Category Archives: hugh mccann

A Critique of Vallicella’s Critique of McCann

If one isn’t familiar with the issues from the title, feel free to skip this post.

Vallicella thinks McCann is wrong in holding that God transcends modality. He wrote a paper explaining why, titled “Hugh McCann on the Implications of Divine Sovereignty,” published in the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly 88:1 (2014).

His main reasons (I’m sure he would accuse me of butchering his views) for thinking McCann is wrong are three. I’ll post them in his own words below.

“In closing, I suggest that divine sovereignty cannot extend as far as McCann would like to extend it. God cannot be absolutely sovereign because he himself is subject to modal constraints. First, God cannot create himself. Second, the divine aseity, pace McCann, entails both the divine de re metaphysical necessity and the de re metaphysical contingency of the created realm. Aseity is a modal notion: it implies the possibility that God exists without the world, and the impossibility that the world exist without God. Third, God’s being the best explanation of the world’s existence entails that the world needs and explanation, which is true only if the world is contingent – which it cannot be if McCann’s scheme is correct.”

Now, far be it from me to act like I can go toe to toe with a guy like Vallicella. Take this like a kitten bucking up to a grizzly bear. Meow.

It just seems to me Vallicella isn’t really grasping what McCann is suggesting, because all these objections can be met with the same response: namely that they are category mistakes. Let’s take his objections one by one.

a) Criticism: if it is impossible for God to create himself, God is therefore subject to “possibility” in a modal sense. Reply: not necessarily. Why not just say that the idea of a thing creating itself is meaningless, and therefore impossible to predicate of anything in the first place? If I say that it is true that Tuesday cannot gain 15 pounds, that does not mean that Tuesday is somehow limited by the notion of “pounds.” For when I’m making this statement I need not really be invoking some metaphysical criteria which delineates Tuesday. I can say all sorts of words and attach them to a subject – but that need not entail anything about the subject. In other words, to deny that A applies to X is not to affirm therefore that not A does in fact apply to it. For it may be that both A and not A are terms that are not predicable of X at all, either positively or negatively. The truth we are expressing when we say that God cannot create himself is really the truth that no being that exists in time can exist prior to itself – for that is a logical contradiction. But God, as not being a being in time, simply doesn’t even fall into the category in which “existing before” applies. Thus to say anything about him creating himself – whether you say its possible or impossible – is simply a meaningless predication.

(Also, remember, “impossibility” for McCann is a conceptual category; it is about PROPOSITIONS, not about God, which just is what he is.)

b) Criticism: aseity implies that God can exist without the world but that the world cannot exist without God. Response: again, this doesn’t necessarily follow. Aseity entails that God’s being comes from himself and that he does not depend on the world (it does not “happen to him”). But that need not imply ANYTHING about his ability to act otherwise. If God timelessly creates the world then he is a se insofar as he does not gain being from anything and that he neither could do differently nor necessarily does what he does. And that’s all you need. You don’t have to say that he “could” exist differently.

c) Criticism: the cosmological argument entails assuming the world is contingent and could have not existed, which is impossible if God’s act of creation is amodal. Response: the cosmological argument is really, at its core, an argument from the phenomenon of CHANGE and BECOMING – not contingency as a modal notion. All you need is an object undergoing succession to run Aristotle’s or Aquinas’ proof of a first moved mover. In short, you need the act/potency distinction, nor the contingent/necessary distinction. Vallicella’s point here fails to consider this fact.

So, pace the Maverick, a) impossibility applies to the conceptual order; b) aseity per se need not entail anything about the ability to do otherwise; and c) the cosmological argument needs only change, not contingency, to be a metaphysically “real” category.

Clarifying the “Ability to do otherwise”

Libertarian freedom is supposedly distinguished from compatibilism because it holds we have “the ability to do otherwise.” I am not necessarily endorsing compatibilism here, but I see a potential absurdity – or at least difficulty – in this claim, which is this. Just WHERE is the ability to do otherwise located, or WHEN is it actualized?

Pick any moment in time. At that moment, the person’s will is DOING something. Therefore they cannot AT THAT MOMENT be free to do otherwise. Therefore they must be free in the NEXT moment. But if that’s the case, how is that different from compatibilism, which could also hold that the will is, from one moment to the next, free to do what it does (i.e. that it can be different from one moment to the next)? Further, just what is it that gives rise to the particular act that could have been different, and could THAT thing, at THAT moment, be different? If it is what it is it cannot be different (for then it would be something else) – and in which case, how could what it gives rise to be different? If all things are equal the effect will be equal, unless the principle of sufficient reason is false. So there seems to be an infinite regress here, insofar as you must eventually posit something that just IS what it IS at a particular moment, which means that it cannot AT THAT MOMENT be otherwise.

Hugh McCann has an interesting take on freedom which has to do with de re modality. He thinks that the terms “necessary” and “contingent” apply on to the conceptual realm – i.e. they essentially equate to what we cannot imagine and what we can imagine. But they don’t impose some sort of tight metaphysical structure onto reality itself whereby things fall into the category of “has to be this” and “may be that.” That is just how our finite, ignorant minds work. We, being less than all knowing, imagine various things, and this ability makes us think things MAY or MAY NOT be other than they are. But in reality, McCann holds, things just ARE the way they are. It’s not that they are necessary or that they are contingent – they just ARE. Thus, it is not the case that humans HAVE to have the power of seeing, nor that we could not exist without it. It is just that as a matter of fact we DO have this ability. And there’s the end of the matter.

Perhaps we should think of the will like this, not as having to do what it does (i.e. determined by some metaphysically antecedent mode of being called “necessity”), nor that it just contingently is what it is, but it could have been different. Rather, perhaps we should think of it as simply doing what it does and being what it is: i.e. the “definition” of free will is just what in fact occurs and is willed by us.