Virtual Colloquium: Ricki Bliss, “Metaphysical Foundationalism and the Principle of Sufficient Reason”
May 19, 2017 — 6:00

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: General  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 4

Welcome to the final installment of the Prosblogion Virtual Colloquium. Many thanks to all of those who have contributed, both as presenters and commenters.

Our final paper will be “Metaphysical Foundationalism and the Principle of Sufficient Reason” by Ricki Bliss. Dr. Bliss received her PhD from the University of Melbourne in 2012 and is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Her papers on metaphysics have appeared in journals such as Philosophical Review and Philosophical Studies. She is co-author (with Kelly Trogdon) of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on metaphysical grounding and co-editor (with Graham Priest) of Reality and its Structure, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Metaphysical Foundationalism and the Principle of Sufficient Reason

Ricki Bliss

The following is the abstract for my paper that I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss:

The metaphysical foundationalist claims that reality is hierarchically arranged, with maximal chains of phenomena ordered by the grounding relation terminating in contingently existent fundamentalia. Some influential foundationalists claim that there must be something fundamental because being requires a ground or explanation, or because grounding chains that do not terminate are viciously infinitely regressive. Surprisingly, reconstruction of these arguments reveals an enthymematic assumption that makes appeal to a Principle of Sufficient Reason: a principle the foundationalist would not, and should not, accept. I explore three different Principles of Sufficient Reason: two familiar to us from cosmological arguments and one, novel, dependence PSR. I argue that without a PSR, certain of the most influential arguments to the existence of something fundamental do not work; and that with a PSR, certain of the most influential arguments to the existence of something fundamental leave us with a position that is epistemically unstable.

By way of introduction, I would like to say a few things about what has motivated me to write this paper, and what I think some interesting (and important!) open questions are.

Contemporarily, analytic metaphysics seems to be in the thrall of notions of ground, structure and the idea that there is something fundamental. In addition to this, there seems to be a growing tension between those wedded to a Quine-style naturalizing of metaphysics and the ‘neo-Aristotelian’ return to the good old fashioned way of doing it. In theory, a good proper Quinean will hold that the only kinds of arguments we need in defence of fundamentality are arguments from theoretical virtue, whereas the neo-Aristotelian will allow the use of, say, arguments from vicious infinite regress. In practice, however, the contemporary grounding literature and discussions of fundamentality are a mess. Card-carrying Quineans make appeal all over the place to talk of ‘grounds of being’, arguments from vicious infinite regress and the need that there be some kind of ultimate explainers. At the same time, they throw around talk of theoretical virtue with almost no reflection, wheel out their intuitions, and are prone to even suggest that we don’t need arguments in defence of a view as spectacularly ontologically committing and weighty as fundamentality. What is to my mind, however, almost singularly most striking about the state of the contemporary literature is it’s apparent utter blindness to the rich history of debates over the regress problem, the grounds of being, and ultimate explainers in the form of cosmological arguments to the existence of God.

This, then, is my starting point: that so much of the contemporary thinking about fundamentality just is disguised variations on very old, very big and very problematic themes. When properly reconstructed, many contemporary arguments in defence of fundamentality look to be variations on cosmological-style arguments to the existence of an ultimate explainer. The consequences of this for how we understand our commitment to fundamentality, though, are interesting. First of all, it seems that what we need here is some version of other of a Principle of Sufficient Reason. What such a version might be is the central theme of this paper. But in addition to this, clarifying which version of the principle might be in operation is not yet to get us an argument to the existence of something fundamental. In order to have a good proper argument in defence of fundamentality we need to know (i) what exactly it is that the fundamentalia are supposed to explain and (ii) why it is that no dependent entity is up to the task to hand.

These last two points are not really issues that I take up in this paper. In fact, at the time of writing this paper – which was a few years ago now – I think I had a sense of the importance of these two questions without yet being able to articulate it so clearly. I have since written another paper that does engage with these questions, and I believe the second one is a particularly complex issue. Without engaging with these particular questions, however, there is still much of significance that needs to be explored; and much that is very often taken for granted. What is the relation between self-dependence and necessary being? Can contingent existents be self-explanatory? How does fundamentality intersect with modality? What is the modal status of that which is to be explained by the fundamentalia? Although this paper doesn’t answer any of these questions, I believe it draws to our attention how important it is to ask them. And I believe that the literature on cosmological arguments to the existence of God is an invaluable resource to look to try and start our investigation.

The full paper is available here. Comments welcome below!

  • Miloš

    I haven’t read paper yet (I will do it later). I have just one brief question: there is symmetry between arguments for metaphysical grounding (and whole research project on this issue) and cosmological arguments from contingency. And this give us some reason to be suspicious about metaphysical grounding?

    May 20, 2017 — 9:40
    • Ricki

      Hi Milos – are you asking if that is what I suggest in the paper? If this is what you are asking, the answer is no. What I am arguing is that there is symmetry between certain types of arguments in defence of *fundamentality* (insofar as we can make sense of the arguments) and certain types of cosmological arguments; and that this means there are lots of interesting and important questions about *fundamentality* that are not being asked.

      May 20, 2017 — 11:26
  • I wonder if we can weaken the PSR and/or the concept of fact further and still get an interesting result. What make you of this:

    PSRsubjective (PSRs): Every subjectively important bit of INFORMATION has an explanation.
    C1: Nothing is self-explanatory.
    C2: There is a subjectively important conjunction of all subjectively important INFORMATION, Cs.

    (1) There is a conjunction of all subjectively important information Cs. (C2)
    (2) Cs has an explanation. (by PSRs)
    (3) No information contained within Cs can explain Cs. (by C1)
    (4) There must be something – [x] – that explains Cs. (by PSRw)
    (5) [x] can’t be amongst the collection of phenomena to be explained.
    (6) [x] can’t be subjective information in the same way as within Cs. (5)
    (7) [x] is a causal fact.

    Granted, this does not establish existence or necessity of [x]. Moreover I fear that this begs a similar question to saying a ‘complete’ explanation, (6) is grossly defective, and the notion of ‘causal fact’ used is obscure. However, the question is whether a strategy along these lines has a chance.

    May 20, 2017 — 19:30
    • Ricki

      Hello Noah.

      I have a few questions for you. What do you believe to be the benefit of introducing the notion of ‘subjective information’ to be? Unless there is some significant benefit to it, it seems to me that it might make more trouble than it fixes – this is because I don’t quite understand what subjective information is.

      Second to this, fans of grounding tend to be of the view that what they are talking about is the mind-independent structure of reality. They also believe this particular type of structure to be distinctively non-causal (people disagree with this, but I assume it because I am not interested in taking on *those* issues). If we were to follow your proposal, it almost looks as though we have stopped talking about grounding and fundamentality. So are you suggesting we understand grounding and fundamentality differently?

      Why contrast subjective information with causal facts?

      Why do you think 6 is ‘grossly defective’? I’m inclined to think it’s at least interesting to wonder how we can *justify* such an assumption, but I am extremely curious to know why you think it is all the way to grossly defective. Pray tell!

      May 22, 2017 — 4:24
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