If there is no Necessary Being, Nothing Exists

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  • If there is no Necessary Being, Nothing ExistsAuthor(s): Nelson PikeSource: Nos, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Nov., 1977), pp. 417-420Published by: WileyStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2214565 .Accessed: 14/06/2014 00:15

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  • If There Is No Necessary Being, Nothing Exists

    NELSON PIKE

    UNIVERSlTY OF CALIFORNIA, IRVINE

    The third way is taken from possibility and necessity and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be. But it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which is possible not to be at some time is not. There- fore, if everything is possible not to be, then at one time there could have been nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing in existence, because that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist; and thus even now nothing would be in existence-which is absurd. Therefore, if not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the existence of which is necessary. But every necessary being either has its necessity caused by another or not. Now it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has already been proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot be postulate the existence of some being have of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in other their necessity. This all men speak ofas God.

    ([2]: Pt. I, Q.2, A.3)

    This argument is openly fallacious. Using standard vocabu- lary, let us say that an object is contingent if that object exists but is such that it is possible for it not to exist. We shall count as necessary any object that exists but which is not contingent, i.e. any object that exists but which is such that it is not possible for it not to exist.1 Now assume that for any contingent object, there is a time when it does not exist. It does not follow from this assumption alone that if there exists no necessary being, there is a time when nothing exists. Though no (single) con- tingent object exists at all times, it could be that for each time, some contingent object or other exists. (From "All men are mortals", it does not follow that the human species will some- day be extinct.) So much is clear and has been pinpointed by a number of contemporary philosophers.2 What is not clear, NOUS 11 (1977) 417 i 1977 by Indiana University

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  • 418 NOUS

    however, is the importance to be attached to this purely logical deficiency in St. Thomas' third argument for the existence of God. In an article entitled "Aquinas' Third Way" [10] Thomas Mautner argues that the deficiency is crucial that efforts to interpret the argument in such a way as to avoid it have so far proved unsuccessful. The same position is taken by Alvin Plantinga in Chapter I of God and Other Minds [ 1I1 ] and again in Part I, Sec. A of his more recent book God, Freedom and Evil [112]. The suggestion is that the reductio program embodied in the Third Way should be dismissed as a failure. What I want to point out in the three paragraphs to follow, however, is that within the passagejust quoted from Part I, Question 2, Article 3 of the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas employs two substan- tive principles which, if granted, are- sufficient to deliver the conclusion that if there exists no necessary being, nothing exists. Though the argument actually offered is invalid, its conclusion can be effectively derived without supplementing, or in any way altering the materials provided in the text. If I am right about this, the logical defect mentioned above will have to be regarded as a surface problem only. The real issue lies deeper: they rest with the question of whether the two substantive principles now to be identified are sound.

    In the fifth sentence of the passage quoted above, St. Thomas says: ". . . that which does not exist only begins to exist by something already existing". Assume (as we did above) that for any contingent object, there is a time when it does not exist. St. Thomas seems clearly to be supposing as well that for any contingent object, at least one of the times when it does not exist is prior to a time when it does exist. It follows that every contingent object begins to exist; and what we are here being told is that every object that begins to exist is brought into existence by something else. That is to say that every contin- gent object has a cause. Further, St. Thomas says that what- ever brings something into existence must be "already exist- ing". This is a point emphasized in his formulation of the Second Way. In the present context it entails that the cause of any contingent object has a cause that is prior to the contin- gent object in question. I should add that commentators on the writings of St. Thomas have often insisted that the notion of priority herein involved is not temporal priority.3 Though this is hard to believe given the emphasis on temporal themes in the original presentation, I shall not presuppose a conclu- sion as regards this textual issue. In the sequel I shall assume

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  • NECESSARY BEING 419

    only that whatever sense of "prior" is intended, if X is prior to Y, X and Y are not identical (nothing is prior to itself); and if X is prior to Y and Y is prior to Z, then X is prior to Z. The relation of priority is irreflexive and transitive.

    In the ninth sentence of the passage we are considering, St. Thomas says: ". . . it is impossible to go on to infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as has been already proved in regard to efficient causes". I'm not sure what it means to say that a necessary thing might have its necessity caused by another, but drawing attention to the last phrase contained in this sentence, St. Thomas is obviously re-employing a second principle articulated in his formula- tion of the Second Way, viz. that with respect to any sequence of objects that are causally related, "... it is not possible to go on to infinity". Every causal series has a finite number of members.

    Assume that every contingent object has a cause that exists prior to it. Assume, too, that every causal series has a finite number of members. Taking note of the trivial logical truth that every existing object is either contingent or not contingent (in the second case it is a necessary being), it follows that if there exists no necessary being, nothing exists. The following argument, in other words, is valid:4

    1. It is not the case that there exists a necessary being. 2. Every contingent object has a cause that is prior to it. 3. Every causal series has a finite number of members. 4. .-. Nothing exists.

    Line three tells us that if there is a causal series, it has a finite number of members. But lines one and two taken together tell us that if there is a causal series, it has an infinite number of members. As regards the latter, suppose that no necessary being exists (line one). If there existed a causal series, it would then be composed entirely of contingent beings. But under these circumstances, line two would require that for any con- tingent object in the series, there is another contingent object in the series which is prior to it. Since the relation of priority is irreflexive and transitive, it follows that the series would have an infinite number of members. But from this we can con- clude that there is no causal series. If we show that whatever causal series there is has both a finite number of members and an infinite number of members, what we show is that there is

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  • 420 NOUS

    no causal series at all. Nothing could fit this description. Now, going back once again to line two, we can affirm that if there is a contingent object, it is a member of a causal series. It follows that if there is no causal series, there are no contingent objects. But if there are no contingent objects and there are no neces- sary objects either (the latter is affirmed in line one), then since all existing objects are either contingent or necessary, there are no objects at all. Given the principles formulated in line two and three together with the trivial truth that all existing objects are either contingent or not contingent (nec- essary), it follows that if there is no necessary being, nothing exists.

    REFERENCES [1] G.E.M. Anscombe and Peter Geach, Three Philosophers (Ithaca: Cornell

    University Press, 1961). [2] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica trans. by Fathers of the English

    Dominican Province (New York: Benzinger Bros., Inc., 1947). [3] T. Patterson Brown, "St. Thomas' Doctrine of Necessary Being," Philo-

    sophical Review 1964. [41 E.A, Burtt, Types of Religious Philosophy (New York: Harper, 1951). [5] F. Copleston, Aquinas (Middelsex: Penguin Books, 1957). [6] R.B. Edwards, "Composition and the Cosmological Argument," Mind

    1968.- [7] R. Garagou-Lagrange, God: His Existence and Nature (St. Louis: Herder,

    1936). [8] John Hick, "Necessary Being," Scottish Journal of Philosophy 1961. [9] E. A. Mascall, He Who Is (London: Longmans and Green, 1943). [10] Thomas Mautner, "Aquinas's Third Way," American Philosophical Quar-

    terly October, 1969. [11] A. Plantinga, God and Other Minds (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,

    1967). [12] , God, Freedom and Evil (New York: Harper and Row, 1974). [13] James Ross, Philosophical Theology (New York:Bobbs-Merrill, 1969). [14] CJ.F. Williams, "God and Logical Necessity," Philosophical Quarterly

    1961.

    NOTES

    1The notions of contingency and necessity that are involved here are probably not to be understood as logical concepts. Some kind of material contingency and necessity are no doubt involved. For a discussion of this point see [3], [8], and [1].

    2See, for example, [9]:48, [4], [14], [6] and [13E: 164-5. 3See, fore3ample, [7]: Vol. 1, Ch. III, par. 36; [5]:122-5; and [1]:111-2. 4My colleague Peter Woodruff has constructed a formal version of the

    following argument. I have chosen not to include the formalized version here because it is lengthy and does not add much in the way of clarity to the verbal presentation.

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    Article Contentsp. 417p. 418p. 419p. 420

    Issue Table of ContentsNos, Vol. 11, No. 4 (Nov., 1977), pp. 309-437Volume InformationFront Matter [pp. 346-408]Physicalist Materialism [pp. 309-345]Causes and Explanations [pp. 347-374]Ontological Arguments [pp. 375-395]Definite Descriptions and Context-Dependence [pp. 397-407]There is no Really Rigid Designation [pp. 409-416]If there is no Necessary Being, Nothing Exists [pp. 417-420]Critical ReviewsReview: Thought, Inference, and Knowledge: Gilbert Harman's Thought [pp. 421-430]Review: Keith Lehrer's Knowledge [pp. 431-437]

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