The Contingency Of The World

But we need not dwell in the meantime on these and the many other

difficulties and riddles presented by our cosmological hypothesis. However

these may be solved, a general consideration will remain--namely, that

whether the world is governed by law or not, whether it is sufficient unto

itself or not, there is a world full of the most diverse phenomena, and

there are laws. Whence then have both these come? Is it a matter of
/> course, is it quite obvious that they should exist at all, and that they

should be exactly as they are? We do not here appeal without further

ceremony to the saying "everything must have a cause, therefore the world

also." It is not absolutely correct. For instance, if the world were so

constituted that it would be impossible for it not to exist, that the

necessity for its existence and the inconceivability of its non-existence

were at once explicit and obvious, then there would be no sense in

inquiring after a cause. In regard to a "necessary" thing, if there were

any such, we cannot ask, "Why, and from what cause does this exist?" If it

was necessary, that implies that to think of it as not existing would be

ridiculous, and logically or metaphysically impossible. Unfortunately

there are no "necessary" things, so that we cannot illustrate the case by

examples. But there are at least necessary truths as distinguished from

contingent truths. And thus some light may be brought into the matter for

the inexpert. For instance, a necessary truth is contained in the

sentence, "Everything is equal to itself," or, "The shortest distance

between two points is a straight line." We cannot even conceive of the

contrary. Therefore these axioms have no reasons, and can neither be

deduced nor proved. Every question as to their reasons is quite

meaningless. As examples of a "contingent" truth we may take "It rains

to-day," or "The earth revolves round the sun." For neither one nor the

other of these is necessarily so. It is so as a matter of fact, but under

other circumstances it might have been otherwise. The contrary can be

conceived of and represented, and has in itself an equal degree of

possibility. Therefore such a fact requires to be and is capable of being

reasoned out. I can and must ask, "How does it happen that it rains

to-day? What are the reasons for it?" But as we must seek for sufficient

reasons for "contingent" truths, that is, for those of which the contrary

was equally possible, so assuredly we must seek for sufficient causes for

"contingent" phenomena and events, those which can be thought of as not

existing, or as existing in a different form. For these we must find

causes and actual reasons. Otherwise they have no foundation. The element

of "contingency" must be done away with; they must be shown to result from

sufficient causes. That is to say nothing less than that they must be

traced back to some necessity. For it is one of the curious fundamental

convictions of our reason, and one in which all scientific investigation

has its ultimate roots, that what is "contingent" is only apparently so,

and in reality is in some way or other based on necessity. Therefore

reason seeks causes for everything.

The search for causes involves showing that a thing was necessary. And

this must obviously apply to the world as a whole. If it were quite

obvious that the world and its existence as it is were necessary, that is,

that it would be contrary to reason to think of the world, and its

phenomena, and their obedience to law as non-existent, or as different

from what they are, all inquiry would be at an end. This would be the

ultimate necessity in which all the apparent contingency of isolated

phenomena and existences was firmly based. But this is far from being the

case. That anything exists, and that the world exists, is for us

absolutely the greatest "contingency" of all, and in regard to it we can

and must continually ask, "Why does anything exist at all, and why should

it not rather be non-existent?" Indeed, all our quest for sufficient

causes here reaches its climax. In more detail: that these celestial

systems and bodies, the ether, attraction and gravitation should exist,

and that everything should be governed by definite laws, all literally "as

if shot from a pistol," there must undoubtedly be some sufficient reason,

certain as it is that we shall never discover it. It is true, as some one

has said, that we live not only in a very fortuitous world, but in an

incredibly improbable one. And this is not affected by the fact that the

world is completely governed by law. Law only confirms it. The fact that

all details may be clearly and mathematically calculated in no way

prevents them from being fundamentally contingent. For they are only so

calculable on the basis of the given fundamental characters of the world.

And that is precisely the problem: "Why do these characters exist and not

quite different ones, and why should any exist at all?"

If any one should say: "Well, we must just content ourselves with

recognising the essentially 'contingent' nature of existence, for we shall

never be able to get beyond that," he would be right in regard to the

second statement. To get beyond that and to see what it is--eternal and in

itself necessary--that lies at the basis of this world of "contingency" is

indeed impossible. But he would be wrong as to the first part of the

assertion. For no one will "content himself." For that all chance is

only apparently chance, and is ultimately based in necessity, is a

deeply-rooted and fundamental conviction of our reason, one which directs

all scientific investigation, and which cannot be ignored. It demands

ceaselessly something necessary as the permanent basis of contingent

existence. And this fact is and remains the truth involved in the

"cosmological proofs of the existence of God" of former days. It was

certainly erroneous to suppose that "God" could be proved. For it is a

long way from that "idea of necessity" to religious experience of God. And

it was erroneous, too, to suppose that anything could be really "proved."

What is necessary can never really be proved from what is contingent. But

the recognition of the contingent nature of the world is a stimulus that

stirs up within our reason the idea of the necessary, and it is a fact

that reason finds rest only in this idea.