Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers

Praeambula Fidei: Thomism and the God of the Philosophers

by Ralph McInerny

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Praeambula Fidei


Copyright © 2006

The Catholic University of America Press
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ISBN: 978-0-8132-1458-0

Chapter One Introduction

A Bit of a Paradox

It would be too much to say that it is only religious believers who are interested in proofs of God's existence. But it is the rare unbeliever who holds that such proofs work, whereas most believing philosophers have argued for the soundness of a proof or proofs of God's existence. In fairness, it should be added that other believers-until recently all of them Protestants-reject the notion that there is a way whereby sinful man can arrive at truth about God, even simply that he exists, by unaided human reason.

One reason unbelievers reject proofs of God's existence is that they regard them simply as expressive of convictions already held by the one attempting the proof. The argument does not really ground the conviction that God exists, it is said; that conviction both antedates and survives the formulation of the proof. On this basis, we should expect proofs to contain fairly obvious flaws-obvious to the critic, that is, but eclipsed by the believer's faith. One who dismantles such proofs would be interested in their subjective origin only because he wants to understand how presumably rational people could embrace flawed arguments.

* * *

Søren Kierkegaard, in the pseudonymous Philosophical Fragments, wishing to make the valid point that divine faith is not acquired by proofs of a philosophical sort, makes the far more radical point that no knowledge of God is naturally attainable. Proofs of the existence of God are wrongheaded because no proof establishes the existence of anything. That very arguable claim should not detract from Kierkegaard's fear that philosophical theism is an effort to establish the truth of the mysteries of faith. He had before him clear instances of this danger, notably in Hegel. But the philosophical theology advanced by such a pagan as Aristotle can hardly be regarded as embarked on such a project. If Aristotle has succeeded in establishing the existence of God and some of his attributes, as Thomas Aquinas thought he had, one should look to that ancient effort for light on the matter of philosophical theology when such fears as those of Kierkegaard arise. Thomas Aquinas was as adamant as Kierkegaard that the mysteries of faith cannot be established as true by mere natural reason, but, with the example of Aristotle before him, he was able to bring new clarity to the traditional Christian belief that men-even pagan Romans-can from the things that are made come to knowledge of the invisible things of God.

* * *

The latter-day notion of arguments or proofs as wish fulfillment on the part of believers presumably would apply in principle to criticism of them as well. It is not unusual to find that the opponent of proofs of God's existence is pretty passionate about this, and his passion does not seem explicable solely in terms of his dismay at the alleged flawed logic of proofs traditionally offered. For all that, it is a salutary reminder that our antecedent convictions, pro or con, can have an influence unnoticed by us as we engage in the fashioning or dismantling of proofs and cause us, like Browning's Last Duchess, to be "too soon made glad."

Religious believers who reject proofs of God's existence do so because they regard such efforts as a misunderstanding of the only way in which the human mind can be related to God. That single way is faith, and faith is not an achievement but a gift. Thanks to the gift of faith I accept as true the articles of the Nicene Creed-or in the words of the simple act of faith, "all the truths that the Holy Catholic Church teaches, because thou has revealed them who canst neither deceive nor be deceived"-the acceptance, in short, is on the basis of the authority of the one revealing. If, having accepted these truths, I set out to prove them, I would seek to hold them on some basis other than faith. I might reason about them in various ways-Thomas suggests in the text just cited in the note that I might argue that something not explicitly revealed is implicit in what has been-but such discourse would always take place within the ambience of faith, that is, holding on the basis of authority that certain things are true. These revealed truths thus function as premises of the argument and any conclusion derives its force from them.

* * *

When I consider what it is I profess to believe, when I recite the creed, these misgivings of believers may seem well founded. Accepting as true that there are three persons in the one divine nature, that one of them became incarnate in Jesus Christ, that through his salvific act we have our only chance of salvation-familiar as all these truths are, a moment's reflection makes it clear that these are not the upshot of human argumentation of the ordinary sort. That is, these claims are not put forward as following on what anybody does know or can know about the way of the world by his unaided natural powers.

Fides quaerens intellectum

When John Paul II, in Fides et Ratio, discusses the relationship of philosophy and faith among Scholastic philosophers, he begins with St. Anselm of Canterbury who had intended to call his Proslogion by another title, namely, Faith Seeking Understanding. With this title he puts his cards on the table. Anselm comes forward as an author who accepts Christian revelation as true. It is as a believer that he seeks to understand the Psalmist's remark that "the fool has said in his heart there is no God." But doesn't that verse suggest that the denial of God is nonsense? If Anselm can show that this is indeed the case, he will have shown something that is so both for believers and unbelievers and, if it is absurd to deny that God exists, it would seem logically obligatory to accept God's existence, if one is going to talk about him at all.

Few texts have generated more comment than Anselm's Proslogion and its so-called Ontological Proof of the existence of God. There are believers-Karl Barth, for example-who deny that Anselm means the proof to work for anyone who doesn't have faith. But that would remove the fool from the target area of the argument, and it was for the fool's sake that Anselm set it out. If it can be shown, as Anselm thinks it can, that it makes no sense to deny the existence of God, that to do so is absurd and incoherent, this must be meant to cover any denial, especially the fool's.

But of course Barth is concerned lest we think that Anselm's proof or anything like it should establish what is believed in the strong sense-that is, held on the authority of God's revealing it-and thereby transmuted into an item of knowledge, established by proof. Right as that misgiving must seem, it is quite clear that among the truths that the believer accepts is "God exists." And, if what Anselm set out to do works, then it becomes absurd to deny that God exists. But if it is absurd to deny that God exists, it seems pretty sensible to affirm that he exists. But does not to affirm something because it is sensible and provable contrast with affirming something on the authority of God revealing? Would it be possible to say that "God exists" is both believed and known or proved?

Knowing and Believing

Sometimes we simply grasp what a thing is, sometimes we affirm or deny; it is this second operation of our mind that is susceptible of truth or falsity. Ideas or concepts are not true or false in the strong sense of the term because entertaining them does not involve an assertion. To affirm or deny something of something else is minimally expressed as "S is P" (or "S is not P") as its formal expression. A property or quality is attributed to some subject-or removed from it by denial. When the mental judgment is in conformity with the way things are it is true, and this whether it is an affirmation or a denial. When judgment fails to match a state of affairs, it is defective, false. Of course, to hold certain truths on the basis of divine faith involves affirmations and denials as well. How do the affirmations and denials based on natural reason differ from those based on faith?

Self-Evident Propositions

There are a number of different mental attitudes involving the judgment that S is P. There are some instances of this that are known right off to be true. The judgment may be like "Every whole is greater than its part" or "When equals are removed from equals equals remain." Anyone who knows what a whole is and what a part is knows that the whole is greater than its part. And so too with the meaning of "equal." Such truths are said to be known immediately (immediate), by themselves (per se). As opposed to what? As opposed to knowing the truth of a judgment as following on other things we know to be true.

True judgments are either immediately or mediately known to be such. The former are defined as what anyone upon hearing will accept as true. "Communis animi conceptio est quam quisque probat auditam," as Boethius put it in the De hebdomadibus: a common conception of the soul is one that anyone accepts upon hearing it (I.144-45). This suggests a distinction. There are some judgments such that there is an immediate relation between predicate and subject, yet a given knower may not see this. The reason for this is that knowledge of the meaning of the terms is required and sometimes the terms are not common ones or their meanings are uncommon. Hence the distinction between what is self-evident for the informed (quoad sapientes) and what is self-evident for anyone. The example of the whole and its part uses language anyone can be expected to understand. But to be told that angels are not in place, that angels are nowhere, relies on knowledge of the fit between bodies and being circumscriptively in place, on which basis it is immediately agreed that bodiless beings are not circumscriptively in place. Someone who did not know this connection, or perhaps not even that angels have no bodies, could not give his assent, immediate or otherwise, to the proposition. Thus, from the time of Boethius, there has been a distinction between what is self-evident to everyone and what is self-evident only to the informed or wise (De trin., I.157-85).

* * *

The methodological point of distinguishing between self-evident-per se notae-propositions and those whose truth is derived from knowledge of other propositions-per aliqua alia fiunt nota-is that, without the former, the latter could not be established. That is, if a proposition were known on the basis of others, and those others on the basis of yet others, and so on and on without end, the proposition with which we began could never be known to be true. That is, there must be some judgments or propositions that are self-evident and on which others ultimately depend if argument is to work.

Self-Evident but Not to Us

The distinction between propositions self-evidently true for everyone and those that are such only for the learned is based on a contingent distinction between human beings. At some point, for anyone, what are called propositions self-evident only to the learned will be a closed book, whereas human beings at large will give their immediate response to self-evident judgments that employ language known to all. One is unlearned though knowledgeable before he becomes learned. Propositions self-evident to all have priority.

But there is another way of distinguishing the self-evident or per se notum. Some things are said to be self-evident in themselves but not to human beings. The distinction is important for our purposes since it is made in reply to a first question asked about God's existence: Is it self-evident that God exists? (ST 1.2.1: "utrum Deus esse sit per se notum"). Thomas is going to argue that God's existence is not self-evident against the background of several considerations that suggest that it is.

1. If things known per se by us can be said to be naturally in us, then John Damascene's claim that knowledge of God's existence is naturally inserted in all seems to place the existence of God among things self-evident to us.

2. Moreover, the self-evidently known has been defined as what is known immediately once the terms are understood. And this was illustrated by propositions involving whole, part, and the like. But anyone hearing "God" knows that he is that than which nothing greater can be thought; but then he cannot merely be thought since to be thought and to exist is greater than merely to be thought; therefore, God must exist. In short, that God exists is self-evident.

3. It is self-evident that truth exists, since to deny it is to affirm it. Truth exists because there are true judgments. But any truth is a participation in truth itself. But God is truth. So it is self-evident that God exists.

* * *

It may be thought that to argue for the self-evidence of something is to show by that very fact that it is not self-evident but acceptable only on the basis of the premises of the argument provided. We will return to this important difficulty in a moment, but first we must look at the three efforts to prove that God's existence is self-evident.

Despite these three considerations, Thomas rejects the claim that God's existence is self-evident to us. The sed contra appeals to two authorities, Aristotle and the Psalmist. Anything whose opposite is thinkable is not self evident (per se notum), as Aristotle points out in several places (Metaphysics IV, 1005b11; lect 6, n. 597; I Poster. 10, 76b23; lect 19, 2). But it is possible to think the contradictory of "God exists." The Psalmist has written, "The fool has said in his heart there is no God" (Ps 52.1). This is to use against Anselm the text that triggered his reflections.

In developing his argument that God's existence is not self-evident to us, Thomas introduces the distinction we are concerned with. "Something can be self-evident [per se notum] in two ways, in itself or with reference to us." This is a surprising development because Thomas goes on to remind us that the immediacy of such propositions is explained in terms of the predicate's being part of the definition of the subject. It is because there are propositions whose terms are known to all that we can speak of first common principles, those based on terms like being and nonbeing, whole and part, and the like, whose meanings no one could fail to know. There are also those other examples where the terms are not as widely known which led to talk of what is self-evident to the learned. And it is this second set that leads Thomas to say that "God exists," considered in itself, is self-evident, per se notum, because the predicate is identical with the subject. He will show shortly that God is his existence. However, "because we do not know of God what He is, this is not self-evident to us, but has to be demonstrated by appeal to what is more known to us though less known according to nature, namely, effects" (ST 1a.2.1.c).

Propositions that are self-evident to the wise thus provide the bridge to speaking of propositions whose immediate connection of predicate and subject no man can comprehend in this life. The distinction between self-evident to all and self-evident to some is based on the contingency of the hearer's being uninstructed or instructed and not on the character of what the proposition expresses. This makes intelligible the claim that "God exists" expresses something of its nature self-evident even though human beings cannot know it as such but have to demonstrate its truth.

Is Knowing God Easy?

In responding to the arguments on behalf of the self-evidence of God's existence, Thomas says important things to which we will be returning. Is knowledge of God natural? In a sense the answer is yes, for there is an implicit awareness of God in our desire for happiness, since only he can fulfill all our desires. But this is to know God in the way we might say we know Roscoe because we know someone is approaching though we did not know it was Roscoe. Even though it is the case that the one approaching is Roscoe, to know only that someone is approaching is to know that it is Roscoe only confusedly. In a similar way knowledge of God can be said to be entailed by our desire for happiness. But many think happiness consists of riches or power and the like, so this vague knowledge is not to know God as such.

Thomas's assessment of Anselm's proof makes clear its implication that "God exists" is self-evident, so obvious that only a fool could deny it. So why fashion a proof? Suffice it to say for now that "proofs" of the self-evident are reductiones ad absurdum. They do not so much seek to establish the truth of a proposition on the basis of other true propositions as to show that the denial of a proposition is incoherent.


Excerpted from Praeambula Fidei by RALPH MCINERNY Copyright © 2006 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission.
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