I’m not sure we needed Charles Darwin to alert us to this tautology: Things that persist over time do and things that don’t don’t. I’m not sure this explains anything, but yes, a Monarch butterfly keeps its markings over the course of its being a butterfly, the Earth revolves around the sun with remarkable regularity, and I haven’t changed my taste in music since 1968. Surely the only interesting question is why? That is, in virtue of what do things that persist over time manage to do so? In the case of orbits, or so we’re told, it has something to do with Newton’s laws of motion. In the case of music, or so we’re told, there’s some causal connection between the music we listened to in our formative years and the last thing an Alzheimer’s patient forgets. And so on.

Let’s universalize this. Why are things as they currently are? Because of their causal connection to how things once were.

These two things – states of affairs past and present and the causal relations between them – are the bailiwick of science. But what about, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”? That’s not a scientific question. That’s a philosophical one. To which one answer – though by no means satisfying to everyone – is that of the infinite ways a world could be, there’s only one consisting of the null set, i.e. of nothing at all. So it shouldn’t be surprising that there’s something. It would only be surprising if there weren’t.

Of course in a world consisting of nothing there wouldn’t be anyone around to be surprised, but that hardly warrants mentioning, so I won’t.

Well fair enough. But then surely the question becomes, “Why is there this something rather than some other?” To which one philosopher, David Lewis, has answered that there isn’t. That is, there is no “rather than”, because, says he, for every way a world can be, there is a world that is that way, ‘is’ in precisely the way that this world is. So all one can really be asking is why she was born into a world that’s this way rather than some other, to which the answer is that if she wasn’t she wouldn’t know it. That is, if she were born into a world other than the one she was born into, then she’d be someone else. That’s because she just is the person born into the world she was born into.

Yes, it’s tautologies all the way down.

Lewis’ full-on realism about possible worlds is a tad metaphysically extravagant for my tastes. But in the same way that Emmanuel Kant thought we need to postulate the existence of God to make sense of morality, and we need to believe we have free will in order to be able to act, we need to at least postulate the existence of possible worlds to give content to our counterfactual utterances.

For example, I resent having to give a kindergarten Christmas concert a standing ovation, but like you I succumb to peer pressure. To say, as I do, “But I could have remained seated!” is just to say that there’s a possible world in which my counterpart remains seated.

How, according to Lewis, do we get to this possible world to see whether my counterpart remained seated? Well, we board a trans-world airlines flight to that possible world. But there has to be such a world, be it real or merely ersatz, or we’d have nowhere to land. But land we must, since otherwise there’s nothing to ground the truth-value of the claim I could have remained seated.

Does that make Kant a realist about God and free will, or me a realist about possible worlds? Put another way, can one bring oneself to believe something and at the same time believe it’s probably false? I think there’s a sense in which one can. For example:

In my God on Trial course, I tell my students that I’m having a tiff right now with a God Whose existence I deny. The little bastards mock me mercilessly for this. But I think I can escape their derision. I think I can hold that the meaning of a belief is indexed to the context in which it’s being adopted and deployed. For the purposes of poetry the sun rises and sets. But for the purposes of landing on the moon the earth rotates on its axis. So long as the two discourses – poetry and astronomy – keep their distance there’s no contradiction. Likewise is it, then, for theodicy and metaphysics. For the purposes of holding God to account for breaking Covenant at Auschwitz He exists. For the purposes of honouring Occam’s Razor He doesn’t. And so on.

Is there a fact-of-the-matter about whether God exists, a fact that’s independent of any uses one might have for that fact? Of course there is. But the irrelevance of that concession is built into the question giving rise to it. Facts that are independent of any use anyone might make of them are useless ontological baggage, like whether the works of Shakespeare were written not by Shakespeare but by a man with the same name. Surely there are differences that do make a difference. And maybe, other than in a comedy routine, we should be focusing our efforts on those that do.

Categories: Philosophy of Religion

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1 reply

  1. “Of course in a world consisting of nothing there wouldn’t be anyone around to be surprised, but that hardly warrants mentioning, so I won’t.”

    Who but a philosopher in compulsory isolation would write a long article about “nothing”? 😀


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