March 4, 2014

Maitzen on the Explanatory Power of Penguins

In his contribution to The Puzzle of Existence, Stephen Maitzen defends the surprising claim that penguins hold the answer to the deep mysteries of the universe.

Well, that's not exactly what he says. Maitzen's position is that the only interpretation of 'why is there something rather than nothing?' on which that sentence expresses a legitimate, well-formed question is one on which it is not a deep mystery at all, but a trivial empirical question to which 'because there are penguins' is a perfectly adequate answer.

It is interesting to note that Maitzen's article is, in a way, just the reverse of Lange's. Lange thinks causal explanations are paradigmatic examples of good scientific explanations. However, Lange's distinctness principle eliminates the possibility of a causal explanation of why there is something rather than nothing. Furthermore, the distinctness principle rules out a large class of explanations we might call 'constitutive explanations.' These are cases in which we explain why a state of affairs obtains by indicating some lower-level state of affairs that constitutes it. However, in my comments on Lange, I indicated that constitutive explanations are indeed part of scientific practice, and hence that Lange was wrong to rule them out.

Maitzen's article reverses Lange's in the sense that Maitzen holds that causal explanations should be regarded with suspicion in the absence of an agreed-upon metaphysical analysis of causation, but that constitutive explanations are good (265-266). Thus Maitzen's view is, essentially, that the existence of something (Maitzen is specifically concerned with concrete, contingent things) is (partly) constituted by the existence of penguins and the fact that there are penguins can thus explain the fact that there is something.

Maitzen considers a number of objections to this explanation, but I think the most important is the one he labels 'Objection D.' (I suspect that Maitzen agrees, since this is the objection he spends the most time on). Here is how he states the objection:

Because it invokes CCTs [i.e., concrete contingent things] that already exist, [Maitzen's] naturalistic method of explanation has no chance of explaining why there are any CCTs in the first place, any CCTs to begin with, any CCTs at all (259).

Maitzen's strategy for dealing with this objection is to concede that an explanation of why there are penguins that appealed to more penguins would not explain why there are any penguins at all, but argue that this is because penguin is a substantial kind. CCT, Maitzen thinks, is not a substantial kind.

This is effectively a version of the 'no sufficiently comprehensive beings' objection to the argument from contingency, endorsed earlier in the volume by Ross. That is, Maitzen admits that the fact that a particular kind has instances is the sort of thing that needs to be explained without appeal to instances of the kind, but denies that there is any kind comprehensive enough to encompass all of the contingent, concrete beings and so force us to posit anything beyond them.

According to Maitzen, the question 'why are there penguins?' is not well-answered with 'because there are emperor penguins' (what I have been calling a constitutive explanation) but 'why are there red things?' is well-answered with 'because there are things that reflect light of wavelengths roughly in the range 630-740 nm' (263-264).

In fact, something Maitzen says later strongly suggests that he has misunderstood the contrast here. Maitzen admits that 'because there are emperor penguins' may be "a sufficient answer to the question 'Why are there any penguins at all left on earth?' in circumstances in which emperor penguins are the only penguins left on earth" (265). But in the appropriate context, the question 'why are there penguins?' could mean just that. For instance, consider the following dialog, which takes place in a dystopian future, c. 2200AD:


A: From the 19th century through the middle of the 21st century, humans relied on fossil fuels as their primary source of power. The resulting climate change was especially damaging to arctic and antarctic wildlife. Almost nothing survives, but there are still some penguins in Antarctica.

B: Why are there penguins?

A: Because there are emperor penguins. They were hardy enough to survive the changes to their ecosystem.


The conversation would sound quite unnatural to me without that last sentence, but this is only because B's next question ("yes, but why are there emperor penguins?") is so obvious that A is expected to anticipate it, as she does in that last sentence. Maitzen is in no position to object to this, since he argues explicitly that explanations are not to be considered inadequate just because they raise further 'why' questions (255-257).

On the other hand, the following dialog also seems perfectly natural:


A: Why are there red things?

B: Because there are things that reflect light of wavelengths roughly in the range 630-740 nm.

A: No, no, that's not what I mean. I know perfectly well that red things are red in virtue of their reflective profile. What I want to know is, why are there any such things? I mean, couldn't it have been the case that there was just nothing in the universe with that reflective profile? Why isn't the universe like that instead of like this?


Of course, A's response is, mutatis mutandis, just the response the arguer from contingency will want to give to Maitzen's penguin explanation.

What all of this suggests is that, in fact, a question of the form 'why are there xs?' admits of (at least) two very different sorts of answers, one or the other of which may be desired on a particular occasion. The distinction between substantial kind terms and other sortals does not track the distinction between the circumstances in which the two types of explanations are desired. Furthermore, as my little dialog shows, even once we've got the constitutive explanation, we may still legitimately ask for the other kind. Thus Maitzen hasn't shown that non-trivial interpretations of the question 'why is there something rather than nothing?' are illegitimate.

(Cross-posted at The Prosblogion.)

Posted by Kenny at March 4, 2014 6:58 PM
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Comments

Kenny: Ty Goldschmidt alerted me to your cross-post at Prosblogion. I thought I should comment here, because your own blog deserves the traffic. Thanks for blogging my chapter. Indeed, thanks for your efforts in blogging the whole collection! I think Ty's volume deserves all the attention it can get.

I understood everything in your post but the last part. In your second dialogue, A says, 'Why are there any such things [as those reflecting light of wavelengths roughly in the range 630-740 nm]?' given that there might have been none. You then write, 'Of course, A's response is, mutatis mutandis, just the response the arguer from contingency will want to give to Maitzen's penguin explanation.... [E]ven once we've got the constitutive explanation, we may still legitimately ask for the other kind.'

I'm not sure, but I think my chapter anticipates and concedes your point. 'Because there are things reflecting light of wavelengths roughly in the range 630-740 nm' is a bad answer to 'Why are there any things reflecting light of wavelengths roughly in the range 630-740 nm?' But that doesn't make it a bad answer to 'Why are there any red things?' If A wants to know why there are any things reflecting light of wavelengths roughly in the range 630-740 nm, we can invoke chemistry and optics (I'm guessing) to explain why particular chemicals reflect light as they do. If A then asks, 'But why are there any such chemicals?', that's a different question we might have to answer in terms of physics or maybe stellar chemistry, or whatnot. None of these explanations require invoking a necessary being. Furthermore, because neither 'red things' nor 'things reflecting light of wavelengths roughly in the range 630-740 nm' denotes a substantial kind (let alone the same substantial kind), we don't violate principle KI by invoking the latter to explain the existence of the former.

Cheers,
Steve

Posted by: Steve Maitzen at March 5, 2014 7:19 AM

Steve: thanks for stopping by. I've been finding this book, including your article, very interesting to work through.

I was trying to defend two conclusions. First, that the question 'why are there red things?' might, in some contexts, not be well-answered by "Because there are things that reflect light of wavelengths roughly in the range 630-740 nm." This is because, in those contexts, what's desired may be the kind of explanation which you think is appropriate only to substantial kinds. So it's not just that there's a further question. That's why, in my dialog, A's second speech starts out "No, no, that's not what I mean." It's not just that there's a further question, but that the answer about the reflective profile didn't answer A's question in the first place.

So what I'm suggesting is that there are two kinds of answers a "why are there..." question can have, but I don't see a connection between that distinction and the distinction between substantial kinds and other predicates. So I wasn't just suggesting there were more questions to be asked. I agree with you that that is not, in general, a defect in an explanation.

Posted by: Kenny Pearce at March 5, 2014 8:31 AM

Thanks, Kenny, for your reply. You wrote that 'what's desired may be the kind of explanation which you think is appropriate only to substantial kinds'. I don't mean to quibble, but that's not my view. My view is that some explanations are inappropriate for the instantiation of substantial kinds yet appropriate for things that don't form a substantial kind. We can't explain why the kind penguin has any instances (at all) by invoking only penguins, but we can explain why there are any CCTs at all by invoking only CCTs, because CCT isn't a kind of thing. My best guess is that A is rehearsing Objection D, i.e., imposing a restriction on acceptable explanations of the existence of red things, a restriction that applies only in the case of kinds, which red thing isn't. Does that make the connection with kinds any clearer?

Posted by: Steve Maitzen at March 5, 2014 9:54 AM

Ah, good. That's not a quibble, it's important. So your position is that either kind of explanation is appropriate for predicates other than substantial kind terms, but the constitutive explanations are not appropriate for substantial kind terms. I think our disagreement is this, then: my view is that (a) both kinds of explanations are appropriate for both kinds of terms, though one or the other explanation may be wanted in a particular context; and (b) in general, both kinds of explanations will be available, and the one will not render the other redundant. In other words, it's perfectly appropriate, in my view, for someone who has already received a constitutive explanation to ask for an explanation of the other kind by saying, 'yes, but why are there things like that?' And here we don't want another constitutive explanation. And the same is true for CCTs: 'yes, I know that the existence of penguins suffices for the existence of CCTs, and I know (roughly) why there are penguins, but what I want to know is, why are there any CCTs?' I take this to be a way of clarifying the original question, of specifying the kind of explanation desired. But I take it that on your view this is illegitimate because the penguin claim already answered the question and the question doesn't have the kind of alternative interpretation I'm trying to get at. Is that right?

Perhaps we can distinguish the two types of explanations in quasi-Aristotelian fashion, calling the constitutive explanations 'accounts of the essence' of a thing and the other kind 'accounts of the existence' of a thing. My view is that for any non-fundamental predicate there is an account of the essence, and for any instantiated predicate there is an account of the existence, and accounts of the existence of contingent things cannot appeal to those same things.

Posted by: Kenny Pearce at March 5, 2014 10:55 AM

But I take it that on your view this is illegitimate because the penguin claim already answered the question and the question doesn't have the kind of alternative interpretation I'm trying to get at. Is that right?

I think so. CCTs are heterogeneous, so (to quote the chapter) 'there isn't a general way in which CCTs come into existence: depending on the kind of CCT, some (such as tables) are made, some (such as penguins) are born, and some (such as icebergs) simply arise, with naturalistic explanations available in each case.' Or at least one can legitimately say so in reply to the question you seem to be asking.

[A]ccounts of the existence of contingent things cannot appeal to those same things.

In one sense, that claim seems clearly false. The existence (the coming into being) of a particular contingent table can be explained by invoking the activity of the particular contingent craftsman who made it. So I take it you mean something else: you mean to deny what I said immediately above; you mean to say that CCTs form a kind whose instantiation requires an explanation invoking something other than CCTs. Is that right?

Posted by: Steve Maitzen at March 5, 2014 1:17 PM

Yes, that's right. I meant: an account of the existence of φs, where it is contingent that there are any φs, should not make reference to φs.

Now, in some cases, a predicate is sufficiently gerrymandered that one will need a rather gerrymandered explanation. Thus, for instance, if someone asks 'why are there any penguins-or-rocks?' then one will explain the existence of penguins and/or the existence of rocks, but there is no unified account of both. If CCTs are like that, then each kind would have to be explained separately, and there might not be any finite explanation. But that's not enough to undermine arguments from contingency, because, even in the case of the predicate 'penguin-or-rock', it seems to me that we need an explanation that reaches outside the gerrymandered class of penguins-or-rocks.

Posted by: Kenny Pearce at March 5, 2014 1:26 PM

Yes, that's right. I meant: an account of the existence of φs, where it is contingent that there are any φs, should not make reference to φs.

Okay, but then I'd reply as I did in the chapter in rebutting Objection D.

But that's not enough to undermine arguments from contingency, because, even in the case of the predicate 'penguin-or-rock', it seems to me that we need an explanation that reaches outside the gerrymandered class of penguins-or-rocks.

The odd question 'Why are there any penguins or rocks?' has the logical form 'Why (P v R)?', to which 'Because P' and 'Because R' are legitimate, sufficient answers. At least those answers are no odder than the question. One can of course then ask different questions, such as 'Why P?' or 'Why R?', requiring different answers.

If it's not the same as the question 'Why are there any penguins or rocks?' then the question 'Why are there any penguins-or-rocks?' is odder still. But if it makes any sense, then it can be answered the same way.

Posted by: Steve Maitzen at March 5, 2014 2:59 PM

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