God's Attribute of Aseity
Dr. Craig's current work concerns God's Aseity. What is it and how important is it to understanding God's nature and existence?
God's Attribute of Aseity
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, you schedule your year in such a way that you spend some time writing and reading and don't take any speaking engagements or travel engagements.
Dr. Craig: Not many, anyway, during that time.
Kevin Harris: Is it your typical way of arranging your year; you have to have a certain amount of time to study?
Dr. Craig: I do need blocks of time, Kevin, for serious study and writing. I find it very difficult in between traveling trips to try to get in serious writing or study time. And so I try to schedule my speaking between January and June, the second semester of the academic year, and then between June and December I try to set that apart for serious study and writing, and will take only certain exceptional speaking engagements during that time such as the Evangelical Philosophical Society conferences in November that I attend every year. But I try to keep that time blocked off so that I can get some serious work done.
Kevin Harris: What are you working on right now?
Dr. Craig: I'm continuing to work on my project of a philosophical analysis of God's attribute called aseity, or his self-existence. And the principle challenge to the classic doctrine of divine aseity – which holds that God and God alone is a self-existent being, that all else that exists derives its being from God – the principle challenge to that view, as I say, is a philosophy called Platonism, which says that there are certain abstract uncreated objects, like numbers or other mathematical objects, properties, propositions and so forth, and these objects exist eternally and uncreatedly and therefore independently of God. So that on Platonism God is not in fact the metaphysical pinnacle of reality. Instead you have a kind of metaphysical pluralism where there are infinite numbers of uncreated self-existent beings. And it's important for our listeners to understand that on Platonism these abstract objects exist just as really and robustly as do concrete objects like chairs and people and horses and trees and so forth. Even though these objects are not material objects, and many of them probably don't exist in space or in time, nevertheless Platonists think that the number 2, for example, is a real object. It is a mind independent thing that actually exists, indeed exists necessarily and independently of God. And so the defender of classical theism needs to have some sort of a response to Platonism and the challenge that it poses to divine aseity.
Kevin Harris: Is this reflected in your work in the new Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity when you worked on God and abstract objects?
Dr. Craig: Yes, when Jim Stump and Alan Padgett approached me about making a contribution to the Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity they initially asked me to write on God and cosmology, but having coauthored the article on the kalam cosmological argument in the Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology with James Sinclair I thought that I would have little to add to what was already in that article which was in another Blackwell Companion. So I said to Jim Stump, “How about letting me do something that flows out of my current research that is as yet unpublished, it would be fresh material, and it would be on how one would deal with the mathematical objects that are postulated in scientific theories to exist? How are we to regard these things? How can we reconcile these things with the existence of a self-existent God?” And so they said I could write on that. And so the article is rather different in the volume in that it stands rather apart from empirical science and deals more with the metaphysical implications of scientific theories in their use of mathematics.
Kevin Harris: I know that so many are looking forward to reading it. How does aseity relate to some of the things that Leibniz wrote on?
Dr. Craig: I think that Leibniz conceived of God to be the only self-existent being. And the way Leibniz would express it is by saying that God carries within himself the sufficient reason for his own existence; he exists by a necessity of his own nature. And Leibniz believed that everything other than God exists contingently. And the explanation or ground of being for these entities lies outside themselves in external causes and ultimately in God as the sufficient reason for the existence of everything, not only of all created things but even of himself in the sense that he exists by a necessity of his own nature. So it connects very closely with the contingency argument for the existence of God. The contingency argument will argue for the existence of God on the basis of contingent beings in the universe. And what the Platonist says is that in addition to all of these contingent objects there are these necessarily existent, uncreated but non-divine objects as well, like numbers, sets, functions, and other mathematical objects.
Kevin Harris: And, again, the tension with God's aseity would be, in regards to Platonism, that God wouldn't be ultimate, that there would be things coequal with him.
Dr. Craig: Well, we don't need to say they would be coequal because certainly a number isn't equal to God.
Kevin Harris: I'm sorry; coexistent.
Dr. Craig: Yes, coexistent; that's correct. A number wouldn't be coequal with God in that a number has no powers, it's not omniscient, it's not morally good, so it's clearly not equal to God. But it is, as you say, just as ultimate in its being as God. These leads to a kind of metaphysical pluralism where rather than having being as a sort of pyramid that comes to it's pinnacle in God as the source of all being other than himself you have just a sort of thicket, I guess, I don't know how else to describe it, where you just have infinities of infinities of infinities of uncreated self-existent beings.
Kevin Harris: Wow; it boggles the mind. There's a new Four Views that you'll be participating in on this?
Dr. Craig: Yes, this sprang out of the symposium that was published this past year in Philosophia Christi and edited by Paul Gould who is a young Christian philosopher that recently finished his work at Purdue University. Paul edited this issue of Philosophia Christi that featured articles on this problem from different perspectives facing this challenge. And it was such a success that Paul has now secured a contract for a book on this subject where we will have I believe six views represented in the book, and we will then give interactions with the other participants in the book. So it will be a very dialogical book where we get a chance to interact with each other's views. And this book will include not only theists who want to defend the aseity of God against the challenge of Platonism, but it's also going to include Graham Oppy who is a very fine atheist philosopher from Australia who, I'm not certain of his exact position but I anticipate, is going to take the position that these abstract objects do exist and are independent of God and uncreated by him.
Kevin Harris: I often hear the term “neo-Platonism.” What is the contrast between Platonism and neo-Platonism?
Dr. Craig: Well, now normally the phrase “neo-” in front of a view suggests some recent development, but in this case neo-Platonic thought flourished in the first few centuries after Christ. Plato was a few centuries before Christ, but a few centuries after Christ there arose a sort of offshoot of Platonism called neo-Platonism which conceived of ultimate reality to be a single unity called The One, which was indescript, you couldn't ascribe any properties to it, it was just a sort of unity that was the source of all reality. And this One didn't create the world, rather the world emanated out of the being of The One in a sort of falling stair step fashion. The first being to emanate out of The One was the Nous or the mind and this would be a kind of self-conscious God-like being which emanated out of The One. And then what emanated out of the Nous is the world, and then on down to the material things in the world. It was an attempt to explain how the material world could emanate out of the being of The One itself. So it's not what Plato thought but it is a very, very influential philosophy in the history of thought. But it's not related to the subject that I'm working on – divine aseity.
Kevin Harris: What are some of the views within divine aseity that would differ?
Dr. Craig: Well, the most obvious solution to the problem would be to adopt what is sometimes called absolute creationism. And that would say that, yes, these Platonic objects exist, but God created them. Even if they are created from eternity past they are still ontologically dependent upon God, and even if they're necessary in their being in the sense that in every possible world God creates the natural numbers nevertheless these things are ontologically dependent upon God and therefore not self-existent. Now that is the most obvious and congenial solution to the problem. You just affirm both aseity and Platonism and you say that these abstract objects are created by God. The problem is that absolute creationism faces a very severe vicious circle problem or bootstrapping objection, as it's sometimes called. Namely, in order to create some of these abstract objects it would seem that God would already have to have these abstract objects in advance. Let me give you a very clear example. Take the property of being powerful. This is a property that we all have, you have a certain degree of power, I have power. So let's imagine that power or being powerful is a property, an abstract object, to which you stand in an exemplification relationship, you exemplify the property of being powerful. Now could God create the property of being powerful? Well, the problem is in order to create the property of being powerful God would already need to be powerful. If he didn't have any power he couldn't create the property of being powerful. So he would already have to have the property of being powerful in order to create the property of being powerful. And thus you're caught in a viscous circle. So it seems that some of these objects are simply uncreatable because their creation would already presuppose their existence.
Kevin Harris: Yeah, it can get convoluted because we're often taught in theology that even God cannot give what God doesn't have, and yet God has everything. [laughter] A vicious cycle.
Dr. Craig: Well, it's viciously circular.
Kevin Harris: Yeah, that God couldn't have the property and then create the property; he already had it.
Dr. Craig: Exactly; that's the vicious circle.
Kevin Harris: God already possessed these things.
Dr. Craig: Well, if you think that properties exist.
Kevin Harris: Ah.
Dr. Craig: If you're a Platonist. But you see the absolute creationist does believe properties exist.
Kevin Harris: Okay.
Dr. Craig: Where you run into trouble is where you affirm that these things exist and that God has created them, because in order to create them he would already have to have them, in some cases. And therefore it's very difficult to find anybody who will defend absolute creationism today. Paul Gould in looking for a defender for the four views symposium and book hasn't been able to turn up any. And so this problem is widely recognized as being a really severe difficulty for the absolute creationist. Another view would be conceptualism, and this is the classical position taken by Christian theologians. Very early on in church history the church fathers recognized the incompatibility of these abstract objects with the existence of God. And therefore they took the Platonic realm of ideas and they moved them into the divine mind. They said these are not independently existing objects external to God, these are simply God's ideas. And particularly they located them in the Logos, or the Word of God, which is spoken of in John chapter one where John says in the beginning was the Word, or the Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God. And here, I guess, it does connect with neo-Platonism, Kevin, because neo-Platonic thinkers like Philo of Alexandria, first century Jewish philosopher, located the Platonic realm of ideas in the Logos, in the mind of God. And these early Christian thinkers – like Tatian, Athenagoras, Justin Martyr, and so forth – did exactly the same things. And so St. Augustine, for example, says that the Platonic realm of ideas exists as the divine ideas and they don't have any independent reality of God. So on this view these abstract objects are not independently existing realities, rather they're simply ideas in the mind of God.
Kevin Harris: Which of these views best describes your view, Bill?
Dr. Craig: Neither. [laughter] I had initially thought that I would go the conceptualist route because I knew this was the dominate view from Augustine to Ockham. But as I began to read the modern literature on this subject I began to see that even conceptualism concedes too much, I think, to the Platonist. I don't see any good reason to think that these abstract objects exist at all. It seems to me very plausible that many of these are just artifacts of language that don't really have corresponding realities in the world, and that in many cases they're just useful fictions, not things that actually exist. And in scientific theories we have abundant examples of these sorts of useful fictions; they are often called idealizations where you have a sort of ideal object that can't and doesn't really exist, but it's a useful fiction for a scientific theory. An example would be ideal gases and ideal liquids which are thought to be composed of points, which no real gas or liquid is, but the behavior of real gases does approximate the behavior of these ideal gases and therefore they can serve as a useful tool, a useful fiction, for modeling real gases or liquids. Or another example would be the frictionless plane. We know that any physical plane will have some friction on it when you roll an object down it, but you can have this idealization of a frictionless plane in order to do certain sorts of theorizing about mechanics. So science is familiar with the notion of useful fictions which don't really exist but are useful for doing scientific theorizing. And it seems to me very plausible that things like numbers, for example, and perhaps propositions and properties, are also similarly just useful fictions, they're just manners of speaking but should not be pressed for literally referring to things in the world out there.
Kevin Harris: Wow. What would this view be called then?
Dr. Craig: Well, now that's a very good question, Kevin. In contemporary literature it is usually called nominalism. The problem is – as our theologically astute listeners will know – nominalism in the history of theology is a rather dirty word. It is often associated with the denial that things are essentially certain ways, that things have essential properties, and that therefore there are no necessary truths about the way things are. And modern nominalism is not at all like that, it's not speaking to those issues that nominalism in the history of theology does. So I am becoming rather averse to embracing the name nominalism. One might use the word anti-realism or anti-Platonism, instead; though that is rather negative, it characterizes the view by what it's against. So there is a name for this view that was proposed by a Polish logician in the last century named Twardowski, and he used the word concretism to describe the view; that is to say every object that exists is a concrete object, there are no abstract objects. So concretism is a rather nice name, I think, for this view.
Kevin Harris: As we conclude today, neo-Meinongianism; what in the world is that?
Dr. Craig: Well, that's one of the other alternatives. We talked about absolute creationism, we talked about conceptualism, we talked about concretism. Neo-Meinongianism is a really strange alternative to these which says that there are abstract objects alright. When I use the word “the square root of nine” or I use the term “two” I am referring to an object, but what the neo-Meinongianism says is that these are non-existent objects. So that there are things that do not exist. So the neo-Meinongian’s view is that there are all the existent objects that we're familiar with, but in addition to that there are infinitely more objects that do not exist, and there are all these non-existent objects, too. And contemporary neo-Meinongians include abstract objects among the things that do not exist. So in addition to things like the square-circle and the golden mountain, there would also be things like the number 2, the set of all odd numbers, and so forth.
Kevin Harris: In your presentations that God is a person you often refer to: there are only two things we know of that fit a conceptual analysis of what could begin all space, time and material: abstract objects and unembodied minds. And I'm wondering how all this comes into play when you refer to abstract objects in that you say, they don't have any causal effect, they don't cause anything, the number 7 doesn't cause anything. And so we can rule that out and we're left with something on the order of mind. So your views dovetail into a defense of abstract objects as you're defending the personality of the personhood of God.
Dr. Craig: They do relate in that this dilemma, either an abstract object or an unembodied mind, came to me as a result of my current work on abstract objects and my reflections on them. It seemed to me that the conclusion of the kalam argument – that there is a timeless, spaceless, immaterial entity – is a perfect description of an abstract object, but, as you say, it is typically held that abstract objects are causally impotent, they have no causal powers, that is part of the definition of what it means to be abstract, as opposed to concrete. And therefore they cannot be the cause of the universe. So rather than rule out the alternative of abstract objects by saying, well, Platonism is false, that would be too easy, to controversial. Rather what I do is I say even given Platonism these cannot be what accounts for the origin of the universe because the Platonist like everyone else agrees that abstract objects are causally effete, they have no causal powers. So whether they exist or not is just irrelevant, they cannot be the cause of the beginning of the universe.
Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, bless you and your work. We're going to finish up these podcasts, so you can get back at it!
Dr. Craig: Okay, thank you, Kevin.
 Total Running Time: 23:16 (Copyright © 2012 William Lane Craig)