NOTES on Richard Taylor (1919-2003): The Argument from Contingency

Captain Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek: The Next Generation can state that religion is a superstition of the past, but philosophers today are still taking the question of the existence of God seriously. One contemporary philosopher who believes he has a good argument for the existence of God is Richard Taylor.

Taylor starts with a plausible principle: The Principle of Sufficient Reason. According to the Principle of Sufficient Reason, there is an explanation or cause for everything. To illustrate the principle, he asks us to imagine that we are walking in the woods and we come across a translucent ball. (Translucentmeans “transmitting light but causing sufficient diffusion to eliminate perception of distinct images” — The American Heritage Dictionary.) Of course, we would ask, “Why is that translucent ball here?” In doing this, we are asking for a reason sufficient to explain the translucent ball’s existence.

Taylor explains the Principle of Sufficient Reason in this way: “in the case of any positive truth, there is some sufficient reason for it, something which, in this sense, makes it true — in short, that there is some sort of explanation, known or unknown, for everything.”

Of course, the translucent ball is unusual and so we do not expect to see it in a woodsy setting, and so we ask where it came from. But if we were unfamiliar with rocks in a woodsy setting, and had come across a rock instead of the translucent ball, we would be asking why the rock was there. Taylor makes this point to show that even though we ask for reasons for the existence of unusual things, we could also ask for reasons for the existence of things we are used to.

One thing that we are used to is the existence of the world. (Taylor defines the world as everything that exists, except for God, if God should exist.) Everything in the world is contingent; that is, its existence is dependent on something other than itself. For example, I am contingent. I exist because my parents brought me into being. Of course, my parents are also contingent; they exist because theirparents brought them into being.

Some questions we should ask are these: Why does anything exist? Why should there be a world at all? We can certainly imagine the world not existing. As you can see, Taylor is using the Principle of Sufficient Reason on a grand scale: What is a reason sufficient for explaining the existence of the world?

Please note that the complexity of the universe is not a sufficient reason for its existence. Suppose the universe consisted entirely of a translucent ball. We would still want to know the reason for its existence. The same thing applies to our world of many and complex objects, including billions and billions of stars, as astronomer Carl Sagan might say.

Please note also that even if the world is old, that still is not a sufficient reason for its existence. We would still want to know why there is a world. Just to say that something is very old does not explain why it exists.

Please note further that even if the world does not have a beginning, that still is not a sufficient reason for its existence. We would still want to know why there is a world. Just to say that something has always existed does not explain why it exists.

Our world could have always existed (as in the Steady State theory), or it could have had a beginning (as in the Big Bang theory). Either way, it is proper to speak of the world as being created. Taylor points out that people have been confused by the word “creation,” incorrectly assuming that “creation” implies a beginning in time. Taylor writes, “Now if the world is the creation of God, its relationship to God should be thought of in this fashion; namely, that the world depends for its existence upon God, and could not exist independently of God.” It is possible that both God and the world are eternal, but that the world is contingent upon God. (Or, alternatively, it is also possible that God is eternal, the world had a beginning in time, and the world is contingent upon God.)

So, what is the reason sufficient for explaining the existence of the world? Two answers suggest themselves. One is that the world is responsible for its own existence; that is, that it has aseity (necessary existence). Taylor finds this implausible because everything in the world appears to be contingent.

Taylor writes, “It would be a self-contradiction to say of anything that it exists by its own nature, or is a necessarily existing thing, and at the same time to say that it comes into being or passes away, or that it ever could come into being or pass away. Nothing about the world seems at all like this, for concerning anything in the world, we can perfectly easily think of it as being annihilated, or as never having existed in the first place, without there being the slightest hint of any absurdity in such a supposition.”

The second possibility, and the only one that remains, is that a self-caused, necessary being is responsible for the existence of the world. This being, of course, is God. Taylor attempts to clear up some confusion over the terms we apply to God. For example, to say that a self-caused being brings itself into being is absurd. Taylor writes, “To say that something is self-caused (causa sui) means only that it exists, not contingently or in dependence upon something else, but by its own nature, which is only to say that it is a being which is such that it can neither come into being nor perish.”

Is the idea of a self-caused, necessary being absurd? Taylor writes, apparently not. If we can think of objects whose existence is impossible, such as a square circle or a formless body, why not of a being whose existence is necessary?

Taylor also attempts to make clear the notion of a first cause. He points out that “first” does not mean “first in time.” Rather, he writes, “To describe God as a first cause is only to say that he is literally a primaryrather than a secondary cause, an ultimaterather than a derived cause, or a being upon which all other things, heaven and earth, ultimately depend for their existence.”

One important point to note is that though Taylor has argued that God exists, his argument does not establish that God has all the attributes that the Judeo-Christian religion says God has. Taylor has argued that God is the Creator of the world and that God has aseity (necessary being). However, his argument does not show that God is benevolent. Still, Taylor shows that modern philosophers do not simply assume that God does not exist; indeed, many modern philosophers believe that there are good arguments for the existence of God.

Captain Picard talks about philosophy; however, he seems to assume that God does not exist (without presenting any arguments to show that this is actually the case). That is not philosophical.

Note: The quotations by Richard Taylor that appear in this essay are from his Metaphysics (2nd edition; copyright 1974).

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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