Randy Everist over at his blog Possible Worlds recently posted a bit on the Principle of Sufficient Reason. The post initiated an interesting discussion and the following exchange. I hope some find the exchange of some interest, but be mindful the discussion is casual and much detail has been omitted. Also, I mention epistemic iteration towards the end, so if one wants to acquaint oneself with the idea, they can read the blog post.
Generally, I hold no brief for metaphysical speculations as I find them to be more reports of one’s own psychology than any deep insight into the so called ‘nature of things’.
That said, that *something* exists necessarily hardly seems to be a logical truth. It would seem entirely possible that there should be nothing rather than something- the domain of quantification (that which our particular and universal quantifiers range over) is empty.
Essentially, why there exists something rather than nothing is an open area of inquiry in physics, not philosophy, and there have been some interesting conjectures from that quarter.
I don’t see any reason to think physics can find anything outside itself for why there is something rather than nothing, so it seems it’s ill-equipped to ensure a metaphysical job is done well. And further note it seems there really isn’t much of an escape from the PSR even with physics–for there is an assumed explanation for why it is there is something and not nothing. Otherwise, physics is just going to assert the universe’s existence as a brute fact, for no reason at all!
Thank you for replying to a comment on a superseded post. There is much I could say on this topic, but I will try to stay concise.
First, I have no use for metaphysics as I view it as pure obscurantism, and thus metaphysical speculations really amount to naught for me. A quote from C.S. Peirce aptly captures my view:
“Metaphysics is a subject much more curious than useful, the knowledge of which, like that of a sunken reef, serves chiefly to enable us to keep clear of it.”
Second, I would like to press you on what, exactly, an explanation is. You say the business of science is formulating ‘explanations’ of physical phenomena. While I may agree prima facie, we may reduce so called ‘explanations’ to predictive hypotheses: The business of science is a matter of framing hypotheses which imply past observations and which imply future observations under specifiable conditions, which in turn would then serve to confirm or disconfirm said hypotheses. ‘God’, I would argue, admits of no logical deductions of observable criteria, and is thus cognitively insignificant. In other words, ‘God’ explains nothing (or, one could argue, ‘God’ explains everything and thus explains nothing).
Third, that matter exists as a brute fact is an open question to be answered by physics. If physics makes room for brute facts and this offends our metaphysical sensibilities, that is our intuitions, so much the worse for our intuitions: Science is on much firmer epistemic grounds than philosophy is or could ever hope to be. (As an aside, I am not sure what ‘intuitions’ are if not one’s personal prejudices.)
Lastly, Alex Pruss’s business about denying the PSR stems from a “fear that acceptance of the PSR will force one to accept various theological conclusions” is silly. First, Peter van Inwagen, a prominent theist, rejects the PSR. Second, quite a few atheists accept the PSR (e.g. Arthur Schopenhauer and Quentin Smith).
Thanks for the response! As far as Pruss is concerned, it is evident he doesn’t think this is a necessary condition for rejection of the PSR, but a strong motivator. Nor could we conclude that some atheist’s acceptance of the PSR functions as a counterexample, for his claim is not that all people who hold a fear of God would do this.
As far as metaphysics is concerned, it’s only concerned with logic and “the way things work.” I don’t see any argument contained therein, implicit or otherwise.
Moving to the business of explanations, I would say an explanation is just a reason, thing, or state of affairs in virtue of which some other thing, event, or state of affairs has obtained as true and not some other thing. I don’t see that as being away from science’s mission, but a part of it.
Next, I don’t see how physics can have the tools to answer the question! It must rely on philosophy to know whether or not there even are brute facts, much less whether the universe just is a brute fact. Only on an assumption of naturalism would we be forced to work only with physics, which of course would be question-begging here. Also, it’s noteworthy science both cannot operate apart from philosophy (even while philosophy can operate in certain areas apart from science) and cannot operate apart from intuition. For the former, just any conclusion reached will depend upon reasoning. For the latter, what justifies any inductive reasoning whatsoever?
Take the apply falling from the tree to the ground, or a man who releases a ball from shoulder length. If he does this on Earth today, is he justified in thinking it will drop? If not for intuition, it’s difficult to see how. For if he says “it has dropped every other time I have done it,” he is just assuming a principle that cannot be justified apart from its own truth. He has no reason to think it will not drop. If he says, “well we’ve seen multiple experiments confirming Earth’s gravity and gravity and space–physics confirms it everywhere,” but problems abound, of the same variety. Perhaps some mathematical reasoning may come into play here, but that misses the point. We would be forced to conclude that unless the man had knowledge of these mathematical truths, he is not in fact justified in assuming the apple will fall. This is absurd. Our intuition–the shared intuition that drives science to this day–is that if X happens under specified conditions over and over and over, controlling for other factors, we are justified in assuming it’s going to happen again. Science cannot account for itself. It desperately needs philosophy, and we do well not to abandon it.
Again, thank you for your response.
Re: ‘As far as metaphysics is concerned, it’s only concerned with logic and “the way things work.”‘
Logic is the development of systematic techniques for the assessment of arguments for deductive validity and inductive support. The area of inquiry into ‘the way things work’ is science, the development of systematic empirical techniques & methods for the investigation into the physical world, i.e. the domain of physical ‘things’. Neither science nor logic require one to make recourse to ‘metaphysics’.
Re: ‘I would say an explanation is just a reason’
A ‘reason’ is a psychological term which involves intentionality, etc. An explanation / hypothesis is a linguistic entity which describes & predicts some state of affairs under specifiable conditions; think of explanations as linguistic instruments through which we account for existing data and predict future patterns of sensory stimuli. Though in common parlance many certainly conflate the two, they are distinct. So, e.g., the ‘God’ hypothesis (so called) admits of no logical deductions of observable criteria, and thus it is not explanatory- indeed, it is not even cognitively significant.
Re: ‘Only on an assumption of naturalism would we be forced to work only with physics, which of course would be question-begging here.’
Not at all. The issue is one about methodology, not about whether a non-physical personal deity (whatever that means) exists. Even if one were to exist (whatever that type of ‘existence’ would amount to), it is not at all clear that (1) it did create us (we could still be the result of purely physical processes) and (2) that methodological naturalism is not the appropriate methodological approach.
Traditionally conceived, philosophy was concerned to provide a firm foundation upon which to build science. However, the history of philosophy is largely a history of its cannibalization by the special sciences, which shows in dramatic relief the problem-solving poverty of traditional philosophical analysis (cf. Leibniz, Descartes, Malebranche, Kant, etc.) and the problem-solving success of scientific methodology. As I said previously, science is on much firmer epistemic grounds than traditional philosophical analysis can ever hope to be.
Having said this, I should offer the following caveat. Philosophy, as conceived by naturalists, is consonant with science- indeed a part of science- differing only in abstraction: scientists tell us what exists & how these things interact, whilst philosophers analyze the connective tissue of science via logical analyses of concepts such as ‘causation’, etc. So, conceived in this sense, I can agree in part with you in that science without philosophy is blind, and philosophy without science is empty.
Re: Science’s dependency on intuition.
‘Intuition’ is often ambiguously used to connote different things, e.g. subconscious reasoning processes, so-called mystical experiences, or some queer cognitive faculty that modern anatomical science has yet to identify. I suspect you are using the term in the latter sense, in which case the lion’s share of modern cognitive science research shows that ‘intuition’ amounts to little more than our preconceived personal and cultural prejudices and is thus not the type of thing which justifies beliefs. In other words, ‘intuitions’ are evidence of nothing except for the contents of our psychology.
Now, if science is in an important way premised upon ‘intuition’ (in the sense in which you are using the term), science is founded upon base irrationalism, much like pseudoscience, faith healing, and every other nonsense under the sun are, and thus science can make no claims to epistemic authority. However, there is something importantly different about science and pseudoscience & mysticism- look at the successes of the former and the failures of the latter.
It is not that one ‘intuits’ (whatever that means) the epistemic justifiability of an evidence-gathering method, but rather we look at its reliability and truth-tracking ability in an instrumental sense (we would explicate ‘reliability’ via something like epistemic iteration [see my post over at FSPB for a presentation of epistemic iteration])- if a method, e.g., induction, continues to produce successful results, we continue to employ it and we partly assess the rationality of beliefs, hypotheses, claims, etc., by virtue of it.
So, we could run an argument for the rationality of inductive methods over alternatives in the following way:
First, let us use a standard disquotational schema for truth:
DS: ‘p’ is true if and only if p
Second, let us consider a standard principle of epistemic justification:
EJ: S is justified in believing p at t if and only if S’s evidence supports p at t and S believes p at t on the basis of the evidence.
I take EJ to be true analytically, but by ‘evidence supports p’ I take it that, on the evidence, p is more likely to be true than not-p, where not-p is the set of all alternatives to p. It seems clear to me that it is plausible to say that the evidence makes p more likely to be true than not only if it is plausible to say that the evidence tracks the truth of p, or reliably discriminates p from its competitors.
Essentially, your options for response are limited. DS is uncontroversial enough and you are, at the terminus of your analysis, committed to EJ, so via some variant of the problem of induction you need to reject that epistemic iteration delivers an appropriate notion of reliability.
We can pragmatically justify inductive methods in the following way (this is not to imply, however, that this is the only way):
Pace Hume we agree that we cannot know a priori if nature is appropriately uniform so as to permit inferential methods. If nature is not, no rule of inference will work, inductive or otherwise. If nature is, some rule of inference will work. If some rule(s) of inference will work, clairvoyance, extispicy, or any other claptrappery under the sun may or may not work. If some rule(s) of inference will work, induction must work, since if any method works, standard inductive methods or not, the success of the method can be exploited inductively. So, e.g., if clairvoyance works, that is, leads to more accurate forecasts than not, then we can exploit clairvoyance inductively. The method via which we would discover the operable rule(s) of inference would be epistemic iteration. In nuce, we have nothing to lose if we reason inductively, but we have a world to gain.
Thus, reason obliges that we reason inductively.