ooooohh — a Shiny Gauntlet

Larry Moran, over at Sandwalk, has received a counter-challenge from a creationist named Egnor, who says he wants to know what Gnu Atheists believe.

Can I play?

1) Why is there anything?

If it is possible that there could have been nothing, then it’s a contingent fact that something exists. Then if we’re looking for an explanation of why the actual world isn’t empty, it seems that all we have to do is point to something that exists: “That squid exists, so something exists.”

If we think that citing such a fact doesn’t “really” explain why there’s something rather than nothing, then it seems that there could be no explanation: Any fact one might cite about the difference between the actual universe and the empty-universe would already appeal to the fact that something exists.

So there are three possible responses to this question: (i) The fact that the squid exists explains why something exists.(ii) It’s contingent that anything exists, but there can be no (non-circular) explanation for why the actual universe is non-empty. (iii) It’s necessary that something exists.

I’m inclined to think that (i) is a legitimate, but unsatisfying explanation. I’m willing to defend (ii), and I could be convinced of (iii).

2) What caused the Universe?

Our notion of causation relies on time, and there is no time outside the universe. There was no time at which the universe didn’t exist. Thus it is nonsensical to suppose that something caused the universe.

3) Why is there regularity (Law) in nature?

Here we’re in a similar situation to Question 1: We’re pushing beyond the realm in which “why” questions can be interpreted without difficulty.

I think we again have the three options listed above, where again I’m inclined to push for option (ii), but I don’t reject (i) or (iii):

  • (i) Because there are natural laws.
  • (ii) It makes no sense to ask for an explanation of this fact, because the lawful nature of the universe is prior to any other facts we might cite.
  • (iii) The laws of nature/physics are necessary; they couldn’t have been otherwise.

4) Of the Four Causes in nature proposed by Aristotle (material, formal, efficient, and final), which of them are real? Do final causes exist?

Aristotle’s view of causation differed from our own, in that he saw causation as an answer to a “why” question (i.e., as a rather general form of explanation). We, on the other hand, view causation as a more particular fact about the laws or dynamics of the world.

Given Aristotle’s understanding, all four are “real” explanations — though none quite holds as much explanatory power as Aristotle attributed to them.

Given our contemporary notion of cause, none is a “real” cause, but efficient causation comes closest.

Final causes “exist” in the sense that there are legitimate structural explanations that could be put in this category, but there is no final cause in the sense of dynamical causation.

5) Why do we have subjective experience, and not merely objective existence?

Experience, by its very nature, is subjective. It is an organism’s (or more generally, a system’s) gathering information about its environment. That information is gathered in a particular way from a particular point of view. It is subjective.

The far more difficult task is the move to an objective (or at least, more objective) form of information. This move presumably arose from communication, communal action, and especially the establishment of language.

6) Why is the human mind intentional, in the technical philosophical sense of aboutness, which is the referral to something besides itself? How can mental states be about something?

Information by its very nature is about something else, and this aboutness is grounded in a correlation between the brain state and the state of the system referred to. A more complete answer would require a more complete account of the brain; we have some of that account, but clearly not nearly enough to provide full details of how it actually works.

7) Does Moral Law exist in itself, or is it an artifact of nature (natural selection, etc.)

There are objective moral facts, but this doesn’t imply a “Moral Law” in any robust sense, and certainly not in a sense that would require morality to be supernatural.

These objective moral facts are facts about nature, but I wouldn’t call them an “artifact.” They are emergent structural features of our world. They do not depend on natural selection, or on social conventions, or on personal preferences.

8) Why is there evil?

Because the odds of everything being good are extremely small, perhaps even zero.

(More on answering “why” questions below the fold.)

Questions 1, 3, 5, and 6 are “why” questions. The last two aren’t too troublesome, but 1 and 3 are problematic and force us to consider what exactly they are asking, and what would count as an adequate answer.

A “why” question is a request for information that helps one understand some fact. Understanding involves grasping the relationship between facts — preferably in a way that allows a more economical way of categorizing the facts involved. A “why” question typically involves some implicit counterfactual situation(s); a successful explanation will cite the facts/relations that would lead one to expect the actual situation to obtain, rather than the counterfactual one(s).

Question 1, then, is apparently asking us to cite facts that would lead us to expect that there would be something rather than nothing. But when you look at it this way, it seems that this demand is is either trivial or nonsensical.

If it is necessary that something exists then explaining that necessity would presumably answer the question. I can envision some potential arguments along these lines, but I’m not convinced that any of them would fly.

If there is a possible world that is empty, then what would an “explanation” of the fact that the actual world is non-empty look like? As I stated above, any fact about an actual existing thing will lead one to expect that something exists. So in that sense, everything explains why the world is non-empty.

But if one insists that this is not a real explanation, then it’s hard to see what could count as an explanation in the requested sense. To say that some truth is contingent is just to say that the fact obtains, but there are other possible worlds in which it doesn’t. That’s the end of the story. To demand more is to reject contingent truths altogether. Some have gone down this Leibnizian road, but it seems pretty unattractive.

It occurs to me that in addition to the three possible replies I list in response to Questions 1 and 3, there is also an anthropomorphic explanation (if one finds such considerations explanatory):

  • (iv) Because if there were nothing (or no laws) then there would be no conscious beings to consider these questions.

A final point: The response to Question 2 is probably relevant to Question 1 and 3 also. These questions are trying to get us to take reasoning that makes sense inside a world, and apply it to the world as a whole. This is almost certainly a mistake. The fact that every person has a mother does not imply that humanity as a whole has a mother. Likewise, even if we found that everything in the universe has a cause, there’s no reason to suppose that the universe itself has a cause.

We should likewise suspect that the sort of “why” questions that make sense for things inside the universe might not make sense for the universe as a whole.


One response to “ooooohh — a Shiny Gauntlet

  1. Pingback: Feynman and Why-Questions « Physicalism

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