Why Anything at All? - J.L. Schellenberg | Closer to Truth

Why Anything at All? - J.L. Schellenberg

J.L. Schellenberg - Philosophy of Religion

J.L. Schellenberg

J.L. Schellenberg is a Canadian philosopher known both for his atheism and for his defense of a broader skepticism compatible with atheism -- a form of skepticism which, as it happens, opens a path to a new evolutionary brand of religion.

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J.L.
Schellenberg

Philosopher of Religion, Mount Saint Vincent Univ.

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Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

John, the big existence question – why is there anything at all – has been the question that has most troubled me throughout my life. And I actually get depressed, deflated when I see philosophers dismissing that question as utterly meaningless and just kind of tossing it aside. I feel like a piece of garbage being throw in the road because this is my passion, and I'm told that it doesn't mean anything.

J.L. Schellenberg:

I think the question why there is anything at all can be a significant question, depending on how broadly it's construed. I mean if you take the truth of two plus two equaling four to be something, then I'm going to say it's not a very significant question because two plus two can't help but be four, all right. So, it's always going to be the case. It's necessarily the case that two plus two is four. So, if that's something, well then you know there is no real question why there is something rather than nothing because that's got to be the case. Right? But presumably the question that you are concerned with is why are there any concrete realities? Not just the abstract realities of mathematics or logic but why is there a world? Why are there existent things at all, instead of nothing?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Or physical laws which are...

J.L. Schellenberg:

Yeah. Laws of nature which structure those physical things right. Ok. So, if you take it that way I think the question is significant. Just for example, if you can imagine a possible world, we can show that it's significant by showing that certain possibilities obtained. There is a possible world in which there are exactly five concrete things, ok, five concrete entities. Perhaps there are laws governing their interaction, perhaps not. But we can, in imagination, we can just subtract one after another until we get zero. So now there's nothing, all right? So, it's quite conceivable that there should be nothing. There is a possible world in which there is nothing concrete. Okay? So that's why I think it's a significant question. All right. So how to handle it? Well, at this point, we need to notice a level of distinction. Are we going to say about these things that exist, the things that are troubling you, you know that you worry about, you know, why do they exist? Are we going to say that they're all contingent things or are we going to allow that some of them are necessary? Now, by contingent I mean things that might not have existed. Ok? Things that get into existence, as it were, by the skin of their metaphysical teeth, you know? They got in, they exist. You know, like you and me, we exist right? All the things around us exist, but they might not have existed. All right? We can conceive, again, of worlds in which they don't exist. So are we going to say that that's true about all concrete things?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

That everything is contingent.

J.L. Schellenberg:

That they are contingent? A lot depends on this. So, maybe I should ask you. Are you inclined to say that everything that exists is contingent?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yes, yes.

J.L. Schellenberg:

Ok, well I think...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

I can't think of anything concrete that is necessarily the case, existing no matter what, like two plus two equals four. I cannot.

J.L. Schellenberg:

Now of course some philosophers disagree with you. They think for example that if there were a god of a certain kind this god would exist necessarily. It wouldn't be like this chair or like your body and mine that – that might not exist.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And some atheistic philosophers would say, just as you say or somebody says, that god exists necessarily, the universe as it is could exist necessarily.

J.L. Schellenberg:

Either way, if you said either of those things you would have an answer to the question. That's my point.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yes. Yes. But that's not a real answer. That's just, that's just putting the word necessary on things that are not clear to me that are necessary.

J.L. Schellenberg:

Well it's an answer for somebody who believes that they are necessary. You just don't. Right?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Yeah, but I don't see any demonstration of that, as opposed to the two plus two equals four. There are some people who say that's a fiction. But I can see that that's necessary. But I can't see that with physical world.

J.L. Schellenberg:

But if you did see that, if you thought that there was a god who existed necessarily, then you would think you had an answer to your question.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Sure, by definition.

J.L. Schellenberg:

All right. Well, I'm inclined to be sympathetic to your view that – that there is nothing that exists, no concrete thing that exists necessarily. So suppose we go with that? Suppose we say that every concrete thing, all concrete things, including the collection of concrete things exists contingently. It might not have existed. Then I say

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

When we say concrete thing, we could even mean spiritual concrete things, like God. That's a concrete thing.

J.L. Schellenberg:

Yes. That's still a concrete thing. Definitely. If that's how we understand the matter, then I would say that, although the question is significant, it cannot be answered. So you're going to, you're going to continue.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

You made me happy by saying it...

J.L. Schellenberg:

You're not thrown out on the side of the road, but you're going to continue to worry about this, or be troubled by it, because it cannot be answered. Why is that? Because if everything is contingent, every concrete thing, and the collection of concrete things, if this is all contingent, then no matter what answer I give to the question, why is there something, why is there this or that, or the whole collection, it's going to have to be in terms of some other contingent thing. The only explanation that could be given would be in terms of some other contingent thing. So, suppose I give such an explanation. Suppose it's a contingent god. I can always ask, why is there that something, rather than nothing? Because, precisely because it's contingent.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

So – so here's what you're driving me to. You're driving me to my two original thoughts, my assumptions. One of them has to be wrong, because you have shown me that you can't answer the question with them both being right. Number one, that - that there is no contingent...that nothing concrete is necessary.

J.L. Schellenberg:

Necessary. Right.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

I mean that, that's clear.

J.L. Schellenberg:

That's an assumption you are willing to make.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

That's an assumption I am willing to make. And if I'm doing that, that must...and – and I'm saying that the question is meaningful. I want to hold both of those and you're...the question is...

J.L. Schellenberg:

You start by saying that...the question is significant but unanswerable.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

And that's not acceptable, because that to me is a mistake. So, that means one of my two assumptions may be wrong. Maybe the question is meaningless. Or maybe there is a concrete thing that is necessary.

J.L. Schellenberg:

At what level, in what way is it unsatisfying? It might be emotionally unsatisfying, all right? But intellectually it might be all that we can...

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

No. Look, at this stage, I would say that I have to give up one of my two assumptions. Either the question is meaningless. Maybe it's meaningless. That is the worst answer but maybe I have to go with that. I'd rather it be a meaningless question than to, to accept the fact that it's a meaningful question that will never have an answer.

J.L. Schellenberg:

So, here are your options. You can either say that there is something or there might be something necessary after all, in which case you can continue the pursuit of an answer. Or if you say that everything concrete is contingent, you have to say, to my mind, this is my view anyway which I have defended, that there is no way of answering.

Robert Lawrence Kuhn:

Or the question really is meaningless.

J.L. Schellenberg:

Or it's meaningless. That's the third option. Right. There are some philosophers who are defending that, and as open minded thinkers we have to continue to be open to the idea that they're right.