Why is There Anything?

Why is there something rather than nothing?  A common answer is that something is necessary.  In a recent paper, Joshua Rasmussen & Christopher Weaver argue for a thesis they call necessary foundation: “there is a necessarily existing concrete thing or things capable of causing or grounding everything else.”  In addition, they propose some arguments from necessary foundation to theism. They follow in the spirit of recent causal-based arguments for a necessary being.

The argument is as follows (quoting):

  • (P1) It is possible that there is a purely contingent totality event that has a cause.
  • (P2) It is impossible that a cause of a purely contingent totality event is purely contingent.
  • (P3) If, (a) it is possible that there is a purely contingent totality event that has a cause and (b) it is impossible that a cause of a purely contingent totality event is purely contingent, then (c) it is possible that there is a cause that isn’t purely contingent.
  • ∴ Therefore, (c) it is possible that there is a cause that isn’t purely contingent.
  • (P4) If (c) it is possible that there is a cause that isn’t purely contingent, then (d) there is a necessary thing that can be a cause.
  • ∴ Therefore, (d) there is a necessary thing that can be a cause.

The crucial and controversial premise is P1; the other premises seem sound.  The ‘can’ in the conclusion I take to be synonymous with possible. The argument concludes that there is a possible world where the necessary thing is a cause, from which it follows that a necessary thing exists.  This doesn’t entail that the necessary thing is a cause in every possible world.

They offer three lines of reasoning in support of the causal principle in P1: from inductive generalization, from causal relevance, and from conceivability.

Concerning the inductive generalization argument, they argue that the causal principle in P1 “fits with a wide range of data, including (i) our experience with contingent things (states, events, etc.) having a cause, and (ii) our lack of experience with uncaused contingent things.”  William Lane Craig’s arguments supporting the first premise of the Kalam Cosmological Argument are similar in spirit, and can act as additional support.

Concerning the causal relevance argument, they ask:

Does a totality of purely contingent events differ from other purely contingent events in a way that is causally relevant? We’ll give one reason to think not. To begin, consider the following states of affairs:

  • s1: there being exactly 1 purely contingent event
  • s2: there being exactly 2 purely contingent events
  • s3: there being exactly 3 purely contingent events

Notice that these states differ by a mere quantity of events. You might think mere quantitative differences aren’t normally relevant to causal possibility. That is, if there could be a cause of s3, then there could be a cause of s2, and if there could be a cause of s2, then there could be a cause of the smaller state, s1. This inference is supported by what Rasmussen (2014) calls “modal continuity.” … We don’t expect it to be controversial that there could be a cause of s3 … . For example, there could be two purely contingent events that give rise to a third. In this situation the two events jointly cause s3 to obtain. So, by causal uniformity, we have some reason to expect that it is possible that there is a cause of s1.

Their idea is that it is uncontroversial to say that s3 could be caused; and since the only difference between s3, s2, and s1 is mere quantity, it seems (from modal continuity) that s1 could be caused.  But what kind of thing could cause s1? The only thing that could cause s1 would have to be a necessary thing, since if a contingent event caused there to be exactly 1 contingent event, it would have to cause itself—an impossibility.

In reply, what reason is there to think there could be a cause to s2 and s3 but not s1 if the difference is mere quantity?  The immediate answer for those coming into the argument skeptical of necessary concrete things is that there is a prior belief that all of concrete reality is exhausted by contingent things.  The causally relevant feature for why s1 can’t be caused is that you can’t have a cause to the totality of concrete things without something causing itself, which is impossible.  This response will push the debate to why we have those prior beliefs, but, for the moment, the causal relevance argument is defused.  The same reasoning defuses the inductive generalization argument.

Thirdly, there is the conceivability argument.  Here we make use of a principle famous from Chalmers’ zombie argument in philosophy of mind.  The principle states that if you can conceive of a certain statement then that is a guide to its metaphysical possibility.

Since Chalmers’ methodology plays perhaps the central role in modal reasoning, a primer will be helpful.  Chalmers distinguishes between negative and positive conceivability for some statement S.

The central sort of negative conceivability holds that S is negatively conceivable when S is not ruled out a priori, or when there is no (apparent) contradiction in S.

Positive notions of conceivability require that one can form some sort of positive conception of a situation in which S is the case. One can place the varieties of positive conceivability under the broad rubric of imagination: to positively conceive of a situation is to in some sense imagine a specific configuration of objects and properties. It is common to imagine situations in considerable detail, and this imagination is often accompanied by interpretation and reasoning. … Different notions of conceivability correspond to different notions of imagination. One such notion is tied to perceptual imagination. … For example, one can perceptually imagine that a pig flies by forming a visual image of a flying pig, where this can be understood as an image that relevantly resembles a visual experience as of a flying pig. … There is a sense in which we can imagine situations that do not seem to be potential contents of perceptual experiences. One can imagine situations beyond the scale of perception: e.g. molecules of H2O, or Germany winning the Second World War. One can imagine situations that are unperceivable in principle: e.g. the existence of an invisible being that leaves no trace on perception.

Since positive conceivability—i.e. the ability to imagine—is a richer type of conceivability it is considered to be preferable over negative conceivability.  Chalmers notes two types of positive conceivability: one is perceptual, and the other, I’ll call, conceptual.

Following Chalmers’ test, Rasmussen and Weaver say:

With Chalmers conceivability tests in hand, let us now return to our causal principle, [P1], which says that possibly, there is a cause of a purely contingent totality event. Does conceivability justify [P1]? According to Chalmers, it does to the extent that we can imagine a situation in which a totality event has a cause. So consider the following scenario. There is a supremely powerful entity E (whose nature we leave unspecified), which is capable of causing any and every purely contingent event, including a totality event. We may imagine, for example, that whatever event can occur could be caused by E. Or if that is too much to imagine, then imagine merely that E causes whatever purely contingent events happen to occur. Or if even that is too much, then imagine a particularly big contingent event, which is known to be causable, like a galaxy forming, and then imagine that E causes that event. Now add to your imagination empty space around the caused event so that there are no other purely contingent events. The imagined galaxy is now a totality of purely contingent events, and no incoherence is revealed by supposing that it still has a cause. These imaginations are … coherent, and thus, by Chalmers’ lights, they provide … evidence for the metaphysical possibility of the imagined situation. We have thus identified a third line of potential support for our causal principle.

They offer three scenarios for us to imagine.  If we can imagine any of those situations, then we have support for its metaphysical possibility, from which a necessary being follows.  The first scenario seems to be a conceptual imagining, and the second and third scenarios seem to be a perceptual imagining.  I will consider the 2nd and 3rd perceptual case for two reasons: (1) if we are considering the argument and have the option to use perceptual imagining, it seems like a plus and not a minus since adding more detail doesn’t seem bad, and (2) the use of perceptual imagination is where I think the argument runs into counterintuitive results.

Consider the third scenario: “imagine a particularly big contingent event, which is known to be causable, like a galaxy forming, and then imagine that E causes that event.”  It seems easy to perceptually imagine that the cause is a gas cloud.  Then I can imagine the cause of that stretching back to a singularity.  If you followed the original argument, it should be clear that, since the galaxy formation is the totality of purely contingent events, the singularity has to be a necessary concrete being—an unintuitive result.  We can construct similar scenarios to open up a Pandora’s box of necessary concrete beings.

One possible move is to say that the singularity should have been included in the totality of purely contingent events in the first place.  I think to do that would be to give up on this causal part (where we imagine the possibility of cause) of the argument and go back to whatever method we were using in the first place.  Essentially, the causal part of the argument is vetoed by whatever our primary method (e.g. Chalmers’ test) is for figuring out whether concrete things are necessary or contingent. At best, the causal part can offer suggestions, but it’s not the final arbiter.

The next phase of their argument provides a path to theism.  They propose that the necessary being must have omnipotence, which is plausibly a great-making property.  Their reasoning follows the spirit behind modal continuity.  (I will only offer a short paraphrase.)  The idea is that it seems arbitrary for there to be some cutoff to what this necessary being can cause.  For example, why think the necessary being can cause a galaxy forming but not a tree forming?  Presumably, if you think the galaxy forming can possibly be the totality of purely contingent events and possibly have a cause, you also think the tree forming can possibly be the totality of purely contingent events and possibly have a cause.  So, to avoid arbitrariness, it seems that the totality of necessary concrete beings must be able to cause all possible totalities of purely contingent events, and, therefore, be omnipotent; otherwise, there seems to be an arbitrary break in modal continuity.  It is here that the causal part of the argument does play some role.

They further argue that N, the totality of necessary concrete beings, must not have a geometry.

In other words, we have reason to think that if N has a geometry, it could have had a different one.

This result is especially significant if N’s contingent states can be caused. For then N can be an ultimate cause of geometric reality. Moreover, to avoid causal circularity, N can lack a geometry altogether—prior to its causing there to be a geometric reality. There is more. Suppose one thinks that whatever has a geometry must have a geometry. Then one may infer that N is essentially geometric-less and thus immaterial.

I don’t find this plausible, since by parallel reasoning we could imagine N not being geometric-less.  Additionally, one might think that geometric reality exhausts all of concrete reality, which entails that there can’t be a cause to geometric reality.

They “leave open whether the N picks out a single thing, sum of things, or a plural of things.” It is likely they have further arguments (outside of this paper) that the totality of the necessary causal foundation can’t be a plurality of things, but, for the moment, their argument seems to support a Pandora’s box of necessary concrete beings (which would satisfy the omnipotence requirement.)

Chalmers, David. “Does conceivability entail possibility?” Conceivability and possibility (2002): 145-200.
Rasmussen, Joshua & Weaver, Christopher. “Why is There Anything?” Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for God: The Plantinga Project (forthcoming).

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