The Argument from Contingency: A Brief Synopsis

Definitions:

Def 1: A contingent being is a being such that if it exists, could have not-existed or could cease to exist.
Def 2: A necessary being (or non-contingent being) is a being such that if it exists, cannot not-exist (and therefore could not not-have-existed and cannot cease to exist).

Note: I use ground-reason essentially to do the work of the German Grund, a word which neither the English “ground” nor “reason” sufficiently captures in meaning, since it unites the sides of being and knowing, the ontological and the epistemological, in one.

The Argument 

1. A contingent being C exists.
2. This contingent being C has a ground-reason for its existence.
3. If C were the ground-reason for C’s existence, C would not be a contingent being, but a necessary one, since C, as self-grounding, could not not-exist—contrary to 1.
4. Therefore, the ground-reason for C’s existence must be something other than C.
5. This ground-reason for C’s existence other than C must either be another contingent being or set of contingent beings alone or it must be or include a non-contingent (necessary) being N.
6. Contingent beings alone cannot provide a completely adequate ground-reason for the existence of any contingent being (neither ontologically as ground nor rationally as reason), so the ground-reason for C’s existence is not any contingent being or set of contingent beings alone.
7. Therefore, the ground-reason for the existence of contingent being C must be or include a non-contingent (necessary) being N.
8. Therefore, a necessary being N exists, because without such a necessary being N, C could not exist, contrary to 1.
9. The universe and every part of the universe is contingent (as is “the multiverse” and every part of it, if this concept is supposed to subsume “universe”).
10. Therefore, a necessary being N which is something other than the universe or one of its parts (or “the multiverse”), must be the ground-reason for its existence.
11. Therefore there exists a necessary being N which is the ground-reason for all contingent beings, including the universe or cosmos or multiverse, as well as all their parts, whatever they may be.
12. Et hoc omnes intelligunt Deum.

Commentary: 

Premise 1: This premise is empirical but evident. As long as anything at all exists which could have not existed or could cease to exist, it is a contingent being. It is obvious that physical beings are contingent.

Premise 2: This is simply a statement of the Satz vom Grund or Principle of Ground (usually expressed in English as the Principle of Sufficient Reason), although perhaps the Principle of Ground-Reason would be better as I use it.  This principle can be expressed negatively as “nothing happens or comes about FOR NO REASON.” It is a core principle about reality, that things cannot happen for no reason at all, just as it is about reality that a thing can’t both be and not be the same at the same time and in the same respect—and because Being is like this, thinking (which follows being) has the Principle of Ground and the Principle of Noncontradiction as basic first principles.

Premise 3: Evident. If C were its own ground-reason it could sustain itself in being and never cease to be, and would thus be a necessary being; but C is already posited in 1 as contingent, so it can’t be the ground-reason of itself.

Premise 4: Also evident. Since C is not its own ground-reason, the ground-reason of C must be something other than C.

Premise 5: By the Principle of the Excluded Middle, this something other than C is either fully contingent or contains a necessary being.

Premise 6: This is the premise that would take the most argumentative work to establish and to get clear about. Since in contingent beings, existence is a property that is “passed on” from another being, if a contingent being got its existence from another contingent being, that being would have to be either contingent or necessary. In this scenario in Premise 6, no necessary beings are in play.  So one would have to hold either that there is an infinite regress of contingent beings each passing on their being to another being and receiving it from the one before—most philosophers think the idea of an actual infinite is  absurd (conceptual or abstract infinites are not).  Or the passing on of existence would have to be circular, where A causes B to be and B causes C to be and C causes A to be.  This becomes more clear, perhaps, when we look at it from the side of explanation, as the reason for C: I want to explain how C got here, so I say C₋₁ explains C, but C₋₁ is explained by C₋₂ and it by C₋₃ and it by C₋₄ … infinitely C₋∞. But this “explanation” never actual explains anything. In simply passes the buck infinitely backwards.  It is as if I wanted to know the origin of a magic book that contains the secrets of the cosmos, and someone tells me he got it from his father, who got it from his father, who got it from his father … who … etc.  No matter how long you make this chain of fathers passing down books to sons, you never answer “Yes, but where did the book originate?”  We need something it terminate the infinite regress, where the “buck” of explanation can no longer be passed.  Similarly, it would be famous for the possessor of the book, Dave, to explain he got it from Mary, who got it from Josh, who, is it happens, got it from Dave. If I said to Dave, “Yes, I know Mary gave it to you, but where did it come from?” it would not do for Dave to say “I always get it from Mary, who always gets it from Josh, and I always give it to Josh. This circuit is itself the origin of the book.”

Premise 7: If it is correct, then, that the ground-reason for a contingent being cannot be nothing but other contingent beings, whether in the mode of an infinite regress (which is a non-explanation) or a circular explanation (which is a non-explanation), then it must be the case that there is a necessary being which terminates the regress.

Premise 8: Since C requires there be a necessary being N in order for C to be, and C is (premise 1) then there is an N.

Premise 9: The argument from 1-8 applies to every being without the universe, all of which are contingent, as well as the whole ensemble of contingent beings called the universe. A whole made entirely of contingent beings cannot itself be necessary, since it is susceptible to change—which a necessary being cannot be.  Someone might say that an inference from the things that make up the universe to the whole universe might be a fallacy of composition, but this cannot be the case, since the universe is an aggregate that contains contingent parts and therefore changes.

Premise 10: The same argument 1-8 reapplied to the universe as contingent. There must be something other than the universe, a necessary being N, which is the ground-reason for the universe.

Premise 11: So there is such a necessary being N which is other than the universe and is its ground-reason.

Premise 12: Bit of a joke. This is a variant of how St. Thomas Aquinas ends each of his Quinque Viae or “Five Ways” of proving the existence of God: “And this everyone understand to be God.”

As a piece of natural theology, the argument from contingency will indeed not get one straight to the Christian God—but then, it isn’t meant to. It will get is to “there is a being other than the universe such that it is the ground-reason for the universe’s existence and is in itself a necessary being, such that it has the ground-reason for its own existence in itself.

From there we can go on to flesh out what other things this entails about such a being: if we work through it will find out it is timeless, spaceless, unchanging, and perfect.

In other words, it is very certainly AT LEAST what Jews, Christians, and Muslims call “God, what Hindus call Brahman, what the Chinese call “The Tao,” what Plato knew as “The Idea of the Good,” Etc.

The argument from contingency isn’t enough to settle the theological question of what God is like, but it is enough to show that atheism is false and agnosticism unwarranted.

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Atheistic Arguments

Something that doesn’t get a lot of attention today are actual atheistic arguments, arguments for the position “God does not exist.” This is the result of an odd situation that occurred in the mid-20th century in which atheists essentially did two things:
(1) they admitted their position could not be defended and gave up trying to do so, and
(2) they still did not abandon their indefensible position, but instead shifted their position to a much more defensible one, agnosticism—except they did not do this honestly and openly, but redefined ‘agnosticism’ and ‘atheism’ so that they two words are now supposed to mean essentially the same thing (despite the fact that ‘agnosticism’ had been coined in explicit contradistinction to atheism, and also despite the fact that the loud atheist minority did not bother to ask permission of the agnostics before forcibly co-opting their identity).

What are the arguments that God does not exist? How strong are they? There are only four, to my knowledge, and if you suspect they are not very strong, given that atheists themselves recognized their complete failure, you would be correct.

1. The Argument from Evil. The argument from evil makes the case that the amount of evil in the world is sufficient to be incompatible with an all-good, omniscient, omnipotent God. It essentially says that such a God would not permit evil, and would have the means to do away with evil, but since there is evil, no such God exists. The argument from evil is the most powerful of the atheistic arguments because it makes a very powerful emotional appeal. In grief, suffering, and loss, human beings are apt to demand of God “Why?”—and taking the pain and incomprehension a step further, one can go on to conclude that a good God would never allow such a painful or horrible thing as X (whatever X is) to happen.

Logically the argument does not have much force. First, it is important to note that human reckoning of evil and horror tends to drop off very sharply with time. No one gets worked up about the Magyar invasions of Europe in the 9th century, and screams “Why???” at God. The problem with emotional reasoning is that it over-prioritizes things that matter to you, personally. The reason that the argument from evil logically breaks down is that the premise “An all-good God would not permit evil” can be defeated simply by denying it in favor of the the premise “An all-good God would not permit evil without sufficient justification.” Then the argument from evil turns on whether or not God has sufficient justification for permitting the evil that He does permit. So the argument from evil requires that the following premise be established: “An all-good, omniscient, omnipotent God would not permit the amount of evil that actually does exist in the world.”

It should be obvious with a moment’s reflection that, in order to establish this needed premise to be true, one would have to be in a position to evaluate the actions of an all-good, omniscient, omnipotent God.  One would, that is, have to be oneself both all-good and omniscient.  And any argument that stands on a premise that requires omniscience and omnibenevolence to support it is going to fail.  All the argument from evil can do is attempt to elicit an emotional agreement to this premise, that it can no way establish to be true except on the basis of “feeling” it to be so.

But of course many Christians and other theists “feel” that God exists, so the atheist cannot allow premises to be established on the basis of feelings.

2. The Argument to Parsimony, or the Appeal to Ockham’s Razor.  This argument holds that God is explanatorily unnecessary in the order of nature, and therefore does not exist. It is typified by the response of Laplace to Napoleon, when asked by him as to the place of God in his system of Newtonian physics: “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

A child should be able to see that this argument, logically speaking, is a non sequitur. From the fact that God is not required as an explanatory principle, it simply does not follow that God does not exist. The argument is simply invalid.

It should also be said, however, that the premise that God is explanatorily unnecessary is dubious—it is perhaps true that God is explanatorily unnecessary within physics, but it very possibly and even likely is the case that God is explanatorily necessary to explain nature and the possibility of physics—that is, to address what is sometimes called the question of being: Why does anything at all exist, and not rather nothing?

3. The Argument from Self-Contradiction.  Some atheists have argued that the concept of God is self-contradictory, and since nothing self-contradictory can be, God cannot exist. The problem with this argument is that it at most succeeds in showing that “God” cannot exist when “God” is defined in a self-contradictory manner. But no one has ever succeeded in showing that classical philosophical definitions or understandings of God are contradictory.

4. The Argument to an Alternate Explanation of the Concept of God.  This argument takes the form of

  1. X is a possible alternate explanation of why people might believe in God other than God existing.
  2. Therefore, God does not exist.

As with the Argument to Parsimony, this is an obvious non sequitur. It was popular in the 19th and early 20th century, being deployed by the likes of e.g. Marx and Freud.  Freud, for example, argued that belief in God arises in human beings as a kind of wish-fulfillment.

Without getting into the details of Freud’s speculations—which are questionable at best—one can merely reply with “So what?”  The human belief (at one time) that it would be possible to construct devices to allow human beings to fly was certainly partly grounded in a wish to fly.  That fact has absolutely no bearing on the fact that it is possible, according to the laws of physics, to build airplanes.  Today many people have a wish for spaceships that can travel interstellar distances in short times. Our science fiction writers dream about “warp drive” or “hyperspace” travel. Does our wish to explore the universe have any bearing on whether or not this is possible, according to the laws of physics? Not that I can tell. Why would it? Many of us wish for peace on earth, or for the number of murders and rapes in the world to be zero. Do our wishes for these things entail that they cannot be? Everyone who plays the lottery (I assume) wishes to win. Does the fact that every player wishes to win demonstrate that it is impossible for anyone to win the lottery? Or in team sports, fans wish for the team they support to win. Does that wish demonstrate no team will or can possibly win? How would it?

The point, of course, is that at the end of the day, the fact that something has its origins at least partially in desire or wish has no logical bearing on the truth of the matter.  One can make a rather powerful argument on Freudian grounds that atheism arises as a kind of human wish fulfillment: the human wish to be autonomous and free of any binding normative obligations and especially the wish to be free of judgment and punishment for wrongdoing.  It is rather difficult to see how wish fulfillment can account for the traditional, orthodox Christian belief in Hell, but it is extremely easy to see how atheistic disbelief in Hell could arise from wish fulfillment:

feseratheismhell

There are the only four arguments for atheism that I’m aware of. And they are all logically unsound.

I do not count the Evidentialist Argument here, because it is not, properly speaking, an atheistic argument, but an agnostic one.  Framed as an atheistic argument, it would run

  1. If there is insufficient evidence to establish that X exists, X does not exist.
  2. There is insufficient evidence to establish that God exists.
  3. ∴ God does not exist.

So framed, it is valid, but Premise 2 is highly contestable to the point of being almost certainly false, and even if it were not, even if it were true, Premise 1 is obviously false. This can be seen invoking such things as intelligent alien life in other galaxies.  We certainly do not have sufficient evidence to establish that such a thing exists.  But how would that be evidence that intelligent alien life does not exist, much less prove that it does not? We have insufficient evidence that faster than light travel technology can exist; is that evidence that, necessarily, it cannot exist? We had insufficient evidence that coelacanths did not go extinct 65 million years ago—until some fishermen caught one.

The problem here is that both “the evidence we have” and “what counts as evidence” are not static.

The Evidentialist Argument is somewhat stronger when used to argue that we do not have sufficient evidence to warrant or justify a belief in the existence of God—while openly acknowledging that this situation, even if it is the case, in no way demonstrates the nonexistence of God.

Even here, though, the Evidentialist Argument always seems to involve a kind of question-begging circularity.  It begins by postulating certain criteria as evidentially sufficient, and then goes on to show how God does not meet the postulated criteria.  The argument proceeds in way almost logically identical to the Argument from Self-Contradiction, except in this case, instead of offering a definition of God which is self-contradictory, and proceeding from there to show that the offered self-contradictory definition is, unsurprisingly, self-contradictory, the evidentialist strategy is to specify evidentiary criteria upon which God will be found to be insufficiently evidenced, and then to go on to show that, on such criteria, God is, unsurprisingly, insufficiently evidenced.  The problem here is that this seems very much like a trick—and it is a trick that anyone can play.  It is trivially easy for a clever person to, for example, show that science is insufficiently evidenced—one would only need to “pull a Hume” and attack the various unjustified assumptions that all science makes, e.g. in the reality of cause and effect, in the uniformity of nature, in the intelligibility of nature, in the reliability of reason, etc.

This is the kind of argument I refer to as a Vorpal Sword Argument: it will indeed succeed in disproving what you are trying to disprove, in a sense, but this is because it can succeed in disproving anything whatever. A vorpal sword can kill anything—and it does not care who wields it against what.  Atheists, and anyone else for that matter, should think twice before legitimizing arguments that can be turned on any and all positions alike, including theirs.

Okay, so much for the arguments for atheism roundup.  See you next time.