for religious experience. For example, in his widely-influential account of the evidential force of religious experience, William Alston[12]grants that awareness of certain phenomena (e.g., religious diversity) can undercut a good deal of the epistemic force of religious experience, and thus that the justification of theistic belief requires further buttressing with the help of other evidence, such as cosmological and design arguments. But again, the hands-off theist is committed to rejecting many such buttressing arguments as evidence for her belief.  Now perhaps an adequate case for hands-off theism can be made that does not depend on these lines of evidence.  But for our purposes, it’s enough to note that the hands-off theist has their work cut out for them.
Second, the god of hands-off theism seems to be of much less religious significance than the God of classical theismcvc. For on such a view, God is not responsible for the existence and order of the natural world. He is therefore not the cosmic architect, first cause, or ground of being upon which all else depends, let alone Anselm’s greatest conceivable being. Rather, he exists as just one among the many uncreated concrete objects within the universe, having less creative and providential control than even Plato’s demiurge. On such a view, then, the grandeur, preeminence, and otherness of God are severely diminished. There is also a corresponding loss of the awe that comes from a sense of ultimate dependence upon a Creator. 
The third and final type of concessive response is to reject thesis (iii) of the classical view of creation. According to this sort of response, God plays the role of creator and designer. However, he did not create the world out of nothing, but rather from pre-existing materials. For obvious reasons, let’s call this sort of view demiurgic theism.  Now it seems that demiurgic theism is an improvement over hands-off theism in terms of epistemic motivation, since on such a view god plays at least a diminished role qua creator and designer of the universe, fashioning the universe out of primordial matter/stuff. Therefore, while standard cosmological arguments cannot be marshaled in support of demiurgic theism[13], perhaps an argument from design can be made on behalf of such a view, as well as (perhaps) religious experience and other sorts of evidence that don’t appeal to an inference from the sheer existence of the universe to God. 
However, whatever the epistemic merits of demiurgic theism, many of the drawbacks of hands-off theism apply here as well with respect to religious significance. For as with the latter view, the god of demiurgic theism is not the preeminent first cause and ground of being for the fundamental stuff of the natural world; nor does he provide the sufficient reason for its existence. He is therefore not responsible for the existence of the natural world in the ultimate sense that is ascribed to the god of classical theismcvc. Rather, he exists alongside of it as another uncreated concrete object. Therefore, such a view entails a much weaker view of divine preeminence and uniqueness than what has been historically attributed to the God of classical theism. For at least these reasons, then, it is doubtful that many classical theists will be happy with this route to resisting the argument.

5. Conclusion
A powerful argument against classical theism can be constructed from two simple elements: (i) classical theism’s doctrine of creation ex nihilo, and (ii) the well-supported principle of material causality. The prospects for the only non-concessive reply to the argument – rejecting the principle of material causality – look bleak. Furthermore, the concessive replies all leave the classical theist with a picture of God and creation that they are likely to find costly and unattractive. Little attention has been paid to the argument to date, but our brief exploration suggests that is worthy of serious investigation.[14] 

References
Albert, David. 2012. ‘On the Origin of Everything: Review of ‘A Universe From Nothing’, by Lawrence M. Krauss’. New York Times 23 Mar 2012. Web. 18 Aug 2017.
Alston, William. 1993. Perceiving God. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Bengson, John. 2015. “The Intellectual Given”, Mind124: 207-760. 
——-.2015. “Grasping the Third Realm”, Oxford Studies in Epistemology 5: 1-38.
Chudnoff, Elijah. 2014. Intuition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Huemer, Michael. 2007. “Compassionate Phenomenal Conservatism”, Philosophy & Phenomenological Research74: 30-55.
Krauss, Lawrence. 2013. A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing. New York: Atria.
Moreland, J.P. 2008. Consciousness and the Existence of God: A Theistic Argument. New York: Routledge.
Morriston, Wes. 2002. ‘Creation Ex Nihiloand the Big Bang’. Philo 5:1, 23-33.
Oppy, Graham. 2013. The Best Argument Against God. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Plantinga, Alvin. 1980. Does God Have a Nature?Milwaukie: Marquette University Press.
Swinburne, Richard. 2004. The Existence of God, 2ndedition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
——-.2016. The Coherence of Theism, 2ndedition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tucker, Christopher, ed. 2013. Seemings and Justification: New Essays on Dogmatism and Phenomenal Conservatism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.




[1]Henceforth I will leave this qualification unstated but assumed. 
[2]Berkeleyan idealism arguably fails to satisfy clause (i) of the classical view of creation as defined here. As such, while it may count as a version of classical theism, it fails to count as a version of classical theismcvc.
[3]Consider any arbitrary carving up of the stretch of time of a given object’s existence into equal intervals of finite, non-zero duration, and ordered according to the ‘earlier than’ relation. As I’m using the expression, an object has a temporal beginning of its existence just in case any such carving up includes an earliest temporal interval.
[6]See, for example, Krauss 2013.
[7]See, for example, Albert 2012.  
[8]An argument in this vicinity is broached in (e.g) Moreland 2013.
[9]According to a recent poll (http://philpapers.org/surveys/results.pl), only 13.7% of philosophers answered with “accepting or leaning toward libertarianism”. At least 71.3% of philosophers polled stated that they think we don’t have libertarian free will, with 59.1% answering with “accepting or leaning toward compatibilism”, and 12.2% answering with “accepting or leaning toward no free will” (14.9% answered with “accepting or leaning toward ‘other’”).
            [10]For an important case for theism on this score, see Swinburne 2004. For an important case against theism on this score, see Oppy 2013.
[11]Perhaps one will object that a god of this sort cannot be omnipotent if he cannot create or sustain the natural world. However, there is a long and established tradition of theists who claim that there are lots of things that an omnipotent god cannot do (e.g., make a round square, change the past, act contrary to his nature, know future free acts, etc.).  One standard justification for such restrictions is to say that such things are metaphysically impossible, and that omnipotence does not include the power to do what is metaphysically impossible. But the same sort of justification seems available here. For the hands-off theist can say that creating or sustaining the universe without a material cause is metaphysically impossible, and thus his inability to create or sustain a universe ex nihilodoes not count against his omnipotence.
[12]Alston 1993.
[13]I suppose a cosmological argument for an unmoved moveris still a possibility, although few have found arguments of this sort convincing since at least the dawn of Newtonian physics. Perhaps, though, the argument can be revitalized.  We’ll see.
[14]Acknowledgements…

9 comments:

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi, EA

Personally, I find the log cabin that pops into existence with no cause whatsoever to be extremely improbable in the actual world (i.e., I reckon the actual world is not like that), or any world causally reachable from the actual world, but on the other hand, I don't share the intuition that it's metaphysically impossible for that to happen. My intuitions on PMC are also similar.

However, I don't think intuitions like those would be of help for a classical theist, given that:

i. Your argument only seems to need that PMC holds in any world reachable from the actual world.

ii. An intuition about the possibility of cabins coming into existence without a cause would on its own be a problem if not for classical theism in a strict sense, at least for some of the beliefs usually associated with it, like a belief in the metaphysical necessity of God and of a reality in which God is a cause of everything else.

iii. My intuitions also lead me to the conclusion that a world without concrete objects is possible. While I suppose someone might share my intuitions about the possibility of uncaused things popping into existence, or with a cause but not a material cause, etc., but not about an empty world, my impression is that they're connected - in all such cases, I seem to be checking for contradictions once considering the meaning of the words and potential rigid designators (or any cases in which what is actual determines what is possible, if there are others), and find no difficulty.
An empty world may or may not be in conflict with classical theism (if the necessity of God is not included in the definition, it might or might not be implied from omnipotence), but it's also incompatible with some beliefs usually associated with it.

Other than that, I suppose a classical theist might suggest that the possibility of souls coming into existence with an efficient cause but no material cause probably contradicts PMC, aside from issues involving libertarian free will, since it's perhaps difficult to see what could be a material cause of a soul (though I'm not sure about that part). But on the other hand, you could use PMC to reject the possibility of souls coming into existence with an efficient cause but no material cause, rejecting the suggestion that it's a counterexample.

exapologist said...

Hi Angra,

Thanks for your comments. I'm glad you caught the point that I only need the weaker claim about the truth of PMC in "nearby" possible worlds (in something like the Lewis-Stalnaker sense) for the argument to go through, because I certainly didn't make that clear in my paper (I merely left it assumed in discussion of the abductive argument for PMC). I'd like to acknowledge you in the paper on that point, and for helpful comments on the draft. Perhaps you could email me about that?

Cases of conflicting intuitions in philosophy are notoriously difficult to resolve, but I do think long and hard reflection on the log cabin case can go a long way to strengthening the intuition. Thus, suppose we reflect further on the case and expand upon certain features of it. So, for example, the lumberjack didn't use logs or other wood products to create the log cabin. Nor, indeed, did he use anything external to him at all (i.e., not the atoms or other matter-energy in the surrounding atmosphere or anywhere else). Nor did he create it from some sort of energy or stuff within him. For that would either be part of him, or else some material distinct from him, which in turn must bottom out in either uncreated primordial stuff or part of his own being. Do your doubts diminish in light of these details?

If not, then perhaps we can sidestep disagreement and note that the principle of ex nihilo nihil fit is a central principle in the history of philosophy, with adherents stretching all the way back to Epicurus, Lucretius, and Aristotle, and continuing on all the way to the present. A prominent contemporary example is Frank Jackson's use of something like ex nihilo nihil fit as the basis of his entry-by-entailment criterion for serious metaphysics. My aim here isn't to appeal to tradition as an argument, but rather to appeal to widespread intuition as data for philosophical theorizing.

I agree, though, that intuitions of concrete objects arising without causes doesn't help the theist. For it seems to give rise to a dilemma: Either the type of conceivability or imaginability or rational intuition of a universe arising without a material cause is good evidence of its metaphysical possibility or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then of course it’s not a good objection to PMC. But if it is, then so is the conceivability or imaginability or rational intuition of a world at which a universe exists with neither an efficient nor a material cause. But if so, then we're prima facie justified in thinking there is a metaphysically possible world at which there is a universe that God did not creat. But since classical theism entails that God is the efficient cause of the universe in all worlds in which both he exists and a universe exists, we have another argument against the falsity of classical theism. Therefore, either way, the objection fails to deflect the conclusion that classical theism(cvc) is false.

In any case, apart from the argument from rational intuition, what did you think about the argument from the relationship between what is actual and what is possible? Perhaps it's worth noting that Paul Kabay finds this sort of argument compelling, and attempts to avoid it by arguing for a sort of ontological nihilism. See his "A Noneist Account of the Doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo", Sophia 52 (2013), 281-293.

Best,
EA

exapologist said...

Re: the soul case: I guess the same sorts of considerations I discuss in my paper lead me to the same verdict here: if there are created souls, then they must come from prior stuff. It's interesting that this intuition seems to have driven much theological speculation about souls both inside and outside theistic traditions. So, for example, many Christians have argued for traducianism, according to which the soul is produced from prior materials within the father (or father and mother). Aristotle of course held a view not to different from this as well. And of course there are long traditions that hold that souls are uncreated and eternal.

Angra Mainyu said...


Thank you for your reply as well, and for the acknowledgment offer (I sent you an email about that).

Regarding the lumberjack, as long as one does not assume the lumberjack is human, or otherwise limited in some specific manner, my intuitions do not seem to change - not even if one removes the lumberjack altogether. However, as you point out, the intuitions that support PMC are widespread, so that surely counts in favor of it - plus, there are the other problems that intuitions like mine would bring for a classical theist.

Re: the soul case, good points about traducianism and Aristotle, and the traditions of eternal souls. In the case of traducianism and Aristotle, one may consider the souls of the parents, then the grandparents, etc., and keep going until there were no humans on Earth, no vertebrates, no multicellular life, etc., so at some point souls would have to be made from something else or from nothing, but the traditions of Aristotle and traducianism would undermine any attempts to present the case of souls as a plausible counterexample, even if souls aren't eternal and uncreated (assuming there are any souls in the first place, of course. I don't think there are any).

Re: the argument from the relationship between what is actual and what is possible, I'm still thinking about it. I'll let you know if I come up with something.

Angra Mainyu said...

Re: the relationship between what is actual and what is possible.

I agree that the argument does not require a full-blown Aristotelian metaphysics. It only requires that in order for there to be a change in the state of a world W from a state S1 at which A does not exist to a state S2 at which A exists, there must be some B at S1 (B might be an object or more than one), which has the potential to change and become A. That seems plausible to me in the actual world and nearby worlds, but I'm not sure about all worlds.
With regard to the specific case of nothingness in the sense of an empty world (i.e., no concrete objects, not even space or time), I think the situation is somewhat different, not because of potentiality, but because it does not seem coherent to say that there is a state of emptiness S1 in W, followed by a state S2 in which at least one concrete object exists. The problem is the "followed", which seems to require either temporal or causal succession, because S1 has no concrete objects, - thus, ruling out causal succession -, and there is no time at S1 - ruling out temporal succession as well.

On the other hand, it's at least not apparently incoherent to say that there are some concrete objects in W' at time t1, and then another concrete object B also exists later at t2, and B is not the result of a transformation of any of the objects that exist at t1.

That said, I do think that looking at the matter from the perspective of the relation between what exists and what has the potential to exist may strengthen your case by perhaps appealing to intuitions that the rational reflection argument does not trigger.

Re: omnipotence.
I've been thinking about omnipotence in light of PMC, and it seems to me (tentatively) that you may have an argument against omnipotence as well (though you don't need that for your case against classical theism, it might be interesting too), at least leaving aside Berkeleyan views or similar, because while as you point out, lacking the power to do what's metaphysically impossible is often not regarded as a problem for omnipotence, it seems to me that's due to some assumptions about what is possible.

For instance, if no entity has the power to do something impossible, and it turns out it is impossible to communicate any sort of information faster than the speed of light, then I think it follows that no omnipotent entity exists, since an entity who does not have the power to, say, respond to the prayer of an astronaut on Pluto and allow her to talk to her spouse on Earth with no more than a 5 minutes delay (for example), or bring her back to Earth in less than 1 hour, or, say, talk tomorrow to aliens in another galaxy and tell them about anything humans did on Earth, today or at any time in the past 20000 years, etc., does not meet minimum conditions to be called "omnipotent".

But if PMC is true, and Berkeleyan idealism (or something like that) isn't possible, then even if there is a necessary being, such entity would have no power to create a single particle in a world in which there aren't any particles (or a single physical object if there aren't any), or a cat, a dog, etc. But that would seem to (plausibly, in my view) rule out necessary omnipotence, and also omnipotence if possible omnipotence entails necessary omnipotence.

If possible omnipotence doesn't entail necessary omnipotence, it's a bit more difficult, particularly if there are infinitely many particles or the potential for that, but still, I think constraints from the limited potential of what is actual may provide the basis for an argument against actual omnipotence as well.

exapologist said...

My sentiments are pretty close to that. As I like to say: God can be the ultimate originator of neither abstract nor concrete objects. What place, then, for a creator?

About omnipotence: I mention this issue briefly in a footnote of the paper. I leave open the possibility of omnipotence even if God can't be the ultimate cause of concrete objects. As I put it in the footnote:

"Perhaps one will object that a god of this sort cannot be omnipotent if he cannot create or sustain the natural world. However, there is a long and established tradition of theists who claim that there are lots of things that an omnipotent god cannot do (e.g., make a round square, change the past, act contrary to his nature, know future free acts, etc.). One standard justification for such restrictions is to say that such things are metaphysically impossible, and that omnipotence doesn’t include the power to do what is metaphysically impossible. But the same sort of justification seems available here. For the hands-off theist can say that creating or sustaining the universe with out a material cause is metaphysically impossible, and thus his inability to create or sustain a universe ex nihilo doesn’t count against his omnipotence."

Angra Mainyu said...


About omnipotence:

I think I was unclear; I was trying to say that the justification you mention in the footnote (i.e., that omnipotence doesn’t include the power to do what is metaphysically impossible, so not being able to do what's metaphysically impossible does not preclude omnipotence) has some implicit assumptions about what is possible/impossible (i.e., I think that not being able to do some things would preclude omnipotence even if they're impossible), and in particular, it seems to me PMC might work against that defense too.

Of course, that's not required for your argument against classical theismcvc, so it's a side note.

exapologist said...

Hi Angra,

No, you were clear. I'm just tired. I should know by now not to comment during finals week. :)

Best,
EA

Atheist in the Closet said...

I think we can apply this line of argument to some of Aquinas' argument, such as the argument from change (motion) . The idea would be that all essentially ordered series (hierarchical series) that exist plausibly have a material sustaining cause. But the argument from change and classical theism assert that God is upholding each essentially ordered series ex nihilo; however, creation or sustaining something out of nothing is not possible (or, it's not clear that this is metaphysically possible). If a Thomist somehow wants to say that there is a material sustaining cause, then there's no need to include or conclude with God. 

Review of Trakakis' (ed.) <i>The Problem of Evil: Eight Views in Dialogue</i>

Daniel Johnson reviews the book for NDPR .