The need for multiple approaches to understanding disproportionate things

St. Thomas speaks of our relation to knowing an object in terms of proportion. A typical example is Contra Gentiles 2:98

Our possible intellect stands proportionately to corruptible bodies, to which it is united as a form.

Intellectus autem possibilis noster proportionaliter se habet corporibus corruptibilibus, quibus unitur ut forma

Proportion is a well suited relation. “Well adapted” or just ‘adapted’ are very close in meaning. The body of a seal, for example, is proportioned to moving gracefully through the water; our intellect is proportioned to understanding the essence of sensible things (the emphasis on both terms is important)

Understanding objects according to their proportion to our intellect allows St. Thomas to rank various objects in degrees of intelligibility, which better matches experience. Things other than corruptible bodies (atoms, energy, angels, immanent activity) are each in various ways disproportionate to our intelligence. Such disproportion does not make these things simply unknown, but unknown distinctly and in themselves. We can only know these things in a general manner by other things proportionate to our intelligence. In knowing atoms, for example, we have to construct various models which look nothing alike in order to bring out various aspects we understand about the atom. When speaking of energy in physics, use again use various models and impose symbols which stand in for the various realities we want to understand. It is easier and perhaps absolutely necessary, for example, to understand EM waves in terms of things like water  waves and billiard balls that are directly and distinctly given in our experience and therefore proportionate to our intellect.

This need to proportion things to our intellect is also important in metaphysics. Analogy, for example, is a proportion that our mind uses to understand one meaning in light of another. Various negations like “immaterial” and “simple” and “ummoved” are also indispensable.

One consequence of the way we understand the things that are disproportionate to our intellect is that we often need several incompatible or distinct accounts to speak of the same reality. Because we are trying to understand a natural thing through an artistic model, we need more than one model of the atom, the molecule, and the EM wave in order to account for what we know about it. Because we try to understand the divine existence with human language, we need to predicate both concrete terms (“good” or “is”) and abstract terms (goodness, existence) of him. At the height of this necessary dual approach, we have the necessity in revealed theology approaching God both as absolute unity, and then in a separate approach as trinity of persons.

The need for two accounts which are both in some way total and irreducible is common to the things most worth knowing. Human action, for example, cannot be well understood by reduction simply to the will or simply to the intellect, but to each of them totally in different orders. Will and intellect, though perfectly separate, yet compenetrate each other. We make them proportionate to our understanding and so give them the sort of distinction that bodies have, which distorts their nature and therefore requires another approach to balance us toward truth.

The post modern mind we all grew up with is very comfortable with the idea of the need for many approaches to understand a single reality, but without the idea of proportion to the intellect that makes the many approaches necessary, we easily fall into thinking that we don’t understand things. There is a sense in which we “don’t know what God is” (as St. Thomas himself said), just as we don’t know what EM waves are. While our knowledge of these two disproportionate objects is far more different than similar, they do share the single point of comparison- they are disproportionate to what we know best and therefore have to be understood in a general manner by things other than themselves.

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