Conee on the Ontological Argument
January 9, 2014 — 19:37

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 1

According to Leibniz, any answer to the question ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ must bottom out in “a necessary being, which carries the reason for its existence within itself, otherwise we still would not have a sufficient reason at which we can stop” (Principles of Nature and Grace, sect. 8, tr. Woolhouse and Francks). The coherence of such a being has, however, been questioned. What would it be for a being to ‘carry the reason for its existence within itself?’ What kind of impossibility could there be in the supposition that some particular being does not exist? Earl Conee’s contribution to The Puzzle of Existence is devoted to arguing that no broadly Anselmian argument for the impossibility of the non-existence of God can succeed. Its relevance to the theme of the volume is not spelled out, but I take it that the above issues are in the background: Anselm’s argument purports to derive a contradiction from the supposition that there is no God. If the argument succeeded, it would thus amount to a defense of the existence of a necessary being, just the sort of regress-stopping being wanted for certain answers to the puzzle of existence.

Recall that Anselm’s general strategy is to argue that the Greatest Conceivable Being (GCB) must exist because existence is greater than non-existence. If the GCB did not exist, then it would be possible to conceive of a being, GCB+, who was just like GCB except that GCB+ exists. This would make GCB+ greater than GCB, but of course it is by definition impossible to conceive a being greater than GCB, so the supposition that GCB does not exist yields a contradiction.

According to Conee, the mistake in the argument is a confusion between the level of greatness a being must have in order to satisfy a certain conception and the level of greatness a being satisfying a particular concept actually has. Thus the concept unicorn requires more greatness than the concept horse, but the things satisfying the concept horse are greater than the things satisfying the concept unicorn because the latter are merely imaginary. When we conceive of a GCB, this conception requires more greatness than any other possible conception, but it does not follow from this that some other conception is not satisfied by greater things, if the latter conception (e.g., horse) has real instances and the GCB is merely imaginary.

Conee’s objection is reminiscent of two memorable remarks of Kant’s on this topic:

To posit a triangle and cancel its three angles is contradictory; but to cancel the triangle together with its three angles is not a contradiction (A594/B622).

A hundred actual dollars do not contain the least bit more than a hundred [merely] possible ones (A599/B627).

The general idea here is sometimes called the ‘conditionalizing strategy.’ The idea is that the concept or definition of a GCB tells us what has to be true of something in order for it to be a GCB. Even if we build existence into the concept or definition, the only result we get is that in order for anything to be a GCB, that thing must exist, but this is totally uninteresting, since it is also true that in order for anything to be a triangle, that thing must exist.

What Conee wants to show is that ‘an optimal version of Anselm’s argument’ falls to this sort of objection. In order to count as a ‘version of Anselm’s argument’ Conee says, an argument must proceed from the conception of a GCB to the absurdity of denying the GCB’s existing via the assumption that “existence mak[es] a positive difference toward … greatness” (115-116). Thus, although Conee talks in the notes about the prospects for an argument that talks about necessary existence, he does not address modal ontological arguments in detail.

Can an argument which is Anselmian in this sense escape the conditionalizing strategy? With the help of some controversial assumptions, I think it can. Here is an argument that the Fool cannot coherently say (affirm) in his heart that there is no God:

  1. If one cannot coherently conceive of x as F, then one cannot coherently affirm that x is F.
  2. Beings conceived of as real are conceived of as being greater than beings conceived of as merely imaginary/fictional.
  3. It is possible to conceive of a GCB as real.
  4. Therefore,

  5. One cannot coherently conceive of a GCB as merely imaginary/fictional. (If one did, then either one would conceive the GCB as both real and merely imaginary/fictional, which is a contradiction, or else it would be possible to conceive of a being greater than the GCB, namely, a real being that is just like the GCB.)
  6. Therefore,

  7. One cannot coherently affirm that a GCB is merely imaginary/fictional.

Conee discusses Meinongian and anti-Meinongian versions of the argument, but I think this version, which appeals to imaginary/fictional objects, but not non-existent objects, is more faithful to Anselm, since Anselm talks about ‘existing in the understanding.’ Presumably objects that exist in the understanding exist.

What the Fool denies, on this reading, is that God is real. He thinks that God is a mere fiction, an imaginary being. (Atheists cannot very well deny that there is a character called ‘God’ in a great many stories.) This helps the argument to escape Hume’s objection that whenever we conceive of anything we always conceive of it as existing, for there seems to be a significant difference between how I conceive of Abraham Lincoln and how I conceive of Sherlock Holmes: I conceive of Lincoln as a real historical person, and Holmes as a fictional character. It is plausible to suppose that this is really part of the content of my conception.

I see two main weaknesses for this argument. First, one could question whether, by conceiving of something as real, we actually conceive of it as being greater than if we conceive of it as merely fictional/imaginary. Perhaps unicorns are still conceived as greater than horses, even when I explicitly include the fictionality of unicorns in my conception. Second, there are tricky issues here about the very nature of fictions. For instance, according to the fiction about Holmes, Holmes is a real (i.e. non-fictional) detective. Now, perhaps the right thing to say about this is that, when engaging imaginatively with the fiction, the reader conceives of Holmes as real, but the reader (who knows she is reading fiction) does not affirm this conception. The conception she affirms is the conception of Holmes as fictional.

These are tricky issues. In any event, the argument I have given is, I submit, superior to the one Conee calls the ‘Optimal Anselmian Argument,’ at least in the sense that it is harder to see what’s wrong with mine.

(Cross-posted at

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

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

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

Oppy on Theism, Naturalism, and Explanation
December 9, 2013 — 21:51

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Existence of God Prosblogion Reviews  Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,   Comments: 19

In his contribution to Goldschmidt’s The Puzzle of Existence, Graham Oppy argues that, “as [a] hypothes[i]s about the contents of global causal reality” (p. 51), naturalism is ceteris paribus preferable to theism. Oppy’s strategy for defending this claim is to consider three hypotheses about the structure of global causal reality, and argue that naturalism is superior to theism on each hypothesis. Here are his three hypotheses:

  1. Regress: Causal reality does not have an initial maximal part. That is, it is not the case that there is a part of causal reality which has no parts that stand in causal relations to one another and (b) is not preceded by some other part of causal reality which has no parts that stand in causal relations to one another.
  2. Necessary Initial Part: Causal reality has an initial maximal part, and it is not possible that causal reality had any other initial maximal part. On the assumption that the initial maximal part involves objects, both the existence and the initial properties of those objects are necessary.
  3. Contingent Initial Part: Causal reality has an initial maximal part, but it is possible that causal reality had some other initial maximal part. On the assumption that the initial maximal part involves objects, at least one of the existence and the initial maximal properties of those objects is contingent (p. 49).

According to Oppy, given Regress theism has no explanatory advantage over naturalism, since both appeal to infinite regress, but naturalism is more parsimonious than theism, hence it is preferable.

The idea that causal reality has an initial part, whether necessary or contingent, might be thought most favorable to theism, but Oppy thinks the case here is really no different than Regress. The reason for this is simple: he doesn’t see why an initial supernatural state is any better, from an explanatory perspective, than an initial natural state (regardless of whether we take the initial state to be necessary or contingent). So, from an explanatory perspective, the hypotheses are again equal, but from a simplicity perspective naturalism wins again.

In my last post, I promised to return to O’Connor’s discussion of the ‘all things considered’ preferability of theism to naturalism. O’Connor concedes Oppy’s claim (in previous work) that naturalism is preferable in terms of parsimony, but insists that “Naturalism simply is not a rival explanatory scheme for existence to Theism” (p. 39). In other words, naturalism, according to O’Connor, does not even try to explain what theism tries to explain. What Oppy gives in his article here is an “anything theism can do naturalism can do better” retort. If the theist posits a necessarily existing supernatural being, naturalism can posit a necessarily existing natural state/being. If the theist posits a contingently existing supernatural being, the naturalist can posit a contingently existing natural being.

Now, as Oppy concedes (p. 51), there is some difficulty about this natural/supernatural distinction. But what Oppy essentially has in mind, is that we are better of positing ‘more of the same’ than positing something totally different (like a God).

Oppy’s key point is that positing God as one more ‘billiard ball’ in the sequence of causes studied by science yields no explanatory advantage. Surely he is right about this. As long as God is considered as one more billiard ball, we are better off with a natural billiard ball than a supernatural one. In my view, insofar as O’Connor is considering God as a cause among causes (and he seems to be), Oppy’s critique is devastating.

However, the point that there is no explanatory advantage to positing God as one more billiard ball was already recognized by classical theistic metaphysians such as Aquinas and Leibniz. This is, after all, precisely the point of the traditional distinction between primary and secondary causation: God is not a cause among causes, but rather stands outside the secondary causal sequence and makes that sequence, rather than another, actual. As has long been recognized, this is consistent with the sequence of secondary causes being either finite or infinite, for even if there was an infinite sequence, we could ask, ‘why that sequence and not another?’ and we could still answer, ‘because God so chose.’

Oppy will quite rightly respond that it is incumbent on the theist to render this notion of ‘primary causation’ intelligible. However, recent work in analytic metaphysics on ‘grounding’ and ‘building relations’ (as Karen Bennett calls them) suggests that this can be done. In brief, it is now (again) recognized that there are a plurality of metaphysical relations that can ground explanation. The theist wants to say that this causal sequence exists because God chose it. This ‘because’ need not signify the same causal relation by which (literal or metaphorical) billiard balls are regularly related to one another. Just exactly what the theist should take primary causation to be, and exactly how it should be seen as relating to other grounding or building relations, is an interesting topic for further research. But the long and short of it is, even if not much can be said about exactly what primary causation is, if primary causation is a species of building relation, and we understand building relations in general, and we are independently committed to a plurality of them, then it seems to me that the ideological cost of believing in primary causation is not so great as to offset the benefit of explaining something the naturalist doesn’t even try to explain: namely, why this causal sequence is actual.

Now, that theism can overcome this ideological cost is not enough to show that it is preferable, for this is not the only cost of theism. God is supposed to be a really (fundamentally) existing entity, and hence positing a God is itself an ontological cost. If God is a sui generis entity in a fairly strong sense (as opposed to, for instance, to literally being a mind), then there is also a significant ideological cost here. One alternative is to posit some necessary laws of nature (or something like that) to make the causal sequence go the way it does, but if one uses the word ‘God’ in such a way that ‘impersonal God’ is not a contradiction in terms, then this sounds like an impersonal God. Let’s set that aside. There’s a more basic issue to concern us. One way or another, we’re paying a lot to get an explanation of why this causal sequence is actual. If, as Shieva Kleinschmidt argues in the very next chapter, the Principle of Sufficient Reason is false and explanatory comprehensiveness is merely one theoretical virtue among many, then perhaps the cost is greater than we should be willing to bear. More on this next time.

(Cross-posted at

O’Connor on Explaining Everything
December 6, 2013 — 17:31

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

Goldschmidt’s volume opens with an essay by Timothy O’Connor who defends the traditional answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing: God. More specifically, the traditional answer O’Connor defends holds that a necessarily existent immaterial agent chose that contingent beings should exist.

There are several well-known difficulties for this kind of view. The first difficulty is, if there must be an explanation of why there are contingent beings, then mustn’t there be an explanation of why there is a God? This is, of course, a version of the much-ridiculed ‘what caused God?’ retort, and O’Connor’s (implicit) answer to it is that God exists necessarily. (O’Connor implies this response by restricting his ‘principles of explanation’ to contingent beings/events/truths; pp. 35-37.) Now this (standard) answer can be understood in one of two ways: either necessary truths don’t need explanations, or else we claim that any necessary truth p is explained by the fact that necessarily p. That is, on the second option, you explain a necessary truth by asserting that it is necessary. However, the second option by itself doesn’t solve the problem, because we can always ask why it is that God necessarily exists. Based on O’Connor’s discussion of ‘opaque necessities’ I suspect that he endorses the first option, denying that necessary truths need explanations. (To me, brute necessities seem intuitively worse than brute contingencies, but I won’t pursue that point here.) So God’s existence, being necessary, doesn’t need an explanation, but the existence of contingent things does.

However, the opponent of the traditional (theistic) view has an easy retort: “Suppose we grant, for the sake of argument, that God exists necessarily. Surely God’s decision to create this world must be contingent, since the world could have been otherwise. So there must be an explanation of why God chose this world.” We actually still haven’t got much deeper than the ‘what caused God?’ question at this point, for there is quite an obvious answer to this challenge. According to the traditional view, the universe’s existence depends on a free choice, and we know how to explain free choices: we cite the agent’s reasons, desires, character, etc.

In traditional treatments of this issue (e.g., Aquinas, Leibniz), the theist would now go on to give some account of the reason why God created this world. O’Connor makes a different move: he argues that the theist need not do this. According to O’Connor, the superiority of theism over its competitors is shown by the fact that it provides an intelligible explanation schema: that is, we can see how an explanation could go, and what sorts of questions would have to be answered in order to complete the explanation.

O’Connor seems to me to be correct that a hypothesis which implies that something is in principle explicable, and specifies a particular sort of explanation it must have, is ceteris paribus to be preferred over a hypothesis which renders that thing in principle inexplicable. This is so even if the hypothesis doesn’t actually explain the phenomenon in question. Now, it is widely held that the existence of contingent beings is in principle inexplicable unless there is a necessary being. Further, since we have some kind of conception of how agential explanations go, the hypothesis that contingent existence is caused by a necessarily existent agent is ceteris paribus to be preferred to the hypothesis that no necessary beings enter into causal relations.

Two important limitations must be observed here. First, no argument has been presented for the claim that the conception of the necessary being as an agent is superior to alternative necessary being theories. Second, the result is merely a ceteris paribus claim. O’Connor accepts both of these limitations, though he does give some consideration to the question of how an all-things-considered comparison of the two views might go. On this latter point, he is criticized by Oppy in the following chapter, so I will leave off discussion of that until my next post.

I should also briefly mention O’Connor’s response to the modal collapse objection. This objection holds that whatever has a necessary explanation is itself necessary, and so the traditional view, far from explaining contingency, denies the existence of contingency. O’Connor’s response is simple: to cite a cause of something is to give one kind of explanation of it, and that’s the kind of explanation he thinks contingent existence needs. Not all causation involves ‘necessary connection.’ Hence, a necessary thing might contingently cause contingent things, and this would not take away their contingency. (O’Connor does not here discuss the regress worry: not only is the proposition this world exists contingent, so is the proposition God causes this world. What’s the explanation of the second proposition? Since O’Connor has written a lot about agent causation, I’m sure he’s discussed this somewhere.) O’Connor thinks that if you are unsatisfied with this it must be because you are looking, as Leibniz was, for a contrastive explanation, an explanation of why things are so rather than otherwise. O’Connor is happy to deny that such explanations exist.

I’m a little concerned about this response; I tend to think that if one has explicability intuitions strong enough to support the argument from contingency, one is unlikely to be satisfied by weak explanations of this sort.

On the whole, O’Connor’s essay is a competent presentation of the traditional view in the context of contemporary analytic philosophy. He departs from the traditional view mostly in his exhortations to epistemic humility. In a way, this essay was a good choice to begin the volume: it lays out the view that most of the other papers will be, in one way or another, attacking. On the other hand, I found each of the three following essays (by Oppy, Kleinschmidt, and Ross – that’s as far as I’ve read) far more interesting. For the specialist, O’Connor’s essay is rather a slow start to the volume.

(Cross-posted at

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