Response to Derek Parfit
Swinburne (Richard)
Source: Van Inwagen & Zimmerman - Metaphysics: The Big Questions
Paper - Abstract

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  1. Derek Parfit is right to suppose that, on (what I take to be) his understanding of 'causal explanation' and of 'the Universe', there cannot be a causal explanation of the existence of the Universe. He apparently understands by 'the Universe' all the substances there are (that is, all the material things - stars and atoms and whatever these are made of - and all the immaterial things, such as souls or God - if these exist). He apparently understands by 'causal explanation', the causing of some event (including the coming-into-existence and continuing-in-existence of substances) by some substance. Since nothing can cause itself to exist, no substance could cause all-the-substances (including the former) to exist. What, however, is possible is that one substance causes all the others to come into existence and continue in existence. I believe that the basic principles of inductive inference, which we use in science, historical inquiry, detective work and all other rational inquiry, have the consequence that on the evidence of observed events E, it is probable that C (where C is some substance or law or anything else) in so far as:(1) C (if it existed) would make E likely to occur;(2) if C did not exist, E would be less likely to occur; and (3) C is a simple entity (or law). I believe, and have argued at length elsewhere1, that where E is the observed universe (including its life-producing features, to which Parfit draws attention) and C is God, postulated as the cause of the Universe (one substance, with zero limits to his power, knowledge and freedom), E makes the existence of C probable. (As Parfit emphasizes, someone who gives this answer needs to explain why God allows suffering to occur.) To postulate one God as cause is immensely simpler than to postulate infinitely many worlds (most of which are not life-producing) in order to explain the occurrence of our life-producing universe. A simple explanation postulates no more entities than are needed to explain the phenomena. Of course postulating God as the cause of the Universe does not explain why God exists; but then, as Parfit acknowledges, in the end there must be some ultimate brute fact (whether law or substance), and I would argue that the existence of God is the existence of the simplest substance there could be. '
  2. Parfit has, however, floated the interesting suggestion that there might be an explanation of the existence of the Universe which is not a causal explanation - some ultimate principle or law which might somehow produce a Universe, without the action of a substance. The trouble is that there are no plausible cases of real-life principles which produce effects within the universe without doing so by operating via substances. If some law of nature, say Newton's law of gravity?, produces some effect (say that a stone falls to Earth), it always does so by determining how some substance will cause that effect - say, determining that the Earth will attract the stone in a certain way. Indeed, I suggest that all talk about laws of nature is reducible to talk about the powers which substances have, and the liabilities which they have to exercise them.
  3. It is sometimes suggested that some law of Quantum Theory2 has the consequence that vacua will produce substances from time to time. But on investigation it turns out that 'vacua' are not nothing, but themselves rather special sorts of substance. Parfit suggests that there might be axiomatic principles, which produce events because it is good to do so. But there are no plausible examples of such principles at work in the world. When food appears on the tables of the hungry, it does not appear there because it is good that it should, but because some person (i.e. a substance) caused it to be there because he thought that it was good that it should. Nor is there operative any principle of simplicity which makes things occur because they are in some way simple - e.g. makes the laws of nature what they are because they are the simplest laws there could be. For it is easy enough to conceive of laws of nature a lot simpler than our actual laws, which are perhaps the laws of Grand Unified Field Theory, or some laws even more complicated. Certainly, as mentioned earlier, we judge that the simplest theory compatible with observed events is more probably the true theory than is any other one. But that is a criterion for assessing the force of evidence, not for producing what exists. If simplicity dictated what was to exist, there would be nothing, or at any rate a lot fewer things behaving in a lot simpler ways than there are. So Parfit's suggestion that there might be some non-causal explanation of the existence of the Universe involves his claiming that there is some kind of principle at work in producing the Universe, which is never operative in producing more limited effects within the Universe. But then we have absolutely no reason for supposing that that kind of principle is ever at work, or that such a principle explains anything at all3. By contrast, the theist who postulates God as the cause of (the rest of) the Universe postulates a substance who acts intentionally - i.e. brings about some effect because he believes it good to do so. And the universe is full of many other substances including humans who bring about many different effects intentionally. In this respect explanation by God's intentional actions is like explanations by the intentional actions of humans. Of course God is supposed to be very different indeed in the extent of his power, knowledge and freedom from other substances with which we are familiar. But they are also different from each other in these respects. And God is not supposed to be totally different from humans. (In the traditional view, humans are made in God's 'image'.) But to postulate axiomatic or similar principles bringing something out of nothing is to postulate a totally different kind of explanation which we have no reason at all to suppose ever to operate.


In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 3:
  • In the terms used earlier our observed E adds no probability to the claim that there is a C of this kind at work, because if such a principle operated in producing E and so such principles were among the explanations of things, one might expect E (which includes things producing other things) to include things produced by the operation of more limited such principles.

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