Some more thoughts on the argument from contingency

This past Saturday, the Unbelievable? podcast hosted a debate between Cosmic Skeptic and Cameron Bertuzzi on the subject of the argument from contingency (for God’s existence) [1]. That got me to thinking about writing another post on the argument, and this post is just going to list and discuss just some of the problems I find with the cosmological argument from contingency.

Outline of the Argument

  1. A contingent being (a being such that if it exists, it could have not-existed or could cease to exist) exists.
  2. This contingent being has a cause of or explanation for its existence.
  3. The cause of or explanation for its existence is something other than the contingent being itself.
  4. What causes or explains the existence of this contingent being must either be solely other contingent beings or include a non-contingent (necessary) being.
  5. Contingent beings alone cannot provide a completely adequate causal account or explanation for the existence of a contingent being.
  6. Therefore, what causes or explains the existence of this contingent being must include a non-contingent (necessary) being.
  7. Therefore, a necessary being (a being such that if it exists, it cannot not-exist) exists.
  8. The universe is contingent.
  9. Therefore, the necessary being is something other than the universe.

My Issues with the Argument

One problem that I’ve always had with the contingency argument, as traditionally formed, is that it doesn’t tell you why a universe or contingent reality is expected on theism. It’s far from clear why theism predicts a universe like ours, and it’s even less clear why God would create a physical universe. In fact, a physical universe is entailed by metaphysical naturalism, but it’s not entailed by theism. On theism, if anything, we would predict the exact opposite of a physical universe. What this means is that even if theism predicts a contingent reality, it doesn’t predict a contingent reality that is filled with physical things. One might object at this point and say something like, “The point of the contingency argument- at least as it has been used for the most part- is not to ask whether theism predicts a contingent reality. You missed the point.” On the contrary, I don’t think I’ve missed the point; instead, the person who says this is missing the point-my point. My point is that if one is positing such an argument that doesn’t contain predictions, it’s hard to take it very seriously; we should test a hypothesis against reality.

The second problem I’ve had with the contingency argument has to do with applying the argument to an eternal multi-verse. William Lane Craig has said, “With an eternal multi-verse, we can still ask why it exists instead of not existing”. One issue is that it’s not plain how we could know that there isn’t some necessary part of reality embedded in the multiverse. Secondly, it’s also not clear why an eternal multiverse would need further explanation. One might object that God can act as the sustaining cause of the universe. However, it seems false to say that everything needs a sustaining cause, or one should at least give us a reason to think so. Furthermore, if theism is true, God can stop sustaining the universe at any moment. On naturalism, however, there is nothing to knock the universe out of existence.

My third problem with the argument has to do with the notion of necessity involved in the argument. Clearly, it’s logically possible that the universe didn’t exist, and the same thing applies to God. Therefore, the defender of the argument from contingency adopts a different notion of necessity that underlies the entire argument. The notion of necessity is known as metaphysical necessity. Metaphysical necessity is supposed to lie between physical and logical necessity. However, I’m not even sure such a thing makes any sense, and I’m not sure there could be things that exist metaphysically necessarily. A typical example that is given of metaphysical necessity is to say something like, “It is necessarily false that 3=5.” If you don’t buy this, that’s because you think metaphysical necessity just is logical necessity (or that metaphysical necessity collapses into logical necessity).

My fourth problem with the argument is that it either begs the questions against or ignores the problem of non-gods objects. That is, why would God even create anything at all?! Naturalism entails that there is a part of concrete reality that isn’t God. Theism does not entail this! Seriously, the problem of non-god objects (PONGO) is the evil twin to the argument from contingency. In my experience, I’ve had some theists laugh at the problem and insist it was silly. On the contrary, there is nothing silly about PONGO at all. It’s quite normal for people to ask, “Why would God create anything at all?”. In fact, it would be silly for someone NOT to ask this question.

My fifth problem with the contingency argument has to do with the principle of sufficient reason. The PSR says that every contingent thing has an explanation of its existence. I, however, don’t know whether that’s true. I don’t know if it makes sense to ask for an explanation for every single thing, specifically things that exist eternally (which would make the PSR explanatory overkill) [2]. Someone might say that it’s intuitive to think that that the PSR is true, but it’s also intuitive to just think that most things require an explanation (not all things). Not to mention, I don’t think that appealing to intuition or commonsense should be very convincing. At this point I might be accused of being close-minded or being a ‘hyper-skeptic’, but I don’t think that is the case. Rather, I’m being honest and admitting that I have no idea whether the PSR is true: I’m not pretending to know things that I don’t know.

My sixth problem with the argument is the demand for an explanation for the totality of contingent things. For one, it’s not apparent that God isn’t contingent; there are some theists (like Richard Swinburne) who think that God is a contingent being. Secondly, and more importantly, asking for an explanation for the totality of all contingent things might very well be meaningless or incoherent-it might be like asking, “What’s north of the northpole?” or “What does yellow sound like?”.

These aren’t the only problems that I find with the contingency argument, but they are some of the problems that I find interesting. Some apologists might not find each of the problems to be persuasive, or they might not see their cumulative effectiveness; however, I just really don’t care that much. Apologists are free to think whatever they want. I never intended my objections to be knockdown, mainly because I don’t see the argument from contingency as being anywhere near a knockdown argument! After all, one can still believe that God exists without buying the argument [3].

[1] Cosmic Skeptic posted the debate on his youtube channel. Some of his followers kept making a comment along the lines of, “Cameron, the theist, said that the idea of self-causation is absurd. If that’s the case, then what about God?!” Checkmate? Hardly. There’s a difference between something being self-caused and something being uncaused. The former is logically impossible, while the latter is not logically impossible. Cameron holds that God is uncaused, not self-caused.

[2] Clearly, there are logically possible worlds where there exist some contingent being(s) without further explanation. That is, there is nothing logically impossible (incoherent) about there existing an entity that doesn’t have a further explanation.

[3] One doesn’t need to show that some premise in an argument is false. Rather, all one needs to do is point out that a premise is either unsupported, or one can point out that the reasons given for the premise are not strong reasons. The result is that there is now reasonable doubt about whether the argument is a sound argument. This is interesting because Christian apologists usually admit that the arguments for God’s existence don’t epistemically obligate one to believe that God exists-either individually or collectively. In addition, while the cumulative effect of the arguments for God’s existence might give some epistemic permission for an individual to think that God’s existence is likely, it’s unclear whether someone is entitled to outright believe that God exists (much less claim to know that God exists…based on the arguments).


5 thoughts on “Some more thoughts on the argument from contingency

  1. It does seem that there is complete incongruity in the ‘god as contingent being’ theory. It intimates that there is something more than or beyond god, and takes one nowhere towards a being that satisfies the omnipresent/omnipotent/omniscient requirements.

  2. But wait, there’s more! To be a contingent anything basically claims there is a cause. There are oodles of examples of events that do not seem to have a cause. For example, a radioactive atom of uranium decays by spitting out a particle, but the atom next to it waits a million years to do the same. What caused one to pop and the other not to? If there is a cause, we do not yet see it, so the definition of a contingent anything is specious at best. The existence of a non-contingent being is claimed as part of a premise. This is highly suspect. If you can get your conclusion accept as part of a premise, you win! And the idea of metaphysical necessity is ludicrous. When you say “metaphysical” you are saying “we shall now set aside all verifiable rules and play by rules I make up.” Children playing games would find this a highly suspect move, as should we. Again, assuming there is anything metaphysical is in play is a way of getting what one want’s proved into a premise, so it can be proved.

    As another example consider:

    The Argument from Degree
    1. Objects have properties to greater or lesser extents.
    2. If an object has a property to a lesser extent, then there exists some other object that has the property to the maximum possible degree.
    3. So there is an entity that has all properties to the maximum possible degree.
    4. Hence God exists.

    Properly rephrased we get:
    1. Objects have properties to greater or lesser extents.
    2. If an object has a property to a lesser extent, then there exists the possibility of some other object that has the property to a greater degree.
    3. As the degree of extent increases, the probability of the existence of an object of greater extent diminishes.
    4. As the extent of any property approaches maximum, the probabilty approaches zero.
    5. Hence, the probability of a maximally extending God is infinitely small.

    Note that the original argument assumes the chain of probability ends in a single being, an assumption that is not warranted.

    1. Philosophy of Religion blog (Does God Exist?)

      I can imagine William Lane Craig saying something like, “But this is an argument for a necessary being! That’s the conclusion!” Even if that’s true, we can still be skeptical of the concept of a necessary being.

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