Let’s think a little more about why there is something rather than nothing, or rather could one even imagine that “nothing” is possible.
Let us return to our example of dogs and unicorns again. There are unicorns and there are dogs. Both are essences because we can describe and identify defining features of both unicorns and dogs. Both are properly called “whats” in the sense that they are distinct and definite substances. However, one exists in reality and the other does not. What makes dogs exist but not unicorns? It cannot be the essence of the thing because they are both logically consistent and are just different descriptions of entities. It must be something outside of the dog and unicorn that causes or explains the existence of one and not the other. Ultimately this comes down to the unicorn having no act of existence but the dog having one. The reason for the dog having existence but not the unicorn is some sort of cause that joins the act of existence to the essence. More could be said about this but the important thing is to recognize the distinction between essence and existence.
Something that has a distinct essence and existence is by definition contingent. We know if something has distinct essence from its existence if we can study, explain, describe, or identify a thing without knowing whether or not it exists. Further, if something could have been another way, it must have an essence distinct from its existence. What I mean by “could have been” is that it would make coherent logical sense to speak of a different scenario or a different universe in which the nonexistent thing existed or vice versa. So a planet without dogs is certainly logically coherent. This does not mean something could not have been another way given certain pre-conditions, like say the laws of physics (e.g. fairies can’t exist because they would violate the laws of physics.) “Could have been” means that a universe can be apprehended which has properties such that exist in principle, i.e. they do not involve a logical contradiction. Things which involve logical contradictions cannot exist because they really do not have an essence, they are no “thing” so that there is no possible world where they exist, like square circles.
It then follows that if something “could have been” another way it is contingent. Its essence does not have to exist but simply happens to. In other words, the “what” or description of the thing in question is one possible description of the real world but it is not the only possible description. Since it is not the only possible description, it follows that the description which actually describes reality is not logically necessary and therefore contingent. It is possible to describe a scenario in which dogs do not exist and instead people use mice for house pets. This is an alternative scenario for the way the world works. Since we can logically describe such a scenario, it means that what dogs are, does not entail that they actually exist. The description of the world without dogs in the picture still makes sense. Since a coherent picture of reality can be formed without the essence of a dog, it follows that the essence of the dog itself does not necessarily entail existence. If it did, we could not form a coherent description of reality while not including dogs because this would involve a self-contradiction and thus an absurdity.
This is true of pretty much everything in the universe, including the laws of physics which govern all the material reality we can observe in principal. Scientists concede this since by looking for evidence to substantiate scientific theories. They therefore implicitly acknowledge a physical law can be described, thus have an essence, but not really apply to reality (thus not exist).
So it should be clear that every contingent thing requires a cause, that is it requires something that has existence to give its essence reality, to make it exist. An infinite chain of contingent things is impossible. The reason that an infinite chain of causes in this instance is impossible is because of the nature of the causes in question. Every cause in a string of contingent causes is itself only capable of acting insofar as it is already caused or joined to the act of existence. If all causes in the series were contingent like this, it would mean all causes in the series would only be capable of acting insofar as they had been joined to the act of existence. But there would be nothing outside of the series to join the essence to existence and this would mean none of the contingent things in the series would be capable of acting as causes at all. Take an example of a train cart moving along a track that is being pulled by another train cart. If this cart has no engine of its own, it requires an explanation and only moves the first cart insofar as it is being moved along the track. If all carts were like this, the train could not move because the carts only move each other insofar as they have movement themselves by a previous cart but if there were no cart with motion of its own from an engine, no cart could act. Extending the train to infinitely many carts would not solve the problem because there still would be no engine and thus no explanation of the carts moving in the first place. Remember that this is only an analogy to illustrate the point about an infinite chain, it’s not meant to be a perfect representation of the way the world works (so yes, the carts might be sliding down hill but that’s really beside the point). So there must be something whose essence is not separate from its existence, that whose essence is to exist. Something that is “pure existence”. A necessary uncaused cause. We can call this something “Entity X” most people would call it God.
This does not imply necessarily “cause” in the sense of before and after cause and effect because such an entity would of necessity exist outside of time. Something has a distinct essence and existence if it begins to exist. The reason is that anything that begins to exist was at one time not real. This means that its essence was at one point in time a mere abstraction and not a reality. If the essence can exist as a mere abstraction, we have a “what” without a “that” and therefore an essence without existence. Even if something begins to exist but there was no time when it did not (i.e. it came into being with time itself, like perhaps the Universe could be said to have done) we would have to admit that this is contingent and has separate essence and existence for the same basic reason. (Think of the universe emerging from the singularity at the Big Bang, or more fundamentally space-time itself emerging from the big bang). Again even the abstract laws of physics themselves would be contingent since scientists speculate there may be an infinite number of universes with different physical laws. This would still mean that a coherent description of reality can be formed without the existence of the substance in question. Even though we cannot say that temporally prior or before the existence of such and such a thing, it was a mere abstraction, we can still say that on a more fundamental description of reality it does not have to exist. The reason is that we can describe a fundamental reality that exists beneath time so to speak (and this is hard to speak of because we cannot imagine it) that does not include the essence in question actually existing. Moreover, if it comes into existence with time we would still have to ask why it exists at all. If the thing is necessary, and thus its essence and existence are one, we could not understand why it came into existence with time. The essence of the thing includes existence and therefore it would seem to be that way on a more fundamental level than time itself.
Let us look at the properties of this fundamental “thing” we are calling “Entity X”. If X is one with existence, it would mean that describing X entails that X is real. X can be described with and without time. This means that it does not need to coexist with time and therefore should exist in a more fundamental sense than time and “prior” to time, more precisely outside of the material reality described by space-time. On the other hand, if we say that X is unintelligible apart from time, this means that its essence has to be tied up with time somehow. This would mean that we cannot describe X except through the existence of time and it would thus be dependent on time for its existence and therefore not necessary. This would mean it was contingent, its essence and existence are distinct therefore could not be Entity X. The ultimate cause is by definition not contingent. Anyway, it should be clear why something that exists by necessity also exists eternally. So we can see that Entity X exists outside of space time and therefore is uncaused, not only does it not need a cause but by definition it cannot have one. Got that all you “new atheists” out there. There will be a review if we are going a little too fast for you and your fellow “brights.”
Now, if an argument is made for the existence of God, (Entity X that is…) using contingency and necessity, some people might try to get around it by saying “I agree with the premises but the necessary being isn’t God.” They could mean a number of things by this.
First, they could mean that it isn’t necessarily the God of the Bible or the Trinity or Christ, etc. This objection has no force because the argument is not an attempt to prove Christianity or any other religion, only that some sort of being exists. Second, they might mean that there is no reason to name this being God. This too is irrelevant because what we call the being has nothing to do with what the being is like. They might mean that there is no reason to assume any specific properties of this being or Entity. That point is true, however we can easily reason from what it means to be a necessary being that is the cause of all things, to what properties that being has. As we made clear from what is said previously, such a being must stand outside of time and requires no cause, In fact to say it needs one is to not understand the essence of the thing we are talking about. They might mean that there is no reason to treat this being as God and worship Him but that is another question altogether. Finally, they might mean that there are other candidates for the necessary entity that we know exist already, say the laws of physics. It is this last objection that we have touched on but will look at in more detail in our next post.