Sorry for the long silence.
The first few weeks were because I was rushing to finish my senior thesis. After that, I was just kind of in a rut where I would write something, find flaws in it, and decide it wasn’t worth posting. Then I would think, “Wait, it’s been a long time since my last post, I should put up some kind of an update on what’s happening and why I haven’t posted for a while.” So then I would try to write that, and then I would start finding flaws and end up not posting that. So finally, I decided, you know what, forget about updates or putting together something “good” or whatever, if I want to keep this blog going, I have to put up SOMETHING.
So in keeping with the title of this blog, I went with some Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy: Aquinas’s Third Way for arguing the existence of God.
“So your idea of ‘just putting up something‘ is an argument for the existence of God?!”, you might ask. Well, not in the sense that the subject matter is trivial, of course. But in the sense that I’m basically just regurgitating something I’ve gone over many times and memorized already, yes. This is my first time writing about it here, though.
Aquinas said that the First Way is the easiest, but it requires quite a bit of philosophical background just to begin understanding it, plus there are gaps of logic in it that I have yet to figure out how to fill in all the years since I first found out about it. I’m sure they can be filled, and Aquinas probably thought he had filled in all the gaps he needed to, but I’m sorry, I just can’t figure them out. Personally, I find the Third Way the easiest to grasp.
Oh, and by the way, I’m kind of sleepy right now, so sorry if I mess up on grammar, spelling, or
So with all that out of the way, let’s start.
We begin by noticing that all the objects in our experience are contingent. That is, they only exist as they do because of something other than themselves. A computer only functions because it was put together that way. A cat only has a certain pattern on its fur because one of its parents did. Elements heavier than iron only exist on Earth because they were fused in supernovae and blasted out I-don’t-know-how-many years ago.
Similarly, they are also corruptible. The computer can be broken. The cat can die and rot. Atoms can be split.
What does this tell us about these objects? It tells us that to exist is not part of their nature. If it were, then as soon as you understood what a cat (or whatever else) is, you would see that it must exist. But knowing what a cat is tells you nothing about whether or not it exists, and in fact, we see particular cats going in and out of existence (i.e. getting born and dying) all the time. So existing is not part of the nature of cats, and the same thing can be said of any other object we have experience of.
Now, before moving on, let me take a couple paragraphs to say that no, the laws of conservation of mass/energy do NOT prove that mass/energy is not contingent. First, because mass/energy depends on other things for what particular form it exists in at any given moment. Nothing about the nature of energy tells you whether it exists as chemical potential energy, gravitational potential energy, translational kinetic energy, rotational kinetic energy, heat, mass, light, etc.; for that, you have to look at the history of some particular bit of energy, what form it’s in and what processes it’s undergoing. So energy is contingent in the relevant sense.
Second, there’s no reason why energy had to exist at all. Physics could easily have come into being with a completely different set of principles from what it has now, and it would have been no skin off the universe’s nose. So knowing what energy is tells you nothing about whether or not it exists, which again shows us that to exist is not part of the nature of energy.
So nothing in our direct experience has existence as part of its nature. Why, then, do they exist? If they don’t exist by their own nature, then they have to exist by something other than themselves.
So suppose we have something that supports the existence of other things. Then that thing is either contingent itself, or necessary, i.e. it doesn’t depend on anything else to exist as it does. If it’s necessary, then we’ve arrived at our conclusion: there must be something that exists necessarily and not contingently. If not, then it must depend on something else. That second thing in turn is either contingent or necessary. If it’s necessary, then we’ve reached our conclusion. If not, then it depends on a third thing.
Now, can this process continue into infinity? No, and the analogy I like best to explain why is that of a train.
Suppose we have a train that extends infinitely in both directions. Is that train moving, or standing still?
The answer is that it must be standing still, because every car in a train depends on the one in front of it to move. If every car is “waiting” for another one to move it, then none of them will ever move. The only way the train can move is if it has a car that doesn’t depend on any other car to move it, i.e. one with an engine.
Likewise, if everything in the universe depends on something else to exist, then nothing should exist at all. The only way everything can exist is if there is something that doesn’t depend on anything else to exist, something whose very nature is to exist, i.e. something necessary.
So we’ve arrived at the conclusion that there must be a necessary being. But what does that have to do with God? Is this necessary being God? Well, let’s see.
First of all, we can see immediately that there can only be one necessary being. If there were two, then to distinguish them, one of them would have to have something that the other lacks, and this would make the “necessary” beings contingent as to whether or not they have this extra thing. This contradicts the hypothesis that they are necessary. So there can only be one necessary being. Hence, for the rest of this article, we will capitalize “Necessary Being.”
Second, the Necessary Being cannot have come into existence, and It cannot go out of existence. If there were a factor that could be removed so that the “Necessary” Being would go out of existence, then the “Necessary” Being would be contingent on that factor by definition. Likewise, if there were some factor that, once present, caused the “Necessary” Being to come into existence, then the “Necessary” Being would be contingent on that factor by definition. Again, this is a contradiction, hence the Necessary Being cannot have come into existence and cannot go out of existence.
Third, It cannot be subject to change at all. If It were, then Its current state would depend on whatever has the power to change It, which would again make It contingent.
A corollary of this is that It cannot exist in time. Time, as Aristotle says, is simply the measure of change. An entity that does not change at all has nothing for time to measure. Again, if the Necessary Being were subject to time, then Its current state would depend on when you observed It, and this would make it contingent.
But as we saw, the Necessary Being ultimately supports the existence of all the other beings in the universe (because everything else is contingent). This would require It to act in time, as other beings exist in time. How can something not subject to time act in time?
The answer, as it turns out, is that the Necessary Being sees all of time laid out before It all at once, as it were, and acts in all the moments in which It acts in what It perceives as a single moment.
A corollary of all of the above is that the Necessary Being cannot be made of matter, as matter is inherently subject to certain kinds of causation, contingent as to where it exists at any given time, and always able to be broken apart or put together again. In fact, in light of the last point, we can go even further and say that the Necessary Being cannot be made of parts at all.
Fourth, the Necessary Being must have some kind of mind of Its own, whether or not that mind is anything like what we know as “mind.” If nothing is able to cause the Necessary Being to do anything, then the Necessary Being must act of Its own accord, which means It must have some kind of will. Hence, for the rest of this article, we will refer to the Necessary Being as a “He.”
Further, if the Necessary Being has a will, then He must also have knowledge, as a person cannot “will” anything if he doesn’t know what he wills.
One might suggest that it’s possible that the Necessary Being just does whatever He does at random and not by knowledge and will. But the problem is, what we call “random” is really just the interaction of several deterministic threads of causation that are too complicated to predict for normal people. If a person had perfect knowledge of physics and the current states of all the people and all the particles in the universe, then he would easily be able to predict any draw of the lottery, dice roll, coin flip, or stroke of good or bad luck. If the Necessary Being were random in the same sense in which these are random, then that would simply be another way of saying He is deterministic, and that would mean that He is simply moving as He has been caused to move. Hence He would be contingent.
Interestingly enough, combining this point with the preceding point on how the Necessary Being experiences time, we find that the Necessary Being must have knowledge of all of time at once.
Fifth, the Necessary Being must have no flaws. If He were flawed, then there would have to be some factor that determines in what areas He is flawed and by how much, and this would make Him contingent.
Particularly noteworthy cases of this are power and knowledge.
If the Necessary Being had only some powers and not others, then there would have to be some factor that determines which powers He has and which He lacks, and this would make Him contingent on that factor. Nor can He have no powers at all, as that would mean He wouldn’t be able to support the existence of all the contingent beings in the universe. So the only remaining possibility is that He has all powers.
Again, if the Necessary Being did not have complete knowledge, then A.) there would need to be some factor that determines what He knows and what He doesn’t, and B.) it would be possible for Him to learn something, and either of these would make Him contingent.
Sixth, the Necessary Being must always will whatever is best. The will is the faculty by which someone judges that something is good and acts to bring it about. If a person does not always will what what he perceives as good, then this means that his will is flawed somehow (and this is why Catholics believe in Original Sin). The Necessary Being has no flaws, and hence must always will what He perceives as good. And since He also has perfect knowledge, He must always know what is objectively the best.
Further, the main cause we see of people not willing what is good is selfishness. But the Necessary Being cannot be selfish because He has no needs, as needs imply contingency (if you don’t get what you need, then something about you will not be able to function at its best).
So we have a unique personal Being, Whose existence depends on nothing outside of Himself, Who is not subject to time, Who has no flaws and has unlimited power and knowledge and always wills what is objectively best.
I’d say that’s about close enough to God, wouldn’t you?