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  • Cosmological and Ontological Contingency
  • Robert Cummings Neville (bio)

Let me begin by giving preliminary definition to the two kinds of contingency named in my title, although I shall argue that the distinction between them gets too complicated to sustain in the long run. Cosmological contingency is the contingency of things within the world upon other things within the world, plus perhaps their own spontaneous creativity. Ontological contingency is the contingency of everything in the world that is determinate in any way upon an ontological ground. That ontological ground cannot itself be determinate, and you can recollect Plotinus's One, Thomas Aquinas's Pure Act of To Be, Brahman without qualities, or the Ultimate of Non-Being in Zhou Dunyi's philosophy for sample conceptions of such an indeterminate ontological ground, although I shall offer yet another conception. In this brief discussion, I want to sketch an abstract theory of each kind of contingency and to focus mainly on their connection or interaction. My thesis is that we cannot conceive cosmological contingency thoroughly without ontological contingency and we cannot conceive ontological contingency thoroughly without also conceiving cosmological contingency if there is any cosmological change.

Regarding cosmological contingency, I wholeheartedly applaud Nancy Frankenberry's theory of contingency that she derives from Whitehead, Buddhism, and Neo-Pragmatists such as Richard Rorty and Donald Davidson. She is so good on contingency that I have urged her in print to have more of it, namely, ontological contingency.1 This essay is another friendly nudge.

For purposes of this discussion, I shall give a generalized statement of cosmological contingency, derived in part from Whitehead, Peirce, and Paul Weiss, the founder of this Society. Like many process philosophers, I treat things as events, occasions, or changes, all of which we can characterize as harmonies happening in space-time. An event is cosmologically contingent in three ways. In the first way, an event is contingent on past or environing actual events that it takes up within its own being. They are the actual components [End Page 54] out of which an event makes itself up. [That locution is not as bad as "the grocery bill up which I have run."] (I equivocate on actual things in the past and in the environment because of the complexities of defining simultaneity relative to past and future, an issue I want to finesse here.) The second way in which an event is contingent is that the possibilities for what it can do with its actual components limit how it can make itself up. Those possibilities exist in a field with possibilities for other events, and the constant changing of things makes those future possibilities constantly shift. One thing's future possibilities are contingent in part on what other things do. I believe, but will not argue here, that the future contains alternative possibilities and that part of what an event does when it happens or comes to be is the selection of those to actualize from among the alternatives. Pretend for the moment, if you will, that these characterizations of contingency on the past and on the future are more or less true.

The third way in which an event is cosmologically contingent is upon some spontaneous creativity in how it comes to be. Paul Weiss was brilliantly insistent upon this point, more forceful than his mentor, Whitehead.2 For an event to happen, something must be added to all the actual things that are past and potential causes to get them to change. If nothing were added, then the past would just be what it turned out to be and nothing more would happen. Whitehead's account appealed to general creativity at this point, saying, in his theory of the Category of the Ultimate, that whenever there is an actual many, creativity forces the creation of a new one integrating that many and adding to it.3 True, but something has to show up in the emerging new event that is more than the past, creativity creating something new. From the standpoint of the past, this novelty in the event is spontaneous, that is, not accounted for by anything in the past. I would say that this creative spontaneity in...


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