The Necessary Reason of Belief

Some argue that faith is irrational, because it is distinguished from knowledge. It needs to be pointed out, however, that belief and opinion are distinguished from imagination by having a reason or a basis: I can imagine myself winning the lottery for no reason at all, but to believe that I have won it requires some reason and basis.

Not only does belief or opinion presuppose some kind of rational basis, it can even be seen as a certain emanation of reason, and even the divine mind. For example, in the Tertia Pars of his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas argues that there is experiencial knowledge in the human mind of Christ. St. Thomas objects to his position by saying that since opinion stands to knowledge as the imperfect to the perfect, than since Christ’s knowledge was perfect, he needed no opinion. St. Thomas responds to the objection by saying:

Disposition is referred to perfection in two ways: first, as a way leading to perfection; secondly, as an effect proceeding from perfection; thus matter is disposed by heat to receive the form of fire, and, when this comes, the heat does not cease, but remains as an effect of this form.

On the Desire to Understand

Before any science or art or inquiry there is the desire to know, as such. This desire to know, taken simply, is the root cause of why we would seek to know this or that, or why we would seek to know any particular thing more clearly.  

The desire to know is distinguished into a desire, and a seeking to understand. As a seeking to understand, we are trying to get to what stands under things, that is, to what is most causal. As a desire, however, we are seeking what is most desirable, and this is what is more beautiful than anything else.  

This distinction of the desire to understand into two parts, however, is not a distinction of a whole into two integral parts, but of a single thing into two intelligible parts. The desire to understand is a single thing undivided in itself. As a single thing, it has a single perfection. As this, it has the perfection of this.  

But this perfection, as shown above, must be both what is most causal of things, and at the same time the most beautiful of things.  

At various times men are tempted to give fragmentary and obviously false answers to what we most truly desire to know. At times, we stress what is more causal, at least in a relative sense, but which is obviously not the most beautiful thing we know, like matter or the elements. At other times, we stress what is most beautiful thing that we know, even if it is obviously not the most causal thing in the world, like the human person, or the ideal mathematical proportions of things. But this desire to know as such is properly ordered to, and therefore deriving its existence from, that which all call God.

Ignorance, Opinion, and Knowledge

The most famous argument in the Descartes’ Meditations might be summarized as:  

    Whatever cannot be doubted in any way is known.

           “I exist” cannot be doubted I any way, if I am thinking it. 

But note that the major is false as stated; because we also cannot doubt the things we are completely ignorant of. Descartes could have no doubts about, say, whether Pakistan should have atomic weapons, for the very obvious reason that neither existed, and so he knew of neither one. The same could be said of anything that Descartes was oblivious to for one reason or another.  

But nonsense, we might say, for Descartes explicitly says that he is looking at his beliefs and opinions and applying his test to those alone. In other words, Descartes is only speaking of knowledge as opposed to opinion, not knowledge as opposed to ignorance. Descartes, therefore, is the first in a long line of those who define knowledge as justified belief or opinion, and he has set up his own well known criterion to judge whether some belief is justified.  

But to say this still leaves a problem. If knowledge is in one sense opposed to belief and in another sense opposed to ignorance, there must be some difference between belief and ignorance. And yet how could something be different from complete ignorance unless it is in some way known? Isn’t it synonymous to say “not completely ignorant of so-and-so” and “knows so-and-so in some way”? 

The distinction in play here is between what is so in some way (secundum quid), and what is so simply (simpliciter), which modern epistemology usually overlooks, but which was primary to Aristotle and St. Thomas. Both ignorance and opinion fall away from knowledge simply speaking, but ignorance falls away in that it is not knowledge at all, whereas opinion is knowledge secundum quid. It is knowledge in an imperfect sense, or perhaps a less-than-perfect sense, and yet we must speak of it as knowledge in some real way, because we distinguish it from total ignorance. 

But when we understand the opposition between opinion and knowledge as an opposition between imperfect and perfect knowledge, the whole Cartesian problem of justifying knowledge goes by the board. We are no longer trying to get to knowledge from opinion or belief, but rather we are discerning the hierarchy between things already known. St. Thomas, or example, arranges the hierarchy from demonstration to dialectic (which includes modern experimental science) to rhetoric to poetry, which allows him to discern three different levels of opinion under demonstration, which is knowledge simpliciter (Expositio Posteriorum: Bk 1., lec. 1, pp 6).  

Four Notes

-When we know the proofs for the existence of God, there is still nothing I the imagination beyond material things; just as our thoughts on the author of Beowulf are nothing more than reflections on various lines of the poem.  

-One of the more well known meditations on the divine intimacy is to call to mind that Christ died for all men individually, such that he would have died for us even if we were the only person on earth. There is another side to the hypothetical worth reflecting on: if I were the only person on earth, I would have been the one who killed him. 

-If you buy a high chair at the store you usually need to put it together at home. Note that you give the same name to the thing and what is able to be the thing. In a similar way, people finance a movie or a voyage before either one exists. We use this sort of naming for natural things too: corn is the name for both the seed and the ear; and sugar is sweet whether someone is eating it or not. All of this testifies to a certain likeness that the mind observes between what has the ability to be something, and the thing it has the ability to be. It is essential to preserve this likeness- and not to deny our experience either by saying that there is really no likeness at all (and it is just sloppy naming), or by saying that there is a perfect identity between the ability to be a thing, and the thing actually existing.     

-To define is to set the limits of something. The imagination pictures this in terms of the first sense of “setting limits” or fixing a boundary, which involves drawing a shape. What can the imagination teach us here? 

To fix limits in the imagination is to give something form. This sense of definition as formal carries over to its intelligible, secondary meaning. To fix limits also involves making a finite thing. Definition, however, does not involve making the thing finite, but in making our understanding of the thing finite in the same way as the thing itself.  

This making the thing finite in mind can be taken in two ways: first as definition cutting a thing off from all other things defined, but secondarily as only taking up a part of the extension of our imagination or powers of mind. Definitions are always within mind, and so in this sense our mind must exceed every finite and definable being, whether taken one at a time or altogether. Mind is not just in a certain way all things; in a certain way it exceeds all things and contains them.

Four Loves, One Logos

The book “the Four Loves” points out well that the four Greek terms for love have the perfection of clarity (in the sense of distinctness), but the English term “love” has the perfection of richness. We might see this richness more clearly by looking at a case in which English has seven or eight terms for what Greek has only one word for, as happens with the Greek word “logos”. It is true that when one uses the word logos he can only use it one meaning at a time, but it takes a very blunt soul not to appreciate all of the overtones the word has. English might have more words for “logos” like definition, word, speech, formula, account, reason, and Second Person of the Trinity. One would suppose these many terms give more clarity in the sense of distinctness to what Greek has one word for.  This is not the case. It is hard not to lose clarity when one translates “logos”. There is usually the sense that one is leaving something out- because we usually do leave something out  

Angels and the Sun

A failure to consider the angels when considering the universe is a failure to consider the majority of the universe, and a majority by a long stretch: St. Thomas argues that the angelic part of the universe exceeds the corporeal part by the same proportion as the entire material universe exceeds the earth.  

It might be objected that St. Thomas’ reason no longer holds, or it is based on an older cosmology. The minor of his argument was that the spheres of the incorruptible sun and the stars far larger than the corruptible Earth; and so the angelic part of the universe was proportionally larger than the material part of it. This same sort of reason, however, follows both from things shared in a general understanding of the universe, and from theories proper to our modern cosmologies. In our general understanding of things, the sun and the stars are still prior in causality to the generation and corruption of things on earth; and according to our modern theories this is even more so: for we claim not only that the sun is a cause of generation of material things, but also that the sun and the stars were generating causes of matter itself sc. the heavy elements. But whatever causes generation and matter can be seen as eternal for two reasons: for generation is an imitation of divine things (de Anima, bk. II on reproduction) and matter of itself does not properly come to be nor pass away- and so the cause of these things must be seen as far more such.  

Eternity and the Sun

The ratio of eternity consists in the awareness of the uniformity of things that are wholly outside of motion.  

ST I, q. X a. 1 

We have a word “eternal”. Forget for a moment if there are eternal things or not. What does the word mean, and where did the idea come from? 

The awareness of death or of ceasing to be is first. Few things are more knowable than death or ceasing to be, not only because the experience of such things can be so moving (like the death of a loved one) but also because our experience of things ceasing to be is so frequent and constant (our food spoils, anything we build needs constant maintenance to ward of corruption, and growth in wisdom seems to involve a growing awareness that our time is brief). Death is somehow natural to things, for there is an inherent tendency in things to fall toward non-being. Death and corruption is simply what happens when things run their course, and seeing it happen is nothing more than a matter of letting things go their way.  

Our idea of the eternal is first grounded on what does not cease to be, and our first experience of this is when we notice the larger context of things that pass away. We are right that the natural tendency in any one thing might be to corruption, but that tendency to corruption is always found within the context of a larger cycle of things, and cycles have no beginning and no end. The fruit might rot, but the tree will give more next season, the tree might die, but the earth will bring forth more after many seasons, etc.  

Cycles stand behind all corruptible things and govern their rise and fall, and the most governing of cycles that is manifest to our senses is the cycle of the sun, which in one way or another is making possible all of the cycles of things on earth. In our first understanding of eternal, then, the sun is eternal, or at least the most eternal thing we know.  

Since the beginning, however, there has been a sense that there is something more eternal and more governing than the motion of the sun. The search for this more eternal thing falls to science, for the scientist asks about hidden or questioned things and whatever governs the sun would have to be such. The first scientists guessed that the stars governed the sun, and they had some success in detecting very subtle cycles which do so, like the procession of the equinoxes. This success, however, made it easy to believe far more outlandish claims about the power of the stars, and charlatan astrologers sprang up as one in an endless line of pseudo-scientists.  

In our own time we are more comfortable looking to a quality of something rather than a thing with the quality, like the sun. Newton guessed that the heaviness of things was what governed all motions, and he spent much of his career trying to figure out the thing that caused this heaviness. Before anyone answered Newton’s question, people started to suspect that something governed heaviness as well, or at least that there was more involved in governing things than heaviness.

two notes on the dignity of human persons and the ground of classical metaphysics

-A person is an individual of a rational nature. What ever dignity it has, therefore, belongs to it either as an individual or as a rational nature. But it is ridiculous that dignity would belong to it as an individual, because then a person would have no more dignity than a plant or a cockroach, which are undeniably individuals. Because of this, the dignity of the human person rests at least formally on their nature.   

-We say what things are, and because of this the number of ways that things are follows the number of ways we speak of them. This is the fundamental and common teaching of St. Thomas and Aristotle about being and therefore the science of metaphysics. Their doctrine is all very straightforward when said in simple terms, but it appears controversial when we express it in the sort of English that Aristotle and St. Thomas often corrupt into: for then we say something like “the modes of being are predicamental” or “being is divided into the ten predicates”.  

“Predicate” in English is too technical and too restricted to grammar to be of much use outside of it; and even though “mode” is an English word, it is more a transliteration of the Latin “modus” and it never managed to find a place in English. I have yet to find a time when “way” didn’t work better than “mode”. 

When we look to being as following the ways we speak about things, it makes sense before all else to specify whether we are speaking about them as such or by happening (per se or per accidens). This distinction, first recognized formally in Plato’s Sophist, is primary to classical Metaphysics, and unless it is primary for us we will see no fundamental distinction between wisdom and sophistry. 

Little Elements of Theology, I

What directs itself, knows.  

For unless someone is aware of his own self, he cannot direct it. Only a knower, therefore, can direct his self, properly speaking.  

The above argument suffices but there are many others taken apart from proper cause: praise and blame, awareness and intention, our interior awareness that our knowledge is essentially related to our self direction, etc.  

So what does not know, and has direction to something, is being directed by another.  

But all that is moving has direction to something.  

So all motion depends upon intelligence, for what is by another is properly from what is by itself.  

Again, to be by another is a way of being after, what is by itself is before. To think that everything is by another is to think that everything is after an after an after.  

Or again it is a failure to understand basic truths about relative terms. Relatives properly speaking cannot exist without their correlatives. To think all could be after of from another would be like thinking there could be all beneath and nothing above, all sons in a world where there never were fathers.   

The first trace of actuality, motion, presupposes and depends upon that highest actuality, the immobile and intelligent.  

We Only Know What Material Things Are

We only know what material things are, and yet one of the things we know about them is that they are being caused by something that not material. Said another way, matter reveals itself as something caused, or “after”, and so it could not be without something before (this is true a fortiori of material things, which are being caused by matter, and so after it)

(That matter is being caused by another follows from the first things we know about it, not the things we know about it secondarily by experiments or measurements)

And yet we find ourselves in the position of knowing that there is something before even though we only know what the things that come after are.

A few notes:

-Matter is indeterminate, and so when we define things that have it there will always be some lack of determination to something in the definition, or our clearest understanding o what the thing is. This need not be true of all the things coming before.

-Material things exist as individuals, but they are different from the type of thing they are. What the thing is differs from this thing. The definition of something and this defined something need not be the same. This is not true of the all the things that come before.

-Following on the above: the definition does not exist except as in the defined singular, which differs from it, as we said. This grounds a distinction between essence (shown by definition, or the intelligible nature of the thing) and existence (what for material things is only in the individual that differs from its type). Perhaps one way f understanding the identity of esse and essentia in God is to see it as the removal of the real distinction in us between the intelligibility of first substance and its existence in itself. This distinction is grounded on matter as contingent to many and therefore unintelligible as to one. We can apply the distinction analogously to what is necessary, and yet caused.

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