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Graham Oppy Miller

Book Review: Miller, B., From Existence To God: A Contemporary Philosophical Argument (London and New York: Routledge, 1992) pp. x, 206 (1994)

Graham Oppy


[This article was originally published in the Australasian Journal Of Philosophy, 72, 2, June 1994, pp.257-258)]

This book is a synthesis of much previously published material, the existence of which is not acknowledged anywhere in the book. In particular, much of the material–and in some cases, much of the text–of [1] “Why Ever Should Any Existing Individual Exist” (Review Of Metaphysics 37, 1983, pp.287-326), [2] “Necessarily Terminating Causal Series And The Contingency Argument” (Mind 91, 1982, pp.201-215), [3] “Making Sense Of Necessary Existence” (American Philosophical Quarterly 11, 1974, pp.47-54), [4] “In Defence Of The Predicate ‘Exists'” (Mind 84, 1975, pp.338-354), [5] “Negative Existential Propositions” (Analysis 42, 1982, pp.181-188), and [6] “The Contingency Argument” Monist 54, 1970, pp.359-373, is reproduced. Moreover, substantial use is also made of material from papers which are referred to only in passing–e.g. [7] “Logically Simple Propositions” (Analysis 34, 1974, pp.123-128), and [8] “Proper Names And Their Distinctive Sense” (Australasian Journal Of Philosophy 51, 1973, pp.201-210). Consequently, there is very little in the book which will appear novel to those who are familiar with Miller’s previous publications.

Nonetheless, the book is much more than a collection of the above-mentioned papers (together with some others which I have omitted to mention). For, with the addition of a little new material, the existing texts have been re-fashioned into a single, unified defence of Miller’s version of the contingency argument for the existence of God. And, for those interested in natural theology, yet unfamiliar with Miller’s previous work, the book renders acquaintance with that earlier work superfluous. The remainder of this review will be written with such readers in mind.

Miller’s central claim is that conditions necessary for the existence of any particular entity (e.g. Miller’s dog Fido) can only be satisfied if there is an uncaused cause of the existence of that entity which is such that there is no real distinction between it and its existence. This, in outline, is a quite traditional Thomistic view. However, many of the details which Miller provides are novel. Not unsurprisingly, these details include many controversial doctrines about important issues in metaphysics and philosophy of language. For example, Miller’ s arguments require, or invoke, the following controversial claims: (i) there is a legitimate Fregean analysis of atomic sentences; (ii) corresponding to the legitimate Fregean analysis of atomic sentences, there is a legitimate ontological analysis of the contents of those sentences; (iii) the correlates of (the senses of) predicates in that legitimate analysis of the contents of sentences are incomplete entities (property instances); (iv) no individual can be referred to (conceived of) at any time before it exists; (v) ‘exists’ can function as a genuine first-order predicate, and existence is a genuine property; (vi) ‘a exists’ must be understood to be elliptical for ‘a exists qua conditional on b’ (and hence can be understood in this way!); (vii) the notion of a subsistent existence–i.e. that for which there is no distinction between it and its existence–is intelligible (and, indeed, actually realised); (viii) there are subjectless (logically simple) propositions, one of which is appropriately expressed by the expression “exists”; (ix) the notion of necessary existence is most appropriately construed as the notion of subsistent existence (in Miller’s sense); (x) Quine’s method for eliminating singular terms fails because only names, and not predicables, can serve in attributions of properties to particular individuals; etc. Given such a menu, it is plainly unlikely that many will be persuaded by Miller’s overall argument.

Some of Miller’s arguments neglect important opposing considerations which have been presented in the literature. Thus, his argument that sentences such as “It is raining” express subjectless propositions ignores John Perry’s claim that many propositions have unarticulated constituents (e.g., in the case in question, the place at which the utterance is made). Similarly, his argument that it is impossible to refer to individuals at any time before they exist ignores both David Kaplan’s suggestion that one might use his dthat-operator to just such effect, and Nathan Salmon’s defence of the view that it is possible to refer to individuals which never exist. Moreover, some of the supporting arguments which Miller offers are very swift and unsatisfactory. (For instance, at p.38 he claims that a Direct Reference analysis of atomic sentences could equally well be used to generate his argument; and, against the obvious suggestion that many Direct Reference theorists take the properties (or tropes) invoked in their theories to be complete entities, he simply asserts that there are “ineradicable difficulties with such theories”. I think that it is very far from clear that Direct Reference theorists need to suppose that, e.g., Fido’s existence is an incomplete constituent of Fido’s existing.)

In my view, the most important objection to Miller’s claims concerns his argument for the suggestion that there can be no non-contradictory non-elliptical construal of atomic sentences of the form “a exists”. Suppose that we grant that a non-elliptical construal of such sentences will require us to say, e.g., that Fido’s existing is conceptually constructible from Fido and his existence. Even then, I cannot see why we should agree with Miller that “there seems to be no starting point for such construction, since Fido’s existence is disqualified by being an incomplete entity and Fido is disqualified by being inconceivable until he has competed his existence” (p.83). For the claim that “Fido is disqualified by being inconceivable until he has completed his existence” involves a fatal equivocation. On the one hand, it may mean that Fido is inconceivable at any time prior to the first instant at which he exists (a claim which Miller defends at length in the text); but, in that case, provided that the time is right, there is no problem about starting the construction of Fido’s existing with Fido. On the other hand, it may mean that Fido is inconceivable unless he is conceived as existing–i.e. unless Fido’s existing is already conceived; but, in that case, what is meant is simply false (although it would entail that the construction in question could not be carried out), since it clearly is possible to conceive of all sorts of things without ever (explicitly) conceiving of their existence. If this is right, then further difficulties for Miller’s view–e.g. concerning the intelligibility of the notion of subsistent existence–are merely consequential. Since there is no compelling question of the kind which Miller envisages to ask about Fido’s existence, there is no reason to subscribe to the problematic solution which he provides.

The general approach to metaphysics and philosophy of language which underlies Miller’s arguments is, of course, controversial. Many philosophers will wish to reject the idea that predicates have ontological correlates–in the form of universals, tropes, property-instances, and the like; moreover (and sometimes consequently), many philosophers will wish to reject the idea that sentences have structured ontological correlates, such as states of affairs or Miller’s “ontological wholes”. Miller is committed to the view that the syntax of ordinary language places tight constraints upon, and indeed is an accurate guide to, the deep metaphysical structure of the world. There are many who are not inhospitable to metaphysics who would reject this view (not to mention those who are inhospitable towards all traditional kinds of metaphysics). Of course, this matter is difficult and controversial, but it seems to me that it ought to have merited some discussion (given the nature of Miller’s project). After all, one not obviously irrational response to his claim that there is no non-contradictory, non-elliptical construal of atomic sentences of the form “a exists” is to suggest that this claim must derive from mistaken assumptions about metaphysics, philosophy of language, and the connection between the two. If, as seems plausible, there is no (other) internal contradiction in, say, a naturalistic nominalism, then nothing Miller says gives one who endorses a theory of that kind a reason to worry about his overwhelming question. At the very least, Miller could well have said more about the kind of audience at which his argument could reasonably be taken to be directed.

Although I found much with which to disagree, I think that From Existence To God is well worth reading (for those with a reasonable amount of interest in natural theology). Miller writes well, and his views are thought-provoking. At the very least, this book–when considered apart from Miller’s previous publications–is a substantial contribution to the literature concerning contingency (cosmological) arguments.

“Book Review: Miller, B., From Existence To God: A Contemporary Philosophical Argument” is copyright © 1994 by Graham Oppy. All rights reserved.

The electronic version is copyright © 1998 by Internet Infidels with the written permission of Graham Oppy. All rights reserved.