The Great Big Arguments #8: Contingency

Question from Zach:
Hi all. I’ve recently come out about my atheism to my Catholic ( and extremely intolerant) family. Their biggest “proof” of god is the argument from contingency. Now I’ve read up on the atheist refutation of this argument but I found it extremely confusing, thus I cannot explain it to my parents. A clear concise explanation of why this argument is false would be appreciated.

Answer by SmartLX:
Thanks for giving me a reason to write about this one, Zach. I might never have got around to it otherwise.

For those who came in late, the argument from contingency attempts to establish the necessity of a god given the idea that the universe is contingent on a god, that is, that the universe couldn’t exist without one. The formal argument comes in many forms, so here for instance is the one William Lane Craig uses in his book Reasonable Faith. He based it on an old cosmological argument by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. This is likely to be close to the one your parents know, and people would probably refer me to Craig if I dismissed any other version.

1. Anything that exists has an explanation for its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.
2. If the universe has an explanation for its existence, that explanation is God.
3. The universe exists.
4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence (from 1,3).
5. Therefore, the explanation of the existence of the universe is God (from 2,4).

There are several straightforward problems with this.
– It can be seen as a time-independent version of the more popular cosmological argument, one which allows for an eternal universe which is still caused by, or “contingent” on, something or other. Most of the objections to that argument also apply to this one.
– There is no guarantee that the universe needs an external cause or an explanation at all. God apparently doesn’t, and He does just fine. If you can assert that God is uncaused, there’s really no way to rule out the same quality in the universe itself, except by special pleading.
– If the universe (or multiverse) does need an external cause, it’s a huge leap to say that the only possible cause is a god. Even if other ongoing matter-making entities (like the quantum foam) hadn’t been hypothesised, it would be impossible to rule out the infinite as-yet-unimagined possibilities and be certain that the particular hypothetical construct known as a god has to be the reason we exist.
– The explanation given for the existence of the universe is not just a god, but the God. If the argument were otherwise entirely valid and sound, it would still only establish the existence of a deistic creator god. Arguing for a theistic god that continues to exert its influence today, let alone the one and only Yahweh, God of Abraham, takes a lot more than that.

Best of luck with your parents. If their version of the argument from contingency is different enough to this that what I’ve written isn’t much help to you, give us the specific argument in a comment.