Fundamental Reality IV: Necessity, Eternity, and Power

It is natural to suppose that these fundamental entities are in some sense necessary.  I don't mean this term to imply that they can be rigorously proven from pure logic (logical/conceptual necessity) or even that we personally can be sure that they exist.  What I mean is that they are necessary considered in themselves, that (regardless of what we think or know) if we could only understand the fundamental nature of reality, we would know that they had to exist.  They are metaphysically necessary.  (This is quite distinct from the sort of conceptual inevitability described in the Chesterton quote previously.)

The way I have stated things, this may seem almost like a tautology, since we have stipulated that these things are the fundamental entities which explain everything else.  Given that they are the nature of things, they cannot not exist given the fundamental rules of existence, which is themselves.

Some people, though, would argue for the exact opposite, and say that the fundamental nature of reality, because it cannot be explained in terms of anything else, is just the ultimate inexplicable “brute fact”.  They would conceive of it more along the lines of the most wildly contingent thing there is, since it has no particular reason to exist and yet it does.  But this way of looking at things doesn't make intuitive sense to me.

If the fundamental nature of existence just happens to exist, with no internal necessity, why should we suppose that it should be at all simple or rational in its effects?  If it is completely inexplicable, then there are no constraints.  And if it is contingent—meaning something which might either exist or not exist—then it seems strange that there would be no process controlling whether it or something else (or nothing at all) comes into being.  If there are brute facts, then the entire world rests on a fluke, and the ultimate nature of reality is completely arbitrary and irrational.

Furthermore, if anything about the concrete physical world occurs necessarily, because it had to be that way (besides mere truths of logic) then a fortiori the fundamental nature of existence must be like that too.

If the fundamental entities are necessary, then it stands to reason that they are also eternal, since something that exists necessarily cannot come into being, or cease to be, or indeed change in any way.  They must just exist timelessly.  Besides which, if they explain what happens at all moments of time, it doesn't seem plausible that they should only exist for certain moments of time.  For similar reasons, one can argue that the fundamental entities can't be limited to just one region of space.  Their influence must be present everywhere.

It also seems that the fundamental entities (taken as a whole, if there is more than one of them) must be powerful, insofar as their existence is capable of explaining the existence of all other things.

Power here means causal efficacy (I obviously don't mean force times distance per time in this context!).  Earlier I tried to avoid making too many controversial assumptions about causality, but I also argued that the very concept of explanation or “because” involves a certain notion of causality, so if you like you may take the notion of power in this sense.  (One needs some concept of causation to say that anything is powerful.)

In fact, the fundamental principle(s), taken together, must be all-powerful, and that in two different senses: (1) all the other powers that may exist in the world are explained by reference to theirs, and (2) nothing outside of themselves can prevent them from doing things, because there IS nothing outside of them; only themselves and things whose natures are, by stipulation, subject to their dominion.

This does not, however, prevent there from being constraints on what these beings can do, based on them having some type of definite nature, which only does certain things.  And, since everything that exists obeys the rules of logic, it is clear they cannot do logically absurd things, such as causing themselves to never have existed.  So none of those silly logical puzzles about whether an omnipotent being can make stones too heavy to lift are relevant here.

All of the metaphysical reflections above, I would endorse whether or not I believed in God.  Nothing I have yet said is designed to discriminate between Naturalism and Supernaturalism.

Next: Some Candidates, and a Math Test

About Aron Wall

In 2019, I will be studying quantum gravity and black hole thermodynamics as a Lecturer at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
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6 Responses to Fundamental Reality IV: Necessity, Eternity, and Power

  1. I'm really enjoying this discussion thanks. The way you are approaching this is both familiar and different.

  2. JD Walters says:

    It is an extravagant naturalism indeed that could accommodate necessarily existing, eternal, all-powerful fundamental entities! Although I suppose the really crucial divide between theism and naturalism is whether these fundamental entities are 'intellective' or 'mind-like'.

    Speaking of that plural, I think at this stage of your project you can safely argue that there is just one of these fundamental entities. If there are several, something must account for the differences between them, which would mean that they would not be explanatorily fundamental.

    I agree with Eric, however. This is a fresh but also wonderfully classical explication of the cosmological argument.

  3. mia neuenhoff says:

    Love your work. JD Walters-great comment!

  4. Aron Wall says:

    Thanks for the compliments, everyone.

    I think the way that Cosmological Arguments are usually presented makes it hard for people of a scientific bent to see their real motivation. If you just present some numbered argument based on a causal premise that's never made explicit anywhere else in their reading, and say God or else drop that general priciple, most of them will be quite happy to jettison the principle. Not fully understanding the classical concept of God, it seems just as arbitrary to them to stop there, as anywhere else. So my approach here is to say, "Go ahead and stop somewhere else. Pick your own view about fundamental reality: I'm open to discussing several possible candidates. But then think carefully about why you would pick it, and see what follows from your choice, and ask if what you are saying really makes sense".

    I'm not sure that "extravagent" is the word I'd use, especially since Theism also postulates an (eternal, necessary, all-powerful) fundamental entity. Perhaps you mean "different from how most naturalists would conceive of things". But I think a lot of naturalists probably do believe there is a most fundamental description of reality. Even reductionism doesn't make much sense unless you have something to reduce to. That would seem to suggest the existence of some fundamental principles, and the adjectives in parentheses plausibly follow from there. In any case, that's the kind of naturalist that I would be, if I were a naturalist. I'll be discussing some options for Naturalism in my next post.

    Although I suppose the really crucial divide between theism and naturalism is whether these fundamental entities are 'intellective' or 'mind-like'.

    Agreed; I think this is the bigger sticking point. I plan to treat this issue explicitly.

    Speaking of that plural, I think at this stage of your project you can safely argue that there is just one of these fundamental entities. If there are several, something must account for the differences between them, which would mean that they would not be explanatorily fundamental.

    Perhaps, but I'm not sure I can go along with the "safely". You seem to be using a principle like "If two things are different, then something must explain the difference between them". That might well be true, but I don't think it immediately follows from the concept of explanation that I argued for in part II. I'm trying to avoid leaning too much on excessively controversial causal principles, at least without first building up some intuition for them.

    I did make a bit of a case for unity in part III, but it was on grounds of parsimony and the problem of what would bring the multiple things together, but I only concluded that "we might therefore reasonably hope that the principles in question would at least have some type of internal unity, without being too dogmatic at this stage about what kind of unity we are looking for."

    Given the failure of Ontological Arguments for the existence of God from logic alone, it seems to me that at least some aspects of fundamental existence will be inscrutable or puzzling to our finite minds. So I want to be very careful. Unity is a desirable feature for sure, but if the arguments don't follow with certainty, they could potentially be overwhelmed by other considerations later on. (For example if it turned out we could explain the world with 2 fundamental principles, but not with 1, I guess we'd just have to bite the bullet.)

    In any case there are different types of unity vs. plurality. On the Theistic side, consider the distinctions made in Trinitarian doctrine, or on the Naturalist side, the oddness of the question of whether the "fundamental law(s) of physics" are singular or plural (is it even a well-defined question to ask how many they are?). So it seems hazardous to treat the topic in an excessively detached way apart from specific hypotheses. I'll be considering different candidates for fundamental reality in the next part, and there the issues with plurality will come up in a much more explicit and concrete way.

  5. TY says:

    The plural did strike me as approaching the concept of the Trinity, which on the basis of fundamental nature of the "something ", makes for three entities.
    JD Walters: Can we safely say there is one and only one fundamental entity?
    Interesting discussion!


  6. Aron Wall says:

    Right now I have the issue of Polytheism vs. Monotheism more strongly in mind, especially since the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be deduced from reason alone, apart from divine revelation.

    But of course when I wrote that bit about not being "too dogmatic about what kind of unity", I was noticing that the Trinity might be a potential roadblock later on. And it would only be fair to give an equal amount of leeway to formulations of the fundamental entity in naturalistic schemes.

    In traditional Trinitarian theology, the 3 persons of the Trinity are regarded as a single being (substance, essence). If the persons of the Trinity were three separate entities, then actually only the Father would be the fundamental entity, because the Son and the Spirit proceed from him and are thus derivative. It is only because they are one in being that we Christians can assert that there is a real distinction in the fundamental entity. The Father has no independent existence prior to his act of eternally producing the Son and Holy Spirit.

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