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Why this universe? Good question. (Part Two of a reply to Professor Keith Parsons)

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In my previous post, I drew readers’ attention to an online essay by Keith Parsons, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Houston-Clear-Lake, in which he outlined his reasons for rejecting the case for a Divine Creator. I thought Parsons’ essay, entitled No Creator Need Apply: A Reply to Roy Abraham Varghese (2006), merited special comment, because it’s one of the most thoughtful critiques of the cosmological argument that I’ve ever read. I was even more impressed by Professor Paul Herrick’s brilliant rebuttal, entitled, Job Opening: Creator of the Universe – A Reply to Keith Parsons (2009). I then announced that I would be addressing a few issues that Herrick did not have time to discuss in depth in his rebuttal of Parsons’ essay.

The topic of my last post, was the question, “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” which Parsons put forward as an example of a ridiculous question. I argued that this question is in fact a perfectly reasonable one, and I proposed no less than three scientific answers to this question, each suited to a different level of understanding. In this post, I examine the question, “Why this universe?” or putting it another way, “Why doesn’t some other universe exist?” As we will see, Professor Parsons’ attempt to demonstrate that this question is an unreasonable one, fails.

I’d like to begin with a sentence in Professor Parsons’ essay, which gets straight to the heart of the matter we’re discussing today:

In the absence of grounds for thinking that this universe, given that it has existed eternally, is unexpected, surprising, or improbable (and Varghese mentions no such grounds), the correct riposte to the questions “Why this universe?” or “Why any universe at all?” is “Why not?”

Paul Herrick attempts to capture the essence of Parsons’ reasoning in a principle, which he calls the Principle of Parsony, or POP for short – not to be confused with the Principle of Parsimony! The principle of explanation which Parsons seems to be invoking is as follows:

In general, the nonexistence of X is no mystery unless, given general background knowledge, its existence is either expected or is no more unexpected than what does exist (i.e., its existence is at least as expected as that which does exist).

Applying this Principle of Parsony to our universe, the fact that some other universe doesn’t exist, rather than this one, is no mystery unless its existence is at least as expected as that of our own universe, given our background knowledge. And what would count as a legitimate reason? According to Professor Parsons, the only legitimate basis for expecting a thing to be or not to be are “physical antecedents and laws of nature.” I’m sure readers can see where Parsons is heading with this line of argument. As he puts it:

Nothing in our knowledge base supports the slightest expectation that the moon would be made of cheese. Nor do we have any basis for thinking that some other (ex hypothesi eternal) universe should have existed all along instead of ours. Therefore, it is hard to see how asking “Why doesn’t some other universe exist?” is very different from asking “Why don’t we have a moon made out of cheese?”

I’ve already argued that “Why don’t we have a moon made out of cheese?” is a reasonable question. Today I’d like to focus on two arguments put forward by Herrick, showing why the Principle of Parsony is a very poor explanatory principle, because it’s a science-stopper.

First, the Principle of Parsony would rule out a lot of questions that most scientists would consider perfectly reasonable to ask. Here’s one example proposed by Professor Herrick:

One day in the physics lab, Susan, an undergraduate, overhears some grad students talking about the charm quark, c, and the fact that it has a 2/3 charge. Knowing nothing about quarks except that they are particles inside protons and neutrons, she asks: “Why does the charm quark have a 2/3 charge (rather than no charge at all, or rather than some other charge)?” Common sense suggests that Susan’s question is a perfectly reasonable one, even if (to paraphrase Parsons) nothing in her knowledge base supports the slightest quantitative expectation that the charge of the charm quark would be some other number… In other words, it seems to me that Susan’s question is legitimate without the basis of expectations required by the principle of Parsony.

No-one has ever seen a charm quark with a charge of 1/2, and if we were to base our expectations purely on “physical antecedents and laws of nature,” as Professor Parsons would have us do, then we’d never have the slightest reason to expect a charm quark to have a charge of 1/2. Nevertheless, the question, “Why does the charm quark have a 2/3 charge rather than a charge of 1/2?” is a legitimate one for physicists to ask. A principle of inquiry that rules out questions like that deserves to be called a science-stopper.

Herrick’s second and more powerful argument against the Principle of Parsony is that “physical antecedents and laws of nature cannot be the only legitimate grounds for the types of expectations allegedly governed by POP” because if they were, the scientific enterprise would never have gotten started in the first place. Thus the Principle of Parsony (POP), in its physicalist version, is “self-referentially incoherent: it presupposes that we possess a particular type of knowledge, while at the same time making it impossible that we ever attain that type of knowledge in the first place.” To illustrate his point, Herrick invites us to consider the individuals who discovered the very first scientific law ever formulated:

Consider the exact moment just before the first instance of coming to know a physical antecedent or a law of nature. At that moment, we would not know any physical antecedents or laws of nature. But then (according to POP) we could not ask questions such as “Why does this rather than that happen?” and “Why does this rather than that exist?”

Professor Herrick then administers his coup de grace to the Principle of Parsony:

Yet questions of this type are surely necessary for any scientific investigation of the world, including the discovery of the very physical laws of nature and physical antecedents required by POP. In other words, at the beginning of all empirical investigation, lacking the basis of expectations required by the physicalist interpretation of POP – knowledge of physical antecedents and laws of nature – we could not legitimately ask the sorts of questions that must be asked if we are to pursue and attain the empirical knowledge presupposed by the physicalist interpretation of POP… The physicalist interpretation of POP cannot be right if we have any empirical knowledge at all.

If we adopt Professor Parsons’ physicalist interpretation of POP, and base our expectations on physical antecedents and laws of nature, then it appears to be the ultimate science-stopper: it prevents scientific inquiry from ever getting started!

Having disposed of Professor Parsons’ POP, Professor Herrick proposes his own principle of inquiry, which he calls the Daring Inquiry Principle (DIP):

When confronted with the existence of some unexplained phenomenon X, it is reasonable to seek an explanation for X if we can coherently conceive of a state of affairs in which it would not be the case that X exists.

Herrick argues for the superiority of this explanatory principle, on historical grounds: “When you look back at the historic leaps of intellectual inquiry, DIP has been the driver, not POP.”

Now let’s examine the question which is the subject of this post: “Why does this kind of universe exist, instead of some other one?” Why, for instance, is gravity weaker than electromagnetism in our cosmos, rather than the other way round? The Principle of Parsony (POP) would rule out a question like this, but as we have seen, there are two powerful arguments against this principle. By contrast, Professor Herrick’s Daring Inquiry Principle (DIP) would permit the question to be asked – and what’s more, its ground for allowing the question seems to be precisely the right one: Parsons himself acknowledges that we can coherently conceive that “all sorts of other universes might have existed instead of ours.” For instance, cosmologists can mathematically model the development and eventual fate of a hypothetical cosmos where the force of gravity is strengthened by a factor of 10^50. Herrick concludes that the philosophical question, “Why does this universe exist?” is a reasonable one to ask.

In order to sharpen the terms of the debate, I’m going to deliberately put myself in Professor Parsons’ shoes. How might he respond to Professor Herrick’s criticisms?

First, Parsons might attempt to argue that much of our empirical knowledge of physical antecedents is acquired without any conscious effort on our part, as a result of our childhood experiences. We learn at an early age that things fall down instead of up, that rain comes from clouds, and that messes don’t tidy themselves up. We don’t acquire this knowledge by asking scientific questions; nevertheless, it can serve to ground our expectations about the way the world works. Herrick’s second objection to POP seems to presuppose that scientific knowledge is acquired as a result of conscious, voluntary effort on our part, but in reality, knowledge acquired in this way is like the visible tip of an iceberg: most of what we know lies beneath the surface of our conscious awareness. In response, Herrick could point out that the iceberg model fails to explain the process whereby we discover laws of nature, as opposed to antecedents; nor does it address his first argument against POP: that it would rule out too many questions as scientifically illegitimate (such as Susie’s question about why charm quarks have a charge of 2/3).

Second, Parsons might argue that even if POP is a bad principle of scientific inquiry, it does not follow that Herrick’s DIP is a good one, let alone the right one. Perhaps neither principle is right; perhaps POP is too narrow, while DIP is too broad. Maybe so. However, I’d like to point out in passing that Professor Herrick could have invoked another, broader explanatory principle that was invoked by Professor Germain Grisez in his book, Beyond the New Theism (University of Notre Dame Press, 1975): the principle (which I’ll call the Question Principle, or QP) that we should assume that it is legitimate to ask a question, unless someone can show why it should not be asked. QP is a research-friendly, open-ended principle, which sets no limits on the scope of scientific or philosophical inquiry. Like Professor Herrick’s DIP, it allows us to ask the question: why this universe?

Third, Parsons would also point out that refuting POP does not automatically make the question, “Why this universe?” a reasonable one. All it does is deflate one argument against trying to seek an explanation for why the universe is the way it is. However, there may be other reasons for disallowing this line of inquiry. This is a purely negative point, however; if Parsons thinks the question is unreasonable, the onus is surely on him to say why.

Fourth, Parsons might argue that the question “Why this universe?” is even less reasonable than “Why isn’t the moon made of green cheese?” At least the latter question could be answered with reference to other states of affairs obtaining in our cosmos – the earlier history of the universe or of the Earth, for instance. But it is hard to see what would count as an answer to the question, “Why this universe?” It would have to be something outside or beyond this universe – and we have absolutely no idea what that “something” might be. However, Herrick could respond that whatever this “something” may be, the Daring Inquiry Principle (DIP) tells us that it cannot be the sort of thing that can be coherently conceived as being non-existent. In other words, it must be a Necessary Being. (I’ll discuss the concept of the Necessary Being in my next post.)

Fifth, Parsons might attempt to formulate a new principle of inquiry, which would allow us to ask questions about the charge of quarks, and even why the moon isn’t made of green cheese, but prohibit us from asking the global question, “Why this universe?” Here are a few principles that he might propose.

The Vague Conception Principle (VCP) is grounded in the notion that when scientists are trying to answer a question, they need some idea of how to proceed in answering it – and for that, they need at least a vague conception (or conceptions) of what the answer might be.

When confronted with the existence of some unexplained phenomenon X, it is reasonable to seek an explanation for X only if we can coherently conceive of a state of affairs in which it would not be the case that X exists, and we can (at least vaguely) conceive of one or more states of affairs which might explain the fact that X exists.

The Reject Incomprehensibility Principle (RIP) appeals to the widely shared intuition that any proposed answer to a question which is utterly incomprehensible to us is not a legitimate answer, as it explains nothing.

When confronted with the existence of some unexplained phenomenon X, it is not reasonable to seek an explanation for X if the state of affairs proposed as an answer to the question is incomprehensible by its very nature.

Another principle which would probably appeal to Parsons is the Adequate Explanation Principle (AEP):

When confronted with the existence of some unexplained phenomenon X, it is not reasonable to seek an explanation for X if there are good grounds for thinking that nothing could ever count as an adequate explanation of X.

Having proposed these three principles of inquiry, Parsons might argue that the question, “Why this universe?” violates VCP because we have no conception of what might count as an answer to the question. It also violates RIP, because anything outside this universe (as any answer would have to be) is necessarily beyond our ability to grasp. Finally, Parsons could argue that the question, “Why this universe?” could never have an adequate answer, because such an answer would have to either be contingent (in which case it would require an explanation too) or necessary (in which case it would be able to explain other necessary states of affairs, but not contingent ones). Thus it violates AEP.

Do these principles defeat the arguments for theism? Stay tuned for the next exciting installment!

Hi bbigej and Ilion, Thanks for your comments. I don't know if Professor Parsons realized the anti-scientific implications of his principles of inquiry when he composed his paper in 2006. What I do find remarkable is that he has allowed Professor Herrick's 2009 reply to stand there, unanswered, for two years, in the library of an atheistic Website , http://www.infidels.org . That must be rather embarrassing for the skeptics! vjtorley
bbigej @ 1 -- The preference to kill 'science' (and, more importantly, reason), rather than even to question their worldview, is pretty common amongst so-called atheists, actually. One merely has to keep pushing them logically and rationally to get them to retreat into incoherence and irrationality. Ilion
It is telling that Parson's would rather kill science--the supposed foundation of his atheistic worldview--than have questions asked that are unsettling to his worldview. bbigej

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