Virtual Colloquium: Chad McIntosh, “How to be a Rational Foundationalist”
February 24, 2017 — 6:00

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

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

Chad McIntosh

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!

van Inwagen on PSR
December 23, 2014 — 8:57

Author: Michael Almeida  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 34

Peter van Inwagen and Jonathan Bennett developed a simple and influential argument that the principle of sufficient reason (PSR) entails that there is no contingency in the world. Everything that happens, necessarily happens. The problem is deeper than it first appears. If PSR is true and God explains everything else, as many theists believe, then the cost of preserving God’s perfect rationality is the loss of His freedom, His moral perfection, and His providence and sovereignty.  We are left with a single necessary world. The costs also include the loss of contingency and moral agency among created beings in the world. On the other hand, the cost of abandoning His perfect rationality is the unintelligibility of the world (which has disastrous effects on our reasoning with one another) and the unintelligibility of God’s actions in it. We cannot easily give up PSR.

The argument can look gimmicky, and I’ve heard that criticism of it. But it’s no gimmick. Suppose we talk of the explanation of states of affairs derivatively, and the explanation of propositions directly. For every true contingent proposition p, PSR requires that there is some explanation q such that q explains p if and only if ☐(q ⊃ p). But the conjunction P of all true contingent propositions is a contingent proposition, so P too has an explanation. Let G be the explanation of P. G must be a necessarily true proposition, since otherwise G would be a conjunct in P. But then G would be a contingent proposition that explained, among other things, itself. No contingent propositions explain themselves. So, P has an explanation just in case for some Q, ☐(Q ⊃ P) & ☐Q. But it follows uncontroversially from this that ☐P, and we are left with all of the unwanted implications above. I think there’s a neat way out of this problem that does not require weakening PSR, or adopting a weaker notion of explanation or defending infinite chains of contingent explanation.

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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.)

Introducing The Puzzle of Existence
November 28, 2013 — 0:50

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

I am currently in the process of putting together a review of The Puzzle of Existence: Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?, edited by Tyron Goldschmidt, for Faith and Philosophy. For edited volumes like this, reviews never allow enough space for substantive discussion every contribution, which is prima facie unfortunate. (I say prima facie because if the reviews were that long, I, at least, would probably read a lot fewer of them.) In light of this situation, I have resolved, before writing my review, to write blog posts with critical comments on each of the chapters.

This post is mostly just to announce my intention, but let me add a few remarks about the book and its introduction. First: it’s expensive. The list price is $125, and even Amazon is selling it for $105.65. I have taught this topic before and am likely (I hope) to do so again, but unless and until that price comes down (perhaps via the introduction of a paperback edition), I can’t see assigning this book to undergraduates. (I have already read the first two chapters, in addition to the introduction, and I do not think the level of difficulty is prohibitive; it’s just the price that’s the problem!)

The first section of Goldschmidt’s introduction provides a basic account of the philophical concepts used to disambiguate the question (‘why is there something rather than nothing?’) and formulate possible answers. These include the abstract/concrete contrast, the necessary/contingent contrast, and the notion of a possible world. The discussion is brief enough (less than 3 pages) that professional philosophers will not get impatient, but provides enough information, in a clear enough fashion, for those unfamiliar with these topics to get started. The rest of the introduction is devoted to a taxonomy of the possible interpretations of the question followed by an account of possible responses to the question on its various philosophically interesting interpretations. Along the way, Goldschmidt does what introductions do and makes some mention of the aims of each of the contributions to the volume.

As the introduction makes clear, the contributors disagree as much on the legitimacy and interpretation of the question as on the answers (if any) they favor. It appears that most of the contributors will be interested in the question of why there have ever been any beings which are concrete and/or contingent. The dominant responses to this question have been two: either the contingent concrete beings were created by a necessarily existent God, or the question has no answer. Among those who say the question has no answer, there are those who say that the question is somehow illegitimate or ill-formed, and there are those who say that not every well-formed question has an answer. (I suppose there is no reason why someone shouldn’t say both.) To Goldschmidt’s credit, he promises that the volume will canvas several other, less traditional responses as well as these. Stay tuned for upcoming posts to see how these go.

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

Three Responses to the Argument from Contingency
August 28, 2013 — 13:53

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 61

In my view, the cosmological argument from contingency is the most powerful philosophical argument for the existence of God. By a ‘philosophical’ argument, in this context, I mean a way of giving reasons for something that does not depend on detailed empirical investigation, or on idiosyncratic features of a particular individual’s experience or psychology. Thus I do not hold that the argument from contingency is the best reason anyone has for believing in God. I think, for instance, that some people have had religious experiences which provide them with stronger reasons than the argument from contingency could, even making very generous assumptions about their ability to grasp the argument.
This belief of mine, about the relative strengths of the arguments, goes rather against the grain of current discussions. I think the recent philosophy of religion literature overestimates the power of the fine-tuning argument and the first cause argument, and underestimates the power of the argument from contingency.

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Physicist Sean Carroll on God and Modern Physics
September 12, 2012 — 15:50

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Links  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 10

I want to draw Prosblogion readers’ attention to a very interesting paper by CalTech physicist Sean Carroll, “Does the Universe Need God?” (hat tip: ex-apologist). The article is to be published in The Blackwell Companion to Science and Christianity. The article is a model of constructive dialog between philosophy and physics. Carroll shows engagement with the major philosophical arguments under discussion, and does not come off as condescending or dismissive. He also provides concise and helpful summaries of the relevant physics. Additionally, the article shows an admirable degree of epistemic humility, noting that there are many unsolved problems in physics and that our theory of the early universe is not polished and completed, while still arguing that we have enough information to shape our views on origins. The article is quite readable, and would certainly be helpful for students.
Let me make a few remarks on Carroll’s actual arguments and positions. Near the beginning of the article, Carroll quickly summarizes the possible responses to ‘first cause’-type cosmological arguments. It seems to me that he is on firm ground here: it is unclear whether there even is a first moment, and if there is then it is not clear that it even makes sense to ask what caused the state of the universe in that first moment, if we are looking for another cause in the series of causes. Besides (although Carroll does not make this point), classical philosophical theology does not conceive of God as one more cause in the series of causes. So the first cause argument isn’t really going anywhere. I myself think that insofar as the first cause argument is tempting, this is because it gets confused with the argument from contingency: people aren’t really asking what caused the first state of the universe, they are asking why was the state of the universe as it was, and it’s quite clear that, if there really is a first moment, then the answer to that question could not possibly be another ordinary physical cause: either it has no answer, or it has an answer of a very different sort.
Carroll next offers detailed criticism of the ‘fine-tuning’ argument. The main point Carroll makes here is that the multiverse hypotheses which physicists take seriously are not just introducing enormous numbers of universes as ad hoc posits for the purpose of getting rid of fine-tuning. One sort of multiverse, for instance, falls neatly out of inflationary cosmology, which is a well-verified physical theory. (Brian Greene’s latest book, The Hidden Reality, surveys the range of multiverse theories and the different degrees of evidence for them.) So to say that the multiverse is excessively complex and so should be rejected is to misunderstand the sort of simplicity we should be looking for. Now, Carroll runs over some distinctions between different multiverse theories here; my understanding on the basis of Greene’s book is that the multiverse theories that do the most to eliminate fine-tuning are the least well-supported and widely accepted among those on offer, and that it is true of some of these theories that their main attraction for their adherents is to get rid of fine-tuning. I’m not, however, convinced that that’s bad: apparent fine-tuning is one of the things physicists try to explain. If a particular multiverse hypothesis provides a simple explanation of a particular apparent fine-tuning, then good for it. And I agree with Carroll on what simplicity should mean here. Leibniz said that God would create the world which was simplest in principles and most varied in phenomena (see, e.g., DM 5). This is the kind of simplicity that matters here: simplicity of the fundamental principles. If they generate many and varied phenomena (e.g. an enormous variety of universes), this is no stroke against them. Again, point Carroll.
Near the end of the article, Carroll does come to discuss the argument from contingency. Unfortunately, he does not, in my view, take it as seriously as it deserves. He essentially says that, although we ought always to look for explanations with respect to things in the universe, there can be no such explanation of the universe as a whole or its most basic laws. In The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment Alexander Pruss makes the case that the PSR cannot be restricted in any non-ad hoc way without undermining the assumptions of explainability made in ordinary scientific practice. Carroll ultimately simply pronounces that “There is no reason, within anything we currently understand about the ultimate structure of reality, to think of the existence and persistence and regularity of the universe as things that require external explanation.” He doesn’t give an adequate account of exactly what restrictions he is placing on explainability, or how they are justified. He seems to be supposing that what things we take to be in need of explanation depends on our physical theory. The trouble is, our practices with respect to explanation must be at least partly a priori in character: we have to start looking for explanations before we’ve got any explanations. Furthermore, Carroll’s example, that in modern physics there is no need for Aristotle’s Prime Mover because of the Law of Inertia, neglects the fact that an appeal to the Law of Inertia is itself an explanation of why objects continue in their state of motion. It is not that we’ve discovered that these things don’t need explanation, but rather that we’ve discovered that the correct explanation is of a very different sort from what Aristotle had in mind.
The argument from contingency, however, takes God outside the realm of physics. God here provides a different kind of explanation to a different kind of problem. This, to my mind, is one of the key reasons why the argument from contingency and the ontological argument are far more credible than either the first cause argument or the fine-tuning argument. That theism is not a credible physical theory is transparently obvious. Whether it is a credible metaphysical theory is another question entirely. I also note that the standards of credibility for metaphyiscal theories are quite lax compared to those for physical theories. Might theism enjoy the same level of (objective) support as quantum field theory? Not a chance. Might it enjoy the same level of (objective) support as (say) our best theories of universals? On this latter point I would say, it can, and it does.

PSR and the Slingshot Argument
July 23, 2012 — 11:54

Author: Josh Rausmussen  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: ,   Comments: 19

The following argument parallels the Slingshot Argument expressed here.
(P1) If X is explicable (can be explained), and X is logically equivalent to Y, then Y is explicable (for any X and Y).
(P2) If X is explicable, and X is semantically equivalent to Y, then Y is explicable (for any X and Y), where semantically equivalent facts are ones that are expressible by syntactically identical sentences whose referring terms refer to the same thing: for example, ‘the fact that Socrates is happy’ is semantically identical to ‘the fact that the person who is identical to Socrates is happy’, since ‘the person who is identical to Socrates’ refers to the same thing as ‘Socrates’ (and everything else about the sentences are the same).
[Edit. P2 may be more plausible if stated this way: If X is explicable, and X and Y both say the same thing about the same things (and say nothing else about any other things), then Y is explicable (for any X and Y). Then the deduction below will need a premise to the effect that the cumbersome facts considered there ultimately say the same thing about the same things (and say nothing else about any other things)*.]
(P3) At least one fact is explicable.
From (P1) – (P3), we deduce the principle that every fact has an explanation has follows. First, there is an explicable fact F (by P3). Second, F is logically equivalent to this fact Q: the x, such that [x is identical to Socrates, and F obtains] is identical to the x, such that [x is identical to Socrates]. Third, for any fact, F*, Q is semantically equivalent to this fact R: the x, such that [x is identical to Socrates, and F* obtains] is identical to the x, such that [x is identical to Socrates]. This is because where F and F* are both facts (and so both obtain), ‘the x, such that [x is identical to Socrates, and F obtains]’ and ‘the x, such that [x is identical to Socrates, and F* obtains]’ both refer to one and the same thing: Socrates (if they refer at all). Finally, R is logically equivalent to F*. It then follows from P1 and P2 that F* is explicable (for any F*), since F is explicable. Therefore, every fact is explicable. To get to PSR, we add the premise that if a fact f has no explanation, then the fact that (f obtains and f has no explanation) is inexplicable.
Replies to the Slingshot Argument may (or may not) carry over.

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Rethinking PSR
May 10, 2012 — 10:13

Author: Josh Rausmussen  Category: Uncategorized  Tags: , ,   Comments: 41

Let ‘PSR’ stand for the principle that whatever is, but need not be, has an explanation for its being.
More exactly:
(PSR) Whatever obtains, but doesn’t obtain of necessity, has an explanation for its obtaining.
Equivalently: Every contingent state of affairs has an explanation.
One might think that PSR has both a priori and empirical support. Regarding the a priori, when we consider an arbitrary state of affairs that obtains but doesn’t have to obtain, we feel motivated to wonder why it obtains; and that wonder seems to reveal an inclination in us to think there ought to be an explanation.
As for empirical support, PSR is a simple (the simplest?) explanation of all the cases of explanation anyone has encountered.
The support is defeated, however, if there are counter-examples to PSR. And, my sense is that most philosophers these days think or suspect or worry that there are counter-examples.
Perhaps the most commonly cited counter-examples are these: (1) quantum events, and (2) the Biggest Contingent Fact. It turns out to be difficult, however, to get these counter-examples to stick, as I’ll attempt to explain. I’ll focus more on (2), since I take it to be the more serious candidate.

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Another failed alternative to the Principle of Sufficient Reason
November 30, 2011 — 12:43

Author: Alexander Pruss  Category: Existence of God  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 3

We presuppose something like the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) in daily life and science. So there is very good reason to accept something like PSR. But suppose you don’t want to accept PSR, maybe because you think it implies the existence of God or maybe because you just think it has counterexamples. What can you do? Here is an option:

  1. The probability that a particular ordinary event, like the coming into existence of a brick or the death of a person, occurs without an explanation is non-zero but very low.

Here are some problems for this. Consider an infinite series of possible events: a brick of weight 2.5kg coming into existence in front of me now, a brick of weight 2.25kg coming into existence in front of me now, a brick of weight 2.125kg coming into existence in front of me now, …. By (1), each of these is very unlikely to happen without an explanation, but there is a non-zero probability for each. Moreover, plausibly, these non-zero probabilities are approximately the same.[note 1] So, we have an infinite number of possible events, each of which has approximately the same non-zero probability. Barring some further dependence story, we should conclude that very likely at least one of these events will happen. But none of these events in fact happened. Repeat the argument with mugs, rocks, etc. None of the analogues there happened. The theory, thus, stands refuted.

If we grant that two bricks can’t come into existence in the same place at the same time, the argument can be made stronger. Specify in each event the same location L for the brick. Then we have an infinite number of mutually exclusive events, each of which has approximately the same non-zero probability. And that not only is contrary to observation, but violates the conjunction of the total probability axiom and the finite additivity of probabilities (at least on the right understanding of “approximately the same” that ensures that if an infinite sequence of positive numbers is “approximately the same”, their mutual ratios are all moderately close to 1, say between 0.5 and 2).