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Thursday, May 26, 2011


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Christopher Wright

This convinced me, as a 14 year-old atheist, of the necessity for God, and I have remained convinced.

Eric Giunta

How valid is this argument to serious minds today, Carl? Educated persons know today, in a way the medievals did not, "existence" is not given or received; rather, matter and energy are just constantly, as it were, being re-arranged. It seems entirely possible that the cosmos itself is this being whose existence is not contingent; everything within the cosmos is simply being rearranged constantly.

Isn't that more or less how any serious atheist would reply to this argument?


Good point, Eric. But it still does not escape Sheed's observation about contingency. Precisely how the matter and energy are rearranged is where contingency enters in. So if your mother's and father's eyes never lock across the lunchroom at Acme Enterprises, the matter and energy that would have eventually formed you are instead spread out in an incalculable array across three continents and every ocean on the planet.

Voila! Contingency, and the lack thereof.

BTW, educated persons know today that it is entirely possible that matter and energy are simply distinct manifestations of the same elemental force -- be it known as vibrating 'strings' or an infinite 'membrane' or whatever other metaphor the quantum physicists apply to the very real, infinitely salient will of God.

Eric Giunta


I don't see why, logically, it is not possible for the cosmos itself to be eternal and to posses necessary existence. That's what I am getting at.

Carl E. Olson

Eric: Dr. Edward Feser addresses this at length in his book, The Last Superstition, which I'm going to quote at length because I think it is helpful and because he does a much better job that I can do (especially at 1:30 am). I recommend the entire book if you've not read it. Anyhow, Feser earlier notes that Aquinas did not think one could prove by philosophical arguments that the universe had a beginning. What Aquinas did argue is that since the universe/cosmos is in a state of constantly changing (what you describe as "rearranged constantly"), it is going from potential to actual. But anything going from a potential state to an actual state is changing, and such change (rearrangement) must have an origin or source for such change from potentiality to actuality. "To show that an Unmoved Mover exists, then," writes Feser, "is just to show that there is a single being who is the cause of all change, Himself unchangeable, immaterial, eternal, personal (having intelligence and will), all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. It is, in short, to show that there is a God."

Feser then goes on the argument of "The First Cause", and here is where I quote at length; a key observation is in the first paragraph, but the whole quote should be of some help:

In order for the universe to undergo change, it obviously must exist. In particular, it must persist in existence from moment to moment. So why does it do so? Suppose it is suggested that the universe has always existed, or that it oscillates from Big Bang to Big Crunch to Big Bang over and over again, or that it is really a “multiverse” consisting of many branching baby universes, per the speculations of physicists desperate to keep the divine foot out of the door the Big Bang seems to have opened. Fine and dandy, but all of this is completely irrelevant to the question I just asked, which is the question Aquinas is interested in. Remember that, for purposes of proving God’s existence, Aquinas doesn’t care about the Big Bang or whether the universe had a beginning. The question isn’t about what got things started or how long they’ve been going, but rather what keeps them going.

Is there just something in their natures that allows them to do so? Definitely not. For consider the nature or essence of any of the things that make up the physical universe — people, for example. Suppose we agree with Aristotle that the essence of a human being is to be a rational animal. Does knowing that essence tell you whether there are any people? Does it tell you, say, whether Socrates, or George Bush, or Bruce Wayne exists? Not at all. You do know that George Bush exists, of course, but not because you know his essence; rather, you know it because you’ve met him, or heard about him, or seen him on television. And Socrates doesn’t exist anymore, while Bruce Wayne never existed at all outside of the Batman comics and movies.

So there’s nothing about the nature or essence of being human that entails one way or the other whether any human being exists. And the same thing is obviously true of the other inhabitants of the physical world, be they rocks, trees, planets, or whatever. Moreover, all of these things come into existence and go out of existence all the time, which shows by itself that there’s nothing about their nature that entails that they must exist. Consider also that, supposing unicorns have an essence — being horse-like and having horns on their heads, say — that obviously doesn’t tell you whether they exist either. In fact they don’t exist, but you wouldn’t know that just from knowing their essence; a child, on first hearing about them, might think they do exist, as just another kind of horse. And the same thing would be true of elves, fairies, Smurfs and the like, if they have essences. Whether it’s people or trees, unicorns or elves, their essence is one thing and their existence (or lack thereof) another, and the first doesn’t entail the second. But then, the essences or natures of the things in the universe can’t be what accounts for their continuing to exist from moment to moment.

This distinction between essence and existence — between what a thing is and that it is — is famously central to Aquinas’s philosophy, and it relates to Aristotle’s distinction between actuality and potentiality. Remember that the ordinary objects of our experience — people, dogs, cats, frees, rocks, etc. — are in Aristotle’s view composites of form and matter, where the form is the essence or nature of the thing and the matter is what has taken on that form, nature, or essence. So, for example, there is the form or essence of a human being — being a rational animal — and there is the matter that makes up the human body, which has this form or essence. Now, relative to matter, the form or essence is “actuality” — it actualizes the potential in the matter, in this case making it a living human body rather than a cat or an apple.

But as we’ve just seen, there’s nothing about a form or essence per se that guarantees that it exists or informs anything. Like George Bush, Socrates and Bruce Wayne, being human beings, are composites of form and matter, but unlike Bush they aren’t real, since Socrates is dead and Bruce Wayne is fictional. So, though “actual” relative to matter, a form or essence is only “potential” relative to existence or being. Existence or being is what “actualizes” a form or essence.

Now if the essence of a thing and the existence of the thing are distinct in this way — there is nothing in the former that entails the latter — then something needs to put them together if the thing is to be real. That “something” obviously can’t be the thing itself, for to give itself existence, a thing would have to exist already, and the whole point is that since existence still needs to be added to its essence it doesn’t exist already. So, nothing can cause itself; whatever comes into existence, or more generally whatever must have existence added to its essence in order for it to be real, must be caused by another. This is the “principle of causality” (also sometimes known as a version of the “principle of sufficient reason”).Notice that it does not say that “Everything has a cause” (one of the errors from the atheist website that was introduced at the beginning here)– something which, as I have said, Aquinas never asserted or would have asserted. The principle says only that what does not have existence on its own must have a cause.

Now Hume famously attacks this principle, claiming that we can easily “conceive” a thing coming into being without a cause, so that the principle is at the very least doubtful. What he has in mind is something like this. Imagine the surface of a table with nothing on it. Now imagine a bowling ball suddenly appearing — pop! — in the middle of it, “out of nowhere” as it were. There, you’ve just conceived of something coming into being without a cause, right?

Well, no, actually. It really is amazing that this argument has gotten the acclaim and attention it has over the centuries, given how very feeble it is. One problem with it, is that it assumes quite falsely that to imagine something — to form a certain mental image — is the same as to conceive it, in the sense of forming a coherent intellectual idea of it. But imagining something and conceiving it in the intellect simply aren’t the same thing.

You can form no clear mental image of a chiliagon — a thousand-sided figure — certainly not one that’s at all distinct from your mental image of a 997-sided figure or a 1002-sided figure. Still, your intellect can easily grasp the concept of a chiliagon. You can form no mental image of a triangle that is not equilateral, isosceles, or scalene. But the concept of triangularity that exists in your intellect, which abstracts away from these features of concrete triangles, applies equally to all of them. And so forth. Like many empiricists, Hume conflates the intellect and the imagination, and his argument — indeed, his philosophy in general sounds plausible only if one follows him in committing this error.

For another thing, as Elizabeth Anscombe has pointed out, to imagine something appearing suddenly isn’t even to imagine it (let alone conceive it) coming into existence without a cause. Suppose the situation described really happened to you: a bowling ball suddenly appears on your table. What would be your spontaneous reaction? Would you say, “Wow, Hume was right! Look, a bowling ball came into existence without a cause!” More likely you’d say, “Where the hell did that come from?” — a question that implies that there is a source, a cause, from which the bowling ball sprang. Then you’d look for that cause: a hole in the ceiling maybe, or a magician’s trick; if nothing this mundane can be found, you~ might even consider something exotic like a mad scientist testing a teleportation device, or a bizarre and otherwise astronomically improbable quantum fluctuation in the table.

Even if you could somehow rule these explanations out, it is unlikely you’d resign yourself to the world’s irrationality and have your valet fetch Hume’s Treatise for you from the bookshelf (as Louis XVI had his valet fetch a volume of Hume’s History of England when he learned he was to be executed). You’d probably just think, “1 guess I’ll never know what caused it” — what caused it, not whether it was caused. In any case, there’s simply nothing about the situation Hume describes that amounts to imagining something coming into existence with no cause, as opposed to coming into existence with an unknown or unusual cause.

But it’s worse for Hume even than that. Anscombe also asks us to consider how we’d go about determining whether the sort of scenario we’ve been describing really is a case of something coming into existence in the first place, as opposed, say, to merely reappearing from somewhere else where it had already existed. And the answer is that the only way we could do so is by making reference to some cause of the thing’s suddenly being here as being a creating cause, specifically, rather than a transporting one. Thus, the only way we can ultimately make sense of something coming into being is by reference to a cause. What Hume says we can easily conceive not only hasn’t been conceived by him, it seems likely impossible to conceive.

So the principle of causality seems secure. Not that it was ever much in serious doubt even among atheists themselves, who implicitly take it for granted whenever they trumpet this or that finding of science. For science itself — which is, after all, in the business of searching for the causes of things — takes for granted the principle of causality and couldn’t proceed without it. I daresay that there has really only ever been one motive for seriously doubting the principle (or pretending seriously to doubt it anyway) and that is to block arguments for a first cause of the universe. And even then, it has never been doubted consistently, given atheists’ purported attachment to science.

How does the principle get us to a first cause? When we consider that the essence of everything within the universe is distinct from its existence, so that each of these things must be caused by something outside itself, we can see that the same thing must be true of the universe as a whole. And in that case, the universe must have a cause outside itself. Now at this point a standard move is to claim that this argument commits the “fallacy of composition.” If every brick in a certain wall weighs a pound, it doesn’t follow that the whole wall weighs only a pound; so (the objection continues) the fact that everything in the universe requires a cause outside itself doesn’t entail that the universe as a whole does.

The trouble with this objection is that not every instance of this sort of reasoning from part to whole commits a fallacy For example, if every brick in a wall built out of children’s Lego blocks is red, then the wall as a whole must be red. And the case of the universe as a whole is surely like this. If a roomful of physical objects needs a cause outside itself, so do two rooms full; if a city full of physical objects needs a cause outside itself, so does a country full of them; if a planet full of physical objects needs a cause outside itself, so does a solar system

There is no reason whatsoever to doubt that the same thing is true when we reach the level of the physical universe as a whole.

Now Hume is bound to pop up again at this point with another widely parroted but worthless objection. If every specific thing within the universe as a whole has a cause — this person was caused by his parents, that house was caused by its builders, that species was caused by natural selection, and so forth — what is left to be explained? This might seem plausible if we are thinking of tracing causes backwards in time (it isn’t, actually, but I’ll let it pass for the sake of argument). But remember that what is in question here is not what events in the past led to what exists here and now, but rather what it is that keeps the things that exist, here and now, in existence here and now.

Your mother gave birth to you, but she’s not what’s sustaining you in being here and now; what’s doing that is going to be something like the current state of the cells of your body, which is in turn sustained by what’s going on at the molecular level, and the atomic level, along with gravitation, the weak and strong forces, and so forth — all of these things being things whose essence is distinct from their existence and thus need a cause outside themselves. In other words, what we’ve got here is once again an “essentially ordered” causal series, which, for reasons we saw earlier, must of metaphysical necessity terminate in a first cause. Even when we consider the physical universe as a whole, then, we have something that down to its last detail consists of elements whose essence is distinct from their existence, and thus cannot account for their continued existence from moment to moment.

Hence, everything in the universe, and indeed the universe as a whole, must be sustained in being here and now by a cause outside it, a First Cause which upholds the entire series. But could this being itself be just another entity composed of essence and existence? If so, then it would not truly be a first cause at all, for it would require something outside it to explain its own existence, and the regress would continue. No, the only thing that could possibly stop the regress and explain the entire series would be a being who is, unlike the things that make up the universe, not a compound of essence and existence. That is to say, it would have to be a being whose essence just is existence; or, more precisely, a being to whom the essence/existence distinction doesn’t apply at all, who is pure existence, pure being, full stop: not a being, strictly speaking, but Being Itself.

What would this First Cause be like? Note first that, as pure being or existence, He would also be Pure Actuality and thus everything said about the Unmoved Mover would be true of Him; indeed, it is obvious that the First Cause and the Unmoved Mover are identical. Hence, equally obviously, the First Cause is God. He would also, as Being Itself, exist “necessarily” rather than “contingently.” That is, whereas the ordinary objects of our experience of their nature are the sorts of things that need not have existed — they do in fact exist, but things could have gone differently — the First Cause could not possibly have failed to exist. (Hume, being his usual overrated self, famously asked why the universe itself might not be the necessary being, and did not stay for an answer. But the answer, as should be obvious by now, is that since the universe is undergoing change and is composed of essence and existence, it cannot be either Pure Actuality or Being Itself, and thus cannot be a necessary being in the relevant sense.)

What is even clearer from this argument than from the Unmoved Mover argument, though (though it is also deducible from that one) is that God would have to be an absolutely simple being. By “simple” I don’t mean “easy to understand” — considering the level of abstraction the present argument requires us to think at, He is obviously not simple in that sense, What I mean is simple as opposed to composite, or being composed of parts. Physical things are composed of parts: not just our arms, legs, bodily organs, etc., but, more fundamentally from a metaphysical point of view, our form or essence on the one hand, and our matter on the other.

Angels, not being material, are pure forms or essences on Aquinas’s view, but even with them their essence needs to be combined with existence in order for them to be real, so that they too are composite. But the First Cause, since He is not a composite of essence and existence but just is pure existence itself, is simple. There are no parts or components in Him, not even metaphysical ones.

Several things follow from this. First, God, not having an essence distinct from His existence, does not fall under a genus or general category. With us, there is the general category or essence “being human,” and then there are the various individual human beings who fall under it, and who are distinguished from one another by the different parcels of matter which compose their bodies. Each of us is one existing instance among others of the general category or essence. But God is not one instance of a category or essence, not one particular existing thing of a general type. He is, again, pure Existence or Being Itself, rather than a compound of existence and essence. This is another reason there cannot even conceivably be more than one God: Since there is no divine essence distinct from the divine existence, there is no general category under which various distinct divine beings could fall, and thus no sense to be made of the idea of there being this God, that God, the other God, and so forth.

It also follows that, when we speak of God as being powerful, intelligent, good, and so forth, we are not describing features that exist in a distinct way in God Himself. Our minds can only have a clear grasp of intellect, power, goodness, etc., as distinct attributes, since they exist distinct from one another in the things of our experience. But in God they exist as one: God’s power is His intellect, which is His goodness, and so forth; they are but different ways of referring to what is in itself the same thing, Being Itself.

The intelligence, power, goodness, etc., that exist in the world of created things are but fragmented and imperfect reflections of what exists in a unified and perfect way in the First Cause. This is, to be sure, a difficult idea to get one’s mind around. But that shouldn’t be surprising, unless we assume that everything that exists must be completely transparent to our intellects — an assumption that is totally unwarranted and implausible even from a “naturalistic” point of view (indeed, especially from a naturalistic point of view, as we shall see). Reason reveals to us that there is a God, and also tells us to some extent what He is like; but in doing so it also reveals to us that God is not something we should expect to be able fully to grasp, given the limitations on our intellects.

The Last Superstition (St. Augustine's Press, 2008), by Dr. Edward Feser, pp. 102-110.

Ben Joseph

Eric and Gregorio: "Matter and energy are constantly being rearranged", but contingency does not reside in "precisely how the matter and energy are rearranged". Where do matter and energy come from? Have they not received "existence" also? They are two essential elements in the universe and are "something" rather than "nothing". It is "precisely here" that Sheed's argument of contingency enters.

Eric Giunta


Your last post addresses the causation argument, I think, not that of contingency. Furthermore, most physicists would today argue that not every effect does need a cause, that at the subatomic level particles do act completely randomly and Einstein was wrong to think otherwise (i.e., that there exist "hidden variables" which are the causes of this apparently random activity).

Sorry, guys, I'm just not getting this. The contigency argument just seems based on false premises. Things are not constantly receiving a magic substance called "being"; they're simply the products of eternal rearrangement of matter/energy. This being the case, I see no inherent reason why the universe cannot be a necessary being, and everything "it" constantly being rearranged.


Here's a proof from Stanley Jaki on the finite and contingent nature of the universe:

Premise 1: There exists material entities.
Premise 2: All material entities contain quantitatively determinable, measurable properties, in the sense that they can counted.
Therefore, those entities constitute a coherent system insofar as its parts reveal some basic quantitative properties whereby they can be counted. And if they can be counted, the universe has to be finite and so the universe must be the strict totality on interacting things.

And, if finite, it must be contigent and cannot be necessary, only God is that. Whether you realize or not, you are making the universe out to be God, albeit a pantheistic version!


Eric, I see contingency woven throughout Carl's post, so I must be misunderstanding your comment. First paragraph: "The question isn’t about what got things started or how long they’ve been going, but rather what keeps them going." Or, a little further down: "So, nothing can cause itself; whatever comes into existence, or more generally whatever must have existence added to its essence in order for it to be real, must be caused by another. This is the “principle of causality” (also sometimes known as a version of the “principle of sufficient reason”). Notice that it does not say that “Everything has a cause”...something which, as I have said, Aquinas never asserted or would have asserted. The principle says only that what does not have existence on its own must have a cause." Or, still further down: "That is, whereas the ordinary objects of our experience of their nature are the sorts of things that need not have existed — they do in fact exist, but things could have gone differently — the First Cause could not possibly have failed to exist."

As for the subatomic particle example, we can avoid postulating "hidden variables" as their cause. Even though the random, unpredictable character of a subatomic particle is consistent with its nature, this does not entail the pure actuality that Feser is describing. If I am understanding this correctly (and I'm not sure that I am), randomly coming into and out of existence is not the same as pure actuality (2nd and 3rd paragraphs in Carl's quotation of Feser): "For consider the nature or essence of any of the things that make up the physical universe — people, for example...So there’s nothing about the nature or essence of being human that entails one way or the other whether any human being exists. And the same thing is obviously true of the other inhabitants of the physical world, be they rocks, trees, planets, or whatever. Moreover, all of these things come into existence and go out of existence all the time, which shows by itself that there’s nothing about their nature that entails that they must exist."

While being is neither magic nor a substance, this post from might shed some light on your example (from "The early Wittgenstein on scientism," June 1, 2010): "The supposition that “the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena” is an “illusion” for two reasons (which do not necessarily correspond to Wittgenstein’s reasons). First, “laws of nature” are mere abstractions and cannot explain anything. What exist in the natural order are concrete material substances with certain essences, and talk of “laws of nature” is merely shorthand for the patterns of behavior they tend to exhibit given those essences. Second, that some fundamental level of material substances (basic particles, or whatever) exist and behave in accordance with such laws can also never be the ultimate explanation of anything, because we need to know, not only how such substances came into existence, but what keeps them in existence. For as compounds of act and potency and essence and existence, they cannot possibly account for themselves; only that which is Pure Act and Subsistent Existence Itself can be the ultimate explanation of them, or of anything else. In general, whatever is composite in any way requires explanation in terms of that which is metaphysically simple. (As usual, see The Last Superstition and Aquinas for the full story.)"

Also, because you mentioned, "most physicists would today argue that not every effect does need a cause," I wonder if the false premisis you perceive for the contingency argument stems from relying on the truncated version of Aristotelian causality as opposed to the complete version, as Feser explains on his blog: "For the moderns, all causation gets reduced to what the Aristotelians called efficient causation; that is to say, for A to have a causal influence on B is for A either to bring B into being or at least in some way to bring into existence some modification of B. Final causality is ruled out; hence there is no place in modern thought for the idea that B might play an explanatory role relative to A insofar as generating B is the end or goal toward which A is directed. Formal causality is also ruled out; there is no question for the moderns of a material object’s being (partially) explained by reference to the substantial form it instantiates. We are supposed instead to make reference only to patterns of efficient causal relations holding between basic material elements (atoms, or corpuscles, or quarks, or whatever). "The interaction problem" (Oct. 8, 2008).

Eric Giunta


Thanks for trying to clarify that. I still don't understand why it is not possible for the universe to be necessary being. Why isn't it possible that the universe (or universes, however many exist in as many possible dimensions) is necessarily existent, while no particular combination of its mater/energy is necessary?

Nothing exists infinitely in nature. By saying that the universe itself is not contingent on anything, is saying that it possess existence as part of it's essence, which can not be possible. Think of the problem of time. If there were an infinite amount of time between now and sometime in the infinite past, since the universe (or universes) had no beginning, then how did we actually arrive at today, or even the present moment--you reading this post? If we went from "then" to six years closer to "now", there would still be an infinite amount of time from then to now. If we proceeded 80 billion years from then, we still would be no closer to reaching now than if we had gone 80 minutes, becaue an infinite amount of time would still exist between now and then. Similarly, we would not be able to go from now to some moment in the indefinite future because an infinite amount of time would have to pass before we could reach that moment. But, we can conclusively and triumphantly say that we are at the present. And by that that fact alone, the universe could not have existed eternally. The universe must be finite. And since everything that is finite must have a cause, we can infer that the universe had a cause. And since the universe entails all that there is in the universe, everything in the universe must also have a cause. There's just no getting around it. And, well, you know what that means Mr. Dawkins...

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