When I first saw this article, I thought to myself, "Oh boy, another load of stinking, steaming, scientistic bullshit by some know-nothing science writer or physicist for me to sink my logic shovel into!"
You have heard it said, 'Take the bull by the horns.' But I say unto you, 'Take the bull by the shovel!'
But then I started reading and realized that the author knows what he is talking about. Philosophers won't find anything new here, but it is an adequate piece of popular writing that may be of use to the educated layman.
I don't believe I have ever read a column by Richard Fernandez of The Belmont Club that is more penetrating, thought-provoking, or chilling than his Seven Gambit. Excerpts:
Just as soon as Israel accepted an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire Hamas fired 47 rockets killing one Israeli citizen. Anyone who has followed the conflict could have predicted this with certainty; the point of a ceasefire — for a terrorist organization — is to break it for exactly the same reason it purposely attacks women and children.
Dr. Anna Geifman tried to explain that the reason why innocents are selected as terror targets is because “children are the last consecrated absolute”. That is just why they must be killed in the cruelest way possible. For “militant nihilism strives to ruin first and foremost what their contemporaries hold sacred”.
Nihilism isn’t the absence of a belief. It is something subtly different: it is the belief in nothing. The most powerful weapon of terrorism is therefore the unyielding No. “No I will not give up. No I will not tell the truth. No I will not play fair. No I will not spare children. No I will not stop even if you surrender to me; I will not cease even if you give me everything you have, up to and including your children’s lives. Nothing short of destroying me absolutely can make me stop. And therefore I will defeat you even if you kill me. Because I will make you pay the price in guilt for annihilating me.”
It’s an extremely powerful weapon. The Absolute No is a devastating attack on the self-image and esteem of civilization. Hamas will demonstrate the No, the Nothing. It will show that deep down inside Israelis — and Americans — are animals like them.
[. . .]
The power of Hamas lies in that they will never stop hating. No ceasefire, concession, negotiation or entreaty will move them. That is their inhuman strength. The Jews can even exterminate them, but only at the cost of destroying all the ideals they hold dear. If the last Hamas activist could speak he would say this:
“Shoot! I am the last. Carry out your ethnic cleansing, just as the Nazis tried with you. You will never be able to look yourself in the mirror again. The price of victory is to win on our terms. Nothing will remain of your precious Jewish self-esteem, of the illusion that you are a civilization dedicated to morality. What will you do after you kill me? Go to your synagogue and a hymn of praise to your God?
“At that moment your faith will desert you. For you claim your God does not desire blood, that yours is a God of love and I say therefore He is false. The only real Gods are those of Hate. A God that does not live by blood does not exist as my God who lives by blood exists; and when you pull the trigger you will be worshipping at my altar! I have won at last. Come to prayer. Come to Islam.”
[. . .]
Wars through history have exacted an irreparable spiritual price from its [their] combatants.
[. . .]
It’s not an original thought. William Tecumseh Sherman knew before Collins that War is Hell; that the only excuse for it was the belief that you could in the subsequent peace, chain up the devils. He wrote in his letters, “you cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it … If the United States submits to a division now, it will not stop, but will go on until we reap the fate of Mexico, which is eternal war.”
Nor has its character changed much. Curtis LeMay, during what we remember as the Good War, shared his formula for defeating the enemy. “If you kill enough of them, they stop fighting.”
Human beings are remarkably good at calling up the devil in their fellow human beings. They start out Christian enough, but give them time. In the first Christmas of the Great War, when fighting was but a few months old, there enough fellow-feeling among the combatants remained to spontaneously create what is now remembered as the Christmas Truce.
Through the week leading up to Christmas, parties of German and British soldiers began to exchange seasonal greetings and songs between their trenches; on occasion, the tension was reduced to the point that individuals would walk across to talk to their opposite numbers bearing gifts. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, many soldiers from both sides—as well as, to a lesser degree, from French units—independently ventured into “no man’s land”, where they mingled, exchanging food and souvenirs. As well as joint burial ceremonies, several meetings ended in carol-singing. Troops from both sides were also friendly enough to play games of football with one another.
By the next year they were modifying their bayonets so it would hurt more when you stabbed the enemy. When we look at Hamas we are looking at some[thing] very old and ancient. Does the devil win in Seven? For that matter does he win on earth?
Say no if you can. For Hamas is determined to prove that you too are like them. Just like them.
Our Czech friend Lukas Novak sent me a paper in which, drawing upon John Duns Scotus, he rejects the following principle of reference:
(PR) It is impossible to refer to that which is not.
In this entry I will first pull some quotations from Novak's paper and then raise some questions about the view he seems to be endorsing.
I. Novak's Scotistic View
Scotus’ position can be simply characterized as a consistent rejection of the PR . . . . According to Scotus, the objects of any intentional relations . . . simply are not required to have any ontological status whatsoever, or, as Scotus puts it, any esse verum. The “being” expressed by the predicates exploited by Francis, like “to be known” (esse cognitum), “to be intelligible” (esse intelligibile), “to be an image of a paradigm” (esse exemplatum), “to be represented” (esse repraesentatum) and the like, is not real or true in any way, irrespectively of whether the relation involved concerns God or man.
[. . .]
It is not necessary to assume any esse essentiae in objects of knowledge: instead, Scotus speaks of “esse deminutum” here, but he points out emphatically that this “diminished being” is being only “secundum quid”, i.e., in an improper, qualified sense – this is the point of Scotus’ famous criticism of Henry of Ghent laid out in the unique question of dist. 36 of the first book of his Ordinatio. If you look for some real being in the object of intellection that it should have precisely in virtue of being such an object, there is none to be found. The only real being to be found here is the real being of the intellection, to which the esse deminutum of the intellected object is reduced:
[. . .]
In other words: if we were to make something like an inventory of reality, we should not list any objects having mere esse deminutum. By speaking about objects in intelligible being we do not take on any ontological commitment (to use the Quinean language) over and above the commitment to the existence of the intellections directed to these objects.
[. . .]
And now the crucial point: it is precisely this intelligibility, imparted to the objects by the divine intellect, what [that] makes human conceiving of the same objects possible, irrespectively of whether they have any real being or not:
[. . .]
In other words: the most fundamental reason why the PR is false is, according to Scotus, the fact that a sufficient condition of the human capacity to refer to something is the intelligibility of that something. This intelligibility, however, is bestowed on things in virtue of their being conceived, prior to creation, by the absolute divine intellect. This divine conceiving, however, neither produces nor presupposes any genuine being in the objects; for it is a universal truth that cognition is an immanent operation, one whose effect remains wholly in its subject (and so does not really affect its object) – in this elementary point divine cognition is not different. Accordingly, objects need not have any being whatsoever in order to be capable of being referred to. (emphasis added)
II. Some Questions and Comments
As a matter of fact we do at least seem to refer to nonexistent objects and say things about them, true and false. Alexius von Meinong's celebrated goldner Berg, golden mountain, may serve as an example. The golden mountain is made of gold; it is a mountain; it does not exist; it is an object of my present thinking; it is indeterminate with respect to height; it is 'celebrated' as it were among connoisseurs of this arcana; it is Meinong's favorite example of a merely possible individual; it -- the very same one I am talking about now -- was discussed by Kasimir Twardowski, etc.
Now if this seeming to refer is an actual referring, if we do refer to the nonexistent in thought and overt speech, then it is possible that we do so. Esse ad posse valet illatio. But how the devil is it possible that we do so? (PR) is extremely plausible: it is difficult to understand how there could be reference to that which has no being, no esse, whatsoever.
If I understand Novak, he wants a theory that satisfies the following desiderata or criteria of adequacy
D1. Possibilism is to be avoided. We cannot maintain that the merely possible has any sort of being.
D2. Actualist ersatzism is to be avoided. We cannot maintain that there are actual items such as Plantingian haecceities that stand in for mere possibilia.
D3. The phenomenological fact that intentionality is relational or at least quasi-relational is to be respected and somehow accommodated. No adverbial theories!
D4. Eliminativism about intentionality/reference is to be avoided. Intentionality is real!
D5. Nominalist reductionism according to which reference is a merely intralinguistic phenomenon is to be avoided. When I refer to something, whether existent or nonexistent, I am getting outside of language!
Novak does not list these desiderata; I am imputing them to him. He can tell me if my imputation is unjust. In any case, I accept (D1)-(D5): an adequate theory must satisfy these demands. Now how does Novak's theory satisfy them?
Well, he brings God into the picture. Some will immediately cry deus ex machina! But I think Novak can plausibly rebut this charge. If God is brought on the stage in an ad hoc manner to get us out of a jam, then a deus ex machina objection has bite. But Novak and his master Scotus have independent reasons for positing God. See my substantial post on DEM objections in philosophy, here.
Suppose we have already proven, or at least given good reasons for, the existence of God. Then he can be put to work. Or, as my esteemed teacher J. N. Findlay once said, "God has his uses."
So how does it work? It is sufficient for x to be an object of thought or reference by us that it be intelligible. This intelligibility derives from the divine intellect who, prior to creation, conceives of such items as the golden mountain. But this conceiving does not impart to them any real being. Nor does it presuppose that they have any real being. In themselves, they have no being at all. God's conceiving of nonexistent objects is a wholly immanent operation the effect of which remains wholly within the subject of the operation, namely, the divine mind. And yet the nonexistent objects acquire intelligibility. It is this intelligibility that makes it possible for us finite minds to think the nonexistent without it being the case that nonexistent objects have any being at all.
That is the theory, assuming I have understood it. And it does seem to satisfy the desiderata with the possible exception of (D3). But here is one concern. The theory implies that when I think about the golden mountain I am thinking about an operation wholly immanent to the divine intellect. But that is not what I seem to be thinking about. What I seem to be thinking about has very few properties (being golden, being a mountain) and perhaps their analytic entailments, and no hidden properties such as the property of being identical to an operation wholly immanent to the divine intellect. An intentional object has precisely, all and only, the properties it is intended as having.
Connected with this concern is the suspicion that on Novak's theory the act-object distinction is eliminated, a distinction that is otherwise essential to his approach. He wants to deny that merely intentional objects have any being of their own. So he identifies them with divine conceivings. But this falls afoul of a point insisted on by Twardowski. (See article below.)
My merely imagined table does not exist in reality, 'outside' my mind. But it also does not exist 'in' my mind as identical to the act of imagining it or as a proper part of the act of imagining it, or as any sort of mental content, as Twardowski clearly saw. Otherwise, (i) the merely imagined table would have the nature of an experience, which it does not have, and (ii) it would exist in reality, when it doesn't, and (iii) it would have properties that cannot be properties of mental acts or contents such as the property of being spatially extended.
My point could be put like this. The typical merely intentional, hence nonexistent, object such as the golden mountain does not have the nature of an experience or mental act; it is an object of such an act. But if merely intentional objects are divine conceivings, then they have the nature of an experience. Ergo, etc. Novak's theory appears to fall into psychologism.
Have you read Nicholas Rescher's Nonexistents Then and Now? I read it recently and thought I'd bring it to your attention because it's relevant to your recent posts on fiction. If I understand the article, Rescher would agree with you that a fictional man is not a man, but he would say the same of a merely possible man (denying premise 6 in your post More on Ficta and Impossibilia): he argues that because nonexistents are necessarily incomplete, they are not individuals but schemata for individuals. In response to your post Imagining X as Real versus Imagining X as Unreal and a Puzzle of Actualization Rescher would probably say that the "table" before your mind is not an individual table but a schema for an individual table, a "schema to which many such individuals might answer" (p. 376). As your concluding apory implies, the argument against the possibility of actualizing Hamlet might apply to any nonexistent. Rescher seems to think it does. It would be interesting to read some of your thoughts on Rescher's essay, but I do see that you're now considering a different problem.
I was aware of this article, but hadn't studied it carefully until today. I thank the reader for reminding me of it. What he says about it is accurate. Herewith, some preliminary comments.
1. One objection I have is that Rescher tends to conflate the epistemological with the ontological. A careful reading of the following passage shows the conflation at work. I have added comments in red.
To begin, note that a merely possible world is never given. It is not something we can possibly encounter in experience. The only world that confronts us in the actual course of things is the real world, this actual world of ours -- the only world to which we gain entry effortlessly, totally free of charge. [This is practically a tautology. All Rescher is saying is that the only world we can actually experience is the actual world, merely possible worlds being, by definition, not actual.] To move from it, we must always do something, namely, make a hypothesis -- assumption, supposition, postulation, or the like. The route of hypotheses affords the only cognitive access to the realm of nonexistent possibility. [Rescher's wording suggests that there is a realm of nonexistent possibility and that we can gain cognitive access to it.] For unlike the real and actual world, possible worlds never come along of themselves and become accessible to us without our actually doing something, namely, making an assumption or supposition or such-like. Any possible world with which we can possibly deal will have to be an object of our contrivance -- of our making by means of some supposition or assumption. [In this last sentence Rescher clearly slides from an epistemological claim, one about how we come to know the denizens of the realm of nonexistent possibility, to an ontological claim about what merely possible worlds and their denizens ARE, namely, objects of our contrivance.](364, emphasis added)
As my reader is aware, Rescher wants to say about the merely possible what he says about the purely fictional, namely, that pure ficta are objects of our contrivance. But this too, it seems to me, is an illicit conflation. The purely fictional is barred from actuality by its very status as purely fictional: Sherlock Holmes cannot be actualized. He is an impossible item. I am tempted to say that not even divine power could bring about his actualization, any more than it could restore a virgin. But the merely possible is precisely -- possibly actual! The merely possible is intrinsically such as to be apt for existence, unlike the purely fictional which is intrinsically such as to be barred from actuality.
2. The conflation of the merely possible with the purely fictional is connected with another mistake Rescher makes. Describing the "medieval mainstream," (362) Rescher lumps mere possibillia and pure ficta together as entia rationis. For this mistake, Daniel Novotny takes him to task, explaining that "Suarez and most other Baroque scholastics considered merely possible beings to be real, and hence they were not classified as beings of reason." (Ens Rationis from Suarez to Caramuel, Fordham UP, 2013, p. 27) Entia rationis, beings of reason, are necessarily mind-dependent impossible objects. Mere possibilia are not, therefore, entia rationis.
3. As I understand it, the problem of the merely possible is something like this. Merely possible individuals and states of affairs are not nothing, nor are they fictional. And of course their possibility is not merely epistemic, or parasitic upon our ignorance. Merely possible individuals and states of affairs have some sort of mind-independent reality. But how the devil can we make sense of this mind-independent reality given that the merely possible, by definition, is not actual? Suppose we cast the puzzle in the mold of an aporetic triad:
a. The merely possible is not actual.
b. The merely possible is real (independently of finite minds).
c. Whatever is real is actual.
Clearly, the members of this trio cannot all be true. Any two of them, taken in conjunction, entails the negation of the remaining one. For example, the conjunction of the last two propositions entails the negation of the first.
What are the possible solutions given that the triad is is genuinely logically inconsistent and given that the triad is soluble? I count exactly five possible solutions.
S1. Eliminativism. The limbs are individually undeniable but jointly inconsistent, which is to say: there are no mere possibilia. One could be an error theorist about mere possibilia.
S2. Conceptualism. Deny (b) while accepting the other two limbs. There are mere possibilia, but what they are are conceptual constructions by finite minds. This is essentially Rescher's view. See his A Theory of Possibility: A Constructivistic and Conceptualistic Theory of Possible Individuals and Possible Worlds (Basil Blackwell, 1975). He could be described as an artifactualist about possibilities: "A possible individual is an intellectual artifact: the product of a projective 'construction' . . . ." (p. 61)
S3. Actualism/Ersatzism. Deny (a) while accepting the other two limbs. One looks for substitute entities to go proxy for the mere possibles. Thus, on one approach, the merely possible state of affairs of there being a unicorn is identified with an actual abstract entity, the property of being a unicorn. For the possibility to be actual is for the the property to be instantiated.
S4. Extreme Modal Realism. Deny (c) while accepting the other two limbs. David Lewis. There is a plurality of possible worlds conceived of as maximal merelogical sums of concreta. The worlds and their inhabitants are all equally real. But no world is absolutely actual. Each is merely actual at itself.
S5. Theologism. Deny (c) while accepting the other two limbs. We bring God into the picture to secure the reality of the possibles instead of a plurality of equally real worlds. Consider the possibility of there being unicorns. This is a mere possibility since it is not actual. But the possibility is not nothing: it is a definite possibility, a real possibility that does not depend for its reality on finite minds. There aren't any unicorns, but there really could have been some, and the fact of this mere possibility has nothing to do with what we do or think or say. The content of the possibility subsists as an object of the divine intellect, and its actualizability is grounded in God's power.
4. Part of Rescher's support for his constructivism/conceptualism/artifactualism is his attack on the problem of transworld identity. For Rescher, "the issue of transworld identity actually poses no real problems -- a resolution is automatically available." (371) Rescher's argument is hard to locate due to his bloated, meandering, verbose style of writing. Rescher rarely says anything in a direct and pithy way if he can pad it out with circumlocutions and high-falutin' phaseology. (I confess to sometimes being guilty of this myself.)
But basically such argument as I can discern seems to involve equivocation on such terms as 'individuation' and 'identity' as between epistemological and ontological senses. He gives essentially the following argument on p. 378. This is my reconstruction and is free of equivocation.
A. All genuine individuals are complete.
B. All merely possible individuals are complete only if completely describable by us.
C. No merely possible individuals are completely describable by us.
D. No merely possible individuals are genuine individuals.
But why should we accept (B)? Why can't there be nonexistent individuals that are complete? Rescher just assumes that the properties of such individuals must be supplied by us. But that is to beg the question against those who believe in the reality of the merely possible. He just assumes the truth of artifactualism about the merely possible. Consider the following sentences
d. Bill Clinton is married to Hillary Rodham.
e. Bill Clinton remained single.
f. Bill Clinton married someone distinct from Hillary Rodham.
Only the first sentence is true, but, I want to say, the other two are possibly true: they pick out merely possible states of affairs. There are three possible worlds involved: the actual world and two merely possible worlds. Now does 'Bill Clinton' pick out the same individual in each of these three worlds? I am inclined to say yes, despite the fact that we cannot completely describe the world in which our boy remains single or the world in which he marries someone other than Hillary. But Rescher will have none of this because his conceptualism/constructivism/ artifactualism bars him from holding that actual individuals in merely possible worlds or merely possible individuals have properties other that those we hypothesize them as having. So, given the finitude of our hypothesizing, actual individuals in merely possible worlds, or merely possible individuals, can only be incomplete items, multiply realizable schemata, and thus not genuine individuals. But then the possible is assimilated to the fictional.
It is interesting that 'nothing' has two opposites. One is 'something.' Call it the logical opposite. The other is 'being.' Call it the ontological opposite. Logically, 'nothing' and 'something' are interdefinable:
D1. Nothing is F =df It is not the case that something is F
D2. Something is F =df it is not the case that nothing is F.
These definitions give us no reason to think of one term as more basic than the other. Logically, they are on a par. Logically, they are polar opposites. Anything you can say with the one you can say with the other, and vice versa.
Ontologically, however, being and nothing are not on a par. They are not polar opposites. Being is primary, and nothing is derivative. (Note the ambiguity of 'Nothing is derivative' as between 'It is not the case that something is derivative' and 'Nothingness is derivative.' The second is meant.)
Suppose we try to define the existential 'is' in terms of the misnamed 'existential' quantifier. (The proper moniker is 'particular quantifier.') We try this:
y is =df for some x, y = x.
In plain English, for y to be or exist is for y to be identical to something. For Quine to be or exist is for Quine to be identical to something. This thing, however, must exist. Thus
Quine exists =df Quine is identical to something that exists
Pegasus does not exist =df nothing that exists is such that Pegasus is identical to it.
The conclusion is obvious: one cannot explicate the existential 'is' in terms of the particular quantifier without circularity, without presupposing that things exist.
I have now supplied enough clues for the reader to advance to the insight that the ontological opposite of 'nothing,' is primary.
Mere logicians won't get this since existence is "odious to the logician" as George Santayana observes. (Scepticism and Animal Faith, Dover, 1955, p. 48, orig. publ. 1923.)
According to David Hume, "Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent." (Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion) I've long believed Hume to be right about this. I would put it this way, trading Latin for plain Anglo-Saxon: Our minds are necessarily such that, no matter what we think of as existing, we can just as easily think of as not existing. This includes God. Now God, to be divine, must be a necessary being, indeed a necessary concretum. (God cannot be an abstract entity.) Therefore, even a necessary being such as God is conceivable or thinkable as nonexistent.
Try it for yourself. Think of God together with all his omni-attributes and then think of God as not existing. Our atheist pals have no trouble on this score. The nonexistence of God is thinkable without logical contradiction.
Note the ambiguity of 'conceivable.' It could mean thinkable, or it could mean thinkable without (internal) logical contradiction. Round squares are conceivable in the first sense but not in the second. If round squares were in no sense conceivable, how could we think about them and pronounce them broadly logically impossible? Think about it!
Now try the experiment with an abstract necessary being such as the number 7 or the proposition *7 is prime.* Nominalists have no trouble conceiving the nonexistence of such Platonica, and surely we who are not nominalists can understand their point of view. In short, absolutely everything can be thought of, without logical contradiction, as not existing.
Humius vindicatus est.
But doesn't the bolded sentence contradict what I said in earlier posts about the impossibility of there being nothing at all, that there must be something or other, and that this can be known a priori by pure thought?
On the one hand, I tend to think that I can attain positive rational insight into the necessity of there being something or other, and thus the impossibility of there being nothing at all. On the other hand, I tend to think that everything is conceivably nonexistent, which implies that no such positive rational insight is possible.
Consider the following reasoning.
It is actually the case that something exists. The question is whether there might have been nothing at all. If the answer is in the negative, then it is necessarily the case that something exists. But don't confuse the following two propositions:
Necessarily (Something exists)
Something (necessarily exists).
The first says that every possible world is such that there is something or other in it; the second says that some one thing is such that it exists in every possible world. The second entails the first, but the first does not entail the second. I need only show that the first proposition is true, though I may end up showing that the second is true as well.
Moreover, I am concerned to show that we can attain positive rational insight into the first proposition's truth by sheer thinking. But now it appears that the tension in my thinking is a bare-faced contradiction. For the following cannot both be true:
(H) Everything is conceivably nonexistent. (P) There is something the nonexistence of which is inconceivable.
And what is that thing whose nonexistence is inconceivable? What is the case. For if something exists, then that is the case. And if nothing exists, then that is the case. Either way, there is what is the case. Either way, there is the way things are. The way things are is not nothing, but something: a definite state of affairs.
The thought that there might have been nothing at all is the thought that it might have been the case that there is nothing at all. But if that had been the case, then something would have existed, namely, what is the case. Therefore, the thought that there might have been nothing at all refutes itself. By sheer thinking I can know something about reality, namely, that necessarily something exists. By pure thought I can arrive at a certain conclusion about real existence.
The argument can be couched in terms of possible worlds. A merely possible world is a total way things might have been. There cannot be a possible world in which nothing exists, for a possible world is not nothing, but something. Think of a possible world as a maximal proposition. Could there be a maximal proposition that entails that nothing exists? No, for that very proposition is something that exists.
So there has to be at least one thing, the proposition that nothing exists. And it has to be that that proposition is necessarily false, in which case its negation is necessarily true. So it is necessarily true that something exists.
Or one can argue as follows.
We have the concept true proposition. This concept is either instantiated, or it is not. If it is not instantiated, then it is true that it is not instantiated, which implies that the concept true proposition is instantiated. If, on the other hand, the concept in question is instantiated, then of course it is instantiated. Therefore, necessarily, the concept true proposition is instantiated, and there necessarily exists at least one truth, namely, the truth that the concept true proposition is instantiated.
This is a sound ontological argument for the existence of at least one truth using only the concept true proposition, the law of excluded middle, and the unproblematic principle that, for any proposition p, p entails that p is true. By 'proposition' here I simply mean whatever can be appropriately characterized as either true or false. That there are propositions in this innocuous sense cannot be reasonably denied.
So here too we have a seemingly knock-down proof of the necessary existence of something by sheer thinking. Thought makes contact with reality 'by its own power' without the mediation of the senses. (For future rumination: Does this refute the Thomist principle that nothing is in the intelect that is not first in the senses?)
(H) Nothing is such that its existence can be seen to be necessary by thought alone.
(P) Something is such that its existence can be seen to be necessary by thought alone.
I don't know how to resolve this. I am of two minds. Parmenides and Hume are battling for hegemony in my shallow pate.
Can I conceive (think without internal logical contradiction) the nonexistence of what is the case, or the way things are? The Humean part of my mind says Yes: you are conceiving an absolute Other to discursive thought, a realm in which the laws of logic do not hold. You are conceiving the Transdiscursive!
The Parmenidean part of my mind says No: there is no Transdiscursive; Thought and Being are 'the same.'
Consider a particular hole H in a piece of swiss cheese. H is not nothing. It has properties. It has, for example, a shape: it is circular. The circular hole has a definite radius, diameter, and circumference. It has a definite area equal to pi times the radius squared. If the piece of cheese is 1/16th of an inch thick, then the hole is a disk having a definite volume. H has a definite location relative to the edges of the piece of cheese and relative to the other holes. H has causal properties: it affects the texture and flexibility of the cheese and its resistance to the tooth. H is perceivable by the senses: you can see it and touch it. You touch a hole by putting a finger or other appendage into it and experiencing no resistance.
Now if anything has properties, then it exists. H has properties; so H exists.
H exists and the piece of cheese exists. Do they exist in the same way? Not by my lights. The hole depends for its existence on the piece of cheese; the latter does not depend for its existence on the former. H is a particular, well-defined, indeed wholly determninate, absence of cheese. It is a particular, existing absence. As an absence of cheese it depends for its existence on the cheese of which it is the hole.
So I say the hole exists in a different way than the piece of cheese. It has a dependent mode of existence whereas the piece of cheese has a relatively independent mode of existence.
On the basis of this and other examples I maintain that there are modes of being. To be precise, I maintain that it is intelligible that there be modes of being. This puts me at odds with those, like van Inwagen, who consider the idea unintelligible and rooted in an elementary mistake:
. . . the thick conception of being is founded on the mistake of transferring what properly belongs to the nature of a chair -- or of a human being or of a universal or of God -- to the being of the chair. (Ontology, Identity, and Modality, Cambridge 2001, p. 4)
Did I make a mistake above, the mistake van Inwagen imputes to thick theorists? Did I mistakenly transfer what properly belongs to the nature of the hole -- its dependence on the piece of cheese -- to the being (existence) of the hole?
I plead innocent. Perhaps it is true that it is the nature of holes in general that they depend for their existence on the things in which they are holes. But H is a particular, spatiotemporally localizable, hole in a particular piece of cheese. Since H is a particular existing hole, it cannot be part of H's multiply exemplifiable nature that it depend for its existence on the particular piece of cheese it is a hole in. The dependence of H on its host is due to H's mode of existence, not to its nature.
Suppose there are ten quidditatively indiscernible holes in the piece of cheese: H1, H2, . . . H10. Each exists. Each has its own existence. But each has the very same nature. How then can this common nature be the factor responsible for making H1 or H2 or H3, etc., dependent on the particular piece of cheese? The dependence of each hole on its host is assignable not to the nature common to all ten holes but to each hole's existence as a mode of its existence.
Now of course this will not convince any thin theorist. But then that is not my goal. My goal is to show that the thick theory is rationally defensible and not sired by any obvious 'mistake.' If any 'mistakes' are assignable then I 'd say they are assignable with greater justice to the partisans of the thin theory.
Talk of 'mistakes,' though, is out of place in serious philosophy. For apart from clear-cut logical blunders such as affirming the consequent, quantifier shift fallacies, etc. any alleged 'mistakes' will rest on debatable substantive commitments.
The book is due back at the library today, and good riddance. A few parting shots to put this turkey to bed. The book is a mishmash of bad philosophy, badly written, and popularization of contemporary cosmology. I cannot comment on the accuracy of the popularization, but the philosophy is indeed bad and demonstrates why we need philosophy: to debunk bad philosophy, especially the scientistic nonsense our culture is now awash in. I am tempted once more to quote some Kraussian passages and pick them apart. But besides being a waste of time, that would be the literary equivalent of beating up a cripple or rolling a drunk.
In my post of 29 April I put my finger on the central problem with the book: the 'bait and switch.' Krauss baits us with the old Leibniz question, 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' (See On the Ultimate Origin of Things, 1697.) Having piqued our interest, he switches to a different question, actually to several different questions, one of which is: "Why is there ‘stuff’, instead of empty space?" (Click on above link for reference.) Apparently our man forgot that empty space is not nothing.
Bait and switch. I recall an old Tareyton cigarette commercial from the '60s: I'd rather fight than switch. Apparently Krauss would rather switch than fight an intellectually honest fight.
Here are links to my more substantial, but no less polemical, Krauss posts.
I characterized Rejectionism with respect to the question why there is anything at all as follows: "The rejectionist rejects the question as ill-formed, as senseless." London Ed suggests that Wittgenstein may be lumped in with the rejectionists. He has a point, though I do insist on the distinction between taking 'Why is there anything at all?' as an explanation-seeking why-question and taking it as a mere expression of wonder at the sheer existence of things. We know that Wittgenstein was struck with wonder at the sheer existence of things. What is now to be discussed is whether Wittgenstein can be read as making a rejectionist response to the ultimate explanation-seeking why-question.
Ed quotes from Anthony Kenny's book, Wittgenstein:
Logic depends on there being something in existence and there being facts; it is independent of what the facts are, of things being thus and so. That there are facts is not something which can be expressed in a proposition. If one wants to call there being facts a matter of experience, then one can say logic is empirical. But when we say something is empirical we mean that it can be imagined otherwise; in this sense every proposition with sense is a contingent proposition. And in this sense the existence of the world is not an empirical fact, because we cannot think it otherwise.
This passage cries out for commentary.
1. Does logic depend on there being something in existence? Yes, if we are talking about the Frege-Russell logic that young Ludwig cut his teeth on. In 'Fressellian' logic, existence is instantiation. To say that cats exist is to say that something is a cat. (The concept cat is instantiated.) To say that dragons do not exist is to say that nothing is a dragon. (The concept dragon is not instantiated.) This works nicely -- but only on the assumption that individuals exist. So Kenny is surely right that (Frege-Russell) logic requires that something exists, in particular that individuals exist.
2. But can this presupposition be expressed (said) in this logic? Here is a little challenge for you Fressellians: translate 'Something exists' into standard logical notion. You will discover that it cannot be done. Briefly, if existence is instantiation, which property is it whose instantiation is the existence of something? Same problem with 'Nothing exists.' If existence is instantiation, which property is it whose non-instantiation is the nonexistence of anything? Similarly with 'Everthing exists' and 'Something does not exist.'
3. I surmise that this is one of the motivations for Wittgenstein's infamous and paradoxical saying/showing distinction. What can be said can be said clearly. But not everything can be said. It cannot be said that there are beings or that there are objects or that there are individuals. For again, how does one express (say) that there are beings (existents) in Frege-Russell logic? This system of logic rests on presuppositions that cannot be expressed within the system. The presuppositions cannot be said but thay can be shown by the use of variables such as the individual variable 'x.' That is the Tractarian line.
4. Kenny also says that logic depends on there being facts. That's not clear. Near the beginning of the Tractatus, LW affirms the existence of facts. He tells us that the world is the totality of facts (Tatsachen) not of things (Dinge). But does the Frege-Russell logic require that there be facts? Not as far as I can see. The mature Frege certainly did not posit facts. Be that as it may.
5. Is Wittgenstein a rejectionist? Does he reject the question 'Why is there anything at all?' as senseless or ill-formed? The case can be made that he does or at least could within his framework.
When I raise the question why anything at all exists, I begin with the seemingly empirical fact that things exist: me, my cat, mountains, clouds . . . . I then entertain the thought that there might have been nothing at all. I then demand an explanation as to why there is something given (a) that there is something and (b) that there might not have been anything.
A Wittgensteinian rejection of the question might take the following form. "First of all, your starting point is inexpressible: it cannot be said that things exist. That is a nonsensical pseudo-proposition. You can say, sensibly, that cats exist, but not that things exist. That things exist is an unsayable presupposition of all thinking. As such, we cannot think it away. And so one cannot ask why anything exists."
6. This form of rejectionism is as dubious as what it rests upon, namely, the Frege-Russell theory of existence and the saying/showing distinction.
London Ed offers this quick, over-breakfast but accurate as far as I can tell translation from the Latin (available at Ed's site):
For not every being has a cause of its being, nor does every question about being have a cause. For if it is asked why there is something in the natural world rather than nothing, speaking about the world of created things, it can be replied that there is a First immoveable Mover, and a first unchangeable cause. But if it is asked about the whole universe of beings why there is something there rather than nothing, it is not possible to give a cause, for it's the same to ask this as to ask why there is a God or not, and this does not have a cause. Hence not every question has a cause, nor even every being.
Ed comments, "I'm not sure how Siger's reply falls into the categories given by Bill." Note first that the question that interests me is in the second of Siger's questions, the 'wide-open' question: not the question why there are created things, but the question why there is anything at all. To that wide-open question Siger's response falls under Rejectionism in my typology of possible responses. Siger rejects the question as unanswerable when he says, idiosyncratically to our ears, "it is not possible to give a cause," and "not every question has a cause." That could be read as saying that not every interrogative form of words expresses a genuine question.
Ed also mentions Wittgenstein and suggests that he "had a go" at the Leibniz question. I don't think so. We must distinguish between 'Why is there anything at all?' as an explanation-seeking why-question and the same grammatically interrogative formulation as a mere expression of wonderment equivalent to 'Wittgenstein's "How extraordinary that anything should exist!" Wittgenstein was not raising or trying to answer the former. He was merely expressing wonder at the sheer existence of things.
I would be very surprised if someone can find in the history or philosophy, or out of his own head, a response to the wide-open explanation-seeking Leibniz question that cannot be booked under one of my rubrics. (Credit where credit is due: my catalog post is highly derivative from the work of N. Rescher.)
By my count there are seven possible types of response to the above question, which I will call the Leibniz question. I will give them the following names: Rejectionism, Mysterianism, Brutalism, Theologism, Necessitarianism, Nomologism/Axiologism, and Cosmologism. As far as I can see, my typology, or rather my emendation of Rescher's typology, is exhaustive. All possible solutions must fall under one of these heads. You may send me an e-mail if you think that there is an eighth type of solution.
Either the Leibniz question is illegitimate, a pseudo-question, or it is a genuine question. If the former, then it cannot be answered and ought to be rejected. Following Rescher, we can call this first response
Rejectionism. The rejectionist rejects the question as ill-formed, as senseless. Compare the question, 'How fast does time flow?' The latter is pretty obviously a pseudo-question resting as it does on a false presupposition, namely, that time is a measurable process within time. Whatever time is, it is not a process in time. If it flows, it doesn't flow like a river at some measurable rate. One does not answer a pseudo-question; one rejects it. Same with such complex questions as 'When did you stop smoking dope?' The Leibniz question in its contrastive formulation -- Why is there something rather than nothing? -- may well be a pseudo-question. I gave an argument for this earlier.
If the the Leibniz question is legitimate, however, then it is either unanswerable or answerable. If unanswerable, then the question points to a mystery. We can call this response
Mysterianism. On this approach the question is held to be genuine, not pseudo as on the rejectionist approach, but unanswerable. The question has a clear sense and does not rest on any false presupposition. But no satisfying answer is available.
If the question is answerable, then there are five more possible responses.
Brutalism or Brute Fact Approach. On this approach there is no explanation as to why anything at all exists. It is a factum brutum. As Russell said in his famous BBC debate with the Jesuit Copleston, "The universe is just there, and that is all." (Caveat lector: Quoted from memory!) A brute fact may be defined as an obtaining state of affairs that obtains without cause and without reason. If the Principle of Sufficient Reason holds, then of course there are no brute facts. The principle in question, however, is contested.
Theologism or Theological Approach. There is a metaphysically necessary and thus self-explanatory being, God, whose existence and activity explains the existence of everything other than God. Why is there anything at all? Because everything is either self-explanatory (causa sui) or caused to exist by that which is self-explanatory.
Necessitarianism. On this approach, the metaphysical necessity that traditional theology ascribes to God is ascribed to the totality of existents: it exists as a matter of metaphysical necessity. It is necessary that there be some totality of existents or other, and (what's worse) that there be precisely this totality and no other. There is no real contingency. Contingency is merely epistemic. Why is there anything at all? Because it couldn't have been otherwise!
Nomologism/Axiologism. Theories of this type have been proposed by A. C. Ewing (Value and Reality, 1973), John Leslie (Universes, 1989), and Nicholas Rescher, The Riddle of Existence, 1984). I will provide a rough sketch of Rescher's approach.
For Rescher, there is a self-subsistent realm of real possibilities or "proto-laws" whose mode of being is independent of the existence of substances. This realm of real possibilities is not nothing, but it is not a realm of existents. Rescher's claim is that the proto-laws account for the existence of things "without being themselves embodied in some existing thing or things." (27) Some facts, e.g., that there are things (substances) at all, is "Grounded in the nature of possibility." (27) What is the nature of this grounding? R. speaks of "nomological causality" as opposed to "efficient causality." (21) Somehow -- and I confess to finding this all rather murky -- the proto-laws nomologically cause the existence of physical substances. How does this explain why there is something rather than nothing?
R. argues, p. 31: (a) If every R-possible world is F, then the actual world is F. (b) Every R-possible world is nonempty. Therefore, (c) The actual world is nonempty: there is something rather than nothing (31). That is, only nonempty worlds are really possible. As R. remarks, the reasoning here is like the ontological argument: only an actual God is really possible. Rescher's view seems to be that, while there is a plurality of possible worlds, there is no possible world empty of physical existents. But how does Rescher support premise (b): Every R-possible world is nonempty? He gives a ridiculous question-begging argument (p. 32) that I won't bother to reproduce.
Cosmologism. The above six approaches are listed by N. Rescher (The Riddle of Existence, 1984, Ch. 1). But I believe there is a seventh approach which I learned from my old friend Quentin Smith. (A later post will deal with this in detail.) On this approach the Leibniz question is genuine (contra Rejectionism) and has an answer (contra Mysterianism). Moreover, the answer has the form of an explanation (contra Brutalism). But the answer do not involve any necessary substance such as God, nor does it take the line that the universe itself exists of necessity. Nor does the answer ascribe any causal efficacy to abstract laws or values. The idea is that the universe has the resources to explain its own existence: it caused itself to exist. Roughly, everything (space-time, matter, laws) came into existence 13.7 billion years ago; it was caused to come into existence; but it was not caused to come into existence by anything distinct from the universe. How? Well, assume that the universe is just the sum total of its states. Assume further that if each state has an explanation, then this suffices as an explanation of the sum total of states. Now each state has a causal explanation in terms of an earlier state. There is no first state despite the fact that the universe is metrically finite in age: 13.7 billion years old. There is no first state because of the continuity of time and causation: for every state there are earlier states in its causal ancestry. Because every state has a cause, and the universe is just the sum-total of its states, the universe has a cause. But this cause is immanent to the universe. So the universe caused itself to exist!
In the pages of Scientific American, Lawrence M. Krauss writes:
As a scientist, the fascination normally associated with the classically phrased question “why is there something rather than nothing?”, is really contained in a specific operational question. That question can be phrased as follows: How can a universe full of galaxies and stars, and planets and people, including philosophers, arise naturally from an initial condition in which none of these objects—no particles, no space, and perhaps no time—may have existed? Put more succinctly perhaps: Why is there ‘stuff’, instead of empty space? Why is there space at all? There may be other ontological questions one can imagine but I think these are the ‘miracles’ of creation that are so non-intuitive and remarkable, and they are also the ‘miracles’ that physics has provided new insights about, and spurred by amazing discoveries, has changed the playing field of our knowledge. That we can even have plausible answers to these questions is worth celebrating and sharing more broadly.
This paragraph is a perfect example of why I find Krauss exasperating. They guy seems incapable of thinking and writing clearly.
First of all, no one can have any objection to a replacement of the old Leibniz question -- Why is there something rather than nothing? See On the Ultimate Origin of Things, 1697 -- with a physically tractable question, a question of interest to cosmologists and one amenable to a physics solution. Unfortunately, in the paragraph above, Krauss provides two different replacement questions while stating, absurdly, that the second is a more succint version of the first:
K1. How can a physical universe arise from an initial condition in which there are no particles, no space and perhaps no time?
K2. Why is there 'stuff' instead of empty space?
These are obviously distinct questions. To answer the first one would have to provide an account of how the universe originated from nothing physical: no particles, no space, and "perhaps" no time. The second question would be easier to answer because it presupposes the existence of space and does not demand that empty space be itself explained.
Clearly, the questions are distinct. But Krauss conflates them. Indeed, he waffles between them, reverting to something like the first question after raising the second. To ask why there is something physical as opposed to nothing physical is quite different from asking why there is physical "stuff" as opposed to empty space.
One would think that a scientist, trained in exact modes of thought and research, would not fall into such a blatant confusion. Or if he is not confused 'in his own mind' why is he writing like a sloppy sophomore? Scientific American is not a technical journal, but it is certainly a cut or two above National Enquirer.
To make matters worse, Krauss then starts talking about the 'miracles' of creation. Talk of miracles, or even of 'miracles,' has no place in science. The point of science is to demystify the world, to give, as far as possible, a wholly naturalistic account of nature. It is a noble enterprise and ought to be pursued to the limit. But what is the point of bringing in a theological term with or without 'scare' quotes? The same goes for 'creation.' In his book he refers to the physical universe as creation. But creation implies a creator. Why the theological language? Is he trying to co-opt it? What game is he playing here? Whatever it is, it doesn't inspire confidence in anything he says.
Go back to my opening point. There can be no objection to a replacement of the Leibniz question with one or more physically tractable questions. Unfortunately, Krauss is not clearly doing this. He thinks he is answering the Leibniz question. But he waffles, and he shifts his ground, and he backtracks when caught out and criticized.
Whatever merit his book has in popularizing recent cosmology, it is otherwise worthless. The book is a miserable exercise in 'bait and switch.' From the very title (A Universe From Nothing: Why There is Something Rather Than Nothing), Krauss purports to be answering the old philosophical question using nothing but naturalistic means. But having baited us, he then switches and waffles and backtracks and plays semantic games.
I argued yesterday that the following questions are distinct:
Q1. Why does anything at all exist, rather than nothing? Q2. Why does anything at all exist?
Today I explore a little further the difference between non-contrastive and contrastive explanations. Consider the difference between:
1. Why is Mary walking rather than swimming?
2. Why is Mary walking?
An answer to (2) might be: She exercises daily and her preferred form of exercise is walking. But this answer is no answer to (1). For here it is not the phenomenon of her walking that needs explaining, but the contrastive phenomenon of her walking instead of swimming. An answer to (1) might run: Mary is walking rather than swimming because she had an operation on her arm and she doesn't want to get the bandage wet.
So answering (2) does not answer (1). But it is also true that answering (1) does not answer (2). For if she is walking rather than swimming so as not to get her bandage wet, this does not explain why she is walking in the first place. It leaves open whether she walks to exercise, or to meet her neighbors, or for some other reason.
I conclude that (1) and (2) are distinct. They are distinct because their answers need not be the same.
Now let us consider the presuppositions of (1). It is obvious -- isn't it? -- that only what is the case can be explained. That there are leprechauns cavorting in my yard cannot be explained since it is not the case. I will allow you to say that there is a possible world in which leprechauns cavort in my yard; but since that world is merely possible, nothing in it needs to be explained. So (1) presupposes that Mary is walking. (1) also presupposes that Mary is not swimming. No one can both walk and swim at the same time; so a person who is walking is not swimming.
A third presupposition of (1) is that it is possible that Mary be swimming. If I aim to explain why she is walking rather than swimming, then I presuppose that she is not swimming. But her not swimming is consistent with the possibility of her swimming. Her not swimming is also consistent with the impossibility of her swimming. Nevertheless, if I ask why walking rather than swimming, I presuppose that she might have been swimming. 'Rather than' means 'instead of' (in place of). So if she is walking instead of swimming, and walking is possible because actual, then swimming must also be possible if it is to be something that can be done instead of walking. It might help to consider
3. Why is Mary walking rather than levitating?
4. Why is Mary walking rather than levitating and not levitating at the same time?
These two questions have presuppositions that are false. (3) presupposes that it is possible that Mary be doing something nomologically impossible, while (4) presupposes that it is possible that Mary being doing something that is narrowly-logically impossible. Questions (3) and (4) are therefore not to be answered but to be rejected -- by rejecting the false presuppositions upon which they rest.
The same holds for the rather more interesting (Q1) and (Q2). (Q1) presupposes that it is possible that nothing exist. For again it is a contrastive phenomenon that wants explaining: something rather than nothing. Either (Q1)'s presupposition is false, or it is such that, if it were true, then every being would be contingent, in which case there could be no ultimate regress-stopping explanation of why something rather than nothing exists. That is the point I made yesterday.
So the correct response to (Q1) is either to reject it by rejecting the false presupposition upon which it is based, or to reject it by pointing out that, if said presupposition were true, no ultimate regress-stopping explantion would be possible. (Q2), however, does not presuppose that it is possible that nothing exist. It does not suffer from the internal defect that bedevils (Q1).
Victor Stenger contributes a meatier piece, Nuthin' to Explain in which he replies to David Albert's NYT review of Krauss. One of the questions Albert raises is where the laws of quantum mechanics come from. Strenger's thesis is that "the laws of physics arise naturally from the symmetries of the void." So the void has symmetries and these symmetries give rise to the laws of physics. I imagine Albert would simply reiterate his question: where do these symmetries come from? Symmetries are not nothing. And presumably they are symmetries in this respect or that, in which case one can ask what these respects are and where they come from. And what about the void itself? If it is nothing at all, then ex nihilo nihil fit. And if it is something, then it is not nothing and one can ask about its origin. Stenger opines:
Clearly, no academic consensus exists on how to define "nothing." It may be impossible. To define "nothing" you have to give it some defining property, but, then, if it has a property it is not nothing!
Maybe I can help Stenger out. Nothing is the absence of everything. Isn't that what everybody who understands English understands by 'nothing' is this context? Have I just done the impossible? Can one rationally debate the sense of 'nothing'? Is there need for an "academic consensus"? Does Stenger understand English? Stenger goes on:
The "nothing" that Krauss mainly talks about throughout the book is, in fact, precisely definable. It should perhaps be better termed as a "void," which is what you get when you apply quantum theory to space-time itself. It's about as nothing as nothing can be. This void can be described mathematically. It has an explicit wave function. This void is the quantum gravity equivalent of the quantum vacuum in quantum field theory.
Now Stenger is contradicting himself. He just got done telling us that 'nothing' cannot be defined, but now he is telling us that it is precisely definable. Which is it, my man? The problem of course is that Krauss and Stenger want to have it two ways at once. They want to use 'nothing' in the standard way to refer to the absence of everything while at the same time using it in violation of English usage to refer to something.
I have a suggestion. What these boys need to do is introduce a terminus technicus, 'Nuthin' or 'Nathin' or 'Nothing*' where these terms refer to a physical something and then give us their theory about that. But if they did this, then they wouldn't be able to play the silly-ass game they are playing, which is to waffle between 'nothing' as understood by everyone who is not a sophist and who understands the question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' and 'nothing' in their technical sense. If they stopped their waffling, however, they would not be able to extract any anti-theology out of their physics. But that is the whole purpose of this scientistic nonsense, and the reason why Richard Dawkins absurdly compares Krauss' book to The Origin of the Species.
The religious question "why is there something rather than nothing," has been around since people have been around, and now we're actually reaching a point where science is beginning to address that question. [. . .]
What's amazing to me is that we're now at a point where we can plausibly argue that a universe full of stuff came from a very simple beginning, the simplest of all beginnings: nothing. [. . .]
The fact that "nothing," namely empty space, is unstable is amazing. But I'll be the first to say that empty space as I'm describing it isn't necessarily nothing, although I will add that it was plenty good enough for Augustine and the people who wrote the Bible. For them an eternal empty void was the definition of nothing, and certainly I show that that kind of nothing ain't nothing anymore. [. . .]
What drove me to write this book was this discovery that the nature of "nothing" had changed, that we've discovered that "nothing" is almost everything and that it has properties. That to me is an amazing discovery. So how do I frame that? I frame it in terms of this question about something coming from nothing. And part of that is a reaction to these really pompous theologians who say, "out of nothing, nothing comes," because those are just empty words. [. . .]
I had fun back in January pilloring the scientistic nonsense Lawrence M. Krauss propagates in his recent book, A Universe From Nothing. Meanwhile the book has shown up at the local library and tomorrow I will borrow it. I would never buy a piece of crap like this, though, to be fair, I will first have to read it to be sure that it is crap. That it is crap is an excellent bet, however, given what I quoted Krauss as saying and given David Albert's New York Times review of a couple days ago.
I won't quote from Albert's review. Study it carefully and you will see why Krauss' book is junk.
One mistake many people make is to think that any opposition to scientistic nonsense of the sort that Krauss spouts can only be religiously motivated. Carefully pointing out the confusions to which Krauss and Co. succumb gets one labeled an 'apologist for religion.' Now an affirmative answer to the question whether contemporary physics has the resources to explain why the physical universe exists does of course have negative implications for those forms of theism that posit a transcendent divine creator. But the question itself is not a religious question but a metaphysical question. Every clear-thinking atheist should reject Krauss's specious reasoning. Rejecting it would not make our atheist an apologist for religion.
People sometimes question what philosophy is good for. Well, one thing it is good for is to debunk bad philosophy, Krauss' scientistic nonsense being a particular egregious example of bad philosophy.
Philosophize we must and philosophize we will. The only question is whether we will do it well.
How to disentangle profundity from puffery in any obscure formulation? Clear thought stops short, a victim of its own probity; the other kind, vague and indecisive, extends into the distance and escapes by its suspect but unassailable mystery.
Excellent except perhaps for ‘victim,’ which betrays Cioran’s mannered negativism. Substitute ‘beneficiary’ and the thought’s expression approaches perfection.
Indolence saves us from prolixity and thereby from the shamelessness inherent in production. (133)
An exaggeration, but something for bloggers to consider.
To be is to be cornered. (93)
Striking, and certainly no worse than W. V. Quine’s “To be is to be the value of a variable.”
Nothing makes us modest, not even the sight of a corpse. (87)
Cioran hits the mark here: the plain truth is set before us without exaggeration in a concise and striking manner.
Conversation is fruitful only between minds given to consolidating their perplexities. (163)
Brilliant. Philosophy, as Plato remarks (Theaetetus St. 155) and Aristotle repeats (Metaphysics 982b10), originates in wonder or perplexity. Fruitful philosophical conversation, rare as it is and must be given the woeful state of humanity, is therefore a consolidation and appreciation of problems and aporiai, much more than an attempt to convince one’s interlocutor of something. Herein lies a key difference between philosophy and ideology. The ideologue has answers, or thinks he has. And so his conversation is either apologetics or polemics, but not dialog. The philosopher has questions and so with him dialog is possible.
Time, accomplice of exterminators, disposes of morality. Who, today, bears a grudge against Nebuchadnezzar? (178)
This is quite bad, and not become of its literary form, but because the thought is false. If enough time passes, people forget about past injustices. True. But how does it follow that morality is abrogated? Cioran is confusing two distinct propositions. One is that the passage of time disposes of moral memories, memories of acts just and unjust. The other is that the passage of time disposes of morality itself, rightness and wrongness themselves, so that unjust acts eventually become neither just not unjust. The fact that Cioran’s aphorism conflates these two propositions is enough to condemn it, quite apart from the fact that the second proposition is arguably false. A good aphorism cannot merely be clever; it must also express an insight. An insight, of course, is an insight only if it is true. Nor is an aphorism good if it merely betrays a mental quirk of its author. For then it would be of merely psychological or biographical interest.
There is no other world. Nor even this one. What, then, is there? The inner smile provoked in us by the patent nonexistence of both. (134)
A statement of Cioran’s nihilism. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us, it is self-contradictory. It cannot be true both that nothing exists and that an inner smile, a bemused realization that nothing exists, exists. So what is he trying to tell us? If you say that he is not trying to tell us anything, then what is he doing? If you say that he is merely playing at being clever, then I say to hell with him: he stands condemned by the very probity that he himself invokes in the first aphorism quoted supra.
Everything is nothing, including the consciousness of nothing. (144)
An even more pithy statement of Cioran’s nihilism. But if the consciousness of nothing is nothing, then there is no consciousness of nothing, which implies that the nihilist of Cioran’s type cannot be aware of himself as a nihilist. Thus Cioran’s thought undermines the very possibility of its own expression. That can’t be good.
Will you accuse me of applying logic to Cioran’s aphorism? But what exempts nihilists from logic? Note that his language is not imperative, interrogative, or optative, but declarative. He is purporting to state a fact, in a broad sense of ‘fact.’ He is saying: this is the way it is. But if there is a way things are, then it cannot be true that everything is nothing. The way things are is not nothing.
“It is of no importance to know who I am since some day I shall no longer be” – that is what each of us should answer those who bother about our identity and desire at any price to coop us up in a category or a definition. (144)
This presupposes that only the absolutely permanent is real and important. It is this (Platonic) assumption that drives Cioran’s nihilism: this world is nothing since it fails to satisfy the Platonic criterion of reality and importance. Now if Cioran were consistently sceptical, he would call this criterion into question, and with it, his nihilism. He would learn to embrace the finite as finite and cheerfully abandon his mannered negativism. If, on the other hand, he really believes in the Platonic criterion – as he must if he is to use it to affirm, by contrast, the nullity of the experienced world – then he ought to ask whence derives its validity. This might lead him away from nihilism to an affirmation of the ens realissimum.
X, who instead of looking at things directly has spent his life juggling with concepts and abusing abstract terms, now that he must envisage his own death, is in desperate straits. Fortunately for him, he flings himself, as is his custom, into abstractions, into commonplaces illustrated by jargon. A glamorous hocus-pocus, such is philosophy. But ultimately, everything is hocus-pocus, except for this very assertion that participates in an order of propositions one dares not question because they emanate from an unverifiable certitude, one somehow anterior to the brain’s career. (153)
A statement of Cioran’s scepticism. But his scepticism is half-hearted since he insulates his central claim from sceptical corrosion. To asseverate that his central claim issues from “an unverifiable certitude” is sheer dogmatism since there is no way that this certitude can become a self-certitude luminous to itself. Compare the Cartesian cogito. In the cogito situation, a self’s indubitability is revealed to itself, and thus grounds itself. But Cioran invokes something anterior to the mind, something which, precisely because of it anteriority, cannot be known by any mind. Why then should we not consider his central claim – according to which everything is a vain and empty posturing – to be itself a vain and empty posturing?
Indeed, is this not the way we must interpret it given Cioran’s two statements of nihilism cited above? If everything is nothing, then surely there cannot be “an unverifiable certitude” anterior to the mind that is impervious to sceptical assault.
Again, one may protest that I am applying logic in that I am comparing different aphorisms with an eye towards evaluating their mutual consistency. It might be suggested that our man is imply not trying to be consistent. But then I say that he is an unserious literary scribbler with no claim on our attention. But the truth of the matter lies a bit deeper: he is trying have it both ways at once. He is trying to say something true but without satisfying the canons satisfaction of which is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of anything’s being true.
My interim judgement, then, is this. What we have before us is a form of cognitive malfunction brought about by hypertrophy of the sceptical faculty. Doubt is the engine of inquiry. Thus there is a healthy form of scepticism. But Cioran’s extreme scepticism is a disease of cognition rather than a means to it. The writing, though, is brilliant.
The quotations are from E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered (New York: Seaver Books, 1983), translated from the French by Richard Howard.
Over breakfast yesterday morning, Peter Lupu uncorked a penetrating observation. The gist of it I took to be as follows. If a naturalist maintains that the physical universe can arise out of nothing without divine or other supernatural agency, then the naturalist cannot rule out the possibility that other things so arise, minds for example -- a result that appears curiously inconsistent with both the spirit and the letter of naturalism. Here is how I would spell out the Lupine thought.
The central thrust of naturalism as an ontological thesis is that the whole of reality is exhausted by the space-time system and what it contains. (To catalog what exactly it contains is a job for the physicist.) But this bald thesis can be weakened in ways consistent with the spirit of naturalism. The weakening makes naturalism more defensible. And so I will irenically assume that it is consistent with the spirit of a latitudinarian naturalism to admit abstracta of various sorts such as Fregean propositions and mathmatical sets. We may also irenically allow the naturalist various emergent/supervenient properties so long as it is understood that emergence/supervenience presupposes an emergence/supervenience base, and that this base is material in nature. I will even go so far as to allow the naturalist emergent/supervenient substances such as individual minds. But again, if this is to count as naturalism, then (i) their arisal must be from matter, and (ii) they cannot, after arising, exist in complete independence of matter.
What every naturalism rules out, including the latitudinarian version just sketched, is the existence of God, classically conceived, or any sort of Absolute Mind, as well as the existence of unembodied and disembodied finite minds.
The naturalist, then, takes as ontologically basic the physical universe, the system of space-time-matter, and denies the existence of non-emergent/supervenient concreta distinct from this system. Well now, what explains the existence of the physical universe, especially if it is only finitely old? One answer, and perhaps the only answer available to the naturalist, is that it came into existence ex nihilo without cause, and thus without divine cause. Hence
1. The physical universe came into existence from nothing without cause.
Applying Existential Generalization and the modal rule ab esse ad posse we get
2. It is possible that something come into existence from nothing without cause.
If so, how can the naturalist exclude the possibility of minds coming into existence but not emerging from a material base? If he thinks it possible that the universe came into existence ex nihilo, then he must allow that it is possible that divine and finite minds also have come into existence ex nihilo. But this is a possibility he cannot countenance given his commitment to saying that everything that exists is either physical or determined by the physical.
This seems to put the naturalist in an embarrassing position. If the universe is finitely old, then it came into existence. You could say it 'emerged.' But on naturalism, there cannot be emergence except from a material base. So either the universe did not emerge or it did, in which case (2) is true and the principle that everything either is or is determined by the physical is violated.
This post examines Richard C. Potter's solution to the problem of reconciling creatio ex nihilo with ex nihilo nihil fit in his valuable article, "How To Create a Physical Universe Ex Nihilo," Faith and Philosophy, vol. 3, no. 1, (January 1986), pp. 16-26. (Potter appears to have dropped out of sight, philosophically speaking, so if anyone knows what became of him, please let me know. The Philosopher's Index shows only three articles by him, the last of which appeared in 1986.)
I. THE PROBLEM
We first need to get clear about the problem. On classical conceptions, God creates ex nihilo, out of nothing. He is not a Platonic demiurge who operates upon some preexistent stuff: he creates without it being the case that there is something out of which he creates. Nor does God create out of himself, a notion that presumbaly would give aid and comfort to pantheism. God creates out of nothing. Given that God creates out of nothing, how is this consistent with the apparent truth that something cannot come from nothing? The latter, the principle of ex nihilo nihil fit, seems to be an intuitively self-evident metaphysically necessary truth. Let us assume that it is. As metaphysically necessary, it is not a truth over which God has any control. Its truth-value is not within the purview of the divine will. Our problem is to understand, if possible, how it can be true both that God creates out of nothing, and that out of nothing nothing comes. Potter offers an ingenious solution.
Ex nihilo nihil fit is interpreted by Potter in terms of the following Principle of Creation by Compounding:
PCC. For any object O and time t, if O comes into being at t, then there exist some objects out of which O is composed and those objects existed prior to t.
Potter sees the problem as one of reconciling (PCC) with the following principle:
ENP. God created contingent objects in such a way that there was a time t1 at which contingent objects came into being, although there was no time prior to t1.
On the face of it, (PCC) and (ENP) are logically inconsistent.
Suppose I try to think the counterfactual state of affairs of there being nothing, nothing at all. Can I succeed in thinking pure nothingness? Is this thought thinkable? And if it is, does it show that it is possible that there be nothing at all? If yes, then (i) it is contingent that anything exists, and (ii) everything that exists exists contingently, which implies that both of the following are false:
(1) and (2) are not the same proposition: (2) entails (1) but not conversely.
Phylogenetically, this topic goes back to Parmenides of Elea. Ontogenetically, it goes back to what was probably my first philosophical thought when I was about eight or so years old. (Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny!) I had been taught that God created everything distinct from himself. One day, lying in bed and staring at the ceiling, I thought: "Well, suppose God never created anything. Then only God would exist. And if God didn't exist, then there would be nothing at all." At this my head began to swim and I felt a strange wonder that I cannot quite recapture, although the memory remains strong 50 years later. The unutterably strange thought that there might never have been anything at all -- is this thought truly thinkable or does it cancel itself in the very attempt to think it?
My earlier meditation was to the effect that the thought cancels itself by issuing in contradiction. (And so I concluded that necessarily there is something, an interesting metaphysical result arrived at by pure thought.) To put it as simply as possible, and avoiding the patois of 'possible worlds': If there were nothing, then it would be a fact that there is nothing. And so there would be something, namely, that very fact. After all, that fact has a definite content and can't be nothing. But this is not quite convincing because, on the other hand, if there were truly nothing, then there wouldn't be this fact either.
On the one hand, nothingness is the determinate 'state' of there being nothing at all. Determinate, because it excludes there being something. (Spinoza: Omnis determinatio est negatio.) On the other hand, nothingness is the nonbeing of absolutely everything, including this putative 'state.' That is about as pithy a formulation of the puzzle as I can come up with.
Here is a puzzle of a similar structure. If there were no truths, then it would be true that there are no truths, which implies that there is at least one truth. The thought that there are no truths refutes itself. Hence, necessarily, there is at least one truth. On the other hand, if there 'truly' were no truths, then there would be no truth that there are no truths. We cannot deny that there are truths without presupposing that there are truths; but this does not prove the necessity of truths apart from us. Or so the objection goes.
How can we decide between these two plausible lines of argumentation?
But let me put it a third way so we get the full flavor of the problem. This is the way things are: Things exist. If nothing else, these very thoughts about being and nonbeing exist. If nothing existed, would that then be the way things are? If yes, then there is something, namely, the way things are. Or should we say that, if nothing existed, then there would be no way things are, no truth, no maximal state of affairs? In that case, no determinate 'possibility' would be actual were nothing to exist.
The last sentence may provide a clue to solving the problem. If no determinate possibility would be actual were nothing to exist, then the thought of there being nothing at all lacks determinate content. It follows that the thought that there is nothing at all is unthinkable. We may say, 'There might have been nothing at all,' but we can attach no definite thought to those words. So talking, we literally don't know what we are talking about. We are merely mouthing words. Because it is unthinkable that there be nothing at all, it is impossible, and so it is necessary that there be something.
Parmenides vindicatus est.
My conclusion is equivalent to the thesis that there is no such 'thing' as indeterminate nonbeing. Nonbeing is determinate: it is always and necessarily the nonbeing of something. For example, the nonbeing of Pierre, the nonbeing of the cafe, the nonbeing of Paris . . . the nonbeing of the Earth . . . the nonbeing of the physical universe . . . the nonbeing of everything that exists. Nonbeing, accordingly, is defined by its exclusion of what exists.
The nonbeing of everything that exists is not on an ontological par with everything that exists. The former is parasitic on the latter, as precisely the nonbeing of the latter. Being and Nothing are not equal but opposite: Nothing is derivative from Being as the negation of Being. Hegel got off on the wrong foot at the beginning of his Wissenschaft der Logik. And Heidegger, who also maintained that Being and Nothing are the same -- though in a different sense than that intended by Hegel -- was also out to lunch, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor.
If this is right, then nonbeing is not a source out of which what is comes or came. Accordingly, a sentence like 'The cosmos emerged from the womb of nonbeing,' whatever poetic value it might have, is literally meaningless: there is no nonbeing from which anything can emerge.