Sunday, May 22, 2011

Mystical Perception of God

A few weeks ago I was sitting at my breakfast table trying to decide which of two fantasies to read: Michael Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone or William Alston's "Mysticism and Perceptual Awareness of God" in the Blackwell Guide to Philosophy of Religion. Since I'd read Elric a dozen times before, I decided to try the Alston. The only problem was that the Alston's tale was so unbelievable that it took me weeks to finish it.

Alston is a good philosopher, the kind one should take seriously if possible. I've taught his "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Real World," in my Metaphysics class. So, I thought his paper on mystical experience would be worth considering. In it he argues that mystical experience provides a prima facie justification of some minimal sort, somewhat akin to perceptual experience but relying on no perceptual modality, for belief in God. On Alston's view mystical experience is roughly analagous to perceptual experience in providing a first-look justification for the existence of God even though that justification could be defeated (as the epistemologists say), that is to say, undermined or rejected if other considerations outweigh it. Unfortunately, Alston's involves so many errors and peculiarities of reasoning that it is not possible to summarize them all. Instead, I will simply start by making the case against the reliability of mystical experience, describe Alston's attempt to overcome these obvious problems, and show that his responses are flawed.

Mystical Experience: The Case Against Its Reliability

I was, indeed, surprised to find any philosopher, let alone one of Alston's standing, defending mystical experience as providing justification, even prima facie, for beliefs. The reason this is so surprising is that the case against the reliability of mystical experience is well-known and compelling.

First, mystical experience never provides the clear, unambiguous kind of experience we require of justified perceptual experiences. If I see some vague shape in the corner of the room my bedroom at night, and I take it to be a monster, then I have not really had the kind of perceptual experience that makes that belief justified (even prima facie). But mystical experiences are always of a vague sort, they cannot be clearly put into words, or they describe an experience of some vague thing, a presence, a feeling, etc. These are not the clear experiences we would require for justification in the case of perceptual experiences.

Second, mystical experience does not cohere with other experiences the person has. In fact, this is part of their point in that they are supposed to show the failure of our ordinary perceptual modes of understanding reality. Unfortunately, this lack of coherence is another point against them. If I hear a noise, but can neither see nor touch anything that might be the source of the noise and the sound is never repeated, I will, reasonably, consider myself mistaken in hearing the sound. Perceptual errors are common enough that I would just consider this a mistake if other experiences disconfirmed the experiential belief (belief based on that experience). Mystical experiences are radically disconfirmed by all other sensory experiences. Again, the point of mystical experiences is supposed to be that they preempt our ordinary perceptual means of knowing the world. But that view is misguided; if one experiential belief contradicts all one's other experiential beliefs, then the first experiential belief is rendered unjustified.

Third, mystical experiences occur under conditions that lead people to make perceptual errors. People have to act deliberately to put themselves in a receptive state, but the conditions they put themselves in are known to cause perceptual errors or hallucinations. To create these conditions people fast, deprive themselves of other sensory input through means such as meditation, or they take drugs or hallucinogenic compounds. At the very least mystics place themselves in a hyper-sensitive state in which they want so much to have such an experience that they will perceive vague or ambiguous stimuli in a way that conforms to their expectations and desires. This is the sort of state that leads people to see their team as the subject of all the referees' bad calls and to perceive ambiguous phenomena as ghosts. All these conditions lead to hallucinations or perceptual errors. Why should conditions that are known to lead to error in other contexts provide a guide to truth when the experience is mystical? The mystic's state of mind is more prone to commissions of perceptual error than discovery of truth.

Fourth, there is no known or even reasonably hypothesized causal connection between mystical experience and its supposed subject. Even before people comprehended visual perception and had any inkling of how the brain processed light rays, they at least knew that there was a causal connection between objects, their eyes and their perceptual beliefs. As our knowledge of the brain has grown, we have no greater understanding of how the brain could process mystical information from an external source. We now have some idea of the parts of the brain that might give rise to (or be identical to) those mystical experiences, the sense of profound meaning in everything, or the sense of a presence. We even know of people who suffer seizures that lead to such feelings, and we know of some who are tortured by a constant state of mystical profundity. But none of this has helped understand how these experiences could be triggered by some external, mystical force or ultimate reality. If astrology cannot provide any plausible causal mechanism for the truth of its claims that the position of the planets and stars exert a profound, even determining, influence over one's personality and the course of one's life, then we have reason to doubt the reliability of astrology's claims. When we have no idea how some theory is possible, especially after we have tested and grasped much of how the phenomenon works, we have reason to doubt the reliability of that theory. Mystical experience is mysterious in such a way that we cannot take it to be reliable or even prima facie justified.

Fifth, different individuals and groups have different experiences or form different beliefs on the basis of similar mystical experiences. To overgeneralize, Christian mystics have experiences they believe indicate a Christian God; Hindu mystics have experiences they interpret as coming from different gods or from Brahman, a single supreme spirit; vodou practitioners interpret their experiences as being experiences of Loa or spirits; Buddhists believe they experience a single reality without a god of any sort. Moreover, different sects of Christianity involve different experientially-based beliefs about God's character, intentions, purposes, etc. This lack of any agreement among experiencers all with apparently equally good (or poor) access to this ultimate reality tends to undermine any claim to prima facie justification. If a group of people with equally good vision, in equally good light, with unobstructed views of our living room, claimed respectively to see a dog, a cat, an aardvark, a wombat, animals of a dozen other species, and nothing at all, that would tend to undermine our confidence that Fluffy is sitting on the couch. Mystics appear to interpret vague or ambiguous experience in light of their existing belief system and take these experiences to confirm the very system of belief that led to that interpretation or structured that experience.

Alston's Argument

Since Alston must be aware of these rather obvious and significant difficulties with his position, he must have some compelling responses to them, mustn't he? Well, he has responses, but they are not compelling.

The only positive case Alston provides is a claim that beliefs based on experiences should be taken to be justified unless there is some reason not to. And the only real support for this is the analogy to perceptual experience. The problem is that, as I detailed above, mystical experience, if it parallels sensory experience at all, does it under conditions that render it unreliable. So, Alston's argument really is an attempt to deal with these objections to the analogy to perceptual experience. How does Alston deal with these problems?

Epistemic Circularity

First, Alston denies that coherence of perceptual experience is relevant to its reliability. In particular, Alston talks about the predictive accuracy of a system of beliefs that takes perceptual beliefs to be accurate, but his reasoning applies to coherence among perceptual modalities as well as within them (say by visual confirmation of a prediction made on the basis of visually based beliefs). Alston's is an argument only a philosopher could make. His reason is that for one perceptual belief to confirm another is only to assume the reliability of perceptual belief in the first place. Thus, the coherence requirement begs the question. Suppose we have visual perceptual belief A that confirms auditory perceptual belief B. Now, for A to confirm B, we would have to be justified in believing A; and for B to confirm A, we would have to be justified in believing B. Thus, for either to confirm the other, it must first be justified. He calls this the problem of 'epistemic circularity'; we can only take these beliefs to be justified if we assume that they are justified.

There are two flaws in Alston's reasoning here. First, even if beliefs' coherence is insufficient to render them justified, their incoherence might render them unjustified. If Stephen Colbert trusts his gut because his gut tells him to, he has not provided a justification for beliefs based on his gut instinct. But if Stephen Colbert trusts his gut because his gut tells him not to, then he has engaged in fundamentally flawed reasoning. Thus, the contradictory nature of the various people's mystical experience and the incoherence with sensory modalities, undermines the claim of justification even if coherence could not support it.

Second, more controversially, coherence can provide justification by means of an inference to the best explanation. This is a fairly well-known type of explanation in the sciences and it relies on finding a common causal explanation for disparate phenomena. Thus, coherence over time and among different modalities provides the phenomena that are best explained by the fact that there are external objects that have certain qualities. Perhaps there are difficulties with this view of justification of perceptual experience, but it's not obviously circular in the way Alston contends it is. And this shows that we do not, as Alston believes we must, have to accept all experiences as prima facie justified in order to escape skepticism.

Lack of Intersubjective Verification

Alston devotes more time specifically to the lack of intersubjective verification of mystical experience. First, he restricts the beliefs in question to those that agree only on the existence of God and an unspecified core of traditional Christian beliefs. He writes, "What strikes me as a natural choice is a restriction to experientially based beliefs concerning the existence and basic nature of God" (p. 206). It's only a natural choice if you want to overlook as much disagreement as possible while trying to make your mystical perception support your Christian commitments. He notes that this provides, "a cleaner and more defensible version of the position" (p. 206), but this greater defensibility is bought by simply (at this point) ignoring the contradictory data. This reminds of me of the oft-quoted passage from Bertrand Russell that about the advantages of theft over honest toil.

Alston notes this contradictory data, the disagreement among religions -- saying that all we really could say might count as a claim mystics agree on is that they perceive an ultimate reality that differs from our ordinary experience -- and sects within Christianity. But instead of taking this as a reason to doubt the claims of the particular traditions, he takes it as reason to restrict his inquiry to the justification for the claim about the "existence and basic nature of God" (ibid.). This move would be of tremendous use for prosecutors in court. Suppose that a dozen witnesses observed a crime and only two of them identified the defendant as the criminal. The easy solution for the prosecutors is to toss out the ten who didn't claim that they saw the defendant, or who claimed to see something inconsistent with the defendant committing the crime, and ask whether the remaining two might be reliable. The defense would, with good reason and contrary to Alston's assumption, think that those ten other people's testimony matters to whether the first two were reliable.

After attempting to set up this restricted claim as justified, Alston does return to the issue of disagreement among mystical experiences. He eventually deals with the problem by: (1) Claiming that the disagreement is not as great as it sometimes appears and (2) that sensory perception is not as reliable as it is sometimes assumed in these debates. I'm not sure how the disagreement can be less great if the only thing mystics of various groups agree on, as Alston notes, is that they experience an "ultimate reality" (p. 199). Perhaps some of the subjective experience is similar, but if the experience is supposed to be evidence of any ultimate reality, it should be that there is more agreement than just that there is some ultimate reality that differs from our ordinary experience. If they don't agree that there is a single supreme being, then they cannot be considered to agree about the relevant issue, and it certainly could not preferentially support Christianity over any other religion.

Alston's second response, appealing to the unreliability of ordinary perceptual experience, seems a poor way to establish the reliability of mystical experience, but that is nonetheless Alston's strategy. It only becomes clear why he adopts this strategy when suggests it establishes that only certain types of experiential claims about God are reliable. He distinguishes primary and secondary qualities in perceptual experience and suggests that only beliefs about primary qualities are veridical. For perception, the distinction is between primary qualities, such as mass, velocity, and secondary qualities such as color or odor. Perceptions of mass or velocity reflect real characteristics of matter, so the theory goes, but perceptions of color or odor are only our imperfect perceptual means of representing some complex set of primary qualities. Then Alston claims that mystical experience involve quasi-primary qualities of God (purportedly the characteristics of God traditionally accepted by Christianity) contrasted with quasi-secondary qualities that do not reflect God's reality but only our imperfect perception of qualities that correlate with God's real qualities. Thus, Alston turns the problem of unreliability of perceptual experience into the claim that mystical experience is reliable when it involves perceptions consonant with traditional Christian belief but not when those experiences are not part of traditional Christianity.

However, Alston's analogy between primary and secondary qualities of perception and quasi-primary and quasi-secondary qualities of mystical experience is faulty. Primary qualities of perceptible objects are only considered more real (to the extent that they are) than secondary qualities because we have the apparatus of contemporary science that relies on intersubjectively verifiable measurements of mathematically describable entities and relations. The fact that a tradition attributes some set of properties to God is not enough to establish that experiences of those attributes are reliable and others not. Science only provides justification for beliefs in primary qualities because it involves precisely the kind of intersubjective measurements that have never been provided for mystical experience.

Alston recognizes that mystical experience cannot meet our ordinary criteria of reliable perceptual experience and so could not be considered as justified as perceptual beliefs. However, instead of rejecting the idea of justification from mystical experience, he thinks to save this justification by narrowing the scope of claims based on mystical experience in a preferred direction. Nonetheless, Alston's move is misguided; the lack of any independent means of perceiving the ultimate reality undermines the possibility of prima facie justification whether the range of beliefs is broad or narrow. Moreover, introducing this distinction between quasi-primary and quasi-secondary qualities certainly cannot be used to render the quasi-primary subset of the claims justified given that his categorization of qualities as falling within one set or the other is based only on his prejudgment, based on no evidence or independent argument, that some beliefs accurately represent God and others may not. Alston's distinction and the conclusions he draws from it are completely without foundation.

Checks on Mystical Experience

Alston does consider the idea that there might be independent means of verifying the claims based on mystical experience although his attempt actually raises further difficulties for justification for mystical experience. He notes that, in the Christian tradition, there are institutions intended to regiment such experiences. Here are the three criteria he gives for such regimentation as independent verification: "(a) conformity with what would be expected by basic [Christian] doctrines concerning the nature of God, (b) such "fruits" of the experience and their absence as a stable inner peace and growth in spirituality, (c) a content of the experience that the person would not have developed on his or her own" (p 216). And he notes that people have to put themselves in an appropriately receptive mode to have these mystical experiences.

All three of these are obviously irrelevant to the accuracy of a belief. We have no independent reasons to think that basic Christian doctrines are true, so criterion (a) would only beg the question. Inner peace or other benefits of mystical experience have, obviously, nothing to do with the truth of any beliefs one forms based on that experience. People with mutually inconsistent experiential beliefs all manage to achieve inner peace and all the rest. So, criterion (b) is clearly not relevant.

Criterion (c) might provide justification, on the grounds that beliefs that one would not have otherwise must have an external source. However, I can see no way of determining whether mystical experiences must have an external source and no way of showing that such an external source must be divine rather than purely natural. Why couldn't mystical experiences have the same sort of mundane sources as hallucinations or dreams? There is no way that I can see of establishing that they cannot or do not have such mundane sources.

The last point, that the person must be in the properly receptive frame of mind, is not given as one of the criteria for checking beliefs (as Alston calls it), but it simply points out the problems with mystical experiences and Alston's argument. The facts that Alston takes to provide a kind of justification for beliefs based on mystical experiences are the very facts that render such beliefs unreliable. People putting themselves into the properly receptive states of mind, states "conducive" and "receptive" and "spiritually attuned" (p. 217), to experience God, renders those beliefs suspect. For perceptual beliefs to be reliable, they must not be formed under these conditions. That's why we have requirements that scientific experiments be conducted "blind" so that the expectations, beliefs and desires of the experimenters do not lead them to perceive things in a way that fits their preconceptions. Alston here mistakes the very thing that undermines objectivity, that leads to subjective bias, for a kind of check on subjectivity.

Alston is clearly aware of the problems with mystical experience, yet he contends at the end that mystical experience can provide some prima facie justification even if it is not as reliable as perceptual experience. But this is wrong-headed. If a potentially reliable method of belief formation is misused, the reliability of that method when it is applied correctly confers no justification when it is applied incorrectly. Inference rules in symbolic logic can provide justification for a claim, based on the truth of other claims, but they provide no justification when the rules are applied incorrectly. The same is true here. Beliefs based on mystical experience have no justification since they are, at best, misuses of a potentially justified method.

Divine Causation of Mystical Experience

Another objection that Alston attempts to deal with is the idea that God cannot cause our experience and so we cannot consider mystical experience to be a kind of perception. I've already made the case that this lack of comprehensible causal mechanism undermines the claim to justification for mystical experience.

Alston takes on the claim that, because we can induce mystical experiences and find the brain areas responsible for those brain experiences, it is impossible for God to cause that experience. Alston notes that God could be a cause of such experiences under normal circumstances even if that experience in abnormal circumstances. Alston is correct here; the fact that these experiences can be induced without (evidently) the presence of God, does not indicate that those experiences cannot be veridical in normal circumstances. (Although if God really is omnipresent, it's not clear how one can explain why people fail to perceive him.) This argument against mystical experience is one of the weaker ones you will sometimes see in the popular press. However, the lack of a comprehensible and verifiable causal explanation of mystical experience tends to undermine claims of its justification.

Here's where Alston outdoes himself. Cleverly, but not justifiably, Alston imagines that the critic of mystical experience would argue that God cannot be the cause of mystical experience, so one cannot reasonably understand mystical experience as justified. He argues that one cannot criticize the believer in mystical experience on these grounds since no one has any idea how God could possibly cause mystical experience. Critics, in particular, cannot conclude that it is impossible for God to do so since no one understands how it is possible. Hence, it is possible, as far as the argument goes, for God to cause mystical experience.

This is a clever, if bizarre, move on Alston's part since it is the proponent of the perceptual analogy who bears the burden of showing that this causation is possible. Do God-rays beam directly into a person's brain? If so, why aren't they measurable in some other way? Alston's argument is like the astrology buff who, admitting that he/she has no idea how the stars might have an influence on a person's destiny based on their location at the person's birth, says that this is no objection to her theory since since no one even knows how it could be possible. This influence cannot be proved to be impossible since no one even knows how it could be possible in the first place. It is reasonable to doubt a causal explanation of an experience if there is no way of understanding how that experience could be caused in that way. It is simply unreasonable to demand that someone provide a disproof when the possibility of such a causal story cannot even be understood. Such a mode of argument encourages obscurantism; it encourages people to make incomprehensible causal claims on the grounds that an incomprehensible one could not be disproved.


Nothing Alston has said undermines the basic case against mystical experience. Mystical experience lacks a comprehensible, measurable causal mechanism; it lacks confirming perceptual experience and indeed contradicts other perceptual experience; it lacks intersubjective verification; it only 'works' in conditions that are most likely to give rise to misperceptions. All of these points make a compelling case against the reliability of mystical experience. Alston's attempts to overcome these problems are erroneous and involve special pleading for the Christian mystical experiences over others with equal claims to reliability. In the end, I'm not sure what possessed me to write so much on this essay. Perhaps it was divine inspiration? Or perhaps it was my desire to see how a respectable theist's arguments would withstand critical scrutiny. I'm afraid, in the end, Alston's arguments did not fare well.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Protecting Our Second Amendment Rights

Republicans in Congress and the states, in particular Indiana, have pushed for (and in Indiana have succeeded in) defunding Planned Parenthood on the grounds that, while it is already illegal for them to receive government money to pay for abortions, money they receive for other services might help maintain the organization's ability to offer abortions. This is true.

What has not been noted, and I think this will revolutionize all our current thought on federal funding and taxes, is that whenever a poor woman is not able to receive aid to undergo a medical procedure (a pap smear, breast exam, etc.) from Planned Parenthood, she will have to pay for this procedure from some other source. All former recipients of federal or state aid for healthcare will have less money for other things, such as abortions, but they will also have less money for purchasing legal firearms.

Can you imagine a poor woman, who has just had to put her Glock in hock in order to pay for a breast exam, now has to walk home late at night unarmed and unprotected? She's an easy victim for a mugging or, worse, a rape! In our zeal to prevent her from getting an abortion, we've just caused her to be raped since she can no longer keep the firearm that would have protected her. We must remember, every dollar the government withholds from women's healthcare, is a dollar women cannot spend on firearms. Without that money, women will be easy prey for murderers, philatelists and sexual predators.

I say that Republican social engineering has gone far enough. We must fund women's health, even abortions, in order to keep sacrosanct the individual's right to keep and bear arms.

I know what you're thinking. If we pay for this health care, won't we only be arming poor women? Affluent, primarily white, women will still be able to pay for their health care, abortions and firearms? So, what's there to worry about?

Well, plenty. The heavily armed poor or minority woman is the backbone of poor communities. I've seen the documentary "Big Momma", and I think that preventing such women from packing heat is the worst disservice we can do to those communities. Remember, big handguns make good neighbors. Or dead ones, or something. Government spending for X always frees up money for Y, and so we can never cut spending for any X without cutting money for Y (in this case handguns), and so we can never cut government spending without taking away people's Second Amendment rights.

Craziest Thing I've Ever Read

I've often thought that the peculiar skill of philosophers is to take something self-evidently absurd and, dressing it up in proper technical language, render it, at least apparently, respectable. This is not to say that everything philosophers do is this sort of thing, but some of it most definitely is. A paper by Paul Humphreys on emergence and mental causation exemplifies my claim.

Humphreys is concerned with the problem posed by the apparent completeness of physics for explanations of the physical combined with the dependence (or supervenience) of the mental on the physical. Adding to this some plausible assumptions about properties and irreducibility of the mental to the physical, the problem is that it is impossible for the mental to do any causal work.

The mental appears to be causally unnecessary because (1) the mental and physical are not identical (according to the commonly held non-reductive physicalism), (2) physical explanations for physical phenomena are complete in that mental explanations are not possible for physical events, (3) the mental depends on the physical so that any mental event has a complete physical explanation. Hence, there is no need for any mental explanation for any mental event since such an event already has a complete physical explanation. Humphreys further claims that this problem is endemic to any type of scientific discourse beyond the most basic physical level. Hence, the problem generalizes to all higher-level sciences and their properties (that is, anything besides physics in which one might plausibly claim that the properties in question are not identical to some set of underlying physical properties). Biology, geology, fluid dynamics, economics are all areas in which higher-level properties (being a mountain, being alive, being an airfoil, being money) are not identical to any set of physical properties (properties in basic physics).

Philosophers have floated all sorts of plausible and implausible responses to this problem. Humphreys's response seems to me the most implausible so far. Humphreys develops a complex symbolization for events that I refuse to discuss since I think the problems with his view are more obvious without the layer of symbols.

Humphreys's solution is that (1) higher-level events are fusions of lower-level events, (2) these lower-level events cease to exist after they are part of this fusion, and, therefore, (3) the fusion does not supervene on the physical since the physical events (lower-level events) no longer exist.
I'll quote just to make clear that I am not making this up (p. 120 of Emergence: Contemporary Readings in Philosophy and Science, edited by Mark Bedau and Paul Humphreys):
[I]t is false to say that i-level [lower-level] property instances [events] co-occur with the (i + 1)st [next higher] level property instance [event]. The former no longer exist when they fuse to form the latter.
The solution works by denying that there is a complete physical explanation for the higher-level events since supervenience fails for them. There is no causal exclusion or causal overdetermination for these higher level events--they have same-level causes that are not determined by lower-level events because those lower-level events do not exist once the higher-level event does. This solution, Humphreys thinks, is the only way to have the kind of robust causation at the higher level one needs.

Humphreys has two final claims: (1) there is some evidence that this emergence (i.e. fusion of lower-level events into higher-level events) occurs in the case of quantum mechanics in entangled states of paired particles, for example. (2) It is an open question how often this kind of emergence appears elsewhere in the natural world. Thus, it is an open question whether mental phenomena can be emergent in the requisite way.

Now, seriously, what is one to say to this? It is not a solution to the problem of mental causation since he does not even claim that it applies to the mental. But if it doesn't apply to the mental, then we continue to have the previously described problem of mental causation. So, is there another solution if the mental is not properly emergent? Do we just give up and consider the mind to be epiphenomenal?

But, more significantly, this whole idea that events fuse to form higher-level events and then cease to exist is about as implausible as an idea gets. Supposing that cell biology is emergent on the biochemical level, so that cells (or parts of cells or organelles, or whatever) are fusions of complex biochemicals. That means these biochemicals do not exist once they become part of a cell. If organisms are emergent, then cells cease to exist. If societies are emergent, then individuals cease to exist. If these lower-level entities don't exist, then laws of biochemistry, biology, psychology can no longer apply to them. And organisms cannot even be said to be constituted by cells (post fusion) because those cells no longer exist. We solve the problem of higher-level causation at the cost of giving up all our lower-level science. I don't think I even need to look for problems with this theory; I only have to state the basic view and the absurdity of it is obvious.

Is this as crazy as it looks? I think so. Maybe Humphreys will claim that particles, cells, chemicals still exist but the events of which they are constituents do not. I don't know that such a move would make sense. It seems just as crazy to say that chemicals in cells are not interacting (the event does not occur), they are part of an object that is undergoing a higher-level interaction that is not constituted by lower-level chemical interactions.

The moral I take from this is that (1) philosophers, especially good philosophers, can believe some crazy things if it helps them solve a problem, (2) excessive jargon, abstraction and symbolization can obscure the real meaning of a solution (or even a problem) rather than elucidate it, and (3) there is no third moral. Actually, the third moral might be: common sense is not a prerequisite for publishing philosophy and is probably a detriment to it.

And that's how and why Humphreys's view is the craziest thing I've ever read.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Something Rather Than Nothing--Reposted

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.