I have reviewed two of Barry Miller's books. My review of A Most Unlikely God appeared in Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review (vol. XXXVIII, no. 3, Summer 1999, pp. 614-617). My review of From Existence to God appeared in American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly (Summer 1993), pp. 390-394, I post a version of the latter here.
Barry Miller, From Existence to God: A Contemporary Philosophical Argument (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp. x + 206. $42.50.
Arguments for the existence of God a contingentia mundi usually proceed by way of some version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), where this embraces principles of intelligibility and causality. Professor Miller's book is a bold but rigorous defense of a contingency argument that makes no use of any of these controversial principles. He thus evades the standard objections to PSR-based arguments. The engine driving Miller's argument is Non- Contradiction, a principle he deploys at various stages of his treatment. (cf. pp. 172-174) Accordingly, his central thesis is that there is "a hidden contradiction in claiming both that, say, Fido exists and that God does not." (p. ix)
If so, the existence of God should follow by dint of sheer analysis of what it is for a concrete individual to exist, in the presence of the uncontroversial premise that concrete individuals do in fact exist. By 'God' Miller understands the god of classical theism, a being that is the uncaused sustaining cause of the universe, where "The Universe is everything existing which either is a concrete individual or is individuated by individuals." (p. 131) This uncaused cause is unique, identical with its existence (and thus subsistent existence), metaphysically (not logically) necessary, and an individual only in an analogical sense of this term. (p. 137) Thus the above definition of 'universe' does not imply that God is in the universe. God cannot be an individual in the strict sense since He is not distinct from his existence; but He is nevertheless a concrete entity since capable of causal activity. (p. 126) The 'omni-properties' (omniscience, etc.) are not discussed. Thus Miller starts here below with existing concrete individuals, works his way up to the uncaused cause of their existence, and only then embarks on a discussion of those of the divine attributes relevant to the analysis of existence. This in marked contrast to the usual procedure of beginning with a definition of 'God' and then considering whether anything satisfies the definition.
A central challenge Miller faces is to show that the existence of concrete individuals is not a brute fact, where "a brute fact is by definition one for which any explanation is simply unnecessary." (p. 79) He meets this challenge by arguing that the existence of concrete individuals would harbor a contradiction if taken to be a brute fact. Given this putative contradiction, an inquiry into how it is possible that any such individual exist becomes logically inescapable. It turns out that the contradiction can only be removed if the existence of concrete individuals is not a brute fact but is dependent on something
external to them. (p. 84)
Wherein lies the contradiction? Consider Fido's existing. On Miller's preferred analysis, Fido's existing has two constituents, Fido and Fido's existence. Whereas Fido is a complete entity, one capable of independent existence, Fido's existence is a property-instance and therefore incomplete: incapable of independent existence, it requires a complete entity for its "individuation." (p. 38, n. 22) As constituents, Fido and his existence are ontologically, not chronologically, prior to Fido's existing in the sense that "...Fido's existing must be constructible conceptually from Fido and his existence." (p. 10) But such a construction would make no sense if Fido could not be conceived prior to Fido's existing. Yet chapter 3 ("The Inconceivability of Future Individuals") issues in precisely this conclusion: "Fido could neither be referred to nor conceived of before he existed." (p. 11)
Thus a contradiction emerges at the heart of concrete individuals: Fido's existing is a complex whose ontological constituents are such that one of them (Fido) must be and cannot be conceived prior to Fido's existing. Fido must be independently conceivable if he is to be available for the conceptual construction; but he cannot be so conceivable since "prior to its existing no concrete individual could be conceived of by anyone or in any way." (p. 42)
To establish that there is this contradiction, Miller must first of all develop a constituent ontology of individuals. This he does in chapter 2, "Sense Structure and Ontology." The analysis is pushed further in chapter 4, "Existence is a Real Property." Here he argues (convincingly to my mind) against the dominant Frege-Russell line that 'exists' and cognates are never legitimately predicable of individuals. The upshot is that existence is a first-level property.
Further argument is to the effect that it is a real (as opposed to a 'Cambridge') first-level property. Miller is now in a position to think of Fido's existing as built up from two constituents, Fido and Fido's existence. But what is Fido in distinction from his existence? One way to think of this is in terms of the question, What was Fido before he came to exist? Was he conceivable or referrable-to before he existed?
Chapter 3 defends the thesis that concrete individuals can neither be conceived of nor referred to prior to their existence, not even by God. This implies that, prior to Socrates' coming to exist, there was no de re possibility of his coming to exist. Thus there are no singular propositions about future individuals; all such propositions are general. (p. 42) Further implications are that the coming into existence of an individual is not the actualization of a merely possible individual, or the exemplification of any such exotic property as a Plantingian haecceity.
Now if Fido is inconceivable before he existed, then, "he cannot be conceived of except as existing or as having existed..." (p. 62) If so, how can Fido be a constituent of his existing? The result of chapters 2 and 4 thus contradicts that of chapter 3.
Given the obvious fact that Fido does exist, the contradiction in Fido's existing must be merely apparent. But if the analyses in chapters 2, 3 and 4 are correct, Fido's existing can neither be a brute fact needing no explanation, nor a fact explainable in terms of its constituents. So Fido's existing must be "dependent upon something other than either it or its constituents." (p. 84) This is the thesis of chapter 5, "Why existence? The penultimate answer."
The ultimate answer is provided in chapter 6, where it is argued that nothing is amiss in the idea of a causal regress that terminates necessarily in an uncaused cause. A causal series terminates necessarily if its members are intrinsically such that the series must terminate. (pp. 98-99) I take it that the series of causes that reaches back some 13-15 billion years ago to the Big Bang (assuming the truth of current cosmology) is a contingently terminating series: there is nothing in the nature of an ordinary physical event-cause that necessitates that a series of such causes should terminate, or should not terminate. So if there are no necessarily terminating causal series, there is no hope for a contingency argument that does not apply some version of PSR to an initial event like the Big Bang.
The main challenge Miller faces in showing the possibility of necessarily terminating causal series derives from Hume's contention that in an infinite series of causes each member is wholly explained
by the preceding member without any member being uncaused. If so, there is no a priori reason why a causal regress must terminate. To the objection that this would leave the series itself unexplained, the Humean rejoinder is that the explanation of each member by the preceding member suffices to explain the series as a whole. Miller responds to Hume's challenge by distinguishing five types of causal series. The justice of Hume's remarks is admitted with respect to types I-III. But types IV and V are argued to escape Humean censure.
It is impossible in the short space allotted to summarize Miller's intricate and carefully argued discussion of causal series. But perhaps the gist of it can be rendered as follows.
Miller needs a causal series that is both explanatory and necessarily terminating. But if a series is such that each of its members is caused by that which precedes it and causes that which succeeds it, then that series cannot be necessarily terminating. "Series IV and V, however, are cases of causal series in which each part neither is caused by that which precedes it, nor causes that which succeeds it . . ." (p. 111) How? Let a be the cause of Fido's existing, and suppose (to put it roughly) a is caused to exist by b, b by c, c by d, and d by m. Miller's idea is that when properly formulated, what causes a to exist is not b, but b inasmuch as it is caused to exist by c inasmuch as it is caused to exist by d inasmuch as it is caused to exist by m. (p. 112) Now m must be an uncaused cause, says Miller, on pain of the series' no longer being able to cause anything. (p. 112)
Having thus arrived at the uncaused cause, the remaining chapters consolidate and elaborate this result. Chapter 7, "The Uncaused Cause," argues that the ground of the uncaused cause's status as uncaused is in the lack of "any distinction between itself and its existence" (p. 117) and defends this consequence of the doctrine of divine simplicity against charges of incoherence. Miller also addresses the question whether the universe might be the uncaused cause, and concludes that it cannot since it is distinct from its existence, and what is so distinct can exist only if caused to exist. (p. 135)
Chapter 8 ("Necessary Existence") explains the sense in which God's existence is necessary "in terms of the more basic notion of something's lacking any distinction from its existence." (p. 148)
Chapters 9 and 10 treat, respectively, "Objections to the Contingency Argument" and "The Contingency Argument Misconceived." The book concludes with three appendices in support of chapters 2, 3 and 4 respectively, and a useful index.
The production job is reasonably good, although the quality of the paper inspires little confidence in its ability to resist the onset of yellowing. I note only four typographical errors: p. 1 has 'prologomena' instead of 'prolegomena.' P. 35, line 16 sports 'Fido's existing' in place of 'Fido's blackness.' P. 38, n. 22, line 6 shows 'predicate' where it should have 'property.' And a spot check of the index revealed on p. 202, col. I, line 7 a reference to p. 74 when it should be to p. 76.
Miller's book is a significant contribution not only to philosophical theology, but also to metaphysics and the philosophy of language. He engages a fundamental question ("How ever can it be that the Universe does exist?" (p. 1)) and he does so in a clear and rigorous manner. Equally important, he develops a line of reasoning which has been largely ignored in the theistic renaissance of recent decades. Along the way, a number of dogmas come under fire, among them the dogma held by atheists and theists alike that the doctrine of divine simplicity is incoherent. Miller leaves no doubt that he is historically informed, but does not allow himself to be led down exegetical sidetracks. All in all, an exciting and important work.
I conclude with a couple of critical comments, offered in the spirit of a request for clarification.
Miller's contingency argument is motivated by "the recognition that to accept Fido's existing as a brute fact would be to accept that Fido and his existence were simultaneously both constituents and non-constituents of Fido's existing."(p. 116) Suppose we take a closer look at this putative contradiction. Given that they are constituents, Fido and his existence are ontologically, not chronologically, prior to Fido's existing. (p. 10) But if Fido is ontologically prior to Fido's existing, how is this priority contradicted by the fact, if it is one, that Fido is inconceivable until he exists? Fido's being nothing, not even a possible entity, chronologically prior to his existing seems logically compatible with his being ontologically prior to his existing, and therefore a constituent of his existing. The fact that "...Fido's existing should be conceptually constructible from Fido and his existence" (p. 83) seems consistent with Fido's being "disqualified [from being the starting point of the construction] by being inconceivable until he has completed his existence." (p. 83) A conceptual construction is presumably not a temporal process, despite Miller's talk of "beginning" the construction, moving through its "steps" and "stages," (p. 81) and "finishing" it. (p. 82) This talk is surely to be taken nontemporally. If so, it is not clear why Fido cannot be both ontologically prior and chronologically simultaneous with his existing. Surely Miller is not equivocating on 'prior'?
A second point concern's Miller's oft-made admission that Fido's existing admits of more than one legitimate analysis. (p. 37, n. 18, p. 81) Miller's analysis generates a contradiction; but if there is a legitimate analysis that does not generate a contradiction, would this not undercut Miller's argument? He would not think so, since "The nub of the argument is that a legitimate analysis cannot generate an insoluble paradox." (p. 81) But isn't the fact, assuming it is a fact, that Miller's analysis issues in a contradiction, together with the fact that alternative legitimate analyses are available, prima facie evidence that his analysis is illegitimate? It seems that for Miller's argument to work he must show, or at least render credible, the view that his analysis is the only legitimate analysis.
W. F. Vallicella