The Argument of Contingency for the Existence of God
On today’s podcast, Tom asked what I think the most important question is that a person can ask. I told him I thought the most important question a person can ask, is the question that Leibniz said was the most important question a person can ask: Why is there something rather than nothing?
On that podcast, I attempted to trot out what would be Leibniz’s response, commonly known as the argument from contingency, which is a philosophical proof (read: “logical demonstration”) for the existence of God. I already got a few emails about this, asking to go a little more in depth—people, apparently, became curious. And since philosophy is my pet, I was delighted at the request, and excited by the challenge.
I believe the argument from contingency is one of the very more powerful and convincing arguments for the existence of God, an argument that has not only stood the test of time, but even been improved by contemporary scholars in some ways, such as Bernard Lonergan, Peter Kreeft, etc. I won’t claim to be able to offer it as well as they have, but I can get you started, at least.
The Argument of Contingency for the Existence of God
I’ll begin the argument from an informal statement:
The universe exists. But does it have to exist? Couldn’t we imagine the universe not existing? Couldn’t we imagine nothing instead of something? Or, couldn’t we imagine a universe with different laws and different planets and different creatures? If so, then it doesn’t seem like anything about our universe is necessary. And if nothing within the universe is necessary, and if the universe is just all the things within itself—all of space and time—then the universe itself is not necessary. And if the universe itself is not necessary, then it does not explain itself. So, there must be something that explains the universe. But for something to explain the universe, it cannot be a part of the universe, since we’ve determined nothing within the universe explains the universe—the universe, it seems, is contingent; it is, but doesn’t have to be. So, for something to explain the universe it would have to be beyond the universe; it would have to be beyond space and time. But for something to be beyond space and time, and to be the ultimate, explanation of all contingent things, is to be something that just is. In other words, subsistence existence itself.
And that, philosophically, we know to be God.
More formally stated:
Anything that exists must have an explanation for its existence, either through an external cause, or a necessity of its own being.
So, if the universe exists, it too must be explained either by an external cause or a necessity of its own being.
But the universe does exist and is not explained by a necessity of its own being (we can imagine the universe not existing or existing in different ways.) Therefore, the universe is contingent.
And no contingent thing can be explained by an infinite series of continent things, because that wouldn’t explain why any contingent thing exists at all.
So, the explanation of all contingent things must end in at least one necessary thing–one necessary thing, beyond space and time.
But to have at least one necessary thing is to have only one necessary thing.
And that one necessary thing is God.
The logic of the argument is valid. So, the only thing to assess is whether the premises are true. If they are true, the conclusion follows, and is also true. If they are more probably true, the conclusion is more probably true. If they are more probably untrue, the conclusion is more probably untrue–at least by this argument. If they are not true, the conclusion is not true—again, at least not by this argument.
(A quick note about philosophical argumentation, before we begin. Because very rarely will the presenter of an argument be able to offer a demonstration beyond any level of refutation, there is always an appeal that can be made to extreme levels of skepticism. Therefore, the task of someone making an argument is not to “prove” something beyond all doubt [like a mathematical proof, say], but to raise the intellectual stakes, so to speak, that to deny the argument, or any part of the argument, would land the objector in a jungle of absurdity. In other words, the goal is to prove something beyond reasonable doubt. So success is had simply when an argument is more plausibly true than its negation, not when it is absolutely insusceptible to negation of any kind.)
So, are the premises true? Or are they at least more probably true than not? Well, let’s see.
Premise 1: Everything that exists must have an explanation for its existence, either through an external cause, or a necessity of its being.
Our experience would tell us this premise is true. For example, when we look for explanations of things, we tend to find them. This is known as the principle of sufficient reason. But somebody might deny the principle for sufficient reason, and that’s fine, they can do that. But to deny the principle of sufficient reason is to expect things to have no explanation for why they exist (or are they way they are); to imagine that things can just pop into existence—or out of existence—without an explanation. Has anybody experienced this? I kind of doubt it. If so, then I might reasonably concern myself with the possibility of a moose to just popping into my living room at any time. I would just say, hello moose, but wouldn’t bother asking how he got there, because why should I?
But I’m not worried about a moose just popping into my living room, and if it did happen, I would ask the moose how he got there, even knowing full well that he’s a moose, and unable to explain the situation, I would still ask, because I would want an explanation. Unless there existed something like teleportation, in which case there would be an explanation for why a moose popped into my living room, thus validating the principle of sufficient reason. But so far as I know, teleportation doesn’t exist, so I needn’t worry about a moose just popping into my living room, because there is no reason why a moose would do that. So that’s at least one less thing to be paranoid about.
Also, if the principle of sufficient reason were not true, we would not be able to trust our faculties, and have no reason to engage in science or philosophy. But we do trust our faculties and do engage in science or philosophy, because our senses are (generally) reliable, and because the principle of sufficient reason, it seems, is true.
Or, how about this: If the principle of sufficient reason weren’t true, and we stumbled upon a decapitated corpse, we wouldn’t need go through the trouble of staging any kind of murder investigation, because why expect an explanation for a decapitated corpse? It just is. “Oh, look, a mutilated corpse!” would simply be followed with, “Oh, look, a moose!” And you would never ask how these things got there.
But hold on, because you would ask how these things got there, wouldn’t you?
So far, I see no reason to think that the principle of sufficient reason isn’t true, less a person adopts a severe (and unreasonable) position of skepticism.
(Explanatory aside: The principle of sufficient reason isn’t about something having a “cause”, per se, because a cause isn’t always what we mean by explanation. An explanation is something which makes some phenomena intelligible, whether we know of a cause or not. So the PSR holds even within, say, quantum mechanics. Because while quantum phenomena may, in some interpretations, be indeterminate, they are still intelligible—such is why we have the laws of quantum mechanics.)
Typically, the only people who would deny the PSR are those dogmatic atheist scientism-y types who, by doing so, destroy the very equipment needed to validate their enterprise. So, again, it seems the principle of sufficient reason is true. At least more plausibly true than no.
Premise 2: So if the universe exists, it too must be explained either by an external cause or a necessity of its own being.
Does anybody deny the universe exists?
Premise 3: But the universe does exist and is not explained by a necessity of its own being (we can imagine the universe not existing or existing in different ways).
There is nothing through either philosophic contemplation or scientific investigate that shows our universe to be necessary—in other words, that it explains itself. Because for anything in the universe that we seek explanations for, we tend to find them. And for those explanations we tend to find more explanations. And so on, and so forth. But this matter of explaining one contingent thing by another contingent thing can’t go on forever, because then no explanation for why any contingent things exist at all would be given. So, there must be at least one necessary being to explain the existence of all contingent things. But for there to be at least one necessary being is for there to be only one necessary being, since a necessary being would have to be absolutely simple and just that which is—in other words, subsistent existence itself—so in principle could not be more than one.
Philosophically, we would know this being to be God.
To this, the objection might be raised that the universe does explain itself. But again, how? Nothing about the universe—nothing about the laws of physics or any of the stuff in the universe, like bugs or antelope or matter in general—explains why the universe continues to persist at any moment in time, either at all, or in the way that it does. You still need something to exnihilate the entire operation. And to be clear, this argument is not about what “started” the universe, but what “sustains” the universe; what holds it all together, so to speak.
At this point, a person might appeal to something like the multiverse, saying our universe might just be one of many—really, an infinite number—of bubble universes, springing from some big fat momma universe. But this is not a relevant objection. If anything, it merely pushes the argument back a step, because the multiverse (if actually does exist) would just be yet another continent thing in need of an explanation. This is why it’s important to understand this is a metaphysical argument—not a specific physical argument—so it needs not use the example of “the universe” to be made. You could just as easily make the argument using any one thing inside the universe—for example, my coffee cup. Why does my coffee cup exist; what holds it in being? The “universe”, at least for our argument, is just a way of saying “all contingent things.”
Finally, somebody might say, OK, I follow you so far, but why must that necessary thing be God? Couldn’t it just be a pool of ectoplasm or something? At first, this seems like a substantial objection. But presently you’ll see why it has no force.
First, to be a pool of something—and particularly a pool of ectoplasm, which is physical—would be to be material. And we’ve already seen that that which is subsistent existence itself is beyond the material. So no such pool of ectoplasm will suffice as the ultimate explanation of things, and neither would a flying pasta monster or Thor. All these things are silly caricatures which do not seriously engage the argument.
To say it another way, for something to exist, there must exist what it takes for that thing to exist. And because the ultimate explanation cannot be less than the things that it explains, we conclude that that which explains must be intelligent, etc. So through further philosophical probing of the argument we can uncover attributes of this ultimate, necessary explanation—attributes that philosophically define God. Not theologically, but philosophically. What I mean is the argument for contingency can only tell us that there exists what it takes for anything to exist, and that thing is God, but it doesn’t tell us whether that God is the God of Christianity or Judaism or Islam, for example. You’ll need other arguments for that, which is fine, because that isn’t what this argument is supposed to solve. All this argument is supposed to solve is that theism (existence of God) is more probably than atheism (the non-existence of God). And so far, I think it succeeds.
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