Tag Archives: Leibnitz

No Reason Whatsoever

no_reasonIn our last discussion of “Miracle of Theism” Mackie was questioning the validity of the idea that, for anything that exists, there is a reason why it exists (known as sufficient reason).

I accused him of simply doubting this idea, without giving any argument for his rejection of such an obvious position–that is otherwise the basis of all rational inquiry. To be fair to Mackie, that isn’t quite right. He does offer some counter explanations, and a more rational objection.

But, to be fair to my response, none of these are an actual argument for the idea that some things exist inexplicably, but simply attacks on sufficient reason.

Take, for instance, his response that sufficient reason is based in the composition fallacy. He argues that you can’t argue that, because all the parts of a thing have a property, that the whole has that property. Every cell in an elephant is light, after all, but the whole elephant is heavy.

But there are two very strong (I would say devastating) responses to this.

The first is the simple fact that this isn’t the main basis on which Leibnitz argues for sufficient reason. It is its status as the basis of inquiry and its a priori obviousness that are the key points.

Still, I’d argue that composition reasoning is valid in addition to this.

If it’s worth pointing out that reasoning from parts to the whole is sometimes wrong-headed, it is also worth pointing out that, at other times, it is entirely appropriate. To throw out another example, if every lego brick used to build a wall is red, then it does indeed follow that the wall is red.

And it seems fairly obvious that the case of the universe is more like the lego wall than the elephant. All the universe is, after all, is a collection of things (space, particles, planets, etc) that need explanations. It is entirely strange to say, then, that the whole collection wouldn’t need one.

Arguing otherwise would be rather like claiming that, though there must be reasons why the links of a chain exist, there is no explanation for the chain itself. This seems obviously false.

At the very least, Mackie owes us an argument. What he does instead is suggest that the universe might be eternal. But, to those who know this argument, this is irrelevant. Leibnitz’s case doesn’t assume the world had a beggining. Even an eternal universe, after all needs to be explained.

Mackie closes his discussion of the argument by claiming that it “fails completely”. But this, more than anything else in his book, struck me as completely wrong. His refutation seemed more a grasping at straws than anything that should shake a theist.

In the end, I find it hard to believe that a non-theist would accept “some things just don’t have explanations” as a defense of theism, and I don’t see any reason why I should accept it as a defense of Mackie’s atheism.

Rational Inquiry vs “Just Because”

jock_nerdMoving on with Mackie’s “Miracle of Theism”, we get to some real clash. In Mackie’s view, the Leibnitzian Cosmological argument is an utter failure. In mine, it is a powerful argument for God’s existence.

For those that aren’t familiar with the argument, I’ve outlined it in the past.

For those that know it, I think Mackie’s first response is both very interesting and very wrong-headed. He claims that, if Leibnitz has proved that a necessary being exists, then there needs to be some kind of explanation as to why that being is necessary.

First, I’m not sure that this is true. Leibnitz’s argument establishes that there must be a necessary object. The question of why a particular object is necessary is another matter. Demanding that a conclusion can’t be accepted until we can further explain that conclusion would be to insist that we need an explanation of the explanation before we accept it.

And it should be clear that this would result in an infinite regress that, if accepted, would halt all inquiry. After all, this would leave us demanding that we can’t accept General Relativity until we can explain why matter causes space to bend, and that we can’t accept that explanation until we further explain it, and so on.

And, even if it were true that we need to explain the “why” of necessity before we can recognize the fact of necessity, Mackie isn’t on terribly strong ground here.

After all, the explanation of “why” would be one or more of the ontological arguments he’s discussed earlier in the book (or some other one not mentioned). Essentially, he’s saying that, if Leibnitz is right, then some ontological argument would have to be true.

I’m inclined to agree with him; that does seem to follow. Where I disagree with him is in following that with an “since the ontological arguments all fail, Leibnitz must be wrong”.

Most obviously, this is an argument from ignorance. It assumes that there is no valid ontological argument outside of what has already been suggested by theists. Even more damning is the fact that Mackie, in criticizing Plantinga’s ontological argument, suggested that we “remain neutral” with respect to the argument. But, if he’d really meant that, he shouldn’t now base an objection on confidently asserting that no one has presented a sound ontological argument.

And this is a problem I see fairly often: shifting one’s position to that which is strongest with respect to the current point. This may be a good means to win arguments, or persuade the casual reader, but it is not an avenue to truth.

So far, this doesn’t seem to have affected Leibnitz’s argument at all. But this is not Mackie’s only objection. He also rejects the principle of sufficient reason (“whatever exists has an explanation of its existence”).

As this principle is the heart of all inquiry, I am very suspicious of anyone arguing that it should be abandoned.

I’m doubly suspicious of anyone who doesn’t actually offer a reason that it is false, but simply demands that believers in sufficient reason should defend the idea that “there must be an explanation for this” is always more reasonable than “this exists for literally no reason whatsoever”.

And this is what Mackie does. He never presents a reason to believe that some things just exist inexplicably–or addresses the thought that this seems like a halt to all inquiry. Rather, all he does is insist that one needn’t believe in sufficient reason to do science.

How so? He claims that science only requires that like effects have like causes, but this is suspicious at best. Personally, I’m more inclined to call it completely false. Surely, science requires the belief that things have explanations in the first place.

To Mackie’s credit, he also attempts something like a demonstration that sufficient reason is false by pointing out that humans don’t always have rational reasons for the way we behave. But, if this is the best example he can produce, I think it is clear that the objection is a very weak one. That humans don’t always act rationally does nothing whatsoever to disprove the idea that things have explanations. The explanation needn’t be that the cause was itself rational, after all. That should be obvious enough, and one is left wondering why Mackie thinks otherwise. He does not tell us.

But Mackie isn’t done questioning the validity of sufficient reason. I’ll discuss his other reasons next time. For now, the important point is that this is his only real objection to Leibnitz. He, like the overwhelming majority of atheist philosophers, agrees that the only valid explanations of the universe are theistic–and defends his atheism by insisting that the universe simply has no explanation.

That seems to set a very low bar for theism to rise above.


You keep using that word...The first item in “The Uncredible Hallq’s” response to William Lane Craig is the Leibnitzian Cosmological Argument. I’ve already defended the argument in the past. So I’ll simply be responding to Hallquist’s challenge here.

He correctly summarizes it as follows:

1. Anything that exists has an explanation for its existence, either in the necessity of its nature or in an external cause.

2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.

3. The universe exists.

4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1 and 3).

5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe is God (from 2 and 4).

To this, Hallquist skips any discussion of the first premise, saying only that he’s “not sure if (1) is true”. Personally, I think it is rather obvious that “There must be an explanation for this” is always more rational than “This thing exists for literally no reason whatsoever”. But I’ll return to this in a moment.

In the mean time, he claims that Craig’s defense of (2) is dishonest. (Actually, that’s not what he claimed; that’s the cleaned up version.) Craig makes the point that atheists often claim that, from their perspective, the universe exists without an explanation. He then points out that this is logically equivalent with claiming that an explanation of the universe requires theism.

I don’t know what Hallquist’s problem with this, and he doesn’t tell us. He doesn’t even attempt to offer a non-theistic explanation of the universe, but simply insists that Craig is lying.

That being the case, I feel compelled to point out that I’ve personally read Bertrand Russell, Steven Hawking, J.L. Makie, and countless less known atheists claim that the universe has no explanation.

Really, if Hallquist is going to flatly accuse Craig of lying, he really ought to give us some reason to think so. Or, more to the point, he ought to give us some reason to think that what Craig has said isn’t true. But he hasn’t even tried to do this. He seems to think that the mere accusation of dishonesty is enough to prove that atheists have never claimed exactly what many of them have put in print.

More simply, the fact that Hallquist isn’t well read enough to know that what Craig said happens to be true does not make Craig a liar. In order to refute the premise, Hallquist should offer us an explanation for the universe other than God. But he doesn’t even attempt to do this.

To his credit, he does feel compelled to offer a reason why the argument fails. He claims that one could just as easily turn it around to argue that all non-physical things require a physical explanation.

His support for this, so he says, is that he’s never been given any reason why God doesn’t also need an external cause. But the answer to this is the first premise of the argument, which allows for God (as a necessary being) to be explained without an external cause. He simply dismissed this with an “I’m not sure if (1) is true”. He can’t suddenly act as if he’s refuted the idea that a thing could be necessary, when he simply dismissed it.

He isn’t quite rejecting it, however. Rather, he seems to be claiming that God can’t be the necessary being because he thinks it is “conceivable that God does not exist”. But, here, he completely misunderstands what it is to be conceivable. He simply says that he, personally, can conceive of the idea that God doesn’t exist. But the fact that Hallquist can personally hold that opinion says nothing about whether or not God is a necessary being.

Rather, a thing’s being conceivable (in a philosophical sense) is its being logically consistent. Leibnitz has given an argument that it is logically consistent to believe in theism, but inconsistent to think that there is no such thing as a necessary being. One can’t simply say that the atheism is conceivable simply because one thinks one can imagine it. Like Inigo Mantoya, we’ll be forced to reply “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

As such, this is all based on a very poor grasp of the argument itself. Anyone willing to take an open-minded look at the situation can see that the universe is contingent, and (therefore) needs an explanation. But it doesn’t seem to bother Hallquist at all that he hasn’t done a thing to refute the idea that there must be a necessary being that explains the universe.

Perhaps he thinks he’s refuted it by telling us that he can imagine the necessary being not existing–as if that makes a thing contingent. And this is simply a case study in sloppy thinking; it does nothing to counter anything Craig has said.

Thus, Hallquist has given us no serious challenge to Leibnitz.