Saturday, 1 January 2011

The nature of existence

I'm working on a study guide on the philosophical principles found in Some Answered Questions. The book is structured according to answers to questions, but running through the answers is a system of thought, which gets lost in the question-answer structure. I've tried here to bring that system out.

Below is a draft of chapter 1, "The nature of existence". I expect to fill it out with more detail in the final version. But I thought I'd put it up at this stage to show what I'm up to and because the material is interesting even now, I think.

The numbers in brackets refer to chapters in Some Answered Questions from which the referenced material is drawn.

Comments welcome.

The nature of existence

The three conditions and worlds of existence

There are three conditions of existence:
- divinity - the existence of God
- prophethood - the existence of the manifestations
- servitude - the existence of creation. (62)

This means that there are three kinds of existence or degrees of existence.

Each of these conditions of existence has a corresponding world of existence:
- the world of God
- the world of the Kingdom
- the world of creation. (82)

The reality of existence in each of the three worlds is different.

The conditions of existence place limits on the way a thing can develop. A human being, who is created in and for the world of creation, can never develop into a manifestation, and a manifestation can never develop to a state of perfection equivalent to that of God. (37)

The lower cannot comprehend the higher

Abdu'l-Baha asserts the following principle: (37)

That which is lower cannot comprehend that which is higher.

In terms of the three worlds of existence, this principle means that human beings cannot understand the world of God or the world of prophethood. Humans have no idea what it means to say that God 'exists' in the world of God, nor can humans comprehend the reality of prophethood in the manifestations.

This principle also applies to the various levels of existence found within the world of creation; for example, the mineral world cannot comprehend the vegetable world, the vegetable world cannot understand the animal world, and animals cannot understand the intellectual powers of human beings.

The world of God is beyond attributes

As explained above, the reality of divinity is a realm of existence that we cannot understand. Because of this, whatever the characteristics of that world are, we cannot know them. (37)

However, humans can witness signs, reflections and appearances of God in the world of creation. We commonly refer to the perfections of God that we witness in this world as the names and attributes of God. But these names and attributes are not the actual perfections of God, for whatever those are we cannot understand them.

God is the source of all perfection but is not limited to perfection as it is manifested in the lower worlds of existence. Therefore, when we say that God has names and attributes such as the Generous and the Merciful, we do not assert that God is generous and merciful, we assert that God is not capable of being miserly and mean. We are not describing God's perfections, but denying that God has any imperfection. (37)

The object of existence is the appearance of the perfections of God. (50)

The names and attributes need beings

Abdu'l-Baha asserts the following principle: (47, 80)

The names and attributes of God require the existence of beings.

By this is meant that the names and attributes need beings to display the characteristics of their perfections. In practical terms, this means that, for a person to be a lover, they need a beloved; for a person to be a teacher, they need a pupil and so on. If there is no being on which the characteristics of the perfection is manifested, then the perfection cannot be witnessed in reality.

Absolute non-existence cannot become existence

Abdu'l-Baha asserts the following principle: (47, 80)

Absolute non-existence cannot become existence.

If beings were once absolutely non-existent, then existence would not come into being. This is because absolute non-existence does not have the capacity for existence.

Creation has always existed

Based on the two principles outlined above, Abdu'l-Baha explains that creation has always existed; that is, it does not have a beginning, and, for the same reasons, does not have an end. (47)

Firstly, based on the principle that the names and attributes require beings, if God is to be assigned the names Creator, Pre-existent and Everlasting, there must be a corresponding creation that has always existed and always will exist in some form or other. To imagine a time when beings did not exist is to imagine an imperfection in God - that there was once a time when God was not a creator.

Secondly, if absolute non-existence cannot become existence, then existence must always have been a reality in some form or another.

Original matter was arranged into infinite forms

The first things to exist were created from matter, which was one. (47) The different aspects of matter appeared in different elements and this produced various forms. Over a very long time, these elements became permanent and specialised, and were combined and arranged, according to a natural organisation and universal law, into infinite forms and beings.

Existence and non-existence are relative

The concepts of existence and non-existence are relative. To say that a thing has come into existence from non-existence is to say that the condition it was in before was a condition of 'nothingness' compared to what it is now. But that 'nothingness' is not absolute non-existence. (80)

For example, man comes into existence from dust. Both man and dust exist. (80) But in relation to each other, man exists and dust does not - dust in relation to man is 'nothingness'. Similarly, when a person's body no longer 'exists', that means it has passed back into dust.

Things develop by passing from one level of existence to another.

Existence is in motion

Abdu'l-Baha asserts the following principle (63):

All things are in motion.

Nothing stays in the same state. This means that the process whereby elements combine, disassociate, recombine and bring about changes in form, is going on all the time in all things.

This state of motion is essential - that is, natural - to all things. It cannot be separated from them.

All that is composed of elements must decompose

Abdu'l-Baha asserts the following principle (47):

All that is composed of elements is subject to decomposition.

Every composition, collective or particular, must of necessity be decomposed. Some quickly decompose, others more slowly. It is impossible that a composed thing should not eventually be decomposed.

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