Revisiting the Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma

In a previous post, I launched what I called the Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma (CED) as a response to the Argument from Contingency:

From whence did God’s reasons for creating the universe come?

There are two possibilities, both disastrous for the theist:

  1. If God’s reasons for creating the universe came from within Herself, then God did not create the universe of Her free-will. After all, God’s essence is necessarily the way that it is and is unalterable. Thus, any sort of reasons from within God are necessarily the case. God could not have chosen to do otherwise. Worse, not only would God not have free-will, but the universe would not be contingent after all (God exists in every possible world and, since God possesses the same reasons at every possible world, would create the same universe at every possible world — therefore, the universe is not contingent; this contradicts a premise in the argument from contingency).
  2. But now suppose that there were no reasons originating from within God for creating the universe. In this case, there is no where for such reasons to come from. God may have free-will to create the universe, but would be acting arbitrarily and capriciously.

I call this the Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma, in analogy with the Euthyphro dilemma concerning theistic ethics (or piety, as in the original Socratic formulation). It’s my personal brainchild, but similar arguments appear throughout the history of philosophy and theology (and are discussed at length in, for example, Arthur Lovejoy’s Chain of Being).

There have been multiple theists who wanted to resist the CED. This is not surprising. Given (1), the Argument from Contingency is devastated because the universe is not contingent after all. Worse, both (1) and (2) lead classical theism into a contradiction.

Consider the following plausible principle:

The Existence of Counterfactuals (TEC): there are ways that our universe could have been other than how our universe is.

TEC is a sufficiently common assumption among philosophers that it does not require me to provide any additional justification here than what exists in the literature. TEC is what allows for a coherent notions of metaphysical possibility and contingency.

Yet, given (1), TEC is false. Thus, if we assume that TEC is true — which is a fairly non-controversial move among philosophers — but also choose the first fork in CED, we are led to conclude that TEC is both true and false. Unless the theist abandons either TEC or God’s necessary existence, (1) entails that God does not exist.

Yet theism fares no better on (2). Consider another plausible principle:

No Arbitrary Actions (NAA): a perfect God would always have reasons for their actions.

There is a contradiction between NAA and (2). Thus, unless the theist abandons NAA, (2) also leads to the conclusion that theism is false.

There seem to be no other options for the classical theist than (1) or (2). Thus, CED entails that God does not exist.

Let’s review some of the responses I have received to CED thus far.


Greg Lehr writes:

In the first possibility you are arguing that God does not have libertarian free will. With that I agree, God cannot act against his own character and nature. There does seem to be an unspoken assumption in this premise however. That being that God must always act upon every aspect of his intrinsic nature. (“what ever God is He must do”) I think for your premise to be sound you need to present arguments supporting that assumption.
In the second possibility you seem to be arguing that, if there is nothing in Gods intrinsic nature that demands the creation of the universe then it must be a capricious and arbitrary act. I would question the premise that an arbitrary act of God must, by necessity, also be capricious. So again I would like to see what your supporting arguments are.
I believe a third possibility is what is known as “contrary choice” This is the premise that while God cannot act against His intrinsic nature He can choose not to act upon it. If this is the case, then even if creating universes is part of His intrinsic nature the act of creation would be His voluntary choice. Meaning then that the universe is not contingent.

I responded:

In regards to your response to my first possibility: I never said that God must always act upon every aspect of Her intrinsic nature in every action that She performs. That would be absurd; surely, there are aspects of Her nature that are not relevant for many actions that She might perform. This does not mean that there is no aspect of Her nature that is relevant.

In regards to your response to my second possibility: you argue that just because there is nothing in God’s “intrinsic nature” that causes Her to create the universe, this does not mean that God’s creative act would be arbitrary. Note that, by “arbitrary”, I mean without reason. Apparently, you think that God might have some other reasons to act; I wonder what these might be, given that prior to Creation, nothing exists but God. Does God create God’s reasons? If so, then these must come of necessity from God’s nature or else they are arbitrary. The only other possibility is to say that God’s reasons arise independently of God, but this amounts to denying God’s aseity.

You bring up a third possibility that you call “contrary choice”, in which, while not acting against Her nature, God can choose not to act upon Her nature. I’m not sure what that means, but I wonder where God’s reasons for not acting upon Her nature come from. Apparently, they cannot come from Her nature. Does She create such reasons (in which case they are necessary), do they arise independently (denying God’s aseity), or does She arbitrarily abstain from acting on Her nature?

Robert AndAlicia-Lawrence BanahdeCristo worries that I have neglected Libertarian Free-Will (LFW):

since we do not know the source of what makes a being one that actually is a truly “freewill” being, or a being one that has free will, it is absurd to argue that if it is not “necessary” then it MUST BE arbitrary or capricious. The only way this follows is if one assumes a false dichotomy of pure determinism or pure carpricious. When one posits a world in which true LFW exists then it is completely consistent to argue that God has LFW and thus his choices are neither NECESSARY or CAPRICIOUS. Thus your argument, at best is as circular as you accuse Theism to be.

I responded:

A few things.

First, I never accused theism of being “circular”.

Second, part of the challenge is for the theist to explain how God could have libertarian free will. You state — rightly — that IF God has libertarian free will then Her actions are neither capricious nor necessary; but given what else is said about God’s actions and nature, it is difficult to make sense of this claim.

Either God has reasons for Her actions or not. If God does have reasons for Her actions, where else could these reasons originate than God’s essence? If they do originate somewhere other than God’s essence, then there is something other than God which was, apparently, not created by God (namely, the origins of God’s reasons). On the other hand, if God does not have reasons for Her actions, then God’s actions really are capricious. It seems that, on the theist’s view, the only possible origin for God’s reasons for action is God’s essence. But because God’s essence is necessary, God’s actions would also be necessary. Because God’s actions would be necessary, God would not have free-will. Moreover, God’s creation would not be contingent after all.

I’ve responded, at length, to theistic LFW elsewhere.

One comment

  • April 28, 2015 - 2:24 pm | Permalink

    What follows is my own response

    I would accept the first horn of the dilemma (rejecting LFW), but disagree with the consequences of what you believe entails.

    I will define free will as “a rationally informed action”.

    Consider God, being an agent acting without any tense or spacial predication, actualizes all points of time from time T1 onward. There is no deliberation going on since God does not need to deliberate in order to garner more information for a more informed decision, what God is doing is necessarily actualizing space-time in a perfectly informed fashion.

    According to Anselm,

    There is a free will that is from itself, which is neither made nor received from another,
    which is of God alone; there is another made and received from God, which is found in angels
    and in men. That which is made or received is different in one having the rectitude which
    he preserves than in one lacking it. Those having it are on the one hand those who hold it
    separably and those who hold it inseparably. The former was the case with all the angels
    before the good were confirmed and the evil fell, and with all men prior to death who have
    this rectitude.

    Since God existence is not separate from his rationally informed action, and does not need another temporal moment in order to garner any more information, God’s free will remains intact.

    Further, the first horn would not mean that God eliminates contingency. Consider what the philosopher says,

    a man, being just as hungry as thirsty, and placed in between food and drink, must necessarily remain where he is and starve to death.

    If there are two possible universes with a negligible difference, are we to suppose God irrational to choose one over the other? I should say not, it is possible for God to necessarily create a random actualizer to do the work for him. It would pick at random a possible world that he finds worthy of creation. This would make this world contingent through a necessary random chooser. Any effect it would have would be explicable by the random chooser.

    Another (necessary) possibility is that God actualizes all possible worlds worthy of creation as well, this would leave us with a quasi-modal realism that entail that we can still use “contingent” or “possible” in the sense that “there is a world where this would happen”. This would exclude worlds that are not “worthy of creation” as impossible because they cannot live up to the standard of sufficing the need for a PSR.


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