Argument from contingency

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Thomas Aquinas proposed this argument in his Summa Theologica
For more information, see the Crash Course video:

The argument from contingency is a cosmological argument proposed by Thomas Aquinas in his book Summa Theologica. Because it is his third argument, it is also known as Aquinas's third way. It argues that some objects have the property that they must exist, because if everything is contingent (it might exist or it might not) and transient, there would have been a state in which nothing existed at all, which is supposedly absurd.

"You can’t just have an infinite number of things in Box A [contingent things], each requiring other things in Box A in order to come into existence. If that were the case, nothing would ever exist. Things do exist, so we know that can’t be the right answer. [... this] shows that Box B [necessary things] can’t be empty.[1]"

Formal argument[edit]

  1. Natural objects tend to have been generated and have a tendency/possibility to be corrupted.[2]
  2. From (1) These objects may exist or may not exist, i.e. they are contingent.
  3. If an object can be non-existent and tends to be corrupted, each object sometimes does not exist.
  4. From (3), contingent objects cannot always exist i.e. they are transient.
  5. If everything is contingent and tends to be corrupted or have been generated, then at some point nothing existed at all.
  6. Contingent objects require something that exists to bring it into existence.
  7. If nothing existed in the past, nothing contingent would exist now.
  8. Contingent things exist.
  9. Therefore not everything is contingent.
  10. Some objects are not contingent. These are necessary objects.

Having established that there must be necessary objects, the argument moves to consider causes of necessary objects.

  1. Necessary objects are cause by another necessary object, or not.
  2. There is no infinite regress of necessary objects causing other necessary objects.
  3. Therefore the chain of causes terminates in a necessary object that itself its own necessity, i.e. God.

This argument is phrased in an attempt to express Aquinas's point, originally written in latin, in modern language. He uses "possibility" in an archaic sense:[2]

"The “possibility” in question is not some abstract logical possibility but rather something “inherent,” a tendency “to be corrupted” rooted “in the nature of those things… whose matter is subject to contrariety of forms” (QDP 5.3). In other words, given that the matter out of which the things of our experience is composed is always inherently capable of taking on forms different from the ones it happens currently to instantiate, these things have a kind of inherent metaphysical instability that guarantees that they will at some point fail to exist."

In a sense, the argument is based on the tendency of objects not to exist.

Counter arguments[edit]

Contingency and transiency does not imply the past non-existence of everything[edit]

Aquinas points out that individual objects come into existence and decay out of existence, implicitly saying they tend to not remain in existence. In other words, individual objects "tend not to exist". However, the tendency of objects to non-existence does not generalise to all objects tending to non-exist at the same time. His point would be valid if existence and non-existence of objects was random and the universe had finite material. Looking far back in time, everything would be non-existent by chance and that "everything non-existent" state could not kick start history. But this is not true in general because existence and non-existence is not random.

Objects are mental constructs: the material of an object is more fundamental. While a house may have been created, it was built out of pre-existing matter. If the house burns down, it is destroyed but it creates debris. In each case the materials, or to be specific the atoms and energy that constituted each object continues to exist in another form. Objects are better understood to be in flux or transition to other objects. Aquinas argues that objects are "destroyed", but this is hardly relevant when the materials persist. The universe tends to have conservation laws, such as the conservation of mass and of energy. This seems a much more universal principle than Aquinas's claim of contingency and transience.

Based on our experience, the materials in the universe continued to exist, in various forms. We can therefore suppose the materials have always existed, perhaps in different forms or in unknown forms.

Assumption that an infinite regress cannot happen[edit]

Main Article: Infinite regress does not occur

The argument assumes infinite regress cannot occur but this is difficult to establish if it is true.

Natural processes are not ruled out[edit]

Natural processes are not ruled out. The universe or some physical process might have the property of necessarily existing.

No specific God is supported by the argument[edit]

Main Article: The first cause implies God exists

No specific God is supported by the argument and the attributes of God cannot be inferred. The conclusion is hardly relevant to religion. The argument does not rule out polytheism, pantheism or natural causes. We have not ruled out the original cause, whatever it may be, has since ceased to exist. This is therefore an argument from ignorance.

Proof by logic[edit]

Main Article: Proof by logic

Pure logic proofs cannot say anything about matters of fact.

Objects may spontaneously come into existence[edit]

Main Article: Not all events necessarily have causes

The argument asserts that "contingent objects require something that exists to bring it into existence." However, this is arguably a false statement and a hasty generalization. It is possible that some events, particular on the quantum scale, do not have causes (or at least we do not fully understand the cause at this time). This is also known as the Glendower problem.

Variant: The universe is contingent[edit]

For more information, see the Atheist Debates video on Argument from Contingency.

A version related to the principle of sufficient reason and the kalam argument jumps straight in with the claim that the universe is contingent: [3][4]

  1. Contingent things require a reason for their existence
  2. The universe is contingent
  3. Therefore the universe has a reason for its existence
  4. The reason for the existence of the universe is God
  5. Therefore, God exists.

One difference with the Kalam argument is it does not rely on the universe having a beginning but rather on the claim that the (possibly infinitely old) universe is contingent.[4]

We don't know if the universe is contingent[edit]

Firstly, we can't be sure that the universe is contingent. This is an unsupported premise. Also, what we mean by "universe" is unclear. Perhaps the universe is contingent, but the cosmos (or multiverse, if it exists) is not contingent.

Just because observable objects within the universe are contingent, this does not show that the universe itself is contingent (this claim would commit the fallacy of composition).

Infinitely old things are not contingent[edit]

A contingent thing must have had a beginning, otherwise it is not contingent. Therefore, if the universe is infinitely old, it is not contingent.

The reason for existence is not necessarily God[edit]

Main Article: The first cause implies God exists

The claim that the reason for the existence of a contingent universe must be a God is a non sequitur. This is largely based on an argument from ignorance since they have not ruled out non-thinking/non-agent reasons. William Lane Craig uses a different tactic by making it a premise (which is unsupported or based on circular reasoning):

"If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is a transcendent, personal being.[5]"

This argument assumes that the cause of the universe is still in existence. The reason for the existence of the universe may have ceased to exist a long time ago.


  1. [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 Edward Feser, Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide, Oneworld Publications 2009 [2]
  3. [3]
  4. 4.0 4.1 [4]
  5. [5]

See also[edit]

v · d Arguments for the existence of god
Anthropic arguments   Anthropic principle · Natural-law argument
Arguments for belief   Pascal's Wager · Argument from faith · Just hit your knees
Christological arguments   Argument from scriptural miracles · Would someone die for a lie? · Liar, Lunatic or Lord
Cosmological arguments   Argument from aesthetic experience · Argument from contingency · Cosmological argument · Fine-tuning argument · Kalam · Leibniz cosmological argument · Principle of sufficient reason · Unmoved mover · Why is there something rather than nothing?
Majority arguments   Argument from admired religious scientists
Moral arguments   Argument from justice · Divine command theory
Ontological argument   Argument from degree · Argument from desire · Origin of the idea of God
Dogmatic arguments   Argument from divine sense · Argument from uniqueness
Teleological arguments   Argument from design · Banana argument · 747 Junkyard argument · Laminin argument · Argument from natural disasters
Testimonial arguments   Argument from observed miracles · Personal experience · Argument from consciousness · Emotional pleas · Efficacy of prayer
Transcendental arguments   God created numbers · Argument from the meaning of life
Scriptural arguments   Scriptural inerrancy · Scriptural scientific foreknowledge · Scriptural codes