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Suppose I ask you why there is something rather than nothing. And by something, I mean causal reality in reference to tangible objects and not just abstract objects.

I recently saw a discussion where Graham Oppy, an atheistic philosopher, seems to go with the view that causal reality exists because it had to exist. In other words, he posits this to be necessary.

The other option he mentions is that causal reality exists for no reason.

I’m having trouble understanding the difference between the two. Presumably, by the second option, he is referring to a kind of brute contingency (I.e. in his version of modality of possible worlds, there is a possible world in which causal reality does not exist). And then, the possibility of causal reality existing just happens.

For example, one can imagine a radioactive atom decaying at time t, where t is one of many possible times (a brute contingency). One can also imagine a radioactive atom decaying at time t out of necessity.

Now, usually, in the case of day to day objects, when we speak of things happening by necessity, we think of them happening in a deterministic way. We imagine an effect occurring by necessity because of some law that determined it to be that way.

At the same time, it is not hard to imagine X happening for no deterministic cause and by necessity. Graham, for example, believes that the universe had a beginning but had no cause. However, he thinks that the universe does have a reason or explanation for its existence. But the reason is to appeal to the universe’s necessity. In other words, he claims that the explanation for the universe existing is that it is necessary even though it has no cause.

Is appealing to necessity an explanation for X? Can it be the case that X is necessary but also happen for no reason? Where is the problem in this? If there is no problem, what then, really, is the practical difference between a brute contingency and necessity?

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  • At first, I thought that the answer was obvious: a brute contingency is a brute lack of necessity, or a brute fact that there is some possible world without something, so the difference is the mere difference between necessity and contingency. However, I started wondering about iterated modality in this connection, and my feeling of obviousness started to go away (is it necessary that there is a possible world such that it is contingent that... whatever it is that is contingent? but then whence the mere necessity/contingency distinction?). Nov 15, 2023 at 17:59
  • Is there a link or reference to this discussion? It is hard to understand the difference without seeing what is being discussed.
    – Conifold
    Nov 16, 2023 at 0:49
  • @Conifold I’ve added a link in the edit but here: youtube.com/live/-sVvxZk--qs?si=SPm2uxV6UXnV9Tnr. You can skip to 2:00 and follow the discussion there for the next 2-3 minutes if you’re short on time
    – user62907
    Nov 16, 2023 at 3:18
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    Oppy explains his self-called "austere view" of necessity in Does The Universe Have A Cause?:"I think that every possible world shares laws and initial history with the actual world, and differs from the actual world only as a result of the outplaying of objective chance." Since all of his possible worlds share the initial state of the universe the latter is necessary. The other option, that most naturalists pick, is more relaxed modal metaphysics, so the initial state is a contingent brute fact. Neither has much to do with providing "reasons".
    – Conifold
    Nov 16, 2023 at 10:38
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    The evidence modal metaphysics is based on today is colloquial and scientific uses. Those are largely pragmatic and conventional, so its ontological import is close to zero. Oppy's point seems to be that neither theism nor naturalism can provide any substantive "ultimate" explanation, so we might as well be parsimonious. The "real" sense is the pragmatic choice of "austere" causation (only physical in time) and modality, he is following in Quine's footsteps there. Costs and benefits are in the eye of the beholder, and what I think is beside the point.
    – Conifold
    Nov 16, 2023 at 21:06

5 Answers 5

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Your question highlights a real problem

In principle, necessity and brute facts are two very different things. Necessity means that one can derive the condition from logical principles, and these principles explain the circumstance. Brute facts are the first leg of Munchausen’s Trilemma. A second leg is to pursue the infinite series of causes. This is the leg that science assumes, and works to understand. Necessity is a possible answer on this leg. Brute fact, involves the abandonment of the pursuit of the infinite series of causes, with the claim that something just IS.

Therefore necessity and brute fact, in principle, are very different.

However, philosophic practice is poor in using necessity

Your question identifies a major failing in philosophical practice relative to necessity. And that is to treat necessity as if you can POSTULATE it, rather than having to PROVE it.

A necessity claim has to be demonstrated logically. Which Oppy did not do. Without any justification, he is just mislabeling and rebadging his brute fact assumption, and abandonment of methodological naturalism, by invalidly pasting an unjustified claim of necessity on it.

This is a common problem in modal thinking in philosophy, where incoherent and unsupported claims of “necessity” abound.

Theologians used this bogus necessity trick first

Before dissing atheist philosophers though, theologians have a similar problem. Classical theism provides little to no justification for a God being a “necessary” being. As with Oppy, this claim is usually treated as an unsupported (hence brute fact) postulate.

Necessity claims fail to sole the Trilemma

The problem for the “necessity” solution on the infinite series leg of the Trilemma, is one can ask for the justification of even a thorough spelled out logic derivation, and eventually show that the assumptions behind it have not themselves been justified. This is the case for logic, which is not self justified.

Worse, logic theory has established there are infinite logics, and they reach different conclusions. One CANNOT validly show a necessity claim is valid across all universes, as those universes could, by contingency, operate by different logics.

There is another leg to Munchausen, and that is circularity

One can try to get around the other two legs by identifying a complex web of assumptions, and try to at least show they are a validly coherent set. This is the third leg, and it is not and cannot be “necessary” as there are potentially infinite assumption sets one could postulate.

One could postulate a logic system, derive a necessary universe from it, derive our universe from those properties of the necessary conditions, and then show internal consistency by deriving down to show consistency with all of science, and integrating up from science to show consistency with the assumption set.

It takes a lot of work to show one has a fully coherent model of how our universe came to be, and Oppy has not done that. And given how our current science is pretty radically incoherent (empiricism does that, multiple bottom up inferences tend to produce incompatible predictions, and ours do), Oppy CANNOT do this.

And even if he did, all he could claim is that this is one possible worldview of potentially many other such coherent worldviews. Which is NOT a strong enough position to claim atheism from.

Note also, the name of the Trilemma was chosen to ridicule the coherentist leg. It is from a fairy tale about Baron Von Munchausen. He was out riding, and his horse got stuck in mud. The horse could not get itself out, and the Baron could not lift it out. But by making a circular logic loop, where he got in the saddle, and grabbed and lifted on his own ponytail, he was able to lift his horse through his stirrups. Make a circle large and complex enough, and one can accomplish the impossible with it!

At any rate, coherentist circularity is at least one possible answer, but one that neither Oppy nor his theologian rivals have actually presented a valid example of.

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Something happening for no reason means that the event serves no teleological purpose. No-one wants this event to happen, but it happens anyway.

If the event is necessary, then it is the only possible outcome of prior conditions, a deterministic event.

The difference between them is that both intentional (for some reasons) and unintentional (for no reason) events occur in reality, but necessary events never do. Causes never determine their effects with absolute accuracy.

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Good question. Existence monism or realist monism proposes that there is only one thing - the universe. The moment of initiation was when the universe decided to exist. This was necessary. See also cosmopsychism. See related question, "Why is there something rather than nothing".

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Is appealing to necessity an explanation for X? Can it be the case that X is necessary but also happen for no reason?

According to Aristotle, natute is regulated by teleology; what happens (the X in the question) is not an arbitrary ending of a process, but the accomplishment of a pre-defined goal; the ultimate point of a process. Or in other words, physical changes, happen for a specific purpose that is subject to what-is-to-be-accomplished and not to external causes.

He identifies this nessecity as the functional behaviour of X in nature, that ends in the what-is-to-be-accomplished: "εντελέχεια" (entelechy). For example he says that : a seed "wants to be" a tree because this purpose exists inside it, and will be actualized if circumstances allow it.

Where is the problem in this?

So, there is NO problem. The problem is in the mis-understanding of the concept of reason.

If there is no problem, what then, really, is the practical difference between a brute contingency and necessity?

Summing up, necessity is the underlying principle in the unfoldment of reality and brute-contingency is our inability to understand the perplexing interractions of all things, in the process of actualizing their end-goals.

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  • "physical changes, happen for a specific purpose" -- I wonder if Aristotle was mistranslated or misunderstood. Necessity, as I understand it, means that any event was brought in (necessarily) by some cause in the past. In other words, necessity describes a deterministic Universe. Jan 16 at 22:44
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Generally, a fact (or entity) is brute if it has no explanation, and explicable otherwise. The 'explanation' here is in terms of an objective explanation, and not in the sense of epistemic justification. For example, the laws of gravity explain why an apple fell, etc.

Some facts are necessary. Usually, the explanations we care about are contrastive: we are aware that both p and ~p are respectively possible, and want to understand what it is that made p occur instead of ~p. This is the explanation we're looking for.

However, recall that necessary facts are true in any possibility, so nothing in principle could be their contrastive explanation. This is why principles that demand everything be explained, like the controversial Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), range only over contingent facts and not necessary ones. But whether necessities are explicable is a contested and disputed topic, and one we can sidestep.

The difference is this: if the existence of the universe is a brute fact, then it simply has no further explanation (by definition), but it can still be a contingent fact. There can still be possibilities where the universe did not exist, or did not exist in the same way, but we will simply not have an explanation of why this universe obtained instead of that, etc. This is generally what analytic philosophers mean by "brute" in metaphysics.

On the other hand, a necessity is something that is true given any possibility. So regardless of your views on whether necessities are explicable, it becomes clear what the difference between a brute fact and a necessity is. And this I take to be the obvious difference between the options Oppy offers. Fwiw, I think the other answers here are a bit misleading, so beware.

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