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Monday, April 27, 2015


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Great discussion, Bill. A few thoughts:

Argument 1. Things existed long before there were concepts.

Do you think God has concepts (beliefs? thinks in terms of propositional structures?) If so then presumably there has never been a time at which there are things which do not fall under concepts. But perhaps you take William Alston's suggestion that God doesn't have beliefs or thinks via concepts or propositional structures.

Argument 3. Necessarily, if an individual x falls under a concept C, then both x and C exist. So it cannot be the case that x exists in virtue of falling under any concept, including the putative concept, existence. You move in an explanatory circular if you try to account for the existence of x by saying that x exists in virtue of falling under a concept when nothing falls under a concept unless it exists.

I'm not sure that I see the circularity. Suppose one holds that, e.g., God exists in virtue of falling under the concept "existence." The "in virtue of" relation is an asymmetrical, explanatory relation. True, one can fall under a concept only if one exists (and one can't fall under a concept unless one exists). But the "only if" simply expresses logical entailment, not an explanatory relation. So one could hold without (apparent) contradiction that one falls under a concept only if one exists but that one exists in virtue of falling under a concept. Isn't a better objection that if God exists in virtue of falling under a concept that this would violate God's aseity, since God's being an existent is in virtue of falling under a concept? (Of course one could then deny that anything exists in virtue of falling under a concept.)

Now existence is that which makes an existing item exist. It is that which determines it as existent. It is that without which a thing would be nothing at all.

But if God is numerically identical with His existence, His existence does not make Him exist, for He just is His existence. Couldn't one just as well say that God makes His existence (and everything else) exist?

Hi Bill,

You're right that there's a fundamentally different way of thinking about existence that separates you and fans of St. Thomas from theistic personalists like Dale and myself.

BV: "Existence is that which makes an existing item exist. It is that which determines it as existent. It is that without which a thing would be nothing at all."

I'm not sure exactly what Dale would say but I, for one, would deny this series of claims. Existence, I say, isn't what "makes" an existing item exist. Rather, it is simply the fact that things are. No "deeper" explanation is needed.

Take an existing item, say, a chair. You ask in virtue of what it exists. My initial response would be something like, "in virtue of its having been assembled by its manufacturer." To that you might follow up by clarifying that you are asking not how it came to exist but in virtue of what it continues to exist. To that I would say something like, "The chair continues to exist in virtue of its constituents being physically connected in a way that is resistant to physical dissolution under normal stresses." But that's clearly still not the sort of answer you're looking for. You want to know why the chair with all of its constituents exists rather than being "nothing at all". And if I respond by saying that God created those constituents, you'll broaden the question to ask why anything (God included) exists rather than "nothing at all".

At this point I will deny the presupposition of the question. "Nothing at all" is not, never has been, and never could have been a genuine metaphysical possibility, just as true contradictions (pace Graham Priest) are not, never have been, and never could have been genuine logical possibilities. What needs explaining, in my view, is not existence but changes in existence--something's coming-to-be or ceasing-to-be, or something's acquiring or losing intrinsic properties. Apart from such changes, something's existence no more requires explanation than, on Newtonian mechanics, the continued linear motion of an object not subject to any forces needs explanation.

Hi Tully,

I am talking about concepts in finite minds.

Seems to me you shouldn't bring God into the picture if we are trying to understand what existence is. We need to start close to the ground with examples that are more or less 'Moorean.' For example, here is a coffee cup; it exists; what is it for a contingent particular such as a coffee cup to exist?

Let x be an individual and C a concept. Suppose x instantiates C. Instantiation is a dyadic, asymmetrical relation: if x instantiates C, then it is not the case that C instantiates x. Furthermore, if x stands in relation R to y, then x exists & y exists. That is, the existence of both relata is a presupposition of the holding of this external relation. If you tell me that for x to exist is for x to instantiate C, my response will be that this account is bogus for the simple reason that x must first (logically speaking) exist to instantiate any concepts.

Your final comment shows that you are not following me at all. The question is: what is the relation between existence and contingent existents? I am arguing that this relation cannot be instantiation, that the existence of contingent exists is not a concept they instantiate.

The last clause should read: the existence of contingent existents is not a concept they instantiate.


You have very astutely put your finger on the crucial difference between theistic personalists and Thomists (I am a 'fellow traveller' not a Thomist strictly speaking: my book on existence doesn't borrow from Thomas but from Bradley and Bergmann and Armstrong et al.)

You say that existence is the fact that things are. You seem to be suggesting that it is a brute fact, one that cannot be explained (in any sense of 'explanation') but must simply be accepted without explanation.

But I fear you may be contradicting yourself. For you go on to say that God created the ultimate constituents of things. In giving this "deeper explanation" (your words) you have contradicted your opening claim that there is no "deeper explanation."

What you are doing willy-nilly (nolens volens) is demonstrating that my question (What is it for a contingent existent to exist?) is a perfectly legitimate question. For you are giving an answer to it. You are saying that for a contingent existent to exist is for God to create it ex nihilo.

So which is it? Is it a brute fact that things exist or is it not a brute fact?

You are putting words in my mouth when you write: >>And if I respond by saying that God created those constituents, you'll broaden the question to ask why anything (God included) exists rather than "nothing at all".<<

Where did I ever say that? If you want to know what I say, then you will have to read my book and the numerous articles and blog posts I have written on these topics.

I'd also like to know where you got the idea that I ever maintained that "nothing at all" is a genuine metaphysical possibility. I have explicitly argued against that possibility in more than one post, one of them fairly recent, and in any case it is inconsistent with my maintaining that God exists of absolute metaphysical necessity.

In your final two sentences you contradict yourself again when you say that the existence of contingent items needs no explanation after having given a theistic explanation of the existence of contingent items.

a**. God exists-necessarily.

b**. Socrates exists-contingently.

Note that in this last pair there is no univocity on the side of the predicate as there is in the first two pairs.

This addresses my (probably poorly worded) worry in the earlier post.

Hi Bill,

I plead "not guilty" to the double charge of contradicting myself. You have misunderstood me.

Perhaps I was unclear, but the sort of "deeper" explanation for existence that I deny is the need for a *sustaining* cause of a thing's *state* of existence. Thomists would insist that we need this sort of explanation. Because its essence is not identical to its existence, the existence of the chair (they would say) depends at every moment on the sustaining causation of God. Were it not for God's continual creation (creatio continuans) of the chair, it would immediately cease to be. God (Thomists would say) is immune to the need for an extrinsic sustaining cause precisely because, and only because, God's essence is existence. God must, therefore, be ipsum esse subsistens, or else there is no God.

My denial of the need for *that* sort of explanation is perfectly consistent with my affirmation that *changes* in states of being (i.e., comings-to-be, ceasings-to-be, and intrinsic changes in things) need explanations. God's creating the ultimate constituents of the chair is His causing their coming-to-be, not (on my view) His causing their ongoing state of be-ing.

The Newtonian analogy is fairly exact if we replace 'state of motion' with 'state of being'. Aristotle held that a non-resting object's state of motion requires a continuous cause, either one internal to the thing (natural motion) or external to the it (violent motion). Remove all such causes, he believed, and the thing would immediately come to rest. Newton, in contrast, held that an object in uniform (unaccelerated) motion needs no explanation for continuing in that state of motion (cf. Newton's First Law). He believed that *changes* in states of motion (i.e., accelerations) need explanations, but not the mere continuance of states of motion. Analogously to Aristotle, St. Thomas thinks that states of being need explanations, either an intrinsic explanation in the case of God or an extrinsic one in the case of everything else. This is what I deny. Changes in states of being (i.e., becomings) need explanations, but not (I say) the mere continuance of those states.

As for "putting words in your mouth" it wasn't my intention to misrepresent your views in any way. I was simply trying to think through what someone who holds the views you do on God and existence might say to convince me that I'm not pursing ontological explanation deeply enough and that we *need* God to be identical with existence or we won't have a fully adequate explanation for the existence of God or anything else.

Can x exist if x does not instantiate *any* properties? How 'bare' is existence itself, in BV's understanding of 'existence itself'?

(I 'get' the arguments on both sides here, so far, at least, but just cannot see a way forward; I would say that we have a 'form of life' issue, in L.W.'s sense, and that 'explanations must come to an end somewhere' - but that's no fun :-))


No. Two laws of (my) metaphysics: Necessarily, anything that exists has properties. (Principle of the Rejection of Property-less Items) Necessarily, anything that has properties, exists. (Principle of the Rejection of Nonexistent Items) Almost everyone will accept the first, but the second is denied by the Meinongians.

I hope you don't think that my talk of existents implies that these items lack properties.

You could make the case that what we have here are competing language games or forms of life, but Dale would resist this and so would I.


You bring up an issue that is not on the table at the present stage of this discussion. I didn't mention it in my original post, nor did Dale in his responses, nor do I above.

I was arguing against the view that existence is a concept. I said that "existence is that which makes an existing item exist." You balked at that, responding that >>Existence, I say, isn't what "makes" an existing item exist. Rather, it is simply the fact that things are.<<

I was going to press you on your use of 'fact' but I decided to proceed as charitably as possible and take you to be saying that contingent things just exist: there is no real factor in them called 'existence' int which it would make sense to conduct some deep inquiry.

And so I pointed out that you contradict yourself if you hold that the existence of (contingent) things is their having been created by God while also holding that there is no such factor as their existence that determines them as existent.

It is simply irrelevant whether creation is *creatio continuans.* Suppose it isn't. Suppose God in creating is involved only in the coming-to-be of contingent items. Suppose x comes to be by divine creation. Then x has the property of having been created ex nihilo, a property that is equivalent to, or rather identical with, its existence. Then you contradict yourself if you deny what I affirm, namely, that existence is a factor in existents that makes them be.

So it seems to me that you are still contradicting yourself.

Let me irenically propose that we are actually in agreement: despite differences in terminology and whatnot, you and I both hold that the existence of contingently existing items is a factor in them distinct from them yet determinative of their being.

You don't see this because you "put words in my mouth" reading into my position more than I explicitly state.

"I hope you don't think that my talk of existents implies that these items lack properties. "

Nope, I understand your existents. :-)

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