Saturday, October 21, 2006

The Cosmological Argument from Contingency

The deductive cosmological argument from contingency has a long and illustrious history. It’s been exposited and defended by the likes of, e.g., G.W. Leibniz, Samuel Clarke, and recently (e.g.) Stephen C. Davis, Ronald Nash, Robert Koons, and Alexander Pruss. However, a number of contemporary theists seem to shy away from defending it, such as J.P. Moreland, Peter Van Inwagen, and William Lane Craig (although Craig seems to have warmed up to it slightly in recent years, given his more-positive-than-usual assessment of it in his essay in The Rationality of Theism).

This version of the cosmological argument has been given a number of construals, depending on how its proponents spell out the notions of a contingent being and the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). One common way to spell out these notions is as follows:

A contingent being or state of affairs is a being or state of affairs that exists, but doesn’t have to – its nonexistence is logically (or metaphysically) possible. So, for example, rocks, trees, and you and I are contingent beings, and George W. Bush being the current U.S. President is a contingent state of affairs. By contrast, a necessary being or state of affairs is a being or state of affairs that exists or obtains of logical (or metaphysical) necessity – to use possible worlds talk, one that exists or obtains in all possible worlds. So, for example, if Anselm’s God exists, then it is a necessary being.

Finally, PSR states that (a) for every being that exists, there is a sufficient reason for why it exists, and (b) for every state of affairs, there is a sufficient reason for why it obtains. PSR has prima facie plausibility, and is often defended by offering one or more of the following three considerations. First, it seems to make sense of our intuitions when we reflect on sample cases. So, for example, suppose there is a ball on the lawn in your front yard. No one would say that there is no sufficient reason for why the ball exists, or why it’s there on the lawn. Obviously, the ball has an explanation for its origin (in a toy factory), its continued existence (in terms of, e.g., the properties of the particles that constitute the ball), and its being on the lawn now (your daughter left it there). The same sorts of explanations seem to generalize to any case we can think of. Therefore, we have some support for PSR based on reflection on cases. Second, some have argued that PSR is self-evident. Self-evident propositions are those that can be seen to be true merely by coming to understand what they assert. That is, once you understand what they mean, you can see that they’re true. So, for example, consider the proposition, “all triangles have three angles”. Once I understand the constituent concepts of this proposition, I can see that it’s true. Similarly for “nothing can be red all over and green all over at the same time.” And similarly, say some proponents of the contingency argument, for PSR. Third, even if one remains unpersuaded by the previous two considerations, one may think that it’s a presupposition of rational thought. Compare: Although it's notoriously difficult to justiify the existence of material objects, and the existence of a past, it nonetheless seems pathological to deny that material objects exist, or to deny that the universe has existed for more than ten minutes (as opposed to thinking that it was created ten minutes ago, with an appearance of age, and with false memories of a longer past). All sane people accept these propositions, and -- say some proponents of the argument from contingency -- the same is true of PSR. Thus, even if you think we can’t prove it, you must accept it to be a rational agent. Given these notions, we may now state the argument.

It’s undeniable that contingent beings exist. After all, we came into existence, and could go out of existence without much trouble. The same is true of rocks, trees, our planet, and in fact every object in the universe. In fact, the universe itself seems to be just one big contingent being. If so, then by PSR, it has a sufficient reason for its existence. Now since it’s a contingent being, it can’t account for it’s own existence in terms of its own nature, even if it has existed forever. For even if the contingent universe existed forever, the following contingent state of affairs would obtain:

(CF1) There being an eternally existent contingent universe.

But if so, then by PSR, there is a sufficient reason for why CF1 obtains, in which case we must look for a reason beyond our contingent universe.

Now whatever that “something” is, it can’t just be more contingent beings. For even our universe is explained in terms of an infinite series of contingent beings, the following contingent state of affairs would obtain:

(CF2) There being an infinite series of contingent beings.

But if so, then by PSR, there is a sufficient reason for why the infinite series of contingent beings exists or why CF2 obtains. In short, no matter how many contingent beings we throw into the explanatory “pot”, the existence of our contingent universe – or any contingent being whatever, for that matter – cannot be sufficiently accounted for purely in terms of contingent beings. But if not, then the sufficient reason for the existence of our contingent universe must be in terms of at least one necessary being. And, as Aquinas would say, “this we all call ‘God’.

9 comments:

interlocutor said...

exapologist,

I would like to contact you by email if that is possible, but I really don't want to put my personal info up here. I don't suppose you would be interested in adding an anonymous email address to your profile? Or maybe moderating the comments here so that I can post my personal info for you to see and delete?

We have a lot in common that I would like to discuss.

interlocutor said...

I'm not sure you want comments from other atheists or not, but it seems there are a few problems with the principle of sufficient reason (PSR).

1) A category mistake. PSR replaces "an entity/being" with "the set of all entities/being" (i.e. the universe). What applies to a particular argument within a set does not necessarily apply to the set itself.

2) It is an a posteriori claim. Even though "some have argued that PSR is self-evident," it does not seem analytic (even assuming, contra Quine, that analytic statements are possible in the first place) unless the notion of existence somehow implies causation. If this is case, it doesn't appear obvious.

The problem, then, becomes justifying PSR. There seems, at least, one major difference between saying an extant ball (or anything else) and an extant universe. The ball and every other entity come into existence within the context of the universe (i.e. they occur within space and time and from material to material). The beginning of the universe is, at least, unique in that it did not come about in the same context. Why, then, should we expect the coming-into-being of the universe (without the context of the universe) to behave in the same way as the coming-into-being of all other entities (within the context of the universe)?

Anyway, those are my thoughts. I look forward to yours.

By the way, in your initial post, you wrote, "I also ask that you refer to the relevant apologetics book and its author. I promise I'll do my best to do the same." I think that your very strong presentation of this argument would be further strengthened by quotes from some of its proponents.

Anyway, I enjoy your blog. It is a nice read and an excellent project.

exapologist said...

Hi interlocutor,

Great comments!

I'll work my way through your nice points from last to first, but I'll tell you already that my replies will all be pretty much concessive.

3) I agree. I realized my hypocrisy after I posted the comment. I hope to revise it by adding quotes and endnotes soon.

2) I worry about the sort of claim PSR is supposed to be as well. At this stage, my goal is just to fairly exposit the argument, but I plan to discuss the nature of PSR when I get to evaluation stage. I agree that it's not analytic a priori, but I think that at least some proponents of the argument take PSR to be synthetic a priori. I don't want to reveal my hand too much yet, but I think that not even this can be truly said of PSR.

1) I agree that something is fishy here. I'm a bit shaky on the history of PSR as it has been used in the argument from contingency, so I'll have to go to my bookshelf to check, but I think that it was originally construed so as to have universal scope -- both objects and facts/states of affairs always have a sufficient reason for why the exist and why they obtain, respectively.

(The following discussion is largely derivative of William Rowe's in his book, The Philosophy of Religion (Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth, 1978), pp. 16-30). Sometimes, however, authors restrict the scope to just objects or substances, and sometimes the scope is restricted to just states of affairs. Thus, there are at least three ways to construe PSR:

PSR1: For every object that exists, there is a sufficient reason for its existence. (i.e., (x)( x is an object > there is a sufficient reason for x))

PSR2: For every state of affairs, there is a sufficient reason for why it obtains (i.e., (x)(x is a state of affairs > there is a sufficient reason for x))

PSR3: For every object that exists, and for every state of affairs that obtains, there is a sufficient reason for its existence, and for why it obtains, respectively (i.e., (x)[(x is an object or x is a state of affairs) > there is a sufficient reason for x)])

In my post, I meant to construe PSR as PSR3. In light of this, consider the following two claims (although I don't mean to imply that there aren't other similar claims that need evaluating here):

1) There exists an object, such that it is the collection of all other objects.

2) The following state of affairs obtains: there being a collection of objects (a set? a mereological sum?)that is the universe.

Now if one is a universalist about material composition (i.e., any two or more objects is itself an object), then if one accepts PSR3, then one will take the collection of all objects in the universe to be an object as well, and will thus be committed to there being a sufficient reason for the referent of (1). And irrespective of whether one is a universalist about material composition, if one accepts PSR3, one will be committed to there being a sufficient reason for the referent of (2).

If this is right, then it seems that (again, to follow Rowe -- see ibid.) one can get around the category mistake fallacy problem and the fallacy of composition problems you nicely bring up.

Having said all of this, however, it seems to me that there are decisive problems with the argument, as I hope to discuss soon.

Again, great comments, interlocutor! I'll put an email for you to contact me, as you mentioned in another post.

All the best!

exapologist

Dave Armstrong said...

CA is my favorite theistic argument (I like Kalam the best, tied in with Big Bang cosmology, etc., a la Craig). But like all other theistic arguments, I don't regard it as conclusive proof (which I don't think exists in any single argument, just as with most other fields of study): only (in this case) as -- shall we say -- extremely persuasive and far superior to the alternatives or the counter-explanations.

Dave Armstrong

interlocutor said...

Dave,

"But like all other theistic arguments, I don't regard it as conclusive proof (which I don't think exists in any single argument, just as with most other fields of study). . ."

If no one theistic argument offers conclusive proof (presumably because any one argument is in some way fallacious; otherwise it would be conclusive), why do you suppose that a collection of these fallacious is any more conclusive?

While it is true that a cumulative case is needed for most other fields of study, these other fields build their cases on facts or arguments that are individually sound. E.g. Einstein's general relativity predicted that light would be bent by gravity, and this was tested and verified. Does this mean that the theory is, then, true? No, only that one of its predictions turns out to be correct. Other tests can verify or disprove other predictions of the theory. This is a far cry from your suggestion that a cumulative case can be built from individually unsound deductive arguments.

[The Cosmological Argument is] extremely persuasive and far superior to the alternatives or the counter-explanations.

I find the alternative, "I don't know," to be more promising than positing an all-powerful, magic being. For some reason, Christians find this unsettling, but before discovery, we usually don't know. Before we understood static electricity, we didn't understand how to explain lightning. Some people, who like Christians needed an explanation, decided that Zeus threw them to earth when he was angry. For them, this was "extremely persuasive and far superior to the alternatives or the counter-explanations." Scientific discovery, however, ended up offering a better alternative in time. Were these ancients wise in jumping to an "answer" by positing the existence of a pissed-off deity, or were the ones who withheld judgment wiser?

Gods are handy explanations for things. They completely circumvent the need for the work of discovery. They stand outside of the universe, have tremendous power, and don't have to act within the same physical constructs that we do. They can be used to explain anything we want them to. Why did the teens die in the car crash? God had a reason. Why did one teen in the car survive? God chose to save that one. Why is the sky blue? God made it that way. How did the universe get here? God somehow used his god-power and made it in some godish way that we don't understand. It is a very handy "explanation," no? Maybe too handy?

I prefer to say, "I don't know." Maybe a god did make it all. Maybe our universe exists inside another universe and was created by a powerful fart from a pig-like creature in that universe. I don't know. And even if physicists come up with a theory that perfectly explains the beginning of the universe (if it turns out to have one), that still doesn't mean that theory is "true." It may just be a theory that happens to work with the way the universe is. Who knows? Why do some people need an explanation so bad? Why not let things run its course? I mean, if I had a sufficient reason to believe a god existed, then I would have no problem believing that s/he created the universe. At this point, though, I'm not convinced that there is a sufficient reason to believe that the universe needs an explanation in the first place, and I certainly don't want to grab on to the first handy "explanation" around, i.e. a god. That method didn't turn out too well for the ancients when they wanted to explain lightning and I doubt it will work out too well for modern theists either (though, who knows?).

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Inter,

If no one theistic argument offers conclusive proof (presumably because any one argument is in some way fallacious; otherwise it would be conclusive), why do you suppose that a collection of these fallacious is any more conclusive?

I don't think it is technically fallacious as much as it is inadequate to prove something absolutely. I believe this, as I said, because I think it is true pretty much across the board. I also think that "faith" or some sort of inductive leap is required in virtually all opinions on anything.

While it is true that a cumulative case is needed for most other fields of study, these other fields build their cases on facts or arguments that are individually sound. E.g. Einstein's general relativity predicted that light would be bent by gravity, and this was tested and verified. Does this mean that the theory is, then, true? No, only that one of its predictions turns out to be correct. Other tests can verify or disprove other predictions of the theory. This is a far cry from your suggestion that a cumulative case can be built from individually unsound deductive arguments.

I don't think they are unsound. The difficulties lie in establishing indubitable, unquestionable premises. Everyone has that difficulty. Christians can be epistemological skeptics as well as anyone.

I find the alternative, "I don't know," to be more promising than positing an all-powerful, magic being. For some reason, Christians find this unsettling, but before discovery, we usually don't know. Before we understood static electricity, we didn't understand how to explain lightning. Some people, who like Christians needed an explanation, decided that Zeus threw them to earth when he was angry. For them, this was "extremely persuasive and far superior to the alternatives or the counter-explanations." Scientific discovery, however, ended up offering a better alternative in time. Were these ancients wise in jumping to an "answer" by positing the existence of a pissed-off deity, or were the ones who withheld judgment wiser?

You can play the game of present agnostic ignorance with the hope that science will offer something in the future if you like. I think the theistic explanation is every bit as rational (if not more so) than the non-theistic take on cosmology and (if you will) creation.

Gods are handy explanations for things. They completely circumvent the need for the work of discovery. They stand outside of the universe, have tremendous power, and don't have to act within the same physical constructs that we do. They can be used to explain anything we want them to. Why did the teens die in the car crash? God had a reason. Why did one teen in the car survive? God chose to save that one. Why is the sky blue? God made it that way. How did the universe get here? God somehow used his god-power and made it in some godish way that we don't understand. It is a very handy "explanation," no? Maybe too handy?

This is simply rhetoric, unrelated to the topic at hand.

I prefer to say, "I don't know." Maybe a god did make it all.

Good for you. Keep that open mind.

Maybe our universe exists inside another universe and was created by a powerful fart from a pig-like creature in that universe.

Exactly! This is the sort of alternative explanation you guys come up with. Fartological cosmology . . . LOL

I don't know. And even if physicists come up with a theory that perfectly explains the beginning of the universe (if it turns out to have one), that still doesn't mean that theory is "true." It may just be a theory that happens to work with the way the universe is. Who knows? Why do some people need an explanation so bad?

Some people think God is a plausible explanation. Whether we "need" to say this is another discussion. Why couldn't it also be that atheists "need" for there to be no God? I think psychological analyses of why folks believe things are ultiomately silly and inconclusive, but they are such a fabled, treasured part of the atheist polemic that I don't expect to see them go away anytime soon. I have a "need" to believe what I think is the truth about reality. No more, no less. I think atheists do, too. But we come down on different sides. No need to insult one another.

Why not let things run its course? I mean, if I had a sufficient reason to believe a god existed, then I would have no problem believing that s/he created the universe. At this point, though, I'm not convinced that there is a sufficient reason to believe that the universe needs an explanation in the first place, and I certainly don't want to grab on to the first handy "explanation" around, i.e. a god. That method didn't turn out too well for the ancients when they wanted to explain lightning and I doubt it will work out too well for modern theists either (though, who knows?).

Believe whatever you will. But you haven't shown that our beliefs on this are so irrational that they ought to be hounded out of the realm of legitimate philosophical discourse.

Dave Armstrong

interlocutor said...

Dave,

You can play the game of present agnostic ignorance with the hope that science will offer something in the future if you like. I think the theistic explanation is every bit as rational (if not more so) than the non-theistic take on cosmology and (if you will) creation.

I'm not sure what you mean by "play the game," but I don't have to hope for "science" to come up with any answer about the origin of the universe. As I said in my comment, even if science did come up with an "answer" that accounted for every fact of the matter, that still doesn't mean that that theory is actually what took place. Maybe metaphysics will come up with an answer. Maybe something we never expect will hold the answer. I have no idea.

You are different, though. You claim to have some kind of knowledge about it. You believe the theistic "explanation" is rational. First, I would be curious to know what you believe the theistic explanation is. Is it that a powerful, immaterial being did something godish and from this godish act, the universe came into existence? Is this really an "explanation" or is it just attributing a mysterious act to a more mysterious entity that can perform mysterious acts mysteriously? Is this the "rational explanation" that you are referring to? If not, what is?

Second, what is the non-theistic take on cosmology? Unlike Christianity and religions, we don't have an authoritative book to consult for our "official" position. As far as I know, there is no singular "non-theistic" take on cosmology.

This [viz. my comment about the handiness of positing a god as an explanation] is simply rhetoric, unrelated to the topic at hand.

I disagree. I think it should cause you to ask the question, "If 'God did it' can be used as an answer to anything that happened because it is vague enough to cover every situation, how would I know if I was wrong or not every time I posited it?" I would think that my comments should promote a healthy skepticism about your concern.

I prefer to say, "I don't know." Maybe a god did make it all.

Good for you. Keep that open mind.

How about you? Do you take your own advice? Do you keep an open mind about this? Are you willing to entertain the idea that there is not a god or that a god was not responsible for creating the universe? Or are you so convinced by arguments you admit are not indubitable, that you will not allow yourself the possibility of error?

Maybe our universe exists inside another universe and was created by a powerful fart from a pig-like creature in that universe.

Exactly! This is the sort of alternative explanation you guys come up with. Fartological cosmology . . . LOL


An the idea of an immaterial being who brings things material things into existence by some mysterious process sounds pretty ridiculous to me as well.

I sometimes think I want to LOL when I hear Christians talk, but hey, who knows? Maybe they are right. Maybe the pig-fart thing is right. I don't have enough information to tell you one way or another. Do you? And if so, where did you get this information? Can you share it? What lies beyond our universe? What is the process that holds it together and brought it into being (if, in fact, it did come into being)? How do you rule out the "explanations" you find ridiculous and rule in favor of the "explanations" that I find ridiculous?

Believe whatever you will. But you haven't shown that our beliefs on this are so irrational that they ought to be hounded out of the realm of legitimate philosophical discourse.

I'm sorry, did I give you the impression that I was out to show that your beliefs are irrational? I can only deal with the reasons and arguments you give. I think this cosmological argument is fallacious for the reasons I mentioned above and in the subsequent post. Exapologist sounds like he believes the argument fails for yet another reason.

Since you are the one that has some kind of knowledge about this subject, you are the only one that can really say anything about it. I can only be convinced by or fail to be convinced by your arguments. You can respond to my comments and as exapologists unfolds his criticisms of the argument, you can respond to them as well. You can prove that we are wrong and that there is a reason to believe that a mysterious act was perpetrated by a more mysterious being in a mysterious way.

You are in the driver's seat. You are the one who claims to know something. I don't claim to have knowledge on this subject. It's your move.

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Inter,

Thanks for your comments. I have neither the time nor desire to enter into this huge discussion at the moment. Too much else going on. If anything, I'll spend time discussing the problem of evil (i.e., with the people I have critiqued), which I have been writing a lot about lately.

I merely made a comment in passing (not even intended as an "argument"; simply a statement of my own belief). I responded to you in courtesy because you responded to me. But a big huge debate? Not at the moment, sorry . . .

Dave Armstrong

Steven Carr said...

Is God's nature contingent?

Is there a logically possible world where the existence of evil is compatible with the prescence of an omnipotent being, only if that omnipotent being were not all-good?

Plantinga's argument that he can find one logically possible world where evil is compatible with an all-good, all-powerful God implies that there are many logically possible worlds which are *not* compatible with the prescence of an all-powerful, all-good God.

So if there are logically possible worlds full of evil where either God does not exist, or the God in them has a very different nature to the God we all know and love, then isn't God a contingent being?

Site Meter