Cosmological and Ontological Contingency
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 the emergence or present existence of an event is a third way in which the event is cosmologically contingent. Pure spontaneity in present emergence is quite abstract and not very interesting. In human beings, however, it can be interesting when it is the spontaneous adoption of one out of several actual motive impulses. We give ourselves the moral character of being the one who adopted this motive rather than those others, along with whatever justifications there are that go with that motive. Contingent spontaneous creativity relates to the contingency of the actual past by adding something to it so that change happens. It relates to the [End Page 55] contingency of the future by selecting for actualization a set of possibilities for which there might be alternative possibilities. As William Desmond would say, a contingent event is "in the middle" between past and future, constituting a connection between them. If his philosophy does not persuade you yet, say it in Greek, which adds authoritative plausibility: all contingent things in the world are metaxologically located.4
Let me suspend the discussion of cosmological contingency for now and pick up ontological contingency. Because so many philosophers nowadays associate ontological contingency with religion, which they reject, it takes an argument to make the issue between the contingencies even plausible. Those hypothesizing ontological contingency do so, historically, out of two main problematics, the problem of the one and the many, and the problem of being-itself, or being versus beings. Philosophers in the Western traditions influenced by Neo-Platonism, including Thomists, often hunt for a primordial One as the ground of the being of the many. Philosophers from South Asia often attempt to diminish the reality of the many with their distinctions, leaving an undifferentiated ground, but often without a unifying center of intention. Philosophers from East Asia construe the one and many problematic to be a search for something that does not need explanation, noting that anything with order or determinateness needs explanation; so only a generative nothingness can be the ontological ground. Philosophers who quickly reject all notions of ontological ground for a contingent determinate many need to solve the problems of the one and many and of being itself some other way. For now, I want to sketch an argument for the ontological ground as an act of creation, the terminus of which is everything that is determinate. Everything determinate is ontologically contingent upon that act. After the sketch, I shall return to the connection of ontological with cosmological contingency.
The place to begin is with an analysis of determinateness, that is, of the many things or events that are different from one another. To be different, they need to be determinate with respect to one another. If one thing is determinate with respect to another, that other must condition it in some way, giving it what I call conditional components. In my Whitehead-like cosmology, the real conditioning others enter into a thing, although they might be transformed in order to fit in with the other real conditioning others in the thing. How one thing conditions another is a matter of cosmological contingency, either of the actual past sort or of the limiting future sort. The mutual conditioning of things constitutes an existential field in which things have locations relative [End Page 56] to one another, an existential field that is dynamic and temporal for temporal things. The existential field is a kind of cosmological togetherness.
A thing cannot consist only of conditional components, however, because it has to be something to be conditioned. It has to have its own-being in order to receive and integrate all its conditioning components into its own determinate identity. That own-being comes from what I call essential components. For Whitehead, all the creative subjectivity in the genesis of an actual occasion would be a matter of essential components. In my earlier sketch of cosmological contingency, the essential components would be at least the creative spontaneity of the present that adds to the past, selects the future, and actualizes the new event or thing.
Now you might think that one thing that conditions another thing becomes wholly contained in that other thing, losing its independent own-being reality. However, if that were so, there would be no real others with respect to which the conditioned thing could be determinate. There would be only the conditioned thing, one thing, which could not be determinate with respect to anything other than itself. If there is a multiplicity of determinate things, then the conditioning thing with its own-being is in part external to the thing it conditions. If you say there is no multiplicity, as some Advaitins do, then you disagree with me, demonstrating multiplicity (thanks, Rene). Therefore, things that are determinate with respect to one another relate internally to one another but also remain at least in part external to one another. Although the network of conditionings constitutes a cosmological togetherness, there must also be an ontological togetherness in which things are together in their separateness with their own essential components. If there were no ontological togetherness, there could not even be the cosmological togetherness, and nothing could be cosmologically contingent upon anything else.
What might this ontological togetherness be? It cannot be something determinate over and above all the determinate things, such as a totalizing whole or a One that is determinately full of being, for then it would be just another determinate thing for which a more encompassing ontological togetherness is needed. My hypothesis is that the ontological togetherness is an ontological creative act, the terminus of which is all the determinate things in their mutual relations, related both internally and externally. The ontological creative act is a weird notion with many associations from which it needs to be refined.
First, the ontological creative act is immediate. It has no stages that we could map. It is the immediate, sheer, making of the determinate things. So, the analogy with an act of a person or other agent does not hold.
Second, the ontological act has no nature of its own save for what it produces. It can have no antecedent potentials for acting, no rationality, no goodness, no [End Page 57] divine nature, just its making of the determinate things. The act has no possibilities for acting but creates all such things as possibilities. It has no innate powers but creates all such things as have powers.
Third, the ontological creative act is thus absolutely contingent, constrained by nothing, necessitated by nothing. This is to say, that there is a world of determinate things is absolutely contingent. Ontological contingency is not contingency on some cause. It is the contingency of all things that cause upon the radical ontological act that makes them. This is the contingency of which I think Frankenberry's contingency needs more. She thinks that the contingency of the determinate things on an ontological ground makes them necessary, given the ground; but the ground itself, as ontological act of creation, is itself contingent.
Fourth, although you might think (and many of you have said) that the ontological creative act cannot explain anything because it is indeterminate, it explains in a different sense. It explains how the ontological togetherness of the determinate many is possible. The ontological creative act, making the things together, is their togetherness. The recognition or acknowledgement of the ontological creative act is the same as acknowledging the radical contingency of there being a world of determinate things at all.
Fifth, the ontological creative act is singular, in the sense that it is the creation of all determinate things together as mutually determining one another. Nevertheless, it is not one in any ontological sense from which the many things are derivative, for instance as Neo-Platonists say. The world contains many unities, and some of its spread has pockets of order. But there is a lot of disunity in the world, a lack of mutual conditioning or connection. What kinds of unity the world has is an empirical matter we determine by inquiry.
Sixth, the ontological creative act is eternal in the sense that it creates time by creating temporal things, and hence cannot itself be in time. The act is not at the beginning of temporal process, nor a lure at the end, nor an act of present spontaneity, because all of those locations of the act presuppose temporal location. Even Augustine's totum simul notion of God based on expanding the present to include past and future is a temporal notion; simul means "at a time."
Seventh, the ontological creative act is immense in the sense that it is un-measurable, that is, has no location whatsoever. It is nowhere except in the determinate things it creates as their ontological togetherness.
Enough of weird claims about ontological contingency from the perspective of the ontological creative act: let me now explore more about ontological contingency from the standpoint of cosmological contingency.
First, if we could think of the present moment of an event in its coming to be, the spontaneous creativity in what it adds to the past and with which it selects [End Page 58] what future possibilities to actualize is a primary locus of the ontological act creating. It creates temporal beings in the temporal location of their coming to be. Some mystics focus on cultivating the experience of sheer present creativity. This sheer being-created-here-now for a thing is the ontological creative act in that part of its terminus that is that event in its present happening.
Second, all the past actual things with respect to which it is determinate condition that present event. Two senses of ontological contingency are involved here. First, each of those past events had spontaneous creativity when it was in its own present moment, and so the ontological creative act is creating the present event together with having created the past events that are external to it and had their own moments of coming to be. Second, all of those past conditioning actualities enter the present moment as conditions and thus have ontological as well as cosmological standing within the present moment. Some mystics cultivate the experience of other things being such as they are, in relative irrelevance to the present moment. Other mystics cultivate the experience of things as not being other but as being unified within the present moment.
Third, the present event is conditioned by all the relevant future possibilities that it might actualize. Because the determinate structure of the future possibilities, including the alternatives within them, comes from the need to make coherent or unified the diverse previously actualized things, the present faces the future as radically contingent on diversity. This is the ontological creative act in making the many, as relevant to facing the future. Because the determinate nature of future possibilities comes also from the conditions for unifying what the future can be, the present faces the future as radically other than the need to be unified in the becoming of the present moment.
Fourth, the identity of a contingent event in time is both temporal and eternal. It is temporal because each date in a thing's existence has a moment in time with a particular past and future, and this is always changing for the temporal thing. Its "now" is a procession through present moments that is always changing and cosmologically contingent. Nevertheless, each of a thing's dates has a present moment, a series of past-actualized moments, and a series of future moments. The ontological identity of a temporal thing is eternal in the sense of being the togetherness of all its dates as present, all as future, and all as past. This togetherness is not at any time but is in the eternity of the ontological creative act, the ontological togetherness. Because we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being only in the present, enjoying and suffering, we often find it hard to develop the symbols to appreciate eternal identity. Nevertheless, most great religions have such symbols.
Fifth, within time, in a present moment we experience our being as what we are in this way: we are spontaneously becoming the next move on the past and [End Page 59] the delimiting power on the future. Our being is to be with the past and future things with respect to which we are determinate. Our being is not exhausted in the moment, but is in the moment in ontological togetherness with the past and future, even though mostly the moment is brought to consciousness.
Sixth, things are beings, to use Heidegger's expression, that have relations to others internal to their natures but also have their own-being. The being-itself of beings is their all being created together in an eternal togetherness as well as in their temporal relations. To put it in the active voice, being-itself is the creating of all the beings together. Being-itself is not something over and above the beings. It is the beings together. The beings could not be themselves in their relations without being together.
Seventh, being-itself can be experienced only as the togetherness of the beings. As temporal experiencers, we experience the ontological togetherness of beings only insofar as we have signs to do so. Sometimes this is no larger than experiencing the relevant past and future as involved in present change, with the signs for interpreting that. However, most philosophical cultures have sign-systems for symbolizing and thus potentially experiencing larger swaths of the togetherness of beings. Some cultures symbolize a cosmic narrative, such as the South Asian theory of kalpas of expansions of hiranya garba, the East Asian ever-flowing Dao, or the modern scientific theory of one or more Big Bangs. Other cultures symbolize a fundamental underlying reality such as Nirvana Brahman that we can engage experientially through meditative processes of eliminating distinctions. Some, but not all, Buddhist conceptions of emptiness, of which many exist, provide alternative symbols of ontological togetherness on a cosmic scale.
Eighth, the complicated abstract dialectical argument to which I have subjected you intends to be a complex indexical sign that allows us to engage ontological and cosmological contingency. Following through and understanding the argument, and filling in its gaps, is supposed to allow for a kind of perception of the contingencies, an interpretive engagement of the contingencies as they are found in things. To be sure, this is a funny kind of perception, not something framed just in the signs of our neural sensations. It is a mental, or better, Chinese heart-mind perception, appreciating the positive and negative values in the contingencies as well as the contingencies in their places.
Ninth, I submit that the experience of ontological contingency in cosmological contingency is not uncommon and has been registered in many cultures. The interpretations of these experiences, of course, have differed, and I propose my interpretation as the best hypothesis. I remember Jacques Maritain once saying that Thomas Aquinas (St. Thomas to him) was the first and the last of the great existentialists. By that he meant that Thomas pointed to the experience [End Page 60] of the "act of to be" delimited in our own finite situations; we experience not only what we are in our situation but that we are, being "in act." This is a very sophisticated interpretation of the experience of existing that I call experiencing ontological contingency. I myself do not like Thomas's Aristotelian act-potency interpretive scheme and much prefer the more process-oriented scheme I've sketched here. But we are describing much of the same experience, I think.
Tenth, if the same general kind of experience can be interpreted more or less well with different philosophical theories, then appeal to the experience cannot be proof for one interpretation over another. Other considerations will have to choose among the interpretive theories. Nevertheless, appeal to the experience can partly justify the claim that there is ontological contingency in cosmological contingency. To those philosophers who deny ontological contingency, I point to the experience of it. That indexical pointing is through the dialectical argument I have sketched. One can argue for different interpretations from my explication of ontological and cosmological contingency, but that argument has to defend itself by showing how it can interpret the experience of engaging ontological contingency. In this sense, all our interpretive theories are empirical hypotheses for making sense of experience. I would be honored by any counterarguments. [End Page 61]
Ulf Zackariasson is associate professor of the philosophy of religion at Uppsala University, Sweden. He is former president and currently vice-president of the European Society for Philosophy of Religion. Zackariasson's research mainly concentrates on American pragmatism, and particularly pragmatist philosophy of religion. He is also the editor of several philosophical and multidisciplinary volumes on pragmatism, religion, and society, including Action, Belief and Inquiry: Pragmatist Perspectives on Science, Society and Religion and Relativism and Post-Truth in Contemporary Society (with Steve Fuller and Mikael Stenmark).
1. Robert Cummings Neville, "Nancy Frankenberry: Philosopher of Religion, Radical Empiricist, Herald of Contingency," in American Journal of Theology and Philosophy 37, no.1 (2016): 5–20. Her written response is "Enduring Questions in Philosophy of Religion: A Response to Neville and Godlove," in the same issue, pp. 36–52. Some of my arguments in the current paper are in response to her response.
2. See Weiss's discussion in Modes of Being (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1958), chap. 3.
3. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, corrected ed., ed. David Griffin and Donald Sherburne (New York: Free Press, 1978), chap. 2.
4. See William Desmond, Being and the Between (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), especially chap. 5 on determinism and indeterminism.