‘For no-one is known to another so intimately as he is known to himself, and yet no-one is so well known even to himself that he can be sure as to his own conduct on the morrow.’ (Augustine)
This is a brief post on contingency, as a follow up on ‘Who’s the magician?’. ‘Contingency’ is a term that has various meanings. Here I shall disregard its most general meaning, that of being in some way dependent on someone or some thing, as in “The physical world is contingent/dependent upon the activity of God”. Of course it does not follow that what brings about the physical world, must itself be contingent. God’s existence is not contingent, nor dependent on another, and yet God’s action may be. That’s another question, or rather, set of questions.
That leaves two other senses of contingent; first, two-way contingency or alternativity as we may call it, and epistemic contingency, as when the unexpected, the fortuitous or the surprising occurs. It is these two senses that I wish to reflect on a little. First, two-way contingency.
Here we are chiefly if not exclusively concerned with contingency and intelligent action, with human contingency. All I will say about divine agency here is that many postulate that two-way contingency is characteristic of divine activity even if human action is never a case of two-way contingency, and the converse of this is also possible.
Two-way contingency is what free human agents possess, according to libertarians or indeterminists or incompatibilists, and that such contingency is necessary and sufficient for the possession of ‘free will’. This indeterminism entails the following: that If A freely chooses to do X then, given that the world in all respects, the inner and outer worlds of A, were identical to that in which X was chosen, not-X could have been chosen, or Y could have been chosen, rather than the X that was in fact chosen by A. Hence this is two-way contingency, or alternativity. To be more precise, the two-way contingency is two way simultaneous contingency. This idea of simultaneous two-way contingency goes back to at least to the Jesuits of the 16th century. As Molina put it ‘with all the prerequisites for acting posited, [one] is able to act and able not to act, or is able to do one thing in such a way that it is able to do some contrary thing’. The Arminians borrowed it. (Where did Molina get it from? I'll leave that question for homework.)
I shall not rehearse the arguments pro and con of this position. I am not a libertarian but a compatibilist, for theological and philosophical reasons. Though baldly stated, compatibilism may be consistent with all manner of different determinisms. Again, I do not wish to select a preferred determinism or determinisms. But whichever one selects rules out two-way contingency.
The second view of contingency is epistemic. It arises for the agent in cases of his ignorance; and it is a characteristic of human action. If it is not a necessary feature of it, then it is most certainly a deeply embedded fact about it, as Augustine reminds us. Certainly it is a necessary condition of choice. Stressing the importance of states of such contingency is significant, for it identifies a central feature of human life, and not a freak case. It underlines a kind of two-way contingency that falls short of the metaphysical contingency beloved of the libertarians.
Epistemic contingency can never be characteristic of God who has no states of ignorance, it being the case that all things are naked and open before the eyes of him with whom we have to do. However, I shall suggest that it is a vital ingredient in human action, both from the point of the creatureliness of it, and of the freedom of it. I don’t suppose this to require much argument. At this point I do not think that the language of determinism and even of ‘compatibilism’ serves this view, the denial of the crucial feature of libertarianism mentioned earlier, vey well. ‘Determinism’ and ‘compatibilism’ unglossed suggest to many people some relentless monocausalism, whereas our lives are full of known unknowns both trivial and weighty, and the lines of causal influence are from being monocausal, like a kettle boiling but criss cross in complex ways. Jonathan Edwards offered this against this monocausal misunderstanding:
But the dependence and connection between acts of volition or choice, and their causes, according to established laws, is not so sensible and obvious. And we observe that choice is as it were a new principle of motion and action, different from that established law and order in things which is most obvious, that is seen especially in both corporeal and sensible things; and also that choice often interposes, interrupts and alters the chain of events in these external objects, and causes ‘em to proceed otherwise than they would do, if let alone, and left to go on according to the laws of motion among themselves.
(Freedom of the Will, Yale Edn, 158-9)
Exceptionless chains of events are often invisible, because our determined choices interrupt them, stop certain of them, changing their character, sending them in a different direction.
So Joe has a new yellow tie. Is he going to wear it when his Aunt calls this morning? He cannot make up his mind what to do, even though it’s already 10 am. Then at 10.10 he remembers that the new tie is in fact a gift from his Aunt. That settles it. At 10.10 he decides to wear his new yellow tie. Up until 10.10am Joe has been in a state of two-way epistemic contingency with regard to what he shall wear around his neck. But he is brought out of it, made decisive, by a sudden memory. That occurrence was not chosen by Joe, it suddenly came to him. But it gives him a good reason, perhaps the best reason, to choose to wear the tie. (This business is not mechanical in any literal sense, but Joe immediately recognises in the propositional content of the memory a good reason to wear the tie.)
This is a characteristic feature of the human condition; not knowing what to do. Mercifully, not all occasions that call for action are like this, but sufficient of them are to make this a characteristic feature of human agency. Necessarily, we choose when we don’t already know what to do. They have some additional features that are worth pointing out.
Intrinsic to Joe’s situation is the belief that he could choose to wear his new yellow tie or some other tie, or be tieless. Programmed or drugged or drilled or amnesiac individuals, or someone who has rigid rules of dress, do not – or shall we say, to avoid complications - may not. Nor do sheep or squirrels, much less bees and ants. To humans some of the future at least is open. And this is intrinsic to living a life. To know the future would be already to have made up one’s mind, or to have had one’s mind made up. If Joe knew at 10 am that he would wear his new tie to please his Aunt, then his mind is already made up., and the future in respect of tie wearing, closed. The future is open in that with respect to some features of it his mind is not already made up until he remembers, or some other factor occurs.
This epistemic alternativity, I repeat, is not a way of trying to smuggle in metaphysical alternativity, which I personally do not hanker after. But it nevertheless carries with it the belief that the future world is shaped for alternative decisions. The future comes to us, day by day, as calling for choices. Of course, one can adopt a policy of shutting down alternatives. We develop habits, over time, our characters develop contours which make certain kinds of indecision infrequent or impossible. Hume was impressed by such features. Such habits apart, we carry with us the belief that having done A in some situation, we could have done B instead. We have this as a well-formed belief. We could have decided thus, because we have decided thus on other similar occasions, and because there are people sufficiently like us who choose the way we have rejected on this occasion. Occasionally we choose knowingly against the odds, and sometimes out of pure whimsy. So though we do not face the open universe of the Open Theist, say, we face a universe that resembles it, and has features in common with it. Though not, to repeat, a future that is metaphysically open, thank God.