How should one respond to the Argument from Contingency?

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

7 Comments

  • Mutluhan Seferoğlu
    December 15, 2014 - 7:42 pm | Permalink

    I used to think “What explains God?” a terrible response. Even not I don’t accept it as a “complete refutation”. However, it shows that the argument from contingency have some limitations. Consider this:

    “Necessary being X necessarily cause Y.”

    If a necessary being necessarily cause something, this other being would be a necessary being too, but it would have an explanation in terms of other necessary being.

    Therefore, it’s not silly as it seems to ask for an explanation of a necessary being.

    • Dan Linford
      March 12, 2015 - 9:18 am | Permalink

      You might be right that it is possible for a necessary x to bring about some necessary cause y. However, just because this is possible does not mean that every necessarily existent thing requires an explanation for its existence; it is perfectly comprehensible that a necessarily existent thing has no further explanation for its existence.

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  • March 12, 2015 - 9:02 am | Permalink

    since we do not know the source of what makes a being one that actually is a truly “freewill” being, or a being one that has free will, it is absurd to argue that if it is not “necessary” then it MUST BE arbitrary or capricious. The only way this follows is if one assumes a false dichotomy of pure determinism or pure carpricious. When one posits a world in which true LFW exists then it is completely consistent to argue that God has LFW and thus his choices are neither NECESSARY or CAPRICIOUS. Thus your argument, at best is as circular as you accuse Theism to be.

    • Dan Linford
      March 12, 2015 - 9:15 am | Permalink

      A few things.

      First, I never accused theism of being “circular”.

      Second, part of the challenge is for the theist to explain how God could have libertarian free will. You state — rightly — that IF God has libertarian free will then Her actions are neither capricious nor necessary; but given what else is said about God’s actions and nature, it is difficult to make sense of this claim.

      Either God has reasons for Her actions or not. If God does have reasons for Her actions, where else could these reasons originate than God’s essence? If they do originate somewhere other than God’s essence, then there is something other than God which was, apparently, not created by God (namely, the origins of God’s reasons). On the other hand, if God does not have reasons for Her actions, then God’s actions really are capricious. It seems that, on the theist’s view, the only possible origin for God’s reasons for action is God’s essence. But because God’s essence is necessary, God’s actions would also be necessary. Because God’s actions would be necessary, God would not have free-will. Moreover, God’s creation would not be contingent after all.

  • Gary Lehr
    April 10, 2015 - 12:37 am | Permalink

    In the first possibility you are arguing that God does not have libertarian free will. With that I agree, God cannot act against his own character and nature. There does seem to be an unspoken assumption in this premise however. That being that God must always act upon every aspect of his intrinsic nature. (“what ever God is He must do”) I think for your premise to be sound you need to present arguments supporting that assumption.
    In the second possibility you seem to be arguing that, if there is nothing in Gods intrinsic nature that demands the creation of the universe then it must be a capricious and arbitrary act. I would question the premise that an arbitrary act of God must, by necessity, also be capricious. So again I would like to see what your supporting arguments are.
    I believe a third possibility is what is known as “contrary choice” This is the premise that while God cannot act against His intrinsic nature He can choose not to act upon it. If this is the case, then even if creating universes is part of His intrinsic nature the act of creation would be His voluntary choice. Meaning then that the universe is not contingent.

    • Dan Linford
      April 10, 2015 - 8:16 am | Permalink

      In regards to your response to my first possibility: I never said that God must always act upon every aspect of Her intrinsic nature in every action that She performs. That would be absurd; surely, there are aspects of Her nature that are not relevant for many actions that She might perform. This does not mean that there is no aspect of Her nature that is relevant.

      In regards to your response to my second possibility: you argue that just because there is nothing in God’s “intrinsic nature” that causes Her to create the universe, this does not mean that God’s creative act would be arbitrary. Note that, by “arbitrary”, I mean without reason. Apparently, you think that God might have some other reasons to act; I wonder what these might be, given that prior to Creation, nothing exists but God. Does God create God’s reasons? If so, then these must come of necessity from God’s nature or else they are arbitrary. The only other possibility is to say that God’s reasons arise independently of God, but this amounts to denying God’s aseity.

      You bring up a third possibility that you call “contrary choice”, in which, while not acting against Her nature, God can choose not to act upon Her nature. I’m not sure what that means, but I wonder where God’s reasons for not acting upon Her nature come from. Apparently, they cannot come from Her nature. Does She create such reasons (in which case they are necessary), do they arise independently (denying God’s aseity), or does She arbitrarily abstain from acting on Her nature?