A look at existence (pt. 1)

In response to the question “why something [existing] as opposed to nothing”, Blue devil Knight responded that the question can be taken in two ways:

1. Why (historically) did there come to exist something rather than nothing.
2. Why (now) is there something rather than nothing.

Number 1 presupposes that there was nothing at some point, and something replaced it. The big bang could be taken as evidence for such a thing I guess, though of course this is quite controversial as a physics issue.

Number 2 I have no idea. Matter and energy on average don’t disappear over time, but are simply transformed. Since there was matter and energy yesterday, I’d expect the same today.

This is exactly the sort of objection that modern Thomists need to speak to. We can wax eloquent about “esse” or “existence” for our whole career, along with speaking about creation being “the cause of existence” or God being “ipsum esse subsistens” without ever getting a good look at what existence is. Why is “what exists” other than matter or energy? For that matter, since (for me) to exist is to live, how is it obvious that God is causing my life? Is “life” the sort of thing we see the need of being caused by another? Why is God not “matter and energy itself”? What is there about the things around us that makes us think that their existence is like a light that requires a sun that no one can see? The first step in speaking to any of this is to get a good look at what we mean by “being” or “existence”, and to figure out if any of the simple or reductive accounts of it are adequate to explain our experience of it.

Aristotle would call BDK’s account false since “what exists” is a particular or individual thing, though matter and energy are not. If matter and energy just are what survive from A to B, which is exactly BDK’s contention (and he is getting matter exactly right), then neither A nor B exists simply speaking. Matter is indifferent to particularity the way that existence is not. This is a general problem with materialism – it simply can’ t explain why individuals exist, since it attributes existence only to what does not belong to this individual as this. There is an important element of truth in materialism for everyone can see that existence somehow must “be true of all things” or “belong to all things”, but it simply cannot belong to all things the way that one subject (matter or energy) belongs to many things.

But to say this, however, opens up a paradox as strange as anythign in quantum physics: for “existence” must be not only particular, but common to all. It is at once intrinsic and yet common, it is both indifferent to many and at the same time the constituitive of the particular and distinctive. We lose somethign by having to say this in words. Better to see it by looking at the things. My existence (say, what I encounter in the cogito) is both entirely mine, with my own distinct notes and all the elements of my own personality, and yet is a perfection shared with you. The same thing that an animal loses in death is what is has in common with all that is.

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1 Comment

  1. April 5, 2011 at 5:25 am

    Wow, I don’t even remember writing that. I assume it was at Victor’s blog?

    I’m a little embarassed by my response, as it is not the most clearly written thing in the world. The two questions seem fine to me, I’m not embarassed by them. My responses to the questions were a bit unclear, that’s what I’m a bit chagrined about.

    I can at least understand what I was getting at, but would need to consider whether I still agree (or more likely, whether I’d need to add caveats since (arguably) ‘why’ questions can have multiple different types of answers, not just a single answer in terms of efficient cause (again, this is arguable I need to think it through more)).

    The theist might be able to agree largely with what I wrote, but add that I ignore the sustaining cause of all of these processes and principles.

    I just read your response, and don’t really understand yet. I will have to get back to it later today after work.


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