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Wednesday, January 28, 2009


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Bill, excellent post. You mention the contingency of the world being compatible with atheism, which is interesting. I've always thought myself that the only argument that would convince me to be an atheist is proof that the world is the way it is...because it can't be any other way. Not that I'm looking for contingency arguments for atheism; I'm more interested in the contingency of things as an argument for theism.


Anyway, an enjoyable post.

Hi John,

You raise an interesting question: If nature exists of metaphysical necessity, and could not have been other than it is (e.g., the laws of nature could not have been different, the values of the physical constants could not have been different, the geometry of spacetime could not have been different, etc.), does it follow that God (classically defined) does not exist? In other words, can one mount a necessity argument for atheism as a counter to contingency arguments for theism?

I suppose one could. If nature is necessary as to existence and structure, then God would have a lot less work to do inasmuch as there would be no need for an explanation of why the natural world exists. I am assuming that what exists of metaphysical necessity has no need of an explanation of its existence: its existence is 'self-explanatory.' But of course God has other jobs to do besides explaining why a world exists and why this particular world as opposed to some other one.

But is there a compelling reason to think that nature exists of metaphysical necessity? I can't think of one. Maybe the Objectivists can provide us with one. I should like to hear it.

The temporal 'always' does not get the length of the modal 'necessarily.'

I'm just a poor, ignorant statistician (and so encounter contingent events all the time), but I wonder if some of the confusion might lie with an equivocation on the word "always." In the Choctaw language, there are two words - time particles appended to verbs - to denote "always." billia means "always" in the sense of "continuously, without interruption." bieka means "always" in the sense of "on every occasion." I can see where if something happens bieka - on every occasion when I drop a stone, it will fall to the ground - it may imply a kind of necessity from which we induce a law of gravity. OTOH, if G(Mm)/d^2 is billia - it has always been the case without interruption that gravitational forces diminish with the square of the distance - it is actually easy to consider that it might have been G(Mm)/d^3 or G(Mm)/d^1 or some other relationship.

Maybe another way of thinking of it is that the consequences of a natural law, like Newton's, are necessary; but the natural law itself is not.

(I have recently discovered this site and find it interesting.)

What I've always been confused on (even having been a Randian objectivist many years ago)is that how she can hold non-made made truths as necessary, hold man-made actions as contingent, yet not in any way be a dualist (believing in some non-material soul that makes humans immune from the determinism she must see in nature).

Actually, the reason I long ago gave up objectivism was because I thought they thoroughly misunderstood evolutionary theory on this (and another) score. Evolution becomes a very strange theory when not seen as premised on a certain level of contingency; it becomes a theory peppered with words like "inevitability." If evolution does not function contra to the principle of "that which is, had to be," then I don't know what is.

Isn't there a logical problem in holding that man is both a product of the universe and that man, because of some particular property attributed to him (free will), is exempted from the unyielding necessity that everything else in the universe must, by default, possess. Stated in another way, our consciousness or mind is, according to any materialist dogma, composed solely of matter. This matter, in turn, is a part of the universe in the same way that the planets and the stars are. How can this matter somehow come together in a certain way to break from the chains of necessity into the realm of contingency. For the atheist, man is entirely a part of this universe. Why, then, should he be an exception? I think it should be obvious that the response "Because he has free will" is not sufficiently satisfactory.


A good point. I wonder how Binswanger would respond. A key idea in evolutionary theory is natural selection which involves random variation, though it has deterministic aspects as well. So I agree with you: if evolutionary theory is true, 'that which is had to be' is false.

Evolutionary theory and quantum mechanics both pose serious threats to Rand's metaphysics.


Just as a side-note, I think you make an interesting point when you say: "For the atheist, man is entirely a part of this universe. Why, then, should he be an exception? I think it should be obvious that the response "Because he has free will" is not sufficiently satisfactory."

I honestly don't recall Rand's solution to the problem of free will in a determined world (I only remember it stated that humans have free will).

Myself, I think that the best "solutions" have been offered by Karl William James (a weak solution by most any standard, but the best I've seen). James suggests that we simply don't know enough (and possibly can't know enough) to know whether we are determined, but the fact that we intutively feel free means that we might as well act that way (allowing for the possibility that this feeling and our actions may be determined).

Karl Popper says something similar, in suggesting that while determinism is a testable hypothesis, we could never know whether our failure at prediction proves indeterminacy or ignorance of variables in our prediction. Therefore, we tentatively assume determinacy but keep the position a tentative one.

Now, back to the Rand stuff.

I think that my comment was completely pertinent to the discussion. Thus there is no need to go "Back to the Rand stuff." I did not, in fact, ask for an answer to the problem of free will. Your response, though, has proven my point. The very idea of free will is inconsistent with both a materialist and determinist worldview. Randians appear to hold both of these and, therefore, my question to them still stands and has not been properly dealt with. If man is a purely material component of the universe, how is it that he escapes the absolute necessity that the rest of the universe must somehow logically possess? Let us use the simple example of a glass. Because a glass is man-made, according to Randians, its existence is contingent and not necessary. The process of making the glass, though, must also have a purely material explanation. The glass is a result of my hands working to form it, which in turn is a result of the impulses within my brain that direct the parts of my body to act. Working from a materialist basis, the glass has actually come into existence in the same way that all non man-made things have. The term "free will" used as a response to my inquiry becomes both a cop out and merely a linguistic trick that refuses to consider the issue thoughtfully.

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