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Why Mommy? Why? or The Existential Horror of Infinite Regress

Mike Moum
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Joined: 5 years ago
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[Image: puzzled-baby.jpg]
Those of us who are, or have been, parents have probably had a conversation similar to this one at some point in our children's development.
"Mommy, why does my room always get messy again after I put everything away?"
"Well, it's because of entropy, also called the Second Law of Thermodynamics."
"What's entropy?"
"It's the measure of disorder in a system."
"What's a system?"
"A system is a portion of reality that's contained within boundaries. Your room is a system, bounded by the walls, floor, and ceiling."
"So why does my room get messy?"
"Because the second law of thermodynamics says that entropy increases with time."
"So why does it seem neater after I put everything away?"
"The entropy of a closed system can be reduced by an agency that is outside the system, provided that the increase in entropy of the outside agent is greater than the entropy decrease in the system."
"Is that why I feel tired after I put my stuff away?"
"Exactly, the increased entropy in your body is a result of the chemical energy in your cells doing work, which is always accompanied by waste heat and disorder in your cells, which you experience as fatigue."
"Mommy, I don't think I understand any of this."
She sighs, "Neither do my students."
And on it goes, ending at some point in a parental "just because" which, while conclusive, is most likely not satisfying.

The dialogue between mother and child is an example of infinite regression, which has been defined as "a proposed chain of causation in which each purported cause itself requires another event of exactly the same type to cause it." (1) In other words, "A" happens because of "B", "B" because "C", "C" because "D", and on and on without end, because the infinite chain of causes never stops with an uncaused cause, or an unexplained explanation.

An example of infinite regression, taken from the same website, concerns how life on earth originated. Some scientists doubt that life could have originated on earth out of non-life, a process called abiogenesis. Francis Crick, who co-discovered DNA, thought that the conditions on earth did not allow for the emergence of life, and therefore decided that life was deposited from outside. So how did life happen? Many proponents of this position, called panspermia, have suggested that comets contain the seeds of life within their tails, and that the earth was seeded by passing through them. Crick and his colleague Leslie H. Orgel entertained the more radical notion that an advanced civilization built and launched missiles laden with bacteria and blue-green algae in all directions from their home planet, and that one of these crashed on earth.

However, there are questions hidden in the explanation. How did life originate on that planet? Is that an explanation taken as a given, or is it an explanation that in itself requires an explanation. If the latter, then that explanation must either be taken as a given or one that requires another explanation, which in turn must be taken as a given or which requires an explanation, and on and on it goes. So with respect to the question of how life originated, unless one accepts one explanation in the chain of explanations as an unexplainable fact, another explanation must be added. "An infinite regression cannot have an identifiable first cause." The problem is that some, and probably many, people - and I am one of them - do not find "life originated somewhere else" to be a satisfactory answer to the question of "how did life originate" because it simply moves the explanation one step further away without actually explaining anything.

In a sense, infinite regression is an example of the problem of self-referential systems. The philosopher Bertand Russell provided a simple example known as the barber paradox showing the problem. There is an island inhabited by men and only men, all of whom are shaved every day. One, and only one, of the men is a barber, and he, and only he, is the one who shaves men who do not shave themselves. The question is "who shaves the barber?" He cannot shave himself because he only shaves men who don't shave themselves. On the other hand, if he does not shave himself, there is no one else on the island who can shave him, because he's the only one who can shave someone else. In short, he can't shave himself, and he cannot not shave himself. Both result in a contradiction, i.e., the shaving system is inconsistent. The only solution to the paradox is that there must be someone who is not part of the shaving system who shaves the barber.

Infinite regression runs into the same sort of problem. The chain of explanation can only be terminated by an unexplained explanation, or uncaused cause, which is outside of the chain of explanations and causes.

Interestingly, the problems of infinite regression were known to the Greeks. There was a philosophical school known as Skeptics, who argued that knowledge is impossible, because one can always ask for justifying reasons and demand that they be explained, and the resulting explanation then has to be explained, which results in an infinite regress of explanations.

Infinite regression is discussed more thoroughly at

(1)  A google search on "infinite regression" will yield other websites explaining the concept.

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