The Argument from Time and Contingency

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.

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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.

  1. “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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Nevertheless, something must have existed at that time. After all, something exists now, and nothing comes from nothing.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
That’s the argument. Now for my critique,

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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?

  1. No human being can live for 1,000 years.
  2. Therefore, 1,000 years ago, none of the people in the world existed.
  3. 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.

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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.

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4 Comments

Filed under God, Philosophy

4 responses to “The Argument from Time and Contingency

  1. ChrisB

    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.

    I don’t agree with this. Things are not just amounts of matter, but also arrangements of matter. If a tree dies and decays, and its constituent atoms are incorporated into 1000 other trees, we still have one fewer tree, even if the number of atoms is the same. So I don’t see that you’ve defeated premises 2 and 3, which seems to be the crux of your argument.

  2. Chris, thanks for your comments on this and the other posts.

    When we say it’s possible for a given tree not to exist, we could mean either (a) that it is possible for there to be some other configuration of matter rather than the one that we call a “tree” or (b) that it is possible for there to be nothing at all rather than a tree.

    The first interpretation is the only one we have any reason to think is true, but the argument depends on the second. According to the argument, if the universe consisted entirely of contingent beings, given enough time, they would all go out of existence and there would be nothing at all left (a change which is seen as irreversible for some reason; the argument illogically assumes that something can become nothing but that it is impossible for nothing to become something). If we understand instead that the things around us are contingent only in the first sense, the argument falls apart.

    I suppose yet another way to express my point would be to say that I accept the need for something non-contingent — but that matter-energy itself seems to fit the bill. Arrangements of matter-energy are contingent, but matter-energy itself seems not to be.

  3. nick

    your example with people 1000 years ago is wrong. The argument has 6 points, you stoped at 3, that is intelectual dishonest

    • David

      I noticed the same thing. The original argument would follow the 100 year argument with
      1. No human being can live for 1,000 years.
      2. Therefore, 1,000 years ago, none of the people *currently* in the world existed.
      3. Therefore, there must have been ancestors to people 1000 years ago.

      I’m probably also missing something, but the author of this article clearly stopped his example at point three, and didn’t include the step “Nevertheless, something must have existed at that time. After all, something exists now, and nothing comes from nothing.”

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