Monday 7/15

Why is there Something, and not Nothing?






Today we recapped our discussion of truth-tropic language by outlining the different kinds of logics and contrasting them with the very basic logic, the Propositional Calculus, we studied last time. We then took up an all-too-brief exploration of truth-phobic language, also frequently known as the informal fallacies. In all honesty, we barely scrapped the surface describing the varieties of fallacious reasoning. A good first course on logic will spend a great deal on the kinds of rhetorical sleights of hand to which we are none of us immune and find appealing. As with statistics, so with logic: I encourage everyone to take an introductory course, if only to delve further into the topics than we have had time to do here.

Our discussion of fallacious reasoning, framed in terms of the argumentative context of the traditional courtroom, took up the following:

  • Appeal to Pity
  • Appeal to the Masses
  • Appeal to (Inappropriate) Authority
  • Appeal to Force
  • Hasty Generalization
  • Circumstantial ad Hominem
  • Abusive ad Hominem
  • Argument from Ignorance
  • Red Herring
  • Petitio Principii (Begging the Question/Circular Reasoning)
  • Non Sequitor

Next today we took up the first of many such intellectual challenges with which we will engage this semester, eagerly applying all the logical and analytical resources we've learned to seek their resolution. Our problem today is neatly summarized by the question, why is there something, and not nothing?

This may seem a peculiar question to ask, but it helps if we understand what leads us to asking it.

As we look around the world, we find people, rivers, trees, volcanoes, and all sorts of other things simple and complex. A person is explained by her parents, a river by its tributaries, a tree by its seed, a volcano by upwelling magma, and so on. That is, every thing we find in the world depends for its existence on something else, and we explain its existence by citing the 'something else' upon which its existence depends. So far so good. Let's use the special symbol '⊃' to mean 'explains'. Thus we represent the proposition that A explains B by writing 'A ⊃ B'. Equivalently, we might also say that 'A ⊃ B' means that B is explained by A. To say that everything we encounter in the world is a dependent being, then, is to say that there is another being or beings which explain it, which in turn are explained by another being or other beings, and so on in a long, long chain:

A ⊃ B ⊃ C ⊃ D ⊃ E ⊃ F ⊃ G ⊃ H ⊃ I ⊃ J ⊃ K


K is explained by J, which is explained by I, which is explained by H, which is explained by G, etc.

Now, since each thing in the chain of being is explained by its predecessor in the chain, what explains A? For the pre-socratic philosopher Anaximander, there has to have been some starting point in the chain, a being which is not itself explained by another, prior being. In his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas cast a version of the argument in terms of the Aristotelian idea of efficient causes, or the idea that in addition to a thing's material cause (that out of which it is made--the bronze of the statue, say), a thing's formal cause (that which it resembles--the individual represented by the statue, say), and a thing's final cause (the purpose or function it serves--the reason for commemorating the individual represented by the statue, for instance) we have the agency and processes by which a thing is brought about (the sculptor, say, along with the processes she uses in creating the sculpture.) Quoting,

In the world of sensible things we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate cause be several, or one only. Now to take away the cause is to take away the effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate, cause. But if in efficient causes it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause, nor any intermediate efficient causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name of God.

We might summarize the argument in this way:

The Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God
  1 Either every being is explained by some other being, or at least one being is explained by itself.  
  2 It cannot be the case that every being is explained by some other being.  
3 At least one being is explained by itself. 1&2

Put this way, however, the argument appears to be fallacious, committing the fallacy of false dilemma. Why should the only alternatives, we want to know, be:

Every being is explained by some other being


At least one being is explained by itself.

St. Anselm, whom we meet again later, exhausts the alternatives thusly:

  1. A being is explained by another being or beings (also called a contingent or dependent being, or
  2. A being is explained by itself (also called a necessary or independent being), or
  3. A being is explained by nothing at all.

We need to rule out option (3), the idea that something could exist for no reason whatsoever. To do that, we appeal to the Principle of Sufficient Reason:

Principle of Sufficient Reason:

For each fact, including especially facts of existence, there is a reason that suffices to explain it.

We assume the Principle of Sufficient Reason when, for example, we are engaged in scientific investigation. Witnessing some peculiar event, our initial attempts to explain it may be foiled, but we are confident we will eventually have an explanation in hand.

What makes us think the Principle true? We can't point to the many times we have successfully sought explanations, because that would just be an inductive argument of dubious strength. We can't point to any more fundamental principles so as to deduce it validly, since there are no such more fundamental principles. The Principle of Sufficient Reason is about as basic a starting point as one may hope to identify. It insists that the Universe be intelligible to us. One good question is whether our intelligence is up to the task, or whether there are certain features of the Universe that will forever escape our best efforts at explanation. (We'll look at a possible example later in the semester.)

In any case, appealing to the Principle of Sufficient Reason leads us to reject (3). If a being exists at all, its existence bears some explanation, whether that is explanation by reason of some prior being or by reason of self-explanation. We thereby avoid the fallacy of false dilemma, but we discover that the Cosmological Argument only gets traction, initially at least, by appeal to the all-important Principle of Sufficient Reason.

I say 'all-important', because we are not yet finished with the Principle. Just as it is essential to justify premise (1) of the argument, it is also essential to justify premise (2). For consider, the ancient Greeks did have a concept of positive integers stretching off to infinity (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ...), but not of negative integers stretching back infinitely far (-1, -2, -3, -4, -5, ...).

If we allow an infinite line of explanatory predecessors to complement an infinite line of explanatory successors, or if we allow some other structure (perhaps a circular one!), then we seem in position to reject premise (2). That is, we can have a chain of dependent beings and only dependent beings each of whose explanation is found in some (other) dependent being in the chain.

Yet we must ask, what explains the chain of dependent beings itself? Note that we are not claiming the chain of dependent beings must itself be dependent, because that would be to commit a fallacy of composition--i.e., to think that what must be true of the parts must also be true of the whole; thus, individual people in a group may make rational choices, but it would be a mistake to think the group as a whole makes rational choices, as long experience with politics demonstrates.

No, our question is a different one. Given the Principle of Sufficient Reason, the brute fact of this chain of dependent beings must itself be explained. So premise (2) of the Cosmological Argument as much requires the Principle of Sufficient Reason as did premise (1). For if we are to explain the chain of dependent beings itself (why, that is, there is something), it seems we need to have a being whose existence is self-explanatory, one which requires no further fact beyond it itself for explanation.

Need it be God, however?

Sure, we can imagine a being outside the chain of dependent beings explaining its--the chain of dependent beings--existence. Yet if we must have a being which is explained by itself, why can that being not be the very chain of individually dependent beings itself? The Cosmological Argument, even if sound, does not say one way or the other. So we cannot conclude God exists on its basis, or that supposing God exists is essential to explaining why there is something and not nothing.