Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Understanding Divine Necessity

Recently, a brother mailed me about confusions he was having about God's necessity and self-existence. I sent this response:

"Brother, note that one of the very cornerstones of Islamic theology is that God is inconceivable. You can't understand His modality. This is not a claim made by Muslim theologians in the face of these problems, but it's one of the central religious claims being made from day one. You'll never find any Muslim- be it a sahaba or a scholar- making a claim to the contrary, thinking the nature of God can be grasped. That's why it's not surprising that we find the concept of God being necessary so mysterious. Come to think of it, all other reality (apart from God) is contingent, dependent on something else. God is the one and ultimate example where this rule doesn't work. This central feature of God goes against virtually all of our experiences. That's one of the reasons why the mystery of necessity is so profound. God is over and above all of our experience. He is really and truly transcendent. But then again, Islamic theology never made the claim that you can understand this transcendent God. You can't. You can believe in Him, have some sort of a conception of Him, experience Him in your life- but you can never understand him fully with your intellect. This is why one of the great preachers of our time has said- you can understand theology when you put your intellect to the ground.

But does all of this mean God or Islam is irrational and contrary to the intellect? Of course not. Islam is very clear on this- there are certain aspects of the deen that you can grasp with your intellect clearly, while certain other parts you can't. In this context, we can clearly see why a necessary being is required for all contingent reality to exist. However, we can't see precisely how this necessity works. It is beyond our limited, contingent intellect. At the same time, we can find good reasons to believe that God created all of reality apart from Himself. But we can't really hope to understand how this creation was done. This is because we don't see creation, we never do. In all our experiences, all we see are change, conversions, transformation of one thing to another. But true creation from nothing- we have never observed that and never will, unless Allah wills. And yet Allah created this universe in specifically this mysterious way. Does this mystery mean we shouldn't believe God is the creator? No, what we should believe is God is indeed the Creator for XYZ reasons, but we don't- and can't- understand how is it that He creates.

The same can be said for so many things. If you study the problem of induction and the existence of laws of nature, you'll reach the conclusion that the only way to account for the laws of the universe is to believe God actively "upholds" these laws. And yet, it's profoundly mysterious to think that a being could "uphold" laws. We don't see this anywhere. We see all things subject to laws, but not upholding laws. Simply put, every aspect of philosophy of religion you read, you'll be faced with even deeper mysteries concerning God. And for me, that fact only strengthened my faith, as opposed to weakening it. I guess it would weaken it were we told to believe in some sort of a limited, immanent god, a god we're supposed to understand with intellect. But Islam never made that claim. Islam is a very strong proponent of the transcendence of God, the sheer inconceivability of His being.

With that said, there have been efforts to render God's necessary existence somewhat intelligible. Here's something Paul Herrick wrote which goes to the heart of the topic:

The question is: Doesn't NB [Necessary Being] simply bring up the question of existence all over again, causing us to ask, "But what accounts for the existence of the necessary being?" And doesn't this just generate an infinite regression of necessary beings, leaving us no better off than when we started—saddled with unexplained existences? Doesn't NB just make "re-askers" of us all? These are very good questions, indeed profound questions. But I believe there is a very good reply, indeed a profound reply, one which was put concisely by Peter van Inwagen in his textbook Metaphysics:
But [to ask, of a necessary being, "Why does it exist?" or "What explains its existence?" ] is to neglect the fact that a necessary being is one whose non-existence is impossible. Thus, for any necessary being, there is by definition a sufficient reason [i.e., explanation] for its existence: there could hardly be a more satisfying explanation for the existence of a thing than that its non-existence was impossible.[23]
This reply may sound too simple at first, but its surface simplicity belies its true depth. I submit that once one carefully mulls over van Inwagen's answer, and once one fully understands its meaning and significance, necessary existence comes into focus as the only existentially self-subsuming mode of existence, and necessity grounded explanation is revealed as the only self-subsuming, self-explanatory form of explanation we possess. Let's see why.
A necessary being, if one existed, would by hypothesis be a being whose essential nature is such that its nonexistence is absolutely impossible. It follows that in the case of a necessary being N, the explanation of it existence (the explanatory ground of its existence), is a necessary logical fact internal to its own being—internal in the sense that it obtains independently of all possible circumstances. And what is that internal fact? The impossibility of N's nonexistence. Van Inwagen is right: Surely the impossibility of some being N's nonexistence would be a logically sufficient condition of N's existence. (This is a matter of pure logic.) In this exact sense, a necessary being contains within itself the sufficient condition of its own existence. This is self-explanation if there ever was such.
The reflective mind reaches out beyond the category of contingency because, as we have seen, if all things are merely contingent, then there is no explanation for why contingent things exist, nothing that might account for the existence of contingent beings as a whole. And what is the only place to land outside of contingency? Explanation in terms of noncontingent being—in other words, explanation grounded in a necessary existence.
Given the reasoning above, it seems clear that the necessary being hypothesis, if true, would leave behind no existential facts "considered brute for the purposes of the explanation"—contrary to Mackie's claim that all explanations presuppose something brute. I conclude that NB seems to be just the type of explanation we need in order to bring a regress of explanations of contingent existence to a rationally satisfying conclusion. What other explanatory option do we have?
So, the concept of necessary existence presents us with an existentially self-subsuming explanation, one that could form a rock-bottom endpoint for a universal explanatory regress. This is an existential basis that would account at once both for its own existence and for the contingent existence of everything else, leaving no brute existence in its wake. Many philosophers have thought that if contingent existence were to be explained by reference to a metaphysically necessary ground of being (or, à la Parsons, if all contingencies are ultimately grounded in something necessary), then no existence would be left brute. All existence would then be accounted for, since a necessary being, if one were to exist, would be existentially self-explanatory in the sense defined above (and in contrast to a contingent being, whose existence can only be explained in terms of something external to it). Although Parsons does not examine and drill into this explanatory option, this is the explanatory advantage we get if we postulate a being whose essence is such that its nonexistence is simply, fundamentally, absolutely, and metaphysically impossible.
Perhaps it is now clear why many philosophers maintain that if explanations of contingent existence ultimately regress back to a metaphysically necessary ground of being, then all existence, including the rock bottom level, is accounted for, and brute fact is conquered. In Metaphysics, van Inwagen also wrote:
Why should there be anything at all?... If we could show that there was a necessary being ... we should have an answer to our question. For if there were a necessary being, then it would be impossible for there to be nothing. And if we could show that it was impossible for there to be nothing, that, surely, would count as an answer to our question.[24]
Alexander Pruss brings more to the table:

"Perhaps a necessary being is impossible. Abstracta [i.e. abstract things] such as propositions and numbers, however, furnish a quick counterexample to this for many philosophers. However, one might argue that there cannot be a causally efficacious necessary being, whereas the unproblematic abstracta such as propositions and numbers are not causally inefficacious. A radical response to this is to question the dogma that propositions and numbers are causally inefficacious...."

...And then he goes to a deep philosophical tangent into how sometimes even abstract things like numbers can cause objects. His argument essentially says: if numbers can be causally efficacious and necessary, why can't God be necessary as well? He then moves on to say that even if numbers are held to be causally inefficacious, there still is no good reason to think a necessary being can't exist. We might have emotional restraints against accepting such a being, but how much can we trust our gut-feelings when it comes to truth?

Additionally, the phenomena of logical and arithmetic truths present another way of solving the dilemma. Think about the following statements:

* 7+5=12
* Socrates is identical to himself
* Something cannot be completely red and completely blue all at the same time
* A part is smaller than its whole, and so on.

None of these statements have any further explanations. They are *just* true, and that's all that can be said about it. In modal terms, they are true because of the necessity of their own nature. In spite of there being no further explanations, we use these concepts regularly in our everyday reasoning, ranging from crossing the road to sending rovers to other planets. Yet, their necessity is something profoundly mysterious. Do the fact that they have no further explanations- are necessary- lead us to reject them? If not, why should we reject God?

Finally, if you study the ontological argument for God's existence, it argues that from the concept of God the necessity of His being can be derived. It's a very complex philosophical argument, but some of the most recent versions of the argument (i.e. by Robert Maydole) have been successful on the whole.

To sum up, then:

1. The concept of God is inherently mysterious. This shouldn't lead us to despair, but rather make us appreciate God's concept even more.
2. God's existence can be rationally derived from the signs in the universe, but that doesn't mean His nature can be understood due to who He is and who we are.
3. As Paul Herrick said, there can hardly be a better explanation than a Necessary Being, since it leads us to the conclusion that it's non-existence is impossible. There is, then, nothing left unexplained by it.
4. The mystery of God's necessity can be understood somewhat (although there is no comparison between God and anything else) when we think about how necessary truths and numbers are used everyday in our life, and the mystery inherent in them doesn't lead us to reject them.
5. An ontological argument can sufficiently explain God's necessity, although it requires very hairy philosophical reasoning.

Hope this helps."

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