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Of Being

Scientific Writings by Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

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Of Being – Edwards talks about the infinite and omniscient being.

That there should absolutely be nothing at all is utterly impossible. The mind can never, let it stretch its conceptions never so much, bring itself to conceive of a state of perfect nothing. It puts the mind into mere convulsion and confusion to endeavor to think of such a state. And it contradicts the very nature of the soul to think that it should be. And it is the greatest contradiction and the aggregate of all contradictions to say that there should not be. ’Tis true we can’t so distinctly show the contradiction by words, because we cannot talk about it without speaking horrid nonsense and contradicting ourselves at every word, and because ‘nothing’ is that whereby we distinctly show other particular contradictions. But here we are run up to our first principle and have no other to explain the nothingness, or not being of nothing by. Indeed we can mean nothing else by ‘nothing’ but a state of absolute contradiction. And if any man thinks that he can think well enough how there should be nothing, I’ll engage that what he means by nothing is as much something as anything that ever he thought of in his life. And I believe that if he knew what nothing was, it would be intuitively evident to him that it could not be. So that we see it is necessary some being should eternally be. And ’tis a more palpable contradiction still to say that there must be being somewhere and not other where; for the words ‘absolute nothing’ and ‘where’ contradict each other. And besides, it gives as great a shock to the mind to think of pure nothing being in any one place as it does to think of it in all. And it is self-evident that there can be nothing in one place as well as in another; and so, if there can be in one there can be in all. So that we see this necessary, eternal being must be infinite and omnipresent.

This infinite and omnipresent being cannot be solid. Let us see how contradictory it is to say that infinite being is solid. For solidity surely is nothing but resistance to other solidifies. Space is this necessary, eternal, infinite, and omnipresent being. *1* We find that we can with ease conceive how all other beings should not be. We can remove them out of our minds and place some other in the room of them, but space is the very thing that we can never remove and conceive of its not being. If a man would imagine space anywhere to be divided so as there should be nothing between the divided parts, there remains space between, notwithstanding. And so the man contradicts himself. And it is self-evident, I believe, to every man that space is necessary, eternal, infinite, and omnipresent. But I had as good speak plain. I have already said as much as that space is God. *2* And it is indeed clear to me that all the space there is, not proper to body, all the space there is without the bounds of the creation, all the space there was before the creation, is God Himself. And nobody would in the least stick at it if it were not because of the gross conceptions we have of space.


Of all prejudices no one so fights with natural philosophy and prevails more against it than that of imagination. ’Tis that which make the vulgar so roar out upon the mention of some very rational philosophical truths. And indeed I have known of some very learned men that have pretended to a more than ordinary freedom from such prejudices so overcome by them, that merely because of them they have believed things most absurd. And truly I hardly know of any other prejudices that are more powerful against truth of any kind than this. And I believe it will not give the lead to any, in any case, except those arising from our ruling self-interest or the impetuosity of human passions. And there is very good reason for it. For opinions arising from imagination take us as soon as we are born, are beat into us by every act of sensation, and so grow up with us from our very births, and by that means grow into us so fast that it is almost impossible to root them out, being, as it were, so incorporated with our very minds that whatsoever is objected to them, contrary thereunto, is as if it were different to the very constitution of them. Hence men come to make what they can actually perceive by their senses or by immediate reflection into their own souls the standard of possibility and impossibility: so that there must be no body forsooth bigger than they can conceive of or less than they can see with their eyes, nor motion either much swifter or slower than they can imagine. As for the greatness of bodies or distances, the learned world have pretty well conquered their imagination with respect to that; neither will anybody flatly deny that it is possible for bodies to be of any degree of bigness that can be mentioned. Yet imaginations of this kind among the learned themselves, even of this learned age, hath a very powerful secret influence to cause them either to reject things really true as enormously false or to embrace things that are truly so. Thus some men will yet say they cannot conceive how the fixed stars can be so distant as that the earth’s annual revolution should cause no parallax among them, and so are almost ready to fall back into antiquated Ptolemy, his system, merely to ease their imagination. Thus also, on the other [hand], a very learned man and sagacious astronomer, upon consideration of the vast magnitude of the visible part of the world, has in the ecstasy of his imagination been hurried on to pronounce the world infinite. Which, I may say out of veneration, was beneath such a man as he. As if it were any more an argument, because what he could see of the universe wasn’t so big as he was assured it was — and suppose he had discovered the visible world, so vast as it is, to be as a globule of water to another, the case is the same — I say, as if it would have been any more of an argument that it was infinite, than if the visible part thereof were no bigger than a particle of the water of this! I think one is no nearer to infinite than the other. To remedy this prejudice I will, as the best method I can think of, demonstrate two or three physical theorem[s] which, I believe, if they are clearly understood, will put every man clean out of conceit with his imagination. In order thereunto these two are prerequisite, as:

First, Proposition 1. There is no degree of swiftness of motion whatsoever but what is possible. That you may not doubt of this, suppose any long piece of matter to move round any point or center, to which one end shall be fixed, with any given degree of velocity. Now that part of this piece of matter that is farthest from the center to which one end is fixed must move swiftest. And then suppose this piece of matter to be lengthened out, and that part of it that moved swiftest before to move on still with the same degree of velocity, ’tis evident that the farther end moves swifter than the farther end did before by so much as the piece of matter is longer. And suppose it to be made longer still, the farther end moves still just so much swifter. So that, as the parcel of matter can be protracted to any degree of length whatsoever, so the farther end of it can be moved with any degree of swiftness whatsoever. So that there is no degree of swiftness whatsoever but what is possible.

Secondly, Proposition 2. (see Figure 1) There may be bodies of any indefinite degree of smallness. Let two perfect spheres, A and B, touch each other in some point of their surfaces, at I. ’Tis evident that there can be a globule of matter just so big as to reach from the surface of one sphere to the surface of the other sphere at any given distance from the point of contact, I, suppose at e, let the spheres be greater or smaller. Since therefore that the distance of between the surface of one sphere to the surface of the other is less according as the spheres are greater, and since the touching spheres can be of any degree of magnitude, and since consequently the distance og can be of any degree of smallness, and since the body that fills up that distance is small accordingly, it follows that there can be a body of any degree of smallness. N.B. This I take to be all that is meant by the divisibility of matter in infinitum.

Proposition 3. That it is possible for a body as small as a ray of light to strike the surface of a body as big as the earth, or any indefinite magnitude — supposing it be hard enough to hold the stroke — so as to impel it along with any indefinite degree of swiftness. Let the laws of gravity and motion be mentioned and let it be a postulatum inserted that these laws hold universally in all bodies great or small at how great distance soever and however disproportionate.

Postulatum 2. (see Figure 2) That there may be bodies of any indefinite degree of smallness, that is, in any of these infinite divisions of matter it is possible that matter or body may extend so far as the extremes of that part and no farther, and that this part will be a distinct body. For instance, let the body AB be by you supposed to be as small as ’tis possible for a body to be. No doubt but there is a middle between the two extremes of that body, how small soever it is, at C. Now we mean that ’tis possible that matter may not extend any further than to the extremes of the half of that body, in fact only from B to C. So that ’tis possible there may be a body smaller than AB, however small that is.
Postulatum 3. That there is no degree of swiftness of motion whatever but what is possible. For instance, suppose the body AB to be fixed at the point B and to move round the point B in an hour. If the body AB be made as long again, yet ’tis possible it may be moved round in an hour. So, let it be made never so long, then it is manifest that the longer it is the swifter doth the further extreme move.

Postulatum 4. (see Figure 3) That the separating of bodies, or the parts of bodies that touch each other, is always by divulsion, or pulling asunder. That is, if of the body AD the parts AC, CD [are separated], it must be by force pulling one from the other. It cannot be by protrusion because nothing can be between them at that very place where they touch before they are separated. Thus if A we suppose them to be separated by the driving in a wedge at C, yet the parts must be separated before the wedge could get between them. Not but that protrusion or impulsion in another place might cause, the divulsion in that. Or if we suppose the parts of the body AD to be broken thus let the two ends A and D baited, laid upon two other bodies G, H, and broken by the striking of the body O in the middle, at C — even then ’tis manifest that the parts AC and CD were pulled asunder. The extreme e of AC was pulled from the extreme f of CD. This is all I mean by divulsion.

Postulatum 5. (see Figure 4) A body, everywhere in every other respect equal in there being a possibility of separating the parts, may be most easily separated where ’tis least. For instance, the body IK may be more easily pulled in two at L than at M. And it is least where ’tis most easily separated.

Postulatum 6. A body whose parts may be separated by such a degree of force, that same body still retaining the same degree of inseparableness, or another body with an equal degree of inseparableness will evermore be separated when that degree of force is applied.

Postulatum 7. (see Figure 5)Every body and every part of body has length and breadth and thickness. Suppose the body AB to be an absolute plenum and the parts AC and CB to be frustrums of a cone. I say the parts of this body could never be separated. To prove which, let us suppose it separable. Let us suppose it fixed at B and every part pulled with equal force towards A. ’Tis manifest by the 5 postulate that it will break first at C. Let there be another absolute plenum DB being a cone equal that of which CB was the frustrum. Let it be fixed at B and every part of it be pulled with A equal force towards D, and with a force equal to that which broke the body AB at C. ’Tis manifest by the 6 postulate that the body DB would be broken at C where ’tis equal to C of the body AB. But if so it would also be broken by the same force in every point betwix D and C by the fifth postulate because in every point it is less than at C. But this is impossible; for if it break at every point the broken parts have no length, breadth, and thickness, contrary to 7 postulate. Such a breaking would be annihilation. All these are certain consequences from the supposition that the parts AC and CB of the body AB can be pulled asunder; but we see that these are impossible, therefore that

Again, let the cylinder EF be an absolute plenum and fixed at F and let all the parts be pulled towards E with equal force. (see Figure 6) I say that with how great force soever it is pulled it will nowhere break. If it break it will break either in some part only or in every point. Not in some parts only and not in others, for, if so, it will be because some parts were more easily broken than others — for it is supposed that the force is equal everywhere — but some parts would not be more easily broken than others by the 5 postulate; not in every point, for then ’tis manifest the broken parts would be without length, breadth, and thickness.

Neither can be any such thing without consciousness. How is it possible there should something be from all eternity and there be no consciousness of it? It will appear very plain to everyone that intensely considers of it that consciousness and being are the same thing exactly. And how doth it grate upon the mind to think that something should be from all eternity, and nothing all the while be conscious of it? Let us suppose, to illustrate it, that the world had a being from all eternity, and had many great changes and wonderful revolutions, and all the while nothing knew; there was no knowledge in the universe of any such thing. How is it possible to bring the mind to imagine — yea, it is really impossible it should be — that anything should be and nothing know it. Then you’ll say, if it be so it is because nothing has any existence anywhere else but in consciousness. No, certainly nowhere else but either in created or uncreated consciousness.
Supposing there were another universe, only of bodies created at a great distance from this, created in excellent order and harmonious motions and a beautiful variety, and there was no created intelligence in it, nothing but senseless bodies, nothing but God knew anything of it: I demand in what respect this world has a being but only in the divine consciousness. Certainly in no respect. There would be figures and magnitudes, and motions and proportions — but where? Where else but in the Almighty’s knowledge? How is it possible there should? Then you’ll say, for the same reason a room close shut up, that nobody sees, can have nothing in it; there is nothing any other way than in God’s knowledge. I answer, created beings are conscious of the effects of what is in the room, for perhaps there is not one leaf of a tree nor spire of grass but what has effects all over the universe, and will have to the end of eternity. But any otherwise there is nothing in a room shut up but only in God’s consciousness. How can anything be there any other way? This will appear to be truly so to anyone that thinks of it with the whole united strength of his mind. Let us suppose, for illustration, this impossibility, that all the spirits in the universe be for a time deprived of their consciousness, and God’s consciousness at the same time be intermitted. I say the universe for that time would cease to be, of itself; and not only, as we speak, the Almighty could not attend to uphold the world, but because God knew nothing of it. ’Tis our foolish imagination that will not suffer us to see. We fancy there may be figures and magnitudes, relations and properties, without anyone’s knowing of it. But it is our imagination hurts us. We don’t know what figures and properties are.

Our imagination makes us fancy we see shapes and colors and magnitudes though nobody is there to behold it. But to help our imagination let us thus state the case: let us suppose this world deprived of every ray of light so that there should not be the least glimmering of light in the universe. Now all will own that in such case the universe would be immediately really deprived of all its colors; one part of the universe is no more red, or blue, or green, or yellow, or black, or white, or light, or dark, or transparent, or opaque. There would be no visible distinction between this world and the rest of the incomprehensible void. Yea, there would be no difference in these respects between the world and the infinite void. That is, any part of that void would really be as light and as dark, as white and as black, as red and green, as blue and as brown, as transparent and as opaque as any part of the universe.
Or, as there would be in such case no difference between the world and nothing in these respects, so there would be no difference between one part of the world and another. All, in these respects, is alike confounded with and undistinguishable from infinite emptiness.

At the same time also, let us suppose the universe to be altogether deprived of motion and all parts of it to be at perfect rest (the former supposition is indeed included in this but we distinguish them for better clearness); then the universe would not differ from the void in this respect. There will be no more motion in one than the other. Then also solidity would cease. All that we mean, or can be meant, by solidity is resistance, resistance to touch, the resistance of some parts of space. This is all the knowledge we get of solidity by our senses and, I am sure, all that we can get any other way. But solidity shall be shown to be nothing else, more fully hereafter. But there can be no resistance if there is no motion. One body can’t resist another when there is perfect rest amongst them. But you’ll say, though there is not actual resistance yet there is potential existence [resistance?], that is, such and such part of space would resist upon occasion. But this is all I would have, that there is no solidity now, not but that God would cause there to be on occasion. And if there is no solidity there is no extension, for extension is the extendedness of the solidity. Then all figure, and magnitude, and proportion immediately ceases.

Put both these suppositions together, that is, deprive the world of light and motion, and the case would stand thus with the world. There would [be] neither white nor black, neither blue nor brown, bright nor shaded pellucid nor opaque, no noise or sound, neither heat nor cold, neither fluid, nor wet nor dry, hard nor soft, nor solidity, nor extension, nor figure, nor magnitude, nor proportion, nor body, nor spirit. What then is become of the universe? Certainly it exists nowhere but in the divine mind. This will be abundantly clearer to one after having read what I have further to say of solidity, etc., so that we see that a world without motion can exist nowhere else but in the mind, either infinite or finite.
Corollary. It follows from hence that those beings which have knowledge and consciousness are the only proper and real and substantial beings, inasmuch as the being of other things is only by these. From hence we may see the gross mistake of those who think material things the most substantial beings and spirits more like a shadow, whereas spirits only are properly substances.

A state of absolute nothing is a state of absolute contradiction. Absolute nothing is the aggregate of all the absurd contradictions in the world, a state wherein there is neither body, nor spirit, nor space, neither empty space nor full space, neither little nor great, narrow nor broad, neither infinitely great space nor finite space, nor a mathematical point, neither up nor down, neither north nor south. I don’t mean as it is with respect to the body of the earth or some other great body, but no contrary points nor positions or directions, no such thing as either here or there, this way or that way, or only one way. When we go about to form an idea of perfect nothing we must shut out all these things. We must shut out of our minds both space that has something in it and space that has nothing in it. We must not allow ourselves to think of the least part of space, never so small. Nor must we suffer our thoughts to take sanctuary in a mathematical point. When we go to expel body out of our thoughts we must be sure not to leave empty space in the room of it; and when we go to expel emptiness from our thoughts we must not think to squeeze it over by anything close, hard, and solid, but we must think of the same that the sleeping rocks dream of. And not till then shall we get a complete idea of nothing.

A state of nothing is a state wherein every proposition in Euclid is not true, nor any of those self-evident maxims by which they are demonstrated; and all of the eternal truths are neither true nor false.

When we go to enquire whether or no there can be absolutely nothing, we speak nonsense in enquiring. The stating of the question is nonsense because we make a disjunction where there is none. Either being or absolute nothing is no disjunction, no more than whether a triangle is a triangle or not a triangle. There is no other way but only for there to be existence. There is no such thing as absolute nothing. There is such a thing as nothing with respect to this ink and paper. There is such a thing as nothing with respect to you and me. There is such a thing as nothing with respect to this globe of earth and with respect to this created universe. There is another way besides these things having existence but there is no such thing as nothing with respect to entity, ‘being’ absolutely considered. We don’t know what we say if we say we think it possible in itself that there should not be entity.

Consider the following two works by Edwards that have been updated and republished for easy reading:

Ripe for Damnation: Sermons on the Book of Revelation – by Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). Are you hungry for more of Edwards’ sermons? On the book of Revelation? These new works are not found anywhere on A Puritan’s Mind, and there are new ones not found in his large 2 volume works. 4 deal with the plight of the wicked, and 2 deal with the bliss of saints in heaven. These sermons are powerful, practical, and biblical, glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ, and contain 2 never before published sermons.

Justification by Faith Alone – by Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). In this classic work, Edwards covers the intricacies of how believers are made righteous only through Christ’s merits, and that this justifying righteousness is equally imputed to all elect believers. This is accomplished by the condition of faith as an instrument.

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