Consider the Argument from Contingency:
1. All contingent facts, including the existence of our universe (i.e. the continuous space-time region that we inhabit), have an explanation.
2. The conjunct of all of the contingent facts is itself a contingent fact.
3. Therefore, there is an explanation of the conjunct of all of the contingent facts.
4. The explanation of the conjunct of all of the contingent facts cannot itself be contingent.
5. Therefore, the explanation of the conjunct of all of the contingent facts must be a necessary fact.
6. Therefore, there exists a necessary entity that explains all of the contingent facts, including the existence of our universe.
We are supposed to conclude from this that God exists. This is presumably because God, as a necessarily existent being, is the only possible necessarily existent entity that could explain the existence of our universe. As I will explain in this post, I reject arguments of the form 1-6. (I should also note that the Argument from Contingency — or Leibniz’s Cosmological Argument, as it is sometimes called — is often expressed differently.)
My friend Z recently approached me on Facebook to ask about the Argument from Contingency. Richard Howe, from Southern Evangelical Seminary, is visiting Z’s campus and Z wanted to have a better understanding of some objections to ask Howe for his opinion on. I should note that I have not read Howe’s work (nor do I know if 1-6 is precisely what he has in mind) so I am not aware of whether or not he has considered the objections I offer in this post. Nonetheless, I thought that this would be a good time to reflect on a few of my responses to popular versions of the Argument from Contingency.
One of the first things to notice about the Argument from Contingency is that it does not support the existence of God. It supports the existence of a Necessarily Existent Something or Other that created the universe. The atheist is free to simply concede this argument entirely.
But let’s suppose that this was sufficient to show that the God of classical theism (a god with the four omni properties) existed. There are significant problems for a theology that involves a necessarily existent being. Here are a few of them.
From whence did God’s reasons for creating the universe come?
There are two possibilities, both disastrous for the theist:
- If God’s reasons for creating the universe came from within Herself, then God did not create the universe of Her free-will. After all, God’s essence is necessarily the way that it is and is unalterable. Thus, any sort of reasons from within God are necessarily the case. God could not have chosen to do otherwise. Worse, not only would God not have free-will, but the universe would not be contingent after all (God exists in every possible world and, since God possesses the same reasons at every possible world, would create the same universe at every possible world — therefore, the universe is not contingent; this contradicts a premise in the argument from contingency).
- But now suppose that there were no reasons originating from within God for creating the universe. In this case, there is no where for such reasons to come from. God may have free-will to create the universe, but would be acting arbitrarily and capriciously.
I call this the Cosmological Euthyphro Dilemma, in analogy with the Euthyphro dilemma concerning theistic ethics (or piety, as in the original Socratic formulation). It’s my personal brainchild, but similar arguments appear throughout the history of philosophy and theology (and are discussed at length in, for example, Arthur Lovejoy’s Chain of Being).
Here’s another possible response to the Argument from Contingency.
Can a non-temporal being do anything at all?
How is it that a being, who is outside of space and time, can do anything at all? It seems as though performing any particular act requires us to be within time. And creating the universe is an action.
A few possible responses:
- Perhaps God acts in a mysterious way that does not involve time. That is, perhaps God performs Actions instead of actions and Actions are merely analogous to actions. Well, fine, but that doesn’t seem to help anything. That just ignores the question by responding with more mystery.
- Perhaps God enters time in order to create the universe (this is William Lane Craig’s response; see also p 60 in Craig’s God, Time, and Eternity: “[God’s] free decision to create a temporal world also constitutes a free decision on His [sic] part to enter into time and to experience the reality of tense and of temporal becoming”). I cannot fathom what this can possibly mean. After all, to enter something is an activity that only takes place within time, at least for any sort of entering that we have experience with. So this just puts the problem back a step. Furthermore, how can a being enter time in order to create if time did not already exist?
A Bad Response: What explains God?
Here’s a response to the cosmological argument that a lot of people are tempted to provide but which is not a good response. Sometimes people think of the cosmological argument as asking for an explanation of the universe. The theist says that the universe’s explanation is God. The atheist responds by asking for the explanation of God’s existence.
This fails for a few different reasons.
First, we are talking about the argument from contingency. The argument from contingency argues that all of the contingent facts that there are require a non-contingent explanation. But any sort of non-contingent object that explains all of the contingent facts will not have an explanation for its existence beyond its non-contingency. It could not fail to exist.
Secondly, when we provide a scientific explanation E for some phenomenon x but we do not provide an explanation for E, often, this is not reason to reject E. For example, if we see a trail in a cloud chamber that curves a particular way in a magnetic field, an electron might be the best explanation of our observations, but it would be inappropriate to reject the electron-explanation if we were unable to answer what caused the electron. Likewise, if God is what explains the universe’s existence, yet we cannot explain God’s existence, this does not mean that we should reject theism.
Unfortunately, this last response has become quite popular since it was published in Dawkins’s God Delusion (it had previously appeared in Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian and in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion). While it may be able to target some forms of the Cosmological Argument, it is not an appropriate response to the Argument from Contingency.