« What I Am Reading Now | Main | The Biggest Racial Lie »

Wednesday, May 25, 2016


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Is not D2 really the same as saying that every contingent thing is the composite of an essence and an act of existence? If it actually exist, then, as contingent it might not have existed, as what binds essence and existence together might not have done so. If it do not actually exist, then it corresponds to an essence that is in potential to an act of existence.

Viewed as necessarily a composite of essence and an act of existence, every contingent thing must have a cause that brings unity to its parts.

There could on this view perhaps be things that are dependent and yet not contingent. For example, if there were a necessary composite of act and essence, then it would not be contingent, but it too must be caused, for the same reason according to which a contingent thing must be caused: Composition requires a cause; otherwise the parts would not be composed.

Fascinating problem. How would you reply to the following line of reasoning?

1. To know x is to know its cause(s) [Aristotle, perhaps controversial].
2. To know x is to truly conceive of x [this seems more obvious].
3. Therefore to truly conceive of x is to know its cause(s).

If this is right, and the universe has no cause(s), then it is impossible even in principle to truly conceive of the universe. Perhaps what we intuitively "conceive" when we conceive of a universe without a cause is a mental universe, an ens rationis. But if this is the case, then to truly conceive of the mental universe involves (at least) knowledge of the cause of this ens rationis, namely, the intellectual agent doing the conceiving.

A penetrating post!

It seems to me there are two senses of ‘contingency’ here: one a modal sense (D2), the other a dependency sense (from Garrigou-Lagrange). You seem to suggest that packing dependency into modal contingency begs the question.

But I’m not sure I see why.

Aren’t we faced with two contrary modal intuitions? The first is that it’s conceivable that an item be contingent but have no cause or ground of its existence. The second (from Garrigou-Lagrange) is a denial of the first.

It seems to me that one would pack dependency into modal contingency on the basis of an intuition about the nature of modal contingency. But it also seems to me that one who denies the validity of such packing would do so on the basis of a contrary intuition. So, it seems, both the packer and the non-packer are operating on what appear to be plausible intuitions.

Why would the packer be avoiding honest toil, but the non-packer not be avoiding honest toil? I’d think each would be toiling honestly with what is available to him; namely, plausible modal intuition.

And if the intuition of the packer is right, then the distinction between modal contingency and dependency contingency would seem to be a distinction without a difference.

But maybe I'm missing something. Thoughts?


Right, there are two senses of 'contingency' in play as I explained in an earlier post, and one question is how they are related.

Let's start with a clear case of a conflict of modal intuitions. I say that my desk could have been an inch closer to the wall. You deny this and say that it is not possible. Here there is nothing to discuss -- assuming you understand the question -- you either you see it or you don't. If you don't then I say you are modally blind -- blind to modal distinctions -- and the discussion ends.

But my post is not about this sort of disagreement but about a theoretical question, the question how one moves from the one sense of contingency to the second.

I see what you’re saying. To move from the one sense of contingency to the other, one needs a good argument – one that, among other things, respects the different senses.


One answer is to say that we know the universe by knowing the things in it and their causes.

Tom V.

>>Is not D2 really the same as saying that every contingent thing is the composite of an essence and an act of existence?<<

No. One might try to argue from the contingency of x to a real distinction in x between essence and existence. Thus

1. x exists & possibly (x does not exist)


2. There is a real distinction in x between essence and existence.

But one who affirms (1) and denies (2) does not contradict himself. That there are contingent beings is far better known than that there is a distinctio realis.


Yes, that is what I am saying. Here is another consideration. Would you say that unicorns are contingent items? After all, they are neither necessary nor impossible. So it makes sense to say that they are contingent: they are found in some but not all possible worlds.

But they are not found in the actual world. Since they don't actually exist, they cannot have a cause of their actual existence. And yet they are contingent. So modal contingency does not entail existential dependence, contingency-upon something distinct from the thing in question.

Bill, I'd agree that unicorns are modally contingent items.

If contingency entails existential dependence, then unicorns are existentially dependent. But unicorns are not existentially dependent (since they don't exist and thus don't have a cause). Thus, etc.


Right. Starting from your definition of contingency, one does not deduce that there is a distinction between essence and existence.

I did not mean to suggest that deduction, but your reading of my poor wording was a fair interpretation.

What I was rather trying to get at is this:

If one begin (as Garrigou-Lagrange presumably begins) from the principle according to which every actual thing apart from God is a composite of essence and existence, then D2 implies that every contingent, actual thing has a cause, for

  1. the only kind of thing that can satisfy D2 is one whose essence might or might not be composed with an act of existence and

  2. if a thing be so composed (and therefore actual), then it has at least the cause of this composition as its cause (though it might have other causes as well).

It seems to me that Garrigou-Lagrange's claim just boils down to this.

A wider claim that he would seem likely to make, for the same reason, is that every actual thing apart from God has a cause. Among actual things apart from God, there might be some necessary things as well as some contingent things.

Even if the universe were so unified as to render the apparent distinctions among things in the universe illusory---so that the universe need not have a cause of composition to unite the things that appear to the senses as distinct actualities---the universe's contingency would still imply (for one who starts from the distinctio realis) that the universe must have a cause.

So it seems as though you're really poking at whether the distinctio realis implies things (such as that every contingent being must have a cause) that you might not buy. Is that a fair reading of what (among other things) you are doing here?

Thank you Bill for giving me more to think about and making Wheel of Fortune impossible to watch this evening.

Let’s consider a metaphysically contingent universe that exists uncaused and without any explanation whatsoever. Let’s call this world W1.

I’d like to suggest that determining the conceivability of some state of affairs extends beyond the internal, formal-logical consistency of its immediate semantics to embrace all else that it true. What might seem immediately conceivable on its own terms may with some effort be shown to conceal hidden contradictions.

A first line of questioning that might expose W1 as in fact inconceivable could begin with asking whether the ‘possibility’ of W1 (the possibility of its existing) can be W1 itself if W1 exists contingently and without any explanation whatsoever. It appears obvious to me (remember, I’m an amateur!) that W1 cannot constitute the possibility of its own existence. We’ve ruled out its being ‘self-existent’. But its existence must be possible. After all, every actual world, whether necessary or contingent, is possible. But no contingent world’s possibility for existing can be its own actual existence. And in the case of W1 we’ve ruled self-existence out not only by modal contingency but by the additional feature of having no causal explanation for its existence. But surely ‘having no causal explanation’ does not exempt W1 from being ‘possible’. So here we arrive: W1 must be possible, and its possibility cannot be its own actuality.

A second approach might be to probe into what sort of relations W1 sustains to necessary truths. Necessary truths are true in all worlds, including contingent worlds. So some relation must obtain between necessary truths and W1. And the relationship between W1 and necessary truth cannot be incidental or contingent. W1 may exist contingently, but once existent, it necessarily conforms its being and nature to necessary truth, truth not convertible with W1. If what exists contingently cannot fail to conform in its being and nature to what exists necessarily, then W1 isn’t so absolutely cut off an absolutely ungrounded as might seem. And if metaphysical necessity constraints all contingent possibility, then does it not follow that all contingent worlds depend to some extent upon necessities other than their own contingent actuality? Is not contingency’s ‘conformity’ to necessity a form of ‘dependency’? So on at least some minimal level the being and nature of W1 depends upon (conforms to) necessary truths.

A third possible approach could be along the lines of teleology. Is teleology among the necessary features of all conceivable worlds? If so, W1 conforms to some teleology. It tends toward some end other that its own existence and being per se. But what sort of necessary teleology would embrace W1’s existence (and the existence of every conceivable world) without also being causally related to W1’s existence? Is such an absolute dissociation between protology and eschatology conceivable?

Do none of these approaches provide a way of exposing W1 as ultimately inconceivable? (Forgive all typos; they’re contingent and uncaused!)



You wrote to Elliot that "modal contingency does not entail existential dependence". I'm trying to understand what you mean exactly.

If your first quote from Garrigou-Lagrange were rendered, "every contingent[, actual] thing, even if it should be ab aeterno, depends on a cause which exists of itself", then would the addition of "actual" change his claim at all?

I think that it would not, for he is implicitly speaking only of actual, contingent things when he insists that each of them must have a cause.

My previous post is a bit mangled and ill-defined. Alan clarified some distinctions for me, so perhaps it's not the cat's meow I thought it was. I think part of the whole issue for me, Bill, is the relationship between logical and ontological necessity.


Bill, if you were convinced your notion of conceivability were empty or useless would that count?

For take that traditional example, a chiliagon. I can *well* conceive it because I know enough geometry. I can conceive it as a physical object (within the limits of construction) because I know enough about physical matter that it is instantiable. An odd number divisible by 2 however seems by your definition "conceivable" to someone who lacks knowledge of arithmetic by that much. (Granted, quite a lack: insert your own more advanced example.) A 'gazilliagon', an utterly multitudinously-sided polygon with so many sides there is not enough matter in the Universe to instantiate it (it would have less than one atom per side) is mathematically conceivable but not physically so.

I know transparent aluminum is physically impossible: transparent materials have fixed valence electrons, and thus are all glassy; metals have mobile valence electrons, but as a consequence are all opaque. Transparent aluminum would, impossibly, have both mobile and fixed valence electrons.

Thus, I think you cannot use *conceive* for merely logical possibilities. It is best used for extra-logical ones: biological (insects the size of Studebakers), chemical (transparent aluminum), physical (giant insects again - too spindly) - and metaphysical. Uncaused contingencies are metaphysical impossibilities, or are classed as such.

Although this may be just another way to state the difference you've noted: a thick versus thin notion of conceiving.

Chris Kirk

(Pardon for abandoning your criticism of a comment I made a while back trying to combine a classic God who has no direct knowledge of the future - other parts of life intervened. I'll just say it would sure take some panning out, but that God can do much with little, and denying Him that doesn't *smell* to me like denying Him too much. But that and a couple of dollars . . .)

Here is my challenge that no one has met: But how does one get from contingency in the sense defined by (D2) supra to the universe's causal dependence on a causa prima? What is the argument?

Your challenge is succinct. At present, I don’t see an argument to meet it.

For what it’s worth, it seems to me one need not meet the challenge in order to argue that the universe is dependent on a cause. There are independent lines of reasoning for the causal dependence of the universe.

But this is a separate matter. Your point is quite different. And it's an important point about the nature of contingency.


A philosopher from the Aristotelian tradition might say your definition of contingency must do as you say - but that is evidence not against the principle of sufficient reason but against cramming metaphysical notions like contingency and necessity into a merely logical form. It is just poverty-stricken; just like material implication is a poverty-stricken way to deal with cause-effect relationships. "If the dam breaks, the town shall be destroyed" is about more than merely logical relations (and in fact I recall that attempts to formalize cause and effect were never entirely successful; who has used the rams-horn symbol much lately?); so too necessity and contingency are not well captured by modal logic.



Here is an argument.

[0. What has being of itself cannot fail to be.]

1. Anything contingent in the sense of D2 does not have being of itself but rather either receives being, if it exist, or else does not receive being, if it exist not.

2. The universe is contingent in the sense of D2.

3. The universe exists.

4. Therefore, (by 1, 2, and 3) the universe is the recipient of being.

5. Whatever receives being is caused by what gives it being.

6. Therefore, (by 4 and 5) the universe is caused.


Thanks for the argument. You have give me something I can sink my teeth into.

(0)is true.

(1) is problematic. True, the contingent is not necessary and therefore does not have being of itself. But how does it follow that it receives being if it exists? All that follows is that it has being (existence) but might not have had it. If you say it receives being, then it receives being from another. But how do you know that this is the case?

The reasoning to (4) is correct.

For present purposes I will grant (5). A deeper discussion, however, would have to explain the difference and the relatedness of the agent causation of the prima causa and the causation of secondary causes.

My judgment is that the argument, while valid in point of logical form, does not prove its conclusion: premise (1) is not obviously true and can be reasonably denied. In fact, one can reasonably maintain that the argument begs the question at premise (1). The claim that the contingent receives being is equivalent to the claim that it receives being from Another, a causa prima, "which all men call God."

Now perhaps argumentative support can be provided for (1). That would be a second argument.

Note that I am not saying that the argument is unsound. To say that I would have to know that (1) is false. Actually, I think (1) is true. My point is that the argument is not rationally compelling, not demonstrative, not a proof, because (1) can be reasonably denied.

It seems (1) of Mr. Vaughn’s argument begs the question. It’s assumed that whatever is D2-contigent is existentially dependent, either factually (i.e., whatever exists but is possibly nonexistent receives being from a giver, and there is no giver of being for whatever doesn’t exist but is possibly existent) or counterfactually (i.e., whatever doesn’t exist but is possibly existent would receive being from a giver if it were to exist, and there would be no giver of being for whatever exists if that existent were to not exist).

The following doesn't demonstratively move from D2-contingecy to the causal dependence of the universe. But consider:

Suppose some entity is D2-contingent and not causally dependent. Suppose also, for the sake of argument, that there could not have been nothing. (Some philosophers have argued such.)

Then either (1) a necessary being exists, or (2) it is necessarily the case that at least one contingent being exists in every possible world. But on the second disjunct, there is no necessary being to ground the existence of the contingent being. Thus, the contingent being (whatever it may be) that exists in every possible world is a D2 brute entity. So at least one D2 brute entity exists in every possible world. But there may be an infinite number of possible worlds. Why believe that each of them inexplicably contains at least one D2 brute entity? Arguably, (2) is highly improbable.

If (1) is the case, then whatever is D2-contingent and not causally dependent would not depend on the necessary being. But arguably whatever is D2-contingent and not causally dependent did not begin to exist. So if (1), then there is a necessary being, and every possible world contains a D2 brute entity that is not causally dependent and did not begin to exist.

But if it’s highly improbable that every possible world contains at least one D2 brute entity, a fortiori it’s highly improbable that every possible world contains at least one D2 brute entity that didn’t begin to exist and doesn’t depend on the necessary being.

On the assumption (which needs argument) that there could not have been nothing, it seems more plausible to hold that whatever is D2-contingent is also causally dependent. But the universe is D2-contingent. Thus, etc.

Of course, that same plausibility would need to extend to items that don't exist but could have existed. If a unicorn were to exist, it would be highly improbable that it exists as a brute entity.


Yes, it seems that there is too much in what I labeled "1" above.

I suppose that one will never be able to produce an argument rationally compelling by your standard, but this is a fun exercise.

Here is a different, second argument (A2, perhaps).

  1. Among all whatnesses, consider B, actual being itself.

  2. Every non-B whatness W has one of three relationships to B:
    A whatness Wn is necessarily joined with B, so that a thing of type Wn must actually be.
    A whatness Wp is potentially joined with B, so that a thing of type Wp might or might not actually be.
    A whatness W0 could never be joined with B, so that a thing of type W0 could never actually be.

  3. Whatever has parts joined together has a cause of composition.

  4. Of type Wn or Wp, a thing that actually exists has a cause. (2, 3)


Starting from what is given, the task is to arrive at Being itself, ipsum esse subsistens. But you seem to be presupposing it. So I am puzzled.

There is an implicit condition in Fr G-L's reasoning, which is "if reality is ultimately rationally explainable", i.e. if the PSR holds. This is evident in this passage from:


"Why is an uncaused contingent being repugnant to reason? It is because a contingent being is that which can either exist or not exist (this being its definition). Therefore it is not self-existent, and must be dependent upon another for this; otherwise, if it were neither self-existent nor dependent upon another for existence, it would have no reason for existing, and so would be the same as nothing. "Nothing is what results from nothing." To say that from nothing, or that from no cause either efficient or material, something comes into being, is a contradiction."

IMV, there are three non-sequiturs in this passage.

First, that a being "can either exist or not exist" means that it does not have in itself the reason for its existence. However, that does not imply that "it is not self-existent", but rather that "it is not self-existent IF reality is rationally explainable". Therefore, a contingent being can be:
- either a self-existent brute fact, if reality is not rationally intelligible,
- or dependent upon another for its existence, if reality is rationally intelligible.

Second, Fr G-L is right when he says that if a contingent being "were neither (rationally intelligibly, I add) self-existent nor dependent upon another for existence, it would have no reason for existing". However, that does not entail that such a contingent being "would be the same as nothing". Because to "have no reason for existing", to be a brute fact, is not the same as to "be the same as nothing". Not being rationally explainable is not the same as not being.

Third, Fr G-L is only partially right when he says that: ""Nothing is what results from nothing." To say that from nothing, or that from no cause either efficient or material, something comes into being, is a contradiction." Because something coming into being from true nothing would not be a contradiction but just a gross violation of physical or metaphysical causality and thus positively against reason. However, a contingent universe could just have always existed without having ever come into being, so that its existence, while being a brute fact and as such not explainable by reason, it would not be against reason.

Summarizing, then, a contingent being is that which can either exist or not exist (by definition), so that, when referring to the universe, there are three posibilities:

a. it is dependent upon the Subsistent Being for its existence:
Subsistent Being -> universe (either from t=0 or from an indefinite past)
in which case reality is ultimately rationally explainable, i.e. PSR holds.

b. it exists by itself, and has always existed, as a non-rationally intelligible brute fact:
... contingent universe ... (existing from an indefinite past)
in which case reality is not ultimately rationally explainable, i.e. PSR does not hold.

c. it has come into being from nothing (*), as a brute fact positively against reason:
(nothing) - contingent universe (appearing at t=0)
in which case reality is ultimately contrary to reason.

(*) True nothing, not Lawrence Krauss' "nothing", which is just a particular configuration of quantum fields.

Continuing my previous comment, the types of causality that hold in each case are:

- a. Metaphysical and physical.
- b. Only physical.
- c. Neither metaphysical nor physical (for t=0).

Clearly the rationality status of case c is much worse than that of case b, because if someone accepts that the universe began to exist from true nothing at t=0, then, in order to preserve his sanity, he must make an act of faith that such initial event was one of a kind and unrepeatable, because otherwise he could expect any event to take place at any time, such as a black hole appearing in his town or a unicorn in his backyard (*). Thus, if case b is outside reason or irrational, case c is against reason or anti-rational.

Therefore, if science shows that the most plausible scenario is that the universe began to exist at some t=0, thus discarding case b, the plausibility of case a is greatly strengthened. Which, notably, seems to be of no relevance whatsoever to most philosophers.

(*) Of course, an atheist could argue that a theist must also make an act of faith that an omnipotent God will not make a black hole appear in his town or a unicorn in his backyard. Which is not a concern for those theists for whom the Subsistent Being is Logos.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo
Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 10/2008



May 2024

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
      1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31  
Blog powered by Typepad