Friday, February 18, 2005

The Penultimate Explanation-Seeking Why-Question

In a previous post, I distinguished and discussed the following two questions:

Q1. Why does anything at all exist rather than nothing?

Q2. Why does anything at all exist?

I proved to my satisfaction that these are distinct questions resting on distinct presuppositions, and that Q1 (but not Q2) ought to be rejected on the ground that it entails its own unanswerability. But there are other questions in the vicinity, for example:

Q3. Why does this totality of things exist rather than some other possible totality?

Q4. Why (for what purpose) do human beings exist?

Q5. Why (for what purpose) do I exist?

Commenter Peter wants an answer to Q5. I hope to address Q4 and Q5, but first let’s consider Q3 which could be called the penultimate explanation-seeking why-question.

Q3 could be put this way: Why is the actual world actual? "It is actual because it would not have been the actual world had it not been actual." To say that is to miss the sense of the question. The question asks: Why is this world, our world, actual rather than some other merely possible world? Let ‘A’ denote (rigidly designate) our world, the world that happens to be actual. The question is: Why is A actual rather than some merely possible world X?

So formulated, Q3 presupposes that there are other possible worlds. Suppose there is only one possible world, the actual world. Then the actual world would be the necessary world. For if there is only one possible world, then the world that is actual does not merely happen to be actual, but could not have failed to have been actual. The view that there is exactly one possible world may be called modal Spinozism, or to leave Spinoza out of it, modal monism. On modal monism, ‘possible,’ ‘actual,’ and ‘necessary’ become logically equivalent expressions. Q3 therefore presupposes that modal monism is false and that some version of modal pluralism is true. The modal pluralist holds that there is a plurality of possible worlds.

What is a possible world? A merely possible world is a total way things might have been. The actual world is the total way things are. A possible world, therefore, is either a total way things are or might have been.

Q3 therefore presupposes that there is a plurality of possible worlds. But Q3, being contrastive, also presupposes that only one of these worlds is actual. For if each were actual (by being actual at itself, relative to itself, from its own point of view, etc.), then all the worlds would be on an ontological par, and there would be nothing to explain.

In other words, Q3 presupposes not only that (i) there is a plurality of possible worlds, but also that (ii) actuality is absolute as opposed to world-relative.

Q3 also presupposes that (iii) things exist, and that (iv) there is an explanation as to why things exist. As far as I can see, Q3 is a legitimate question. It cannot be dismissed in the way I dismissed Q1. The four presuppositions on which it rests are reasonably held.

A theist could answer both Q2 and Q3 as follows. Contingent things exist because God created them. God exists because it is his nature to exist. This totality of things exists rather than some other merely possible totality because God freely chose this totality over the other possible totalities.

But what could an atheist do with Q2 or Q3? He could ‘pull a Spinoza’ and say that it is necessary that things exist and that this precise totality of things exist. He could ‘pull a David Lewis’ and maintain that there is a plurality of possible worlds all equally real. Our atheist could say that it is a brute fact that things and this precise totality of things exists. Finally, our atheist could try to explain what actually but contingently exists in terms of earlier phases of what actually but contingently exists. Any other possibilities?

My judgement is that each of these four atheistic moves can be countered, and that each is worse than theism, so that theism emerges as the best answer to Q2 and Q3. Subsequent posts will address these alternatives.