Contingency Argument for God’s Existence

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Perhaps my favorite cosmological argument for the existence of God is the contingency argument. It goes like this:

  1. Whatever exists that does not have to exist requires an explanation for its existence.
  2. The physical universe does not have to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe requires an explanation in something that must exist.
  4. God is the only being that must exist.
  5. Therefore, God is the explanation for the existence of the universe.

The first premise of this argument reflects the human perception that there are reasons for the existence of the things we see around us. This is what drives science, as well as every other branch of study. It’s the great question: “Why?” This question applies to anything that doesn’t have to exist or that could be different from what it is (what philosophers sometimes refer to as “contingent” things).

For example, when astronomers discovered red- colored stars, they tried to explain their existence. To say that there isn’t an explanation—not that we don’t know it but that there actually isn’t one—strikes at the foundation of rational thought. It’s to reject the whole premise that underlies the quest for knowledge. The first premise of our argument thus seems secure.

So does the second premise. If we look around the physical universe, we see it filled with stars and galaxies. And we see that the things within it obey certain laws and those physical laws have certain constants, or unchanging values.

For example, the constant C in E=MC2 refers to the speed of light, or 186,000 miles per second. This fact about light never changes, and so it is called a constant. There are many other constants, such as the gravitational constant: Gravity is so strong and not stronger or weaker. We experience three dimensions of space and one of time, not more or less.

Why?

At one time the universe didn’t contain stars and galaxies. Why do those objects exist now when they clearly don’t have to? All of these matters are subjects of scientific inquiry, and they reveal that the physical universe as a whole is contingent. That is, the universe is one way but could be another, or it could simply not be at all. It there- fore needs a reason for its own existence—an explanation.

But let’s inquire a bit further and ask about what could explain the way the physical universe is. Whatever it is, it must be greater than the physical universe; it must be something beyond space and time, beyond matter and energy, but with the power to create each of these and to establish the laws that they obey. It would be something that explains its own existence and could not fail to exist.

Once again, that sounds a lot like God: what philosophers call a “necessary” being: God could not be different from what he is, which is what premise 3 states.

This is something our intuition also tells us. There must be an ultimate explanation, one that doesn’t de- pend on anything else, and thus one that explains everything else. There must be something fundamental, something that grounds all the contingent things we see around us. And thus there must be a God.

The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument

My favorite formulation of the contingency argument is by German mathematician and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz. Here is an excellent video explaining and defending it:

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11 thoughts on “Contingency Argument for God’s Existence

  1. I am a very faithful Catholic, and enjoy very much the dual wings that lift us to heaven, reason and faith. I would like you to say more, though, about why you feel the first premise is so secure. I have spoken with many staunch atheists who are very comfortable questioning the presupposition of why we believe that there must be a reason for the universe’s existence. “Why couldn’t it be a just a cosmic accident?” How does one respond to that question of the presupposition that “Whatever exists that does not have to exist requires an explanation for its existence”? The explanation, my atheists friends would respond, is it is all just a big, cosmic fluke.

    1. Thanks Jamie,

      When we look at all the different phenomena in the universe, we know—we assume—that there are reasons for them. This is what’s called the principle of sufficient reason (something the video goes into a greater depth than I will here). To say, “okay, maybe everything in the universe has a reason for why it exists but that’s not true of the universe itself seems to me to be massively ad hoc. This dismissal of PSR once we get to the universe has been called the taxi cab fallacy. Because, once you’ve reached your final destination (the universe) you just dismiss PSR like a cab.

      Furthermore, if it isn’t true that whatever exists has a reason for why it exists then 1. this would undermine the scientific enterprise! After the 1000th failed attempt to explain a certain thing, we could just throw up our hands and say, “it looks like this is one of the things that exists inexplicably.”

      Lastly I’d want to say that in order for a deductive argument (such as the one presented) to be considered a good one. The premises (steps of the argument) don’t need to be 100 percent certain. They just have to be more plausibly true than their negations. So, I put it to you, which seems more likely, that Whatever exists that does not have to exist requires an explanation for its existence. Or that whatever exists that does not have to exist can exist without cause or reason.

      Watch the video, I think that will help some.

  2. 1. Which is true.
    2. Also true.
    3. How does the existence of one thing require another existing thing?
    If the universe does not have to exist, there just was the choice between existing and not existing, just on and off. How does the decision must be done by another existing thing? What definitely excludes accident?
    4. Among mankind, this one is arguable, I guess. Just your subjective point, is it not?
    5. In my opinion the weakness in 3) and 4) breaks the logic of this chain.

    Looking forward to your answer!

    Greetings,

    Felix

    1. Thanks Felix,

      You agree with premise 1 and 2, but question premise 3. But premise 3 is simply the conclusion from the first and second premises. Since 1) Whatever exists that does not have to exist requires an explanation for its existence. And since 2) The physical universe does not have to exist. It therefore follows that 3) the universe requires an explanation in something that must exist. So if you agree that premise one and and premise two are more plausibly true than their negations—which you appear to—then you should accept premise three.

      You take issue with premise four: God is the only being that must exist. God by definition is a metaphysically necessary being whose non-existence is impossible. This premise states that he is the only such being (I’m not sure if one has to agree with that in order to be a Christian). I concede that I did not defend this premise in my short article, but it is defended in the video displayed. Did you get a chance to watch the video? What did you think of that argument? That this necessary being must be a personal agent, and not just a platonic object?

      Thanks for contributing to the discussion, Felix.

  3. This sounds like you’re making God a presupposition. Dietrich von Hildebrand argued against making God a presupposition . . .

  4. I find it hard to understand how someone as clearly thoughtful as you is seriously putting this forward as an argument for God’s existence.

    1. Whatever exists that does not have to exist requires an explanation for its existence.
    This seems an obvious setup or loophole for 4 below. What does “have to exist” mean? And why does existence require explanation? We may like explanations, but they’re not required. Many of the arguments for/against God seem to end up with the believer accepting God’s existence without explanation, and the nonbeliever accepting the Universe’s existence without explanation. Neither is satisfying.

    2. The physical universe does not have to exist.
    I don’t know how anyone can make this assertion, there’s just no basis for it. We don’t know enough about its origins to say this. Perhaps the universe has existed forever in a continuous cycle of creation and destruction, perhaps there are infinite universes, we just don’t know. I’m still not sure what “has to exist” means.

    3. Therefore, the universe requires an explanation in something that must exist.
    Even ignoring the above, this doesn’t follow. Why can’t the universe have just popped into existence? I think the problem might be that our semantics don’t cover this reasoning well. What is existence, what is time? Quantum physicists are wrestling with this question; I love the quote “not only is the universe stranger than we think, it’s stranger than we can think”. We too often fall into the “god of the gaps” reasoning, which has been proven wrong so many times over history.

    4. God is the only being that must exist.
    See my comment on 1 above. This is circular. Reminds me of the ontological argument (I think it’s called) where perfection requires existence so God must exist.

    Perhaps you were making this argument with tongue in cheek? In all the reading I’ve done on this subject, it always seems to devolve into either who’s the better at arguing, or “does too / does not”. Some people are Believers, some are not. I’m not, because I’ve seen no evidence for the existence of anything supernatural, and better explanations for the natural. I find it more interesting to wonder why people feel the need for God.

  5. There is a simple alternative to the claim that God is the only being that must exist.

    Suppose that all that is “necessary” is all energy/matter that exists in the metaverse plus the laws of physics. All that is “contingent” is the transient forms that the energy/matter takes. God is unnecessary as causer.

    But He could still exist and be the omni-God, but just didn’t cause the universe to come into being. That makes no difference to the resrrection/salvation claims of Christianity. Why spend so much time arguing that God is the causer when that is irrelevant?

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