Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Why something rather than nothing? Part II

Let us continue our survey regarding naturalist answers to the existential question of why something exists as opposed to nothing. We will now turn our attention to esteemed physicist Sean Carroll. Carroll’s answers will be pulled from two articles he’s written (here and here) —one written as a direct answer, and the other only written as an answer indirectly--over at his blog Preposterous Universe.

 Carroll articulates his answer:
First, we would only even consider this an interesting question if there were some reasonable argument in favor of nothingness over existence.[…] Ultimately, the problem is that the question — “Why is there something rather than nothing?” — doesn’t make any sense. What kind of answer could possibly count as satisfying? What could a claim like “The most natural universe is one that doesn’t exist” possibly mean? As often happens, we are led astray by imagining that we can apply the kinds of language we use in talking about contingent pieces of the world around us to the universe as a whole. It makes sense to ask why this blog exists, rather than some other blog; but there is no external vantage point from which we can compare the relatively likelihood of different modes of existence for the universe. So the universe exists, and we know of no good reason to be surprised by that fact.

Carroll also states the following related remarks:
[T]hat’s just how things are. There is a chain of explanations concerning things that happen in the universe, which ultimately reaches to the fundamental laws of nature and stops.

The question—“Why there is something rather than nothing?”—other than: something (the universe) exists, because it just does. There is no reason why it does, since reasons are only pragmatic inside the universe, and applying them to the universe itself is superfluous.

Such modesty by Carroll is refreshing but, alas, his answers are not only unsatisfying, they are fallacious. First of all, Carroll completely misinterprets exactly what the existential question is getting at. The question is not interesting only if there were an argument in favor of nothingness. The question is interesting because the universe seems to be contingent—a point that Carroll will later admit, interestingly enough—and contingent things require something else that explains their existence. So the question is really asking “What is it that keeps the universe from being nothing at all?”

 Now Carroll’s answer is obviously unsatisfying because it amounts to saying nothing at all—e.g., “That’s just how things are.” Analogously, imagine my Calculus students asking me why the definition of a derivative involves a limit, and I answered, “there’s no reason, it just does.”  Obviously this is no answer at all, and this is tantamount to Carroll’s answer. But Carroll knows this, and further justifies his argument by claiming that the type of existential explanations we’re looking for here will only lead us to a dead end--because such explanations cannot be applied to the universe itself, since the universe “[is] not embedded in a bigger structure; it’s all there is.” So, since the universe is “all there is”, there is no framework whereby we can expect an explanation for the existence of it.

 Good answer, right? Wrong. There’s a few problems. First, Carroll is blatantly begging the question here by claiming the universe is all there is. It is not clear that the universe is all there is, and Carroll would first have to demonstrate such a proposition before he used it as an out in this discussion. It might very well be the case that there is an ontologically higher realm than the universe of which the universe participates in an explanatory chain. Thus stated, inherent in Carroll’s answer is a blatant unsubstantiated assumption of naturalism.

 Second, even if the universe were the whole shebang, this does not mean it cannot have an explanation. That is to say, the universe could be self-explanatory. You see, an explanatory chain must end somewhere, and it can only end in something that is self-explanatory, otherwise the explanations, along with the chain, continue. So Carroll is actually incorrect that our inquiry into explanations must stop with the universe itself which has no explanation. For the universe could indeed be self-explanatory, and therefore provide a much satisfying answer to our existential quandary.

 But even Carroll concedes, indirectly, that this is not the case, that is, that the universe is contingent, and therefore not self-explanatory:
[One possible reason why the universe is the way it is] is logical necessity: the laws of physics take the form they do because no other form is possible. But that can’t be right; it’s easy to think of other possible forms. The universe could be a gas of hard spheres interacting under the rules of Newtonian mechanics, or it could be a cellular automaton, or it could be a single point.

What’s crucial here is that Carroll is admitting the universe did not have to be this way—this way being the way the universe has actually been configured. But, that means that there must be a reason why the universe is this way as opposed to another possible way. Which means that the universe is contingent, since this is literally one of the definitions of contingency. But if something is contingent, then it cannot be self-explanatory, since the reason for its existence is not sought within itself.

 Thus stated, we see that Carroll’s attempt to relieve the universe of explanation has failed. He has not answered the existential question, and even where he has tried, he has only put the case for naturalism in jeopardy.

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