[This topic is discussed in Modes of the Finite, Part 1, Section 4, Chapters 2-8.]

7.1. Existence and essence

Several times in the course of the preceding chapter, I referred to the "degrees" or "levels" of being. This would seem to imply that the being which we experience by means of finite consciousness is itself finite: finite being. It is time now to explore this, and to see whether it is so or not, and how we can know one way or the other from the evidence of our consciousness of being.

Let me point out here that if it is the case that the being which we experience is finite, then it looks as if (by a reasoning analogous to the one where we established that the cause of finite consciousness can't be within consciousness) the finiteness of the finite world can't be explained from within the finite universe.

But we have to tread very carefully here, to make sure that a desire to prove that there is a God doesn't take us beyond what the evidence allows us to say. Remember, existence is not in consciousness, and is not like the form of consciousness it causes; and yet our only contact with it is the particular act of consciousness that "talks about" it. So we can only be sure that we have nailed down some property about existence by using the method we have developed and showing that the existence has to be finite in order to be able to account for the particular act of consciousness which it causes.

So we have some pretty rough terrain to cross ahead. But if you've got this far, take courage; you can make it. But be patient, and let's take a step at a time. First of all, continuing the numbering of conclusions from Chapter 5, we can say this:

NINTH CONCLUSION: There are many different existences, one for each distinctive perceptive-type consciousness.

The reason this must be true is that identical effects have identical causes. If there were only one existence (that is, if all beings were identical insofar as they were existence), then (since the mind is also the same every time) all their effects would be the same as each other, which means that each appearance would be identical with every other one.

But each act of consciousness is different from every other one; and existence is supposed to be what accounts for the difference. So the existence which causes your reading of this page is different from the existence which causes hearing music. "Well of course!" you say. But now you know not only that it is true, but that it has to be true.

I should point out here that we do know that sometimes we are encountering the same being--as for instance, if you come back and read this page tomorrow. How do we know? Simple. Since the act of consciousness the second time is (for practical purposes) a repetition of the first one (i.e. is identical with it), and yet it is a perception and not a recollection, it follows that it has to have been caused by the same existence (since identical effects have identical causes).

Well, then, if there are many existences and all of them are different, doesn't that establish right there that each of them is a finite case of existence? Not really.

It might be that the common word "existence" is just a name that doesn't imply any real sameness among these causes of conscious acts. What I mean is that we sometimes use, in classifying things, words that don't refer to a real aspect of what we're classifying.

For instance, the word "unique" means "not having anything in common with anything else." Now obviously uniqueness can't be a real characteristic that all unique things have in common--because then each of them wouldn't be unique.

So we have to rule out the possibility that the alleged "similarity" among all existences isn't just a convenient classifying device that doesn't imply that these objects are all really the same as each other in some way.

And to do this, we can note something about the effect whose cause turned out to be the mind: the Second Effect in Chapter 4, that our (single) consciousness breaks up into many separated periods of consciousness.

If we look at one of these periods of my consciousness, what is it? Obviously, it is nothing but my consciousness; but at the same time it is only this period of my consciousness (as opposed to yesterday's and the day before's). So it is my consciousness as limited to being only this period.

So it turns out that a given period of my consciousness is a different sort of finiteness in my consciousness from a given appearance (i.e. a given act of my consciousness). So we have (at least) two different modes in which consciousness is finite: it is (1) a definite period of consciousness, and (2) a definite act of consciousness (appearance, or "form" of consciousness, if you will).(1)


TENTH CONCLUSION: Every appearance is similar as finite to every other appearance: it is identical in that it is an appearance as opposed to a period of consciousness, and different in that it is the distinctive appearance which it happens to be.

And this allows us immediately to draw the following conclusion:

ELEVENTH CONCLUSION: All existences are analogous to each other.

Since the similarity among conscious acts is a similarity in their finiteness, which is the effect of which existence is the cause, then it follows that all existences are somehow similar among themselves. Now since this means that there is some sense in which they are identical and some sense in which each is distinctively itself, we can put names to whatever it is about an existence by which it is the same as and different from other existences.

DEFINITION: Existence is the respect in which all existences (i.e. causes of finite apearances) are the same.

DEFINITION: Essence is the respect in which each existence is distinctively the one it is (i.e. the respect in which it differs from others).

Once we make this distinction, however, unless we can establish that somehow essence is contained within the existence itself, we have to make the following modification of the Twelfth Conclusion, and say all beings are analogous to each other.

But it may be that existence is finite, in which case essence and existence are not different and separable aspects of the cause of finite acts of consciousness. If they are, the "existenceness" of existence is not necessarily "infected" with the problem of being less than itself, and doesn't contain essence within it, and so on. If not, what we can say of being, we can say of existence.

But since we can't observe existence "as it is in itself," so to speak, then how could we possibly know whether essence is really distinct from existence (eliminating, it would seem, the contradictoriness connected with being finite) or whether it is in some sense identical with existence (which makes the existence finite)?

That is, is being "existence plus essence," or is it "existence minus (some of) existence"--the "essence" in this latter case being the fact that the particular existence leaves some of existence outside itself?

We can know the answer if one or the other of these is necessary to account for the finite act of consciousness. So let us examine the act of consciousness again, in the light of existence and essence as its cause. Obviously, the act as identical with all other acts of consciousness (i.e. as an act and not a period) is caused by existence, and the act as this particular one is caused by the essence.

So let us look at the appearance as identical with other appearances. Is this "appearanceness" something that is in any real way distinguishable from the "thisness" of the act? Well, what would it mean to say this? Since it is an "aspect" of the finiteness of consciousness, then it is a restriction of consciousness to being less than it otherwise would be--in the mode of being an act of consciousness (an appearance) rather than a period of consciousness.

But it is nonsense to talk about the restriction as if it were even conceivable without its being a definite restriction; that is, an "act" of consciousness that wasn't a definite act of consciousness doesn't make sense: an appearance that would be equal to "appearanceness" in general. But this would be like talking about heat that wasn't any definite temperature. You can make the abstraction heat by ignoring which definite temperature it has, but any case of heat has to be some definite temperature. Put it this way: if there were an act of consciousness which actually were such that all definite acts (restricted to being "only this one") were somehow only lesser versions of itself, then it wouldn't be consciousness as finite. It would be the act of consciousness which would be equal to the whole of my consciousness; and so it would lack the effect which was consciousness as finite.(2)

Now what does this mean? It means that the "appearanceness" of the conscious act as a mode of its finiteness is the "thisness" of the act. If it is "separable" from it even in thought, it is a contradiction, because it is a mode of finiteness which is not finite.

So we are now in a position to draw the following conclusion:

TWELFTH CONCLUSION: Existence, the cause of the "appearanceness" of the finite act of consciousness, must be identical with essence, the cause of the "thisness" of the appearance (the finite act of consciousness).

And the reason is simply that, as we showed above, the "two effects" are in fact one and the same effect only considered from different points of view. Since there is no real difference between the "appearanceness" and the "thisness," there can't be any real difference between the causes of the two "aspects" of the act. So essence is existence. Essence, therefore, has to be simply a way of saying, "In this given case, the existence is this one and not that one."

Or, to put it another way,

THIRTEENTH CONCLUSION: In the case of the cause of any definite appearance, essence is simply existence as finite.(3)

So essence can't be anything in addition to existence; it is simply existence as less than what it otherwise would be (whatever the other ones are that allow them to cause different acts of consciousness). And, if you think of existence as activity, this would have to be the case. If "existence" means "activity" (what can cause a mind to react), then essence, as different from existence, would have to be "non-activity"; but then, how could we know it? It would be the incapacity to cause a mind to react. So essence would somehow have to act on either the mind (in which case it is existence) or on the existence (in which case it is some kind of activity, acting on the mind indirectly through what it does to existence). So essence is simply the definiteness of a definite activity which restricts my consciousness to being a definite appearance; it is not a "something-which" at all; it is a "fact about."

7.1.1. A note on St. Thomas's "real distinction"

St. Thomas's basic argument for the existence of God (not his "five ways") comes from his position in De Ente et Essentia (On Being and Essence) that essence is (except in God) really distinct from existence; and that, for him, established that the "essenced existence" is finite. I think he saw the problem I have been discussing; but his approach to it left open loopholes that he couldn't close.

What he said basically was that to ask the question what something is, is to ask a different question from whether that something is or not. The two questions are irreducible to each other. You can describe a unicorn fully; but that doesn't tell you whether there are any unicorns or not. Hence the essence (the answer to "what?") is different from the existence (the answer to "is it?"). It follows that a given essence has existence and is not the existence it has; and clearly it can't give itself existence, since in itself (i.e. without existence) it is nothing.

The trouble with approaching this from the way we talk about things is that you're apt to run into linguistic forms that don't mirror reality (like the "common characteristic" of uniqueness); and it's hard to tell whether what the language forces you to say necessarily is due to the way things are.

And in this case, the linguistic problem is significant, because it's hard to see what sense it makes to even talk about an "essence in itself." This implies that the picture in imagination is actually an essence that doesn't really exist, (or "doesn't exist in reality" implying that it "exists" in some sense in your mind and is a kind of "object which" you are imagining); and I think that this falsifies the act of imagining; because then you have to talk about the "mental existence" of what is admittedly not real--or is really nothing at all.

In fact, philosophers throughout history have got themselves into a lot of trouble by talking about "unreal essences," using imaginary images to establish that there "are" such things. But as I was at pains to point out, the image "which" you are imagining is absolutely identical with the act of imagining; it is simply the way you are being conscious, and is not something you are conscious of. When you are "conscious of" it, you are really conscious of your act of imagining, which happens to have this form; but you're not conscious of the form "by itself," so to speak. The existence the image "has" is the existence of the act of your consciousness; and its essence is that it is restricted to being just this case of your consciousness.

Be very, very, clear on this: There is no "essence of a unicorn," or of anything else that is purely imaginary. The "unicorn-essence" is the essence (the definiteness) of the act of imagining, not of the unicorn.

Philosophers, like the Jesuit Franscisco Suárez, who saw this in one way or another have held that there is no real distinction between essence and existence, because then, as Aristotle put it, "you would have a 'reality,' (what he called what something is) that didn't exist, and an existence that wasn't real." It is absurd to talk about something (the essence) that isn't, or to talk about an existence that isn't something. And in an individual case, they're right. What John is is John's existence, not something "else" that has existence.

There is, however, in the view I take to be the correct one--the one I developed above--a sense in which essence is "really distinct" from existence. An essence (i.e. a definite, finite case of existence) is different from what existence as such is (i.e. from "what it is to exist") precisely because it leaves some of existence (cause of consciousness as finite) outside it: as activity that is less than "what it is to be active," it is different from "activity as such."

Now this by itself doesn't necessarily mean that there is any such thing as "activity as such" (it turns out that in fact there is, but we'll see this shortly) any more than the fact that any definite case of heat is less than "what it is to be hot" means that there is any "absolute heat" which is beyond all temperature. But even so, it still follows that there is a real distinction between this case of heat (72, say) and what heat is--or all heat would have to be this temperature. Therefore, the "anti-real-distinction" philosophers missed this other point. In the individual case, the essence and the existence are just different ways of talking about one and the same thing. But the individual existence is not what existence is.

Hence, in one sense there is a real distinction between essence (existence-as-definite and finite) and existence (existence-as-such), because any definite case of existence is not equal to what it is to exist.

But at the same time, in the given case, the essence is the existence; it is nothing but the existence; and the existence in this case is the finite existence. So in this sense, there is no real distinction between essence and existence.

The ability to say both of these things, which seem to contradict each other, is precisely the problem of the finite.

And that allows us to draw the following conclusion:

FOURTEENTH CONCLUSION: The existence which is the cause of any finite act of consciousness is, as a finite existence, in itself self-contradictory, or is an effect.

7.2. On to the Infinite

Very well, then, what will be its cause? Once again, we can make a "causal definition" and pick out a term which will mean "whatever is the cause of finite existence as finite."

DEFINITION: The Infinite is the cause of any finite existence (finite activity) as finite.

Having done that, we can investigate this Infinite by going through the same kind of argument we went through with finite consciousness.

FIRST QUESTION: Can the cause of any finite existence be another finite existence?

The answer is No, because identical effects have identical causes, and if it could be the cause of the finiteness of the other existence, it would have to be the cause of itself as finite, which is impossible by Theorem II.


FIFTEENTH CONCLUSION: No finite existence (activity) can be the cause of the finiteness of any other finite existence (activity).

SECOND QUESTION: Can any combination or unification of finite existences, however many may be combined into this unit, be the cause of any other finite existence (activity)?

Once again, the answer is No, because this combination (a) contains the essences (which are "non-existence-as-identical-with-existence") which make it finite in our sense of the term; or (b) is only this combination, leaving out all other possible forms of existence this combination could be.

Even if the combination contained an infinite number of components, it would be a finite existence, because it would precisely be different from the one it was causing. (An infinite existence in the sense of one that didn't contain any limitations as components wouldn't have this problem, because all it would "lack" would be the particular lack that the other one "has." So it would be all that the other one is and then some.)

But if the combination, even with an infinite number of components, is a finite existence, then if it were the cause of the other one, it would have to be the cause of itself, which is impossible.


SIXTEENTH CONCLUSION: The cause of any finite existence (activity) cannot be a complex activity consisting of a number (even an infinite number) of finite existences (activities).

I am putting "activity" in here to stress that this does not simply apply to those complex units we call "bodies" or "substances" or "things," but to each and every act of any thing. That is, it is not simply you who are a finite existence, but every act you perform. And since everything about you is finite (including the unification that makes you a single body), then, though you might be able to cause the specificity of the acts you perform, you can't be the cause of them as finite. Your body might even be said to have an infinite number of real "aspects" to it, which (as real) are acts that you perform; but even so, you can't account for the finiteness of any one of these aspects or behaviors.

In other words, you can account for why the act you are doing at the moment is reading and not singing, say; but that's a different effect from that same act as a finite case of existence.

It will be well to keep this in mind. Many pseudo-problems are actually solved by realizing that we have a very definite effect here; and different effects have different causes. The Infinite may be the cause of "everything" if everything but the Infinite is a finite existence; but It is not the only cause of anything, since there are other problems (apparent contradictions) about things beyond the mere abstract fact that they are finite cases of existence.

Now the Sixteenth Conclusion does say that there is something that is not a finite existence, or possibly there are many of them. But we're still not at the end of the road.

We saw that the existence that caused finite consciousness was also finite. That wasn't a violation of the law that identical effects have identical causes, however, since, though the existence was finite, it wasn't the cause of finite existence, but finite consciousness. It was the cause, in that it was existence and not consciousness; but it turned out that it had to be a finite case of existence to cause a finite act of consciousness.

But what this means is that the Infinite could be a "finite case of 'existence-cause'" which might be something different from existence that accounts for how existence in a given case could be this existence (or this essence, if you will). Or, of course, it might be an infinite case of "existence-cause." Also, there might be many of them, just as there are many finite existences which cause finite consciousness.

But fortunately, we can rule this out.

We know by Theorem VII that similar effects have analogous causes. That is, if the effects are similar, the causes must somehow be similar among themselves.

But finite consciousness and finite existence are similar as finite, and their finiteness is precisely an effect. They are identical as cases of finiteness, and different in that one is consciousness as finite and the other as existence as finite. Hence, their causes must be somehow identical and somehow different.

But the respect in which they are identical is precisely in their finiteness; and so the respect in which their causes are identical is in being causes of something as finite.

But we called finite existence "existence" because it was the cause of the act of consciousness as finite, and so what finite existence is doing to finite consciousness to make sense out of it is analogous to what the Infinite is doing to finite existence to make sense out of it.

In other words,

SEVENTEENTH CONCLUSION: The Infinite is a non-finite existence which is the cause of the finiteness of any finite existence.

And the Infinite is what many people call God--and, based on the definition, what it would seem every finite existence should call God, since every finite existence and every act of every complex finite existence depends for its (finite) existence on this Being.

For those of you who already believe that there is a Supreme Being who is the Creator of everything visible and invisible, then you ought not to be surprised to find that everything except God makes no sense when taken by itself apart from God. If God is the cause of everything else, then it follows that anything but God (just plain old existence) is an effect of God. And what that means is that, as an effect, it contradicts itself if you try to describe it while leaving God out of the equation.

So those of you who are believers already implicitly hold that somehow or other, anything except God is going to turn out to contradict itself if you try to describe it by itself. Well, that's what the finite is. So you shouldn't be disposed to complain that I'm playing with words and trying to bamboozle you just because I've studied all this esoteric stuff longer than you have. All I've done is spell out what you already believed had to be true. Well it is.

Note that The Infinite's essence is identical with existence. That is, what the Infinite is is existence pure and simple, not a given type or amount of existence, but just plain existence. The Infinite is the existence which exhausts what it means to exist. Any other existence is a finite case of existence, a restricted existence. In that sense, every other existence has an identity-distinction between essence and existence; in the Infinite's case there is no distinction whatever between essence and existence. The Infinite is the unique case in which what it is is unqualified existence.(4)

Note that there is and can be only one Infinite, since if there were two (two really distinct Infinites, that is), then at least one of them would have to be an existence which lacked (some of) the existence which the other one had--which would by definition make this other one finite.

In fact, there are many, many things which can be said about the Infinite; enough for a whole other book--which, it turns out, I have written, and which you can consult if you want: The Finite and the Infinite.

7.3. Being as causer

But let us leave the subject here, and return to our own: that of being. Earlier on, we raised the question of whether being, the causer of consciousness as finite, was (1) identical with existence (the cause), or whether (2) it was existence plus some characteristics in addition (which could not be known just from the effect), or whether (3) it was existence minus something, a finite case of existence.

Based on the reasoning we gave in the preceding sections, we can now say this:

DEFINITION: Being is either (a) the Infinite, or (b) finite existence.

That is, being has no additional characteristics beyond existence itself. In the unique case of the Infinite, being is pure, unadulterated existence; in every other case, being is a case of existence that falls short in one way or another of what it means to exist. We will be exploring the various ways in which existence can be "less than itself" in the chapters that follow.

--A rather shorter chapter, this, than most, so far; but full of meat.


It seems as if there are different types and levels of existence, which looks as if existence itself is finite. But since we can only know what existence is through its effect on our consciousness, we must be very careful not to say anything about it that goes beyond our evidence for saying that there is such a thing. But we can say the following:

9th conclusion: There are many existences, one for each distinctive perceptive-type appearance. If there weren't, then identical causes would have different effects, which is absurd. But is each existence unique, or is it similar in some way to others? It is if we can show that the effects are similar as finite.

10th conclusion: Every appearance, as an act of consciousness is similar as finite to every other one, since all acts are a different type of finiteness from (finite) periods of consciousness. Therefore, 11th conclusion: All existences are analogous to each other. Existence: is now defined as the respect in which all existences are the same, and essence as the respect in which each existence is the distinctive one which it is.

But since the "appearanceness" of the finite act of consciousness and the "thisness" of the finite act are in fact one and the same thing (there can't be two separate aspects of the finiteness here), then 12th conclusion: existence, the cause of the "appearanceness," must be identical with essence, the cause of the "thisness." From this it follows that 13th conclusion: In the case of any definite act of consciousness, essence is simply existence as finite.

Hence, in the individual case, essence is really identical with existence; but of course (as St. Thomas, from another point of view, discovered) essence (i.e. this existence) is really different from existence (i.e. existence as such)--since, though it is nothing but existence, it leaves some of existence outside itself, or is less than "what it is to exist," which is its whole intelligibility.

But this means that finite existence contradicts itself, taken by itself. 14th conclusion: The existence which is the cause of any finite act of consciousness, as a finite existence, is an effect. (It is not identical with finite consciousness, since it is finite existence; but it happens to be similar to it, since both are finite).

The Infinite is now defined as the cause of finite existence. 15th conclusion: The Infinite cannot be any other finite existence, since identical effects have identical causes, and then it would be the cause of itself, which is absurd. 16th conclusion: The Infinite cannot be any combination (even of an infinite number) of finite existences acting together, because they would contain the finiteness of each member (and so the combination as containing non-existence would by definition be a [complex] finite existence).

The Infinite cannot be something other than existence either, however, because similar effects have analogous causes, and finite consciousness and finite existence are similar as effects; and so what finite existence "does" to finite consciousness (restricting it to being "only this one") has to be similar to what the Infinite "does" to finite existence (restricting it to being "only this one"). Hence, the Infinite must be somehow like finite existence. Therefore, 17th conclusion: The Infinite is a non-finite existence. Believers should not be surprised, then, that the finite doesn't make sense by itself, because that's what an effect is, and believers already believe that everything is an effect of God as the cause. It turns out that they are right.

The Infinite's essence is identical with existence, since it falls short in no way from what it is to exist. It is also unique, since if there were two, one would have to lack some existence, which would make it finite, not infinite. Every other existence but the Infinite has an essence which is both identical with and different from existence, since the essence (the individual existence) is an existence which leaves some of existence outside itself (is a limited case of existence).

Being, therefore, is either The Infinite, or finite existence. As causer, it can have no properties in addition to existence, since they would be non-existences or nothing; and therefore, it is simply existence-as-falling-short-of-what-it-is-to-exist.



1. Actually, there's at least one other mode: each "stream of consciousness" (the whole thing now, not just today's period of that stream) is also limited to being "just my" consciousness or "just your" consciousness and no one else's. So the whole of my consciousness is also a case of consciousness as finite. The point is that this type of finiteness is (a) similar to the others in that it is finite, but (b) different in that it is a different kind of finiteness from the other types.

2. We saw that this is at least theoretically possible in discussing the mystical experience in the beginning of the preceding chapter. But the point here is that this would be a unique type of "appearance," unlike any other; any other one has to be a definite one in order to be an appearance.

3. We are excluding here the unique case of the cause of the "infinite" appearance of the mystical experience. Presumably, the cause here would have to be non-finite.

4. This does not imply, by the way, that the Infinite is the only existence (or being) that there is, and finite beings are "parts" of Him. He is the being that is equal to what existence in itself is; other beings are existences that fall short of the fulness of existence. But I will not burden you here with the reasoning needed to prove this.