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Some Criticisms of the Argument from Contingency that Don’t Seem to Work

In this post, I continue the task of giving the contingency argument its due. To that end, I briefly discuss three criticisms of the deductive argument from contingency that don’t seem to work. Here I’m just summarizing William Rowe’s points from his Philosophy of Religion (Belmont, Ca: Wadsworth, 1978), pp. 16-30.

1. Dependence and the fallacy of composition:

1.1 The argument fallaciously assumes that because each member of the collection of beings within the universe is dependent, that therefore the whole collection of such beings is itself dependent. But this doesn’t follow.

1.2 Reply: It would be fallacious to assume this, but the defender of the cosmological argument need not assume it for the argument to work. Rather, since the existence of the collection of dependent beings is a positive fact, then it follows from PSR alone – i.e., without the need to rely on an inference from dependence of the parts to dependence of the whole -- that there must be a sufficient reason for why the collection exists.

2. Causation and the fallacy of composition:

2.1 The argument fallaciously assumes that because each member of the collection of dependent beings has a cause, that therefore the whole collection of dependent beings has a cause. But this doesn’t follow.

2.2 Reply: It would be fallacious to assume this, but the defender of the cosmological argument need not assume it for the argument to work. Rather, since the existence of the collection of dependent beings is a positive fact, then it follows from PSR alone – i.e., without the need to rely on an inference from the need for a cause of the parts to a need from a cause of the whole -- that there must be a sufficient reason for why the collection exists.

3. Nothing’s left to explain

3.1 The defender of the cosmological argument fails to see that once the existence of each member of a collection of dependent beings is explained, the existence of the whole collection is thereby explained.

3.2 Reply: It’s not true that explaining why each member of *any* collection of dependent beings exists entails an explanation for why the whole collection exists – why there are dependent beings at all. True, there are cases *of certain sorts* in which explaining the former entails explaining the latter. For example, if a necessary being were the direct cause of each dependent being in the universe, then it would be true that explaining why each dependent being exists would thereby entail an explanation for why the whole collection exists, and why there are dependent beings at all. However, there are cases in which it wouldn’t; just take the necessary being out the previous case, and imagine each dependent being as caused by one of the others. In such a case, explaining why each dependent being exists wouldn’t explain why there are dependent beings at all.

Comments

interlocutor said…
You're probably going to come at this problem from an entirely different perspective, but I want to say something about the replies to the fallacy of composition arguments (specifically, to the reply to the Causation and the fallacy of composition argument).

The reply fails to consider that without assuming extensionality of "each member" to "the whole collection of such beings" the reasons given in defense of PSR are undermined.

The first argument you offered in defense of PSR was, "First, it seems to make sense of our intuitions when we reflect on sample cases."

Each "sample case" deals with members and not a collection. While these demonstrate that it is intuitive regarding members of the collection, it does not show that it is intuitive regarding the collection per se. This is not intuitive at all.

If, then, defenders of this cosmological argument want to argue that it is intuitive, they must assume extensionality between the two terms.

Similarly, saying that PSR is self-evident relies on the idea that the collection of all members can be substituted with the members itself.

And lastly, the idea that PSR is a presupposition of rational thought seems also to rely on the simple cases of each member having a sufficient reason, not the collection itself. In other words, a "sane" person will most likely accept that the universe is more than 10 minutes old, and also that PSR is true in the case of each member of a set. It does not seem "insane," however, to assume that PSR applies to the set itself because all empirical data is only of individual members, not of the collection of all members.

As I said, it seems that you are going to level an entirely different argument against PSR, and are, in this stage, only laying out the argument fairly, but I didn't want to let the defender of this argument out of the compositional fallacy so easily.
exapologist said…
Hi Interlocutor,

It looks as though you've beat me to the punch on some points I wanted to make (which may be for the better, given how well you've made them!).

Rowe does a great job, I think, of showing that the argument hinges on the epistemic status of PSR: *if* the strong form of PSR mentioned in my previous post is true, *then* the argument goes through. This is the point I was trying to emphasize in my post above. But, as you nicely demonstrate, we have no good reason to think that it *is* true.

You do an excellent job of making most of the points I plan to make in my next post, but I'll add a few more.

I sympathize with your concern of letting proponents of the argument off the hook too easily, but I'm happy to let them do so, if they are so inclined. My only concern is with what the arguments do and don't show, when all is fairly and honestly said and done.

All the best,

exapologist

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