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The Cosmological Argument Part 2: Objections

March 17, 2010

Here is the second part of my paper:

The argument from contingency is an argument that I am generally sympathetic to, the premises seem plausible and the reasoning is valid. But, there are plenty of others who have felt differently about this argument and offered penetrating objections to the argument. I will not give any replies to the objections in this section because it is not the aim of this paper, but just to offer some of the more penetrating objections to this argument.

There are five premises to the argument from contingency as I have offered it. The first premise (1) says that there are contingent things. This premise seems to be pretty widely accepted amongst philosophers today, this is not to say that it always has been but most of the arguments against there being contingent things, that I am aware of, have tried to show that we cannot make sense out of modal terms such as necessary, contingent, possible, etc. With the advent of modal logic and other research done by philosophers on modality this attitude seems to have generally gone the way of the dodo, because of this I will not explore any objections to (1). (5) Also seems to be relatively uncontroversial, it seems that most of us hold that explanations (at least of the relevant sort) have the properties of being irreflexive, asymmetric, and intransitive. So I see no need to investigate objections to (5) as well. On that note, lets turn our attention to (2)-(4). Starting with premise (2):

(2) For any X and Y such that X and Y are contingent, there is a collection Z such that X and Y members of Z.

The premise (2) makes use of words like ‘collection’ and ‘member’. This leaves us with the question of how to understand these terms. The way in which I understand this principle is in terms of parts and whole relations, where members are parts (or at least like) and collections are wholes, respectively. Under this reading, (2) follows from the principle of unrestricted composition in classical mereology. The principle of unrestricted composition states that for any two objects there is a third object, which is composed of the two original objects objects. Another way to state the principle is that for any two objects there is a third object which they are parts of. But there are questions about the plausibility of such a principle.

It seems that we have an idea about what kinds of things enter into part and whole relations: My stomach is part of my body, the cliff is part of the mountain, the soul is part of the shoe, Ohio is a part of the U.S., a noun phrase is part of a sentence, etc. But why think that when we have any sort of two (or more) things there would be a third thing that they are parts (or members) of? It would seem strange to think that there really is some object that is the collection whose members are my left foot and the moon, or the Eiffel Tower and Rip Taylor’s toupée.

Since there are plenty of things that don’t seem to enter into composition and make a whole or collection, why think that all of the contingent beings make a further being which is a collection of all of them. The examples I offered above of things that don’t enter into composition are prime examples of things that one would think are contingent. This is enough to provide a counter-example to (2), but it seems that the suspicion of what is at the heart of (2) goes deeper than just this. (1) in conjunction with two yields (A), that WORLD exists. This conclusion we may find to be much less plausible than our commitment to the truth of (2) or any similar premise that could be substituted for (2). Sure, we talk about the world and what exists in it and how there could have been some world other than this one, but this does not mean that we are seriously committed to an entity called the world. All that world talk is, is just a mere façon de parler. We don’t think that there is an entity that is the sum of all of the other contingent things that there are no more than there is an entity that is the sum of the Eiffel Tower and Rip Taylor’s toupée. And this gives us reason to doubt one of the two premises that gave us this conclusion. Since it seems obvious that there are contingent things (2) must be the problem.

Now let’s move on to premise (3):

(3) If all of the members of a collection are contingent then the collection itself is contingent.

The motivation that I gave for this premise seems to require some sort of dependence relation between the collection of contingent things and it’s members. The way that the dependence relation runs in my argument to motivate (3) is from members to collection. But why think this? Why not think that the dependence relations run in the opposite direction: from the members to the collection?

Throughout the history of philosophy various philosophers have held that the dependence relations between collection and member or part and whole can run from collection or whole to member or part, some of these philosophers hold that this is precisely the case for the world. The totality of reality is ontologically prior and independent of what constitutes it and what constitutes it is just an abstraction of, and thus dependent on, the entirety of reality. The view that reality is prior to what constitutes it, has been defended in contemporary philosophy by Jonathan Shaffer.

One may think that the same may be true for the collection of contingent truths. WORLD is not dependent on any of its members but instead it’s members are dependent on it. This does not entail but seems to cast doubt on the possibility of WORLD being a contingent thing. If WORLD does not depend on its members the question of whether or not exists in a world without them seems to be up in the air. Surely if the members of WORLD are dependent on it then if WORLD’s members exist, WORLD must exist also. But the question is left open as to whether or not inverse conditional holds. Because of this we have no more reason (as of yet at least) to think that (3) is true than (3) being false, which makes the argument seem wanting.

With that said lets move on to premise (4):

(4) For any X such that x is contingent, there is a Y such that Y explains X’s existence.

Premise (4) seems to be the central premise to the argument from contingency. It seems to do the most work and seems to be the most controversial.

There are varying ways to read (4). The first way is that for anything that is contingent there must be a sufficient reason for its existence. This reading yields a very strong principle that I am sure that few people find plausible called the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). Any problem for any weaker reading of (4) should also yield a problem for the reading of (4) which uses PSR. What I find to be a damning problem with this reading is that it seems that if the principle is true and a necessary being is the only sufficient reason for all contingent things, then it seems to undercut the starting point for the argument from contingency period. Premise (1) holds that there are contingent things, but if PSR is true and a necessary being is the sufficient explanation for all contingent things, then if the necessary being exists, the contingent beings do too. But, the necessary being cannot fail to exist, so neither can the contingent things. This makes it the case that the contingent things are not in fact contingent and are really necessary. But if this is true then (1) is false and the argument is not sound. So it seems that any reading of (4) in which PSR is true will not give us a sound cosmological argument period.

A weaker reading of (4) holds for any contingent thing that there must be an explanation, that isn’t necessarily sufficient, for the contingent beings existence. Under this reading the explanation doesn’t entail the existence of the contingent things, but an explanation is necessary for the existence of contingent things. But, there are still considerations against this weaker principle. It seems that there are brute facts about the world. That is facts that have no explanation. And further it seems that some of these facts are contingent. If one is a libertarian incompatibilist about free will, then it seems plausible to hold that there are (or at least could be) choices that a given agent makes that have no explanation at all. It could be the case that an agent choose an action A over not-A without there being any sort of explanation for this. Another thing that may be a consideration against this reading of (4) is the indeterminacy of the motions of subatomic particles and when and why subatomic particles go in and out of existence. From the little that I understand it appears that certain subatomic particles can pop in and out of existence without there being any way to determine when and where they will come in and out of existence and without any sort of apparent reason or cause for these occurrences. Which, if there is no reason for these occurrences then this reading of (4) cannot be true for every contingent thing in reality. One Last consideration against this reading of (4) is that if we have reason to believe it to be true then we must have reason to believe that it is true either a priori or A posteriori. But, it seems that we can conceive that there are contingent things that exist without any reason for their existence. This gives us reason to think that we don’t have any a priori reasons for thinking that this reading of (4) is true, since it doesn’t appear to be conceptual truth. And it is hard to see how we could have reasons true a posteriori since there are things that appear to occur (or come into existence) without a reason. The aforementioned examples are prime examples of this.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew permalink
    March 20, 2010 5:54 am

    Well, if you’re going to talk mereology, then try this:

    1. No object is a proper part of itself.

    2. Define the collection C of all contingent facts.

    3. We can trivially find more than one contingent fact. Therefore C is not atomic.

    4. All contingent facts are therefore proper parts of C.

    5. By (1)+(4), C is not a contingent fact.


  2. March 20, 2010 3:48 pm

    Well, if you’re going to talk mereology, then try this:

    1. No object is a proper part of itself.

    2. Define the collection C of all contingent facts.

    3. We can trivially find more than one contingent fact. Therefore C is not atomic.

    4. All contingent facts are therefore proper parts of C.

    5. By (1)+(4), C is not a contingent fact.


    You are right that from (1) and (4) we get that C is not a contingent fact, but I don’t see how your argument for (4) is valid. (2) and (3) don’t imply (4) at all. Here is an argument for the contrary.

    (1) C is the collection of all contingent facts.
    (2) C is a member of itself.
    (3) Therefore C is contingent.

    Maybe it would be better to think of it as terms of parts of classes or members of sets. One thing that makes what I wrote seem awkward is that in mereology the parthood relation works like the subset relation, while I talk like I am talking about sets and the elementhood, or membership relation. Set’s can have themselves as their own members while not be their own propersubset.

    Here is maybe something that might be going on in your argument. Let us say that (a) C is the whole such that every contingent thing constitutes a proper part of it. With this and the fact that (b) no object is a proper part of itself we get (c) C is not contingent. But that’s not what I am claiming is true of C and in fact try to motivate as being impossible in part 1. Instead if the collection C is the whole whose parts are contingent. But this leaves open whether or not parts refers to only proper parts or if it includes improper parts too. The premise (3) specifies that improper parts are included. Then in my objections I shows a position one could take that would cast doubt on (3)’s truth. If one thinks that members depend on their collections for their existence, we have reason to doubt that improper parts are included.

    But maybe I am missing something. If you could expand on your premises more that would be great.

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