Cosmological proofs and religion

Say St. Thomas is right and the only knowledge we have of God is through his effects. We might wonder if this is enough to give rise to a religious response. If we only knew a person though his effects (like the art he produced or the money he donated) we might respect him, be amazed at him, and/or feel deep feelings of gratitude towards him, but it is not clear what we would think about making a personal commitment to him – it is not even clear what this would mean or whether it is possible. Again, it is not clear what it would mean to be in the service of a person who is only known to you through his effects.

(I waver over whether Romans 1 is a response to this.)

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6 Comments

  1. socraticum said,

    November 7, 2012 at 9:54 pm

    Another response (besides Romans 1) could be taken from Aristotle’s Topics:

    Not every problem, nor every thesis, should be examined, but only one which might puzzle one of those who need argument, not punishment or perception. For people who are puzzled to know whether one ought to honour the gods and love one’s parents or not need punishment, while those who are puzzled to know whether snow is white or not need perception.

    Although perhaps “honor” is not exactly a religious response in the sense you’re using it.

    • November 7, 2012 at 10:06 pm

      Aristotle’s notion of religion was more tied to civic duty than ours is, and I’d agree that this quotation from the Topics is an appropriate response to someone who might question important civic duties. Government can’t reason with those who wonder whether it should be obeyed. But our idea of religion is more a personal commitment and a free act of assent to the will of God who calls us.

  2. Kristor said,

    November 7, 2012 at 11:00 pm

    Do we ever know anything by any means *other* than its effects upon us? If we say, “no,” that doesn’t automatically make us Kantians: the effect a thing has on us can be veridical. E.g., a ball can make a faithful negative impression of itself on our skin.

    The real question, it seems to me, is whether we can ever know God by means of his direct effects upon us, or only by inference from his effects on other parts of our world. Thomas seems to be saying that we can know God only indirectly. But how can it be said that God has no direct effects upon us? He created this very instant of our lives, right? So that, at this instant, we have the ontological resources needed to look about us and notice his effects in the rest of reality, right? Is it not the case that to know God via his direct effects upon us is just to know what it is like to exist?

    • Elliot said,

      November 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm

      Thomas also says that we only know ourselves indirectly, by observing ourselves in action. Also, assuming we could know God’s effects on us directly inasmuch as they are actions of God, and not just as beings which point back to some first cause, it would seem to follow that we can know God’s essence directly by natural intuition. But we don’t. So Thomas’s position seems pretty strong.

      • Kristor said,

        November 11, 2012 at 11:46 am

        “Thomas also says that we only know ourselves indirectly, by observing ourselves in action.”

        Yes; so the answer to my question would seem to be, “No, we never know anything by any means other than its effects upon us.”

        “Also, assuming we could know God’s effects on us directly inasmuch as they are actions of God, and not just as beings which point back to some first cause, it would seem to follow that we can know God’s essence directly by natural intuition. But we don’t.”

        But the effect is not identical with the cause. If it were, then we might possibly discover the divine essence via introspection (as Vedanta argues we may do, provided our introspection be pure enough). I.e., the only way you can know anything by pure intuition is by just being the thing in question – which, of course, you could not do other than by ceasing to be yourself, and becoming that other thing, thus deleting the act of your knowledge that you were concerned in the first place to understand (this being, precisely, the epistemological move that Vedanta recommends as pure enough to know God by intuition).

        Returning to my analogy of the baseball smacking into the skin, we see that the cause and its effect both exist; the one thing they share is the property of mere existence. But the effect is the image or icon of the cause. And what we get is that the effect is a veridical *negative* of the cause. Thus while the creature and the Creator both exist, the creature is finite, the Creator infinite; the creature *im*perfect, the Creator perfect; the creature mensurable, the Creator immense; and so forth.

        The agreement with apophatic theology, and praxis, is tidy.

        Knowing what we are like, qua creatures, then, can tell us something about what God is like, or perhaps better what he is not like. But this is no different than knowing what some other creature is like, qua creature, and reasoning backward to the character of its First Cause. The First Cause operates directly on each creature; its operation on us, qua creatures, is basically the same as its operation on any other creature.

        Which is all just to say that we can know God by means of his direct effects upon creatures, including us. It’s not like we can learn about him only as if we were learning of something that happened somewhere else, say by reading a newspaper. That way of knowledge is indeed open to us, to be sure. But we can also learn about him and relate to him directly, in just the way that we learn about and relate to each other directly, “in real time.” I.e., we can learn of him really, and not just virtually. And that does seem like enough to give rise to a religious response.

  3. Willa said,

    November 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm

    I don’t have an answer to the question, nor do I quite know how Revelation or the Incarnation would fit into the “knowledge from effects”, but the way I experience the religious response is that my immanent experience of God from effects leads, because of His nature which I perceive in this indirect way, to a kind of mental apprehension of His transcendence, omnipotence, goodness, providence etc. This understanding in turn seems to require some sort of response, at least of gratitude for existence as Chesterton said, though I doubt if it would be a very confident response without the details of Revelation.

    I just was reading about this subject yesterday, and had a similar question, so that’s why I’m commenting.


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