The darkness of being

The darkness of being

The onslaught of the spring semester overwhelmed me and so, as you see, posting dropped off for a month. But now I’m back… until the next onslaught, which for now is unknown, nameless.

Today some quotes and some commentary. In Some Problems of Philosophy William James writes:

The question of being is the darkest in all philosophy.

This is true and well put. But I disagree with what follows:

All of us are beggars here, and no school can speak disdainfully of another or give itself superior airs. For all of us alike, Fact forms a datum, gift, or Vorgefundenes, which we cannot burrow under, explain or get behind. It makes itself some how, and our business is far more with its What than with its Whence or Why.

James’s “question of being” is, as he explains it, “How comes the world to be here at all instead of the nonentity which might be imagined in its place?” James appears to think that the question can’t be answered in principle, and here’s why: “from nothing to being there is no logical bridge.” Indeed. Put another way: ex nihilo nihil fit.

But must we stop here? Of course not. At the risk of seeming to reason all too cavalierly (not to mention unoriginally), let me suggest the following path: 

(i) What exists either exists of itself or from another.

(ii) If from another, then that other, too, exists either of itself or from another.

(iii) But the “others” who are responsible for the thing we’re talking about cannot go on in an indefinite series, for if they did, none of them could be existing now since there would be nothing that ultimately gave them their existence (and – need it be said? – if something was never given existence, it wouldn’t now exist. Could a whole bunch of cakes now exist that were never baked?).

(iv) So, there must be an “other” that exists of itself and is what brought everything else into being.

Why is there anything now existing? Well, I’d say we have at least a partial answer in (i)-(iv). And notice that (i)-(iv) doesn’t ever violate the ex nihilo nihil fit principle. In Thomistic language, the ultimate “other” referred to in (iv) is ipsum esse subsistens. Only something that is subsistent being itself would not require something else as the source of its existence.

But another important thing to notice is that (i)-(iv) offers no explanation for why ipsum esse subsistens brought other things about. It only attempts to show that ipsum esse subsistens did so. Obviously, if ipsum esse subsistens has no need of anything else, why it brings anything else about remains a mystery. Ergo, there is still good reason to agree with James that the question of being “is the darkest in all philosophy.”

One last note: It may look like I believe that there can only be one ipsum esse subsistens. In this case appearances would not be deceiving. I’m not now going to give a developed argument for this. Let me just say that I accept the principle of the identity of indiscernibles and don’t see how there could be two or more distinct realities that are ipsum esse subsistens.