I. Positive existence vs. mere instantiation
II. Material, vital, and rational existence
III. Inadequate theories of existence
IV. The idea of Unqualified Being
VIII. There can only be one God
IX. There must be one God
In defense of religion III: puzzling aspects of existence
The existence and nature of God are philosophical problems, and it is to these that we now turn. To address these problems effectively, it will be necessary to first take what might seem like a detour to build up the needed metaphysical concepts. We will start by analyzing what it means for something to exist. This turns out to be less straightforward than one might think.
Let’s start with a statement, an intuition we all share. We all know that light is something, but darkness is just the absence of light, not a thing in itself. Of course, if one wanted to, one could say that light is the absence of darkness—sometimes it’s even convenient to describe a light pattern in terms of shadows rather than light rays. Still, the ontological truth is that it’s light that exists. Does darkness exist? It depends on what we mean by “exists”. One meaning of “darkness exists” would be “somewhere, something is dark”. In this sense, darkness certainly does, or at least can, exist. This meaning is the only one recognized by most analytic philosophers, but notice that it fails to capture the difference that we intuit between the way light exists and the way dark exists. By this first definition, it’s entirely the same. So let’s introduce a second definition: to exist means to be a positive presence, to be a “something there” rather than an absence or a relation. By this second definition, darkness doesn’t exist. Let’s consider a second example. You are out on a walk, and you see a wall with a hole in it. Does the hole exist? By the first definition, yes; “the hole exists” just means “the wall has a hole in it”. By the second definition, no; the hole is an absence, not a presence. (By contrast, the air in the hole exists in the second sense.) Below, I will use the terms “presence”, “actuality”, and “positive existence” as synonyms for the second definition of “exists”.
There are things that can be true only of things with positive existence—these are the prerogatives of actuality. One of these is the ability to be a cause, to share its presence with other things and act on them. True, we sometimes explain some effect in terms of an absence, e.g. we might blame our city being sacked on the aforementioned hole in the wall. But what we obviously mean is just that if the rest of the wall would have been present, the city wouldn’t have been sacked. We don’t really attribute a positive force to something without positive existence. Another prerogative of actuality we might call intelligibility or unity. Presence is never just presence in general; it’s always presence of some particular kind of thing—some nature, some pattern, some qualities. What is present in the wall? One type of solid. What is absent in the hole? An infinite number of kinds of things.
Let’s expand on this latter point. We can identify several layers of presence, sometimes all in a single thing. The most obvious level is material presence: a thing has mass, energy, electric charge, etc. Matter has a certain degree of intelligibility represented by the laws of physics. Living organisms possess another degree of presence (in addition, of course, to the material degree). In an organism, we find real, intrinsic teleology: the heart not only has a size and mass; we can also identify its function, how it keeps the organism going. This is a qualitatively unique feature of life. One could, of course, start identifying purposes to the parts of an atom or a star, but those purposes would either be arbitrary, or they would be defined by reference to something else (e.g. usefulness to us). For a living being, on the other hand, the function is forced on us. With it comes an objective meaning of health versus sickness or injury. It’s meaningless to say that a rock is healthy, but it’s exactly and scientifically meaningful to say that a dog is sick. Notice that the vitality of an organism is not a material distinct from the matter that makes up the organism. Nor is the telos of an organ a force acting on it the way pressure and gravity do. If these things were physical materials and forces, we would not be dealing with a different level of being. Indeed, if one were only interested in material level, one could consider an organism as a collection of molecules in equilibrium; in studying the motion of each molecule, one would never be forced to consider the function of each organ or the unity of the organism. This would, of course, be to miss the forest from the trees, to disregard a higher unity and intelligibility. Mental existence is a third level of being. With conscious subjects, we have another level of intelligibility above the material and the vital. There are more questions we can meaningfully ask and answer. For a material being, we can ask what caused it to do something. For a rational subject, we can ask what reason he had for doing something. Again, this does not mean a different kind of “stuff”—there’s no “soul-stuff”—but it does mean a different kind of presence: conscious, rational, intentional presence. This is reflected in conventional speech, when we say that an inattentive person is “not with us” or “not all there”.