Letter to Peter Kreeft

Letter to Peter Kreeft June 24, 2018

Dear Dr. Peter Kreeft,

I have recently been studying your Argument #7, the Argument from Contingency:

http://www.peterkreeft.com/topics-more/20_arguments-gods-existence.htm#7

In the second premise, you provide a definition of “the universe”:

2. The universe—the collection of beings in space and time—exists.

Although I appreciate the attempt to clarify the meaning of this phrase, the definition itself seems unclear to me, and I am hoping that you can provide some clarification of the definition, so that I will understand what you mean by the phrase “the universe”.

First, it seems to me that there needs to be a reference here to time. Your example of something that needs a cause of existence is that of a person, and in that example you focus in on the cause of a person’s existence right now:

…you know that right now, as you read this book, you are dependent for your existence on beings outside you. Not your parents or grandparents. They may no longer be alive, but you exist now.

This suggests that premise (2) is also talking about the existence of “the universe” right now. I take it that it is an important feature of the Argument from Contingency that it does NOT deny the possibility of an infinite regress of cause-and-effect backwards in time. It leaves open this possibility, but instead denies an infinite regress of current causes of existence.

In commenting on this argument, you confirm my interpretation that this argument is based upon the premise that “the universe” exists right now:

But the proofs have given us some real knowledge as well: knowledge that the universe is created; knowledge that right now it is kept in being by a cause unbounded by any material limit, that transcends the kind of being we humans directly know.

Although you are talking about multiple “proofs”, it seems clear to me that it is the Argument from Contingency, among the first six proofs, that has the potential to provide “knowledge that right now it [the universe] is kept in being by a cause unbounded by any material limit…”.

So, I take it that premise (2) should be understood as referring to a particular moment of time:

2a. The universe—the collection of beings in space and time—exists right now.

But when we specify a particular moment of time, the definitional phrase “the collection of beings in space and time” becomes ambiguous between two different meanings:

2b. The universe—the collection of every being that has ever existed in space and time—exists right now.

2c. The universe—the collection of currently existing beings in space and time—exists right now.

This ambiguity in the second premise of the Argument from Contingency appears to constitute a fallacy of equivocation, because on the first interpretation (2b) the premise is clearly false, but on the second interpretation (2c), the definition of “the universe” is clearly mistaken or misleading, which results in a problem later in the argument:

4. What it takes for the universe to exist cannot exist within the universe or be bounded by space and time.

If the expression “the universe” is talking ONLY about things or beings that currently exist, then the inference that what it takes for “the universe” to exist “cannot exist within the universe” ONLY implies that what it takes for “the universe” to exist cannot be one of the things that exists in space and time RIGHT NOW.  But there have been many physical objects (“beings in space and time”) that have existed in space and time in the past that no longer exist RIGHT NOW. Those objects are not within “the universe” as this expression is defined in premise (2c), but they were, nevertheless, “beings in space and time”.

So, my question is this:

Does the expression “the universe” in this argument mean, “the collection of every being that has ever existed in space and time” or does it mean, “the collection of currently existing beings in space and time”?

Or is there some other interpretation of the expression “the universe” that you would propose?

Sincerely,

Bradley Bowen

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RESPONSE FROM PETER KREEFT  (06/25/18):

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BB:

Although that chapter and this proof was largely the work of Fr. Tacelli, I will answer your question about it.  Obviously, 2c rather than 2b is what “the universe” means in this argument.  So the argument as it stands does not exclude infinite temporal regress into the past.  That possibility has been refuted, not by this argument, but by Big Bang cosmology.  And (here is the tricky part) if time is relative to matter and if all matter had a beginning, then so did time.  Thus there is only finite regress in time.  I do not think this radically changes the essential argument, though.  But it at least apparently requires the cause of the universe to be not a being in time, since the part cannot cause the whole.  Thus the God proved by the combination of Aquinas’ contingency argument and modern Big Bang cosmology is a being that is not determined by or part of matter, or time, or space.  And this applies even if our universe is only one of many in a “multiverse,” since the same logic must apply to whatever whole this universe might be a part of, even if that whole does not necessarily have the same kind of matter, time, or space as our universe does.  And Christianity suggests such a possibility in positing a universe of pure spirits, or angels, who are not in chronological time but spiritual time.  They too need a cause for their existence, however their “time” relates to their existence.

PK

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REPLY TO PETER KREEFT (6/25/18):

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Dear Dr. Kreeft,

Thank you for taking the time to answer my question about the definition of “the universe” in the second premise of the Argument from Contingency.   That eliminates one ambiguity in the definition, which in my view reduces the number of possible interpretations of that phrase from sixteen down to just eight.

There is another ambiguity in the definition of “the universe” that I am hoping you can help me to eliminate; the phrase “in space and time” has at least two different meanings.

In theory, there are four different kinds of things or beings:

I. In space and in time

II. In space but not in time

III. Not in space but in time

IV. Not in space and not in time

 The phrase “in space and time” could be interpreted in two different ways:

  1. BOTH in space AND in time
  2. EITHER in space OR in time  [inclusive “or”]

 

When “the universe” is defined in the Argument from Contingency as “the collection of beings in space and time”, does the phrase “in space and time” have meaning #1 or meaning #2?

Sincerely,

Bradley Bowen

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RESPONSE FROM PETER KREEFT (6/26/18):

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BB:

Good point, since acts of thinking and willing are in time but not in space, though for us they are dependent on things in space, material things like brains and nervous systems.  In one sense these acts are not part of the universe, or nature, but are supernatural.  In another sense, they are.  Angels make up still another class: created, finite spirits, not the Creator, but not in or dependent on matter or space or the time (kronos) that is relative to matter and space, but only in another kind of time, spiritual time (kronos).  Thus we have a complex hierarchy:  (1) God, (2) angels, (3) human spiritual souls that are dependent on matter, and (4) matter, which itself is hierarchical (animals, plants, minerals).  The contingency argument is about (1) vs. everything else, not about the divisions of “everything else,” so it works best on a metaphysical level of act and potency rather than on a cosmological level of matter and mind.

PK

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REPLY TO PETER KREEFT (6/28/18):

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Dear Dr. Kreeft,

Thank you for again taking the time to respond to my question about the definition of “the universe” found in the Argument from Contingency.

You appear to agree that something can be “in time but not space”, so you see the ambiguity in the phrase “in space and time”.

But I’m still not clear which of the two meanings of this phrase was intended (or which is the best interpretation):

  1. BOTH in space AND in time
  2. EITHER in space OR in time  [inclusive “or”]

How do you interpret the phrase “in space and time” in this context?

Sincerely,

Bradley Bowen

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RESPONSE FROM PETER KREEFT (6/29/18):

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BB:

If “the universe” means the material universe, then 1.  If it means all of creation, including angels, it means 2.

PK

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REPLY TO PETER KREEFT (6/30/18):

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Dear Dr. Kreeft,

You have graciously answered two of my questions about the definition of the phrase “the universe” found in premise (2) of the Argument from Contingency.  I have saved what might well be the most challenging question about the definition for last:

What does “beings” mean?

The definition of “the universe” that is given in premise (2) is as follows:

…the collection of beings in space and time…

 The general principle stated in premise (1) of the Argument from Contingency applies to whatever can be said to be “something” that exists.  So, in order for that principle to apply to a “part of the universe”, the part of the universe must be “something”  that exists.  This raises questions about the relationship between the concept “X is something” and “X is a  being”:

  • If X is something, then X is a being.  (True or False?)
  • If X is a being, then X is something.  (True or False?)

My intuition is that time is something, but that time is NOT a being.

My intuition is that space is something, but that space is NOT a being.

My intuition is that a law of physics is something, but that a law of physics is NOT a being.

These are, however, my linguistic intuitions, and what is important here is not what is the “correct” use of these words, but rather what is the intended meaning of these words in this particular context.

The context appears to be, in part, Thomistic philosophy, and you are more familiar with Thomistic philosophy than I am, so you might have a very clear and specific understanding of the words “something” and “being” in the context of the Argument from Contingency.

Thank you again for your help clarifying the meaning of the definition of “the universe” in this interesting argument.

Sincerely,

Bradley Bowen

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RESPONSE FROM PETER KREEFT (7/1/18):

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BB:

Aristotle gave the best and most commonsensical answer to your question.

PK

 

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