Monday, August 04, 2008

Logos vs. Chaos, Part One

Timothy O’Connor has written an interesting book full of meaty metaphysics (plus some theology): Theism and Ultimate Explanation: The Necessary Shape of Contingency. In this post I will focus on the sections of the book which were of greatest interest to me, but I enjoyed reading the whole thing. The central goal of the book is to present an up-to-date cosmological argument from contingency for the existence of a transcendent necessary being.

Like O’Connor, I’m interested in pursuing the quest for ultimate metaphysical explanation, and I agree with him that it is the apparent contingent nature of our world which demands an answer (“why this?”).

Unlike O’Connor, however, I don’t come to this quest as a traditional theist. I’ve long thought that the purposes and activities of a personal god cannot provide an explanation without raising equivalently difficult questions. So, an intriguing part of the book is where O’Connor discusses and compares two models of a transcendent necessary being: the personal and the impersonal. Or as he labels them: Logos and Chaos.

Before getting to this point, O’Connor lays the groundwork. In the first two chapters of the book, he discusses the case for modal realism and sketches a theory of modal epistemology. I agree with him that our concepts of possibility and necessity are so fundamental to explanation and reasoning (as well as to everyday life) that they are grounded in real modal truths. With regard to his account of how we come to know such truths, I found the discussion interesting, but tentative, and will leave this aside for now.

In Chapter 3, we begin to look at where the quest for explanation will take us. If the contingency of the world is acknowledged, and the necessities we come to know (if imperfectly) are real, what explains this situation? After commenting on the tendency for many philosophers to dismiss this sort of question as unanswerable, O’Connor turns his attention to the options on offer (I would note that Graham Oppy, in his review, disagrees with O’Connor in that he counts “contingent world as brute fact” as one of the options).

First, O’Connor discusses the common naturalist option which asserts that there is an infinite causal chain of contingent things, and that no further explanation is needed. O’Connor says even if the infinite causal chain is the right model, we can still coherently ask for an explanation of why THIS chain of things, and not another. The rejoinder at this point is to point out that a fully contrastive explanation of why this chain is as it is, if it existed, would convert the contingent chain to a necessary one. But O’Connor responds by saying that we can still seek a complete explanation, even if it is a non-fully-contrastive one. He says the only way to do this will be to ground contingent reality in a transcendent-cause explanation that is non-contrastive.

But how can a necessary being (NB, for short) provide the right kind of explanation? The necessity of the cause would seem to “prove too much” and convert the contingent chain to necessary status. Indeed, this is a standard critique of the Leibnizian version of the cosmological argument, which features the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). O’Connor concedes the effectiveness of this critique, and points out that his version will not invoke the PSR. But isn’t the PSR or something like it implied by the desire for an explanation of the contingent world?

O’Connor says he can avoid this as he isn’t offering a contrastive explanation (e.g. why this world instead of any other?) He says he can do this by invoking an explanation based on a model of the NB as an agent:

"In the context of an agent who exercises a capacity to freely act for a purpose, explanation is grounded in an internal similarity relation of the content of the prior purpose to that of the effective intention. To understand why an intention is freely generated, one need only identify its reasons-bearing content. This contrasts of course, with a mechanistic model of intentional action on which an agent’s purposes or desires or beliefs explain the choice, or formation of an intention, solely in terms of an external, causal relationship to it. But it is readily understandable in its own terms. (p.83)"

So the NB-agent’s creative activity of forming an intention, based on reasons (which is then satisfied by the creation of a contingent world), need not be seen as a necessary sequence of steps:

"And it would be a confusion to suppose that we needed a further explanation of the generation of the intention – for that is just the agent’s exercise of control over his state of intention and its product. (p.83, emphasis original)"

But still we want to ask: why intend contingent world C instead of C*? Well, we can’t ask this question, because an answer would provide for C being inevitable. But that doesn’t mean we haven’t given an explanation at all, according to O’Connor. The buck stops with the (contingent) intentions of the NB-agent.

To me, this seems a difficult stance. A naturalist might ask why we can’t stop the explanation at an earlier stage (before invoking the NB); O’Connor wants to stop the discussion at a later stage – but either way we eventually reach a “conversation-stopper”. Do the extra steps add enough value to prefer this NB-agent view, especially given all the (controversial) extra apparatus of intentions, purposes, activity, etc.?

Well, we need to recall the NB view’s main advantage, which is that it helps underwrite the reality of modal truths (there exists both contingent and necessary aspects to reality). But, do we really need the agent apparatus to provide this advantage?

To his credit, O’Connor sees the existence of another alternative (or set of alternatives). He starts by noting that, in addition to his agent model, there are many instances where we accept causal explanations even when they are not fully contrastive ones. Specifically, we do this in cases of “indeterministic mechanistic causal processes in the natural world, and the kinds of scientific explanations that may be given for them.” He gives the example of a disease which, when untreated, leads to a debilitating outcome 27% of the time. If the indeterminism here is fundamentally irreducible, we still have a good explanation for the outcome (the untreated disease) even if not a fully contrastive one (we can’t say why the outcome manifested itself this particular time).

So, the question becomes: could the necessary being be an impersonal “fount” of creative possibilities, which generates one or more contingent worlds?

{End of part one}

Note: I’m skipping over some sections along the way – for instance I’m leaving aside the discussion of the Spinozan view here (could our single world be the necessary being?). Also, O’Connor mentions in passing that it is hard to rule out a model of multiple NB’s -- although there seems to be no good argument for it either.


Unknown said...

Hi Steve,

Nice post; I was also thinking of getting that book and I'm glad you're giving it a careful review.

I disagree with one point. You say: "But isn’t the PSR or something like it implied by the desire for an explanation of the contingent world?"

I don't think so, though I guess that depends on how the phrase "something like it" is understood. Take the basic idea behind abductive inference, which I would characterize as follows:

Principle of Abduction (PA): Given some target phenomenon and multiple theories vying to account for it, it is most reasonable to posit that the theory which best explains the phenomenon in question is the correct one.

Now let's make (what I take to be) the reasonable assumption that having *any* explanation for some target phenomenon is better than having no explanation. Granting that, I think we can extend (PA) to get the following:

Principle of Extended Abduction (PEA): Where it is possible to posit an explanation for some target phenomenon, and also possible not to posit one, then, if there is no evidence against the hypothesis that there is an explanation, it is more reasonable to posit one than not.

If there is no evidence against the hypothesis that the contingent world has an explanation, (PEA) counsels us to posit an explanation. Yet (PEA) only tells us what it is reasonable to posit, it doesn't imply that everything *must* have a sufficient reason. So I think one can be justified in thinking that the contingent world has an explanation without invoking the PSR. What do you think?

Steve said...

That's a helpful analysis and makes good sense, thanks. I guess the only caveat is that we're assuming that the explanation doesn't carry undesirable consequences which somehow offset the advantage of having one.