Necessary versus Contingent Beings – Mortimer J. Adler

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.

We can infer that a necessary being exists because the existence of a necessary being is required as the cause of the existence of the finite, corporeal, mutable beings we know to exist all around us.

In order to follow this clearly, you have to bear in mind the distinction between two fundamental terms in the argument. The first is the meaning of the term “necessary being.” And I’m going to use a circle as the symbol of a necessary being. Now what we mean by a necessary being is a being which cannot not exist. A being of which it is impossible for it not to exist. A being whose very nature is to exist so that its existence follows immediately from its nature.

To talk about the opposite of a necessary being, I’m going to use the phrase “contingent being.” A contingent being is a being which may or may not exist. There is nothing about it which requires that it exist. Sometimes it does exist; sometimes it does not exist. It comes to be and passes away.

You and I, for example, are quite aware that we are contingent beings, not necessary beings. We’re aware that we are on the edge of nothingness. In fact, it’s only by holding onto our existence that we don’t fall away into nothingness. And that sense of being surrounded by nothingness, of coming from nothingness, going back into nothingness, is our sense of our own contingent being. In other words, that we may or may not exist. Our natures do not require us to exist. Existence doesn’t follow immediately from what we are. And all the things around us are like this.

When you understand this distinction between necessary and contingent beings, you see one thing at once — that a contingent being needs a cause of its existence at every moment of its existence. For if its existence does not follow from what its nature, then something else outside its nature must cause its existence.

In contrast, the necessary being is one which does not need a cause of its existence. For what we mean by a necessary being, let me say again, is a being the very nature of which it is to exist. Whereas a contingent being is not a being the very nature of which it is to exist, and so it needs a cause of its being, a cause of its existence.

Now that phrase, “cause of existence” is a very important phrase to distinguish in meaning from the phrase, “cause of the becoming of something.” Would you think normally that the parents of a child are the cause of that child’s existence? Normally you would. You’d say, “Yes, they cause the child to exist.” No. They don’t cause the child to exist; they caused the child to come into existence. And the moment after, the very moment after the child comes into existence, both parents can die and the child go on existing. That kind of cause doesn’t go into the very being of the thing. It’s external. It is a cause of the changing of something. It is the cause of the coming to be or the passing away of something. A cause of existence must continue to cause existence as long as the thing exists. And so, parents are not the cause of the child’s existence since the child may continue to exist long after the parents do not exist and have ceased to operate as causes.

I want you to notice that a contingent being is one which requires the cause of its existence to cause its existence at every moment of its existence. Now with these distinctions let me name three propositions for you about these two kinds of beings. The first proposition is that contingent beings do exist. You and I are contingent beings. We may or may not exist. We come into being and pass away. We exist. Chairs, tables, trees, cats, and dogNall of these are contingent beings. They exist. So the proposition “Contingent beings exist” is true, is it not?

And the second proposition is, from the very understanding of a contingent being, that every contingent being needs a cause of its existence every moment of its existence.

The third proposition is that no contingent being can cause the existence of another. I didn’t say that a contingent being, a parent, for example, could not cause the coming to be of a child. I only said that a parent, which is a contingent being, doesn’t cause the existence of a child. That parent, so long as the parent exists, also needs a cause of its existence. I’m only saying now that no other contingent being can cause the existence of any other contingent being.

Now one more proposition. And that proposition is that whenever the effect exists, the cause required for the existence of the effect must also exist.

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