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The universe is contingent

  1. Oct 7, 2003 #1


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    In metaphysics, the notion of contingent and non contingent being often comes up. A thing or object that is contingent, is something that has the potential to fail to exist. It's very existence is contingent upon something else, with a good example being the planet earth. The earth is contingent upon an exploding star and the right gravitational circumstances to allow for it's formation. Something non contingent is something that cannot fail to exist, and does not owe it's existence to anything else.

    This whole issue of contingency is the basis of a popular argument for the existence of God. I cannot recall who first presented this, but it has appeared in various forms ever since. It goes like this:

    P1: The physical universe is made up of contingent parts
    P2: Since these contingent parts will eventually fail to exist, given enough time the universe as a whole should fail to exist.
    P3: The physical universe exists.

    Conclusion: Thus, something non contingent exists which created the physical (and contingent) universe. We will call this non contingent being God.

    This is an interesting argument, because everything we know in the universe does in fact appear to be contingent upon something else. Although this was used as an argument for God, it is really only an argument for non contingent being, since calling non contingent being God is quite arbitrary. So the question is, does the argument have validity?

    One attempt to answer the question is to deny the first premise that everything in the physical universe is contingent. Perhaps the atoms that make eveything up are contingent, but what about fundemental particles themselves? This was the classic atomist view of eternal particles. But modern physics has overturned this view. Take any fundemental particle, such as a photon. Far from being non contingent, a photon can be obsorbed by another particle, causing a jump in it's energy level. The photon has ceased to exist. So particles are out. But what about the fact the energy in the universe is conserved? If the universe is seen as ever transforming forms of energy, would that not mean the universe as a whole is non contingent?

    It would seem not. The problem is that a universe in one form is not equivalent to another. For example, we can imagine the universe as an expanding one dimensional piece of string, and view the different shapes the string can take as different forms of energy. What then? The problem is that we cannot define the term universe precisely enough with this definition. A piece of string with x length is not the same as string with y length, and strings with different geometries are not equivalennt. So when we're taking about any precise definition of the universe, the physical world is indeed contingent. Any possible state the universe can take will fail to exist. That seems to be a result of change, since change is the reason any given state fails to exist in the first place. The only possible non contingent being would be one that does not change.

    So does the arguement for non contingent being, or in the case of theologians, God, hold? I would argue it doesn't. The argument hinges on what it means for something to fail to exist. In the physical world, it's change that brings this about. But a physical object never vanishes into thin air, as it is transformed into something else. If we look at the universe as a whole, any given state will fail to exist, but only by transforming into a new state. So with the premise that an object failing to exist leaves another in it's place, the argument that the physical universe should not exist no longer follows. So it is logically consistent to claim the physical world is an endless chain of events, given that nothing ever vanishes by itself.

    Ultimately, I think the only other option (to propose the existence of something timeless) fails because it runs into a logical contradiction. Something timeless cannot create anything, by definition. There is also the idea that all of time exists as a static 4 dimensional universe, but that idea seems like an easy way out.
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  3. Oct 7, 2003 #2


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    Well, how about energy itself being the non-contingent being? Superficial configurations of energy change, but the total amount of energy (presumably) does not. Equivalently, if conservation of energy holds, we can say that the state of the universe such that it has total energy E will never fail to exist.
  4. Oct 7, 2003 #3
    "Not only are humans story-telling animals, we are also pattern-seeking animals, and there is a tendency to find patterns even where none exist. To most of us the patterns of the universe indicate design. For countless millennia, we have taken these patterns and constructed stories about how our cosmos was designed specifically for us. For the past few centuries, however, science has presented with a viable alternative in which we are but one among tens of millions of species, housed on but one planet among many orbiting in an ordinary solar system, itself one among possible billions of solar systems in an ordinary galaxy, located in a cluster of galaxies not so different from billions of other galaxy clusters, themselves whirling away from one another in an expanding cosmic bubble that very possibly is only one among a near-infinite number of bubble universes. Is it really possible that this entire cosmological multiverse exists for one tiny subgroup of a single species on one planet in a lone galaxy in tat solitary bubble universe?"
    - pXV, Preface, How We Believe
  5. Oct 7, 2003 #4
    In order for them to fail to exist, "something else" has to cause that (by eliminating the thing their existance is contingent upon)... Therefore the failing of the physical universe to exist depends on its existance! Any change is brought about by "something" existing. Therefore a change from existance to non-existance requires something to still exist.

    Unless, of course, the "something" that eliminates the thing the universe's existance is contingent upon is not itself part of the physical universe (and in order for whatever it IS part of not to also cease to exist, it must be non-contingent).

    How can anything influence anything else without itself changing? In order to purposefully go out and influence something, the influencer must change. So the only possibility is that we are changing by seeing the non-contingent thing. In order to see it, though, it would still have to change, wouldnt it? If it never changes, never communicates, never lets light bounce off it, never does any of that, its impossible to know about it.

    Thus it appears that a contingent self-contained entity cannot cease to exist, and no outside force can affect the entity without a)becoming part of it, or b)being non-contingent. B) is impossible, since non-contingent things cannot affect anything else.

    It seems to me that this whole idea of contingent and non-contingent is illogical. In order for anything to affect anything else, it must change, and thus must be contingent. Thus non-contingent things don't "exist" at all! (Since if they affect nothing else, how can their existance possibly be argued?).

    :S Unless I've missed some crucial point...?
  6. Oct 7, 2003 #5
    Is it possible for the gardner to cherish one plant above all others? I don't see why not? ...

    What is favoritism? Isn't it a fact, that when you get right down to it, we all practice favoritism? And yet why should we, if there was "nothing" to distinguish (differentiate) between ourselves and anything else?

    Why should slime evolve to be something more than slime, if it didn't have the "inherent" need to do so?

    Hence it would seem the key to existence is diversity and, the ability to "differentiate." Hey isn't that what life is all about? ... Making choices?
  7. Oct 9, 2003 #6


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    Re: Re: The universe is contingent

    The total amount does not change, but energy cannot be defined by the sum alone, nor does it have any existence without the various forms it can take. Energy, if we were to assume it was actually a thing, in one form is not equivalent to another. Thus any form of energy you can find, is contingent.
  8. Oct 9, 2003 #7


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    A contingent thing will fail to exist, by definition. Change means it the thing changes into something else.

    That's basically the gist of it. The way I see it, the idea of a non contingent being is nonsense. The existence of time precludes it.
  9. Oct 9, 2003 #8
    Yes, I know that. But the change, by necessity, must be caused by something. Since things are apperently either contingent or non-contingent, it must be one of these. Non-contingent can be ruled out since those things cannot effect anything else. Contingent things could only effect other contingent things by themselves changing, and that change, in turn, has to be caused by something as well. Barring that, anything that effects our closed system (for it must in order for our system to change, and thus to be contingent) becomes PART of our system.
    Last edited: Oct 10, 2003
  10. Oct 15, 2003 #9
    I have apperantly missed a step here. Why can't a noncontingent thing change? Either a random change within itself or a selfwilled change within itself would not require by necessity any outside influence, force or energy. It would not be contingent on anything else to exist or change. Any closed system (if such a thing actually does exist) would be noncontingent. The universe can be concidered non-contingent and or God/creator.

    This whole argument is to me simply a rewording of the first cause argument and trying to get beyound the infinity of what caused the first cause or where did it come from. Contingency falls into the same logical trap and leaves the same question still begging.

    Within space-time there can be no first cause or non-contingent thing. Outside of space-time the statements or questions become meaningless because outside of linear time there can be no first, last or in between; cause and effect are simultaneous and co-exitistant thus meaningless; nor, can there be any failing to exist; either it exists or it doesn't and the term contingent is meaningless.

    In fact now that I've thought about it a bit. Outside of space-time the can be no contingent thing nor cause or effect. Inside space time ther can be no non-contingent thing nor any effect without a cause nor cause without effect and therefore no first cause. Which leaves us right back where we were.
  11. Oct 19, 2003 #10


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    Because if it changes, the old "thing" is no longer the new "thing" and so has ceased to exist. If the identity of an object changes, it is no longer the same thing as it was before the change, by definition. So something non contingent could not change and cease to exist, otherwise it wouldn't be non contingent in the first place.
  12. Oct 19, 2003 #11
    There are different kinds of changes. 'Things' change all the time but are still the same thing. It also depends on what level you looking at the 'thing' on. Water is still water whether its ice or vapor, and Prince was still the same man even when he became 'The artist' the symbol and the 'artist formerly known as prince (and then the 'new' him was actually defined by who the 'old' him was...)

    Anyways, i agree with hypnagauge on the energy idea. First off, i still tend to see energy and god as similar concepts. I see them both as the non-contingent thing you ask about. I think the argument it pretty valid in the proof of something non-contingent, but i also agree with royce. I think though, that in our gut, we all feel like there must be something non-contingent out there.

    Maybe the argument for non-contingency is the same as that of 'it just is.' Some things must just exist. And there is nothing more to it than that. They just exist.
  13. Oct 20, 2003 #12
    You are proposing a two part system, one part of which is able to make random or willfull changes. The existence of the whole two part system is contigent on the random or willfull part. This is not a non-contingent thing.
  14. Oct 20, 2003 #13
    If nothing else changes our perception will, otherwise we would just be standing there, "fixated" like everything else. In which case what would there be to perceive, without any movement?

    Doesn't the Big Bang in effect suggest that everything has been set in motion? Otherwise, if one thing were to come to a complete and utter standstill, doesn't it suggest that everything else should follow suit?

    Or, perhaps the Laws of Physics themselves -- which, can no doubt be categorized under the term Infinity -- are contigent? And, while infinity itself may seem like a contingent term, is it really? (it is in the sense that represents an actual "property") ... as it covers anything and everything which is possible, including that which is "non-contingent."
  15. Oct 20, 2003 #14
    Another way to formulate? Can we say a non contingent element can decay? A contingent can not.
  16. Oct 20, 2003 #15
    Everything is somehow related (contingent in some form), and yet some things are more "relative" (i.e., contingent) than others.
  17. Oct 20, 2003 #16


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    By definition, they are not, otherwise nothing would change.

    We have general concepts that label things, and an orange is an orange whether crushed or not. But I'm not talking about the concept, I'm talking about the thing itself. The universe is an ever evolving process, and what we call "things" are made of these processes. So if things fail to exist, everything should have failed to exist by the theologians argument. But the theologian ignores the fact that nothing just ceases to exist without being replaced by something else.

    Any form of energy you can think of is contingent. That is, no one has yet to discover a non contingent form.
  18. Oct 20, 2003 #17


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    Re: Re: The universe is contingent

    That works for everyday objects. Though it might have to be phrased different for a fundemental building block (loops, field lines?) to avoid confusion.
  19. Oct 21, 2003 #18
  20. Nov 4, 2003 #19
    I find that there are fuzzy concepts here. There are several questions to be answered before this one.
    What is physical thing, really? What is meaning of "exist"? Is definition of non-contingent precise? Ie. does it necessarily restricts to physical objects, and is term "exists" applicable to it?

    Something that does not owe it's existence to anything else, isn't necessarily non-contingent. This leads to question whether acausal events can occur. For any object that has come to existence and does not owe it's existence to anything else, is acausal. Whether its contingent depends whether its physical or not, ie whether it itself interacts/changes, or perhaps only governs how something else "exists'.

    The very term "exists" seems to preassume interaction. While physical object cannot exist without existence of any kind of laws of physics. The laws of physics very much shape and define "existence" itself. Thus, to physical object to exist, laws of physics must already be in place, exist. This leads to ideas that something immaterial must exist before anything physical can enter the arena, something, that shapes the very existence of physical. What we call physical isn't necessarily independant from our definitions and perspectives, thus objects aren't necessarily having good distinction from immaterial laws that govern them - they may aswell be just manifestations of the laws themselves.

    Are physical laws arbitrary? At least one property they have is consistency, also core property of Logic. Outcome of application of the laws can differ wildly, but the laws themselves never change. I tend to believe that physical laws are manifestations of logical relationships, therefore I'll use term logic here.

    Logic as such does not owe it's existence to anything else. Infact, its hard to tell whether Logic even technically "exists", for to exist presupposes subject to apply laws upon. Yet although its impossible to apply logic unless subjects exist, Logic itself is independant from subjects, and doesn't change whether subjects exist or cease to exist. Logic is non contingent, it is timeless, it is acausal. It has capacity to shape the universe. Whether it has capacity to create it? Dunno, but I assume so. Ask "What if?" and apply logic. Potentialities becoming realities.

    Logic isn't object or being. Well, being can't be non contingent by your definition just by necessity to have parts that interact. Thus either definition of non contingent or of being is too strict.
    Claim that something timeless cannot create anything, by definition, seems also too restrictive. I'd say opposite, something timeless is the only thing that can create anything from nada, for being IN time means being contingent, existing by interaction, thus being part of change not creation.
    Seems to me, it boils down to definition of "exists", which seems to contradict to being timeless or non contingent.
  21. Nov 4, 2003 #20


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    I'll go with the most commonly accepted definition of instantiation. That is, existence is a property of concepts, not things. A concept that exists is instantiated in objective reality. But it really doesn't make much different for the argument of contingency, since any definition will work.

    That's true. The intital event, assuming there is a beginning of time would not be caused by anything. But a better defintion of contingency is something that has the potential to fail to exist. A common use of the term is to say that anything contingent will cease to exist given enough time. This would seem to apply to everything in the known universe.

    Yes, it's treated as a verb and seems to imply that there is some property of existence which objects may or may not have. But that position does not stand up to close examination and is really just a matter language.

    One side of the fence would argue that the laws of physics are just descriptions of the very nature of "things" (a unified quantum field maybe?) and so have no existence without them. On that side, they go hand in hand, and you can't have one without the other. There are some who argue that the laws of physics are fundemental and preceed the existence of anything physical, with Alan Guth being one of them. Personally, I find this view downright silly.

    The laws of physics rely on a set of axioms that you won't find in countless other imagined universes. Whether or not the intital input data is arbitrary or not, is something of interest in the physics community. No one is certain.

    How about a human brain? Logic is true by definition, but one must have a statement before it can be true. This of course is the age old debate over how real abstractions are. Plato would argue they exist independent of the physical world, while others would argue they do not. I don't think I've seen any theologian arguing for abstract ideas in the issue of contingency, so it's not really important to the subject. For the most part, it deals with the physical universe and a so called "proof" that there must exist some non contingent being of substance, though in this case not in the physical sense.
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2003
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