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I came across this description of Aquinas' third way:

Third, he argues that if there were no eternal, necessary, and immortal being, if everything had a possibility of not being, of ceasing to be, then eventually this possibility of ceasing to be would be realized for everything. In other words, if everything could die, then, given infinite time, everything would eventually die. But in that case nothing could start up again. We would have universal death, for a being that has ceased to exist cannot cause itself or anything else to begin to exist again. And if there is no God, then there must have been infinite time, the universe must have been here always, with no beginning, no first cause. But this universal death has not happened; things do exist! Therefore there must be a necessary being that cannot not be, cannot possibly cease to be. That is a description of God.

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Two cases are considered here. If "all things are contingent" then all things would eventually cease to exist; but they have not, therefore this case is false. If "all things are contingent except one" then because things still exist that thing must be the first cause (god).

At least two more cases suggest themselves: "more than one (or many) things are not contingent" and "nothing is contingent."

Why are these other cases disregarded, and what conclusions could be reached by considering them?

  • This looks like a supplement to the cosmological argument, which has the same problem of identifying "the first cause" with "God" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…. Traditional response is that with several "supreme" beings none of them is truly "supreme". This argument however has an additional problem in that " if everything could die, then, given infinite time, everything would eventually die" is a non-sequitur. But it does bring up an interesting association with heat death of the universe en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heat_death_of_the_universe – Conifold Dec 10 '14 at 18:44
  • Its definitely the cosmological argument, the third of four ways Aquinas frames it. I was especially interested in this particular wording, because as far as I can tell, the core of its reasoning is "there must be one entity/being/thing/whatever whose existence is not contingent. Aside from all the "it must be god" stuff, I'm wondering if this suggests "maybe there are multiple non-contingent things, or maybe everything is non-contingent," and I'm wondering who has approached this question before? – nexus_2006 Dec 10 '14 at 20:37
  • Considering that the argument is based on questionable premises and logical fallacies it wasn't explored much outside of the theistic tradition (except for criticism), where single cause attaches. But you may want to look at plato.stanford.edu/entries/cosmological-argument/#3.2, it mentions that Haldane, Rowe and Koons tried to salvage the argument, it's possible they considered a variation you are interested in. – Conifold Dec 10 '14 at 21:24
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I don't know about the first case, but the "nothing is contingent" case is excluded by Aquinas's own assumption that we simply encounter contingent things in our everyday experience. Here is a translation of an excerpt from the original text:

The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be.

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Having talked about arguments such as this one with a professor of mine, I will add to Ram Tobolski's answer only that Aquinas seems to have limited the number of necessary beings to one for the sake of simplicity. You might argue that there ought to be more than one necessary being, but no such arguments were forthcoming, and it seemed to suit Aquinas's purposes just fine to prove that there had to be at least one.

As far as I know, nothing radically counterintuitive falls out from the idea that there may be more than one necessary being rather than only one, but, as was already pointed out, the idea that all beings are necessary wildly opposes experience (and, for the record, our current formulations of physics).

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Aquinas's third way falls down because he is observing time and the universe from the inside. he postulates a universe that must be contingent on an infinite, uncaused, prime-mover or it would have ceased to existed under the pressure of time and entropy.

This is pretty much in line with current physical models that suggest the universe will eventually experience a heat-death. Aquinas simply couldn't concieve of the timescales involved. he thought in terms of hundreds and thousands instead of trillions of years. He didn't account for the possibility that the universe he was describing was non-contingent and in the process of dying.

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Strangely for any orthodox Catholic philosopher since the Book of John, Aquinas never gets around to debunking Gnostic pantheism. So if nothing is contingent, and contingency is an illusion, and we are God, this argument is just fine with that.

The other alternative is quirkier: In considering absolute non-contingency, you get the same kind of weirdness that proceeds from omnipotence.

What he is talking about here is not simply a being that must necessarily exist somewhere. It lacks the ability not to exist, so there cannot be conditions (such as spacial location) placed on its (nonexistent) nonexistence.

(To what degree nonexistence should be a power God has the right to wield, as a fine, upstanding omnipotent being, is the kind of question best referred to Douglas Adams.)

So you get the same kind of weird answer questions about omnipotence give you -- If there were multiple separate non-contingent beings, each existing always and everywhere, how could you tell they were not a single being with a multitude of facets?

Kabbalists of the same era made even more hay of this (Or is it fun? I can't tell.): After all, to the extent the Medieval Christian God is also the Jewish God of the Torah, its name is both Yahweh (a singular form) and Elohim (a plural). So it is a singularly plural entity, which is in all ways perfect, so it is perfect in its plurality, hence infinite in number, and he earns another name -- Ayin Sof (a singular word for an infinite number -- Aleph-something).

Therefore you are both right and wrong, there are infinitely many, but they form an indivisible singular. (At the same time, being Catholic, Aquinas knew all along that there were exactly three.)

Obviously, to me this whole notion is a grammatical error in search of a meaning. But this is a traditional defense of this argument.

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