This is the third installment in a series discussing and evaluating Kreeft and Tacelli’s 20 arguments for the existence of God. Having looked at the Arguments from Change and from Efficient Causality, I come now to the Argument from Time and Contingency.
Summary of the argument
K & T’s formulation of this argument (which, like the previous two, originally comes from St. Thomas Aquinas) can be found online here. Below is my summary, which is logically equivalent to K & T’s version, though it is structured rather differently.
- “We notice around us things that come into being and go out of being.” These things are contingent beings; that is, it is possible for them not to exist.
- Given an infinite duration, anything that is possible (such as the nonexistence of a contingent being) must necessarily come to pass sooner or later. Therefore, no contingent being can continue to exist for an infinite duration.
- Since no contingent being can have existed for an infinite duration, there must have been some point in the finitely-distant past when none of the contingent beings in the world existed.
- Nevertheless, something must have existed at that time. After all, something exists now, and nothing comes from nothing.
- Since that “something” existed at a time when there were no contingent beings in existence, it must have been a non-contingent being — that is, a necessary being, a being for which nonexistence is impossible. And as such, it must still exist now.
- Since this necessary being has always existed, and since it must have caused the contingent world to come into being, it is natural to identify it with God, the immortal Creator of the universe.
No people a thousand years ago?
Suppose we accept the premise that it is impossible for a human being to live for 1,000 years. Could we then reason as follows?
- No human being can live for 1,000 years.
- Therefore, 1,000 years ago, none of the people in the world existed.
- Therefore, there were no people at all 1,000 years ago. The entire human race is less than a millennium old.
Obviously, this is fallacious. There could have been (and, of course, actually were) people 1,000 years ago — just different people, not the ones who are alive now. Even though no particular person can live for such a long time, people as a class can.
It is similarly fallacious to conclude that there must have been some time in the past when no contingent beings at all existed. Suppose, for example, that every time one contingent being ceases to exist, a new contingent being begins to exist. In that case, contingent beings as a class could continue to exist for an infinite duration, even though no particular contingent being can do so.
And in fact, that’s just what we observe: that when one contingent being ceases to exist, a new one comes into being. It’s called the law of conservation of energy.
Nothing really begins or ceases to exist.
Another way of putting the same point is to deny the premise that “We notice around us things that come into being and go out of being.” K & T’s example of this is a tree, which “grows from a tiny shoot, flowers brilliantly, then withers and dies.” Although we say colloquially that the tree comes into existence and then ceases to exist, all that is really going on is that matter is assuming different forms and configurations. At the ontological level, nothing comes into being when a tree grows, and nothing goes out of being when it dies. A dying tree isn’t annihilated, just changed.
Like the second argument, this one is based on an equivocal use of the word “exist,” conflating mere change with creation or annihilation.