The Great Debate

Is God the only possible explanation for our existence?

The Existence and Nature of C*

Father Ronald Tacelli

Begin with Fido. Fido exists. At one time he did not exist. At another time he will not exist. But right now Fido does exist; he is. Since Fido began to exist, we know that he is a contingent or dependent being. If we ask why Fido exists, we must go beyond Fido to find an answer. But perhaps, you might think, an answer cannot be got. All right. Do you mean: “We might never be able to discover all the conditions involved in Fido’s existence”? If that is what you mean, hardly anyone would disagree. But you might mean something else — something like: “Maybe there are no conditions involved in Fido’s existence — who can say?” This is a much more controversial claim, and, it seems, an incoherent one."

Consider this statement: If anything exists, then there must exist what it takes (or: whatever is needed) for that thing to exist. Call this the principle of sufficient reason. Can you honestly deny it? Can you really say that, given some x, there need not be what is needed for × to exist? This would mean that × could be dependent and non-dependent (or independent) in the same respect at the same time. Are you willing to hold that position? If I went on to ask you “Why?” and you tried to answer, you would only be showing how deeply the principle is embedded in our thinking: how in all our inquiries we naturally assume it. I suggest — not without sufficient reason? — that we assume it here.

So: Fido is a contingent (or dependent) being. He does not contain within himself his own reason to be. Why not? As we said: He came into being some time ago and in a short time will be no more. Existence and Fido are not inseparable; that he exists does not depend on him alone. Therefore it depends on others. Fido is a dependent being. Fido is contingent.

Coming into existence — and passing out of existence — is certainly a sign that something is contingent. There are others. E.g.:

  1. Depending for existence on other individuals;
  2. depending for some qualities on other existing things;
  3. being a cause for some but not all other things;
  4. having quantitative or qualitative limits;
  5. being able to be conceived as not existing.

To return to Fido. We said that Fido is not inseparable from existence: that his sufficient reason for being does not lie within himself alone, but within others. Now if we look for these others, we could not avoid mentioning Fifi and Pluto, Fido’s parents. They are an essential part of the story of Fido’s coming to be. But Fifi and Pluto no longer exist among us; they have gone to Doggie Heaven. Yet Fido exists. And Fido is a contingent being. So the natural question is: On what does he depend now?

Consider the logical form

p if q
therefore p

This means: in order to assert p, the condition q must be given, must 'obtain' (to use the jargon).

Now Fido, like p, has certain conditions for existing. He cannot exist right now, at this very moment, unless these conditions obtain. And so:

Fido if A
therefore Fido

Simple. But look again, a little more closely. Suppose A is itself contingent or dependent. Then the condition for obtaining is not met.

(Fido if A) and (A if B)

From this we cannot 'conclude' to Fido; for Fido and A, if B. The condition must be met with B. So:

(Fido if A) and (A if B)
therefore A

But what about B? If B is also dependent, then, once again, the condition for obtaining is not met. And if you multiply terms to infinity, still, if the terms are contingent or dependent (i.e., if they are in themselves existential zeroes), the condition for obtaining is not met. Try this: include the entire series of conditioned (or dependent) conditions under B. So Fido if A, and A if B. But B if...what? All the conditions gathered together under B stand themselves in need of a condition. If there is nothing that meets the condition for their being, then they cannot be. But they are. And since they are, there must exist what it takes for them to exist. The condition for their being must be met. So there must exist a condition — call it C* — which is not thus conditioned (or dependent), which gives being to all things not in themselves their own sufficient reason to be. If not, then Fido would not exist. But Fido does exist.

Therefore C* is, obtains, exists.

But what about C*? Can we say more about it than 'it is'? It seems we can.

  • It is absolutely. By this we do not mean that it was always there and that it does not tend to go out of existence. These things are true, of course; but we mean more. We mean that being is inseparable from C*. And this is not a happy accident (if it were, there would be conditions for the being of C*). Being must be inseparable from what C* is. In finite, dependent beings, there is always some distance between what something is and that something is. This cannot be true of C*. C* is the ultimate source of all being, and so must be identical with being itself. C* is the fullness of being. Being fully belongs to C* by nature. That is what we mean by saying it is, or exists, absolutely.
  • C* is without limit: is limitless: is infinite. A thing is limited if it is not what (or where) something else is. So limitation involves non-being. But C* is the fullness of being. Therefore: there cannot be limitation in C*. Therefore: C* is without limit: is limitless: is infinite.
  • C* must be one. This follows from its limitlessness. Recall: We are affirming the condition for all being — which would include whatever dimensions of being there may be. If there is more than one C*, then there must be some difference between them. If there is no difference, they are not distinct. If they are not distinct, they are the same, i.e., one. Suppose they are distinct. Then there must be that which distinguishes them. That condition lies within them or outside them. Not outside: that would mean there is a condition of being outside C*. But also not within: that would mean that neither of the C*’s could be the limitless fullness of being. They would be limited by each other. In some way, the one could not be what (or where) the 6ther is. But C* is limitless. Therefore: C* is one. [NB: This does not mean that there can be no internal differentiation within C* — Christians, e.g., believe that C* is a Trinity — but that is another story.]
  • Is it reasonable to believe that C*, the ultimate being, is matter?

Recall the question with which the argument for C* began. Given this contingent or dependent being, x, what outside of itself accounts right now for its existing? The question is a natural and proper one — if × really is contingent. And a being is contingent if, for example, it is the kind of thing that comes into existence. It is contingent if it is acted upon or changed by other things. It is contingent if it is limited, and therefore if its being is determined by things outside it. And so if some being, x, comes into existence, or is acted upon or changed by or limited by or determined by other things, then it cannot be its own sufficient reason for existing. In order to answer the question 'How come x?' we have to go outside of × or beyond it.

Suppose we ask, 'How come Fido?' We could name many conditions of Fido’s present existing. Some of them are obviously as contingent as Fido. So let us include among the conditions of Fido’s being the set of all things contingent in our sense. Call this set B. We can see easily enough that B is no sufficient answer to the question, 'How come Fido?' There must obtain a condition, C*, not contingent as every member of B is. C* must exist absolutely, in this sense: its very essence must be to exist. And that is exactly why there can be no potency or capacity to be in C*. For a thing’s capacity to be is its power to become what it is not yet. All potency, in other words, involves non-being.

Now keeping all this in mind, ask yourself: Is it reasonable to believe that C* is matter? And obviously the answer is No. Matter as such is inherently limited and limiting. But that puts the whole thing much too abstractly; for matter does not exist as such. Matter as such is a theoretical construct. Concretely, matter exists as this or that sort of thing. And whatever sort of thing it exists as exhibits the qualities of contingent being. Take electrons, for example. Scientists believe them to be among the simplest and most stable bits of matter. And yet electrons come into and go out of being; are acted upon, changed by, limited by, and determined by things outside them. And this is not a mere accident of electrons — as if it were a way of being peculiar to them, but not shared by other kinds of matter. On the contrary, we call things 'material' precisely because they do share it: limitation and capacity for change are what we understand as essential conditions for material being. Thus, matter as concretely understood is the very type of thing which could never sufficiently answer our question, 'How come Fido?' Matter is in many ways mysterious — granted; there is much about it we may never come to know. But we rule it out as an answer to our question not because of ignorance, but rather because of what we understand. And if our original question is a valid one — if we have a right to ask for the sufficient reason of contingent beings — then we understand that we must rule matter out as a possible answer.

Someone might object: Well, you want to opt for one mystery, God; perhaps we should opt for another and say that the ultimate cause is matter — but matter existing in a way utterly different from the way we know it now.

But this is misconceived. Nobody is opting for one mystery rather than another. At stake is the right to affirm that what is infinitely mysterious exists, period. And C* is infinitely mysterious just because it must exist in a way utterly different from what we experience and understand as matter. Keep the name “matter” if you like. But it seems pretty misleading to call C* by a name whose root meaning includes all the properties which cannot belong to the thing you name by it. (At least the name 'God' indicates the infinite, eternal creator of the universe.)

We can be misled by a picture of solid blocks of stuff. We call it 'matter' and think of it as what the universe ultimately is — just as we might think of steel girders or concrete bricks as what this office building ultimately is. But critical thinking should make us see the silliness of that picture.

More commonly, perhaps, we think of the universe of matter as a kind of living thing. And we think of some ultimate vital power emanating from its central core, like a soul. We sometimes picture it as a bright kinetic mist. But once we put the Light-and-Magic pictures aside, the thing imagined seems to amount to the immanence of C*. Which is fine — so long as we realize that C* cannot be merely immanent; and so long as we realize that without its vital core the material universe would not become a corpse. It would cease to exist altogether.

  • C* is not temporally or spatially limited.
  • C* is not identical with the universe — if by 'universe' we mean the totality of spatiotemporal objects.
  • C* is not a part of the universe (like a world-soul). To be a part is to be limited by other parts of the whole. But C* is the source of being for the entire universe: is the condition.
  • for there being any parts. So C* cannot be a part of the universe. In this sense, C* is transcendent.
  • But C* must also exist in everything — the way, St. Thomas says, 'an agent is present to that in which its action is taking place.' C* is the cause of all contingent being, and therefore of the action of all contingent being. If C* did not actively give being, then no dependent being or action of such a being would exist. If there were no heat from this source, the kettle would not boil. If C* were not actively communicating being, there would be neither boiling water nor kettle nor source of heat. There would be no contingent being at all. In this sense, C* is immanent.
  • C* is — intelligent? personal? Not, surely, in any of the ways familiar to us. C* is certainly the source of all intelligibility and order we experience. To say that C* is unintelligent (like a stone) or impersonal (like a geyser) would be misleading: our picture is of natural forces inferior to intelligent life, just waiting to be harnessed and subdued by it. C* — the fullness of being — cannot be like this. But then again: C* cannot be mulling things over, taking disappointments in stride, making feeble stabs in the dark — doing all those things we finite human persons properly do.

NB: This may have struck you as metaphysical dogmatizing. But look back over it. Yes, it is metaphysical. This means: it asks questions on the outer limits of discourse. And it pushes very hard against those outer limits. But it does not pretend to clear vision of the Absolute. Our description of C*’s nature has really been negative — an attempt to deny limitation to the condition for the being of all limited things. It is the nature of the limited being it really perceives that drives the mind first to assert C* and then to deny to it those limits which require its assertion. A more positive vision we could not claim. Nor did St. Thomas. 'We cannot say what C* is,' he said, 'but only what C* is not.' And again: 'The justice of man is to the justice of C*, as a smiling meadow is to the laughter of children' (translation slightly amended).

The Problem of Circular Causality

Imagine a land whose citizens must beg for each of their meals. No citizens may have their own food; so if they are eating a meal, the food they are eating must come from someone else. This poor land has only four citizens: Peter, Patricia, Paul, and Paulette. It’s lunchtime. You see all four citizens eating. You ask Peter: 'Where did you get your food from?' He says: 'From Patricia!' You ask Patricia: 'Where did you get your food from?' She says: 'From Paul!' You ask Paul: 'Where did you get your food from?' He says: 'From Paulette!' You approach Paulette and say: 'Paulette, I know that the citizens of your land can obtain food only by begging. I haven't noticed any visitors around here, and certainly I haven't given any of you food. And yet all of you are eating! Now Peter got his food from Patricia; Patricia from Paul; and Paul from you. Where could you possibly have gotten your food from?' Paulette smiles and answers: 'From Peter!' 'But how can that be?' you reply. 'None of you has any food — everyone has to beg from another in order to eat!' 'I did beg from another,' says Paulette; 'I begged from Peter!' She notices your skeptical expression and continues: 'Look. Even though no one of us has any food, and even though each one of us has to beg from another in order to get food — still the group of us can get along quite well on our own!'

Do you see the problem with Paulette’s answer? If the citizens all stand individually in need in the same respect, that need cannot possibly be met by the set of them; for the set is just the group of those persons who have no food of their own and must receive it in order to eat a meal. Given the nature of the land of which they are citizens (or: given the nature of the set to which they belong) the source of the food they enjoy must be a non-citizen (cannot be a member of the set). And notice: the problem remains no matter how many citizens this land might happen to have.

Now consider the question of being. Obviously, for some beings there is a separation between their natures and the fact that they exist. This means that the sufficient reason for the present (or past or future) existence of such beings cannot lie within themselves. (Think this through: if existence does not come from the nature of something, then the question 'How come this something exists?' is a real question. If it is a real question, then the answer(s) must lie outside the being about which we can ask it.) Suppose we start with a being, A. This being changes and is limited by things outside it. So the question 'How come A exists?' seems to be a real question. To answer it, we must go beyond A. So we go on to another being, B, which is at present actively involved with A, and seems to be at least part of the reason why A exists. Now suppose B is also the kind of being whose nature need not exist — i.e., suppose that B is just like A in needing being from a source beyond it in order to exist. In that case, B does not really answer the question: 'How come A — rather than nothing at all?' For B stands in need of being in the very same respect that A does — i.e., B is, in itself, nothing at all; without a present active source of being outside itself, B could not exist. Nor does it help to answer the question by multiplying beings like A and B. That would be like staying within the set of citizens to answer the question: How come there is food for Peter to eat? For the beings multiplied are like A insofar as they each need being from outside themselves in order to exist; in them essence and existence, or what they are and that they are are not the same. Their natures do not in themselves possess being any more than the citizens who have to beg possess their own food. The difference is this: the citizens exist between meals and can exist for a long time without eating; but no nature — in fact, nothing at all — can exist at any time without being. And since we agreed that for anything that exists, there must exist what it takes for that thing to exist, and since the nature of such things is not what it takes for them to exist, then whenever they exist (today, yesterday, the day before that) their being must always be given or conferred from a source outside or beyond them. The set of such beings cannot be self-sustaining (any more than the set of citizens can be self-feeding), because the set is just the collection of those beings all of whom stand in need in the same respect. If they always existed in that way, then their need was always there, and always being supplied. But whether always or for a (relatively) little while, it is a need that nothing in the set could ever supply. But if nothing in the set could supply it, and the need really was — and is — supplied, then something must exist which does not stand in need as the members of the set do.

read Raven’s response