Problems in Contingency II: The Argument for God From Contingency

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This essay presents the argument for the existence of God from the existence of existentially contingent entities, the entities of our direct experience. The previous essay demonstrated that there can be no argument from serial contingency for the existence of God because God cannot be the initiating agent of such a series, i.e. the first agent in line. What I took an essay to present, St. Thomas Aquinas presented in just a few words:

One action does not proceed from two agents of the same order. But nothing hinders the same action from proceeding from a primary and a secondary agent. (Summa Theologiae I:105:5 ad 2)

God as the first cause of all things and all action is so at the level of existence, while the same action is caused by a created agent at a level secondary to existence, a level which presupposes existence. Although we may view secondary causes as serial and, for the sake of argument, concede that such a series cannot be regressively infinite, such a first cause in line must be a secondary cause, because the series is composed of secondary causes, each of which is immediately caused by God as its primary, i.e. existential, cause.

Does the Contingency Argument Necessarily Involve Series?

Is the denial of God as the first cause of any series a denial of the contingency argument for the existence of God? It is not because God is the immediate creative cause of the existence of informed matter at the various levels of substantial forms.

The most obvious levels of substantial form are inanimate, vegetative, sentient and intelligent. Each of these levels requires an initiating and immediate creative act of God to come into existence. Because the inanimate, vegetative and sentient substantial forms exist solely at material levels of reality, entities at each level, once they exist, have the power of substantial change within that level. Such substantial change is not creation.

In contrast to these solely material levels of reality, is the human being, whose substantial form must be immaterial, because his acts of intellect and free will are beyond any material power. Due to the immateriality of the human soul, one could argue philosophically that the human substantial form, or soul, must require an immediate creative act by God to come into existence at the moment of conception and that the soul is immortal. Indeed, the immediate and direct creation by God of the soul and its immortality are affirmed in revelation (Catechism of the Catholic Church 366).

The Central Error of the Popular Serial Version

The argument for the existence of God, which is based on contingent serial causality, analyzes efficient causality at the level of change of that which continues to persist in existence before and after the change. However, it draws a conclusion regarding efficient causality at the level of creation, the transition (if we may use that word in this context) from non-existence to existence.

The Early and Valid Version of the Argument from Contingency

The valid argument from contingency for the existence of God lies in the realization that any entity within our experience is one whose nature is distinct from its act of existence. An early and succinct presentation of the argument was written around 1255 A.D. by St. Thomas Aquinas in his treatise, On Being and Essence:

But it is impossible that the act of existing of a thing be caused by a thing’s form or its quiddity, (I say caused as by an efficient cause); for then something would be the cause of itself and would bring itself into existence ‒ which is impossible. Everything, then, which is such that its act of existing is other than its nature must have its act of existing from something else. And since every being which exists through another is reduced, as to its first cause, to one existing in virtue of itself, there must be some being which is the cause of the existing of all things because it itself is the act of existing alone. (tr. Armand Maurer [1949], 47)

It is obvious that the being, whose nature and existence are identical, who is “I AM”, is properly identified as the first cause of the existence of every created entity. However, first is not in any numerical or serial sense, but in the sense of sole and immediate cause of the existence of each created being.

Witness to the Popular Serial Version

In contrast, to the valid version, the popular version envisions the argument from contingency to be an argument from mathematics regarding linear series. Bishop Robert Barron recently commended this popular mathematical argument, calling it “classical”:

The classical response of religious philosophy is that no contingency can be explained satisfactorily by appealing endlessly to other contingencies. Therefore, some finally noncontingent reality, which grounds and actualizes the finite universe, must exist. And this uncaused cause, this reality whose very nature is to be, is what serious religious people call “God.”

Current Witness to the Valid Version

Lest I give the impression that no one agrees with the argument of St. Thomas, I cite the CatholicCast video, St. Thomas’ Argument from Contingency. It says nothing about series. In stark contrast to the popular view, the video makes manifest that the valid argument from contingency does not identify God as the first cause of a series.

Admittedly, the video would have been better if it used words, like nature, quiddity, and act of existence. Also, it starts off on the wrong foot by illustrating contingency, not at the level of existence, but at the level of properties, namely, the dependence of mammals on air to breath. Properties are fully explained by the nature of that whose properties they are. Importantly, however, the video does identify every material entity as non-necessary with respect to existence.

A Difference in Beginnings

The linear or serial version of the argument from contingency begins by identifying the things within our experience as contingent, with no explicit meaning to contingency. However, it confines its scope to material things by addressing contingencies that are linearly related, i.e. contingencies of form. However, it draws a conclusion regarding the contingency of existence itself, not the contingency of form.

The valid argument begins with the observation that the things within our experience are fully self-explained by their forms, i.e. their natures, but that does not explain their existence. This self-explanation includes all material contingencies, because, like all material explanations, material contingencies are due to the natures of existent material things. The argument then seeks the explanation specifically of the existence of material things, which is not explained by their natures. They must be existentially contingent upon some other agent.

That explanation is the One Who alone explains existence because His nature and existence are identical. This agent of existential efficient causality must be the sole and immediate cause of the act of existence of each material thing.

Conclusion

Although we may identify series of secondary causes, God, as First Cause, is not the first cause in the line of any series. Rather, as First Cause, God is the primary and thereby the immediate and sole existential cause of every effect and not the secondary cause of any effect.

The valid version of the argument from contingency has nothing to do with series. It recognizes that the natures of material things explain everything about them, except for each thing’s existence, which is not of its nature. The explanation for its existence requires the immediate act of another being whose existence is of his nature because existence is his nature. This other being is “I AM” (Exodus 3:14; John 8:5-8), who alone has the power of creation. He cannot be the first of any series.

Creation is the exercise of divine power, the result of which is immediate existential contingency. Substantial change is the mutation of material forms, the result of which is contingency in the relationships among these forms at the level of existent material reality.

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