An existential question

It follows that even the question, 'What if I did not exist?' is still a question concerning the nature of what there is, for all its apparently existential character. For the explanation of my existence is still tied in with features of the world as it is; it is still an existence to be explained against the background of what other beings there are, and what kind of beings they are. I am, as it were, part, if only an insignificant one, of the world's actual story, and so even this question remains on the scale of'essential' contingency and necessity - for my having existed is still a state of affairs, and my ceasing to exist is another state of affairs. But finally, what are we to say about that ultimately odd question: 'What if nothing at all existed?' -or, in other words: 'Is the world as such contingent?' The answer to this question has to be that the world - everything that exists - is absolutely, in every possible respect, and awesomely contingent; but that it is contingent in a purely 'existential' way in that it is from this contingency that we derive our primitive notion of 'existence' itself, what Thomas calls esse. And we can see the nature of this radical contingency from the fact that the answer to the question 'Why anything?' could not be provided by anything counting as, in any ordinary sense, an 'explanation'. There simply cannot be an 'account' - in the ordinary sense, an 'explanation' by reference to antecedent states of affairs - by way of answer to the question 'What if nothing at all existed?' because the 'What if. . . ?' part of it means, 'What state of affairs would have obtained had nothing at all existed?', and obviously no state of affairs of any kind would have obtained if nothing at all had existed. If not very much would be missing if I did not exist, nothing at all would be missing if nothing at all existed; because, to be missed, there has to be something that what is missing is missing from. So the question itself seems to spin off the world entirely, as having no purchase on anything at all in it.

It seems that at any rate this is what Thomas thinks, and that it is precisely in its 'spinning off the world' that the question acquires both the character of the properly theological and of the properly existential. It is the properly 'existential' question because, as we saw in chapter nine, we get at the notion of existence, esse, in its proper sense, precisely as that which stands against there being nothing at all, occupying a territory divided by no 'logical space' from 'nothing'. It is, therefore, the centrality of this esse to Thomas's metaphysics which places the 'Why anything?' question at the centre of his arguments for the existence of God. For it is this esse's standing in absolute, unmediated, contrast with nothing at all which gets to the contingent heart of creation, and to the heart of the sense in which creation is contingent.

And it is the properly theological question because Thomas took the view that the very first thought which leads to God is the most primitive thought of all, one which is ultimately amazing: the thought that though there might have been nothing, and though there can be no possible reason supplied why there should be anything, nonetheless, something exists. And this is the 'first' theological thought in two senses: it is 'first', in that it arises out of the most primitive and, as one might say, childish of questions, the sort of question which, by education and other kinds of training, we can be got to be too sophisticated to entertain, or else, by means of a very common form of miseducation, we can be got to confuse with ordinary requests for an explanation concerning what there is. And it is 'first' also because it lies at the root of all human perception of God. And the drift of theological education, as Thomas envisages it in his Summa Theologiae, is not towards learning and adult wisdom, to scientific explanation, but back as far as we can go towards conscious childhood, there to recover that all too elementary and awesome thought: there might have been nothing at all. So why is there anything?

Which is why it is also the most radical causal question you can ask. But now it is important to attend to just how extreme is the oddity of this question in respect of what could count as its answer, for there may be some imprudently optimistic Christian apologists who unwisely suppose that, on the contrary, it is just another perfectly reasonable and ordinary request for an explanation in terms of causes. If we can sensibly ask, 'How has this kitten come about?' and sensibly answer, 'Because of the unruly things its parents got up to a couple of months ago'; and if we can sensibly ask: 'How is it that there are such things as cats at all?' and give a sensibly evolutionary answer explaining the emergence of the species 'cat' from whatever cats emerged from; and if we can sensibly ask how it is that we have the sort of world in which evolutionary processes occur and answer in terms of very general geophysical characteristics of the universe; if we can answer all these questions about how it is that there is this or that bit of the universe; and if we can ask how it is that we have the sort of universe that we have rather than any other, and explain that in terms of its initial conditions, why must it not make sense to ask the same of all of it, 'How is it that there is anything rather than nothing?', and name the answer the 'cause of the universe'? If we can do physics, why can we not do theology?

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