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Creation Ex Nihilo and Uncaused Worlds: A Dilemma

**Revised in light of Jason Thibodeau's excellent comments.***

I've argued for both unqualified and defeasible versions of the principle of material causality (PMC), according to which concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause have an originating or sustaining material cause, respectively. I've also argued for the claim that PMC, when combined with classical theism's doctrine of God as the creator of the world out of nothing, entails that classical theism is false. However, while I think PMC is clearly correct, the conclusion can be reached whether one accepts PMC or not.

The long version of the argument is for another day, but here's the short version. 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 if it has neither an efficient nor a material 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. And rightly so. Not only does it seem self-evident, but all of nature appears to conform to it without exception. 

However, some philosophers are still skeptical. Philosophers in this camp tend to sympathize with Hume that anything that can be imagined or conceived without contradiction is prima facie metaphysically possible. 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 a live possibility that the universe popped into existence uncaused, out of nothing.

Now consider the following version of PMC: 
(PMC) It's metaphysically impossible for a concrete object to come into existence 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. Therefore, it 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 the falsity of classical Anselmian 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 Anselmian theism is false. On the other hand, suppose you reject both principles. Then you reject IUC, in which case you accept that there is a possible world at which concrete objects pop into existence out of nothing without a cause. But since classical Anselmian 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 entails the falsity of classical Anselmian theism. Therefore, either way, you accept something that entails the falsity of classical Anselmian theism.

In short, the conclusion goes through whether you accept PMC or not.

Comments

Jason Thibodeau said…
In the past I have written comments in support of your arguments in this vein. When I first read this one, I thought it was excellent. However, on further reflection, I think that there may be a problem with this argument:

The 'uncaused' in IUC is ambiguous. Suppose it means efficient cause. Then IUC is:

IUC1= It is metaphysically impossible for concrete objects to come into existence without an efficient cause, out of nothing.

The comma here suggests conjunction. Thus IUC1 says (a) a concrete object cannot come into existence without an efficient cause; and (b) a concrete object cannot come into existence out of nothing.

An Anselmian theist has to think that IUC1 is false since, as you argue, an Anselmian theist believes that (b) is false. But notice that, in rejecting IUC1, the Anselmian does not have to accept that (a) is false. Indeed, presumably Anselmians think that (a) is true.

But notice that the falsity of IUC1 does not entail that there is a metaphysically possible world in which concrete objects can pop into existence uncaused out of nothing. Why? Because, so long as (a) is true, it is impossible for for an object to pop into existence without an efficient cause.

Suppose, however, that "uncaused" in IUC refers to material cause. Then IUC becomes:

IUC2 = It is metaphysically impossible for concrete objects to come into existence without a material cause, out of nothing.

In this case the comma does not represent conjunction (the clause after the comma is classificatory, in this case). Presumably, the Anselmian theist will claim that IUC2 is false for the same reasons that she thinks that PMC is false. However, the falsity of IUC2 does not entail that there is a metaphysically possible world in which concrete objects can pop into existence without a cause, for it does not entail that there is a metaphysically possible world in which concrete objects can pop into existence without an efficient cause.

The upshot is that an Anselmian can reject IUC without contradiction. God, on this view, is the final efficient cause. The Anselmian says that it is impossible for an object to pop into existence without an efficient cause, but it is possible for a concrete object to begin to exist without a material cause. I think that Anselmians can reject IUC and still maintain this

exapologist said…
Hi Jason!

Thanks for pushing me to clarify. I intend

(IUC) It's metaphysically impossible for concrete objects to come into existence uncaused, out of nothing.

to be glossed as:

(IUC') It's metaphysically impossible for concrete objects to come into existence if they have neither an efficient nor a material cause.

I'll revise the post in light of your helpful comment.

The idea is that both PMC and IUC' are in the same epistemological boat, in that: (a) both are supported by a strong rational intuition (at least on reflection), and (b) both are supported by universal experience. However, (c) both are non-analytic propositions. Therefore, (d), both are susceptible to non-acceptance via the Humean gambit.

I should emphasize that the worry I'm raising is not that the theist contradicts herself by accepting one principle while rejecting the other. Rather the point is that in accepting one principle while rejecting the other, the theist is doing so in a way that's arbitrary or unprincipled. But if they adopt a principled stance by either accepting both principles or rejecting both principles, either option entails the falsity of classical Anselmian theism.

All best,
EA
Is this an accurate formulation of your dilemma?

(1) Neither IUC nor PMC are analytic propositions.

(2) Both IUC and PMC seem self-evident and are supported by universal experience. 

(3) There are no other relevant factors which bear upon the support for IUC and PMC.

(4) Therefore, IUC and PMC are equally probable.

(5) Therefore, either both IUC and PMC are true or neither are. [from (4)]

(6) If both IUC and PMC are true, then God cannot create concrete objects ex nihilo. [from the definition of PMC]

(7) If God cannot create concrete objects ex nihilo, then classical Anselmian theism is false.

(8) If both IUC and PMC are false, then there is a possible world in which concrete objects pop into existence uncaused.

(9) If there is a possible world in which concrete objects pop into existence uncaused, then classical Anselmian theism is false.

(10) Therefore, classical Anselmian theism is false.[from (7) and (9)]
exapologist said…
Hi Jeff,

In dialectical contexts involving theists, I'm inclined to couch the dilemma in terms of epistemic defeat. Something like:

(1) Neither IUC nor PMC are analytic propositions.

(2) Both IUC and PMC are equally intuitive and supported by universal experience.

(3) There are no other relevant epistemic factors that bear upon the support for IUC and PMC.

(4) If (1)-(3) are true, then one rationally ought to either accept both IUC and PMC or reject both IUC and PMC.

(5) Therefore, one rationally ought to either accept both IUC and PMC or reject both IUC and PMC. [From (1)-(4)]

(6) If one rationally ought to accept both IUC and PMC, then one rationally ought to accept that God cannot create concrete objects ex nihilo.

(7) If one rationally ought to accept that God cannot create concrete objects ex nihilo, then classical Anselmian theism is defeated.

(8) Therefore, if one rationally ought to accept both IUC and PMC, then classical Anselmian theism is defeated. [From (6) and (7)]

(9) If one rationally ought to reject both IUC and PMC, then one rationally ought to 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.

(10) If one rationally ought to 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, then classical Anselmian theism is defeated.

(11) Therefore, if one rationally ought to reject both IUC and PMC, then classical Anselmian theism is defeated. [From (9) and (10)]

(12) Therefore, classical Anselmian theism is defeated. [From (5), (8), and (11)]

Best,
EA

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