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Ontological Pluralism – How many ways can a thing exist?

One thing that I completely missed in my past theological education prior to attending Fuller Seminary was essence/existence distinctions. … and from here… considering God’s essence as his existence as a way of safeguarding divine simplicity and avoid seeing God as having parts. (If I’ve got that right). When I started hanging around Analytic theologians this came out and I felt my ignorance immediately.

I’m thinking today today about the following question.

What do you think about the idea of ontological pluralism? This is the idea that there are different ways of “existing.”

Multiple Ways to Exist. I’m looking at my chair. It feels right to say that it exists in a different way than something like the story of the three bears. We would want to say that the story of the tree bears exists right? The story of the three Rhinos and their Stock Broker does not exist. Bethoven’s 9th Symphony exists; Jesse’s 1st Symphony does not exist. My chair, however exists in a different way; it is a physical thing. Perhaps the chair simply “exists” as an idea or form, and what is really there is the substance… wood/carbon, so on. Still, it seems wrong headed to say that the chair in front of me (the one I found on the side of the road and stained a nice cherry color) does not exist. It seems like we want to say that it DOES exists, and so does the wood that makes it up, as well as the particles. It seems we have multiple substances as well as multiple ways of existing. An economy or society exists in a different way than a story or a chair does. A chair is physical stuff shaped chair-wise. An economy, however is not merely a physical mob of people standing in a certain formation like a parade. It seems right to say that an economy exists. The German economy exists and is different than the collected bodies of all the German people. Once again, if one is a realist about universals/properties I assume they would want to say they exist in a very different way than my chair exists. A chair could go out of existence (or a red thing could go out of existence) but the idea of “chair” or “red” do not vanish a little bit with it.

I want to say that there seem to be different ways of existing.

Multiple essences in in one existent? Furthermore it seems that my chair’s existence is more complex than mere chairness. My chair exists as a cultural artifact. That artifact can be destroyed (put out of existence) but the wood continues to exist; my chair can be made into pencils. So we want to say that BOTH chair and wood are present in the same object. One is a physical substance, the other is a social artifact. The chair genuinely exists and in a very different way than the wood that exists. We could break up the chair and make a wooden toy out of it. The chair would go but the wood would persist. So they exist in different ways. If chair and wood existed in the same way, when chair went out of existence and the wood would vanish also!

The wood can be broken up into all its particles (e.g. carbon). Now two things have gone out of existence (chair as human artifact and wood as organic substance) but the particles continue to exist. The wood no longer exists if broken into particles but the particles do. Therefore the wood exists in a different way than the particles do. Otherwise the particles would cease to exist when the wood ceased to exist. So on and so forth down through atoms, gluons/neutrinos, strings/fields. All of these different substances (for want of a better term) are present in the chair and all exist in different ways (i.e. at different layers) than the chair. When the higher layer is broken up (i.e. ceases to exist) the lower layers continue.

Anyhow, there seems to be a different way of existing physically than existing as universals, or societies, or as stories-music-software.

Likewise, it seems that God exists, but in a very different way. God doesn’t derive existence from anything. Each layer derives its existence from all of the layers below it simultaneously. God, on a Christian worldview, does not derive existence from all the layers and things. God is not the ultimate thing, up at the top of the stack of strata. God has no source, no ground, or origin. On Christian theology it also does not seem to make sense to say that God is at the bottom of the strata… that somehow everything is make up of God… that God is the prime matter (simplest particular form) out of which everything is made. That would be pantheism. Instead God is completely other. God is not physical. God doesn’t derive or ground God’s existence in anything…like chairs or molecules ground their existence in other things.

However, it seem to be a mistake to say that God doesn’t exist, just because we wish to point out that God exists in a very different way than all the things that depend upon God for existence. God exists if Christian theology is correct. Therefore God must exist in a very different way than all other things.

How many different ways are there to exist? Here are a few

  • Universals/attributes
  • Physical Artifacts Created by Humans and nature
  • Events and perhaps things like societies
  • Ideas/stories/music (these seem to be built up out of smaller ideas like artifacts are built up out of substances)
  • God

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