Philosophy and faith

“Aquinas is not arguing … that philosophy should play the role of a substitute for the grace of faith (a kind of epistemological Pelagianism that passes the work of salvation off onto human reason). The issue is the integration of faith and reason within a culture of the intellectual life that is fully respectful of the native powers of human intelligence and, at the same time, of the demands of grace. We must recognize not only where human reason leaves off and revealed mystery begins, but also where revealed mystery presupposes and assumes the truths of natural reason.

“Aquinas [also] argues that philosophy allows Christians to challenge the nonbeliever’s objections to Christianity on the grounds of reason alone. To transpose his affirmation into a contemporary idiom, we might say that natural reason can challenge the secularist mentality to acquire a more honest rational openness to religious claims.

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“Third, philosophy is essential to theology for its health as theology. Christian thought is not an exercise in mere moral posturing or unstructured spirituality. It is serious thought about reality conducted in a human mode: by discursive reasoning that seeks explanations and insights into God based on the things he does in the world, things that are both natural and supernatural.

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“I am more likely to consider arguments that I have a soul if at the same time I am otherwise seeing, through the eyes of faith, that the spiritual person who I am needs his soul to be saved. The opposite is true as well, however: Even if by faith I believe in the reality of the soul, if I cannot see the rationality of the belief, the faith remains something extrinsic to reason and therefore inherently unstable for me, and potentially painful to embrace.”

Thomas Joseph White, O.P., “Whether Faith Needs Philosophy”, First Things magazine, July 2011.

 

Philosophy is not virtue

“Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. … Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.”

John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University, Discourse V., section 9.

Why doesn’t God make his existence self-evident?

Someone recently argued that if God exists, he should make himself self-evident.

But very few things that people take for granted are self-evident. Even my existence as a human being is not self-evident to my readers, but only deduced based on premises that they take for granted, i.e. that only a human being could type the kinds of things that I am typing in this post. Nevertheless my existence as a human being is obvious to you; you don’t waste time doubting it.

Perhaps by “self-evident” my interlocutor meant that God should appear before us in physical form, as we appear to each other. When another living person is physically present, that person’s existence is self-evident to us — assuming we’re not skeptical of our own senses. The problem is that God is not a physical being. Therefore, if a physical being appeared before us claiming to be God, it still would not be self-evident that he was God. It still would require a chain of reasoning, and probably some kind of physical proof such as miracles, to arrive at the conclusion that the physical being standing before us is the non-physical, non-contingent being who is the cause of all that exists.

In short, there is no way that a non-physical being can make his existence self-evident to beings like us, who are dependent on their physical senses for knowledge. It’s impossible even in theory.

What this illustration also shows is the necessity of faith in the Christian religion (and some others as well). A lot of people imagine that God appearing in physical form, performing miracles and proclaiming himself to be God would be conclusive, that there would be no room for doubt. But there are a couple of problems with this.

First, that’s what Jesus did: He was God appearing in physical form, performing miracles, and proclaiming himself to be God. Yet many if not most people still didn’t believe in him.

Second, the fact that a being appearing in physical form performed physical miracles and wonders, still would not constitute proof that he is the non-physical, non-contingent, omniscient and omnipotent being who is the cause of all that exists. It might be obvious that he is some kind of a supernatural being, but it still would require faith on our parts to believe that he possessed all of the aforementioned attributes. After all, how could you possibly prove such things?

How could I know that this being claiming to be all-powerful, really is all-powerful? He may demonstrate beyond a doubt, by performing various feats, that he is powerful. But there is an infinite gulf between “powerful” and “all-powerful”. Similarly, how could I know whether this being claiming to be God is really omniscient? He may be able to answer any question I have, but that doesn’t prove he can answer any question whatever. And how would I know that his answers were correct? The only answers we could verify are those to which we already knew the answers.

Believing these things would require taking his word for it. Or in other words, faith. Faith would be required to believe in God, even were he to appear before us in the form of a burning bush, or a man with the power to make the lame walk and the blind see.

[This was modified from a comment I posted on another blog.]

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An argument for God’s existence

I guess this is basically the argument from efficient causes, but rephrased in a way that occurred to me in the context of a discussion. Feel free to offer corrections:

If everything is caused, then there is nothing left to be the cause. But if there were no cause, then there would be no effects and therefore nothing would exist. Therefore, there must be two classes of things: On the one hand, that which is caused, and on the other, that which is uncaused. But everything in the universe is caused and therefore goes in the first category. What’s left goes in the second. What exactly is in the second category? Whatever it is, it’s not anything physical or it would be part of the universe. So we’re left with an immaterial, uncaused being who caused the existence of everything in the universe.

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Facts About Religion: If purpose comes from above, where does God get his purpose from?

The blog Facts About Religion asks, if we’re dependent on God for our purpose, then who gives God purpose?

But the contention of Christians and other theists is not that “no one can invent his own purpose” or that “every being must receive his purpose from a being above him”. The contention is that God, being the origin of all that exists, is the only one that can give meaning and purpose to our life.

The basis for this contention is that we are contingent beings. This means that we can either exist or not exist, and that we are dependent for our existence on things outside ourselves. Not even an atheist can deny this.

Since we don’t even receive our existence from ourselves, it stands to reason that we can’t get the reason for our existence from ourselves.

God’s case is entirely different from our own. Since he is the origin of all things, he must exist, and does not depend for his existence on anything outside himself. It stands to reason therefore that he is not dependent for the reason for his existence on anything outside himself.

The hypostatic union hard to understand?

Someone told me recently that he didn’t understand how Jesus could have two natures. He wasn’t saying merely that he didn’t believe it, but that he found it incomprehensible.

One thing we need to guard against is the idea that things which are hard to imagine are hard to understand. Imagining and understanding are different things. One or the other may be hard in a given instance, but the one being hard doesn’t have to make the other hard. Examples may be multiplied of things which are easy to imagine but hard to understand, and vice versa.

I suspect that some people have a problem with the hypostatic union because of the idea that two things can’t occupy the same place at the same time. But it’s important to remember that the divine nature, being spiritual, takes up no physical space.

If Jesus is God, then either he is like a centaur, being half God and half man; or he is fully God and fully man. Although, theoretically, an animal could be half human and half horse, there’s no way he can be fully human and fully horse, because part of the nature of human and of horse is to have a physical body, and he can’t have two physical bodies at the same time and in the same place.

But since it is not of the nature of God to have a physical body, there is no necessary conflict in conceiving of Jesus as fully God and fully man.

A nature is that by virtue of which a thing acts as it does. Thus, human beings walk because it’s our nature to have legs, and we think because it’s our nature to have an intellect. Jesus’ having two natures means that in addition to the things he does by virtue of being human, there are also things he does by virtue of being God.

He’s not half God, as if he can act like God but with only half the power. And he’s not half human, as if he only has one eye, one ear, one arm and one leg. He’s fully human, with a whole human body and intellect, and he’s also fully God, having existed for eternity and possessing infinite power, etc.

I don’t see the problem. I can understand people not believing this doctrine, if they already believe something which contradicts it (such as that God and man are of the same nature but at different stages of development). But I don’t see why it must be thought of as incomprehensible or self-contradictory.

Christians against ID, Part 3

[See Part 1 here; Part 2 here.]

By coincidence, I came across a couple passages in the Summa which seem relevant to this topic, though not directly addressing it:

“For we must take into consideration the difference between a particular agent, that presupposes something and produces something else, and the universal agent, who produces the whole. The particular agent produces the form, and presupposes the matter; and hence it is necessary that it introduce the form in due proportion into a suitable matter. And so it is reasonable to say that it introduces the form into such matter, and not into another, on account of the different kinds of matter. But it does not seem reasonable to say so of God Who produces form and matter together, whereas it is considered reasonable to say of Him that He produces matter fitting to the form and to the end.”

 ST I, Q. 46, A. 1.

He talks about a particular agent and the universal agent. As I understand it, the universal agent is God, who creates everything: He creates the whole context in which everything happens. The particular agent (a watchmaker?) makes something by thinking of a form, and then looking around for suitable preexisting matter into which to introduce the form.

He says that God is not like this. Rather, God produces both form and matter, and makes the matter “fitting to the form and to the end” – i.e., he creates matter which is suitable to the formal and final causes that he has in mind.

This points up the manner in which God is not like a watchmaker, who thinks up a complex mechanism and makes it out of preexisting stuff, but makes the stuff to suit the thing he has thought up. Thus, God thought us up and then set about creating a universe in which we might come into existence.

But does the ID theorist necessarily disagree with this? Would he not agree that God created the natural processes through which matter evolved, specifically because he wanted exactly that type of matter into which to introduce the forms that he had in mind?

In which case, the process would go like this: God creates the singularity which exploded at the Big Bang, and fine-tunes it such that the matter we’re made of evolves just the way he wants it. But once that process is finished, once he has the matter in hand, he then takes the preexisting matter and forms it into the organisms we see around us, including ourselves (since it is believed that this cannot happen via “natural processes”). So God is both the watchmaker and the creator of the matter of which the watch is made.

The problem, it seems to me, is this idea of breaking up God’s creative process into two separate processes, one of which works through natural causes, and the other of which does not. For me it just seems far more intuitively correct, that God would create us through one continuous process. Continue reading

The power of the damned

Bruce Charlton argues that the “self-damned” have the power to hurt God. In other words, people sometimes try to lash out at God by rebelling against him and doing evil things, even to the point of damning themselves eternally. And, Bruce says, it works: They do manage to hurt God, emotionally. Because if God couldn’t be hurt, then he would not be a loving father.

You can see Bruce’s post for his argument in detail. Here are just some random thoughts of my own, stimulated by the post and some of the comments:

* You say that when you love someone, you must feel sorrow when they suffer. But that’s not always the case. There have been times when my kids were suffering, yet I could barely stifle a laugh because they were being so ridiculous. Their ridiculousness arose from their ignorance and inability to see the larger context. I wasn’t sad over their suffering because I knew they would get over it in short order and be fine.

In this life we may suffer for a lifetime, but what is a lifetime to God? Who’s to say he doesn’t find our whining and complaining ridiculous, and see us as inflating our troubles because of our inability to see the bigger picture? What else could Paul mean when he says that our present sufferings are “nothing” compared to the glory that is to be? Why can’t God see them as “nothing”, being present, as he is, in the glory that is to be? Certainly he can understand why we see them as a big deal, from our limited perspective, but that doesn’t mean he must see them that way.

If, as some suppose, people in hell choose to be there, and if you pulled them out by force they would resist tooth and nail, because they can’t stand God’s presence, will they not seem ridiculous to God, and to the blessed, for choosing such obvious evil over such obvious good, due to self-inflicted blindness?

* If God is vulnerable to emotional attacks, why is he not vulnerable to physical attacks? Is it only because he is physically far away? If he came close enough that people could attack him physically, would he let himself be vulnerable to knife and bullet wounds, or would he defend himself against physical harm? If he defended himself, would it be through physical barriers like armor, or would he utilize supernatural means of shielding himself from harm? Are there no such means available to shield himself from emotional harm? [Obviously this assumes for the sake of argument that he is capable of feeling physical and emotional pain.]

* Certainly I would agree that God can know what the experience of physical and emotional pain are like, since nothing is beyond his knowledge or understanding.

* Saying that if God can’t feel sorrow then he also can’t love, seems to assume that love is ultimately a feeling.

Emotions are fleeting physical phenomena, arising from the fact that we experience life one moment at a time. As we go through a process we might feel one way at the beginning, another way in the middle and another way at the end. But if we could see the process as a whole instead of being limited to experiencing it in tiny segments, we would not experience it through a range of rising and falling emotions.

Also, we might feel differently in viewing a sorrowful scene, if we knew how it would turn out in the end.

* Emotions and physical pain in us seem to serve the purpose of warning us of danger, as well as deterring us from certain behaviors and encouraging us to others. God, not being susceptible to physical harm, has no need of pain to warn him of danger. He has no need of feelings to encourage him to do certain things and avoid others. For example he has no need of guilt as a punishment and a deterrent for sin, because he can’t sin; nor has he need of feelings of gratification and satisfaction as a reward for good deeds, for he does nothing but good by his very nature. Likewise if suffering in us serves the purpose of building character, God has no need of character-building.

Some thoughts on creation ex nihilo versus creation ex materia

“I answer that, As said above (Question 44, Article 2), we must consider not only the emanation of a particular being from a particular agent, but also the emanation of all being from the universal cause, which is God; and this emanation we designate by the name of creation. Now what proceeds by particular emanation, is not presupposed to that emanation; as when a man is generated, he was not before, but man is made from ‘not-man,’ and white from ‘not-white.’ Hence if the emanation of the whole universal being from the first principle be considered, it is impossible that any being should be presupposed before this emanation. For nothing is the same as no being. Therefore as the generation of a man is from the ‘not-being’ which is ‘not-man,’ so creation, which is the emanation of all being, is from the ‘not-being’ which is ‘nothing.'”

ST I, Q. 45, A. 1

“[W]hat is created, is not made by movement, or by change. For what is made by movement or by change is made from something pre-existing. And this happens, indeed, in the particular productions of some beings, but cannot happen in the production of all being by the universal cause of all beings, which is God.”

ST I, Q. 45, A. 3

St. Thomas is arguing, basically, that if God is the source of all being, then he had to have created ex nihilo. If he created from preexisting matter, then matter is a being which does not have God as its source. This holds true whether you believe that our universe is all that exists, or that ours is but one universe of a multiverse. In other words, even if you believe God is only God of our universe, he nevertheless can’t be the source of all being within even our own universe, if he did not create our universe ex nihilo.

Some believe God didn’t create ex nihilo, but merely formed things out of preexisting matter. But we know that all material things are formed from natural processes, going all the way back to the Big Bang. Even the “heavy” elements of which we and the earth are made are known to have been formed from the lighter elements hydrogen, helium and lithium, through the life cycles of stars.

So if God merely formed everything that exists, it seems that can only mean that he took a bunch of matter, compressed it into the singularity that existed just prior to the Big Bang, and somehow designed and shaped it such that after it exploded, it would form into galaxies, stars and planets, on which life would evolve — presumably according to a plan of his.

In which case the only difference between us, is that we believe God is the source of all the matter/energy that was compressed into the singularity, whereas those who deny creation ex nihilo contend that God took preexisting stuff and formed it into the singularity.

It has been argued (e.g. here) that God’s not being infinite (eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, omnipresent) goes a long way towards solving the problem of evil. If he is not the source of all that exists and doesn’t have absolute power over it at every moment, then he can’t be held responsible for the evil that occurs. He does the best he can within certain constraints, but can’t do anything and everything he might want to do.

But even if God is not the source of all being, i.e. if matter did not come from him but is eternally preexisting, nevertheless, if he could form matter/energy into the singularity and guide and direct it such that it formed galaxies, stars and planets, and life evolved, all from natural causes — to do all that, wouldn’t he have to be effectively infinite? Wouldn’t he have to know pretty much everything about the universe, and have power over pretty much everything in it, in order to accomplish such a feat?

Whereas if he did not form matter into the singularity such that all things would develop and evolve as they have, and knowing and intending that they would do so, then it’s hard to know in what sense he may be called the Creator.

Is God’s infinitude unscriptural?

Some argue that God as described in the Bible is not like the Catholic idea: Infinite, omnipotent, the source of all being. (For simplicity of reference, I will refer to “infinite, omnipotent, the source of all being” all under the term “infinite”.) The Bible, they say, paints a different picture of God, not as an invisible, immaterial source-of-all-being, but as one to whom a man may speak face-to-face, and who works with what he finds in the cosmos (defined as “all that exists”) rather than creating everything from nothing.

I won’t identify to whom I’m referring that denies God’s infinitude, because I don’t want to get sidetracked on questions of whether a particular person said or meant what I think they did. I only want to discuss the ideas.

Quantity versus quality

Another way of putting it, is they claim that the difference between us and God is quantitative, not qualitative. If God is infinite and we’re finite, then there is a qualitative difference between us, not merely quantitative. This is because there can be no proportion between the finite and the infinite. If we are finite and God is infinite, then he is not 100 times greater than we, or 1,000 times, or a million times — resulting in a 100:1 proportion, or 1,000:1, or a 1,000,000:1 proportion, all of which might be huge but are nevertheless finite proportions. Rather, he is infinitely greater. Therefore there can’t be merely a quantitative difference between us, because you can’t quantify the infinite.

But they deny that God is infinite, and therefore maintain the idea of a quantitative difference only. God is what we are, only he’s much, much (though to a finite extent) stronger, smarter and more knowledgeable, and is also immune from sickness and death.

Those Greek eggheads

A problem that some express with the idea of God’s being infinite (as above defined) is that it comes not from the Bible but from Greek philosophy.

Rather than taking the Bible at face value, they argue, the early Church allowed itself to be influenced by Greek intellectual culture, and reinterpreted the scriptures and the Gospel in Greek philosophical terms, for the sake, I suppose, of making it more acceptable to that culture. And why make it acceptable? Perhaps out of pride? Or giving them the benefit of the doubt, maybe for the purpose of spreading the Gospel more easily — even at the cost of corrupting it? Continue reading