The Third Way: The Argument from Contingent Beings
- In the created order, we see that there are contingent beings – that is, beings that come into existence and go out of existence.
- If it’s possible for something not to exist, then there would have been at time when it didn’t exist.
- Given such, then there could have been a time when nothing existed.
- But, if this were true, then even now nothing would exist, because everything that comes into existence requires a cause. Nothing comes from nothing.
- There must, therefore, be a Being whose existence is necessary and not dependent on the existence of anything. This Being all people call God.
We know from experience that there are things that come into existence and go out of existence. These are called contingent beings. This simply means that they didn’t have to be. Their existence is dependent on something else that already exists. Everything that comes into existence requires a cause, something that already exists that bestows the gift of existence on the being that previously didn’t exist. If every being were contingent, however, then there would have been a time when nothing existed, for given an infinite amount of time, all possibilities become reality at some point. The possibility of all contingent beings not existing at the same time would then be a reality at some point. But, if this were true, then nothing would ever have come into existence, since nothing comes from nothing. Since we see that some things are in existence, and that there can’t then be an infinite regression of contingent beings. There must be a Being Whose existence is not contingent, a Being Whose existence is necessary, in order to get the ball of existence rolling. This Being is God.
Some will argue that, just because it’s possible for a thing not to exist doesn’t mean that there must be a time when it didn’t exist. Thomas would reject this argument as based on a misunderstanding of contingency. If something is truly contingent, that is, it is possible for it not to exist, than part and parcel of its essence is the option of non-existence. It is, therefore, a being that at some time must not exist. Otherwise, if its existence were essentially guaranteed, it wouldn’t be contingent at all, but necessary. If all contingent beings, by their nature, must not exist at some time, then there could be a time when none of them existed at all. And, if we’re talking about an infinite amount of time then, again, there must be a time when no contingent beings existed. Thomas allows for the existence of other necessary (ie: permanent) beings that are not God, such as angels, but these receive their necessity from another. As well, there can’t be an infinite regression of necessary beings for the reasons made clear in the Second Way. There must, then, be a Being that possesses necessary existence in and of itself, as essential to itself. That Being we call God.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.