Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Maitzen on Why is there anything?

Leibiz wondered "Why is there something rather than nothing?"

(Note: I started this post with the intention of writing a more substantive engagement with Maitzen’s article. However, as I was beginning to write the more substantive portions, I discovered an excellent series of posts on this very article, with comments and responses from Steve himself, over on Bill Vallicella’s blog. Since the participants over there are far more knowledgeable and perceptive than I could ever hope to be, I recommend checking it out. Although the existence of this series led me to contemplate scrapping my post in its entirety, I had already put some work into it and so decided to post it in abbreviated form. It’s just an explanation of Maitzen’s argument. Perhaps some people will find it of value. But advance apologies for it not being as engaged as is typical on this blog)

The question “why is there something/anything rather than nothing at all?” is supposedly among the most profound questions we can ask. But is it really that profound? Steve Maitzen thinks not and he offers a pretty interesting argument in support of his contention. This post is dedicated to its explication.

The post is divided into two sections. The first sets out some of the dialectical context since it is important for understanding the implications that Maitzen draws from his argument. The second sets out the argument itself. Unlike some of his other work, Maitzen doesn’t offer a formal statement of his case so I’ve taken the liberty of trying to reconstruct one on the basis of what I read. As noted, I’ve held off on providing a more critical engagement with the argument due to the existence of the series on Bill Vallicella’s blog.

1. The Dialectical Context
Many people find the existence of a universe full of stuff, or, rather, the existence of anything to be extremely puzzling. After all, most of the stuff in the universe seems contingent and contingent things need to be explained. I exist, but I might not have if my parents had never met. Likewise, the solar system exists, but if there wasn’t enough matter floating around to condense into the sun and the planets then it might not have existed too. This contingency seems to stretch all the way back to the big bang. So it seems like there must be some explanation for the totality of the contingent things in the universe.

What’s more, the existence of a world with nothing in it (what some call the “Null World”) seems more straightforward than the existence of a world with stuff in it. A Null World would be perfectly simple, perfectly symmetrical, and completely non-arbitrary. It seems far less puzzling than the complex, non-symmetrical and seemingly arbitrary universe we live in right now. Indeed, it seems far less puzzling than any other possible universe we could imagine. So when it comes to the explanation of the universe, it seems like we have ask: why would anything (this universe, another universe, a multiverse, whatever) exist instead of nothing?

This question — dubbed the Primordial Existential Question (PEQ) by Adolf Grunbaum — has occupied the minds of several great thinkers, among them Leibniz, Wittgenstein and, more recently, Parfit. To be sure, the question needs to be carefully construed. It is not really asking why anything at all exists. Most are agreed that logical and metaphysical necessities have to exist. Rather, it is asking why contingent, concrete things exist, like the physical and material things we come across in everyday life. Thus, the PEQ should probably be formulated in this manner:

Primordial Existential Question (PEQ): Why are there any contingent concrete things rather no contingent concrete things?

Even formulated in this more careful and constrained fashion, the PEQ is thought to be unanswerable for the naturalist and atheist. The reason being that naturalistic explanations tend to presuppose the existence of natural things like quarks and muon and leptons and so forth. But such presuppositions are ruled out when we’re trying to explain how those entities came into existence in the first place. It seems like something immaterial, non-natural and perhaps divine needs to be posited to explain the totality of contingent things.

Against this dialectical backdrop, Maitzen offers his two cents. He thinks that far from being the most profound and naturalistically unanswerable question we can ask, the PEQ is, in fact, a pseudo-question. In any form in which it is typically posed it is indeed unanswerable, not just by naturalists but by anyone. This is because it uses logically inapt terms that necessarily lead to absurd answers. And whenever it is reformulated to remove those terms, it ends up being in principle answerable by naturalism and thus far from the insuperable hurdle it is thought to be.

Maitzen’s Claim: The PEQ is not a problem for naturalists because: (a) in any of its traditional forms it is an ill-posed, pseudo-question; and (b) whenever properly reformulated it is in principle answerable by naturalists.

Let’s look at how Maitzen supports the two parts of this claim.

2. The Dummy Sortal Argument
Maitzen’s argument is actually surprisingly easy to state. It contends that the PEQ is a pseudo-question because its primary referent (anything/everything) is — brace yourself — a dummy sortal. A dummy sortal is a linguistic term that has the grammatical look and feel of a noun, but none of the associated noun-like logical properties. That is to say, it is a term that appears to refer to some actually existent entity (or grouping of entities), but really doesn’t. Consequently, it is impossible to know what the PEQ is actually asking us to explain. When the PEQ is reformulated so as to remove all dummy sortals, it becomes much more tractable, and naturalism-friendly.

The argument is perhaps best made by way of an analogy, one that Maitzen himself supplies. Consider another existential question, albeit not the primordial one:

Numerical Existential Question NEQ: How many things are actually in existence?

How does one go about answering this question? The answer seems straightforward: identify all the “things” and count them up. That might take a lot of time, perhaps more time than we have, but that’s a logistical problem not a philosophical one. Right?

Wrong. Consider an example:

The Pen Analogy: Suppose you hold one capped ballpoint pen in your hand. Now ask yourself: how many things are you holding? Is it one thing (a capped ballpoint pen) or two things (the cap and the pen)? For that matter is it three things (the cap, the ink tube and the casing) or four things (the cap, the ink tube, the casing, and the metal nib)? Or is it even more? Should we could each and every atom or quark in the pen as a separate “thing”? Where do the boundaries lie between one “thing” and another “thing”?

So “things” are not so simple after all. Even with a simple, seemingly straightforward NEQ like this, the answer is philosophically elusive. In fact, it is unattainable and this is for good reason. The term “thing” is a dummy sortal. It doesn’t provide criteria of identity governing the instances that fall under it. This is true even if one tries to solve the problem by claiming that the number of things in your hand is a countable or uncountable infinity (Maitzen discusses this possibility in some detail in the article, I shan’t repeat it here).

But why then does the NEQ seem so reasonable? The problem stems from a confusion of grammatical and logical function. “Thing” looks and functions grammatically as a noun, but it doesn’t have the appropriate noun-like logical properties. If I ask you “how many pens are you holding?”, you’ll be able to answer my question. That’s because “pen” has the criteria of identity we’d expect from a noun. “Thing” doesn’t. Nor does any analogue of “thing”, like “state of affairs”, “event”, “entity”, or “fact”. So any reformulation of the NEQ to include those terms rather than “thing” will face similar problems.
This leads to the larger point. It’s not just the NEQ that faces these intractable problems. Any question using a dummy sortal like “thing” will face those problems. That includes, most damningly, the PEQ, the supposedly profound question that has haunted many a philosophical nightmare.

That gives us the following argument against the PEQ:

  • (1) Any question that uses a dummy sortal like “thing”, “entity”, “event”, “state of affairs” and so forth is an ill-posed, unanswerable, pseudo-question. (See the Pen Analogy for support) 
  • (2) The PEQ is typically formulated so as to include the dummy sortal “thing”. 
  • (3) Therefore, the PEQ is an ill-posed, unanswerable, pseudo-question.

This supports the first part of Maitzen’s claim. What about the second? Things are little sketchier on that front. The basic idea seems to be that when you replace a dummy sortal like “thing”, with a proper one like “pen”, you end up with a question that is answerable. This is true not just in the case of an NEQ, but also in the case of an explanatory existential question. Thus, when you ask “why does this pen exist?”, a perfectly naturalistic answer is forthcoming. This is also true of other, more esoteric, questions of this sort, such as “why did the earth come into existence?”, “why did atoms come into existence?”, “where does mass come from?”, and so on. The presumption is that this trend will continue for any well-posed existential question.

This may seem like far too easy a dismissal of the PEQ. Surely Maitzen can’t be right? Surely all the philosophers who’ve dedicated themselves to the PEQ haven’t been chasing a phantom? Maitzen addresses several potential objections in the article and additional criticisms have been mounted (and responded to) over on Bill Vallicella’s blog. I recommend checking them out.

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