That thing about contingency

AquinasOne version of the cosmological argument relies, among other assumptions, on the following:

Every contingent being has a cause.

Leaving aside the necessity of defining what we mean by "cause", and of explaining how such an inductive statement could reasonably apply to a unique object such as the universe, I want to focus in this post on the concept of contingency.

How do we know that anything is contingent? How do we know that anything could have turned out to be different?

Like free will, contingency is useful, and even essential to our human experience. The idea that we can make choices, and that these choices may result in different outcomes is how we survived and evolved. Without it, the notion of probability seems to become absurd, and human experience seems to lose its meaning. This is in itself an interesting discussion, but what we would like or perceive reality to be is not what determines it.

As far as we know, and given the laws of physics as we know them, if we know the state of a system at a given time, we can in principle derive its state at all times. There is no room for contingency, except for those so-called initial conditions. I'm saying "so-called" because those are only initial if one extrapolates to the future: if one extrapolates to the past, those conditions are final rather than initial. Even in quantum mechanics, the wave function is deterministic, and the wave function might be all there is.

In light of this, we are left to wonder how contingent those initial conditions and the laws of physics can be. Many scientists, until the end of the 20th century, thought we would eventually be able to understand why the physical constants have the values they have. Today, more and more are agreeing with Leonard Susskind that we might never know because there is nothing to know.

Does this mean that science now points to a contingent universe after all? Not at all. In fact, it's quite the reverse: the idea of a multiverse, which comes out quite naturally of string theory and inflation, indicates that the physical constants are only locally constant, and that there is a landscape of universes where all the possible values can be taken. Locally, within a universe, all that can be seen looks contingent or arbitrary, but the whole landscape possibly contains all that is possible. This is similar to the idea that the solutions to a symmetrical problem may not be symmetrical, but the set of solutions always is.

And here is the interesting idea: if all that is possible by virtue of being consistent exists, contingency disappears. This constitutes a unification between the sort of necessary existence that mathematical entities enjoy (the only kind of necessary existence that we know for sure is valid, by the way), and empirical, "contingent" existence.

Of course, this all doesn't seem falsifiable, and it probably isn't. But here is my point: the mere possibility that contingency might not actually exist is enough to kill the premise of a cosmological argument for god that "every contingent being has a cause". In order to use that premise, you first have to prove that there are contingent beings, and that may end up being a lot more difficult than one may have thought at first. And that is the problem with most of metaphysics: it holds as self-evident what in subtle ways isn't.

Archived comments

  • coriscus said on Sunday, February 19, 2012

    You appear to be the victim of equivocation. Being predeterminate doesn't mean non-contingent in the context of "contingent being". Regardless of determination, there appear to be things that begin and cease to be, like ourselves. That's all. Moreover, realizing that such have a cause, is an analytical rather than an inductive process. While modern science advances technologically, it seems to be regressing in simple logic.
  • bleroy said on Sunday, February 19, 2012

    You will have to explain how something entirely determined can be contingent because with my feeble intellectual powers and grasp of simple logic, I don't get it. If you are going to argue that "things that begin to be have a cause" is an analytic process, you will also have to explain why, in particular in light of modern science. You will also have to explain how this applies to the beginning of the universe, where the concepts of time and causation don't have the meaning we usually give them.
  • coriscus said on Monday, February 20, 2012

    There's no need to explain "how something entirely determined can be contingent". The point is that you are using "contingent" in two separate ways: first as "contingent being" opposed to "necessary being"; then as opposed to predeterminate. Necessary being, if there is such, cannot not exist. If it is predetermined that my granddaughter will come to be, her being is nevertheless contingent because she, in fact, does not yet exist. So, your points about determination, though interesting, don't address the subject of what you call the "cosmological argument". Basic distinctions and principles, such as contingency vs. necessity and whether something can come from nothing, don't depend upon the progress of science, as implied in your statement that such things as "time" and "causation" have different meanings in that context.
  • bleroy said on Monday, February 20, 2012

    I'm afraid you did not get my points. One was that there may in fact be no difference between predetermined and necessary. That your granddaughter only exists in the future does not make a bit of difference. You are very, extremely wrong in saying that the progress of science doesn't bring anything to the debate. It's modern science that explained the nature of time and causation better than ever before, and with evidence to support it. It's modern science that is explaining better than ever before how something can come out of nothing. It's mathematics that clarified the Ontological Argument (see All this is a little more solid than a bunch of theologians misusing logic.
  • coriscus said on Monday, February 20, 2012

    I did get the point that you were confusing the "predetermined and necessary". Moreover, you are jumping to conclusions, if you think that "doesn't depend upon" is a dismissal of science or that my comments are an exercise in theology. Biased much?
  • bleroy said on Monday, February 20, 2012

    Or maybe you don't get your points across very well. I'm not confusing them. The point that I'm making is that in a deterministic world, nothing is non-necessary, except maybe for boundary conditions. Then I'm discussing those boundary conditions. But I'm not going to copy the post in comments, that would be silly. It's all up there really. But if you prefer to think that I don't understand what you're saying, that's fine.