Contingency, Causality, & God

There is a principle of causality that states, in its simplest form, that every effect has a cause. This can be challenged by those who claim the problem of induction, namely that we have not observed every effect being generated, therefore we cannot make the conclusion. While it is true that we have not observed every effect, attempting to deny the principle would involve saying that we cannot be sure that every effect has a cause, a line of reasoning that ultimately ends in the absurdity of radical skepticism, saying that we know that we cannot know. The skeptic could merely claim that we have not observed every cause and effect, therefore we cannot be sure of the principle of causality, claiming that the principle has not been proven. But the skeptic has proved nothing himself, but merely laid out the possibility. Lastly, denying the principle of causality is a position that cannot be held consistently or lived in practicality. We cannot go through a day of our lives not being sure whether when we walk across the floor to get a drink of water that the floor will be there like it was last time, or whether the water will miss our lungs and flow down our throat like it always has before.

The principle of causality becomes relevant in several areas, one of which is the argument from contingent beings to a necessary one. Thomas Aquinas’ explained it thus:

We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. Therefore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence—which is absurd. Therefore, not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary.

(ST, 1.2.3)

Aquinas is saying that every object we observe in nature was generated, has some corruption, and is possible for it not to exist, a situation known as contingency. If it were true that everything in existence were contingent, then at some point, given enough time, there would be a situation where nothing existed, a state of affairs that would still exist now, for absolute nothing produces no things. Further, as Geisler explains:

All contingent beings need a cause, for contingent being is something that exists but that might, under other circumstances, not exist. Since it has the possibility not to exist, it does not account for its own existence. In itself, there is no reason why it exists. Once it was nonbeing, but nonbeing cannot cause anything. Being can only be caused by being. Only something can produce something.

(BECA, 121)

Note that we are not saying everything needs a reason for its existence, but a cause. If all that exists is corrupt, contingent, and needs a cause, nothing would now exist, a situation that is clearly false. Therefore a necessary being must exist.

This necessary being cannot be made of matter, for all matter has some contingency and need for a prior cause. Attempting to deny this falls prey to the problems explained in the first paragraph. Denying the contingency of all matter either ends in absurd skepticism or proves nothing.

Therefore a necessary, non-material being must exist. This all men call God.


About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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7 Responses to Contingency, Causality, & God

  1. Nate says:

    What caused God?

    More importantly, scientists have recently shown that even “empty” space has weight, which raises the question if it’s even possible to have “nothing.” In other words, no matter how much we may not want to hear it, it may be impossible to have a state of nothingness, which means there’s nothing really to explain. We simply don’t know enough yet to even know if asking “why is there something rather than nothing?” is a question worth asking.

    • humblesmith says:

      Empty space has weight? Interesting…..I seem to recall a point made by Thomists that hinges on the position that the space between objects is actually a “thing” and not nothing. Offhand I can’t recall what argument it was in, so I’ll file this away for when I run across it again. If you have a citation for this point, I’d love to have it.

      The point about nothing is that since there is something now, it is indeed not possible that there was ever a time when nothing existed. On this we both agree. I do not agree that therefore there is nothing to explain…….for what science and philosophy are both trying to explain is the something that we see.

      I would find it a bit amusing if the atheists end up concluding that there is nothing to explain since, as Bertrand Russell is quoted as saying, it was just there. If this is the conclusion, I’ll call this the Athesit of the Gaps theory, for they have hit a wall with their theory and say there is nothing beyond the wall.

      As for what caused God…….c’mon Nate, I suspect you know the answer to this.

  2. Mike says:

    One question, if the effect is the beginning of time itself, how could the cause have preceded it? Time would have to have begun, before it began. That’s the logical equivalent of someone saying that they were born before they were born. Is that the logic you subscribe to?

    • humblesmith says:

      The answer comes from the nature of time, which is defined as change, not as a state of being. God causes from eternity, which is non-sequential (unchanging). Eternity is not equivalent to everlasting time; rather, it can be described as ever present. God is simple, not compound, and thus is not made of parts, does not work in sequences, which are parts, and does not think in succession. There is no logical contradiction to saying that there is an unchanging cause that is the cause of all changes. Also, we can have a logical cause without having a sequential cause.

      • Mike says:

        But mental events are changes too. If god freely willed our universe into existence, then mentally he went from a state of indecision, to a state of decision. That requires time. Otherwise, you’d have to believe that god’s decision to will the universe into existence existed from “eternity” in which case there was never a possibility that he could have done something else. I’m simply not buying the idea that god is an unchanging cause. I mean, if god can change into a man in the form of Jesus, certainly that’s quite a dramatic change, mental and material.

        • humblesmith says:

          You got it…..god did will from eternity. This does not mean he couldn’t have willed otherwise. It’s up to you whether you accept it.

          • Mike says:

            Of course I don’t accept it, because it’s preposterous, If something exists from “eternity” it cannot have been otherwise.

            All of this, I think, among other things, renders the cosmological argument from contingency impotent, since a timeless god could never have decided to not create our universe, and our universe would not technically be contingent. In other words, if A exists necessarily, and if A exists, B necessarily exists, then B exists necessarily too, because there is no possible way that B could not exist.

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