The Argument from Contingency

This is the seventh in a series of posts responding to a list of 20 arguments for the existence of god from this article. To be fair, the article does state that these arguments don’t make a case except when taken all together, using the metaphor of a rope, but I am analyzing them individually so I have responses when I encounter the argument later in other sources.

If I had been more thorough in addressing the argument from time and contingency, I would have less work to do here. That’s my reward for laziness, I suppose. However, that argument is focused more on the universe beginning to exist, whereas this one focuses more on the universe currently existing.

  1. If something exists, there must exist what it takes for that thing to exist.
  2. The universe—the collection of beings in space and time—exists.
  3. Therefore, there must exist what it takes for the universe to exist.
  4. What it takes for the universe to exist cannot exist within the universe or be bounded by space and time.
  5. Therefore, what it takes for the universe to exist must transcend both space and time.

The two most glaring errors in this argument are a fallacy of composition, treating the universe as having the same rules as things in the universe, and a total lack of support for (4). Indeed, as you’ll see, (4) is never supported, but only ever asserted.

The first two paragraphs of his explanation defend premise 1, but premise 1 is not what needs defending, although it has some problems. What needs defending is how we know it can apply to the universe, because we can only use examples of things inside the universe.

What problems do I see with premise 1? Well, he uses an organic example of a human to demonstrate that we need oxygen to exist. That’s fine. What about a rock? Of course it needs something to exist in the first place, but what does it take for that thing to exist now? Given that rocks can exist in the vacuum of space, it seems to me that the premise simply doesn’t hold true for them. One can’t say “it needs the materials it is made of to exist” because it doesn’t “need the materials it is made of” it IS the materials it is made of. Further, if you say that, then this argument is entirely undermined, for if a lump of iron can exist with only the iron of which it is made, then there is no reason the universe can’t exist with only the universe.

But not everything can be like this. For then everything would need to be given being, but there would be nothing capable of giving it. There would not exist what it takes for anything to exist. So there must be something that does not exist conditionally; something which does not exist only if something else exists; something which exists in itself. What it takes for this thing to exist could only be this thing itself. Unlike changing material reality, there would be no distance, so to speak, between what this thing is and that it is. Obviously the collection of beings changing in space and time cannot be such a thing. Therefore, what it takes for the universe to exist cannot be identical with the universe itself or with a part of the universe.

Actually, that isn’t obvious at all. Why can’t the universe exist on its own, needed nothing to sustain it in existence? It would appear that a rock can do so. Further, again, we can only experience things inside the universe, and parts of a set are not the best way to draw conclusions about the set itself, only other members of the set.

Question 1: But why should we call this cause “God”? Maybe there is something unknown that grounds the universe of change we live in.

Reply: True. And this “unknown” is God.

I can’t even express how terrible this answer is. Firstly, it isn’t an answer at all.

“Why should we call this God? Maybe it isn’t.”

“This is God.”

“OK, but WHY?”

Even worse, it’s flawed logic, because it is saying “I don’t know, therefore I know.” This simply does not work. The paragraph continues:

What we humans know directly is this sensible changing world. We also know that there must exist whatever it takes for something to exist. Therefore, we know that neither this changing universe as a whole nor any part of it can be itself what it takes for the universe to exist. But we have now such direct knowledge of the cause of changing things. We know that there must exist a cause; we know that this cause cannot be finite or material—that it must transcend such limitations. But what this ultimate cause is in itself remains, so far, a mystery.

Only the first sentence is true! Even if I accepted all of the arguments so far, he has not shown that the cause cannot be finite or material, only asserted that it can’t. Therefore, even accepting all seven arguments thus far only gets us to “There must exist a cause. But what this ultimate cause is in itself remains, so far, a mystery.”

So it is with the proofs. They let us know that at every moment the being of the universe is the creative act of a Giver—A Giver transcending all material and spiritual limitations. Beyond that, they do not tell us much about what or who this Giver is—but they point in a very definite direction. We know that this Ultimate Reality—the Giver of being—cannot be material. And we know the gift which is given includes personal being: intelligence, will and spirit. The infinite transcendent cause of these things cannot be less than they are, but must be infinitely more. How and in what way we do not know. To some extent this Giver must always remain unknown to human reason. We should never expect otherwise. But reason can at least let us know that “someone did it.” And that is of great value.

I skipped a paragraph that was more of the same, and this is the concluding argument. Keep in mind that I have found at least one fatal flaw in every argument presented so far, so we actually know nothing presented in this paragraph as proven. At best, even accepting all the arguments thus far, we can’t even “know that ‘someone did it.'” We can only say “there was probably a cause of some kind about which we know nothing regarding its nature”.

At this point, I consider seven of the 20 threads making this rope to be snipped, or at least frayed to a single fiber. Further, I confess I am losing patience with the sheer amount of condescension offered by Peter Kreeft in these presentations of the arguments to someone in my position. It was less apparent in this one, but throughout there has been a tone of strengthening existing faith with wordplay, not reaching out to non-believers, meeting them on their level, and offering solid evidence to convert them. Indeed, even if I could not see a flaw in these arguments, the tone in which they are offered would make me dig for one rather than be convinced by such an antagonistic presentation.

3 thoughts on “The Argument from Contingency

  1. Wow. This is a terrible formulation for this argument. I’m amazed that Kreeft didn’t see how incredibly easy it would be to simply substitute “God” for “the universe” in this argument to generate something with which he would wholly disagree:

    1. If something exists, there must exist what it takes for that thing to exist.
    2. God exists.
    3. Therefore, there must exist what it takes for God to exist.
    4. What it takes for God to exist cannot exist within God or be effected by God.
    5. Therefore, what it takes for God to exist must transcend God.

    More generally, this argument falls into an infinite regress, something apologists tend to rather despise:

    1. If A exists, there must exist some A’, which is what it takes for A to exist.
    2. A exists.
    3. Therefore, A’ exists.
    4. Therefore, A” exists.
    5. Therefore, A”’ exists.
      …et cetera

    It’s absolutely baffling that anyone would think this to be a reasonable argument, at all.

    1. Yeah, I observed both of those things as well. At first I was kind of surprised that he would formulate the argument like that, but, well, it’s apologetics.

      I mean, they’re the kind of people who will claim testimony is properly basic (Randal Rauser) or that their belief is properly basic because of the “inner witness” or whatever they want to call it.

      Even when they use metaphysics to describe relationship to time it always, in my view, requires that there is something that transcends god for it to make sense. This spaceless realm with non-physical time that they talk about must be extant with god or transcend him for it to make any sense.

    2. Once again, you’ve pointed out a problem I didn’t even notice. Good job. Maybe I got confused because I’ve pointed out a similar problem with these arguments before, I don’t know.

      “It’s absolutely baffling that anyone would think this to be a reasonable argument, at all.”

      The longer I continue the exercise of critically examining apologetics, the more I find myself thinking that. For myself, and I imagine also for you as a fellow ex-Christian, there is also a personal element of “HOW WAS I SO STUPID?”

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