Thursday, September 19, 2019

What needs a cause

Suppose Alice has existed for an infinite amount of time and now time 0 (in some unit system) has just come. Imagine that between time −1 and time 0, Barbara lived internally a life just like Alice did between time −1 and time 0. But between time −1.5 and −1, Barbara lived a life sped up by a factor of two, exactly like Alice’s life between time −2 and time −1. And between time −1.75 and −1.5, Barbara lived a life sped up by a factor of two, exactly like Alice’s life between time −3 and time −2. And so on, with Barbara coming into existence right after time −2.

Some people think that the principle:

  1. Everything that has a beginning has a cause

is significantly more plausible than the principle:

  1. Everything contingent has a cause.

Now, (1) requires Barbara to have a cause but does not require this of Alice, while (2) requires both Barbara and Alice to have causes. But internally, there is really no significant difference between Alice’s life and Barbara’s. Thus, someone who thinks that (1) is significantly more plausible than (2) needs to think that external differences—such as Barbara’s past life being metrically finite with respect to external time—might make a difference as to what needs and what does not need a cause.

If, however, we think that external differences do not make a difference with respect to what needs a cause, we should judge Barbara and Alice the same way. And if we judge Barbara and Alice the same way, then it seems that we should not think (1) is significantly more plausible than (2).


Walter Van den Acker said...


The difference seems to be that, in the case of Barbara, there is a state of nothingness, followed by a state in which something (Barbara) exists.
The question then is, what accounts for the coming into existence of Barbara if there is no "what" in the first place.

In the case of Alice, there is no state of nothingness, so there is no "coming into existence" involved. Alice is simply an eternal brute fact.

SMatthewStolte said...

Barbara doesn’t really have a beginning, though, since there is no time at which she begins to be. She doesn’t begin at –2 or –2+ϵ for any ϵ, so I’m not even sure that the first principle applies to her.

Heath White said...

I can think of loads of contingent beings, or beings with finite existence, that have *no* internal experience. (rocks, etc.) I guess I am wondering why this feature of a being would come into it at all, when we are considering whether the being needs a cause.

Atno said...

I wonder if we need something even stronger than 2.

Suppose someone responds to the cosmological argument by saying that every possible configuration of laws exists by necessity (free acts and perhaps persons might still differ, let's just focus on universes and their laws for the sake of argument, including treating them as objects). Now, we might protest that universes are not the kind of thing that has a nature which includes/entails existence or necessary existence. After all, it seems that the nature of any physical thing is such that it does not include existence. If it were to be necessarily exist, it could do so only in a derivative way - by being caused as a matter of necessity by something else.

In this case, we would be appealing to the following principle:

P: Something can exist of necessity only by a necessity of *its own nature*, or if it is necessarily caused by a necessary being.

Suppose something at least similar to Aquinas's real distinction of essence and existence. The idea behind P is that if a thing can only have existence either because of its own nature, or because of an external cause. It excludes the alternative of a thing brutely having existence neither because of its nature, nor because of any external cause. PSR would rule out such an option if it were contingent. But what if it were a *necessary* brute fact?
What if Richard Taylor's ball in the woods had to exist as a matter of necessity, even though its nature does not entail necessary existence? In this case we could not coherently say the ball could have failed to exist and thus need an explanation, since ex hypothesi the ball is modally necessary. A PSR opponent could claim that even though the ball's nature does not include or entail existence simply by itself, it is nevertheless a necessary fact that the ball must exist, and without any cause.

Of course, someone could respond that this whole proposal is ad hoc. But it seems the problem with it is much graver than "mere" ad hocness.

What do you make of that?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Heath: rocks have a rich internal life whenever they are not at 0 Kelvin.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Atno: I think there are huge problems with treating necessity as a property of a thing, or saying that things exist by "necessity of their own nature". If it didn't exist, it wouldn't have a nature at all. One doesn't get pulled into existence or tethered there by one's own nature. It's better to say that statements about the existence of a thing might be necessarily true (i.e. they cannot be denied without entailing a contradiction somewhere down the line and thus being meaningless).

Heath and Pruss: What does "internal life" mean, and how does it have to do with how long an object has existed? For example, if a rock has an "internal life" in the same relevant sense as Alice and Barbara do in the original post, can we describe what it would mean for that rock to have a relevantly different internal life from another rock, such that their duration in existence is somehow affected??

The difference between (1) and (2) is, as Walter pointed out, that the object in (1) needs to go from not existing to existing. This makes it inevitable that its existence is contingent, but it also more strongly resists "bruteness", since its existence is not a given. It isn't something that can be simply taken for granted, since it, after all, failed to exist at least at some point.

Atno said...


The problem as I see it is that the nature would be conditionally prior to existence, so it is not like the nature can merely include necessary existence. This is why my view is that of Aquinas: the essence of God is existence itself. His essence is existence. Or at least, if you resist that, His existence is so intimately connected with His nature that it is "close enough".
In any case, if something does not have a property either by its own nature, or by some external cause, then there is no third way in my view - unless you assume some necessary brute facts, which is precisely what I am discussing here.
A translucent ball's nature is not necessary existence/does not entail necessary existence in any way. How, then, could it necessarily exist, apart from being mecessarily caused by a necessary being? To say it just is a necessary brute fact that it must exist should be rejected, in my view, because it would be rather close to the thing's coming from nothing. It is uncaused, and the nature does not entail necessary existence; where is necessary existence coming from, then? How can the thing exist, much less necessarily exist, if its nature is neutral w.r.t. existence and it is not caused by anything? It seems we need a PSR not just for contingent things, but for necessary things as well.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Atno: First off, I think the PSR does apply to necessary things as well. I agree with you there. And, it seems to me that the only necessary concrete entity would be the explanatory ultimate being (i.e. God). At least, on a "powers" account of possibility, X is possible just if it either actually exists or there actually existed other beings with sufficient power to bring X into being (whether they actually did or not). The chain of causes for all contingent states of affairs would go back and back until we finally arrived at an explanatory ultimate, G, whose possibility is not grounded in anything else, and so is possible just because it is actual. Such a being would have no necessary or sufficient conditions at all; ANY state of affairs is sufficient. Even if you try to imagine a totally empty world (a world with nothing at all), we could ask of that world "is G possible in that world?", and S4 requires us to answer "yes" (if X is possible in some state of affairs it is possible in any state of affairs). But, then given that G doesn't have any conditions it needs in order to exist, its possibility in the "empty" world cannot be grounded in the powers of something else, and so must be grounded in its actuality. Thus it achieves what the ontological arguments always wanted to give God. You can't even conceive of a world without it, because it would be possible there which is just the same as saying it is there (given a powers-or-actual account of possibility).

Or, another way of putting that last part is: given that G has no necessary conditions, and any state of affairs is sufficient, the "empty" world is sufficient... but, to say that it is sufficient and yet G does not exist is a contradiction.

Why only one? Because the explanatory ultimate grounds all other states of affairs in its powers, and the only reason it is necessary is because it is not grounded in the powers of anything. In other words, take "necessary" to be equivalent to "possible just because it is actual; and not grounded in anything else's powers", and you'll see that "every non-G thing is grounded in G's powers (or the powers of some subsequent thing in the explanatory chain), and yet X is a non-G thing that exists necessarily" is a contradiction.

Secondly (and this will be much briefer! Sorry about that)... my point about "natures" is that it doesn't make sense to say that something exists by its own nature. If it didn't exist, its nature wouldn't be instantiated, and therefore couldn't explain anything. But, I think I know what you mean, and my best attempt to capture that sort of argument is paraphrased above (in my long-winded point #1). Lol.

Michael Gonzalez said...

Having said all that, of course "necessary" is not limited to not relying on other being's powers. That's the limited case of "necessarily existing" or the case where the statement "X exists" is necessarily true. However, I don't think that's an issue, given that the full understanding of what X is (including its powers, its necessary/sufficient conditions, etc) makes any statement that entails a violation of those a contradiction.

In other words, I think an "actual-or-powers" approach to alethic modality isn't really a departure from straightforward logical possibility, except that it requires you to be fully informed about what each of the terms in your sentence means/entails (which, really, isn't an extra requirement at all). I like how Swinburne puts it: rather than saying "broadly logical" or "metaphysical" or whatever, he just says "fully-informed logical possibility".