It is the thesis of Stephen Maitzen's Stop Asking Why There's Anything that the Leibniz question, 'Why is there anything, rather than nothing at all?' is ill-posed as it stands and unanswerable. Maitzen's point is intended to apply not only to the 'wide-open' formulation just mentioned but also to such other formulations as 'Why are there any concrete contingent beings at all?' I will discuss only the latter formulation. It is defensible in ways that the wide-open question is not. Call it the modified Leibniz question. For Maitzen it is a pseudo-question. For me it is a genuine question. On my classificatory scheme, Maitzen is a rejectionist concerning the modified Leibniz question. The question is not to be answered but rejected as senseless, because of an internal semantic defect that renders it necessarily unanswerable and therefore illegitimate as a question.
My defense of the meaningfulness of the modified Leibniz question does not commit me to any particular answer to the question such as the theistic answer. For there are several possible types of answer, one of them being the 'brutal' answer: it is simply a brute fact that concrete contingent beings (CCBs) exist. When Russell, in his famous BBC debate with the Jesuit Copleston, said that the the universe is just there and that is all, he was answering the question, not rejecting it. His answer presupposed the meaningfulness of the question.
1. Getting a Sense of What the Dispute is About
Maitzen's paper is in the context of a defense of naturalism and an attack on theism. So I have to be careful not to assume theism or anything that entails or presupposes theism. Defining 'naturalism' is a tricky business but it suffices for present purposes to say that naturalism entails the nonexistence of God as classically conceived, and the nonexistence of immortal souls, but does not entail the nonexistence of abstracta, many of which are necessary beings.
To make things hard on theists let us assume (contrary to current cosmology) that the universe has an actually infinite past. Hence it always existed. Let us also assume that the each total state of the universe at a time is (deterministically) caused to exist by an earlier such state of the universe. A third assumption is that the universe is nothing over and above the sum of its states. The third assumption implies that if each state has a causal explanation in terms of earlier states (in accordance with the laws of nature), then all of the states have an explanation, in which case the universe itself has a causal explanation. This in turn implies that there is no need to posit anything external to the universe, such as God, to explain why the universe exists. The idea, then, is that the universe exists because it causes itself to exist in that later states are caused to exist by earlier states, there being no earliest, uncaused, state. We thereby explain why the universe exists via an infinite regress of universe-immanent causes and in so doing obviate the need for a transcendent cause.
If this could be made to work, then we would have a nice neat self-contained universe whose existence was not a brute fact but also not dependent on anything external to the universe. We would also have an answer to the modified Leibniz question. Why are there any CCBs given the (broadly logical) possibility that there not be any? Because each is caused to exist by other CCBs.
The five or so assumptions behind this reasoning can all be questioned. But even if they are all true, the argument is still no good for a fairly obvious (to me!) reason. The whole collection of states, despite its being beginningless and endless, is (modally) contingent: it might not have existed at all. So, despite every state's having a cause, we can still ask why there are any states in the first place.
The fact that U always existed, if it is a fact, does not entail that U must exist. If I want to know why this universe of ours exists as opposed to there being some other universe or no universe at all, it does no good to tell me that it always existed. For what I want to know is why it exists at all, or 'in the first place.' I am not asking about its temporal duration but about its very existence. Why it exists at all is a legitimate question since there is no necessity that there be a universe in the first place. There might have been no universe, where 'universe' stands for the sum-total of concrete contingent beings all of which, on the assumption of naturalism, are physical or material beings. And it seems obvious that the fact, if it is a fact, that every state has a cause in earlier states does not explain why there is the whole system of states.
The dispute between Maitzen and me can now be formulated.
BV: The question 'Why are there any CCBs at all? is a legitimate question ( a meaningful question) that cannot be answered in a universe-immanent or naturalistic way as above where every CCB is causally explained by other CCBs.
SM: The question 'Why are there any CCBs at all?' is not a legitimate question (not a meaningful question) except insofar as it can be reformulated as a question whose answer can take a universe-immanent or naturalistic form.
2. Maitzen's Argument For the Meaninglessness of the Modified Leibniz Question
The argument begins with considerations about counting. Maitzen arrives at a result that I do not question. We can counts pens, plums and penguins, but we cannot count things, entities, or concrete contingent beings. Or at least we cannot count them under those heads. The reason is quite simple. The first trio of terms is a trio of sortals, the second of dummy sortals. Sortals encapsulate individuative criteria that make possible the counting of the items to which the sortals apply. Thus it makes sense to ask how many cats are on my desk. The answer at the moment is two. But it makes no sense to ask how many CCBs are on my desk at the moment. For to answer the question I would have to be able to count the CCBs, and that is something I cannot do because of the semantic indeterminacy of 'CCB.' When one counts cats one does not count the proper parts of cats for the simple reason that the proper parts of cats are not cats. (Pre-born babies inside a mother are not proper parts of the mother.) In fact, it occurs to me now that a necessary condition of a term's being a sortal is that it be such that, if it applies to a thing, then it does not apply to the proper parts of the thing. When I set out to count CCBs, however, I get no guidance from the term: I don't know whether to count the proper parts of the cat as CCBs or not. It is not that I or we contingently lack the ability to count them, but that the semantic indeterminateness of 'CCB' makes it impossible to count them. Things get even hairier -- you will forgive the pun -- when we ask about undetached arbitrary parts (e.g., Manny minus his tail) and mereological sums (e.g., Manny + the cigar in the ashtray).
All of this was discussed in greater detail in earlier posts. For now the point is simply that the question 'How many CCBs are there?' cannot be answered due to the semantic indeterminateness of 'CCB.' And since it cannot be answered for this semantic reason, the question is senseless, a pseudo-question.
So far, so good. But then on p. 56 of Maitzen's paper we find the following sudden but crucial move: "These considerations, I believe, also show that the question ‘Why is there anything?' (i.e., ‘Why is there any thing?’) confuses grammatical and logical function and hence necessarily lacks an answer . . . . " The main weakness of Maitzen's paper, as I see it, is that he doesn't adequately explain the inferential connection between the counting question and the explanation question, between the 'How many?' question and the 'Why any?' question. I cheerfully concede that it is senseless to ask how many CCBs there are if all we have to go on is 'CCB' as it is commonly understood. (Of course there is a difference between 'thing,' say, and 'concrete contingent being.' The first is a bit of ordinary English while the second is a term of art (terminus technicus). But this difference does not make a difference for present purposes.) But why should the fact that 'CCB' is a dummy sortal also make the 'Why any?' question senseless? For that is precisely what Maitzen is claiming. 'Why is there anything?' is senseless because "the question's reliance on the dummy sortal 'thing' leaves it indeterminate what's being asked." (p. 56)
But wait a minute. What is being asked about CCBs in the second question is not how many, but why they exist at all. Why should the fact that we cannot assign a precise number to them render the second question senseless? I know that there are at least two CCBs. Here is one cat, here is another (he said Mooreanly). Each is a concrete contingent being. So there are at least two. If there are at least two, then there are some. If there are some, then 'CCBs exist' is true. Since it is true, it is meaningful. (Not every meaningful proposition is true, but every true proposition is meaningful.)
To put it another way, 'CCBs exist' is a (closed) sentence. It expresses a complete thought, a proposition. It is not an open sentence like 'Xs exist.' The latter is no more a sentence than a dummy sortal is a sortal. Unlike 'CCBs exist,' it cannot be evaluated as either true or false. So, while 'CCB' lacks the semantic determinacy of a sortal, it is not wholly semantically indeterminate like the variable 'X.' It makes a semantic contribution to the sentence 'CCBs exist.'
Now if it is meaningful to assert that CCBs exist, despite their number being indeterminate, then it is also meaningful to ask why CCBs exist, despite their number being indeterminate. Now it is meaningful to assert that CCBs exist. Therefore, it is meaningful to ask why they exist, despite their number being indeterminate.
Although the uncountability of CCBs is a good reason to think that 'How many CCBs are there?' is senseless, it is not a good reason to think that 'Why are there any CCBs?' is also senseless.
My point is that it is a non sequitur for Maitzen to move from
a. 'How many CCBs are there?' is a senseless question
b. 'Why are there any CCBs?' is a senseless question.
(a) is true. But one can hold (a) consistently with holding the negation of (b).
How might Maitzen respond?
3. 'Concrete Contingent Being' as a Mere Covering Term
For Maitzen, 'CCB' is "only a covering term for pens, plums, penguins . . . ." (p. 57) and other instances of sorts. It doesn't refer to anything distinct from pens, plums, penguins, cats, human births, explosions, and so on. In other words, 'CCB' does not pick out a special sort -- an uber-sort, if you will -- the instances of which are distinct from the instances of genuine sorts. And so 'CCB' does not pick out a sort whose instances elude natural-scientific explanation and therefore EITHER require some special explanation by God or some other entity transcendent of the physical universe OR are such that their existence is a brute fact. As Maitzen puts it, "there aren't any contingent things whose explanations outstrip the explanations available for the individuals covered by the covering term 'contingent things.'" (p. 58) The 'Why any?' question "has no content until we replace referentially indeterminate words with genuine sortals." (p. 59)
If Maitzen is telling us that CCBs are not a sort of thing distinct from ordinary sorts, then he is right, and I agree. Suppose we we have a complete list of all the sorts of thing in the universe: pens, plums, pussycats, penguins, and so on. It would be absurd if someone were to object: "But you forgot to list the concrete contingent beings!" That would be absurd since each pen, plum etc. is a CCB, and there is no CCB that is not either a pen or a plum or, etc. But it doesn't follow that a sentence in which 'CCB' occurs is without content.
It is simply false to say that the 'Why any?' question "has no content until we replace referentially indeterminate words with genuine sortals." (p. 59) Right here is where Maitzen makes the mistake that invalidates the move from (a) to (b). He conflates the partial semantic indeterminacy of dummy sortals with the total semantic indeterminacy of variables. Compare:
- Why are there any penguins?
- Why are there any concrete contingent beings?
- Why are there any Xs?
The first two questions are genuine, despte the fact we can count only penguins. The third question is pseudo since it has no definite sense.
Note finally that we cannot replace the second question with a long disjunctive question like 'Why are there either penguins or plums or pussycats or pens, or . . . ?' For suppose you had a complete naturalistic answer to the latter question. You could still meaningfully ask why there are any CCBs at all as opposed to none at all, and why these rather than some other possible set.
There is more to say, but tomorrow's another day, and brevity is the soul of blog.