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.