There is an old Soviet joke. A visitor arrives in the Soviet Union and by the airport he sees two workers with shovels. The first digs a hole. Then the second covers up the hole. He asks the workers what they are doing. They say: “The worker who puts the trees in the holes didn’t show up.”
The joke illustrates this fallacy of practical reasoning:
- I have good (very good, excellent, etc.) reason to make p hold.
- A necessary condition for p is q.
- Thus, I have good (very good, excellent, etc.) reason to make q hold.
There is good reason to plant a tree. Digging a hole and filling in a hole are necessary conditions for planting a tree. But that only gives one reason to dig the hole when one expects a tree to be put in, and it only gives one reason to fill in the hole when the tree has been inserted.
One’s reason to make p hold transfers to a similar weight reason to make the necessary condition q hold only when it is sufficiently likely that the other conditions needed for p will come to be in place.
We can call inferences like (3) instances of the Necessary Condition Fallacy.
Now consider this familiar line of thought.
- If God exists, then for each sufficiently epistemically rational person x, God has an overriding reason to bring it about that x enters into a love relationship with him.
- A necessary condition for a sufficiently epistemically rational x‘s entering into a love relationship with God is that x will believe that God exists.
- A necesasry condition for a sufficiently epistemically rational x‘s coming to believe that God exists is x‘s having evidence of God’s existence.
- So, a necessary condition for a sufficiently epistemically rational x‘s entering into a love relationship with God is that x have evidence of God’s existence. (5 and 6)
- So, if God exists, for any sufficiently epistemically rational human x, God has an overriding reason to bring it about that x has evidence of God’s existence. (4 and 7)
- But what God has an overriding reason to do always happens.
- So, if God exists, every sufficiently epistemically rational person has evidence of God’s existence.
- But not every sufficiently epistemically rational person has evidence of God’s existence.
- So God doesn’t exist.
But the derivation of (8) is a clear instance of the Necessary Condition Fallacy.
So the question now is whether there is a way of deriving (8) without making use of this fallacy. If it were the case that
- every sufficiently epistemically rational creature would be very likely to enter into a love relationship with God upon receiving evidence that God exists,
then (8) would have some plausibility. (I say “some”, because I am not sure the overridingness transfers from (4) to (8) given merely a high probability of success in producing a love relationship.) But (13) is not particularly plausible, especialy given that it seems likely that there are people who rationally believe in God but don’t love him. (One thinks here of the line from the Letter of James about demons who know that God exists and tremble—but surely don’t love.)
Objection: Even if God sees that a person is unlikely to enter a relationship with him, why wouldn’t he at least try, by providing the person with evidence of his existence? What does God have to lose here? (This objection is basically due to Heath White.)
(i) It’s generally intrinsically worse when someone who knows about God’s existence doesn’t love God than if someone ignorant of God’s existence doesn’t love God. Moreover, it can be instrumentally worse: when someone who knows about God’s existence doesn’t love God, that bad example can make it harder for others to have a good relationship with God (hypocrisy is harmful). So there is something to be lost by giving someone knowledge that God exists when the person is unlikely to love God.
(ii) It’s likely that there are some cases where the probability of ultimately loving God is higher if instead of revealing himself at t1, God waits until t2 for the person to mature morally and/or psychologically before revealing his existence. For instance, living longer without believing in God might lead the person ultimately to become more firmly convinced that there is no happiness apart from God. And ultimately loving God can be much more important–infinitely more important, if people live forever–than the benefits of the extra love of God between t1 and t2 should God reveal himself earlier. Given eternal life, God has reason to optimize the time at which belief in God starts so as to optimize the chance of ultimately coming to love God.
Granted, one might wonder how widespread cases like (i) and (ii) are. I suspect they’re not very rare. But in any case the argument from hiddenness is supposed to hold that if God existed, then no epistemically virtuous agent could ever lack evidence for God’s existence. And to cut down that claim, all that’s needed is for (i) or (ii) to be logically possible.
Final remark: It could also be that some people if they come to believe and have a relationship of love with God at t1 are more likely to lose that relationship than they would be if they matured more prior to believing and entering into the relationship. One thinks here of Jesus’ parable of the house built on sand.
Trent’s interesting post about evil and hiddenness has reminded me of the following draft that I wrote some time ago:
The problem of evil challenges theism by raising the following question: if God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why is there evil in the actual world? Theists have proposed many responses to the problem, such as the free will response, the soul-making response, the greater good response, and so on. Whether any succeeds has been debated for hundreds of years.
Suppose now, for the sake of argument, that there is a successful theistic response to the problem of evil explaining the reason, call it X, that God has to allow evil. Unfortunately, this does not end the story because the existence of X raises a new question: If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why does He not tell us that X is the reason that He has to allow evil? A state of affairs in which we remain puzzled by not being told by God that X is the reason that He has to allow evil seems to undermine the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. Let us call this the ‘second-order problem of evil’.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is a successful theistic response to the second-order problem of evil explaining the reason, call it Y, that God cannot tell us that X is the reason that He has to allow evil. Unfortunately, this does not the end the story because the existence of Y raises a new question: If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why does He not tell us that Y is the reason that He cannot tell us that X is the reason that He has to allow evil? A state of affairs in which we remain puzzled by not being told by God that Y is the reason that He cannot tell us that X is the reason that He has to allow evil seems to undermine the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God. Let us call this the ‘third-order problem of evil’.
And so on, ad infinitum.
What does this observation teach us? First, it teaches us that theists who think that they have found a successful response to the problem of evil should beware of overconfidence; such a response raises new challenges for them. Second, it encourages theists to investigate a link between evil and God’s hiddenness. The only plausible explanation, if there is any, that God does not prevent evil, does not tell us X is the reason that He has to allow evil, does not tell us Y is the reason that He cannot tell us that X is the reason that He has to allow evil, and so on, appears to be that God has to remain hidden from us; that is, God has to avoid any form of interaction with us which suggests His existence. We can see this clearly by showing that the above infinite regress does not arise for the problem of divine hiddenness, despite the fact that the problem of divine hiddenness is structurally parallel to the problem of evil. Suppose that there is a successful theistic response to the problem of divine hiddenness explaining the reason, call it Z, that God has to remain hidden from us. Unlike the case of the problem of evil, the existence of Z does not raise the following second-order question: If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent, why does He not tell us that Z is the reason that He has to hide Himself? If there is any valid reason that God has to hide himself then He cannot tell us that that is the reason because by telling it to us God would fail to hide Himself from us. This seems to indicate that there is a link between the problem of evil and the problem of divine hiddenness and that theists might be able to stop the infinite regress of the higher-order problems of evil by appealing to God’s hiddenness. Conversely, it might be that the higher-order problems of evil cannot be resolved without first resolving the problem of divine hiddenness.
Thesis 1: The problem of divine hiddenness is, in some reasonable sense, a “deeper” problem than the problem of evil.
Datum 1: If God were vividly present to us, we could suffer almost anything–at least the kinds of things we find on this planet–without (evidential) doubt that God exists (and also with little emotional doubt).
Caveat 1: Datum 1 notwithstanding, one clearly could have some (evidential) doubt that God existed, even if God were vividly present to them throughout the suffering. For one could have a good argument that one were hallucinating whatever experience it was in virtue of which God was present to them. In fact, if one’s prior credences were distributed in certain ways, they coud be nearly certain that they were hallucinating. It is an interesting question whether any reasonable, properly functioning individual could have such credences. I doubt that it could be so in any nearby world. (Emotional doubt (or “psychological” doubt, it you prefer) is often irrational, so it can arise under any circumstances.)
St. Stephen, Protomartyr: So my thesis, taken generically, doesn’t face a serious problem from the Proviso. My focus is on situations pretty similar to the actual world. A core example is that of Stephen. In the Scriptures (Acts 7:54-8:2), as Stephen is being stoned to death (quite unjustly as part of a terrible persecution in which Saul “dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (8:4)), he says he see’s Jesus, then a bit later he asks Jesus to receive his spirit in a standard formula of acknowledging imminent death, then finally prays for their forgiveness.
The implication seems clear that the way he accepted his death is importantly related to (inspired and sustained by) his experience of Jesus being present to him (in some kind of vision, in this case). There are other similar stories both of historical martyrs and one’s I’ve heard more closely. Contrast this “peace that passes understanding” with cases where people feel “alone” during suffering and have a kind of irreligious experience (See Gellman 1992 and my enormous MS on the “Common Sense Problem of Evil) that serves as data for an argument for atheism from evil.
Caveat 2: I think that, formally speaking, the problem of divine hiddenness *just is* an instance of the problem of evil (my Routledge Encyclopedia entry on Divine Hiddenness discusses this (it’s behind a pay-wall, sorry but I’ll send it to you if you want). In light of this, I have to modify my thesis slightly (but not substantively).
Revised thesis: The “real” problem of evil *just is* the problem of divine hiddenness.
Action point: For my own part, I will be focusing much more on the reasons God hides (in the sense in which he does, I mean, almost everyone believes in God or at least the supernatural, so there’s actually a problem formulating the problem, which I also plan to work on) than on the reasons why he allows evil in general (confession: how did that ever get to be a “problem”?). I will continue to spend time on special cases like animal suffering (more to say there than appears in _The Problem of Animal Pain: A Theodicy for All Creatures Great and Small_, I cut three chapters and have had many thoughts sense. But I think of the following two questions
Q1: Why would God allow S to suffer *that*, X [insert horrendous evil]?
Q2: Why wouldn’t God be a present comfort to S as she goes through X?
we have more to learn by pursuing Q2 than by Q1. (Call that Thesis 2.)
Suppose that we’ve observed a dozen randomly chosen ravens and they’re all black. We (cautiously) make the obvious inference that all ravens are black. But then we find out that regardless of parental color, newly conceived raven embryos have a 50% chance of being black and a 50% chance of being white, and that they have equal life expectancy in the two cases. When we find this out, we thereby also find out that it was just a fluke that our dozen ravens were all black. Thus, finding out that it’s random with probability 1/2 that a given raven will be black defeats the obvious inference that all ravens are black, and even defeats the inference that the next raven we will see will be black. The probability that the next raven we observe will be black is 1/2.
Next, suppose that instead of finding out about probabilities, we find out that there is no propensity either way of a conception resulting in a black raven or its resulting in a white raven. Perhaps an alien uniformly randomly tosses a perfectly sharp dart at a target, and makes a new raven be black whenever the dart lands in a maximally nonmeasurable subset S of the target and makes the raven be white if it lands outside S. (A subset S of a probability space Ω is maximally nonmeasurable provided that every measurable subset of S has probability zero and every measurable superset of S has probability one.) This is just as much a defeater as finding out that the event was random with probability 1/2. (The results of this paper are driving my intuitions here.) It’s still just a fluke that the dozen ravens we observed were all black. We still have a defeater for the claim that all ravens are black, or even that the next raven is black.
Finally, suppose instead that we find out that ravens come into existence with no cause, for no reason, stochastic or otherwise, and their colors are likewise brute and unexplained. This surely is just as good a defeater for inferences about the colors of ravens. It’s just a fluke that all the ones we saw so far were black.
Now suppose that the initial state of the universe is a brute fact, something with no explanation, stochastic or otherwise. We have (indirect) observations of a portion of that initial state: for instance, we find the portion of the state that has evolved into the observed parts of the universe to have had very low entropy. And science appropriately makes inferences from the portions of the initial state that have been observed by us to the portions that have not been observed, and even to the portions that are not observable. Thus, it is widely accepted that the whole of the initial state had very low entropy, not just the portion of it that has formed the basis of our observations. But if the initial state and all of its features are brute facts, then this bruteness is a defeater for inductive inferences from the observed to the unobserved portions of the initial state.
So some cosmological inductive inferences require that the initial state of the universe not be entirely brute. I don’t know just how much cosmology depends on the initial state not being entirely brute, but I suspect quite a bit.
What if there is no initial state? What if instead there is an infinite regress? Here I am more tentative, but I suspect that the same problem comes back when one considers the boundary conditions, say at time negative infinity. If these boundary conditions are brute, then we’ve got the same problem as with a brute initial state. Likewise, a contingent first cause will not help, either, since the argument can be applied to its state.
It seems that the only way out of scepticism about cosmology is if there is a necessary first cause. And I also suspect that the impact of the argument may go beyond cosmology. Presumably, we continue to come into causal contact with portions of the initial state that we have previously not been in contact with, and couldn’t that affect us in all sorts of ways that undermine more ordinary inductive inferences (e.g., a burst of radiation might kill us all tomorrow, and no probabilities can be assigned to the burst, and hence no probabilities can be assigned to any positive facts about what we will do tomorrow)? If so, then we lose quite a bit of our predictive ability about the future if we hold the initial state to be brute.
The forthcoming Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion is full of interesting stuff! So far, I specially recommend Bishop and Perszyk on alternative conceptions of God and Dougherty and Pruss on apparently unjustified evils as ‘anomalies’ (in the philosophy of science sense). I have not yet read the last four articles. Here, I want to comment on Hud Hudson’s “The Father of Lies?”
(This post got longer than I intended, so I’ve added sub-headings. If you get bored in the middle, please skip to the end. I’ve also bolded important parts to make for easier skimming.)
Hudson’s central contention is that anyone who endorses skeptical theism lacks the resources to rule out divine deception. The reason for this is simple: the skeptical theist ought to admit that we do not know that deception is unjustifiable in all circumstances (in fact, most people think we have good reason to suppose just the opposite). The skeptical theist ought also to admit that we don’t know that we are not in circumstances in which it would be permissible for God to deceive us. So, even if we know that something or other (a text, an experience, etc.) is a divine revelation, we do not thereby come to know that it is true.
Hudson is quite explicit that he is targeting knowledge-level propositional revelation: the thing the religious believer might well want to secure, and the skeptical theist cannot secure, is the notion that certain propositions can be known to be true by revelation alone. My view is that John Locke’s arguments (see section 1.1) and some other related considerations provide strong reason for denying that the sort of propositional revelation traditionally accepted by Christians could yield propositional knowledge, and that this is okay (for Christianity). Hudson’s argument shows that Locke makes a concession to his opponents which he perhaps ought not to make. But, even when combined with Hudson’s observations, these arguments against propositional knowledge by revelation alone do not in principle prevent us from reasonably believing, on the basis of revelation, things that would not be reasonable for us to believe in the absence of revelation. (The ‘in principle’ qualification is important; as will become clear, if the broadly Lockean view I am advocating is correct, then identifying a text as a revelation is a tricky business.)
In EHU 4.18, Locke begins by conceding the principle that if any proposition p is revealed by God, then p. He argues, however, that the claim that some proposition is revealed by God never goes beyond probable belief to become knowledge.
Locke distinguishes ‘traditional revelation’ from ‘original revelation’ (EHU 4.18.3). Original revelation is direct non-verbal communication by God. Traditional revelation is communication from God by means of words. Two things needs to be noted here: first, a vision, dream, etc. in which one hears or reads words which one takes to come directly from God on this view counts as traditional revelation, even if it wasn’t passed down from other humans. Second, the division is not exhaustive. Even within Christianity, there are claims to revelation that don’t fit in either category. An example is Eastern Christian iconography, which is ‘traditional’ in the sense of being passed down from one generation to the next, and is regarded as a form of revelation, but is not primarily verbal. (Most icons are inscribed at least with the names of the saints depicted, but an icon is not a text.)
This distinction is important to Locke because he thinks that God can miraculously give people new ideas, but words (or other conventional signs) can’t be meaningful unless we already have ideas, so ‘original revelation’, as defined, can give us new ideas, but ‘traditional revelation’, as defined, cannot. Locke also seems, in 4.18, to think that traditional revelation has problems about uncertainty of interpretation and original revelation does not. However, in 4.19, which was added in the 4th edition, Locke also raises interpretive problems about original revelation. So I think we are better off with a different distinction. We will distinguish between two ways Christians have traditionally held God to attest to his revelations: public miracles and private religious experience. (Question for readers: are there other forms of attestation in the Christian tradition besides these two?)
Attestation to Revelation by Public Miracles
Public miracles are perhaps the mode of attestation to which Christians have historically most often appealed. But there are two questions here: how can we know the miracle really occurred, and how can we know what lesson we were meant to draw from the miracle? Locke argues that, in general, historical beliefs fall short of knowledge, hence our claim that a miracle occurred will never have knowledge-level justification. However, this just shows that Locke’s standards for knowledge are too demanding. Surely I know that there was once a general named ‘Julius Caesar’. Even relaxing the standards for knowledge, though, do we know that miracles have occurred? I suspect not. After all, essentially all miracle reports are contested, and in nearly every instance there are alternative explanations available which are plausible enough to prevent knowledge-level justification.
I don’t want to go too far into historical details here, but since it is now the season of Easter, I’ll illustrate by talking about the resurrection of Jesus. I think the historical evidence is sufficient for us to claim to know that there was such a person as Jesus of Nazareth, and that the tomb in which he was buried was mysteriously found empty, and his body was never recovered. I also think that no prima facie plausible explanation of these facts has ever been proposed. (One must admit that resurrection – even the resurrection of a holy person and great teacher who is believed to have predicted his own resurrection before his death – is not a prima facie plausible hypothesis. It would take a lot to make us take such a hypothesis seriously if we found a mysteriously empty casket today.) Now, whether some one of the possible explanations turns out to be ultima facie plausible, or at least whether there is a clear winner for least implausible explanation, is going to depend on a lot of difficult questions. So I think it’s safe to say that no one has every genuinely known, on the basis of historical research, what happened to Jesus’ body. I do think that with the right sort of background beliefs one might come to reasonably believe in one or another of the hypotheses (including the resurrection hypothesis), but the intrinsic implausibility of each hypothesis, together with the existence of the alternative hypotheses, is sufficient to prevent knowledge. The case against knowledge is, I think, even stronger for other alleged miracles.
But suppose we did know that Jesus rose from the dead. It is plausible that this would constitute a divine endorsement of Jesus’ example and teachings. But would we then know that God attested to Jesus’ example and teachings as a revelation? I think not. After all (as skeptical theists are always pointing out) God might have all kinds of reasons for doing things that we can’t even begin to fathom. Plus, we can easily construct alternative hypotheses. Perhaps the resurrection was some kind of fluke of nature. Perhaps it was God’s way of registering his extremely strenuous objections to the unjust trial which condemned Jesus. Perhaps it was God’s way of registering his extremely strenuous objections to the very practice of crucifixion, or capital punishment in general. Perhaps God was endorsing the example and teachings of Jesus, but as a merely human exemplar to which we can aspire. So, even if we knew that Jesus rose from the dead, we wouldn’t thereby come to know that God endorsed his example and teachings as a revelation.
Now suppose we knew that God did endorse the life and teachings of Jesus as a divine revelation. We’d still have to figure out what propositional content God was endorsing. That would involve both figuring out what Jesus said and did and figuring out what it all meant. Now, I do think we can know, by historical research, that Jesus said and did certain things, provided we keep our claims sufficiently vague. For instance, it’s pretty clear that he taught about loving your enemies and that he challenged and offended the Jewish religious authorities and so forth. But, again, there are apparently conflicting records, there are disputes about the date, authorship, and accuracy of those records, and some of the alternative hypotheses about these matters have significant plausibility. And then, of course, although the significance of some of these teachings and actions is quite clear, there is no end of interpretive disputes about others.
Could God have used a miracle to attest to a revelation in such a way as to give knowledge, rather than merely reasonable belief? Contrary to Locke, I suspect the answer is ‘yes’. Perhaps those who saw Jesus after his death thereby gained propositional knowledge via revelation. They would only have to get over one of the hurdles I have mentioned: the interpretation of the miracle itself. But God could have been even clearer. For instance, there could have been a voice from heaven (perhaps saying something like “this is my beloved Son; hear him!”) heard by a large number of witnesses known to be reliable, who had a wide range of different prior background beliefs, who each independently recorded their testimony, and who investigated alternative explanations of the voice (hidden ventriloquist?) as thoroughly as possible. Perhaps that would be sufficient for knowledge, and the voice could say something sufficiently easy to interpret, and the further revelation it could attest to might also be clear. I’m not familiar with any claim that this sort of thing happened. (In the case of the voices from heaven occurring in the Bible, it is sometimes said that more than one person heard it, and that does count in favor of the reasonableness of believing the account, but we don’t have strong independent evidence of the reliability of the witnesses, nor was their testimony recorded independently.) So things would have to look quite different from how they in fact look in order to yield propositional knowledge by revelation.
Attestation to Revelation by Private Religious Experience
The Christian tradition has also often appealed to private religious experience as attestation to divine revelation. Locke added a section, ‘Of Enthusiasm’ (4.19), in the 4th edition to deal with these kinds of claims. Locke’s approach, in general, is just to challenge the proponents of these kinds of religious experiences to give a clear account of exactly what is attested and exactly how it is attested. If the proposition just ‘looks true’, then how is this revelation rather than rational intuition? If the proposition doesn’t just look true but is inexplicably firmly believed anyway, why should we think this is revelation and not just irrationality? Perhaps the proposition in question is of the form God has revealed that p, and I simply find myself believing that, and infer p from it. But it is implausible that I could simply rationally intuit that God has revealed something (unless we are talking about natural revelation – i.e., things God has revealed to me by giving me the capacity to reason!), and otherwise it just looks irrational.
Now there are serious problems here for the proponent of this kind of religious experience, but perhaps they can be met. What we want to say is that there is a certain sort of unique feeling that one gets when contemplating a certain proposition or reading a certain book or something like that. It’s not just that it ‘looks true’. It’s a feeling of a different sort from the feeling one gets when one ‘just sees’ that 2=2.
This approach is better, but it has at least two problems. First, given the actual facts about such experiences, it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to get what the proponents of this approach want out of them. Second, These feelings require interpretation too, and their interpretation is uncertain.
According to the Westminster Confession, “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority [of Scripture], is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (1.5). I think I know (experientially) what this is talking about. I sometimes have a profound, difficult to describe, religious experience when reading certain texts, and these sorts of experiences seem to have a beneficial effect on moral motivation and character. The trouble is, I haven’t had this kind of experience with every, or nearly every, book of the Bible. Indeed, I can’t remember having an experience like this with any part of the Old Testament except the beginning of Jeremiah and a couple of Psalms. (I just don’t get ancient Hebrew literature.) Furthermore, I have had experiences of this sort with extra-canonical works (e.g., Plato’s Protagoras, Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, Leibniz’s Theodicy). So it’s just not clear how this kind of feeling is supposed to attest to the canon, especially in light of the fact that as the Westminster divines are explicitly aware the Confession is taking a controversial position on the boundaries of the canon. It is far from clear how this controversial position is meant to be justified. (The ‘Scripture proofs’ in the footnotes are totally foreign to the purpose. Incidentally, if Luke 24:44 was relevant, it would get the wrong results, since, among the ‘writings’ (Ketuvim) it validates only the Psalms. But if this is a synecdoche, it could just as easily include the Apocrypha. I guess Romans 3:2 is supposed to show that the Old Testament should include only those books accepted within Judaism, but there was not agreement about the bounds of the canon in Judaism in the first century.)
The moral of the story is: if the tradition is talking about the same kind of experience I have (or something similar), this isn’t going to get the results that same tradition wants. The Westminster Confession also says, “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture” (1.5), and it seems to assume that this precedes the ‘inward testimony of the Holy Spirit’. That helps some: it’s on account of the Church that the typical believer is only asking the question whether the Bible is a revelation and not questioning each book separately. And perhaps this is justifiable, insofar as the tradition has refined the canon by consideration of religious experience and other relevant factors. This gives a bigger role to tradition than the Westminster divines likely intended, but it’s at least a step toward a more plausible view. But of course there are a lot of contingencies in the historical determination of the canon, and there are still disputes within Christianity. Can I really claim to know the proposition either all of these books are part of a divine revelation or none of them are? I doubt it. How about either all the books undisputed within traditional Christianity are revelatory or none of them are? Again, I doubt it. (Plus, it’s hard to figure out what counts as ‘undisputed’. Is James disputed simply because, during one period of his life, Luther was inclined to reject it?)
My point here isn’t that there are no arguments to support positions on the canon. Nor is my point that religious experience has nothing to contribute. Rather, my point is that any argument that’s going to establish the entire Bible (for some particular disambiguation of the name ‘Bible’) is going to be too messy and uncertain to generate knowledge.
The second issue is, why should I interpret the feeling I have as a divine endorsement of the book I’m reading? And if I interpret it that way in some cases, why not in others? Now, perhaps it does make sense to take more seriously the proposition that a certain book is a revelation if there are other people around who believe that. We shouldn’t be overly individualistic in our epistemic practices. Similarly, if a whole bunch of people have closely examined a certain rock and determined it not to be gold, and I look at it and it looks like gold to me, it might be appropriate for me to conclude either that I’m hallucinating or that I’m not good at recognizing gold. But if that’s the case, then I (I mean me personally) should also conclude that I’m not super-reliable at recognizing divine revelations. This is perfectly compatible with thinking that humans in general are reliable enough at recognizing revelations that I should take more seriously the possibility that a book or collection is a revelation when there is a community that believes that book or collection to be a revelation. This will massively decrease the number of candidate revelations, and then I can apply other considerations, including my own religious experience, to make a guess among them. But let’s face it: there’s a certain amount of guesswork going on here.
In addition to widespread disagreement, which provides strong evidence that this sort of experience is significantly less reliable than ordinary sense experience, there is, again, the issue of credible alternative hypotheses, including various cognitive malfunction theories. I think each of us should be quite resistant, on Reidian grounds, to the claim that our faculties are malfunctioning, but this resistance needs to be defeasible. Sometimes it is reasonable to believe that one is hallucinating. Furthermore, in a case like this, where one is dealing with a feeling that admits of alternative interpretations, it is possible to endorse a story that involves non-divine origin of the feeling without claiming hallucination: one can deny that the feeling presents itself as a divine endorsement of the text. (At least, upon reflection, it seems to me that I could do that.)
Now perhaps I’ve got this all wrong. Perhaps the experience I’m thinking of is not the same as the one the tradition has had in mind. If this is your view and you want to give me the level of confidence in Christianity you enjoy due to an experience you’ve had and I haven’t, you can’t argue with me, you can only pray for me. If you want to convince me that you, and others who have such experiences, have the internalistic component of knowledge-level justification (which may or may not be all there is to such justification), you’ve got to describe the experience to me in more detail than I’ve heard it described in the past, and you’ve also got to show me how it leads to justification.
I’d be remiss if I ended this section without mentioning that William Alston’s very sophisticated treatment of this subject (in Perceiving God) mitigates a lot of these concerns. If I was trying to defend the claim (which I do endorse) that such experiences can contribute to the reasonableness of one’s belief, I’d be drawing heavily on Alston. But I just don’t see that his response to the plurality problem and other related issues is strong enough to yield genuine knowledge. (Maybe I’m just not as Reidian as Alston.)
Who ever supposed that scientifical proofs were necessary to make a Christian?
– Crito, in Berkeley’s Alciphron, sect. 6.31
If I lived in the 18th century, I would have been accused of being a closet atheist by now, and it might be time to move to Amsterdam. I hope the 21st century is as much different from the 18th century as I think it is. Let me take a couple steps back now.
We’re considering an argument with the following form:
- Experience or fact x is a divine attestation of object or event o as a divine revelation.
- If God attests to something as a revelation, then that thing is indeed a revelation.
- o is a revelation.
- It is part of the content of o that p.
- If some proposition is part of the content of some revelation, then that proposition is true.
- p is true.
Locke’s arguments, my further elaborations on those arguments, and Hudson’s skeptical theist arguments together amount, I think, to a strong case for the claim that, if the blanks are filled in here in a way that would support Christianity, we don’t know any of the premises. As a result, such an argument will not (alone) generate knowledge of the conclusion.
So what? The blindingly obvious fact of widespread religious disagreement, including among very intelligent, well-studied individuals, ought to show us that these questions aren’t easy. Is it so surprising to find that the evidence, even when we include religious experience, doesn’t allow us to reach a firm conclusion and claim it as a genuine item of knowledge?
If we can motivate the premises, show that they are reasonable to believe, we will give rational support to the conclusion. (Of course, on a Bayesian model, the levels of uncertainty in each premise multiply to make a more uncertain conclusion, but if you think you can know something without having credence 1 then this is going to happen with known premises too.) I’ve hinted at ways we might do this for one particular assignment (x = the empty tomb; o = the life and example of Jesus; p = we ought to love our enemies). On the view of faith I have previously put forward (or, for that matter, on Lara Buchak’s much discussed account), if we can give a similar defense for some other relevant substitutions (rather stronger than my example), this ought to be a sufficient basis for rational faith.
In giving my examples, I was talking about my elaboration of Locke’s points, but it should, I hope, be clear that the same applies to Hudson’s point. We have excellent reason to believe that the conditions in which deliberate deception is morally permissible are quite restricted, and we have no reason (that I can think of) for supposing that God in such a case with respect to us. The skeptical theist thinks that since we have good reason to believe that God exists, and we have absolutely undeniable evidence that the Holocaust occurred, we have good reason to suppose that God has sufficient moral justification for choosing not to intervene to prevent the Holocaust. We can’t begin to imagine what such a justification might look like but, the skeptical theist argues, in light of some general facts about our cognitive condition, the fact that we can’t imagine the justification is not evidence against its existence. This is totally different than the case of divine deception because we do not have strong independent evidence that divine deception has occurred.
This approach does put limits on how extreme our skeptical theism can be, but if skeptical theism was going to be that extreme it was going to be in trouble anyway. Does the skeptical theist really want to say that it is unreasonable for us to deny that God has morally sufficient reason to damn the innocent?
To make an analogy: intuiting that something is impossible or finding oneself unable to conceive it (despite the fact that such a conception ought to involve only concepts of which one has a good grasp) is sufficient for reasonable belief in the impossibility of that thing. But our modal intuitions are sufficiently fragile and unreliable that if we gain evidence that the supposedly impossible thing is actual, or is permitted by the laws of physics, it doesn’t take much evidence to overwhelm the rational force of intuition. (Or so say I.)
What the skeptical theist needs is the claim that our view that there is no morally justifying reason should be easily defeasible in this way, not that we shouldn’t have such views at all. Actually, the skeptical theist has an easier route here because there are many apparently unjustified evils that might turn out to be justified if we were wrong about causal connections in the world, even if we were right about value all down the line. The skeptical theist just needs to claim that between the empirical causal claims and the a priori moral claims there is enough uncertainty to make defeat relatively (epistemically) painless. (An aside: I’ve never actually been very comfortable with skeptical theism, and I think the previously mentioned Dougherty-Pruss paper gives a more promising alternative approach.)
I want to conclude by asking a question: why do people even want to defend a genuine knowledge claim here? Some people have a fundamentalist desire to build a ‘fortress of certainty’ to protect themselves from having to rethink their views in light of new evidence. If one has absolute certainty, on the basis of divine testimony, that the earth is no more than 6,000 years old, one has no need to consider scientific evidence, and if one doesn’t have to consider evidence one doesn’t have to worry about being wrong. Although evolution and the age of the earth were, of course, not the issues of the day, these are the sorts of people Galileo, Locke, and Berkeley had to deal with. But surely this isn’t what’s going on with the professional philosophers who endorse this kind of view today. (At least I hope not.)
An alternative motivation, raised by Alex Pruss in a comment on Keith DeRose’s argument against religious knowledge, is that doctrinal statements accepted by some Christians, including the Heidelberg Confession and the First Vatican Council, affirm that faith is a kind of knowledge, and this seems to have a basis in, e.g., 1 John. In my comments on DeRose’s post, I suggested that these could be taken as referring to objectual knowledge of God rather than propositional knowledge about God. I hope to work this out in more detail in the future.
Hudson’s article ends in aporia, because he himself is attracted, he says, to the idea of propositional knowledge by revelation alone. I would like to know why Hudson, and others, are attracted to this idea. To me, it seems like an unnecessary liability.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)
I have now completed my series of posts on The Puzzle of Existence. I’ll conclude by saying that I enjoyed most of the essays in this book quite a lot, and found them interesting food for thought. Further reflection on the points raised by the various authors stands to enrich metaphysics, philosophy of religion, and the theory of explanation. Additionally, most of the essays are quite accessible for non-specialists, including advanced undergraduate students. Assuming that a less expensive paperback version becomes available, this book would be a great choice for graduate or advanced undergraduate courses covering explanation in metaphysics, the argument from contingency from the existence of God, or the theory of modality.
Here is a list of my 16 blog posts, corresponding to the 16 chapters of the book:
- Introducing The Puzzle of Existence (Goldschmidt)
- O’Connor on Explaining Everything
- Oppy on Theism, Naturalism, and Explanation
- Kleinschmidt on the Principle of Sufficient Reason
- Jacob Ross on the PSR
- Christopher Hughes on Contingency and Plurality
- Conee on the Ontological Argument
- John Leslie’s Axiarchism
- How to Determine Whether there Might have Been Nothing (Efird and Stoneham)
- Why do We Ask Why? (Heil)
- Lowe on Metaphysical Nihilism
- Rodriguez-Pereyra on Ontological Subtraction
- Kotzen on the Improbability of Nothing
- Lange on the Natural Necessity of Something
- Maitzen on the Explanatory Power of Penguins
- McDaniel’s Ontological Pluralism
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)
The very last essay in The Puzzle of Existence is the article by Kris McDaniel which examines the bearing of ontological pluralism on the question, why is there something rather than nothing?
Ontological pluralism, as McDaniel uses that term, is the thesis that there is more than one kind of being, existence, or reality. (McDaniel usually prefers the term ‘being,’ but seems to use ‘existence’ and ‘reality’ as synonyms.) This is not simply the trivial thesis that there are many different kinds of beings (i.e., that there are things of many different kinds), and it is not a metaphysically deflationary thesis like Eli Hirsch’s theory of ‘quantifier variance.’ Rather, McDaniel takes it to be a deep metaphysical fact about the world that there is a plurality of existence-like attributes things can have. In other words, McDaniel is pluralism is a version of what has sometimes been called a ‘thick’ conception of ontology, a conception on which ontology seeks not only to tell us what things there are, but also to make substantive, informative claims about what being is.
McDaniel has written extensively about this elsewhere, but he does an excellent job of summarizing his view in this short essay before showing how it bears on the question of why there is something rather than nothing. McDaniel uses the term ‘being’ for the ‘semantic value’ of the English existential ‘is’ or ‘exists’ which, he says, is “either a property of properties or a kind of relation between properties” (271). Presumably he has in mind something along the lines of Frege’s view that ‘Fs exist’ should be analyzed as F-ness is instantiated, attributing the property being instantiated to the property F-ness. He uses the term ‘modes of being’ for the semantic values of other terms which function syntactically and inferentially like the existential quantifier, and he argues that some other modes of being are more fundamental than being, that is, that some things exist (or could exist) in a more ‘full-blooded’ sense than that expressed by the English existential ‘is.’
McDaniel’s project in this paper is to determine whether, given ontological pluralism, there is a version of the ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ question which is both well-posed and ontologically deep. Like many other important questions, this one depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.
McDaniel starts by considering the possibility that the question might be about being proper, i.e., about why there is something in the plain English sense of ‘is’ and not some ‘Ontologese’ sense. McDaniel argues that plain English recognizes the existence of such things as absences and omissions, and even takes them quite seriously: they can be counted, they can be causes, they can be classified into kinds, and so forth (277). Under what conditions does an absence exist? McDaniel is not totally sure about this, but he suggests that perhaps our conventions may be such “that an absence of Fs exists when there are no Fs” (278). If this is not our convention, then the existence conditions for absences must be rather gerrymandered, and so a non-gerrymandered mode of being, more fundamental than being proper, would recognize absences whenever there are none of something. Now this, McDaniel says, can answer our question, for if nothing existed other than absences, then an awful lot of absences would exist!
I found this line of thought rather intriguing, but I think there’s a better way of spelling it out, and coming to the conclusion that there must be something. It should really be an argument by contradiction: Suppose nothing existed. Then, by the existence condition for absences, the absence of everyting would exist. But the absence of everything is something, in contradiction to our supposition.
Interestingly, absences of contingent things are themselves contingent, so we can run the same argument by contradiction from the supposition that there are no continent things. (Note: this is essentially why God, on a Leibniz-Ross type theory of omnipotence, cannot avoid actualizing some world: if he doesn’t create any contingent beings, he thereby actualizes the empty world, or, if one likes, the absence of all contingent beings.)
Furthermore, absences of concrete things have many of the markers of concreteness: they can be causes, they can be spatiotemporally located (‘the match failed to light due to the absence of oxygen in the chamber, at the time it was struck’), they can be perceived by the senses, and so forth. So perhaps absences of concrete things are themselves concrete, in which we can also use the argument to show that it is incoherent to suppose that there were no concrete beings.
Now, I think this argument is rather nifty, but one must admit that it has an air of sophism about it. McDaniel recognizes this, and he says that what the argument shows is that when interpreted as being about being proper, that is, the plain English sense of ‘is’, the question is not in fact a metaphysically deep or interesting one. Perhaps, then, there is a more interesting interpretation in terms of some other mode of being. Pursuant to this, McDaniel finds it necessary to introduce some considerations about the nature of modality.
McDaniel first considers the possibility of endorsing a form of modal realism, by which he apparently means not realism about merely possible entities (as in David Lewis) but rather realism about modality itself, that is, the view that modal concepts like possibility and actuality are fundamental. The way of spelling this out that McDaniel considers takes possibility and actuality to be distinct, fundamental modes of being. Each of these modes of being will be associated with a quantifier. However, McDaniel suggests, it may not make sense to put a modal operator in front of the possibilist quantifier. So, on this kind of modal realism, the question will have to be about actual being. The general point McDaniel is trying to make is that, if there is more than one equally fundamental quantifier, then it might be that modal operators do not make sense in connection with all of them. If that’s so, then the claim ‘possibly, nothing exists’ will not make sense in connection with those values of ‘exists’.
In the final section, McDaniel argues against modal realism. He argues that any property which applies to things that are less than fully real must be less than fully natural. This immediately entails that de re modal properties are not fully natural. Furthermore, if modal operators designate properties, then presumably de dicto modality is a matter of certain propositions having certain properties. It follows, on McDaniel’s view, that ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ has a metaphysically deep interpretation only if propositions are fully real.
I found this paper quite interesting, but there is a fundamental assumption behind McDaniel’s whole discussion which doesn’t even get stated until the last page. This is the assumption that the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ presupposes that possibly, nothing exists and is unintelligible, or at least ill-posed, if that assumption fails. But this is simply not true. It makes perfectly good sense to ask ‘why is the Incompleteness Theorem true?’ and one could even say, ‘true rather than false.’ Because this assumption is undefended (and, until the last page, unstated), the relevance of McDaniel’s essay to the issue at hand is left in doubt. Beyond this, I found McDaniel’s claim that there might be a quantifier to which we can’t intelligibly prefix modal operators quite questionable. I can see how there might be modes of being such that anything that possesses them possesses them necessarily, and I can see why possibilist being might be such a mode. But if that was true, then, on the possibilist interpretation, ‘possibly, there are talking donkeys’ and ‘necessarily, there are talking donkeys’ would both be trivially true and trivial truth is worlds away from unintelligibility. Nevertheless, McDaniel is certainly right about one thing: ontological pluralism opens up a whole new universe for possible reflection about why there is something rather than nothing.
This is, as I said, the last essay in the book. My next post will be some concluding reflections together with an index of my posts.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)
In his contribution to The Puzzle of Existence, Stephen Maitzen defends the surprising claim that penguins hold the answer to the deep mysteries of the universe.
Well, that’s not exactly what he says. Maitzen’s position is that the only interpretation of ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ on which that sentence expresses a legitimate, well-formed question is one on which it is not a deep mystery at all, but a trivial empirical question to which ‘because there are penguins’ is a perfectly adequate answer.
It is interesting to note that Maitzen’s article is, in a way, just the reverse of Lange’s. Lange thinks causal explanations are paradigmatic examples of good scientific explanations. However, Lange’s distinctness principle eliminates the possibility of a causal explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. Furthermore, the distinctness principle rules out a large class of explanations we might call ‘constitutive explanations.’ These are cases in which we explain why a state of affairs obtains by indicating some lower-level state of affairs that constitutes it. However, in my comments on Lange, I indicated that constitutive explanations are indeed part of scientific practice, and hence that Lange was wrong to rule them out.
Maitzen’s article reverses Lange’s in the sense that Maitzen holds that causal explanations should be regarded with suspicion in the absence of an agreed-upon metaphysical analysis of causation, but that constitutive explanations are good (265-266). Thus Maitzen’s view is, essentially, that the existence of something (Maitzen is specifically concerned with concrete, contingent things) is (partly) constituted by the existence of penguins and the fact that there are penguins can thus explain the fact that there is something.
Maitzen considers a number of objections to this explanation, but I think the most important is the one he labels ‘Objection D.’ (I suspect that Maitzen agrees, since this is the objection he spends the most time on). Here is how he states the objection:
Because it invokes CCTs [i.e., concrete contingent things] that already exist, [Maitzen’s] naturalistic method of explanation has no chance of explaining why there are any CCTs in the first place, any CCTs to begin with, any CCTs at all (259).
Maitzen’s strategy for dealing with this objection is to concede that an explanation of why there are penguins that appealed to more penguins would not explain why there are any penguins at all, but argue that this is because penguin is a substantial kind. CCT, Maitzen thinks, is not a substantial kind.
This is effectively a version of the ‘no sufficiently comprehensive beings’ objection to the argument from contingency, endorsed earlier in the volume by Ross. That is, Maitzen admits that the fact that a particular kind has instances is the sort of thing that needs to be explained without appeal to instances of the kind, but denies that there is any kind comprehensive enough to encompass all of the contingent, concrete beings and so force us to posit anything beyond them.
According to Maitzen, the question ‘why are there penguins?’ is not well-answered with ‘because there are emperor penguins’ (what I have been calling a constitutive explanation) but ‘why are there red things?’ is well-answered with ‘because there are things that reflect light of wavelengths roughly in the range 630-740 nm’ (263-264).
In fact, something Maitzen says later strongly suggests that he has misunderstood the contrast here. Maitzen admits that ‘because there are emperor penguins’ may be “a sufficient answer to the question ‘Why are there any penguins at all left on earth?’ in circumstances in which emperor penguins are the only penguins left on earth” (265). But in the appropriate context, the question ‘why are there penguins?’ could mean just that. For instance, consider the following dialog, which takes place in a dystopian future, c. 2200AD:
A: From the 19th century through the middle of the 21st century, humans relied on fossil fuels as their primary source of power. The resulting climate change was especially damaging to arctic and antarctic wildlife. Almost nothing survives, but there are still some penguins in Antarctica.
B: Why are there penguins?
A: Because there are emperor penguins. They were hardy enough to survive the changes to their ecosystem.
The conversation would sound quite unnatural to me without that last sentence, but this is only because B’s next question (“yes, but why are there emperor penguins?”) is so obvious that A is expected to anticipate it, as she does in that last sentence. Maitzen is in no position to object to this, since he argues explicitly that explanations are not to be considered inadequate just because they raise further ‘why’ questions (255-257).
On the other hand, the following dialog also seems perfectly natural:
A: Why are there red things?
B: Because there are things that reflect light of wavelengths roughly in the range 630-740 nm.
A: No, no, that’s not what I mean. I know perfectly well that red things are red in virtue of their reflective profile. What I want to know is, why are there any such things? I mean, couldn’t it have been the case that there was just nothing in the universe with that reflective profile? Why isn’t the universe like that instead of like this?
Of course, A’s response is, mutatis mutandis, just the response the arguer from contingency will want to give to Maitzen’s penguin explanation.
What all of this suggests is that, in fact, a question of the form ‘why are there xs?’ admits of (at least) two very different sorts of answers, one or the other of which may be desired on a particular occasion. The distinction between substantial kind terms and other sortals does not track the distinction between the circumstances in which the two types of explanations are desired. Furthermore, as my little dialog shows, even once we’ve got the constitutive explanation, we may still legitimately ask for the other kind. Thus Maitzen hasn’t shown that non-trivial interpretations of the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ are illegitimate.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)
Marc Lange’s contribution to The Puzzle of Existence, begins with this remark:
I read recently about a baby who was trapped during the night of February 26, 2011, in a locked bank vault in Conyers, Georgia. Naturally, I wondered why that had happened (235).
In the article which follows this fantastic opening, Lange appeals to the theory of necessity and laws of nature from his 2009 book, Laws and Lawmakers, to argue that one can explain why there is something rather than nothing only by showing that something exists as a matter of natural necessity (or, in a qualification he makes at 246n11, showing that it is naturally necessary that something has a nonzero probability of existing). Lange begins, therefore, with a destructive line of argument, designed to show that the only candidate answers to the question why there is something rather than nothing are non-causal scientific explanations, then proceeds with the constructive project of showing how, on his theory, such an explanation can be given. It is, I think, to Lange’s credit that the constructive portion of his essay is stronger than the destructive portion; the reverse is (and always has been) more often the case in philosophy.
Lange’s destructive argument can be reconstructed as follows:
- Every candidate answer to the question, ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’, must be a scientific explanation (238).
- Scientific explanations obey the distinctness principle (236-237).
- Any causal explanation of why there is something rather than nothing would violate the distinctness principle (239-240).
- Every candidate answer to the question, ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’, must be a non-causal scientific explanation.
Every premise of this argument is false.
To Lange’s credit, he does recognize that premise 1 is a substantive premise – that is, that not all (good) answers to ‘why?’ questions are scientific explanations. Nevertheless, all he says in defense of premise 1 is this:
I have taken for granted that in asking why there is something rather than nothing, we are demanding a scientific explanation. If an answer to this question does not have to satisfy the usual criteria of adequacy for a scientific explanation … then I do not know what it must do. Of course, not all explanations are scientific explanations; there are explanations in mathematics, moral explanations, legal explanations, and even baseball explanations (e.g., for why a given baserunner is entitled to third base). But none of these kinds of explanations is demanded by the riddle of existence (238).
However, Lange goes on, immediately thereafter, to observe that “Some philosophers who claim to regard the riddle of existence as demanding a scientific explanation may not actually so regard it.” There follows a brief discussion of attempts at axiological explanations (explanations that say that the world exists because it is good for it to exist). Similarly, one might appeal to other kinds of teleological explanations, or the ‘personal explanations’ in which some philosophers believe. Furthermore, at 242n4, Lange discusses David Lewis’s view that the existence of something is metaphysically necessary, and notes that on Lewis’s view of explanation this does not actually explain why there is something rather than nothing. However, Lange rejects Lewis’s view of explanation, and so holds that if Lewis were right about worlds, the existence of something rather than nothing would thereby be explained. Lange seems to think that this would be a scientific explanation, but it sure looks to me like a distinctively metaphysical explanation, different from anything found in natural science. So Lange does not give adequate reason for thinking that answers must take the form of scientific explanations and, indeed, there seems to be reason to suppose just the opposite. (Perhaps, though, an argument could be produced to show that, among the many candidate answers, the scientific explanations are, for whatever reason, more likely to succeed. This kind of argument would not rule the alternative answers out of court as Lange seems to want to do.)
Lange defines the distinctness principle, to which he appeals in premise 2, as follows:
If F suffices (or even helps) to constitute G‘s truth, then F is too close to G to help scientifically explain why G obtains (236).
The explanation of the laws of thermodynamics by statistical mechanics is a counterexample to this principle: the obtaining of the microphysical laws, together with the statistical facts about the microstates, constitute the obtaining of the thermodynamic laws and also explain their obtaining.
It seems plausible to me that Lange’s distinctness principle holds for explanations of particular facts, although not for general facts like special science laws. Thus, for instance, plausibly the position and momentum of the various gas particles in the room does not explain why the air temperature and pressure are as they are. It is unclear, though, on which side of this contrast the fact that there is something rather than nothing belongs.
Premise 3 is false because Lange takes the question to be about “why there exists some contingent thing rather than no such thing” (239). But some necessary thing or things could have caused the existence of contingent things in a non-necessitating manner, such as indeterministic physical causation or libertarian free choice. To cite such a cause would be to give a causal explanation of the existence of something rather than nothing without violating the distinctness principle.
So Lange’s argument that his sort of explanation is the only candidate explanation fails. But, as I said, in this piece Lange does a better job building up than tearing down, so let’s turn to Lange’s positive proposal.
The general idea of Lange’s view is that subjunctive conditionals are to be taken as primitive and the different species of necessity are to be defined in terms of them. Possibility and contingency then get defined in terms of necessity in the usual way, and all naturally (i.e., physically or nomologically) necessary propositions count as laws of nature. What Lange argues is that it may well be the case that it is a law of nature (in his sense) that some particular entity or entities exist, and that if this were the case it would amount to a non-causal scientific explanation of why there is something rather than nothing.
The analysis of necessity in terms of counterfactuals, as it is explained in the essay, goes like this:
Take a set of truths that is “logically closed” (i.e., that includes every logical consequence of its members) and is neither the empty set nor the set of all truths. Call such a set stable exactly when every member p of the set would still have been true had q been the case, for each of the counterfactual suppositions q that is logically consistent with every member of the set. I suggest that p is a natural necessity exactly when p belongs to a “stable” set (245).
As Lange indicates in a footnote, there are some further complications discussed in his book, but the general idea is that for any species of necessity, in order to get a necessarily false consequent on a true counterfactual, you have to start with a necessarily false antecedent. Natural necessity is a species of necessity which is weaker than logical necessity (hence the logical consistency requirement).
From here, the idea is very simple: Newton thought that if absolute space did not exist, the Newtonian laws of motion would not hold. On Lange’s view of laws, if one adds to this the two claims that (a) the Newtonian laws of motion are laws of nature, and (b) the existence of absolute space is logically contingent, then one gets the conclusion that it is a law of nature that absolute space exists. (Newton would not, of course, have called this a law of nature, and it is unclear – to me at least – whether Newton thought absolute space was logically contingent, but this is beside the point.) Lange thinks that, if Newtonian physics were true, then this would constitute a non-causal scientific explanation of why there is something than nothing. In fact, Newtonian physics is not true but, Lange thinks, it is nevertheless plausible, perhaps even likely, that an explanation of this general form is the correct explanation of why there is something rather than nothing.
(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net.)