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As many of you will know, I recently edited a book by Gunther Laird called The Unnecessary Science, a book that counters the claims of Aristotle, Aquinas and recently Ed Feser on Natural Law Theory, a particularly religious moral value system.

The context of the piece below is that Gunther produced a piece for Arc Digital called ‘The Draws of Deism: Essence and existence versus “classical theism”‘ that was responded to by Steven Nemes (studying at a theological seminary) in “Deism, Classical Theism, and Existential Inertia“. I have offered to host Gunther’s reply here. Check it out, though you might want to read the contextual pieces first. And certainly grab yourselves a copy of The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis of Natural Law Theory [UK].

Deism and Existential Inertia Revisited

Last month, I published an excerpt of my recent book, The Unnecessary Science, on Arc Digital. Not long after, a theologian by the name of Steven Nemes published a critique of my argument. I initially claimed (quoting from chapter 6 of my book) that God could conserve things in existence through decree rather than active sustaining activity (thus supporting a deist rather than classical theist view of God); Mr. Nemes responded that any such “decree” would be incompatible with an entirely simple God (which my article conceded for the purposes of argument) as that implies a distinction between God Himself and one of His actions (making a certain decree). What follows is my counter-response.

Allow me to begin with a small aside. Nemes’ starting arguments for the supposed distinction between essence and existence (and thus the necessity of a classical theist God who is just “Pure Existence Itself), despite their evident erudition, actually undermine themselves in subtle but revealing ways. Nemes uses the example of a cat to demonstrate why the cat’s existence cannot be a property of it, like its fluffiness, color, or temperament. As he says, there are some circumstances where we can perceive all of the cat’s properties, but some where we can only perceive some of them. For instance, if we see Mr. Buttons from far away, we can tell he’s white, but we would have to get closer and touch him to see if he’s fluffy. If it’s dark at night, we can’t tell what color he is, but if he’s meowing insistently we can tell he’s hungry, and so on. With this established, Nemes continues:

“there is something about the cat which cannot be brought to light in any conceivable set of circumstances. There is something about the cat which does not show itself as one of its properties or qualities. What might that be? The real existence of the cat. What I am referring to here is its existence independent of our consciousness of it. This is the lesson of the famous skeptical arguments that have been offered throughout the history of philosophy, whether René Descartes’s “dreaming” argument, or David Hume’s quarter experiment, or Hilary Putnam’s “brain in a vat” thought experiment…The world that is presented to us in experience, indeed everything that appears within it, has various properties and qualities which can be disclosed or made visible. But what never shows itself in any of our experiences is whether the things we experience exist in actuality, independently of our minds. One can see the cat in any number of circumstances and discover any number of its properties. The cat as a whole is given in experience — the cat itself is an experienceable item. But it will always remain an open question whether this cat —the cat which one sees and touches and hears — also exists in reality. That is because the real, mind-independent existence of the cat is not itself experienceable.”

Since we can experience any of the cat’s properties (its color, feel, temperament, etc.), but we cannot experience its existence (maybe it’s a hallucination or a vision conjured by an evil spirit), “[t]he unexperienceable real existence of the experienceable cat must therefore be something that is somehow “outside” of the cat, and yet “pointed at it” in such a way that the cat exists.” Only “pure existence,” or God, could “point” unexperienceable existence at the cat (or dog or anything else), because “[n]o individual thing that has a certain nature and various determinate properties…is going to have existence as an “internal” part of it. Rather, any such thing will only exist insofar as it is related to a “something else” that is not itself an individual thing with properties but rather pure existence itself.”

The first problem in this account lies in the telling example Mr Nemes used. Descarte’s thought experiment is one of the most famous in philosophy. As mentioned in Edward Feser’s Philosophy of Mind, it led the great philosopher to conclude that he could be certain of his own existence, even if his senses were leading him astray in every other respect, because even if he were dreaming, or misled by a devil, or hooked up to a machine in the Matrix, he would “have to exist in the first place in order to do the dreaming or be deceived.”[1] If Descartes was right in this respect, and I believe he was, then the rest of Nemes’ argument falls flat. The existence of everything we see, everything outside ourselves, might be “unexperienceable”—it may be the case that the fluffy white kitty or the hungry brown dog don’t actually exist and are just illusions, i.e that we don’t “experience” their existence the way we experience their colors or temperaments or whatever. But we know with absolute, undeniable certainty that we ourselves exist, because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be worrying about these questions right now. So in that respect, our real existence is indeed experienceable to us. And since Nemes seems to be arguing that we need God to connect “unexperienceable” existence to the “experienceable” cat or dog or whatever, we can respond that there’s at least some things (ourselves as thinking subjects) whose existences are experienceable, which therefore do not require some outside factor (God, “pure existence,” whatever) to continue to exist.

Secondly, Nemes’ example proves a bit too much. Through his reasoning, every property we can think of is “unexperienceable,” not just existence. For instance, someone could easily be wrong about the color of Mr. Buttons if she were colorblind, or mistaken about his temperament if she misinterpreted his meows, or whatever. Indeed, if you think it’s possible some sort of evil spirit could conceivably be locking us all into some sort of illusion, why wouldn’t it be possible for such a spirit to perpetrate a marginally less gigantic scam: That the external world does indeed exist, but all our perceptions of its colors or sounds or any other individual physical property are incorrect because of the demon’s interference. So if God is necessary to conjoin existence to a cat or a dog or anything else because such things might conceivably be illusions—their existence is “unexperienceable”—He would have to do the same for all of their properties as well, because every one of those properties is also “unexperienceable” because they might conceivably be illusory.

Still, the direct critique Nemes makes of my argument is this: Claiming that God can make decrees “implies God somehow has the potentiality to decree one thing or another, to decide in some way rather than another, to make one decision over another. This would turn God into an individual thing with a certain nature (e.g., a rational nature) and various properties, some of them actual and some of them merely possible or potential. This is all contrary to the simplicity and absoluteness of God.”

Now, Nemes is a student at a theological seminary, so he believes (I assume) that the Bible accurately described God making various pronouncements and decrees. So how does he square that with divine simplicity? According to him,

“talk about divine action has to be understood to refer to the way things happen in the world as a result of God’s causation. So, for example, if a classical theist were to speak of God “liberating the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt,” what she means is that the event of the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt happened as a result of God’s causality…If we adopt this interpretation of divine action, then there can be no “decree” of existential inertia which would not amount in the end to a description of the way things happen in the world as a result of God’s causality: once they begin to exist, things remain in existence unless something else within the world annihilates them…this is also perfectly compatible with the classical theistic idea that the persistence of things is itself a result of their standing in a certain “existentializing” or “existentifying” relation to God, and that without such a relation they would not exist at all. The experiential fact of the apparently inertial existence of things is compatible with the classical theistic metaphysical thesis that things only exist insofar as they are caused to exist by God.”

The problem here is that Nemes’ argument does not cut at the heart of mine. He claims “things only exist insofar as they are caused to exist by God” but as I wrote in my original essay, a deist might be happy to concede that “God was necessary at the very beginning of things.” The salient difference between my hypothetical deist and the classical theist, however, is the former thinks things must be “caused to exist by God” once, while the latter thinks they must be “caused” constantly. And once again, Nemes’ example can provide as much support to my argument as his.

For the purposes of argument, let’s assume the Biblical account of the Egyptian captivity is true, that the Hebrew people really was held in bondage by the Egyptians until God freed them. But did God need to free them only once, or did He need to keep them “constantly” free? I assume Nemes would argue the former—that God’s actions in freeing the Jews (sending plagues to Egypt, etc.) were individual events rather than constant activities. After the chain of events that led to the Pharoah letting the Jews go, God’s continued activity was not necessary to keep the Jews free—rather, they remained free simply as a result of events that occurred in the past.

This, my deist would aver, is how existence works—God must have caused everything to exist at one point, but does not maintain everything in existence, much like God caused the plagues by which the Jews were freed, but did not maintain them in freedom henceforth. And it is a reasonable interpretation of “God’s causality” for the same reason. It seems to us that God had “potentials” in regards to the Jews in Egypt—He could have left them in slavery, or freed them through other means, or whatever, but Nemes would say that’s not the case and it’s all due to “God’s causality.” Be that as it may, even if we agree that particular events or decisions God brings about or makes are not “potentialities” He might actualize, they are still particular events or decisions, not constant ones. In other words, my deist would say that “God’s causality” was Him simply decreeing that “what begins to exist will remain in existence until it is destroyed, even without My doing anything after this” rather than Him constantly conserving everything that exists.

Now, Nemes holds that “the persistence of things is itself a result of their standing in a certain “existentializing” or “existentifying” relation to God, and that without such a relation they would not exist at all.” But the deist might even concede this, and still maintain that the difference is whether or not that “existentializing” is happening right now or in the past. Again, for the reasons I describe in my original essay, if one holds that God, as Pure Existence, created the universe but then set it in motion to go by itself, the universe would perpetually have a “brought into existence by” or “created by” relationship to God, but it need not have a “being sustained right now” relationship to God.

For Mr. Nemes to rule out deism, he would have to explain how the act of making decrees is incompatible with a “purely actual” being. And going off the examples he has given, I do not believe he can do so, because if God making certain decrees or decisions in the Biblical account does not mean He is actualizing any potencies, then God making one simple decree, “things in this universe I made have existential inertia,” is not an actualization of potency either. Thus, deism remains a viable alternative to classical theism—which is all I set out to prove.

[1] Edward Feser, Philosophy of Mind (A Beginner’s Guide) (Oneworld Publications, 2005), 4-5.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...