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The Argument from Contingency

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For many centuries theistic philosophers have been formulating deductive arguments to prove God’s existence. One type of argument is called a cosmological argument. The cosmological argument “looks at chains of causes” and “asks how the existence of [the universe] could be explained” (Stairs 57). It is different from other arguments for God’s existence such as the teleological argument or the moral argument. The specific version of the cosmological argument that will be examined and discussed in this paper is the argument from contingency which deals with explanations rather than specific causes. The argument is heavily influenced by the principle of sufficient reason which the rationalist philosophers all held to. This essay will examine the principle of sufficient reason, the argument from contingency, criticisms, and counter arguments and will ultimately argue for God being sole explanation of the universe.

The principle of sufficient reason plays a tremendous role in explaining the argument from contingency. Rationalist philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz defined the principle of sufficient reason. In his writing Monadology, he says that “no fact can be real or existing and no proposition can be true unless there is a sufficient reason” (Kolak 170). This is to say that everything needs some sort of sufficient reason of its existence. This principle applies to the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?” And from this, the argument itself hinges off this principle of extrinsic or intrinsic explanation.

The argument from contingency is a formal argument and it is worded like this:

  1. Everything existing has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
  2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  3. The universe is an existing thing.
  4. Therefore the explanation of the existence of the universe is God. (Moreland 466).

This argument is different from the other cosmological arguments particularly because it does not need to appeal to a temporal universe. It can fit perfectly with an eternal universe.

The first premise appeals to the principle of sufficient reason. It seems perfectly reasonable to think that everything that exists needs some sort of sufficient reason of its existence. For something to be necessary that would mean that it could not not-exist. It must exist in every single possible world. Something that is necessary has an explanation within the necessity of its own nature – as premise one shows. If some existing thing were to have a cause outside of itself as an explanation of its existence, that thing would be a contingent thing. Something that is contingent means that it is neither necessarily true nor necessarily false. This means that its existence is solely dependent on something else. It seems reasonable to accept premise one on these grounds.

Premise two takes the first premise and says that if the universe has an explanation then it would have to be God. The universe does not seem to be necessary but rather contingent. We can imagine a world in which the universe does not exist. It also seems to be comprised of contingent things. The expansion of the universe seems to be wholly contingent based on the initial big bang. It seems that if the universe is contingent then it would need an external cause because of premise one. The explanation of its existence cannot be found in the necessity of its nature because the universe is contingent and therefore dependent on another explanation. This premise really gets to the question that was mentioned earlier: why is there something rather than just nothing? Some necessary being must exist that is the explanation of contingent things. If there is no necessary explanation, then contingency goes onto an infinite regress. This necessary being does not need an external cause because it has an internal explanation of its existence.

Premise three seems to be blatantly obvious. There is no good reason for denying the external world outside of ourselves. Solipsism seems quite absurd. The conclusion of the argument follows from the premises that followed it.

There have been some criticisms of this argument. Philosopher Bertrand Russell has responded to this argument by saying that the universe does not need an explanation. The universe is just static, eternal, and has no explanation according to Russell. He also says that because things are contingent within the universe does not mean that the whole universe itself is contingent. He believes the theist commits a fallacy of composition (Cosmological). The fallacy of composition says that because individual things have certain characteristics that does not entail that the whole group of those things have all those same characteristics. This criticism still avoids the question “why is their something rather than nothing?” and instead tries to show that the theist is merely applying his intuition to the universe based on individual contingent parts of the universe. Russell does not want to face the fact of why the universe exists at all so he does away with its need for an explanation.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant objected to the argument because he thinks it will lead to the ontological argument ultimately and since according to him the ontological argument does not work, therefore the cosmological argument does not work either (Cosmological). This seems to be a red herring – an irrelevant criticism of the current argument. The ontological argument has no bearing on this cosmological argument whatsoever. The ontological argument is a different proof meant to prove God’s existence by the definition of God Himself. Kant is trying to show that the ontological argument explains the definition of a necessary being because the ontological argument argues for a being who’s fundamental nature is existence. This does not seem to be the exact type of meaning of the word necessary that is shown in this argument from contingency. This criticism from Kant seems to fall flat on its face.

Some people have objected to the argument based on the validity of the principle of sufficient reason. If the principle is false then that might possibly undermine the argument itself. If the explanation for the universe is contingent then another explanation is needed, but if the explanation is necessary, then the universe is also necessary (Moreland 467). Christian theism says that God’s actualizing of the universe was a completely free act. That act was contingent on God’s will. God could have existed by Himself in some possible world. But if that act is contingent that would make the explanation of the universe contingent and thus in need of another explanation. William Lane Craig says that “one must ultimately come to some explanatory stopping point that is simply a brute fact, a being whose existence is unexplained” (Moreland 467). It seems that even if one were to deny the principle of sufficient reason as Leibniz formed it, one would still need to get to some sort of transcendent explanation of the universe. It also seems that these critics seem to be defining the word sufficient as something stronger than Leibniz wanted it. Leibniz might have meant sufficient in the sense of “adequate” or something weaker than what these critics think the word sufficient means.

So what is one to think of this argument? This argument seems be a tried and true argument and is ultimately convincing that God exists and that He is the necessary explanation of the universe. The principle of sufficient reason seems at the very least highly likely rather than necessarily false. And even in the general use of the word reason, the universe still needs some sort of necessary explanation. The criticisms of the argument do not work to explain the argument’s premises as being false or the conclusion itself being false. As Kant and Russell have shown, it is very easy to deny or just swerve around a certain premise of this argument.

Works Cited

“Cosmological Argument (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 11 Sept. 2008. Web. 24 Mar. 2011. <http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmological-argument/&gt;.

“Fallacy: Composition.” The Nizkor Project. 2009. Web. 24 Mar. 2011. <http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/composition.html&gt;.

Kolak, Daniel, and Garrett Thomson. The Longman Standard History of Modern Philosophy. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2006. Print.

Moreland, James Porter, and William Lane. Craig. Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003. Print.

Stairs, Allen, and Christopher Bernard. A Thinker’s Guide to the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Print.

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1 Comment

  1. Toby Simmons says:

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    Keep posting!

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