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.)

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.)

Oppy on Theism, Naturalism, and Explanation
December 9, 2013 — 21:51

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 19

In his contribution to Goldschmidt’s The Puzzle of Existence, Graham Oppy argues that, “as [a] hypothes[i]s about the contents of global causal reality” (p. 51), naturalism is ceteris paribus preferable to theism. Oppy’s strategy for defending this claim is to consider three hypotheses about the structure of global causal reality, and argue that naturalism is superior to theism on each hypothesis. Here are his three hypotheses:

  1. Regress: Causal reality does not have an initial maximal part. That is, it is not the case that there is a part of causal reality which has no parts that stand in causal relations to one another and (b) is not preceded by some other part of causal reality which has no parts that stand in causal relations to one another.
  2. Necessary Initial Part: Causal reality has an initial maximal part, and it is not possible that causal reality had any other initial maximal part. On the assumption that the initial maximal part involves objects, both the existence and the initial properties of those objects are necessary.
  3. Contingent Initial Part: Causal reality has an initial maximal part, but it is possible that causal reality had some other initial maximal part. On the assumption that the initial maximal part involves objects, at least one of the existence and the initial maximal properties of those objects is contingent (p. 49).

According to Oppy, given Regress theism has no explanatory advantage over naturalism, since both appeal to infinite regress, but naturalism is more parsimonious than theism, hence it is preferable.

The idea that causal reality has an initial part, whether necessary or contingent, might be thought most favorable to theism, but Oppy thinks the case here is really no different than Regress. The reason for this is simple: he doesn’t see why an initial supernatural state is any better, from an explanatory perspective, than an initial natural state (regardless of whether we take the initial state to be necessary or contingent). So, from an explanatory perspective, the hypotheses are again equal, but from a simplicity perspective naturalism wins again.

In my last post, I promised to return to O’Connor’s discussion of the ‘all things considered’ preferability of theism to naturalism. O’Connor concedes Oppy’s claim (in previous work) that naturalism is preferable in terms of parsimony, but insists that “Naturalism simply is not a rival explanatory scheme for existence to Theism” (p. 39). In other words, naturalism, according to O’Connor, does not even try to explain what theism tries to explain. What Oppy gives in his article here is an “anything theism can do naturalism can do better” retort. If the theist posits a necessarily existing supernatural being, naturalism can posit a necessarily existing natural state/being. If the theist posits a contingently existing supernatural being, the naturalist can posit a contingently existing natural being.

Now, as Oppy concedes (p. 51), there is some difficulty about this natural/supernatural distinction. But what Oppy essentially has in mind, is that we are better of positing ‘more of the same’ than positing something totally different (like a God).

Oppy’s key point is that positing God as one more ‘billiard ball’ in the sequence of causes studied by science yields no explanatory advantage. Surely he is right about this. As long as God is considered as one more billiard ball, we are better off with a natural billiard ball than a supernatural one. In my view, insofar as O’Connor is considering God as a cause among causes (and he seems to be), Oppy’s critique is devastating.

However, the point that there is no explanatory advantage to positing God as one more billiard ball was already recognized by classical theistic metaphysians such as Aquinas and Leibniz. This is, after all, precisely the point of the traditional distinction between primary and secondary causation: God is not a cause among causes, but rather stands outside the secondary causal sequence and makes that sequence, rather than another, actual. As has long been recognized, this is consistent with the sequence of secondary causes being either finite or infinite, for even if there was an infinite sequence, we could ask, ‘why that sequence and not another?’ and we could still answer, ‘because God so chose.’

Oppy will quite rightly respond that it is incumbent on the theist to render this notion of ‘primary causation’ intelligible. However, recent work in analytic metaphysics on ‘grounding’ and ‘building relations’ (as Karen Bennett calls them) suggests that this can be done. In brief, it is now (again) recognized that there are a plurality of metaphysical relations that can ground explanation. The theist wants to say that this causal sequence exists because God chose it. This ‘because’ need not signify the same causal relation by which (literal or metaphorical) billiard balls are regularly related to one another. Just exactly what the theist should take primary causation to be, and exactly how it should be seen as relating to other grounding or building relations, is an interesting topic for further research. But the long and short of it is, even if not much can be said about exactly what primary causation is, if primary causation is a species of building relation, and we understand building relations in general, and we are independently committed to a plurality of them, then it seems to me that the ideological cost of believing in primary causation is not so great as to offset the benefit of explaining something the naturalist doesn’t even try to explain: namely, why this causal sequence is actual.

Now, that theism can overcome this ideological cost is not enough to show that it is preferable, for this is not the only cost of theism. God is supposed to be a really (fundamentally) existing entity, and hence positing a God is itself an ontological cost. If God is a sui generis entity in a fairly strong sense (as opposed to, for instance, to literally being a mind), then there is also a significant ideological cost here. One alternative is to posit some necessary laws of nature (or something like that) to make the causal sequence go the way it does, but if one uses the word ‘God’ in such a way that ‘impersonal God’ is not a contradiction in terms, then this sounds like an impersonal God. Let’s set that aside. There’s a more basic issue to concern us. One way or another, we’re paying a lot to get an explanation of why this causal sequence is actual. If, as Shieva Kleinschmidt argues in the very next chapter, the Principle of Sufficient Reason is false and explanatory comprehensiveness is merely one theoretical virtue among many, then perhaps the cost is greater than we should be willing to bear. More on this next time.

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

O’Connor on Explaining Everything
December 6, 2013 — 17:31

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

Goldschmidt’s volume opens with an essay by Timothy O’Connor who defends the traditional answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing: God. More specifically, the traditional answer O’Connor defends holds that a necessarily existent immaterial agent chose that contingent beings should exist.

There are several well-known difficulties for this kind of view. The first difficulty is, if there must be an explanation of why there are contingent beings, then mustn’t there be an explanation of why there is a God? This is, of course, a version of the much-ridiculed ‘what caused God?’ retort, and O’Connor’s (implicit) answer to it is that God exists necessarily. (O’Connor implies this response by restricting his ‘principles of explanation’ to contingent beings/events/truths; pp. 35-37.) Now this (standard) answer can be understood in one of two ways: either necessary truths don’t need explanations, or else we claim that any necessary truth p is explained by the fact that necessarily p. That is, on the second option, you explain a necessary truth by asserting that it is necessary. However, the second option by itself doesn’t solve the problem, because we can always ask why it is that God necessarily exists. Based on O’Connor’s discussion of ‘opaque necessities’ I suspect that he endorses the first option, denying that necessary truths need explanations. (To me, brute necessities seem intuitively worse than brute contingencies, but I won’t pursue that point here.) So God’s existence, being necessary, doesn’t need an explanation, but the existence of contingent things does.

However, the opponent of the traditional (theistic) view has an easy retort: “Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that God exists necessarily. Surely God’s decision to create this world must be contingent, since the world could have been otherwise. So there must be an explanation of why God chose this world.” We actually still haven’t got much deeper than the ‘what caused God?’ question at this point, for there is quite an obvious answer to this challenge. According to the traditional view, the universe’s existence depends on a free choice, and we know how to explain free choices: we cite the agent’s reasons, desires, character, etc.

In traditional treatments of this issue (e.g., Aquinas, Leibniz), the theist would now go on to give some account of the reason why God created this world. O’Connor makes a different move: he argues that the theist need not do this. According to O’Connor, the superiority of theism over its competitors is shown by the fact that it provides an intelligible explanation schema: that is, we can see how an explanation could go, and what sorts of questions would have to be answered in order to complete the explanation.

O’Connor seems to me to be correct that a hypothesis which implies that something is in principle explicable, and specifies a particular sort of explanation it must have, is ceteris paribus to be preferred over a hypothesis which renders that thing in principle inexplicable. This is so even if the hypothesis doesn’t actually explain the phenomenon in question. Now, it is widely held that the existence of contingent beings is in principle inexplicable unless there is a necessary being. Further, since we have some kind of conception of how agential explanations go, the hypothesis that contingent existence is caused by a necessarily existent agent is ceteris paribus to be preferred to the hypothesis that no necessary beings enter into causal relations.

Two important limitations must be observed here. First, no argument has been presented for the claim that the conception of the necessary being as an agent is superior to alternative necessary being theories. Second, the result is merely a ceteris paribus claim. O’Connor accepts both of these limitations, though he does give some consideration to the question of how an all-things-considered comparison of the two views might go. On this latter point, he is criticized by Oppy in the following chapter, so I will leave off discussion of that until my next post.

I should also briefly mention O’Connor’s response to the modal collapse objection. This objection holds that whatever has a necessary explanation is itself necessary, and so the traditional view, far from explaining contingency, denies the existence of contingency. O’Connor’s response is simple: to cite a cause of something is to give one kind of explanation of it, and that’s the kind of explanation he thinks contingent existence needs. Not all causation involves ‘necessary connection.’ Hence, a necessary thing might contingently cause contingent things, and this would not take away their contingency. (O’Connor does not here discuss the regress worry: not only is the proposition this world exists contingent, so is the proposition God causes this world. What’s the explanation of the second proposition? Since O’Connor has written a lot about agent causation, I’m sure he’s discussed this somewhere.) O’Connor thinks that if you are unsatisfied with this it must be because you are looking, as Leibniz was, for a contrastive explanation, an explanation of why things are so rather than otherwise. O’Connor is happy to deny that such explanations exist.

I’m a little concerned about this response; I tend to think that if one has explicability intuitions strong enough to support the argument from contingency, one is unlikely to be satisfied by weak explanations of this sort.

On the whole, O’Connor’s essay is a competent presentation of the traditional view in the context of contemporary analytic philosophy. He departs from the traditional view mostly in his exhortations to epistemic humility. In a way, this essay was a good choice to begin the volume: it lays out the view that most of the other papers will be, in one way or another, attacking. On the other hand, I found each of the three following essays (by Oppy, Kleinschmidt, and Ross – that’s as far as I’ve read) far more interesting. For the specialist, O’Connor’s essay is rather a slow start to the volume.

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