Cosmological and Contingent Considerations

An astute commentator points out that reply to an objection about the cosmological argument along the lines of ‘X tradition holds that God is uncreated’ doesn’t really answer any questions (which I would agree that, on its own, such an argument from tradition doesn’t hold much water, but coupled with various cosmological considerations I think a good case can be made for it). It is in fact true that the Christian tradition holds that God is uncreated – though as was pointed out, in the context of the cosmological argument this doesn’t do too much. I have a habit of mixing concepts/arguments/ideas together – which makes sense to me, but, since no one but me is privy to my thought process it often makes sense only to me. Here’s hoping this post doesn’t suffer from that defect – and a heartfelt apology if this ends up being just a mishmash of confused concepts. What follows isn’t a defense of any of the various cosmological arguments – it’s a few simple expositions and explanations, not intended to prove so much as to open up some room for conversation.

An event is contingent if it might not have occurred; otherwise, it is necessary…’, (‘Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion’,p. 105)

Leibniz’s famous question, why is there something rather than nothing, ties in with the idea of contingency. Why is there a contingent universe? Because (operating from his principle of sufficient reason) there is a transcendent being that contains its own reason for existence – that is the sufficient reason for the cause of the universe – such a being has within itself its own sufficient reason, and is therefore a necessary being. This argument is part of the family of the cosmological argument, and there are a number of different versions – the most notable being that of Aquinas and the more modern kalam argument defended by William Lane Craig.

The Leibnizian answer, as noted above, is based on his Principle of Sufficient Reason – to quote again from the ‘Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion’,:

‘The principle holds that nothing takes place without a reason; for any occurrence, a being with sufficient knowledge would be able to give a reason sufficient to explain why it is as it is and not otherwise.’ (p. 299)

So in a nutshell, Leibniz says that the universe, being contingent, can’t exist without a reason, and that reason must come from outside the universe and must have within itself its own reason for existence. Such a being we call God – the necessary being. At any rate, the basic point of the arguments are to show that the universe had a cause – that the universe is finite and had a cause in time, indeed that the universe had to have a cause. Roughly, the idea is to point to a cause outside the universe.

‘…embodied within the proofs of Aquinas is that the idea of the universe , as the totality of contingent but rationally coherent and ordered beings, is a notion of the utmost import. The contingency of the universe obviates an a priori discourse about it, while its rationality makes it accessible to the mind only in an a posteriori manner. Hence the need for empirical investigations. The contingency of the universe as a whole serves in turn as a pointer to an ultimate in intelligibility which though outside the universe in a metaphysical sense, is within the inferential power of man’s intellect.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p.38)

‘Why is there a universe and not nothing? What is the reason for this state of affairs, the existence of a universe that is accessible to rational inquiry? Yet the universe does not carry in itself any explanation for this state of affairs, and even the rationality embedded within it is not self explanatory. This is certainly understandable, for contingent being cannot explain itself, otherwise it should not be contingent. Nevertheless it does have something to “say” to us, simply by being what it is, contingent and intelligible in its contingency, for that makes its lack of self-explanation inescapably problematic and it is precisely through that problematic character that it points beyond itself with a mute cry for sufficient reason. What the intelligible being of the universe has to “say” is thus something which by its very nature must break off in accordance with the utterly contingent existence of the universe. This may be expressed more positively: the fact that the universe is intrinsically rational means that it is capable of, or open to, rational explanation – from beyond itself.’ (T.F Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 52)

The takeaway here is pretty simple: contingency has to be explained by non-contingency. I found this blog post by Edward Feser helpful, in particular this bit:

‘When the classical metaphysician claims to explain why there is something rather than nothing, then, he doesn’t mean that sheer nothingness is the natural state of things and that we need to find out why it doesn’t obtain.  He means that the world of our experience, since it is a mixture of actuality and potentiality, composite rather than simple, etc., could have failed to exist, so that its explanation must lie in something distinct from it, something which actualizes its potentials, which composes its parts, and so forth.  And when we arrive at that explanation, we find that it lay in something whose existence is self-explanatory, precisely because it is pure actuality without any admixture of potentiality, absolutely simple, and subsistent being itself.’ (http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/11/what-part-of-nothing-dont-you.html)

Some of the Aristotelian concepts in the quote above I’m not 100% on board with, but the gist of the quote makes the same basic point: contingency, or non-necessity, or actualized potentials, or however one describes things are all only (and can only be) explained by something outside themselves, something that in principle is non-contingent, necessary, or purely actual.

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