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Argument from Contingency and Necessity

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The Argument from Contingency and Necessity (Arabic: برهان الإمکان والوجوب) is one of the most important and cogent proofs for God's existence, originally developed by Muslim philosophers. The argument proves God based on a division of beings into contingent and necessary and the latter's need for an ultimate cause that does not need a cause in turn.

There are different versions of the argument from contingency and necessity, most of which are based on quiddity-based contingency (al-imkan al-mahuwi). It has also been formulated in terms of need-based contingency (al-imkan al-faqri) or the primacy of existence. Broadly speaking, the argument goes as follows: beings are either contingent or necessary in their existence. It is impossible for all beings to be contingent, because a contingent being needs a cause in order to come into existence, and if all causes were contingent and in need of further causes, no being would exist because of the impossibility of regress and circularity. Therefore, the chain of causes must end up in a necessary being.

The argument was endorsed by many Muslim philosophers and theologians. It is widely believed that Ibn Sina originally developed the argument from contingency and necessity. However, it has been attributed to al-Farabi as well. The argument is said to have found its way to Western philosophy through Ibn Sina.

Objections have been raised against the argument, mostly by Western philosophers. According to Ayatollah Jawadi Amuli, these objections arise from failure to properly understand the argument or improper translations.

Place and Significance

The argument from contingency and necessity is considered a novel contribution of Islamic philosophy, a major cosmological argument,[1] and a clear and cogent rational argument for God’s existence. The argument is so well-known that it is discussed in almost all philosophical and theological books. Moreover, its significance is evidenced by the great number of both its proponents and opponents. This is a well-known philosophical argument consisting of purely rational premises, without a need for any sensory or empirical premises.

The argument is generally endorsed, and deemed cogent, by Muslim philosophers and theologians. Ibn Sina believes that this is the best and the most certain argument for God's existence, al-Fakhr al-Razi maintains that it is relied on by philosophers, and al-'Allama al-Hilli believes that it is a propterquid (limmi)[2] and certainty-conferring argument. According to Ja'far Subhani, a contemporary Shiite theologian, since the argument is cogent and clear, some theologians such as Khwaja Nasir al-Din al-Tusi in his Tajrid al-i'tiqad and al-'Allama al-Hilli in his Nahj al-mustarshidin rested content with this argument in proving God's existence.

According to al-'Allama al-Hilli, the verse “Is it not sufficient that your Lord is witness to all things?”[3] involves a reference to this argument. Moreover, Quranic verses such as Qur'an 28:88, Qur'an 55:26-27, Qur'an 16:96, Qur'an 35:15, and Qur'an 47:38 are also taken to refer to this argument.

The Argument's Development

The argument from contingency and necessity is believed to have been originally developed by Ibn Sina. This is said to be the majority view. Murtada Mutahhari, a Shiite intellectual and theologian in the fourteenth/twentieth century, refers to this argument as “Sinawi” (i.e. related to Ibn Sina). Abdel Rahman Badawi, a twentieth-century Egyptian philosopher, and some contemporary scholars believe that the argument was first developed by al-Farabi, holding that he was the source for both Ibn Sina in Islamic philosophy and Thomas Aquinas in Western philosophy. Mulla Sadra also believes that there are references to the argument from contingency and necessity in al-Farabi's words. After al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, the argument was widely accepted by most philosophers and theologians, including Shaykh al-Ishraq, Khwaja Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, and Mulla Sadra.

The argument has many defenders in Western philosophy as well. Thomas Aquinas, the Medieval Christian philosopher and theologian, seems to have been the first to introduce the argument to Western philosophy, and he had borrowed it from Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Sina. According to Abd Allah Jawadi Amuli, the argument was introduced to Western philosophy by Thomas Aquinas through Ibn Rushd's works, and then it was criticized in modern Western philosophy. The argument was defended by René Descartes, Leibniz, and John Locke, and was rejected by David Hume, Immanuel Kant, John Stewart Mill, and Bertrand Russell.

Baha' al-Din Khurramshahi, a contemporary Iranian author and translator, refers to cosmological arguments and arguments from incipience and motion as arguments from contingency and necessity. For this reason, he believes that Plato and Aristotle were also proponents of the argument from contingency and necessity. This is said, however, to involve negligence of essential elements and notions of the argument from contingency and necessity.

Versions

Different versions of the argument from contingency and necessity have been put forth, some in terms of quiddity-based contingency and some in terms of need-based contingency. Most versions of the argument are formulated in terms of the impossibility of vicious regress and circularity, but it has been formulated without an appeal to the impossibility of regress and circularity as well.

Quiddity-Based Versions

In this version, quiddity and quiddity-based contingency are pivotal to the argument from contingency and necessity, which is in line with the primacy of quiddity. In these versions of the argument, through the quiddities of contingent beings a necessary being is proved.

Ibn Sina's Version

Ibn Sina briefly formulates the argument as follows: there is no doubt that something exists. What exists is either a necessary being or a contingent being. If the former is true, then QED, and if the latter is true, then it has to end up in a necessary being. In his al-Isharat, Ibn Sina leaves out some of the premises, which are added by Khwaja Nasir al-Din al-Tusi in his commentaries. Al-Tusi formulates Ibn Sina's argument (with his own explanations) as follows:

• Every being that one might consider is in its essence either a contingent being or a necessary being.[4] • The existence of every contingent being comes from something else, since in an essentially contingent being, neither existence nor nonexistence are preferable to one another; for it to exist, it needs a cause other than itself. • The cause is either a necessary being—QED—or a contingent being, in which case, it will need a distinct cause in order to exist. The same reasoning applies to the second cause. • Therefore, the chain of contingent beings should end up either in a necessary being or in vicious regress or circularity. • Both vicious regress and circularity are impossible. • Therefore, the chain of contingent beings should end up in a necessary being.

According to Ja'far Subhani, a contemporary Iranian Shiite theologian, Ibn Sina formulates his argument based on the following four premises: endorsement of the reality of existence (or there being something), the mental division of being into necessary and contingent, endorsement of the principle of causation, and the impossibility of regress. In his al-Isharat, Ibn Sina refers to his version of the argument from contingency and necessity as the Argument of the Sincere (burhan al-siddiqin).

Formulations by Contemporary Scholars

Some contemporary scholars have formulated the argument from contingency and necessity based on self-evident propositions as follows:

1. Something exists, 2. Every existing thing is rationally speaking either necessary by itself or contingent by itself, 3. The putative being that exists is either a necessary being or a contingent being, 4. If the putative being is a necessary being, then the necessary being exists; QED, 5. If the putative being is a contingent being, then it should have a cause, because every contingent being that comes to exist has a cause (the principle of causation), 6. The cause of a contingent being is either a necessary being or it ends up in a necessary being in its causal chain, because otherwise, it would lead to circularity or regress, which are impossible. 7. Therefore, the only alternative is that the cause of the contingent being is a necessary being or it ends up in a necessary being in its causal chain. Thus, a necessary being exists.

Formulation of the Argument in terms of Need-Based contingency

In the argument from contingency and necessity in terms of need-based contingency, which is in line with the primacy of existence, the existence of contingent beings and the ground for their need for a necessary being are taken into consideration, rather than the conception and quiddity of existence. According to need-based contingency, a contingent being is nothing but a need for something else.

The argument from need-based contingency is formulated as follows: the existence of a contingent being is nothing but a need to and dependence on something else. Such a being cannot be real without something else on which it depends. Since every contingent being is nothing but need and dependence, the other thing on which contingent beings depend cannot be a contingent being itself. It should be an independent being without a need to anything else, and this is an essentially necessary being. Therefore, all contingent beings are signs of an independent being.

According to Ayatollah Jawadi Amuli, the argument from need-based contingency is superior to the argument from quiddity-based arguments; it is immune against certain objections raised against the latter, and it does not depend on the impossibility circularity or regress.

Formulation of the argument without a need for the impossibility of circularity and regress

Although certain versions of the argument from contingency require the impossibility of circularity and regress, it has also been formulated without such a requirement: any being is either necessary by itself or necessary by something else (possible in itself). There can be no necessity in overall contingent beings unless they are necessitated by a being that is necessary by itself. Therefore, no contingent being can exist because they have no necessity by themselves, their necessity being borrowed. Unless there is a being that is necessary by itself, there cannot be a being that is necessary by something else. Thus, there must be an essentially necessary being in order for contingent beings to be necessitated and to exist.

The Difference between the Argument from contingency and Necessity and the Argument of the Sincere

Mulla Sadra believes that the argument from contingency and necessity is distinct from, and yet very close to, the argument of the sincere. In his view, the distinction between the two arguments lies in the fact that the argument of the sincere rests on the reality of existence, whereas the argument from contingency rests on the concept of beings (or existing things). In the argument from contingency, unlike the argument of the sincere, the necessary being is proved through the concepts of quiddity and contingency. For this reason, Mulla Sadra believes that it does not qualify as an argument of the sincere.

Objections to the Argument from contingency and Necessity

Objections have been raised against the argument from contingency and necessity. Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi, a contemporary Shiite philosopher, believes that the argument only proves a being that is necessary; to prove its attributes such as knowledge, power, wisdom, and even non-physicality and non-materiality, other arguments are required. Some Western philosophers have doubted whether such a necessary being is the same as the God of religions. Thus, some people take the necessary being to be the same as the material world. Moreover, it is said that the God of religions is not the same as the cause of the world and all contingent being, because God’s causation of the world requires a material relationship, whereas the God of religions is exalted from material relationships.

It is replied that in order to show that the necessary being is the same as God, its properties need to be identified. All divine attributes can deduced from the principle that a being that is necessary by itself is necessary in all respects. In his Kashf al-murad, al-'Allama al-Hilli deduces many divine attributes from the necessity of His being. Moreover, it is said that God's relationship with the world is a creator-creature relationship, rather than a material relationship. To conceive causation in terms of material relationships is a sort of philosophical narrowmindedness.

Another objection to the argument concerns the notion of necessity in the necessary being. According to David Hume and Immanuel Kant, two Western philosophers in the eighteenth century, logical necessity applies to concepts and propositions, and not to the external world and beings. Thus, a being cannot be necessary in the logical sense of the term. Ayatollah Subhani has replied to the objection by suggesting that there are kinds of necessity besides logic necessity.[5] In this case, a being is necessary by eternal necessity, which is an objective, external necessity that applies to the external world.

There are objections to the argument from contingency and necessity by rejection of the principle of causation and the impossibility of regress. In response, the principle of causation is deemed self-evident. Furthermore, a number of arguments have been presented to show the impossibility of regress. Muhammad Taqi Misbah Yazdi believes that the impossibility of regress in causation is almost self-evident. Moreover, there are versions of the argument from contingency that do not depend on the impossibility of circularity or regress.

Ayatollah Jawadi Amuli believes that objections raised by Western philosophers against the argument from contingency and necessity arise from failure to properly understand the argument or from problems in translation.

See Also

Notes

  1. Cosmological arguments are arguments for God’s existence from facts about the world, such as contingency, incipience, and motion. (Edwards, God in philosophy, 1384 Sh, p. 57.)
  2. In a propterquid (limmi) proof, an effect’s existence is inferred from its cause. Such arguments are certainty-conferring. This is contrasted to quae (inni) proofs in which the cause’s existence is known from its effect. (see al-Tusi, Sharh al-isharat wa-l-tanbihat, 1375 Sh, vol. 1, p. 306). Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi also believes that Ibn Sina’s argument is propterquid (Amuzish falsafa, 1398 Sh, vol. 2, p. 426.).In a propterquid (limmi) proof, an effect’s existence is inferred from its cause. Such arguments are certainty-conferring. This is contrasted to quae (inni) proofs in which the cause’s existence is known from its effect (see al-Tusi, Sharh al-isharat wa-l-tanbihat, 1375 Sh, vol. 1, p. 306). Ayatollah Misbah Yazdi also believes that Ibn Sina’s argument is propterquid (Amuzish falsafa, 1398 Sh, vol. 2, p. 426). According to Ali Rabbani Gulpayigani, a teacher of theology in the Seminary of Qom, versions of the argument from contingency that proceed from the existence of contingent beings are quae arguments, and those that proceed from the being itself, without considering its contingency or necessity, are propterquid arguments (Rabbani Gulpayigani, Burhan imkan dar andisha filsufan wa mutakalliman, p. 25) According to Ali Rabbani Gulpayigani, a teacher of theology in the Seminary of Qom, versions of the argument from contingency that proceed from the existence of contingent beings are quae arguments, and those that proceed from the being itself, without considering its contingency or necessity, are propterquid arguments (Rabbani Gulpayigani, Burhan imkan dar andisha filsufan wa mutakalliman, p. 25).
  3. Qur'an 41:53.
  4. If existence is necessary for a being's essence, it is necessary by itself or essentially necessary, and if neither existence nor nonexistence is necessary for it, it will be contingent by itself (Ibn Sina, Al-shifa’ (al-ilahiyyat), 1404 AH, p. 37; al-Tusi, Sharh al-isharat wa-l-tanbihat, 1375 Sh, vol. 3, p. 18; Jawadi Amuli, Tabyin barahin ithbat khuda, 1388 Sh, p. 148).
  5. A predicate is eternally necessarily predicated of a subject when it is unconditionally necessary for it. When we say that a being is eternally necessary, we mean that its realization is unconditional, in which case we will say that it exists by necessity, and its necessity is by its essence. Such a necessity is abstracted from an independent existence; one that is unconditional in its existence (Subhani, Madkhal masa’il jadid dar ‘ilm kalam, 1382 Sh, p. 37).

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