I ended my initial exploration of Anderson’s case by leaving open the possibility that, even if one acknowledges the fallaciousness of “the Question,” Anderson’s case may still have merits. So in this entry I will continue my examination of Anderson’s first case to see if in fact it provides any good reasons for believing that a god exists.
Recall that in this first case, Anderson seeks to prove that the Christian god exists from the very fact that things exist. His case, however, does not follow a direct trajectory such as “things exists, therefore God exists,” but rather traces a circuit by means of characterizing the things which exist in such a way that we must infer from that characterization that something filling the job description which presumably only the Christian god could do, must exist. In the course of piecing together his case, Anderson presents a number of unargued assertions, takes questionable assumptions for granted, and in the end grants determinative role to the creative agency of human imagination. Along the way he takes a pass on prime opportunities to define key terms central to the issues his case attempts to tackle.
But clearly this premise – that the things Anderson lists “might not have existed” – is critical to his case, for he applies it further:
The universe could have been very different; it could have existed without any of those things. Likewise for anything else in the universe we might care to list. So the existence of all these things begs for an explanation. What accounts for their existence? What accounts for the fact that anything at all exists? (Ibid.)
But where he drops one invalid notion, Anderson replaces it with another by predictably enlisting the services of the necessary-contingent dichotomy. As we saw on p. 102 he lists several items, some naturally-occurring (“stars, mountains, trees, rabbits”) and others man-made (“buildings, smartphones”), asserting that none of them “had to exist” and that any of them “might not have existed,” and then applies this assessment to “anything else in the universe we might care to list.”
Philosophers have a special term for things that exist but didn’t have to exist: continent. A contingent thing is one that might not have existed, even though it does in fact exist. Its non-existence is logically possible. So, for example, the Eiffel Tower is contingent. It didn’t have to exist. (Ibid.)
The French could have decided never to build it in the first place, and it’s entirely possible for it to cease to exist at some point in the future. The same goes for any man-made object. (Ibid., pp. 102-103)
Living organisms, however, are also contingent. Take rabbits, for example. Everyone agrees that there was a time when no rabbits existed. Rabbits came into existence, of course, but they didn’t have to. There’s nothing impossible about a universe without rabbits (upsetting though the thought might be for rabbit-lovers). (Ibid., p. 103)
Now it’s irrelevant whether or not “everyone agrees that there was a time when no rabbits existed”; reality does not conform to what is agreed among human beings. But even if it is the case that “there was a time when no rabbits existed,” it does not follow from this that “they didn’t have to exist” or that “there’s nothing impossible about a universe without rabbits” if we’re talking about the universe we now inhabit. These are assumptions which Anderson needs to validate rather than simply assert and take for granted as truthful. How does Anderson know any of this? Is this something he discovered about rabbits by observing them? Or, is this an assumption governed by “presuppositions” which he expects his readers to share uncritically?
In regard to biological organisms like rabbits, we know that they exist now. But assuming that there was a time when they did not exist, the question becomes: how did they come to be? While the particulars here would fall under the purview of the special sciences, rational philosophy can tell us that they came to be by means of causal processes (as opposed to miracles or magic). Whether or not they were man-made would be answered by investigating whether or not human participation was involved in those causal processes. I know of no evidence suggesting that human involvement is responsible for the development or evolution of rabbits as a family of biological organisms. I would not consider them man-made products, but rather resultants of the metaphysically given - i.e., “any event which occurs without human participation, is the metaphysically given, and could not have occurred differently or failed to occur” (Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” Philosophy: Who Needs It, p. 27). If my understanding is true and the distinction between “the man-made” on the one hand and “the metaphysically given” on the other, is valid, then I would certainly reject the view that “there’s nothing impossible about a universe without rabbits.” There’s only one universe, and it is what it is. And even if rabbits evolved from some family or other of biological forebears, it would still be the case that the matter which makes up any rabbit which actually exists already existed and will continue to exist after that rabbit expires.
I suspect that part of the dispute here involves how one assesses what is “possible.” The concept ‘possible’ does not give human consciousness authority to revise the nature of reality or to pretend that alternatives we dream up are on equal footing with what actually exists. Importantly, ‘possible’ denotes an epistemological category, not a metaphysical phenomenon. “A conclusion is ‘possible’,” writes Leonard Peikoff, “if there is some, but not much, evidence in favor of it, and nothing known that contradicts it” (Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, p. 175). I know of no evidence suggesting that it’s possible that rabbits might never have come into being, so on a rational understanding of what is possible, I am in no position to accept the claim that it’s possible that rabbits might never have come into being. Such a claim needs to be validated with evidence, not simply asserted as a preference or corollary to a false dichotomy.
Contrast this to the conventional T-shirt philosophy fashionable among academics. As I once saw it explained (I’m pretty sure it was a Christian apologist), all one needs to do is “conceive” of something to warrant labeling what he has “conceived” as “possible.” What exactly distinguishes “conceiving” in this context from imagining is not clear at all, but it is clearly broader in scope than Peikoff’s understanding of what is possible as it abandons any need for actual relevant evidence and throws the door open to what one might concoct in his mind. Imagination, then, rather than facts, is to serve as the final arbiter in determining such matters. Were our court system to adopt such a view (perhaps it has done so in some quadrants!), one might get out of a murder rap as a result of sowing doubt among the jurors by raising the “possibility” that a statuette at the scene of the crime turned into Ted Bundy, murdered the victim, put the murder weapon in the defendant’s hand, thus wrongly implicating him, then turned back into a statuette. After all, if being able to “conceive” of something is sufficient to say “it’s possible,” then why not? I just satisfied that low-hanging hurdle. I think we can do better!
Anderson then lurches forward with his case, writing:
The same observation can be extended to any physical or natural object. Take any star you observe in the night sky. That star is a contingent thing; it might never have existed. The same is true of each individual atom within that star. Everything in the physical universe is contingent. But it’s important to see that what is true of the parts of the universe is also true of the whole. After all, the physical universe isn’t a fundamentally different kind of thing than its contents. It’s just a clump of physical things. The cosmos as a whole is an inconceivably large physical thing – and therefore it’s a contingent thing. (WSIBC, p. 103)
Again, speaking to Anderson’s own statements, how does he know that the star I see in the night sky is “a contingent thing”? No examination of any star in question need apply; rather, it’s just a decree from someone who reserves for himself the authority to make such decrees, and reality is supposed to conform accordingly. This is the primacy of consciousness applied to metaphysics: anything that is “physical” is therefore also “contingent” because the Christian apologist says so. But in the end the notion that “the universe could have been very different” (p. 102) is just a belief: no investigation of stars or anything else is needed; rather, one can remain comfortably seated in his office and “conceive” of universes without stars, mountains, rabbits, etc., and conclude from this activity of looking inward that there’s “nothing impossible” about universes so “conceived.” This “conclusion,” as we shall see, is not an end itself.
So far as I know (I know… What do I know?), no human being had any hand in the formation of any star or of any atom making up any star or anything else that exists. Stars and atoms are not man-made things. Thus they are part of the metaphysically given, whether that fits comfortably in anyone’s belief system or not. This means that we are not at liberty, rationally speaking, to go and say of any star that “it might never have existed.” The facts that it does exist and that it is not man-made stand solidly in the way of such fantasies. And fantasies they are, because if the operative faculty involved in formulating the view that stars are “contingent” is in fact merely “conceiving” that it’s “possible” that any star “might not have existed,” then in fact the final arbiter here is none other than one’s imagination under another name.
In 1967 Leonard Peikoff published what has become the definitive take-down of the necessary-contingent dichotomy in his essay “The Analytic-Synthetic Dichotomy” (available in full here). In print form it is published in Ayn Rand’s Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, where Rand lays out the Objectivist theory of concepts. Peikoff argues that the analytic-synthetic dichotomy and all its variants (including the necessary-contingent dichotomy) rest on a false understanding of concepts. Specifically relevant to what Anderson is arguing in “God and Existence” is the following passage (page numbers from the second edition of Rand’s book):
A major source of confusion, in this issue, is the failure to distinguish metaphysical facts from man-made facts—i.e., facts which are inherent in the identities of that which exists, from facts which depend upon the exercise of human volition. Because man has free will, no human choice—and no phenomenon which is a product of human choice—is metaphysically necessary. In regard to any man-made fact, it is valid to claim that man has chosen thus, but it was not inherent in the nature of existence for him to have done so; he could have chosen otherwise. For instance, the U.S. did not have to consist of 50 states; men could have subdivided the larger ones or consolidated the smaller ones, etc….
Only in regard to the man-made is it valid to claim: “It happens to be, but it could have been otherwise.” Even here, the term “contingent” is highly misleading. Historically, that term has been used to designate a metaphysical category of much wider scope than the realm of human action; and it has always been associated with a metaphysics which, in one form or another, denies the facts of Identity and Causality. The “necessary-contingent” terminology serves only to introduce confusion, and should be abandoned. What is required in this context is the distinction between the “metaphysical” and the “manmade.” (pp. 110-111)
The analytic-synthetic dichotomy treats a concept as if its content were limited to only those characteristics used to form it or define it. But the cognitive role of a concept is precisely to serve as an open-ended file folder – i.e., as a device for storing (and then applying) facts learned by observation, new facts being stored as they are learned. The dichotomy, in effect, staples the file shut right after it is started. The result is that new conceptual identifications are treated as either stipulations (“true by definition”) or rank guesses about “contingent” matters.” (How We Know, p. 182)
Perhaps thinkers might ask how well the analytic-synthetic dichotomy itself stands up to its own insidious bifurcations. Is the supposed truth of the analytic-synthetic dichotomy a necessary truth or a contingent truth? If it took men to develop the notion and its defenses in the first place, it’s hard to see how it could qualify as a necessary truth. If a fact is characterized as a “contingent” fact, is it necessarily a “contingent” fact? How can any characterization be categorized as a necessary truth? If something proposed as a “necessary” fact is itself accessible to human thinkers only by means of imagining it, how then could it truly be “necessary”? We know that it is not something one discovers objectively.
With regard to how the necessary-contingent dichotomy as such pertains to Anderson’s initial question – “Why does anything exist at all?” – it doesn’t seem to afford him the license to leap “beyond” the universe to something that he apparently thinks it does. How does the necessary-contingent dichotomy apply to existence as such? We can see why Anderson does not pursue “this Question” any further than he did, even though he raised it as though it had some profound import. For unless one could argue that existence as such is “contingent,” then it seems that we’re stuck with existence as such being necessary, which would obviate “the Question” entirely. And what alternative is there to existence as such being necessary? There is no alternative to existence in the first place: “Existence exists – and only existence exists” (Peikoff, Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 109). The word ‘nothing’ does not denote a thing. Nor is existence a creation of something other than existence; if one posits that existence is a product of a creative act, wouldn’t this necessarily imply that whatever did the creating also exists? That would put us right back to square one, with no progress made towards answering “the Question” which Anderson poses at the beginning of this section of his book.
Apparently Anderson seems to think that just by virtue of something being “physical,” it “might not have existed” and therefore is “contingent.” Apparently on his view to be physical is also to be “contingent.” But again, how does one come to the conclusion that something physical “might not have existed,” unless it is ultimately by means of imagining that it “might not have existed”? We can imagine things all day long, but our imagining has no jurisdiction on the make-up and nature of reality. That’s essentially the point! Again, even if we want to point to the formation of stars, or planets, or mountains, or other physical phenomena, they had to be formed by some process - i.e., causally - and from material that was available for them to be formed in the first place, i.e., matter that already existed. That pre-existing matter had to be there in order for anything to be formed with it. Perhaps this is the “necessity” that mystics pretend to be searching for – it’s been there all this time. No need to posit a supernatural consciousness “beyond the universe.”
Also, it’s not entirely clear what Anderson means by ‘universe’. One of the initial questions I put before myself as I began to dive into Anderson’s book is “Does Anderson provide clear definitions for key terms relevant to his thesis?” Given the critical importance of this case to Anderson’s overall defense of theism, I don’t think it would be at all redundant to clarify what is meant by ‘universe’ as he uses it here. If its meaning is “so obvious that it seems almost perverse to mention it,” defining it shouldn’t bother readers who’ve made it this far, for he opens the section by pointing out something that is “so obvious” already. By referring to “the physical universe” as a key element in the substance of his case, Anderson suggests that the qualifier “physical” here is needed because “universe” by itself may imply inclusion of things that are other than physical or at any rate not “contingent.” Why else qualify it this way? Either way, Anderson’s entire procedure rests on the assumption that ‘universe’ denotes only some of that which exists, for he thinks that the universe, “contingent” as he has characterized it, is explained by some “necessary” thing which exists outside the universe. As we shall find, on page 105, Anderson puts it as follows: “God is a fundamentally different kind of being than the universe.”
The Objectivist definition of ‘universe’ is essentially the sum total of everything that exists. As Peikoff puts it, “The universe is the total of that which exists—not merely the earth or the stars or the galaxies, but everything. Obviously then there can be no such thing as the ‘cause’ of the universe . . .” (“The Philosophy of Objectivism,” Lecture 2). This definition of the concept ‘universe’ dooms Anderson’s case from the outset. But even though “definitions are the guardians of rationality” (Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto, p. 77), the purpose of this definition of ‘universe’ is not to defeat theistic arguments, but to identify the scope of a concept which in fact serves a vital cognitive need: we need a concept which denotes explicitly everything which exists as an exhaustive whole, hence “not merely the earth or the stars or the galaxies, but everything,” the sum totality of all existing things. If something exists, then, it is thereby subsumed in the meaning of the concept ‘universe’.
But Anderson no doubt would have nothing to do with this, for his entire case is structurally dependent on some other definition – which he does not provide, but which would allow for the notion of things existing “outside” it:
Any contingent thing needs an explanation for why it exists, since it might not have existed. But that explanation can’t come from the thing itself. It has to come from outside that thing. It makes no sense to say that something brought itself into existence, since it would have to exist already in order to do anything at all. So the existence of every contingent thing has to be explained by some other thing – and that other thing must be either contingent or non-contingent. (WSIBC, p. 104)
As I pointed out in my previous post, Anderson’s overall strategy here is to use the imagination to arrive at something imaginary. Up to this point he has the reader imagine that everything within the universe is of a certain nature which he calls “contingent” – by which he means that it “needs an explanation for why it exists,” and that since everything in the universe has this nature, then the universe as such has this nature (he assures us in a footnote on page 103 that he’s not committing the composition fallacy). By having us imagine this characteristic about the universe, he brings forth the need to posit something “outside” the universe. The danger at this point is that we will need to continue using our imagination to “conceive” of whatever it is that supposedly exists “outside” the universe. No evidence that we find in the world by looking outward is cited to validate any aspect of Anderson’s argument thus far, and since he will be using what he has so far “established” as his jumping point, we should not expect any evidence to secure his claims moving forward either.
Getting to the climax of his first case for theism, Anderson writes (p. 104):
I’m sure you can see where this is heading. If the universe as a whole is contingent, there needs to be an explanation of why it exists, and that explanation cannot come from the universe itself or anything within the universe.
To confirm this assessment of what’s happening here, notice that the reader is here given zero indication of what an epistemology necessary for “knowing” what is alleged to exist “outside the universe” might look like, which is ironic given Anderson’s concern for having explanations. For example, in the very next breath, he writes:
One of the great difficulties faced by the worldview of Naturalism is that it offers no explanation for the existence of the universe, and thus no explanation for the existence of anything, because according to Naturalism only the universe exists. The problem is acute: Naturalism forbids any explanation for the existence of the universe, since it insists there’s nothing beyond the universe that could explain its existence. (Ibid.)
Let’s look at it this way. If the apologist asks, “Where did the stars come from?” Objectivism has the answer: From existence. The apologist might not like this answer, but it is an answer, and there’s no rational way to challenge it, for wherever stars come from, that place is a place in existence. In other words, stars did not come from “outside” existence – there’s no such thing as “outside existence” to begin with.
If the apologist asks, “Where did existence come from?” we simply point out that the question is philosophically invalid and falls on its face. Again, as Peikoff points out: “Existence exists – and only existence exists.”
Moreover, is “the Naturalist” expected to satisfy the apologist’s interrogation by inventing explanations in his imagination and proposing them as "the Truth"? Why would this be necessary if it’s a known fact that existence exists? While it’s clearly the case that the apologist’s “answer” to the question “Where did the universe come from?” is to accept the stolen concept underlying the question and to assert the existence of things that are available to man’s mind exclusively by means of imagining them, it does not follow from this that other worldviews need to do follow suit.
But for Anderson, reaching for the imaginary is to be touted as a virtue:
In stark contrast, the Christian worldview faces no such difficulty. For that worldview includes three fundamental tenets:1. God exists.
2. God is not a contingent being.
3. God freely chose to use His unlimited power to bring the universe into existence.Precisely because God is a fundamentally different kind of being than the universe, the puzzle of existence finds a coherent answer. The universe is not self-existent. It has to derive its existence from some other source. But God by His very nature is absolutely self-existent. If God had to derive His existence from some other source, He wouldn’t be the Absolute Being. He wouldn’t be God! (In fact, that other source would be the real God.) So the Christian worldview can account for the existence of the universe in a way that the Naturalist worldview simply cannot. (Ibid., 104-105)
But notice something else Anderson’s case requires but which he does not explain. If we accept the notion that “God freely chose… to bring the universe into existence,” the obvious question would be: How did it "bring the universe into existence"? Again, no explanation is given here, but it is a very important question if we’re going to entertain any of this. I suspect that no explanation is even suggested here because it would be so embarrassing to the adult mind. The only answer could be that it essentially wished the universe into existence, just as we might find in a cartoon. In other words, the Christian worldview boils down to the metaphysics of wishing and the epistemology of imagining, none of which offer the stable foundation for an objective understanding of reality and the human mind. Quite the opposite is the case!
In sum, the obvious truth that something exists gives us a compelling reason to believe in God. Existence itself points us to the existence of God. (Ibid., p. 105)
To close here, we should keep in mind that on page 148 of his book, Anderson writes “We desperately need to hear our Creator’s voice.” This is quite a confession here, and Anderson’s use of the first person means at minimum that he includes himself in what he announces. He is telling us that he suffers from the desperation he describes. As I noted in a previous entry in this series, desperation is a state of psychological emergency, and as emergencies go, normal ethics are tossed aside in favor of immediate, urgent action without the guidance of a studied understanding of possible consequences.
If the source of the believer’s panic is his own runaway imagination buttressed on false premises and plagued by nagging doubts about the validity of his god-belief, running around and trying to convince others of its alleged truth might seem to be one way to calm those doubts and bring peaceful settlement to one’s mind. But this is never achieved for the believer in the case of his god-belief. No argument ever seems quite sufficient on its own, so more will always be needed (hence Anderson goes on to present five more defenses of theism in the fourth chapter of his book). The internal aching of this persistent dissatisfaction reverberates throughout all corners of the believer’s mind, for, as Christian apologist Mike Licona has admitted, the believer wants it to be true. But deep down the believer implicitly knows that wanting something to be true doesn’t make it true, and yet his own worldview dares not admit this as it is a core essential of what theism stands for. Thus, as the believer piles more and more emotional investment into his desire to vindicate what he desperately wants to believe is true, the internal conflict reaches brutal – indeed biblical - proportions, to the point that entire industries arise to meet this needless need.
We are finding that Why Should I Believe Christianity? is just one more installment in the hopeless endeavor.
by Dawson Bethrick