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Jan 03 2013

Superstition and necessity

One of the things I’ve been observing during my interactions with presuppositionalists is that at least some of them seem to have a strange view of what “necessary” means. The presuppositional argument declares that there are two types of entities: necessary things and contingent things. A contingent thing depends on something else for its existence and characteristics, whereas a necessary thing exists because it must necessarily be real. There follows a certain amount of philosophical discussion (and/or hand-waving, and/or smoke and mirrors) gradually working its way to the conclusion that everything depends on God being real, and therefore God must be real. And not just any God, but a specifically Christian, Trinitarian God to boot.

The obvious flaw in this argument is that, even if we accept the existence of a necessary being, there’s no reason why it should have to be any sort of god, or even any sort of person. God might arguably be a conceptually possible being, but if He’s only a possible being, then by definition He’s not the necessary being. Yet presuppositionalists (or at least some of them) clearly believe that God is not just a possible being, but a literally necessary one. And I think I might have some understanding as to why and how they think that.

As you might guess from the title of this post, the answer has to do with superstition. Superstition is an arbitrary, magical connection between two things, such that one thing causes the other somehow even though there’s no observable, verifiable, or even plausible connection between them. You have Thing A, the supposed cause, and Thing B, the supposed effect, but the only way to get from one to the other is to go *poof*—it’s magic.

This is especially true with animistic superstitions, where Thing A, the cause, is some kind of magical, invisible spirit or angel or deity who makes things happen in the real world and who supposedly controls the things we care about in everyday life. This is what believers mean when they say their religion supplies a certain “purpose” in life: things happen because one or more invisible beings intended for them to happen.

What this does on a psychosocial level is to make the world “understandable” as a network of social relationships, with invisible spiritual beings as the persons you need to understand and influence. You know that the world has a purpose, and you need to understand this purpose and respond to it, and that’s how you get through life. Take away this “purpose,” and you take away everything that gives life meaning—without invisible magical persons to define what the relationships are, the believer’s world becomes chaos.

That’s what makes the spirits “necessary.” The believer’s whole worldview, their whole understanding of how life works, is built out of superstitiously-perceived relationships between real-world events and hidden, supernatural purposes. At the foundation of their logic lies the necessity that these supernatural beings exist, in order to supply the intentions that make everything work the way they think it does. Never mind that science works better, and that superstitious worldviews spend more time compensating for unexpected results and internal inconsistencies. God is the believer’s “necessary being” because superstition needs Him in order to be “legitimate.”

That’s why conversations between believers and skeptics tend to sound like duelling monologues. There’s no logical necessity that God exist, so the skeptic can’t see why the believer keeps insisting that God must be necessary in order to give meaning to life. But God is necessary, to the believer, because He is needed to give meaning to the superstition that the believer lives by. Hence the believer’s conviction that God is obviously and incontrovertibly necessary, and hence the duelling monologues. The believer and the skeptic may be using the same words, but they’re speaking different languages.

That’s how it looks to me, at this point anyway. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

20 comments

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  1. 1
    Naked Bunny with a Whip

    I suppose this works for the religious concept of objective morality as well, where “good” and “evil” are intrinsic properties of the universe via their preferred deity; and therefore, if their god doesn’t exist, neither does morality, and human society becomes a free-for-all. There’s similarly no way to argue against that conclusion by pointing to places that are both largely nonreligious and peaceful and organized because, to them, there is no way to define or measure “goodness” outside of their god-driven framework.

  2. 2
    misanthroptimist

    I recently heard a Christmas Eve sermon at my wife’s liberal Nazarene church (believe it or not, such things do exist)& and the summary take-home message was ‘God makes us important’. I was SO struck by the pathetic and blatant appeal to sentimentality here, but possibly more so by the fact that no one else in the congregation found anything wrong with this idea.
    So for liberal Christians who take no stock in presuppositional apologetics, God is necessary NOT [just?] because “He is needed to give meaning to the superstition that the believer lives by”, but rather because He is needed to give importance and meaning to *themselves*. Maybe I’m just restating your point, but it seemed worth pointing out.

  3. 3
    Otto Tellick

    I think your reference to “a network of social relationships, with invisible spiritual beings as the persons you need to understand” may be especially useful for expressing the “superstitious”/theistic position in a way that is coherent to skeptics, while still being (perhaps) agreeably accurate to the devout. It may also help in clarifying the deeply personal nature of a theist’s perception of a deity. If we can conclude that, with this understanding in place, the theist’s position becomes comprehensible to the skeptic, all we need is the appropriate metaphor, or analogy, or common experiential example, that serves to make skepticism comprehensible (and valid) to the theist.

  4. 4
    rturpin

    The notion of necessary and contingent existence go back to the Greeks, if I recall correctly. They are closely coupled with counterfactual reasoning, i.e., what could have been, and what might be.

    That said, I agree with you. It’s not clear that anything necessarily exists. Or even that the concept is well-founded. There are modal logics, of course, that try to formalize these notions. Hartshorne is the theologian famous for trying to use those for cosmological argument. But they don’t get you very far, and anything less is just sophistry.

  5. 5
    Susannah

    I have no philosophical training, but am trying to make sense of this type of apologetics. I’ve been reading your blog for quite a while now, and appreciate how you explain things so that even I can come to some sort of dim understanding.

    So here’s my question: I first heard of contingency vs necessity via Hank Hanegraaff, some 15 years ago. (I used to listen to his program to keep me awake on a long commute; yelling at the radio really helps.) It didn’t make sense to me at the time, so I keep reading.

    As I understand it, in simple terms, a contingent being owes its existence to some external cause. And these external causes go back and back and back, as long as there is a cause to the cause.

    A necessary being has no external cause; it exists by itself; there is no “because”.

    Where I get lost is, how do they get from a necessary being to giving it a name: God. Or Allah, etc. Where’s the connection?

    And how does being “necessary” force existence? I can postulate any necessary being that I want; the IPU, for example. She (blessed be her dainty pink hooves) is uncaused (because I say so); how would that make her actually exist? I don’t see a connection.

    What am I missing here?

    1. 5.1
      skepticali

      @Susannah: 
      “…external causes go back and back and back…”
      That’s where it’s interesting for me too, and also for the likes of WL Craig. The Big Bang makes it look like there’s an opening to insert a “necessary being” at the beginning of the universe and still fit within present scientific understanding. To a scientist, however, the BB probably represents a wall past which we can’t presently look, but not a permanent one. 

      For me, the necessary being(s) are space, time, matter and energy. Yes, I wonder where they come from, but it seems so much plausible for there to be “something” rather than “nothing”, because you can imagine limitless configurations of something, whereas you can only imagine one configuration of nothing. Consequently, something is (practically) infinitely more likely than nothing is. That would make “something” just a brute fact from which all else proceeds.

      1. Susannah

        For me, the necessary being(s) are space, time, matter and energy.

        So basically, you’re starting with something we know from experience and saying it is uncaused (as far as we know), rather than defining the idea of “necessary” and then casting about to find something to fit the category, like a God, for example.

        It’s that casting about that confuses me. How do they justify that, logically?

        Nothing, in physics, I hear, is an extremely unstable state. So again, something is more likely, even without a cause. But that’s physics, not apologetics. Physics, even quantum, makes more sense to me, sometimes.

      2. mikespeir

        I’ve read that nothingness would actually be the ultimate in stability. It just seems to me that you can’t even talk about “it” without refuting yourself; without contradicting the very conception. After all, to even define something you have to ascribe attributes….

        Too late. It’s already become a some thing rather than a no thing.

      3. BecomingJulie

        I’m not sure the “wall” of the Big Bang isn’t going to be permanently impenetrable.

        After all, there’s no test you could do on a freshly-solidified ingot of recycled metal to determine what it used to have been part of. The only place that information was stored, apart from some people’s memories (and we are specifically confining ourselves to tests on the ingot), was in the arrangement of the molecules in the original scrap metal objects themselves. Once the molecules have been rearranged, the information is gone for good.

        Rearranging an entire universe (including anyone who might have been about to see it) at the sub-atomic level would wipe out a lot of information.

    2. 5.2
      Deacon Duncan

      I can wrap my head around “necessary be-ing” in the sense of “things are that way because that’s the only way they can be.” For example, the cause-and-effect relationship is a chronological relationship: the cause must occur at some point in time that is earlier than the effect in order to be a proper cause. If they happened simultaneously, then it would be arbitrary to designate one as the cause and the other as the effect. And obviously if the “effect” happens first, then the “cause” didn’t cause it.

      What this means is that if time exists at all, then it must exist in an uncaused state, because there is no point in time that can be earlier than the beginning of time. Since time itself is the “effect,” and there’s no moment earlier in time when any cause could have operated, it is necessarily the case that time must be uncaused.

      The gap between a skeptical understanding of “necessary be-ing” and the theistic understanding of Necessary and Supreme Being is a gap formed by the difference between superstition and its absence. Skeptics are capable of understanding necessary being in terms of a set of conditions, which is what lies at the end of the chain of causality. Believers can’t follow logic that far because they get hung up on trying to find a way to justify superstition, so they get stuck on the idea of a “necessary” Creator. And skeptics can’t see why, because they lack the superstition that makes it both “obvious” and necessary to the believer.

      1. Susannah

        Thank you!

        For example, the cause-and-effect relationship is a chronological relationship: the cause must occur at some point in time that is earlier than the effect in order to be a proper cause. If they happened simultaneously, then it would be arbitrary to designate one as the cause and the other as the effect. And obviously if the “effect” happens first, then the “cause” didn’t cause it.

        Yes. You said this, some time ago, and it makes sense to me.

        I used to talk quite a bit with Buddhists, who painstakingly explained that causes have causes, and these causes have other causes, which have their own causes, and so on. But they always ended up with an infinity of causes, and never a First Cause, like Christian apologists come up with, and I couldn’t see how to logically break that chain.

        What this means is that if time exists at all, then it must exist in an uncaused state, because there is no point in time that can be earlier than the beginning of time.

        That works.

        Thinking “out loud”: believers are doing the same here as they do with science. They start with the conclusion: there must be a Creator: and then work out a rationale that sounds convincing if you don’t think about it too much. So here: God exists, and has no beginning: therefore “He” can’t be contingent, so some sort of twisting about is needed to make it sound as if they have a proof. As long as you don’t think about it.

        Another way of putting it, I think, is that things are the way they are because they arise from a set of conditions, the laws of space and time, for example. That seems clear enough to me. But a Christian has trouble with the vocabulary; “Law” is a pronouncement made by some authority, rather than a formulation of how things work. For a believer, you can’t have a law without a law-giver, or the world would disintegrate, so they have to poof him into the equations somehow.

        So I’ve been trying to make sense of what wasn’t intended to make sense, a “Truthiness”, invented only to fill the gap between what is and what they think they need.

        I think I’m less confused already. Thanks again.

  6. 6
    Susannah

    Besides, isn’t “necessary” somewhat of a weasel word, in that it has the simple meaning of uncaused, having its existence in itself, and the meaning in everyday speech of something that can’t be dispensed with. Isn’t there a jump from one meaning to the other somewhere in the discussion?

  7. 7
    Owlmirror

    While the OP may be true as a general underlying rationale, I suspect that many theists like presuppositionalism because it gives them a “script” of rhetorical face-slappings they can use against their interlocutors. They just ignore or reject counterarguments, and continue with their script.

    And of course, they’re conflating the abstract concepts of the logically necessary, the physically necessary, . . . and their personal God. Basic reality, and Yahweh are the same thing, because they say so.

    Which allows them to smugly say things like denying God is like denying reality, and therefore atheists are the delusional ones, nyah.

    Of course, having a script means they don’t have to actually think about anything they’re saying. If the atheist points out that the godbot is not making sense, the script lets them say that making sense belongs to God, or nonsense to that effect.

  8. 8
    Mal Adapted

    Deacon Duncan:

    That’s what makes the spirits “necessary.” The believer’s whole worldview, their whole understanding of how life works, is built out of superstitiously-perceived relationships between real-world events and hidden, supernatural purposes. At the foundation of their logic lies the necessity that these supernatural beings exist, in order to supply the intentions that make everything work the way they think it does.

    I’ve been puzzled by this attitude in believers that I’ve interacted with, and your explanation makes sense. In fact, it may explain some of my own mistaken understanding, before my training in science (especially in evolutionary biology) was sufficiently advanced. Once I understood that the properties of matter and energy (or “the laws of space and time” per Susannah) supply all the information needed to create complex systems like organisms, and even me, intention was clearly unnecessary.

    Misanthroptimist:

    …God is necessary NOT [just?] because “He is needed to give meaning to the superstition that the believer lives by”, but rather because He is needed to give importance and meaning to *themselves*.

    This is important! It would be much easier for believers to let go of belief, if their emotional well-being didn’t depend on it. Freedom from superstition requires a willingness to recognize one’s comforting illusions, even if it means living without comfort. I still think Dawkins summed it up best:

    The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.

    No comfort there!

  9. 9
    skepticali

    @Susannah
    I’m not convinced that the Big Bang is uncaused – but I have no way of knowing, so I just don’t offer up an explanation where I have none. Supposedly the Big Bang Theory just addresses “the observable universe”, so the field is wide open for sane physical explanations to be developed, once we have the tools and techniques.

    1. 9.1
      Susannah

      True. I like that we can say “we don’t know”, and wait for further information.

  10. 10
    skepticali

    @BecomingJulie
    “…no test you could do…”
    Yes – I think you’re right about trying to “LHC” our way to greater understanding of the origin of the universe – there is no doubt a limit to direct experimentation due to energy requirements, Planck units etc. We’d be forced to start looking elsewhere for the telltale signs of a multiverse, or cyclic universe, or massive pan-dimensional snack cake, or Invisible Pink Unicorn (PBUH).

  11. 11
    BecomingJulie

    Isn’t this just an elaborate mid-sentence redefinition fallacy?

    In the definitions of “necessary being” and “contingent being”, the word “necessary” is being used in a particular sense. A contingent being is one that requires another being to exist. A necessary being is one that does not require any other being to exist; but — confusingly, because it looks like the exact opposite of the common usage of “necessary” — that is not to say that any other being actually requires it to exist. It may well be both first and last in a chain of dependencies.

    The argument then relies on the audience supposing that “necessary being” means a being that is required to exist, as opposed to a being that can exist in its own right and does not depend upon the existence of any other being.

    1. 11.1
      Deacon Duncan

      Well, the broader discussion is a kind of First Cause argument: if contingent beings exist, then some other being must also exist, upon which the contingent being is contingent. If that other being is itself contingent upon some third being, then we’ve got a chain of causality from the third back to the second, back to the first being we originally considered. The idea is that if you follow this chain of contingency back far enough, you’ll arrive at the necessary being whose existence is required by all the contingent beings, and the chain stops there because the necessary being is not contingent on any other being. Superstitious believers stop at God being the necessary being because they’re only looking for beings in the sense of “persons” rather than looking beyond that to see what the existence of persons is contingent on.

      It would be conceivable that there might exist some kind of being upon which nothing else depended and which was itself dependent on nothing else. It might even be possible for a chain of contingency to loop around back upon itself, so that if you followed it far enough you ended up right back where you started. But those are both alternatives to the idea of a chain of contingent beings leading back to some one necessary being.

      1. BecomingJulie

        Yes, if you are to break the infinite regression of causes, you need to accept that the first thing that happened in the history of the universe could not have had a cause. But that is pretty much by definition, anyway: if it had a cause, then it could not be the first thing.

        If you say “necessary entity” and “contingent entity” as opposed to “necessary being” and “contingent being”, it makes it more obvious that we are not limiting ourselves to person-like beings. But that is a matter of terminology, and probably less important that the use of “necessary” beyond its common meaning (which I now see Susannah also mentioned up in post 6).

        What apologists can’t do is bride the gap from showing that something happened without a cause, to saying that this “something happening” must be, not only God, but one particular variant among hundreds of millions thereof. They just seem to wave it away and hope no-one notices.

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