But, from the point of view of the thesis of this essay, there is the more important consideration that unless they are taken in conjunction with the much later discussion of creation, Thomas did not mean the 'five ways'
to be taken as valid proofs at all. Haldane comments: 'The core issues in these proofs are those of existential and causal dependence. Such themes place them firmly within the tradition of cosmological speculation as to why there is anything rather than nothing and what the source of the universe might be.'24 And it is just here that we return to the question 'Why is there anything rather than nothing?' as being fundamental both to the argument-strategy of the 'five ways' as proofs and to Thomas's conception of God as Creator. For it is a question which gets us to the point of seeing the world as created; that is to say, as standing in that relation of absolute contingency to there being nothing at all which constitutes the 'act of existence', esse. It is for this reason that the question leads us to the point at which we know that we should have to say of what answers to it, that it itself is esse without qualification - ipsum esse subsistens, as Thomas says. And, as we have seen, as far as Thomas is concerned, this 'primitive' understanding of God as ipsum esse subsistens is the understanding of the God of Exodus, the 'I am', now reconceived in explicit terms as the Creator of all things 'out of nothing'. It is that God whose existence is shown by the 'five ways', the sense and purpose of which proofs are incomplete except in that connection; and, crucial to that understanding of creation, and so of the strategy of the five ways, is how we are to construe the contingency of the world in its character of createdness.
If that is so, then we may return to the question asked earlier: what is the minimum the atheist has to deny if his denials are to be worth the theologian's bother entertaining? And the answer is going to have to be that the atheist's minimum denial is of the validity of the question itself, 'Why is there anything at all?' Once you admit that question you are already a theist. For since any question which is not merely idle must have an answer, you have conceded, in conceding that the question is intelligible, that there is an answer: the world is created out of nothing. For if it is a valid question - that is to say, if nothing in the nature of the question itself places it beyond the bounds of sense - then human reason by the very fact of asking it has already been placed outside the universe of what there is, whatever there is: reason is, as it were, displaced, forced out of its natural, intra-mundane situatedness, forced by this question to confront the mystery that there is anything at all.
What the question's legitimacy expresses, therefore, is a sense of the world's radical contingency - there might have been nothing at all, so its existence must have been brought about. But to get at the precise form of that contingency which forces us to conclude that the world has been brought about, we should note that our everyday notions of contingency
24 Smart and Haldane, Atheism and Theism, p. 133.
cannot capture the sense of the world's contingency as such, for they are, as Mackie notes, intra-mundane; they concern the contingency of things and events in the world. And even in that intra-mundane connection contingency is a pluriform concept. For how things 'might have been otherwise' can come in kinds and degrees. For example, Denys's height is contingent: he happens to be 5'81/2'' tall. But it is easy to imagine his being 5'9'' tall, though he is not and never will be; or his being 5'8'' tall, which he is not but about forty-five years ago was. So he is 5'81/2'' tall, but he might not have been. His being the height he is is a 'contingent' fact about Denys.
Denys's height, we may say, is very contingent in that it is only very loosely connected with his identity as a person. It would not be hard to think of Denys being 5'8'', because there would be little difficulty in accepting that Denys would still be the same person if he were half an inch shorter than he is. But is Denys contingently English? Suppose you thought he was Irish and then I tell you he is English. This might be a surprise; and you might change your view of Denys a bit more than if you thought he was 5'8'' and he turns out to be half an inch taller, because his nationality is somehow less 'contingently', more 'necessarily', tied up with his being him than his height is. Then again, Denys is heterosexual. But is he contingently heterosexual? Perhaps there is a version, recognisably still of Denys, which is gay, but it is harder to think that Denys is so contingently heterosexual as he is 5'81/2'' tall or English, for it would at least be less than clear that Denys could be otherwise in sexual orientation in quite the same casual way in which he could be otherwise in height or nationality.
Next, Denys is male. But is he contingently male? A human being is contingently male or female. But is this human being, Denys, who is male, contingently male? Children, at least, give thought to this question and puzzle, not just about the answer, but also about the question itself: 'What if I had been born female or male?' (whichever is the counter-factual). The question puzzles because though, perhaps, we think we can think of ourselves as being otherwise in gender, we can feel uneasy about thinking thus: would I really be the same person were I female? Then again, how are we to think about the question 'Suppose I were my sister?' To be sure, as questions go, that has got all the way to the incoherent end of the scale of oddity, for we can only most idly wonder how the I which I now am could possibly be the same I which my sister is. Were I my sister, I would be my sister, not I. And so on, for we can easily think of other problematically odd cases: 'Suppose I were an angel?' For my part I do not think I am at all contingently human; I could not be an angel, for there is no angelic 'I' which could be continuous with the 'I' I now am. Therefore, Denys is not at all contingently human; necessarily not his sister; he is perhaps contingently male; certainly contingently heterosexual; even more loosely attached to his nationality, and it is only with the very slackest of threads that Denys is attached to his height. There are degrees of contingency and necessity.
All these degrees of contingency and necessity betoken degrees to which my selfhood and identity, given that I exist, are tied in with different features of the world - sometimes crucially, sometimes more or less incidentally. The 'scale' of contingency and necessity could be said, therefore, to be 'essential' - rather than, as I shall shortly explain, properly 'existential' - because the degree of contingency and necessity in question has to do with how far something true of who or what I am is tied in with my being just this, or just this kind of, being. In short, all these kinds of contingency are of Mackie's 'Leibnizian' sort, since in every case their contingency consists in some things in, or features of, the world being the way they are in so far as other things are the way they are. But how far do we move on to a different scale of contingency with the question 'What if I did not exist?' Children find this question endlessly puzzling, but being somewhat less egotistic in adulthood than children customarily are, adults can easily imagine a world without them in it, and one comes to admit that it would hardly be different at all from the one I am in, as with age one is increasingly caused to contemplate approaching expiry. And when that happens, despiriting as the thought is to one's sense of self-importance, it should not take long before the world closes up on the gap left behind by my demise. Were I not to have existed, there would have been very little missing (and no doubt even less for many to regret). I conclude that I, my existence, is very contingent indeed, the degree of contingency being measured by what would be missing if I ceased to exist. But that there would be something missing, if not very much, means that the contingency of my existence is still of the 'Leibnizian' kind. Even if, antecedently to my existing, there was no necessity for me at all (thus: Denys would not be missing from anything had I never existed) still, given that I exist, certain necessities do obtain: things other than me could not have existed if I had not: for example, my children. And things now true could not have been true had I not existed: for example, my mother could not have been Denys's mother.
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