The search for ‘ultimate stuff’ and ‘ultimate reasons’

The approach that most apologists and even philosophers take to the ‘God question’ is to start with a certain concept of God, derived primarily from the developed credal formulations of various religious traditions, and then ask what reasons we might have to think that there exists an entity matching that description.

This approach seems unsatisfactory to me for several reasons, which I am still trying to articulate. One problem is that it seems to encourage a piece-meal approach to the question, which focuses on the search for aspects of the world that resist naturalistic explanation. On this view, the world is mostly black-and-white with splashes of color here and there, and God is introduced as the only possible source of those splashes of color. But that results in a disjointed, incoherent view of the world and its relation to God.

On the classical theistic view, God is the source of ‘everything’ else that is, so a more satisfactory approach would takes its cues from the ancient Greek search for the ‘ultimate stuff’ out of which everything is made, and the ‘ultimate reasons’ for which things happen and exist. This search may well terminate in the need for positing an ultimate explanatory entity that is, just because of its ultimacy, very different from the material things it is supposed to explain. Upon further reflection, this ultimate entity may turn out to have the attributes we ascribe to God, but that result would come near the end, and not the beginning, of the project of natural theology.

Although it focuses on a different question, a recent article by David Rousseau and Julie Billingham has some helpful comments in this direction. It is suggestively titled as a question: Is there “Ultimate Stuff” and are there “Ultimate Reasons”? This question helped give focus to my comments above, and in the rest of this post I want to highlight some further potentially fruitful suggestions Rousseau and Billingham make, and push back on some suggestions that seem to take a wrong turn.

They start by noting that the search for ultimate reasons implies the Principle of Sufficient Reason, the idea that “there is (at least in principle) a complete explanation for the existence of every thing, and likewise for the occurrence of events, the progression of processes, and the truth of true propositions.” (p. 1) If PSR is true, the world would be fully comprehensible, i.e. there would be no ‘brute facts’, which are aspects of how the world is, or works, which are in principle incomprehensible (ibid). PSR implies that “explanatory arguments must form logically coherent chains, so cannot embed any brute facts along the way. Moreover, as we work out explanations, arguing from present phenomena back to original conditions, the explanatory chains must terminate (otherwise we get an infinite regress) and must do so on self-evidently or logically necessary facts (so there can be no brute facts amongst the fundamental ones).” (pp. 3-4)

They suggest that if we want to give up PSR we have to adopt either mysterianism, which admits the existence of brute facts, or theism, in which the powers of God are invoked in explanations. They cast themselves as rationalists committed to PSR who want to avoid both of those alternatives. I think this is unsatisfactory, however. As we will see from their own arguments, theism is the best grounding for PSR and the only way to avoid mysterianism.

What reason do we have to embrace PSR? The authors note that while PSR has been challenged by some philosophers, most notably Peter van Inwagen, for the most part scientists still support the rationalist perspective. They find some empirical support for PSR from the perspective of systems philosophy, which sees the world as a hierarchy of systems, in which “the things in any level of the hierarchy are comprised of or arise from the things at lower levels.” (p. 4) As we move down the hierarchy from organisms to cells, and then to molecules, atoms and subatomic particles, we seem to be converging on a most fundamental level, which if it is to satisfy the requirements of the PSR must contain something that is not composite or derivative in any way. To put it bluntly: “the nature of the ‘ultimate’ stuff must provide what is necessary to make everything else, i.e. its properties must be sufficient to enable logical explanations of any higher level thing or phenomenon.” (p. 5)

Much of the rest of the paper consists of a fascinating proposal for postulating a kind of stuff called ‘energeum’ that is on average ‘nothing in particular’, but that is energetic and takes on the features of the kinds of stuff in our current scientific inventory as a temporary ‘crystallization’ of its constantly oscillating states. This stuff could even serve as a substrate for the emergence of mental properties (so this is a kind of ‘neutral monist’ view). The authors acknowledge, however, that even if this stuff may bring us closer to ultimately satisfying PSR, “we have created a dilemma of our own, since we have postulated a new kind of ‘nothing’, and now that we know about it its origin stands in need of an explanation.” (p. 8)

I think this is a real difficulty and it stems from the authors’ commitment to postulating only “things that can change but only in balancing ways,” i.e. concrete things that satisfy the principle of energy conservation. They insist that “Unchanging things and things that change in inexplicable ways cannot be part of a comprehensible world, but only part of a world that contains mysteries or supernatural elements.” (p. 6) But it seems that the failure even of their rarefied ‘energeum’ to qualify as a truly ultimate principle suggests that the latter must be something ‘super’-natural. Norman Kretzmann suggests that the ultimate explanation of the world (which he calls ‘Alpha’) cannot be something like mass-energy, because “whatever else might have to be true of that sort of inherent explanatory entity, it would clearly have to be mutable, spatio-temporal, imbued with passive potentiality, and subject to accidental characteristics-in short, not in itself ultimately explanatory, and thus not Alpha.” (The Metaphysics of Theism, p. 130)

In summary, I think the authors are on the right track to adhere to PSR and insist that explanatory chains terminate in a necessary being. However, their search for the ultimate stuff leads (ultimately, heh) to a dead end because they insist on that ultimate stuff being natural, in the sense of being subject to energy conservation, when such stuff cannot even in principle be ultimate in the required sense. Classical theism posits a simple, unchanging, transcendent ultimate Being that can terminate explanatory chains in a satisfying way. This is not mysterianism, but it does introduce an element of mystery. It is a mystery, however, that makes everything else explicable.