Welcome to Philosopher Fridays, where I aim to expose the academic underpinnings of my thoughts on story-telling and writing. In this series I make no attempt to give a comprehensive view of any of the philosophers I tackle, but instead pick out and explain what draws me back to their works again and again.
For the next few weeks I’ll be exploring the tenuous relationship between faith and reason in a sub-series I’m calling “Expecting Ambiguity“. My aim is to explain how philosophical arguments for the existence of God are not as concretely determinate (and thus as easy to dismiss) as they are often cast, but that they instead offer as much insight into the limits and powers of subjective human knowledge as they do into religion. For this post, I have drawn the inspiration from my work as graduate student and as a TA.
AQUINAS: On Sacred Science and Divine Ambiguity
For Saint Thomas Aquinas, the word “prolific” is a gross understatement. He lived from 1225—1274, during which the Dominican priest produced over sixty hefty philosophical and theological works. Alongside Albert the Great, Thomas is credited with bringing Aristotle (who he called “The Philosopher”) back into favor with Catholics of his day, but he also drew heavily from Islamic theologian Averroes, Jewish Rabbi Mosheh ben Maimon, and the Catholic Saint Augustine of Hippo, among others. He is most famous for working to synthesize faith and reason, and for his “Five Proofs of the Existence of God” of the Prima Pars of his Summa Theologiae. For a full look at Thomas’ life and a thorough guide to his work, the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia has everything you could want. Today, I’m writing on his understanding of sacred science. For a more thorough (and more doctrinal, less literary) look at this topic, read here and here.
To speak in oversimplified terms, doctrine and science (in every historical definition of the word) seem diametrically opposed. In our time, to call something a “science” is a compliment. In some fairly prominent circles in the thirteenth century, the opposite was true, and philosophers and theologians debated the merits of seeking rational wisdom to supplement belief when there was clearly potential for contradiction. Aquinas’ approach to what we now call the problem of faith and reason was to chalk these contradictions up to differences in interpretation or mistakes in the scope of our understanding. According to Thomas, the truth that we are given by God could not contradict the truth we could find through reason – mainly Aristotelian reason, which he helped to popularize in the Christian world along with his mentor, Albert the Great – could not possibly contradict the truth we receive via revelation. In essence, truth cannot contradict truth, and so if one assumes the truth of revelation, then even matters of faith should be able to be understood through science, and matters of science should fit into a faith based framework.
In the end, Thomas comes to explain that there are two kinds of human knowledge. The first is based in reason and observation, making up what we might call philosophy or science, in modern terms, and the second is grace, the means by which we receive the truth of God as it is revealed to us. For the first kind of science, we turn to Question 2 of the Summa Theologiae, featuring the famous “Five Ways” in which human reason can lead us to knowledge of God’s existence. His proofs here are indebted to both Aristotle and Avicenna, relying heavily on their notions of causality and motion.
The first and second steps operate in tandem, beginning with the recognition of something known by observation of the world: anything that is in the process of change is necessary changed by something else. Further, these causes are ordered and not chaotic, and no one thing can be its own cause. Because we can see effects in the world, he argues, it follows that there must exist corresponding causes, and that those things must likewise be caused by intermediary causes which in turn are caused. But this order can not go on into the past infinitely, as he argues in a later step, so that there must be one first cause, uncaused in itself, which begins the chain of causality. As Thomas ends each step: “This we call God” (or some version of this phrase, depending upon the step of the argument and the choices of the translator).
This is a philosophical argument from the known to the unknown – medieval “scientia” at its cleanest. He doesn’t make the leap from his argument to an appeal to faith by declaring that he has proven the existence of the Christian God we know he means, but rather takes what he finds – an Aristotelian First Mover – and assigns to it a name, such that when he refers to God, we know that in some sense he means this rationally derived first principle. He reasons his way to a principle that must have some kind of divine primacy, and calls it “God”.
The next step proves, for Thomas, the impossibility of infinite regress; because there are things in a causal chain, causality necessary had to begin. If there was no beginning, then there could be no chain of causes, and thus nothing existing in the world for us to see. But obviously, there are effects in the world for us to see, so causality must have begun with a first cause – and this is what we call God.
The final two proofs rely on a universal sense of order. Because we have an understanding of gradation of quality in caused things, there must be some universal standard of perfect by which we judge degree. This standard of perfection for all things, to which all things compare, is God. Similarly, all things in nature are ordered to some purpose, for even the most inanimate living creature follows a direction of some kind that can be systematically observed. If this were not the case, there would be no reason that all tulips should grow from tulip seeds, or that there would be anything beyond accidents. That toward which all are ordered is that which we call God.
It is important to note that Thomas makes no claim that these proofs substantiate a particular version of God, nor do they stem from a prior belief. Essentially, he highlights the limits of human reason, and the inadequacy of our subjective epistemology. Science – and reason – can help us order what we can know such that it might lead us to our own limitations, but when it comes granting us higher truths and comprehension of a grander reality, it inevitably comes up short. A major element of his proof is taking the unknown, and unknowable, and venerating it. It is the limit of reason that he calls God, and though it feels like he reaches a concrete solution (the first mover, the first cause, the telos), he leaves the content of those end points open, and our experience of that resulting ambiguity is our experience of the divine.
Revelation, as a science, doesn’t necessarily give us any additional clarity, but instead explores our relationship to the excess, steering us away from logical clarity into divine ambiguity, alerting us that there is more than what we can know (or rather, what we cannot know). In Question 12, Thomas explains that God’s being is so much greater than we can reasonably quantify, and it is the very excess of this limitations that makes it divine. Here, he says that it must be possible for us to have direct knowledge of God (beatitude), because if it were not, we would not even know to seek something so great. Roughly speaking, we would have no direct to point our limited logical capabilities. But what he means by direct knowledge here is not the apprehension of an object, as it is in our earthy realm, but rather an ambiguous interaction with a reality that exceeds such apprehension, something that spurs us to attempt to know and understand God – and everything else – more thoroughly. It is the insatiable need to know more, what we might call wonder, or awe. The gift of divine science is, in a sense, the ability to create our own understanding: a starting point that makes it possible for us to use reason, and which therefore must necessary exceed reason.
Divine illumination is what sets the condition for philosophical and scientific inquiry, and as such is prior to it. At the same time, however, it is the limitation of human knowledge that gives Thomas the impetus to look to revelation – not just the other way around. The two kinds of science are thus relationally reciprocal, with the lower looking to and strive for the higher, and the higher conferring grade upon the lower. Thomas doesn’t merely begin with the assumption that we are too limited to know all things because God told him this, but reasons his way back to a substantive ambiguity that must contain something, and then understands this ambiguity as a supra-rational, super-natural, divine being that requires divine illumination and revelatory science to be understood. God may grant us direct knowledge of himself in spite of our limitations. Because we are mortal, finite, material beings, our choices are between a merely negative theology which tells us God must be immortal, infinite, and immaterial, as we see in the Five Ways, or else giving ourselves over to a great ambiguity which allows for deeper exploration and examination, as is offered in Question 12.
The goal, always, is to be both accurate and inspired, to keep seeking, to embrace our limitations, and to be open the ambiguity that exceeds our capacities. To call that “grace” is to experience our limits, the mysteries of existence, and our desires for greater knowledge, and to feel joy in them, rather than shutting them down in concrete terms.
Check back next week as I tackle the Pascal’s infamous Wager.