Category Archives: Modality

Lawrence Krauss on “Nothing”

While not typ­i­cally clas­si­fied as one of the “four horse­men” of the New Athe­ist move­ment, Canadian-​​born the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist, out­spo­ken skep­tic, and critic of reli­gion Lawrence Krauss is one of the few liv­ing physi­cist referred to by Sci­en­tific Amer­i­can as a “pub­lic intel­lec­tual”, and he is the only physi­cist to have received awards from all three major U.S. physics soci­eties: the Amer­i­can Phys­i­cal Soci­ety, the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion of Physics Teach­ers, and the Amer­i­can Insti­tute of Physics. He earned his PhD from MIT in 1982 and has been active ever since, gar­ner­ing acclaim from schol­ars and laypeo­ple alike. He was one of the first to sug­gest the notion of dark energy, served on Barack Obama’s cam­paign sci­ence pol­icy com­mit­tee, and was even inter­viewed by NPR.

In an inter­view, audio excerpts from which can be found in the Feb­ru­ary 23rd episode of the pod­cast “Rea­son­able Faith”, Krauss belies a fun­da­men­tal philo­soph­i­cal error con­cern­ing a premise on which the the­sis of his recent book hangs:

I’m amused that peo­ple keep redefin­ing their def­i­n­i­tion of “noth­ing” when­ever I point out that noth­ing can cre­ate some­thing. But they always want to sort of define noth­ing as “that which some­thing can never come from”. And that’s sort of [unin­tel­li­gi­ble] seman­ti­cally. I think if you’d asked philoso­phers years ago “what is noth­ing?” they’d say “empty space noth­ing­ness”. But then when you show that that can cre­ate some­thing you’d say “well that’s not really ‘noth­ing’, cause there’s—cause space exists”. And then I could show that while maybe the laws of physics that we now under­stand tell us that even space itself could be cre­ated from noth­ing. And they’d say “well that’s not ‘noth­ing’ because the laws, the poten­tial for exis­tence, is there”. And then I could argue, based on mul­ti­verse ideas, that even maybe the laws of physics arrived spon­ta­neously. And more­over I think it’s kind of silly to say the poten­tial for exis­tence is dif­fer­ent than noth­ing, that that’s the same as exis­tence. If there’s no poten­tial for exis­tence, then not even a cre­ator can cre­ate it, I assume. And more­over, as I argue in the book a lit­tle graph­i­cally, I think, the poten­tial for exis­tence is very dif­fer­ent than exis­tence. I mean as I point out the fact that I walk near a woman implies the poten­tial for cre­at­ing life, but it’s very dif­fer­ent than cre­at­ing it.

Krauss’ book claims to answer a ques­tion that Leib­niz noto­ri­ously posed as the basis of a philo­soph­i­cally tech­ni­cal argu­ment for the exis­tence of God from con­tin­gency, “why is there some­thing rather than noth­ing?”. Obvi­ously a crit­i­cal issue to clar­ify when dis­cussing “noth­ing” is the def­i­n­i­tion of “noth­ing”. Krauss uncon­ven­tion­ally uses “noth­ing” to refer to the quan­tum vac­uum instead of the object of uni­ver­sal nega­tion, and in doing so fails to even address Leibniz’s argu­ment, which uses “noth­ing” conventionally.

What piques my inter­est in this seg­ment in par­tic­u­lar is the bear­ing that the de re/​de dicto dis­tinc­tion has on the dis­course. Krauss acts out a dia­logue in which “philoso­phers years ago” point osten­si­bly to “empty space” in response to the ques­tion “what is noth­ing?”. All his­tor­i­cal con­tentions aside, if Philoso­phers Years Ago were to engage such a dia­logue using the con­ven­tional def­i­n­i­tion of “noth­ing” as the object of uni­ver­sal nega­tion (“not any­thing”), then their point­ing to empty space as an exam­ple of “noth­ing” would indi­cate the belief that there is not any­thing in empty space. How­ever, Krauss would have us take their osten­ta­tion to mean that “empty space” (and what­ever it is found to be or to con­tain) is “noth­ing” by def­i­n­i­tion. Then he shows that empty space is, or con­tains, vac­uum energy such that, given his def­i­n­i­tion of “noth­ing” as “empty space”, he becomes war­ranted in using “noth­ing” to refer to “vac­uum energy”. If he suc­cess­fully shows that vac­uum energy can give rise to the uni­verse as we know it, then he can claim to have shown how the uni­verse could have arisen from “noth­ing”. In fact one of the chap­ters in his book is enti­tled “Noth­ing is Some­thing”, and in his inter­view with NPR he says,

…both noth­ing and some­thing are sci­en­tific con­cepts, and our dis­cov­er­ies over the past 30 years have com­pletely changed what we mean by nothing.

In par­tic­u­lar, noth­ing is unsta­ble. Noth­ing can cre­ate some­thing all the time due to the laws of quan­tum mechan­ics, and it’s — it’s fas­ci­nat­ingly interesting…

…Empty space is a boil­ing, bub­bling brew of vir­tual particles…

So you can see that he never even intends to address why there is some­thing rather than there not being any­thing, nor does he attempt to explain how some­thing can arise with­out any­thing. He merely attempts to show how things like plan­e­tary bod­ies might be able to arise from a state of affairs in which there is a “bub­bling stew of vir­tual par­ti­cles” that he refers to by the word “noth­ing”. If those Philoso­phers Years Ago whom Krauss depicts as point­ing to empty space as an exam­ple of “noth­ing” used “noth­ing” to mean “not any­thing” as opposed to “vac­uum energy”, they would cease point­ing to empty space as an exam­ple of “noth­ing” upon being shown that it is, or con­tains, a par­tic­u­lar kind of energy, and would dis­pute Krauss’ iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the two. This would not be a rede­f­i­n­i­tion of the word “noth­ing”, but would sim­ply reflect a new under­stand­ing of “empty space” as “vac­uum energy”, which would mean that it is no longer an exam­ple of “nothing”.

If we were to tem­porar­ily adopt Krauss’ own rede­f­i­n­i­tion of “noth­ing” and tem­porar­ily grant the suc­cess of his attempt to show that vac­uum energy could give rise to the uni­verse as we know it, we could sim­ply restate Leibniz’s ques­tion as “why is there some­thing rather than there not being any­thing at all?” or “why was there vac­uum energy rather than there not being any­thing?”, or even “why was there ‘noth­ing’ rather than there not being any­thing?”. To my knowl­edge there is no doc­u­mented attempt by Krauss to answer this question.

In addi­tion to improp­erly han­dling de re/​de dicto dis­tinc­tions by rigidly defin­ing “noth­ing” as “empty space and what­ever it is found to con­tain” (which, by the way, also treads on what we con­ven­tion­ally mean by “empty”; in fact the NPR inter­viewer asks “…empty space is really not empty, cor­rect?”, Krauss’ answer to which is “That’s exactly right. Empty space is a boil­ing, bub­bling brew of vir­tual par­ti­cles…”), Krauss fails to rec­og­nize dis­tinc­tions in uses of the term “poten­tial”. He says,

I think it’s kind of silly to say the poten­tial for exis­tence is dif­fer­ent than noth­ing, that that’s the same as exis­tence. If there’s no poten­tial for exis­tence, then not even a cre­ator can create…

If the poten­tial for exis­tence is some­thing, and it exists, then some­thing exists. If the poten­tial for exis­tence is some­thing, and it does not exist, then there is not a poten­tial for exis­tence. If the poten­tial for exis­tence is not any­thing, then there is no ques­tion that it does not exist, and there­fore there is not a poten­tial for exis­tence. Con­tra Krauss, in none of the three states of affairs is there simul­ta­ne­ously a poten­tial for exis­tence and nothing.

It may be reel­ing to think of the poten­tial for exis­tence as some­thing that exists, but that is only because of the self-​​reference latent in the state­ment, and the con­fu­sion may be mit­i­gated by look­ing at the state­ment from its other side. If one sees that every actu­al­ity indi­cates its own poten­tial­ity, the state­ment becomes obvi­ous. That is, if some­thing exists then it must be pos­si­ble that it exists! If the poten­tial for exis­tence is some­thing, and it exists, then there­fore some­thing exists. If some­thing exists, then it must be pos­si­ble for some­thing to exist.

The poten­tial for exis­tence, if it exists, exists.

What Krauss may actu­ally be try­ing to argue is that the exis­tence of a meta­phys­i­cal poten­tial for the exis­tence of phys­i­cal objects is not equiv­a­lent to the exis­tence of phys­i­cal objects, and that if there were not a meta­phys­i­cal poten­tial for the exis­tence of phys­i­cal objects, then it would not even be pos­si­ble for an omnipo­tent being to cre­ate phys­i­cal objects. This is coher­ent, how­ever I think it obvi­ously unprob­lem­atic for the the­ist. He seems to imply that the impli­ca­tion of such state­ments is that both the­ists and skep­tics must admit that there is a poten­tial for exis­tence, and that a poten­tial for exis­tence is all he needs to demon­strate the pos­si­bil­ity of a uni­verse aris­ing “from noth­ing” and with­out any agent of change. This later state­ment is, inde­pen­dent of its uncon­ven­tional use of “noth­ing” and mutual exclu­siv­ity with the Prin­ci­ple of Suf­fi­cient Rea­son, obvi­ously not implied by its antecedents.

On van Inwagen’s View of Chance

To a book appar­ently enti­tled “Chance, Evil, and Modal Skep­ti­cism”, Peter van Inwa­gen con­tributes a chap­ter called “The Place of Chance in a World Sus­tained by God”. (I don’t have the bib­li­o­graphic infor­ma­tion; I only have a PDF that Derek von Barandy emailed me in response to this thread, though the piece is appar­ently reprinted from this book.)

What fol­lows is my sum­mary and assess­ment of the chapter.

van Inwa­gen sketches a pic­ture of the Cre­ated uni­verse in which par­ti­cles, whose con­tin­ual exis­tence and causal pow­ers are sus­tained by God, are sus­pended in the void. On this view, a “mir­a­cle” occurs when God tem­porar­ily diverges from His typ­i­cal activ­ity. One who holds a more com­plex pic­ture of the uni­verse, physics, and divine prov­i­dence can con­sider van Inwagen’s sug­ges­tions by com­pli­cat­ing the model sketched of the uni­verse as needed.

He says some­thing hap­pens by “chance” if it is with­out pur­pose or sig­nif­i­cance, not part of anyone’s plan, and might very well not have been. If some­one asks why an event occurred, if it occurred by chance then the cor­rect answer is “There is no rea­son or expla­na­tion; it just hap­pened.” (p. 51). This is not to say that there is no expla­na­tion of any kind (eg. nec­es­sary antecedent con­di­tions or per­haps even a suf­fi­cient cause), but only that it serves no end (I take this to mean some­thing like that it wasn’t a nec­es­sary con­di­tion for some future good). van Inwa­gen describes a sit­u­a­tion in which a man loses his wife to a car acci­dent and asks “why?”—it would be cruel to explain the car acci­dent to him in depth. He is ask­ing about the pur­pose, not the cause, of the accident.

Peter van Inwa­gen says there might not be a spe­cific one.

How­ever, there is most cer­tainly a gen­eral expla­na­tion. On van Inwagen’s view God is in full con­trol. This means that God cre­ated every­thing and sus­tains its exis­tence and causal pow­ers. He knows every­thing in advance and even chooses to devi­ate from His typ­i­cal sus­tain­ing activ­i­ties, some­times endow­ing par­ti­cles and struc­tures with dif­fer­ent causal pow­ers in order to sub­vert the course of his­tory for His own pur­poses. God has a pur­pose, or pur­poses, on this view, and such will be accomplished.

He says a lit­tle more about God’s “plan”. He defines God’s plan as the sum of His decrees. His decrees are those things He directly causes and the things nec­es­sar­ily entailed by those things He directly causes. Knowl­edge of an event alone, even if held in advance, does not imply that such an event is part of God’s plan. van Inwa­gen gives the exam­ple of lies. God may have known in advance that peo­ple would tell lies, but those lies them­selves may not have been part of His plan. There may be decrees that God issues in reac­tion to events He did not decree (eg. the mirac­u­lous heal­ing of a knife wound that itself wasn’t decreed by God). Reac­tive decrees are not part of God’s “plan” either.

If this lan­guage makes you uncom­fort­able, just sup­ply your own terms for the dif­fer­ent modes of decree. For exam­ple, call God’s “plan” His “per­fect will”, and those things that occur out­side of His plan His “per­mis­sive will”, and come up with a name for His reac­tive decrees, etc.

van Inwa­gen offers three sources of chance: the free will of ratio­nal crea­tures, nat­ural inde­ter­min­ism, and the ini­tial state of the cre­ated world.

Where God decrees (not com­mands or pre­scribes, but causes) a human’s behav­ior, that behav­ior is not free. How­ever, not all behav­iors are decreed by God. There are some cre­ated things whom God cre­ated with causal pow­ers of a sort that enable them to do things not strictly entailed by God’s decrees (although antecedent con­di­tions nec­es­sary for these behav­iors are sup­plied by God, the pow­ers them­selves are cre­ated by God and given to the crea­tures, and the results of these choices are known in advance by God). Freely made deci­sions of this sort are not part of God’s “plan”, as we are defin­ing God’s plan as the sum of His decrees and these deci­sions are made freely of His decrees. If free deci­sions of this sort are ever made in a way that they are not a part of any human’s plan either, then they are said to be the result of “chance”, where “chance” is some occur­rence that was not designed to serve anybody’s ends.

Next the author con­sid­ers nat­ural inde­ter­min­ism. This is the doc­trine that God’s decrees con­cern­ing par­ti­cles are not strict—they are loose and do not always suf­fi­ciently deter­mine exact out­comes. This is of course, within God’s con­trol as well and if it is the case it must only be by God’s per­mis­sion. He would be able to deter­mine with max­i­mal speci­ficity the exact behav­ior of every par­ti­cle if He so chose. But on this view, He doesn’t. He usu­ally let’s things like, per­haps, quan­tum events occur with prob­a­bil­ity (within bounds He deter­mines). Accord­ing to this pic­ture of prov­i­den­tial quan­tum mechan­ics, chance events occur where they are not decreed by God or strictly entailed by His decrees.

Finally van Inwa­gen con­sid­ers the ini­tial state of things. This func­tions sim­i­larly to nat­ural inde­ter­min­ism, as the pic­ture of Cre­ation painted is one of inde­ter­min­ism. God would decree some­thing like “let X or Y be”, and then as a result either X or Y would be where God did not spec­ify which. On this view then, He may have spec­i­fied a great num­ber of qual­i­ties when Cre­at­ing, but left plenty up to chance.

He also argues that if God had no good rea­son for choos­ing between X and Y (say, whether thus and such a neb­ula were pur­ple as opposed to pink, or whether there were one addi­tional olive tree in the Gar­den, etc.—use your imag­i­na­tion), and yet God chose, then such would be an arbi­trary decision—a deci­sion made with­out suf­fi­cient rea­son. Rather he prefers to think that God would issue decrees for suf­fi­cient rea­sons and that some would be loose and allow chance to play a part in their out­comes. For exam­ple, God would have suf­fi­cient rea­sons for cre­at­ing the Gar­den with a numer­i­cal range of trees, but not really care about the exact number.

What does van Inwa­gen get out of this view? For one, it might be the case that God has good rea­son for per­mit­ting evil, but that par­tic­u­lar evils occur with­out spe­cific rea­son. To be clear, there are prob­a­bly many spe­cific evils that God, in reac­tion to the Fall and sub­se­quent events out­side His decree although not out­side His knowl­edge and per­mis­sion, orches­trated in order to accom­plish future goods. The trial and cru­ci­fix­ion of Jesus of Nazareth comes to mind. Addi­tion­ally this piece does not deny that God is capa­ble of mirac­u­lous “inter­ven­tion” (remem­ber that on this view the exis­tence and causal pow­ers of every par­ti­cle are due to God’s activ­ity so it’s not as if He ever needs to “break” a phys­i­cal law or some­thing like that, only alter His own sus­tain­ing and empow­er­ing behav­ior). So God could pre­vent many evils that occur by chance. And He likely does.

van Inwa­gen briefly men­tions Cain’s mur­der­ing of Abel and says that per­haps God had rea­son to allow Cain the free­dom to do evil, and while He knew about the mur­der in advance and had the power to stop it, did not directly cause it and the fact that it was a mur­der instead of, say, a betrayal of another sort—a lie or a non-​​fatal bru­tal­ity, etc.—was entirely due to chance. This could be because Cain had no spe­cific ends which the mur­der served, which is not to deny that he had moti­va­tions for the mur­der, only that the mur­der served no pur­pose. If you like you can con­sider details about the mur­der as occur­ring by chance, like the fact that it occurred at thus and such a time or was accom­plished by stran­gling instead of stab­bing or vice versa, etc. The author also briefly men­tions that for some Chris­tians, an early death is itself not nec­es­sar­ily a misfortune.

So God may have good rea­sons for allow­ing evil, but not for allow­ing this or that par­tic­u­lar evil.

The piece is obvi­ously much more elab­o­rate than my review of it, and many inter­est­ing appli­ca­tions of this view are con­sid­ered that I do not have room to treat here. The read­ing through of the author’s con­sid­er­a­tions and illus­tra­tions is an expe­ri­ence that itself seems to do some per­sua­sive work on the reader, and so if you find that you are get­ting emo­tion­ally wound up, I rec­om­mend read­ing it for your­self (leave a com­ment and I will email you the PDF).

In the mean­time, what should I say by way of assess­ment? First, I like what we get out of the view. Aside from briefly sketch­ing a model of divine prov­i­dence that pre­serves free will within the non-​​negotiables of divine omnipo­tence and omni­science, van Inwa­gen carves out room for chance. This in turn frees us from hav­ing to spec­u­late as to the pos­si­ble good that could come out of each and every instance of evil or pos­si­ble evil, some of which are quite frankly very bizarre, grotesque, and deeply hor­ri­fy­ing. This often results in some very twisted, far-​​out theod­i­cies, both on the schol­arly level and in pop the­ol­ogy. Some­times bad things seem to just hap­pen for no good rea­son. Call­ing tragedy “tragedy” brings a cer­tain satisfaction.

And some­times good things hap­pen with­out pur­pose too—or equally good options are given to us by God along with the choice to pick between them. God prob­a­bly did not pick out your lip­stick this morn­ing and He may not care whether my wife and I try to get preg­nant this month or next year. This is not to deny that God cares about you and me, is a good lis­tener, or is inti­mately involved in our lives just as the fact that I do not care whether my son col­ors with the blue or red marker does not indi­cate that I do not care about him or his activ­i­ties or that I won’t be engaged in the deci­sion if he wants me to be.

That said, a num­ber of crit­i­cisms arise in response to var­i­ous aspects of this piece. Let’s start with the less sig­nif­i­cant and work our way up. The orig­i­nal moti­va­tion for read­ing this piece was to hear van Inwagen’s case for nat­ural inde­ter­mi­nacy. What he does say about it, how­ever, isn’t in its defense. He describes it but does not give any rea­sons to think it exists. Nor does he treat objec­tions to it. Surely his project can suc­ceed with­out it, but for what it’s worth, inso­far as he treats it in this par­tic­u­lar piece, he fails to give any good rea­sons for affirm­ing it.

To me, any inde­ter­mi­nacy under­mines the Prin­ci­ple of Suf­fi­cient Rea­son and results in an incom­pre­hen­si­ble meta­physic that destroys the empir­i­cal sci­ences. This would include inde­ter­mi­nacy in the Cre­ative decrees as well. If God decreed some­thing like “let X or Y be” with­out spec­i­fy­ing which and thereby leav­ing the out­come to chance, then what pos­si­ble force would deter­mine the out­come? Surely van Inwa­gen would want to deny that “chance” is any sort of force inde­pen­dent of God, for such would under­mine ase­ity and the con­tin­gency of every­thing on God’s char­ac­ter and deci­sions. But with­out a force exter­nal to the decree of God, what could pos­si­ble sup­ply the result of an indef­i­nite decree?

Unlike the author, I would pre­fer to think of God as hav­ing the abil­ity to make arbi­trary deci­sions. This would ground the out­come of a divine decree in the cre­ative will of God every time, regard­less of whether He had good rea­son for it. It strikes me as far and away more plau­si­ble that every phe­nom­e­non would have a suf­fi­cient rea­son, either in antecedent con­di­tions which suf­fi­ciently deter­mine it, or in a free agent. That’s exactly what agency is—the abil­ity to determine.

How can some­thing, other than agency itself, not be determined?

This brings me to free will. At the very least God has free will and is capa­ble of mak­ing uncaused deci­sions. His char­ac­ter sets the bounds of His deci­sions, but to say that every deci­sion God makes is a nec­es­sary and inescapable result of His char­ac­ter makes God Him­self a very bizarre piece of meta­phys­i­cal machin­ery with­out any per­son­al­ity or cre­ativ­ity. So, if it is the case that God’s will is free then surely there is room for “chance” in the world, where “chance” describes those par­tic­u­lars that are not absolutely nec­es­sary for God’s pur­poses. I think this sal­vages the ini­tial state of things as a source of chance after doubt­ing as much due to the rejec­tion of all indeterminacy.

Next, I have come to believe that humans have free will not unlike God, although this is less obvi­ous than the free­dom of God’s own will. In which case such would be another poten­tial source of chance. Why did I choose the cin­na­mon oat­meal packet this morn­ing instead of the straw­berry one? I just did.

Why did my friend cheat on her hus­band? She just did. The­o­ret­i­cally any­thing you can say by way of explanation—she was lonely because her hus­band was on a busi­ness trip, she had daddy issues, etc. would only give con­text to the sit­u­a­tion. Another woman in the same posi­tion could have done oth­er­wise. She could have done oth­er­wise. But she abused her free will; there’s noth­ing else behind that.

When my friend lost his job because of gen­uine libel against him and couldn’t find a job despite apply­ing for lit­er­ally hun­dreds of them, and he and his wife strug­gled to acquire food and gas money, I con­soled him with the phrase “that sucks”, not “every­thing hap­pens for a reason”.

Next, while I reject nat­ural inde­ter­mi­nacy, there seems to be the pos­si­bil­ity that some nat­ural evils, such as global warm­ing, the evo­lu­tion of rabies and HIV, the extinc­tion of wild salmon, the con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of North Ida­hoan water sources by mer­cury and other met­als, etc. may be the result of the aggre­gate of human actions, includ­ing actions that served nobody’s ends or of unin­ten­tional byprod­ucts of actions that served no ends, self­ish ends, or even well-​​intended ends. In this way many nat­ural evils may be by “chance”, although not for the rea­sons van Inwa­gen suggests.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the bat­tle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intel­li­gent, nor favor to those with knowl­edge, but time and chance hap­pen to them all. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the chil­dren of man are snared at an evil time, when it sud­denly falls upon them.

–Eccle­si­asts 9:11–12

That said, we are sim­ply not in a posi­tion to know what God’s ends are and how they may be served by par­tic­u­lar evils. While spec­u­lat­ing about how this or that evil might serve God’s pur­poses we are very likely peer­ing beyond our purview of cos­mic his­tory. This seems to be equally a prob­lem for van Inwa­gen as for the per­son advanc­ing a bizarre, spec­u­la­tive theodicy.

There­fore I am most open to the fol­low­ing as pos­si­ble loci of chance:

1. The ini­tial state of things, but due to the like­li­hood of there hav­ing been arbi­trary deci­sions made on God’s part and not due to any indef­i­nite­ness in His decrees.

2. Freely made deci­sions (crea­turely and divine).

3. Some or per­haps all “nat­ural” evils, but due to the like­li­hood that they are some­how the result of the free actions of men and angels and not due to any inde­ter­mi­nacy in physics.

How­ever —and this may be the bot­tom line for me—I do think van Inwagen’s pro­posal might under­mine divine benev­o­lence on the basis of the fact on van Inwagen’s view, some evils occur that serve no pur­pose, which God could have pre­vented. So, if God were benev­o­lent and max­i­mally mer­ci­ful, wouldn’t He want to pre­vent those evils that occur that do not in some way ulti­mately serve His ends? Per­haps if we grant that God is max­i­mally good and that there are evils that do not seem to serve His pur­poses, which He is able to pre­vent, we could con­clude that it is more likely that even such evils, which seem triv­ial or point­less to us, do in fact have some ulti­mate cos­mic rea­son for being permitted.

So if this is cor­rect, then there would be room for chance in amoral mat­ters, and per­haps even in the par­tic­u­lars of cer­tain evils, but every instance of evil, as well as its sever­ity, has a pur­pose, because God would not let any ounce of evil go to waste, and squeezes every bit of glory out of it for Him­self, and of good­ness for His sheep, that He pos­si­bly can.

Maybe, just maybe, every­thing does hap­pen for a reason.

My Modality Series & Blogs Generally

My recent series on modal­ity (which ter­mi­nated in this post) was never meant to con­clu­sively prove the com­pos­si­bil­ity of fore­knowl­edge and lib­er­tar­ian free will. It was only to resolve the appar­ent con­tra­dic­tion cre­ated by the facts that fore­knowl­edge requires that there be no alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties, yet free will requires that there be alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties. (If there are alter­nate pos­si­ble futures, how can it be known which will occur? And if the future is known, how could mat­ters unfold any other way?) The res­o­lu­tion is seen by under­stand­ing that the type of alter­na­tives required to be lack­ing to ground fore­knowl­edge is dif­fer­ent than the type of alter­na­tives required to be present to ground free will. By show­ing that there are dif­fer­ent modes of pos­si­bil­ity I believe I nuanced the tra­di­tional Prin­ci­ple of Alter­nate Pos­si­bil­i­ties in order to show that, as far as this one par­tic­u­lar mat­ter is con­cerned, fore­knowl­edge and free will are not mutu­ally meta­phys­i­cally exclusive.

Being a blog and not a pub­lished work, my series did not posi­tion itself into the broader ongo­ing dia­logue in the pub­lished lit­er­a­ture by way of cita­tions, though it did make use of some con­ven­tional terms (in some cases inten­tion­ally flex­ing them). I think this is a good use for a blog: to set down some ideas whose rela­tion to the ideas of oth­ers is not yet fully under­stood, which are not yet fully devel­oped, which lack rhetor­i­cal pol­ish, or for other rea­sons are not close enough to pub­li­ca­tion to be kept under wraps and about which a thinker is open to pub­lic feedback.

Actual vis-​​a-​​vis Real Possibilities

Or “On the Com­pos­si­bil­ity of the Non-​​Existence of Actual Alter­nate Pos­si­bil­i­ties and the Exis­tence of Real Alter­nate Possibilities”

On my view there are three modes of pos­si­bil­ity: log­i­cal, meta­phys­i­cal, and actual. Log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic, meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic and the laws of meta­physics, and actual pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic, the laws of meta­physics, and actuality.

Actual alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties do not exist, and there­fore knowl­edge of the future is possible.

When mere meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity is too broad to be rel­e­vant, and actual pos­si­bil­ity is too nar­row, we turn to “real” pos­si­bil­i­ties to describe pos­si­ble worlds in which the basic prop­er­ties of the actual world obtain and in which his­tory has gone iden­ti­cally to the actual world up to a given point.

Unlike actual pos­si­bil­i­ties, of which each has no alter­nate, there are alter­nate real pos­si­bil­i­ties, and the abil­ity to choose between them is what grounds free will.

The com­pos­si­bil­ity of the non-​​existence of alter­nate actual pos­si­bil­i­ties and the exis­tence of alter­nate real pos­si­bil­i­ties means that fore­knowl­edge and free will are also compossible.

Real Possibilities Ground Free Will

On my view there are three modes of pos­si­bil­ity: log­i­cal, meta­phys­i­cal, and actual. Log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic, meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic and the laws of meta­physics, and actual pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic, the laws of meta­physics, and actuality.

When mere meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity is too broad to be rel­e­vant, and actual pos­si­bil­ity is too nar­row, we turn to “real” pos­si­bil­i­ties to describe pos­si­ble worlds in which the basic prop­er­ties of the actual world obtain and in which his­tory has gone iden­ti­cally to the actual world up to a given point.

A moment of reflec­tion should yield the obser­va­tion that there are alter­nate real pos­si­bil­i­ties, that is to say that for a typ­i­cal given moment in time, there is more than one pos­si­ble world which shares a his­tory with the actual world up to that moment.

The view that such alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties exist has the mind-​​blowing impli­ca­tion that free will is pos­si­ble. This is because an agent may be the one who sup­plies the final con­di­tions nec­es­sary to actu­al­ize one of these real pos­si­ble worlds. Imag­ine that there are two pos­si­ble worlds that share a com­mon his­tory up to a given point in time (there are two “real pos­si­bil­i­ties”), and the only dif­fer­ence between them at this given time is the deci­sion of a given per­son. From there, the two worlds will no doubt diverge in more than one regard. In such cases it is up to a per­son to choose which pos­si­ble world is the actual world. Nat­u­rally life is a bit more com­pli­cated, as there are bil­lions of agents mak­ing bil­lions of deci­sions, some of which are more heav­ily influ­enced by their antecedent con­di­tions than oth­ers. But in this way, we are all freely co-​​creating the actual world by choos­ing between real possibilities.

Real Alternate Possibilities Exist

When mere meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity is too broad to be rel­e­vant, and actual pos­si­bil­ity is too nar­row, we turn to “real” pos­si­bil­i­ties to describe pos­si­ble worlds in which the basic prop­er­ties of the actual world obtain and in which his­tory has gone iden­ti­cally to the actual world up to a given point.

Reflect­ing on the nature of such “real pos­si­bil­i­ties” should make it obvi­ous that there are real alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties. That is to say that for a typ­i­cal given moment in time, there is more than one pos­si­ble world which shares a his­tory with the actual world up to that moment.

An Interesting Subset of Metaphysical Possibilities

I pre­vi­ously out­lined three modes of pos­si­bil­ity: log­i­cal, meta­phys­i­cal, and actual. Log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic, meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic and the laws of meta­physics, and actual pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic, the laws of meta­physics, and actu­al­ity. I would like to describe a par­tic­u­larly inter­est­ing sub­set of meta­phys­i­cal possibilities.

Mere meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity is often too broad in scope to be rel­e­vant to a given project. Con­sider a group of peo­ple dis­cussing who could have won the ’07 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. A gad­fly among them pro­poses that Mr. T. could have won, and goes on at length about how such a sce­nario could have obtained.

While our gad­fly may have some inter­est­ing things to say, his atti­tude is annoy­ing because he is bring­ing up a pos­si­bil­ity which is not rel­e­vant to the project at hand.

But the next rung down the modal lad­der is “actual”, and in many cases when meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity is too broad to be rel­e­vant, actual pos­si­bil­ity is too nar­row. Per­haps among the group of peo­ple dis­cussing who could have won the elec­tion another gad­fly jumps in and argues that only Obama could have won, because there are no actual alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties. Though quite cor­rect, he is equally annoy­ing, for the same rea­son that our first gad­fly was annoy­ing: his point is not rel­e­vant to the project at hand.

What our friends are really inter­ested in is a sub­set of the meta­phys­i­cally pos­si­ble worlds in which things like the phys­i­cal con­stants, quan­ti­ties, and laws of the actual uni­verse obtain, and which share the same his­tory as the actual uni­verse up to some point prior to the elec­tion. They want to know whether in any of these such pos­si­ble worlds, any­one other than Obama wins the elec­tion, and if so, what else is dif­fer­ent about such worlds that brought about the difference.

Let’s call these “real” possibilities.

Lack of Actual Possibilities: The Upshot

Or “How the Exis­tence of Real Alter­nate Pos­si­bil­i­ties The­o­ret­i­cally Grounds Free Will”.

I recently dis­cussed the non-​​existence of actual alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties, where “actual” describes that which obtains in the actual world. My view is sim­ply that the actual world is sin­gu­lar, and propo­si­tions con­cern­ing it are either true or false.

This view, that propo­si­tions con­cern­ing the actual world each have a truth value, has the amaz­ing impli­ca­tion that the future can be known. This is because, included among all propo­si­tions con­cern­ing the actual world are propo­si­tions con­cern­ing that part of the actual world which has not yet come to pass. And so, that propo­si­tions con­cern­ing our future each have a truth value mean that they too can be known.

There may be dif­fi­cul­ties in procur­ing knowl­edge of the future of course, and so posit­ing pre­science may require one to also posit some prac­ti­cal mech­a­nism for obtain­ing it. But the impor­tant point here is that one may know things con­cern­ing the future, because the future has no actual alternatives.

A Quirk of Non-​​Actual Possibilities

Or “On the Non-​​Actualizability of Non-​​Actual Meta­phys­i­cal Possibilities”.

On my view there are three major cat­e­gories of pos­si­bil­ity: log­i­cal, meta­phys­i­cal, and actual. Log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic, meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic and the laws of meta­physics, and actual pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic, the laws of meta­physics, and actuality.

As a con­se­quence of my def­i­n­i­tions, actual alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties do not exist. This is true sim­ply because “actual” describes every­thing true of the actual world, and noth­ing more. If some­thing is pos­si­ble, but not “actual”, then it is not “actu­ally” pos­si­ble*, by def­i­n­i­tion. This is admit­tedly an unin­tu­itive, spe­cific, or tech­ni­cal use of the term “actual”, but it is how I’ve defined it here to facil­i­tate more pre­cise discussion.

Another con­se­quence of my set of def­i­n­i­tions is that non-​​actual meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties can­not be actu­al­ized, sim­ply because they are not actual. Or more clearly:

Non-​​actualized pos­si­bil­i­ties are con­se­quently not actual.

So we live in one world: the actual one.


*One might ask how some­thing can be actu­ally “pos­si­ble”, with­out being “actu­ally pos­si­ble”. But keep in mind that on my view there are mul­ti­ple types of pos­si­bil­ity, of which “actual” is only one. In this way I am using “actual” to refer to propo­si­tions that con­cern the actual world, rather than as a syn­onym for “gen­uine”. In this way there can actu­ally be “log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties”, there can actu­ally be “meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties”, and there can actu­ally be “actual pos­si­bil­i­ties”. So if some­thing is actu­ally “pos­si­ble”, but not “actu­ally pos­si­ble”, it must be either actu­ally “meta­phys­i­cally pos­si­ble” or actu­ally “log­i­cally pos­si­ble”. But some­thing can­not be “actu­ally pos­si­ble” and there­fore actual, and non-​​actual at the same time, for such would be a contradiction.

Actual Alternate Possibilities… don’t exist.

Or “On the Non-​​Existence of Actual Alter­nate Possibilities”.

On my view there are three major cat­e­gories of pos­si­bil­ity: log­i­cal, meta­phys­i­cal, and actual. Log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic, meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic and [the laws of meta­physics, of which the best way we have come up with to dis­cern is through con­ceiv­abil­ity exper­i­ments], and actual pos­si­bil­i­ties are those per­mit­ted by logic, [the laws of meta­physics], and actuality.

There are alter­nate log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties all over the place. For exam­ple, there is no log­i­cal rea­son why there couldn’t be an object which is opaquely red all over and opaquely green all over in the same way at the same time. While such an object is incon­ceiv­able and so it is not meta­phys­i­cally pos­si­ble, there is noth­ing log­i­cally con­tra­dic­tory about it and so it is log­i­cally pos­si­ble. But in addi­tion to log­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties that are not meta­phys­i­cally pos­si­ble, all meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties are also log­i­cal possibilities.

There are also man­i­fold alter­nate meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties. For exam­ple, there is no meta­phys­i­cal rea­son why there couldn’t have been a larger or smaller quan­tity of mat­ter in the uni­verse. While the actual uni­verse has exactly as much mat­ter in it as it does and so there is no actual pos­si­bil­ity that the uni­verse has a larger or smaller quan­tity of mat­ter, there is noth­ing incon­ceiv­able about it and so it is meta­phys­i­cally pos­si­ble. But in addi­tion to meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties that are not actu­ally pos­si­ble, all actual pos­si­bil­i­ties are also meta­phys­i­cal possibilities.

How­ever, there are not any alter­nate actual pos­si­bil­i­ties. This is not to deny that there are any actual pos­si­bil­i­ties, but only that there are any alter­nate actual pos­si­bil­i­ties. This can best be under­stood by exam­in­ing actual pos­si­bil­i­ties in three phases.

Firstly, there are actual pos­si­bil­i­ties con­cern­ing the past. Obvi­ously it was actu­ally pos­si­ble for Barack Obama to get elected, because he did. But because he got elected, there is no longer any chance that in the actual world, Obama does not get elected. And this is true for all propo­si­tions con­cern­ing the past: there are no alter­nate actual possibilities.

Sec­ondly, there are actual pos­si­bil­i­ties con­cern­ing the present. Obvi­ously it is actu­ally pos­si­ble for it to be gloomy in Coeur d’Alene, because it is. But because it is cur­rently gloomy, there is no chance it can actu­ally be sunny. There­fore, there are not any actual alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties con­cern­ing the present.

Finally, there are actual pos­si­bil­i­ties con­cern­ing the future. Obvi­ously what ever ends up hap­pen­ing in the future, such will have been actu­ally pos­si­ble. But because the future will unfold one way as a mat­ter of fact and not another, there are not any actual alter­nate pos­si­bil­i­ties. Another way of putting this is that future con­tin­gents, those propo­si­tions con­cern­ing the future which are not true out of meta­phys­i­cally neces­sity, each have a truth value. It is cur­rently either true or false that Jesus will actu­ally return at some­time in the future. And the fact that such is cur­rently either true or false means that whichever one is the case is true of the actual world. And if it is true of the actual world, then no actual alter­nate pos­si­bil­ity exists. The fact that it is con­ceiv­able that Jesus not return makes such sce­nario a meta­phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­ity, but not [nec­es­sar­ily] an actual one.