Today I return to the wonderfully-dressed, beautifully-mustached Steven Nemes and his recent musings on existential inertia. In particular, I propose to fact check Steven’s video.
Claim: Nemes says existential inertia is contrary to passages in the Bible.
Explanation: Existential inertia is the thesis that temporal concrete objects, or some subset thereof, persist in existence in the absence of (efficient causal) sustenance or conservation from without. Views of God on which God is temporal (e.g. panentheism, neo-classical theism) are therefore specimens of existential inertia, since they posit some subset of temporal concrete objects (viz. God alone) that persist without conservation or sustenance. These views, moroever, are perfectly compatible with God providentially sustaining or conserving every other concrete thing in existence. I have explained this numerous times elsewhere.
Claim: Nemes says that if we can show that the existence of a cat, at any moment at which it exists, implies the existence of something else in virtue of which it exists, then it does not exist inertially.
Rating: Potentially misleading
Explanation: An object’s inertial persistence is perfectly compatible with the inertial object’s existence being explained from without; it’s only incompatible with the inertial object’s being explained from without in terms of an efficient sustaining or conserving cause. So, for instance, there may be transtemporal causal relations that obtain between the successive states of an object’s life. In this case, for any state and time in the life of an object, its obtaining requires an explanation from without; it’s just that the explanation is not in terms of an efficient, sustaining cause.
The inertialist, as Beaudoin says, is not committed to the absence of explanations of persistence. (Note, of course, that I’m not presently attributing the denial of the aforementioned claim to Nemes.) Beaudoin writes:
It is not part of DEI [the Doctrine of Existential Inertia] to suggest that the continuance of things is a brute fact. It is explained by reference to the facts (i) that the only power capable of annihilating the world’s fundamental material has so far gone unexercised, and (ii) that this material has no inherent tendency to just spontaneously disappear… Here again the analogy with mechanical inertia is illustrative: the continued uniform motion of a body through space is not to the physicist a mere surd. It is the outcome of the absence of any unbalanced force applied to the object, combined with its natural tendency to keep moving unless such a force is encountered. Of course, one may ask why the motion or existence of any object is characterized by inertia, and the inertialist in either context may or may not be able to provide an answer to that deeper question, as (for example) Mach searched after a deeper explanation for mechanical inertia. But even if the existential inertialist cannot identify any deeper metaphysical basis for this form of inertia, this in no way invalidates DEI as an explanation of the world’s continuance; it is not a condition on legitimate explanation that a deeper explanation for every statement in the explanans always be ready to hand, or even that it exist at all. The inertialist may well run into a brute fact somewhere in his accounting for the world’s continuance, but it is far from clear that the proponent of DDC [the Doctrine of Divine Conservation] will fare better in this regard.Beaudoin (2007, pp. 88-89)
What else (apart from (i) transtemporal explanatory or causal relations and (ii) Beaudoin’s explanation) might explain inertial persistence?
One account takes its cue from one of Feser’s foremost ways of reconciling mechanical inertia with an Aristotelian-Thomist principle of motion. The principle states that whatever changes (i.e. transitions from potency to act) is changed (actualized) by another. Feser’s foremost reconciliation treats uniform spatial motion as stasis or unchangingness rather than involving change as the transition from potency to act. Feser writes:
[P]recisely because the principle of inertia treats uniform local motion as a “state,” it treats it thereby as the absence of change. … In this case, the question of how the principle of motion and the principle of inertia relate to one another does not even arise, for there just is no motion (in the relevant, Aristotelian sense) going on in the first place when all an object is doing is ‘moving’ inertially in the Newtonian sense. To be sure, acceleration would in this case involve motion in the Aristotelian sense, but as we have seen, since Newtonian physics itself requires a cause for accelerated motion, there is not even a prima facie conflict with the Aristotelian principle of motion.Feser (2013, pp. 239, 250-251)
As Feser points out, it seems entirely justifiable to understand uniform spatial motion as a state of stasis or unchangingness. But given this, it seems we can equally justifiably understand persistence in existence as an absence of change. In fact, this seems to be the ordinary, commonsense understanding of persistence. Remaining or continuing in existence is commonly thought not to involve change but rather the maintenance of a state of actuality. We tend to think only that deviations from something’s state of non-existence or existence count as changes (i.e. either coming into or passing out of being).
We therefore have materials for a second account of existential inertia. The account employs a kind of Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) according to which dynamic changes of state require explanation in terms of some extrinsic cause or actualization of such a change, whereas maintenance or non-disruption of a state does not require an explanation in terms of some extrinsic cause which keeps the state non-disrupted or maintained. Instead, the maintenance or non-disruption of a state is explained in terms of the very nature of states (stable, unchanging actual conditions which are retained unless positively disrupted) in conjunction with there being no such disrupting factors operative. It is worth emphasizing that this view decidedly rejects there being any brute facts concerning the moment-by-moment existence of things. There is an explanation of persistence; it is in terms of (i) an understanding of existential persistence as a state of actuality as opposed to a dynamic transition from non-being to being at any given moment, (ii) the very nature of states as a kind of stasis or unchangingness (a lá Feser’s account of spatial motion), and (iii) there being (or having been) no causal factors that induce deviations from the state in question (viz. persistent existence).
Thus, for this account: persistent existence is a state of unchangingness or stasis. By their very nature, states of unchangingness deviate from their actual condition only if there is some positive disruption of their condition.
Another account explains existential inertia’s obtaining in terms of the metaphysical necessity of existential inertia’s obtaining. (The explanatory schema is one according to which ‘p’ is explained by ‘◻p’.) Concrete objects continue in existence (once in existence) in the absence of a sustaining cause in virtue of this being metaphysically necessary.
And x’s being metaphysically necessary surely provides (or can provide) an explanation of why x obtains. Why do one and one make two? Because this is metaphysically necessary. Why does God exist? Because he is metaphysically necessary. And so on. (At least, these are explanations that many philosophers are wont to provide with respect to these questions. I’ll say more about explaining necessity later.)
To be sure, I’m not claiming that metaphysical necessity categorically precludes any further explanation. Rather, I’m simply noting that metaphysical necessity is itself a kind of explanation of something’s obtaining (or, at least, it can be). Persistence, then, is not left unexplained. Of course, there is the further question as to why it is metaphysically necessary. But this is a separate question from explaining persistence as such.
Yet another account — possibly my favorite — runs as follows. There exist one or more concrete objects (call them ‘N’ for simplicity) such that (i) N necessarily exists, (ii) N is temporal, (iii) N is fundamental (i.e. N’s existence is not caused by or grounded in any more fundamental object), and (iv) N’s existence and/or activity directly or indirectly explains (whether by causation, grounding, or constitution) the existence of every non-N temporal concrete object at any moment at which it exists.
This is a form of existential inertia because N is one or more temporal concrete objects that persist in existence in the absence of concurrent conservation. The account leaves open the explanatory relation that obtains between N and non-N objects. It allows the relation to be one of efficient causal sustenance, or of grounding, or of constitution, or whatever.
Moreover, recall the fundamental question in the debate concerning divine conservation: what explains (temporal) objects’ persistence? This account (by my lights) provides a satisfying explanation: any non-N temporal object, at any moment at which it exists, is either caused by, grounded in, or constituted by some fundamental thing. Persistence of non-N objects, then, is explained in terms of some kind of conservation or sustenance from without. All that’s left to explain, then, is the persistence of N. And surely there’s an explanation of that at hand. Why does N persist in existence? Because (i) N is temporal (and so liable to persist), and (ii) N is necessarily existent — it cannot fail to exist and, a fortiori, cannot cease to exist.
Of course, there’s the further question of what explains N’s necessity; but notice that we are now no longer concerned with explaining persistence per se but instead some feature of N. And even if we cannot answer this further question, it doesn’t mitigate the explanatory efficacy of N’s necessity with respect to N’s persistence. The explanation is straightforward and illuminating, even if we don’t have further illumination concerning N’s necessary status. And, moreover, there are a number of proposals for explaining N’s necessity. A theistic solution might explain N’s necessity in terms of perfection (Byerly 2019); a non-theistic solution might explain it in terms of (i) an Aristotelian account of modality and (ii) the non-existence of causal powers capable of destroying N (Lo 2020); or (if self-explanation is coherent) the necessity might explain itself; and so on.
Anyway, I’ve heard it far too often that existential inertia treats persistence as unexplained. Hopefully this myth is put to rest. (Note that I do not claim Steven perpetuates this myth.)
Claim: Steven claims that for every property of the mug (or any other this-such), there are some circumstances or conditions of experience in which that property could show itself to me in experience.
Rating: Probably false
Explanation: The truth of the claim may depend, in part, on what theory of properties we take. On a non-sparse view of properties, things will have a whole host of properties that we likely can’t know about it from its presentation in experience (e.g. the property of being such that the number of objects in existence is n, for some n). And even on sparse views of properties, it’s plausible that there are whole hosts of properties to which we lack — in principle — experiential access.
In fact, I have to confess that this seems obviously true. For instance, consider the properties of a tree specifying its ultimate, quantum mechanical components. We know that these cannot be disclosed in ordinary experience. And even with technical assistance, I see no reason to think we should be able to experience every quantum property (especially given the bizarreness of the quantum world). Or consider phenomenally conscious properties. Leo Messi presumably has phenomenal, qualitative, conscious properties. Leo is a this-such. But there are no possible circumstances in which I — Joe — could have experiential access to Leo’s phenomenal, qualitative, conscious properties. This is because such properties, by their very nature, are such that Leo and Leo alone has privileged access to them. I confess, then, that Nemes’ claim seems not only implausible to my mind, but clearly false. Nemes’ argument against existential inertia, then, rests on a (probably) false claim.
Claim: Nemes claims that there is nevertheless something about the mug — beyond its properties, beyond its such-ness — which does not disclose or show itself in consciousness no matter the circumstances, viz. whether the mug actually exists.
Explanation: There are three principal reasons why this claim is deeply implausible. (Actually, there are many more, but three suffices for now.)
(1) Existence or actuality does disclose itself in experience.
Experiencing x presupposes x exists, for if x is nothing, then x clearly couldn’t be experienced. If x is precisely nothing, then x cannot be anything (like be red), and hence x cannot be experienced. If I told you I experienced Zeus, you would say this claim is false, since Zeus doesn’t exist to be experienced in the first place. You would probably correct me and say that I experienced a mental image or dream or hallucination (or whatever) of Zeus, or that I experienced some existent thing that I mistakenly judged to be Zeus. Thus, any experience of a this-such is surely ipso facto an experience of a this-such existing, or a this-such as existing, or what have you.
And this is plausibly true even if there is no distinctive, ‘pinpoint-able’ quale associated with experiencing the existence of a given this-such. Perhaps experiencing its existence is entailed by experiencing anything relating to the thing in question, since x’s being presented to my mind (plausibly) just is x’s existing being presented to my mind. For instance, whenever redness presents itself to me, plausibly that just is redness’s existing being presented to me.
Nemes also said that the world of experience could be exactly as it is to consciousness even if the things there disclosed had no real existence.
But ‘the things’, here, is ambiguous. When the person in the vat experiences, they aren’t experiencing nothing. Hence, the things disclosed to them do exist; they just don’t exist in an extramental, concrete, Moorean-common-sense way that the vat-person may mistakenly judge them to be. So, they certainly experience the existence of something – mental images, say, or patterns of neural firings, or what have you – even though their judgments about the way such things exist (e.g. as extramental concrete objects) are mistaken. But the existence of whatever-it-is-that-they’re-experiencing – whether it be the actual extramental object, or the mental image, or the neural pattern – is presented to them in each of these experiences.
The ambiguity, then, is in the term ‘things disclosed in experience’. It could refer to ‘whatever-it-is-that-they’re-experiencing’ – in which case, such things’ existence is always presented to the subject (since the mental images, neural patterns, etc. all exist) – or it could refer to ‘the extramental object that does or would have (or cause) that experiential character were it to really, concretely exist in extramental reality’ – in which case, it is simply false that the vat-person or the demon-tricked-person are experiencing the ‘thing’ that Steven claims that they are experiencing. Either way, the argument in question does not succeed. (By my lights, of course.)
(2) The claim presupposes the falsity of externalism with respect to justification and mental content.
Nemes attempts to justify the claim in question by appeal to various skeptical scenarios, arguing that “the world of experience and all the objects that appear within it could remain exactly as they are, as you experience them, and yet they still don’t actually exist independently of your experiencing them.”
But this is simply false if any kind of externalism about (perceptual/experiential) mental content is true. For mental states that are phenomenologically indistinguishable, under externalism, could nevertheless be entirely distinct mental states, individuated by factors external to the conscious subject. (Consider, e.g., Putnam’s twin earth thought experiment and the vast swathes of literature on externalist mental content.) Hence, the world of experience would not, after all, remain exactly the same in the non-veridical vs veridical experiential scenarios: the mental content is actually different, thanks to factors external to the conscious subject.
(3) If successful, the argument proves too much.
The (or at least one) central point of Nemes’ argument is that the existence of a this-such is never disclosed in experience. But this seems, by my lights, to prove far too much. For any experience is such that it could be simulated, in principle, by the evil demon or by the machine to which your vat brain is connected. They could even simulate religious experiences of God. Thus, even a non-this-such, like the classical theistic God, is such that no experience of it could disclose that it mind-independently exists, for any experience of it is compatible with such experience being simulated by the evil demon or brain-in-a-vat machine. Thus, Steven’s argument would entail that actuality or existence is outside of and superadded to God’s being. And this conflicts with his view of God.
Claim: Nemes claims that (his argument shows that) existence is not constitutive of any this-such, and thus that existence (at any given moment) is outside of the this-such and must therefore be gifted to it, bestowed upon it (as it were), from without.
Rating: Probably false
Explanation: By my lights, this seems to be a non-sequitur. Even granting that existence is not constitutive of any this-such, why would that mean that the existence of a this-such must be concurrently efficiently causally sustained from without? Why not conclude, instead, that there must simply be some explanation of the existence of the this-such (at a given time t) that does not adduce that very this-such (at t)? I would venture that this latter claim is all we are entitled to infer. But in that case, existence’s not being constitutive of a this-such is categorically impotent to rule out existential inertia, since (as we’ve seen) existential inertia is perfectly compatible with explanations for persistence.
Moreover, there seem to be counter-examples to this kind of inference. Consider: the particular spatial location of a this-such is not constitutive of it. (After all, for any presentation of a this-such to experience, it could be always be produced by an evil demon and thus not really have any spatial location whatsoever! By Nemes’ argument, this would entail that spatial location is not constitutive of a this-such.) But it doesn’t thereby follow that the spatial location of a this-such requires concurrent causal sustenance to preserve it in that spatial location. In fact, the contrary is true: spatial location behaves inertially.
Phew! That was fun. Thanks to Steven for being an awesome dude and an awesome interlocutor. I will be eternally jealous of his glorious shirts and mustache. I want to end with two small bits of reflection.
The first bit of reflection concerns the style of this post. I actually really like it; it was a new style, one that I’ve never tried before. It’s really straightforward and shows, very clearly, which claim is being addressed and how I respond to it.
Here’s the second bit of reflection:
As always, keep in mind that the dialectical paths I’ve taken in response to Nemes’ argument are not exhaustive or representative of the total possible range of dialectical avenues available to the inertialist. The inertialist could just as well pursue a host of Moorean defeaters for Nemes’ argument. (For a description of Moorean defeaters and links to a number of them, check out 1:23:46 of this video and the links in its description.)
Take care everyone, and don’t be scared by qualia-less zombies…
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