Our thanks to Edward Feser for his review of The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything At All? (“Fifty Shades of Nothing,” First Things, July 24, 2013). Our book’s limited mission is to build appreciation for the most baffling of all enigmas: Why is there something rather than nothing? In its shadow, all the big questions—Does God exist? Why the universe? Life after death?—are eclipsed.
We reprint roughly fifty items, ranging from Plato and Aristotle to Aquinas and Leibniz and then to modern physicists and philosophers, and we offer a wide variety of competing solutions: a blank is absurd; no explanation needed; chance; value/perfection as ultimate; mind/consciousness as ultimate (a subset of which is God or something like God).
One reprinted item is Robert’s survey article “Why Not Nothing?” originally published in Skeptic magazine. In The Mystery of Existence, he has added a classification of nine “Levels of Nothing,” a response to contemporary confusion. Robert’s intent is to get people thinking about Nothing, about why it is not the case that there is Nothing, and about what this existential analysis implies for ultimate reality. Robert’s battle is with (i) philosophers who think Nothing is absurd, a fallacy of language, a false problem, and (ii) physicists who have defined for themselves a rather densely populated “Nothing” of laws, fields and forces with which they then go out and generate universes “from nothing.”
In any event, The Mystery of Existence is not about the clash between classical and modern/personal forms of theism (“theistic personalism”), a distinction that is anyway not directly on point in explicating Nothing (our limited mission again), since in either case, classical or modern/personal, God can be in some sense necessary. Furthermore, because no entity could exist unless it had already been possible for it to exist, any level of Nothing that’s empty even of possibilities must therefore be denied.
In his “friendly criticism,” which we enjoy, Ed regrets that we’ve given so much room to contemporary philosophers of religion, for example Richard Swinburne and Alvin Plantinga, who argue for “theistic personalism.” Yes, you’ll also find some “classical theism” in the volume—Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas—but Ed is correct in that it fills only very few pages.
By “theistic personalism” Ed means the view that God is a Mind or a Being in a fairly straightforward sense. “Classical theism” is instead the kind of view that describes God not as a Being but as “Subsistent Being Itself,” “in no way composed of parts,” “utterly unchangeable.”
Ed’s criticism is an important one. We could plead that our volume tries to cover all the main ways, going back to Plato and ending with scientists such as Stephen Hawking, of reacting to the fact that there’s a world instead of utter emptiness. Philosophy, theology, cosmology, physics, were all competing for room on its pages. Still, why so little about classical theism? Why such “short shrift” (Ed’s description) as calling classical theism “puzzling”?
Part of our answer will have to be that, even as Ed presents it, classical theism really is puzzling. Detailed discussion of it would have involved very deep matters. Aquinas himself never claimed to understand them fully—and our volume was aimed not at experts but at “the curious reader,” intelligent but maybe knowing almost nothing about philosophy.
Aquinas sees God’s properties as all of them ultimately identical. God’s goodness just is God’s power, for example, and that just is God’s knowledge, which in turn just is God’s existence; for God’s essence simply is to exist. Entirely changeless, God cannot suddenly alter through coming to know that the date and time are now such-and-such, and that so-and-so has now freely chosen to donate a kidney to a friend.
Aquinas may make some of this easier to accept through stressing that we speak of God “only analogically.” But doesn’t that itself say that we’ve little idea of what we’re talking about, and that discussing it for many pages wouldn’t alter this unalterable fact? Theistic readers of The Mystery of Existence may feel relieved when the “personal theist” Timothy O’Connor tells them that while he, too, sees God’s goodness, power, and knowledge as intimately linked, he finds it “very hard to be sure” what Aquinas’ doctrine “is supposed to come to.”
Again, those readers may welcome Richard Swinburne’s description of God as “a spirit, a non-embodied person”—a Being of the simplest possible type since God’s goodness, power and knowledge are all of them interconnected, and all of them infinite, but still definitely a Being instead of anything as hard to understand as Subsistent Being Itself (which Richard says “is not an intelligible category”). In fact, to Richard, the claim that the divine properties are identical to each other and to God depends on the somewhat arbitrary way “one divides up the properties of a thing (how many properties one says that some thing has)—and that applies to all things, not only to God. And it remains extremely puzzling how a property can be the same as a substance in which it inheres. While the classical tradition might deny that God is a substance in some sense, it really has to (and sometimes does) affirm that he is a substance in a sense of a causal agent, and a causal agent must at least have power, a property.”
All the same, we editors do try to throw some light on Aquinas’ theory. On page 103, we suggest that Aquinas may be influenced by Plato. As for Ed’s remark that John’s “brand of Platonism” is “distinctive” or even “somewhat eccentric,” in Book Six of his Republic, Plato theorizes that The Good, itself a factor “beyond being,” is creator of all things known. John suggests that a possible way of interpreting Plato or extending Plato would be as follows. The need for a good world is unconditional; it doesn’t depend, for example, on anyone’s being there to have a duty to create such a world. And this need may itself be creatively effective, responsible for the actual existence of things. Well, a creatively effective need wouldn’t be a complicated reality like a Being who (i) was benevolent, (ii) had infinite power, and (iii) knew absolutely everything, including what it would be good to create. It would be a reality having the kind of simplicity that Aquinas attributes to God.
However, the very first thing for which such a need would be responsible might be a Divine Person, an Eternal and Infinite Being. Indeed, the unconditional need for such a Being to exist could be viewed as a part of God’s own nature, something explaining God’s necessary existence, rather than as something standing outside God and creating God. This idea is defended in our volume by A.C. Ewing, by Keith Ward (writing as Oxford’s Regius Professor of Divinity), and by the physicist-turned-theologian John Polkinghorne. It can be argued that it’s fairly standard Platonic theism.
Here’s something that puzzled us. While Ed notes rightly “how could anything actually exist unless it were in some sense a possibility?” why does he seem to make God an exception to this rule? Even if God, instead of being a Person or a Being in a fairly straightforward sense, “just is Subsistent Being Itself,” doesn’t it remain true that God exists? And if so, why does Ed write that all possibilities “pre-exist as ideas in the divine intellect”? For what about the possibility of God’s own existence? How could this possibility itself depend on the fact that God existed so as to be able to think about it?
That’s not meant as any sort of knockdown argument. Asking why there’s a world, not a blank, plunges us into very, very deep waters. The Mystery of Existence features three pages of quotations from famous figures taking the plunge. Perhaps the wisest words come from William James: “All of us are beggars here, and no school can speak disdainfully of another or give itself superior airs.”
For us, the bottom line is that the best way to appreciate the Mystery of Existence is to explore answers people have suggested to Why Is There Anything At All?
And if you don’t get dizzy, you really don’t get it.
John Leslie is University Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the University of Guelph, Canada, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Robert Lawrence Kuhn is the creator and host of Closer To Truth, the long-running PBS / public television series on science and philosophy.