The Contingency Argument in Plain Language

I am very proud to announce that I co-wrote a paper with Tim Hsiao on the Contingency Argument for God’s existence that just got accepted into The Heythrop Journal (forthcoming). This paper is aimed toward the thoughtful layman, and presents a novel critique of existential inertia. You can read it here.

3 thoughts on “The Contingency Argument in Plain Language”

  1. Hi Dr. Sanders, thank you for this wonderful paper! This is one of the best things I’ve read on the cosmological argument. I was wondering though what you thought of the following objections/questions:

    First, if existence is an activity, then either this activity exists or not. It can’t be the latter, for nothingness cannot be that by which something exists. But it can’t be the former either, for this leads to a regress: the activity’s existence exists, and the activity’s existence’s existence exists, and so on. A skeptic may prefer to take existence as a primitive and unanalyzable.

    Second, you write that if existence were essential, then “it could not possibly lose that feature”. But this seems wrong. A triangle is essentially three-sided, but surely it can lose this feature by ceasing to exist. This means an essential feature is one that a thing has at all moments of its existence. Given this, it’s trivially true that things essentially exist, since they exist at all moments of their existence.

    Third, why can’t a necessary being change with respect to its accidental properties? Not all change involves a change of nature.

    Lastly, you write that a necessary being cannot possibly be lacking in anything. Given that the being lacks material existence, it seems we need to qualify “anything”. Maybe “anything” means any positive property, but it isn’t clear what counts and doesn’t count as a positive property. Could you explain what you mean by a positive property?

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Mika!

      Great questions. First, when I say existence is an activity, I mean that it is the *principle* that makes an essence actual as opposed to non-actual. It is actualiz-ing. To say that this activity exists is true, but this is no more problematic than saying “existence exists.” Existence is admittedly notoriously difficult, and there are certainly puzzles, but I do not think this shows that existence is a thing. Now there is an exception to this. As you rightly point out, this could lead to an infinite regress. That’s why we need something that is Existence Itself (i.e., God), which this paper seeks to show!

      Second, I’m not sure I follow this objection. You seem to be suggesting that a triangle can still exist but not be three sided. Perhaps I need to clarify: I am not claiming that it is impossible for any particular triangle to cease being a triangle by losing an essential feature. Rather, I am making a claim about the nature of triangularity itself. That is to say, a triangle by definition must have three sides. An object cannot be a triangle without being three sided. If you similarly include existence in its definition, then a triangle must exist by definition. But this is absurd and must be false.

      Third, how can a necessary being have accidents? Take the necessary truth that A is A. What would it mean for this necessary truth to have an accident? Are we able to color it, add hair, or add something to its nature? But that seems impossible. Abstract objects do not have a changeable nature that allows for accidents to begin with. The reason objects like balls can have accidents is because they’re changeable substances (i.e, made of matter). But God is by definition not a changeable substance. What metaphysical account could there possibly be for allowing accidents in God?

      Lastly, that’s a good question that requires a lengthier answer than I am able to provide here. Suffice to say, it refers to positive “properties” (loosely speaking) that flow out of what it means to be a purely actual, necessary, or infinite being. For example, being limited by matter is incompatible with necessity as explained in the paper. All of the divine properties that I mention in the paper are examples of perfection precisely because they flow out of necessity, pure actuality, and infinitude.

      I hope that helps clarify!

  2. Hi Dr. Sanders,

    Thank you for your substantial and helpful reply.

    You write regarding existence that: “To say that this activity exists is true, but this is no more problematic than saying ‘existence exists.'” I agree that ‘existence exists’ is true, though my concern is whether or not this entails that existence has existence. On the one hand, if it does, then we’re off on a regress—existence has existence, which has existence, which has existence, etc. It isn’t clear this regress leads to Existence Itself, anymore than, if redness has redness, which has redness, etc. therefore Redness Itself exists.

    On the other hand, if “existence exists” doesn’t entail that existence has existence, then why doesn’t “Bob exists” also fail to entail that Bob has existence? One reply might be that Bob is a thing, while existence isn’t a thing, and only things exist. But we said that existence exists, and so if we think existence isn’t a thing, we’re committed to denying that only things exist.

    “I am making a claim about the nature of triangularity itself. That is to say, a triangle by definition must have three sides.”

    This clarification addresses my concern, thanks!

    “Take the necessary truth that A is A. What would it mean for this necessary truth to have an accident?”

    A necessary being seems different from a necessary truth. I agree that abstract objects can’t change, but it isn’t clear that this entails that other necessary beings can’t change. There’s no clear logical contradiction in the idea of a changeable concrete necessary being, and neo-classical theists would take issue with the claim that God is by definition unchangeable.

    “Suffice to say, it refers to positive ‘properties’ (loosely speaking) that flow out of what it means to be a purely actual, necessary, or infinite being.”

    Doesn’t this render this idea uninformative? If “positive properties” here refer to whatever properties flow out of God’s nature, then to say God has positive properties is merely to say that God has the properties he has. On this definition of “positive property”, finding out whether, say, omnipotence is a positive property amounts to finding out whether God has omnipotence.

    In other words, we cannot argue “God has positive properties, omnipotence is a positive property, therefore, God has omnipotence” since to support the premise that omnipotence is a positive property, we’d have to first know the conclusion, i.e. God has omnipotence.

    So it seems we need a definition of “positive property” that’s not dependent on our knowing beforehand what properties God has.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.