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In A New Cosmological Argument, Richard Gale and Alexander Pruss offer up a cosmological argument for a personal God, from the weak principle of sufficient reason (among other premises, but the WPSR is their unique contribution).

They argue for the existence of a "first explanation", a proposition that explains the actual world's Big Conjunctive Fact (BCF), the conjunction of all true propositions. They introduce the constant q to refer to this explanation, and in premise 8 claim that:

  1. q is either a personal explanation or q is a scientific explanation. Some sort of a conceptual truth

They justify it by saying:

What kind of a proposition is q? It is the burden of the remainder of our argument to flesh out q. We already know from 7 that q explains p. But just how does q explain p? The only sort of explanations that we can conceive of are personal and scientific explanations, in which a personal explanation explains why some proposition is true in terms of the intentional action of an agent and a scientific one in terms of some conjunction of law-like propositions, be they deterministic or only statistical, and one that reports a state of affairs at some time. There might be types of explanation that we cannot conceive of; but, in philosophy we ultimately must go with what we can make intelligible to ourselves after we have made our best effort.

Though the details of their argument are unique, it is this premise that interests me here. Gale and Pruss frame their cosmological argument in terms of explanation (not causation), but I am thinking that premise 8 might relate to the notions of agent causation and event causation (and some versions of the cosmological argument are indeed causal instead of explanatory).

I often see a similar premise in other cosmological arguments to argue for the personhood of such a first cause or explanation (for the sake of arguments about the existence of God, I take the defining qualities of a person to be that it possess an intellect and a will). This is the juicy bit of the cosmological argument in my opinion, since even atheists can (and sometimes do) say things like "sure, there might be a necessary first principle, cause, or something like that, but why think that this entity is God?" The partition of all possible explanations or causes into personal/agent-causal on the one hand, and scientific/event-causal on the other, followed by an argument that the first explanation/cause cannot be (i.e. is necessarily not) scientific or event-causal, makes the theist's reasoning explicit.

Is premise 8 justified? Are all conceivable explanations either personal or scientific? And are all conceivable instances of causation either agent-causation or event-causation? Or are there arguments that try to introduce a third type of explanation or causation?

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  • The entire setup is murky as to what "explanations" are supposed to be, there are multiple competing theories of explanation. It is odd that only two types are admitted when already Aristotle had four. Is teleological explanation personal or scientific? No idea. One can "explain" whatever cause "personally" or "scientifically", so it is hard to see a link to agent causation as well. Basically, the premises are so vague that they are "not even wrong", as they say.
    – Conifold
    May 27, 2019 at 22:48
  • Maybe the authors only talk about the difference between cause and reason/justification. Like the light in a room goes on caused by the flicking of the light switch but for the reason of a person wanting to be able to see. As you can see, any event can have both causes and reasons, and likely multiple of each. However reasons are not causations. For causes, there also are typically chains, like a finger applying pressure on the switch causing it to flip, and the flip causing electricity to flow, and the electricity causing light. So reasons can become causes when there is agency.
    – tkruse
    May 29, 2019 at 23:50
  • @Conifold [1/2] I do doubt whether the premise in question is true, but I don't think it's vague (how to distinguish personal vs scientific explanations). Pruss is a libertarian, so for him an agent is a special type of entity capable of initiating a causal chain. I could see the authors saying something like: If the explanans just is the free intentional action of such an agent, it's a personal explanation. If the explanans is a system in some state, together with laws of how the system evolves (maybe probabilistically), up until the explanandum occurs/exists, it's a scientific explanation. May 31, 2019 at 21:10
  • @Conifold [2/2] The supposed division between personal and scientific explanation might not cut cleanly across the lines of Aristotle's division. Some teleological explanations might involve an agent performing an action towards some end/for some reason; others might be in terms of laws, like a seed will naturally becoming a tree, in conditions x,y,z unless frustrated by u,v,w. Personally I'm skeptical of teleologcal explanations, so another option is to just reject them outright (as a class of explanations; one might still believe in teleology in some other senses). May 31, 2019 at 21:10
  • If the explanation is just the efficient cause of an event I do not really see why they make a big point about switching from causes to explanations. And if they simply postulate that "causes" are either deterministic or agential (what of random chance, quantum uncertainty, etc.?) then that's their metaphysics. If we are accepting it then it's "true".
    – Conifold
    May 31, 2019 at 21:21

6 Answers 6

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If there were just these two types, and they're not conceptual inverses of each other, then we wouldn't be able to explain the pair by appeal to just one of them + the template of inversion generally. So there must be some personal or scientific explanation as to why these are the only two kinds of explanations as such:

  1. (Neither) If the metatype that explains the types of explanations is neither personal nor scientific, the scheme falls to the ground.
  2. (Personal) But then we could collapse the scheme to personal + inversion, and the inversion scheme is the scientific one (per the role of logico-mathematical inversion in scientific compartmentalization/taxonomies).
  3. (Scientific) But again, this is the inversion scheme per se otherwise.
  4. (Both personal and scientific) If we have shown that a personal explanation of the distinction would be tantamount to a personal + scientific one, but that the scientific one is void, then the scheme seems to fall to the ground again.
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The distinction between personal and scientific is binary by definition, if you take scientific to mean non-personal. The class of all possible causes can be partitioned in a binary fashion in any number of ways. Take, for example, the subset of causes which result from the existence of bees. You can categorise causes as apian or non-apian. It does not make sense to ask 'are all explanations apian or non-apian' if apian and non-apian are defined as two mutually exclusive subsets which together account for all possible causes.

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  • hmm. i think the question is a good/interesting one, and your answer has made me think. +1
    – user71226
    Jan 27 at 3:42
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From point 2.

According to the strong version of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR), namely, S-PSR. For every proposition, p, if p is true, then there is a proposition, q, that explains p

That is: q, whether personal or scientific. How exactly is the proposition of p?

In Heidegger's phenomenology, following Kant, existence arises from the judgement of a cogito in joining subject with predicate: e.g. the coffee is hot. 'Is' denotes existence, inasmuch as the cogito or Dasein believes it is true that the coffee is hot. In seeking explanation (q) this re-positions the question to ask to explain the cogito or Dasein.

But what about the matter of the cup? Beyond the discoveries of particle physics the proto-matter of the cup is unknown, noumenal and therefore non-existent. That's how Kantian and scientific existence works: unobserved = nonexistent. So the observed cup is made of observed quarks made of [???].

Returning to what explains—or conditions—cogito/Dasein, Heidegger's version of q is Being, also a placeholder term for a noumenon.

<<What shines into beings, though can never be explained on the basis of beings nor constructed out of beings, is Being itself [Das in das Seiende Hereinscheinende, jedoch aus dem Seienden nie Erklärbare oder gar Machbare ist das Sein selbst].>> Parmenides, 106, GA 54 157.

"Being as Heidegger defines it cannot be explained, certainly cannot be explained by the beings, including us. It is not a thing or object, but merely a mode of consideration (Betrachtungsweise), which is devoid of Λόγος, and this absence of Λόγος means that being is openness, sans plus." (Tang Huyen, Heidegger's Scheme – Part 181, Heidegger Forum)

"we seek what makes the thing a thing [what makes the being a being]; what conditions (be-dingt)3 the thing. We do not ask concerning a thing of some species but after the thingness of a thing. For the condition of being a thing, which conditions the thing as a thing, cannot itself again be a thing, i.e., something conditioned. The thingness must be something un-conditioned (un-bedingtes)." What is a Thing? pp. 8-9.

Thought (subjective) conditions existence (objective), but what conditions thought is unconditioned. As unconditioned it is not subject to S-PSR as it is not a 'thing' that can have a reason. In fact, Heidegger aligns reason with being.

"Only when we contemplated what λόγος meant for Heraclitus in early Greek thinking did it become clear that this word simultaneously names being and ground/reason, naming both in terms of their belonging-together." The Principle of Reason, p. 112.

But then also: "being and ground/reason: the same. Simultaneously this meant: being: the a-byss." (ibid. p. 111). The a-byss (depth-less) is, in German, Ab-grund—ground-less, unconditioned.

So is Being a satisfactory place to rest the matter? Certain Heidegger would say so.

"We can never grasp beings by explaining and deriving them on the basis of other beings. They can be known only out of their grounding in the truth of beyng. Yet how very seldom do humans advance into this truth. How easily and quickly they make do with beings and thus remain disappropriated of being." Contributions to Philosophy (GA65), §118, p. 182.

"The inventive thinking of beyng does indeed not simply think up a concept; instead, it gains that liberation from mere beings which makes appropriate the determination of thinking on the basis of beyng." Contributions to Philosophy (GA65), §265, p.364.

Leaving q undetermined. For a being, this means its ground is unconditioned; it is free. An end not a means.

OP: Is premise 8 justified? Are all conceivable explanations either personal or scientific?

Premise 8 is not justified. q can be neither personal nor scientific.

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It simply depends upon what you mean. If you define scientific as non personal, sure.

However, given that the effect that we are looking at is usually a physical effect, I fail to see how a personal explanation can ever fully explain a physical effect. John cooked food certainly explains why food may be cooked but has nothing to say about how the food was cooked, which can only be done through a “scientific” “non agential” explanation.

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When we are talking about 'explanations', we can mean an assortment of things:

  • An empirical explanation, where we point at observable evidence
  • A rational explanation, where we invoke self-consistent logic and reason
  • An emotional explanation, where we leverage sincere and authentic feelings
  • A moral or normative explanation, where we rely on cultural standards
  • A teleological explanation, using causal necessities

…and likely others I haven't considered. Nor are these mutually exclusive; we might use any or all of them together. The point is that an explanation is a narrative about an event — a story we tell to explain that event — and narratives can be justified in numerous ways, depending on context.

It's naïve to distinguish 'personal' from 'scientific' in this context. Scientific reasoning simply requires a proper use of empirical evidence. It doesn't preclude the use of other explanations (and in fact, scientists will often start to question theories when they don't 'feel' right), and moral, rational, and teleological explanations are not precisely 'personal', since they all aim for a degree of universality.

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Thank you for an interesting question! I would propose that the simple answer is this: an explanation is both personal and scientific. And if you bear with me, I would take this opportunity to show that this is actually a common pattern -- and what makes it possible that, often, there is no contradiction between seemingly contradictory statements. Consider the picture below:

enter image description here

It shows a cylinder. However, depending on your angle, it may appear as a blue rectangle, or as a red circle. In this sense, a cylinder is both rectangular and circular -- though one can also argue that it is neither. The same holds true with many complex concepts. Though whole, they may appear different, even contradictory, from different angles -- yet no single perspective describes the whole thing.

When it comes to the concept of explanation, specifically, what we explain is our knowledge and our ideas. Those things are necessarily personal, they exist inside the person's mind. However, they also aim to reflect the same world, the world that we all share. Therefore, an implicit claim behind any explanation (personal as it is) is that it describes a certain objective truth about our world -- and in that sense it is also scientific.

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