Wednesday, January 22, 2020

WSIBC: “God and Existence” – Part 1: “The Question”

In chapter 4 of his book Why Should I Believe Christianity? (WSIBC), author James Anderson presents his reasons for believing that a god exists. Over the next few installments in my examination of Anderson’s book, I will focus on each of the sections of this chapter. Anderson heads the six sections of chapter 4, subtitled “God is There,” which runs from pages 93 to 138, with the following headings:
“God and Existence”(pp. 102-106)  
“God and Values” (pp. 106-110)  
“God and Morality” (pp. 110-115)  
“God and Reason” (pp. 115-119)  
“God and Mind” (pp. 119-125)  
“God and Science” (pp. 126-135)
Anderson closes out the chapter with a discussion regarding whether or not arguments are needed in the first place for believing that a god exists – and given that the vast majority of believers accept their theism on psycho-emotional grounds as opposed to rational grounds, there should be no surprise when Anderson concludes that arguments in fact are not needed (now he tells us!). A number of issues come to the surface in that section, so that will have to wait for a later entry on this blog. For now, I want to explore the first case which Anderson outlines in his book’s fourth chapter. After reviewing the six preceding sections of the chapter, one might suppose that he should have just skipped them entirely. 

In “God and Existence,” Anderson seeks to prove that the Christian god exists from the very fact that things exist. His overall strategy here essentially has readers use their imagination to arrive at something imaginary. First he has us imagine that things (most importantly those things which are not in the scope of human control) “could have been very different” or even “might not have existed” in the first place (WSIBC, p. 102). From this he then has us imagine that everything in “the physical universe” is subject to the same speculation, from which it is a short leap to imagining that the universe as a whole “might not have existed.” If that’s the case, then the fact that things exist calls out for an explanation, and that explanation is provided by positing a supernatural being which created the universe and everything within it. All of this is buttressed by enlisting the necessary-contingent dichotomy that has enjoyed fashionable status among many philosophers for centuries.

But in the interest of leaving no stones unturned here, let’s take a closer look at Anderson’s case.

Anderson begins this section of chapter 4 as follows:
Here’s a truth so obvious that it seems almost perverse to mention it: Something exists. Even if you doubt everything else, you cannot reasonably doubt that you exist. (As the philosopher Rene Descartes famously argued, you have to exist in order to doubt your own existence!) Most of us happily acknowledge that many things exist: stars, mountains, trees, rabbits, buildings, smartphones, and so on. But for those who reflect on such matters, the question arises: Why?  
Why does anything exist at all? (p. 102)
Any time one asks “why” something is the case, one implies that there are antecedent causes explaining the fact in question. When we get to existence as such, however, how are we to make sense of the notion of something existing prior to existence which explains the fact that existence exists? Unfortunately what Anderson does provide in his discussion is unhelpful here.

But Anderson is not alone in raising this question; he has some weighty company here. Another thinker who took this question seriously was the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), a card-carrying member of the Nazi party who was very influential on many philosophers who came after him. Only he did not wait over a hundred pages to ask this question when he raised it in his 1953 book Introduction to Metaphysics. There he poses the question on the very first page of chapter 1:
Why are there beings at all instead of nothing? That is the question. Presumably it is no arbitrary question. “Why are there beings at all instead of nothing?” – this is obviously the first of all questions.
Heidegger writes of “the concealed power of this question,” going on to say that “the domain of this question is limited only by what simply is not and never is: by Nothing” (Ibid., pp. 1-2). Clearly Heidegger took this question seriously and, like Anderson after him, assumed it is philosophically valid. Anderson himself provides no justification for assuming that the question is valid, even though it invites the fallacy of the stolen concept (which I explain here).

Commenting on Heidegger’s central question, philosopher Stephen Hicks, in his masterful book Explaining Postmodernism, writes (pp. 60-61):
This is no ordinary question. With a question like this, Heidegger pointed out, reason quickly finds itself in trouble – the same kind of trouble that Kant had pointed out with his antinomies: reason always reaches contradictions whenever it attempts to explore deep metaphysical issues. A question such as “Why is there Being and not rather Nothing?” is therefore repugnant to reason. For Heidegger, this meant that if we are to explore the question, then reason – “the most stiff-necked adversary of thought”* – was an obstacle that had to be discarded.  
The Question is repugnant to reason… because we reach logical absurdity whichever way we go in attempting to answer it. If we say, on the one hand, that there is no answer to the question of why there is Being – if Being just is for no reason – then that makes Being absurd: something that cannot be explained is an absurdity to reason. But if, on the other hand, we say that Being is for a reason, then what could that reason be? We would have to say that that reason, whatever it is, is outside of Being. But outside of Being is nothing – which means that we would have to try to explain Being from nothingness, which is also absurd. So either way we go in trying to answer the Question, we are deeply into absurdity.
(* Here Hicks quotes from Heidegger’s 1949 book The Question Concerning Technology where he writes (p. 112): “Thinking begins only when we have come to know that reason, glorified for centuries, is the most stiff­necked adversary of thought.”)

No doubt Heidegger and his followers found ecstatic delight in this highfalutin groping. But Anderson’s immediate purpose in raising “the Question” is not to tie reason into knots of absurdity and self-contradiction. We can be confident in this because, as we’ll see, Anderson lets the question drop out of sight fairly quickly. Rather, his primary use for “the Question” is to back the atheist into a corner. Just by posing the question “Why does anything exist at all?” the suspicion arises that the purpose here is to find some question, any question perhaps, which will prompt non-Christians into slumping their shoulders and saying “Don’t tell me, because God, right?” Confession, not persuasion, is what’s desired here. Consider the following:
Christian: If you don’t believe in God, why does the universe exist?  
Non-Christian: Gee, I have no idea!  
Christian: See! You don’t know because you don’t believe!  
Non-Christian: Huh?
Or perhaps it’s intended to go this way:
Christian: If you don’t believe in God, why does anything exist at all?  
Non-Christian: Gee, I have no idea!  
Christian: Well the clear answer is that God exists!  
Non-Christian: Huh?
The strategy here is unmistakable: Ask a question which is designed expressly to evince a confession of ignorance – a gap as it were in one’s knowledge – and point to theism as the gap-shaped putty which perfectly plugs the gap. To make this strategy effective, the apologist is careful not to raise our awareness to the fact that a question is not an argument just as ignorance is not the basis for knowledge. For such a strategy hinges on concealing the fact that theism is really a psychological matter, not a philosophical one.

But is “the Question” philosophically valid in the first place? I would argue that it is not. As I indicated above (and argued here), any attempt to explain “why” existence exists is an exercise in concept-stealing. So-called Why? questions can be validly asked – and answered - only within the context of what exists, not outside existence as “the Question” requires. A question which requires one to go outside existence only invites one to embrace the unintelligible. Ironically, Anderson’s own efforts, we will find, confirm this. That does not prove that reason is absurd, ineffectual, invalid or a “stiff-necked adversary of thought,” but rather that those who pretend that “the Question” is philosophically valid are apparently unaware of the fact that the question is conceptually fallacious.

Objectivist philosopher Leonard Peikoff views “the Question” as actually asking “why does existence exist?” and comments:
This is the projection of a zero as an alternative to existence, with the demand that one explain why existence exists and not the zero. (Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology, p. 110)
There is no legitimate need for anyone to do this. Existence exists, and this fact we know with certainty. Regardless of whatever imaginative speculations one might produce to explain “why” existence exists, we still have to deal with the things which do in fact according to their nature.

Another Objectivist philosopher, Harry Binswanger, reacts to “the Question” by pointing out that it
misuses the term “why,” ignoring the fact that it is a request for the identification of a cause. The expanded meaning of [Heidegger’s] pseudo-question would be: “What is the something that causes there to be something rather than nothing?” – which is unintelligible. The same statement reifies “nothing,” treating it as a thing rather than as the absence of a delimited positive (as in “There is nothing in my pocket” – i.e., none of the palpable physical objects that might have been there). (How We Know, p. 245)
But again we know that existence exists, and it should not be difficult to grasp that it would be absurd – in fact unintelligible as Binswanger rightly points out – to say that existence finds its source in something other than existence, which is what “the Question” requires in order to satisfy its interrogative thrust. So why not simply start with the fact that existence exists, and move forward in a positive direction from this unassailable objective starting point? Indeed, I would argue that it is because these thinkers – outright or closet mystics as they really are – do not have an objective starting point, that they get tangled in such go-nowhere confusions as this in the first place. Indeed, Anderson himself seems unable to make up his mind, for he says that the fact that things exist “is a truth so obvious that it seems almost perverse to mention it,” and yet in almost the same breath he characterizes “this most obvious of truths” as “a rather surprising one” (WSIBC, p. 102). If it’s “so obvious,” why would it be “surprising”? It seems he’s torn in two opposing directions by the very fact that existence exists, which I take as an indication that his worldview has failed to provide clarity on fundamentals.

But let’s turn our attention back to what Anderson lays out in this section of his book’s fourth chapter. After all, it may be possible that he still has a case even if we chuck out the question “Why does anything exist at all?” as conceptually invalid. Does he still have a case?

Tune into my next blog entry in this series to find out!

by Dawson Bethrick

1 comment:

Ydemoc said...


I'm way, way behind in my reading, but I plan on catching up.

Thanks once again for your latest!