An Argument Against Newtonian ‘Absolute’ Time From the Identity of Indiscernibles

An interesting thought occurred to me recently while I was reading through the early pages of Bas C. van Fraassen’s An Introduction to the Philosophy of Time and Space. I would not be surprised if this thought is unoriginal (indeed, I might even be slightly surprised if Leibniz himself hadn’t already thought it), but, for what it’s worth, the idea did genuinely occur to me, so, for all I know, it might be original. In any case, I think it may be of some interest, so I’m going to try to briefly flesh it out.

In order to do so, I will have to set the stage by very briefly explaining some of the basics of an Aristotelian view of time (at least, insofar as they are pertinent), and juxtaposing that with a Newtonian view of time as absolute. I will come around, near the end, to a brief reflection on what this argument might tell us, if anything, about the philosophical status of the generic A-theory, or the generic B-theory.

Aristotle is well known for championing a view of time on which time is dependent upon motion. Granted, what Aristotle means by motion bears only mild resemblance to our modern (much more mechanistic) notion. Motion, for Aristotle, is analyzed in terms of potentiality and actuality (which are, for Aristotle, fundamental conceptual categories). Roughly speaking (perhaps very, very roughly speaking), for any property P and being B, (assuming that having property P is compatible with being a B), B either has P actually, or else B has P potentially. For B to have property P actually is just for it to be the case that B has the property P. For B to have property P potentially is just for it to be the case that B could (possibly) have, but does not (now) have, the property P. In other words, potentiality represents non-actualized possibilities. A bowling ball is potentially moving if it is at rest, just as it is potentially moving at 65 mph if it is actually moving at 80 mph. A phrase like ‘the reduction of a thing from potentiality to actuality,’ common coin for medieval metaphysicians, translates roughly to ‘causing a thing to have a property it did not have before.’ This account may be too superficial to make die-hard Aristotelians happy, but I maintain that it will suffice for my purposes here. Aristotle, then, wants to say that in the absence of any reduction from potentiality to actuality, time does not exist. Time, in other words, supervenes upon motion in this broad sense – what we might, in other contexts, simply call change. Without any change of any sort, without the shifting from one set of properties to another, without the reduction of anything from potentiality to actuality, time does not exist.

Newton is well known for postulating absolute time as a constant which depends, in no way, upon motion (either in the mechanical/corpuscularian sense, popular among empiricists of his time, or in the broader Aristotelian sense).[1] In this he was, there is little doubt, infected by the teachings of his mentor, Isaac Barrow, who overtly rejected the Aristotelian view;

“But does time not imply motion? Not at all, I reply, as far as its absolute, intrinsic nature is concerned; no more than rest; the quality of time depends on neither essentially; whether things run or stand still, whether we sleep or wake, time flows in its even tenor. Imagine all the stars to have remained fixed from their birth; nothing would have been lost to time; as long would that stillness have endured as has continued the flow of this motion.”[2]

Newton’s view of time was such that time was absolute in that its passage was entirely independent of motion. It is true, of course, that Newton fell short of thinking that time was absolute per se; indeed, he viewed time as well as space as being non absoluta per se,[3] but, rather, as emanations of the divine nature of God. However, since God was absolute per se, as well as necessary per se (i.e., because existing a se), time flowed equably irregardless of motion, just as space existed irregardless of bodies.

To illustrate the difference, imagine a world in which everything is moving along at its current pace (one imagines cars bustling along the streets of London, a school of whales swimming at 2500 meters below sealevel, planes reddying for landing in Brazil, light being trapped beyond the event horizon in the vicinity of a black hole in the recesses of space, etc.), and, suddenly, everything grinds to a halt. It is as though everything in the world has been paused – there are no moving bodies, the wind does not blow, there are no conscious experiences, light does not propagate, electromagnetic radiation has no effects. Does time pass? On the Newtonian view, it certainly does. This sudden and inexplicable quiescent state might persist for a short amount of time, or a very long time, or it may perdure infinitely. On the Aristotelian view, this is all nonsense; instead, we are simply imagining the world at a time. To imagine that this world persists in this state from one time to another is just to be conceptually confused about the nature of time; time doesn’t merely track change, its relationship to change is logically indissoluble. So, for Aristotle, time cannot flow independently of motion (i.e., of change), while, for Newton, time flows regardless of what, or whether, changes were wrought in the world.

Now, I want to try to construct an argument for thinking that this Newtonian view may be logically impossible. I will start with an appeal to no lesser an authority than Gottfried Leibniz, who was easily Newton’s intellectual superior. He famously championed a principle which has come to be called the identity of indiscernibles (though, McTaggart tried, unsuccessfully, to relabel it as the dissimilarity of the diverse).[4] As Leibniz puts it, “it is never true that two substances are entirely alike, differing only in being two rather than one.”[5] To put it in relatively updated language: “if, for every property F, object x has F if and only if object y has F, then x is identical to y. Or in the notation of symbolic logic:

∀F(Fx ↔ Fy) → x=y.”[6]

The suggestion was that not only were identicals indiscernible (which is indubitable), but that absolutely indiscernible things must be identical. In other words, if there is not a single level of analysis on which two things can be differentiated, then the two things are really one and the same thing.

‘What is the difference,’ you might ask ‘between this ball here and that ostensibly identical ball over there?’ Well, for one thing, their locations in space (one is here, and the other is there – and this difference suffices to make them logically discernible), to say nothing of which of them is closer to me at this present time, or which one I thought about first when formulating my question (Cambridge properties suffice to make things discernible in the relevant sense). If two things do not differ with respect to their essential properties, they must (if they are genuinely distinct) differ at least in their relational properties, and if not in real relations, at least in some conceptual relations (or, what Aquinas would have called relations of reason).[7] This principle is a corollary, for Leibniz, of the principle of sufficient reason – for, the reason two indiscernible things must be identical is that, if they are truly indiscernible, then there is no sufficient reason for their being distinct. For any set of things you can think of, if they share all and only the very same properties (and, thus, are absolutely indiscernible), then they are identical – they are not a plurality of things at all, but merely all one and the same thing.

Assume that this principle is true (in a few moments, I will explore a powerful challenge to this, but spot me this assumption for the time being). Now, suppose there are two times t1 and t2, such that these two times are absolutely indiscernible. We can help ourselves here to the previous thought experiment of a world grinding to a halt; this perfectly still world is the world at t1, and it is the world at t2. No change of any kind differentiates t1 and t2. There is no discernible difference between them at all. But then, by the identity of indiscernibles, t1 and t2 are identical. To put it formally;

  1. For any two objects of predication x and y, and any property P: ∀P(Px ≡ Py) ⊃ x=y
  2. Times are objects of predication.
  3. Times t1 and t2 share all and only the same properties.
  4. Therefore t1 = t2.

This argument is so straightforward as to require little by way of clarification. I assume that times are objects of predication not to reify them, but simply to justify talking as though times have properties.

There are now two things to consider; first, what implications (if any) this argument’s soundness would have for the generic A-theory of time, and, second, whether this is a powerful argument. With respect to the first, obviously Newton’s view of time was what we would today call A-theoretical. On the A-theory, there is a mind-independent fact about time’s flow – there is a fact about what time it is right now, et cetera. Time, on the A-theory, may continue to flow regardless of the state of affairs in the world. On the B-theory of time, by contrast, there is nothing which can distinguish times apart from change (in particular, change in the dyadic B-relations of earlier-than, simultaneous-with, and later-than between at least two events). It seems confused to imagine a B-series where the total-event E1 (where ‘total-event’ signifies the sum total of all events in a possible world, at a time) is both one minute earlier than total-event E*, and where the total-event E1 is also (simultaneously?) a year earlier than the total-event E*. Indeed, to use any metric conventions to talk about the amount of time E* remained unchanging might be confused (even if one opts for a counterfactual account of how much time would have been calculated to pass had a clock been running, there is still a problem – clearly, had a clock been running, it would have registered absolutely no passage of time for the duration of E*). So, there is just no rational way of speaking about the duration of a total-event E* by giving it some conventional measurement in the terms of some preferred metric.[8] If the B-relations of earlier-than, simultaneous with, and later-than, are not in any way altered from one time to another, then the times under consideration are strictly B-theoretically indiscernible, and, thus, identical. On the A-theory, by contrast, one can provisionally imagine an exhaustively descriptive state of affairs being both past and present.[9] One can imagine its beginning receding into the past while it (i.e., this total-event E*) remains present. I am not sure that every version of the A-theory will countenance this possibility, but it seems right to say that only the A-theory will countenance this possibility.[10] If my argument is right, and the reasoning in this paragraph hasn’t gone wrong, then the A-theory is less likely to be true than it otherwise would have been (we don’t even need to apply a principle of indifference to the different versions of the A-theory, so long as we accept that the epistemic probability of each version of the A-theory is neither zero nor infinitesimal).

In any case, the salient feature of what I’ve presented as the Newtonian view is that time may pass independently of any change in the world at all. I’ve suggested that there is a problem for the Newtonian view (whether or not such a view can be married to the B-theory) in the form of a violation of the principle of the identity of indiscernibles. The Newtonian might, of course, argue that God’s conscious awareness continues regardless of a quiescent world, so that God himself could act as a sort of clock for such a motionless universe. He, at least, would know how long it had been since anything was moving, or changed. In this case, however, the Newtonian is effectively conceding ground to the peripatetic; at least God, then, has to be reduced from potentiality to actuality (this suggestion will, of course, be repugnant, both to Aristotelians as well as to Catholics, but die-hard Newtonians typically aren’t either anyway).

Regardless, this argument may not be as strong as I initially hoped. After all, together with the principle of sufficient reason, the identity of indiscernibles has been the subject of sustained and impressive criticisms. While these criticisms may not present insuperable difficulties for defenders of the principle, they cannot be lightly dismissed. For a fair conceptual counter-example, one might think, in particular, about a perfectly symmetrical world in which there are only two physically identical spheres, neither of which has a single property that the other fails to have. Consider the following passage from Max Black’s ingenious paper, The Identity of Indiscernibles;

“Isn’t it logically possible that the universe should have contained nothing but two exactly similar spheres? We might suppose that each was made of chemically pure iron, had a diameter of one mile, that they had the same temperature, colour, and so on, and that nothing else existed. Then every quality and relational characteristic of the one would also be a property of the other. Now. if what I am describing is logically possible, it is not impossible for two things to have all their properties in common. This seems to me to refute the Principle.”[11]

There are no obvious and attractive ways out of this predicament for the rationalist, as far as I can see. One might be able to say that they have distinct potentialities (i.e., that to scratch or mutilate one would not be to scratch or mutilate the other, so that each one has a distinct potentiality of being scratched or somehow bent into a mere spheroid), but it isn’t clear how useful such a response is. One might argue that each one is identical with itself, and different from its peer, but it isn’t clear that self-identity is a bona-fide property. One may, out of desperation, ask whether God, at least, would know (in such a possible world) which was which, but it may be insisted, in response, that this is a pseudo-question, and that, while they are not identical, God could only know that there were two of them (and, of course, everything else about them), but not which one was which.

In passing, I want to recommend that people read through Black’s paper, which is written in the form of a very accessible and entertaining dialogue between two philosophers (simply named ‘A’ and ‘B’ – yes, yes, philosophers are admittedly terrible at naming things). Here is a small portion which, I feel, is particularly pertinent;

“A. How will this do for an argument? If two things, a and b, are given, the first has the property of being identical with a. Now b cannot have this property, for else b would be a, and we should have only one thing, not two as assumed. Hence a has at least one property, which b does not have, that is to say the property of being identical with a.

B. This is a roundabout way of saying nothing, for ” a has the property of being identical with a “means no more than ” a is a When you begin to say ” a is . . . ” I am supposed to know what thing you are referring to as ‘ a ‘and I expect to be told something about that thing. But when you end the sentence with the words ” . . . is a ” I am left still waiting. The sentence ” a is a ” is a useless tautology.

A. Are you as scornful about difference as about identity ? For a also has, and b does not have, the property of being different from b. This is a second property that the one thing has but not the other.

B. All you are saying is that b is different from a. I think the form of words ” a is different from b ” does have the advantage over ” a is a ” that it might be used to give information. I might learn from hearing it used that ‘ a ‘ and ‘ b ‘ were applied to different things. But this is not what you want to say, since you are trying to use the names, not mention them. When I already know what ‘ a’ and ‘ b ‘ stand for, ” a is different from b ” tells me nothing. It, too, is a useless tautology.

A. I wouldn’t have expected you to treat ‘ tautology’ as a term of abuse. Tautology or not, the sentence has a philosophical use. It expresses the necessary truth that different things have at least one property not in common. Thus different things must be discernible; and hence, by contraposition, indiscernible things must be identical. Q.E.D


B. No, I object to the triviality of the conclusion. If you want to have an interesting principle to defend, you must interpret ” property” more narrowly – enough so, at any rate, for “identity ” and “difference ” not to count as properties.

A. Your notion of an interesting principle seems to be one which I shall have difficulty in establishing.”[12]

And on it goes – but I digress.

Now, if such a world (with two identical spheres) is logically possible, it looks as though the spheres in it are indiscernibles even if they aren’t identical. No fact about their essential properties, or relations, will distinguish them in any way (and this needn’t be a case of bilocation either, for we are supposed to be imagining two different objects that just happen to have all and only the same properties and relations). If that’s correct, then (I take it) the identity of indiscernibles is provably false.

So, my argument will only have, at best, as much persuasive force as does the identity of indiscernibles. It persuades me entirely of the incoherence of imagining a quiescent world perduring in that state, but I doubt whether the argument will be able to persuade anyone who rejects the identity of indiscernibles.

[1] Strictly speaking, I’m not entirely sure that Newton would have said that time can continue to flow independently of any change of any kind, but I do have that impression. Clearly, for Newton, time depends solely on God himself.  Below, I will consider one response a Newtonian could give which suggests that time flows precisely because God continues to change – however, to attribute this to Newton would be gratuitous and irresponsible. I am not a specialist with regards to Newton’s thinking, and I do not know enough about his theology to say whether, or to what extent, he would have been happy to concede that God changes.

[2] The Geometrical Lectures of Isaac Barrow, J.M. Child, Tr. (La Salle, III.: Open Court, 1916), pp. 35-37.

Reproduced in Bas C. van Fraassen An Introduction to the Philosophy of Time and Space, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1941) 22.

[3] William Lane Craig, Time and the Metaphysics of Relativity, Philosophical Studies Series Vol. 84. (Springer Science & Business Media, 2001), 114.

[4] See C.D. Broad, McTaggart’s Principle of the Dissimilarity of the Diverse, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series Vol. 32 (1931-1932), pp. 41-52.

[5] G.W. Leibniz, Discourse on Metaphysics, Section 9;

[6] Peter Forrest, “The Identity of Indiscernibles,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ed. Edward N. Zalta, (Winter 2016 Edition);

[7] See W. Matthews Grant “Must a cause be really related to its effect? The analogy between divine and libertarian agent causality,” in Religious Studies 43, no. 1 (2007): 1-23.

[8] I will not, here, explore the idea of non-metric duration.

[9] Interestingly, McTaggart would likely have begged to disagree. Indeed, one may be able to construct an argument along McTaggart’s lines for the impossibility of a world remaining totally quiescent over time by arguing that the A-properties of pastness and presentness were incompatible determinations.

[10] It is entirely possible, upon reflection, that I am dead wrong about this. Perhaps this is just my B-theoretic prejudice showing itself. Why, if the A-properties of Presentness and Pastness aren’t incompatible determinations of a total-event E*, think that the B-relations of being earlier-than and simultaneous-with are incompatible determinations of a total-event E*? I continue to persuade and dissuade myself that there’s a relevant difference, so I’m not settled on this matter.

[11] Max Black, “The identity of indiscernibles,” in Mind 61, no. 242 (1952): 156.

[12] Max Black, “The identity of indiscernibles,” in Mind 61, no. 242 (1952): 153-4,155.


On (Possibly) Being Unable To Avoid Speaking Falsely

I was thinking yesterday about Thomas Aquinas’ rather strict view on the duty to never lie, even, as he says, when we lie for the sake of a joke. He admits, of course, that lying in the cause of a joke (a jocose lie) is not a mortal sin, but he does insist that it is at least venially sinful.

Ergo mendacium iocosum et officiosum non sunt peccata mortalia.[1]

I thought to myself that Aquinas probably means jokes which only work if the audience accepts a falsehood asserted before the punchline. I am reminded here of a (probably apocryphal) anecdote about Dominican friars teasing Aquinas by saying “look, out the window – flying pigs!” in response to which he looked out the window, to their great amusement. He retorted to their laughter by saying that he would sooner believe that pigs could fly than that his Dominican brethren could lie. Clearly, in such a case, Aquinas would say that what these friars did was sinful (at least venially). However, I don’t think Aquinas would offer the same analysis of sarcastic jokes, where what one says is actually the opposite of what one affirms by saying it. In sarcasm, one expresses a truth P by expressing a token-sentence K which, under normal circumstances, affirms not-P, but which, when used sarcastically, is understood by everyone to affirm P. To utter K sarcastically is to affirm P, and everyone knows this. This got me thinking about a strange situation.

Suppose one is in a court of law and must answer any question with a simple affirmative or negative. Suppose, then, that for some question, the token statement which is an affirmative is true in one language game, and false in another language game, and the token statement which is the negation is true in one language game and false in another. Call these tokens Y and N, and let us suppose that half the audience is playing the first language game, and the other half is playing the other. If one answers Y, then half the audience will believe something true, while the other half of the audience will believe something false, because they are unconsciously playing two different language games. If one answers N, the same situation results. Suppose you are fully aware that Y will communicate a falsehood to some, and that N will communicate a falsehood to others. Suppose, further, it isn’t possible to elaborate on Y or N (you can tell any story you like here – maybe you speak a totally different language, and you have a designated translator in court who is committed to translating whatever you say into simply Y or N – or any other scenario you like, so long as you aren’t able to avoid affirming Y or N).

In such a strange case, would you have to lie? It seems like you would have to communicate something false (imagine, for simplicity, that your silence would be taken as an affirmation of Y, or N, or would be a sort of speech-act by omission which, in any case, would communicate a falsehood), which you knew to be false.

If such a situation arose, it wouldn’t be possible to avoid telling a lie (at least where the sufficient conditions of lying are speaking falsely with a knowledge that what you’re saying is false). Therefore, it wouldn’t be possible to do the right thing (except in terms of telling the lesser lie, whatever that is). Does this pose much of a problem for Aquinas’ view? I’m actually not sure. If we really can construct a situation in which there is no way to avoid sinning, that would plausibly provide us with a reductio ad absurdum and should cause us to carefully review what we think qualifies as a sin. However, it is still open to the especially devout Thomist to bite the bullet here, or to find some way of arguing that the situation I propose arises in no logically possible worlds. It might help our case if we could provide some kind of hypothetical example. Here’s one: consider the question “is God infinite?” Clearly, those speaking the language of Duns Scotus are going to take a rejection of this as a false statement, and they (playing their language game) would be right to do so. On the other hand, those speaking the language of modern mathematicians would recognize the affirmative to be a straightforward falsehood (for God is not infinite in any quantitative sense). There is no unqualified answer (in the form of an affirmation or denial) which does not communicate a falsehood which one knows to be false (presuming one is sufficiently well theologically informed).

[1] ST, II-II, Q. 110, Art. 3, ad. 3.

Arguing that the B-theory (or the A-theory) is a metaphysically necessary truth

I have profound sympathy for the intuition that, for either the A-theory of time, or the B-theory of time, if it is true, then it is necessarily true. It obviously follows, therefore, from either one’s metaphysical possibility, that it is a necessary truth. However, the force with which this intuition imposes itself notwithstanding, it turns out to be extremely difficult to prove this modal thesis, and there may, in fact, be a really good objection to it.

Does it really follow from the A-theory’s being true (supposing it is) that it is necessary, or from the B-theory’s being true (supposing it is) that it is necessary? Suppose our world is an A-theory world; could God really not have created a B-theory world?

Interestingly, while I was rereading a paper today from Joshua Rasmussen, my attention was drawn to one of his footnotes, in which he outlines a sort of modal-ontological argument from the possibility of presentism (typically considered to be a version of the A-theory – though, I note in passing, he was arguing in the paper that presentism is strictly compatible with the B-theory) to its necessity. His argument went roughly as one might imagine (note: he uses ‘Tenseless’ as an abbreviation for the thesis that he argues for in the paper, and which needn’t directly concern us here):

Here’s the argument: (i) suppose it’s possible that Tenseless and presentism are true; (ii) then it’s possible that presentism is true; (iii) necessarily, if presentism is true, then presentism is necessarily true; therefore, (iv) if it’s possible that presentism is true, then it’s possible that presentism is necessarily true; (v) if it’s possible that presentism is necessarily true, then presentism is true (by S5); therefore, (vi) presentism is true.[1]

This caused me to review one of my (many, many) old blog post drafts, in which I tried to argue that if the A-theory is true, then it is a necessary truth, and if the B-theory is true, then it is a necessary truth. Here’s (roughly) what that looked like:

I have been asked, in the past, why I maintain that if the B-theory is true in any possible world, then it is true in all logically possible worlds (from which it follows that it’s true in the actual world), and that the same can be said for the A-theory. Upon reflection, I suppose I was reasoning in something like the following way:

  1. God exists in every possible world (assumption).
  2. If God exists in every possible world then his necessary essence is exemplified in every possible world.
  3. God either is by his necessary essence, or is necessarily not, simple and/or immutable in the classical senses.
  4. The B-theory is true if and only if God is essentially simple and/or immutable.
  5. Either the B-theory is true, or the A-theory is true (and not both).
  6. If the B-theory is true in one logically possible world, it is true in all logically possible worlds.
  7. Therefore, if the A-theory is true in one logically possible world, it is true in all logically possible worlds.

The weakest point of the argument, now that I lay it out and think about it, seems to be premise 4, for although it seems right to say that if God is simple and immutable then the B-theory must be true, it seems wrong to say that if the B-theory is true then God must necessarily be simple and/or immutable. Why think that if God weren’t simple and/or immutable then He couldn’t create a B-theory world? I then tried to construct a more elaborate argument for the conclusion that if the B-theory is true, then it is necessarily true, and if the A-theory is true, then it is necessarily true. It went something like:

  1. God’s existence is possible (assumption).
  2. God is a metaphysically necessary being. (by definition)
  3. For any metaphysically necessary being, if it exists in a single logically possible world it exists in all logically possible worlds.
  4. God exists in every possible world (assumption).
  5. If God exists in every possible world then his necessary essence is exemplified in every possible world.
  6. There is a logically possible world in which God’s essence includes being metaphysically simple and immutable. (Assumption)
  7. Therefore, in all logically possible worlds God is metaphysically simple and immutable.
  8. If God is metaphysically simple and immutable, then necessarily: if there is a contingent world, then the B-theory is true.
  9. There is a contingent world.
  10. Therefore, the B-theory is true.

This argument isn’t very good. For one thing, it highlights a really big problem for the idea that the A-theory of time and the B-theory of time are mutually exclusive and logically exhaustive disjuncts. Indeed, if there is no contingent world, there are surely no A-properties, but there are also no B-properties (it is hard to imagine a B-theory on which only ‘atemporal simultaneity’ is preserved – that is so depreciated that it isn’t clear whether it would even qualify as a version of the B-theory). It looks like this problem for Rasmussen’s argument as well (why accept his (iii)?).

I also had some rough notes on a third argument, which went something like this:

  1. God’s existence is metaphysically possible. (assumption).
  2. God is a metaphysically necessary being (and his essence, whatever it is, is metaphysically necessary).
  3. God either is essentially, or essentially is not, simple and immutable in the classical senses.
  4. There is a contingent world. (assumption)
  5. If there is a contingent world, then the A-theory is true, or the B-theory is true (and not both).
  6. The A-theory is true if and only if God stands in real relations to the world which are grounded in himself.
  7. If God stands in real relations to the world grounded in himself, then God is not simple and immutable.
  8. If God possibly stands in real relations to the world which are grounded in himself, then God necessarily stands in real relations to the world which are grounded in himself.
  9. If God necessarily stands in real relations to the world which are grounded in himself then the A-theory is necessarily true.
  10. Therefore, if the A-theory is possibly true, the A-theory is necessarily true.
  11. If the A-theory is not possibly true, then the B-theory is necessarily true.

The reader will have to forgive me for being a little loose as well as slightly enthymematic. I’m not sure this is a good argument. The intuition is supposed to be that God can only be simple and immutable in a B-theory world, that he cannot be simple and immutable in an A-theory world, and that whichever way God is in any possible world (at least with respect to being simple and immutable), that is the way He is in all possible worlds.

Perhaps one will disagree with me that God exists in all logically possible worlds (which is just to say that God does not exist, since, obviously, if a metaphysically necessary being exists in a single possible world it exists in all possible worlds). They will argue that it may seem necessary given theism that whichever theory of time is true of the actual world is true of all logically possible worlds, but that they either reject, or in any case do not accept, theism. It might seem as though we are at a standstill with such a person.

There is, nevertheless, another way to argue that the A-theory is necessarily false (and the B-theory, therefore, necessarily true). Suppose we accept the claims that the (weak-)PSR and the A-theory of time are logically incompatible with each other.[2] Now, take the weak-PSR which says that for any possibly true contingent fact P, P possibly has an explanation. Obviously, if the weak-PSR is true it is a necessary truth. This entails that there is a logically possible world in which P, and the explanation of P, both obtain. Suppose that P is “it is now this particular time.” On the A-theory, this contingent fact does not have an explanation. That means (supposing all we have said so far) that at least one logically possible world is a B-theory world. It follows that there is no logically possible world in which the A-theory is true. However, this reasoning is not likely to be any more compelling than the theistic reasoning explored above.

Can I do any better? Probably not today. (I suppose I could have deployed my argument for thinking that the A-theory is not logically possible because there is no logically possible world in which time flows – an argument I developed a bit in my undergraduate thesis and which, I am beginning to think, may make an appearance in my Master’s thesis – but I’d rather leave it out of this post for the sake of convenience).

[1] Joshua Rasmussen, “Presentists may say goodbye to A-properties,” Analysis 72, no. 2 (2012): 270-276.

[2] For more on this, see

Some Problems With Degreed Existence

It was typical for the Medievals to speak of existence as a degreed concept (i.e., as the kind of thing which comes in greater or lesser degrees). Modern philosophers generally balk at this suggestion, insisting instead that a thing either exists, or does not exist, but that it makes no sense to speak in terms of degrees of existence. It is, of course, possible to adopt that bivalent view with respect to the truth conditions for statements like “x exists”, but also indulge a way of speaking which uses ‘exists’ as a dyadic relation (e.g., “x exists more(/less) than y”). There are several ways in which one can try to make sense of this kind of talk, but I have often thought that the most appealing way was in terms of possible worlds. Suppose we say:

x exists more than y iff x populates more possible worlds than y.

This has seemed, to me, to be satisfying for a number of reasons. Obviously, it allows for the medieval convention, and it also obviously places God at the top of the hierarchy of being (and this without, as of yet, even broaching the topic of one’s theory of existence), which is what the Medievals (and I) ultimately want. At the same time, the modern philosopher is going to be hard-pressed to reject the analytic convention of speaking in terms of possible worlds, and it seems sensible to give ‘existence’ a stipulative qualified definition, for particular purposes, running along these lines. In addition, this modal definition of existence (as a degreed concept) plausibly subsumes several other candidate rationales for this kind of talk, including that ‘degreed existence’ measures immutability, contingency, et cetera.

However, perhaps there are some problems with this which I had previously glossed over. I don’t think much of the objection that existence isn’t a predicate, for a few reasons. First, the way in which the Medievals are using the term, here, is clearly predicatory, and idiosyncratic enough that they can help themselves to a specially stipulated (probably onto-theological) definition. Second, existence isn’t usually considered a first-order predicate, but there isn’t much of a problem considering it a second-order predicate. Third, there are systems on which existence really is a first-order predicate, such as Krypke’s quantified modal logic. These and other reasons incline me to dismiss such a facile (Kantian) objection. Nevertheless, there are some real problems here worth thinking about.

For one thing, the cardinal value of possible worlds with any y, so long as y exists in at least two possible worlds, seems to be ℵ0.[1] It isn’t clear how one thing could exist in more possible worlds than that (I find it hard to imagine the argument for thinking that x exists in ℵn where n>0).

– Actually, here is an argument for this: Platonism is true (assumption), and not only natural numbers, but all the reals, are abstract objects. Therefore, there is an non-denumerable infinity of actual things, that infinity’s cardinal value being ℵ1. Further, we can argue that mathematical functions are abstract objects, and since the set of all real functions in the interval 0 < X < 1 is the non-denumerable ℵ2,[2] so too will be the number of actual things (given Platonism). In any case, I digress. –

Perhaps if x existed in all worlds where y existed, and also existed in worlds where y did not exist, we could justify retaining this convention (though we would have to give up Cantor’s notion of equivalence in terms of correspondence or, more precisely, bijection), but then there wouldn’t be a (very?) smooth gradation of being. Dream objects, for instance, would not be less real, or have less existence, than the material objects of the external world (consider that mental states are multi-realizable, so that for any mental state, a whole cacophony of physical states suffices to bring it about, even if, given some particular physical state, the mental state must come about – I assume this, here, just for the sake of argument). I had previously hoped that this problem was roughly analogous to the problem with measuring the ‘closeness’ of possible worlds to each other (when we talk about changing only a little bit of a world’s description, technically we are always talking about changing at least ℵ0 propositions).[3] If the problems were analogous, then their solutions were likely to be analogous, and I was (and remain) supremely confident that there must be a solution to the latter. However, we can apparently solve the latter problem by talking about first-order propositions directly about states of affairs in that world (at least plausibly, there are finitely many of these). That solution doesn’t translate well, as far as I can tell, into a solution for the first problem, so that the problems don’t seem analogous enough to have analogous solutions.

Another problem is that seemingly insignificant beings like atoms are going to be more real (in the sense of having higher/greater existence) than plants, and so human beings have less existence than mosquitoes. The Medievals would not have been thrilled. For them, plausibly, a thing exists to the extent that it succeeds in resembling God.

There is a possible reductio here as well; if some things have more existence than others by the modal measure suggested, then we might wonder whether we can license speech about some things having more unreality than others? Suppose we accept talk of impossible worlds, and suppose we then accept talk of really-impossible worlds. To get an idea what this would look like, refer to Pruss here. Well, then it looks like some things don’t merely not-exist, but some really don’t exist, and they don’t exist even more than other non-existent things.

Not all of these problems are equally troubling, but they are worth taking inventory of regardless. I think the attempted reductio ad absurdum at the end is pretty weak. We can just deny that there are really impossible worlds, or even deny that there really are impossible worlds. In any case, we can just exclude such considerations by fiat, since stipulative definitions can be constrained however we see fit, so we can just constrain the stipulative definition of ‘[degreed] existence’ so as to ignore such puzzles. Still, not all of these are so easy to dismiss. I won’t flesh this out here, but these considerations lead me to suspect that the best way to give an account of ‘degreed existence’ (in the sense the Medievals want to indulge talk about) may be with reference to a well worked out theory of existence after all.

[1] Is this true? Maybe not – maybe there is some y such that y exists only in two (or, in any case, in some finite number of) possible worlds. I have trouble imagining what this would be, but, in any case, for nearly any conceivable y, it will turn out to be true that there are ℵ0 possible worlds containing it.

[2] William Lane Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument, (Oregon, Wipf and Stock publishers, 1979), 80.

[3] Technically, we are changing even more propositions than this. It is widely agreed now that there is no set of all true propositions. Taking the power-set 𝔓(W) of all propositions true at possible world W, you can generate infinitely more propositions, and this actually changes the cardinality of the number of true propositions from ℵ0 to ℵ1, the latter of which is a non-denumerable infinity. The process can be repeated indefinitely, leaving us with an indefinitely large set, and there is no way to deal with indefinitely large sets in set theory.

When Absence of Evidence is Evidence of Absence

There is a popular and catchy saying which I myself have been caught repeating in the past, but which, for all its intuitive appeal, is false; namely, that the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. Many a new-atheist has repeated the mantra that there is no evidence for God’s existence, insinuating thereby that this absence of evidence is good evidence for atheism. William Lane Craig, a noted philosopher, theologian and tireless Christian apologist has responded as follows:

[Atheists] insist that it is precisely the absence of evidence for theism that justifies their claim that God does not exist. The problem with such a position is captured neatly by the aphorism, beloved of forensic scientists, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The absence of evidence is evidence of absence only in cases in which, were the postulated entity to exist, we should expect to have more evidence of its existence than we do.1

He has reiterated as much more informally (but more elaborately) on his podcast, ReasonableFaith, where he says:

The absence of evidence will count as evidence of absence when if the thing existed, then having surveyed the grounds, so to speak, we would expect to see evidence of their existence, and we don’t see it. And so, for example, in the case of fairies, if they existed then we ought to be able to find traces of their existence – their dead bodies when they die, their carcasses, other sorts of remains, little clothing factories where they build their clothes, and we ought to detect them flying about just as we detect dragon flies and bumblebees – but we don’t. So this would be a case where I think the absence of evidence would count as evidence of absence.”2

On this view, the absence of evidence only counts as evidence of absence when we have some reason to expect to see the evidence ex hypothesi. This has enormous intuitive appeal; consider the hypothesis that there is at least one tiger in India. Can the fact that I, sitting in Canada, currently see no tiger really count as evidence that there is not at least one tiger in India? Surely not; presumably because that evidence isn’t expected on the assumption of the relevant hypothesis’ truth. Elliott Sober, reflecting on absence of evidence, notes that in the case of arguments from absence “it is easy to see how each can be turned into a valid argument by adding a premise. The arguments have the form:

I do not have any evidence that p is true.
p is false.

Just add the premise

(P1) If p were true, then I’d have evidence that p is true.”3

This further highlights the fact that it is natural for us to think that absence of evidence is evidence of absence only when we expect the evidence ex hypothesi.

For years I found this response intellectually satisfying, but in recent years I have come to think that it is woefully mistaken. It is true that my failure to observe a tiger in Canada provides no evidence against there being at least one tiger in India, but it is not because I wouldn’t have anticipated seeing a tiger in Canada given that there is at least one tiger in India. All my affection and respect for Craig notwithstanding, if Craig means that absence of evidence E for hypothesis H is only evidence of absence (i.e., not-H) when the probability of E on H is greater than 0.5, then he is, I think, incorrect. In what follows I will try to explain why, as well as explore what to me seem interesting corollaries of Bayesianism.4

John Hawthorne, speaking about probability theory and the fine-tuning argument at a conference back in 2015, warned:

“Human beings, even intelligent human beings, are terrible at reasoning about probabilities. There’s enormous empirical evidence that human beings are terrible at reasoning about probabilities, and so we have to proceed with care.”5

Playfully picking on (presumably) a student in the audience, Hawthorne says: “Justin gave us the kind of awesome sounding principle… [that] if you don’t see something then that can be evidence of its absence only if you expect that you would get evidence were the thing there.”6 Not the cleanest off the cuff articulation, but clearly Hawthorne had in mind the principle for which W.L. Craig advocates. He continues; “that’s wrong… and I can prove to you that it’s wrong.”7 He proceeds to give an illustration using a hypothetical creature he calls a Dynx, where he stipulates that 75% of Dynx are invisible to the naked eye, and the probability that there is a Dynx in a box placed before us is 50%. We open the box, and we see no Dynx. The probability that there is no Dynx given our background knowledge and this new piece of information (namely that we do not see any Dynx) is approximately 57%. You can satisfy this for yourself by simply dividing up the space of possibilities (i.e., ‘seeing a Dynx in the box,’ ‘not seeing the Dynx in the box,’ and ‘there being no Dynx in the box’), eliminating the possibility of ‘seeing a Dynx in the box,’ and then expressing your updated probability assessment accordingly. So, even though we ought not to expect to see a Dynx in the box if there is one in the box, our failure to observe one is still evidence for their being no Dynx. This simple illustration (and others like it) seems to be entirely compelling. What, then, is the genuinely Bayesian determination of evidence?

On the Bayesian theory of confirmation,8 some evidence E will count as evidence for some hypothesis H (given background knowledge B) just in case E (conjoined with B) raises the (prior) conditional probability of H. To put it more formally, E will count as evidence for H just in case: P(H|E&B)>P(H|B). However, [P(H|E&B)>P(H|B)]⊃[P(~H|~E&B)>P(~H|B)]. In other words, if E provides any evidence for H, then ~E provides some evidence against H. It needn’t, of course, be the case that E provides as much evidence for H as ~E does for ~H, but it strictly follows from Bayesianism itself that ~E would be evidence against H just in case E would be evidence for H.

To illustrate with an example, let us take a hypothesis H1: “that aliens exist,” and evidence E1: “I am being abducted by aliens.” Obviously P(H1|E1&B)>>P(H1|B). What is not so obvious is that P(H1|~E1&B)<P(H1|B). The reason it isn’t so obvious is that ~E1 provides negligible evidence for ~H1 (even though E1 would provide compelling evidence of H1). If aliens abduct me, that’s really good evidence that they exist. If aliens do not abduct me that’s really poor evidence that they don’t exist. It may be some evidence, but it isn’t very much evidence.

Not only can the absence of evidence be negligible evidence of absence while the presence of that evidence would be altogether compelling, but the absence of evidence can even be inscrutable evidence of absence while the presence of evidence is scrutable and enormously supportive of the hypothesis in question. Take the example of a miracle, and for simplicity let us use the miracle of the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The bodily resurrection of Jesus, if it did occur, would be relatively good evidence for God’s existence; P(G|R&B)>>P(G|B). However, if Jesus had not been raised from the dead, would that provide any evidence against God’s existence? According to Bayesianism it would, but it seems like it would be not only negligible evidence, but even inscrutable evidence. There is no way one could put a figure (with any justification) on how much more confident it should make us in atheism that some miracle, like Jesus’ resurrection, did not occur. If we could give any estimate of what the probability is that God would perform a miracle when called upon to do so, for instance, then we could make some predictions about how many hospitalized people with terminal diseases (according to medical diagnosis) under observation get better when prayed for. We can’t make these predictions not because there is no actual probability of God doing a miracle, but because we aren’t at an epistemic vantage point from which we can assess that probability with any level of confidence at all.

Further, the evidence may not be merely negligible, but can in special instances be literally infinitesimal (an infinitesimal is a non-zero infinitely small quantity). Consider Hempel’s paradox9 for a moment; any observation of a pink shoe provides some evidence for the hypothesis that all ravens are black. The hypothesis that all ravens are black is logically equivalent to the statement that all non-black things are non-ravens. It follows, therefore, that any observation of a black raven is evidence that all non-black things are non-ravens, and any observation of a non-black non-raven is evidence that all ravens are black. An observation can’t be evidence for one without being evidence for the other precisely because they are logically equivalent statements, at least interpreted at face value; this is just what Hempel called “the equivalence condition.”10 However, it seems as though there are potentially infinitely many things which are non-black non-ravens which, at any moment, we will fail to observe. If this is so, then each of these instances of absence of evidence will count as instances of infinitesimal evidence of absence (or, at least, infinitely many of these instances will count as instances of infinitesimal evidence of absence). One thinks of the infinitely many miracles God could have performed at any given moment (e.g., growing a lost limb, bringing a dead child back to life, parting the Atlantic ocean); is it really the case that every instance of a miracle not happening provides some evidence against God’s existence? If so, and if there are infinitely many opportunities for God to perform a miracle of some kind (in infinitely many of which God decides to perform no miracle), does that not entail that the probability of theism is literally infinitesimal, or else that each instance (or, at least, infinitely many instances) of a non-miracle provides at most infinitesimal evidence against theism? This gets a little tricky, of course, because Bayesian theory isn’t really equipped to deal with cases of what we might call ‘transfinite probabilities,’11 but if we take its implications seriously even in such cases we will plausibly think that at least some things provide literally infinitesimal evidence for a conclusion or hypothesis.

An interesting objection to this suggests that there is not, even potentially, an infinite number of unobserved observables. Given the limited bandwidth of the human body as a kind of measuring apparatus,12 there may be infinitely many different but observationally indistinguishable events. Imagine, for instance, two pairs of pink shoes whose colours or sizes differ by so little as to make it impossible for any human being to tell the difference between them. For any of the attributes assessed by the five senses, there will be limited empirical bandwidth given the human body as a tool of observation. What this seems to entail is that there is not a potentially infinite number of different possible observations, in which case we needn’t concede the absurdity of infinitesimal probabilities. This objection is appreciably practical, but I’m not entirely confident that it settles the matter. After all, I can imagine a human being with “electron-microscope eyes”13 or with any number of other physical alterations which would allow them to observe an apparently potentially infinite number of different events. For any such alteration, I can imagine God miraculously bringing it about that observer S has precisely the alterations necessary to observe some miracle M1 which would have previously been indistinguishable from miracle M2, but is not now indistinguishable from M2 for S. Moreover, I’m not convinced that observational indistinguishability is terribly relevant; there are infinitely many possible pink shoes which I could now be observing, but am not, and even if infinitely many of them would be indistinguishable to me, failing to observe any one provides some evidence against the hypothesis that all ravens are black. So it seems to me that we’re stuck with conceding that at least some things provide literally infinitesimal evidence.

In summary, I think we have seen why the absence of evidence is evidence of absence in all cases except those in which the presence of so-called evidence would do nothing to raise the conditional probability of the hypothesis in question. Thus, my failing to observe a tiger in Canada provides no evidence against the hypothesis that there is at least one tiger in India not because I wouldn’t expect that evidence if there were at least one tiger in India, but because even if I were observing a tiger in Canada it would provide no evidence that there is at least one tiger in India.14 We have also seen that even when absence of evidence is negligible evidence of absence, or inscrutable evidence of absence, or infinitesimal evidence of absence (or any combination of those three), it will still provide some evidence of absence; if E would have been evidence for H, then the absence of E provides evidence against H.

Post Scriptum: I want to thank Tim Blais, Cale Nearing and Sean Boivin who provided me, in discussions subsequent to the original article, with food for thought without which I would never have made the improvements I have lately introduced above.

1 William Lane Craig, “Theistic Critiques of Atheism” The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. Edited by Michael Martin (Cambridge University Press, 2006): 70.

3 Elliott Sober, “Absence of Evidence and Evidence of Absence: Evidential Transitivity in Connection with Fossils, Fishing, Fine-Tuning, and Firing Squads,” in Philosophical Studies 143, no. 1 (2009): 64.

4 As a cautionary caveat lector; though I’m pretty confident that what I’m about to say is correct, I have not taken any class on probability theory (yet); if anyone thinks there’s some subtle mistake somewhere, they are encouraged to share it. I am more than open to updating my views.

8 Elliott Sober, “Absence of Evidence and Evidence of Absence: Evidential Transitivity in Connection with Fossils, Fishing, Fine-Tuning, and Firing Squads,” in Philosophical Studies 143, no. 1 (2009): 66.

9 James Fetzer, “Carl Hempel,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, (Spring 2017 Edition), accessed April 2, 2017.

10 James Fetzer, “Carl Hempel,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, (Spring 2017 Edition), accessed April 2, 2017.

11 If one dislikes this term because they think that probabilities can be no higher than 1, which makes them finite, I would suggest they think about how the conditions I just stipulated could imply that some hypothesis H is infinitely likely without having probability 1. However, if that doesn’t mollify the critic, I could agree to change the term to ‘non-finite’ probabilities.

12 I borrow here from Bas C. van Fraassen, who notes insightfully that “the human organism is, from the point of view of physics, a certain kind of measuring apparatus.” See: Bas C. van Fraassen, The Scientific Image, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 17. 

13 Bas C. van Fraassen, The Scientific Image, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 17.

14 If one thinks that observing a tiger somewhere raises the conditional probability that one may be observed anywhere then one will reject this conclusion, but they needn’t, in so doing, reject the principle this example is being employed to illustrate.

Easing your way into a Worldview

I want to offer a brief reflection on a phenomenon I see often which strikes me as curious; namely, the phenomenon of easing your way into a worldview by piecemeal steps.

In certain religious traditions (most commonly in those traditions typically referred to derogatorily as ‘cults’), there is a proselytic strategy of conveying certain articles of the faith (which may seem intuitive, wholesome, or otherwise welcome) but keeping information about other articles of faith hidden or secret except to the appropriately initiated. Underlying this practice is this unarticulated recognition that several of that religion’s teachings are so outlandish and counterintuitive that to even admit them in public (or in the presence of the uninitiated) would do damage to the cause of winning people over to their faith. As slimy as I’m inclined to think this practice is, there is perhaps something shrewd about it in light of the way most of us form our worldview-sized beliefs. In fact, it may be the case that for most major worldviews (worldviews which, in the free marketplace of ideas, do exceptionally well at winning over a great portion of the human race) people naturally ease their way into them by finding good reasons to affirm them and then making counter-intuitive adjustments along the way to accommodate them. We can illustrate this, in my submission, even by taking a critical look at metaphysical naturalism.

Take naturalism to be, approximately, the belief that (i) ‘God exists’ is not true, (ii) there exist at least some of the theoretical entities postulated by our best science, and (iii) that there exist only entities belief in which can be motivated in principle by a scientific view of the world (with the possible exception of God, caveat in casu necessitas). Perhaps naturalism sounds prima facie plausible to many people; the tremendous success of the scientific project of making sense of the world, the apparent superiority of scientific explanations over pre-scientific explanations, the relative implausibility of worldviews competing with naturalism given our new scientifically updated background knowledge about the world, all seem to lend some credence to metaphysical naturalism. One might be led, for these reasons, to adopt a naturalistic worldview and then slowly adjust their auxiliary beliefs accordingly one at a time. First, they may give up robust (or at least traditional) moral realism. Second, they may give up on affirming that there are objectively true (in the correspondence sense) mathematical propositions, or even analytic ones.1 Next they may give up correspondence theory, and then finally they end up denying things like qualia and conscious states.2 Before too long the naturalist will go from sounding soberingly sane to talking about “the illusion that thought is about stuff,”3 and insisting that there are no true sentences (including this one). The conclusions to which one arrives end up being so obnoxious to common sense, so ludicrous to the man on the street, that no sane person could ever agree to them without being eased into accepting them one small step at a time. Just as the frog who remains in slowly warming water until it boils her alive, so too the stubborn naturalist complacently gives in, incrementally, to ostensible insanity; the more comprehensive the atheist’s guide to reality gets, the more it looks like a guide to the surreal.

The very same happens with (some popular versions of) fundamentalism; one begins by finding the Christian worldview plausible for a variety of reasons ranging, perhaps, from natural theology to historical biblical scholarship, from cute arguments (like C.S. Lewis’ trilemma)4 to (Josh McDowell’s)5 systematic apologetics. However, before long one is arguing that the light of supernovae, which has taken millions of years to reach us, was created by God merely a few thousand years ago in order to create the appearance of now-dead stars, or that cancer exists because a talking snake fooled our most primitive human ancestor, or that carbon-dating is so inaccurate that it doesn’t preclude the possibility that dinosaurs were roughly contemporaneous with mankind. In this manner one slides from apparently reasonable starting points to what may as well be Alice’s wonderland.

A similar pattern holds true for lone-wolf thinkers whose worldviews end up being hodge-podge syntheses which hardly anyone else will ever find plausible or intellectually satisfying. Original thinkers from Zeno to Berkeley, from Diogenes to David Lewis put forward philosophies regarded by most to be laughable grandiloquent fictions. It is not surprising, then, that so many should regard the history of philosophy as a museum of the absurd. Even the man who abandons philosophical inquiry altogether creates for himself a view of the world riddled with inconsistencies and idiocies to which he remains blind thanks only to his refusal to reflect critically upon them.

Given this situation, it seems reasonable to ask: is there any stopping the flood of myriad derisory beliefs? The question of how plausible a worldview is seems irrelevant to the assessment of its truth unless the presumption that reality is not too counterintuitive turns out to be correct. If reality turns out to be massively counter-intuitive, then plausibility provides no guide to truth. However, if plausibility is the primary litmus test for believability (after logical coherence, etc.), then we are proverbially up the faecal creek without a paddle.

My reaction to this line of thought is as follows; just as parsimony should be regarded as a signpost of truth in the sense that between any two views, ceteris paribus, the more parsimonious is more likely to be true, so closer alignment with common sense makes a view, ceteris paribus, more likely to be correct. What qualifies as common sense may not be so easily answered, but something like nearly universally shared intuitions about plausibility will qualify (we can leave the details to be worked out elsewhere). Obviously most people are prejudiced, to some degree, in advance of the following exercise, but I think one of the most valuable procedures when it comes to worldview-selection is to take inventory of a (prima facie sufficiently plausible) worldview’s most counter-intuitive consequences and compare them to the most counter-intuitive consequences of competing worldviews. This exercise won’t provide us the means for any definitive doxastic adjudication, but I think it remains one of the best approaches we have to comparing competing worldviews.

The alternative, realistically, is for us to unreflectively slide comfortably into a worldview by taking incremental steps towards the absurd, readjusting our plausibility assignments slowly and surely, and ending up with beliefs we would never have consented to accept had we seen clearly precisely to what it was we were inevitably committing ourselves when we adopted the overarching paradigm in question.

1 See: W.V.O. Quine, “Two Dogmas of Empiricism,” Perspectives in the Philosophy of Language (2000): 189-210.

2 See: William Ramsey, “Eliminative Materialism”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta (2016), accessed March 27, 2017.

3 Alexander Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions. (WW Norton & Company, 2011), 95.

4 See: C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (Samizdat, 2014): 29-32.

5 Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict: Evidence I & II Fully Updated in One Volume to Answer Questions Challenging Christians in the 21 st Century, (Thomas Nelson, 1999).

Some Miscellaneous Reactions to Some of Robert Price’s Points in Favour of Mythicism

In a not so recent debate1 between Bart Ehrman and Robert Price the topic of whether Jesus of Nazareth historically existed was explored. This provides us with one of the first and few high-profile debates with at least one bona-fide scholar where the participants are directly arguing about mythicism. Unfortunately, the debate was a disappointment in several respects in that neither Ehrman nor Price gave performances of the quality many, who were anticipating an outstanding debate, were expecting. However, Price did say a few interesting things which I thought I’d pick up on and say a few words about. This is not intended to be a comprehensive dismantling of Price’s view (I have not the time to be so ambitious), but just intended to provide a registry of some of my miscellaneous reactions to various points.

Price, in his opening speech, provided at least three examples of evidence which may insinuate that one early objection to Christianity was that Jesus never existed. First, he cites a statement which Justin Martyr puts into the mouth of his interlocutor Trypho in his famous Dialogue with Trypho. Second, he cites a statement which Origen is at pains to refute from an anti-Christian polemicist of the second century, Celsus. Third, he calls into evidence the words of 2 Peter 1:16-18 as though they indicate an implicit awareness that there was an allegation already circulating within the first century that Jesus of Nazareth may not have existed at all.

Let us begin with the passage from the Dialogue with Trypho, according to which Trypho, (a Jewish intellectual who, in the dialogue, claims to have been a pupil of Corinthus the Socratic in Argos,2 and may possibly be the second century rabbi Tarfon,3 though that is not widely accepted) makes the following provocative charge:

But Christ—if He has indeed been born, and exists anywhere—is unknown, and does not even know Himself, and has no power until Elias come to anoint Him, and make Him manifest to all. And you, having accepted a groundless report, invent a Christ for yourselves, and for his sake are inconsiderately perishing.”4

Does this passage contain a veiled insinuation that Jesus did not exist? It doesn’t seem so. At very least we gather from the way Justin Martyr proceeds to respond to this comment that he doesn’t have that accusation in mind. Justin promises Trypho that “I will prove to you, here and now, that we do not believe in groundless myths nor in teachings not based on reason, but in doctrines that are inspired by the Divine Spirit, abundant with power, and teeming with grace.”5 However, Justin Martyr goes on to give argument after argument from prophecy to demonstrate that Jesus is a good ‘fit’ for the anticipated messiah of the Tanakh. He never goes on to argue that Jesus of Nazareth existed; he argues on the clear presumption that he and Trypho are agreed that Jesus of Nazareth existed. The likelihood is relatively high that Justin Martyr is writing a largely or entirely fictitious dialogue, but whether it was fictitious or not there is no way to read Trypho’s (alleged) statement as an insinuation that Jesus didn’t exist. That isn’t what Justin Martyr thought the statement insinuated, and it isn’t plausible that a historical Trypho intended to insinuate that the historical Jesus didn’t exist but just let that point drop entirely for the rest of the dialogue with Justin.

My verdict, therefore, is that this provides absolutely no evidence of any early anti-Christian polemic which insinuated that Jesus never existed.

What of Price’s second example, from the second century anti-Christian polemicist Celsus? Well, Price points out that Celsus says: “it is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie and that your fables have not been well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction.”6 However, to read this as a veiled charge that Jesus never existed is implausible for a variety of reasons. First, consider how the passage from Celsus continues: “it is clear to me that the writings of the Christians are a lie and that your fables have not been well enough constructed to conceal this monstrous fiction. I have heard that some of your interpreters…are on to the inconsistencies and, pen in hand, alter the originals writings, three, four and several more times over in order to be able to deny the contradictions in the face of criticism.”7 That is clearly an accusation of embellishment and selective redaction; it is clearly not an accusation of having invented the historical Jesus whole-cloth. Second, consider that Celsus elsewhere argues that Jesus is a bastard child; according to Origen in his Contra Celsus, “[Celsus was] speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that “when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera.”89 Clearly, however, if Celsus thought that Jesus was born of illegitimate relations between Mary and a Roman soldier named Panthera, then Celsus could not have also believed that Jesus never existed. Those beliefs are so obviously logically incompatible that even an imbecile (as Origen thought) like Celsus could not plausibly have entertained both.

Finally, what of the words in 2 Peter 1:16-18? They read:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
(2 Peter 1:16-18, NRSV).

I consider it obvious that the author gives us an indication of what the allegation of ‘cleverly devised myths’ comes to by the way he responds to the charge. Clearly, however, he spends all his time emphasizing not that he was an eyewitness (or that there were eyewitnesses) of Jesus of Nazareth, but that he was one of many eyewitnesses of the majesty of Christ which was attested to and illustrated by miracles. It is the majesty and/or the miracles which the author believes are being alleged to be cleverly devised myths, not the historicity of the person, Jesus of Nazareth; we know this by inferring it from the way the author responds to the allegations he has in mind.

So, in my opinion, all three of these evidences of some early objection to Christianity to the effect that Jesus of Nazareth did not historically exist are completely bunk.

I want to end this reflection on some points brought out by Price in the debate with a few positive notes. There are some areas where I actually agree with Price over against the majority of New Testament scholars. For instance, Price maintains (and this came out in parts of the debate) that there is no more reason to think that Paul wrote Galatians than there is to think that Paul wrote 1st Timothy. Price’s conclusion is that we have reason to believe that Paul did not write any of the epistles traditionally ascribed to him. My conclusion is that Paul plausibly wrote all of the epistles traditionally ascribed to him. This was somewhat tangential to the debate, but it is a point of interesting qualified agreement nevertheless. More interesting still, Price argued that if we strip away all of the miraculous claims made about Christ, we are left with a first-century Jewish Rabbi about whom nothing would have been worth writing in the first place. He says, at one point, that if Clark Kent existed and superman didn’t, there would be no gradual embellishment of stories about Clark Kent because there would be no reason for anyone to remember any stories about Clark Kent in the first place. There either has to have been something about the Jesus of Nazareth of history which made him worth writing (talking, etc.) so much about in the first place, or else the stories about him were mythological from the beginning.

This, I think, is a very interesting point. If historians are intent on whittling down the Jesus of the Gospels to the point where he was an utterly unremarkable first century Jewish rabbi then there is no explanation for why he caused such a stir in the first place. Obviously most historians will respond, here, by conceding that Jesus claimed to be a miracle worker, and performed exorcism ceremonies in a way which presumed an immense and unprecedented amount of authority for himself. It was his innovative preaching along with what W.L. Craig has called the historical Jesus’ “unprecedented sense of divine authority,”10 which sufficiently explain why there were any stories about him in the first place. So, on the one hand, Price has, I think, failed to take inventory of what most New Testament scholars believe we can say with enormous confidence about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. On the other hand, though, Price does well to remind us that if scholars aren’t careful to preserve something remarkable and unique about the historical Jesus, if they reconstruct only a version of Jesus wholly sanitized by the presumption of naturalism, and about whom there was really nothing terribly special, they may be proverbially cutting the tree branch from which they hang.


1 Anyone interested can find the debate, at least currently, at the following link:

2 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 1,

3 Claudia Setzer, Jewish Responses to Early Christians,Fortress Press, 1994: 215.

4 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 8,

5 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 9,

6 Celsus, On the True Doctrine, translated by R. Joseph Hoffman, Oxford University Press, 1987: 37. See:

7 Celsus, On the True Doctrine, translated by R. Joseph Hoffman, Oxford University Press, 1987: 37. See:

8 Origen, Contra Celsus, Book 1, chapter 32.

9 I have written a little bit on this before, a long time ago. Those interested may see: