Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Two Forms of the Ultimate Explanation-Seeking Why-Question

Why does anything at all exist? Someone could utter this interrogative form of words merely to express astonishment that anything should exist at all. But it is more natural to take the question as a request for an explanation: Why, for what reason or cause, does anything at all exist? What explains the sheer existence of things? Suppose we call this the ultimate explanation-seeking why-question.

Before attempting to answer this question, one ought to examine it carefully. One ought to question the question. If we do so, we soon realize that the question why anything at all exists can be formulated in two ways. One formulation is contrastive, the other non-contrastive:

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

Q2. Why does anything at all exist?

What this post argues is that Q1 suffers from a defect that makes it unanswerable, but that Q2 does not suffer from this defect. Failure to distinguish Q1 and Q2 may lead one to reject both questions as unanswerable. It appears that Paul Edwards makes this mistake in his entry "Why?" in the Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Anthony Flood may be repeating it here.

That these are distinct questions becomes apparent when we note that the questions rest on different presuppositions. Both questions presuppose that something exists. If that were not the case, there would be nothing to explain. But Q1 also presupposes that it is possible that nothing at all exist. Call this further presupposition P. P is no part of Q2, as I will explain in a moment.

Let us first think about P and what it entails. P may be expressed in several logically equivalent ways:

There might have been nothing at all
It is possible that nothing exist
Possibly, nothing exists
There is a possible world in which nothing exists

where ‘possible’ and cognates pick out broadly logical possibility.

No matter how P is formulated, it entails that everything that exists is contingent, equivalently, that nothing that exists is a necessary being. For if there might have been nothing at all, then any thing X that exists is such that it might not have existed. That is just to say that X is a contingent being. So given that Q1 presupposes P, and that P entails that nothing is a necessary being, it follows that Q1 presupposes that nothing is a necessary being. But this seems to imply that the question Q1 cannot be answered.

For if Q1 – or the asking of Q1 – presupposes that nothing is a necessary being, then the asking of Q1 presupposes that there is nothing in terms of which an ultimate explanation could be couched. This is because an ultimate explanation of why anything at all exists cannot be in terms of a contingent entity. A contingent explainer would need explanation just as much as any other entity. An ultimate explanation, if one is to be had, must invoke a noncontingent, but possible, entity: one that either explains itself or at least is not in need of an explanation by another. (I am assuming that there cannot be an actually infinite regress of contingent explainers. This assumption is quite easy to defend, but I won’t address that task here, having addressed one form of it elsewhere.)

The upshot is that Q1 entails its own unanswerability. This is not because we are unable to know the answer, but because the question itself by its very structure rules out an answer. In other words, Q1 is self-defeating in that it rests on a presupposition that rules out an answer. The proper procedure with respect to Q1, then, is to reject it, not try to answer it.

But the situation is different with Q2. Q2 does not presuppose that every being is contingent. It does not presuppose the opposite (some being is noncontingent) either. Q2 is neutral on the question whether every being is contingent. This is why Q2 is not just a truncated form of Q1. It is not as if ‘rather than nothing’ is implied but not stated in Q2. Q2, resting as it does on different presuppositions than Q1, is a different question. Q2 does not presuppose the possibility of there being nothing, hence, does not presuppose that only what is contingent can exist.

Thus Q2 allows the possibility of a necessary being. Nothing about Q2 entails its own unanswerability. Q2 allows the following answer: things exist because one of the things that exist is a necessary being whose existence is self-explanatory, while everything else is explained in terms of this necessary being.

I am making three assumptions about explanation.

A. One cannot explain what is not the case.

B. It is not necessary to an explanation that the explanandum (that which is to be explained) and the explanans (the entity or entities invoked in the explanation) be distinct.

C. It is not obvious that everything has an explanation: it is epistemically possible that there be brute facts.

(A) is self-evident and needs no support. (B) may be supported by citing examples of self-explanatory propositions. The proposition expressed by ‘Everything is self-identical’ is a necessary truth. As such, it is self-explanatory: explanandum and explanans are one. Note that there is no reason to assume that an explanation of why things exist must be a causal explanation.

(C) is a large topic requiring a separate discussion. But suppose that there are brute facts, facts that contingently obtain but have no explanation. It doesn’t follow that the existence of that-which-exists is a brute fact, but suppose that that is nonethless the case. Then there is perhaps a sense in which Q2 is unanswerable: it is unanswerable in that it rests on a false presupposition, namely, that the existence of that-which-exists is not a brute fact.

Even if that is so, it remains that case that Q2 is free of the defect that renders Q1 unanswerable. Q1 is self-defeating by its very structure. Q2, however, is not self-defeating by its very structure. If Q2 does rest on a false presupposition, this can only be established by a complicated set of considerations, and not by simply explicating the content of Q2.

The upshot is that Q2 cannot be easily dismissed. It remains a question worthy of serious consideration.