Monday, 9 February 2015

The Argument from contingency- random thoughts

So I was reading Al Plantinga's Nature of Necessity, and some thoughts crossed my mind.

First, note that an argument from contingency can be either about (concrete) things or propositions. We're gonna talk about the argument that concerns itself with propositions.

Second, here's the basic strategy of the proponent of the argument.

1. Isolate some basic causal/explanatory feature of the world, based on everyday experiences. It could be that objects are always dependent on other objects (contingent objects), propositions are never self-explained but they are always explained by other propositions, and so on.

2. Generalize this feature maximally. The generalized proposition would look something like "every proposition/thing is explained by virtue of its own nature or by some external object/proposition".

3. Characterize the world as just one entity- one object, one set, one class of things/propositions. In other words, define, say, all of the contingent reality as just one entity bound by some property. Joshua Rasmussen characterizes the world as a "actual maximally contingent state", while Gale and Pruss define the world as a "Big Contingent Cosmological Fact (BCCF)".

4. Apply the generalized causal explanatory principle of 2 to the world arrived at 3. The argument at this point would say, for example, that the BCCF has an explanation since it cannot be self-explained.

5. Characterize this explanation/object arrived at by the exercise in 4 with relevant theistic properties. The fact that the BCCF's explanation entails a necessary concrete being follows obviously. The philosopher would then have to delineate other properties of this necessary concrete being, like personhood and free will for example.

And you have your contingency argument.


The rooms for attack against such a contingency argument are:

1. A causal/explanatory principle that can be generalized maximally is hard to come by. Leibniz's "Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR)" came pretty close, but it has recently faced mounting objections from theists and non-theists alike. Two of the most potent objections are a reductio ad absurdum argument presented by Peter van Inwagen, and the empirical data from quantum mechanics. This is why atheist William Rowe advices theists to find warrant for the PSR. However, theistic philosophers have sidestepped this problem by formulating weaker forms of PSR which are much more plausible. In Gale and Pruss' paper on the topic, they formulate a new principle called W-PSR (weak PSR), which states that all contingent propositions possibly have explanations, instead of saying that they necessarily have explanations.

2. Characterizing the world as just one entity runs into problems. When you think about it, this step is perhaps the most problematic in the whole argument. Can the cosmos really be viewed as just one entity, any more than "my left foot, your right ear, a bottlecap in the road and the upper part of the statue of liberty" together make up an entity? In other words, ascribing entityhood to the entire contingent cosmos seems to be somewhat ad hoc. Many people, if you ask them "what is the one property that all of the items/propositions in our known cosmos have in common?", would probably answer- nothing. In light of this intuitive ad hoc-ness, there needs to be a solid argument which backs up step 3. Unfortunately, such an argument has not been very forthcoming. Gale and Pruss doesn't consider the fact that the BCCF may be implausible. One way the BCCF can be thought to be a single proposition or entity is the fact that all of it shares the modal property of contingency (some people would say contingency is not a property, but I'd say that's hard to argue since necessity is clearly a property). In light of this one unifying attribute, perhaps the BCCF can be viewed to be just one entity. Emanuel Rutten in his brilliant PhD thesis "Towards a Renewed Case for Theism: A Critical Assessment of Contemporary Cosmological Arguments" develops a rigorous criteria for entityhood of different objects based on some mereological principles. An interesting question would be- can this be applied for propositions? If so, then it would be relevant to the Gale-Pruss cosmological argument. Also, some arguments against the plausibility of BCCF have been proposed by some philosophers, but they are of a complex reductio ad absurdum form and I haven't explored them. Some other philosophers have suggested that if the BCCF is infinite, then it may be absurd based on some arguments.

3. Attribution of theistic properties to the "God" arrived at by the argument may be a tall order. In his essay on the topic in Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology, Alex Pruss makes the point that this step in the argument- what he calls the gap problem- is the least researched thus far (perhaps for sociological reasons). Without the entity having some theistic properties, it wouldn't be very useful as an argument in natural theology. Gale and Pruss thus try and characterize this entity with personhood and free will. As for personhood, the argument is essentially a process of elimination- the ultimate explanation of the BCCF cannot be a nomological/scientific one, since that would involve laws- and laws are never necessary. Two questions arise- one, what if there are some fundamental necessary laws? And two, what if the process was stochastic? These are not insurmountable problems, the first question can be rebutted by appeal to the contingency of laws in general (as per the deliverance of our observations), and the second can be answered by refuting possibility of purely random processes. I believe Rutten does the latter in his thesis, albeit briefly.

4. Problems in generalizing. A very important objection to such arguments is the Humean self-explanatory thesis- perhaps the universe even perceived as an entity is self-explained in the sense proposition A explains proposition B, proposition B explains proposition C, and so on. If this is true, then not only does the universe not have an external explanation, but it simply cannot have an external explanation. One would need to refute this argument to preserve the causal principle invoked at step 1 and later applied at step 4. Gale and Pruss has a controversial and (in my opinion) long-winded refutation to this. Rutten, however, in his thesis invokes an argument by James van Cleve who argues that such internal explanations are circular, in that they cannot explain why contingent objects in general exist. But then the problem is the same as roadblock #2 above- can the collection of all contingent objects be said to make up an entity such that questions like "why do contingent objects exist (cf. why does water exist?)" are feasible? Or is such an ascription of entityhood to all contingent objects/propositions ad hoc?

5. Competing intuitions. Finally, one may suggest that the conclusion arrived at by the argument (the existence of a necessary and personal being) invokes a degree of mystery which cannot be explained by the intuitive nature of the premises of the argument. In other words, one may suggest that rejection of the causal principles and other premises of the argument may be of a greater explanatory virtue than positing a necessary being. The latter invokes questions like- why is a being necessary? In a personal correspondence, professor Rutten had this to say: "...a philosophical or scientific explanation doesn't require an explanation of the explanation. For it that were the case, we would end up in an infinite regress, and even science itself would become impossible. Given some fairly plausible premises, a necessary being explains the existence of a world of contingent beings. This explanation is proper, even if one cannot provide an explanation of this explanation, that is to say, even though one cannot explain what makes this necessary being necessary."

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