Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Grünbaum on something rather than nothing

In his paper "The Poverty of Theistic Cosmology", Adolf Grünbaum thoroughly picks apart the question of "why is there something rather than nothing?" (termed PEQ - the Primordial Existence Question) and shows that it is ill-posed.  He has some thoughts on why this ill-posed question has exercised Western thinkers for many generations.

In traditional cultural anthropology, that such existential questions as PEQ are asked in a particular culture and not in others is merely an observed phenomenon.  In Balu's theory of religion, only a culture with religion will regularly come up with such existential questions. 

Whether you agree with my second paragraph or not, here are excerpts from Grünbaum:
 Yet, as some scholars have pointed out, 'To the ancient Indian and Greek thinker the notion of creation [ex nihilo {out of nothing}] is unthinkable'.  Thus, in Plato's Timaeus, there is no creation ex nihilo by the Demiurge, who is held to transform chaos into cosmos, although that notion is very vague. 

Indeed as John Leslie has pointed out informatively: 'To the general run of Greek thinkers the mere existence of things [or of the world] was nothing remarkable.  Only their changing patterns provoked [causal] inquisitiveness' (italics added).  And he mentions Aristotle's views as countenancing the acceptance of 'reasonless existence'.

It is a sobering fact that, before Christianity moulded the philosophical intuitions of our culture, those of the Greeks and of many other world cultures were basically different ontologically. {emphasis added}.  No wonder that Aristotle regarded the material universe as uncreated and eternal.  In striking contrast, SoN [**] is deeply engrained in traditional Christian heritage, even among a good many of those who reject Christianity in other respects.  And the Christian climate lends poignancy to Leslie's conjecture that 'When modern Westerners have a tendency to ask why there is anything at all, rather than nothing, possibly this is only because they are heirs to centuries of Judaeo-Christian thought' (italics added). 

[**] SoN is Grünbaum's designation of the idea of 'Spontaneity of Nothingness' that underlies PEQ, and is stated thus:
 "De jure, there should be nothing contingent at all, and indeed there would be nothing contingent in the absence of an overriding external cause (or reason), because that state of affairs is 'most natural' or 'normal'."
Grünbaum explains that "According to traditional Christian ontological doctrine, the very existence of any and every contingent entity other than God himself is utterly dependent on God at any and all times.....'without God's [constant creative] support [or perpetual creation] the world would instantly collapse into nothingness'."


1. The modern "something rather than nothing" is a secularization of the religious question,  another phenomenon that Balu's theory of religion explains.

2.  A more precise statement of the dispute on these pages is that the cultural anthropologists' seeing religion everywhere is an ontological choice from philosophical intuitions guided by Christianity.  There is nothing scientific about it, and thinkers from other cultures would come up with other ontologies.   How to decide which ontology is closer to reality?  An assertion of the existence of religion requires us to understand and state what a religion is (i.e., a theory, not an encyclopedia, as in "whatever I included in this encyclopedia is a religion"), and then to seek empirical evidence for its existence.   Competing theories of religion are to be compared by their explanatory power.  

This essay by Balu is reasonably accessible, and will get you on the road to understanding his theory of religion.