Friday Philosophy: Necessary Existence

In what I hope will be a regular series, I want to think about a new philosophical question each Friday. This isn’t stuff I’ve thought about deeply or for a long time, so please feel free to make suggestions or corrections.

A portrait of Rene Descartes

Descartes, a fan of the cosmological argument. Source: Wikipedia

One of the recent reinventions of the cosmological argument for the existence of God is the notion of necessary existence. This variant of the argument looks like this:

Everything that exists does so either contingently (i.e. it could conceivably not exist) or necessarily. Every contingent existent has a cause. Therefore there was a first cause. (and his name is Yahweh – yup, its pretty common to miss a couple of steps at that point).

My theory about cosmological arguments is that they are like rabbit in a hat tricks. The rabbit is hidden in the hat somewhere to be amazingly pulled out later on. Its usually in the first step. So looking at this form of the cosmological argument I wanted to see where the rabbit was going in.

Not surprisingly it is at the start. The first two sentences above. Here’s my thinking, correct me if I’m wrong.

At first it seemed to me that the rabbit was pretty obvious. By saying everything is contingent or necessary, the author is effectively saying ‘everything is either stuff or God’. Which is obviously going to stuff God into the hat. But reading around a bit more it seems that necessary existence is also applied by philosophers to tautological propositions, possibilities, and other concepts. But clearly those other things are all abstract. A hypothetical god is the only concrete thing in the set. And, because we’re only interested in causation, we filter the set immediately to get rid of everything but God.

So we could state the premise of the argument as ‘everything is either contingent, God, or irrelevant; every contingent thing has a cause, therefore God exists’.

The ‘every contingent thing has a cause’ is also a premise I’m never happy with in these arguments. It doesn’t seem to me to be obvious a priori. Sure its intuitively correct, but in my experience it would be equally intuitive to say ‘every concrete thing is contingent’. I can’t think of an exception. So if reasonably intuitive generalizations are a good criteria for doing philosophy, I’ve just proved that god doesn’t exist:

Every concrete thing is contingent.

Assume: God is concrete.

God is not contingent.

Reductio ad absurdam, therfore: God is abstract.

That’s pretty much my position, but I don’t delude myself that it is a convincing argument.

Hat tips: Common Sense Atheism for starting me thinking about this, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for a good background article.

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2 Comments

Filed under friday philosophy

2 responses to “Friday Philosophy: Necessary Existence

  1. So if I choose to believe in intellingence at the beginning of life as I know it, what term do you suggest I use to attempt to describe it? The Big Banger maybe. 😉

  2. ian

    Well I think necessary existent is fine. It doesn’t do much work in that argument, but any name is fine.

    What’s Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
    Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
    Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
    What’s in a name? That which we call a rose,
    By any other name would smell as sweet;
    So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
    Retain that dear perfection which he owes
    Without that title:

    Big banger I do like though 🙂

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