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Peter van Inwagen and Uncreated Beings

November 07, 2010     Time: 00:18:40
Peter van Inwagen and Uncreated Beings


William Lane Craig discusses God and uncreated beings.

Transcript Peter van Inwagen and Uncreated Beings


Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, in our last podcast an issue came up about abstract objects, numbers: are they real, are they not real, are they somehow anchored in the mind of God? And this is an area that you work on. You submitted an article to the Oxford Studies in the Philosophy of Religion replying to Peter van Inwagen on God and other uncreated beings.

Dr. Craig: Peter van Inwagen is one of America's most prominent metaphysicians – highly respected and widely published – and a brilliant Christian philosopher of religion, as well. He is at the University of Notre Dame. And he's done very creative work in problems of identity, constitution, temporal duration, free will, problem of evil, and other areas. And one of the metaphysical issues that Peter van Inwagen deals with is the existence of abstract objects, like numbers and properties. Now, this is something that the average person doesn’t think about, but people who deal in metaphysics are very concerned about. In addition to concrete objects—like people and chairs and galaxies, and so forth (although, actually, Peter doesn't think those are real objects either; he thinks they're just conglomerations of particles, except for people—he thinks people really exist as objects. But I digress.) – the question is: in addition to these concrete objects are there things that are abstract objects, things like numbers? Do you think the number two exists, for example?

Kevin Harris: So a coin, a penny, in my hand would be a concrete existence.

Dr. Craig: Yes, and when you say there's one coin in your hand, you posited the existence of the coin in your hand, but is there also something called 'one,' is there a number one that exists? Well, certain philosophers think so, and these are usually called Platonists, after Plato, who thought that these abstract objects do exist and indeed are more real than the concrete world, or sometimes they're called realists about abstract objects. And Peter van Inwagen is a realist. He says in this article to which I'm responding that he would very much like to be a nominalist – that is to say someone who thinks there are no abstract objects – but he says I just can't see how to be one. He feels rationally compelled to embrace realism.

Kevin Harris: Would the laws of logic be abstract objects?

Dr. Craig: They could be in the sense that they would be propositions, true propositions that would exist and be abstract in nature—they're obviously not a concrete object.

Kevin Harris: You can't touch, taste, smell or feel the law of non-contradiction.

Dr. Craig: No, that's right, it nevertheless exists. And when I say a concrete object I don't necessarily mean a material object. For example, an angel or a soul would also be a concrete object. It's difficult to understand what exactly the difference between abstract and concrete is, but there seems to be a consensus among philosophers that the defining characteristic of an abstract object is its causal impotence—it is causally effete, it does not and cannot stand in any causal relations to any effects.

Kevin Harris: The number seven can't cause anything.

Dr. Craig: Exactly, it has no effects at all, whereas an angel or a soul, even though immaterial obviously can have causal effects, and so they're concrete – God would be concrete – whereas a number or a property, like the property of being blue, would be an abstract object. And van Inwagen is convinced that there are these abstract objects that really exist. And this troubles him as a Christian because if these things exist its plausible to think that they exist necessarily and that they are not created by anything, they just exist necessarily. And so he asks himself the question at the beginning of the article: how can I, as a confessing Christian, say the Nicene Creed sincerely when it says, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and earth and of all things, visible and invisible”? You see, abstract objects, if they exist, would seem to be included among the things invisible. And so how can I, as a Christian, van Inwagen says, say the Nicene Creed and not be duplicitous when I say it, if I believe there are these uncreated abstract objects? And I think that's a very good question. [1] I think that's a very powerful question for any orthodox Christian.

Kevin Harris: And there seems to be Scriptural support that all things visible and invisible . . .

Dr. Craig: Exactly, if you're not a Christian who is in a liturgical setting who recites the creed in services, but you are a Bible believing Christian, you have to come to grips with what the Gospel of John says in chapter one and verse 3: all things came into being through the Word, which was with God in the beginning, and was God; all things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being, John says. So that would raise the same problem: if all things came into being through the Word then how can you think that there are these abstract objects, indeed an infinite multitude of these things, that exist just as uncreatedly and eternally as God himself?

Kevin Harris: I want to take a quick side road based on something that you said earlier. I run into this objection quite often: how can something immaterial interact with something material? And one example that, I guess, if you see the movie Ghost, Patrick Swayze is a ghost, and he's trying to stop the guy who's after his wife and is in fact going to murder her, but he can't do anything because he's immaterial. And so he just falls right through the guy, and he can't communicate with his wife. Well eventually he learns how somehow to do this.

Dr. Craig: Isn't it through mental connections—is that how he does it? I don't remember the movie well, but isn't it through . . . he contacts her through his mind, or something?

Kevin Harris: I'm trying to think back through the movie, too. I think he got with some ghosts who had been ghosts a lot longer than he had, and they figured out how to do it, and they showed him how to do it.

Dr. Craig: Yeah, it would seem to me that it would have to be a sort of mental connection through the soul, because we believe that minds can have physical effects in the body, that the relationship between soul and body is not a one-way street of the body simply affecting the soul, but that the soul can also effect the body by causing basic actions in the body through willing, through volition. But that's very different than this causal inertness of abstract objects, which have no causal powers whatsoever.

Kevin Harris: So what is your response to him? What are some things that you try to point out?

Dr. Craig: Well, let me first share what his response is to the question about “How can I recite the Nicene Creed sincerely?” His answer is that when the Nicene Creed says God is the creator of all things visible and invisible, the way he puts it as a philosopher is that the domain of the universal quantifier is restricted. It's as though I say “There's nothing in the refrigerator.” And I don't mean there isn't any radiation, there isn't any air, there aren't any molecules—I mean there's no food in the refrigerator; I'm speaking of a limited domain. Or when I say “everybody came to the party” I don't mean the people in Tashkent came to the party, or Kyrgyzstan. I mean that everybody in our circle of acquaintances was there. So the domain is restricted.

Kevin Harris: By the way, there's always a jar of mustard in the refrigerator. So you can't say that.

Dr. Craig: [laughter] So when the Nicene Creed says God is the maker of all things visible and invisible what van Inwagen says is that the authors of the Nicene Creed are thinking only of concrete objects that stand in causal relations, things like angels and souls are among the things invisible, and then the things visible would be the material realm. And so the domain here is restricted and they're not talking about abstract objects, therefore the framers of Nicaea would be quite happy, or at least it would consistent with their intention, to say that there are uncreated abstract objects. Now, what I maintain, Kevin, is that that is a completely unjustified exegesis of the Nicene Creed. Van Inwagen's claim is a claim about the meaning of the creedal statement, not whether or not we can give an interpretation to it – how there are to be abstract objects that are unmade by God – rather it’s about the meaning of the creed. And in order to determine that you have to do a serious historical, grammatical exegesis of the statement. And when you look at the statements of the church fathers or the anti-Nicene church fathers leading up to the council I think that it is very plausible that the church fathers believed that God and God alone is uncreated. They use the word agenitas to describe God, it means uncreated, [2] he never came into being, and everything else, they said, is genitas, created, or came into being. So for the church fathers it's not difficult to show that they were unanimous, everyone who addressed the question were unanimous in saying that God alone is uncreated and eternal, and that everything else is derivative from God. And so I think the domain of their quantifiers was utterly unrestricted. When they said that God is the creator of all things, visible and invisible, they meant simply everything. Now, that doesn't mean that they had abstract objects in mind when they wrote that—they, doubtless, weren't thinking about those. But that's not the question. The question is: did they mean that God alone is uncreated, and everything else, whatever that might include, that we don't know about, whatever there is, those things were created by God. And I think a very good case can be made that they meant that quantifier to be unrestricted and truly boundless apart from God himself. And in fact, Kevin, I found numerous statements in the church fathers where they actually address the question of what we would call abstract objects – things like numbers and properties – because one of the principal pagan philosophies at that time was Pythagoreanism. And Pythagoreanism posited numbers as the ultimate reality, and everything else was derivative from them, particularly they thought the number one was the true agenitas, the unbegotten, uncreated thing, and all other numbers flowed out of the number one as multiples of it. And so Pythagorean philosophy thought of numbers in this very realist sense, as actual metaphysical entities that exist, and were uncreated. And the fathers who dealt with it rejected Pythagoreanism and said the one uncreated thing is not a number—it's God, he is the one uncreated thing. And similarly when they addressed the problem of properties – which in ancient Greek philosophy were called accidents, things were called substances and properties were called accidents – again, the church fathers would say these accidents don't have any reality independently of God. So insofar as they did address these questions about numbers and properties they did not think of these as uncreated objects—God alone was uncreated. So I think for the Christian who is really serious about Biblical revelation and about the creedal statements, we've got to find some alternative to Platonic realism if we're to adhere to biblical and creedal orthodoxy.

Kevin Harris: Again, the best way to describe an abstract object is that it is something that does not stand in causal relation with anything else—it can't cause anything. Because I've had to clarify my thinking on it, and that is, I always thought the only defining feature of abstract objects was that they were immaterial.

Dr. Craig: That is a common view.

Kevin Harris: Yeah.

Dr. Craig: But by non-theists and non-dualists who don't think there are minds or souls or angels, or God,

Kevin Harris: Yeah, because that would include God, that would make God an abstract object if immateriality was the only thing, because God is immaterial. But God does stand in causal relations, and immaterial things can, so that's why we've pared down the definition to – what? – immaterial things which do not stand in causal relation?

Dr. Craig: Which cannot stand in causal relations.

Kevin Harris: Which cannot.

Dr. Craig: They have no causal powers.

Kevin Harris: What do you think – in conclusion, today – Bill, that, when the Scriptures say that God not only brought everything into being, but that he sustains all things by his power? I can see how molecules and the universe and the sun and stars would need his sustenance, and all of us would perhaps go out of existence were it not for his sustaining power. But now you've got me thinking about abstract objects. And if they somehow flow from God does he sustain them into existence as well? [laughter]

Dr. Craig: That's a really good question, and it depends on what you think they are. Traditionally, medieval theologians would've identified these things as ideas in the mind of God. They took Plato's realm of the Forms or the Ideas and they internalized it and said, what these things are are God's ideas. And so they exist, but not as independent realities, they're generated by the mind of God. And this could have even been in the background of John's thinking in the Gospel of John when he identifies Christ as the Logos, or the Word of God, because when you look at middle Platonism – that type of Platonic philosophy that existed in the first century, and particularly the work Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher who was a middle Platonist [3] – he believed that the Logos is the mind of God and the seat of the divine ideas, and that these serve as a kind of blueprint or architectural plan or model on which, then, the physical world is built. And he uses the word Logos to describe this means by which God created the world. And it is not at all implausible that John had this Philonic Logos concept in mind when he wrote the Gospel of John.

Kevin Harris: In conclusion, Bill, what do you think that means for God to sustain everything by his power?

Dr. Craig: Well, it would mean that somehow God is the ground of being of everything else such that if God didn't exist everything else would simply be annihilated—that's the theological term. Creation is God's bringing things into being; annihilation would be God's ceasing to sustain them in existence so they simply disappear because he is necessary as their ground of being, to sustain them. Most of my work as a Christian philosopher, Kevin, has focused more on the notion of God's creation, that is to say his initial bringing things into being, but an important part of Christian theology is also the doctrine of divine conservation, that God sustains things in being, as well. This is an area of philosophy of religion that I have not delved into in any great extent – I've written a little bit on divine conservation – but my primary focus has been on divine creation.

Kevin Harris: Thank you, Dr. Craig, and we want to thank you so much for listening. And we have more resources on this topic at So be sure and browse there. And there's something very exciting going on at Reasonable Faith that I want to tell you about. We have received a one-hundred thousand dollar matching grant from a small group of generous donors. That means your support today will go twice as far to help equip believers, defend biblical Christianity, and reach people all over the world. Whatever you give today will be matched up to one-hundred thousand dollars. Listen to this letter we got from a student:

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