The following is the beginning of my attempt to explain the ideas of pre-existence that Abdu'l-Baha discusses in chapter 80 of Some Answered Questions: "Real Pre-existence". It's not finished, but is enough to make a worthy blog entry. It is certainly meaty! Heaven knows, I saw stars trying to work it out.
Principles of pre-existence
Pre-existence of cause and time
Pre-existence refers to the idea of something existing before something else.
There are two ways to look at pre-existence:
- in terms of cause: A existed before B in that A caused B; for example, your mother came before you in that she gave birth to you.
- in terms of time: A existed before B because it preceded it in time; for example, the 19th century came before the 20th century.
Essential pre-existence and temporal pre-existence
Abdu'l-Baha divided pre-existence into two kinds: essential pre-existence and temporal pre-existence. These relate to the two ways of looking at pre-existence explained above. Essential pre-existence is to do with cause and temporal pre-existence is to do with time.
Essential pre-existence or pre-existence of essence
Abdu'l-Baha defines essential pre-existence as an existence that is not preceded by a cause.
The word 'essential' here is used in a philosophical way to mean a characteristic that is "guaranteed by the identity of the subject; necessary" (The Free Online Dictionary). In other words, an essential characteristic is a characteristic that is guaranteed to be a part of a thing's identity. For example, light and heat are essential attributes of the sun. If the sun did not give out light and heat, it would not be the sun.
If a thing is essentially pre-existent, this means that pre-existence is a necessary aspect of what that thing is. By definition, it 'pre-exists' or always already existed. It did not rely on anything else to bring it into being. It has no cause.
Temporal pre-existence or pre-existence of time
Abdu'l-Baha defines temporal pre-existence as an existence that is without a beginning.
A thing that is temporally pre-existent is a thing that has always existed, stretching back throughout all eternity.
Absolute and relative pre-existence
The concept of pre-existence can also be looked at in terms of absolute pre-existence and relative pre-existence.
Absolute pre-existence refers to the pre-existence of God. In philosophy, the idea of an absolute refers to the qualities of "perfection, completeness, universality, non-relativity, exemption from limitation or qualification, unconditionality". (Dagobert D. Runes, "Dictionary of Philosophy") Therefore, with absolute pre-existence, the quality of pre-existence is perfect, complete and without limitation. This is impossible for a created thing; it refers to God's pre-existence.
In contrast, relative pre-existence refers to pre-existence as between created things. The word 'relative' means "relational or pertaining to relations" (Dictionary of Philosophy). Therefore, relative pre-existence is about how created things are pre-existent in relation to each other.
For example, Abdu'l-Baha cites the example of the sun and its rays. The sun in relation to its rays is said to be an essential pre-existence. There is an unequal relationship between them: the rays are dependent on the sun for their existence, but the sun is independent, for it does not rely on its rays for its existence. The sun pre-exists, or always already exists, from the point of view of its rays.
But although the sun is said to be essentially pre-existent in relation to its rays, it is not in itself essentially pre-existent. It has a cause. It is not absolutely pre-existent, only relatively so.