News Bits

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 24, 2011 in News

Paper of the day: Talmi et al., How Humans Integrate the Prospects of Pain and Reward during Choice

Also, a review of how to be a happy consumer: Dunn et al., If money doesn’t make you happy, you probably aren’t spending it right.

And a new paper by Steve Maitzen: Stop Asking Why There’s Anything.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Martin July 24, 2011 at 7:34 am

Good paper by Maitzen. I find the Leibnizian cosmological argument to be one of the stronger ones, and it deserves a response.


Zeb July 24, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Yes, very interesting paper by Maitzen. If he’d allow it, I’d like to see it put up on CSA as a guest post so that it could get a proper discussion by all the regulars. And the Leibnizian cosmological argument is pretty much verbatim the whole logical underpinning of my theism.


Rufus July 24, 2011 at 9:43 pm

I think there is a jump in the Maitzen piece between a proposition containing a “dummy sortal” and that proposition being ill-formed. It seems rather unproblematic to substitute a dummy sortal for a genuine sortals–those which have criteria for identity. He admits so much when he discusses Lewis’ possible worlds! Yet, we can substitute “the universe” for “everything” without appealing to Lewis’ particular brand of modal realism, or any modal realism at all and we can still avoid the countability problem Maitzen raises. This seems to be the weak point of Maitzen’s paper. He gives us a false dichotomy between Lewis’ “actual world” and an “actual world” rigidly designated as if those are the only open options.

It seems to me that there are many more ontologies which have the virtue of providing criteria for identifying the universe as a concrete countable genuine object, without also dismissing the possibility that no universe could have been and without asserting the universe as a metaphysical necessity.

Furthermore, if you look on pages 73-74 of Lewis’ On the Plurality of Worlds he writes:

I think the worst of it is the fear that I might offer to explain why there is something rather than nothing, just by saying this is a necessary truth. But don’t fear; I don’t think that would be an explanation. For an explanation, I think, is an account of etiology: it tells us something about how an event was caused… So I think there is nothing I could say that might count as explaining why there is something rather than nothing; and that includes saying, truly, that there is no world where there is nothing.

So it seems that Lewis did not take his system to resolve this fundamental question, even though Maitzen seems to think it does. So, if Maitzen thinks Lewis resolves the “dummy sortal” problem, and Lewis denies that his modal realism resolves the Leibnizian question, I think theists like Zeb are still safe to assume that the cosmological argument still has logical merit.

Just my thoughts on the article. Thanks for posting it Luke.




Steve Maitzen July 25, 2011 at 5:49 am

Thanks, Luke, for linking to my paper, and thanks to others for their comments. I should clarify that I don’t think every statement containing a dummy sortal is ill-formed or meaningless. Nor did I ever say so in the paper. Instead, I argued that various questions and demands for explanation that people pose are ill-formed, and hence unanswerable in principle, because of the presence of dummy sortals in those questions and demands. Still, I’m sorry if some readers came away with a different impression. Clearly I need to follow up this paper.

@Rufus on “the weak point of Maitzen’s paper”: I’d be curious to see any of the “many more ontologies” that have the virtue you attribute to them. Can you point me to one? According to the quotation from Lewis you gave, “an explanation…tells us something about how an event was caused.” But for Lewis it’s a necessary state of affairs that something exists rather than nothing at all, and it’s incoherent (on Lewis’s view and in general) to suppose that a metaphysically necessary state of affairs was caused. That’s also why theists restrict their cosmological challenge to contingent things and why they regard God’s existence as not requiring an explanation, or at any rate not requiring an explanation in the way contingent things do.


Taranu July 25, 2011 at 10:03 am

If you want to find out about these ontologies you might want to look into van Inwagen’s books Material Beings and Metaphysics. According to two posts on ex-apologist’s blog, Inwagen deals with the claim that the Universe should be considered a single entity. Those who claim this are called allists. There are also some moderates making the same claim. See ex-apologist’s posts entitled: “Craig on the Leibnizian Cosmological Argument” and “Notes on Peter van Inwagen’s Criticisms of the Cosmological Argument in Metaphysics”.


Rufus July 25, 2011 at 4:28 pm

Dear Dr. Maitzen,

Thank you for taking the time to address my concerns. I hope you do not mind that I take the opportunity to respond here.

I agree with you that your paper clearly does not endorse the view that all sentences containing “dummy sortals” are ill-formed, or meaningless. My point is that there is a jump made by way of an analogy between the way dummy sortals cause ill-formed countability questions to dummy sortals causing ill-formed existential questions. Countability questions dissolve when true sortals are substituted for the dummy ones. But do existential questions also dissolve when true sortals are substituted there? That is the point of contention. I don’t think the case has been made that they do.

You seem to readily admit that Lewis’ “actual world” is not a dummy sortal. I take this to mean that we have a candidate for a true sortal which would properly ground the existential question first posed by Leibniz. However, you note that for Lewis specifically, this question would not make sense since “actual” is an indexical term. You then move on to consider “actual” as a rigid designator and explain that this would mean that all concrete things are metaphysically necessary in the actual world. But I think you have moved too quickly here.

My first objection was that there are other ontologies aside from Lewis which have the virtue using true sortals without positing the metaphysical necessity of all concrete things within that world. I would proffer Plantinga’s “Serious Actualism” (Two Concepts of Modality: Modal Realism and Modal Reductionism, 1987) or the actualism advanced by R.M. Adams in Theories of Actualism (1974). So it does not seem unreasonable to suppose that there are alternatives to Lewis which seem to preserve the force of the Leibnizian existential question.

At the same time, I still do not agree with you on Lewis. Now I apologize for the ellipsis I put in the middle of Lewis’ words as some of it may have been more important than I first realized. The full quote is:

For an explanation, I think, is an account of etiology: it tells us something about how an event was caused. Or it tells us something general about how some, or many, or all events of a certain kind are caused. Or it explains an existential fact by telling us something about how several events jointly make that fact true, and then perhaps something about how those truthmaker events were caused

(Lewis, On the Plurality of Worlds, 1986).

Clearly Lewis is willing to admit the possibility of explanations for existential facts by way of truth making events which themselves can “perhaps” be causally explained. How would you account for this passage, or for Lewis’ claim that his ontology does not dissolve the need to pose Leibniz’s question? Lewis seems explicit enough on this point! Do you think he misunderstood his own theory and its implications?

Of course the theist would say that God is the causal explanation for why the actual world exists. And as you rightly point out, the theist denies that there is a causal explanation for God. But as we see in Lewis, the explanation for any or all events and existential facts might not have a causal explanation. This is, of course, not to say that metaphysically necessary beings, like God, are inexplicable. Theists of course hold that God is His own sufficient reason and is no more immune to PSR than the created universe.




Steve Maitzen July 25, 2011 at 5:07 pm

Many thanks, Rufus and Taranu, for your comments and suggestions for further reading. I agree there’s a jump in the paper just where Rufus locates it, but I try to justify the jump on pp. 14-15. It will take me a while to get through the reading you both recommended, and I didn’t want to wait that long before sending my thanks. I may get the chance to follow up this paper with another, and I’ll be glad to acknowledge your help if you send me your autonyms by email at the address on my home page (linked to above). If anything occurs to me to say before this thread goes stale, I’ll comment again. Cheers.


Rufus July 26, 2011 at 8:00 am

Dear Dr. Maitzen,

I will be in touch.




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