Intelligent Design

[Off Topic] Pride Comes Before a Fall

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Intellectual hubris drove the Enlightenment project from its beginning, and many Enlightenment thinkers even believed that “reason” was an all-powerful force with which man could unlock all of the secrets of the universe.  After millennia of being mired in superstition and tradition man had finally emerged into a new day of unfettered reason boding limitless possibilities. Or so the narrative went, and at its zenith some actually believed that through reason, at least in principle, literally “everything” could be known. Pierre-Simon Laplace perhaps articulated this peculiar idolatry best when he wrote:

We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.

Closely aligned with this faith in pure reason was the view that only that which can be demonstrated empirically is epistemically valid. Thus, positivism, the philosophical child of enlightenment hubris, holds that the only valid knowledge is that which is derived directly through sense experience. In other words, a positivist would say that if one cannot test a proposition through the scientific method, it is literally meaningless.

Reality is, of course, the wall you smack into when you are wrong, and even at the height of Enlightenment hubris great thinkers knew that reason has limits. “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know,” Pascal famously exclaimed, and positivism has long since been debunked. Popper perhaps gave it its most succinct epitaph when he wrote that, “positivists, in their anxiety to annihilate metaphysics, annihilate natural science along with it. For scientific laws, too, cannot be logically reduced to elementary statements of experience.”

So now we know better. Or do we? Pride must be dug out root and branch, and that is a very hard thing to do. Long after positivism has been utterly discredited as a philosophical enterprise, I look around me and see intelligent people brandishing their Enlightenment hubris like a sword: “If I cannot fit a concept into my rational categories I refuse to accept it.”

But surely this is a prideful, adolescent way of thinking. If the demise of positivism has taught us anything, it is that we must learn to live with some degree of uncertainty (even mystery) in our epistemology. We cannot know everything (some would say “anything”) with absolute apodictic certainty? Therefore, we must approach the whole business of “knowing” with humility. We must accept the fact that we see “through a glass darkly,” and this means that some very important concepts can only ever be grasped partially or by analogy.

Consider the question of the existence of God. Aquinas believed that God’s existence could be demonstrated with certainty through reason. He was wrong. Kant demolished every one of Aquinas’ five “proofs.” Therefore, God does not exist. No. This statement is a non sequitur. The fact that God cannot be proved to exist with certainty does not mean that he does not in fact exist. Aquinas’ proofs still retain considerable force; they are just not, as he thought, absolute. They cannot compel acceptance on pain of giving up on reason altogether in the manner of a geometric proof. But a reasonable man acting in good faith can ground his acceptance of God’s existence in Aquinas’ demonstrations. Indeed, the reader will not be surprised to learn that I believe Aquinas has the better of the argument – but I must always remind myself that it is just that – an argument – and not an infallible proof, that Aquinas has advanced. There is room for doubt. Why should a Christian be surprised that God has left room for doubt concerning his existence? Does not the scripture itself proclaim that without faith one cannot please God? And what is doubt except that which we have faith against? Therefore, if doubt is not possible, faith is not possible either, and it would be impossible to please God according to the writer of Hebrews.

This is not a strange or unfamiliar concept. Indeed, it is an everyday occurrence in our courts of law. When I argue a case before a jury I appeal to the evidence and to their reason in an effort to convince them that I have “proved” my case. But if the jury decides for my client does that mean there is no room for doubt that they were wrong? Of course not. It only means they have evaluated the evidence, applied their reasoning skills, and concluded that the evidence preponderates in favor of my client. In the same way I have evaluated the evidence, applied my reasoning skills, and decided that the evidence preponderates in favor of the existence of God. But I acknowledge that I might be wrong, and that is where faith comes in. The gap between the admittedly inconclusive evidence and my conclusion that God exists is bridged by faith. I am persuaded that the gap is not so wide, and the bridge of my faith grounded in reason need not be so long. Indeed, I am firmly persuaded that the opposite view would take a far, far longer bridge of faith between evidence and conclusion. As Johnson famously said, “I would love to be a materialist. I just can’t manage the faith commitments.”

I believe in an infinitely munificent and loving God. Yet I acknowledge that evil exists. How could a loving God create a universe in which evil is given room to exist? This, of course, is the problem of the theodicy, about which countless barrels of ink have been spilt. Over the centuries Christian apologists have made some very strong arguments about the reasons God might have allowed evil to exist. Perhaps the strongest is that if evil cannot exist, free will cannot exist, and love – which is in its essence an act of choosing the other – cannot exist. Therefore, because he desired love God allowed us to choose, knowing we would choose wrong. Nevertheless, evil exists, and it seems that God could have created a universe in which it does not exist, but he did not and therefore, in some sense, he is responsible for its existence.

Does it follow that God does not exist? No. Here is one of those mysteries that I was talking about. The existence of evil cannot be considered in an evidential vacuum. It must be weighed with other evidence, including versions of Aquinas’ proofs, my personal experience, Christ’s sacrifice, the empty tomb, scripture (including the powerful witness of prophesy), etc., etc., and when I do that I find that the evidence taken as a whole continues to weigh very strongly toward a conclusion that God exists. I cannot fit the existence of evil into neat and satisfactory epistemic categories along with that conclusion. But just like a juror weighing conflicting evidence, I evaluate the existence of evil as only one part of the body of evidence, and I find that there are plausible (though perhaps ultimately emotionally unsatisfying) arguments regarding why God would allow evil to exist, and when I consider those arguments in the mix of other evidence, the existence of evil comes far short of compelling a conclusion that God does not exist. In other words, the evidence, again admittedly inconclusive, still strongly preponderates in favor of God’s existence.

But the western mind, imbued as it has been with centuries of Enlightenment hubris, rebels against uncertainties. How can God be both immanent within his creation and at the same time transcend his creation? How can God by utterly sovereign over the universe and yet allow free will to exist? How can God be three yet one? These and other questions haunt the Enlightenment mind. We are tempted to say, “that which I cannot place in the categories of reason, I must reject.” But when we are dealing with God isn’t this an obvious mistake? Indeed, can we not define God as “that which transcends all categories”? And if we define God in this way, why should we be surprised that he does not fit neatly into our intellectual boxes?

Do not misunderstand. I am not advancing an anti-rational sophistry. I believe in the law of non-contradiction as firmly as the next guy. But it is also clear to me that “there are more things in heaven and earth . . . than are dreamt of in [our] philosophy,” and I will not be able to figure everything out. I am not always comfortable with that uncertainty, because my worldview too is heavily influenced by the lingering effects of Enlightenment hubris. But I know that I must deal with uncertainty one way or the other. There really is no alternative. Certainly not disbelief – it is more uncertain than belief. So with humility and with the grace I believe God has given me I proclaim with the apostles, “I believe . . .”

21 Replies to “[Off Topic] Pride Comes Before a Fall

  1. 1
    tragic mishap says:

    Hey don’t give up hope Barry. I know everything. You can too. Someday you can be like me if you keep the faith.

  2. 2
    GilDodgen says:

    For me, it’s the trajectory of evidence, logic, experience, and recognition of one’s personal nature and that of humanity in general that matters.

    The more one learns, the more one’s presumptions should be validated. In my case, the more I learned the more I was convinced that my materialistic, atheistic presumptions were catastrophically wrong.

    Based on the discoveries of modern science, design in the universe and biological systems is slam-dunk obvious. Attempts to deny this quickly devolve into transparently desperate machinations, convulsive hostility, and bizarre, illogical excuses.

    The same seems to be true concerning human nature. I am not basically good, and neither is anyone else. We all have a spark of the divine (in our capacity for creativity, compassion and the rest), but it is also clear that we are all in a fallen state, from which we have no power in our own strength to rescue ourselves. History has proven this: Every philosophical and political attempt at creating utopia on earth through “perfecting” humanity has resulted in untold misery and destruction.

    Thus, the message of Christianity rings true to me: Our hearts must be changed, one individual at a time, through a power that transcends us, loves us, and with whom we can have a personal relationship. The impersonal is clearly incapable of transforming a person.

    When Jesus was asked how to identify false prophets He said that we could know them by their fruits. As a corollary, true prophets can be known by their fruits.

    Judeo-Christian civilization, in the long run, has produced more justice, freedom, prosperity, and goodness than any other.

    Of course, I could be wrong about all of this, but there is no way I could muster enough faith to deny what seems transparently obvious to me now, and there is no way I could return to the nihilism and darkness of my former materialistic atheism.

  3. 3
    vjtorley says:

    Hi Barry,

    You raise some very interesting points in your post.

    Regarding Aquinas’ arguments for God’s existence, I would concur with your assessment:

    Aquinas’ proofs still retain considerable force; they are just not, as he thought, absolute. They cannot compel acceptance on pain of giving up on reason altogether in the manner of a geometric proof. But a reasonable man acting in good faith can ground his acceptance of God’s existence in Aquinas’ demonstrations.

    I would, however, respectfully disagree with your assertion that “Kant demolished every one of Aquinas’ five ‘proofs,'”tempered as it is by your later remark: “the reader will not be surprised to learn that I believe Aquinas has the better of the argument.” Dr. Robert Koons (the author of A New Look at the Cosmological Argument ) rebuts Kant’s objections to the cosmological argument here in his excellent online course notes on Western Theism. Kant’s criticisms of the design argument, which Koons discusses here , are more telling; for the benefit of readers, though, I should point out that Aquinas’ Fifth Way is quite unlike most teleological arguments. Its internal logic is very different, as explained here .

    For modern readers of Aquinas’ five ways, the most frustrating thing about them is that they might, for all we know, point to five different gods. However, the real “meat” of Aquinas’ argument lies in Questions three, four, six, and seven, where Aquinas makes it clear that the God whose existence he is arguing for is infinite, good and perfect, and that there can only be one God.

    Aquinas’ arguments are not watertight; in some ways, I think Duns Scotus’ arguments are more rigorous. Still, in the end, they do not compel assent like geometrical proofs.

    Here I agree with you; but I would strongly disagree with your susbequent assertion that faith is required to bridge the gap between the premises of arguments for God’s existence (which are less than compelling), and the conclusion that God exists. I’d like to quote a passage here from a book by Fr. Richard Clarke S.J. (formerly Fellow and Tutor of St. John’s College, Oxford) entitled The Existence of God (1887), which is written as a dialogue between a (Catholic) believer and an agnostic:

    First of all, I ask you to bear in mind the difference between a sufficient argument and a resistless argument, between one which is convincing and one which is compelling. In the one case you can manage to find some evasion, in the other you cannot; in the one case you deserve indeed to be called wrong-headed if you do not assent to the argument, but in the other to be called a simple fool. Thus the argument for the reality of early Kings of Rome is a convincing argument, but yet some ingenious people regard them as myths; whereas the arguments for the existence of the City of Pekin are resistless, and any one who said that it was but a fable of geographers would be looked upon as having one of the lobes of his brain affected, even though on all other matters he might be very sensible and prudent. The arguments for the existence of God are convincing, not compelling arguments. You can always find what our professor in theology called an effugium, some way of backing out, which saves you from absolutely contradicting yourself or running counter to obvious common sense. Now comes the delicate matter to which I allude, and on which fear you may think me narrow and uncharitable. When an argument is resistless all rational men accede to it, but when it is short of this, but yet in itself sufficient to convince, you will find a divergence of opinion among a certain number. Granting the same amount of natural ability and the same possession of the necessary points of the argument, you will find that those who reject such an argument are (putting aside abnormal eccentricities) those whose interest it is to reject it, or who have some strong influence moving their will to reject it. Such an influence leads them to make the very most of any possible difficulty which can be raised against it, and to slur over its strong parts, or find plausible objections to them, and so they manage to convince themselves or fancy they are convinced. Take a claimant in some disputed case at law. The arguments against him are convincing, but not resistless. The Judges on the Bench are perfectly satisfied that he is wrong, yet the fact of his pecuniary interests being at stake somehow prevent him from seeing the force of the opponent’s case — in good faith or in a sort of good faith he thinks he sees a weak point in their arguments. He comes to the question, in Aristotle’s words, ouk adekastos, not without a bribe in his pocket which warps his judgment and prevents him from being perfectly impartial. It is just the same in the arguments respecting the existence of a God. Mankind at large regard them as sufficient and more than sufficient, but there are a certain number who fail to be convinced by them, and the reason is that they too come to the question not unbribed. For one reason or another the idea of an over-ruling Providence is distasteful to them. (Bold type mine – VJT.)

    This is what the Catholic First Vatican Council (1869-1870) had in mind when it declared (cap. ii, De revelat.):

    that God, the first cause (principium) and last end of all things, can, from created things, be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason (Denz., 1785-old no. 1634)

    Likewise, in the corresponding canon (can. i, De revelat.) the Council anathematizes anyone who would say

    that the one true God our Creator and Lord, cannot, through the things that are made, be known with certainty by the natural light of human reason (Denz., 1806-old no. 1653).

    “Certainty” here does not mean “certainty beyond all possible doubt”; it means “certainty beyond all reasonable doubt” – which is precisely the kind of certainty on which we would expect an unbiased jury to base its decision to convict someone.

    But the clearest witness that faith is not required for belief in God comes from the Bible. Scripture is quite clear that those who deny God’s existence are (on the whole) without excuse. To quote Romans 1 (New International Version):

    18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

    However, if belief in God required faith, then those lacking belief would have a perfect excuse: “On your own admission, grace is a free gift of God. Maybe God hasn’t given me this grace that you speak of; in which case, God cannot blame me for being an atheist.”

    You are perfectly correct in saying that without faith, you cannot please God (Hebrews 11:6). But you can still believe that God exists, if you are utterly corrupt: as St. James says, even the demons believe and tremble (James 2:19).

    Does the atheistic argument from evil weaken the arguments for God? I think not. As you rightly point out, there is a certain force in the common atheistic argument from evil. In its most cogent form, this argument states that certain evils occur in our world, which are utterly meaningless and in no way conducive to our good; but a benevolent God would only wish to expose us to those evils that were essential for us to attain some greater good; hence such a God either does not exist, or is powerless to prevent evil. The traditional “free will defense” (which limits God’s freedom to intervene) gets God off the hook for moral evils inflicted by human beings, but does not address the larger problem, that in many ways, the natural world is a sick and rotten realm, which does not look like the kind of world we would expect a good God to create. The article, “Tsunami and Theodicy” by the Orthodox theologian and scholar David Hart at http://www.firstthings.com/art.....y–27 in First Things, is a refreshingly honest response to the problem of meaningless evil, especially natural evil. Hart rejects as morally loathsome those fashionable deistic theodicies which rationalize these evils as necessary to achieve some “higher good,” or that God needs to expose His creatures to these natural evils in order to bring them to their final end.

    The solution Hart puts forward is that the world is the scene of “a cosmic struggle between good and evil, of Christ’s triumph over the principalities of this world, of the overthrow of hell.” It is not unreasonable to believe that God originally intended this world to be a good one, but that super-human, malevolent agents are wreaking havoc in the cosmos, and that God (as a respecter of agents’ freedom) is (at least temporarily) constrained in His ability to crush these powers.

    Hart’s proposed solution has strongly religious overtones, and might sound like special pleading to those who lack religious faith (which is a gift from God). However, the point I wish to make here is that one could still view Hart’s defense as intellectually tenable, even if one lacked the gift of faith.

    For my own part, while I am sometimes perplexed by the sight of evil occurring around me in the world, I am continually reminded of the fact that the beauty in the world is even more prevalent than evil, as beauty pervades every level of the cosmos, as well as every nook and cranny of the world we live in – which evil does not.

  4. 4
  5. 5
    Lock says:

    What a great post Barry. So much of what I have tried to express, you did with much grace and appearent ease. Education helps… 🙂

    You touched on something That I wanted to briefly expand upon.

    Regarding evil, you said that, “in some sense, he [God] is responsible for its existence.”

    That is an unavoidable conclusion in my opinion. And one that many a christian might disagree with at first glance.

    Using it as a defense against Christianity, a man once told me, “Look! I have a real problem with a God who would condemn me, for the way He made me.”

    Ouch…

    After some silence a question occured to me, so I asked him, “Are you saying that a real God would take responsibility for the way he made you?”

    He was stunned. And frankly, so was I.

    This whole idea that we cannot know with absolute certainty is very legitimate. For me, one of the things I cannot understand entirely is the cross of Christ. There we have evil, good, judgement, and mercy all converging in one place. All of these contradictory realities being reconciled.

    It is too much to know fully. But, we can catch glimpses of it from time to time. And like many other issues, no one angle of view ever fully completes the picture. but just one of them can shatter our false pretenses.

    There is a difference between guilt, sin, and responsiblity. Any parent knows that we must sometimes take responsibility for our children. Often, we do not do it out of guilt or wrongdoing of our own, but out of love, acceptance, and the understanding that children simply cannot bear certain ‘crosses’.

    As jesus said, ‘…forgive them, they do not know what they are doing’. So we forgive them and bear the burden.

    And that brings up an interesting question:

    What would happen if they refused?

    In such a case, would I be condemning them? No… they would condemn themselves in their pride. My 3 year old says it all the time (sometimes while screaming), “I can do it myself”.

    It seems hubris takes many forms…

  6. 6
    vjtorley says:

    Professor Francis Beckwith asserts on his blog that St. Thomas’s Five Ways are “not proofs.” Although I’m no fan of Kant’s criticisms, I have to side with Barry here: St. Thomas himself plainly asserts that his Five Ways are proofs:

    I answer that, The existence of God can be proved in five ways. (Summa Theologica, Vol. I, q. 2, a. 3.)

    See http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm#article2 .

    Lest there be any doubt, St. Thomas also uses the word “demonstrate” in connection with arguments for God’s existence, in article 2 of the same question:

    Demonstration can be made in two ways: One is through the cause, and is called “a priori,” and this is to argue from what is prior absolutely. The other is through the effect, and is called a demonstration “a posteriori”; this is to argue from what is prior relatively only to us. When an effect is better known to us than its cause, from the effect we proceed to the knowledge of the cause. And from every effect the existence of its proper cause can be demonstrated, so long as its effects are better known to us; because since every effect depends upon its cause, if the effect exists, the cause must pre-exist. Hence the existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us. (Emphasis mine – VJT.)

    Finally, here is the Catholic Encyclopedia, in its article, “God, The Existence of” (see http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/06608b.htm#IIc ):

    It has never been claimed that God’s existence can be proved mathematically, as a proposition in geometry is proved, and most Theists reject every form of the ontological or deductive proof. But if the term proof or demonstration may be, as it often is, applied to a posteriori or inductive inference, by means of which knowledge that is not innate or intuitive is acquired by the exercise of reason, then it cannot fairly be denied that Catholic teaching virtually asserts that God’s existence can be proved. Certain knowledge of God is declared to be attainable “by the light of reason”, i.e. of the reasoning faculty as such from or through “the things that are made”; and this clearly implies an inferential process such as in other connections men do not hesitate to call proof. (Bold type mine – VJT.)

    That’s pretty strong language – and the italics are in the original passage. Indeed, the language is so strong that to an unwary reader, it might give the false impression that according to the teaching of St. Thomas (and the Catholic Church), reason can demonstrate God’s existence an a posteriori basis, in such a way as to preclude all doubt. It was precisely in order to counteract such an interpretation that I quoted the words of Fr. Richard Clarke, S.J., in my previous post (#3), to the effect that the arguments for the existence of God are convincing, not compelling arguments, and that you can always find some “way out” if you really wish.

  7. 7
    Clive Hayden says:

    Laplace has a contradiction that runs right through his assessment. Whoever that has the total knowledge of all events that caused the present and the future by virtue of the past, would have to make a tacit exception for themselves and their ability to stand outside the torrent of events and assess it from outside. But this would not be knowledge of everything as if everything were in the torrent of events, for they would have to be outside it in order to have objective knowledge. As soon as they place themselves into the torrent of events they get a deadlock, for they couldn’t have known otherwise in their system of present causes from past events, and if they couldn’t have known otherwise, they have no objective or true knowledge of anything. Laplace’s exercise has a contradiction that runs right through it.

  8. 8
    Clive Hayden says:

    Laplace believes that if we could know all there is to know about any one moment, we could then determine with accuracy all of the events of the past and future, given that all events are interlocked and deterministic. But how could we aspire to know all there is to know of one event if we are part of the chain of events and all that we know is part of that chain of events? By this interlocked system, there would be no independent perspective to know all of this moment. And if this all-pervasive “knowing” were to happen, it would also be, itself, a result of and subject to the predetermined interlocking chain of events. It seems to me that there is a notion that some people have that we could, theoretically, if we had the ability, tap into a predetermined universe, and use the knowledge like a tool. But this “tapping into” would itself be a predetermined event. And in order to use a tool, you have to be something separate and apart from the tool itself, a craftsman. But if all events were interlocked, no craftsman would exist separate from the tool; he would only be a part of the tool itself, like a single drop of water in a river, with no chance of trying to redirect its course. And all of the “inquiries” into the past and future events would also be predetermined. There would never be an event that was outside the interlocking chain of events, not even the knowledge that it was interlocked, that could give you an honest picture of it. For whatever picture was provided couldn’t be otherwise. Therefore, we would have no objective reason to know that it is interlocked, and therefore no knowledge that it was. We would be a line going in a circle looking for a corner in order to get our bearings as to where we were within the circle, which is impossible without another frame of reference, for it would all be a circle.

  9. 9
    fbeckwith says:

    Vjtorley:

    Sigh…. You didn’t google enough. You need to know the historical background and context of the ST rather than just look for the money quote and end it there.

    Read this:

    http://www.catholic.com/thisrock/2006/0601uan.asp

  10. 10
    Apollos says:

    Lock wrote:

    “For me, one of the things I cannot understand entirely is the cross of Christ. There we have evil, good, judgement, and mercy all converging in one place. All of these contradictory realities being reconciled.”

    How wonderfully stated. If you can spot the paradox then you most likely understand the cross pretty well, by my estimation.

    It’s the single most tragic event in history, and at the same time the most beautiful.

    And yet,

    “…we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1Cor1)”

    The Paradox:

    Nail pierced hands they run with blood
    A splitting brow forced by the thorns
    His face is writhing with the pain

    yet it’s comforting to me

    –Kutless, modern Christian rock band

  11. 11
    Barry Arrington says:

    Gil, as always you passion for the gospel is an inspiration. Thank you for your fine comment.

    vjtorley, this is a surmise on my part, but you seem to be writing from a Catholic perspective, and even as I wrote the post I knew my Catholic friends would not be entirely satisfied with my approach. But I thank you for the charitable fashion in which you express your differing point of view. You are probably correct that I spoke too forcefully when I suggested that Kant “demolished” Aquinas’ five proofs, and that is certainly inconsistent with my later statement that I believe Aquinas has the better of the argument. What I meant is that Kant demolished any notion that Aquinas’ proofs (or ways as Dr. Beckwith insists) compel assent. You and I agree that they do not.

    We must agree to disagree on the role of faith in justification. Not surprisingly, I assert sola fide. “We live by faith, not by sight.” I Cor. 5:7. “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” Romans 1:17. It is an endlessly fascinating debate, and we will obviously not resolve it here. To our readers if our discussion has piqued your interest, by all means please continue your explorations. Wikipedia’s article on sola fide is a surprisingly good starting place.

    Finally, I agree that David Hart’s article in First Things is perhaps the best single piece I have ever read on the issue. I remember when it first came out. I copied it and sent it to everyone I knew.

    Dr. Beckwith, I am not quite sure what to make of your comment. I don’t believe we disagree as much as your comment suggests. As I admitted above, I gave the wrong impression with the word “demolished.” Kant did not completely demolish Aquinas’ Five Ways. It is generally accepted, however, that he demonstrated that acceptance of the Five Ways is not logically compelled. I would be interested to know if you disagree with this assertion. Moreover, I believe you attribute to me a view that I did not express – that all Enlightenment thinkers were full of hubris. In fact, I said just the opposite, that even at the height of the Enlightenment thinkers such as Pascal resisted the siren song of pure reason. Kant was another such thinker. His Critique of Pure Reason was after all, as its name implies, an exposition of the limits of pure reason.

    Lock, thank you for your kind words and keen insights.

  12. 12
    vjtorley says:

    Professor Beckwith:

    Thank you for the link to the article, Five Ways or Five Proofs? by James Kidd, assistant editor of This Rock magazine. I regret to say that the writer appears misinformed, and in any case, the position he criticizes is one which I never defended in the first place.

    In my previous posts (#3 and #6), I argued that St. Thomas intended his Five Ways to be taken as a posteriori arguments which proved the existence of God as certain beyond reasonable doubt, not certain beyond all possible doubt. I quoted the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) in support of this interpretation. To make matters even clearer, I quoted a Jesuit priest (Fr. Richard Clarke, S.J. in “The Existence of God”, London Catholic Truth Society, 1887) as saying that the proofs for God’s existence are convincing, but not compelling arguments. I don’t think I could have been clearer in what I wrote.

    The author whom you cited makes two substantial points. First, “any argument that assumes the validity of sense perception (including the five ways) is conditional upon the accuracy of our senses.” True enough; but who disputes this? Second, “Aquinas did not intend the five ways to be logical, mathematical demonstrations.” Again, who said that he did? I certainly didn’t; indeed, the text I cited from The Catholic Encyclopedia asserted the contrary.

    The author uses the word “proof” in a narrow, Cartesian sense, as precluding even the logical possibility of error:

    There is no way to prove beyond all possible doubt that our senses are true; there’s always the logical possibility that Descartes’s “evil deceiver” is making you think you’re reading this article right now when in fact you are not. The only true proofs we do have—for instance, that vertical angles are congruent—are mathematical ones that hold true even if our senses are giving us false information.

    However, our legal system uses the term “proof” quite differently: proof of the defendant’s guilt must be sufficiently strong as to leave no reasonable doubt that he/she is guilty. And there is abundant textual evidence that St. Thomas did intend his Five Ways to be taken as proofs that establish God’s existence beyond reasonable doubt.

    The author whom you cite appears to have badly misread St. Thomas:

    In the preceding article (ST 1:2:2), he asks “whether it can be demonstrated that God exists” (Utrum Deum esse sit demonstrabile). The word demonstrabile has a precise meaning in Latin as a logical, geometrical proof. Thomas then proceeds to argue that the existence of God can be established by this kind of proof.

    Wrong on two counts. You can check the Latin here if you like, but here is what St. Thomas says:

    I answer that, Demonstration can be made in two ways: One is through the cause, and is called “a priori” …The other is through the effect, and is called a demonstration “a posteriori”… [T]he existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects which are known to us (in Latin, demonstrabile est per effectus nobis notos).

    So the word demonstrabile doesn’t always mean “a logical, geometrical proof”; for St. Thomas, it includes a posteriori proofs, such as the proof for God’s existence. Nowhere does St. Thomas assert that God’s existence can be established by “a logical, geometrical proof.”

    Even more muddled is the later claim by the author whom you cited from This Rock, that St. Thomas intended the Five Ways merely as “arguments for something that we already accept.” But that contradicts St. Thomas’ plain assertion: “[T]he existence of God, in so far as it is not self-evident to us, can be demonstrated from those of His effects” (italics mine).

    To make matters worse, the author whom you cite accuses St. Thomas of inconsistency, and of changing his mind about the possibility of proving God’s existence in the space of one short article:

    But in article 3, Thomas suddenly abandons the language of hard proof in favor of a softer term: ” Deum esse quinque viis probari potest,” usually translated “The existence of God can be proved in five ways.” But, unlike the narrow meaning of demonstrabile, the word probari has a wider meaning that does not necessitate a rigorous, irrefutable proof. A more accurate translation would be “The existence of God can be argued for in five ways.”

    But the translation proposed by the author simply will not do. This is apparent from the language Aquinas uses in his first way (vol. I, q. 2, a. 3):

    The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion… [W]hatever is in motion must be put in motion by another… But this cannot go on to infinity… Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God. (Emphases mine – VJT.)

    Does this sound “softer” to you than the language in article 2? I think not. And the common translation, “The existence of God can be proved in five ways,” is the one used by at least three translators: the Fathers of the English Dominican Province ( http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1002.htm ), an older pre-1907 translation at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall.....inas3.html , and Professor Alfred Feddoso’s new Latin translation at http://www.nd.edu/~afreddos/su.....ques02.pdf (“There are five ways to prove that there is a God.”) Not being a Latin scholar, I would think it rash and presumptuous to contradict these learned authorities and tell them that they’ve got it wrong.

    Finally, Professor Peter Kreeft, in his A summa of the Summa: the essential philosophical passages of St. Thomas Aquinas (Ignatius Press, 1990, p. 61), refers to the five ways in the Summa Theologica as “summaries of proofs” which are “elsewhere worked out in greater detail, e.g. in the Summa contra Gentiles.”

    Professor Beckwith, you asserted on your blog that St. Thomas’s Five Ways are “not proofs.” I hope that our positions on the Five Ways are in fact much closer than they might have at first appeared. I also hope you will allow that the Five Ways were originally intended by Aquinas as proofs, in the sense I described above.

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    Rude says:

    Interesting post and comments from everyone—I particularly liked V J Torley’s take:

    For my own part, while I am sometimes perplexed by the sight of evil occurring around me in the world, I am continually reminded of the fact that the beauty in the world is even more prevalent than evil, as beauty pervades every level of the cosmos, as well as every nook and cranny of the world we live in – which evil does not.

    Even though great evil lurks in dark corners, in the over all it’s a wonderful, beautiful world. It’s not so much the reality we all face—which is our mortality—but the potential that the order and beauty of the creation suggests.

    There is a biblical teaching, one that might be of interest to some, on God hiding his face, as for example in Deuteronomy 31—you might Google hester panim and look for some of the traditional commentary. Though it is our own wrong choices that have separated us from God (Isaiah 59:2), there is ultimately an up side to God hiding his face.

    True virtue is not so much a feature of the majestic cherub standing in the blazing glory and terrifying presence of his Maker as it is of the son of sinners choosing to return to a Father who has hidden his face. The choice to seek God was not as courageous a choice for those who faced the thunder and fire of Sinai (Exodus 20:18-20) as it is for those who reject the easy way of nonconfrontation and acceptance and seek instead the hidden face of God.

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    Sooner Emeritus says:

    Barry Arrington,

    Outstanding post. You walk the middle way with your epistemology, and own up to uncertainty in your beliefs. Absolutism is the worst form of violence, and you have my best wishes for engendering peace.

    Your comments apply to prideful rationalists on both sides of the debate over ID. I have always perceived ID as a misguided attempted to take the fight to radical atheists on their own ground. When you make yourself indistinguishable from your adversary, you’ve lost the fight.

    Perhaps you’ve heard the saying that the ends of the spectrum meet. In all honesty, and not to be mean, I see great similarities between Dembski and Dawkins. One regards himself as exceedingly bright and the other as exceedingly Brite. Which of them was it who claimed to have devised a detection technique giving absolutely no false alarms? And which of them explained to all the world, without having to go through peer review, that evolution was all about genes?

    ID advocates love to prop up the Dawkins straw man and knock him down, over and over, as though he were representative of evolutionary biology. And radical atheists love to prop up the Dembski straw man and knock him down, over and over, as though his misbegotten theories were characteristic of Christian thought.

    I’m with Pascal: “The heart has reasons that reason cannot know.” What is not rational is not necessarily irrational. I’ve heard the term a-rational applied to those aspects of human experience that have nothing to do with reason. I contend most of our experiences and beliefs about them are fundamentally a-rational. The ugliest thing about the neo-atheists is their denigration of beliefs with no rational basis. A cultural war fought with weapons of reason will not bring us to a state of spiritual health in which the a-rational plays an appropriate role.

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    Seversky says:

    Are we to assume from these declarations of faith that all attempts to distance Intelligent Design from its religious parentage have been abandoned?

  16. 16
    Matteo says:

    I don’t know, are we to assume from the raving misotheism at a place like Pharyngula that the ToE is devoid of merit?

  17. 17
    Barry Arrington says:

    Seversky, what part of “off topic” do you not understand?

  18. 18
    shackleman says:

    Evil looses its sting when one realizes that this world isn’t all there is. God ALSO created the evil-free utopia we all long for. It’s called heaven.

    The Problem of Evil is the biggest problem the theist must reconcile IMHO. It’s so big a problem in fact that, for me, I can no longer be a theist without Christ, for He is the answer to the Problem of Evil. In Christ, God has already won, and we can look forward to His peace as we look to the Cross.

    And at the same time, once one acknowledges that “evil” is a word that has real meaning, one is already on their way to discovering the truth of God the Father and God the Son. For in a *consistently* materialistic/atheistic universe, “evil” would necessarily be a word without any meaning whatsoever.

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    kairosfocus says:

    Mr Arrington:

    I don’t know if it would help, but here is my own discussion on worldview synthesis/choice based on warranted credible truths used as test-point, as developed in response to issues in a Caribbean Blog.

    GEM of TKI

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    Innerbling says:

    Barry as I see it it’s possible that God doesn’t exist. That would however mean to me that we are living in completely irrational, hopeless and meaningless reality. Faith for me is hope that we are living a meaningful existence and that the truth can be known someday.
    No materialist has given me a reason to believe that I am wrong or that they have objective hope in their worldview.

    When it comes to evil, evil things can only exists in a reality where evil is real. If materialism is correct evil is not real i.e. how can atoms and movement of atoms be evil?

  21. 21
    StephenB says:

    Barry, I commend you for another well-written post, and I agree that sooner or later we must all make a leap of faith. In my judgment, the issue is at what point do we have to make the leap. Is it at the point where we must believe that God exists, or, is it at the point that we can know that he exists, but must believe that he reveals himself in his Word. I submit that it is the latter.

    To get a good feel for why Kant’s attempt to refute Aquinas fails, I recommend googling an excellent article by Mortimer J. Adler entitled, “Little Errors in the Beginning.”

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