Monday, August 5, 2013

fortress of reasons to believe

When I was young and was trying to make sense of the world, I looked to the Catholic Church.  It had time, peoples, size, money, structure, stories, influence, guidelines, literature, on and on.

Most people in my life taught me to assume that there was a God. The only debate was, which one or how is best to relate to God.  Of course, I did my research and found the one that seemed most reasonable to me.

A fellow recently suggested my looking more into the teachings of St. Thomas to see how belief in God can be based directly upon reason.  I have done this to some degree. The "Summa of the Summa" sits next to me on my book shelf.  But, other than the premises for that logic being a leap of faith (who did it, instead of what did it), this logic in no way gives any reason for beliefs in other supernatural ideas such as angels, demons, heaven, hell, the afterlife, effectiveness of prayer, sin, virtue (as in relation to God), holiness, etc.  This is my understanding.

Ultimately, it takes a leap of faith to go from a basic openness to a possibility of God to a very set standard and belief system such as Catholicism.


Ben Dunlap said...

Thanks for posting this. I replied on the original thread also, but in any case I'd definitely recommend that you give Feser's book The Last Superstition a shot.

It's important to remember that St. Thomas wrote the Summa Theologiae for believers who were already familiar with the sort of theology that he practiced -- it's literally meant to be a summary of Christian doctrine.

As an example of what this means practically -- St. Thomas wrote another book called Summa Contra Gentiles, which had a different purpose. In that book he also discusses rational arguments for the existence of God, and he spends several pages on the "argument from motion". But in the more-famous Summa Theologiae he devotes only one paragraph to this argument, since he's simply sketching it in summary.

And we moderns need to do a lot of background work to even understand the words St. Thomas uses in these arguments -- seemingly-everyday words like "motion", "act", "potential", and "cause".

Here's just one more example (which Kreeft touches on as well on page 66) -- it wasn't until I studied the Five Ways in-depth in college that I learned that the first three arguments are not even attempting to prove the existence of a historical cause of the universe -- i.e,. a cause that is "first" in the sense of "first in time".

Rather the purpose of the first three arguments is to show the existence, now and at all times, of a continuously-active cause of the universe without which nothing else could continue to exist, even in principle. Which is to say that when St. Thomas says "first mover" or "first cause" he means "first" in the sense of "fundamental" or "primary" (and again, not in the sense of "first in time").

Unfortunately this basic mistake (thinking that "first" here means "historically first in time") is made almost universally by casual readers of the Summa, and of course when one makes this mistake, the first three arguments appear to be nonsensical and trivially refuted.

There is much to say here but Feser will say it much better and in a more entertaining way than I ever could.

Ben Dunlap said...

One last thought -- I absolutely agree that faith is essential to the movement from "I know that God exists" to "I believe all that the Catholic Church proposes for belief".

But you spoke of "a basic openness to a possibility of God" and I just wanted to re-iterate that what the pre-Christian philosopher Aristotle was doing, and what St. Thomas followed him in, was what they called demonstration

This term has a very specific meaning in the jargon of classical philosophy -- put informally, it means to show that a certain claim cannot be other than true. Demonstration, properly done, does not show that a claim is likely to be true, or very possible, or more plausible than other explanations -- it shows that it cannot even in principle be false. The aim of demonstration is to produce rational certainty.

Now both Aristotle and St. Thomas would tell you that demonstration, in this strict sense, is difficult, somewhat rare, and very easy to screw up. But St. Thomas at least would also claim that the existence of God and many of his attributes can be demonstrated and that he did, in fact demonstrate these things without recourse to any principles based on faith.

So that's just a useful point to keep in mind -- St. Thomas was not interested in showing by reason alone that there might be a God, or that some concept of "God" is the best currently-available explanation of certain phenomena -- but rather that there must be a God, and that the denial of God's existence is rationally incoherent.

fRED said...

John Lennon once sang that "God is a concept by which we measure our pain." I think that came from a book or therapy he was doing at the time.

I can relate to God being a concept. It is not hard for me to look at the sky and realize that there is something much bigger out there, something that we humans probably are not capable of comprehending.

Unfortunately, organized religion has boxed up God and used it as a stick to control and manipulate people. The concept of Jesus takes it even further and is something I HONESTLY can't grasp. How can God and Jesus exist simultaneously and independently? This doesn't make any sense to my human brain.

I just finished listening to a short (less than 2 hours) audio book of Anne Lamott's "Help, Thanks, Wow - The Three Essential Prayers." I love Anne Lamott (she does the reading). If only Christians were like her, then I could be a Christian. She is so open. And she doesn't proselytize.

Her description of God is spot on in my view. It is a down-to-earth realistic appraisal that is non-threatening and positive; No big words or pedantic meandering. And her book is not 500+ pages either (also in English-no need to be a Greek or Latin scholar).

I borrowed HELP, THANKS, WOW from the public library. I highly recommend the audio version because it is read by the author. It reminds me of listening to a friend or neighbor share their experiences.

AJL said...

Thank you both.

For me, I am currently convinced that our need for God is to explain those things which we are incapable of understanding at this point.

Just because I don't understand doesn't mean that therefore there is one who does.

Thanks for the suggestions.

fRED said...

"For me, I am currently convinced that our need for God is to explain those things which we are incapable of understanding at this point.

Just because I don't understand doesn't mean that therefore there is one {God?} who does."

AJL-I am confused by your 8/14 reply.

The typical Western person equates "God" with organized/institutional religion.

I am suggesting that a higher power exists that (which?) transcends the limits of formal religion. However, this power is beyond the comprehension of human beings. It has no need for the petty and superficial "worship" of humans.

Some might consider agnosticism but again, that implies an openness to the validity of organized/institutional religion.

On the other hand, basic science suggests that there is something else behind/beyond our physical existence. Nothing cannot generate something. But even so, that does not necessarily require a person to worship or be infatuated with this higher or other power/force, etc.

One can get wrapped up in the philosophical meanderings of proving the existence or nonexistence of "God." My simple premise is to merely acknowledge the possibility of a force/power that is greater than our human/physical existence.

As far as prayer is concerned, I have long thought it is most useful as a psychological tool. One's prayer shapes our thoughts and conditions our mind for future action. Norman Vincent Peale talked about using scripture verses as "thought conditioners" for the purpose of creating a positive outlook. And a positive outlook tends to yield positive results. I think this approach points to the theme of the movie you recently recommended: "Kumare" (People were influenced by what they hoped to find).

I like Ann Lamott's writings (and readings) because I can relate to her human-ness and flaws. While she is a professed Christian, she has a very open concept of spirituality that goes beyond institutional religion and cuts across many denominations including atheism and agnosticism.

Robert Price is a famous skeptic who reportedly still attends Anglican services because he enjoys the community and the theater of worship. I have no interest in such an approach but it does demonstrate the diversity of beliefs.

fRED said...

Have you heard or read Don Cupitt? I just came across his works today. While I'm not sure he would call himself an atheist, a lot of Christians certainly would.

I think he has some perspectives that might be useful for someone in your position: Christian/Catholic spouse and family, etc.

Cupitt's teaching is a form of religious naturalism. The non-arrival of the Kingdom left the early Christians looking up vigilantly towards a better world that was yet to come. Today, people no longer expect any further world after this one, and Church-religion no longer works. It is too inhibited. Instead, we need to work out, and start living out, the philosophy and the ethic of the final world, now. (from the description of his book, Turns of Phrase).

He rejects all ideas of gaining salvation by escaping from this world of ours. "All this is all there is", he says and he now sees true religion in terms of joy in life and an active attempt to add value to the human lifeworld. ‘Life’ is all that there is and all we have, and must be accepted with its limits as a package deal. We must avoid all attempts to deny or escape the limits of life — traditionally time, chance and death. (from his website).

AJL said...

fRED, Sorry I haven't replied in so long. I will definitely check out Do Cupitt's writing. Thanks a lot.