Reflections: My Discussion with Stefan Molyneux

  I appeared on the call in show over at Free Domain Radio (June 10, 2018). Let me be the first to say that this did not go very well. It was my first time discussing any issues of philosophical theology in this format. Stefan ably controlled the conversation from the first, and definitely won our interaction from a rhetorical angle.
   I do not think that a few of my points were responded to adequately though. I am going to give some bullet points for the areas I think I am correct on, and explain why I think his responses missed the mark. The points are as follows: i)Simplicity ii) God's Omnipotence iii) Immateriality as being synonymous with "nothing" iv) Claiming arguments from natural theology don't work because of science.

i) My original examination of Stefan's argument may not be correct. Arguably, the language in his book "Against the gods" makes his first arguments sound deductive. He seemed to claim it was more of an inductive argument: We never see rational minds without a complex underlying physical structure. God would be a rational mind without a complex physical substructure. Since, we have never seen such a mind it is reasonable to conclude that: "probably no such rational mind exists."

ii) This point is out of order, but I'll go ahead and address it here, since I think this was one of the points that simply failed because of a lack of definition. Stefan's original argument was that since God is omnipotent, then God would be able to change what I am having for breakfast in the morning (future contingent state of affairs), but if God knows what I will have for breakfast in the morning, then he can't change it because if God can change some event in the future then he doesn't know it will happen which would be a violation of his omnipotence. So, if God can change what I will do in the morning, then he cannot know it, but if he can know it, then he cannot change it. So, it seems we would be forced to reject either omniscience or omnipotence.

  I responded that I did not think that this worked. I gave one of the three ways this chestnut can be cracked. I noted that God's knowledge of future contingents is based on his foreordination of the future. So, God knows the future based on his power. This is part of a classic understanding of the divine attributes, that the divine attributes entail one another. So, God knows all things because he foreordains all that will come about, and he has access to all things that will happen by means of his omnipresence, etc. So, that is one point: God's knowledge is dependent on God's power. The second point, is that we need to be careful when we are discussing things like divine foreknowledge. Since, the theist would have good reason to think God is outside of time, it follows that God's mode of knowing future contingents would be different than a temporal being. So, it isn't like God is waiting on the future to get here, in a real sense he is already "there". All of space and time is present to the divine nature, so in a very real sense God is presently aware that I am typing this post at time t1, and is also presently aware that Julius Caesar is defeating Hannibal at t2. And he knows how everything will shake out because he has decided it will happen in such and such a way. So, in a real sense God can change anything he pleases since he is fully present to the full timeline. God doesn't wait for moments to come about. He doesn't experience temoporal duration like we do.  One simple way of showing how Stefan's argument doesn't work is to note that God can timelessly create an infinite number of worlds. So, if part of the nature of goodness is to defuse itself, then God would create by necessity of his own nature. God's power is infinite, and would cover all logically possible worlds. On this account God creates W1....Wn, so he creates all possible worlds. So there is a world W1 in which I eat eggs for breakfast, and a W2 in which God tells me to eat cereal for breakfast. Since, all worlds are actual, God excercises all his power in one divine moment. This would also work with an account of divine temporality. So, it would appear that God not changing what I will have for breakfast in the morning is a problem with omnipotence, since God could create all possible worlds.

   What the problem seems to be is with God's freedom. But I am not sure what the problem is, since all of God's actions are not restrained by anything other than his own nature. Now, if there was some external state of affairs limiting God's power, then it would be a problem for Divine Freedom, but since what God ordains is simply God's unrestrained decision to instantiate some state of affairs, then God is the most free being imaginable. Stefan scoffed at this critique of his point, but I see not logical problems with it.

iii) Another one of Stefan's points was that since God is immaterial, then it is virtually the same thing as saying that God does not exist. He gave the example of walking through a door way. We know that the doorway is there because we walk through it. In other words the litmus test for something existing is that it be physically detectible by the senses or that we can observe some effect of the object in the world. I forgot to bring this point up in the discussion because of my nerves, but I will here. Stefan's statement is a proposition, but a proposition isn't a physical thing. It is a meaning. So, Stefan's criteria isn't a physical item in the world.

Second, the laws of logic are immaterial. He claimed that they are like physical laws that we know from experience, but there is a serious difficulty with this. If the laws of logic were like the discovery of physical laws, then it is conceivable that we will discover that there are true contradictions, since if logical rules are simply empirical discoveries about the world then they cannot express universality. However, logic are laws of thought they hold in all possible worlds. They are necessarily existing things. There isn't a world in which the law of non-contradiction isn't a thing. If the laws of logic ended up being false, then it is hard to see how we could gain valid knowledge of anything.

Third, take another example of an immaterially existing thing: Truth. Take the following proposition:

(*) If no physical thing existed, then it would be true that no physical things existed.

This seems to be a modal statement of impeccable truthfulness. Since, there are no physical things in such a universe, then truth wouldn't be physical. So, there appears to be one thing that isn't physical in nature, and that it is truth. Now, maybe Stefan wants to be an anti-realist about modal claims, and about truth itself. If that is the case, then he may have more problems than he thinks. Some other problematic properties of truth would be:

1) Truth exists at all times (it is true that I am sitting now, it was true three hours ago that I would be sitting now, and it will be true tomorrow that I was sitting now). It is Atemporal.

2) Truth exists in all places (It is true for someone in China that I am sitting in Indiana right now; it is true that a premise that is undistributed in the premises of a syllogism cannot be distributed in the conclusion of a categorical syllogism, and this is true whether I am on earth or in Proxima Centauri.) It is Omnipresent.

These are only two problematic properties truth has, and neither of them applies to physical objects. We could give a whole list of abstract objects that would undermine Stefan's claim that only physical objects exist.

iv) The final counterargument Stefan made was that Aquinas' metaphysics were based on his physics. This is a common trope among internet atheists, but it is false. Aquinas' argument from motion is not based solely on locomotion. Stefan didn't say it but I gather that he thinks that Newtonian Physics and then modern physics has undermined an Aristotelian understanding of causation and motion. So, take Newton's conceptual idealization that things on a frictionless plain would move forever. Now, it is often claimed that this undermines arguments from motion, but I fail to see how, since for an object to go in a different direction it would need to be moved. The following two principles are often thought to contradict. Aquinas' is the scholastic thesis and Newton's is his first law.

Aquinas' Principle of Motion: "Whatever is in motion is moved by another"

Newton's First Law (Principle of Inertia): "Every body continues in its state of rest or of uniform motion in a straight line, unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.

As Edward Feser writes:

It is widely thought that the principle of motion is in conflict with the principle of inertia, and that modern physics ha therefore put paid to medieval theology, or atleast to its notion of God as the Unmoved Mover of the world. The Assumption is that Aquinas and other Scholastics held that an object cannot keep moving unless something is continuously moving it, but that Newton showed that is simply a law of physics and once set in motion an object will remain in motion without any such mover. Hence Anthony Kenny judges that, 'it seems that Newton's law wrecks the argument of the First Way.'
This common claim is false and misunderstands both what Aquinas and the Scholastics meant by motion and a misunderstanding of what Newton understood.  Feser gives five reasons for thinking that a conflict between Aquinas and Newton is mistaken. I will give the first three as reasons for thinking Stefan's points fail:

  1. No formal Contradiction
  2. Equivocation
  3. The "State" of Motion
  4. Natural Motion (See Feser's paper)
  5. Natural Science versus philosophy of nature (See Feser's paper)
I will briefly summarize Feser's points and I think they will adequately show that Stefan's claim that science (at least Newton) undermines Aquinas. Then I will close asking why we should think Quantum Mechanics or Darwin would undermine Aquinas' arguments from Natural Theology.

So, Feser's first point. Let us assume that "motion" in both Newton and Aquinas is used in the same sense. Even if this was the case it would not undermine Aquians' point. Why? Because Newton's law tells us that if something is moving it won't stop if there is no external force doesn't prevent it, but this doesn't tell us why things obey Newton's First Law, nor does it tell us. So there isn't any logical contradiction.

   Second, the terms are equivocations. Newton's principle of inertia is concerned solely with local motion or change with respect to place or location. This is the exact point I made in our discussion, and Stefan brushed it off. I also noted that when Aquinas refers to motion he is discussing change of any type what soever. Things like changes in quanitity, quality, or change from one substance to another are all species of the more abstract genus of "Motion" or "change". To quote Feser,

Hence what the principle of motion is saying is that any potency that is being actualized is being actualized by something else (and in particular by something that is already actual.)  

Newton's Principle isn't even talking about change in the Aristotelian sense of the word. Act and potency isn't the same as local motion. Rather, it is referring to going from what state to another. So, if I am sitting I have the potential to stand. When I do stand I am actually standing. I have gone from potency to act. This is different than Newton's first principle, hence the Scholastic notion is untouched by Newtonian Mechanics.

   Third, modern physics views motion as a state. A state implies stability, and in fact some physcists note that absolute motion is the same thing as motion in zero speed. Hence, motion is taken as an absence of change. Since this is the case external forces are indeed required to move a thing out of this "state" and bring about change. This is all the scholastic needs to get the arguments from motion off the ground.

   All in all, Stefan's claims about Aquinas and science fail. Stefan told me to stop name dropping during the call in show, and forced me to give arguments. He was correct about that, but he needs to do the same. When confronted with and argument he will need to do more than simply say, "science".
   Now, I can imagine Stefan pushing back with Quantum Mechanics (QM), but QM would seem to show that something like the idea of act/potency is correct, since electrons have multiple ways they could be or potentialities I fail to see how this would cause problems for someone holding to Aquinas' metaphysics. Stefan also trotted out Darwin, but I fail to see how Darwinism undermines the act/potency distinction.  It is for these reasons that I continue to disagree with Stefan. hopefully in the future I will be able to discuss these things more with him.

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