Comps, Avicenna, & Necessary Being

For almost five years now, I’ve been teaching intro to philosophy classes at UT Tyler. Lots of fun; I love it: working hard to try to get nineteen year olds (by now not living with mom & dad & thus “out there in the real world”) to question their assumptions. (Of course before you can question your assumptions you first must be aware of them, and also to identify them.) I call it “corrupting the youth.”

For the last couple of semesters, I’ve been introducing the class with a discussion of Heraclitus (or, really, Cratylus: “all is flux”) and Parmenides (“Being is all there is, period.”), with a view to putting their two views in dialectic, a concept we then discuss in earnest.

Early on in the semester, while trying to articulate what Parmenides means by “being,” I introduce the distinction between contingent being (I usually hold up my wrist watch, and talk about how it exists contingently, in that it depends on all sorts of things for its existence: factories, laws, workers, various kinds of metal, etc.) and necessary being.

This leads to a discussion of divine simplicity, or how (for a great swath of thinkers from Parmenides to Aristotle to Augustine to Aquinas to CS Lewis) being, which is ultimately described only negatively (or apophatically), is actually, it turns out, God (the protestations of the anti-ontotheologians notwithstanding).

Where did I learn all this? Two sources: David Bentley Hart’s book Being, Consciousness, and Bliss, but also my study regimen for my comprehensive examinations, part of my PhD work at the University of Dallas. When studying Avicenna, I became conscious that he is the one, historically, to state the doctrine of necessary being (in terms of simplicity) clearly.

For years now, I’ve been wanting to “drill down on this,” to make sure I have it all straight, and to be able to cite some sources in support of my understanding. To wit, this article by Olga Lizzini, in which she states the following:

… Avicenna deduces the properties of what is in itself necessarily existent. The first is being uncaused. It is in fact “evident” … that the necessary has no cause: to have a cause means literally to exist by virtue of something else, and what exists by virtue of itself cannot exist by virtue of another…. Other properties [of necessary being] are are attributable to a being necessary in itself: unity, simplicity, and then non-relativity, immutability, non-multiplicity and non-association with anything other than itself.

Notice how all the terms are negations: uncaused, non-relativity, immutable, etc.

Is Avicenna, also, the one who makes it clear that, if contingent things exist, then there must be (a) necessary being that exists? I don’t know, but I assume that he is, and I want to find out soon.

Share Button