I’ve never read anyone so difficult to understand as Kant, but his importance serves as a goad to persist… If anyone reading this is a Kantian or a Kant scholar, please feel free to correct me if what I’m saying here is either inaccurate or contested. Anyway, as I quoted in a previous post, Etienne Gilson writes, “Today our only choice is not Kant or Descartes; it is rather Kant or Thomas Aquinas. All the other positions are but halfway houses on the roads which lead either to absolute religious agnosticism or to the natural theology of Christian metaphysics” (God and Philosophy p. 114). In §32 of the Prolegomena, Kant refers to “special beings of the understanding (noumena), which are supposed to constitute an intelligible world.” He grants the possibility of the existence of such beings “but only with the enforcement of this rule that admits of no exception: that we neither know nor can know anything at all determinate about these pure beings of the understanding, because our pure concepts of the understanding as well as our pure intuitions extend to nothing but objects of possible experience” (i.e., extend to the realms of Newtonian physics). Here is Kant’s agnosticism regarding intellectual beings. Kant’s interest is not that we be conformed to the totality of what is real as much as we are able (in conduct and thought) but that we ourselves process our intuitions rendering them into experience which is in accordance with the laws of Newtonian physics (the principles of which reside in us a priori). I would like to contrast what Kant regards as being our own a priori understanding which is able to order our intuitions as coherent experience with Aquinas’ notion (h/t Aristotle) of the “agent intellect” (i.e., the proper active principle). The agent intellect renders intelligible all sensory experience received by the “possible intellect” (i.e., the passive principle). Aquinas’ cognitive theory has the interaction between active and passive principles as foundational to all reality. In Kant there is also an interaction between active and passive principles, but where the natural theology of Aquinas gives us the ability to say something “positive” about the objects external to us, in Kant we have external to us something real but we know not what (“we are not discussing the origin of experience, but what lies in experience” §21a). Kant’s agnosticism regarding “special beings” extends to the very origins of our intuition. While they are ‘real’ we can’t know them. So, there is an activity of some sort, as without it our intuitions receive nothing whatsoever, but his philosophical commitments don’t allow him to express anything confident or positive about what constitutes that activity.
Forms come by nature. Thomas says, “certain seeds of the sciences pre-exist in us, namely, the first conceptions of the intellect which are known right away by the light of the agent intellect through species abstracted from sensible things” (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998, p.198). The pre-existent seeds Thomas is referring to are those images which we passively receive by our senses and naturally actively abstract to some degree by way of our inherent agent intellect. Our agent intellect is created to function commensurately with our senses as it interacts with nature. The agent intellect is the active principle in our intellect that abstracts, or processes, all our sensory data, rendering them to our memories (passive intellect) for further consideration (if we want).
The notion that there can be a science of divine things does not negate Thomas’ statements regarding how we are unable to know the essence of God. A science of divine things is possible so long as we are clear regarding what we actually can and cannot know, and how the science of divine things proceeds.
First of all, only God can know his own essence. In fact, he knows himself “through his essence” (Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, Penguin Books., London 1998. p. 116). In other words, only God can truly know himself, as it is his essence to do so. The science of divine things must proceed from this basic understanding, namely, we cannot essentially know God. This does not mean, however, that we cannot in any way come to know God (as we will see).
Secondly, in terms of human reason, according to Thomas we can approach knowledge of God referring to the fact of his existence (and not of what he is). This can be done in three ways: 1) observing his effects in creation; 2) understanding his causality of “more noble effects” which grants a “better display of his eminence”, and; 3) in a negative sense we understand more clearly how he transcends all things and defies definition (Thomas quotes Dionysius, “he is known as the cause, the excess and negation of all things” – (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 117).
Continue reading “Aquinas studies: if we cannot know the essence of God, how can there be a science of divine things?”
It is good and right to direct everything in our being towards God and union with him (including our intellects). However, errors are possible.
1) Presumption: in directing our intellect towards God we should not presume that we can comprehend God as we may be able to comprehend other aspects of creation (Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas Selected Writings, ed. by Ralph McInerny. Penguin Books: New York, 1998. p. 128).
2) Placing reason before faith in the directing of ourselves to God and to union with him. As God is incomprehensible to our intellects, and yet we are to direct everything towards him, we must “Begin by believing” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 128). Believing is to hold something as real and true on the basis of what a knower tells us, so belief is the way we are able to transcend our intellects by receiving from God his self-revelation. This self-revelation is an outflow of God’s love towards us and thus the extent and form of his self-revelation is suited to our capacity. “Every creature is moved as to be made more and more like God insofar as it can be” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 129). This movement happens through “infused faith” (Aquinas, Selected Writings, p. 131).
Continue reading “Aquinas’ view of the possible errors in ‘investigating’ God using natural reason”
“Language is primarily designed to refer to the objects of our sense-experience, and is very often found inadequate for the precise expression of metaphysical truths. Thus we speak, and cannot well help speaking, of “God foreseeing,” a phrase that, as it stands, implies that God is in time, whereas we know that God is not in time but is eternal. We cannot, however, speak adequately of the eternity of God, since we have no experience of eternity ourselves, and our language is not designed to express such matters. We are human beings and have to use human language — we can use no other: and this fact should make us cautious in attaching too much weight to the mere language or phrases used by Plato in dealing with abstruse, metaphysical points.”
Copleston, Frederick Charles. A History of Philosophy: Volume 1. Garden City, NY: Image, 1962. 165. Print.
“Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) –a morally problematic figure, admittedly, but not to be dismissed–was largely correct in thinking that the modern West excels at evading the mystery of being precisely because its governing myth is one of practical mastery. Ours is, he thought, the age of technology, in which ontological questions have been vigorously expelled from cultural consideration, replaced by questions of mere mechanistic force; for us, nature is now something “enframed” and defined by a particular disposition of the will, the drive toward dominion that reduces the world to a morally neutral “standing reserve” of resources entirely subject to our manipulation, exploitation, and ambition. Anything that does not fit within the frame of that picture is simply invisible to us. When the world is seen this way, even organic life–even where consciousness is present–must come to be regarded as just another kind of technology. This vision of things can accommodate the prospect of large areas of ignorance yet to be vanquished (every empire longs to discover new worlds to conquer), but no realm of ultimate mystery. Late modernity is thus a condition of willful spiritual deafness. Enframed, racked, reduced to machinery, nature cannot speak unless spoken to, and then her answers must be only yes, no, or obedient silence. She cannot address us in her own voice. And we certainly cannot hear whatever voice might attempt to speak to us through her” (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pp. 311-312).
“Much of what passes for debate between theist and atheist factions today is really only a disagreement between differing perspectives within a single post-Christian and effectively atheist understanding of the universe. Nature for most of us now is merely an immense machine, either produced by a demiurge (a cosmic magician) or somehow just existing of itself, as an independent contingency (a magical cosmos). In place of the classical philosophical problems that traditionally opened out upon the question of God–the mystery of being, higher forms of causality, the intelligibility of the world, the nature of consciousness, and so on–we now concern ourselves almost exclusively with the problems of the physical origin or structural complexity of nature, and are largely unaware of the difference.
The conceptual poverty of the disputes frequently defies exaggeration. On one side, it has become perfectly respectable for a philosophically illiterate physicist to proclaim that “science shows that God does not exist,” an assertion rather on the order of Yuri Gagarin remarking (as, happily, he never really did) that he had not seen God while in orbit. On the other side, it has become respectable to argue that one can find evidence of an Intelligent Designer of the world by isolating discrete instances of apparent causal discontinuity (or ineptitude) in the fabric of nature, which require the postulate of an external guiding hand to explain away the gap in natural causality. In either case, “God” has become the name of some special physical force or causal principle located somewhere out there among all the other forces and principles found in the universe: not the Logos filling and forming all things, not the infinity of being and consciousness in which all things necessarily subsist, but a thing among other things, an item among all the other items encompassed within nature” (David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God, pgs 302-303).