Philipse and God’s Necessity

So, it’s been a while since I commented further on Philipse’s “God in the Age of Science”, but I am still committed to finishing it one day. I actually haven’t finished reading it yet, because I felt I needed to go chapter-by-chapter and comment on it, and so I’m reading a chapter or two ahead, commenting on it, and then going back to it. So things might change when I read later chapters, but so far that hasn’t really happened.

Anyway, here Philipse is talking about questions of whether or not God can exist necessarily, and again invokes Swinburne as his main source, seemingly both for ways that God can be necessary and for criticism of ways to claim that God’s existence is necessary. This is problematic because Swinburne’s idea of making God’s existence necessary seems to me to be fairly eccentric and esoteric, and so doesn’t seem to comport with the most famous arguments for the necessity of God. Philipse and Swinburne might think that that is a benefit on the basis that the more famous arguments don’t seem to work at all, but I’m not as convinced of that as they are.

At any rate, the move here is to eliminate purely conceptual arguments for God’s necessity and so for his existence. Philipse sets up a purported dilemma for the theologian: either they argue that God necessity is a purely conceptual one like that of numbers and so empirical evidence is neither possible nor required to demonstrate the existence of God, or else they argue that God’s necessity is an empirical matter but then run the risk of all of their arguments for why, say, the universe needs a cause being applied to God. The main issue here, though, off the top is that this does not apply to the theologians who are most likely to argue that God exists necessarily, which are theologians who are more conceptually/philosophically based than empirically/scientifically based. Any purely philosophical theologian is not even going to blink at the first horn of the dilemma, as that is likely one of their main arguments. Philipse may argue that he’s demonstrated that in the “Age of Science” the existence of anything requires empirical evidence, but obviously I’m not convinced of that. So if a philosophical or conceptual theologian actually makes one of these purely conceptual arguments work, I’m certainly not going to be all that concerned that it means that we can’t use empirical evidence to prove the existence of God. The important thing would be proving the existence of God, not how one actually managed that.

And unfortunately the only real argument that Philipse musters against the philosophical theolgian here is one from Swinburne: a purely conceptual God doesn’t seem like one that is worthy of worship. This does not work for Philipse — even though he tries to make it work — because Philipse is clear — and he goes on and on about this in Chapter 9 — that he is after bare theism, which is examining theism at a base level without, say, reading in too much from religious works and texts. But whether or not God is worthy of worship or not is not a proposition of bare theism, but is instead a proposition of religion. If, say, someone proved that an Evil God actually existed and everyone decided that that God wasn’t worth worshipping, that wouldn’t change the fact that God, in fact, actually exists. The key here is that Philipse cannot get away with arguing that a particular conception of God cannot be used because most religions wouldn’t accept it because, nonetheless, that concept would defeat atheism. And so a conceptual God who is necessary in the way numbers are necessary cannot be ruled out because arguably it wouldn’t be worshipped. If it would still count as a theistic God, then it has to count against Philipse’s atheism.

Now, there is an issue here for the natural theologian. The natural theologian is going to want to be able to use empirical evidence to prove the existence of and the properties of God, because that’s pretty much the definition of the field. But what they are going to want to avoid is, in so doing, making God a natural entity. We can restate the dilemma more clearly as this: natural theologians want to be able to look at the natural world to find evidence for the existence and properties of God, but is so doing have to avoid making God an entity just like any other entity, or else it won’t be God anymore. Which, when put that way, is less like a dilemma and more like a challenge: how do we preserve God’s “specialness” while still using evidence from the natural world?

As I said above, I don’t find Swinburne’s answer to that all that interesting, so I’m going to completely ignore it. What I am going to do is take Scholastics’ argument for God and show that it, in fact, manages to, at least potentially, meet that challenge. The idea, let me remind you, is that what we have is a Ground of All Being. Without a Ground of All Being, nothing can exist, and so we know that the Ground of All Being exists. But note that this argument relies heavily on observations of the natural world: things exist in the natural world, and so there must exist a thing that grounds their existence. Thus, we can go out and see if things exist, and if they do then a Ground of All Being exists.

This isn’t all that monumental, of course, but it gets interesting when we start asking what properties the Ground of All Being has to have, because the argument is that not only does this ground the bare existence of things, but also the existence of any positive properties that we observe in the world. So, do we find conscious beings? Then the Ground of All Being must be conscious, and have “perfect” consciousness, because the properties in the natural world are merely reflections of or participate in those ideal properties that the Ground of All Being possesses. Do we find moral beings? Then the Ground of All Being is ideally moral. Do we find agents with agency? Then the Ground of All Being has ideal agency. And so forth and so on.

What we can see from this is that, given that theory, the Ground of All Being — that the theory calls God — must exist necessarily, but all of the arguments for that entity and for its properties are natural/empirical. We know what properties God has by looking at the properties that exist in the world, and then applying them to God, and we know God exists because the natural world exists. This, then, seems to effective go between the horns of Philipse’s dilemma. If it works, of course.

This also answers the question that Philipse raises again, which is why the universe can’t be the thing that has necessity. The answer is that, under this theory, it can, but then it would be conscious, have agency, be moral, be omnipotent, be omniscient, and so on … at which point it would be God for all intents and purposes, and Philipse would be doing nothing more than quibbling over the name.

So, even if we accept that the natural theological approach is the only one that has validity, there are indeed potential ways to answer Philipse’s challenge that don’t rely on Swinburne’s. So we can’t eliminate necessity that easily.

Next chapter Philipse looks at whether the theory of God has any predictive power. He’ll obviously say “It doesn’t” but the hard part is going to be demonstrating that.

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