An Introduction to the Contingency Argument
An Introduction to the Contingency Argument
What is the Contingency Argument?
I find that the contingency argument tends to be the most misunderstood of the arguments in the family of cosmological arguments. Most people will think this is just another variation of William Lane Craig’s version of the Kalam Cosmological Argument. They will hear the word contingent and assume we mean “dependent on”, but that is not what we mean when the word is used in this setting.
So what do we mean when we say contingent? How is this argument any different than what Craig does in his Kalam? As with any dive into the most fundamental structures of reality, we need to start with definitions. This is an important first step when discussing these sorts of things. The same words can be used to represent different things. For example, the name Tony is ambiguous until we clarify it by adding a last name. A better example is the word swing. Am I talking about a swing that you swing on or a swing of a bat? For our purposes today, adopting the following definitions.
Contingent: Anything that can fail to exist, cease to exist or could have been different.
Notice the “could have been different” at the end. This will be applicable in our next step.
Necessary: Something that can not not exist and it is impossible that it could have been different.
Explanation: something that makes an event or an object inteligible. Explanations can be deterministic causes, indeterministic causes, grounding, agential, etc..
These types of explanations will be explained later.
Possibility & Necessity
So what’s going on with the last parts of the first two definitions? If something is contingent because it could have been different what do we mean by that? Put simply, contingent things don’t exist in all possible worlds. These are just semantic devices, that is to say they are merely descriptions of the way reality could have been, not to be confused with some sort of multiverse theory. For example, this article you’re reading is contingent. Could it have not existed? Of course! Could it fail to exist? Sure, I could have never written it. Could it cease to exist? Putting aside the complexities of internet data storage, yes. Lastly, could it have been different? Well it seems like the world could have possibly been in such a way that this article was written on a different date, had different words, etc. So any number of properties that make this paper, this paper, could have been different!
By contrast, necessary things do not meet these criteria. I hesitate to give any examples of a necessary thing because I don’t believe that we have any material objects we can appeal to that are necessary. If we put that aside just for the sake of explanation, let’s imagine that there exists a necessary artichoke. This would be different from any other artichoke. It would be eternal (because it can not not exist, fail to exist or cease to exist), it would be independent (because it is necessary, it could not logically depend on anything to exist) and it would exist in exactly the same way in all possible worlds. Now clearly, a necessary artichoke isn’t a candidate to be involved in different necessary things. This is only setting the stage for the argument for a necessary thing existing in the first place.
Contingent things exist
Contingent things have explanations for their existence
The totality of contingent things cannot be explained by contingent things
Therefore, there is something necessary
Let's take a look at the premises.
The first premise is pretty simple and easy to accept. Our whole lives are experiences of contingent things. So this premise isn’t very disputable. The second premise, which is the “engine” of the argument, is our explanatory principle. A generalized name for this principle is “The Principle of Sufficient Reason” (PSR) and it comes in many forms. To keep things introductory, we are going to just work with this generalized formulation of the PSR.So why should we think the PSR is true? While it is outside of the scope of an introductory article to go over all the reasons, let me offer just a few.
Reason 1: Experience
There seems to be an experience of order and regularity in the world. One of the ways we have this through this notion that contingent things have explanations. We don’t walk down the sidewalk anxious that a green bear is going to materialize in front of us without explanation and maul us. We don’t walk out of the grocery store and see a dent in our car and think “Gee, that sucks that this happened without any sort of explanation!” and go on our merry way. Now don’t misunderstand this as a knock down proof for the PSR, but rather this is me saying that we have this hypothesis ( the PSR ) and the hypothesis predicts our experience and so therefore we have good reason to think this hypothesis is true.
Reason 2: Lack of Experience
By contrast of reason one, reason two is an appeal to our lack of experience of unexplained phenomenon. We don’t experience green bears materializing out of nowhere. When you walk to your car and see a new dent in it, you would most likely be trying to remember who parked next to you because your experience tells you that there is an explanation.
Reason 3: Empirical Skepticism
One last support I would offer is this; if the PSR was not true, then we wouldn’t predict the reliability of science. Most of scientific research is the study of things in contingent reality and finding explanations for said things. If we are going to believe that the PSR is false, then we should also be skeptical of all our scientific knowledge!
Our third premise is just a non-circularity premise. Simply put, it’s logically inconsistent to say that if we have all of the contingent things in a group, that something contingent explains the group. This is because we both want an external explanation to the set and because self explanation is absurd. See the picture below for a visualization. If we are trying to explain the totality of contingent things, nothing outside of the ball that represents all of the contingent things can be something contingent. By definition, anything outside of the ball would be non-contingent, in other words necessary. So nothing contingent can explain the totality of all contingent things.
From a Necessary Thing to God
So there is this necessary thing that explains all contingent reality. Now what? This is where we enter the second stage of the argument. The second stage is where we try to identify what this necessary thing is through various observations of reality. There are a few different methods someone may use for this identification stage. Richard Swinburne for instance uses a bayesian method to argue that the probability of the necessary thing being God is very high. Timothy O’Connor has a short step by step identification stage in his book “Theism and Ultimate Explanation” where he makes short succinct arguments for different properties of the necessary thing.
Here is a simple argument to begin our second stage. This will be a tool to help us identify what the necessary thing is not. This may seem mundane but this will help us slash our candidate pool for what N could be down.
Burgers are contingent and dependent.
The necessary thing is not contingent and dependent.
Therefore, the necessary thing is not a burger.
Premise one is obviously true, this doesn’t need much defending. Premise two is self-evidently true as well. So it logically follows that the necessary thing is not a burger. Again this may seem like a trivial conclusion, but remember this is meant to be a tool to slash the pool of candidates for what necessary thing could be. This argument is simply a template. Replace burger with anything else and see if it works. It seems like turtles, chickens, atoms, etc. all fail to meet the test of what necessary thing could be. It seems like the only candidate that we can put into this template and get a false first premise is God. God by definition is a necessary being, so he couldn’t be contingent and dependent.
Mathematics & Morality
Why combine these two topics? You’ll soon find out. Now I would argue that two things hold some sort of universal truth. Both mathematical truths, of which we also derive logical truths, and moral truths. It seems intuitively obvious that certain mathematical principles like 2 + 2 = 4 are objectively true. Sure someone may say humans made up the language, but that objection would miss the mark because while the language used to describe the principle is man made, what the language refers to, the principles themselves, are not.
The same goes for moral facts. It’s intuitively obvious that one of the following scenarios is good while the other is bad. Scenario one: A parent loving their child. Scenario two: A parent murdering their child. The best explanation for this intuitive moral response is that there is this moral realm we have access to. Someone may say that evolution gave us these intuitions but that just kicks the explanatory can back. Why did evolution give us these moral intuitions and not other intuitions? There seems to be a need for some sort of supervenient explanation.
This brings us to the crux of the issue. Mathematical principles and moral facts need to be explained. Most likely, they will be explained by the necessary thing because these truths cannot be explained by something physical. Something transcendent must explain them. Here then are our options, abstract objects or an unembodied mind. Now we ask which one of those theories better predicts the data. I would contend that an unembodied mind is the better explanation.
Here is something interesting about both mathematical and moral truths, they are thought-like, meaning they seem to derive from something mind-like.For example, can an object tell us 2 + 2 = 4? Can an object exemplify moral traits like selflessness? The answer is no because there is no self that can do these things when it comes to objects. How can an object that has no sense of self be self-less?
By contrast, the hypothesis that N is an unembodied mind predicts these things. A fundamental mind behind reality that explains all contingent reality, along with mathematical and moral facts makes sense of a few things. How we would have access to these facts, how the facts can be objectively true, and the thought-like features of these facts. So most likely, N is an unembodied mind that explains goodness and mathematical truths! Which means N must be fundamentally good and logical.
If that wasn’t enough, let’s add in one more tool into our investigative arsenal. Another observation about reality is that contingent things have quantifiable limits. This is to say that any contingent thing we know of has some sort of limit. The screen you are using to read this for instance, is only so big, why not any bigger or smaller? We have quantifiable limits as well. Why am I five foot seven and not six foot four? Why can I only bench press a certain amount of weight or sprint a certain speed and distance? This leads us to our next tool. Much like the argument from contingency, we are now going to look at an argument from limits!
Whatever is limited has an external explanation.
N cannot have an external explanation.
N is not limited.
Premise one can be argued to be true just like our explanatory principle from the contingency argument. Premise two is true in virtue of what it means to be necessary. If N had an external explanation, then N wouldn’t be necessary. So the conclusion logically follows whatever N is, N has to be fundamentally unlimited in its quantifiable attributes. What follows from that? Well N must have some sort of power to be able to explain all of contingent reality. So therefore N must be omnipotent.
If we go back to our section on mathematics and morality, you’ll remember that N is also a mind that is fundamentally good. From this and the combination of our argument from limits, we can derive a few things. Because N is a mind, it entails that N has some sort of knowledge, which by the way is a quantifiable property. It thereby follows that N should have an unlimited amount of knowledge, something we would call omniscience. Lastly, if N is fundamentally good, we can ask how good is N? Well the answer per our argument from limits is unlimited in goodness, which we would call omnibenevolence.
So we have derived some properties of N. N is going to be an unembodied mind, that means N is not a what but a who. This being also has the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. So we have an unembodied, or immaterial mind, that has the three omni-attributes, that explains all contingent reality. This is clearly God we are talking about here. Unlike many other arguments we can come across, this series of arguments we have just given gets us to God down to the attributes.
In conclusion, the most rational position to hold, given our short introduction to this argument, is Theism. Obviously, this is an introduction, we have not covered many objections in this article, and we barely scratched the surface on the topic. So please keep that in mind as you continue to survey reality.