Maitzen on the Explanatory Power of Penguins
March 4, 2014 — 21:03

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

In his contribution to The Puzzle of Existence, Stephen Maitzen defends the surprising claim that penguins hold the answer to the deep mysteries of the universe.

Well, that’s not exactly what he says. Maitzen’s position is that the only interpretation of ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ on which that sentence expresses a legitimate, well-formed question is one on which it is not a deep mystery at all, but a trivial empirical question to which ‘because there are penguins’ is a perfectly adequate answer.

It is interesting to note that Maitzen’s article is, in a way, just the reverse of Lange’s. Lange thinks causal explanations are paradigmatic examples of good scientific explanations. However, Lange’s distinctness principle eliminates the possibility of a causal explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. Furthermore, the distinctness principle rules out a large class of explanations we might call ‘constitutive explanations.’ These are cases in which we explain why a state of affairs obtains by indicating some lower-level state of affairs that constitutes it. However, in my comments on Lange, I indicated that constitutive explanations are indeed part of scientific practice, and hence that Lange was wrong to rule them out.

Maitzen’s article reverses Lange’s in the sense that Maitzen holds that causal explanations should be regarded with suspicion in the absence of an agreed-upon metaphysical analysis of causation, but that constitutive explanations are good (265-266). Thus Maitzen’s view is, essentially, that the existence of something (Maitzen is specifically concerned with concrete, contingent things) is (partly) constituted by the existence of penguins and the fact that there are penguins can thus explain the fact that there is something.

Maitzen considers a number of objections to this explanation, but I think the most important is the one he labels ‘Objection D.’ (I suspect that Maitzen agrees, since this is the objection he spends the most time on). Here is how he states the objection:

Because it invokes CCTs [i.e., concrete contingent things] that already exist, [Maitzen’s] naturalistic method of explanation has no chance of explaining why there are any CCTs in the first place, any CCTs to begin with, any CCTs at all (259).

Maitzen’s strategy for dealing with this objection is to concede that an explanation of why there are penguins that appealed to more penguins would not explain why there are any penguins at all, but argue that this is because penguin is a substantial kind. CCT, Maitzen thinks, is not a substantial kind.

This is effectively a version of the ‘no sufficiently comprehensive beings’ objection to the argument from contingency, endorsed earlier in the volume by Ross. That is, Maitzen admits that the fact that a particular kind has instances is the sort of thing that needs to be explained without appeal to instances of the kind, but denies that there is any kind comprehensive enough to encompass all of the contingent, concrete beings and so force us to posit anything beyond them.

According to Maitzen, the question ‘why are there penguins?’ is not well-answered with ‘because there are emperor penguins’ (what I have been calling a constitutive explanation) but ‘why are there red things?’ is well-answered with ‘because there are things that reflect light of wavelengths roughly in the range 630-740 nm’ (263-264).

In fact, something Maitzen says later strongly suggests that he has misunderstood the contrast here. Maitzen admits that ‘because there are emperor penguins’ may be “a sufficient answer to the question ‘Why are there any penguins at all left on earth?’ in circumstances in which emperor penguins are the only penguins left on earth” (265). But in the appropriate context, the question ‘why are there penguins?’ could mean just that. For instance, consider the following dialog, which takes place in a dystopian future, c. 2200AD:

A: From the 19th century through the middle of the 21st century, humans relied on fossil fuels as their primary source of power. The resulting climate change was especially damaging to arctic and antarctic wildlife. Almost nothing survives, but there are still some penguins in Antarctica.

B: Why are there penguins?

A: Because there are emperor penguins. They were hardy enough to survive the changes to their ecosystem.

The conversation would sound quite unnatural to me without that last sentence, but this is only because B’s next question (“yes, but why are there emperor penguins?”) is so obvious that A is expected to anticipate it, as she does in that last sentence. Maitzen is in no position to object to this, since he argues explicitly that explanations are not to be considered inadequate just because they raise further ‘why’ questions (255-257).

On the other hand, the following dialog also seems perfectly natural:

A: Why are there red things?

B: Because there are things that reflect light of wavelengths roughly in the range 630-740 nm.

A: No, no, that’s not what I mean. I know perfectly well that red things are red in virtue of their reflective profile. What I want to know is, why are there any such things? I mean, couldn’t it have been the case that there was just nothing in the universe with that reflective profile? Why isn’t the universe like that instead of like this?

Of course, A’s response is, mutatis mutandis, just the response the arguer from contingency will want to give to Maitzen’s penguin explanation.

What all of this suggests is that, in fact, a question of the form ‘why are there xs?’ admits of (at least) two very different sorts of answers, one or the other of which may be desired on a particular occasion. The distinction between substantial kind terms and other sortals does not track the distinction between the circumstances in which the two types of explanations are desired. Furthermore, as my little dialog shows, even once we’ve got the constitutive explanation, we may still legitimately ask for the other kind. Thus Maitzen hasn’t shown that non-trivial interpretations of the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ are illegitimate.

(Cross-posted at