Why Do We Ask Why?
February 3, 2014 — 20:59

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 8

Several of the essays in The Puzzle of Existence argue, in one way or another, that no non-trivial answer can be given to those who ask why there is something rather than nothing. This may be because the question is somehow confused or mistaken, as in the case of Ross who argues that there is no such entity as everything (the totality of contingent concrete things, the Cosmos, etc.), and hence there can be no explaining the existence of everything. Or it may be because the Principle of Sufficient Reason is false, and so not every legitimate why question has an answer. This line is taken by Kleinschmidt. John Heil aims to go further: to show that the question arises only within a certain sort of philosophical paradigm. Heil aims, further, to call this paradigm into question and show that an alternative paradigm is possible.

Heil’s essay opens with a fascinating historical narrative. On Heil’s telling, Aristotle held that “what a thing does or would do is determined by the thing’s nature” (168). However, late Medieval thinkers thought that this way of seeing things did not allow for a sufficiently robust conception of divine omnipotence. We need to allow that God could have made the very same sorts of things behave differently than those things in fact do, and so we need to regard “what a thing does or would do” as external to that thing and imposed on it by God. This leads to a conception of God as a legislator imposing laws on the world. Subsequent philosophers have tried to delete God from this picture, but the deletion leaves a void to be filled, and philosophers have attempted to fill it in a variety of ways. (One is reminded here of the similar point about moral philosophy famously made by Elizabeth Anscombe.)

Heil’s narrative provides a new and interesting take on the argument from contingency for the existence of God. On this view, the point being made by the argument from contingency is that the ‘modern’ way of looking at things is in fact (despite what some people will tell you) a fundamentally theistic point of view, from which God has never been fully excised. (Perhaps it would be better to say it is a fundamentally deistic point of view; the idea that fits in most neatly with the views of modern thinkers like Galileo, Descartes, and Newton is the notion of an absent watchmaker.) Heil, however, wants to deny that this is a good reason for believing in God. Instead, he thinks, once belief in God has (for whatever reason) been rejected, a new paradigm is needed. That ‘new’ paradigm turns out to be an old one: Aristotle’s. This, Heil argues, is not actually inconsistent with modern science, for one can still think of science as an effort to discover laws (179); one merely takes the laws to be grounded in the powers, rather than vice versa. On this kind of view, Heil thinks, the universe starts to look more, as it were, self-contained, and we are less tempted to go looking for something outside it to explain it.

One of the reasons I find Heil’s suggestion is interesting is that, as a sociological matter, I suspect that (due in part to the influence of Roman Catholic theology) neo-Aristotelian views are presently correlated with theism. Heil thinks, though, that Aristotelianism is what the atheist needs to break out of the theistic paradigm.

Heil is fairly compelling in his discussion of this paradigm and its influence. This, by itself, is enough to make this a very valuable essay. There are (at least) three issues on which, I think, further discussion and debate is called for: (1) Do attempts to de-theologize this paradigm really fail, as Heil thinks? (2) What viable alternative paradigms can be constructed? (3) Do these alternative paradigms really sit more comfortably with atheism than the standard (‘modern’) paradigm?

The third question is, I take it, most crucial. After all, Aristotle himself believed in a God (who probably deserves a big ‘G’), and, on Heil’s own telling, it was not until long after Christianity became the dominant intellectual force that the now-standard paradigm arose. Hence many people have thought (and still think) that a God is needed within an Aristotelian paradigm as well.

Heil’s thesis in this paper is, I take it, a relatively modest one: the assumptions that lead to the question, ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ are optional. However, Heil relies on a strong conception of ‘nothing,’ excluding even God, and so holds that “If there is something there could not have been nothing” (180). This clearly follows on an Aristotelian notion of possibility as potentiality. If, however, our question is not ‘why is there anything at all?’ but rather, ‘why is there anything physical?’ or ‘why is there anything concrete and contingent?’ then perhaps we will be led once again to posit a necessarily existent God. So it is not clear that Heil’s Aristotelianism is a better fit with atheism after all.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)

  • I don’t see how would follow from the fact that there couldn’t have been nothing that the question “Why is there something?” is a non-question. We ask for explanations of necessary truths very often in philosophy. Torture of the innocent couldn’t have been permissible, but the question “Why is torture of the innocent impermissible?” (because it fails to respect persons? because God forbade it? because it is unloving? because it is vicious?) is a genuine ethical question.

    February 4, 2014 — 11:40
  • Alex – I agree (though as I discussed in my last post I think explanations of necessary truths generally look a lot different than explanations of contingent truths, so it’s important to figure out which we are dealing with before we start trying to explain). I took Heil’s point to be something more along the lines of: here are the reasons why we take this to be a deep and pressing question to which a certain sort of answer is to be expected. Heil doesn’t really spell out how the Aristotelian conception of nature is supposed to deflate the problem, but I think what he has in mind is something like: given a proper (Aristotelian) conception of possibility, it is not only obvious that there couldn’t have been nothing, it is also obvious why there couldn’t have been nothing. And so the question ceases to look deep and interesting. At least I think that’s what he’s after.

    February 4, 2014 — 11:47
  • Kenny:

    I do endorse the Aristotelian conception of possibility, and agree that it implies that there couldn’t have been nothing. But without a necessary being, the Aristotelian conception of possibility leads to something like this counterintuitive result: for every possible world w, there is a point t0 in our causal history such that w matches the actual world before t0, but what that point is differs from world to world (thus, some worlds deviate from ours 10 years ago, some 100, some a billion, but none are always different).

    Also, I wonder whether an explanation of why ~p is impossible always yields an explanation of p. For instance, consider the first order logic explanation of why ~(the sky is blue or the sky is not blue) is impossible. This does not, perhaps, explain why the sky is blue or the sky is not blue. The explanation of that isn’t the general facts about logic, but the particular fact that the sky is blue, or maybe the reasons why the sky is blue.

    Hmm. Maybe an explanation of why ~p is impossible yields an explanation of ~~p. And while ~~p does entail p (pace the intuitionist), nonetheless an explanation of ~~p need not be an explanation of p. (In fact the last thing I just said is clearly true. For typically p explains ~~p, but p doesn’t explain p.)

    February 5, 2014 — 10:51
  • By the way, I am *very* grateful to you for posting these insightful response papers.

    February 5, 2014 — 10:51
  • Oppy endorses what you call the counterintuitive consequence quite explicitly in his essay in this book, and I think Heil wants to do the same. He is very skeptical of the whole possible worlds framework, and thinks it is leading us astray, perhaps by making us say things such as that this result is counterintuitive. In fact, at the very end of his paper, Heil says, “Had there been nothing, it would not have been possible for there to be something. Given that there is something, there could not have been nothing.” The first counterfactual, is clearly, on his view, a counterpossible. I’m not sure exactly how he is thinking of counterfactuals in general and counterpossibles in particular.

    February 5, 2014 — 11:18
    • Is Heil a presentist? That could make a difference here. If one is some sort of four-dimensionalist, then it is as natural to think of “the whole past” (and say that surely it might have been completely different) as it is to think of “all of Argentina”.

      Also, there is the intuition that the laws of nature–whether they’re grounded in powers or not–could have been completely different. But not if some segment of the past is necessary.

      February 5, 2014 — 16:12
      • I didn’t see anything in this paper that would indicate whether he was a presentist. I certainly have that intuition myself, but then I find the possible worlds framework very natural.

        February 5, 2014 — 16:20
        • p grounds ~~p.
          If p grounds q, then one does not explain p by explaining q.
          But the proposal that p is explained by ~M~p would end up explaining p by explaining ~~p.
          So one does not explain p by ~M~p.
          (One can, on the other hand, sometimes explain ~p by ~Mp. There aren’t any square circles because there can’t be.)

          I am not quite convinced by this argument in general. But I think the argument does make it at least plausible that one does not automatically explain p by ~M~p (and hence by Lp, on those views of modality on which Lp is defined via ~M~p, with possibility being prior to necessity).

          February 6, 2014 — 0:19
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