Discussing the existence of a deity is fraught. Everyone on either side of the issue has profound emotional commitments to their position – profound enough, for some people, to merit a violent defense. Setting aside fanaticism, even the reasonable disputant’s motivation to understand the basic issues is weak. But I don’t think that shaky motivation is the primary source of acrimony. Some basic conceptual differences drive the dispute, and the emotional consequences of everyone’s intellectual positions make the dispute nasty. The classical arguments for the existence, or at least the possibility, of a god in the traditional, Western conception illustrate the schisms best. These arguments – the Cosmological, Contingency, and Ontological Arguments – share a basic set of notions, though I think that the Contingency Argument is by far the most important and interesting. Here is a mash-up of the three, courtesy of Jon Duns (and subsequent admirers) :
(1′) Whatever is possible is contingent or necessary.
(2′) A first cause is possible.
(3′) Therefore, a first cause is contingent or necessary
(4′) Any contingent substance is possibly actualized by another substance.
(5′) A first cause is not possibly actualized by another substance.
(6′) Therefore a first cause is not contingent.
(7′) Therefore a first cause is necessary.
I like this. It at once demonstrates the interesting part of the three arguments, especially the Contingency Argument, and the difficulties with their claims and with opposing claims. Stated in this form, the combo-argument gets right to the chewy bits.
Whatever is possible is either contingent or necessary. This statement says so much. What does it mean to speak of a possible contingent thing? It means one of two things. First, it may be a thing to be considered in logical statements. This means it is a defined entity, a term of art. Our range of defined entities is extremely broad. It ranges from the non-controversial (the color black) to the fantastic (ghosts). However, logic doesn’t mind. As long as there are rules to tell us where an object of our intention stands among its fellows, logic will apply, and our definitions provide us with those rules in each specific case. Give us the definition and we may say what is logically possible. Second, a contingent thing may be something which we may describe as well as define, in other words, rather than just sketching the rules of its identity we may speak of it in terms of its composition and its relationship to other things.
When considered in light of the latter, contingent things form a set of entities defined by their dependence. They are dependent on and inseparable from, the conditions which preceded them. They are describable in a positive sense. They have a composition. But do they also have a nature? Consider that most contingent of objects: the dog. The concept of “dog” would seem to be a solid citizen of our conceptual society. But if called upon to produce the archetypical dog, can we? Mustn’t we instead depend on a pedigree, physically and metaphysically?
The dog-concept is instead entirely dependent on all the dogs, extant and historical, and in a very particular way. It is, in fact, an epiphenomenon, something which stands in for causally related entities, their appearance rather than their structure. The dog-concept is still real as much as the appearance of someone’s face is real. The dog-concept just doesn’t do anything in and of itself, any more than the appearance of someone’s face itself “does” anything other than act as an intermediary between the mind of its possessor and the minds of those who perceive it.
At least that is one way to look at things. Another would be to say that there is some magnetic kernel of efficacy at the heart of the dog-concept – that dogness is a foregone conclusion, not just an implication of the circumstances of the universe, and if dogness wasn’t realized by wolf and man, it would have been realized by fox and man, or Tasmanian tiger and man.
These two ways of looking at things hold on a deeper level too, in regards to contingency itself. On the first view, the fact that the things we see derived from other things through time are interdependent must be taken as basic. The adherent to this perspective must say, “I cannot see into that interdependency itself to say whether it is itself the ‘really real’, efficacious thing about the world, whether it is a useful, “close enough” representation of what is ‘really real’ or whether it is an appearance with nothing more certain about its reality than self-consistency. I’m stuck with it. I can’t look at it without referring to it. I believe I’ll live with the uncertainty and move on.”
On the second viewpoint, the appearance of interdependency is due to something – a foregone conclusion which is not possibly an end-product dependent on our seeing it for its identity. This kernel of kernels remains a property; it is inert without associated objects to manifest it. However, the objects do manifest it rather than participating in its active creation. From this perspective, for example, each Chihuahua could be said to manifest “dogness” (sad though their efforts may be) rather than adding to the concept of “dogness”. Here, by further analogy, the genetics are set and are the real cause of the dog, with metabolic processes and environmental inputs acting as accessories only.
The Contingency Argument could be seen as an explanation of the second viewpoint, but it goes beyond what is necessary for that viewpoint as the argument is used in apologetics. The plain, white rice version argues for a knowable thing. The identity of the non-contingent base relies, at least in part, on its relationship with the contingent things which exemplify it, just as genes are genes only in a biological context. But when the argument is used in support of theism, a hierarchy of dependency is claimed, with the non-contingent thing having the real causal efficacy, and so existential necessity, in the end. The contingent things don’t dance to a tune or express genetic information, they move to the pull of their strings. Interdependency is no longer possibly the epistemic basement, a thing-in-itself lurks below. This is a bold claim; bolder, I think, than stopping with a shrug at the top basement. It is even bolder than something like asserting the causal efficacy of dogness. It is bold because a thing with existential necessity must be opaque.
How, in principle might we come to know a necessary thing? How could we induce changes in it to divine its nature? How could it have discernible “parts”? How could we hope to describe it? Any knowledge of it, even knowledge of its existence, must be as complete and undetermined as it is – given knowledge. This is not to say that such an assertion is necessarily irrational. Given the claim, we can use it in logical statements. In fact, given the claim, we can establish the definition of contingency as the sort of dependency relationship which the second viewpoint above requires, since the first cause, as a thing-in-itself, may not be a billiard ball, or cipher or any other causal entity as we know causal entities. All things we may know as such can be analyzed in some way.
So, if the necessary thing must remain something we propose based on our intuition, are we to believe that whatever is possible is either contingent or necessary? If the necessary thing in question is a logical necessity of a sort after all, rather than an existential necessity alone, would that allow it to be more than a postulate? On the view of contingency which takes the interdependency of things as basic, logic is descriptive and so doesn’t have anything in particular to say about existential necessity. The situation in which logical necessity and existential necessity are equivalent is the situation in which the description of how we perceive cause and effect relationships is also a precise representation of those relationships. Only in that case can we be reassured that none of the definitions guiding our logical expositions are squirrelly. This leaves us with a particular kind of contingency – a condition of dependence rather than interdependence, an open system rather than a closed one. But even granting such a viewpoint does not save us from the implications of the thing-in-itself.
Our perception of cause and effect is one of discrete objects interacting at objectively definable points in time. If our perception is the whole truth and nothing but the truth, then we are left with the caricature of determinism laid on naturalist philosophy. History is a network of falling dominoes, each with a discrete, fixed identity and falling across a fixed temporal landscape. “Where did it all start?”, becomes a vital question and the path to a first cause and a thing-in-itself opens up. But by the Cosmological path or the Contingent path the seeker ends up back at the monolith. Examination of the dominoes or the course of their falling can tell us nothing about what started their toppling cascade, whether it was an earthquake, a child’s finger, a gust of wind or a wayward beetle. By empirical inquiry and logical examination, the necessary entity must remain an enigma.
We are left with a mandatory agnosticism regarding the thing-in itself. However, the uncertainty leaves room for one more bold assertion, one about mind. The assertion involved should not be mistaken for the concept of mind in pan-psychism. Mind in the pan-psychist formulation is seen as a basic property, a sort of receptivity which explains the interdependency among objects which we observe, but it remains a property. Mind and consciousness are still “about” something, rather than standing alone as things-in-themselves.
A mind which has an independent identity is something else entirely. It is the object of its own intention independent of any comparators – a condition representing intention itself, which is a condition which can be defined, but cannot be described, except in terms of other indescribable (maximal qualities, self-causation, unmoved movement, etc.) Such a mind isn’t necessarily about anything, which, despite our occasional suspicions about some of our fellow travellers, is not a quality we observe in any mind around us, even our own. One could maintain that we suffer from known limitations on our perspective. Fair enough, but it still leaves us standing back at the monolith, facing an object which defies meaningful examination, though we arrive with an additional postulate.
So, the only reasonable claim to be made about the thing-in-itself is, “I feel it must be thus.” This is the proper jumping-off point for atheism, for an assertion has no more inherent validity than its opposite. A claim to intuitive knowledge is not unreasonable (we can make a logical argument based upon it), but it is an audacious claim. Sound explanations can be made without it, if one is prepared to accept a degree of necessary ignorance. The latter would seem the more cautious view, though it might have the appearance of denial to those convinced of the theist claim.
Either way, the advocate is left with an uncertainty beneath them, which is not a tolerable situation for most. So, people work at feeling justified in their beliefs. The easiest way of achieving a feeling of justification is by expounding on the obvious lunacy of opposing positions. But that tactic is merely a distraction, and one that isn’t good for anyone’s better understanding; it is just good for relieving psychological discomfort. I’m not saying there isn’t anything worth fighting about in the realm of basic religious and philosophical inquiry, just that the things worth fighting about – dogmatism, self-indulgence, tribalism, coercion – are the things most people end up fighting for when they think or talk about basic beliefs.