Hays begins with the following provocative statement:
Some atheists think they can dismiss cosmological arguments by simply asking, "Who made God?"
Commenting on this mentality, Leonard Peikoff observes:
The religious view of the world… is still entrenched in the public mind. Witness the popular question “Who created the universe?” – which presupposes that the universe is not eternal, but has a source beyond itself, in some cosmic personality or will. It is useless to object that this question involves an infinite regress, even though it does (if a creator is required to explain existence, then a second creator is required to explain the first, and so on). Typically the believer will reply: “One can’t ask for an explanation of God. He is an inherently necessary being. After all, one must start somewhere.” Such a person does not contest the need of an irreducible starting point, as long as it is a form of consciousness; what he finds unsatisfactory is the idea of existence as the starting point. Driven by the primacy of consciousness, a person of this mentality refuses to begin with the world, which we know to exist; he insists on jumping beyond the world to the unknowable, even though such a procedure explains nothing. (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 21)
So when Hays offers “some observations that are pertinent to that riposte” – i.e., to the question “Who made God?” – it’s instructive to see if the typical maneuver Peikoff cites comes into play. Let’s take a look.
First, Hays lets Peter van Inwagen weigh in on the matter:
All the beings we observe seem to be contingent beings; some of them certainly are. It seems reasonable, therefore, to suppose that the following statement is true:There are some contingent beings.Now if the Principle of Sufficient Reason is correct, there is some explanation of the truth of this statement, some answer to the question "Why are there contingent beings?" But what would an explanation of the existence of contingent beings look like? One possible explanation of this state of affairs is the following:Something necessarily existent, some necessary being, is in some way responsible for the fact that there are contingent things.This is not, of course, a very detailed explanation, but it seems to be a perfectly satisfactory explanation as far as it goes. It is conceivable that someone might object to it on the ground that it "merely pushes the problem of the existence of things back a step." The worry here is something like this: "All right, the necessary being explains the existence of contingent beings, but what explains its existence? Why does it exist?" But to say this is to neglect the fact that a necessary being is a being whose nonexistence is impossible. Thus, for any necessary being, there is by definition a sufficient reason for its existence: there could hardly be a better explanation of the existence of a thing than that its nonexistence is impossible
As to the fact that the explanation is almost wholly lacking in specifics, we should note that there are few if any explanations that could not be given in greater detail. The explanation could be "filled in" in various ways… P. van Inwagen, Metaphysics, (Westview Press 2015), 160-61.
1. First of all, I seriously reject the notion that “the existence of things” is a real philosophical problem. Some thinkers may be puzzled that things exist instead of nothing at all, but their bewilderment does not constitute a serious philosophical question, but rather may indicate a psychological condition in need of working out. Existence is not a metaphysical option. Needless to say, this will probably wrinkle the noses of many readers.
2. Inwagen assumes the necessary-contingent dichotomy as a matter of fact. I haven’t read his book, so I don’t know if he spills any ink in justifying this assumption. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t, for not only would it be easy to say that’s not in the purview of his book, it is also very common for academics to casually assume what’s taken for granted among their peers (academics get lazy, too). How far would Inwagen get without this assumption?
3. We observe objects all over the place, but to make the blanket generalization that all those objects are “contingent” is rather simplistic and, dare I say, even misleading. Consider the following:a) The objects we perceive are in fact made up of constituent parts; the shoes I’m wearing, for example, were assembled from pre-existing materials that were processed, shaped and joined together into the form that fits my big feet.
b) The elements that make up the shoes were not brought into existence by an act of consciousness. On the contrary, whether they were rubber, cowhide, cloth, plastic, etc., those materials had to be fashioned from pre-existing materials which ultimately were found in nature, not conjured into being ex nihilo by a sheer force of will.
c) When those shoes break down and fall apart as I’m sure they will (I like to do a lot of walking!), their constituent parts do not just go out of existence. Rather, they continue to exist – they just change form; some of it can even be recycled into other manufactured items. The elements that composed the shoes do not cease to exist.4. The theist’s assertion of a “necessary being” camouflages a crucial premise which theists themselves rarely make explicit in treatments such as this, namely that what they really have in mind is a consciousness, specifically a “supernatural” consciousness. This alleged consciousness has the ability to wish matter into (and presumably out of) existence, reshape whatever objects it has created into whatever it wants them to be (e.g., it can wish water into wine), manipulate the actions of those objects any way it chooses (cf. “miracles”), and dictate the actions of everything in accordance to a single massive “plan” which it concocted even before wishing everything else into being.
5. While we do not find evidence for the existence of such a consciousness or its activity in the world which we perceive around ourselves, we can imagine such a being, and in fact I’d contend that we have no alternative but to make use of our imagination in conceiving and considering such a phenomenon.
Instead of wrestling with the kinds of concerns that I raise above, Hays prefers to play it safe by anticipating objections to the terms of the debate that have been stated. For example, he writes:
i) Some atheists might object that to define God as a necessary being begs the question. That's defining God into existence. Truth by definition.
Now let’s look at Hays’ reaction. He states:
ii) But that objection is ill-conceived. To begin with, a debate over God's existence is, in the first instance, a debate regarding the idea of God. What does "God" represent? At that stage of the argument there's nothing wrong with a stipulative definition. To define God as a necessary being doesn't mean God necessarily exists, but that if there's a God, he exists of necessity. In other words, this is a statement about the concept of God under review. Whether there's a reality corresponding to that concept is another stage of the argument, but the idea of God is the idea of a necessary being.
i) It should be borne in mind that concepts and ideas are psychological phenomena; specifically, they are phenomena produced by mental activity, not concretes existing independent of mental activity. So it’s quite telling that Hays acknowledges that “a debate over God’s existence is, in the first instance, a debate regarding the idea of God.” In other words, a debate over God’s existence is primarily a debate revolving around psychological phenomena, not about something that exists independent of human mental activity. For Hays, the God debate is about what’s “in here” (I’m pointing to my head) as opposed to what’s “out there” (pointing to the world of objects outside me). This confession has damning implications, which we shall get to in due course.
ii) While Hays holds that “there’s nothing wrong with a stipulative definition” in the formative stages of framing an argument, notice that the definition he has in mind includes a hypothetical aspect to it: to say that “God” is a “necessary being” means “that if there’s a God, he exists of necessity.” How often do we find definitions of concepts which include a hypothetical qualification such as this? I know of no other concepts that are so defined, which in my view raises the suspicion that some special pleading is in play here.
Think of the definition of ‘man’ as “the rational animal.” The definition does not state that man is the rational animal if he also breathes air, walks on two legs, reproduces by sexual activity, knows who his daddy is, etc. There is no hypothetical condition stipulated by the definition ‘rational animal’. So why would such conditionality be needed in the case of the notion of “God”?
And one more thing on this point. Maybe I’m just confused here, but this raises a rather alarming question for the apologist: by including necessity in the definition of “God” as a hypothetical condition (“if…”), doesn’t that confer a contingent quality to the notion itself and the argument overall? It is essentially to say that *by definition* only if a certain condition is satisfied, then the requirements for the categorization in question are thus met. But that means that the categorization in question is contingent upon that condition being met, which in turn means that the very notion in question – since it is so defined this way – is contingent on a condition being met, which may or may not be the case. By framing the categorization in question hypothetically, it is conceded that it might not be the case, and thus we have the possibility that it is not the case. So how does the notion “God” being defended here escape contingency when such conditionality is built into the very meaning of the notion from the very get-go? Needs work, I’d say.
iii) My suspicion that some sleight of hand is going on here is only compounded any kind of talk of a concept of God. This makes no sense to me since “God” is supposed to be sui generis, a wholly unique entity unlike anything else as opposed to a category of similar entities. For example, the concept ‘man’ includes all men who have lived, who live now and who will live in the future, and we can apply the concept abstractly as well to would-be units postulated in imaginative scenarios (think for example of novels, crime reconstructions, market plans, gaming strategies, estimates of future outcomes, etc.). And as such, the concept ‘man’ is quantitatively open-ended: it does not restrict the units subsumed by the concept ‘man’ to a specific number, such as four hundred thousand or four hundred quadrillion; there is no need to create a new concept if a specific number of units is reached, as though it were full and a new one opened up with vacancy. Concepts are not limited-seating stadiums.
But we do not do this with specific concretes. We do not speak of a concept of Joe Smith; the name ‘Joe Smith’ is a proper name and refers to a specific individual, not to a category or grouping of similar individuals. Similarly, Hays’ god is supposed to be one specific being, not a group of beings; nor does the term ‘God’ denote an open-ended category which is quantitatively unrestricted. Of course, I take it that Hays is not a polytheist.
iv) This brings us to yet another crippling problem. Epistemologically, Hays’ whole argument, if it starts first with “the concept of God” and efforts to define that concept, and then moves to investigating the question of “whether there's a reality corresponding to that concept,” suffers from completely backwards thinking. When identifying what actually exists in reality, we do not start first by looking inward into the contents of our consciousness, concocting notions, then affixing definitions to them (including hypothetical conditions, just in case!), and then going out into the world to see if there are any units which happen to correspond to those notions. Indeed, by the time one gets to that last step, he may be so emotionally invested in the notion he’s been nursing in his mind as to interpret anything as evidence supporting it.
What we’re witnessing here is the fallout of a sloppy understanding (at best) of concepts. Contrary to what Hays’ methodology suggests, we form concepts (especially of concretes, of entities) first by perceiving objects, then identifying similar essential characteristics among them which differentiate them from other objects, omitting specific measurements and uniting them into a single mental unit, a concept, which, once formed, is then available for us to define. We can later integrate concepts of concretes into broader abstractions as we build a hierarchy of knowledge from the ground floor up (as an example, the concept ‘furniture’ integrates various concepts of entities, such as chairs, sofas, tables, beds, nightstands, divans, buffets, stools, footrests, etc). Perceptual awareness provides the material from which we assemble this ground floor, beginning implicitly with axiomatic concepts (e.g., existence, identity, consciousness) and moving to explicit concepts of different concretes – e.g., ball, pencil, man, house, dog, street, etc. Building our conceptual hierarchy from the basis of perceptual awareness is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition of objectivity; if one attempts to dispense with perceptual basis for his thinking, his thinking will have no tie to reality and what he ends up with cannot be called knowledge.
v) Now of course, that we form legitimate concepts beginning with perceptual inputs does not in any way prevent a thinker from concocting notions based on inputs of an imaginative nature. The human imagination can be very creative, and it is here, in the realm of the imagination, that we come closest to experiencing a semblance of reality conforming to conscious intentions. The author of a science fiction novel, for example, can imagine alien beings and build his story around this motif. But these would not be concepts denoting actually existing entities, but rather mental integrations assembled by re-arranging various things that the author has perceived. For example, the aliens may have six arms, breathe mercury, travel on tank treads or float like leaves in a wind; they may speak a language through some kind of orifice similar to the human mouth and wear armor that they can remove, etc. Clearly such a combination of attributes does not correspond to anything actually found in reality, and it would constitute a fruitless use of one’s time to set out looking for such beings after having formulated such a notion.
But this seems to be essentially what the theist is doing: he begins with an imaginative construct to which he selectively ascribes a number of attributes of a psychological nature which he has observed in human beings – e.g., consciousness, volition, purposefulness, use of concepts, knowing, measuring, discernment, judgment, determination, planning, etc., along with features that are completely imaginary, such as its unlimited power and universal awareness. Rand made this powerful point in one of her workshops on epistemology:
This is precisely one, if not the essential one, of the epistemological objections to the concept "God." It is not a concept. At best, one could say it is a concept in the sense that a dramatist uses concepts to create a character. It is an isolation of actual characteristics of man combined with the projection of impossible, irrational characteristics which do not arise from reality--such as omnipotence and omniscience. Besides, God isn't even supposed to be a concept: he is sui generis, so that nothing relevant to man or the rest of nature is supposed, by the proponents of that viewpoint, to apply to God. He is supposed to be unique. Therefore, by their own terms of setting up the problem, they have taken God out of the conceptual realm. And quite properly, because he is out of reality. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 148)
vi) Also, it is important to keep in mind what else the “concept” ‘God’ is supposed to subsume. ‘Necessity’ is not the only characteristic involved here. Even more essential is the characteristic of consciousness. And this is no ordinary consciousness – certainly not like any consciousness we discover in nature, whether belonging to human beings or other categories of the animal order. Rather, it is supposed to be a consciousness without a body, and therefore a consciousness with no means of perceiving (it would have no eyes, ears, skin, etc.), no use for conceptualizing (see my argument Would an Omniscient Mind Have Knowledge in Conceptual Form?), which is said to have “spoken” and yet it has no mouth, no tongue, no larynx, no lungs, etc. Indeed, as an invisible, imperceptible being possessing a super-intelligent form of consciousness unlike anything available to scientific examination, we have no alternative but to imagine it, a fact which further confirms, if not entirely seals, the justification for suspicion that our leg is being pulled.
ii) In addition, this is not an arbitrary principle. What makes contingent entities contingent is their dependence on something else for their existence. It's possible for them not to exist. They didn't always exist, and some of them cease to exist.
Again, admittedly, we can imagine that these pre-existing materials were conjured into existence by an act of wishing, but there is no evidence that such is possible. Every specimen possessing consciousness that we find in nature is a specimen whose consciousness is limited up to and including what we find in human beings, and human beings do in fact have the ability to imagine. The notion of an object-creating consciousness is confined only to what we can imagine, for it is only in the imagination where we find such a phenomenon residing.
Also, it is important to note that the apparent test for determining whether or not things are “contingent” is the supposition “it’s possible for them not to exist.” But what drives this, if not ultimate what we can “conceive” – i.e., imagine? I can imagine that it’s possible that the elements which compose my shoes never existed or at least could have failed to exist. But just as wishing doesn’t make it so, my imagining so does not turn these suppositions into actual possibilities; on the contrary, it is only a statement of psychological activity that I perform in my mind. I can imagine that the stars, planets, quasars, dust particles, asteroid and cosmic gases that make up the universe could have failed to exist, but that is not proof that they could have failed to exist. Instead, we are treated to a very superficial handling of basic metaphysical issues that have been clouded by a misapplication of modal epistemology: ‘possible’ is an epistemological concept, not a metaphysical status. When we say that X is possible, this is a statement pertaining to what we as yet know about the matter in question; it is not a metaphysical attribute inherent in X, but rather a stage in the development of our knowledge relating to X. This distinction has been lost on academic philosophers for well over a century, and the subjectivism that this and similar erroneous notions have invited has only lead those philosophers down the dark labyrinth of a nightmare.
More broadly, we might ask the apologist if he thinks that existence as such is “contingent.” My view is that existence – i.e., everything that exists considered as a whole – is not “contingent” as it does not depend on something else for its existence. Existence exists, and only existence exists. Nor can one reasonably hold that existence was created by an act of consciousness, for such a claim commits the fallacy of the stolen concept.
So if we begin with existence, which we know exists, then what’s the problem? What would justify belief in a god at that point? Theistic arguments are cut off at the pass and have nowhere to go. As the passage I quote from Peikoff above points out, the theist does not find having a starting point dissatisfying, but rather finds the fact that existence exists as his starting point inconvenient; he wants to start with a form of consciousness which he styles “necessary” and claim that everything else is “contingent” on that consciousness. But there’s no objective basis for such a belief; it is in fact just a faith based on what one can create in the confines of his imagination.
Hays states the following:
This in turn raises the question of whether it's possible for everything to be contingent, or must there be something necessary to ground contingent entities? Can it be contingency all the way down? Or must there be something which cannot fail to exist that supports everything else? That, of course, is a hotly contested issue.
But whether or not we can prove that possible things require something necessary, that is, at the very least, a reasonable explanation. If there's something necessary on which contingent entities depend, then that's a straightforward explanation for why they exist, since there's nothing in themselves that requires their existence.
iii) By the same token, it's not unreasonable to think that the explanatory regress must terminate at some point.
Again, what is more important than the point at which explanatory regress must terminate, is where one starts. If one’s starting point is already chosen so as to allow one to pretend that the imaginary is real, then he’s already fundamentally undermined his position by severing it from any objective basis. Again, we should start with existence, not with fantasized alternatives to existence.
Indeed, that's a presupposition of science. But the question is where to draw the line. Some stopping-points are arbitrary or premature. My parents are not the ultimate source of my existence, since they have parents, and grandparents. Moreover, their physical existence is contingent, not merely on their parents, but the earth and the universe.
Let’s briefly look at each:
If one begins with some underlying concession to the primacy of consciousness (cf. “wishing makes it so”), then he will naturally be predisposed to giving the notion of a universe-creating consciousness an initial presumption of validity, for he’s already implicitly accepted this as his guiding starting point.
Next, if causality is assumed to be a relationship between “events” rather than a relationship between an entity’s actions and its nature, then that relationship can itself be dismissed as “contingent” (cf. David Hume: “all events seem loose entirely loose and separate. One event follows another; but we never can observe any tie between them. They seem conjoined, but never connected” - An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding). At the very least, such a view of causality ignores the fact that action itself is not a standalone phenomenon, i.e., that action is an action performed by some thing which exists. This ‘mad lib’ view of causality which treats causes and effects as essentially wild cards in the hands of a fiat ruler, lends itself quite readily to theological fantasies. As examples, we have the creation myth, the notion of miracles, prayer, etc.
Additionally, if one’s views about the relationship between consciousness and its objects include the assumptions that consciousness (either one’s own or one that he imagines exists) creates its own objects, that objects conform to the contents of consciousness, that consciousness can dictate the actions which an object performs, etc., then he’s already built subjectivist concessions into his overall assumptions about reality. No objective rationale can justify this, and insisting on it only confirms that the conclusion that a god exists can only be arrived at by ignoring the relationship which we do in fact find between consciousness and its objects, namely the primacy of existence.
Lastly (among those considered here), if one’s general philosophical paradigm does not include fundamental principles (e.g., the primacy of existence) which clearly recognize the distinction between what is real and what one may merely be imagining, then he systematically risks polluting his assumptions and conclusions with imaginative indulgences which have no objective relation to reality and thus cannot qualify as legitimate proof. We can, with the theist, imagine that his god is real, but if we honestly acknowledge that the imaginary is not real, such exercises are pointless.
Again, why not simply begin with existence, which we know exists, and move on to things more important that what is merely imaginary, such as how to raise the level of virtue in our society?
Hays finishes with the following statement:
iv) This eliminates facile counterexamples like Russell's Teapot and "one fewer god". Russell's Teapot, if it existed, would be a contingent object. So it doesn't have the same explanatory power as a necessary being like God. By the same token, heathen deities are contingent beings.
The point here is that if we allow arbitrary actions on one side of the debate, it would take a measure of special pleading in biblical proportions to disallow the other side of the debate the same privilege.
Of course, a rational position, one which – among other things – distinguishes on the basis of objectively informed principles between the real and the imaginary, does not need special pleading to “justify” rejection of mystical ideas. Mystical ideas disqualify themselves as candidates for legitimate truths by virtue of their subjectivist underpinnings, by blurring the distinction between the real and the imaginary, even subordinating the former to the latter, as religion does so religiously.
Unfortunately, assuming Hays’ premises, his process logic does nothing to eliminate imaginary contenders, such as Wad (a spirit being which is supposed to be both infinite and unitary and which did not have a son), and that’s because his process logic is expressly geared towards protecting belief in something that is merely imaginary, namely the Christian god.
by Dawson Bethrick