Sunday, July 10, 2016

There is No Such Thing as a Necessary Being

Here's a quote by Alvin Plantinga explaining the idea of necessary existence.
"A necessary being is one that can't fail to exist, no matter how things have been.  Or we can say that a necessary being is one that exists in every possible world, where a possible world is a way things could have been.  Sort of a "total" way things could have been; it says something about everything.  One of these possible worlds is actual, the rest of them aren't...  A necessary being is one such that for any world at all, if it had been actual, it would have existed." 

Before I respond to this claim, I think it’s worth pointing out that this is something Alvin Plantinga genuinely believes in.  The guy has written multiple books on this exact subject and even publicly defends them at every opportunity.  Popular Christian apologists like William Lane Craig have likewise appealed to this same idea whenever they argue for God’s existence.  Christian fanboys on YouTube will even publish multi-part video series wherein they explain and defend this principle in elaborate detail.  So I just want to be clear that this is not a fringe, philosophical claim, but a standard go-to principle within mainstream Christianity.  The word "God" is defined to mean a "maximally great being," wherein maximal greatness is defined in such a way that includes the property of necessary existence in all possible worlds.  Therefore, God exists in all possible worlds. 

Now let’s unpack what exactly is going on here.  Whenever we talk about possible worlds, it’s important to understand that we're simply talking about ways our reality might have been.  For example, maybe you can imagine some possible world just like ours, only where George Clooney is the president of the United States rather than Barack Obama.  That’s perfectly all right, and a lot of good philosophy is built on imagining all sorts of wacky what-if scenarios. 

But what is a world, really?  Because when we talk about possible worlds, we don’t mean to imply literal, alternative realities just floating around “out there” in some cosmic multiverse ensemble.  Rather, when you really get down to the nuts and bolts of it, a possible world is nothing more than a formal collection of propositions and truth values.  It’s like a giant book where someone has painstakingly written down every coherent proposition there is to make about our reality, followed by a simple check mark indicating true or false next to each one.  That book, if one were to be constructed, would represent one possible world, and there are an infinite number of such books, or worlds, we could conceivably create.  And if, by some fluke, we should ever happen to write a book that perfectly describes our present objective reality as it really is, then that book would be called the actual world.

Notice, however, that if we're going to describe our world using propositions, then we can’t just randomly assign truth values willy-nilly.  No matter what collection of propositions we use to describe some potential state of affairs, those propositions still have to obey the basic laws of logic.  For example, consider the proposition George Clooney is the president of the United States and George Clooney is not the president of the United States.  What if, for some reason, my world just so happens to assign a value of TRUE to this proposition?  Obviously, my world now contains a logical contradiction and thus, by the principle of explosion, cannot coherently describe anything whatsoever.  All such worlds that violate the laws of logic are therefore said to be impossible because they are not formally allowed within our hypothetical set of what-if scenarios.

In contrast, consider what happens when you encounter a proposition like Either George Clooney is the president or George Clooney is not the president. Obviously, this proposition is a logical tautology and therefore must be true under every possible interpretation.  Any proposition in this category is therefore said to be necessary because it must always be assigned a value of TRUE in every logically consistent world.  The very rules of logic don't allow for anything else.

This is all pretty straightforward material so far, and you can probably see why philosophers might get a lot of productive mileage out of conversing within this framework.  We like imagining how the world might have turned out differently, and we like having a formal set of rules for discussing any scenarios.  That’s why modal logic is such a popular system for guiding philosophical conversations.  However, modal logic is still a really flimsy system, and it doesn’t take much effort to trick yourself into deriving total nonsense.  For example, imagine a possible world where all bachelors have three wives.  Sounds like a contradiction, right?  After all, by definition, a bachelor is an unmarried man, while marriage, by definition, implies a man with at least one wife.  So to say that you are imagining a bachelor with three wives is the logical equivalent to imagining a man with no wives that has wives.  You can’t do it.  The words are literally put together wrongly, which is why any attempt to imagine such a world is said to be necessarily impossible.

Now watch what happens if I arbitrarily decide to redefine the word bachelor.  Instead of being an unmarried man, I want the word bachelor to mean a married man with three wives.  After all, it’s just a word, right?  I’m free to define my terms however I please, am I not?  Maybe I can even convince the staff at Webster’s dictionary to go along with my definition, thus rendering it totally official within the English language.  Now it’s not only logically possible for bachelors to have three wives but also logically necessary!  They can’t NOT have three wives, because the basic definition of the word doesn’t allow for anything else.  Thus, by claiming that all bachelors have three wives, I have just stated the logical equivalent to all men with three wives are men with three wives – a necessary logical tautology.

Hopefully you can see why this might be a problem in that I can now derive any necessary truth I want, simply by playing with my definitions. I could define Santa Claus as a being that exists, and that fact would necessarily be true in all possible worlds because any being that exists is, tautologically, a being that exists.  Any attempt to imagine a possible world without Santa Claus is now logically impossible because the very phrase Santa Claus does not exist is now the logical equivalent to saying A being that exists does not exist.  It cannot possibly be true!

Notice how this is exactly what Christian apologists are trying to do whenever they describe God as a necessary being.  God is, by definition, a maximally great being; and maximal greatness, by definition, includes the property of existing in all possible worlds.  Therefore, by definition, God is necessarily a being that exists in all possible words.  God cannot fail to exist, because again, the very phrase God does not exist is the logical equivalent to saying A being that exists does not exist.

Obviously, something is terribly wrong here in that you can’t just go around defining things into existence!  After all, if you get to define God as a being that exists, then I get to define God as a being that does not exist.  Not only is God’s existence now false, but also necessarily false in all possible worlds.  Now what, Christians?  My definition is just as valid as yours.  Who wins?

This is a really interesting dilemma to me because it forces us to address two fundamental philosophical questions:
  1. How do language definitions work?  That is to say, what's the point of defining things in the first place?
  2. What does it mean to say that a thing exists?  Why is existence different from other ideas in language definition?
To begin, simply consider the tautological proposition that all unmarried men are unmarried men; a necessary proposition to be sure, but also completely vapid and meaningless.  Sure, I can go then ahead and define the word bachelor to mean unmarried man, but you'll notice that nothing about this situation fundamentally changes.  The proposition that all bachelors are unmarried men is still the same, vapid tautology, but spoken in fewer syllables.  So unless you're perfectly satisfied with empty, meaningless substitution, we need to find something outside of mere wordplay on which to ground our use of language.

With that in mind, consider what happens when we formulate our language definitions in the form of a conditional, empirical proposition:

IF on some rare occasion I should happen to encounter the empirical manifestation of an entity that is apparently both a man and unmarried, THEN I will formally choose to call such a thing a “bachelor.” 

Now we have a definition with real, functional merit.  Rather than mindlessly swap words for other words, we instead use language to place labels on distinct sensory experiences.  It's a little thing called the verifiability criterion of meaning, and it represents the ultimate foundation for all human language itself.  Any time I state some language definition, then in principle I have to be able to use that definition to identify distinct elements within my immediate sensory environment.  Without this empirical foundation, all human language immediately collapses back into a meaningless, tautological void.

Now that we have a working conception of what definitions are supposed to accomplish, we can finally consider what happens whenever I try to lump existence into the definition of some word:

IF on some rare occasion I should happen to encounter the empirical manifestation of an entity that is apparently a man, unmarried, and existing, THEN I will formally choose to call such a thing a “bachelor.” 

You may not notice it right away, but there’s really something strangely off about this statement.  Because if I should ever just so happen to encounter the empirical manifestation of anything, then it seems pretty safe to conclude that this is also apparently a thing that exists.  Likewise, if I should ever happen to imagine a world that contains no bachelors for me to ever empirically identify, even in principle, then it should go without saying that bachelors don’t exist in such a world.

This is an important observation to make because it means that existence is inherently meaningless and redundant when stated as a formal property of bachelors.  The set of all things I can empirically identify as bachelors must, by definition, also be things that exist. It therefore makes no difference whether or not I define bachelors as existing because the set of all things that qualify for such a label is logically identical either way.  However, since we can readily imagine a logically possible world that contains no bachelors, it immediately follows that we can likewise imagine a possible world that contains no bachelors that "exist." Again, this has to be the case because the two sets are still logically identical. Yet the very idea of a world without bachelors is quite literally the textbook definition of a world where bachelors don't exist in the first place.  We therefore must conclude that things which exist as a matter of definition can, apparently, not exist!

This is where we get the famous philosophical principle that existence is not a predicate.  It means that whenever we say a thing exists, we cannot possibly refer to some essential property of the thing itself.  Rather, what we’re really describing is a property of the objective reality in which this thing is allegedly contained.  In fact, if you really want to get technical about things, the very phrase Bachelors are things that exist is not even a valid proposition to make in the first place.  Rather, the correct phrasing is more like There exist bachelors, or The set of all bachelors is nonempty.  That is how existence functions as a proper, logical operation, because that is how it is implicitly defined within first-order logic.  There is no such thing as a set of "things that exist" but rather only sets of things that are either occupied or empty.  Necessary existence is therefore not logically possible because it is logically incoherent to even talk about it in the first place.

Bear in mind now that all this practically boils down at the end of the day is the rather obvious principle that reality doesn't care how you define words.  I could define myself as the undisputed King of America, but that does not mean I can just waltz up to the White House and expect everyone to start treating me like royalty.  Christians can likewise define God as a thing that exists, but that does not magically require objective reality itself to contain anything worthy of that label.  Yet that’s exactly what Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga are trying to do whenever they describe God through this nonsensical property of necessary existence!  So let’s just cut through the bullshit for one second and state the obvious out loud:

Imagine a possible world where God does not exist.

Now ask yourself, was that sentence somehow utterly incomprehensible to you?  Is there some formal contradiction buried in that claim we somehow missed?  Does the very idea of objective reality itself get violated simply by our failure to insert a thing worthy of the label “God?”

No!  Of course not!  There is nothing incoherent about the proposition that God does not exist. Any attempt to force the issue as a matter of definition is, in and of itself, a logical impossibility.  The very definition of objective reality itself is arguably just the collection of all things that persist independently of human say-so.  And what are language definitions, if not the epitome of subjective mental constructs, asserted into being by literal human say-so?  So when Christians go out of their way to inherently define God as a thing that necessarily exists, they’re ironically forcing the concept of God directly into the realm of necessary NON-existence!  Nothing exists necessarily because the very idea itself literally means “existence by definition." 

On personal note, this is once again why I just have no respect for religious philosophers and apologists. I should seriously not have to explain to these people that you cannot just define things into existence.   Yet here is Alvin Plantinga himself, the very cream of academic Christian philosophy, apparently failing to wrap his brain around this simple little concept.  It’s just inexcusable how grossly incompetent these people are.  Their very best effort to prove God's existence is nothing but an inadvertent proof that God cannot logically exist at all!  So until Christian apologists finally learn the difference between words and reality, I’m just going to keep treating them like the philosophical children that they are.

Thanks for listening.


Anonymous said...

Great refutation of the ontological argument. Well done.

Greg G said...

At , William Lane Craig says,

"Alvin Plantinga, one of the world's leading philosophers, has laid out two dozen or so arguments for God's existence. Together these constitute a powerful cumulative case for the existence of God."

If there was one successful argument for God's existence, he would cite that one. It seems to me that the cumulative weight of the failures of the two dozen or so best arguments for the existence of God is a powerful case for the non-existence of God.