Modal Epistemology and Creation Ex Nihilo

(Rough Draft)
Consider the following thesis, which I’ll call Possible Ex Nihilo Creation (PEC):
(PEC) It’s metaphysically possible for concrete objects to be created out of nothing.
It’s often taken as axiomatic among theists that PEC is true, on the grounds that it seems to be a part of scripture and tradition that God created the universe out of nothing, without the use of prior materials. However, suppose you are not a theist, and you don’t take PEC as axiomatic. It already comes to the table with heavy strikes against it: Ordinary experience speaks strongly against it. And given the long and distinguished pedigree of the principle, ex nihilo nihil fit, reason seems to speak against it, too. What, then, could the theist offer to the atheist or agnostic in support of the principle? 

Perhaps the theist will here appeal to putative sources of modal evidence to support PEC, viz., rational intuition, imaginability, or conceivability. Thus, one might argue that one can conceive of (or intuit, or imagine), say, God creating the universe out of nothing, and since conceivability is prima facie evidence of possibility, one is prima facie justified in accepting PEC. Is this a promising line?

No, it isn’t. There are a lot of points that could be brought up here, but I want to limit myself to one point based on recent work in modal epistemology, i.e., the study of how our beliefs about what is impossible, possible, and necessary are known and/or justified.

There are many objections, both classical and contemporary, that have been raised against inferences from conceivability to possibility. For example, in the past, people were able to conceive of the Morning Star existing without the Evening Star, or water existing without H20. So if everything conceivable were possible, it should follow that it’s possible for the Morning Star to exist without the Evening Star, or water without H20. But we now know that these things are impossible, since the Morning Star is the Evening Star, and water isH20. 

Another example: Goldbach's Conjecture is the mathematical hypothesis that every even number greater than 2 is the sum of two primes. To date, no mathematician has proven that Goldbach's Conjecture is true (nor have they proven that it's false). Now I can conceive, in some sense, that Goldbach's Conjecture is false. I can also imagine that it's true. So if all inferences from conceivability to possibility are valid, then it follows that it's both possible for Goldbach's Conjecture to be true, and possible for Goldbach's Conjecture to be false -- in other words it would follow that Goldbach's Conjecture is only contingentlytrue if true at all. But that can't be right, for mathematical statements are necessarily true or necessarily false if true or false at all.

Thus, it looks as though we need some criterion of legitimate conceivings to screen out illegitimate conceivings, thereby preserving the utility of inferences from conceivability to possibility. A lot of progress has been made over the past several decades in the sub-field of modal epistemology, but for our purposes, it’s enough to mention one key distinction that’s been developed that’s helpful. Stephen Yablo[1] and James Van Cleve[2] have each pointed out that there’s a distinction between not conceiving that P is impossible, on the one hand, and conceiving that P is possible, on the other. Van Cleve calls the former, ‘weak conceivability’, and the latter, ‘strong conceivability’. 

Now it turns out that pretty much all of the counterexamples to the conceivability-possibility inference are cases in which something is weakly conceivable. For example, when one says that they can conceive of Goldbach’s Conjecture being true, and that they can conceive of it also being false, they really mean that they can’t see that either conception is impossible – i.e., they only weakly conceive of such things. The same goes for conceiving of water existing without H20, and conceiving of the Morning Star existing without the Evening Star. By contrast, I can strongly conceiving of my car as being red, and of myself as a person who doesn't like to surf (albeit just barely!); thus such conceivings provide prima facie evidence that it's possible for my car to be red, and that I really couldhave been a person who doesn't enjoy surfing.

In light of this distinction, then, we can handle the counterexamples by limiting conceivability-possibility inferences to those that involve what is strongly conceivable – i.e., to those in which one intuits that p is possible, and not to those in which one merely fails to intuit that p is impossible.

The weak/strong conceivability gives rise to a dilemma for the case at hand. For either the relevant type of conceivability or imaginability or rational intuition is weak conceivability or it is strong conceivability. Suppose the relevant sort of conceivability is strong conceivability. Is it strongly conceivable that a being can create a concrete object without prior materials -- i.e., do we "just see" that it is possible? It doesn’t seem so. For the relevant conceived state of affairs doesn't seem to enjoy the strong epistemic and doxastic force enjoyed by, say, conceiving of a ball getting stuck on the roof (I see it there in my mind's eye, wedged behind the chimney). Rather it merely seems weakly conceivable – i.e. I merely fail to intuit that it's impossible.  It therefore looks as though the truth of PEC is prima facie justified via strong conceivability.

Suppose we're right, then, that it's merely weakly conceivable Then for the reasons sketched above, it’s not at all clear that weakly conceiving of concrete objects being created out of nothing supports PEC. Perhaps the mainstream view on weak conceivability is wrong, though, and weak conceivability is good evidence of possibility. Would that help the theist's cause? 

No. For then weak conceivability would end up supporting other things as well that would defeat theism. So, for example, and most saliently for our purposes, the weak conceivability of a world that pops into existence without any cause whatsoever would, likewise, be prima facie evidence of its possibility. 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 create. 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 an argument against the falsity of classical theism, contrary to the original aim of trying to support PEC on behalf of theism. And of course it goes without saying that the possibility of the universe popping into existence without any cause whatsoever would pose worries for the standard arguments for God's existence.

Therefore, either way, it’s not at all clear that modal evidence supports PEC. 

[1] “Is Conceivability a Guide to Possibility?”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research53 (1993), 1-42.
[2] “Conceivability and the Cartesian Argument for Dualism”, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 64, (1983), 35-45.


Luke said...

Have you considered the scholastic claim that essentially ordered series cannot be infinite, thus requiring a first element? I wonder if denial of PEC is tantamount to denial that any series is essentially ordered. If it is, then giving up essentially ordered series seems like it might be a big sacrifice.

exapologist said...

Hi Luke,

I'm not sure I yet see their incompatibility. So, for example, grant the Thomistic conclusion. Given the presumption against PEC, one would then conclude that the uncaused cause of the first element produced the series from prior things or stuff, such as from the substance of the uncaused cause itself.


Luke said...

Is causation ex nihilo any more palatable than matter ex nihilo?

exapologist said...

I'm not sure I follow.

Luke said...

Your post here is skeptical about getting matter ex nihilo. I'm wondering if you have the same skepticism against causation ex nihilo. If we prohibit both, and accept the Thomistic conclusion, then that would seem to lead to the claim that there are no essentially ordered series. Are you comfortable with that claim?

exapologist said...

Sorry, I should've been more specific. I'm trying to get clear on the difference between creation ex nihilo and causation ex nihilo.


Luke said...

Well, your PEC focuses on "concrete objects" coming into existence ex nihilo. Causation seemed to be subordinate to matter[–energy]. But suppose that you actually mean "concrete objects" and "causation". That would seem to indicate that either:

     (1) there is no causation
     (2) all causal series are infinite

Is there a (3)?

exapologist said...

HI Luke,

I'm still not sure I see the problem. Aquinas' famous example of an essentially ordered series is a stone moved by a stick, which in turn is moved by a man. Why is this ruled out by the impossibility of the creation of concrete objects ex nihilo? On a related note, I've argued elsewhere that the same conclusion goes through for sustaining causes. So, for example, the continued existence of a flame appears to require a material cause, viz., reacting gasses and solids. Remove the latter, and the flame vanishes. This is true even if the flame is past-eternal.