Eliminating the Distinction Between Alphas Nature and Being

a. The Cautious and Bold Interpretations of the Elimination

But agreeing to the elimination of G becomes harder when we see how radically thorough Aquinas's elimination of compositeness is. For the elimination of real components entails the elimination of all real distinctions within Alpha. And it turns out that when Aquinas rules out all real distinctions in this way, he is especially concerned to rule out metaphysical distinctions, as in the eliminations of predicates J, K, and L. The eliminations of predicates J and L are relatively easy. Alpha's immutability entails that it could not be anything that has any accidental characteristics (L) since, as Aquinas points out, 'an accidental characteristic is naturally suited to inhere and not to inhere' in a subject at different times (23.217). And since there can't be accidental characteristics in Alpha, 'there is, therefore, nothing in it other

than its essential nature' (21.198)

9 This line of argument in support of the elimination of J in ch. 21 is so natural that it's no wonder that Aquinas borrows the elimination of L from ch. 23 in order to use it in ch. 21: 'Therefore, only accidental characteristics are in a thing besides its essential nature. But there aren't any accidental characteristics in God, as will be shown' (21.198).

—that is, Alpha could not be other than its own essential nature (J).

But the metaphysical distinction Aquinas is most concerned to eliminate from the extraordinary first entity is the ordinary distinction between a thing's

essential nature and its existence, or being.

10 In discussing this essentia/esse issue in SCG and other works, Aquinas uses several words and expressions interchangeably with essentia, including natura, quidditas, quod quid est, and substantia. I use 'nature' or 'essential nature' for this element of the issue. For the other element Aquinas uses only the nominalized infinitive esse, which is best translated in different ways in different places—as e.g. 'being', 'existing', or'existence'.

end p.121

His view of the theoretical importance of that result is brought out in his referring to it after the elimination has been carried out as 'this sublime truth' (22.211), and we'll soon see why he calls it that. But its practical importance to his project is also striking: within the six remaining chapters in which the eliminative method is applied he invokes this result in one form or another nineteen times, more often than any other in his entire application of 11

the method.

11 See 23.214, 24.223, 24.224, 24.225, 24.226, 25.229 (twice), 25.230, 25.231,

25.232, 25.236, 26.239, 26.240, 27.251 (twice), 27.252, 28.259, 28.260, and


The distinction he wants to eliminate from the first entity is one we can readily recognize in connection with contingent entities, though it's so pervasive that we wouldn't ordinarily notice it. For instance, if I want to know whether there is such a thing as a marsupial bat, I want to know whether or not anything with that essential nature exists, to know whether or not that nature is instantiated, or has being. I know, roughly, what nature a marsupial bat must have, but I don't know whether it has being. And the same distinction characterizes every contingent thing: if and when it actually exists, it instantiates some essential nature that could also be uninstantiated or that could be, and very often is, instantiated also by the existing of some other individual. We couldn't know that unicorns don't exist if we didn't know, roughly, their essential nature; but the essential nature of unicorns doesn't entail their nonexistence. We need to know a lot more than what sort of thing a unicorn must be in order to know that there aren't any. In short, a contingent thing's being is other than its essential nature.

Now, what would it mean to say of Alpha that its being 'is not other than' (22.202) its nature? 'Not other than' may seem unambiguous, but that claim admits of two interpretations, one cautious, the other bold; and I think both interpretations can be found in Aquinas.

The cautious interpretation is the one lying behind the remarks I was just making about unicorns. It can be drawn out of the conclusion of argument G6, where Alpha emerges as something that is 'necessary through itself (per seipsum necessarium)' (15.124), as something the necessary existence of which is explicable on the basis of its own nature and nothing else besides. In chapter 22, where this elimination takes place, Aquinas sometimes describes the entity whose being is not other than its nature in terms that fit that G6 conclusion perfectly, as when he says of it that it 'exists end p.122


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved through its own essential nature (est per essentiam suam)' (22.210). For even without any means of knowing Alpha's nature fully, or even directly, we are entitled by the conclusion of G6 to say that the explanation of Alpha's necessary being must lie in Alpha's own nature, which must be such that merely on the basis of knowing it fully we would know that Alpha must exist.

We can get some idea of what that might be like by considering mathematical entities, which can serve as analogues for Alpha, if only in this respect. No mathematical entity could qualify as a candidate for the role of Alpha, because the necessary being of a mathematical entity couldn't explain the existence of contingent things. Mathematical entities have no causal relationships—at least none of the kind that are relevant here: non-epistemic efficient causal relationships to non-mathematical entities. But it's only among mathematical entities that we seem to be able to find well-recognized cases of an entity that 'exists through its own essential nature'. The nature even prime number, for instance, is a nature that is necessarily instantiated, and everybody who fully knows that nature knows on that basis alone that it must be instantiated, and that there must be exactly one instantiation of it. Judging from what we've been seeing so far, then, it may look as if eliminating predicate K amounts to claiming that Alpha exists through its own nature the way the even prime number does: its essential nature entails its being. This interpretation of the relationship between Alpha's essential nature and its being as entailment is what I mean by the cautious interpretation of the claim that Alpha's being is not other than its essential nature.

However, Aquinas more often (and more characteristically) offers a bolder interpretation in chapter 22 and in his other discussions of this issue. His bold interpretation is incompatible with the cautious entailment interpretation. We can see this when, in advancing the bold interpretation, he argues that we must avoid (cautiously) interpreting the claim that Alpha's nature is not other than its being as meaning that it exists 1through something that belongs to that thing's essential nature or through the essential nature itself {per aliquid quod est de essentia illius rei sive per

essentiam ipsam)' (22.207).

12 ST la.3.4c contains a fuller argument against the entailment interpretation than can be found in SCG 1.22.

Instead, he insists, in this one case a thing's essential nature and its being are identical, just as 'not other end p.123


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved than' would seem to require. This bold identity interpretation isn't easy to understand or to accept, but I think it can be understood and should be accepted. We can begin to understand it by looking at two different routes by which he tries to reach it.

b. Basing the Identity Interpretation on the Elimination of Compositeness

The first route goes through the elimination of predicate G, compositeness. We can see Aquinas taking this route in the two premisses of one of his arguments in chapter 22 for eliminating predicate K: '[1] Every thing that cannot be without the concurrence of more than one is composite. But [2] no thing in which the essential nature is other than the being (in qua est aliud essentia et aliud esse) can be without the concurrence of more than one—namely, essential nature and being. Therefore, every thing in which the essential nature is other than the being is composite' (22.209). Premiss [1]

is unsurprising, but premiss [2] shows Aquinas taking a thing's being or existing as a component of it. No doubt a thing whose existing is other than its nature is conceptually more complex than one of which that isn't true, but conceptual distinctions don't entail real components. Not all complexity is compositeness (nor does susceptibility to conceptual analysis entail any passive potentiality). So the fact that a thing's nature is other than its being can't by itself show that thing to be composite in a respect in which it seems right to say that Alpha can't be composite, just because it's conceivable that the thing's nature may simply entail its being. The nature even prime number is other than, conceptually distinct from, mathematical being; but the even prime number is not composed of even-prime-numberhood plus mathematical being as it is composed of two units.

Again, another argument for the elimination of predicate K begins by observing that since the first entity has no components (in virtue of the elimination of predicate G), it can't be true that its being is a part of its nature (non autem pars eius esse potest) (22.207). So, Aquinas infers, either its being simply is its nature—the identity interpretation—or 'this kind of existing must be something over and above its essential nature' (ibid.). But to suppose that the only way existing could belong to the essential nature of a thing is as a part of its nature is simply to leave out of account the end p. 124


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved possibility that it could belong to it in the sense of being entailed by it. Aquinas continues the argument in this way: 'Now everything that is associated with something but does not belong to its essential nature is associated with it through some cause' (ibid.). The cause in this case could not be the thing's own nature, Aquinas says, because then something would be 'the cause of its own existing', and so 'it would be understood as existing before it had existence, which is impossible' (ibid.). But the entailment interpretation is the only serious rival to the identity interpretation, and to say that Alpha's existence belongs to its essential nature in the sense of being entailed by it certainly does not commit one to holding that its existence is one component of its nature, or to the absurdity that its nature must be instantiated before it is instantiated. It seems to me, then, that Aquinas's attempt to arrive at the identity interpretation via the elimination of compositeness does not succeed. Eliminating compositeness does not destroy the viability of the entailment interpretation, which is more cautious and, in just that respect, more appealing.

c. Basing the Identity Interpretation on Argument G6

The first and longest of Aquinas's arguments for the elimination of predicate K begins by claiming that 'it was shown above that there is something the existing of which is necessary through itself (aliquid esse quod per se necesse est esse)' (22.203). The earlier passage in which this was shown is the portion of 15.124 that I've picked out as argument G6. Having drawn its first premiss from the results of G6, this argument in chapter 22 for the elimination of predicate K goes on to reject, in an elaborate destructive dilemma, any case in which 'this existing that is necessary belongs to an essential nature that is not what this existing itself is (Hoc igitur esse quod necesse est, si alicui quidditati quae non est quod ipsum est)'. The case in which 'this kind of existing depends on the [thing's] essential nature (esse huiusmodi dependeat ab essentia)' is then ruled out as 'contrary to the very idea of that which is, through itself, necessary being (contra rationem eius quod est per se necesse esse)', just because 'if it depends on anything else, it is for that reason alone not necessary being (si ab alio dependet, iam non est necesse esse)' (ibid.)- So Aquinas, in developing this argument, seems to be supposing that G6's entity 'the existing of which is end p.125

Kretzmann, Norman , (deceased) formerly Susan Linn Sage Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, Cornell University, New York

The Metaphysics of Theism

Print ISBN 9780199246533, 2001 pp. [126]-[130]

necessary through itself' can, simply on that basis, also be characterized as 'that which is, through itself, necessary being [or existing]'. But the claim that X is, in virtue of itself, necessary being is surely much stronger and more mysterious than the claim that X's existing is necessary in virtue of X itself.

Arguing for the elimination of predicate K seems to provide a context in which sliding from the weaker to the stronger of those claims might be especially tempting; but Aquinas also helps himself to the stronger claim earlier in the application of the eliminative method, in the quite different, cooler context of eliminating predicate D, passive potentiality: 'Again, that which is, through itself, necessary being (est perse necesse esse) is not in any way possible being (nuiio modo est possibile esse). For what is, through itself, necessary being does not have a cause, as was shown above.' (Here again the reference is unquestionably to the G6 portion of 15.124.) 'But God is, through himself, necessary being. Therefore, he is not in any way possible

being. And so no potentiality at all is found in his substance' (16.130).

13 Explaining that God can't in any way be possible being (or even just exist possibly) by pointing out that he can't have a cause draws on the first part of G6, where a cause is required for the existing of any contingently existing thing. In modern talk about modalities, things whose existence is possible include things existing necessarily. But Aquinas's possibles here are existent things 'that can exist and can also not exist (sunt possibilia esse et non esse)', as he puts it in G6—i.e. contingently existing things, things that exist but not necessarily. (Note that the sunt possibilia esse of that phrase, which I translate rather blandly as part of G6, is just the plural of the est possibile esse that shows up in 16.130.)

The worries raised by these passages can be allayed, I think, by reflecting on the way argument G6 works. Viewed very broadly, G6 infers the existence of Alpha from the existence of ordinary things. On that initial broad view there is every reason to consider the two existences to be on a par metaphysically, as in inferring the existence of a certain amount of oxygen in the atmosphere of a room from the existence of a person in the room. But, of course, the way G6 works requires the recognition that Alpha must exist necessarily through itself in a way that explains all existing. That means, among other things, that Alpha's existing is absolutely independent, and thus radically different from all the contingent existence it explains. Moreover, the way G6 works requires Alpha's own necessary existence to be explained through Alpha itself—that is, through Alpha's essential nature. And so the upshot of G6 (as end p.126

distinct from its conclusion) is that Alpha—that is, Alpha's nature—is, somehow, what explains the existing of everything that exists.

Now it can't be the case that what explains the existing of everything that exists is itself just another thing that exists, even just something that uniquely exists necessarily through itself. As Aquinas says elsewhere in the chapter on the elimination of predicate K, '[The word] "existing" names a kind of actualization (actum quendam), since something is said to exist not because it is potentially but because it is actually' (22.208). That is the way 'existing' is used, all right, but for just that reason it can't be quite right to say regarding whatever is at the basis of all existing simply that it exists. That standard way of talking suggests an instantiated nature, even if it should be a nature that entails its own instantiation. If the essential nature we're concerned with here isn't identical with its own unique, necessary, ultimately explanatory being, then, as Aquinas points out, 'it follows that [that] essential nature and being are related to each other as potentiality and actuality' (ibid.). If all existing, including its own, is to be explained through Alpha, then Alpha—that is, its essential nature—has to be uniquely necessary, ultimately explanatory being itself. Alpha = Alpha's nature = Alpha's being = uniquely necessary, ultimately explanatory being. The absolute independence argued for in G6 excludes even the sort of conceptual distinction between essence and existence that is compatible with entailment.

If I'm right in maintaining that Aquinas can get to the identity interpretation via this route that begins in G6, we now have good reason for accepting the identity interpretation. But exactly which identity is at issue? It may seem more elegant for Alpha's nature to be finally identified simply with being. Aquinas himself sometimes puts the identification that way in these chapters

and elsewhere: God, or God's nature, is 'being itself (ipsum esse)'.

14 See e.g. 23.214, 24.223, 25.229 (twice), 25.232, 27.252.

However, that way of putting it suggests that God is nothing but existence, and, as one recent critic puts it, 'nothing subsistent could be just existence:

a merely existent substance is too thin to be possible' (Hughes 1989: 21).

15 See also Kretzmann and O'Connor 1992 (review of Hughes 1989).

The identification Aquinas seems to prefer is this: God, or God's nature, is

'his own being (suum esse)'

16 See e.g. 24.224, 25.231, 25.236, 26.240, 28.259, 28.260 (three times), 28.266. —that is, the end p.127


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved uniquely necessary being of the kind that ultimately explains all existing. What kind is that? We do have some grasp of different kinds of being—corporeal and mathematical, for instance. But, having grasped the full import of eliminating predicate K from Alpha (or God), we have to admit, as Aquinas observes elsewhere in this connection, that its 'being is itself also unknown to us, just as its essential nature (substantia) is' (QDP 7.2, obj. 2). But that admission is compatible with our knowing that Alpha exists. G6 justifies the belief that Alpha exists, but the way it does so leaves us having to admit that Alpha's 'existing is cognized not through itself but [only] through a likeness to a creature'—to something dependent on Alpha for its

17 QDP 7.2 is roughly parallel to SCG 1.22. Although this passage and the one quoted just above are found among the objections, they are actually preliminary rejoinders to previous objections—a sort of thing often found in disputed questions—and they generate further objections. Thus the first passage immediately follows obj. 1, and is introduced with Sed diceretur quod. It is immediately followed by an objection to it (obj. 2), introduced with Sed contra. The second passage immediately follows that objection, and is introduced with Sed dicendum quod. It, too, is immediately followed by a Sed contra, which constitutes obj. 3.

See also ST la.3.4, another parallel to SCG 1.22, esp. obj. 2: 'Regarding God, we can know whether he is (as was said above), but we cannot know what he is. Therefore, God's existing and his essential nature (esse Dei, et quod quid est eius, sive quidditas vel natura) are not the same', and Aquinas's rejoinder to it: " 'existing" is used in two ways. In one way it signifies the actuality of being (actus essendi). In the other way it signifies a proposition's composition, which the soul encounters whenever it joins a predicate to a subject. Taking "existing" in the first way, we cannot know God's existing any more than we can know his nature. Instead, [we can know it] only in the second way, since we know that the proposition we frame when we say "God exists" is true; and we know that [only] on the basis of his effects' (ad 2).

We can know that Alpha must exist without really knowing what its existing is like.

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