Explaining contingent facts


I argue against a principle that is widely taken to govern metaphysical explanation. This is the principle that no necessary facts can, on their own, explain a contingent fact. I then show how this result makes available a response to a longstanding objection to the Principle of Sufficient Reason—the objection that the Principle of Sufficient Reason entails that the world could not have been otherwise (i.e. that all facts are necessary).

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  1. 1.

    See for instance, van Inwagen (2009, pp. 149–150). As van Inwagen states, “… a careful examination of the Principle shows that it has a consequence most people would have a very hard time accepting: that all true propositions are necessarily true.” (p. 150). Philosophers who are willing to accept this formidable consequence include Della Rocca (2010).

  2. 2.

    I make a case for this historical claim in Amijee (forthcoming). My argument against Target Claim does not rely on the thesis that the notion of sufficient reason at play in versions of the PSR subscribed to by Spinoza and Leibniz is metaphysical explanation. Someone inclined to reject this thesis can still grant my argument against Target Claim along with the conclusion that the PSR—taken as the claim that everything has a metaphysical explanation—does not entail that the world could not have been otherwise.

  3. 3.

    Compare Strawson: “We sometimes presume, or are said to presume, that causality is a natural relation which holds in the natural world between particular events or circumstances, just as the relation of temporal succession does or that of spatial proximity. We also, and rightly, associate causality with explanation. But if causality is a relation which holds in the natural world, explanation is a different matter. People explain things to themselves or others and their doing so is something that happens in nature. But we also speak of one thing explaining, or being the explanation of, another thing, as if explaining was a relation between the things. And so it is. But it is not a natural relation in the sense in which we perhaps think of causality as a natural relation. It is an intellectual or rational or intensional relation.” (Strawson 1992, p. 109) A similar attitude seems to be warranted in the case of metaphysical explanation: we may speak as though metaphysical explanation is a relation between facts (understood to be worldly entities), but it is not a “natural” relation, in Strawson’s sense.

  4. 4.

    Cf. Schaffer (2012a, 2016) and Audi (2012).

  5. 5.

    Cf. Fine (2001), Litland (2013), and Dasgupta (2014b). Wilson (2016) argues that proponents of such views are guilty of conflating metaphysical explanation—a partly epistemic notion—with metaphysical dependence.

  6. 6.

    Cf. Wilson (2014) and Koslicki (2015). Wilson argues against both the posited formal features of Grounding and the explanatory utility of positing a single relation that backs metaphysical explanation.

  7. 7.

    Cf. Audi (2012), and Correia and Schnieder (2012).

  8. 8.

    Schaffer (2016) argues for a close analogy between Grounding and causation, Wilson (2018) treats Grounding as a type of causation, and Bennett (2017) holds that both causation and Grounding are types of ‘building relations’.

  9. 9.

    There are at least two distinct ways of generating a tenseless fact from a tensed fact: date analysis and token-reflexive analysis. On the date analysis strategy, the tense of the verb directly refers to a particular time. On the token-reflexive analysis strategy, the tense picks out a hidden description of a particular time (e.g. ‘the time of this utterance’). See Zimmerman (2005) for further discussion of these de-tensing strategies.

  10. 10.

    Some versions of the B-theory, such as ‘presentist’ and ‘growing-block’ versions, eschew eternal B-facts. On a presentist view, facts come and go out of existence, whereas on a growing-block view facts come into existence, but do not go out of existence. By contrast, a ‘permanentist’ B-theory is committed to eternal B-facts. (I borrow this terminology from Cameron (2016).) There are likewise views on which there are no temporary A-facts (see, for instance, Sullivan (2012)).

  11. 11.

    See also Miller and Cusbert (2017). See Fine (2005a) for an argument for why the disagreement over aspectual facts (of which tensed facts are a subset) is best characterized in terms of whether such facts are part of ‘reality’ or not—where what is ‘real’ in the Finean sense closely maps onto what is fundamental (i.e. everything that is fundamental is part of reality)—and not in terms of whether there exist any aspectual facts.

  12. 12.

    See, for example, Markosian (2014) for a canonical statement of the B-theory of time. As Markosian puts it, “[a]ccording to the B Theory, there are no genuine, unanalyzable A properties, and all talk that appears to be about A properties is really reducible to talk about B relations. For example, when we say that the year 1900 has the property of being past, all we really mean is that 1900 is earlier than the time at which we are speaking.” Markosian’s characterization is put in terms of properties and relations, but it is straightforwardly translated into talk of facts that have properties and relations as constituents.

  13. 13.

    I take it to be uncontroversial that reduction is explanatory. Moreover, the identity view of reduction (the view on which one fact reduces to another just in case the first fact is identical to the second) does not preclude an explanatory relation from holding between the relevant facts. For example, one might hold that the mental facts reduce to (and are thereby explained by) the physical facts in virtue of the fact that they are identical to the physical facts. Even the identity view of reduction thus involves a priority ordering between the relevant facts (it is mental facts that reduce to physical facts, and not the other way around), indicating that the relationship that obtains between the relevant facts is an explanatory one.

  14. 14.

    Cf. Dasgupta (2014a).

  15. 15.

    We can alternatively formulate Target Claim without explicit reference to facts: If its being the case that φ explains its being the case that ψ, then if it is necessarily the case that φ, then it is necessarily the case that ψ.

  16. 16.

    See Fine (2012), for example, for the suggestion that metaphysical explanation as akin to logical consequence. Fine does not provide an explicit argument to support this analogy.

  17. 17.

    Chalmers (2003, p. 114). See also Schaffer (2017) for the view that the in-principle inability to infer the explanandum from the explanans need not be problematic.

  18. 18.

    Fine (2005b, p. 324) draws a distinction between necessary truths that are true “regardless of the circumstances”, and those that are true “whatever the circumstances” and calls the first class of truths “transcendental”. It is the first sense in which world-indexed facts are necessary. Some may find this sense of necessity trivial (if not transcendental). But insofar as proponents of Target Claim do not restrict these principles to just the second sense of necessity, I put the distinction aside.

  19. 19.

    While the counterexamples I discuss here are counterexamples to a formal feature generally taken to govern either metaphysical dependence or Grounding, my point concerning arguments-by-counterexample holds mutatis mutandis for metaphysical explanation.

  20. 20.

    For a related discussion of the ‘method-by-counterexample’ (the method of evaluating philosophical claims by testing those claims against possible scenarios) for the case of causation, see Paul and Hall (2013).

  21. 21.

    Recent examples include Rini and Cresswell (2012) and Schaffer (2012b). Schaffer exploits the parallel between modality and time to show that the considerations that favor eternalism also favor necessitarianism.

  22. 22.

    I call this view ‘Lewisian’ without attributing it to Lewis (1986). It is Lewisian because it takes ways the world could be to be explanatorily prior to the way the world is.

  23. 23.

    See Bricker (2006) for a recent defense of a version of Leibnizian Realism.

  24. 24.

    It is unclear whether Leibniz himself was committed to its being necessary that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that it is in God’s nature to actualize the best of all possible worlds. See Adams (1977) for a nuanced discussion of the evolution of Leibniz’s views on the topic.

  25. 25.

    Leibniz’s actual view may have committed him to the necessity of all facts (even those of the form [φ]). But this commitment is certainly not compulsory on a Leibnizian view of the kind I have presented here. Adams (1974, p. 221) attributes a version of what I have here called the ‘simple view of actuality’ to Descartes. Descartes, according to Adams, treats actuality as a simple, unanalyzable property had by the actual world that distinguishes it from other possible worlds.

  26. 26.

    Rosen (2010, p. 131) calls a constraint in this neighborhood ‘formality’. According to formality, whenever a fact a grounds a fact b, there exist propositional forms ϕ and ψ, such that a is of the form ϕ and b is of the form ψ, and for all propositions p, q: if p is of the form ϕ and q is of the form ψ and q is true, then [q] explains [p].

  27. 27.

    For example, one could say that what it is for [p at w] to obtain is simply for w to be a world-proposition that entails p. However, such an analysis jettisons the claim that [p at w] obtains in virtue of [p].

  28. 28.

    Compare Bennett (1984, p. 115), van Inwagen (2002, pp. 104–107), and Della Rocca (2010, fn. 13, p. 9) for versions of this argument. See Koons (1997) for a formulation of the argument in terms of a mereological aggregate, instead of a conjunction.

  29. 29.

    Schnieder and Steinberg (2016) presuppose, however, that the notion of sufficient reason relevant to the PSR concerns Ground.

  30. 30.

    See, for example, Fine (2012, p. 1) and Rosen (2010, p. 118) for discussions of the motivations behind a commitment to Necessitation.

  31. 31.

    See, for example, Spinoza (1994), Ethics 1a3: “From a given determinate cause the effect follows necessarily; and conversely, it there is no determinate cause, it is impossible for an effect to follow.” Since a ‘cause’ for Spinoza is a sufficient reason, Spinoza is committed to Necessitation. See also Ethics 1p22. The principle is also implicit in 1p29d and 1p33d. See Adams (1994), pp. 16–18 for a discussion of Leibniz’s commitment to Necessitation.

  32. 32.

    See Leuenberger (2014) and Skiles (2015) for arguments against Necessitation. However, their arguments do not undermine Target Claim, whereas both my argument against Eternality and my argument for Target Claim lead to a rejection of Necessitation.

  33. 33.

    For a defense of this principle see Dorr and Goodman (2019).


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For detailed comments or discussion, thanks to Michael Della Rocca, Dominic Alford-Duguid, Jessica Wilson, Mark Sainsbury, Josh Dever, Jon Litland, Gideon Rosen, Jack Spencer, Martin Glazier, Kelly Trogdon, Sinan Dogramaci, Rob Koons, Tom Donaldson, Jennifer Wang, and audiences at Bilkent University, the University of Manitoba, Arizona State University, the National University of Singapore, Simon Fraser University, University College London, the University of Southampton, and the 2017 Pacific Meeting of the American Philosophical Association.

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Amijee, F. Explaining contingent facts. Philos Stud (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11098-020-01487-y

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  • Principle of Sufficient Reason
  • Explanation
  • Modality
  • Tense
  • Necessitarianism
  • Grounding