Last week, I presented St. Thomas Aquinas’ Argument from Contingent Beings. This week I consider objections to this argument and replies to those objections.
Objections to the Argument from Contingent Beings
Just because it’s possible for something to go out of existence doesn’t mean it will.
This critique would be well founded, if what Thomas meant by “beings that come into existence and go out of existence” meant beings that come and go in all possible worlds, or beings that were logically possible. But, this isn’t what Thomas means at all. Thomas isn’t speaking of what’s possible to exist or could exist logically. He’s talking about what actually exists, according to our experience. Thomas, remember, is starting from the point of what we experience about the world and moving back to the first mover, the first cause, the necessary being. If we look around our world, we certainly experience beings that have built into them the processes of growth and decline. We regularly see things come and go. If, then, something has within its nature the process of decline to the point of no longer existing, it must at some point cease to exist. Otherwise, existing would be necessary to its nature, and it wouldn’t be a contingent being at all. At the other end of the spectrum, these things that come and go can’t bring themselves into existence, for then they would be the cause of their own existence, which is absurd. Neither can there be an infinite regression of necessary beings for the same reason there can’t be an infinite regression of efficient causes. So, there must be a Being whose existence is necessary, a Being whose essence is existence, Who cannot not exist. Otherwise, nothing else would exist, including us, and we wouldn’t be here to argue from contingent beings for the existence of God!
Just because it’s possible there was a time when no contingent beings existed, doesn’t mean there was actually a time when no contingent beings existed. There could be an infinite regression of contingent beings, where at least one contingent being was always in existence.
Given an infinite amount of time, all possibilities eventually become a reality. So, if it’s possible for there to be a time when no contingent beings existed, then at some time over the course of infinity, there would have to have been a time when there were no contingent beings in existence. Whenever that time occurred, were there no necessary Being to get the ball of existence rolling, it would then require that nothing come into existence out of that void, since nothing can be the cause of its own existence. Nothing comes from nothing.
Why can’t the universe, or some other material being, be the necessary Being?
What Thomas means by “necessary being” is simply one that is everlasting or permanent. As such, there’s nothing in Thomas’ argument to suggest that material beings can’t be necessary. The question is whether or not their necessity is derived from another or of itself. Angels, for instance, are necessary beings, but their necessity is derived from another. Otherwise, we would have to accept the idea that there is an infinite regress of necessary beings, which is impossible.
Recall the discussion on the four causes in the Second Way. The material and formal causes are what give anything its matter and form. Without matter or form, a thing can’t exist in reality. “Pure” matter, that is, matter without form, can’t exist. It’s pure potentiality and never actuality. So, it’s clear that matter, even if necessary, can’t possess its necessity of itself. It must derive its necessity from another. It can’t give itself form, because it can’t give itself what it doesn’t have. A material being, even an everlasting material being, like the universe or what J. L. Mackie calls the “permanent stock of matter,” (The Miracle of Theism, Oxford: Clarendon, 1982) would still require the existence of a necessary Being that did not derive its necessity from another, or we suffer the incoherence of an infinite regression of necessary beings. The only way to avoid this is to recognize the existence of a necessary Being, Whose being is derived of itself. This Being is God.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.