On an excellent website I hadn’t visited in years, but stumbled upon today, I found an article on the Cosmological argument from Contingency, which, as many of you reading this may know, I find to be compelling. It summarizes the cosmological argument from contingency in the following way:
(1) Everything that exists contingently has a reason for its existence.
(2) The universe exists contingently.
(3) The universe has a reason for its existence.
(4) If the universe has a reason for its existence then that reason is God.
(5) God exists.
I rather like that formulation (though I see problems with using the term ‘universe’ as opposed to ‘world’). However, on the same website there is a follow up article titled “Is the Universe Contingent?” Though I have heard several ways to object to the cosmological argument which I think are much better than the response in the article, the article surprised me in that it hung it’s entire case against the argument on one poorly articulated objection: the fallacy of composition. It was so astonishingly bad that I felt compelled to blog about it. The article reads:
The fallacy of composition is the fallacy of inferring from the fact that every part of a whole has a property, that the whole has that property too.
If every track on the CD is less than five minutes long, though, then it doesn’t follow that the whole CD is less than five minutes long. Sometimes every part of a whole has a property that the whole itself does not have.
So does the contingency of every part of the universe imply that the universe as a whole is contingent? Apparently not. For in order for the universe to be necessarily existent, it need only be the case that there must exist something rather than nothing; it need not be the case that anything in particular must exist, just that at least one of the many things that might exist must exist, no matter which one it is.
If a single being must exist, if it is necessary, then it just is an incontingent being. Perhaps the author of the article thinks that if something exists necessarily without it being the case that the idea of that thing involves its existence, then they have somehow avoided the inference from an incontingent thing to a being which exists in all logically possible worlds. However, that is just confused: to say that some one thing has always existed, does exist, and will continue forever to exist, is not to say that it exists of necessity. If it exists of necessity (i.e., if it must exist), then the idea of the thing does involve existence, and it is incontingent. However, to say that a being is incontingent just is to say that it exists in all logically possible worlds; in other words a being X is incontingent if and only if a being X is necessary. That’s what logicians mean when they talk about a ‘necessary’ being, and it’s what the theologian means when talking about God.
The fallacy of composition, like any other fallacy, is called a fallacy because it involves an inference which isn’t always and everywhere truth-preserving. Here, however, one has to exercise some critical thinking in order to discover whether the cosmological argument is guilty of making an inference which isn’t always and everywhere truth preserving. I think that because contingency is transitive from part to whole, one cannot commit the fallacy of composition in its case. Consider, for instance, if I were to infer from the fact that the parts of a thing had some spacial extension, that the whole thing must have some spacial extension – would I be committing a fallacy there? No, I wouldn’t, and it is because the property ‘having some spacial extension’ is transitive from part to whole. So, obviously, is contingency. As Copleston once said:
“If you add up chocolates you get chocolates after all and not a sheep. If you add up chocolates to infinity, you presumably get an infinite number of chocolates. So if you add up contingent beings to infinity, you still get contingent beings, not a Necessary Being. An infinite series of contingent beings will be, to my way of thinking, as unable to cause itself as one contingent being.”
So, not only does the Fallacy of Composition objection fail when charged against the cosmological argument from contingency, but the article to which I have referred doesn’t even state the objection coherently, since it refers to one thing which must exist in order to avoid the inference to an incontingent thing, but a thing which must exist is an incontingent being. They are semantic synonyms.
In the interest of practicing charity, maybe we could try to interpret the article in a more positive light. Perhaps the author of the article meant that even if there is an incontingent being it need not have all of the superlative attributes Theists predicate of God, and so the argument fails to establish that ‘God’ exists, instead of establishing, more trivially, that an (indefinite article) incontingent being exists. However, all the cosmological argument intends to establish is that one incontingent being exists which is the sufficient explanation for the world (understood as the totality or aggregate of real or imagined beings which do not contain in themselves the sufficient reason of their existence). That is what all Theists recognize as God. Perhaps the cosmological argument doesn’t prove that God is all knowing, or that God is all loving, but it would establish that what Theists refer to by using the word ‘God’ (namely, a necessary being distinct from the world and which explains the existence of the world, being the sufficient reason for the world) does exist. To claim that this incontingent being does not have some superlative attributes is just to say, as the Theist will understand it, that God does not have some superlative attributes.
In any case, this ‘charitable’ interpretation of the article takes the objection to be something other than the fallacy of composition, but this interpretation seems impossible since the article makes it so clear that it is the fallacy of composition objection which it intends to advance. Thus, even on a very charitable interpretation, this turns out to be a clumsy objection to the cosmological argument from contingency. I submit that the article in its present form represents an abject failure insofar as it attempts to object to the cosmological argument, and not only does it reproach the argument for a fallacy it doesn’t commit, but it fails to articulate its objection coherently since it appeals to a being which must exist.