Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category


Introducing Metaphysics – William Hasker

March 21, 2014
What is there?" According to an eminent philosopher these simple words suffice to formulaic the central question of all metaphysics.' And his answer is even simpler: "Everything." Obviously this is correct; whatever there is, is included in "everything," while whatever doesn't exist is really "nothing."

What is there?” According to an eminent philosopher these simple words suffice to formulate the central question of all metaphysics.’ And his answer is even simpler: “Everything.” Obviously this is correct; whatever there is, is included in “everything,” while whatever doesn’t exist is really “nothing.”

William Hasker is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Huntington College in Indiana. This is short, punchy, to the point.


What is there?” According to an eminent philosopher these simple words suffice to formulate the central question of all metaphysics.’ And his answer is even simpler: “Everything.” Obviously this is correct; whatever there is, is included in “everything,” while whatever doesn’t exist is really “nothing.” But it’s also obvious that both question and answer need much more explanation. So, let’s break the question “What is there?” down into some more specific questions — questions to which metaphysics will try to give detailed answers.

Metaphysical Questions
First of all, what is real? We all distinguish between things that are real, that really exist, and things that aren’t real. We can apply this distinction to persons, such as Paul Bunyan and Wyatt Earp; to activities, such as beaming aboard the Starship Enterprise and flying at supersonic speeds from Paris to New York: or to places, such as the land of Narnia and the Grand Duchy of Monaco. The second member of each pair, we say, is real or really exists, while the first member isn’t and doesn’t. Other examples are controversial: Is the Loch Ness monster real or not? And what of the yeti, the abominable snowman of the Himalayas? Some people believe in the reality of one or both of these, while others deny it and still others reserve judgment.

These, however, are still not the sorts of cases to which philosophers apply themselves when they ask what is real. But consider these questions: Is there such a being as God? Is a human being endowed with an immaterial self or “soul” which survives bodily death? Is there such a thing as a person’s performing an act of free choice, an act which is not determined or controlled by anything at all except the person’s own decision? Such questions as these take us right to the heart of metaphysics, and we will be concerned with all of them later in this book.

Second, what is ultimately real? What are the basic constituents of reality? We are familiar with the idea that things can be broken down into their constituents — for instance, a lovely perfume can be analyzed as a mixture of various organic chemicals, and these in turn as combinations of atoms of the various chemical elements, and so on. We tend to feel as we work through such an analysis that we are gaining insight into the real nature of what we are studying, that we are finding out what is “really real” in it. And we could almost define metaphysics by saying that a metaphysician is someone who pushes this kind of question just as far as it can go — to find the “ultimate reals” out of which are constructed perfumes and skyscrapers and planets and social structures and indeed simply everything.

Often this analysis of real things into their constituents is carried on in scientific terms, but a metaphysician may want to ask whether the constituents identified by science are the “ultimate reals,” or whether they can themselves be analyzed in terms of something still more basic. Sometimes what seems to be a strange or even preposterous statement about what is real turns out, when properly understood, to be instead a claim about what is “ultimately real.”

Thus when a philosopher says that physical objects don’t exist, he probably doesn’t mean to say that there are no such things as trees, tables and baseball bats. It’s much more likely that what he means is that the “ultimate constituents” of such objects, what they really consist of, is something very different from physical objects as we ordinarily think of them. Perhaps trees and ball bats are ultimately made up of mental images, thoughts in people’s minds. Of course, this may still strike you as being strange and implausible, but it isn’t so obviously false and absurd its it would be to deny outright the existence of physical objects.

One may also ask whether the constituents identified by science are all of the “ultimate reals” that go to make up something. For instance, a physiologist can give an analysis of visual perception in terms of the focusing of reflected light by the lens of the eye, the reaction to this light by the rods and cones of the retina, the transmission of the visual information through the optic nerve and the processing of this information within the brain. But does this analysis include all of what is involved in seeing something? That is an important — and highly controversial — question of metaphysics.

Throughout these last paragraphs I have been assuming that we can indeed discover what is ultimately real by breaking things down into their constituents. But according to one group of philosophers this approach is fundamentally mistaken. The theory of wholism claims that wholes, complex entities, typically have a reality of their own over and above that of their constituents.

Thus, analysis of a whole into its parts always falsifies its nature by failing to capture this “something more.” According to extreme forms of wholism, the only ultimately correct answer to the question “What is there?” would be “everything.” Any other answer would distort the truth by failing to capture the indissoluble unity of the Real (or, as some would say, of the Absolute). In this book I shall assume that the process of analysis is valid and that we can find out what a thing is by determining what it consists of. But the reader should be aware of the existence of the wholistic viewpoint.

Finally, metaphysics asks, what is man’s place in what is real? Out of all the different sorts of beings in heaven and earth, there is no doubt that we have a very special interest in the creatures we ourselves are, namely, human beings. That concern partly, no doubt, expresses our self-centeredness, and it is tempting to wonder what philosophy would be like if it were written by an ant or an electron.

On the other hand, it just is a fact that in the world as we know it human beings are somewhat unique. Ants and electrons, after all, don’t write philosophy, and this is part and parcel of the reasons why both are several notches below humans in what has been called the “great chain of being.” If, on the other hand, we someday find that there really are extraterrestrial intelligences, their philosophical views will be of the deepest interest.

For the part of the universe we know, however, humans would seem to be either the highest, most complex and elaborate products  of nature, or else the visible link between nature and something  beyond nature: “mid-way between the brutes and the angels,” as Pascal put it. Which of these is true (or, conceivably, whether both might be true) is clearly a question of great importance.

It will have significance for what we sometimes call the meaning of life, for how we ought to live and for what (if anything) we ought to worship. Not all the questions in this area, to be sure, are questions of metaphysics; some belong to ethics, some to the philosophy of religion and some to still other disciplines. But metaphysical questions — questions about what there is — lie at the very core of these issues. They are among the enduring questions of philosophy because they are among the central –and ultimately inescapable — issues of human life.


Time’s On Our Side — Matthew W. Maguire

January 27, 2014
Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804) was a German philosopher who is widely considered to be a central figure of modern philosophy. He argued that human concepts and categories structure our view of the world and its laws, and that reason is the source of morality.

Immanuel Kant (22 April 1724 – 12 February 1804) was a German philosopher who is widely considered to be a central figure of modern philosophy. He argued that human concepts and categories structure our view of the world and its laws, and that reason is the source of morality.

A review of The Illusion of History: Time and the Radical Political Imagination by Andrew R. Russ. Matthew W. Maguire is associate professor of history and Catholic studies at DePaul University.


A century ago, Charles Peguy observed that self-consciously modern intellectuals “want for everyone to criticize everything. But they don’t want anyone to critique critique.” For Peguy and others, “critique” broadly designates thinking in which reflexive suspicion of truth and truth claims is assumed to be superior to any reasoned assent to those claims, and analyses of becoming and historical flux are increasingly assumed to be more powerful, more valuable, and more honest than thinking affirmatively about being, nature, truth, goodness, God, or any metaphysical term intimating abiding “essences” in the world and beyond it.

From early modernity forward, a doughty and eclectic succession of thinkers have criticized this kind of critique. Pascal, Johann Georg Hamann, Peguy, and many others have exposed its tendency to depend tacitly upon bold metaphysical commitments that it elsewhere decries.

That is, modern critical thought often loudly proclaims its radical skepticism and the need to take nothing from metaphysics — or nothing that it cannot establish entirely on its own — but then smuggles into its arguments and exhortations to readers a silent metaphysics of truth, of the good, the beautiful, and the ultimate nature of reality, all the while claiming to emancipate those same readers from metaphysical burdens. Critics observe that modern critical thinking is often rather amusingly inconsistent and — more seriously — threatens to deprive us of the metaphysical freedom that is indispensable to human flourishing, and with it our potential for living lives of purpose in the time available to us.

Yet the critique of critique can sometimes develop the destructive symptoms that it attributes to critique. For all its acute observations about critique’s shortcomings, it can include only tentative gestures toward affirmative metaphysical arguments about truth, goodness, or meaning, creating an amorphous protest against the presumptions of modern critique. The critique of critique can thus be parasitic upon the apparently parasitic tendencies of critique, and thus does not cure but intensifies the malady it encounters.

In The Illusion of History by Andrew Russ, the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant is the supreme transformative moment in modern critical thinking. Kant claimed that his philosophy defended (certain kinds of) metaphysics and constituted a refutation of David Hume’s radical skepticism. But for Russ, a lecturer at the University of Adelaide, Kant points the way toward an account of human being in which a radically autonomous will exists apart from creaturely history and the historical institutions that help to orient us in the world.

Kant’s philosophy of history posits an ultimate rapprochement between the autonomous rational will and human experience, but for Russ, these Kantian ends stand in remote repose, far from the institutional, continuous, and organically historical realities of human life. After Kant, these realities were diminished in both meaning and importance and left undefended before a fiercely historicizing skepticism.

For Russ, Kant created the space for the most radical forms of modern critique. Human being is separated from its indispensably embodied, temporal, and culturally instantiated conditions of experience. This separation produces seemingly liberated but thoroughly alienated modern persons, who are then compelled to protest their alienation in uncompromising terms, often by lurching toward still more radical forms of critique — attacking remaining claims about truth, purpose, goodness, and so on. It is this move that first appears by way of prolepsis in Rousseau and is transfigured by Marx and Foucault.

The audacity of this argument is not to be gainsaid: Russ claims that the philosophies of Rousseau, Marx, and Foucault are not, as conventional wisdom generally assumes, distinct movements toward a thoroughly historical understanding of human experience. Rather, they are three philosophies that tacitly rely upon an ahistorical dualism with profound Kantian resonances, in which the shared historical world we inhabit and the metaphysical traditions conveyed by our cultures are assumed to be lies.

To create their distinctive forms of radical critical distance from their places in a continuous history, Russ claims, Rousseau, Marx, and Foucault imagine three different stark, timeless, yet immanent metaphysical ideals that stand in perpetual critical judgment upon our experience. The fictive past of Rousseau’s state of nature and his selective account of life in ancient Sparta serve him as idylls.

Marx’s dialectical and universally valid “scientific” affirmation of use value, labor power, and the quotidian hunter, fisher, cattle-raiser. and critic of The German Ideology places his timeless yet historical ideal in the communist future. Foucault’s universal emptiness of historical time. at once “autistic” and without consciousness, allows the “imaginative critical individual” to survey history’s “species of thought” while remaining forever separated from history in an isolated present.

For Russ, these critical positions serve as implicit trans-historical standards: They are Rousseauian, Marxist, and Foucauldian illusions of history rather than engagements with history. Hence the pride that modern critique takes in its uncompromising historicism is also illusory.

That some of the most important thinkers and methods of modern critique rely upon a tacit, often Kant-inflected ideal of critical autonomy that is placed in time yet set apart from their putative historicism is a bold and important argument, and it is generally persuasive. Russ is also incisive when reading fiction preoccupied with modern critique; the pages devoted to literature are among the book’s best. For him, Camus and especially Kafka expose with uncanny clarity the dilemmas attending a culture in which critical imaginings begin to form the habitual ways of thinking.

Russ also alludes to a rich counter-critical philosophical history to affirm the importance of historical continuity and its institutions when modern critique has left us alienated and diminished by reflexive suspicion. He commends, for aid in responding to those he calls “historical institutionalists” who ask “not a what’ but a `why” when they investigate human experience, attention to Montesquieu, Jacobi, Hamann, Burke, Hegel, and Eugene Rosenstock Huessy. These philosophers sustain his critique of critique; they are “historical institutionalists” who ask “not a `what’ but a `why” when they investigate human experience.

While there is much to praise in The Illusion of History, there are dubious generalizations at work in its treatment of its major philosophers, especially Rousseau. Furthermore, while it is an author’s prerogative to identify unexpected correspondences, it does not require a scholarly obsessive’s party-pooping pedantry to observe that thinkers like Burke, Hamann, and Hegel are generally not identified as part of a single school of thought, and that there are important reasons for distinguishing among them.

Precisely which institutions do they variously affirm? As for why institutions are legitimate and important, is it because of their particular and organic duration that cannot be entirely subjected to reason (Burke), or as part of the universal, cumulative dialectical realization of the Absolute (Hegel)? Or are they best conceived by the continuous power of the Incarnation, through which eternity fuses sense and reason, matter and language (Hamann)? These differences are essential; here they are mentioned in passing or passed over in silence.

The subtitle of the book, Time and the Radical Political Imagination, offers the prospect of investigating time and imagination, but here that work is often left undone. There are interesting passages about Kant’s account of imagination, but the extraordinary importance of imagination in Rousseau’s philosophy — where it has an altogether different and often intensely political function — is simply absent.

Working with Rousseau’s earlier account of imagination’s power would have allowed Russ (in keeping with his own argumentative commitments) to write with greater sensitivity to history, rather than repeatedly enlisting Rousseau as an awkwardly anachronistic philosophical emanation of Kant.

Above all, Russ fails to reckon with the question of time, a preoccupation of both Christian and modern secular thought. In these pages, time is generally identified with history and the timeless with the trans-historical, but later sections of the book jettison this already debatable usage.

Russ claims there that the organic, “unbroken” trinity of past, present, and future has been shattered by modern critique, and he hopes to reveal “time in its Trinitarian unity.” The theological implications of sustained trinitarian language are undeveloped; they are abandoned abruptly in favor of “all four dimensions of time,” including eternity, which appears only as a posterity that permits institutions to perpetuate the vision of their founders. A book promising to explore time and the political imagination must take more care with its major terms.

The Illusion of History is an ambitious, original, and often truly insightful book. Its argumentative shortcomings leave the reader wondering whether critiques of modern critique would benefit from greater attention to their animating, positive commitments, whether those commitments are “historical-institutional” or philosophical.

The critique of a now-conventional critical habit of thought requires that its critics dare to know — and to explore openly with lucid, peaceful, and reasoned confidence — precisely where and how they have found themselves beyond the increasingly closed and institutionally fortified frontiers of modern critique, and how readers might find their way there too.


A Note on God as Unmoved Mover — Douglas McManaman

November 8, 2013
Carl Bloch The Entombment of Christ. Danish artist Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890). Bloch was commissioned to produce 23 paintings for the Chapel at Frederiksborg Palace. These were all scenes from the life of Christ which have become very popular as illustrations. The originals, painted between 1865 and 1879, are still at Frederiksborg Palace. The altarpieces can be found at Holbaek, Odense, Ugerloese and Copenhagen in Denmark, as well as Loederup, Hoerup, and Landskrona in Sweden. Carl Bloch died of cancer on February 22, 1890. His death came as "an abrupt blow for Nordic art" according to an article by Sophus Michaelis. Michaelis stated that "Denmark has lost the artist that indisputably was the greatest among the living." Kyhn stated in his eulogy at Carl Bloch's funeral that "Bloch stays and lives."

Carl Bloch The Entombment of Christ. Danish artist Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890). Bloch was commissioned to produce 23 paintings for the Chapel at Frederiksborg Palace. These were all scenes from the life of Christ which have become very popular as illustrations. The originals, painted between 1865 and 1879, are still at Frederiksborg Palace. The altarpieces can be found at Holbaek, Odense, Ugerloese and Copenhagen in Denmark, as well as Loederup, Hoerup, and Landskrona in Sweden. Carl Bloch died of cancer on February 22, 1890. His death came as “an abrupt blow for Nordic art” according to an article by Sophus Michaelis. Michaelis stated that “Denmark has lost the artist that indisputably was the greatest among the living.” Kyhn stated in his eulogy at Carl Bloch’s funeral that “Bloch stays and lives.”

Often people ask: “If God created everything, then who created God?”  Of course no one created God. For if God was created, He’d be a creature (created), and so He wouldn’t be God. His creator would be God. But then who created His creator? If He too was created, then He isn’t God, but a creature of God.

To be God is to be the creator of all creatures. So God is not Himself a creature. He is uncreated.  He always existed. He cannot not exist. And so He did not come into existence, nor will He go out of existence.

But I can’t imagine that! How is that possible?  It is true that you and I cannot imagine that. For everything in our experience has had a beginning. And our imagination is limited to what can be imagined, and what can be imagined are material things and their movements.

Material things have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But God is not a material and created thing. And so He cannot be imagined. And as for your second question (How is that possible?), it is impossible for it to be any other way. There must be a First, uncreated and uncaused cause of all other things. Let me go over a concept first employed by Aristotle and later developed by St. Thomas Aquinas, the proof from motion.

St. Thomas begins by pointing out that nothing moves itself from potency to act, except by something already in act. For instance, a piece of chalk on a slate will not move itself to another position on the slate except by something already in the act of motion. The piece of chalk is actually stationary, but potentially moving. It is potentially in another place on the slate. In order for the chalk to acquire that new position, it will have to be moved to that new position by something already moving.

Another way of putting this is to say that ‘nothing can give to itself what it does not possess’. If the piece of chalk is at rest, it is not moving. It does not have motion. If it does not have motion, it cannot give itself motion. It must receive motion from another that is actually moving. Note: Living things do not move themselves in a primary way. A living thing, as a whole, does not move itself from potency to act. Rather, one part moves another part, and in this way the whole thing moves.


Now, St. Thomas points out that there cannot be an infinite or unlimited series of causes.  Consider the arrow above.  The arrow is finite.  When it moves, it moves a finite distance in a finite time.  But if the arrow was infinite, it would move an infinite distance in an infinite time.  Every movement of it would cover an infinite distance, and every movement would occur in an infinite duration of time.  Moreover, an arrow that is infinite could not acquire more distance.  It would not have the potentiality to move further ahead of itself.

Consider now the series of movers in color above.  The red ball (extreme left) is moved by the green, but the green in turn received its motion from the blue ball, and the blue ball received its motion from the purple (fourth from the left), etc.,.  The red ball on the left could represent anything, such as a dry leaf blowing in the wind that comes to rest at your feet on a fall day.  The motion has come to an end, the leaf is at rest next to your left foot.

Hence, its movement is terminated.  It has come to an end.  It is finished, or finite.  If the series of causes preceding the motion of the leaf is infinite, then the motion of the leaf or red ball on the left would never be terminated (finished, finite).  The leaf moved by virtue of the motion of certain atoms in the air, and those in turn are moving by virtue of the motion of something else, etc.  The series must be finite.  Why?  Because the motion of the leaf came to an end (finished).

First, if the series of movers were infinite, the series would stretch back to infinity.  Now, since all the things moved and moving are necessarily bodies, they must form a single moving object, the parts of which are in contiguity (in contact, or touching) or continuity.  But if the whole single series is infinite, then when it moves, it moves an infinite distance in an infinite time.  But it is impossible to move an infinite distance.

Think about this for a moment.  To move is to acquire something, such as a new location.  But an infinitely long stick, for example, cannot move forward to acquire a new location, since it covers an infinity.  There is nothing ahead of it to acquire, for it occupies every location ahead of it.

But the red ball has moved a finite distance and its movement has terminated.  It moved a finite distance in a finite time.  No matter how long the series preceding it is, if it is finite, it moves a finite distance in a finite time.  But if it is infinitely long, it moves an infinite distance in an infinite time.  But this is absurd.  The very fact that the motion of the leaf has come to an end shows that the series is finite.

A Series of Essentially Subordinated Movers
Let’s consider this from another angle.  There are two types of series of movers.  The one is a series of essentially subordinated movers.  The other is a series of accidentally subordinated movers.  Let’s take the latter first.  In a series of movers that are only accidentally subordinated to one another, an actual infinity is possible.

For example, a chicken comes from an egg, an egg from another chicken, and the other chicken from still another egg.  There is no reason why such a series, stretching backward through the past, cannot be unending.  In this kind of a series, the movers are operating in succession, not together.  And so a parent chicken need not be here and now influencing the hatching of an egg.  It may in fact be dead.

This is not the kind of series St. Thomas is referring to.  He is referring to a series of essentially subordinated movers.  In movers essentially subordinated to each other, one mover is here and now influencing another, like the hand moving a piece of chalk.  Without the causality of the first, there is no movement in the second. 

Note the color series above.  This represents a series of essentially subordinated movers.  A series of essentially subordinated movers cannot be infinite for the reasons given above.  Treating it as a single thing, it would cover an infinite distance in an infinite time.

Also, the red ball received its act of motion from the green, which in turn receives its act of motion from the blue, and so on.  If this “and so on” proceeds ad infinitum, then the red ball will never receive the act of motion. The red ball is moved by the green, the green receives its actual movement from the blue, etc.  The moved effect and the mover, in any motion, are simultaneous.  The hand moves the stick, which moves the eraser on the slate, which moves the chalk on the slate, and as soon as the hand stops moving the stick, the stick stops being moved.  When the carpenter stops bulding the house, the house stops being built.

Now, yellow moves teal, and teal moves red, and red moves brown, and brown moves green, and as soon as yellow stops moving, teal ceases to be moved.  If teal moves red, then as soon as teal stops being moved by yellow, red stops being moved by teal.  In a series of movers, however long, all of the members must be operating in some kind of simultaneity.  As strictly physical and hence dependent on quantity, our series of causes must be stretched out so that one is outside the other, like the stick that is touched by the hand and in turn touches the eraser.

Physical causes are in contiguity with each other.  Now whatever is quantified is hemmed into itself and cannot influence other things without contacting them directly or through a quantitative medium.  An infinite series of physical causes, one placed outside another, would fill an infinity of space.

But finite causes cannot be strung together to form an infinityNumber is only potentially infinite, not actually infinite (there is no actually infinite number).  And more, if our series of physical causes were truly infinite, the causality would take an infinite time to “pass” through it from one member to another into infinity.  Hence, the leaf would not move, or the red ball would not move.  In fact, no thing on the series would move, if it is preceded by an infinite series.

Hence, the series must be finite.  It follows that there must be a First Mover.  But this First Mover must be unmoved, otherwise we are back to positing preceding causes.  But this cannot go on to infinity, so there must be a First Unmoved Mover, if anything in the universe moves.

Now, since motion is an act that is received by something potentially moving (but actually stationary), the Unmoved Mover must have no potentiality to receive anything, but can impart the act of motion.  As we will see later, this can only mean that the Unmoved Mover is God, who is Pure Act, without any admixture of potentiality.

We can even look at this vertically (below):


Why is it that if the series (green “causes”) was infinite, the meteor would never have been moved? Because the cause of its motion, i.e., another meteor (the green “cause” just above it), would never have been moved. The reason is that it would take an infinity to move the meteor. The series prior to it is infinitely long, and the causes would churn for infinity. The effect would never reach the meteor.


God as Ipsum Esse Subsistens 2 — Douglas McManaman

November 7, 2013
After his death at Lunéville in 1652, La Tour's work was forgotten until rediscovered by Hermann Voss, a German scholar, in 1915; some of La Tour's work had in fact been confused with Vermeer, when the Dutch artist underwent his own rediscovery in the nineteenth century. In 1935 an exhibition in Paris began the revival in interest among a wider public. In the twentieth century a number of his works were identified once more, and forgers tried to help meet the new demand; many aspects of his œuvre remain controversial among art historians

After his death at Lunéville in 1652, La Tour’s work was forgotten until rediscovered by Hermann Voss, a German scholar, in 1915; some of La Tour’s work had in fact been confused with Vermeer, when the Dutch artist underwent his own rediscovery in the nineteenth century. In 1935 an exhibition in Paris began the revival in interest among a wider public. In the twentieth century a number of his works were identified once more, and forgers tried to help meet the new demand; many aspects of his œuvre remain controversial among art historians

More reasoning from St. Thomas:


God’s Knowing is the Cause of Being
11.  If God’s knowledge is His Existence, then it follows that God’s knowledge is the cause of whatever is.  A thing exists because God knows it (and of course wills it into being).  Existing things exist independently of our knowing them, but this is not the case for God.  Whatever exists, exists because He knows it.  If He stopped knowing something, it would cease to be.

God is Omnipotent
12.  Since God is the First Existential Cause of whatever has existence, it follows that God has complete dominion over being.  You and I might have dominion over the fish, the animals, the trees, etc.  But we don’t have dominion over being.  We cannot impart being (bring something into being from nothing).  Now, since there is nothing outside of being, and God has dominion over being, it follows that He has unlimited power.  Hence, God is omnipotent.

God is Infinite
13.  If God is His own Act of Existing, then it follows that God is infinite (without limits).  God is His own Existence, and outside of existence is non-existence (or nothing).  Hence, there is nothing outside of God to limit Him.  Hence, He is infinite.

God is Supremely Good and cannot do evil.
14.  Whatever is, is good.  Goodness is a property of being.  Thus, to exist is good.  That is why things struggle to perpetuate their existence.  Evil is a lack of due being, a lack of something that should be there.  And so it follows that if God is His own Act of Existing, then God is Supremely Good, or perfect Goodness.  God cannot do or will evil.  Whatever God does is good insofar as He does it.  

Whatever happens to those who love God, He permits for their greatest good
15.  If God is omnipotent, and if God is perfect Goodness, then it follows that whatever happens to you and me in our lives is permitted by God ultimately for our greatest good.

Omnipotence means that He can do whatever He wants, and perfect goodness implies that He wants only what is best for us.  The two together imply that God wills our greatest good and is able to bring it about — if we allow Him to.  Hence, whatever He allows to happen to us in our lives is permitted by Him ultimately for our greatest good.

God is Subsistent Beauty
16.  Every perfection that exists in God is identical to God’s Act of Existing.  Beauty is a perfection.  It follows that God is Subsistent Beauty.  Hence, whatever is beautiful – a beautiful sunset, beautiful scenery, the beauty of the stars, or a beautiful face, etc– is an imperfect reflection of God’s perfect  and infinite beauty.  And if the human person has a natural desire to behold the beautiful, he has a natural desire to see God.

God is Justice
17.  Justice is a perfection (an unjust man is not regarded as a perfect man), therefore, in God, justice is identical with His Act of Existing.  Thus, God is justice.  Hence, we can conclude that ultimately, injustice is temporaryGod cannot allow injustice to endure.  Nor is it possible for God to ever be unjust.

God is Truth
18.  Truth is the conformity between what is in the mind and what is (in reality).  But what is, exists by virtue of being known by God and being willed into existence (as we said above).  God’s knowledge is the measure of reality, not vice versa.  God is thus the measure of truth.

Therefore, God does not have the truth, rather God is Truth.  And so it follows that whoever loves truth, ultimately loves God, just as whoever loves justice — and not everybody does, certainly not the majority–, such a one ultimately loves God.

God alone satisfies the will perfectly
19.  The object of the will is “the good”.  Whatever a person wills, he sees it as good.  This is true because the good is “that which all things desire”.  Joy is the state that results from the satisfaction of the will, which is the possession of the good.

Now, if God’s goodness is His Act of Existence, and if the object of the will is the good, then to see and know God as He is in Himself is to experience the perfect satisfaction of the will, which is joy.  And since we don’t see the Supreme Good (God) directly while in this earthly state, it follows that the joy of knowing God as He is in Himself is simply unimaginable.  To possess that joy eternally is heaven.  To miss out on that joy eternally, by virtue of our own choices, is hell.

Making God the end of all your efforts is eminently reasonable
20.  Love means to will the good of another (benevolence).  Goodness is a property of being.  Hence, to be is good.  God’s act of creating (bringing things into being) is an act of love, that is, a willing that the goodness of existence be enjoyed by the creature.

Now, man is an intelligent being whose highest activity is to know and to love.  Therefore, man’s highest and greatest possible achievement is to know and love God.  It follows that it is reasonable to spend every ounce of one’s energy towards the attainment of that goal.  A reasonable life is one directed ultimately towards the possession of God in knowledge and love.  Any other goal is simply irrational.


God as Ipsum Esse Subsistens 1 – Douglas McManaman

November 6, 2013
Georges de La Tour (March 13, 1593 – January 30, 1652) was a French Baroque painter, who spent most of his working life in the Duchy of Lorraine, which was temporarily absorbed into France between 1641 and 1648. He painted mostly religious chiaroscuro scenes lit by candlelight

Georges de La Tour (March 13, 1593 – January 30, 1652) was a French Baroque painter, who spent most of his working life in the Duchy of Lorraine, which was temporarily absorbed into France between 1641 and 1648. He painted mostly religious chiaroscuro scenes lit by candlelight

God is that being whose essence is identical to His existence. God’s essence is to be.  Hence, it follows that Ipsum Esse cannot not be. Ipsum Esse (God) is His own to be, and therefore exists necessarily. Many other things flow from the above as St Thomas recorded:


1. God is One:
There cannot be two beings whose essence is to be. What would distinguish the one from the other? It would have to be something outside of what they are in common. What are they? Being Itself, that is, two beings whose essence is to be. Outside of Being Itself is non-being (nothing). Hence, nothing distinguishes them. They are not “they” (plural), but one.

2. God is not material:
If God is His own Act of Being, then God is Act. If His essence is not in potency to existence, but is His existence, then God is pure Act without any admixture of potentiality. Therefore, there is no prime matter in God, for prime matter is potentiality.

Nor is God made up of any secondary matter (extended substance). For what is secondary matter (substance) is in potentiality to certain accidents, ie, quantity, quality, when, where, etc.,. But there is no potency in God.

3. God is not a quantity, nor does He have quantity:
For quantity is divisible, and Ipsum Esse cannot be divided into two, as was shown above. Also, note the word divisible (able or potentially divided). But there is no potentiality in God. Also, what is Act is immaterial. Also, what is extended has parts outside of parts. A block of gold has parts outside of parts, for example the part on the left is outside of the part on the right, yet both parts share in the nature of gold. The nature is found whole and entire in every part.

But if God is His own Act of Existing, He cannot have parts. Consider, this part of God is not that part of God. If this part of God is Being, then there cannot be anything outside of that part, for outside of being is non-being. If there are no parts outside of this part, then there is no “this part”. This part is so only in relation to that part. Hence, there are no parts in God.

4. God is outside of time:
What is in time is subject to time, that is, actualized by time (time is an accident, it actualizes the substance in an accidental way). But a Being who is His own Act of Existing cannot be in potency or be subject to anything. For there is nothing outside of Being, and He is Pure Being.

Therefore God is eternal. What is eternal is not something that endures forever, time without end. What is eternal is simply present without a before and an after. In other words, all of human history is present to God; there is no future, no past, only present.

5. God is not in place, therefore God is not in the universe nor outside of it:
To be in place, that is, subject to place requires quantity and figure. God has no quantity, as was shown above.

6. That God is present everywhere:
If God alone imparts the act of existing (esse) on contingent beings, then God is intimately and immediately present to anything that is. There cannot be anything between God and a contingent being. To impart being means to bring something into being from nothing, not from something mediate.

Therefore, wherever there is something, God is more intimately and immediately present to that something than anything else could possibly be. In other words, God is more immediately present to Jean Paul Sartre than his own mistress, and even more present to Sartre than Sartre was to himself or to us than we are to ourselves. Wherever there is being, there is God. Hence, God is everywhere without being subject to place.

7. That God has Intelligence:
A thing is known in so far as it is in act. For example, we know the essence of a thing when the intellect abstracts the form from the material conditions of the thing. The passive mind becomes actualized by the form, which is knowledge. If God is pure Act, then God is perfectly intelligible to Himself.

Also, act is perfection, for a thing is perfect in so far as it is in act. But God is pure Act of Existing. Therefore God is perfect. He cannot lack any perfection; for otherwise He would be in potency to further act. Thus, He would not be pure Act. Now, of all the perfections found in beings, intelligence is considered preeminent; for intellectual beings are more powerful than those without reason. Therefore God is intelligent.

8. That God’s knowledge is His Existence:
God is entirely simple, that is, entirely without composition. There is nothing in God that is distinct from His Existence. God’s knowledge is not distinct from His Existence, otherwise there would be composition in God. Now, there is nothing outside of God’s Act of Existing (outside of Ipsum Esse is non-being).

Hence, God’s knowledge is His Being. Also, if there was knowledge in God, and this knowledge was not His Act of Existing, then it would be related to His Act of Existing as potency is related to act. But there is no potentiality in God, as was shown above. Hence, God’s knowledge is His Existence.

9. All other perfections in God are identical to His Existence:
Any other perfections, such as love, justice, wisdom, power, beauty etc., are found in God, but they are identical to His Existence for the reasons stated above.

10. That there is will or volition in God.
If God knows Himself (He cannot not know Himself) or understands Himself, Who is perfect and therefore supremely good, then it follows that He necessarily loves Himself. For the good is that which all things desire, and all things desire first and foremost their own perfection, that is, their own act. If God is pure Act without any admixture of potentiality, then God is unlimited Good (potentiality is the source of limitation in things).

What is supremely Good without limits is, if known, necessarily loved. God is His own Act of Being, therefore He is perfectly knowable to Himself. His Self-Knowledge is His Existence. Therefore He loves Himself necessarily. And since love operates through the will, there is will in God. Moreover, God’s will is identical to His Existence; for God is entirely simple, as was shown above.

Also, God’s willing and God’s knowing is not a power or potency that can be actualized. God’s knowing and willing are eternally act, for His willing and knowing are identical to His Act of Existing. So God always knows Himself and loves Himself.

He imparts existence on contingent beings not out of necessity, but through His own will. Whatever is, He knows, for it is His knowledge and will that cause other things to be. Hence, God does not learn as we learn, God does not discover as we discover. God does not move from potentiality to actuality, that is, from potential knowledge to actual knowledge. Anything that is, exists by virtue of God’s knowledge and will. If God does not know it, it does not exist.


On the Distinction between Essence and Existence — Doug McManaman

November 4, 2013
The above diagram is merely a visual representation of a being whose essence is distinct from its existence, such as a human, or a dog, a carbon atom, etc. Now, recall that the definition of a thing expresses a thing's essence. Whatever belongs to a thing's essence belongs to it necessarily. A triangle is a three sided figure. Hence, a triangle is necessarily three sided. Man is a rational animal. Hence, all men, no matter who they are, are necessarily rational creatures. Whatever does not belong to the essence will not be included within the definition of the thing, and therefore will not belong to the thing necessarily, but contingently or possibly. Notice that metal, yellow, large, etc., is not included in the definition of triangle, even though some triangles are metal, yellow, and rather large. This means that a triangle is not necessarily metal, yellow, and large, but possibly.

The above diagram is merely a visual representation of a being whose essence is distinct from its existence, such as a human, or a dog, a carbon atom, etc. Now, recall that the definition of a thing expresses a thing’s essence. Whatever belongs to a thing’s essence belongs to it necessarily. A triangle is a three sided figure. Hence, a triangle is necessarily three sided. Man is a rational animal. Hence, all men, no matter who they are, are necessarily rational creatures. Whatever does not belong to the essence will not be included within the definition of the thing, and therefore will not belong to the thing necessarily, but contingently or possibly. Notice that metal, yellow, large, etc., is not included in the definition of triangle, even though some triangles are metal, yellow, and rather large. This means that a triangle is not necessarily metal, yellow, and large, but possibly.

Doug McManaman is a Deacon and a Religion and Philosophy teacher at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He is the past President of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.We liked his simple and straight forward introduction to Aquinas in this and the following posts. Reblogged from


Although Aristotle takes matter more seriously than Plato does, it can be argued that St. Thomas Aquinas takes matter much more seriously than does Aristotle. For Aristotle, essence is, as it was for Plato, the form. But this is not so for Aquinas. If the essence was simply the substantial form, then matter is outside the essence of a thing. But am I not essentially a material kind of being? For Thomas, the essence of a material thing includes matter and form. A human being, an animal, a rock, are essentially material things.

But what accounts for the fact that a person is “human”? The answer is the substantial form, that is, the soul. What accounts for the fact that a human person can di.e.,? The answer is his matter. Form exists in matter, and matter is the principle of a thing’s potentiality. What accounts for a thing’s extension? The accident ‘quantity’. What accounts for one’s ability to laugh? One’s power of intelligence.

But what accounts for the very fact that a thing exists? There is nothing in the substance itself that requires it to be. Prime matter is the material cause, rendering a thing perishable, the substantial form determines the matter to be a certain kind of thing, i.e.,, rabbit, or gold. Quantity gives the rabbit or the gold parts outside of parts. Quality is the accidental form that qualifi.e.,s the gold in a particular way, etc.,.

But there is a distinction between what a thing is, and the very act of its existence. One can study “what something is” without knowing “whether or not it actually exists”. We can study certain frogs, that is, we can come to understand “what they are”, but that very knowledge does not enable us to determine whether or not those frogs actually exist. For St. Thomas, there is a real distinction between essence, which answers to the question “what is it?”, and existence, which answers to the question “is it?”. This is a departure from both Plato and Aristotle, for whom ousia meant essence or being.

For Aquinas, a being is a habens esse: that which has an act of existing. In other words, a being is not simply substance. A being is a thing that has an act of existing. This means that for St. Thomas, the whole substance is in potency to existence. It does not have existence by nature. You and I have a received existence. Consider that it is correct to say: you are human (you are your essence).

But it is not correct to say: you are existence (you are not your existence). Rather, one correctly says: you have existence. An existing being exists not by virtue of its substantial form, but by virtue of its esse, that is, its received act of existing. The substantial form is the act of matter, but the esse of a being is the act of being. The act of being is the act of the substantial form, as well as the act of the accidents. Without esse (the act of being), there is no being to speak of.

The above diagram is merely a visual representation of a being whose essence is distinct from its existence, such as a human, or a dog, a carbon atom, etc. Now, recall that the definition of a thing expresses a thing’s essence. Whatever belongs to a thing’s essence belongs to it necessarily. A triangle is a three sided figure. Hence, a triangle is necessarily three sided. Man is a rational animal. Hence, all men, no matter who they are, are necessarily rational creatures.

Whatever does not belong to the essence will not be included within the definition of the thing, and therefore will not belong to the thing necessarily, but contingently or possibly. Notice that metal, yellow, large, etc., is not included in the definition of triangle, even though some triangles are metal, yellow, and rather large. This means that a triangle is not necessarily metal, yellow, and large, but possibly.

So too, blond hair and blue eyes do not belong to the essence of man, otherwise all men would have blond hair and blue eyes, and anyone who does not is not a man. Hence, it is necessary that Mike be rational, senti.e.,nt, that he have a will, that he have the potentiality to walk, the power to see, remember, etc., but it is not necessary that he be tall, blond, German, etc. Moreoever, if the power to walk, see, or hear, etc., cannot be realized in a human person, it is not due to the person’s nature, but to some deformation rooted in poorly disposed matter, i.e., eye damage, oxygen deprivation to the brain, no legs due to an accident, etc.

And so whatever belongs within the blue area in the above diagram, belongs to the thing necessarily. Anything outside the essence belongs to it possibly or contingently.

But if existence were part of the “what” of Mike, that is, part of his essence (within the blue area), then Mike would necessarily exist (since whatever belongs to the essence of a thing belongs to it necessarily). In other words, it would be essential for Mike to exist. And just as a triangle cannot not have three sides, and a human being cannot not have the power to reason, and a bird cannot not have wings, Mike could not not exist. He would have always existed, exists now, and ever shall be. But we know this not to be the case. The act of existing is received. Mike came into existence. He is not existence, rather he is human. The act of existing is had.

Some Points on Epistemology
Aquinas agrees with Aristotle that “nothing is in the intellect that is not first in the senses.” But the passive intellect does not just become a form. The passive intellect receives the essence of the thing known. The essence receives a new kind of existence in the intellect. Outside of the mind, the essence is particular, in the here and now.

That tree has existence outside of the mind. It is there, now, actually green and brown, actually large, etc.,. And it is particular. But essence and existence are really distinct. The active intellect abstracts the essence from its individuating conditions, and after impressing the essence onto the passive mind, the essence acquires a new kind of existence (an intentional existence, or a logical existence).

The essence exists universally in the mind. The tree has not changed. The tree is still there, a composite of essence and existence. But the essence is existentially neutral (it can exist in the mind or outside the mind). It need not necessarily exist in any particular way. The intellect, in knowing things, gives the essence a new existence (an intentional existence). The essence is capable of existing universally, because the essence is a potency to existence. It receives a different kind of existence in the mind, an immaterial existence, a universal mode of existence, an abstract mode of existence, unlike its existence outside of the mind.

The Acts of the Intellect
The intellect apprehends, judges, and reasons. But there is a difference between them. The first act of the intellect is called simple apprehension. This act is the apprehension of the thing’s essence. Now the intellect apprehends essences, but essence is not existence. I can know what a thing is, but that knowledge is not a knowledge of whether it is or not. So, how does one apprehend existence? By a distinct act of the intellect. This is called existential judgement. This marks the second act of the intellect. And the third act of the intellect is called reasoning. When we reason deductively, for example, we draw a conclusion from two prior premises: All men are mortal, John is a man. Therefore, John is mortal.

I know what a thing is (essence) through simple apprehension. At the same time, I know that it is (existence) through judgement. The two activities occur simultaneously.


The Oblivion of Being 2 – Fr. Ernesto A. Lapitan Jr., O.P

October 31, 2013
Heidegger's abyss is of a different kind. It is an abyss that plays on an eternal danger. It is an abyss where one cannot be sure. It is actually a bottomless pit where there is no ground at all. Unlike the nothingness of the mystics that actually ends up in God, the nothingness of Heidegger remains elusive. "The worlds darkening never reaches to the light of Being."

Heidegger’s abyss is of a different kind. It is an abyss that plays on an eternal danger. It is an abyss where one cannot be sure. It is actually a bottomless pit where there is no ground at all. Unlike the nothingness of the mystics that actually ends up in God, the nothingness of Heidegger remains elusive. “The worlds darkening never reaches to the light of Being.”


An Overview of Metaphysics and Mysticism in Aquinas, Eckhart and Heidegger by Ernesto A. Lapitan Jr., O.P. Fr. Lapitan Jr. The introduction is in the previous post.


Aquinas: Intellectus supra rationem
Much of what has been written by Aquinas belongs to the realm of ratio [Ratio is understood here as reason]. It signifies the faculty of conceptualization, rationalization and discursive argumentation. Ratio therefore refers to the activity of the mind that methodically seeks to put everything under a certain structure. It is a structure through which we see and analyze things. On the other hand, intellectus is beyond the grasp of ratio. On a more radical level, the mind does not only stop at argumentations, it moves beyond to a more mystical plane, it seeks beatific union with the Creator.

In Aquinas, this mystical level is not evident in his writings. It should be sought from the silence that occurs between the lines of his voluminous works. It must be heeded from those supposedly last words that he uttered before he achieved union with his Creator: omnia quae scripsi, videntur mihi paleae respectu eorum, quae vidi et revelata sunt mihi. [Everything which I have written seems like straw to me compared to what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.] Towards the end of his life, Aquinas seems to have experienced Being itself. In Caputos words,

Thomas has passed from the sphere of representational thinking, from the sphere of the concepts, judgments, and ratiocinations of the Summa, into the realm of the unconcealed, the clearing (Lichtung), the sphere of light and manifestness. He passes from the chatter of discursive reason to the silence of thought, from calculation to thought.
John D. Caputo, Heidegger and Aquinas: An Essay in Overcoming Metaphysics

It is in this silence of the mystical experience that Aquinas was able to overcome the lure and trap of representational thinking. It is this mysticism that is the way out for Thomas Aquinas from the Heideggerian charge of Seinsvergessenheit.

Another mode of looking at Aquinas’ way out of metaphysics is through the examination of esse. The notion of esse is actually non-conceptualizable. It escapes the grasp of reason which is at home with categories and definitions. We speak of esse in terms of the essence-existence distinction. In Thomistic metaphysics, essence is different from existence in created beings.

Thus, created beings are said to be contingent since existence is not part of their definition. Their existence comes from outside. Only in God do we find essence and existence identical. Its very essence is to exist. But the esse of the ipsum esse subsistens cannot be comprehended. In the terminology of the negative theology of Aquinas we can only say that God is but we cannot say what God is. Indeed God exists but we can never know what is this existence. Thus, esse points out to something beyond that cannot be properly spoken about.

The metaphysics then of Aquinas belongs to the sphere of ratio. For his metaphysics is aimed at understanding the whole unity. But this metaphysics has a tendency to become intellectus yet it can never attain this level as long as it is embedded in a scientia practiced by men whose mode of thinking is “rational.” Metaphysics can only point out towards mysticism. “Mysticism is the terrestrial fulfillment of metaphysics, even as union with God is its celestial fulfillment”.8

The philosophy of St. Thomas is essentially religious as argued by Rousselot. And this religiosity is not at odds with its intellectualism. The intellect is not only a faculty of devising concepts and weaving arguments. But the intellect is also a capacity for the divine, a capax dei. It is in the intellect that the unity of the soul with God is accomplished. Here we can see that the intellect is also religious in character. [Pierre Rousselot, The Intellectualism of Saint Thomas] It is in this sense that the mind can be said to be not merely and primarily an intellectual faculty but that it seeks to unite itself with the divine. The mind naturally tends toward beatific vision.

There is a lack of a theory of mysticism in Thomas Aquinas. In Aquinas, the word mysticus implies something mysterious and hidden, hence it is something that cannot be easily conceptualized. His treatment of mysticism can be gleaned from his discussions on rapture in De Veritate and Summa Theologiae. In ST II-II, 175, 1, he defines rapture as a kind of violence, an action applied by an external agent to a nature that makes it move beyond its natural capabilities. Mystical rapture happens when the soul is elevated to a level of intellectuality that exceeds its natural powers. Ordinarily, man gains knowledge through the senses but in rapture, the senses are suspended and knowledge is immediately grasped, an immediate face-to-face vision is granted. This face-to-face vision is possible only in the lumen gloriae. [light of glory]

This is an instance wherein the divine essence itself shines upon the soul. This happens in two ways: “In one way through the mode of an immanent form and that is how it makes the blessed holy in heaven. But in another way in the mode of a transient passion, as was said about in the light of prophecy.”[ST II-II, 175, 3, 2]

In many instances, the mystical experience of the many biblical figures happens in the second manner. And our earthly existence can only attain transient passion, the immanent mode can only be attained when one merits a face-to-face vision with the divine in the heavenly realms. All men, by virtue of their intellect, are capable of attaining this vision, for the experience of God is the natural and supernatural end of intellectus itself.

Eckhart: The Godhead beyond God
One of the most famous mystics of the Middle Ages that led a spiritual revolution in the Rhineland is Meister Eckhart. He is famous and at the same time notorious to Church authorities because of his radical theological outlook; an outlook that goes beyond the conceptualizations of his times and borders more on mysticism. Because of his radical views, Church authorities condemned some of his propositions as heretical.

Eckhart speaks about the supreme “is-ness” of God. By this, he means that Gods characteristic is being. And in being alone lies all that is all. Since God alone is, then all things are in God and from Him. Outside of Him there is nothing and without Him nothing truly is. All creatures then are nothing compared to God. Since in Him is all existence then there is no darkness in God, all is light and being.

On the other hand, creatures are darkness and nothingness. When Eckhart speaks of the nothingness of the creatures, he does not speak of absolute nothingness but a relative nothingness, that is, they are completely dependent on God. [Woods, Richard, OP. Eckharts Way] This argument echoes the Thomistic view of esse as the absolute existence and the essence of the creatures as not containing existence. This fundamental tenet of Eckharts mysticism is strikingly affirmative: in the terminology of the ancient Church, kataphatic.

However, there is another side to Eckharts mysticism, for from such a kataphatic viewpoint, a corresponding apophatic theology must also be developed. This negative correlative of positive theology must be seen in the light of what Eckhart understood as Gottheit (Godhead). Eckhart, like many of his predecessors in the Christian Neoplatonic lineage, was fascinated by the identity of unity, being and intellect in God.

From here, Eckhart would go on to emphasize the unity of God. His emphasis is so strong in such a way that it is sometimes perceived that the unity of God is higher than the Trinity, and at the very least logically prior to it. It is the unity of God that guarantees the divinity of the Persons. This divine unity Eckhart identifies as the Gottheit. And what is the difference between Godhead and God?

Everything that is in the Godhead is one, and of that there is nothing to be said. God works, the Godhead does no work; there is nothing for it to do, there is no activity in it. It never peeped at any work. God and Godhead are distinguished by working and not-working.
Richard Woods, OP, Eckharts Way (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1990)

This description of the difference between God and Godhead are surely beyond ordinary comprehension. Given the metaphysical mode of thinking that prevails in the West during Eckhart’s time, it can be said that when he speaks of God, he means the God of metaphysics, that God that grants being and existence to other creatures. When he speaks of Godhead, he means the God beyond the grasp of metaphysics. Godhead is the God of mysticism, for the true God cannot be comprehended by any conceptualizations. Thus, the Godhead does not work nor is there any activity in it.

This view is also expounded by Eckhart when he says that the Godhead “becomes” God only when creatures become creatures. Before creation, there was no concept of God, “the unnameable Tri-unity was what it was within the incomprehensible “inner,” interpersonal life of Thought, Word and Love united in the undifferentiated Gottheit“. [Woods, Richard, OP. Eckharts Way] God is then understood as a concept that was “created” by the creatures. Only creatures can conceive of God. This happens when they realize their createdness, that their essence is not essentially divine. Thus, to recognize “God” is also a recognition of ones creatureliness. In connection with this, Eckhart put forward another daring expression when he says the following words,

Therefore let us pray to God that we may be free of God, that we may gain the truth and enjoy it eternally. Therefore I pray to God to make me free of God, for my essential being is above God, taking God as the origin of creatures.
Woods, Richard, OP. Eckharts Way

Another important aspect of Eckharts apophatic theology is the nothingness of God. This kind of thinking denies attributes to God only in the same sense that we can apply these attributes to creatures. From this perspective God is not light to the mind, on the contrary, He is darkness.

Because of this the Godhead is unknown and shall never be known. This theme echoes that of Philo and later developed by St. Gregory of Nyssa and the later theologians of the Alexandrian and Augustinian schools. Eckhart expounds the view that Gods being is not simply being in any way that is comprehensible to the intellect. God does not lack being but transcends it. In this kind of theology, we can see a play that is working: compared to God, creatures are nothing; compared to creatures, God is nothing.

In this framework of mysticism of Meister Eckhart, how can we attain the Gottheit? The attainment of the Godhead and subsequently the way out of metaphysics can be seen in the spiritual discipline of the Meister. This discipline of the Meister is encompassed by the two arms of the active aspect, abgeschiedenheit and its passive complement gelassenheit. Both aspects are two sides of the same coin, so to speak.

Abgeschiedenheit means radical detachment, and it means detachment in every aspect of human experience: the detachment of the self, of others, and even of God. Radical detachment is radical poverty that involves the bodily, mental and spiritual aspects. It requires emptying ourselves of the baggage that we have acquired in the course of our existence. All things in us should be stripped in order that the Nothingness of God can come in.

Gelassenheit means abandonment or “letting go.” The attitude of abandonment is the perfection of radical detachment. It is the abandonment of everything that can distract the person from the receptivity to God. It is necessary then to let go of everything. Even our images of God should be removed for they are but concepts and distinctions fabricated by the mind.

What Eckhart then is saying in his mysticism is to get rid of ourselves of anything that is conceptual and thus metaphysical. The concepts that we have of God since they are primarily abstractions of the mind are hindrances to the consummation of the mystical experience. God is indeed beyond God, beyond any name that the mind applies to him.

Heidegger: Being and Nothing
Martin Heidegger is a once and a future thinker. His thought will never be equaled and his mind always goes out beyond his time. There is an unmistakable mystical ring in the writings of Heidegger. As Caputo argues, there is a structural analogy between the writings and thought of Heidegger and Eckhart. [John D. Caputo, The Mystical Element in Heideggers Thought] The writings of the mature Heidegger On Being border more on the limits of philosophy.

Indeed, Heidegger even claims that his thinking is beyond the regions of philosophy. For Heidegger, “thinking” is different from “philosophy.” Heidegger identifies philosophy with the thought-structures originated by Plato and Aristotle that have permeated the entire history of Western philosophy. Heidegger thus speaks of philosophy in an entirely metaphysical sense. He categorizes philosophy as a striving towards the Being of beings. It is “mans attempt to think beings in their common properties, to isolate the Beingness (Seinheit) of being, their most general features such as idea (Plato) and energeia (Aristotle).” [John D. Caputo, The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought]

For Heidegger, the matter of thought is the history of Being as it unfolds in history. This is the Being that unfolds itself across different epochs. Heidegger’s concern then is the event of manifestness, the Ereignis, the unveiling and concealing of Being, the historical happening of Truth from the early Greeks to the present. In Heidegger’s reckoning, only the thinkers preceding Socrates came close to thinking. For thought to occur, one must make the leap outside the sphere of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. In short, it must go beyond the concepts formed by the mind. Metaphysics must give way to thinking, and for Heidegger this thinking is akin to mysticism.

Heidegger’s forays into thinking have brought him into the realms of nothing. The “Nothing” does not merely mean “null and void.” Nothing is differentiated from beings – it is no-thing, not even any thing/being at all. In classical logic, “nothing” is a negation of something, but for Heidegger, “nothing” is something experienced and encountered. It is a “fundamental experience,” an experience that detaches us from the sphere of things.

How can “nothing” be encountered? Heidegger says that in anxiety we can experience the lost of everything that is significant. Anxiety is not the same as fear. Fear has an object. But anxiety has no particular object. One is not anxious about a particular thing. In the state of anxiety, a person is broken off from his activity of daily existence and come face to face with that which is nothing at all.

In anxiety does one experience real calm, because it fosters a break from the daily activities. Anxiety here is not to be taken as a pathological illness, but is to be understood in Heideggerian terms as an ontological experience and as such it is to be seen as a disclosure of that which is other than being. In the experience of nothing, the fact that something is, that something is there, arises.

Nothing is a revelation of being. In it do we find the distinctiveness of being. It is a process that comes to pass in and with beings. It cannot be thought outside of beings. Therefore nothing belongs to the concept of being, and as Heidegger, following Hegel, asserts that it is the same as Being itself: “Pure Being and pure Nothing are the same.”[Heidegger 1993, 108 quoting Hegels Science of Logic, Volume I, Werke III, 74] Nothing is an approach to the question of Being. Without this nothing, which is the same as Being, then every being would fall into beinglessness, for a being is never without a Being.

How can one attain pure Nothing that is also at the same time pure Being? Heidegger says that pure nothing can be attained through thinking. It must be reiterated that for Heidegger the task of thinking is different from the metaphysical enterprise. The task of thinking is to go beyond Western metaphysics that is preoccupied with the manipulation of beings. Thinking is to meditate upon Being as such. Metaphysics can never meditate upon Being as such. This new thinking has nothing to do with willing.

This composure is the Heideggerian counterpart to Eckharts gelassenheit. Heidegger tells us that Dasein when it spends itself in thinking meditates upon Being and Being alone. He puts aside all representations to engage in a non-representational thinking on Being, thus leaving metaphysical reasoning behind. In this kind of thinking, the only way to gain access to Being is to let Being be and let it address Dasein. Dasein is thus impotent to think Being. It must surrender its will unto Being.

Man must sacrifice and give itself up to the truth of Being. Now this sacrifice is a “thanking” of Being by Dasein for the “grace” and favor which Being has bestowed upon Dasein by giving itself up to Dasein as a matter of thinking. The appropriate response of Dasein to a grace is thanking, and its thanking consists in not squandering this gift but in actually engaging in “thinking.”
[John D. Caputo, The Mystical Element in Heidegger’s Thought]

And as we have said thinking as thanking is a thinking that is surrendering. In giving up all one actually attains all.

One can see that Heidegger’s way is similar to the mystical view expounded by Eckhart. Like the mystic’s way, Heidegger calls for a non-representational approach to Being and not a conceptual or rational determination of it. The way to Being is not through some ground or first principle as what metaphysics proposes. The way to Being is through an abyss or nothingness. “Heideggers way to Being is not the way of discursive reason, but the way of meditative stillness and total openness to that which is wholly other than beings, to the simply transcendent.22 Being is beyond the grasp of philosophy but it can be attained in mysticism.

Heidegger and Mysticism
The affinity of thought to mysticism in Heidegger cannot simply be dismissed. However, to say that Heideggers thought redounds to a mystical experience is an overstatement. Caputo does not deny the presence of mystical elements in Heideggers thought. Nevertheless, he emphasizes more on the “elements” and not on mysticism.

The difference between Heidegger and the mystics, in this case Aquinas and Eckhart, are obvious enough. When the mystics talk of abyss and the like, it is not an absolute bottomless pit or perdition rather it is a divine abyss. Thus, this leap into nothingness is a leap of faith. It is a leap wherein one falls into the hands of the Creator.

However, Heideggers abyss is of a different kind. It is an abyss that plays on an eternal danger. It is an abyss where one cannot be sure. It is actually a bottomless pit where there is no ground at all. Unlike the nothingness of the mystics that actually ends up in God, the nothingness of Heidegger remains elusive. “The worlds darkening never reaches to the light of Being.”


The Oblivion of Being 1– Fr. Ernesto A. Lapitan Jr., O.P

October 30, 2013
Justus van Gent (or Joos van Wassenhove), Justus or Jodocus of Ghent, or Giusto da Guanto (c. 1410 – c. 1480) was an Early Netherlandish painter who later worked in Italy. His painting of Thomas Aquinas is in the Louvre.

Justus van Gent (or Joos van Wassenhove), Justus or Jodocus of Ghent, or Giusto da Guanto (c. 1410 – c. 1480) was an Early Netherlandish painter who later worked in Italy. His painting of Thomas Aquinas is in the Louvre.


An Overview of Metaphysics and Mysticism in Aquinas, Eckhart and Heidegger by Ernesto A. Lapitan Jr., O.P. Fr. Lapitan Jr., O.P. is a member of the Dominican Province of the Philippines. He holds a Licentiate in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the Pontificio Istituto di Studi Arabi e dIslamistica (PISAI) in Rome, Italy.


One of the most serious charges that Heidegger leveled against the entire history of Western philosophy is Seinsvergessenheit or the oblivion of Being. This oblivion of Being is very evident in the philosophical field called metaphysics.

It is rather quite paradoxical that metaphysics whose subject matter is Being can be forgetful of Being. However, according to Heidegger, it is precisely because Western metaphysics is concerned with the difference between Being and beings that metaphysics has forgotten that which grants the difference. It is the difference that grants the difference between Being and beings that Heidegger says is and should be the concern of thought. In Heideggers reckoning only the Pre-Socratics came close to thinking about this difference and after them the entire history of Western philosophy has not thought about this difference.

Thomas Aquinas, one of the pre-eminent thinkers on Being has not escaped this charge of Seinsvergessenheit. In his metaphysical system, Thomas thought profoundly of the difference between Being and beings. He has said that Being is preeminent because in it the concepts of essence and existence are one. Being’s essence is its existence. Whereas in other beings, the concept of existence is not included in their essence; existence comes as a sort of addition. In short, they are merely contingent beings, their existence depends upon the bestowal of the ipsum esse subsistens.

This kind of thinking of Thomas Aquinas is radical and different from the rest of the secular thinkers. Consequently, he equated Being with God, a being whose essence it is to exist. It is on this point that Heidegger claims that Aquinas has not gone out of the metaphysical and theological mode of thinking and thus falls into the trap of the oblivion of Being.

Caputo in his intrepid work entitled Heidegger and Aquinas: An Essay on Overcoming Metaphysics makes a confrontation between Heidegger and Aquinas. In his introductory remarks, he has noted that most of the Thomists who have undergone a confrontation between Heidegger and Aquinas have failed. This is so because the method of confrontation they have applied is that of word for word and text for text. Obviously, under such conditions, Aquinas cannot escape the charge of Seinsvergessenheit, for even in this kind of thinking Aquinas moves within the Being-beings difference but does not go beyond it. Caputo suggests, therefore, that we look into the mystical element of Aquinass thinking, for it is in there that we find the thinking that is not forgetful of Being.

The texts that Aquinas handed down to us must be read and deconstructed in the light of the experience of Being. The texts should give way to the ipsum esse subsistens. This mode of thinking can be visually seen in a painting of St. Thomas done by the fifteenth- century Flemish painter Justus of Ghent that hangs at the Louvre.

In this painting, the hands of the saint are very prominent for they are at the center of the painting. A closer look at the hands reveals that the right index finger is pressing the left thumb, as if the magister is teaching some pupil a point. But even though the hands occupy a central position in the painting, the whole figure of Aquinas must be taken into account. The figure is a picture of stark serenity. Aquinas is calmly seated with everything seemingly unperturbed by anything. If the hand were a picture of ratio, then the whole figure is a picture of intellectus. Thus, Caputo explains that

the way in which one can meet the Heideggerian critique of St. Thomas is to meet it on its own grounds: not by showing that “existential metaphysics” satisfies everything which is required by the “thought of Being” and eludes the oblivion of Being – for it does not; but rather (and this all the commentators have missed) by showing that in St. Thomas metaphysics itself tends to break down and pass into a more profound experience of Being – even though the elaborate machinery of St. Thomas Scholasticism tends to conceal this fact.
John D. Caputo, Heidegger and Aquinas: An Essay in Overcoming Metaphysics

With this, Caputo is eager to show that Aquinas knows a step back out of metaphysics and in fact has overcome metaphysical thinking.

Caputo shows that Aquinas can escape the charge of Heidegger by appealing to the mystical experience. His arguments have carried him forward to considering Eckhart as the middle term between Aquinas and Heidegger.3 He claims that the fullness of the Thomistic arguments on mystical experience can only be seen through the consideration of the arguments of Eckhart. It is Eckhart who unfolds the possibility of Thomistic mysticism.

It is interesting to note that a way out of metaphysics is mystical experience. Mysticism escapes the objectifying lenses of metaphysics and views Being in its pristine form. Caputo argues that “mysticism, though not identical with thought, lies outside the sphere of influence of the principle of sufficient reason and, like thought itself and genuine poetry, is a non-representational, non-metaphysical experience of being. Mysticism too takes a step back out of metaphysics.”

In Caputo’s view then mysticism can be way out of oblivion of Being, but in another respect we find mysticism to be not the same as thought. Here in this paper, an overview of metaphysics and mysticism in Aquinas, Eckhart and Heidegger will be explored. As a corollary, it will be determined whether mysticism is a sufficient means to step back out of metaphysics thus escaping the Heideggerian charge of Seinsvergessenheit.


The Size of Tolkien’s Reality – Peter Kreeft

March 14, 2013
"In making a myth, in practicing “mythopoeia,” and peopling the world with elves and dragons and goblins, a story-teller…is actually fulfilling God's purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of the true light.”  J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters

“In making a myth, in practicing “mythopoeia,” and peopling the world with elves and dragons and goblins, a story-teller…is actually fulfilling God’s purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of the true light.” J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters

“Philosophy” means “the love of wisdom”. It should be what it means. The fact that it has largely ceased to be that in modern “philosophy departments” does not mean that its essence has changed, but that its disciples have. Similarly, the fact that most Christians in North America are not martyrs or saints like the early Christians does not mean that the meaning of Christianity has changed, only that Christians have.

Metaphysics is the most important, most foundational, part of philosophy. It is rational, not irrational; it is a “science” in the broad, ancient sense of the word: a body of knowledge ordered through explanations and causes. Like the rest of philosophy, it does not use the modern scientific method. (Neither does anything else except modern science!) But it is a science, and it should not be classified under “the occult”, as it is in some bookstores.

Unlike all other sciences, including other philosophical sciences, metaphysics explores reality as such, all of reality, not just some part or dimension of reality, such as living things, chemicals, human history, or morality. It seeks the truths, laws, and principles that are true of all being. (“Being” is the traditional term, but “reality” sounds more concrete and less occultic than “being”.)

Here are a few sample questions of metaphysics:

  • Is all being one, true, good, and beautiful?
  • Is evil real?
  • Is matter real?
  • Is spirit real?
  • Is God real?
  • Is chance real?
  • Is causality real?
  • Is time real?
  • How can a being change, that is, be both the same being it was, and also different?
  • What is the relation between a thing’s essence (what it is) and its existence (that it is)?
  • Does language reflect reality? Are there in reality things (nouns), acts (verbs), qualities (adjectives), relations (prepositions and conjunctions), etc.?
  • Are “universals” like justice, human nature, squareness, and redness real things, or real aspects of things, or only concepts, or only words?

The Lord of the Rings illuminates at least three important metaphysical questions:

  1. How big is reality? Is it larger or smaller than our thought?
  2. Does it include the supernatural?
  3. Does it include universals, “Platonic Ideas”, or “Jungian archetypes”?

We shall take up the first in this post and give you the other two later on.

How big is reality?
There are only three logically possible answers to this question.

  1. The first is that “there are more things in heaven and earth ( i.e., in reality) than are dreamed of in your philosophies (i.e., in thought).” That was Shakespeare’s philosophy, as expressed by Hamlet to Horatio, who found it hard to believe in ghosts. This is the philosophy of the poet and of the happy for whom nature is a fullness, a moreness, and therefore wonderful. It is the philosophy of all pre-modern cultures.
  2. The second possible answer is that there are fewer things in reality than in thought; that most of our thought is mere myth, error, convention, projection, fantasy, fallacy, folly, .dream, etc. This is the philosophy of the unhappy man, the cynic, the pessimist: “Trust nobody and nothing.” This philosophy is hardly ever found in any pre-modern culture, except in a small minority.
  3. The third possibility is that there are exactly the same number of things in reality and in thought, that is, that we “know it all”.

What difference does it make to your life which philosophy you believe?

It makes a total difference, a difference to absolutely every single thing in your life. It colors everything.  For if you believe the first philosophy, as Shakespeare did, as Tolkien did, and as most pre-modern peoples did, then your fundamental attitude toward all reality is wonder and humility. You are like a small child in a large house. As Tolkien said in one of his letters, “You are inside a very great story.”

You expect mysteries, you expect moreness: terrors to stop your heart and joys to break it. Reality is big. I think of the simple, haunting line in Ingmar Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal: “It is the Angel of Death that’s passing over us, Mia, it’s the Angel of Death, the Angel of Death. And he’s very big.” In this big world there may be not only things like dragons, but even heroes.

The larger-than-life world is the one our ancestors lived in. Our culture’s greatest sadness is that we no longer live in this world. Tolkien’s greatest achievement is that he invites us to inhabit this world again. He shows us that this world is our home. He even shows us heroism: he not only shows us heroes but he also shows us that we ourselves believe in heroes. For after we have read Tolkien’s unashamedly heroic epic, we do not say, “Well, that was a pleasant little escape from reality”, but, “Hey! That was real!”

If you believe the second philosophy, that there are fewer things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophies, then you are cynical, skeptical, suspicious, bored, jaded, detached, ironic, and definitely non-heroic. You are a reductionist: you reduce mystery to puzzle, love to lust, thought to cybernetics, reasoning to rationalizing, ideals to desires, man to ape, God to myth.

In other words, you are a typically modern or post-modern man. (Is there much of a difference?) You buy into the first step of the scientific method: “Doubt everything that is not proved; treat every thought as guilty until proved innocent, false until proved true.” The older philosophy treated thoughts as we treat people in court: innocent until proved guilty. (Compare Socrates’s method with Descartes’s on this score.)

The third philosophy is rationalism, in fact, arrogant rationalism:  Everything in my thought is real, and everything real is in my thought. In ancient Greece Parmenides said, “What is thought and what is real is the same”, and in modern Germany Hegel said, “The real is the rational and the rational is the real;” but I think only those with a divinity complex can actually believe that. And even pantheists, who believe that the whole cosmos is only a thought or dream, believe it is not our dream but God’s, and therefore still “more”, or transcendent to our thought — unless there is some confusion between us (or me) and God, in which case a shrink or a smack will serve the soul better than a syllogism.

Thomas Howard calls good fantasy a “flight to reality” because, though its details are fictional, the nature of its world, its universal principles and values, are true. Tolkien shows us the nature of the real world by his fantasy. He is making a statement about reality, about being, about metaphysics when he says:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered.
J R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

The fundamental reason for the popularity of The Lord of the Rings is that people sense it is real. No mere escape from reality can be voted “the greatest book of the century”.

And that is why Tolkien does not tell us half of what he knows about his world. You can tell everything about your fantasies, your dreams, or your thoughts, but not about anything real.

That is also why The Lord of the Rings bears endless rereading: it is heavy enough to bear the mind’s journeys into it, like our world. In fact, it is perhaps the most “heavy”, full, detailed, complex, real invented world in all of human literature.

Tolkien himself tells us that he felt, in creating it, as we feel in reading it: that it was discovered, not invented, that it had always been there, and it was as much a surprise to Tolkien to discover it as it is to us: “I had the sense of recording what was already `there,’ somewhere; not of `inventing.’ Great authors often say that about the experience of writing their masterpieces.

C. S. Lewis wrote from the same point of view:

We must not listen to [Alexander] Pope’s maxim about the proper study of mankind. “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is man.” The proper study of mankind is everything.

We should never ask of anything “Is it real?” For everything is real. The proper question is, “A real what?”


Signs & Wonders — Todd Buras

October 23, 2012

Thomas Reid believed that common sense (in a special philosophical sense of sensus communis) is, or at least should be, at the foundation of all philosophical inquiry. He disagreed with Hume, who asserted that we can never know what an external world consists of as our knowledge is limited to the ideas in the mind, and George Berkeley, who asserted that the external world is merely ideas in the mind. By contrast, Reid claimed that the foundations upon which our sensus communis are built justify our belief that there is an external world. In his day and for some years into the 19th century, he was regarded as more important than David Hume. He advocated direct realism, or common sense realism, and argued strongly against the Theory of Ideas advocated by John Locke, René Descartes, and (in varying forms) nearly all Early Modern philosophers who came after them. He had a great admiration for Hume and had a mutual friend send Hume an early manuscript of Reid’s Inquiry. Hume responded that the “deeply philosophical” work “is wrote in a lively and entertaining matter,” but that “there seems to be some defect in method,” and criticized Reid for implying the presence of innate ideas.

Todd Burasis associate professor of philosophy at Baylor University. He reviewed C. Stephen Evans’ Natural Signs and Knowledge of God A New Look at Theistic Arguments  in a recent issue of Books and Culture. It hasn’t been released yet but you can sign up for a copy when it is released.  (like I have).


Imagine an utterly irrepressible smile stretching across a child’s face. Almost anyone seeing such an expression believes the child is experiencing some sort of delight. But why do we believe this? Reasoning from premises about bodily demeanor to conclusions about mental states is fraught with difficulty — famously so. Even the most promising arguments are halting gestures at our effortless movement in thought. From a very early age, we just find ourselves possessed of a conviction about the state of mind behind beaming faces — a conviction that neither claims the aid of arguments nor fears their failure. This tendency to form beliefs about the mental states of others on the basis of facial expressions is, of course, resistible and responsive to cultural influences. But a tendency is there to be shaped or resisted, and to blaze the trail our painstaking arguments attempt to follow.

For some time now philosophers have been interested in exploring the idea that belief in God is based on similar tendencies. But why think so? How should we understand the proposal? What implications does the idea have for the traditional arguments of natural theology? Does the proposal support or undermine the claim that belief in God is based on evidence, perhaps even good evidence? Is the proposal supported or undermined by the emerging scientific accounts of the origin of religious belief? In Natural Signs and Knowledge of God: A New Look at Theistic Arguments, C.Stephen Evans offers excellent answers to these excellent questions.

Evans’ book is a characteristic combination of careful attention to neglected historical ideas and insightful analysis of a broad range of contemporary issues. This slim volume rewards readers with a theory of natural signs, a state-of-the-art assessment of three traditional arguments for the existence of God, and a fresh approach to the issue of natural knowledge of God. Readers will also be left with some large, partly interdisciplinary questions. That’s only fitting: the questions that emerge mark the fecundity, not the failure, of the approach.

Evans’ reasoning unfolds from a simple question, often rushed past in discussions of natural theology. If the God of classical theism exists, what should we expect in the way of grounds for belief in God? Evans answers in a Pascalian vein: in light of God’s love for creatures, we should expect belief in God to be grounded in a way that balances two competing considerations. Knowledge of God’s reality is ultimately necessary for the development of loving divine-human relationships.

So it would be contrary to God’s loving purposes for existence to be exceptionally difficult to acheive, say, that belief in God is accessible only to those with advanced degrees in cosmology or philosophy. At the same time, loving relationships must ultimately be freely embraced. So it would be similarly contrary to God’s purposes if the existence of God were coercively – so obvious that those who are uninterested in, or resistant to, relationship with God are forced by reason to live in light of the reality of God. Evans thus expects the grounds for belief in God to be, in his words, widely accessible yet easily resistible.

Beliefs based on some sort of natural proclivity fill the Pascalian bill nicely. In the case of the smiling child, normal adults find belief in the child’s inner state hard to suppress. Consequently, the belief is very widespread. Yet the belief is not fully determinate, nor are its grounds fully compelling. Rational people, subject to influences, interpret the content of the belief in a variety of competing ways. Some manage to suspend belief in the mental life of others altogether. The fit between the Pascalian constraints and the appeal to natural tendencies is, very briefly, the motivation for Evans’ approach, which he elaborates under the tutelage of a very different thinker, Thomas Reid.

The lesson Evans takes from Reid has been a long time coming. Reid himself never applied his most original ideas to belief in God, opting instead (as best we can tell) for a traditional evidentialist approach to natural theology.

In our own day, those who have applied Reidian ideas to belief in God draw less from his theory of natural signs than from his (early externalist) account of knowledge. Oddly enough those who come closest to anticipating the Reidian ideas that interest Evans are not Reid’s allies but his great competitors, Hume and Kant. We will return to the irony here shortly, as Evans uses it to great effect.

Reid famously argued that certain beliefs — like the case of the smiling child and, more important for his purposes, the existence of the external world — are grounded in the operation of natural signs. To get quickly to the heart of Reid’s sign theory, think of natural signs as the mental parallel of bodily reflexes. Certain bodily stimuli are regularly connected with instantaneous and involuntary bodily motions — as in the case of sneezing, blinking, startling, and the like.

These responses are not explicable in terms of other known principles of bodily change; they are not the result of conscious decisions, for example, or of the autonomic processes governing the motion of our internal organs. Thus we posit original principles of our nature — i.e., reflexes — to account for these patterns of change. Attributing these patterns to nature, however, is not incompatible with recognizing the influence of other factors. Thanks to the startle reflex, the rapid encroachment of a projectile triggers a burst of protective motion.

But the precise manner and extent of the motion is partly the result of conditioning. Failure to respond appropriately to such stimuli can lead to very vigorous evasive maneuvers indeed! A pattern of successful responses, on the other hand, produces more athletically adept movements (e.g., catching the projectile). Some reflexes, like the reflex to withdraw from painful stimuli, may even be completely suppressed by such influences.

Reid sees the situation with respect to certain movements in thought as perfectly similar. Some thoughts have what Reid calls the power of suggestion, a technical term designating the ability of a thought about one thing (the sign) to bring immediately to mind a thought about another thing (the signified). The words you are reading are signs in this sense. Perceiving these words brings immediately to mind thoughts about Reid’s theory.

But these words are not natural signs. The connection between these words and the things they bring to mind is easily explained in terms of known principles of association. (Reid attributes the suggestive power of words to implicit human compact.) Where the power of suggestion is not explicable in terms of known principles for establishing connections between ideas, Reid sensibly attributes the power to original principles of our constitution.

Original principles of our constitution determine that one thought triggers another, but in at least some cases (Reid calls them acquired perceptions) the precise content of the second thought is variable and subject to the influence of other factors (e.g., prior reasoning and experience). Thanks to the operation of such open-textured principles, we see smoke and immediately think of fire; we hear a sound and immediately perceive the direction from which it comes; and a sommelier tastes a wine and immediately perceives its vintage. In some cases the response to natural signs is even completely suppressible. All bets are off, Reid thinks, about the direction of a sound heard in an echo chamber.

Arguments that retrace the connections established by natural signs inevitably fail, at least as strict proofs. It is precisely because the connection between the sign and thing signified is not fully explicable in terms of other known principles governing movements of thought that we invoke natural principles in the first place. But, equally predictably, the failure of such arguments does little to erode belief, and even the harshest critics of the arguments acknowledge the naturalness of belief. We are typically undeterred by the lack of decisive arguments for the external world or for the child’s delight, for example, and the critics of such arguments themselves happily succumb to the power of the sign when they leave the philosophical parlor.

The idea that there are natural signs for the existence of God thus not only coheres with what we should expect if there is a God, it provides the basis of the new look at theistic arguments promised byEvans’ subtitle. If theistic arguments attempt to capture movements of thought grounded in natural signs, we should expect them to fail as strict proofs — arguments that should convince any rational person. Yet we should also expect these arguments to express a very natural and compelling basis of belief.

The central chapters of Evans’ book argue that this is exactly what we find in the case of three traditional theistic arguments — cosmological, teleological, and moral. We find experiences of cosmic wonder, beneficial order, moral obligation, and human dignity motivating belief with a force that arguments fail to capture.

It is with respect to this last point that Evans calls on the testimony of Hume and Kant to such great effect. Hume and Kant are among the most withering critics of natural theology in the history of philosophy. Yet each in turn recognizes a powerful natural tendency to believe in God on the basis of the beneficial order experienced in nature, and each concedes the naturalness of theistic belief on the basis of this tendency.

Evans’ treatment of the theistic arguments may seem to be making the best of a bad situation in natural theology. Some will surely protest that the traditional theistic arguments are more successful than Evans’ analysis suggests. Others will claim that the arguments are much worse off than he allows; not only do they fail strictly speaking, they have no appeal that survives critical scrutiny. If Evans is right, of course, the situation is not really bad to begin with, but is instead in the ballpark of what we should expect if there is a God. These issues deserve more attention than they can receive in this short review. But a final assessment of Evans’ approach is likely to turn on other issues that cannot be adequately treated even within the confines of a large book.

At the end of the day, Evans offers a story about the grounds of belief in God where “grounds” has strongly psychological connotations concerning the mechanism by which belief in God is produced. Such proposals — like Reid’s origin of belief in the child’s delight – face two large questions, both of which Evan broaches by way of conclusion.

The first question for his approach is philosophical. How does such an account of the grounds for belief in God bear on the epistemic merits of theistic belief, and specifically on the merits required for knowledge? Surprisingly, the answer depends entirely upon one’s account of the nature of various epistemic merits, and of the kind and degree of such merits required for knowledge.

Evans can hardly be faulted for failing to settle the central question of epistemology in this book. He wisely tries, instead, to show that the epistemic merits of beliefs based on natural signs can be articulated in a variety of epistemological frameworks. The most promising of frameworks all have a place for knowledge that is well-grounded but not acquired by inference. In this way Evans shows that a case can be made for the reasonableness of belief in God on the basis of natural signs regardless of the way one resolves questions in epistemology.

The second crucial question for Evans’ approach is empirical. Is his hypothesis about the triggers of belief in God borne out by research in psychology a cognitive science? The sheer prevalence of some form of theistic belief in human communities offers some evidence that belief in God is grounded in natural mechanism of some kind or another.

But Evans rightly notes that it would take more, research, and indeed fairly sophisticated research, to determine whether the experiences he describes are among the natural mechanisms at work. The rarity of philosophy that relates so directly to research makes that last sentence particularly noteworthy. Given the ascendancy of debunking naturalistic accounts of the origin of theistic belief in the human sciences, the empirical questions Evans’ approach raises are not only noteworthy, they are urgent. Natural Signs And Knowledge Of God has much to offer philosophers and theologians, but the most significant contribution of Evans’ book may well be to motivate and otherwise support broadly theistic research programs in the human sciences.


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