Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Knowability and Demonstrability of God

Before proceeding to a discussion of the Divinity of Jesus Christ, we should first make a pit stop to discuss the basic argument for the existence of a transcendent divinity, i.e., of a all-powerful being that exists beyond the rest of reality and is responsible for its creation, in the first place. It is important to establish this fact, because later we are going to look at the possibility that a man named Jesus of Nazareth was actually that all-powerful, transcendent Being in human form. That is a central claim of Christianity - and it is distinct from many common ideas that, say, Jesus was a special prophet of God, or a special spiritual leader of men. We claim that He was God-in-Flesh, God-with-Us.

So first, let's look at the plausibility of God in the first place. We must be clear about two things: (1) what exactly we are trying to demonstrate; (2) how such things are demonstrated.

Regarding the first point, we must be clear that we are not here trying to prove that the God of Christianity or Judaism exists: the God who interacts with His creation, loving it and us, and revealing His to humanity His plan for us. Far from it. We are only trying to prove that a God, of some sort or nature exists, and to see what is discernible about that God using our observations and common sense reasoning. The second point is about the ability to prove things. We are used to speaking of "scientifically proven," with very little understanding of what that means.

Interestingly enough, careful scientists do not speak that way - usually mostly the Newsweek reporters relaying their stories speak so boldly. The scientific method isn't intended to prove anything, but rather to disprove something. The scientific method entails looking at the data, forming a theory to explain it, imagining defects in the theory and the sort of new data that would disprove the theory, and then an experiment (in a lab or otherwise) to try to see whether the new theory is false or not. As test upon test fails to disprove a theoretical explanation for a set of data, that explanation gets more and more accepted. It is laymen like myself who are prone to say, "Science has proven X," when in reality, what has really happened is that no scientist has disproven X and formed a better theory to explain what is known. The scientific method, then, adds greatly to the information we have to operate with, but always with a certain uncertainty, a little openness to new ideas in the future that might overrule our older ways of thinking.

The scientific method has one notable weakness. It only deals with material causes - with matter and energy. If I push a block, and the block moves, a scientist might be able to address all sorts of questions about the force and friction undergone by the block - but his methods will not explain what was going on in my mind, why I decided to move the block. Its ability to explain intention, motivation, or decision (pertaining to what Aristotle calls formal causes) is fairly limited. Formal causes are not contrary to material causes - both can exist simultaneously. If I move a block, and someone asks why the block was moved, it would be equally accurate to give the material answer ("A force pushed upon it sufficiently to overcome the friction holding it in place,") and the formal answer ("Ryan decided to move it"). In fact, a full answer requires both. Even though formal causes aren't material and cannot be measured very well, we all know they exist because we all have the experience of making decisions that we did not have to make.

Remember, the scientific method is based on human experience of the exterior, material world. If we are going to deny the usefulness of the human experience of our own thought processes, then we might as well throw out all human experience, because we only come to know the exterior world through thought processes. If we are going to admit "scientific evidence," things measured and weighed, the we have to admit experiential evidence in general, even if we must use different means to sort through different kinds.

Now, logic, on the other hand, can prove some things - but only using the sort of data we already know - categories of thought. If an elm is a tree, and no tree is a dog, then it is absolutely certainly true that no elm is a dog. Of course, this sort of reasoning isn't very interesting, because it doesn't add very much to what we already knew. Both sorts of knowledge - scientific and logical - are very powerful. We previously explored historical knowledge, whose methods provide less certainty than science, but still useful and important information. There are other sorts of knowledge, too. We might call relational knowledge all that "data" we acquire about persons and people in general as we interact more with more people. This sort of knowledge is certainly very useful and important, even if the methods we use are usually informal and not very certain.

These different ways of knowing things to different degrees of certainty shouldn't bother us too much. Part of human maturation is learning to deal with uncertainty. Loving our mothers requires uncertainty, and so does astrophysicists. The only absolutely certain people probably insane. Now back to the question of the existence of God. Can we know God's existence certainly? Well, no, given what we've just discussed - but we can know it as certainly as we know anything else. Here's one line of reasoning that makes the case. If you sense a weakness in the reasoning, it is probably my fault - I am trying to condense St. Thomas Aquinas' reasoning, which is a difficult task because he was not given to rhetorical frills in the midst of his arguments.

A. Each composite thing (things made up of other things - e.g., dogs, Lego structures, houses, cities, etc.) that we experience has a beginning and an end.

B. Because before its beginning a thing does not exist, we would not expect it to be able to bring itself into existence. In fact, our expectation is matched by our experience, at least negatively, because we have never witnessed a thing bringing itself into creation, but have always been able to identify something(s) outside of it, and existing before it, acting upon its parts to compose it.

C. If the universe is taken as a single thing composed of all those things that are part of it, each of which came into being through a process of creation or composition, the universe too would have a composer entirely outside of it and prior to it, composing it.

D. The creator/composer of the universe, being fundamentally outside of it, must not be of the same sort of thing as the universe it created. Among the ways it differs, it must be a sort of thing that does not need a creator because of having always existed. If the creator needed a creator itself, and so on, there would have to be an infinite number of them, in which case, none of them would actually get around to creating the universe.

E. We cannot expect the universe to have been self-creating (autochthonous is the Greek word for this idea) because nothing in the universe is self-creating, and if the universe is the sum-total of its parts, it cannot be expected to be so radically different from its parts.

Now, the argument above does not exactly prove the existence of God, but does point in favor of it. The Greek realist philosophers held essentially this position, although they believed that the material of the world was eternal, and that its composition into its current form was the work of God. Christians have readily admitted that creation from nothing (ex nihilo) cannot be proven logically, but have nonetheless taken it as a matter of faith, and that point aside, used the substance of the Greek argument in our own favor.

This argument does not tell us much about the Creator/Composer of the Universe: only that the Creator must exist, in order to explain everything else, and that the Creator must be totally outside of, and radically different from the created universe. It does not tell us the means or process by which the Creator created the universe, nor does it tell us the Creator's attitude toward or purpose for the universe. We are most certainly not trying to prove the Judeo-Christian conception of God here.

2 comments:

Mark said...

Ryan, thanks again for another thought-filled response. For the sake of argument, I will posit that a god exists who created the universe and everything in it, and that Jesus was a real historical person. My question is still the same:
"Where would you say the evidence is that compels you to believe that Jesus was a god?"
That's all I need an answer to, and the briefer your reply, the better. And there's no rush, so in the meantime, good luck with all your work and studies!

His Handmaid's son said...

Ah, Mark! My mistake. In my mind, your question had included something like, "and that Jesus even existed."

My apologies. I think that lately I've heard it stated a number of times that Jesus probably didn't even exist, so it must be on the brain.

Good news is that we're getting to the point! Lol.