Monday, August 21, 2023

Creation ex Nihilo

 Leon Felipe has a paper, The Problem of Creation ex Nihilo: A New Argument Against Classical Theism (PDF); the title is a very poor title, because the argument is not even remotely new and it is not actually against classical theism but (as one might expect) against an account of creation. But there are some interesting things about material causes in it.

The argument Felipe gives is:

1. All concrete objects that have an originating or sustaining efficient cause have an originating or sustaining material cause, respectively. 

2. If classical theism combined with a classical doctrine of creation is true, then the universe is a concrete object that has an originating or sustaining efficient cause with neither an originating nor a sustaining material cause. 

3. Therefore, classical theism combined with a classical doctrine of creation is false.

It is odd to talk of a material cause being 'originating' (and Felipe's account of 'originating' and 'sustaining' is not very helpful in this respect), but I take that 'originating material cause' is Felipe's name for the material cause out-of-which; that is, the material presupposed by a change. As Felipe paraphrases 1, which he calls the principle of material causality (PMC), all made things are made from other things. It is likewise odd to talk of the universe as a 'concrete object'; Felipe complicates it further by apparently identifying 'concrete objects' as substances. It seems very problematic to take the universe to be a substance in any of the usual philosophical senses of 'substance'; indeed, I think it is straightforwardly false. Exactly what the cosmos is, is a tricky question, but a substance in any proper sense it is not.

Felipe should actually do more work in clarifying 'efficient cause' in this context; strictly speaking, in matters where PMC is relevant, we are only speaking of the moving cause, causa motiva, the cause of change in the Aristotelian sense of 'change'. Depending on exactly how we use the terms, we can count moving causes as a kind of efficient cause, but precisely the reason why Avicenna introduced the concept of an efficient (i.e., making) cause was to talk about possible cases of non-motive causation to which PMC might not be relevant because the result was not an Aristotelian change. Creation ex nihilo was in fact a major such case.

The result is that anyone who accepts the doctrine of creation ex nihilo can accept PMC for moving causes; they would just deny that it is relevant to all causation, and in particular to the kind that is called 'creation'. Felipe puts a very large amount of work into arguing that PMC is plausible; it is indeed plausible for a very large domain of things. But the question at hand is whether it is relevant to every possible kind of causal situation; you can't just assume that it is without begging the question. None of Felipe's arguments get us a stronger result than that PMC applies to a lot of things; to do so they would have to show that it is impossible to have situations of originating and sustaining to which PMC does not apply. This would simply be equivalent to proving directly that creation ex nihilo is conceptually impossible. 

Felipe does some handwaving by arguing that the arguments for PMC are "burden-shifting", but this is the laziest form of lazy; the explicit promise was for an argument against the classical doctrine of creation, which includes creation ex nihilo, and what was actually delivered was an argument for a principle whose relevance to this particular case at all is the whole point in dispute. "Burden-shifting epistemic grounds", even if they were actually burden-shifting -- which Felipe has not shown, because the only grounds that would actually be burden-shifting would be grounds for thinking that PMC is completely universal, which Felipe has not delivered -- do not establish that anything is metaphysically impossible, and therefore it is, pace Felipe, entirely reasonable for a proponent of creation ex nihilo to point out that we are talking about God omnipotent, so if we don't actually have in hand reason to think that an exception to a principle is literally impossible, we seem to have a cause that could deliver the exception. And if anyone is question-begging here, it is Felipe, not the proponent of ex nihilo, because we are in a context where we are supposed to be talking about arguments against doctrines of creation ex nihilo, not a context in which we are talking about the reasons for accepting a doctrine of creation ex nhilo. Pointing out that Felipe has not actually shown that omnipotence requires a material cause for its effects is entirely relevant. Much the same can be said of most of Felipe's responses to other non-concessive objections (i.e., arguments that hold that there is reason to think that PMC is not completely universal); he completely loses track of what he's actually supposed to be putting on the table, and therefore most of his responses could simply be denied by the proponent of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo simply saying, "I don't think that's necessarily the case; certainly, you have not established that it is so." It's perfectly legitimate to point out that a promised refutation has not been delivered. (A related problem is that Felipe regularly abuses the concept of a 'defeater'; he calls things 'defeaters' that quite clearly are not defeaters because they could at the very most optimistic assessment be reasons to doubt, which is not at all the same. A defeater has to actually provide a prima facie rebuttal or undercutting of the very thing that is said to be defeated. But Felipe's main arguments are oblique.)

Unsurprisingly, people who hold a doctrine of creation ex nihilo have arguments for it. Setting aside arguments from revelation, there are arguments based on the claim that essence is to existence as potential to actual, and that on this basis we can argue for a source of the actuality in anything whose essence is not necessarily actual, and that this is not the kind of causal situation in which an out-of-which material cause is relevant. Likewise, although they can get rather complicated, you can have arguments that the universe has a temporal beginning and is contingent, thus requiring a cause where there can be no material cause. And, as pointed out above, one could very well deny that the cosmos itself is a 'concrete object' in the relevant sense, thus rejecting (2), regardless of the status of (1). But none of these are really considered by Felipe in the detail that would be required.

In any case, there is nothing 'new' about this argument; the doctrine of creation ex nihilo was formulated by people like Avicenna and Saadia Gaon by arguing directly against the universality of PMC (that's the whole point of the 'ex nihilo'!), so arguing that PMC is universal is literally the oldest argument against creation ex nihilo. It is, as it were, the founding objection.

Felipe ends the paper by considering whether classical theism without the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is interesting; he doesn't think so, but really all this section does is underline the obvious point that the title is misleading and that the argument is not an argument against classical theism.