A Discussion on Whether the Universe as a Whole Could Fail to be Contingent

In order to determine how the universe as a whole could fail to be contingent and in need of an explanation if everything within the universe is, two issues must be discussed; firstly whether the universe as a whole could fail to be contingent, and secondly whether it could fail to be in need of an explanation. For something to be contingent means that it may or may not have existed, so if everything in the universe is contingent then it means that everything that exists in the universe may also not have existed.

From this, whether it follows that the universe as a whole is contingent relies on a discussion of the fallacy of composition. If indeed it is contingent, whether the universe could fail to be in need of an explanation can be determined through discussing the Principle of Sufficient Reason. Overall, it will be seen that the universe as a whole could not fail to be contingent and in need of an explanation because the fallacy of composition fails in this case, and the Principle of Sufficient Reason holds.

Whether the Universe Could Fail to be Contingent

Firstly, it is necessary to examine why it might be the case that the universe as a whole is contingent if everything in it is contingent. Copleston explains this in a radio debate with Russell, stating that, the world is simply the real or imagined totality or aggregate of individual objects…there isn’t any world distinct from the objects which form it’. This means that the world, or universe, is comprised of individual objects which are contingent. The universe as a whole will also be contingent because it is no more than the total of these individual objects. As these individual objects are contingent, there is no reason to suppose that the universe too would not be. For example, if the chair I am sitting in is comprised entirely of individual black components, there is no reason to suppose that the chair itself will not also be black, because there is nothing more to it than its individual components. Therefore if everything in the universe is contingent, then the universe as a whole cannot fail to be.

However, in the same radio debate, Russell rejects Copleston’s argument that the universe must be contingent if everything in it is contingent by arguing that he has committed the fallacy of composition. This fallacy claims that it is unreasonable to assert that something is true of the whole just because it is true of the parts which make up the whole. For example, it is fallacious to claim that a football team is a good team because all of its members are good; perhaps the members dislike each other and are therefore unable to engage in effective teamwork, hence will perform badly when forced to play together. Russell gives the example that, ‘every man who exists has a mother, and it seems to me (Copleston’s] argument is that therefore the human race must have a mother, but obviously the human race hasn’t a mother – that’s a different logical sphere’. By this he seems to mean that asserting what is true of the parts of the universe, in this instance contingency, cannot be applied to the universe as a whole because it is not logical to do so. Therefore it is not reasonable to claim that the universe as a whole is contingent purely on the basis that everything in the universe is contingent.

However, the fallacy of composition may not be applicable when it comes to the universe. It is true that in some circumstances it is logically invalid to claim that what is true of parts of something is true of the whole, but there are also some circumstances in which this is perfectly reasonable. For example, very few people would question the reasoning that if each chicken nugget in a bag is currently frozen at -12° then the whole bag of chicken nuggets is currently -12°. So, the fallacy does not apply to the property of temperature. Therefore perhaps it is also the case that the fallacy of composition does not apply to the property of contingency. If it does not, then it is true that if everything in the universe in contingent, the universe could not fail to be.

I would argue that the fallacy of composition does not apply in the case of contingency, therefore it is not a relevant criticism to Copleston’s argument. In the same way that we would not question the example of temperature, we also ought not to question that if something is comprised entirely of contingent things, then that thing is also contingent. It would make no sense to say that all of the chicken nuggets in the bag are contingent and so may or may not have been, but the bag of chicken nuggets itself is not contingent. As Copleston states, “if you add up chocolates you get chocolates after all and not a sheep’;4 meaning that if all you have are chocolates and you add them up, all you end up with are chocolates, not something else. So if all you have are contingent things and you add them up, you cannot end up with something that is not contingent. Therefore if everything in the universe is contingent, then the universe must also be contingent because it is just the name given to the collection of every contingent thing.

Thus far it has been established that if everything in the universe is contingent, the universe as a whole could not fail to be contingent because it is no more than the total of all individual contingent things. Now it must be examined whether the universe as a whole could fail to be in need of an explanation if everything in the universe is in need of an explanation.

Whether the Universe Could Fail to be in Need of an Explanation

One argument for why the universe would require an explanation if everything in it does is the Principle of Sufficient Reason. This principle claims that there must be a complete explanation for everything. A complete explanation is one to which nothing else can be added. Leibniz states that it is the principle of the want of a sufficient reason in order to anything’s existing, in order to any event’s happening, in order to any truth’s taking place’. For example, if my handbag is on the floor then there must be a complete explanation for why it is on the floor. This could be that I put it down there when I came home because I couldn’t think of anywhere else convenient to put it. There is nothing else that need be added to this explanation in order to provide a full account of why my handbag is on the floor, hence this is the kind of explanation that the principles claims everything must have. This has been taken as a fact of reason by many, and indeed Pruss stated that it is, ‘self-evident, obvious, intuitively clear, in no need of argumentative supporto, meaning it is just obviously true. Therefore the universe could not fail to be in need of an explanation.

Russell has argued implicitly against the Principle of Sufficient Reason in relation to the universe. In his radio debate with Copleston, he asserts the view not only that there need not be a complete explanation of the universe, but that we cannot possibly hope to find one. He claims that ‘the universe is just there, and that’s all’,meaning there is no more explanation. His reasoning for this seems to be that there is no reason to apply our concept of causation to the universe as a whole, because ‘the whole concept of cause is one we derive from our observation of particular things. This means that we have derive our concept of cause from individual instances of x following y where x and y are both things within the universe. For example, repeatedly seeing that a hammer hitting a piece of glass is followed by the glass breaking, leads us to derive the concept that the hammer hitting the piece of glass causes the glass to break. There is no reason that the concept of cause should then apply to the universe as a whole, because all instances which we derive it from are instances which are within the universe, so we cannot possibly draw conclusions about the universe from them. Therefore the fact that everything within the universe is in need of an explanation gives no reason to suppose that the universe itself is in need of an explanation.

Yet Copleston disagrees with this argument. He argues that Russell is wrong to deny that the universe must be in need of a causal explanation in this way, because there is nothing about deriving our concept of cause from particular things which restricts us from applying it to the universe. He stated ‘I don’t say that the universe is something different from the objects which compose it’, 9 and Russell does not provide an alternative definition for the universe’ in their debate. As such as the universe is no more than the particular things which we observe and recognise to be in need of a cause, it too must be in need of a cause. This can be demonstrated with the example of a chess game. We would say that the moves on a chess board are in need of a cause, namely the players moving the pieces around, as the pieces cannot move by themselves. We would also say that the chess game itself is no more than the collection of all of these individual moves. As these moves are in need of a cause, the chess game too is in need of a cause; we certainly would not accept the idea of a chess game occurring with absolutely no explanation. This same thinking applies to the universe. So the Principle of Sufficient Reason applies in the case of the universe, because if everything in the universe is in need of an explanation then the universe itself, as no more than a collection of everything within it, must also be in need of an explanation. Now it must be seen whether there are any ways in which the universe might not be in need of an explanation which could serve as counterexamples to this argument.

Counter-Example to the Universe Being in Need of an Explanation

The ‘Hume-Edwards Principle’ argues one way in which the universe could fail to be in need of an explanation. It states that something is fully explained if the existence of all of its constituent parts is explained. Hume states that if he showed the cause of 20 particles of matter, it would be unreasonable to someone to ask what the cause of the whole twenty was, because this is sufficiently explained in explaining the cause of the parts’. This means that there is no cause for the collection of the 20 particles which is separate to the individual causes of the 20. For example if the cause of each of 20 marbles being on the floor is that I dropped them there, then there is no explanation for the whole 20 being on the floor that is separate to the explanation for each individual marble being on the floor. This can be applied to the universe, where the explanation for the universe as a whole is nothing more than the explanation for the constituent parts of the universe. The point is that there is no need to go outside of the universe, as a collection of things with causes, to explain it. Therefore, if everything in the universe is in need of an explanation, the universe as a whole can fail to be in need of an explanation because it has been explained by giving an explanation for everything in it.

However, the Hume-Edwards Principle is incredibly flawed. Pruss disagrees with it, presenting his view by setting out several scenarios that would be acceptable if the Hume Edwards Principle is philosophically sound. He argues that the scenarios are not acceptable, therefore the Hume-Edwards Principle cannot be. One such scenario is the flight of a cannon ball. Considering one section of the ball’s flight, each instantaneous point of that section can be explained by the point of its flight immediately prior to it in that section. This means that the section of the flight is explained completely by the causes of the points of the ball’s flight which make up the section, because each of their causes lie within that section. Pruss states that “the state of the cannonball at the earlier time T1 provides a full explanation of the state of the cannonball at the later time T if we apply the appropriate deterministic Newtonian laws of physics’.This means that the first state of the cannonball, including its velocity, position and so on is a full explanation for the state of the cannonball at a further point in that section of its flight. The fact that it was travelling at 5m/s at point a, taking in to account factors such as its weight and the density of the air through which it is moving, provides a full explanation for why it was travelling at 4m/s at a further point in its flight. As such, the Hume-Edwards Principle would say that this section of the cannonball’s flight has been full explained by the fact that every point within that section has been explained. Hence it has been completely explained with no reference to any cannon. This absurd conclusion I will take to constitute a disproof of the Hume-Edwards Principle. It certainly does seem unreasonable to claim that one has completely explained a portion of the flight of a cannonball without the key factor of the cannon which it was fired from; the Hume-Edwards Principle seems to run the risk of ignoring a key part of the causal story of something. Therefore, it fails in showing how the universe as a whole might fail to be in need of an explanation if everything within the universe is in need of an explanation.

Conclusion

Overall, it has previously been established that the universe cannot fail to be contingent and cannot fail to be in need of an explanation as a result of Copleston’s arguments and the truth of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. In addition to this, the Hume Edwards Principle fails to provide a counter-example of how the universe might fail to be in need of an explanation, as its explanation can be found in the explanation for its constituent parts. Therefore it can be concluded that if everything in the universe is contingent and in need of an explanation, the universe as a whole could not fail to be contingent and in need of an explanation. 

Bibliography

  1. Hume, David, and Norman Kemp Smith. 1947. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Bobbs-Merrill,
  2. Pruss, Alexander R. 1998. “The Hume-Edwards Principle and the Cosmological Argument.” International Journal For Philosophy of Religion 43 (1998): 149-65.
  3. Pruss, Alexander R. 2006. The Principle of Sufficient Reason: A Reassessment, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Rowe, William L., and Nick Trakakis. 2007. William L. Rowe on Philosophy of Religion: Selected Writings. Aldershot, England: Ashgate.
  5. Russell, Bertrand. 1957. Why I Am Not a Christian: And Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects. Allen & Unwin,

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A Discussion on Whether the Universe as a Whole Could Fail to be Contingent. (2021, Sep 11). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/a-discussion-on-whether-the-universe-as-a-whole-could-fail-to-be-contingent-essay

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