Arbitrariness

One classical argument for God’s existence is the cosmological argument – everything that begins to exist has a cause, blah blah blah. The typical skeptical rebuttal often looks like this: who created God? Typical theistic response: no one. There are ensuing cries of arbitrariness, etc, etc. I’m looking at here not at the argument as a whole but at the idea of whether or not defining God as uncreated is arbitrary.

‘You can’t just say God is uncreated!’

Why not? It’s not just me saying this – this has been a central tenet of the great monotheistic (Christian, Jewish and Islamic) religions since they began. No one is arbitrarily pulling this out of nowhere to sidestep an objection to an argument. Bluntly, my question is this: if something has been claimed by, say, Christianity as one of its central ideas since its birth, can someone be accused of arbitrariness if they use it in an argument? To put it a bit more neatly:

‘Who created God?’

‘No one – according to Christian teaching from the very beginning (and before that, in Hebrew Scriptures and teaching) God is uncreated.’

‘You can’t just define God as uncreated arbitrarily!’

‘But I’m not…this teaching forms a major trajectory in Christian thought. Like it or not, I’m not being arbitrary here.’

So, to repeat, can one be accused of arbitrariness of they take a line like this? Or rather, are they in fact being arbitrary? I don’t think so. If, say, I defined God in such a way that it didn’t accord with any common notion of God, then that would be arbitrary – it would be a departure from the norm. It would seem, then, that failure to define God in accord with Christian teaching/thought would in fact be the arbitrary thing to do here. If I am a Christian, and I don’t hold a notion of God in keeping with the witness and testimony of the Church throughout history, then I am being arbitrary.

While I think this is a valid line of thought, I’m sure it could be tightened up. Criticisms welcome.

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23 thoughts on “Arbitrariness

  1. NotAScientist December 3, 2012 / 10:30 am

    “Christianity as one of its central ideas since its birth, can someone be accused of arbitrariness if they use it in an argument?”

    The central idea is arbitrary.

    The argument is basically silly. (Forgive me, that’s just my opinion of the matter.) Here’s how it looks to me.

    Theist: Everything has a cause, so the universe must have a cause. That cause is God.

    Atheist: What caused God?

    Theist: Nothing.

    Atheist: Then not everything needs a cause. So why can’t the thing without a cause be the universe?

    Theist: Well, we’ll just reword the argument so that it excludes God.

    Which, to me, seems like you’re trying to prove a god’s existence through semantics.

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    • whitefrozen December 3, 2012 / 10:41 am

      I’ll reply more fully later since I’m on mobile – but it should be noted that the argument isn’t ‘everything has a cause’ but rather everything that begins to exist has a cause (or rather, thats one form of the argument. There are others). But at any rate, I’ll reply in more detail tomorrow when i have a day off.

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      • NotAScientist December 3, 2012 / 10:44 am

        “but it should be noted that the argument isn’t ‘everything has a cause’ but rather everything that begins to exist has a caus”

        Right. Which is what I addressed in the last Theist response. Originally, it was ‘everything has a cause’. Then the theists realized that ‘everything’ included their god, so they changed the wording to not include their god.

        Proving existences with words.

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        • whitefrozen December 3, 2012 / 12:02 pm

          Well, it wasnt that originally – the argument has never simply been that everything has a cause. You wont find that in any classical theistic thinker, or in any contemporary thinker.

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          • NotAScientist December 3, 2012 / 12:11 pm

            Well, that’s how it was originally said to me personally.

            Regardless, it seems silly. “I’ve decided/read/been told that everything except this one thing has a cause. So, this one thing that doesn’t have a cause must have caused everything. And therefore it exists.”

            I need evidence. Not word games.

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            • whitefrozen December 3, 2012 / 12:20 pm

              That’s not the argument either – for a detailed breakdown of various aspects of the cosmological argument see the link i posted. There is much more going on in the argument – it is definitely not a matter of simply defining something into existence. Though, aspointed out in the article i linked to, the cosmological arguments rest on metaphysical and not empirical grounds, even if some of them make use of contemporary scientific data.

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              • NotAScientist December 3, 2012 / 12:34 pm

                Yeah, sorry, but an argument is never going to do it for me. Or most non-believers I know. It’s just silly. “This thing exists because words!”. We don’t believe in anything we know is real because of arguments. So why this thing?

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                • whitefrozen December 3, 2012 / 3:43 pm

                  Well, i wouldnt expect an argument like that too work – it wouldnt work for me either. But at any rate, to each his own – the last thing im really worried about is convincing someone of anything. Do continue to comment if something here interests you. Looking forward to further conversation.

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                  • NotAScientist December 3, 2012 / 4:53 pm

                    “Well, i wouldnt expect an argument like that too work”

                    Then it doesn’t have a point of existing.

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                    • whitefrozen December 3, 2012 / 6:05 pm

                      I was referring to the less serious version of the argument you put forward – see your previous post.

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  2. Ryan December 3, 2012 / 2:39 pm

    I’d say that whether the word “arbitrary” describes that argument or not is tough to say. I don’t tend to like dictionary appeals, but the OED has two definitions of arbitrary that, I think, put this problem in focus. The first is “to be decided by one’s liking; dependent upon will or pleasure; at the discretion or option of any one.” I think that’s the definition you’re appealing to, since it could be taken that the argument derives not just from “any one” but rather from a long-standing tradition. The problem, however, is that arbitrariness is not the same thing as unorthodox. It does not mean “departure from the norm,” since the norm itself could be arbitrary. Spelling conventions are arbitrary norms, for example, and appealing to the millions of instances of correct spellings across generations does not alter the arbitrariness of those conventions. When we read the whole dictionary entry, we see that this position is later clarified when arbitrary is described as “derived from mere opinion or preference; not based on the nature of things.” In other words, evidence, and not simply argumentation or opinion, is required.

    I think that saying that God had no creator is certainly different from a prototypically arbitrary argument. I don’t think I’d use the word “arbitrary” to describe it because it is, as you rightly point out, based on more than a fleeting fancy. It is not random or even unsystematic, but it *is* couched in a particular belief system whose selection is “arbitrary” in that it is derived from opinion and argumentation and not from some sort of external evidence.

    So, if I wouldn’t call it “arbitrary,” what would I call it? I think “subjective” applies a bit better, although that word unfortunately has negative connotations, and I’d prefer a more neutral term. Not sure.

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    • Ryan December 3, 2012 / 2:55 pm

      I suppose an unspoken problem in what I just said is what constitutes evidence. I understand that it is not uncontroversial to declare Hebrew Scripture and teachings outside the realm of evidence. I tried to address that by saying that we have to select Hebrew scripture and teachings to the exclusion of other theistic or atheistic teachings as our source of information, because they present conflicting accounts and are, themselves, not always “based on the nature of things” as the OED states.

      Like I said, a “norm” or “accepted practice” or even “generally-held belief” can be entirely arbitrary. I’d go further and say that arbitrariness in that sense is not necessarily good or bad. It’s only that a generally-held belief in something or a social or religious norm encompassing belief in something is not, however, “evidence” of the existence of that something, and in that sense, it does not escape some degree of arbitrariness.

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  3. NotAScientist December 3, 2012 / 8:19 pm

    “I was referring to the less serious version of the argument you put forward – ”

    And I’m referring to every version of the argument I’ve ever heard. Ever.

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    • Ryan December 3, 2012 / 8:30 pm

      That’s a rather absolutist and emotionally charged claim for a scientist. 😉 I guess for me, the post was more about whether appealing to generations worth of Abrahamic teachings was arbitrary or not, and not really whether the argument itself was convincing or not.

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      • NotAScientist December 3, 2012 / 10:09 pm

        “That’s a rather absolutist and emotionally charged claim for a scientist.”

        It’s an anecdotal claim. And I don’t see what was emotional about it.

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        • Ryan December 3, 2012 / 11:54 pm

          Perhaps I was hasty. By ‘absolutist’ I only meant that using ‘every’ once and ‘ever’ twice, I thought, was pretty hyperbolic. By ’emotionally charged’ I meant that writing “Ever.” as its own phrase, and, while subtler, beginning a counterargument with “And” or other complementizers like “Then” or “Which” (a way of taking and then completing the addressee’s turn) are, in general, patterns normally associated with emotive speech, and usually combative speech. Now, in some speech communities, the internet acts kind of like an amplifier (i.e. statements and wordings become more extreme), so I could have easily misinterpreted your intent, but that was what I thought was ’emotional about it.’

          Here’s the thing. I think whitefrozen knows from my previous comments on his blog that I, like you, don’t agree with him on this issue. I’ve voiced disagreement, verbosely, and enough times that he’s probably quite sick of it by now. I like reading his blog because I usually learn something from it or at least have an intelligent challenge to my own views, but neither I nor he would get much out of it if I drew a line in the sand and said if his argument wasn’t intended to convince me its existence was pointless. My reply to you was meant to try, apparently in vain, to turn the topic of discussion back to the original post or at least what I thought was its thrust. Because I’d like not to contribute to derailing that conversation wholly, I’ll try again.

          TL;DR version: Is “God has no creator” an arbitrary argument if we cite the mountains of supporting opinion? A strict definition of ‘arbitrary’ includes opinions and principled arguments even if they are commonly- or even generally-held assumptions within a long-standing school of thought unless there is also evidentiary support, so yes, but not to the same degree or in the same way that people often claim.

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          • whitefrozen December 4, 2012 / 12:42 am

            At the risk of repeating myself:

            I personally couldnt care less about winning an argument – in that my goal here isnt to have my own personal fortress from which to defend against all comers. I care even less if one likes or is convinced by any specific argument, like the cosmological. My goal is for it to be understood – Ill argue about that, perhaps, if i think its been misunderstood, which it commonly is. But as for convincing, no, im not trying for that. Id rather have a nice conversation than a debate.

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            • Ryan December 4, 2012 / 4:59 pm

              Ok, so, apparently I really have either failed (twice!) to bring the topic of conversation back to the original topic, or I’m so far off-base that it’s easier just to dismiss my whole spiel. I should stick to academic articles, haha.

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  4. Ryan December 6, 2012 / 10:50 am

    Sorry, but one quick thing. After reading the post you linked and a few of his citations, I’m curious why you’d present the argument that God was uncreated at all. The author describes how that whole discussion sidesteps the cosmological argument in the first place. “God” in the cosmological argument is not a Christian God or the God of Hebrew Scripture, but rather a placeholder name for a “First Cause” or for “Pure Actuality” itself. Specifying the identity of that God is an entirely separate theological process. The cosmological argument only posits that things whose existence is contingent must at some point trace back to an existence which is not contingent. Critics might disagree with the notion that the existence of energy, matter, or space-time is contingent, for example, but debating whether God was created or not in the context of the cosmological argument makes little sense, and is in that sense a doubly arbitrary point.

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    • whitefrozen December 6, 2012 / 1:21 pm

      I’m not sure I’m quite following your point – I get the general gist, that the cosmological arguments first cause isnt necessarily the God of Hebrew Scripture, and that to arrive at God is a seperate theological process. Maybe it’s just me using terms too loosely – but I’m not sure I folllow your objection.

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      • Ryan December 6, 2012 / 5:14 pm

        Okay, so I wasn’t particularly clear. Edward Feser, in the link you posted, describes in point #2 that asking “What created God?” is not an appropriate criticism of the cosmological argument. Basically, the cosmological argument stipulates that, if things were caused to exist, therefore there must have been something that caused them to exist. That something could be another ‘contingent’ being (something whose existence depends on some prior condition or act), but eventually, if you follow the chain of contingency all the way back, there must have been some existence that was not caused to exist but rather existed outside contingency. That ‘something’ could be called the “First Cause,” or “Pure Actuality,” or “God,” but its name is (haha!) arbitrary. It represents the being whose existence is not contingent and that therefore would be able to explain the existence of states and objects that are contingent. In essence, the cosmological argument is predicated on the notion that there has to be an ultimate answer to infinite string of questions: “What caused A?” “B.” “What caused B?” “C.” “What caused C?” and so on and so forth. Eventually, the cosmological argument states that there must be some sort of thing that was not caused to exist by anything. What that being is called, or what its qualities are, is entirely a separate concern. Aquinas worked to show that whatever being that was must also be all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful, and others have argued for other specific traits, but really the cosmological argument only deals with the stipulation that there must have been an “unmoved mover,” or a “First Cause.” So, asking “What caused God?” in response to the cosmological argument misses the point entirely, and isn’t a valid criticism to begin with. It should be answered by correcting the basic misunderstanding of the premises of the cosmological argument. Answering the question by saying that X philosophical tradition holds that Y God is uncaused moves yet farther away.

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        • whitefrozen December 6, 2012 / 6:46 pm

          Gotcha. Looking back, it seems that I mixed concepts/arguments and whatnot.

          Like

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