We’ve never chatted. I’m Tom Belt, a friend of Alan Rhoda. I believe you know Alan.
Yes, in fact I was thinking about him just the other day in connection with his espousal of presentism.
I’ve always appreciated being challenged when I drop by your blog. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to help me understand something.
I'll do my best.
I’ve been exploring Hartshorne’s Modal/Ontological Argument with a friend, Jeff. Basically Jeff wants to agree that some manner of ‘necessity’ needs to be posited in order to explain the existence of the universe. So he agrees that CH's "Something exists" entails "Something exists necessarily." But he then argues that both ‘an infinite regress of created beings’ and ‘a single, necessary being’ equally fit the bill. Both are equally possible and both have the same explanatory value. So his point is, “Look, parsimony is the only thing that gets us a single, necessary being; there's no obvious metaphysical advantage that a necessary being has over an infinite regress of created beings. Either might be the case, and parsimony is all we have to adjudicate the choice between them.” But something seems wrong here.
There is indeed something wrong here.
But first let's lay out Jeff's suggestion -- or a plausible candidate for that office -- a bit more clearly. To make things hard on the theist we begin by assuming that the universe has an actually infinite past. Hence it always existed. Let us also assume that the each total state of the universe at a time is (deterministically) caused to exist by an earlier such state of the universe. A third assumption is that the universe is nothing over and above the sum of its states. The third assumption implies that if each state has a causal explanation in terms of earlier states (in accordance with the laws of nature), then all of the states have an explanation, in which case the universe itself has a causal explanation. This in turn implies that there is no need to posit anything external to the universe, such as God, to explain why the universe exists. The idea, then, is that the universe exists because it causes itself to exist in that later states are caused to exist by earlier states, there being no earliest, uncaused, state. We thereby explain why the universe exists via an infinite regress of universe-immanent causes thereby obviating the need for a transcendent cause.
If this could be made to work, then we would have a nice neat self-contained universe whose existence was not a brute fact but also not dependent on anything external to the universe.
The five or so assumptions behind this reasoning can all be questioned. But even if they are all true, the argument is still no good for a fairly obvious reason. The whole collection of states, despite its being beginningless and endless, is contingent: it might not have existed at all. The fact that U always existed, if it is a fact, does not entail that U must exist. If I want to know why this universe of ours exists as opposed to there being some other universe or no universe at all, it does no good to tell me that it always existed. For what I want to know it why it exists AT ALL. I am not asking about its temporal duration but about its very existence. Why it exists at all is a legitimate question since there is no necessity that there be a universe in the first place.
So Jeff is wrong when he says that both a single necessary being and and infinitely regressive series of contingent causes "have the same explanatory value." The latter has no explanatory value at all. And this for the reason that it is contingent.
I mentioned to him Hartshorne’s point that the only conceivable way to posit the non-existence of a necessary being is to hold such a being’s existence to be impossible. A necessary being can only exist or not exist necessarily. So I told him he’s free to say “I can’t figure out which is in fact the case, an infinite regress of contingent beings or a single necessary being,” but that once he settles upon the latter for reasons of parsimony, what this moves amounts to is settling for the necessity of one option over the impossibility of the other, since the (modal) possibility of an infinite regress of contingent beings entails the impossibility of a single necessary being. But he’s not buying.
First of all, considerations of parsimony come into play only when we are comparing two theories which are both explanatorily adequate. In that case Occam's Razor enjoins us to give the nod to the more parsimonious of the two. After all, the stricture is not against 'multiplying entities' tout court, but against mutiplyng entities beyond necessity, i.e., in excess of what is needed for purposes of adequate explanation. But in the situation before us, Jeff's theory is not explanatorily adequate. It completely fails as an explantion of why there is a universe rather no universe or some other universe.
If the universe has an explanation then it must be in terms of a noncontingent explainer. As you appreciate, if such an entity exists, then it is necessary, and if it does not, then it is impossible. But the rest of your reasoning is dubious which is why your friend is not buying it. The point you need to insist on is that Jeff is not offering an adequate alternative explanation. He falsely assumes that the collection of contingent beings is a necessary being. It is not. It is as contingent as its members.
That aside, it doesn’t seem to me that an infinite regress of instances seeking [needing?] explanation really is conceivable EVEN IF actual infinities per se are conceivable. A necessary being may be temporally eternal. That’s one thing. But an infinite regress of contingent beings, each created by the previous? I don’t see how such a regress is conceivable, or how it embodies the necessity Jeff agrees has to be posited in order to explain the existence of the world. Surely if every member in an infinite regress is contingent, then the regress is contingent and the whole thing in need of the same explanation any particular member needs, no? We can’t reify the regress per se and attribute necessity to IT while positing the contingency of every member.
Right. That's exactly the point I made above. But surely such a regress is conceivable in the manner I explained above. Just don't use the world 'create' because that muddies the waters.
Lastly, wouldn’t it be the case in such a regress that every member god would HAVE to create something, so that no one of them could be free to not create at all? That seems to follow. If any member in the regress is free to not create at all, and every member is created, then any member might not have been created at all (which is just to say each is contingent). But that is to posit the contingency of the regress and thus abandon its explanatory value. No? Yes?
I agree. Jeff's suggestion is much stronger if he thinks of the regress as one of ordinary empirical causes in tandem with the assumption that causation is not probabilistic but deterministic. But if he is talking about a regress of free gods, then an added dimension of contingency comes in via the libertarian free will of these gods.
Am I nuts? Personally I think an infinite regress of created/contingent beings is impossible.
You are not 'nuts.' You are basically right. But it is not clear that an infinite regress of contingent beings is impossible. Why should it be impossible? There are benign infinite regresses. What you want to say is that an infinite regress of contingent beings cannot do any explanatory work re: the question, Why does the universe exist?
So far, then, Tom 1, Jeff 0.