Tim O'Connor: How to Formulate Questions About Life
Visiting Scholar Tom O’Connor gives a lecture to the Biola University student body to help them formulate questions about life.
All right. The world is a complicated place. The naked human eye reveals many kinds of things, animate things like chairs and rocks and so on, and that is inanimate things. And animate things like birds and fish and people. Natural science and especially fundamental science brings some unity to the blooming and buzzing confusion of ordinary observation but it still involves a lot of particular detail. The specific mass and charge of electrons, for example, and the number of them are the best current guess, I guess that physicists have of the number of fundamental particles constituting our universe is 10 to the 80th power, it’s a lot. Plus the size and structure of space time and lots of other things. Whichever way you look at it, it doesn’t seem to be necessary that things be the way that they are. I might’ve been a roofer like my father, instead of a boring philosopher, and there might of been schmectrons rather than electrons as among the basic building blocks of physical reality, right? Some other kinda things that were disposed to interact in different ways than the particles that constitute our universe do in fact interact. There seem, in fact, to be no end to the way things might have been, as opposed to the one complete way that things are where that includes both the past and the future.
Philosophers express this by saying that most things about the world seem contingent which just means that they might have been otherwise, rather than necessary, such that things had to be that way, as perhaps with facts of pure mathematics and logic, which plausibly just have to be that way. It’s not a contingent fact that two plus two equals four, it had to be that way. But most of most of the world around us doesn’t seem to be like that, it doesn’t seem to be absolutely necessary like facts of pure mathematics. Science is about the business of trying to explain how things actually are at a deep level and how they behave. That is, it proposes and ever refines accounts of the world structure, what things are made of, and their dynamics, how they interact and unfold over time. However, there can seem to be something necessarily leftover, something left unaccounted for in principle by our best scientific theories. The fact that things, in general, are as they are, for example, that there happens to be a world of this sort that we find, and that science seeks to better understand.
There undeniably is a powerful impetus in all of us to ask the question while waving our hands all about, right? Why is there this? Why indeed is there anything at all? Yet, a little reflection shows that a satisfactory answer to that question, right? The question that says after science is done, imagine a completed scientific explanation of all the basic structure and dynamics of reality, and you say, yeah, but why that, right? When you think about, what would it be to answer that kind of question? You realize pretty quickly that it would require an altogether different kind of explanation from the familiar sorts of explanations we give in science and even in everyday life. Would any sort manage to do? Could there even be an answer to that question? If so, would more than one answer to that question be at least formally satisfactory? These are really big and long debated questions in philosophy.
As Greg mentioned, I recently wrote a book addressing these questions, a book called, “Theism and Ultimate Explanation.” And one philosophical reviewer complained that it was much too short for its topic. So, you’ll be relieved to hear that I am fully aware that my time this evening is short. So all I aim to do tonight is to get us started thinking about the questions and to address one central argument that many philosophers have given that if successful, would bring the whole discussion of this question to a screeching halt. It is an argument that purports to show that it is impossible that these questions could have a constructive answer or at least an answer other than one that is too crazy to take seriously. I will try to show that the argument is mistaken and that we can learn something important about the nature of explanation, specifically about causal explanation, by seeing that this argument is mistaken. But in a way, we will end up where we began. There is a question about existence that seems to cry out for an answer which science cannot provide. But what else did you expect from a philosopher? Now, I’m also a Christian philosopher so you’ll have some idea of the kind of explanation that I’m attracted to but I’m not going to argue that the best such explanation to the question would, on philosophical grounds, be a theistic explanation although I do think that. It would take more than one talk to really give a decent argument for that. Progress in philosophy comes slowly.
I do hope that we’ll come away with a better sense of the lay of the land. We’ll see how to ask and how not to ask the central question concerning contingent existence. You might say, “What do you mean? “You’re gonna tell us how to ask the question?” Progress in philosophy is often made by learning how to ask the right question, framing the question the right way is often an important step to making progress. And if I’m gonna be fussing about different ways people have a framed this kind of question and try to persuade you that they framed the question the wrong way. And hopefully we’ll begin to see what sort of answers are possible to the question. Thinking how to assess the relative merits of these competing answers is gonna be your homework exercise, I’ll leave you to try to do that, or maybe one of your philosophy instructors can pick up where I leave off. All right. So, I’m gonna start off by arguing that ultimate explanation, what I mean by explanation, why is there anything at all?
So, a maximally comprehensive explanation is not to be found in empirical science and it’s not just because empirical science is incomplete. In principle, you couldn’t have that kind of explanation in science. Some scientist seem to think that you could have such an explanation. I could point you to a handful of books, popular sort of books by very eminent physicist who think that now a theory of everything is right around the corner, and I think, they’re engaging in a bit of at best false advertising. And while the projects they’re engaged in are perfectly respectable projects and really interesting, it would be exciting if they could achieve what they’re hoping to achieve, it would not be to answer our question, okay? That’s what I’m gonna try to start off to persuade you. The ultimate explanation of contingent reality, the sum total of all the existing objects and their histories that might not have been. All the stuff like you and I and chairs, rooms, and stars and electrons, and all that stuff, it seems like there might not have been any of that stuff. The explanation of the fact that there is all that stuff would be explanation that involves no, what I’ll call, brute givens. It would leave no explanatory loose ends whatsoever. So, it wouldn’t be good enough that you say, “Well, I can explain all this “in terms of some other factor X, magical factor X,” and then you say, “Why factor X?” And the answer is no explanation, right? That would not really be ultimate explanation, right? It would be conditional on something that seems to cry out for further explanation. That’s not gonna be good enough, right? It would have to be somehow a complete explanation such that you could not intelligibly ask for anything more. Very high standards to have that kind of explanation.
All true more limited explanations that we do have in science and in everyday life, like when you explain things in terms of someone’s beliefs and purposes and so forth, all true limited explanations would rest on something that not only has no further explanation but can have no further action, further explanation. All right, so, no foundational physical theory, I claim, could aspire to explanation of that sort. Let’s think about it. The best case scenario for such a physical, comprehensive physical theory, or why am I saying physical theory as opposed to biological? Because physics is our most general science, right? It’s supposed to be everything’s composed of the stuff physics talks about, right? Whereas not everything is biological, not everything is even chemical, and so on, or psychological. If you’re looking for a really general explanation, you go down to the engine room of science and that’s fundamental physics. Particle physics are signs of the small and cosmology, the large-scale structure, and kinda bring these two together, that would be the best hope, that’s where we would look in science for the biggest, most complete explanation you can have.
The best case scenario for such a theory would take on one of two forms. One would be a well-confirmed theory on which physical reality is eternal, lacking a beginning, lacking an ending. And is maximally simple at the fundamental level in terms of its ontology, what which philosophers call that as what kinds of basic stuff it posits like particles or fields. Its dynamics, the principles for how things unfold, how they interact with force principles and things. And its topological structure, the properties that are assigned to the space in which things reside. So, call this the way of eternity and unification, right? On the one hand, the aim is to unify things, boil it down to the smallest number of possible basic posits and to assume, at least, it’s never had a beginning, why? Because if it had to beginning, then we would say, all right, well, how do we explain that initial state and we’d be stuck, right? We definitely wanna have no beginning if we’re gonna have a comprehensive physical theory that could be complete. This way, this way of eternity plus unification, the theoretical limit for it is a single, simple equation. Just one dynamical equation the governs the distribution of a single fundamental particle. So, instead of protons, electrons, and so on, you just have one kind of entity, one dynamical principle that governs it’s kind and all the the instances of it as they interact.
And you would thereby realized what physicist Steven Weinberg, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist at the University of Texas, his dream, right? He says, “The dream of physics is “to have an equation that our descendants “might display on their T-shirts,” right? Even stupid teenagers could know the theory of everything. It’s just this simple little equation governing this one little alpha particle. Maybe that would truly be the God particle if there was this one particle that… However, even if it turns out there are world cooperates, there’s no guarantee our world is like that, all right? That there’s just one fundamental kind of thing and one dynamical principle. So it’s just the hope, right, that our world could turn out to be that way but there’s no guarantee. Physics just goes about its task and continually tries to simplify, simplify as it goes deeper and deeper. But supposed it does turn out that our world cooperates with this ambition. And it can only reduce the number of contingent facts needing independent explanation. In the end, so even if it were so, the most fundamental fact of existence itself, the fact that there is anything answering to the simple equation will necessarily be left unexplained. Hewing only to such a theory, ultimate explanation would elude our grasp.
Even if we’d have this beautiful, elegant, unified theory for how things are and how they unfold over time, why there’s anything like that would be left out of such an explanation. A second best case scenario that some recent thinkers have entertained runs in rather the opposite direction. It seeks to explain not by burrowing down just simple, ever more simple foundations, but by spreading out, right? We can imagine there being an elegant and empirically adequate theory that locates our entire universe within a vast structure of totalities. Other universes that together as a set of universes to exhibit completely non-arbitrary properties, right? Every possibility gets realized in some universe or other. There might be a plenum then of disjoint island universes or you might think of them as being causally non-interacting and dimensional space times embedded within a single hyperspace of N plus one dimensions, right? So, we’re used to thinking of three spatial dimensions, up, down [shoos] and then time as the so-called fourth dimension. But imagine, well, you can’t picture it, right, but imagine that our three dimensions of space are actually embedded within a fourth spatial dimension. And so you could have an unlimited number of three-dimensional spatial universes that are sort of close within them but they’re all embedded within in this larger four spatial plus one temple dimension thing, right? Either way you go, the idea would be reality would constitute this satisfying plenum of all mathematically consistent totalities.
All possible universes including every hyperspace configuration as the eminent MIT physicist and closet metaphysician Max Tegmark proposes. He’s got a, if you wanna, you could go online to Max Tegmark’s website and he links to various, like he’s got a scientific American article 2008 I think. Beautiful color pictures, different artistic ways of representing what the multiverse would be like and all these bubbles but an infinite vast plenum. And he says he really believes that this is true. He thinks there’s good reason to think it’s true. It’s a minority opinion. But call this the way of plenitude. All right again, I wanna grant, supposed that’s right, right? If that’s right, there undeniably would be an elegance, a lack of arbitrariness in the hypothesis that every consistent universe exists, right? Rather than just say, why don’t we just have this universe? We’ve got electrons, right again, and other kinds of fundamental particles, maybe comprised of more basic things like quarks and so on. But that’s just one way things could be and it just happens to have a certain number of such particles and there are certain kinds of features of our universe but the idea that all the possibilities, it appeals naturally to the mathematician and the philosopher’s sensibility to just imagine all that the beautiful, all the possibilities are all just laid out there. There’s something elegant and non-arbitrary about realities being that way. So, it’s a beautiful idea that just naturally appeals to the foundational theorists, but if it is a fact and our reasons for embracing this picture of the world are wholly empirical, then we must suppose that remarkable fact to be contingent.
It’s just the way things happen to be among the ever so many less elegant alternatives. So, there might have been no multiverse, even if there is multiverse, that is multiple universes, physicists use the term multiverse, there might have been no multiverse or there might have been a less complete multiverse. So, instead of infinitely many, maybe non-denumerably, infinitely many universes. Let’s say, there might have been just 17 universes. That’s just the way it is, right? Or might be a single universe, as we usually suppose of a single arbitrary type. So that the plenitudinous multiverse exists at all if it’s true will not then have an ultimate explanation. We could still say, waving our arms now much wider, why that, you know? This plus this plus this, why all that? And from an empirical point of view, you just have to say, well, that’s just the ultimate, that’s where science lives off if it gave us reason to think that were so. Okay, if we seek an ultimate explanation of existence, we have to pass from physics to metaphysics, right? Physicists, they tell us all kinds of fun things about the way the world actually is. But if you want an answer to why is the world, why is there anything of this sort at all? We’ve gotta get metaphysical and think about it in philosophical terms. How should one proceed in constructing and evaluating possible metaphysical answers to our existence question? Why this, regardless of what this turns out to be. A good place to start is to distinguish between explanations, you might call real, full explanations, it’s explanations properly speaking and explanation schemas or outlines that specify a more mere broad outline of the causally relevant features of a punitive cause and its manner of operation. It’s just kind of a sketch for how to think about it. It leaves out a lot of the details.
But we should recognize at the same time, we could have reason to endorse a general explanations schema, there could be good reasons to say that there is an explanation of a broad sort to be, there’s reason to think there is an explanation of a broad sort even if we’re not capable of filling in the details. The reason would be if the schema seems to provide the only or the best form of answer as measured by standard criteria for goodness of theories, right? You can have reason for thinking the only possible answer would have to be of this kind of sort, right? ‘Cause that would be kind of a schema even if you can’t flash out all the details. Maybe because the details are empirically inaccessible to you. You can still have really good reason for thinking it has to be that the explanation that we want while we can’t have it in principle, in detail, we know it has to be of this general sort. Note that, for example, evolutionary theory, for those who embrace evolutionary theory, offers for many historical events an explanatory schema, though a quite rich one to be sure. If evolutionary theory as a complete, comprehensive theory of the development, the emergence and development of biological life is correct, it entails that there are true detailed explanations of a certain type for ever so many specific facts about biological history, but most of the actual explanations are unavailable to us, right? ‘Cause we don’t have all the details, right? If you believe in the principle of natural selection over random mutations, people often misunderstand that term random there.
But nevertheless, if you accept that there is this process of gradual accretions of changes that come about in a certain manner. Then, of course, there are facts about living organisms millions of years ago, but we don’t know, it’s all lost to us, right? We might have a few bones or something. We can’t go back to the past and see the detailed explanation of how there came to be this sort of living system. But still, if evolutionary theory is true, it entails that there’s a certain form of explanation. Whatever the details are it came about via process of natural selection over modification, right? It indicates, it’s really a schema, which we can fill in some cases perhaps with more detail, more or less detail. So, there something wrong with schemas of explanation. We’ve got a science, historical science, historically-oriented science, which is in fact a very schematic explanation as opposed to say an explanation of the behavior of gas molecules going on right now in a volume of gas. We could give a detailed explanation of that ’cause we’ve got perhaps all the relevant causal factors and we could we can tell in detail what’s going on there, right? All right, I’ve been fussing about schema versus full explanation because it’s very important ’cause sometimes the kind of explanation that I think we’re going to need to provide ultimate explanation, we’re only gonna be able to give a schematic explanation. And sometimes, philosophers complain, they say, “Well, that’s an empty explanation.”
You just say, well, you specify some hazy kinda features and why think that? Well, sometimes there’s good reason to think that a schematic form of explanation is true even if we’re not in the position to fill in the details. So, philosophers have pretty widely agreed that if there is to be ultimate explanation at all, we must suppose that there can be a kind of necessary existence. Existence that is the existence of something that has the same kind of necessity as the truths of pure mathematics, right? If there was a necessarily existing thing, it would exist in every possible reality, it would exist in worlds constituted at bottom by electrons and quarks and so on. It would it exist in a world where there are schmectrons, it would exist in a world where there are only disembodied minds. It would exist in a world where there’s just empty space but nothing populating the space. It would exist period, right? So, philosophers, many philosophers doubt that there is any ultimate explanation to be had in principle, but most philosophers agree that if there is to be a good explanation, you’re going to have to suppose that there is such a thing as necessary existence, non-contingent existence. And this would have to be had by the physical reality itself as Spinoza famously thought, a philosopher of the 17th century, or by some kind of maximally unified transcendent cause of physical reality.
Necessary existence can have no direct role within empirical theory, though it is open to a scientist of a philosophical bent to suppose that it has application to physical reality as Einstein following Spinoza seems to have done, right? Einstein, there’s various, Einstein liked to use various slogans and mottos that people hear about and read on the internet out of context. So Einstein said things like, “God doesn’t play dice, “he didn’t like statistical “explanations in fundamental physics.” He wanted determinism to be true, why? Well, he tells us in his writings, this is a part of a scientific theory, it’s the kind of philosophical side of Einstein. He’s inspired by Spinoza, this picture of reality is just necessarily being the way it is, an unfolding of iron necessity. To Einstein, that’s just the most beautiful, for most people, that a frightening, terrifying thought. [mumbles] Einstein, this is just beautiful, all right, this theory, ’cause then everything has this enriched, full, complete explanation, okay? But that’s not part of the scientific theory. The scientific theory is just here’s the stuff there is, here are the dynamical principles, here’s the space within which such stuff resides, that’s the science. And then when you start saying and it exist of necessity, then you’re doing philosophy, right? The property of necessary existence doesn’t play any explanatory role. Negative charge, that does explanatory work in science, saying that that particle exist out of necessity doesn’t do any explanatory work, okay? It’s a metaphysical claim about the empirical reality.
But none the worse for that. I’m a philosopher, I’m a metaphysician. I don’t fault it on those grounds, I’m just saying it’s not, that’s not part of empirical theory. You’ve moved from science to, from physics to metaphysics if you make that kind of supposition. Now, on a view that accepts the legitimacy of appealing to this features, some philosophers famously don’t, are very suspicious of this idea of necessary existence. But it’s claimed to be a substantial, distinctive kind of property involving a superior mode of existing, okay? Now I’m, kind of some of these language, your eyes are gonna start glazing. But what I mean by that is just this, right, I’m a contingent being. Ever so many ways I could have failed to exist, right? My parents could have failed to meet or my maternal or paternal grandparents could have failed to meet or on and on and on. You know, you can get really scared if you start to think about all the contingent events that had to have been the case for you to have come about, you know? That of all those millions of sperm cells that met with that egg cell, had it not been that one it would have been someone like me perhaps but it wouldn’t have been me. [gasps] I came so close to non-being, you know? Never having been at all. My father was a roofer one time in Chicago and one time he was roofing in a building that was 20 some stories up. And he was walking along the edge of the building and a sudden gust of wind literally pushed him over the edge of the building. And as he was falling perhaps to his death, he just and this was before I was born, he was 28 years old before he was married. He just kinda wildly flailed his arm to try to grab on to something and there was a chain that was holding down this big tar pit to keep it from getting blown off. They didn’t chain down the workers but they chain down the equipment that was more valuable to the owners perhaps.
And it’s just kind of all that straight and it wrapped around his hand very quickly and it saved his life, you know? And he just blindly went this way, right? If he had gone this way, ah, no me, you know? He’s a roofer, back in the days before you have, now you have nail guns, right? But back in his day it was all boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. So these big, meaty forearms, right? I calculated, one time I did a back of the envelop calculation for how long you work, how many days of work you did. I asked him questions, try to figure out roughly how many times. Well over a million times with his left hand. Bam, bam, you know? He could hit a nail. You know, if I do it it’s kinda like tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, that get in. He’s just like one little tiny tap just to set very little, Boom! Tap, boom! Just very powerful arm, right? But he’d like to make a fist and where one of his big knuckles should have been it was just like, it got crushed when he grabbed that chain, that whole bone just got, just obliterated, right? Thank goodness, thank goodness he grabbed that chain, right? Otherwise. So I’m a contingent being, right? That is I, what that means is I essentially depend on other things for my reality, both for my origin and for my continuing to exist. I need oxygen, right?
If there’s and I need the non-presence of meteorites crashing into my immediate environment, and all kinds of things have to be true for me to continue to exist. So I’m contingent, right? A necessary being, just think about it would be the kind of thing that just exist by dent of its nature, totally independent of any other reality. It relies on nothing for its existence, right? Remarkable sort of thing if there is such a thing. And it seems like the difference between these two classes of things, the contingent things and the necessary things is in intrinsic difference and it’s absolutely fundamental, okay? The one class will include natures or maybe just one nature as I tend to think that are self-existing. Whereas those in the other class are ontologically, that is in their nature an explanatorily incomplete in themselves, existing if at all in dependency on other things and ultimately on a necessary being. All right, now consider the hypothesis that the totality of the physical universe is a metaphysically contingent being, it didn’t have to exist, while being a timeless causal product of a being that exist of absolute necessity, okay? We’re trying to think what form of explanations could there be to answer our question, why this? Here’s a form of explanation. The totality of contingent reality is a timeless causal product of a being that exist of absolute necessity. This is not much of a possible explanation of the universe.
Most theoretical physicist wouldn’t be terribly impressed by that. That’s your theory, right, you know? Okay. Since it tells us why. Why would they be sort of disappointed maybe in it? Well, it tells us nothing about the manner by which and the circumstances in which the necessary being gave rise to it. It just says there’s a thing, it’s a necessarily existing thing and it caused everything else. We might give the claim, so we could try to make it though a little more specific then. We can say the necessary being blindly and inevitably emanated the universe of necessity, some ancient philosophers sort of thought in that term. So there’s just some kind of impersonal necessary being that just blindly, without purpose emanated the contingent reality. In which case and if that’s right though, the universe turns out to be derivatively necessary, right? Why, because it’s a necessary product of a necessary being, though it’s not necessary intrinsically you might say but it’s inevitable there’s gonna be such a thing ’cause there is a thing that exist that’s necessary in and of itself and it operates necessarily in one way. It just shoots up this product. Alternatively, we could suppose that the necessary being generated the universe through an internal non-deterministic mechanism. It’s a chancy kind of thing. Having been capable of generating any of a vast array of possibilities and maybe generating more than.
So we can have the necessary being, it exist of absolute necessity but in a way that physicists, particle physicists think might be true of the fundamental constituents of our universe. Its behavior is, there’s only probabilities attaching to the operation of these fundamental mechanisms, right? There’s an objective chance that it might do this, might do that with no guarantees, right? It’s the kind of thing that Einstein didn’t like. That’s the plain dice thing that Einstein didn’t like but unfortunately for Einstein, there’s really good evidence to think that might be so. And thirdly, so those are two possibilities. We got a necessary being necessarily generating this contingent reality or we got a necessary being, again impersonal being but it kind of in a chancy kind of way or a non-deterministic kind of way, probabilistic way generated this reality and maybe some others besides. Thirdly, we might say instead that the necessary being is a personal agent whose actions are guided by purposes, in short God, right? Something, that’s a possible way of thinking about necessary being, conceiving there to be a necessary being that has the attributes of personhood, will and intellect and so on. And it was guided by reasons in generating the contingent reality that it did. So it causes the universe in accordance with some goals, a goal or set of goals. This option subdivides though into two possibilities.
The first, the totality of its goals and beliefs rendered it inevitable that it would give rise to universe of just this sort which perfectly reflect those goals. That’s what the great 17th century Christian philosopher Leibniz thought. God of necessity would create the best of all possible worlds, right? And so that’s what he did and there’s a sense in which it’s inevitable, God would never settle for less than the best so there’s a sense in which inevitably God’s gonna create this. Now, Leibniz himself didn’t like saying this, he tried to do fancy footwork around that word inevitable ’cause most theologians thought you shouldn’t say God, God’s a perfectly free being. Nevermind what Leibniz said. Most philosophers looking at Leibniz had said, yeah, Leibniz does view all these necessity despite what Leibniz himself wanted to say about that even though he was a fantastically sharp guy, right? But that’s one way to go but on the second, the reasons that this divine being, necessarily existing divine being, had for creating what he does create are resistible. It might have chosen, God might have chosen a different sort of universe holding fixed even given the actual goals and beliefs that God had. This is the more typical Christian theological view. God might have, perhaps even might have created nothing at all, or he might have created a different something, right? He was free in what he chose to create, right? That’s different from the Leibnizian picture. All right, so, these are different explanatory schemas that go a little bit beyond saying there was a necessary being that caused it, right? So they’re more informative but they’re still far from full explanations.
They tell us very little about the nature of necessary being or how it acts, right? And there are other similarly sketchy possibilities besides. Again, we could try to follow Einstein and his hero, Spinoza, in thinking that appearances to the contrary, the universe itself is a self-contained, holy, necessary being down to the last most contingent seeming fact. All right, there’s a little scratch on this podium, you know? Spinoza’s right, it was absolutely necessary just like two plus two had to be four, this scratch had to be on this podium at this point in time, absolutely necessary, right? My father had to have reached out and it’s just the way that he did, right? That sperm and egg cell they had to have happened and all the necessary things that had to happen for them to come into contact, all of it had to happen. All is necessity, right? That’s one way you could answer the question. Really if you think about it, it’s denying the assumption of the question. You think there’s contingency, in reality you’re wrong. All is necessity. Spinoza would say things appear contingent, you say, surely the scratch didn’t have to be there and surely I could have been a roofer like my father and miserable no doubt, but it could have happened maybe. I kinda had gotten to some trouble and then in the end I had to end up being a roofer like my father just like what happened to my older brother. He had a rough teen years in his early 20s, ended up being a roofer like my father, poor guy. Now, maybe that could have happened to me but now Spinoza would say no.
The appearance that things could have gone differently is a result of our ignorance of the totality of causes, right? We don’t see all the causes right down to the micro physical detail of one thing leading to another and if you did see it, the illusion of contingency would vanish. It would look like iron necessity given this happened there. Everything would look like, you know? Take any event, if you could see all the totality of the causes, right, you would just say, that’s got to happen. It’s like a car accident. If you were just hovering up above in a helicopter and you saw those two cars speeding towards that but you have no ability to influence it, you would say it’s inevitable even though we call it an accident, right? All right, so that’s one way of responding to the question or we might enrich the multiverse hypothesis with the metaphysical, not empirical thesis that the existence of the multiverse is itself necessary, right? You could say that. All right, so all these hypothesis are only schematic. It is possible that we might have reason to embrace a particular one of them even if precious few additional details are forthcoming. We would have such reason if one of them seem to work on reflection and not to generate insoluble puzzles of its own.
And two, we had weighty reasons to think that each of the alternatives we could envision either implode once we examine them and reflect on them and that sometimes happens. Sometimes philosophical ideas seem coherent even if crazy but when you really try to reflect on it and work it out, you say you get into contradiction. It’s actually not a workable idea. This conceivability vanishes once you try to think it through, that could happen for some of the possible explanations. Or there’s reason to think that the alternatives we had considered are, suppose there was reason to think we have an exhaustive handle on what the alternatives are. Even if we don’t have good reason to think we’ve considered all the possibilities, we’re not in the position to see what all the possibilities are for explanatory schemas. We would have some reason to adopt the favored view, the one that looked best although with less confidence. I mean, we do that in science, right? It’s a contingent, again, a contingent fact what kinds of ideas have occurred to thinkers at a given point in time, right? No one’s capable of contemplating all the possible theories that could explain a body of data. But still when we think, when scientists think really hard and they come up with a few possibilities, and one of them looks like it best accounts for the data in the most elegant and descriptively adequate way, we say we’ve got pretty good reason to think it’s true or at least on the right track. Even though we can’t be certain that there’s not some totally unconceived alternative explanation that would have done a better job had we only thought of it. There’s no guarantee but still we’re not skeptical.
The fact that we can’t absolutely guarantee there’s not some totally unenvisioned alternative possibility doesn’t mean we should have zero confidence in what looks to be the best theory. It just means we should be a little bit reserved. Hold out, realize that we’re less than certain about this but we could still have really good reason to believe in it. So we might and so part of what I’m doing in my book, this is not an advertisement for my book. In fact, I discourage you from trying to read the book if you haven’t, don’t have a bit of philosophy under your belt ’cause it’s some technical jargony aspects to it. But part of what I try to do is systematically eliminate some of these alternatives and say theism actually does, has the most, can be worked out in the most coherent way to account for contingency without collapsing all into necessity. So, you might think of this class, this whole class of possible explanations that I’ve gestured at this way. Explanations especially the very general sorts of explanations that are offered in philosophy, in logic, in mathematics and physics, very general explanations, often posit possibility containing kinds of structure of various kinds. That’s sometimes what explanations do, right? That’s part of what they do. For example, physics posits spatial temporal structure, right, of a certain sort that constrains the way matter can behave if space time has a shape, right? You know, since the 19th century we’ve come to realize Euclid’s three-dimensional space is not the only possible way things might be, right? And in fact and then Einstein comes along after this mathematical discovery and says, “I think we have empirical reason “for thinking that in fact “the Euclid theory is not even true.” Not only is it the only way but it’s not actually true. We’ve got a slightly, ever so slightly curved kind of space time, right?
So, if you’re gonna give a physics you got to say something about all these infinitely class of possible space time structures. Which one do you think is true, right? So you’re positing a kind of structure. And you got to talk about the structure of fundamental properties and relations of matter, right? And that induces a certain kind of causal structure on the way things can go, not just anything can happen given that the world is, involves forces of charge and mass and so on, right? That’s a kind of structure that’s built in to our universe. And that structure that’s posited by theory in order to explain things that we observe. The philosopher then who tentatively endorses one of the existing, existence explaining, contingent existence explaining schemas that I mentioned is positing an additional kind of structure to reality. What you might call a necessary antic dependency of contingent physical things on a necessary being. Like pure mathematical structure and unlike spatial temporal structure in physics, it’s conceived to be structure that would obtain for any possible reality, right? It’s a hypothesis saying we need to add a bit more structure to our theoretical view of reality in order to explain the one big fact that necessarily alludes science which is why is there anything like that after science gets done telling us what that is, what its intrinsic nature is, okay? All right. Where am I at time-wise? I took a little bit longer doing all that than I had anticipated. Whoa, we got to move along here. All right, what time did we get started?
Student: Five to 10.
Okay, all right. We’re gonna move it along here. Here’s a big objection that philosophers have had to this whole, it’s not that they object to this or that kind of version of the necessary being, kind of gambit, right, for explaining existence. They objected the whole business and they do so this way. Either if we’re gonna try to answer the ultimate, the question of existence, either we very implausibly embrace modal collapse. That is modality being necessity possibility, a word philosophers use. And suppose that in the final analysis, nothing is contingent and all is necessity, either you do that or you’re gonna have to concede the existence of brute or wholly inexplicable contingency somewhere or other. And so, you’re gonna have to give up on the possibility of complete or ultimate explanation. It’s just, there’s no way to allow for some contingency in reality and still have a complete, all loose ends tied up kind of explanation, all right? And the objectors’ reason, here’s how they reason. They say if there truly is a sufficient reason for every truth, a reason why it is so and not otherwise, then every truth will turn out to be a necessary truth because it’s a direct consequence of the fully explicable, and hence, necessary activity or choice of a necessary being. If not, if there is at some point a merely contingent link, it didn’t have to be that way. So if there’s a merely contingent link between this necessary being that we posit and then the contingent reality that we’re a part of, so that this contingent world might not have existed even given the existence in nature of the necessary being, then we’ve after all conceded that some contingent truths are brute facts. Lacking complete explanation. And if we’re gonna have some brute facts why not just let the existence of what we can directly see be that brute fact.
So no good positing if you’re positing necessary being solely to account for contingency to explain, not want to have unexplained contingent facts but you end up having a contingent fact about the connection between necessary being and contingent reality. Well, what good have you done, right? You haven’t really made much progress so well, just stick with what you got and just give up on seeking that explanation. This sort of objection is apt, it’s appropriate I believe when directed at philosophers like Leibniz who maintain the so-called principle of sufficient reasons. It’s construed in a strong way. However, it shares with defenders of that principle the false assumption that any complete explanation of some circumstance is necessarily and fully contrastive, so throwing a little lingo here at you, in the following sense. It explains, explicitly or implicitly, why that state of affairs obtains rather than any seemingly possible contrasting case whose occurrence is consistent with all the available mechanisms, right? All right. Let me depart from the facts here and just I can realize this is getting thick and heavy for some of you. So, the idea is people say, so if I ask, why is there that perhaps iPad, the notebooky thing there on that chair? And maybe the explanation is he put it there, okay? And I say, well, why did he put it there rather than there?
And suppose I can’t give you an answer to that question. He could have done that, could have done that, he did that, that’s where he put it. No explanation why is it there rather than there, right? And these philosophers will say, well, and so, you haven’t really explained why it’s there, right? ‘Cause if you really explain why it’s there we’d know why it’s there and not there, right? And I wanna say that’s a mistake, it’s a subtle mistake, right? And the mistake is thinking that to explain why something is so you have to explain why it’s so rather than being some different way that it might have been. You can explain why it’s so even if there is no good explanation why it’s so rather than its having been the way it is. So, fundamental physics posits, at least on the normal interpretation of physics of quantum mechanics which is controversial but all right. The standard way of thinking about it is you’ve got these fundamental systems that obey only probabilistic laws, not deterministic laws. And what that means is given the total state in which they’re in and the features surrounding them, rather than there being just one outcome that has to come about given the way the situation is structured, there’s more than one possibility, you know? There might be three possibilities and they might have different objective probabilities of occurring. But on any given occasion, any one of those three can happen.
So I can tell you why if it’s options A, B and C, why A rather than D. D is ruled out by the theory, right? But I can’t tell you why A rather than C. But can I tell you why A and the answer I wanna give is sure, I can tell you why A. There is a mechanism in place that had the capacity to bring about A and in fact it did bring about A even though it didn’t do so inevitably. It could have brought about something else. There’s still an explanation, right? That’s the kind, that’s the way indeterministic systems work, right? They bring about outcomes even though they’re capable of having brought about different outcomes from the ones that they did. So you can still have an explanation of the event that actually occurred. Similarly, suppose we go with the necessary being interpreted as a personal transcended cause, a.k.a. God, a way of thinking about a necessary being. And we say, God has reasons that are not perhaps fully transparent to us for choosing to bring about a universe like the one that we are part of. But suppose, God also had some motivations for bringing about a different kind of universe that didn’t involve any of us. Sorry, God’s very fond of you, he loves you, right, but he’s not inevitably wedded to you, right? He took seriously the possibility of never having been you, okay?
There are these alternatives, other good ways that the world might have been, okay? But in fact, happily for all of us, God went with option A, he opened door A when he could have opened door B or C. And you say, so why is there this, this contingent reality? Answer. God unnecessarily existing reality guided by certain reasons, here we’re getting schematic ’cause I can’t tell you what those reasons are, all right. But by hypothesis there’s details here that we’re missing but he has reasons and he has power, the capacity to generate stuff ex nihilo, out of nothing, and that is in fact what he did. But then you say, could he have done something else and let’s suppose the answer is yes. He could have done innumerably other sorts of things. And you say, well, why did he do this rather than any of those alternatives? Answer. There’s no explanation to be had there. Now, before that starts making you nervous, it really shouldn’t, right? Now, Leibniz thinks, whoa, you can’t say that, right? It just can’t be that there’s no explanation of that but that sounds worse than it actually is. ‘Cause what actually exist has an explanation. God brought it about. He exercised the power that he had and it’s a rational, it’s a purposive kind of causality. He had a certain kind of motivation, there were certain intrinsic good-making features that he had in view in designing the universe that he did and that’s what he did, okay? So there’s an explanation for what actually came about.
Now, there is this fact about what exist that namely that something else could have existed, right? But God didn’t have decisive reasons for preferring this to that by hypothe, I’m just entertaining this way of thinking about the matter which has been very common in the Christian tradition that God could have done a variety of things other than what he in fact did. And we’re just supposing for discussion sake that that’s the right way to think about it. Then there will be no explanation for why this rather than those other alternatives, right? ‘Cause the only way you could give an explanation is to say that well, inevitably, if you knew everything about the mind of God, right, and the power of God, you could see he was going to go for this. That’s what Leibniz thought, right? He would go for the best, the best possible universe. So, appearances to the contrary Voltaire famously ridiculed, this is the best of all possible worlds, you know? You might think you have rough days, better days than some others, some bad days.
Leibniz says this is the best of all possible worlds. Of course what Leibniz means by best there is a little bit different from your way of think, probably thinking about it but nevermind that. You know, Leibniz thinks from God’s point of view this is the totality of creation, perhaps a big chunk of which is totally unobservable to us, the totality makes for the best of all possible worlds. But you might think there is no best of all possible worlds. That is for any creative reality, God could always make it a reality a lot like it, even better by adding more stuff and in order to make sure things don’t get crowded you just got to expand the number of dimensions of space or something like that. It seems like there’s no intrinsic upper limit to how good of a created reality, right? In that case, God’s gotta choose. He’s got to make perhaps a arbitrary in the sense of a free decision and a choice among them, okay? Now, okay so let me end on this. So then you say, well, wait a minute, so haven’t you just said that there is this kind of brute fact in the end after all, you know? Yeah, you can give me an explanation why this but I’ve got a further question. I say, yeah but why this rather than these other possibilities that God knows about, we don’t, right, that he contemplated. And you say you don’t have an explanation. There’s your brute fact.
So, where did all these get us? But notice something about this. We have an explanation for why there can be no explanation. It’s not a, a really brute fact would be a fact that just happens to be the way it is, there’s no causal explanation for its being the way it is and there’s no particular reason why there’s no explanation, there just isn’t, right? Might have been an explanation of it but there just isn’t, period, and that’s all you can say. That would be a brute, just brute, got to take it fact, you know? No explanation. But in the case of that we’re considering, the fact that we can’t explain, there’s no good explanation why God created this rather than these alternatives. That’s not a brute fact, right? There’s an explanation for that fact. The explanation is this, the causal source of this, right, is a being that forms choices freely, right? And has motivations that encompass a range of alternatives just like you and I, right?
On any given sunny day you think about doing your studying and like you should do and then you think about driving down to the beach and you got different motivations for doing different kinds of things and you make choices, right? So if the necessary being, that’s the source of all reality is like that we know why there can be no explanation why this rather than these others because the source from which this reality came is by its nature open to a range of possibilities. And causal sources like that preclude deterministic explanations that say why this rather than any other possibility? It’s just like that in fundamental physics, right? Go back here. If you’ve got this statistically governed systems that say you can have option A, you can have option B, you can have option C. They’re all possibilities, right? But on any given occasion it’s not like things just pop in to reality without causes. Now there are causes at work but then you say yeah, why this outcome rather than that?
And you say but here’s the nature of the system that produced this, what actually occurred. Its nature is such, right, that it’s capable of producing any of the range of them, right? It’s a non-deterministic kind of causality and that precludes then this kind of contrastive explanation, right? So we know why. Yeah, I can’t tell you why this rather than that but I know why you can’t tell this rather than that. So it’s not really a brute explanation. Okay. You’ve been very patient but I’ve skipped many pages, you saw that, right? I just want one final page and it’s double spaced. Okay. [students laughing] Finally, which existence question. We are now finally in a position to see that certain ways of formulating the question regarding contingent existence that is to be answered make questionable assumptions about the form and explanation schema for existence must take. You might think it’s kinda perverse that I end the talk by saying what question should we be asking, right? But I think everything I said up to now helps us to better see how we should formulate the question in a way that doesn’t beg questions about the possible alternatives that an explanation could take.
It is commonly put this way. People often put the question of existence this way. Why is there anything at all? But this very present, that very general formulation admits importantly distinct ways of making it more precise. You could ask, so here are some more precise ways of asking this question. Why are there contingent things, things that might not have been? Why are there contingent things? Not why are there these things but just why are there contingent things in general? That’s a question but it’s a different question from this question. Why are there contingent things rather than there being nothing contingent at all. Here’s a third question, again, it’s a distinct question. Why do these contingent things exist? And then finally a fourth question, why do these contingent things exist rather than those apparently possible other things. I suggest then that the best formulation of the question is the one given at the bottom of your handout, what I’ve called the basic question of contingent existence. Are there contingently existing things? We don’t wanna just beg the question against Spinoza who denies that there is, right? So we say are there contingently existing objects and if there are, why do those particular contingent objects there are exist and undergo the events that they do? Why do they exist and operate the way that they do? The reason I say that we should prefer this formulation is that it presumes the least about what is there to be explained and what form a true explanation may turn out to have.
Spinoza and perhaps Einstein want to question the very common assumption that there are any contingent truths at all. The second half, so that’s why the first cause. The second half of the basic question sets a minimum bar for precluding brutely or wholly inexplicable contingent existences or occurrences in reality. Some explanations that are consistent with what I called on the handout, I didn’t talk about principle of contingent explanation one and principle of contingent explanation two, are not consistent with the principle, so-called principle of sufficient reason that Leibniz famously enunciated, but they’re no worse than that that are no worse for that. Contingency rooted in indeterministic causes need not be brute.