Richard Swinburne analyzes the concept of ‘necessary being’ into two implications (COT, p.241-242):
1. It is not a matter of fortunate accident that there is a God; he exists necessarily.
2. God is necessarily the kind of being which he is; God does not just happen to have the properties which he does.
In his simpler and more popular book on God (Is There a God?), Swinburne clarifies these implications further in terms of the concept of ‘essential properties’:
But theism does not claim merely that the person who is God has these properties of being everlastingly omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly free. It claims that God has these properties necessarily–these are essential properties of God.
Swinburne also defines this concept for us (see ITAG, p.18). Here is my formulation of Swinburne’s definition:
Property P is an ESSENTIAL PROPERTY of a thing or a person X if and only if X could not cease to have property P and yet continue to exist.
In a comment on Part 2 of this series, Eric Sotnak points out a serious problem with this definition in relation to ‘necessary existence’. If we treat existence as a property and draw the implication that ‘necessary existence’ equates with having existence as an ‘essential property’, then every thing that exists would have necessary existence, and thus there would be nothing special about God possessing ‘necessary existence’.
I’m not sure how Swinburne would respond to this objection. However, for now, given that there are two parts to Swinburne’s analysis of ‘necessary being’, I’m goin to suggest that existence is not a property, and therefore Swinburne’s discussion about ‘essential properties’ does not apply to the concept of ‘necessary existence’.
That still leaves us with the question of whether part 2 of Swinburne’s analysis makes sense, given his definition of ‘essential properties’.
Before I begin working through a specific example, let me share a key passage from Swinburne that I’m struggling with:
By contrast, theism maintains that the personal being who is God cannot lose any of his powers or knowledge or become subject to influence by desire. If God lost any of his powers, he would cease to exist, just as my desk would cease to exist if it ceased to occupy space. And eternity (that is, everlastingness) also being an essential property of God, no individual who had begun to exist or could cease to exist would be God.
Note how Swinburne relates the concepts of ‘eternity’ and ‘everlastingness’ to the concept of existence. By itself that makes perfect sense. If God is ‘eternal’ that implies that God has always existed and that God will always continue to exist. But then being ‘eternal’ or ‘everlasting’ implies existence, and Swinburne’s definition of essential properties does not work with the concept of existence.
Let’s suppose that ‘eternity’ is a property, and that some person P has this property. Can P be eternal on Monday, cease being eternal on Tuesday, and yet continue to exist for the remainder of Tuesday and the next day (Wednesday) as well?
This doesn’t seem to make sense to me. If P is eternal on Monday, that means that P will continue to exist forever. If P will continue to exist forever, then P will exist every day following that Monday. If P ceases to exist the next day, on Tuesday, then P will NOT have continued to exist forever, and the statement “P will continue to exist forever” (made on Monday) will have been dispoved, shown to be false. But that means that it was also false to say “P is eternal” (on Monday). In sum, if there is ever a day where P ceases to exist, then the claim “P is eternal” will be a false claim for any day prior to the day when P ceases to exist.
Now something like resurrection does seem logically possible, so it might be possible for a person to cease to exist for a period of time, and then come back into existence. If this is logically possible, then there is a sense in which ‘P is eternal’ might be correct, even if P later ceases to exist. If P ceases to exist for a period of time, and then P is brought back into existence and then continues to exist forever, without interruption, it is tempting to say that the claim “P is eternal” was correct even though there was a period of time (after that claim was made) in which P did not exist.
Thus in supposing that a person P is eternal on Monday, in the sense intended when theists use this concept to describe God, it follows that P will also be eternal on Tuesday, and eternal on Wednesday, and so on forever and ever. Once you are eternal there is no going back to being non-eternal, at least not in terms of continuing to exist in the future.
What about the implication of having always existed in the past? Being eternal does not just mean existing forever into the future, it also means having always existed forever in the past.
Suppose again that a person P is eternal on Monday. We have previously determined that P cannot cease to exist on some day in the future, after that Monday, for that would mean that P was not really eternal on Monday. But what about P’s having always existed in the past? Could it be the case that on Monday P had always existed in the past, but that on Tuesday it was no longer the case that P had always existed in the past? Could this property of having always existed in the past go away?
The past cannot change. Let’s assume that this not a matter of physics, but is a matter of logic. Let’s assume that it is logically impossible for the past to change. So, if on Monday it was true that P had existed the previous Friday, then on the day after Monday (on Tuesday) it must still be the case that P had existed on the previous Friday. And if it was true on Monday that P had existed for every previous day back into eternity, then on the day after Monday (on Tuesday) it would still be the case that P had existed on each of those days prior to Monday.
Of course, P might cease to exist on Tuesday morning, and if so then on Wednesday it would be incorrect to say that ‘P has always existed’ since P would not have existed on Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning. But the possibility of P ceasing to exist on Tuesday morning is ruled out, because if it was in fact true on Monday that ‘P is eternal’ then P could not cease to exist on any day after Monday, including Tuesday.
So, it seems to me that if we treat ‘eternity’ or being ‘eternal’ as a property, this is an odd sort of property that one cannot eliminate or get rid of, in the way that one can eliminate or get rid of the property of being dirty or of being hungry. Once a person is eternal, that person will always be eternal; there is no going back.
OK. What about the idea of some person having the attribute of being eternal as an essential property? Does this make sense?
Suppose that there is a person Q who is essentially eternal, who possesses this property as an essential property. That means that Q is not only eternal but, according to the definition, if Q loses the property of being eternal, then Q will cease to exist. Do you see a problem here?
Q cannot lose the property of being eternal, because it is logically impossible for any person to lose the property of being eternal. So, we might as well say “If Q loses the property of being eternal, then Q will turn into a giant fire-breathing dragon”. The antecedent of the conditional statement will always be false, because it is logically impossible for any person to lose the property of being eternal. Because the antecedent is necessarily false, the conditional statement is necessarily true; it is a logically necessary truth.
Thus, it seems to me that ANY person who has the property of being eternal is also a person who has the property of being eternal as an essential property (given Swinburne’s definition above). Thus, there does not appear to be anything special or unique about having this property as an essential property. There cannot be any person who has the property of being eternal, but has this property as an accidental property rather than as an essential property.
To be continued…