To begin or not to begin, that is the question—Part 1

infinite_stairwell_span02I believe in creatio ex nihilo (CEN), or creation out of nothing. I’ve always taken this to mean the created order ‘began to be’. I don’t get into debates over the temporal semantics of such a unique beginning (for example, in what sense can we talk about God “before” creation?), but I do understand “being created” as entailing “having begun to exist.” I also equate “being created” with “being a subject of temporal becoming.” But there are certain implications to supposing creation is eternal that present problems. So let me grope around here and try to make some sense of my questions.

Recently the distinction between kinds of “contingency” came up in a conversation with Bill Vallicella. He had posted on this distinction in reply to Fr Aidan’s request. I asked a few questions. Bill responded.

Bill makes a distinction between two kinds of contingency:

  • Modal Contingency. Something is modally contingent if it might not have existed and/or it might fail to exist. (I take it this is equivalent to metaphysical or ontological contingency).
  • Dependent Contingency. Something is dependently contingent if it depends for its existence upon something else.

These are meaningful categories under which to contemplate the nature of things. My questions engage a further step Bill made regarding the relationship between modal necessity/contingency and dependent contingency/non-contingency. Hopefully the quadrants below will clarify my issues.


Whatever exists, then, is either modally contingent or modally necessary AND either dependently contingent or dependently non-contingent (or not dependently contingent; if you’re a professional philosopher trained in logical notation, forgive me if I get the negation in the wrong place).

An example of a Quad 3 reality would be (carefully said) “God” who exists necessarily and depends upon nothing for his existence. An example of a Quad 4 reality would (in my view) be all non-divine realities (the world and all that is in it) as created. Quad 1 arguably is empty since (I’m assuming here) nothing can exist necessarily which also depends for its existence as such upon something outside itself.

Now we come to my first difficulty—Quad 2, that is, things that are modally/ontologically contingent (they might fail to exist) but their existence, though contingent, depends upon nothing whatsoever. Their existence is a “brute fact.” Nothing ‘explains’ or ‘accounts for’ their existing. Bill finds this a meaningful concept. I don’t.

My second difficulty has to do with the temporal nature and implications of modally contingent realities. For the sake of argument, let’s limit this to Quad 4. Is it intrinsic to such realities that they “begin to exist”? Bill and, as I’m discovering, every modern Orthodox person I ask about this curiously hold that Quad 4 realities needn’t be thought of as having a beginning. Being “created” doesn’t entail “beginning to exist.” Entities may be modally/ontologically contingent (i.e., they may not have existed at all and may fail to exist), and they may depend upon God for their existence, but they have always existed and always will exist. Their modal contingency requires only that it be true that they “may” not have existed or they may cease to exist, not that it be the case that they “began to exist.” Thus the “out of nothing” in CEN (on this view) merely describes a “dependency” relationship. It says nothing about whether creation is eternal or whether it “began” to be.

I’ll just leave the descriptions there for now and come back with a follow-up post to share some thoughts on why it seems to me we should think of non-divine, created being as (among other things) “having a beginning.”

8 comments on “To begin or not to begin, that is the question—Part 1

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Does Vallicella’s argument on modal contingency hold when speaking about the universe as a whole? Why does the world exist rather than nothing? I can see someone saying, “There isn’t an answer. The universe has no explanation. It simply is.” I still don’t see how one can say, “The universe need not have been. It’s radically contingent but it need not have a Creator.”

    What am I missing?


  2. Tom says:

    Bill believes it holds for the universe as a whole, yes. I mean, he may personally believe the universe as a whole ‘came into being’, but his point is that *modal (or metaphysical) contingency* doesn’t *logically* preclude the world’s ‘having always existed’. He conceded Russell’s point that it’s meaningful simply to answer the question ‘So why does the world exist at all?’ with ‘It may have always existed and its existence doesn’t have an explanation’.

    That’s why I objected to the idea of it being BOTH true that (a) the world is modally contingent and (b) it’s not being dependently contingent. I think this is an inconceivable combination. Bill finds it perfectly conceivable (logically speaking).


    • Tom says:

      My interest in this includes an additional concern. Let’s say we grant the radical, modal contingency of the world as a whole AND we grant it’s radical dependence upon God as creator. But let’s add a third claim–“the world has in fact always existed.”

      That’s why I was getting at with Bill. Does creation ex nihilo require not merely the affirmation of *dependency* (i.e., the world as a whole requires a creator), nor merely the affirmation that God is *free* in creating (i.e., the world *might not have* existed), but also the affirmation that the world ‘as a whole’ did in fact come into being, i.e., it hasn’t in fact always existed?


      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        Thanks for the clarification, Tom. So your concern here is whether an everlasting universe (let’s use “everlasting” and restrict “eternal” to the life of God) is compatible with creation from out of nothing. Is that right?


      • Tom says:

        Right. I’d like to avoid Aquinas’ solution–i.e., *logically* it makes sense to posit an eternal created order but *dogmatically* faith rejects that option. It does seem to me that whatever exists *eternally* is also metaphysically *necessary*. But perhaps there’s no purely logically way to prove that. That’s one issue. The other issue is whether modally contingent being needn’t be dependent for its existence upon anything whatsoever. As a matter of faith we’d reject that. But can reason/logic get us there? I suspect it can.


      • apophaticallyspeaking says:

        It is of interest to note Nyssa’s argument from infinity. Only the infinite is without change, it always is, never becomes. The universe is subject to change, things are not and come into being, it cannot be infinite and therefore has a temporal beginning. Would this be considered an argument based on reason/logic?


      • Tom says:

        Not sure. I think the analytic sort are looking for a valid syllogism that reasons from true premises to the necessary temporal finitude of all contingent things.


      • apophaticallyspeaking says:

        It seems to me me we are up against an axiom, a first principle, that is either accepted or denied.

        If time is deemed self-existing then recourse to pre-temporality is deemed illogical.


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