If it is one’s sordid fate to be an academic philosopher, one might even try to convince oneself that the question of existence is an inept or false query generated by the seductions of imprecise grammar, or one might simply adopt the analytic philosopher’s classic gesture of flinging one’s hands haplessly in the air and proclaiming that one simply finds the question entirely unintelligible. All of this, however, is an abdication of the responsibility to think. This rare and fleeting experience of being’s strangeness within its very familiarity is not a transitory confusion or trivial psychological mood but a genuine if tantalizingly brief glimpse into an inexhaustibly profound truth about reality. It is the recognition, simply said, of the world’s absolute contingency. The world need not be thus. It need not be at all. If, moreover, one takes the time to reflect upon this contingency carefully enough, one will come to realize that it is an ontological, not merely an aetiological, mystery; the question of existence is not one concerning the physical origins of things, or of how one physical state may have been produced by a prior physical state, or of physical persistence across time, or of the physical constituents of the universe, but one of simple logical or conceptual possibility: How is it that any reality so obviously fortuitous—so lacking in any mark of inherent necessity or explanatory self-sufficiency—can exist at all?The Experience of God by David Bentley Hart (in the opening of part two)
The American philosopher Richard Taylor once illustrated this mystery, famously and fetchingly, with the image of a man out for a stroll in the forest unaccountably coming upon a very large translucent sphere. Naturally, he would immediately be taken aback by the sheer strangeness of the thing, and would wonder how it should happen to be there. More to the point, he would certainly never be able to believe that it just happened to be there without any cause, or without any possibility of further explanation; the very idea would be absurd. But, adds Taylor, what that man has not noticed is that he might ask the same question equally well about any other thing in the woods too, a rock or a tree no less than this outlandish sphere, and fails to do so only because it rarely occurs to us to interrogate the ontological pedigrees of the things to which we are accustomed. What would provoke our curiosity about the sphere would be that it was so obviously out of place; but, as far as existence is concerned, everything is in a sense out of place. As Taylor goes on to say, the question would be no less intelligible or pertinent if we were to imagine the sphere either as expanded to the size of the universe or as contracted to the size of a grain of sand, either as existing from everlasting to everlasting or as existing for only a few seconds. It is the sheer unexpected “thereness” of the thing, devoid of any transparent rationale for the fact, that prompts our desire to understand it in terms not simply of its nature, but of its very existence.
The mystery of being becomes deeper, however, and even somewhat urgent, when one reflects not only upon the seeming inexplicability of existence as such, but also upon the nature of the things that have existence. The physical order confronts us at every moment not simply with its ontological fortuity but also with the intrinsic ontological poverty of all things physical—their necessary and total reliance for their existence, in every instant, upon realities outside themselves. Everything available to the senses or representable to the mind is entirely subject to annicha (to use the Buddhist term): impermanence, mutability, transience. All physical things are composite, which is to say reducible to an ever greater variety of distinct parts, and so are essentially inconstant and prone to dissolution. All things are subject to time, moreover: they possess no complete identity in themselves, but are always in the process of becoming something else, and hence also in the process of becoming nothing at all. There is a pure fragility and necessary incompleteness to any finite thing; nothing has its actuality entirely in itself, fully enjoyed in some impregnable present instant, but must always receive itself from beyond itself, and then only by losing itself at the same time. Nothing within the cosmos contains the ground of its own being. To use an old terminology, every finite thing is the union of an essence (its “what it is”) with a unique existence (its “that it is”), each of which is utterly impotent to explain the other, or to explain itself for that matter, and neither of which can ever be wholly or permanently possessed by anything. One knows of oneself, for instance, that every instant of one’s existence is only a partial realization of what one is, achieved by surrendering the past to the future in the vanishing and infinitesimal interval of the present. Both one’s essence and one’s existence come from elsewhere—from the past and the future, from the surrounding universe and whatever it may depend upon, in a chain of causal dependencies reaching backward and forward and upward and downward—and one receives them both not as possessions secured within some absolute state of being but as evanescent gifts only briefly grasped within the ontological indigence of becoming. Everything that one is is a dynamic and perilously contingent synthesis of identity and change, wavering between existence and nonexistence. To employ another very old formula, one’s “potential” is always being reduced or collapsed into the finitely “actual” (always foreclosing forever all other possibilities for one’s existence), and only in this way can one be liberated into the living uncertainty of the future. Thus one lives and moves and has one’s being only at the sufferance of an endless number of enabling conditions, and becomes what one will be only by taking leave of what one has been. Simply said, one is contingent through and through, partaking of being rather than generating it out of some source within oneself; and the same is true of the whole intricate web of interdependencies that constitutes nature.
There are various directions in which reflection on the contingency of things can carry one’s thoughts. One can follow, at least in principle, the chain of anything’s dependency back through ever deepening layers of causality, both physical and chronological—descending toward the subatomic, retreating toward the initial singularity—and still ultimately arrive at only the most elementary contingencies of all, no closer to an explanation of existence than one was before setting out. Alternatively, if one prefers metaphysical logic to the multiplication of genetic enigmas, one can forgo this phantasmagoric regress toward primordial causes altogether and choose instead to gaze out over the seas of mutability and dependency in search of that distant stable shore that, untouched by becoming, prevents everything from flowing away into an original or final nothingness. Or one may attempt to turn one’s thoughts from the world’s multiplicity and toward that mysterious unity that quietly persists amid the spectacle of incessant change: that oneness that is everywhere and nowhere, at once in the world and in one’s consciousness of it, holding all things together as a coherent totality while also preserving each separate thing in its particularity, and each part of each thing, and each part of that part, and so on ad infinitum. In seeking to understand the world in any of these ways, however, one may be tempted to try to reduce the essential mystery of existence to something one can contain in a simple concept, like a mechanical or physical cause, or a trivial predicate, or something else that one can easily grasp and thereafter ignore. Thinkers in all the great religious traditions have repeatedly warned that it is far easier to think about beings than about being as such, and that we therefore always risk losing sight of the mystery of being behind the concepts we impose upon it. Having briefly awakened to a truth that precedes and exceeds the totality of discrete things, we may end up all the more oblivious to it for having tried to master it.
Even so, one must try to understand, even if only now and then. Reason is restless before this question. And any profound reflection upon the contingency of things must involve the question of God, which—whether or not one believes it can be answered—must be posed again and again in the course of any life that is truly rational.
Tag Archives: reason
even as the day softens away into the sweet Twilight
This has been my Object, and this alone can be my Defence–and O! that with this my personal as well as my LITERARY LIFE might conclude!—the unquenched desire I mean, not without the consciousness of having earnestly endeavoured to kindle young minds, and to guard them against the temptations of Scorners, by showing that the Scheme of Christianity, as taught in the Liturgy and Homilies of our Church, though not discoverable by human Reason, is yet in accordance with it; that link follows link by necessary consequence; that Religion passes out of the ken of Reason only where the eye of Reason has reached its own horizon; and that Faith is then but its continuation: even as the day softens away into the sweet Twilight, and Twilight, hushed and breathless, steals into the Darkness. It is Night, sacred Night! the upraised eye views only the starry Heaven which manifests itself alone: and the outward beholding is fixed on the sparks twinkling in the awful depth, though Suns of other Worlds, only to preserve the soul steady and collected in its pure Act of inward adoration to the great I AM, and to the filial WORD that re-affirmeth it from Eternity to Eternity, whose choral echo is the Universe.
From: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, Princeton University Press, 1983., Vol. II, p. 247-8. II, Chap. 24, Conclusion.
in the universal darkness of his mind he could only follow the first odd finger that pointed
Instead of going to the right places …he systematically went to the wrong places. …He defended this crazy course quite logically. He said that if one had a clue this was the worst way; but if one had no clue at all it was the best. …Somewhere a man must begin, and it had better be just where another man might stop.
…He had already decided that in the universal darkness of his mind he could only follow the first odd finger that pointed; and this finger was odd enough.
Chesterton in “The Blue Cross” from The Innocence of Father Brown.
if we cannot persuade our friends by reasons we must be content
One of his maxims was that if we cannot persuade our friends by reasons we must be content “and not bring a mercenary army to our aid.” (He meant passions.)
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C.S. Lewis (speaking of the Greek adviser and teacher, the Fox).
as full of reason as it is of wonder
From The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald (chapter 4):
I suspect there is nothing a man can be so grateful for as that to which he has the most right.
…But the story of the evening was too solemn for Curdie to come out with all at once. He must wait until they had had their porridge, and the affairs of this world were over for the day.
…They were the happiest couple in that country, because they always understood each other, and that was because they always meant the same thing, and that was because they always loved what was fair and true and right better, not than anything else, but than everything else put together.
…It is not for me to say whether you were dreaming or not if you are doubtful of it yourself; but it doesn’t make me think I am dreaming when in the summer I hold in my hand the bunch of sweet peas that make my heart glad with their colour and scent, and remember the dry, withered-looking little thing I dibbled into the hole in the same spot in the spring. I only think how wonderful and lovely it all is. It seems just as full of reason as it is of wonder. How it is done I can’t tell, only there it is! And there is this in it, too, Curdie—of which you would not be so ready to think—that when you come home to your father and mother, and they find you behaving more like a dear, good son than you have behaved for a long time, they at least are not likely to think you were only dreaming.
photo of the Shroud
C.S. Lewis in a letter to Sister Penelope from Oct 9, 1941:
…Thank you very much for the photo of the Shroud. It raises a whole question on which I shall have to straighten out my thought one of these days.
starving the sensibility of our pupils
By starving the sensibility of our pupils, we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.
From The Abolition of Man by C. S. Lewis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), page 27. This gem from Lewis was quoted in an essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain about The Abolition of Man, of which these passages stood out:
His essay The Abolition of Man, published in 1944 and subtitled Or, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools, would seem at first glance to have little to do with the grave matters with which I have begun. Not so. Lewis sees pernicious tendencies in, of all places, elementary textbooks.
…For Lewis, when “ordinary human feelings” are set up as “contrary to reason,” we are on dangerous ground indeed, for a botched treatment of “some basic human emotion” is not only bad literature but is moral treachery to boot. “By starving the sensibility of our pupils, we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.”
“…When Martin Luther King delivered his great speech, he cried, ‘I have a dream,’ not ‘I have a preference.’ How do you explain this? Is there a difference?” The somewhat flustered young man indicated that what King was calling a dream was at base just another preference, and so that was no different in principle from, say, debating marginal alterations in the price of commodities. This way of thinking makes hash of our moral sentiments, of our God-given capacity to reason about what is good, as Lewis asserts.
This, surely, is what he feared in 1944: that something precious and irreparable was being lost.
“The Abolition of Man: C.S. Lewis’s Prescience Concenring Things to Come” by Jean Bethke Elshtain in C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness and Beauty edited by Baggett et al (p. 87 to 90).