The Wonder of Existence
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jan 3, 2014)
In September 2012, Dr. Robert Stackpole, director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, began receiving letters from his niece, who had just started college in New England. He wrote back to her on a regular basis throughout the year, helping keep her mind and heart open to belief in God in the midst of a secular university in which the truths of the faith were being questioned and challenged every day. With her permission, Dr. Stackpole shares his letters with our readers with the hope that other young people will be helped to see the truth more clearly in a confused and clouded world. Here is his tenth letter:
Congratulations on the successful completion of your first year at university! Your mom told me you did very well on your final exams and that you are now "chilling out" for a while at home. I had hoped to pay you all a visit this week, but there are still some things I need to take care of before my own academic year is complete. I'll try to catch up with you before you leave for your summer job at the park.
Meanwhile, with all the marking of essays and exams done for the year, I have some extra time on my hands in the evenings, and so I wanted to keep my promise to you from my last letter. I promised to share with you what I think is the strongest argument of all for the existence of God. The picture is just not complete without it. After all, we can speak of God as the likely Source of the universal human longing for perfect, boundless good. We can speak of Him as the most likely Author of order and design in the universe, and as the most likely Source of the natural moral law shining in every human heart. We can even say that if (as seems likely) the universe or multiverse had a beginning in time, then there must be a transcendent, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful Cause of its existence. All of this rolled together makes what we could call a strong "cumulative case" for God's existence. That is certainly what I was trying to argue in my last few letters to you.
Still, the ultimate philosophical question is not, "How can we best account for this or that feature of human experience or of the universe?" but, "Why is there something rather than nothing at all?"
It's not an "ivory tower" question. It's not a question dreamed up by intellectuals. Rather, it is a question born of the childlike wonder in us all. It's what strikes every one of us on days when we wake up in the morning and look out on the world and realize: "None of this has to be here! It would violate no law of logic if everything we see had never existed in the first place, or if it all vanished five minutes from now. So why is it all here? Why does anything exist at all?"
In fact, the answer to this question is easy enough to understand. The common man on the street knows very well that there must be a reason, an explanation for the whole show. And the only sufficient reason for everything that exists is God.
I promised to you that I would draw upon insights from two of the greatest philosophers of all time, Thomas Aquinas and Gottfried Leibniz, and show you how they spelled out this argument. But I know that once I get started, Krystal — given your love for literature and your artistic temperament — you are bound to think: "This is all so dry and pedantic! Can this really be the pathway to discovering the reality of God?" Well, it's not the pathway, of course; it's only one of many. But in terms of what human reason can do, it's a very clear and powerful one. Just remember that in the biblical story, the way to the Promised Land passes through the clear skies and barren sands of the desert! So this path may seem as dry as dust at first, but the final destination is well worth the trouble.
OK, let the journey through the desert begin!
1. Every existing thing (in other words, every "being," "entity," or "substance" — these words can be used interchangeably) must either depend for its existence upon other things (in which case, it is called a "contingent being") or solely upon itself (in which case it is called a "self-existent" being). Logically, those seem to be the only two options: contingency or self-existence.
Take a moment to familiarize yourself with these terms, Krystal, because we will need them for the rest of the dusty trail!
2. We observe many contingent beings in the universe. For example, the plants and animals depend upon the warmth of the sun, the refreshment of water, and the anchor of planetary gravity in order to exist. The Milky Way Galaxy depends upon the energy given to its stars by the Big Bang and the forces of gravitation to exist — and so on. In short, contingent beings depend upon "causes" for their existence, and we never seem to meet a being in our experience that does not.
3. Can every existing thing be contingent? If the answer is "yes," then there would be no sufficient reason for the existence of any contingent being within the universe. For if we questioned any entity in such a universe as to why it exists, it would respond: "Don't look to me for the sufficient reason why I exist; after all, I am merely a 'contingent' being; I depend for my existence on other things — so go ask them!" And then when we asked the question of those things, they would say the same thing to us — and so on and on, forever. The result would be an infinite regress of reasons for the existence of things (i.e., an endless string of causes of existence); so the question of why any entity in the world exists would never be sufficiently or finally answered, only endlessly asked!
4. The only sufficient reason for the existence of contingent things in this universe, therefore, must be a self-existent being, one who does not depend at all upon any other being for His existence, and who can bestow existence on other things. That self-existent Source of all existence is what we commonly refer to as God.
Well, Krystal, it's clear that this argument depends upon the principle that there must be a "sufficient reason" for everything. We discussed a more limited version of this principle in our last set of letters to each other, the Principle of Causation: that everything that comes into being or happens has a cause. The Principle of Sufficient Reason, however, is even broader than that, because it states that there must be a sufficient explanation for the existence and actions of everything, whether it comes into being or starts to happen one day or not. The existence even of eternal, everlasting things, therefore, must be explained or accounted for somehow. This argument says that to account for the existence of anything there are only two options: "contingency" and "self-existence." Everything that exists cannot be contingent (or the Principle of Sufficient Reason would be violated); therefore there must be a self-existent, ultimate Source of all being. His name is God.
I hope you can see that this argument for the existence of God is not really very complicated, despite the fancy terminology. Things get a bit "stickier," however, when we consider the main objections that have been raised to this philosophical argument over the past few centuries.
1. We have no reason to believe that the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) universally applies. In other words, why must everything have a sufficient reason for its existence or its actions?
It seems to me, Krystal, that with the PSR we are once again dealing with a "properly basic" or "self-evident" belief. We always assume that our "why" questions must have a sufficient answer, if only we were smart enough and could see enough to find all the answers. That is why, from earliest childhood we endlessly ask the question, "why?" in every field of knowledge and endeavor. Going back to the very first letter I sent to you, Krystal, we can say that the PSR fulfills Thomas Reid's criteria for a "properly basic belief" — and that puts the burden of proof strongly on those who contest it, not on those who uphold it.
In fact, this puts the detractors of the PSR in a difficult spot: for the only way rational people are going to be convinced that the PSR does not universally apply is if someone can give us a "sufficient reason" for any alleged limitation of it!
In any case, no one has ever offered any good reason why the PSR would apply in one area of reality and human inquiry rather than another. The fact that we face special obstacles in finding sufficient reasons for things in some areas, such as quantum physics and philosophical metaphysics, is no reason to doubt the universal validity of the PSR itself. These obstacles can be explained by a variety of factors. First, there are limitations on our human capacity for empirical observation (that is, we can only observe so much of the world with our five senses — e.g., we cannot see an electron with our eyes, only the effects caused by electrons on our scientific instruments). Second, there is the complexity of the natural order — which in some respects may just be too subtle for our finite minds to figure out. Third, there is the necessity for us to use analogical language when speaking of the immaterial realm of being (in other words, to talk about God and the soul we can only say what these realities are "like" from our human experience, because we cannot observe them directly — so God is in some ways "like" an endless ocean, or the soul is "like" a breath of wind). We have to use analogical language when talking about non-observable entities in the physical realm as well, such as sub-atomic realities.
None of this implies that there are no sufficient reasons for the existence and actions of subatomic or immaterial beings. The limitations of the human vantage point on reality cannot be allowed to dictate what really exists. Thus, the "burden of proof" has not been met by the detractors of the PSR. For any rational person the Principle must stand.
2. Perhaps the universe or multiverse as a whole could be the sufficient reason for its own existence. In other words, why do we have to reach beyond the universe in order to find a self-existent being, a God, to account for everything that exists? Individual things in this world may come into being and pass away — we know from physics that individual particles within the universe are generated and annihilated every day — but the universe itself may be the self-existent source of it all.
There are several problems with this line of reasoning, I think.
First of all, if the universe (or multiverse, if there is one) was the self-existent, ultimate reason for the existence of everything in it, then, clearly, that universe would never have had a beginning: it would always have existed, and always will. But remember my last letter: it seems that one can make a strong case from modern science (the Big Bang, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics), that our universe had a beginning. As we also saw, from a consideration of the impossibility of the existence of an infinite number of items or events in the real world, any conceivable universe or multiverse must have had beginning. At the moment of that beginning, it could not bring itself into being out of nothing (because — remember from last time — "nothing" cannot produce "something"); so why does it exist now? In short, the universe or multiverse cannot be the sufficient reason for its own existence.
Second, if we take a closer look at what a "self-existent being" means, we will see that a changing universe cannot be such a being anyway.
"Existence" is, after all, a funny word. As the philosopher Immanuel Kant pointed out, it cannot be a natural attribute of a thing; I mean, if you describe your boyfriend, Krystal, you would never say he is "tall, dark, handsome, intelligent, kind — and existing." Existence is not an attribute of a thing, alongside others; it is what any entity has to have in order to have any real attributes at all. In other words, Krystal, existence is not a particular natural attribute of boyfriends or of your boyfriend; it's just what your boyfriend has got to have that insures he is not a mere figment of your imagination!
So the universe, if it is self-existent, cannot just have as one of its natural attributes the power to exist; it must have existence already in order to have any natural attributes (such as space, time, matter, and energy) at all.
Then, perhaps, "existence" is not a particular attribute alongside others of a self-existent thing, but the entire definition or "essence" of it. In other words, a self-existent being could be defined as the very power and fullness of all that it can possibly mean "to be." If the universe was a self-existent being, therefore, it would be Being itself, the ultimate Being — and Being itself surely needs no explanation beyond itself.
However, if that is what it means to be "self-existent" (and what else could it possibly mean?), then the universe as we know it cannot be a self-existent being. For Being itself, the power and fullness of all that it can possibly mean "to be," can have no un-actualized potentials in it. What I mean is, at every moment, it must be fulfilling all the potentials of Being, enacting all that Being can be. Otherwise, it would not be Being itself, but some partial, incomplete form of being striving to fulfill its potentials over time. There can be no alternate or temporary ways for Being itself to exist other than as the complete fullness of Being, so it could have no changing states. But there is change going on all the time in our universe and in any conceivable multiverse; therefore the universe or multiverse cannot be a self-existent being; it cannot be the sufficient reason for its own existence.
The sufficient reason for the existence of the universe, therefore, must transcend all ever-changing universes. That's one reason we call Him God.
3. Perhaps we have committed the so-called "fallacy of composition"? In other words, just because something is true of all the members of a group, it does not necessarily follow that it is true of the group as a whole. For example, every tennis ball in a group of tennis balls may be round, but that does not necessarily mean that the group as a whole is round (the balls might be arranged on a tennis court in a triangle shape). So, just because the universe may be full of nothing but contingent beings, it does not necessarily follow that the universe as a whole must be contingent, dependent upon some external, self-existent source for its being.
Here, Krystal, we need to bear in mind that sometimes what is true of the parts of a whole or the members of a group is indeed true of the whole group. For example, if every brick in a wall is red, the brick wall as a whole (unless someone has painted it otherwise) will be red.
So what kind of "group" do we have if we are talking about the group of "all contingent beings"?
In order to answer this, Krystal, we have to make another distinction: a distinction (drawn from classical philosophy) between what is "accidental" and what is "essential" to a substance. The "accidental" features of a substance or entity are modifications of it, modifications in quantity, quality, and relationship. For example, a beautiful woman might lose most of her quantity of hair from a wasting disease, and no longer be physically beautiful, but she is still "essentially" a human being. In a similar way, "red" is an "accidental" quality of a brick (you can have different colored bricks, such as brown and yellow bricks). But "roundness" is of the very "essence" of a tennis ball — all "balls" by definition are round or oval. If it's not round or oval shaped, it cannot be a "ball."
Consider: a whole group of bricks, each one with the "accidental" quality of "redness" would of necessity be red, but a whole group of tennis balls, each one with the "essential" attribute of "roundness" would not necessarily be round. So it appears that a group as a whole will manifest the "accidental" properties common to every member of the group, but not necessarily the "essential" properties common to each member.
Now, "contingency" would be an accidental, not an essential property of any substance. Clearly, "contingency" has to do with the relationship between a substance and other substances (a relationship of dependency). Thus, a universe consisting only of contingent beings would itself be a contingent universe, just as a wall consisting of nothing but red bricks would be red. And a universe with nothing but contingent beings cannot explain its own existence: it has to have a Creator.
4. Perhaps there is more than one self-existent being? In other words, why couldn't there be more than one self-existent being as the sufficient reason for the existence of everything? Doesn't your argument lead us just as easily to believe in many gods as to believe in one?
Well, for one thing, we have no reason to believe that there is more than one self-existent being as the sufficient reason for the existence of the universe or multiverse because only one is sufficient! We just don't need to posit the existence of any more than one to explain what needs explaining. One self-existent being, who is Being itself (that is, with the power and fullness of "existence" as His own "essence") is all that is needed to explain the existence of all contingent things.
This, by the way, is the principle in science and philosophy known as "Occam's Razor," after the medieval philosopher William of Occam. The principle directs us always to give precedence to the simplest, sufficient explanation, and not to waste our time dreaming up more elaborate possibilities if a simpler one will suffice. People who do not adhere to this principle usually end up these days lost in political conspiracy theories, and elaborate speculations about the activity of UFOs and aliens from outer space on our planet! As we discussed in our previous letters, Krystal, God is the simplest, sufficient explanation for the beginning of the universe, for order and design in the universe, for the Natural Moral Law shining in every human heart, and for the universal human longing for the endless possession of perfect, boundless Good. And here, one God (rather than many) is the simplest, sufficient explanation for the existence of the whole show.
Second, there could not possibly be more than one self-existent being anyway, if a "self-existent being" by definition is Being itself, the power and fullness of all that it can mean "to be." In his book The Last Superstition, Edward Feser explains:
In order for there to be two or more purely actual beings, there would have to be some way of distinguishing them, some feature that one of them had that the others lacked; and there just couldn't be any such feature. For to lack such a feature is just to have an unrealized potential, and a purely actual being, by definition, has no unrealized potentials. ... So again, there is no feature that one purely actual being could have that another could lack, and thus no way even in theory to distinguish one from another. So there couldn't be more than one.
5. If God made everything, then who made God? What is the "sufficient reason" for His existence?
We come back to this question again, from my last letter, and I hope you can see now, Krystal, that this question makes no sense if we have a clear idea of what the word "God" means for philosophy. It's like asking "Who caused to be the one self-existent Being, the One being who does not need to be caused to be?" I like the way Catholic author F.J. Sheed puts it:
Every student of [classical] philosophy has heard the question, and they all know that there must be a being which did not need to be made. If nothing existed except receivers of existence [i.e., contingent beings] where would existence come from? In order that anything may exist, there must be a being that simply has it. God can confer existence on other beings precisely because he has it in his own right. It is his nature to exist. God does not have to receive existence because he is [the power and fullness of] existence.
Now we understand the name God gave himself. The story is in the third chapter of Exodus. God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. When Moses asked him his name, God said, "I am who am. Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: He who is hath sent me to you." This is God's name for himself, I AM. Our name for him is HE IS. ... That is the primary truth about God. He is, he exists, with all that existence in its fullness can mean.
Past Letters in the Series
• Letter #1: Can We Really Know Anything for Sure?
• Letter #2: The Problem with 'Nothing Buttery'
• Letter #3: That's the Spirit
• Letter #4: What's the Difference? Plenty, of Course.
• Letter #5: The Secret of the Human Heart
• Letter #6: A Message in the Stars
• Letter #7: The Inner Light
• Letter #8: The New Age, and Other Options
• Letter #9: Physics and the Self-Creating Universe
Robert Stackpole, STD, is the director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy, an apostolate of the Marian Fathers of the Immaculate Conception, based in Stockbridge, Mass. He is also the author of our Divine Mercy Q&A series.