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.)

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)