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!