This blog is for the philosophically minded. One of the common experiences I have had in discussing “arguments for God’s existence” with non-believers is a common-misunderstanding projected into the arguments themselves. So I would like to offer an attitude that might help atheists assess scholastic arguments in a different way than perhaps they are familiar. I don’t mean to imply that they have not understood the position properly, rather I might suggest that things have been explained to them incorrectly, and therefore their disagreement with such arguments might have been reasonable.
When we use the term “God” there is often, within our own mind, some assumed definition that we are working with. I’d like to, in the name of Socrates begin this blog by stripping away some of those assumed definitions in order to fairly assess scholastic arguments. First, it is important to consider the language we use, which frames perhaps even the unconscious assumptions we project into the arguments.
If we consider the etymology of “definition” we realize that anything which can be defined, must necessarily be finite. To put-limits (de-finite) on something is a very reasonable thing to do, because it tells us what something is, and it can help us establish the specific difference between that and something else. Concepts themselves are not infinite – because they have definitions. Therefore if anyone has a “concept” of God it will always be incorrect. It is irrational to ask for a definition of that which is not finite; that is a non-definite definition.
“If you cannot speak of God conceptually, what is the point of even addressing His existence?”
To speak of something which cannot be conceptualized is to speak of nothing. As a result, philosophical agnostics/atheists will argue that further conversation is as meaningless as discussing a circle-square (something impossible or intrinsically irrational). This is an absolutely fair point, but again misunderstands the scholastic tradition itself. Often in my experience we sometimes assess the possibility of things according to two categories: it either is conceptual or it is non-cognitive. However, what is required in order to at least understand the scholastic tradition, one has to be willing to see the discussion in a less of a narrow way, by adding a third way of discussing God.
St. Thomas Aquinas, having been influenced by writings of Aristotle and the Islamic understanding of Aristotle explains that there are really three basic ways to address any subject: univocal, analogical, and negatively.
Plato and Socrates certainly were able to speak about Justice and Piety in this manner of speech. They were good at stripping away what was “false” of Justice. None of this implied to Socrates that Justice itself didn’t exist. Rather if one could authentically say what Justice-was-not, it did not mean that Justice itself did not exist. To be able to declare that something was not justice meant that there was some principle at work in Justice-itself, that made it possible to deny what was false of it. Nonetheless, one might argue that to say something is not justice, does not of itself prove that justice exists. So to many, while this point can certainly be argued, negative proof isn’t sufficient for belief.
However what can be done in this regard is to speak of the temporal (created or finite or contingent) universe and say what it is not capable of according to reasoning. So for instance, we might say that a billiard ball will not move itself, but that some external cause will move it. In saying, “some external cause” we have not finally named some-thing specific, but we have said what cannot happen to that particular billiard ball, in-itself. Therefore, when speaking of the universe in general, excluding itself as a cause for its own existence, we can conclude that some subject, which is not itself the universe, must be responsible for the universe- itself. In other words we are saying that all-things-themselves cannot themselves be responsible for their own existence. One can suggest that something extrinsic is necessary, without submitting a definition for that which is extrinsic. We in fact do it all the time.
This could be explained in more depth, but it is not really what I’d prefer to zero in on.
Normally the confusion begins with assuming this type of talk about God. It is the number one reason why false-similes are often used to demonstrate an apparent irrational belief in God. We hear of flying spaghetti monsters or unicorns and the like, for which there is no epistemological evidence. These similes hide within themselves a presupposed definition to God where He can be spoken of as if he is definable like such fictional characters. Pagan gods were often associated with elements in nature or in human relationships, and thus distinguishable from other things. But the “burning-bush”, suggests Aquinas, offers us a totally new notion of God that is not equal or univocal to the other pagan gods, or any creature or thing. Aquinas explains that there is a difference between a “thing” and God which is not-a-thing. What might someone antagonistically argue in response? They might say, “so God is nothing…case closed.” But again this reveals a very black-and-white approach that assumes its own conclusion. We must not be content with such an objection that on the surface seems witty, but in reality demonstrates an inability to understand the scholastic tradition. I am not suggesting that one must agree with the scholastic tradition, but rather that one must be willing to see its position properly.
When God said to Moses, “I am who I am,” Aquinas explained that God revealed very little about who He was, and yet at the same-time a great deal. He revealed that His essence was His existence – that will be explained below. The Jews, earlier-on were considered to adhere to Monolatry, which is to ascribe to the worship of one god among many. But when God spoke to Moses in the burning Bush he revealed Monotheism instead, whereby God was not definable (he had no name). Of course, the paradox then began to form where God’s name was that He had no name/definition. Why would the Jews find this to be something to brag about? It demonstrated that God was utterly transcendent of definition/genus. It was not to suggest that God did not have a name because He didn’t exist, but rather He didn’t have a definition because He was in/non-finite. And therefore we can establish that two realities can be spoken of in a manner that they have no definition: that which is not, and that which is, yet different than that which is-and-is-finite.
We must then consider how we speak of “things,” things that don’t exists, and that which is not a thing (if we can assume thing here means a definable reality), yet is real. Things are spoken of within a temporal framework, that is “here, there, where, when” etc.. The castle is over there, my mother is at home, my brother is tall, and I am sitting down. But what we cannot do is say that God is over-there, and He is 6 feet tall, in my mother’s house. All of a sudden we have collapsed God into quantitative realities that are finite and limited, and thus begun to treat God as if He has finite dimensions.
So how can we discuss God at all, if not through finite concepts used univocally? I suppose in one sense we cannot, because all language is made up of words that are connected to concepts which have definitions. And yet philosophers, theologians, and believers have written any number of books, most especially sacred texts. Isn’t that hypocritical? It is as if the language is meant to be interpreted as absolute, final, and definite. But if it is non-exhaustive or analogical, then it is acceptable.
Any word used and attributed to God, will automatically be insufficient and incapable of finally explaining/summarizing God. But that does not mean it isn’t speaking a truth about God, it just means that whatever we are saying is always going to be incomplete. This is challenging to the human person, because we are seemingly wired to have a definition of whatever subject we are discussing. However, if we can accept that God is infinite, we must understand that it is unreasonable to expect our finite-mind to contain something infinite. It would be like trying to fit an ocean into a wine-glass, except the ocean is infinitely larger than Earth’s.
Therefore, there is some rational basis in accepting the fact that our mind cannot contain God through what logicians would call self-evident arguments or ontological proofs. But if we can get past our need to submit all knowledge to our own finite-mind, then we can begin to appreciate analogical language which offers us insight that is non-exhaustive but nonetheless true. This is the middle-position between univocal language and negative language, whereby we can apply a concept to God, but only sacramentally or analogically. Like saying: food is good, health is good, and God is good, but infinitely.
Where do we go wrong?
After the protestant reformation a new way of looking at God developed which had been developing prior to the reformation. It is what some might call deism, whereby God created the universe, wound it up, and watched it, remotely, unfold. This, I would say has shaped many minds in both theology and atheism in terms of how we conceptualize discussions about God.
On the one hand, the validation of God as being extrinsic to the universe seems to be similar to the scholastic tradition. But I would argue that deism doesn’t argue for a true extrinsic God, but in fact a temporal type of extrinsic (remote) relation. For instance, one might say that I am extrinsic to my house, since I am at the store. Yet both my house and I are temporal. But when you say that God is extrinsic to the universe-itself (or all-things), you are saying something quite different. You are suggesting that God is extrinsic to extension and temporal realities in general. In other words, deism treats God as if he is extrinsic to the universe is a temporal way, which ends up containing within itself an inherent contradiction or perhaps equivocation with the term “universe.” Treating God as if he were an object or thing, greater than the universe, is still nonetheless to treat Him as if He has a definition. Some reformers understood this contradiction, but walked around it by suggesting that faith did not need to be tested by reason, and therefore God was capable of contradicting reason. This is when fundamentalism became all the more popular within the Christian communities, and what we might call fideism and rationalism were born as a result.
St. John Paul II, who follows Aquinas (scholasticism) and a phenomenological approach to the question of faith in relation to reason. He explained that both need to be in dialogue with one another, whereby reason can prevent faith from degenerating into superstition and faith can help prevent reason from degenerating into idolatry of the human-mind (treating the mind as if it is infinite). Filling-in-the-gaps is often associated with the fideistic tradition because one decides to make reason justify one’s faith at whatever cost, which can amount to nothing more than an internal system with few epistemic foundations that ground the belief fairly. Aquinas taught that if anything interpreted in scripture was ever disproven by science that would imply that our interpretation of that passage had been misunderstood, and was meant to be understood in an allegorical manner instead. The view that the Church had long held onto a fundamentalist view of scripture has heavily influenced non-believer’s view of the relation between faith and reason, an unfortunate result of both fundamentalism and an a-historical account of the Galileo episode. In the Galileo episode, the Church did not so much contend with the conclusions of Galileo but rather his methodology which scientists have admitted was very problematic. His approach was imperfect, as he ascribed to the tide of the ocean as justification for the heliocentric model. Furthermore, he began to publicly decry scripture as infallible at a time after the protestant reformation when the Church was trying to explain its view of scripture to fundamentalists.
The view which suggests infallibility without adhering to a literalistic model. The infallibility of scripture was communicated both through poetry (Psalms), through stories (with a mixture of historical truth and fictive), and historical accounts. This had been long understood by the Church Fathers in the onset of the Church’s existence, and the writers of scripture who took pagan stories (such as Creation, the great flood, and so on) and tweaked, during enslavement in Babylon was an attempt communicate their own theology through redeeming their own stories. Think of remade movies that offer a different twist to convey a new ideology that either contradicts one in the previous film or makes the issue more relevant to what is currently taking place in the world. This type of authorship of scripture respects the very human-dimensions of authorship and does not apply a dictatorial approach to scripture which is both unrealistic and problematic. The point of the story is to convey a message, a truth, whether it is historical, poetic or fictive or a mix of both. It’s that message that is infallible. This is why when atheists or liberal theologians who seek to deny infallibility, take passages and oppose them to each other superficially, it doesn’t even begin to touch Catholic theology. The reason is that moral truths also involve taking into consideration context, where in one case killing is wrong, but in another case might not be. The absoluteness of morality is not relativized but the complexity of moral situations and the application of immutable principles is respected and demonstrated in scripture.
Understanding God’s revelation to Moses about His holy name is key because it is a great example of how reason and faith intersect on this particular subject. As I stated earlier, God reveals that He doesn’t have a name; of course the Jews take an ironic step by making God’s namelessness His name. They begin to boast of a God who, unlike all other gods, cannot be summarized, explained, defined or controlled by our own conceptualizations. This is true and genuine transcendence that the Jews uphold, and it might seem to make God more distant, but in fact it does the exact opposite if understood properly.
Consider the burning bush an illustration from God of both his transcendence and presence. God’s transcendence is not to be understood like that of the deistic model; that would just place God far out in outer space. Rather, God’s transcendence means his mode-of-existence differs from our own. When the Bush is burning, without itself being consumed this becomes an illustration of who God is. God, as Bishop Robert Barron suggests, exists in non-competitive relationship with His creation. All things are generally in competition with each other, since two objects cannot occupy the same space. Generally fire consumes what it burns, but in the case of God, he can both be present to something, and not destroy it in the process.
How can we understand this notion? Aquinas uses Aristotelian language to explain it. He explains that “God’s essence is His existence.” Or that God is the shear act-to-exist. To many this sounds either entirely absurd or panentheistic. It is neither to the scholastic. God is not the “sum-total of beings” which would be properly considered panentheism. It is not absurd either, because the explanation is not self-contradictory.
Generally when speaking of things we differentiate between their essence and their existence. A thing is its essence, and its essence has existence. That is to say that a pen has a definition (essence), and that essence either exists at a certain time or place or doesn’t. This implies that all things that exist do not explain themselves. If a thing has the potential to not exist, then when it does exist, it must be explainable. In other words, if it could-not-be, why is it?
This brings us to Aquinas argument from contingency which many have interpreted to be reducible to a question of mere local-motion. However, the question pertains to a different type of motion that we might call essential-motion or necessary motion of that which is contingent (that which isn’t self-explanatory).
What we realize from all of this is that all things which are their essence but not their existence (the entire universe) they cannot explain themselves. God on the other hand, as we have stated previously is not a contingent being, and as explained to Moses “He is who He is.” But furthermore, God’s essence-is-his existence. That is to say that God is suggested to not merely be something that has existence (that would only prolong the problem of contingency), but rather is the shear-act-to exist.
To many this would be confusing because we cannot conceptualize what that “looks-like.” What does “existence-itself” look like? Again the human mind, out of habit, is trying to conceptualize something that cannot be conceptualized. The mind is trying to think of something parallel to that which has no parallel or synonym. But it might help to consider the relationship between those things which “have-existence” to that which “is-existence.” That is to say that those things which “have-existence” are in fact “participating in God’s own essence.” Just like the burning bush was not consumed by the fire, so a human person’s existence is compatible with God, who is existence-itself.
This presents an entirely different notion of creation than the deistic model. Instead of God standing outside of existence in a temporal manner, God’s creation becomes intimately present to all things via concomitance and dependence. This means that to a God that is a-temporal creation is not something that happened, but is something that continues to happen in the moment. And while things have a nature of their own and a linear projection, that whole process is held up by God. In my experience this is where most people check out because they are emotionally invested in only understanding the deistic model.
I suppose the hope of this blog was not really to convince anyone – but rather to merely inform others of a genuine understanding of an alternative view in regard to the rational basis for belief in God. If that was accomplished, at least dialogue that isn’t slowed down by equivocation or misinterpretation. Perhaps we could speak to more fundamental questions in regard to essence or the form of things, contingency in light of quantum mechanics and string-theory.