Welcome to the final installment of the Prosblogion Virtual Colloquium. Many thanks to all of those who have contributed, both as presenters and commenters.
Our final paper will be “Metaphysical Foundationalism and the Principle of Sufficient Reason” by Ricki Bliss. Dr. Bliss received her PhD from the University of Melbourne in 2012 and is currently Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. Her papers on metaphysics have appeared in journals such as Philosophical Review and Philosophical Studies. She is co-author (with Kelly Trogdon) of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on metaphysical grounding and co-editor (with Graham Priest) of Reality and its Structure, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
Metaphysical Foundationalism and the Principle of Sufficient Reason
The following is the abstract for my paper that I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss:
The metaphysical foundationalist claims that reality is hierarchically arranged, with maximal chains of phenomena ordered by the grounding relation terminating in contingently existent fundamentalia. Some influential foundationalists claim that there must be something fundamental because being requires a ground or explanation, or because grounding chains that do not terminate are viciously infinitely regressive. Surprisingly, reconstruction of these arguments reveals an enthymematic assumption that makes appeal to a Principle of Sufficient Reason: a principle the foundationalist would not, and should not, accept. I explore three different Principles of Sufficient Reason: two familiar to us from cosmological arguments and one, novel, dependence PSR. I argue that without a PSR, certain of the most influential arguments to the existence of something fundamental do not work; and that with a PSR, certain of the most influential arguments to the existence of something fundamental leave us with a position that is epistemically unstable.
By way of introduction, I would like to say a few things about what has motivated me to write this paper, and what I think some interesting (and important!) open questions are.
Contemporarily, analytic metaphysics seems to be in the thrall of notions of ground, structure and the idea that there is something fundamental. In addition to this, there seems to be a growing tension between those wedded to a Quine-style naturalizing of metaphysics and the ‘neo-Aristotelian’ return to the good old fashioned way of doing it. In theory, a good proper Quinean will hold that the only kinds of arguments we need in defence of fundamentality are arguments from theoretical virtue, whereas the neo-Aristotelian will allow the use of, say, arguments from vicious infinite regress. In practice, however, the contemporary grounding literature and discussions of fundamentality are a mess. Card-carrying Quineans make appeal all over the place to talk of ‘grounds of being’, arguments from vicious infinite regress and the need that there be some kind of ultimate explainers. At the same time, they throw around talk of theoretical virtue with almost no reflection, wheel out their intuitions, and are prone to even suggest that we don’t need arguments in defence of a view as spectacularly ontologically committing and weighty as fundamentality. What is to my mind, however, almost singularly most striking about the state of the contemporary literature is it’s apparent utter blindness to the rich history of debates over the regress problem, the grounds of being, and ultimate explainers in the form of cosmological arguments to the existence of God.
This, then, is my starting point: that so much of the contemporary thinking about fundamentality just is disguised variations on very old, very big and very problematic themes. When properly reconstructed, many contemporary arguments in defence of fundamentality look to be variations on cosmological-style arguments to the existence of an ultimate explainer. The consequences of this for how we understand our commitment to fundamentality, though, are interesting. First of all, it seems that what we need here is some version of other of a Principle of Sufficient Reason. What such a version might be is the central theme of this paper. But in addition to this, clarifying which version of the principle might be in operation is not yet to get us an argument to the existence of something fundamental. In order to have a good proper argument in defence of fundamentality we need to know (i) what exactly it is that the fundamentalia are supposed to explain and (ii) why it is that no dependent entity is up to the task to hand.
These last two points are not really issues that I take up in this paper. In fact, at the time of writing this paper – which was a few years ago now – I think I had a sense of the importance of these two questions without yet being able to articulate it so clearly. I have since written another paper that does engage with these questions, and I believe the second one is a particularly complex issue. Without engaging with these particular questions, however, there is still much of significance that needs to be explored; and much that is very often taken for granted. What is the relation between self-dependence and necessary being? Can contingent existents be self-explanatory? How does fundamentality intersect with modality? What is the modal status of that which is to be explained by the fundamentalia? Although this paper doesn’t answer any of these questions, I believe it draws to our attention how important it is to ask them. And I believe that the literature on cosmological arguments to the existence of God is an invaluable resource to look to try and start our investigation.
The full paper is available here. Comments welcome below!
This week’s Virtual Colloquium paper is “How to be a Rational Foundationalist” by Chad McIntosh. McIntosh is a PhD student at Cornell writing a dissertation entitled Rational Foundationalism. His work has appeared in Religious Studies and Res Cogitans. His blog, Appeared-to-Blogly, hosts a detailed outline and bibliography on natural theology.
How to be a Rational Foundationalist
Many thanks to Kenny Pearce for inviting me to be a part of Prosblogion’s Virtual Colloquium. I have been a reader of Prosblogion for many years, so it is an honor to contribute. The paper attached below is a massively condensed version (you can think of it as one of those APA 3k mutilations) of the main idea of my dissertation, Rational Foundationalism. Despite what the title suggests, it is an exercise in metaphysics, not epistemology. Feedback, via comments below or email, are most welcome!
Consider a thingy-version of the PSR, where every thing that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in itself or in some other thing. It is widely held that if the PSR is true, then there must be an “ultimate ground” of the cosmos, such as God. It can’t be “turtles all the way down,” as they say; the buck stops with a being whose raison d’etre is in itself. Such arguments have received a lot of attention and are well-known, especially to readers of this blog.
But there hasn’t been as much attention given to what it means for something to have its explanation “in itself,” and traditional proposals strike me as either implausible or incoherent. Saying something’s explanation is “in itself” if it exists necessarily is implausible, because clearly necessary things, like numbers, if they exist at all, still require an explanation. And saying God’s explanation is in himself because his existence is identical to his essence (Aquinas) seems like bootstrapping, and saying God’s explanation is in himself because his existence and essence depend on each other (Leibniz) seems viciously circular, like a chicken-and-egg scenario. I propose a very different way for how something can have its explanation “in itself,” which is roughly as follows.
First, I assume that there are things whose existence isn’t explained by their causes, but by their grounds. For example, another way of saying that the sufficient reason for the existence of the number 2 is God is to say the number 2 is fully grounded by God. So the question I’m asking is how the “ultimate ground” itself gets fully grounded.
An immediate barrier to considering this question along these lines is that, at least according to contemporary terminology, an “ultimate ground” is something fundamental, which, by definition, is ungrounded. Well, so much the worse for contemporary terminology. The heart of the concept of fundamentality is independence, which can be given a richer meaning than just “not dependent;” i.e., ungrounded. In their affirmations of the divine attribute of aseity, for example, theists often describe God as being not dependent on anything distinct from or external to himself, or on anything ad extra. Such descriptions leave open the possibility that God might yet depend on something ad intra.
But what could that be? A very simple answer, much to the consternation of divine simpletons: parts! So let’s say that something is fundamental iff it is fully grounded in its parts but nothing but its parts. Of course, this just pushes the question back a step to how the parts get fully grounded. But our rejection of bootstrapping scenarios means that the parts can’t fully ground themselves, and our rejection of turtles-all-the-way-down scenarios eliminates turtle gunk (parts fully grounded in parts all the way down), and our rejection of chicken-and-egg scenarios eliminates chicken parts (one part fully grounding another part and vice versa). As I argue in the paper, the only way for the parts to get fully grounded is if there is a minimum of three parts, each of which partially grounds the others. So, any one part gets fully grounded by the other two. This is possible because, as the examples I discuss show, partial ground, unlike full ground, can be symmetric without being viciously circular so long as the grounding structure is minimally tripartite. The Devil’s in the details which, in this case, are in the paper.
A fundamental being, then, must have at least three parts. Why stop at three? I don’t go into this in the attached paper, but here’s a closing thought. We’re all familiar with Ockham’s Razor: don’t multiply entities beyond necessity. Jonathan Schafer has recently proposed his own version—Schafer’s Laser, we might call it—according to which we shouldn’t multiply fundamental entities beyond necessity. Fine, there exists just one fundamental being. Schafer thinks it’s the cosmos, which grounds its many, many parts. I have a parsimony principle of my own to recommend, Chad’s Eraser: don’t multiply parts of a fundamental entity beyond necessity. And on my view, all we need is one fundamental being with just three parts.
This a surprising picture of what a fundamental being must be like. Perhaps it is less surprising to Christian theists. But with the PSR, the proposed understanding of fundamentality, and the coherence of the examples of symmetric partial grounding, we have an argument for the audacious and bizarre conclusion that there exists a fundamental being that is, in essence, triune. If you prefer a cute name for this attribute, it would be not aseity, but triseity.
The full paper is here. Comments welcome below!