Thursday, November 2, 2017

Four problems and a unified solution

A similar problem occurs in at least four different areas.

  1. Physics: What explains the values of the constants in the laws of nature?

  2. Ethics: What explains parameters in moral laws, such as the degree to which we should favor benefits to our parents over benefits to strangers?

  3. Epistemology: What explains parameters in epistemic principles, such as the parameters in how quickly we should take our evidence to justify inductive generalizations, or how much epistemic weight we should put on simplicity?

  4. Semantics: What explains where the lines are drawn for the extensions of our words?

There are some solutions that have a hope of working in some but not all the areas. For instance, a view on which there is a universe-spawning mechanism that induces random value of constants in laws of nature solves the physics problem, but does little for the other three.

On the other hand, vagueness solutions to 2-4 have little hope of helping in the physics case. Actually, though, vagueness doesn’t help much in 2-4, because there will still be the question of explaining why the vague regions are where they are and why they are fuzzy in the way there are—we just shift the parameter question.

In some areas, there might be some hope of having a theory on which there are no objective parameters. For instance, Bayesianism holds that the parameters are set by the priors, and subjective Bayesianism then says that there are no objective priors. Non-realist ethical theories do something similar. But such a move in the case of physics is implausible.

In each area, there might be some hope that there are simple and elegant principles that of necessity give rise to and explainingthe values of the parameters. But that hope has yet to be born out in any of the four cases.

In each area, one can opt for a brute necessity. But that should be a last resort.

In each area, there are things that can be said that simply shift the question about parameters to a similar question about other parameters. For instance, objective Bayesianism shifts the question of about how much epistemic weight we should put on simplicity to the question of priors.

When the questons are so similar, there is significant value in giving a uniform solution. The theist can do that. She does so by opting for these views:

  1. Physics: God makes the universe have the fundamental laws of nature it does.

  2. Ethics: God institutes the fundamental moral principles.

  3. Epistemology: God institutes the fundamental epistemic principles for us.

  4. Semantics: God institutes some fundamental level of our language.

In each of the four cases there is a question of how God does this. And in each there is a “divine command” style answer and a “natural law” style answer, and likely others.

In physics, the “divine command” style answer is occasionalism; in ethics and epistemology it just is “divine command”; and in semantics it is a view on which God is the first speaker and his meanings for fundamental linguistic structs are normative. None of these appeal very much to me, and for the same reason: they all make the relevant features extrinsic to us.

In physics, the “natural law” answer is theistic Aristotelianism: laws supervene on the natures of things, and God chooses which natures to instantiate; theistic natural law is a well-developed ethical theory, and there are analogues in epistemology and semantics, albeit not very popular ones.


Brandon said...

This is a very interesting line of thought; I've considered this kind of analogy myself, although at a more general level and thus more loosely.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Dr Pruss

Isn't God also a brute necessity?

And why should this be a last resort?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Brute values of parameters, like 137.036, are more problematic than brute simple necessities, like the force of shgravity being 0, or there being a being that has *all* perfections.

Alexander R Pruss said...

And fewer brute necessities are better than more.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Well, there is only one simple necessity and that is reality/nature. The rest of the brute necessities, such as the brute values of parameters can all "simply" be reduced to this reality. Just as it is possible to comprise all brute "porperties" of god into one simple being, the naturalist could do the same with reality.

Keith Barracks said...

The problem with that is that you are basically saying that there was only one way for the particals involved in the Big Bang to be arranged. There was no explanation for it, it simply was. If we're going to stop short in asking for a reason, why begin in the first place? Why do science at all?

Walter Van den Acker said...

Well, in reality I don't hold to the brute necessity thing, but if the God of classical theism exists, there is indeed only one way reality could be, because there is no explannation for why it would be different. I mean, either it just happened to be that God chose to create this world instead of another one, in which case God's choice was a brute fact and we could indeed ask if we're going to stop asking for a reason, why begin in the first place. The alternative is that God's choice to create this world was a brute necessity, but that has the same problems as calling reality/nature one simple brute necessity.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Divine choices are contingent but not brute (in the sense of unexplained). At worst, perhaps there is no contrastive explanation. See

Walter Van den Acker said...

A necessary being has no contingent properties.

Alexander R Pruss said...

A necessary being has no intrinsic contingent properties. See my "Two Problems of Divine Simplicity" in volume 1 of Oxford Studies in Philosophy of Religion.

Walter Van den Acker said...

If a necessary being has no contingent properties, then a necessary being cannot make any choices because (logically) prior to creation there is nothing extrinsic to this necessary being. Hence, whatever preference this necessary being has, is intrinsic to it.

Alexander R Pruss said...

See the argument in the paper. :-)

Walter Van den Acker said...

I have seen it, but I don't think it solves the problem.