Thursday, July 29, 2010

Mitch McConnell’s Heroic Fight Against Information

Mitch McConnell gave a compelling argument against a bill introduced in the US Senate to require campaign commercials to disclose their donors so that voters would know who supported them.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, accused Democrats of trying to rig the election. His suspicions were only heightened [by] the fact that [Senator Charles] Schumer, who authored the bill, used to chair the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee:

MCCONNELL: You talk about transparency. This is a transparent effort to rig the fall election.

There have been no hearings, no committee action; written by Senator Schumer, the former chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, riddled with special advantages for Democratic-leaning groups and punishment for Republican-leaning groups.

Senator McConnell continued: Even worse than helping elect others, Schumer may seek re-election himself. The fact that a Senator who might run for re-election could introduce this bill shows that it must have as its only goal that Senator's re-election. In fact, everything every single Senator says or does can only be understood as a political calculation whose purpose is to get him or her elected. I urge everyone then to consider everything any elected official or would-be elected official says to be false. We, as elected officials, are the only beneficiaries of all our actions. Do not trust anything any elected official says; everything we tell you is a lie.

The “Special advantages” to which McConnell refers are apparently for the notoriously Democratic-leaning National Rifle Association. As the article notes:

Not all organizations received the same treatment, however. For instance, the National Rifle Association would be exempt from the legislation.

When, oh when, will the NRA cease its relentless, partisan attacks on Republicans? Perhaps only when Republicans can pry its checkbook from its cold, dead hands.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

LeBron James and the Myth of American Manliness

Sports opinion people (such as Charles Barkley on yesterday's Pardon the Interruption) have of late begun to impugn LeBron James' manliness.

First, sports opinion people criticized him for selfishness. Normally in sports selfishness is determined by how much money one insists on making, especially if one's performance is below average for that amount of money, or by how much the player keeps or insists on receiving the ball/rock/shrunken head, especially if one's performance does not merit that amount of time. Generally speaking, selfishness is not measured by the lengths one goes to in order to win a championship. It's taken as a given that the ultimate goal of all players is to win a championship and that having this goal is not selfishness but sportsmanship. On those criteria, James' move to Miami was not particularly selfish since he took less money overall to play with people who are rather notoriously ballhogs and so would, presumably, be giving up some of his scoring time to assist the others. Thus, according to our ordinary sportswriter criteria, James was not selfish.

Second, sports people they criticized him for disloyalty for leaving Cleveland. This criticism makes sense, but it has become so commonplace in contemporary sports for stars to leave with free agency or demand trades when they are not free agents or for teams to demand special favors lest they leave that it makes little sense to single out James for disloyalty especially when the vicious and hypocritical attacks from the spurned Cleveland Cavaliers owner showed even greater disloyalty. Players often move from team to team, but almost never does an owner attack a player in print. So, while perhaps we should admire loyalty, and James did not exhibit as much (aside from playing seven seasons in Cleveland of all places) as some would like, it's clear that he exhibited more by playing those seven years than many other players ever show. And why should a player be loyal to a team that would cut him at the first sign that he was no longer worth the money? Loyalty is just too hard to come by in professional sports to justify lambasting a player for lacking it.

Third, the sports experts criticized him for narcissism for announcing his decision in a prime-time press conference. Perhaps this is narcissistic although it certainly is odd for professional TV talking heads to criticize a sports figure of narcissism. This seems especially odd in an age when players seem to prefer appearing on sports highlights than in winning games. The most appalling part of the press conference was not that James called it, but that the ESPN interviewer insisted on prolonging it beyond all reason. So, perhaps this was narcissism, or perhaps it was just bad advice about how to deliver his decision to the public. Surely enough people wanted to know about his decision that having a press conference may have seemed like a better idea than simply a press release. But professional sports often seems a home for professional narcissists, so, again, I'm not sure how James stands out.

Finally, there seemed not to be further grounds for special moral condemnation of James except perhaps one, that James was insufficiently manly, that he should be "The Man" and not part of a group of equal partners in the enterprise of winning a championship. On this view, James should have stayed where he had been drafted (and if being selected because of a random drawing is not sufficient grounds for loyalty, I don't know what is!) and should struggle until he won a championship.

Unfortunately these thinkers also believe that: (1) Cleveland was not capable of adding players who would make it possible for them to win, and (2) James' worth as a player must be judged on the basis of his team winning championships. Given these two facts, the only response James can have if he wants to be judged to be a great player is to move to a different team, one which could attract additional players capable of aiding him in winning a championship. The alternative is to remain snared in the Manliness Trap, to continue to work at a Sisyphean task and hope that somehow his virtue will result in success. The problem with what James did was that he opted out of this trap; he refused to continue to attempt to achieve an end which he did not have the means to attain.

Critics say that he should simply work harder. You don't have the tools to win the championship? Do more with less; work harder; be more effective; get more out of the players--the tools--you have; be a man!

So, why does this matter? Because James is being criticized because he refused to play his part in the quintessential American drama in the early 21st century. The American worker is asked to do what James is asked to do: achieve success in a context in which such success is largely impossible. The American worker cannot work for the same wage that the Pakistani can, yet the punditocracy says that we just have to work harder, smarter and more efficiently. To keep American corporations from moving overseas for cheaper labor, American workers somehow have to work cheaper than the cheapest overseas labor. When Americans lose their jobs and cannot find work, with five workers for every job, we just have to be more determined in looking for work, not to be so lazy and dependent on government largesse (which is insurance most of us already paid into ourselves), or go back to school and make ourselves smarter. The fault is always in ourselves; our failure to get work, or to do more work for less, is a failure of our manliness.

The mainstream view is that Americans should still be the kings of the world economy, and individual Americans should all be self-made men (or persons) whose wealth depends only on our own moral worth--our hard work, determination, and smarts. But Americans are largely not in control of their economic destiny; they are less in control of it than at any time since the 1950s; and they are even less in control of it than are the dreaded socialist Europeans. We, both men and women, are caught in a "Manliness Trap" in which we continue to value ourselves based on our economic status, while our economic status is largely outside our control. And the only socially-approved solution to this problem is for us to dig deeper, work harder and just be more manly (even the women).

James escaped this trap. And that's what so upsets the sports pundits. It is not that they consciously endorse corporate control over American life, but that they all fall for the same way of looking at the relation of success and virtue. Alas, most of us do not have the option James has, but we can at least recognize that our value as human beings does not depend on our economic worth, and we cannot expect that economic success depends only on us.

Bring me the Head of . . . Joe Courtney

My justification for linking to this story is purely aesthetic, humorous and nostalgic. For those of you familiar with the awesome 70's exploitation movie, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia by Sam Peckinpah (see here for a video that gives a taste of the gratuitous violence in the movie although this of necessity leaves out the gratuitous sex), you might understand how I would want to title a post Bring Me the Head of Jerry Maldonado about a hatchet job written by the communications director for Janet Peckinpaugh. The problem with the title is that the victim of the hatchet job is not Jerry Maldonado but Joe Courtney, and "Joe Courtney" just doesn't scan as well--it has the wrong number and rhythm of syllables and is too standard-American (possibly Irish-American?). Alas.

But, anyway, the 70s were awesome.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Owen Flanagan's Inconsistency on Buddhism and Catholicism

I've just finished reading Owen Flanagan's The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in the Material World. The book is not a sustained attempt to address the meaning of life as I had hoped it was but a set of essays on related topics. The first main chapter explains his Aristotelian eudaimonism, arguing for a naturalistic account of human flourishing which gets a little relativist on me (and treats meaning as more or less the same as eudaimonistic happiness). The second chapter is an essay he'd written previously on Buddhism.

The inconsistency I refer to in the title of this post appears when Flanagan says that Catholicism is "silly" and possibly "dangerous", but he is willing to give considerable benefit of the doubt to Buddhism and allow it to be judged by its own standards of evidence. My only point in this post is to call attention to the inconsistency and urge similar treatment when the epistemic basis for the two beliefs is roughly equivalent.

Here's Flanagan's summary of the possibility of rational Catholicism:
There is a type of Roman Catholic that can believe in evolution. I perhaps fit this bill: Believe none of the theology or metaphysics. But be a cultural or ethnic Catholic (the way many Jewish atheists are [I assume he means that they are Jewish in only cultural or ethnic but not theological sense, not that they are culturally or ethnically Catholic]). Go to Mass, meditate and pray in a Catholic way if you wish, consult the right saints depending on your needs, have fun, etc. This is a reasonable way of affirming your identity, you can find wise moral guidance in places, and you can drop all the hocus-pocus stuff [God, supernatural creation, immortal souls and God implanting immortal souls in humans]. That stuff is silly, unbecoming to thoughtful souls, and can be dangerous. (p. 105)

On the other hand, Flanagan does not say that the hocus-pocus stuff in Buddhism is silly and potentially dangerous. He does make clear that he disagrees with it, but he does not make this kind of stinging criticism of Buddhism.

I can find a few differences in the belief systems: (1) the Dalai Lama explicitly endorses the epistemic superiority of science over dogma/authority, (2) Buddhism is atheistic, and (3) the moral focus in Buddhism appears less likely to lead to Buddhists harming anyone.

These are all significant differences, but I still think Flanagan is engaged in a bit of special pleading for Buddhism.

(1) The Dalai Lama does say that if Buddhist beliefs conflict with the best scientific evidence, then they must be revised or rejected. However, he also distinguishes disproof of a claim from failure to prove the claim. Let's call this "the caveat". Thus, the Dalai Lama can continue to believe in reincarnation or rebirth and a karmic system of justice for that transcends a single life because there is no scientific disproof of such beliefs only failure to find evidence for them. The problem is that any positive existential claim (a claim that something exists) can make use of this clever distinction. There is no scientific evidence of the Great Pumpkin, the Flying Spaghetti Monster or God or a Christian soul, yet there can be no scientific disproof of their existence either. It is always possible that such a being exists but has simply avoided being seen. Scientists and rational beings in general do not place the burden of proof on those disproving a positive existential claim but on those proving that existential.

Flanagan, on the other hand, says that:
A comprehensive and responsible critique of the doctrine [of rebirth including apparently the caveat about scientific evidence] would need to look at the quality of the inference, which I won't undertake here. (p. 81)

Strangely, he does not call the inference "silly" or possibly "dangerous" but instead passes on evaluating it for now.

The Dalai Lama's belief in science could easily be something that a Roman Catholic might accept were he/she clever enough to do so provided Church authority still held sway in those areas (existence of God, a soul, etc.) in which disproof of the existential claim was impossible. Thus, I do not see Buddhism as coming out significantly ahead of Catholicism in order to distinguish "silly" Catholicism from respectable Buddhism. The Dalai Lama's view does make some improvement on Catholicism because if there were clear scientific evidence of something (say, that Darwinian selection can explain the origin and nature of human life), there would be conflict with religious teaching, and the Buddhist would not deny the claim as the Catholic might. But these differences are quite limited because of the Dalai Lama's caveat.

(2) Obviously, I endorse atheism over theism, so that is a point in favor of Buddhism. But Buddhism does endorse several things--reincarnation, karmic justice, etc.--without evidence, as noted, and so I do not see how this is much reason to prefer Buddhism. In effect, it is as though Buddhism and Catholicism both endorse transcendent justice but only the Catholic explains it in terms of agency, the Buddhist simply takes it as a given. So, both views involve unjustified beliefs in supernatural or transcendent facts. Silly indeed.

(3) That leads to the charge that Catholicism is potentially dangerous. I suppose here the biggest danger from Catholicism comes from accepting its authority over our own scientific evidence or individual reason when it comes to moral claims that potentially could lead us to harm ourselves or others. For example, if a requirement of Catholicism were that we convert the unbeliever no matter the cost, then reason tells us that this is insufficiently tolerant and that we ought not do it. [I really don't know whether this is a consequence of Catholicism; no one much anymore thinks that forced conversion is acceptable.] Are Catholics moral beliefs harmful? Fighting against use of condoms in areas plagued by sexually transmitted diseases is, indeed, very harmful, and Buddhists do not endorse such actions. So the danger from Buddhism is considerably less, especially if our individual rationality can prevent us from acting on Buddhist authority. But it is not clear that science can show us that Catholic is wrong. Perhaps we each individually can reason morally and reject the Catholic teaching. But it may also be that individual reason (as in the case of the caveat above) should trump Buddhist beliefs, yet Buddhism does not endorse this.

However, the moral difference here is more accidental than essential. If Buddhism required conversion of non-Buddhists or did not permit condom use, and since there would be no scientific disproof of these moral principles, it is not entirely clear that Buddhism would not also be dangerous. So, the danger from Buddhism is not evident given its morally very acceptable principles and its nominal respect for scientific knowledge, but the potential for such harm exists given that any role for moral authority. Any religion that gives any place for authority to overcome individual rationality (as the Dalai Lama's caveat above does) and does not conflict with scientific evidence allows for abuse of that authority, whether the authority is currently being abused or not.

Flanagan is inconsistent in that he does not offer the same type of stinging criticism of Buddhism that he does of Catholicism when it appears that the supernatural claims are similar and the evidence for them equally poor. He does make clear that he disagrees with the metaphysical claims about rebirth, souls and transcendent karmic justice. But he refuses to take on the Dalai Lama fully when he dodges the epistemic issue of the rationality of such belief. Worse, when he finally addresses this directly in his appendix (p. 99), he says that Eastern Buddhists (not Buddhists committed to a Western largely scientifically-informed worldview) have their own standards of evaluation and cannot be judged according to Western criteria. After saying that he does not believe in the metaphysical claims of Buddhism, he writes,
But nothing follows from my opinion about what especially non-Western Buddhists ought to believe. I am not sufficiently inside the practice to understand how it works. Buddhism is a noble wisdom tradition with its own internal standards from which it generates its beauty and moral majesty. I think that the belief in rebirth is irrational, but many beliefs are irrational and do no harm, only good. So from where I sit I leave it alone unless it is brought into a discussion of mind science. Then and only then does my opinion count.

My question, then, is why Buddhists get to evaluate their views according to their own internal standards when Catholics do not. (I'm guessing Catholicism will turn out to be well-justified when judged on its own internal standards.) Buddhism is not called harmlessly silly; it is called a beautiful and noble tradition that Flanagan personally thinks is irrational but which might qualify as rational (apparently) under its own standards.

I have no particular dislike of Buddhism; I suppose it might have a moral majesty beyond anything the Catholic Church has created, and the possibility of harm from this system of belief may be much more remote than the possibility (or actuality) of harm caused by the Catholic Church. But I do not see how this justifies treating Buddhism as having its own epistemic standards and moral majesty whereas Catholicism is "silly" and possibly "dangerous" when it does apparently the same thing. For whatever reason, Flanagan inconsistently gives far more credit to Buddhism than he gives to Catholicism for the same epistemic sins.

NPR Disappears Role of Fox "News" in Sherrod Firing

Listening to National Public Radio's Morning Edition this morning (Thursday, July 22), I came away awed and amazed at the power of internet activists and bloggers. According to NPR's Ari Shapiro, someone can post something on a blog attacking a federal employee, and, lo and behold, the Obama administration immediately caves in. How exactly Glenn Greenwald has not caused them immediately to bring criminal charges against Alberto Gonzales, Jay Bybee, Dick Cheney and George W. Bush is beyond me. The Great Blue Satan has said that that the officials responsible for administering the HAMP program should be fired. I expect their resignation tomorrow.

Since I recognize the awesome power inherent in being some blogger somewhere, I wanted to post my wish list for sacrificial lambs (or scapegoats). But with great power comes great responsibility, so I'll reserve my ire for the one being worthy of my unhinged hatred: Bo the Dog.

As we all know, Bo is a Portugese Water Dog. Since he is Portugese, he must be an illegal alien because I know he does not have a green card. And I am reliably informed by an anonymous source that he once barked at a Fila Brasileiro and did not bark at an English Setter. Clear evidence of elitism--Filas are working dogs--and racial bias!

What I really do not understand is how the magic happens. How did the blog post travel to the eyes and ears of the Obama administration and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack? I have to assume that they spend their days poring over the blog-work of activists, searching out the blogosphere for specious attacks from sites with a history of misleadingly edited videos. Or if Vilsack does not do this himself, perhaps his secretaries and aides spend their days on these sites, and take their allegations as gospel.

If the Obama administration does not constantly monitor these websites, then the only other possibility I can see is that Breitbart has some form of long-range brain wave manipulation device. I mean, it's clear from the Shapiro's report that no other intermediate "News" organization could have been responsible for promulgating the falsehoods and baseless allegations in Breitbart's selectively edited video. Indeed, if there were such a major media outlet that repeatedly played the video and reported the story as though it were accurate, without independent verification, then obviously Shapiro would have a responsibility to report on them as well. If Breitbart is guilty when he pushed a video without adequate verification, then any other "News" or activist organization that did the same would be equally responsible.

Here's a video from Rachel Maddow explaining the story along with the series of such stories on Fox "News" and placing it in the historical context of such attempts at stoking racial fears. Sadly, NPR does not seem to feel it has the responsibility to fully inform its listeners, and it continues to shield Fox "News" from criticism even when their irresponsible attacks go so far over the line that even the mainstream media reacts.

Update: This No More Mister Nice Blog post is obviously much better informed about Fox's role in all this than I am. Also this Media Matters post. The point remains that the Obama administration is not responding directly to Andrew Breitbart, and Fox clearly has been flogging these stories, and Fox on-line has been flogging this story in particular.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Constructing a Philosophy Paper when You Have No Original Idea

Suppose, as is usually the case in philosophy, we have nothing interesting or original to say, but we want to get a publication. Where do we start?
1. Look around at the journals for the last couple of years and see what other philosophers are talking about.
Make sure you don't look any farther back than 5 years. Remember the concept of philosophy, I'll follow Wikipedia for convenience:

Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems concerning matters such as existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language.

And those fundamental, general problems change every five years.

I'm sorry. What I mean to say is that as we inexorably march toward truth on those problems, we solve sub-problems that are steps in the resolution of the overall problems, and every five years or so these subproblems are resolved, leading to new ones as philosophy advances.

2. Pick a topic that (a) you have enough background in that you won't have to start your research from scratch and (b) you can come up with some opinion on that no one else has supported. Don't worry whether your theory makes sense or can be reasonably justified. Just make sure it's new and different.

3. Pick a major philosopher who has written on this topic and summarize his/her recent work. It helps if the author has just published a major book that is under much discussion.

4. Find some earlier, obscure philosopher who wrote on the same or a related topic. Obviously, the more obscure and respected, the better. Wittgenstein works best. This works because Wittgenstein's later philosophy can relate to anything from metaphysics, epistemology, even moral philosophy (with his work on rule following, for example).

5. Interpret your obscure philosopher in a way that supports your position on the topic. This way you can rely on the authority of the esteemed philosopher. So, your actual position doesn't have to be well-supported by argument. Your view is presumed to be reasonable because Big-W said it. Don't worry about making your interpretation plausible either. No one really understands him anyway.

We all know that you can't argue from authority in philosophy. But we do shift the burden of proof to anyone disagreeing with us by appeal to authority. I know this is a distinction without a difference, but just pretend it makes sense that philosophical authority can provide sufficient plausibility for your view that you don't need to argue for it, just to defend it against arguments against it.

6. Show how your position avoids at least one of the recent problems noted with the other, recent philosopher's account. Don't worry if your view is susceptible to other, more serious problems. All you really need is to respond in some way to a contemporary problem so that it looks as though you've advanced the discussion somehow.

7. Tada! Declare victory; you're done. You've now suggested an original, interesting solution to a traditional problem--even though it raises other, possibly much worse, problems. Sure, your interpretation and solution may not really make sense, and probably raises much worse problems than it solves. But that just means you've got the basis for another publication!

(Results may vary. No guarantee of publication implied.)

Does Andrew Breitbart Hate America?

After hearing about the controversy over remarks made by, and the forced resignation of, Shirley Sherrod, I looked at the source of this video. I found a story that raised many questions for me, but, ultimately, I think, it speaks for itself.
The story is about an addition to Andrew Breitbart's massive media empire(tm) called Big Peace which is supposed to revolutionize our view of national security. Now, right off, I was suspicious that this was unamerican because, really, what American wants Big Peace (which I assume is a lot of peace)? And certain quotes from the article, that are in no way taken out of context and selected in no way to embarrass the author, I found further troubling claims.
To wit:
Most every problem in the world could somehow be traced back to the U.S.

My goodness, I thought, can Breitbart's site and its author, a Mr. Mike Flynn, blame America for every problem in the world?

And what about their view of St. Ronald Reagan? Describing the 1980s, he writes that people,
were openly worried about a “warmongering” US President who didn’t understand complex foreign policy and might just start a war for kicks.

Apparently, Mike Flynn believes that Reagan was not really popular. He writes,
it is impossible to appreciate the level of hatred and animosity that was directed at the 40th President during those years.

[I]t couldn’t be that the public agreed with Reagan; rather, they were “duped” by his rhetorical skills.

Does Flynn border on libel of America's Most Beloved President(tm)? Finally, he concludes that our new threat is from Islamic Fundamentalism, but it's not as bad as some previous threats.
To be sure, in some respects, the threat isn’t quite as existential as that of the Cold War. Thousands of nuclear warheads aimed at every city in America is an order of magnitude different than an Iran, no matter how bat-shit crazy, with a handful of nukes. But, in other respects, it is far more challenging. Because, not only do we allow this fundamentalism to thrive in the West, we make excuses for it.

At this point, Flynn clearly has gone beyond the pale in besmirching the blessed memory of St. Joseph McCarthy who proved the existence of communists in the US State Department, Hollywood, academia, and the American media. The American Left did not just make excuses for Communism, but actively worked to undermine America. I worry that Flynn and Breitbart's Big Peace might just have lost touch with reality.

Monday, July 12, 2010

God's Vandalism

Recently in North Carolina, a patriotic atheist billboard was vandalized. Our good friends at World Net Daily, specifically one Chrissy Satterfield, believe this vandalism was justified. The only criticism I have of this article is that the author assumes the "vandal" is human.

Atheists often claim that miracles never happen anymore and slyly insinuate that this fact indicates a kind of erroneous or fallacious reasoning on the part of believers. But, really, why couldn't this spray painting be a miracle? After all, as Ms. Satterfield attests, this is exactly the kind of graffiti God would write or want to have written.

One might think that this is mundane and non-miraculous spray paint. But, look at that billboard, it's really high. Could a normal human really get that high? Ok, maybe. Admittedly, it's not a burning bush or stone tablets, but anyone could set a bush on fire, chisel some stone tablets, and then tell his people that they came from God. Or write a book claiming that this happened. Or tell a story around a campfire that this happened to someone so that generations later someone else could write a book based on the story you told that this happened to someone. This spray painting is as miraculous as that.

What, you say, there is no evidence that this spray painting was miraculous? I say to you that there is no evidence that it was not miraculous! It takes more faith to deny that God did this than it takes to believe it!

Maybe you think that spray painting a billboard is too petty for the Alpha and Omega, the all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good creator of everything? Possibly, but no more petty than telling Ms. Satterfield (she writes that God gave her "a little reminder" about the sign) to encourage that vandalism, and no more petty than cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit out of season (Mark 11:12-14). If God wants to punish our sinfulness and disbelief, and he promised not to destroy the world, then he might choose vandalism. And remember, God works in mysterious ways. Just look at the platypus. I've got nothing against monotremes, but they are freaky.

Could God do a more convincing job than this spray paint? Maybe, but God designed whales with unnecessary leg bones. Maybe God just wanted to leave us room to question his miracles to prove our faith.

I think the belief that this vandalism was a miracle is as well-supported as any miracle in the Bible. And, anyway, isn't it more likely that God did it than that a good Christian would commit a cowardly crime?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Armstrong on Robinson's Absent Mindedness

Via PZ Myers, I ran across a review by Karen Armstrong in the Guardian of what appears to be a startingly unpromising book on religion and the flaws of atheism. The review itself appears to consist of little more than strawmen, serious exaggerations or distortions of the atheist position. In reality, atheism is not the highly flawed, limited view she considers it to be.

Here's the subtitle of the review:
Karen Armstrong hails a profound and timely argument against the positivist world view.

I suppose this is only funny to philosophers since no one has been a positivist in philosophy for about 1/2 a century. This makes the headline somewhat like, "A Timely Argument against Geocentrism" or "A Timely Refutation of Spontaneous Generation of Life".

Still, other people use "positivism" in a broader sense. Apparently in this context it is the view that science is the only means to discover truth. (I'll assume she means this only about the physical world, not about logic or mathematics.)

Here's the first paragraph.

At the same time as the western scientific revolution empowered human beings, opened new worlds and broadened their horizons, it progressively punctured their self-esteem. Increasingly, luminaries of modern thought have told us that our minds are not to be trusted: that even though we thought we were standing on a static Earth, our planet was moving very fast indeed; that we could never be sure that our ideas corresponded to objective reality outside our own heads; that some of our noblest ideals were simply the product of repressed sexuality; and that, finally, we are deluded if we imagine that we "think", "reason," "learn" or "choose". Our minds are simply a passive conduit for an unknown, indifferent force.

What is the reviewer going to argue for here? Apparently, given the opening sentence, the problem with science is that it undermines our self-esteem. So, is she suggesting we should reject or limit belief in science in order to maintain that self-esteem? If so, she doesn't seem committed to learning anything about reality. In any case, the description of what modern history has shown is baffling. Enlightenment science relies on trusting human reason and observation above our religious authorities, but here we are to suppose that science is undermining some intuitive knowledge. Some of this surely needs to be undermined, but science has not shown that "we could never be sure that our ideas corresponded to objective reality outside our own heads." That's the philosopher's job. Depending on the emphasis you put on "sure", this is true and trivial, or it is probably not true and not shown to be so by science. If Armstrong simply means that we can never be absolutely certain that our perceptions are accurate, this is true. On the other hand, if she means that we cannot be reasonably sure that our perceptions are accurate given the proper conditions and hence should suspend judgment with respect to them, then her claim is not supported by science and probably is not true (although many philosophers struggled with this view or even believed it).

Are "our noblest ideals . . . simply the product of repressed sexuality"? I don't suppose so. I assume she is referring to Freud here, but it's quite a stretch to consider Freud's views to be part of our modern scientific worldview.

Is it true that:
finally, we are deluded if we imagine that we "think", "reason," "learn" or "choose". Our minds are simply a passive conduit for an unknown, indifferent force.

I have no idea what she's talking about here. Some philosophers/scientists are determinists, but that would not undermine the idea that we think, reason or learn although it might undermine freedom of choice. But the next sentence is just bizarre: What unknown, indifferent force is she talking about? Does she think science postulates a mysterious, unknowable force that creates and maintains in existence everything around us and is the ultimate source and ground of reality? If so, I think she has science confused with religion. If she is claiming that the modern scientific worldview entails natural, causal laws that govern everything including human thoughts and behavior, then she's probably right, but that doesn't mean there is an unknown force that controls us or for which we are passive conduits. In fact, the purpose of science is to know these laws and ultimately to use them to control (or adapt to and improve) our world.

Continuing, she argues that the view that science is the only reliable means to discover truths entails certain problems with altruism:

Since Huxley, for example, Darwinians have found altruism problematic, as evolution would necessarily select against benevolence to another at cost to oneself. Altruism can only occur because of the "selfishness" of a gene. Thus for EO Wilson, a "soft-core altruist" expects reciprocation from either society or family; his byzantine calculations are characterised by "lying, pretence and deceit, including self-deceit, because the actor is more convincing who believes that his performance is real". Every apparently compassionate action is, therefore, simply a matter of quid pro quo.

Invoking Huxley is clever, since Huxley did see empathy and altruism as something that needed to be explained away as not fitting evolutionary theory. However, Darwin did not see it that way, and, as with many others, saw the benefits of altruism for everyone in the group. The short solution to this problem is that genuine altruists tend to do better than people who try to cheat others, to act compassionately only when it will benefit them. The main point is that those of us who act altruistically do not need to make the calculation ourselves; the behavior (or the genes) came about because of the benefits to ourselves not because we were aware of those benefits. To say we are governed by selfish genes is not to say that we are selfish.

Again, continuing directly, she finds language use to be intrinsically altruistic and, hence, in conflict with science unless it can adequately be explained away.

In the same way, because it transfers useful information to somebody else and requires an expenditure of time and energy, language seems essentially altruistic. But, says the evolutionary biologist Geoffrey Miller, "evolution cannot favour altruistic information-sharing", so the complexities of language probably evolved simply for verbal courtship, "providing a sexual payoff for eloquent speaking by the male and female".

I almost think this is a joke. Has she ever asked for directions? Has she ever ordered a latte? Language use is clearly beneficial to those who speak and understand the language. There is no need to invent convoluted explanations for sexual benefits of language, it's obvious to everyone who speaks how we benefit from exchanging information with others. The puzzle, I suppose, is whether there is any reason to be honest with other people given that we would benefit by gaining information from them, and they might out-compete us, if we give them accurate information in exchange. There's a huge amount of research on social cooperation and cheating that I am too lazy to link to, but the answer is that mutually beneficial exchanges of information occur all the time (including when we are not in competition for survival), and someone who lied often enough to others would be caught and would not be able to continue exchanging information with others.

Following up her misunderstanding of language is her misunderstanding of art:

In the same way, art may appear to be "an exploration of experience, of the possibilities of communication, and of the extraordinary collaboration of eye and hand," but according to some neo-Darwinians, it too is simply a means of attracting sexual partners. "Leonardo and Rembrandt may have thought they were competent inquirers in their own right, but we moderns know better."

Scientific explanations do not eliminate the phenomenon to be explained but vindicate it. If I can explain human consciousness as (suppose) neural activity of a certain sort in physical human brains, I have not gotten rid of consciousness, I have not shown that consciousness does not exist or that we are all deceived in thinking that consciousness is something fascinating and wonderful since it is only some neurons firing. Scientific explanations help us understand why a phenomenon exists, but they do not eliminate it. Leonardo and Rembrandt are competent inquirers into perception, experience, and representation of beauty. The wonder is that such complex and insightful human behaviors can arise from simple organisms whose only needs are to survive and reproduce. Yet we evolved an ability to create and understand art, literature, music, science, and philosophy. This does not mean that Leonardo and Rembrandt are wrong or that they are not creating beautiful works of art. The point of the scientific explanation of production of art is to see how humans evolved this capacity. Armstrong and Robinson's characterization here is another strawman, and I wonder why she will not let current scientists do the kind of scientific, explanatory work she praises in Leonardo and others.

Again, she continues:
This disdainful "hermeneutics of condescension" cannot function outside of a narrow definition of relative data. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the positivist critique of religion. Daniel Dennett, for example, defines religion as "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought". He deliberately avoids the contemplative side of faith explored by William James, as if, Robinson says, "religion were only what could be observed using the methods of anthropology or of sociology, without reference to the deeply pensive solitudes that bring individuals into congregations". Bypassing Donne, Bach, the Sufi poets and Socrates, Dennett, Dawkins and others are free to reduce the multifarious religious experience of humanity "to a matter of bones and feathers and wishful thinking, a matter of rituals and social bonding and false etiologies and the fear of death".

Before examining this paragraph, stop for a moment and appreciate the irony of someone accusing a philosopher of believing that the only way to achieve reliable knowledge is through science.

Back to the topic: I have no idea what the first sentence means. She's describing secular, scientific explanations in insulting terms, but it's not clear what the complaint is. Perhaps that it narrows its focus so much in attempting to explain something that it leaves out the essential phenomena to be explained. One might make this argument about Daniel Dennett's view of consciousness, but it is inappropriate in this context. Dennett, she argues, gives a definition of religion that is too narrow in that it leaves out, "the deeply pensive solitudes that bring individuals into congregations". I'm not exactly sure why a deeply pensive solitude would lead an individual into a congregation, but the point that his definition of religion does not include mystical experience is completely misguided. Not everyone who joins or adopts a religion has had mystical experiences, and so, had he defined religion in the proposed way, he would have given a definition that was too narrow, excluding these believers from religion. Mystical experience is not the essential feature of religion in need of explanation.

The real complaint cannot be with the definition of religion but with the credence Dennett, presumably, does not give to the mystical experiences themselves. Unfortunately, mystical experiences cannot be treated as authoritative; there is no way to prove (or even make likely) that one particular religion (or even any religion at all) is true because of the experiences of some of its practitioners. Religious and mystical experiences are common among distinct religious groups. Each group interprets the experience as cohering with or supporting its own religion. Since these interpretations, necessarily, are inconsistent, mystical experiences cannot support the truth of one particular religion or religions in general.

We can still appreciate the beauty of the works created by Donne or Bach (but give me Marvell or Beethoven any day) without thinking that mystical experience is epistemically reliable. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote poetry under the influence of opium (or after being under its influence). Does that mean that in order for me to appreciate The Rime of the Ancient Mariner I have to think that Coleridge was in touch with a transcendent reality forever hidden from me in my naturalistic world? We can appreciate the beauty without endorsing its source as veridical.

Perhaps religious experiences are valuable in themselves, they are enjoyable or help people feel that their lives are more meaningful or connected to others. If mystical experiences are the only way to achieve these results, and there are no corresponding harms from such beliefs, then one might encourage such experience. But probably we're all just better off encouraging people to use LSD or magic mushrooms or go to rock concerts. That's a lot less work than constructing these complex religions based on ancient folk traditions, and it would result in a lot less potential for harm. The passionate Dio vs. Ozzy debates among the Black Sabbath faithful led to relatively few deaths, after all. [Yes, I'm comparing Black Sabbath to religions, and I think some of their music can be fairly sublime as well.]

I'm running out of enthusiasm for this, but I'll look at one more paragraph. Armstrong writes,

More significant than this jejune attack on faith, she argues, is the disturbing fact that "the mind, as felt experience, has been excluded from important fields of modern thought" and as a result "our conception of humanity has shrunk". Robinson's argument is prophetic, profound, eloquent, succinct, powerful and timely. It is not an easy read, but one of her objectives is to help readers appreciate the complexity of these issues. To adopt such a "closed ontology", she insists, is to ignore "the beauty and the strangeness" of the individual mind as it exists in time. Subjectivity "is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method."

I don't see any necessary connection between consciousness or subjectivity and religion. But if this is her critique of science, it is not particularly prophetic but rather dated. Consciousness has, in the past, been excluded from scientific study, largely because scientists did not know how to study such subjective phenomena. It's odd that Robinson would take now to be the time for critiquing contemporary science for overlooking consciousness and subjectivity since it is now more than ever that science is attempting to study it. Of course, it's appropriate to exclude consciousness from most fields of modern thought--it should be excluded from many such fields. It wouldn't do any good to include understanding consciousness as part of the field of physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology (most of it), some of psychology, and economics. But consciousness is now being studied by psychologists, neuroscientists and philosophers.

Her critique may be the old Nagelian line that whenever we study something scientifically, we must exclude its subjective aspect. I was never very convinced by this line of thought. But if it's her view, then I'm not sure how other fields, besides science, are supposed to provide us with an objective account of subjectivity without falling into the same trap. Perhaps the critique is that we must acknowledge the existence of consciousness and subjectivity in our lives and simply not study it. But, again, we can still appreciate consciousness even if we understand it. Only time will tell whether the secrets of consciousness yield to scientific inquiry, but you don't get any closer to understanding those secrets by appeal to religion.

One of the things I find most frustrating about this kind of critique of science, atheism, naturalism or the rest is the idea that the group in question somehow destroys or undermines the sense of beauty, enjoyment or wonder. I don't know why they think this because it really makes no sense. Scientists, atheists, positivists and the rest enjoy poetry, music, a beautiful sunset, sex, and the music of the spheres (actually, scratch that last one) just as much as anyone else. Explaining phenomena does not mean you have to destroy it; we do not lose appreciation for Handel, Da Vinci, Mozart, Beethoven, Michelangelo, or any natural beauty by understanding it. Film critics continue to enjoy movies even when they understand how they achieve the effects they do. Some of them even enjoy the movies more when they understand the visual allusions (for example) they make.

Furthermore, we would not lose beautiful works even if we ban religion (which no atheist would do anyway); people could still create beauty (or transcendent ugliness) without the additional layer of theism or religion. God, religion, or supernatural beliefs are not necessary for this creative process. Perhaps all this reveals is Robinson and Armstrong's inability to understand or enjoy science "has evolved into principle and method."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Something Rather than Nothing

As, God help me, a professional philosopher, I try to argue for a clear thesis with compelling, unchallengeable arguments. This post feels too tentative to me, but I don't want to put any more work into it. So, here it is.

One of the most puzzling questions in philosophy is "Why is there something rather than nothing at all?" Theists say that this question must have an answer and the only way to give an answer is to appeal to the existence of God. That God exists, on this view, explains why the contingent, dependent world exists, and God requires no further explanation since God's nature as a perfect being explains why God exists.

Refining the Cosmological Argument

The Judeo-Christian tradition does not provide an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing since even in the first Genesis creation story (the more systematic one) God does not create something from nothing. Apparently borrowing from the Babylonian stories, Genesis has God creating the universe from a watery chaos. Obviously, then, the Judeo-Christian mythology does not explain why there is a watery chaos and, hence, does not explain why there is something rather than nothing.

The Judeo-Christian text does not provide the purported explanation, but perhaps the more abstract theist position can do so. Philosophical theists tend not to attach their beliefs to the highly flawed text of any particular religion, so they conceive God as (borrowing from Alvin Plantinga) a maximally perfect being (one that has all perfections--goodness, wisdom--essentially) who created and designed the universe. How should this supposed need for an explanation prove the existence of this abstractly-conceived God?

Taking the need for an explanation for the universe as an argument for the existence of God is to give the cosmological argument. St. Thomas Aquinas is the most famous proponent of this argument, but, unfortunately, every one of his four ways--four versions of the cosmological argument--to prove the existence of God are obviously unsound. (I read the last of his "Five Ways" to be a version of the design argument.) I cannot go into these flawed arguments in detail here, but one of the proofs, the argument from efficient causation, appears to many to have some plausibility.

Efficient causality is essentially what we ordinarily think of as causality. Efficient causes trigger or bring about an event. Here the argument is that every event has a cause, so there must be a causal sequence of events that has occurred over some period of time in which causes precede their effects. If the cause does not occur, Aquinas argues, the effects would not occur. Since there are, evidently, effects, there must have been a first cause to begin it all. This first cause must itself be uncaused, and so is not simply another event, and is, thus, supposed to be God.

There are two problems with this argument. First, there is no reason to think the causal series has to be finite. Aquinas seems to think that some event, call it "A", must be the first cause because if A did not occur, nothing could happen at all. But if one denies that there is a first cause, one is not denying that A occurs, one is only denying that A is a first (uncaused) cause. Second, if there is a first cause, there is no reason to think that being is God. Something's being a first cause of the universe implies nothing about it having the other characteristics theists attribute to God. It need not be personal, rational, a moral agent, powerful, or wise (let alone the omni-version of each of these attributes). It could simply be a trigger, like the big bang, that did not require a cause for its occurrence.

Various attempts have been made to salvage this argument. One claim (from G.E.M. Anscombe) is that everything with a beginning has a cause, and the universe has a beginning so the universe has a cause. The only thing that could be the cause of the universe is God, so God exists. The first problem with this argument is that it assumes, with insufficient justification, that the universe is a thing that can have a cause rather than a collection of things which need not, as a mere collection, have a cause. I'll get to this point in a moment.

The second problem with this argument is that it would show that God also has a cause since there is no space-time without matter (according to general relativity), and thus God must also have a beginning. This fact would rather undermine the point of the argument since it would imply that God also must have a cause.

The other attempt to salvage the argument, besides relying on beginningless causes, is to claim that the universe as a whole must have a cause or explanation because every part does. This argument is clearly fallacious. If the universe is only a collection of beings, then there is no reason to think the universe as a whole must have a cause. Just because every event has a cause does not mean there is a cause for all events. There might simply be an infinite series of such events with no need for a cause or explanation for that sum of events. (Bertrand Russell, somewhat famously, pointed this out.)

Clearly, reasoning about causes won't prove the existence of God. Thus, theists have turned to more abstract concepts in order to prove God's existence. One such concept is that of a necessary being. A necessary being is a being that exists in all possible worlds, as we philosophers like to say. It is a being such that, if it exists at all, it exists necessarily. There are, potentially, necessary beings besides God. If there are abstract objects, such as numbers or universals, then they exist necessarily. God, as an all-powerful being, is an inviting prospect for such a necessary being. The rest of the observable, physical universe, it is alleged, consists of only contingent beings, things that might or might not exist. For these contingent things to exist at all, the argument goes, they must depend on a necessary being.

Still, there are limitations with the concept of a necessary being. My shoe might be a necessary being if it exists in all possible worlds, but it may not be the creator of the universe in this one. Hence, something's being necessary is not sufficient for it being God. We need, further, some connection of this necessary being and a dependent universe. Typically, this connection is made by appeal to the concept of explanation which, so the theory goes, means saying why something had to be the case given whatever set of conditions were in place. To explain, one might say, why the moon orbits the earth, we must cite conditions such that, given that they are in place, no other alternative is possible. If the cited conditions do not entail that the event occur (or the state be the way it is), they cannot be considered a complete explanation.

This is a fairly intuitive concept of explanation. Suppose we learn that Bob did not get tenure at his job as assistant professor. To explain why he did not get tenure, we have to be able to say what those conditions were that led to him not getting tenure. It wouldn't be much of an explanation if all we could say was, "Sometimes people get tenure and sometimes they don't." Intuitively, you need to say why conditions were such that they had to work out as they did.

Theists have tended to think that this means that, ultimately, there must be a necessary being to explain why everything exists at all. After all, they say, if there are only contingent beings, then when you attempt to explain something, you've only just deferred the explanation to some further state that is also contingent. Atheists can, however, ask why there should be this uber-explanation. We know people give ordinary explanations all the time, for why Bob was denied tenure, for example, but we don't have any explanations that go back to first causes. We give explanations, but rarely of this uber-explanatory kind. (And some of our explanations appear to be even less complete in that they are only statistical, but more on that later.)

A better move is to demand that there be an explanation for why there is anything at all or why there is something rather than nothing. Explanations for the existence of individual things need never amount to an explanation for the universe as a whole, just as causes for individual events need not invoke a cause for the whole of the universe. But in order to explain why there is something rather than nothing, what is required is a being that explains why something's existing is necessary and which requires nothing else to explain why the explanans (the thing doing the explaining) exists.

William Rowe calls such a being "self-existent". A self-existent being is one whose existence is explained by the nature of the thing itself; its concept explains why the thing exists. Traditionally, God's existence is supposed to be explainable without reference to anything else because God is the greatest possible being and contingent beings (that might not exist) are less great than necessarily existent ones. (Please note this is not the ontological argument which tries to show that God exists through the concept alone. Here we only explain God's existence through God's concept, and the fact that we can do this for God and--presumably for nothing else--combined with the fact that something exists rather than nothing, is supposed to show that God exists.) Assuming the principle of sufficient reason (that every event that occurs and every fact have explanations), God's existence is explained by the nature of God, and God's creation of the universe explains everything else, so, on theism, everything has an explanation, whereas, on atheism, it is not clear that everything does.

Difficulties with God as Explanatory
Before I consider atheist responses, I want to point out that this idea that a self-existent being might create and maintain the universe in existence is less coherent than is sometimes granted. Recognizing the failure of cause-based cosmological arguments, theists have fallen back on explanation-based cosmological arguments that make no assumptions about time or efficient causes. In other words, because the argument that God must be the first efficient cause is unsound, they have banked on God explaining the existence of the universe as an underlying ground of being or fundamental essence of existence. Theists, and I'm thinking of Richard Taylor in his book Metaphysics primarily here, consider the argument not to prove that there is a God who is the first in a series of efficient (triggering) causes, since any such argument is flawed, but as the "first" self-existent being that explains why the universe exists at all even if such a universe has existed forever with no temporal beginning. Instead, God is the most fundamental existent upon which everything in the universe currently depends for its existence. If God ceased to exist (a metaphysical impossibility on this view) or ceased to pay attention to the universe, then it would cease to exist.

In fact, there are theories that this has already happened and that's how we ended up with Newt Gingrich as Speaker of the House.

Sorry, needed some levity.

This idea of God as the fundamental ground of all existence is what leads to these odd formulations of the concept of God as the essence of being qua being and that sort of thing. However, it is far from clear (1) what any of this "being qua being" talk means, (2) that being qua being is necessary for things to exist and (3) how God could be said to create the universe if God does not do so as an efficient or triggering cause but as a "fundamental ground of existence".

First, I'm not sure what this "being qua being" talk means. Certainly it is true that things that exist "have" being in some sense, at least in the sense that they exist. But it is hardly clear that there must be some essence that they must have in order to exist. I understand what it means to say that a whole depends for its existence upon its parts, and we can thereby see that in order for the universe to exist, there must be some units or parts which constitute it. But what is it to say that these parts (fundamental particles, if you like) require this being qua being in order to exist? There must, so the principle of sufficient reason goes, be an explanation for why they exist, but this might be given in terms of causes. If PSR is true, there must also be an explanation for the fact that there are fundamental particles at all, but I'm not sure how saying that they depend on any fundamental essence or being qua being constitutes such an explanation.

Second, it is not clear that the universe requires God, understood as this being qua being, in order to exist. I'm open to the idea that some theory of everything in physics might explain why they exist, but that explanation would do well to be more than that they are grounded in being itself. In short, the intuition bus stops for me at the idea that there must be some further explanation for the fundamental particles. Maybe there is an explanation for why there are fundamental particles at all. And there must be such an explanation if PSR is true. I can see why people might think for any event that it needs a cause. How else could it have gotten here if it were not caused? one might ask. But I just don't feel that same pull for the question, "Why are there fundamental particles at all?" I'm saying here that the intuitive support for PSR may not be so strong when we think about fundamental particles as it is when we think of events needing causes.

Third, it is not clear how God can be the fundamental essence of existence and explain the universe's existence. God would not, on this view, have brought the universe into existence as a first, temporal cause. But if God did not do this, then it's not clear what it means for God's existence (choices, etc.) to explain why the universe exists at all. If God didn't cause the universe or bring it into existence, I'm not sure how God's existence can explain anything at all. The explanation must be that God's existence somehow underpins the existence of anything at all, that God is the fundamental property of all existence that makes it such that it exists. I believe at this point all talk of God has either lost all touch with reality or been reduced to tautology.

Atheist Explanations
Atheists are mostly naturalists in that they believe everything can be explained in natural terms using the tools of contemporary science. There are well-known exceptions to the principle of sufficient reason from quantum physics, but, for the most part, it is taken as given that events have explanations. So, naturalistically-minded people should require an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing unless they can show that there is an exception for the case of the universe or that there is something ill-formed about the question "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

It is tempting to say that the question, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" is a non-sensical question. It involves an implicit contrast between a state in which something exists and a state in which nothing exists, and it is incoherent to say that there is a state in which nothing exists for to say that something exists is to say that there is something rather than nothing. Thus, we cannot even conceive or state the alternative necessary for the question to make sense. The cosmological argument, then, must fail to gain a foothold since there is no contrast case for which an explanation is necessary. (I think this is Sartre's view, but I get this only from my largely uninformed reading of Nausea.) Since one cannot even assert the possibility of nothing existing, one cannot require an explanation for why it doesn't.

Alas, the problem is not so easily dissolved. To say that nothing exists is not to reify nothing and treat it like an ordinary object. To say that nothing exists is to say that it is not the case that anything exists; it is not the case that there is anything at all. There is no incoherence in such a thought any more than there is to say that Socrates does not exist. If it were not the case that anything at all existed, I would not be here to ask the question, but there is nothing nonsensical about considering whether everything might simply not exist. The question does not appear to be defective.

Others have claimed that the universe might have popped into existence as scientists working in the field of quantum electrodynamics have discovered particles sometimes do. This, however, does not explain why there is something rather than nothing because it takes for granted that there is a quantum field, and whatever that is, it is not nothing. Hence, this explanation does not appeal to a real contrast in which nothing is a possibility but a contrast in which a quantum field exists but no particles pop into existence in it. Similarly, one cannot explain why there is something rather than nothing by appeal to quantum tunneling in which a particle travels back in time in order to bring itself into existence since such things only occur in quantum fields, and, to explain why there is anything at all, requires that we not assume that there is anything as part of our explanation (unless that thing can be established to be self-existent).

My students always want to say that the necessarily existent thing is matter or mass/energy. We know, they say, that mass/energy can neither be created nor destroyed. That means it must exist and must always have existed in order for it to be here now. No one much likes the idea of positing some physical being (mass/energy) as necessarily existent because it always appears sensical to ask, "Why should that exist?" in a way that does not if we accept the theist conception of God. Of course, we might be wrong about what's possible and impossible, and it might be metaphysically impossible for mass/energy not to exist (rather than just a law of physics that it cannot go out of existence once it exists). But it sure seems to be a physical law only that mass/energy cannot cease to exist. And, more important, it is unclear why a law that says mass/energy that exists cannot cease to exist should be, in any way, relevant to why that mass/energy exists in the first place.

Rowe, forthrightly, thinks that PSR is not adequately supportable. Thus, there is no strong reason to think PSR is true. The general principle, that everything that exists or any fact that is true, has an explanation is false. Questions such as, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" need not, therefore, have an answer at all.

The worry about this response is that it threatens to be the same sort of science stopper that theism is. If we cannot be certain that everything has an explanation, then for any particular scientific experiment we do, there may be no explanation for why it turns out as it does. Hence, we would prefer an argument that there are explanations in the natural, spatio-temporal world, but that demanding an explanation for the whole ball of wax is an impossible demand.

"Why there is something rather than nothing?" need have no answer whereas empirically testable why-questions must have answers (at least in the non-quantum realm). But how can one argue for this?

Victor Stenger, apparently, argues that we can explain why something exists by contrast with nothing because nothing is unstable. I think what he means by this is that a quantum vacuum is unstable; things pop into existence spontaneously in the quantum field, so nothing would not exist for long. As noted, this argument is flawed since a quantum field is not nothing. Nothing is not a vacuum or a probability field. Nothing exists when there is not anything of any kind, when there is no location or place in which that quantum field might exist. So, Stenger cannot contrast something and nothing but only contrast some particles in a quantum field and no particles in a quantum field.

Is this real, absolute nothing stable or not? It's tempting to say that nothing is stable since, as philosophers used to say, "nothing can come from nothing". On the other hand, how can nothing have any properties at all? So, I'm not sure whether it's stable or unstable, but I don't see a good case that nothing (rather than a quantum vacuum) is unstable or would very likely (or inevitably) give rise to something.

Robert Nozick starts with the assumption implicit in my formulation of the question that explanation is contrastive. To explain why X occurred, we must explain why other possibilities did not occur. It makes no sense to explain, in isolation, why the US soccer team lost, we explain it implicitly by contrasting it to their winning. The contrast is explicit in asking why there is something rather than nothing. If it is logically impossible for there to be nothing, for example, then no explanation for why there is something would be necessary. Nozick does not attempt to prove that nothing existing is logically impossible, however.

Instead, Nozick argues that explanations are given in contrast to a likely, normal, or natural condition. Thus, we need not explain why something exists if nothing existing is statistically unlikely, abnormal or unnatural. Nozick then claims that, since there are an infinite number of ways for something to exist, and only one way for nothing to exist, it is infinitely more likely that there is something rather than nothing. Hence, if nothing existed, that would require explanation, but one need not propose an explanation for why something exists since it is the more likely situation.

I do not see how one could ascertain the likelihood that nothing exists, and Nozick's argument does nothing to establish that nothing existing is unlikely. Moreover, this assumption, that only unlikely, unnatural or abnormal situations can be or need to be explained is simply not true; Nozick is confusing a pragmatic convention with an epistemic necessity.

First, is nothingness statistically more likely or less likely than something? I have no idea how one could answer this question meaningfully. Since there is something and not nothing, perhaps the answer is that the existence of something is a certainty, the existence of nothing is then a statistical impossibility, and we do not need an explanation of the existence of something. That would miss the point since we have to make our probability claims in deciding what needs an explanation absent our knowledge that the thing actually exists. Otherwise nothing that existed would require an explanation. I have no idea how one would argue that something is likely. No one has any idea what the probability is that our universe have the constants, laws of nature or basic features that it does. How could anyone even begin to estimate the probability that there be anything at all (without even considering what such an estimate of probability could even mean)? Without a scientific theory of why something exists at all (which is the question at issue), I don't see how any probability estimate is possible.

Second, the claim that there are infinitely more ways for something to exist than nothing to exist is completely irrelevant to the probability of nothing existing. There are an infinite number of ways in which I might cease to exist from one moment to the next, and only one way to exist (in conformity to the natural law), but I know it's more likely that I will continue to exist as an integrated biological object it is that all those other possibilities (that I will turn into a chicken, that my brain will explode, that I will become a slice of cheese, a bowl of petunias or a whale, etc.) combined will occur.

Making an argument that something is more natural or normal is even less likely to be fruitful than arguing for statistical unlikelihood. I have enough trouble figuring out what it means for something to be natural or normal in other (natural or normal?) contexts, I have no idea how to establish such a claim in this context. I don't think anyone else does either.

Pragmatically, we often look for an explanation for the unusual, abnormal or unnatural because it is unexpected, and we tend to want explanations for the unexpected more than we want explanations for the expected. But that need not be the case. If John, a human being, is born with flippers instead of hands, we might explain this by pointing out that his mother took thalidomide when she was pregnant and that thalidomide causes birth defects of this sort. But if John is a dolphin, and his being born with flippers is normal, natural and statistically expected, we can still explain why he's born with flippers, and it is perfectly reasonable to ask such a question. The statistically likely can still be explained, and we can still reasonably demand such an explanation. In short, pragmatically we often look for explanations for the unexpected, but it is not part of the logic of explanation that we are required to do this.

This leaves us only with the remaining possibility of rejecting PSR and living with the consequences. Is there any legitimate reason to reject PSR or would this have to be an ad hoc atheism-saving move? As it turns out there are two good reasons to reject PSR. First, it is empirically refuted by quantum mechanics. Some facts about the quantum world have no explanation. Why an electron drops from one orbital to another now rather than later has no explanation. Second, we are quickly returned to the infinite regress the theist hoped to avoid if we ask for an explanation for why PSR is true.

Suppose we accept, as does the theist, that PSR is true. There must, therefore, be an explanation for why it is true. It cannot be true because God acts only for reasons and thus nothing would occur without an explanation. Rather amusingly Leibniz gave this as his reason for belief in PSR, yet he later turned around and used PSR to prove the existence of God. Genius!

What other explanation could there be for PSR? It isn't self-evidently true, so we cannot expect it, like God, to be explained in terms of its own concept or nature. So, it must be explained in terms of something else whose explanation, we can, of course, also demand. This means, I think, that we must reject the idea that everything has an explanation.

The theist, in particular, must be unhappy to reject PSR since it underpins the cosmological argument, but to accept PSR renders the whole cosmological argument moot. The point of the argument is to show that we need not be caught in an infinite regress of explanations but can find a first, self-explaining explainer. Unless we reject PSR, however, we are stuck with exactly the regress that the appeal to God is supposed to prevent. And, of course, rejecting PSR means we no longer have the cosmological argument to support belief in God.

The naturalistically-inclined atheist must be unhappy with rejecting PSR in that it potentially blocks scientific inquiry. It's not clear how to limit the damage here. We could accept the "Every event has an explanation for why it occurs" part of PSR (call these type 1 claims) since that does not entail that PSR itself has an explanation. So, this principle is, at least, not caught in our regress problem. The "Every fact has an explanation" part of the principle (call these type 2 claims) remains problematic since PSR is supposed to be a fact. Yet, it is not easily possible to imagine that all scientific demands for an explanation can be understood as type 1 claims. It appears reasonable to demand to know why a falling object has the acceleration that it has, and this is not to be explained (apparently) just in terms of events occurring. Rejecting PSR, while independently necessary, has problematic consequences for science that render it problematic even when considered only as a rejection of this part of the principle.

My conclusion has to be tentative. Theism is not adequately supported by the cosmological argument since it relies on a principle (and part of a principle) that is false. We must, tentatively at least, reject the idea that there is an explanation for why there is something rather than nothing. Even if there were such an explanation, appeal to God would be ontologically excessive and unnecessary. More limited posits would, presumably, be preferable to the extravagant claims of the theists. We must, apparently, reject the idea that there are explanations for all facts, and, indeed, the fact that there is something rather than nothing might be (and certainly appears to be) the kind of fact we cannot explain. We must reject the principle of sufficient reason that supports the idea that there is such an explanation.

The difficulty is in limiting the epistemic carnage wrought by rejecting this principle, even if we must only reject one part of it. To say that some facts lack an explanation is problematic since any apparently inexplicable empirical result might turn out to be such a fact. It would be nice if there were some way to reject PSR only for foundational or fundamental claims, but I doubt that there is a clear line one could draw or a way to justify drawing it. Apparently, explanations, as Wittgenstein said, have to come to an end somewhere. There is, at any rate, no reason to think that end has to be God.

Note: I had to revise this a second time after some revisions simply disappeared. Thus, the fact that this post is incomplete or imperfect is entirely the fault of the technical glitch that destroyed all my perfect ruminations. None is the fault of the author.