Note: this is the fourth post in a series on the existence of God. Since it builds on the previous posts, please carefully read them before you read this one:
In this series of posts I am laying out the case for God’s existence. This case is taking shape in two phases. In the first phase, I began with the observation that whatever exists does so either because it depends on something else to exist or it doesn’t depend on something else to exist. We can see many things that do depend on other things to exist (like me, for instance!). But those things which depend on something else to exist cannot ultimately be accounted for by other things that also depend on something else to exist – that just shifts the question to another dependent reality. Therefore, there must be some ultimate reality that doesn’t depend on anything else to exist (a contingent being) but rather exists independently (a necessary being).
But what is it? That’s the second phase of this argument. And in the previous post I suggested that whatever it is that possesses existence independently, it must be eternal and immaterial. It is eternal since it doesn’t rely on anything else to come into existence and isn’t dependent on something else to keep from going out of existence. And it is immaterial because anything that is made up of particles of matter depends on those particles for its existence and also depends on something to put those pieces together.
Besides its eternity and immateriality, is there anything else we can deduce about this ultimate ground of all reality? I think so. But first, I want to take a little detour to ancient Greece, and listen in on the hot debate of the day. And that debate was about…
…whether things can change.
You heard me.
I know that this sounds incredibly strange, but one of the burning issues in ancient Greek philosophy was whether things can change. You are probably thinking, who could possibly deny that things can change? We can watch it happen! For instance, you can take a cup of ice out into the hot Florida sun and watch it melt. Of course change happens!
Well, not so fast. We all agree that sometimes our senses can deceive us, right? And we all agree that whatever we may think we see, if it defies the laws of logic, then our eyes must be playing tricks on us, right?
Then if that is the case, let’s think about a basic principle of logic: from nothing, nothing comes. We all know that you can’t get something from nothing. That is as foundational a principle of logic as there is.
Let’s reconsider that melting ice. Ice is a solid. It is not liquid. But you say that some liquid came from that which is not liquid. That sounds an awful lot like getting something (liquid) from nothing (no liquid)! This was the sort of argument an ancient philosopher named Parmenides made. And there is obviously something wrong with the argument – but what, exactly?
It was Aristotle who dissected the problem with the argument. Aristotle agreed that you can’t get something from nothing. But where Parmenides went wrong was in assuming that the liquid came from nothing. True, the ice cube is actually a solid. But Aristotle pointed out that there is another aspect to the ice cube – what it potentially is. Now, this potential isn’t unlimited. The ice cube doesn’t have the potential to become a cow or a tree. But it does possess the potential to become a liquid. All that is needed is something to make this potential become actual (like the heat of the sun). So, Parmenides was incorrect in thinking that change violated the logical premise that you can’t get something from nothing. Change occurs because a potential feature becomes an actual reality.
What we describe as “change” is – in the technical terminology of Aristotle – the actualization of a potential. (Side note: when I first explained these concepts to my congregation, I was afraid that the fancy sounding jargon would confuse people. But these fears were relieved when one of the older men complained to me after Bible study that “I’m in a hurry to get home, but I can’t actualize my wife’s potential to leave!”).
Just to make sure these concepts are clear, here are some more examples. What are the potentials of a steer? Here are a couple: a nice pair of boots or a ribeye steak. How about the potentials of a piece of lumber? Part of a desk or a house, to name two. All that is needed is something or someone to actualize these potentials, like a leatherworker or butcher in the case of the steer, or a woodworker or carpenter in the case of the lumber.
In general, we can say that change is the actualization of a potential. And since coming into existence is just a specific sort of change (the change from non-existence to existence), this means that the question of how things come to exist can also be defined in terms of potentials being actualized. Anything that depends on something else to exist (anything that is contingent, in other words) is something that requires the actualization of potentials.
An oak tree depends on the actualization of an acorn’s potential in order to exist. A butterfly depends on the actualization of a caterpillar’s potential in order to exist. A cup of coffee depends on the actualization of a coffee bean’s potential in order to exist. You get the idea, right?
The same is true for people, obviously. My existence depended on my mother and father. Each possessed the potential to create new life, but that potential had to be “actualized” (is that not the nerdiest euphemism for reproduction you’ve ever heard?!).
Let’s apply this new terminology to our previous argument. Remember, contingent beings depend on something else to exist. Using our new vocabulary, we can say that contingent beings rely on the actualization of potentials in order to exist. This gives us an additional reason to believe that contingent things cannot ultimately be accounted for by other contingent things. Since those things are also contingent, they also have potentials that must be actualized in order to exist, and so on….
That “and so on” is important. The only way to stop the “and so on…” is if there is something that doesn’t change from non-existence to existence, but simply is existence. Or, to use the fancier jargon, something that has no potentialities that need to be actualized, but just is fully and completely actual.
What can we say about something that is purely actual? Well, since it cannot – in principle – change, seeing that it has no potentialities to be actualized, we can say that this pure actuality is immutable. This word is easily misunderstood to mean something like “static, frozen, inert.” But that is not at all what immutability means in this line of reasoning. In fact, it means just the opposite. It means something so totally active that there is nothing that can be added to it to make it more dynamic. If you’ve ever seen This Is Spinal Tap, you probably remember Nigel’s amplifier, which doesn’t stop at 10 – it goes up to 11! Well, that which is purely actual doesn’t have another notch to go up – it is fully and maximally actual.
As one theologian puts it:
One should not be misled into thinking that God’s immutability is like the immutability of a rock only more so. What God and rocks appear to have in common is only the fact that they do not change.* The reason for their unchangeableness is for polar-opposite reasons…God is unchangeable not because he is inert or static like a rock, but for just the opposite reason. He is so dynamic, so active that no change can make him more active. (Thomas Weinandy, Does God Suffer? p. 124)
This concept of pure actuality (or immutability) rules out some of the candidates for that which is the necessary being behind all existence. For example, it eliminates any material proposal, like the Big Bang singularity or the theory of the multiverse. Whatever model of the Big Bang one accepts, it obviously pictures the actualization of a potential (the event was triggered). And if there is a multiverse, it would consist of a multitude of potentials being made actual. But behind either scenario there must be something that is Pure Actuality to cause that which is potential to become actual. Any proposal that puts forward particles of matter as the ultimate explanation of reality fails precisely because such particles still require something to actualize their potential to be more than mere particles. Whatever physics may ultimately reveal about the universe, it will not be able to sidestep Aristotle’s analysis of change – it will only illustrate the great philosopher’s insights.
And by now it should be clear why the clumsy attempt at humor known as the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” says far more about the ignorance of some atheists than it does the credulity of believers. If you’ve never heard of it, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a parody of God created by atheists to mock what they think is the arbitrary nature of theism. “If Christians can just make up a being with whatever attributes they desire, so can we,” seems to be the logic. Regardless of what you may think of the sort of arguments I have shared, surely it is clear that they are not arbitrary. They follow methodically from one point to the next. (And by the way, the Flying Spaghetti Monster cannot be the necessary being because it is made up of moving parts that are contingent. I would be happy to demonstrate this at an Olive Garden near you!)
In these posts we have covered a lot of ground, and there is more to come, but let’s pause a moment to take stock of the argument so far. It is overwhelming to reflect on what we have deduced about the ultimate source of all existence. We live in the world of the contingent, the temporal, the material, and the alterable. But that which grounds this experience must be necessary, eternal, immaterial, and immutable. Nothing in our immediate experience is like this. No wonder those who have contemplated this ultimate reality have been overcome with awe.
*When Dr. Weinandy says that rocks do not change, he doesn’t literally and absolutely mean that rocks are immutable. Since rocks are made up of particles, they do change – they just change very, very slowly under normal circumstances. In the broader passage I am quoting from he make this clear. He’s just using a simple illustration to contrast the (almost) unchanging nature of a rock with the vibrancy of that which is Pure Actuality.