Creation and the Sovereignty of God

Creation and the Sovereignty of God

by Hugh J. McCann


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253357144
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 01/03/2012
Series: Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion Series
Pages: 294
Sales rank: 802,678
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Hugh J. McCann is Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University. He is author of The Works of Agency: On Human Action, Will, and Freedom.

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Creation and the Sovereignty of God

By Hugh J. McCann

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Hugh J. McCann
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35714-4



This book is about the concept of a creator as it has been usually construed in the Western theological tradition, broadly speaking. I wish to explore the idea that the world and all that pertains to it—indeed, anything that exists in any way—owes its being and sustenance to the act of an all-powerful being whose own existence requires no explanation, and whose nature is as perfect as we can conceive it to be. I shall argue that the existence and act of such a creator dovetails perfectly with a properly scientific conception of the world, that it supports a robust conception of human free agency, that it permits a satisfying theodicy, and that it ultimately leads to the classical conception of God as a perfectly simple yet personal being. This project is best begun by arguing that the world is indeed a product of creation. Efforts to demonstrate that this is so tend to fall under two major headings. Cosmological arguments cite as evidence the sheer existence of things, and contend that it may be accounted for by the activity of an all-powerful creator. Teleological arguments dwell on the structure or design of the world, holding that this is to be accounted for by postulating an intelligent designer. I will have an occasional remark on teleology in this chapter, but my main purpose here is to develop an argument of the first kind: I maintain that the best—indeed, to our knowledge, the only—adequate explanation for the existence of the world is the creative action of an all-powerful, personal being of the sort we call God.


What is essential to cosmological arguments is their contention that the existence of the world is owing to the creative activity of a being whose existence requires no explanation, and who has certain other attributes called for in a creator. At the least, the list of such attributes must include overwhelming power; but it usually includes much else as well, in particular certain features associated with personality. Above all, the creator is supposed to have a will, and the capacity for knowledge and intention that goes with its employment. What 'the world' means in such arguments may vary. In the fullest sense, it means everything other than God: the physical universe that we inhabit—along with any other universes that are actual, if that happens to be the case—as well as at least some non-physical realms of being, such as heaven and hell. Eventually, I shall argue that the creative activity of God also gives rise to moral right and wrong, and to the realm of abstracta: numbers, universals, propositions, and so forth. But it is best to begin simply, with the world of everyday experience. What is important about that world, according to the cosmological argument, is that nothing about its descriptive nature explains its existence. That is, the world of our experience is in no sense self-derived or self-existing. If its existence is to be explained at all, that explanation must proceed in terms of something that transcends it and causes it to be.

This is not to suggest that no one has ever inclined toward the opposite view. It has been suggested, perhaps most famously by Hume, that the world might exist "necessarily," or of its own nature. And of course, the entire project of the cosmological argument would be derailed if this were so—if, that is, it were actually inherent in the nature of things that there be a world, and that it have the character our world does. But the suggestion that this might be so is usually no more than a suggestion. I know of no plausible argument that it belongs to the nature of the universe of our experience to exist, or that the proposition that it exists is in any way necessary. There are, of course, scientific laws of conservation; but those, if helpful at all in this context, have more to do with the continuance of physical being (and non-being) than with the world's sheer presence or absence. And nothing else we know—or for that matter, even suspect—about the descriptive nature of things would make their existence self- evident or self-explanatory. Nothing prevents our imagining that the world might not have existed, or exposes any contradiction in the idea. If this is correct, then there is at least logical space for an argument that the world owes its existence to a creator.

With God, of course, the situation is just the opposite. For the cosmological argument, the connection between existence and essence in God is ex hypothesi: it is stipulated from the outset that he exists a se, or of his own nature, so that it is impossible to separate the fact that God exists from the kind of being he is. Without this feature of aseitas or aseity, the God hypothesized in the cosmological argument would not be qualified for the role he is to fulfill: that of explaining the existence of entities such as we find in the world—entities that lack aseity, whose existence can only be explained, if at all, as deriving from elsewhere. It would do no good to argue that a creator is needed to account for the existence of the world, only to face the objection that some further agency is required to account for the creator's existence. Postulating aseity in God renders that objection futile. If such a being exists, then to ask what causes him to exist is like asking what makes water H2O. Nothing makes water H2O; it simply is H2O by nature. And in the same way, a being possessing aseity exists by its own nature. No further explanation can coherently be demanded, because it is part of the essence of God that none is needed. In short, the nature of God is defined in such a way that if he exists his existence cannot be a matter of mere happenstance, as the existence of the world would be if it were not created. Accordingly, our overall understanding of things is improved if the world owes its existence to a God who exists a se.

A word of caution is in order concerning this point. The claim that God exists a se is often treated as interchangeable with the assertion that he exists necessarily—a usage that is perhaps harmless enough in most cases. The problem, however, is that the latter assertion can be taken to mean that there is some sort of logical or metaphysical necessity associated with God's existence—which in turn might be taken to suggest that an a priori demonstration that there is a God is possible. This led to the complaint classically expressed by Kant: that the cosmological argument rests upon or presupposes the ontological argument. I shall have more to say on this at the end of this chapter, and again in chapter 11 where God's relationship to his own nature is discussed. For the present, suffice it to say that I postulate no connection between the claim that a creator God would exist of his own nature, and claims that the existence of such a being would in some sense be metaphysically compelled or logically necessary. Nor do I understand it to be the strategy of cosmological arguments to trade on some implicit premise of necessity. Just the opposite: it is taken for granted in such arguments that the existence of God is to be demonstrated from contingent facts, facts drawn from the world of our experience.

A Cosmological Argument

A complete explanation for the existence of the world would account for two facts. The first is that we have a world at all—that there is something rather than nothing. The second is that we have this world instead of some other—for example, a world described by different natural laws, or one in which no one sinned. The best way to achieve such an explanation is to utilize what amounts to the inductive method of hypothesis familiarly employed by science. Hypothetico-inductive arguments are in essence very simple: they state first that if the hypothesis under study were true, then certain phenomena ought to be observed. If they are in fact observed, then the existence of those phenomena counts as confirming evidence—that is, evidence that favors the truth of the hypothesis. A classic example of the method of hypothesis can be found in the work of Kepler, who reasoned that if his first two principles of planetary motion were true, then the observed motions of the planets, Mars in particular, would be accounted for—and concluded on that basis that his principles were correct. A cosmological argument for the existence of a creator may be given in similar terms: just as it counts in favor of Kepler's first two laws that if they are true then the motion of Mars is accounted for, so also it counts in favor of the hypothesis that there exists a very powerful, self-existent creator that if there were such a being then the existence of the our universe would be accounted for. In short, belief in the hypothesis of a creator God is supported by the evidence of experience, by the existence of a world that, unlike the God postulated by the cosmological argument, is not self-existing.

It is important to realize that this kind of argument is essentially a posteriori in character. It does not, nor should it, aspire to deductive validity. Not that no such argument could do so. Any hypothetico-inductive argument can easily be transformed into one that is deductively valid, simply by adding two premises. The first is that the phenomena to be accounted for do in fact have a satisfactory explanation, whether we are aware of that explanation or not; the second is that the only satisfactory explanation is the one being proffered. And it might be thought that both of these premises should be adopted in order to supplement the argument given above. For if we do not adopt them, someone might claim that we have not proven the existence of God, that since the argument is only an inductive one its conclusion may yet be mistaken. And then, so the worry goes, our argument will be a failure. But it will not be a failure, any more than Kepler's argument for his first two laws based on the motion of Mars was a failure. It is true that with inductive arguments there is always the possibility that the conclusion will be false, even if the premises are true. But the mere possibility of being wrong is never a good reason for believing one is wrong. If it were, then the mere possibility of being right—that is, that one would be mistaken to believe one was wrong—would be a good reason for believing one is right after all, and we would be contradicting ourselves all the time. We reject the scientific method outright if we suppose that it is a sufficient refutation of an inductive argument to point out that it is not deductively valid, and I know of no legitimate reason for taking a different stance when it comes to philosophical theology. Furthermore, adding premises such as the two suggested here will, if anything, deflect attention from the cosmological argument's main thrust without enhancing that argument's overall persuasiveness.

This is perhaps less true of the second premise, which is the more benign of the two. The persuasiveness of hypothetical arguments is blunted if there are other contending explanations—other hypotheses that could equally explain the phenomenon at issue. It is important therefore that such arguments be accompanied by efforts to show that alternative explanations are inadequate, and I shall do so later in this chapter for the most commonly invoked alternative to the hypothesis of a creator God. But the door to alternative accounts cannot be closed completely; other hypotheses may yet be discovered or developed which will compete with the favored one. Trying to shore up a hypothetical argument by claiming to have eliminated all alternatives is likely, therefore, to be self-defeating. Doubts about the original conclusion will simply reemerge as doubts about the new premise, and the supposedly damning claim that the conclusion has not been "proven" will be renewed.

Similar difficulties attend the first of our suggested additional premises. This premise is, of course, a version of the principle of sufficient reason: the principle that every phenomenon has an adequate accounting or explanation. And it is true that some version of this principle is often involved, implicitly or explicitly, in cosmological arguments. We might, for example, begin our argument by claiming that any contingent being, any being that lacks aseity, must derive its existence from another. But what reason is there for thinking such claims are true? It is not self-evident that every phenomenon must have an adequate explanation. In fact, the present state of particle physics may well be claimed to offer evidence that this principle is false, at least as far as natural causes are concerned—and whether our world has another sort of cause, a supernatural one, is precisely what we are trying to decide. Nor is it obvious that the search for adequate explanations must always proceed on the assumption that they are available. No doubt, such a belief may encourage us to persist when the going gets tough. But I need not believe an explanation is available in order to find it, any more than Roentgen had to believe there were x-rays in order to discover them. Rather, if we are justified in thinking that some version of the principle of sufficient reason is true of the empirical world, this will only be because past efforts at explaining phenomena have proven successful, independently of our presuming that this principle holds. When it comes to explaining the world of our experience, then, the credibility of the principle of sufficient reason depends in the end on the success of induction, not vice versa.

This suggests that when hypothetical arguments are successful, their persuasiveness owes little or nothing to the principle of sufficient reason. And this is in fact correct. The inductive case for Kepler's first two laws lies primarily in the fact that, together with plausible empirical assumptions, they enable us to deduce a set of propositions which describe quite closely the observed movements of the planets. To be sure, that is not all there is to the matter. There is also the question of whether Kepler's laws provide the only explanation, or whether other principles would serve just as well. Answering this kind of question is seldom an easy task: it involves considerations of simplicity, comprehensiveness, predictions of new phenomena, and so forth. Above all, it involves the matter of intuitive plausibility—that is, whether we feel the principles at issue provide genuine insight into the workings of the cosmos. The important thing, however, is that these are the issues that count. If Kepler's principles pass these kinds of test, then the case for them will be as strong as it can be. Adding to this evidence the claim that every contingent phenomenon must have an explanation does not strengthen it; instead, it diverts attention from what counts. Who, after all, would reject Kepler's laws on the basis that the principle of sufficient reason may be false?

Similar considerations apply to the cosmological (and to the teleological) argument. Its persuasiveness depends on whether, if there is a creator who exists a se, the existence of contingent things will be accounted for; it also depends on how well this account stacks up against others, and on whether the hypothesis of a creator God can be so explicated that we will feel that we have gained real insight into the nature of being, meaningful solutions to other philosophical problems, and so on. To the extent that the cosmological argument can satisfy these requirements, it will have persuasive power. To be sure, it will still be possible for doubters to reject its conclusion. But this situation cannot be helped by introducing some version of the principle of sufficient reason as a premise in the argument, for that principle can itself be secured only by the success of induction generally. In effect, its plausibility depends on the extent to which demonstrations like the cosmological argument can succeed without it. Hence, what is gained by way of validity when we insert it as a premise is immediately offset by doubts about the principle itself. If the cosmological argument is to succeed, it must do so within the limitation that attends all induction: that its conclusion may be false even if its premises are true.


Excerpted from Creation and the Sovereignty of God by Hugh J. McCann. Copyright © 2012 Hugh J. McCann. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

1. The Need for a Creator
2. Creation and the Natural Order
3. Eternity
4. Evil, Freedom, and Foreknowledge
5. Free Will and Divine Sovereignty
6. Sin
7. Suffering
8. Divine Freedom
9. Creation and the Moral Order
10. Creation and the Conceptual Order
11. Divine Will and Divine Simplicity

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Loyola University Chicago - Paul K. Moser

Offers an elaborate, rigorous development and defense of the medieval Christian view that God as creator is sovereign, free, and simple.

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