The “Necessary Being” vs. “Contingent Being” Argument
The argument which Justin posted is not unlike many that I’ve seen before. It clearly seeks to trade on a distinction between “necessary existence” and “contingent existence,” a dichotomy which I think is unjustifiable. I strongly suspect that it has its roots in Anal Phil, which seems to run away with itself in “modal logic” with passionate abandon. If we begin with the fact that existence exists, what necessitates dividing the concept ‘existence’ into two opposed categories like this?
The argument dwells a lot on which of these categories can “cause” the other. It does not ask whether existence as such is caused, but whether one or the other category (“necessary existence” or “contingent existence”) can be caused, and if so, by which category.
The argument affirms the following premise:
Nonbeing Cannot Cause Being (Non-B>B) The Principle of Causality.
Look at the next premise:
Contingent Being Can't Cause Contingent Being (Bc>Bc) Dependency.
The next premise only compounds the problem:
Only Necessary Being Can Cause a Contingent Being (Bn->Bc) = The Positive Principle of Modality.
Then the argument affirms the following premise:
Necessary Being Cannot Cause a Necessary Being (Bn>Bn) = The Negative Principle of Modality.
This hints at an important reason why I think the proposed distinction between “necessary existence” vs. “contingent existence” is fallacious. The concept existence (by itself, that is) is axiomatic; it is an irreducible primary. What the concept 'existence' identifies does not depend on anything prior to it; there is nothing prior to existence. Existence exists, and there’s no contest here. The test for this is the fact that the concept ‘existence’ is not defined in terms of prior concepts. Its definition is ostensive, not conceptual. That’s one reason why it’s an axiomatic concept: it’s conceptually irreducible. There is no concept which is more fundamental in our hierarchy of knowledge than the concept of existence.
But the concepts ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ are not like this. They are not axiomatic. They presuppose the validity of prior concepts. The test for this is the fact that these concepts are defined in terms of prior concepts; that is, in terms of concepts which are more fundamental in our hierarchy of knowledge. These more fundamental concepts inform the concepts ‘necessary’ and ‘contingent’ with the context which makes them meaningful. Since these are not axiomatic concepts (for instance, they do not name or identify something which is directly perceived), they need to be informed by prior concepts in order to have meaning, This is one reason why it’s so ironic, in my view, when Christians affirm arguments of this nature, which try to draw such hefty conclusions from notions like “necessary existence” and “contingent existence”: Christians say their worldview is necessary for “meaning,” and yet here we have concepts employed in an manner which allows them no meaning. If they have meaning, what is it? Well, what are their definitions? If they have definitions in terms of prior concepts, then they are not themselves conceptually irreducible; they depend on more fundamental concepts in that case. And yet the premises of this argument put them on the same level with an axiomatic concept. We have essentially a double package-deal here which couples an axiomatic concept with two higher-level concepts as if they were themselves axiomatic. This simply doesn’t work. It’s really an attempt to pair an axiomatic concept with two stolen concepts, a move which completely invalidates the argument employing such a monstrosity.
The next premise simply confirms the imbroglio which I mentioned above:
Every Contingent Being is Caused by a Necessary Being (Bn->Bc) = The Principle of Existential Causality.
Then there’s another problematic premise:
The Necessary Being is similar to the similar contingent being it causes = The Principle of Analogy (Bn-similar->Bc)
In the case of the Christian god, the problematic nature of this premise is evident in other respects. The Christian god is supposed to be a “necessary being,” while everything it has created (i.e., “caused” to exist) is “contingent being.” Naturally the arguer has in mind the “contingent being” known as man. Other examples of “contingent being” certainly seem as dissimilar to the Christian god as one could get. Dirt, for example, is supposed to have been “caused” by the Christian god, but how is dirt as a “contingent being” at all similar to the Christian god as a “necessary being”? The Christian god is supposed to be non-physical, supernatural, indestructible, infinite, omnipotent, infallible, not a composite of more fundamental materials, etc. But can we say this about dirt? I don’t think so. Dirt is physical (not “non-physical”), it’s natural (not “supernatural”), destructible (it can be eroded or disintegrated into dust and blown away, or solidified into sandstone, etc.), finite (it is what it is, and only what it is, not something more than what it is), not omnipotent, not infallible, a composite of more fundamental materials (e.g., atoms and molecules, silicates, carbonates, etc.), etc. In every respect, this “contingent being” is quite dissimilar to the “necessary being” which Christianity holds as its cause. Other counterexamples could be cited. For instance, rocks, rivers, planets, quasars, moons, comets, flowers, ice crystals, quartz, clouds, dung, etc. But all of these things are supposed to be examples of “contingent being,” and yet seem to enjoy no relevant similarity with the “necessary being” that is said to be their cause.
In the case of man as “contingent being,” there are still problems to contend with. For instance, man is a biological organism. But the Christian god is certainly no biological organism. Unlike man, it is said to be “incorporeal” – i.e., it has no body. It has no stomach, liver, pancreas, gall bladder, even a heart. It doesn’t even have a brain. Yes, that’s right, Christians worship a brainless being. (And it’s still unclear to me how a brainless being can be “intelligent.”) Also, the Christian god does not face the fundamental alternative which man as a biological organism faces, i.e., life vs. death. The Christian god is supposed to be eternal, immortal, indestructible. Unlike man, then, the Christian god’s continued existence is not dependent upon its actions: it does not need to seek food, water, shelter, or other values. Man’s existence, on the other hand, is dependent on the procurement of values; without the values of food, water, shelter, etc., he will die. But since the Christian god does not face this fundamental alternative, it would have no need for any values to begin with; in fact, it's not supposed to have any needs whatsoever. “Needs” are a symptom of a “contingent being,” a being dependent upon something for its existence. So in what way is the Christian god as “necessary being” similar to man as “contingent being” which it is said to have caused to exist?
Christians may cite man’s capacity for rationality, spirituality and holiness as points of similarity with the Christian god. But even here we encounter problems. Rationality is not only volitional in nature (it is a chosen commitment), it also has a conceptual nature. Rationality is the commitment to reason as one’s only means of knowledge and his only guide to action. Reason is the faculty by which an individual identifies and integrates what he perceives. What is the form in which man identifies and integrates what he perceives? It is in the form of concepts that he does this. It is in the form of concepts that man develops and retains his knowledge. But I have already shown that the Christian god, as an omniscient consciousness, would not possess its knowledge in the form of concepts (see for instance my blog Would an Omniscient Mind Have Knowledge in Conceptual Form?). So already we’re seeing a fundamental dissimilarity here: rationality presupposes conceptual knowledge, and the Christian god, qua omniscient mind, would not possess knowledge in conceptual form. The other two proposed categories likewise follow suit. The Christian god’s capacity for both spirituality and holiness are informed by omniscience and infallibility, while even in the most optimal of conditions man’s capacity for these same would not be so informed. Man is neither omniscient nor infallible, conditions having to do with one’s nature of consciousness which are more fundamental than either spirituality or holiness. So upon closer inspection, the claim to similarity here is simply a mirage.
The application of the argument proposed by its defender offers another category of similarity: emotion. He states:
I am a rational, emotional and spiritual person.
Therefore, the one prior to me must also be rational, emotional and spiritual since we are similar (#12)
Now what does this entirely realistic scenario tell us about the nature of emotions? It tells us that emotional experience presupposes non-omniscience. Had I been omniscient, I would have already known that my wife was admitted to the ER, and why, and that she was not in any immediate danger. So there’d be no causation for a spike in my emotional experience. But since I am only a man, and have my non-omniscient, fallible mind to work with, I’d have no way of knowing any of this before the nurse called to tell me about it. Furthermore, my emotions in such a case are dependent on my value of my wife. I value my wife because she’s important to me, to my wellbeing, to my existence. Without her, I would have a completely different view of life. But if I were eternal, immortal, indestructible, facing no alternative between life and death, having no needs, etc., the wellbeing of my wife would have no objective significance to my existence or conscious experience. Without the need for values, there'd be nothing to threaten me, so I would be completely indifferent to her wellbeing. Emotions, then, presuppose the very conditions which, on the Christian view, make us “contingent beings”: non-omniscience, fallibility, mortality, destructibility, dependence upon conditions being met, contingence, etc.
These are some of the points I would raise in response to this argument. The upshot is that it is deeply problematic, both from an objective understanding of the world, and also from a Christian viewpoint. But it is most problematic from an objective understanding, an understanding without which it would have no meaning to begin with.
There is of course something entirely and conspicuously missing from the argument, and that is any consideration for the proper relationship between a consciousness and its objects. It is this relationship which is the make-or-break consideration when it comes to the principle of objectivity. The argument clearly wants to assume objectivity (since it seeks to affirm how things are, independent of anyone’s wishing, preferences, ignorance, etc.), but it does not proceed from an informed understanding of what objectivity involves. This is clear from its conclusion, which posits something which is supposed to be a conscious being (the Christian god) as the cause of everything else. By what means did it bring everything else into existence? By means of conscious activity, e.g., an act of will. This is not stated explicitly in the argument, but that’s because it deliberately avoids dealing with the issue of metaphysical primacy. It makes no attempt to consider the proper relationship between consciousness and its objects, but its conclusion could not survive without the assumption that a consciousness could have the ability to “create” its own objects, or by some conscious activity bring them into existence ex nihilo. Why else would the distinction between “necessary existence” and “contingent existence” have any significance for the arguer?
As always, readers' comments are welcome.
by Dawson Bethrick