Sunday, July 5, 2020

Two Futile Objections

Writing in the 13th Century, St. Thomas Aquinas identified two objections to the existence of God: the presence of evil and the superfluous nature of belief. These remain the only two objections in the history of human thought. Both are recited ad nauseam by those wishing to explain away the creator. But contrary to disproving the existence of God, these two objections reveal profound theological truth.

Denying the existence of God because of the presence of evil is not an argument as much as a visceral reaction to suffering. Disappointment, disease, and death are inevitable in this world. No one is immune. But while this is universally understood, suffering feels inexplicably unnatural. It shocks and outrages us, as if it was never supposed to be a part of this life.

The atrocities of a tyrant, the devastation of a natural disaster, the ravages of disease, the anger over a personal wrong, the random cruelty of an accident; all are horrors that seem avoidable or unnecessary, certainly contrary to the nature of God, at least the omnipotent and merciful one described in Scripture. As philosopher David Hume famously summarizes Epicurus, “If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not all-powerful. If God is not willing to prevent evil, then he is not all-good. If God is both willing and able to prevent evil, then why does evil exist?” In their anguish, many answer this question by concluding that God does not exist.

Theologians over the centuries have explained that evil and suffering are inherent to our fallen nature. Although the doctrine of the fall is too profound to be fully grasped by human understanding, St. Augustine simply describes it as the sin of pride whereby a dependent creature, whose principle of existence lies in another, tries to exist for itself. The first act of rebellion broke our relationship with God, subjecting us to the laws of nature with their pain, senility, and death. All of creation groans and travails in our present state, according to Scripture.

Through our own free will, we became captive to our own frailty. As C.S. Lewis explains, rational consciousness became what it is now, a fitful spotlight resting on a small part of the cerebral motions. But far worse than the physical infirmities was the change to the spirit, which became its own idol, resulting in powerful desires rooted in the gratification of the self. Man has spoiled himself so all of his endeavors are spoiled. The inevitable result is enmity and conflict. As the preacher in Ecclesiastes laments, “This only have I found: God created mankind upright, but they have gone in search of many schemes.” Therefore good, in our present state, must primarily be remedial or corrective good.

This doctrine, regardless of whether one accepts it or thinks it to be a fairy tale, explains reality. Those who reject it still live by its underlying premise, that there is an ideal that we have failed to obtain. This failure, which permeates all of creation, fills us with rage and, for some, a rejection of God. But this is irrational. Without God, there is no ideal and therefore no reason to be upset by suffering. Hardship, no matter how severe, would be meaningless, as would everything else. But we know that hardship is not meaningless. It is an infringement on what ought to be. We recognize this and do our best to alleviate it. These efforts are a tacit acknowledgement that life is good. And life is good because there exists and infinite good. When we repudiate evil, we affirm the existence of God.

The other objection is the supposed superfluous nature of belief. Everything that exists, it is often argued, can be explained by the laws of nature that govern the material world. Our understanding of these laws is ever increasing and one day science will unlock all of the answers. There is no reason to believe in an immaterial creator. This view may have been around for as long as humans have contemplated their own existence but gained popularity in the West after the gradual abandonment of classical realism that began in the 14th Century. The modern rejection of universals has led to widespread secularization, creating intellectual confusion and social disorder. Volumes have and still can be written on the damage caused by this grievous trend but it is sufficient here to quote the ancient psalmist: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”

Ironically, rejecting an immaterial God requires a willful blindness to the material world. As the Apostle Paul explains, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.” The evidence “through what has been made” is known as natural theology or what Aquinas calls the preambles of faith. Everything, even our suffering, bears witness. The psalmist proclaims, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”

Throughout history, most people have implicitly understood this poetic truth. For us moderns, who have been stunted by the empiricism of the Enlightenment, natural theology can help bring us back to life, at least those of us who still believe in truth. There are dozens of arguments that prove the existence of God. An excellent place to start is with Aquinas, who distills the essence of this truth in his Five Ways. Taking their premises from basic sensory experiences, they are perhaps the most lucid and practical arguments ever published. When properly understood, they have no rebuttal. His first way, the argument from motion or change, is sufficient in itself to dispel the notion that the existence of God is superfluous.

Drawing from Aristotle, Aquinas explains that the motion we discern through our senses always involves the transition from potentiality to actuality. Things move when potential motion becomes actual motion. Potential is not real or actual, so nothing in a potential state can make itself real or actual. An object must be set into motion by something else. For example, a ball cannot move on its own but can move when pushed by a gust of wind, or thrown by a pitcher, or hit by a batter. The same ball can move because the coach schedules a practice for next Tuesday.

Much of what follows is taken from Edward Feser, who explains that medieval philosophers made the crucial distinction between two types of cause and effect series. In the first three examples just given, the ball moves through an essentially ordered series. Each action must occur in an uninterrupted sequence for the ball to move. If there is no wind blowing, or no pitcher throwing, or no batter batting, then the ball will not move. Obviously it is a lot more complicated than this. Scientists can study weather patterns, molecular chemistry, physiology, kinesiology, or any number of other things to describe the sequence. But the point is that however many steps there are, they must occur in succession for the ball to move.

This is not the case in the example of the coach scheduling a practice. The players can choose to listen to him or decide not to come to the field. Or they might show up with different equipment. His decision to meet on Tuesday may or may not result in the same ball moving. If his decision does result in getting that same ball moving, it is a cause in an accidentally ordered series. His decision influenced the moving of the ball but was not essential to its moving. Something else initiated a series of direct and essential actions to get that ball moving.

The same principle applies to the begetting of children. A grandmother and mother and daughter are part of an accidentally ordered series. Each woman is dependent on the former generations for their life but each woman has the autonomy to decide whether to have a child or not, without the help of the former generations. If a mother dies, her daughter can still have a child. It is the independent nature of each woman that has led some philosophers to conclude that the hereditary chain can go back forever. There is no reason to refer to a first cause. Aquinas does not believe there is an infinite regress of accidentally ordered causes but acknowledges that it cannot be ruled out philosophically.

An essentially ordered series, however, is different. In this type of series, which explains the movement or change that defines the material world from instant to instant, there must be a first cause. As Feser explains, the series does not go back in time but goes downward in the present moment. Each member of the series depends simultaneously on the member preceding it. The later members have no independent causal power of their own. If there was no first member of the series, the series would not exist at all. But since the series does exist (for example, the ball moved), then the first member has to exist. This is not conjecture. The series cannot go back indefinitely, not even in theory. In the strictest sense, it is only the first member of the series that is actually doing or actualizing anything.

A staggering amount can be concluded from the simple observation of movement. For example, the first member of an essentially ordered series must be unmovable otherwise it would not be the first mover. It must have no potentiality whatsoever but be pure actuality. This pure actuality, Aquinas explains, is what all men refer to as God. And given His pure actuality, there are other divine attributes that necessarily follow, to which Aquinas devotes thousands of pages. Here it is sufficient to simply list a few of these attributes and say that they are as sure as the existence of the first member. In other words, these attributes are logical inevitabilities.

For example, there cannot be more than one being that is pure actuality so the argument from motion validates monotheism. God must be immaterial since material things, by their natures, change. His unchanging nature means that God must also be eternal. There is also the Aristotelian principle inherent in the argument from motion that a cause cannot give what it does not have. It must have the quality formally or eminently. This means that God generates every quality, making Him not only omnipotent but also personal, possessing an unsurpassable intellect and will. (This does not mean that God possesses negative traits, such as moral deficiencies or disease, which the medieval philosophers understood as privations, or the mere absence of positive traits, a condition that has beset finite creatures in our current state.)

As Feser summarizes, “To show that an Unmoved Mover exists, then, is just to show that there is a single being who is the cause of all change, Himself unchangeable, immaterial, eternal, personal (having intelligence and will), all powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. It is, in short, to show that there is a God.” Or as Scripture more elegantly declares, “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”

It is critical to understand that the argument from motion is a metaphysical demonstration of reality. As Feser explains, it is not probabilistic empirical theorizing or a wishful God in the gaps account that will be invalidated with the advancement of scientific knowledge. It cannot be replaced with the quantum fluctuations of a Big Bang singularity. The whole discussion of whether the universe is eternal or humans evolved from microbes is irrelevant. The increase of scientific knowledge can only enhance our understanding of the details of the material world, not change its foundation.

And so the only two objections to the existence of God conceived in the history of human thought are invalid. The God revealed in Scripture created the material world and sustains it at every moment. As it is written in Hebrews, “[T]he universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” And as the psalmist declares, “Know that the LORD Himself is God; It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves . . . For He spoke, and it came to be; He commanded, and it stood firm.” It is this infinite and all-consuming God who became man to set us free from suffering and to fully reconcile ourselves to Him.