Jacques Maritain Center : Natural Theology / by Bernard Boedder, S.J.


CHAPTER I. Views of Monotheistic Philosophers on the Natural Foundation of a Reasonable Belief in God. Refutation of Ontologism and of the so-called Ontological Argument.

SECTION 1. -- Explanation of the different opinions about God's existence and the proofs for it.

7. THE chief object which we aim at in the first part of Natural Theology, is to discover the true reasons why the existence of an intelligent First Cause of the universe must be admitted as certain. To clear the ground, we first give a short review and estimate of the different opinions held by philosophers who believe in a personal God, concerning the natural relation of the human mind to that belief.

8. The more noteworthy opinions on the subject in question may be reduced to these four headings

(1). The opinion that we have naturally an immediate consciousness of God's existence. This opinion is known under the name of Ontologism.

(2) The opinion that we can prove the existence of God a priori from the mere concept which we form to ourselves of God. This kind of proof for the existence of God is commonly called the Ontological Argument. The name is unfortunate, as it suggests a connection of the argument so styled with the system of Ontologism. In reality there is none.

(3) The opinion, that the existence of God, although it cannot be perceived by us immediately, nor be proved a priori, can yet be proved evidently a posteriori by reasoning from the contingent and finite things of this world to God, the necessary, self-existing, infinite Being.

(4) The opinion, that it is reasonable and man's duty to believe in the existence of God, but that it is impossible to prove by evident arguments that the denial of that existence is an untruth.

9. Of these four opinions, the first has its most eminent representatives in Nicholas Malebranche (1715),{1} Vincenzo Gioberti (1852), Antonio Serbati Rosmini (1855), and Casimir Ubaghs (works published 1854-1856). The second can boast of such great names as St. Anselm of Canterbury (1109), and in later times, René Descartes (1650), and Leibnitz (1716). The third was generally held by metaphysicians of all ages, from the bright dawn of metaphysical inquiry in Plato's Dialogues up to the bold revolution attempted in the realms of philosophical thought by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason. That the human mind is able to rise from the knowledge of the finite things which surround us to a certain, though inadequate, knowledge of God, the first and the intelligent Cause of the universe, was unanimously asserted by Plato (348 B.C.) and Aristotle (322 B.C.), by St. Augustine (430 A.D.), by St. Thomas Aquinas (1274), and the long series of the schoolmen, by Bacon (1626), and Locke (1704).

Moreover, although St. Anselm, Descartes, and Leibnitz thought the ontological argument to be a very easy proof of God's existence, they were by no means of opinion that it is the only one possible. On the contrary, in the writings of all three we find also arguments for God's existence drawn from the contemplation of finite things.{2} In recommendation of this third line of argument, we may further say that it is supported by scientific men of the first rank, such as Kepler, Newton, Faye, Sir John Herschell, Sir William Thomson, &c.{3} But, notwithstanding the great authority of the third opinion, its hold over the best minds of educated Europe was shaken considerably by Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. In this work, the first edition of which was published in the year 1781, the fourth opinion mentioned above was advocated as the only reasonable defence of the belief in God. According to the author of the Critique, convincing proofs for the existence of a Supreme Being are not attainable by the Speculative Reason. In order to confute atheism, he therefore appeals to what he calls the Practical Reason. Man, he says, feels himself under the sway of an internal voice which categorically commands him to do good and to avoid evil. He cannot despise this voice without violating his human dignity, nor can he follow it consistently, unless he acknowledges a supreme Lawgiver and Judge, to whom he is responsible for his moral conduct. Consequently it is man's duty to believe in God's existence, although he is not able to show convincingly that the denial of that existence contains an objective untruth.

10. The opinion of Kant has been adopted under various forms by many philosophers of our century, who nevertheless have been far from committing themselves to the whole of his theory of human knowledge. Thus Jacobi (1819) maintained that God's existence can be known neither by reasoning nor by immediate intuition, but is manifested to us by a kind of irresistible spiritual feeling. On the Continent, De la Bonald (1840) found what he thought a sufficient proof for God's existence in the necessity of a primitive Divine revelation, without which, according to his views, the origin of intellectual human knowledge cannot be explained. Lamennais (1854), in order to show how unreasonable the denial of God's existence is, fled for refuge to the universal consent of mankind, which he took to be the general criterion of truth and certainty. In England, Hamilton and Mansel, urging that we necessarily entangle ourselves in glaring contradictions as soon as we compare the attributes of the Infinite with one another, deduced the obligation of faith in God, as He is put before mankind by Christ and His Apostles, chiefly from the perfect harmony between that faith and our moral instincts.

This last way of defending God's existence against atheism proved injurious to the good cause on behalf of which it was undertaken. For the most striking of the arguments, by which Mr. Herbert Spencer in his First Principles, tries to prove that nothing definite can be known about the underlying cause of the universe, are borrowed Irom Mansel's Limits of Religious Thought.

11. We shall now proceed to give our reasons for adhering to the third of the opinions we have just mentioned, which maintains that man can come to a certain knowledge of God by means of his natural understanding, not however by way of immediate intuition, nor by reasoning a priori, but by arguments a posteriori based on the essence and properties of the things comprised under the term "world."

{1} The figures added to the names of philosophers in this section refer to the year of their death, with the exception of Ubaghs.

{2} St. Anselm's Monolog. cc. i.-iv. inclusive; Descartes' Principia Phil. Part I. pp. 57, 58; Leibnitz, Opera (Edit. Erdm.), p. 506.

{3} See below, § 40.

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