Lange on the Natural Necessity of Something
March 1, 2014 — 19:01

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , ,   Comments: 0

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:

  1. Every candidate answer to the question, ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’, must be a scientific explanation (238).
  2. Scientific explanations obey the distinctness principle (236-237).
  3. Any causal explanation of why there is something rather than nothing would violate the distinctness principle (239-240).
  4. Therefore,

  5. 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.)

Kotzen on the Improbability of Nothing
February 26, 2014 — 18:36

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 5

When someone asks ‘why p rather than q?’, it is sometimes a good answer to say, ‘p is far more probable than q.’ When someone asks, ‘why is p more probable than q?’, it is sometimes a good answer to say, ‘there are many more ways for p to be true than for q to be true.’ According to a well-known paper by Peter Van Inwagen, the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ can be answered in just this fashion: something is far more probable than nothing, because there are infinitely many ways for there to be something, but there is only one way for there to be nothing. In his contribution to The Puzzle of Existence, Matthew Kotzen argues that, this sort of answer is only sometimes a good one, and that we cannot know a priori whether it is a good answer to the question of something rather than nothing.

Kotzen’s general line of response is a standard one: he argues that there are many possible measures, and not all of them assign probability 0 to the empty world. Van Inwagen is perfectly aware of this problem, but argues that a priori considerations allow us to select a natural measure. Kotzen’s strategy is to identify some everyday examples where this pattern of explanation looks good, and some where it looks bad, and show that van Inwagen’s a priori considerations don’t draw the line between good and bad in the right place. Furthermore, he argues (p. 228) that van Inwagen’s considerations may not actually be sufficient to assign unique probabilities in the relevant cases, since it is not always clear what space the measure should be assigned over.

I think Kotzen’s argument against van Inwagen is quite compelling. The best thing about Kotzen’s article, though, is that it does a great job explaining these complex issues at a moderate level of rigor and detail without assuming hardly any background. This would be a great article to assign to undergraduate students.

In the rest of this post, I’m going to do two things. First, I’m going to explain the issue about measures in a much lesser level of rigor and detail than Kotzen does, just to make sure we are all up to speed. Second, I am going to raise the question of whether van Inwagen’s argument might have an even bigger problem: whether, instead of too many equally eligible measures, there might be none.

The simplest, most familiar, cases where the probabilistic pattern of explanation with which we are concerned works are finite and discrete. This is the case, for instance, with dice rolls or coin flips. The coin either comes up heads or tails; each die shows one of its six faces. So then, as one learns in one’s very first introduction to probabilities, in the case of the dice roll, the probability of any particular proposition about that dice roll is the number of cases in which the proposition is true divided by the total number of possible cases (for two six-sided dice, 36). In real life, by dividing the outcomes into discrete cases like this, we care about certain factors (which face is up) and not about others (e.g., where on the table the dice land). This division into discrete cases is called a partition. The reason the probabilities are so simple in the dice case, with each case in the partition being equally likely, is because we chose a good partition. (Well, actually, it’s because a fair die is defined as one that makes each of those outcomes equally probable, but let’s ignore that for now and imagine that fair dice just occur in nature rather than being made by humans on purpose.) Suppose that, on one of our dice, the face with six dots is painted red rather than white and, for some reason, what we really care about is whether the red face is up. Well then we might partition the outcomes accordingly, into the red outcome and the non-red outcomes. But these two cases (red and non-red) are not equally probable.

Sometimes the thing we care about is not a discrete case like this, but a fundamentally continuous case like (in a standard example) where on a dartboard a perfectly thin dart lands. A measure is basically the equivalent, in this continuous case, of the partition in the discrete case. For the dart board, there is a natural measure, one that ‘just makes sense’, and this is provided by our ordinary spatial concepts. So if, for instance, the bullseye takes up 1/10 of the area of the dartboard then, if the dart is thrown randomly, it will have a 1/10 chance of landing there. (Again, this is really just what it means for the dart to be thrown randomly.) This isn’t the only possible measure, but it’s the one that, in some sense, ‘just makes sense.’ But the question is, is there a natural measure on the space of possible worlds? That is, is there some ‘correct’ or ‘sensible’ or ‘natural’ way of saying how ‘far apart’ two possible worlds are? This is far from clear. The Lewis-Stalnaker semantics for counterfactuals supposes that we can talk about some worlds being ‘closer together’ than others, but this is not enough to define a measure. Furthermore, Lewis, at least, thinks that the closeness of worlds might change based on contextual factors (which respects of similarity we most care about), so it seems like there’s a plurality of measures there. Perhaps one could claim that all of these reasonably natural measures agree in assigning nothing probability 0, but that’s not clear either. For instance, Leibniz seems to think that one reason why the existence of something cries out for explanation is that “a nothing is simpler and easier than a something” (“Principles of Nature and Grace,” tr. Woolhouse and Francks, sect. 7). So maybe we should adopt a measure in which worlds get lower probability the more complicated they are. (I think Swinburne might also have a view like this.) On this kind of view, the empty world (if there is such a world) will be the most probable world. So the plurality of measures seems like a problem.

It’s not the only problem, though. Kotzen notes that “the Lebesque measure can be defined only in spaces that can be represented as Euclidean n-dimensional real-valued spaces” (222). (The Lebesgue measure is the standard measure used, for instance, in the dart board case: the bigger space it takes up the bigger its measure.) But the space of possible worlds is not like this! David Lewis has argued that the cardinality of the space of possible worlds must be greater than the cardinality of the continuum (Plurality of Worlds, 118). The reason is relatively simple: suppose that it is possible that there should be a two-dimensional Euclidean space in which every point is either occupied or unoccupied. The set of possible patterns of occupied and unoccupied points in such a space (each representing a distinct possibility) will be larger than the continuum. But if this is right, then there can be no Lebesgue measure on the possible worlds because there are too many worlds. Even if this exact class of worlds is not really possible (for reasons such as the considerations about space in modern physics I raised last time) it seems likely that there are too many worlds for the space of possible worlds to have a Lebesgue measure. Yet Kotzen attributes to van Inwagen that view “that we ought to associate a proposition’s probability with its Lebesgue measure in the relevant space” (227).

Maybe van Inwagen is not in quite this much trouble. He doesn’t actually seem to say anything about a Lebesgue measure in the paper, so I’m not sure exactly why Kotzen thinks van Inwagen is committed to this. In fact, in the paper Kotzen is discussing, van Inwagen cites his earlier discussion in Daniel Howard-Snyder’s collection, The Evidential Argument from Evil. In endnote 3 (pp. 239-240) of that article, van Inwagen says “the notion of the measure of a set of worlds gets most of such content as it has from the intuitive notion of the proportion of logical psace that a set of worlds occupies.” I find it a little bit ironic that van Inwagen says this, because he’s always denying that he has intuitions about things! I don’t have intuitions about proportions of logical space. In any event, it seems to me that van Inwagen is here disavowing the project of giving a well-defined measure in the mathematician’s sense.

Suppose one did want to identify a natural measure that was well-defined in the mathematician’s sense. I’m not sure about all the technicalities of trying to do this for sets of larger-than-continuum cardinality, and whether it can be done at all. Even if it can, thought, it’s going to be hard to say that one measure is more intuitive or natural than another in such an exotic realm. Things might be even worse: Pruss thinks (PSR, p. 100) that, for any cardinality k, it is possible that there be k many photons. If this is true, then there is a proper class of possible worlds, and one certainly can’t define a measure on a proper class. (This is another thing I don’t think I have intuitions about.)

All this to say: anyone who wants to assign a priori probabilities to all propositions (as van Inwagen does) is fighting an uphill battle, but if such probabilities cannot be assigned, then it does not seem that the probabilistic pattern of explanation can be used to tell us why there is something rather than nothing.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

Rodriguez-Pereyra on Ontological Subtraction
February 24, 2014 — 22:41

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 2

Gonzalo Rodriguez-Pereyra’s contribution to The Puzzle of Existence is the last of a series of contributions on the question whether there might have been nothing. Rodriguez-Pereyra defends a version of the subtraction argument for metaphysical nihilism. That is, he argues (roughly) that for any concrete being and any possible world at which that being exists, the world obtained by subtracting that being from that world is likewise possible, and that it follows from this that there is an empty possible world. (The empty world is to be obtained by subtracting all of the concrete beings from some possible world with only finitely many such beings.)

This argument has already been defended (including by Rodriguez-Pereyra himself) in a number of places in the literature. The main aim of this new article is to defend the argument against the claim that it begs the question. The charge, which Rodriguez-Pereyra attributes to Alexander Paseau, is that, however the technical details work out (and there is a lot of concern about the technical details in this paper), the subtraction premise, in its general form, cannot be motivated in a way that is independent of metaphysical nihilism: insofar as we find it plausible that subtraction always results in a possible scenario, this must be because we find it plausible that there is an empty possible world.

The basic structure of Rodriguez-Pereyra’s response to this objection is as follows. A reasonable person who is unsure about metaphysical nihilism might well find subtraction plausible in a universe with an arbitrarily large finite population. That is, one might think that if a universe with exactly 67 concrete, contingent entities is possible, then so is a world which contains exactly 66 of those 67 entities, and nothing else. Furthermore, absent an independent argument against metaphysical nihilism, there is no good reason for supposing that the case of a world with only one entity is different from the case of a world with some arbitrary finite number of entities. Hence, unless there is some positive reason for thinking that the one-object world is a special case, we should accept metaphysical nihilism (i.e., the possibility that no concrete contingent beings exist).

This line of argument is, I take it, the core of the paper. It seems convincing to me, as far as it goes. That is, I think the argument might take a neutral, rational thinker who has certain prior beliefs/intuitions from a state of equippolence to a position of regarding nihilism as the default option, pending consideration of any further arguments anti-nihilists might offer. This is a pretty modest standard of success, but if we set the standards for success much higher than this then – let’s face it – there won’t be very many successful arguments in philosophy!

Anyway, my main worry is about something else. At the beginning of the paper, Rodriguez-Pereyra considers another line of objection to the argument, one I think is perhaps more important. This is the idea that it might be the case that, necessarily, if there are any concrete objects, there are infinitely many. Why might one think this? Well, Rodriguez-Pereyra can think of two reasons: first, one might think that, since space is (necessarily) infinitely divisible, it is necessary that every concrete object have infinitely many parts. Second, one might hold that sets whose ur-elements are concrete are themselves concrete, so that the existence of one concrete object generates infinitely many concrete sets.

Rodriguez-Pereyra’s strategy is to solve this problem by stipulation. He defines a concrete* object as one which is “(a) concrete, (b) non-set-constituted, and (c) a maximal occupant of a connected spatiotemporal region” (198). Condition (c) is a bit confusing. One might think that a maximal occupant of a connected spatiotemporal region is an object that takes up the whole region so as not to leave room for anything else that’s not a part of it, or something like that. This is not how Rodriguez-Pereyra defines this term. Rather, a maximal occupant of a connected spatiotemporal region is an object which exactly occupies a connected spatiotemporal region and is not a proper part of any object which occupies a connected spatiotemporal region. In other words, if such an object is a part of some larger whole, then that larger whole is a scattered (spatiotemporally disconnected) object. The argument then proceeds by subtracting concrete* objects with their parts.

Now here’s where I want to take issue. In order for the argument to work, Rodriguez-Pereyra now needs “a possible world with a finite domain of concrete* objects and in which every concrete object is a (proper or improper) part of a concrete* object” (200). Rodriguez-Pereyra thinks everyone will agree that there is such a world because concrete spatiotemporal objects which are not parts of concrete* objects are quite exotic (see 200n6), and Rodriguez-Pereyra says that he will “uncontroversially assume that it is a necessary condition of any object being concrete that it is spatiotemporal” (199). Now, it is currently popular among analytic metaphysicians to suppose that all actual concrete objects are spatiotemporal. This is because many analytic metaphysicians endorse relatively naive versions of physicalism. (As will appear below, the versions of physicalism in question are naive about physics; some of them are quite philosophically sophisticated.) On the other hand, though, there certainly are analytic metaphysicians who believe in non-spatiotemporal concrete objects. But second, and perhaps more importantly, it is extremely controversial to hold that being spatiotemporal is a necessary condition for concreteness, because many, perhaps most, analytic metaphysicians believe in the possibility of non-spatiotemporal concrete objects.

I can think of four reasons one might believe in the actual existence of non-spatiotemporal concrete beings. First, one might be a dualist about human persons and think that souls don’t count as spatiotemporal. Second, one might believe in one or more wholly immaterial persons, and one might think this person or these persons count as concrete. Third, one might think that some or all of the entities in fundamental physics are not actually spatiotemporal after all, but are nevertheless concrete. Fourth, one might be an idealist of some stripe or other (whether Berkeleian, Leibnizian, or Kantian) and deny that anything spatiotemporal could be ontologically fundamental, and therefore hold that there is some kind of non-spatiotemporal ‘ontological subbasement.’

Since it might be unclear to some people how option 3 goes, let me divide it into 5 sub-options (one could take more than one of these). These are just 5 things a philosopher informed about modern physics might say; I’m not necessarily endorsing them.

3a: because quantum particles are not extended and do not have precise locations, they don’t count as (what metaphysicians mean by) spatiotemporal.

3b: the wavefunctions of quantum mechanics are real concrete entities, but the mathematical spaces over which they are defined are not at all the same as physical space-time, so they should not be regarded as (literally) spatiotemporal (in the metaphysician’s sense). For instance, I’m told that the wavefunction for a two particle system is defined over a six-dimensional Hilbert space.

3c: Thinking of the particles as having vague locations is only one way of interpreting the wavefunction; on an alternative interpretation, one might think that quantum mechanics just tells us the probability of an observation event occurring in a given spacetime region. If this is right, then one might deny that the particles are located at all (only the observation events are located), and if they’re not located then they are certainly not spatiotemporal.

3d: if one of the ‘holographic’ theories in fundamental physics is true, then ordinary physical spacetime (the spacetime we move around in) isn’t even physically fundamental, so there must be more fundamental concrete stuff which is not located in our spacetime, and hence we might regard that stuff as (in some sense) non-spatiotemporal).

3e: the laws of nature are concrete non-spatiotemporal entities.

(These possibilities are the reasons why I said above that it was somewhat naive to think that physicalism entailed the non-existence of non-spatiotemporal concrete things. The entailment is at best non-obvious and at worst non-existent, but it is sometimes taken as practically definitional.)

These are examples of reasons you might believe in the actual existence of concrete non-spatiotemporal objects. But all we need for Rodriguez-Pereyra’s assumption to be false is the possibility of concrete non-spatiotemporal entities. Here, we are on even safer ground, for a great many philosophers are willing to admit the possibility of some or all of the concrete non-spatiotemporal entities mentioned above, even if they don’t think any of them are actual.

Where does this leave Rodriguez-Pereyra’s argument? Well, Rodriguez-Pereyra doesn’t actually need the premise that necessarily all concrete objects are spatiotemporal. What he needs is just the claim that there is a possible world at which there are finitely many concrete* objects and every concrete object is a part of a concrete* object. The proponents of most of the positions mentioned above will be willing to admit the existence of possible worlds at which all of the concrete objects are spatiotemporal. There are, however, two exceptions.

First, some philosophers believe in the necessary existence of an immaterial God whom they consider to be a concrete object. This is easily sidestepped by restricting the argument to contingent objects. Of course this weakens the conclusion to the claim that there is a possible world at which there are no contingent concrete objects, but that’s close enough.

The more problematic case is the case of those who think that all spatiotemporal objects are non-fundamental (case 4 and some variants of case 3). These philosophers might think that this is necessarily the case, that nothing that is literally spatiotemporal could possibly be fundamental. If this is right, then there is no possible world of the sort Rodriguez-Pereyra needs.

The obvious way to fix this would be to talk about taking away the concrete* objects along with, not only their parts, but also their ontological grounds. However, absent some kind of theory of the ontological grounding of such objects, this renders the subtraction principle quite doubtful. If the concrete* objects have unknown grounds, then why should we think the objects are independent of each other? They might, for instance, be grounded in the same fundamental reality.

Rodriguez-Pereyra’s argument relies on a picture of a world as a four-dimensional spacetime with filled and unfilled regions, and essentially nothing more to it. As a picture of the actual world, this is quite naive, but Rodriguez-Pereyra only needs it to be a picture of a class of possible worlds. The possibility of such worlds enjoys a certain amount of plausibility (they certainly seem conceivable, for instance). However, there are arguments to be made against such possibilities. Here, I have merely gestured at (and not endorsed) these arguments, but I want to point out that if any of them succeeds then Rodriguez-Pereyra’s defense of the subtraction argument fails.

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

Lowe on Metaphysical Nihilism
February 11, 2014 — 15:24

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 9

Like several other contributions to The Puzzle of Existence, the essay by the late E. J. Lowe is devoted to the question whether there might have been nothing. Lowe calls the view that there might have been nothing ‘metaphysical nihilism,’ and he offers an argument against a certain version of it.

Lowe’s paper begins with some very helpful context-setting. In 1996, Peter van Inwagen had argued that there is a possible world which was ’empty’ in the sense of containing only abstract objects, and no concrete objects. However, according to van Inwagen, out of the infinitely many possible worlds, only one is the empty world, hence the probability that the empty world is actual is 0.

Van Inwagen’s argument was published together with a response by Lowe. In his article in Puzzle, Lowe summarizes his earlier argument as follows:

Some abstract objects exist necessarily, and so exist in every possible world. But all abstract objects depend on there being concrete objects – although not necessarily the same concrete objects in every possible world. Hence, concrete objects exist in every possible world, even if there is no necessary concrete being (182-183).

Lowe’s key examples of necessarily existing abstract objects were numbers, which he then thought were required to ground arithmetic truths. One important difficulty of Lowe’s understanding of the grounding of abstracta in concreta was that it required him to deny the existence of the null set and the number 0.

After 1996, two things happened: a number of objections to Lowe’s argument were raised, and (for reasons independent of those objections) Lowe stopped believing in numbers. The current paper reformulates the argument in a way that relies only on universals and ‘impure’ sets. Lowe’s argument is, essentially, that universals depend ontologically on their instances, and sets depend ontologically on their members, but there can be no cycles or regresses of ontological dependence, hence, if there are abstracta, there must be concreta. Lowe continues to reject the existence of the null set, and consequently of all ‘pure’ sets, on grounds that the null set cannot be properly grounded.

My key worry as I was reading the paper concerns a shift in Lowe’s characterization of van Inwagen’s position, against which he is supposed to be arguing. At the beginning of the paper, he describes van Inwagen as arguing for the existence of a world empty of concreta, but conceding that that world still contains abstracta (182). But later in the paper, Lowe characterizes van Inwagen as arguing that “there is an ’empty’ world in which there exist no concrete objects but abstract objects do exist” (187). At this point, Lowe makes it clear that he is no longer arguing that there must be concrete objects, but only that there can’t be abstracta without concreta. In other words, what was earlier a concession of van Inwagen’s has become part of van Inwagen’s thesis.

To his credit, Lowe explicitly addresses this worry in the very last paragraph of the paper. However, his response is concessive: he is indeed no longer arguing that there must be concreta. “Doesn’t that significantly reduce the metaphysical significance of the argument?” he asks rhetorically (194). I certainly think so. However, Lowe is certainly right that the fact that this argument is of lesser metaphysical significance than the argument he once tried to offer does not mean that the present argument is not interesting or significant. If Lowe is right about the ontological dependence of abstracta on concreta and the well-foundedness constraints on ontological dependence, there are wide-ranging metaphysical consequences.

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

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.)

John Leslie’s Axiarchism
January 14, 2014 — 14:17

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , ,   Comments: 6

Why is there something rather than nothing? According to John Leslie, because it is better that there be something. Leslie holds that ethical requirements themselves are ‘creatively effective’ and give rise to “an ocean of infinitely many infinite minds” which Leslie calls ‘God’ (p. 143). Leslie is a pantheist, holding that the world (including us) is in fact constituted by the thinking of these minds. His essay is devoted to arguing both that this is the best explanation for the existence of something rather than nothing, and that this view deserves to be regarded as a kind of (non-religious) theism.

I have to begin by, for just a moment, putting on my nitpicky historian’s hat. Leslie’s paper is full of both oblique references to and explicit mentions of a variety of historical and contemporary philosophers, theologians, and physicists, and it even contains a number of quotations, but what it does not contain is one single citation, except for a footnote at the very end of the article with a long list of works of Leslie and other recent thinkers holding similar views. Maybe Leslie thinks that every one of his readers will just know, off the top of her head, where (pseudo-)Dionysius said “Goodness is that whereby all things are” (and what translation that quotation came from) and where A. N. Whitehead said “Existence is the upholding of value-intensity” (p. 135), but if he thinks that he is badly mistaken. Routledge’s editors should not have let this essay appear without the correction of this violation of scholarly standards.

Ok, I’m done nitpicking and ready to discuss the actual content of the paper now.

Leslie begins by reciting some standard problems for better known atheistic and theistic solutions to the ‘puzzle of existence,’ but the discussion doesn’t go very deep. Precisely because these are standard objections, there are standard replies to them, and Leslie does not discuss these at all. Having recited some reasons for thinking that more standard views fail, Leslie begins (from p. 133) describing his own ‘Platonic’ view. A lot of this has to do with motivating the idea that there might be such a thing as agent-independent ‘ethical requiredness.’ He then (sect. 4) recites some bits of evidence that are typically taken to support theism (e.g., the orderliness of the universe, fine-tuning) and argues that these in fact support axiarchism. Finally, he argues that with respect to the problem of evil, the axiarchist is no worse off than the conventional theist.

One gets the impression (especially from the laundry list footnote at the end) that this essay is a summary of Leslie’s previous work on this topic. The essay has trouble standing alone. It lays out some basic motivations for axiarchism and gives one a general idea of how the axiarchist might go about responding to certain obvious objections, but it doesn’t go much beyond that (perhaps due to limitations of space). Furthermore, Leslie’s pantheism of infinitely many infinite minds, which is the most bizarre part of his view, is motivated only in the most cursory way.

I’m a Berkeley scholar. I’m used to working with bizarre-sounding metaphysical theories, and I’m sympathetic to views that make the mental more fundamental than the physical. But even I had the feeling that “We are got into fairly land, long ere we have reached the last steps of” Leslie’s essay (Hume, EHU 7, part 1, para 24). I think it would have been better, for a short piece like this, if Leslie had decided either to focus on the defense of axiarchism, or else to take axiarchism as an undefended assumption and defend his pantheism of infinitely many infinite minds as a consequence of it. The attempt to do both in this small space leaves readers with the feeling that Leslie wants them to accept bizarre views without adequate motivation.

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

Conee on the Ontological Argument
January 9, 2014 — 19:37

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 1

According to Leibniz, any answer to the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ must bottom out in “a necessary being, which carries the reason for its existence within itself, otherwise we still would not have a sufficient reason at which we can stop” (Principles of Nature and Grace, sect. 8, tr. Woolhouse and Francks). The coherence of such a being has, however, been questioned. What would it be for a being to ‘carry the reason for its existence within itself?’ What kind of impossibility could there be in the supposition that some particular being does not exist? Earl Conee’s contribution to The Puzzle of Existence is devoted to arguing that no broadly Anselmian argument for the impossibility of the non-existence of God can succeed. Its relevance to the theme of the volume is not spelled out, but I take it that the above issues are in the background: Anselm’s argument purports to derive a contradiction from the supposition that there is no God. If the argument succeeded, it would thus amount to a defense of the existence of a necessary being, just the sort of regress-stopping being wanted for certain answers to the puzzle of existence.

Recall that Anselm’s general strategy is to argue that the Greatest Conceivable Being (GCB) must exist because existence is greater than non-existence. If the GCB did not exist, then it would be possible to conceive of a being, GCB+, who was just like GCB except that GCB+ exists. This would make GCB+ greater than GCB, but of course it is by definition impossible to conceive a being greater than GCB, so the supposition that GCB does not exist yields a contradiction.

According to Conee, the mistake in the argument is a confusion between the level of greatness a being must have in order to satisfy a certain conception and the level of greatness a being satisfying a particular concept actually has. Thus the concept unicorn requires more greatness than the concept horse, but the things satisfying the concept horse are greater than the things satisfying the concept unicorn because the latter are merely imaginary. When we conceive of a GCB, this conception requires more greatness than any other possible conception, but it does not follow from this that some other conception is not satisfied by greater things, if the latter conception (e.g., horse) has real instances and the GCB is merely imaginary.

Conee’s objection is reminiscent of two memorable remarks of Kant’s on this topic:

To posit a triangle and cancel its three angles is contradictory; but to cancel the triangle together with its three angles is not a contradiction (A594/B622).

A hundred actual dollars do not contain the least bit more than a hundred [merely] possible ones (A599/B627).

The general idea here is sometimes called the ‘conditionalizing strategy.’ The idea is that the concept or definition of a GCB tells us what has to be true of something in order for it to be a GCB. Even if we build existence into the concept or definition, the only result we get is that in order for anything to be a GCB, that thing must exist, but this is totally uninteresting, since it is also true that in order for anything to be a triangle, that thing must exist.

What Conee wants to show is that ‘an optimal version of Anselm’s argument’ falls to this sort of objection. In order to count as a ‘version of Anselm’s argument’ Conee says, an argument must proceed from the conception of a GCB to the absurdity of denying the GCB’s existing via the assumption that “existence mak[es] a positive difference toward … greatness” (115-116). Thus, although Conee talks in the notes about the prospects for an argument that talks about necessary existence, he does not address modal ontological arguments in detail.

Can an argument which is Anselmian in this sense escape the conditionalizing strategy? With the help of some controversial assumptions, I think it can. Here is an argument that the Fool cannot coherently say (affirm) in his heart that there is no God:

  1. If one cannot coherently conceive of x as F, then one cannot coherently affirm that x is F.
  2. Beings conceived of as real are conceived of as being greater than beings conceived of as merely imaginary/fictional.
  3. It is possible to conceive of a GCB as real.
  4. Therefore,

  5. One cannot coherently conceive of a GCB as merely imaginary/fictional. (If one did, then either one would conceive the GCB as both real and merely imaginary/fictional, which is a contradiction, or else it would be possible to conceive of a being greater than the GCB, namely, a real being that is just like the GCB.)
  6. Therefore,

  7. One cannot coherently affirm that a GCB is merely imaginary/fictional.

Conee discusses Meinongian and anti-Meinongian versions of the argument, but I think this version, which appeals to imaginary/fictional objects, but not non-existent objects, is more faithful to Anselm, since Anselm talks about ‘existing in the understanding.’ Presumably objects that exist in the understanding exist.

What the Fool denies, on this reading, is that God is real. He thinks that God is a mere fiction, an imaginary being. (Atheists cannot very well deny that there is a character called ‘God’ in a great many stories.) This helps the argument to escape Hume’s objection that whenever we conceive of anything we always conceive of it as existing, for there seems to be a significant difference between how I conceive of Abraham Lincoln and how I conceive of Sherlock Holmes: I conceive of Lincoln as a real historical person, and Holmes as a fictional character. It is plausible to suppose that this is really part of the content of my conception.

I see two main weaknesses for this argument. First, one could question whether, by conceiving of something as real, we actually conceive of it as being greater than if we conceive of it as merely fictional/imaginary. Perhaps unicorns are still conceived as greater than horses, even when I explicitly include the fictionality of unicorns in my conception. Second, there are tricky issues here about the very nature of fictions. For instance, according to the fiction about Holmes, Holmes is a real (i.e. non-fictional) detective. Now, perhaps the right thing to say about this is that, when engaging imaginatively with the fiction, the reader conceives of Holmes as real, but the reader (who knows she is reading fiction) does not affirm this conception. The conception she affirms is the conception of Holmes as fictional.

These are tricky issues. In any event, the argument I have given is, I submit, superior to the one Conee calls the ‘Optimal Anselmian Argument,’ at least in the sense that it is harder to see what’s wrong with mine.

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

Christopher Hughes on Contingency and Plurality
January 6, 2014 — 20:12

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 5

According to Christopher Hughes, arguments from contingency for the existence of a necessary being are standardly held to depend on two crucial assumptions: a contingency-dependence principle (which may be thought to derive from the Principle of Sufficient Reason), and the existence of a sufficiently inclusive being. The burden of Hughes’s contribution to The Puzzle of Existence is to argue that the second assumption can be dispensed with.

Let’s start by seeing what these two assumptions are, and how they fit into standard arguments. A contingency-dependence principle states that any contingent entity must depend for its existence on some entity outside it. (On some broadly Aristotelian theories of modality, including theories often attributed to Medieval philosophers, contingency is defined as this sort of dependence.) The sufficiently inclusive being assumption basically allows that there is a being ‘big enough’ that anything outside it would have to be a necessary being. Thus, for instance, we might argue:

  1. Every contingent being depends for its existence on some being which is not a (proper or improper) part of it. (Contingency-Dependence Principle)
  2. There is a contingent being, The World, of which every contingent being is a part. (Sufficiently Inclusive Being)
  3. Therefore,

  4. The World depends on some non-contingent (i.e. necessary) being.
  5. Therefore,

  6. There is a necessary being.

As we have already seen in this series, some philosophers, including Immanuel Kant and Jacob Ross, respond to arguments from contingency by denying the existence of a sufficiently inclusive being. In terms of the version of the argument just given, we could say that these philosophers hold that, although there are many contingent beings, there is no whole made up of all the contingent beings as parts. According to Hughes, however, this is insufficient to escape the force of the argument from contingency; the argument can be reformulated in the absence of a sufficiently inclusive being.

The idea here is one that will be familiar to most philosophers: plural quantification. This is a formalism introduced by George Boolos for talking about several things without quantifying over sets, collections, sums, etc., of those things. It was said that, without quantifying over sets, one could not formalize such sentences as “some critics only admire each other.” With plural quantification, this is regimented as “There are some critics each of whom admires a person only if that person is one of them, and none of whom admires himself” (p. 103). Thus, Hughes suggests, the following principle can be made to yield a necessary being without requiring the existence of a sufficiently inclusive being:

If any being is contingent, or any two or more beings are (all) contingent, then there is some being outside that being or outside (all) those beings, on which that being or at least one of those beings depends (p. 101).

Given this principle, it appears that we only need the premise “there are some contingent beings” to get the existence of a non-contingent being. We don’t need the existence of ‘The World’ or any such thing.

If Hughes is right, then the contingency-dependence principle is really the heart of the argument. He therefore concludes by discussing the status of this principle. According to Hughes, “Some people have an immediate, strong, and stable intuition that contingent beings, as such, are incapable – singly or jointly – of existing without an external ‘ground'” (p. 105). He holds that people who do have this intuition are at least prima facie justified in being persuaded by the argument from contingency for the existence of a necessary being. However, Hughes reports that he himself has no such intuition, and so is unpersuaded by the argument (p. 108).

I found Hughes’s paper very interesting. I have just two criticisms, one to do with Hughes’s argument itself, and one to do with Hughes’s discussion of the significance of the argument. On the first point, why cannot the denier of sufficiently inclusive beings translate her claim into the language of plural quantification? The claim would go like this:

There are no things such that every contingent being is among them.

Or equivalently:

For any things, there is a contingent being that is not among them.

Admittedly, I can’t figure out how to put this claim into ‘plain English,’ but it is at least not obvious to me that the claim is untenable.

I think this is actually a pretty big problem given Hughes’s argument on pp. 103-104. There, Hughes argues that if Boolos is wrong about the ‘ontological innocence’ of plural quantification, then we need to go ahead and commit to the existence of sets. However, a lot of people accept the set-theoretic version of the claim above, i.e.:

There is no set of which every contingent being is a member.

Indeed, precisely this claim is defended by Ross in the essay immediately preceding Hughes’s! This is an important gap in Hughes’s argument for the irrelevance of sufficiently inclusive entities.

My other complaint is about Hughes’s claim that the argument has little persuasive force because most of those who have the contingency-dependence intuition are already theists. Hughes writes, “All the atheists I know think that something’s being contingent and independent is conceivable and not (even initially) apparently impossible” (p. 107). Again, Hughes should have read Ross, who apparently has the contingency-dependency intuition and tries to escape the conclusion with the very tactic Hughes criticizes. (If all the atheists already reject the contingency-dependence intuition, then who is it that’s supposed to be trying to get out of the conclusion by rejecting sufficiently inclusive entities?) Also, although this is perhaps a merely verbal point, there are those who believe (on the basis of an argument like this one) in a necessary being whom they, for one reason or another (perhaps because it is an impersonal being), prefer not to call ‘God.’

An important question here is exactly what this notion of ‘dependence’ amounts to. I have been reading the contingency-dependence principle as saying something like: if something exists, and it might not have existed, then some other thing must have made it exist. I suspect a lot of atheists do feel the pull of that kind of intuition. Atheists (and others) are welcome to speak up in the comments.

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

Jacob Ross on the PSR
December 20, 2013 — 10:47

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 3

Leibniz famously claimed that, once we have endorsed the Principle of Sufficient Reason, “the first questions we will be entitled to put will be – Why does something exist rather than nothing?” The answer to this question, he further claimed, “must needs be outside the sequence of contingent things and must be in a substance which is the cause of this sequence, or which is a necessary being, bearing in itself the reason for its own existence, otherwise we should not yet have a sufficient reason with which to stop” (“Principles of Nature and Grace,” sects. 7-8, tr. Latta). In his contribution to The Puzzle of Existence, Jacob Ross argues, on the contrary, that the PSR entails that one never reaches “a reason with which to stop.”

Consider the following modal collapse argument, which is somewhat simpler than the version Ross discusses:

  1. For every true contingent proposition, there is an explanation of why that proposition is true. (Assumption for reductio)
  2. Any conjunction of true contingent propositions is itself a true contingent proposition.
  3. The truth of a conjunctive proposition cannot be explained by one of its conjuncts.
  4. There is a conjunction of all true contingent propositions.
  5. A true contingent proposition can only ever be explained by another true contingent proposition.
  6. Therefore,

  7. The conjunction of all true contingent propositions is an unexplained true contingent proposition, contrary to (1).

Now Ross’s strategy is to deny (4). This is a well-known move in the dialectic around the argument from contingency for the existence of a necessary being, which has its roots in Kant. But Ross has interesting things to say about two points: first, what reason can be given for denying (4)? Second, what are the metaphysical consequences of accepting some version of the PSR (such as (1) of the argument) while denying (4)?

On the first point, I’m afraid Ross is a little unclear. He starts by arguing that, since explanation is a hyperintensional notion, a fine-grained (hyperintensional) conception of propositions is needed here. So far so good. But here’s the part I’m puzzled by:

suppose we adopt [a fine-grained] account [of propositions] and regard propositions as consisting in, or at least representable by, an ordered series of constituents corresponding to the constituents of the sentences by which they would be expressed in a canonical language. On such an account, for every proposition, there will be a corresponding set of the constituents of this proposition. And a conjunction will have its conjuncts as constituents. And so it follows that for every proposition, there will be a set that includes all of its conjuncts (p. 84).

Following this, Ross adverts to an argument of Pruss’s for the claim that the collection of all propositions is a proper class, and shows how to excise a certain controversial assumption (that for any cardinality k, possibly there are exactly k many concrete objects) from that argument. From this argument, he concludes that there is no ‘Grand Conjunction,’ i.e. that there is no such proposition as the conjunction of all contingent truths.

Here’s why I’m puzzled. Ross’s conclusion follows directly from his conception of propositions. Indeed, it follows directly from Ross’s conception of propositions that propositions have at most countably many constituents, for an ordered series (at least in the standard mathematical sense) can have at most countably many elements. So the first puzzle is why Ross presents this argument for the existence of a proper class of contingent propositions without noting that all he actually needs is uncountably many of them. The second puzzle is that Ross gives no argument in favor of his particular notion of a proposition, and in his exposition he says things like “suppose we adopt” and so forth. Then at the end of the section, he concludes that there is no Grand Conjunction. In other words, it appears that Ross begs the question: he asks us to grant a certain supposition from which his conclusion trivially follows, namely, that the existence of a conjunctive proposition requires the existence of the ordered series of its conjuncts.

I think the best response to be made on Ross’s behalf is this. He does provide arguments (compelling ones, even) in favor of adopting some hyperintensional conception of propositions. Now, there simply aren’t a lot of well-developed hyperintensional theories of propositions on the market. So the opponent of Ross’s argument needs to articulate some alternative hyperintensional conception of propositions if she wants to hold onto the existence of the Grand Conjunction. This seems fair enough to me, but then I was already somewhat skeptical of infinite propositions.

After arguing against the Grand Conjunction, Ross considers some other principles that might be thought to create problems, such as the modal collapse problem, for the PSR. These principles are all designed to say the some basic fact about contingent beings – e.g., that there are some of them – can only be explained if there is a necessary being. Ross rejects the Hume-Edwards principle and endorses the following claim:

(K4) For any set S of beings, the proposition that there exists at least one member of S can be explained only by a proposition that appeals to the existence of beings that are not in S (p. 89).

Ross notes that, since there is no set of all beings (sets are beings, and there is no set of all sets), (K4) cannot be made to yield the contradiction, there is a being that is not a being. On the other hand, though, it is extremely plausible to suppose that there is a set of all concrete contingent beings and, by (K4) this set must be explained by some non-member of it. This might sound at first like it would be nice for the theist; unfortunately, if there is a set of all concrete contingent beings and God exists, then surely there is a union of the set of all contingent concrete beings with the singleton {God}. Bad news.

If (K4) is restricted to sets of contingent beings then, together with the PSR and the claim that there is a set of all contingent concrete beings, it entails the existence of a necessary being; if it’s not restricted to sets of contingent beings, then it requires a proper class of beings standing in explanatory relations to one another (no regress-stopper can be introduced). Ross holds that, because of skepticism about the possibility of necessary things explaining contingent things, the defender of the PSR has cause to be skeptical of the claim that there is a set of all contingent concrete beings (p. 93). Thus, Ross thinks, the defender of the PSR should grasp the second horn and believe in a proper class of contingent concrete beings and an infinite regress of explanatory relations.

Much in Ross’s essay is clearly turning on the assumption that the existence of contingent beings cannot be explained in terms of a necessary being. This is an assumption most defenders of the PSR have rejected. However, Ross provides a quite interesting exploration of the kind of view one might be driven to if one endorsed this assumption while also endorsing the PSR, and he shows that such a view need not be self-contradictory, at least in any obvious way.

(Cross-posted at blog.kennypearce.net)

Kleinschmidt on the Principle of Sufficient Reason
December 15, 2013 — 17:19

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 4

Philosophers have perhaps more often assumed the Principle of Sufficient Reason than argued for it. Furthermore, this assumption has, in recent years, fallen out of favor due to the PSR’s allegedly unacceptable consequences. Recently, however, the PSR has been defended by Alexander Pruss and Michael Della Rocca. Pruss and Della Rocca both argue that (a version of) the PSR is a presupposition of reason. Pruss defends a version of the PSR restricted to contingent truths and consistent with libertarian free will and indeterminism is physics as a presupposition of our scientific and ‘commonsense’ explanatory practices. Della Rocca argues that the metaphysicians who deny the PSR implicitly make use of an unrestricted PSR, applying even to necessary truths, in other metaphysical arguments. Both arguments depend crucially on the claim that there is no weaker principle which is non-ad-hoc and justifies the relevant practices. In her contribution to The Puzzle of Existence, Shieva Kleinschmidt argues that both defenses fail.

Kleinschmidt’s general strategy is to outline contrasting cases – those in which admitting in-principle inexplicability seems to be an option, and those in which it does not – and argue that a non-ad-hoc descriptive account of this distinction can indeed be given.

Kleinschmidt’s primary focus is on Della Rocca, but compared to Pruss Della Rocca gives weaker support to a stronger conclusion. Della Rocca argues that if the unrestricted PSR is not true, then we cannot justifiably rule out certain metaphysical positions which we find intuitively implausible. However, not everyone finds the ‘brutal’ or ‘primitivist’ positions unpalatable in the way Della Rocca supposes (see Markosian). Furthermore, it would not be the end of the world if we were forced to conclude that many of the epistemic practices of analytic metaphysicians are in fact unjustified. Pruss, on the other hand, argues from commonsense and scientific explanatory practices. He asks, for instance, why it is that, when investigating a plane crash, no one takes seriously the hypothesis that the plane crashed for no reason at all. A position that undermined this kind of ordinary, everyday explanatory practice would be in much bigger trouble than a position that said analytic metaphysicians were out to lunch.

Now, Kleinschmidt does talk about the kind of everyday cases with which Pruss is concerned: “For instance,” she writes,

suppose we find small blue handprints along the wall, and we notice that the blue frosting is gone from its bowl and some is on the hands, face, and torso of a nearby five-year-old. When wondering what happened, we will not be tempted even for a moment by the alternative the child wishes to bring to our attention, namely, that the handprints are on the wall for no reason, that they are simply there (p. 67).

Again, someone who was forced to deny that our ordinary process of explaining the handprints was well-justified would be in much bigger trouble than someone who thought our metaphysical reasoning defective. Perhaps the reason for this is that Kleinschmidt herself belongs to the group of metaphysicians targeted by Della Rocca’s argument.

Della Rocca complains that these metaphysicians use the PSR when it suits them and ignore it the rest of the time. Kleinschmidt, however, thinks that this alleged inconsistency shows that Della Rocca has misunderstood the methodology employed by these metaphysicians, for there are indeed cases where (at least some of) these metaphysicians are willing to accept unexplained (and unexplainable) facts (whether necessary or contingent). These hypotheses are not ‘off the table’ in the way the hypothesis that the blue frosting is on the wall for no reason is off the table. In particular, Kleinschmidt describes in detail two contrasting cases: in standard fission cases, the view that it is simply a brute fact that either Lefty or Righty is identical with the pre-fission individual is rarely taken seriously, but in the Problem of the Many, especially as applied to human bodies, brute fact views have been more popular.

This, however, does not get to the bottom of things, for the common core of the arguments of Pruss and Della Rocca is the contention that no weaker principle than the PSR will justify our practice of treating these hypotheses as off the table in the cases where we do so. In other words, if we reject the PSR, then we ought to take the hypothesis that the blue handprints are on the wall for no reason seriously, but surely we ought not to take that hypothesis seriously, so we’d better accept the PSR.

It is only in the last three pages of her chapter that Kleinschmidt addresses this contention directly. She proposes that the claim that explanatory power is a truth-tracking theoretical virtue is sufficiently strong to account for our explanatory practices. “So, for instance, in the handprint case, we reject the theory that the handprints simply appeared for no reason, because we can see how some explanations might go, and some of the explanations are such that endorsing them won’t have disastrous consequences” (77). This, she argues, explains our explanatory practices: we take explanatory power to be a very important virtue in theory choice, so that we do not accept theories that render certain phenomena inexplicable unless we are backed into a corner.

As Kleinschmidt recognizes, this is really only the beginning of a response to Pruss and Della Rocca, for the core problem is not one of description but one of justification. Della Rocca, for instance, explicitly admits that metaphysicians are not consistent in rejecting unexplainables; this is precisely his complaint. He says that this inconsistent practice cannot be justified. Kleinschmidt recognizes this problem, but all she has to say about it is that there is considerable difficulty, as well, regarding the other features (e.g., parsimony) we take to be truth-tracking theoretical virtues.

Insofar as Kleinschmidt has helped to make clearer what our actual explanatory practices are, and shown that a descriptive account need not be radically disunified and ad hoc, this is progress. But the fact is, it is not really an answer to the Pruss-Della Rocca argument for, unless the treatment of explanatory power as a truth-tracking theoretical virtue can itself be justified, no method of justifying our explanatory practices in the absence of the PSR has been made to appear. On the other hand, perhaps Kleinschmidt should be regarded as having shown that those who continue to be untroubled scientific and/or ontological realists despite recognizing the difficulties involved in explaining why the features we regard as theoretical virtues should be regarded as truth-tracking might as well continue to be untroubled deniers of the PSR despite recognizing the difficulties raised by the Pruss-Della Rocca argument, for those difficulties are, essentially, the same. On the other hand, the reasonableness of this untroubled attitude could certainly be called into question.

Finally, it should be noted that Kleinschmidt’s formulations of the virtue of explanatory power are quite strong. She says we are willing to accept unexplainable propositions only when the consequences of refusing to do so are ‘disastrous.’ Now, unless one thinks either (a) that positing a necessary being is itself disastrous, or (b) that contingent facts cannot be explained in terms of a necessary being (i.e. that the modal collapse problem cannot be solved), this principle will still be strong enough to support the argument from contingency for the existence of a necessary being. (Personally, I think (a) is silly but (b) presents a deep and tangled problem.) In short, it seems likely that, even if we accept Kleinschmidt’s conclusion, we can still overcome the parsimony worries I discussed last time.

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