Re: Naturalism and the Fundamental Question

I was asked to comment on Stephen Maitzen’s article Naturalism and the Fundamental Question. The fundamental question (FQ) is: why is there anything, rather than nothing at all?

The first problem I have with the article is that Maitzen defines the “natural” as “the denial of supernaturalism: the denial that any nonnatural minds, agents, or causes exist.” This definition appears circular. The supernatural is the non-natural and the natural is the non-supernatural. But these definitions do not allow me to categorize an object as natural or supernatural. I don’t think the Christian needs to believe there is a natural/supernatural distinction. The terms are more vague than you might think. We merely need to believe in a Creator/creation distinction. If Maitzen wants to call himself a naturalist that is his right, but we don’t have to accept the label supernaturalist without better definitions of the terms.

Maitzen’s thesis is:

The real reason is that FQ, taken at face value, is a semantically defective pseudo-question that has no answer in the first place. Furthermore, once you turn FQ into a question that’s well-posed and therefore answerable, it has an answer that’s consistent with naturalism. FQ therefore gives supernaturalists none of the ammunition that many on both sides of the debate seem to think it does.

He goes on to say that it is difficult to know how many things there are because you could divide a thing into its parts. He concludes that in order to count how many things there are we need to know the kind of thing we are counting:

In sum, then, asking why there are any things, without specifying which kinds of things, is no more meaningful than asking exactly how many things you’re holding in your hand.

This is fine, as far as it goes, but I don’t think it’s what the FQ is getting at. The atheist can pick any kind of thing he would like. It doesn’t matter whether the atheist chooses a pen, a penguin, or a proton. The FQ is asking for an ultimate explanation for why that thing exists.

Maitzen thinks the naturalist can provide an answer:

But once we specify a kind of thing (penguin, plum, proton, whatever), then the explanatory success of science gives us every reason to think that the “Why are there any?” question will have an answer consistent with naturalism. If FQ is simply the long disjunctive question “Why are there any penguins, or plums, or protons, or people, or . . .?” (and so on, for every kind of thing), then natural science can give a long disjunctive answer to it.

As noted earlier, the first problem is that we have no criteria to determine whether the answers to such questions invoke “natural” or “supernatural” entities. The second problem is that science does not provide ultimate answers to such questions, which is the answer the FQ is seeking. Science provides partial, incomplete answers.

Maitzen seems aware to this problem. He notes that naturalists frequently suggest there is an infinite regress of explanations. He thinks this isn’t a problem for naturalism:

There’s no reason to presume that the explanations ought to come to an end; there’s no reason to regard an endless chain of explanations as bad. Granted, if you think that an explanation of P in terms of Q is defective unless it also includes an explanation of Q, then you’ll object to an endless chain of explanations on the grounds that no link in the chain is explained until every link is explained. But that view of explanation is simply mistaken. If the fire investigator concludes that a short circuit in poorly installed wiring explains why the fire started, we don’t regard the explanation as in any way defective because it doesn’t also explain why the wiring was poorly installed, why the building materials were combustible, or why enough oxygen was present for combustion to occur. Our concept of explanation allows that an explanation of P in terms of Q can succeed even if it fails to explain Q. Explaining Q is the duty of a different explanation that appeals to R. And so on.

We need to distinguish between partial explanation and complete explanation. I think the sentence in bold is correct with respect to complete explanation unless Q is in some way self-explanatory (in which case a complete, finite explanation has been given). Maitzen’s fire example succeeds as a partial explanation but fails as a complete explanation. But a complete explanation is what the FQ is driving at.

Maitzen objects to the concept of self-explanation:

Indeed, if we observe the rule that no genuine explanation can be circular, and therefore nothing can be literally self-explanatory, then any chain of explanations must be endless or else contain a link that’s unexplained.

I don’t think circular and self-explanatory are the same thing. The proposition “There are no married bachelors” is self-explanatory but not circular.

Maitzen goes on to say we should prefer an endless chain of explanations over a finite chain of explanations with an unexplained link in the chain. But, given the sentence in bold above (“if you think that an explanation of P in terms of Q is defective unless it also includes an explanation of Q, then you’ll object to an endless chain of explanations on the grounds that no link in the chain is explained until every link is explained”), the theist just takes things one step further.

Unfortunately, we’re pointed to another article for the reason we should believe God can’t be self-explanatory so that is where I will leave things.


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