Edward Feser: Why Is There Anything At All? It’s Simple

Why Is There Anything At All? It’s Simple

By Edward Feser:

I thank John Leslie and Robert Lawrence Kuhn for their gracious and substantive response to my recent comments on their fine anthology The Mystery of Existence: Why Is There Anything At All?  In the course of my earlier remarks, I put forward a “friendly criticism” to the effect that John and Robert had paid insufficient attention in their book to the tradition of classical theism, which has its philosophical roots in Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic thought and whose many illustrious representatives include Augustine, Anselm, Avicenna, Maimonides, and Aquinas.  Though there are selections from some of these writers, they are very brief, and the bulk of the theological selections in the book are from recent writers of what has sometimes been called a “theistic personalist” or “neo-theist” bent.  John and Robert have offered a lively defense of their approach.  In what follows I’d like to respond, pressing the case for the primacy of the classical theistic tradition.

Classical theism, divine simplicity, and ultimate explanation

One of the points John and Robert make in their defense is an appeal to the very specific aim of their volume:

Our book’s limited mission is to build appreciation for the most baffling of all enigmas: Why is there something rather than nothing? In its shadow, all the big questions – Does God exist?  Why the universe? Life after death? – are eclipsed…

The Mystery of Existence is not about the clash between classical and modern/personal forms of theism (“theistic personalism”), a distinction that is anyway not directly on point in explicating Nothing (our limited mission again), since in either case, classical or modern/personal, God can be in some sense necessary.

End quote.  Now, while our editors are of course the best experts on their mission for the volume, I would respectfully disagree with them about the relevance of classical theism to that mission.  For the philosophical dispute between classical and modern forms of theism is, I would argue, exactly on point.  And when we understand why, we will also see that the question whether God exists is in no way eclipsed by the question why there is something rather than nothing — on the contrary, the existence of God, as classical theism understands God, is (so the classical theist would argue) the only possible answer in principle to that question.  Let me explain.

Both classical theism on the one hand and “theistic personalism” or “neo-theism” on the other have their strictly theological aspects.  There is, for instance, a longstanding dispute over which of these views better comports with what we find said about God in the Bible.  I would certainly agree with John and Robert that such disputes are tangential to the aims of their volume.

However, both views also have a purely philosophical side, and their purely philosophical differences make a world of difference to the question of whether theism offers us any insight into the question of why anything exists at all.  For you might say that classical theism in its philosophical aspect just is the development of the implications of there being an ultimate explanation of why anything exists at all.  Theistic personalism or neo-theism, by contrast, is motivated by a different set of concerns, and touches on the question of ultimate explanation only in a secondary way.

At the core of classical theism is the notion of divine simplicity — the idea that God is non-composite or without parts.  This is a doctrine having its philosophical roots in Plato and Aristotle and defended by pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim thinkers as diverse as Philo of Alexandria, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius, Plotinus, Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Maimonides, Avicenna, Averroes, Aquinas, and Scotus.  The doctrine is the de fide teaching of the Catholic Church and is endorsed by many Protestant theologians.  The point of all this name-dropping is to emphasize how absolutely central the doctrine of divine simplicity is to the mainstream Western tradition in philosophical theology.  And why is it so central?

The reason is that for the classical theist, whatever else we mean by “God,” we certainly mean by that label to name the ultimate source, cause, or explanation of things.  Properly to understand classical theism, the hostile atheist reader might even find it useful to put the word “God” out of his mind for the moment — given all the irrelevant associations the word might lead him to read into the present discussion — and just think instead of “the ultimate source of things.”  The classical theist maintains that whatever is in any way composed of parts cannot be the ultimate source of things.  For wherever we have a composite thing, a thing made up of parts, we have something that requires a cause of its own, a cause which accounts for how the parts get together.

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