Dale Tuggy and William Vallicella have been debating whether God is a “being among beings” in a series of blog posts. Fr. Aiden Kimel has also weighed in. Tuggy posted a timeline of the debate, which appears to include everything except his most recent response.

It’s an interesting debate for a number of reasons. It involves some of the most fundamental issues in metaphysics and theology. The debate is timely, because it is often said that the new atheist movement falsely supposes that God is a being among beings. It is striking to see someone on the theistic side of the fence defend a flat sort of ontology against the radical ontological distinctions that have been traditionally drawn.

I won’t summarize the debate. Interested readers should just read through it chronologically. But perhaps a few comments on Tuggy’s most recent response are in order.

The Distinction Between Essence and Existence

Tuggy agrees that there is “a distinction, in a typical thing, between its essence and its existence.” This is a question that has been hotly controverted among philosophers from the medieval to the modern period. I agree with Tuggy’s conclusion, but find his reasons lacking. Here is what he says:

Take Socrates, and to simplify matters, imagine that he exists now. His existing is one fact, and his having a certain essence (i.e. being certain ways which he must be, so long as he exists) is another fact. Suppose we stipulate that his essence is: being a human. His existence is one fact, and his being human is another fact. Arguably, those facts require each other: if this Socrates exists, he must be human. And if [he] is human, then of course he must exist.

The debate about the essence/existence distinction concerns whether the distinction is merely conceptual, or real, or some third category (e.g., formal). Everyone agrees that essence and existence are conceptually distinct, since we clearly think of what things are differently from thinking that things really are. Unicorns differ from genies according to what they are, despite the fact that neither really exist.

Moreover, essences can have different existences (e.g., trees in a forest share an essence but differ according to existence), and can differ in their type of existence (e.g., the tree in my backyard used to have real existence, but after being cut down it exists only intentionally in my memory).

So essence and existence can be distinguished in thought. About the conceptual distinction, there is no debate. But are they really distinct in things? Formally distinct? Merely conceptually distinct? Tuggy doesn’t discuss the relevant distinctions, and so he leaves us guessing. But it seems that he’s trying to say that essence and existence differ in things, not just the way we think about things.

Properties or something like them

Sometimes I think the differentia of analytic philosophy is simply the promiscious use of the term “property.” It seems almost anything that can be said, even loosely, of something can be called a property.

For example:

Likewise, if we want to talk the language of properties rather than facts (or events), we can say that his humanity is one property (one way he is), and his existence is another property (another way he is). We would all say (again, assuming for simplicity that Socrates exists now) that we and Socrates “share” these properties. Bill and I too, happily, exist and are human. The realist about universals, like Bill, will take this as literally one and the same abstract entity (the universal humanity) bearing some “instantiation” relation to each of us, whereas the non-realist (“nominalist”) about universals, like me, will think merely than the three of us are similar in certain respects, in that we are human (we all are such as to satisfy the concept of a human).

One advantage of medieval thought is its discriminating use of the term “property.” In the Thomist vocabulary, for instance, neither the essence, nor the existence, nor many accidental characteristics of something can be called “a property.” I certainly would not demand that everyone use any particular philosophical vocabulary, but the distinctions here turn out to be important.

Properties, on the Thomist view, follow from the essence of a thing. The classic example is risibility in human beings. Risibility follows from being a rational animal. Being light skinned, on the other hand, is an accident but not a property. Having skin of one shade or another does not bear at all on one’s humanity.

While calling the essence of something a “property” may just be crossing terminological wires, calling existence a property is more problematic. Properties are distinct from things and from one another in entirely different ways than existence is distinct from the thing, its essence, its properties, and its accidents. Being white, as we have noticed, is a matter of indifference to human nature. But a thing’s existence, though prior to it, suffuses it, its properties, and its accidents.

If we’re going to call all these “properties”–again, I don’t want to police philosophical language–we should at least be cognizant that their widely divergent relation to the thing and each other.

Necessity and Contingency

The distinction between essence and existence is often cited as the metaphysical ground of contingency. If the existence of a thing is other than the essence of a thing, then the thing is contingent. It might or might not be, depending other things outside itself. The reason for the thing’s existence cannot be explained by the thing itself, and must be sought elsewhere. Any being composed of essence and existence needs to receive its existence from without–and that source is traditionally called an efficient cause.

But a being whose essence and existence are not really distinct would stand in need of no external cause. (This is, of course, not at all the same thing as saying that if we conceive of a being whose essence is existence, that conception suffices to demonstrate its real existence.) And God’s essence is traditionally thought of as identical to his existence. God is simple.

Given that Tuggy seems to admit a real distinction between essence and existence, it is striking that he denies “this difference between his existence and his essence explain why, e.g. Socrates is contingent.” The reason, he states, is that there could be necessary beings whose existence is guaranteed because in every possible world that being will necessarily be caused by another. It is at least conceivable that some caused, composite being will necessarily exist.

Tuggy has a point, and this does seem to be a reasonable objection to the way Vallicella posed the problem. However, this doesn’t actually answer the question of contingency. Aquinas spoke of angels and other beings as “necessary” but caused–and thus contingent in the relevant sense.

Tuggy and Aquinas mean different things by “necessary” here, but it’s not all that important. What is important is that even if Tuggy is correct to suppose that there are necessary beings (in the sense of beings that exist in all possible worlds), this does not in any way mean that such beings are not contingent in the relevant sense. The reason that, on Tuggy’s scenario, they are necessary is that their efficient cause will bring them into existence in every possible world. And thus, they must still be contingent.

Imagine that there’s a necessary being, a self, with vast powers of intentional action. Now imagine that this being has an overwhelmingly strong motive to create another being, and no motives to not create such a being, and that nothing else exists which is able to thwart or prevent such an action.

It follows that this other being, this creature, will exist no matter what, of necessity. It’ll be impossible, on our assumptions, for this creature to fail to exist, even if there is a difference between its essence and its existence.[1]

Tuggy seems compelled by his own illustration to admit that a being whose existence and essence differ must be contingent in the sense that they depend for their existence on something else. It also seems pretty clear that a series of beings contingent in this way could not exist without a simple being at the head of the causal chain. That point, of course, requires more extensive argument, and I’ve talked about it at more length along those lines here.

Final Thoughts

Despite my criticisms, the debate going on between Tuggy, Vallicella, and Kimel shows how these debates should be carried out. There’s no hint of sophistry, no ad hominems, and each party attempts to ascertain clearly what everyone else is really trying to say. I wish this sort of exchange was more common. And, despite my piling on to the traditional side, it would be nice to see more theistic personalists enter the fray.
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1. I’ve substantially reformatted this quote.