Thoughts from a young theologian

Aquinas and the Existence of God: Contingency Part II


All of our knowledge comes to us from our senses. That’s a very Aristotelian and Thomistic first principle. If I couldn’t see, smell, hear, touch or taste, I could not know anything. For Aristotle, the process by which we attain knowledge of the sensible things of this world, he called abstraction. Abstraction is the picking up of certain aspects of a sensible object and leaving other parts of it behind. It’s for him, the way we think. He proposed 10 categories of objects, i.e. 10 things we can “pick up” when looking at an object namely: substance, quality, quantity, relation, time, place, action, passion, situation and habit. If I look, for example at a fire hydrant, I notice first of all that it is a fire hydrant (substance). I see that it is red (quality). I see just one hydrant (quantity). I see it’s on the corner of such and such a street (place). I see what’s being done to it (passion) — like if there’s a dog peeing on it… c”,) I can also see what it is doing (action) so if it’s spewing water out or not.

Of these categories, apart from the first one which is the substance (what something is), the rest are accidents of it. Accidents are those which don’t make a fire hydrant be a fire hydrant. I can spray paint that hydrant into blue, changing its color (quality) but it would still be a fire hydrant. Accidents do not exist apart from the substance but neither does a substance exist without accidents (except God). When I say red, I can’t just say red… It’s always a red something… c”,) Similarly, when I look at a fire hydrant, apart from picking up what it is, I can also pick up a number of things about it (that it is red, or in this place, etc…)

Substance is the thing that makes a thing be what it is… It is both the individual, particular existing thing (i.e. this particular fire hydrant on this intersection) and the universal, general thing (the idea of what a fire hydrant is). Not all hydrants are alike… The hydrant on Granville might be very different from that on Seymour. The individual, particular existing thing may differ but the idea always remains the same.This universal idea of a fire hydrant is called its essence. It is what allows me to go up to you and start talking about fire hydrants with you. I assume you know exactly what a fire hydrant is. It is the common idea we both have of what a fire hydrant is… in short, it’s its definition.

St. Thomas, looking at all things noticed that one of the accidents of everything is their existence. The essence (the definition… what it is) is separate from its existence (that it is). How do we know that? By experience! If existence was part of something’s essence, it cannot not exist. It would have to exist forever. If existence (that we are) is part of what makes us human, we can’t help but continue existing… forever. But we’re confronted with death everyday!! That we exist is not what defines us at humans… In a way, it’s just an attribute of ours. The best way of showing that essence is not existence in anything is by going back to what I was talking about earlier on abstraction. It is very possible for us to abstract existence out of something. When I look at John, for example, I can abstract his essence (that he is a man) separately from his existence (that he IS). He doesn’t have to be the way he is… In fact I can consider him in my mind wearing a top hat or having purple hair or being on the planet Mars. I can even consider him dead at that very moment. His very existence as he is this very moment is not part of what he is because it is something that is always changing. That distinction is super important because from once you make it, you’ll be led to the same conclusion Thomas had!!!

If essence is different, separable from existence… if existence is just an accident of something then our existence is, in a sense, a gift! It has got to come from something that is pure existence. Hmmmmmmm…. There’s something for you to think about… I’ll finish this little mini paper-blog next time! Take care and God bless!!!

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