The Great Debate

Is God the only possible explanation for our existence?

[go back to Tacelli’s previous argument]
[go back to Raven’s previous argument]

Clarification and response

by Father Ronald Tacelli

Let me begin with a kind of apology. I think I unwittingly introduced a distraction into our discussion with my remarks about “existence.” I said, and I meant, that I was using the word “exist” in the “widest possible way.” All I meant was this: Thoughts exist as well as stars and planets. Now of course they have a different kind of existence (unless some tough form of materialism is true); but still they exist, and they exist as dependent — dependent on the mind that thinks them. That’s the only thing I wanted to call attention to: questions you can raise about stars and planets (How come this exists rather than not?) you can also raise about thoughts. I didn't mean to imply the truly goofy ontology you spun out my (no doubt misleading) remarks. So don't worry about Fido winking in and out of existence. The thought of Fido may come to be and cease to be. And the thought of Fido is dependent. But so (in a different but no less real or radical way) is Fido himself.

About the logical equation. You have a great deal to say about the factor of time. But, if you look back at what I said, I was attempting to focus attention on present dependencies. You're right that my mother and father participated in my conception (uh, thanks, Greg!); but although there were many things that exercised a causal influence on my coming to be who I am now, many of them have ceased to exist. And yet I still exist, and, more to the point, I am still dependent. If I presently exist and am right now dependent, then right now there exist conditions for my existence. And however many such conditions there are, they must all be met, must all 'obtain', or I couldn't exist. But I DO exist. So whatever it takes for me to exist RIGHT NOW must also exist. That’s all the logical equation was designed to indicate.

Now let me go a step further. I realize that in me there is a distinction between WHAT I am and the fact THAT I am. I am not the kind of thing that has to exist, that must exist. In myself, as I said, I'm an existential zero; my being is completely conditional; and those conditions lie outside me. That’s why asking the question 'How come RKT exists?' makes sense. But if you try to answer the question 'How come RKT exists?' in terms of other existential zeroes, things that are just like me insofar as they need to receive being from a source outside themselves, then you haven't really answered your initial question at all. The logical equation was just designed to help point out the conditional structure of finite existence; and to emphasize that conditions have got to be met for conditioned things to be. This, I think, is enough to meet your skyscraper argument. The man in Brazil is not a present cause of the being of the skyscraper; he could cease to exist and the skyscraper would still be--and still be dependent. On what? That’s what the argument is concerned about.

This brings me to the limited universe argument. You take great umbrage at what I said, and yet I fail to see the “insolvable flaw” that troubles you. I asked you to imagine a universe containing you and five other things (so notice, the imagined universe contains six things all in all). The point here is that if these five other things are also conditioned beings, then the condition for the existence of the universe (i.e. you and these five other things) cannot lie within the universe. But this would be true even if the universe were made up of SEVEN such things, or eight, or a billion. I mean that the number of such things is immaterial to the fundamental logical and ontological point. Dependent things have got to depend on something or they aren't really dependent. And if the entire universe is made up of things whose existtence is conditional, then it doesn't matter how large or small the universe is; the condition for the being of dependent things has got to be met, and it can't be met from within the set of dependent things.

On information. I find myself in agreement with much of what you write. Yes, information is, as you say, “something to be known, whether or not we know it.” It is something graspable by a mind; it is the intelligible structure of the world. The world our senses perceive is the world our minds know and understand (however imperfectly). But, Greg, I ask you: if the being of the world is contingent, then isn't the order of the world also contingent? For the “information” you talk so eloquently about is the intelligible structure of conditioned, dependent things (like Fido or that particle of dust). So if the being of finite things must depend on a causal source, so also must the intelligibility of finite things. The “informational order” of the universe, if the universe is contingent, must be a created or caused order; but a caused order is what we call design. So I'd say that the existence of the information you lay so much stress on is really a strong reason for believing in a Creative Intelligence grounding it.

I'm not sure what you mean when you talk about “objects and organisms coming into existence only by chance.” When we say that something happens “by chance,” we usually mean that it was unplanned or unforseen. But if the possibilities of things are real possibilities, grounded in their real natures, then the source of the being of things must also be the source of their natures and so must set the limits to what is possible for these natures. But in that case it would be wrong, wouldn't it, to say that possibilities are actualized “only by chance"? Or maybe your statement was just a way of asserting (rather than arguing) what would be true of a world without God? You might want to explain this at greater length.

I hope this keeps the ball rolling!

ronald k tacelli

read Raven’s response