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

SECTION 2. -- Refutation of Ontologism.

12. As we said above (§ 8), Ontologists are those philosophers who believe that the mind of man, by its very nature, has a certain direct consciousness of God's existence. They do not affirm that man by his natural faculties is able to see God face to face, to perceive Him as He is in Himself, or to have a direct intuition of His Essence. Indeed, they could not say so without exposing themselves to ridicule, and to the charge of contradicting the Christian Creed which they profess. What they mean is that man's knowledge begins by some dim perception of God, considered not in His Essence, but in His relation to creatures.

13. A germ of Ontologism thus explained is found in Descartes' Principia Philosophiae.{4} He says that the idea which we possess of an infinitely perfect Being, could not be produced in us but by this Being Himself. Malebranche developed this germ into a philosophical system. In his celebrated work, Recherche de la Vérité, he tells us that the human mind knows all things save its own existence, through the ideas it forms of them. These ideas are occasioned by sense-impressions; but they are not the mere result of sensations, nor are they the product of our mental activity. They are perceived in God, who is immediately present to us. He is, so to say, the Sun in the midst of the world of thinking created spirits, and only inasmuch as He pours out the light of His eternal ideas upon our minds do we see truth in Him, who is the First Truth, the Prototype of all things and of all thoughts that are true.

Since Malebranche, no one has defended Ontologism more vigorously than Gioberti in his Introduzione allo studio della Filosofia. He represents the immediate intuition of God, which he believes to be natural to man's mind, as a direct perception of God's influence upon this world. Consequently the starting-point of all human learning is this judgment: "Being creates existences." (L'Ente crea le esistenze.) By Being he understands the self-existing Divinity; by existences, creatures, which he does not call beings, because they have no independent being of their own, but are dependent upon the creative act of their first cause. His opinion consequently is, that our first intellectual act is a direct intuition of God creating the world.

Another and milder form of Ontologism is to be found in Rosmini's Theosophia, and in Ubaghs' Theodicea. Rosmini holds that the idea of being, which according to his theory respecting the origin of ideas is innate in us, must be nothing else but the idea of God, the Creative Cause of finite beings. Ubaghs thinks that we are born with the idea of the Infinite God, and that this idea is in the beginning unformed, but becomes formed by reflection, to which we are led by our education in human society.

Similar views on our natural knowledge of God are defended by Maret in his Essai sur le Panthéisme, by Gratry in his work De la Connaissance de Dieu, by Fabre in his Défense de l'Ontologisme, and by others in France, Belgium, and Italy.

Notwithstanding the wonderful ingenuity which these authors exhibit in support of their hypothesis, we must, in the interest of truth, lay down the following thesis. Thesis 1. -- Immediate intuition of God, as held by ontologists, is beyond the reach of man's natural understanding.

14. In stating this proposition we admit with the ontologists as a fact of Christian revelation, that all men who die in the grace of God, shall in Heaven see Him as He is. And they on their part admit that this Beatific Vision, reserved for the servants of God, is not the natural endowment of our human understanding, but the supernatural reward of living faith. Consequently, to explain the possibility and truth of this Vision does not belong to the domain of Philosophy. So far we are at one with our adversaries. What we have to prove against them is, that God in His relation to creatures cannot be the object of our direct intuition here on earth. The first reason for which we assert this, is drawn from our internal experience.

15. If the direct intuition of God in His relation to creatures is a natural endowment of the human soul, we certainly must be able to become with the greatest facility perfectly convinced by mere reflection of the fact that we are in God's presence, and no thought should be easier to us than the thought of God. However, this is not so. Effort is required to raise our mind from things visible to their invisible First Cause. Even those who are perfectly convinced of God's existence, may live hours and days without thinking of Him. Nay, at times doubts may arise in their minds against their faith in God, and how can they put off these doubts? Not by mere reflection, but either by dwelling upon the strong reasons from which God's existence is mediately evident, or by calling to their minds certain practical maxims, the reasonableness of which has been once understood, and with which the doubt about God's existence is incompatible. Every well-instructed Christian knows that the existence of an all-wise, all-powerful, and infinitely good God is a fundamental dogma of Christianity. Moreover, he has satisfied himself about the reasonableness of adhering to the truths of Christianity. After this it is a practical maxim with him, that a wilful doubt about God and His attributes is a serious sin. Appealing to this maxim, he rejects the doubts against God's existence as unreasonable sophistries. This is a reasonable process, and corresponds to a palpable need of the believing mind. But on the ontologistic hypothesis, such a need would not arise.

16. If we examine a little more deeply into our subject, we find that the conflict between experience and Ontologism has its root in the very nature of the human soul. This soul is neither an outgrowth of matter, as materialists would have us believe, nor is it a pure spirit, that is to say, a thinking and free being altogether independent of matter in the exercise of its natural functions. Man's soul is a spirit, organizing and quickening matter. The fact that our soul cannot exercise its vegetative and sensitive energies except in a material body and by the help of material organs, necessarily reacts upon its spiritual faculties of understanding and free-will, albeit the acts of these faculties considered in themselves are not organic acts. The conclusion drawn from this state of things, the fuller discussion of which belongs to Psychology, is this. Man's mind has for its immediate and direct object only such things as can be perceived by the senses. It can arrive at the knowledge of immaterial beings only by reasoning, and by faith in reliable authority. Convinced of this, Aristotle uses language which implies that it is as impossible for man's mind, left to its natural resources, to have a direct perception of spiritual things, as it is for an owl's eye to find delight in the rays of the mid-day sun.{5} Experience fully verifies this conclusion, for in order to explain things not accessible to sense perception, we constantly have resort to illustrations drawn from the objects of sense. If, then, no spiritual thing is directly accessible to our mind, how can we have an immediate vision of God the Infinite Spirit? If there were any truth in the Ontologist hypothesis, such a direct intuition of God would be natural to us. For the ontologists say that we directly perceive God's relation to creatures. Now it is evident that a relation between two terms cannot be directly perceived unless each is the object of direct perception.

17. No wonder that a theory so inconsistent with experience and with human nature is also inconsistent with itself. Ontologists say that we perceive immediately something of God, yet do not immediately perceive His essence. In this there is a contradiction. For in God, as the ontologists willingly grant, there are no accidents. His essence is absolutely simple. It is therefore impossible to see anything of Him immediately without seeing His essence. From this conclusion ontologists recoil, and rightly, for it is opposed to Revealed Truth; but it logically follows from their hypothesis, and therefore that hypothesis must be rejected as false.

18. Nor can the reasons which ontologists bring forward to support their theory move us to give a more favourable verdict on it. The more important of their arguments are the following, to each of which we shall add its respective answer.

A. We have an idea of the Infinite. This idea cannot be got by abstraction from finite beings nor by reasoning about them. Therefore it must be admitted that it was given to us together with our existence; in other words, that the direct intuition of the Infinite is natural to the human mind. (Thus Malebranche, Gioberti, Ubaghs.)

Answer. It is true that every Christian, nay, every monotheist who understands his position, has a genuine idea of the Infinite. His idea of the Infinite is not a merely negative one, as Sir William Hamilton would have it. He does not only know that the Infinite is altogether different from the Finite; he knows something positive about the attributes by which it is characterized. But from this it in no way follows that the representation of the Infinite by the human mind has its origin in direct intuition. On the contrary, from the fact that our idea of the Infinite expresses its object not in a purely positive way, but by the help of negation, it is evident that not the thought of the Infinite but the thought of the Finite is most natural to our mind. Why is it that when we speak of God, who is pure reality, or, so to say, pure affirmation without negation of perfection, we speak of Him in such a way as to predicate of Him perfection, and at the same time remove the limits of these perfections, calling Him infinitely wise, infinitely powerful, and so forth? No other sufficient reason can be given save this, that the power, the wisdom, and the other positive perfections of creatures which we predicate of God, are directly known to us only within certain limits. We first think of finite things according to their own being, not paying attention to their limitation; then comparing less perfect finite beings with more perfect, we become aware of their limitations; finally, thinking of all possible finite perfections united in one Being, and denying all limitations which are necessarily proper to them in finite beings, we form a negativo-positive concept, as it is called, of the Infinite. In this manner we do really think of the infinitely perfect Being, although we think of it in a very inadequate way.

Now it is true that such an idea of the Infinite cannot be got from finite things by mere abstraction, nor can it be arrived at by one step of reasoning, but it can be reached by a chain of lawful reasonings from absolutely certain premisses. And this is what we have to make clear in the course of our treatise. For the present it may suffice to indicate the principal links in this chain. Things produced suppose a first unproduced cause; an unproduced cause exists by virtue of its own essence, or is self-existing; there can be but one self-existing being; the one self-existing being must be the source of every possible being -- in other words, it must be infinitely perfect; otherwise the total first cause of all contingent being would be less perfect than the effects which it can produce.

B. There must be harmony between the order in which things follow one another in their real existence, and the order in which they are ideally expressed in our minds; otherwise our mental representations would not be true. Now of all existing beings God is the first. Consequently the first judgment of the human mind must refer to God. (Thus Gioberti.)

Answer. For human cognition to be true, it is not requisite for antecedent to be known before consequent, cause before effect. I may first come to know a book, and thence proceed to learn by inference the existence and character of the author. Or I may first come to know the author, and thence infer the nature of his book. In either case my knowledge of the book and the author can be true. It would only be false if it were to represent to me the book as the cause of the author, instead of the author as the cause of the book. The requisite of truth, alleged by Gioberti, is not the requisite of truth in general, but that of perfect truth, which comprehends all possible truths. And this exists nowhere but in the Divine intellect. To have truth in general, it is enough that everything mentally affirmed to be real, really is what it is affirmed to be; it is not necessary that the order of mental affirmation follow the order of real existence.

C. The human mind is naturally directed to God as to its last end. Consequently, as God is the first object of the human will, so must He be the first object of the human understanding. (Thus Malebranche.)

Answer. From the fact that God is man's last end, it follows that the human soul at some time or other (at least after death, in the case of one who dies before attaining the use of reason), must come to some knowledge of God carrying with it a natural tendency of the will towards God. But it does not at all follow that man from the beginning of his existence must have the actual use of his intellect; much less that the first acts of his intellect must have God for their object.

D. As God alone exists by Himself, so He alone can be intelligible by Himself. Therefore created things cannot be known except so far as God is known. (Thus Gioberti.)

Answer. In a certain sense it is true, that God alone is intelligible by Himself. His is the only existence which is essential, which cannot not be; or, in other words, He alone has the reason of His existence in His own essence. In all creatures actual existence is not essential, but only possible existence; or, in other words, the essences of creatures considered in themselves are merely possible things, only existing on the condition of God's creative act, which is not necessary, but free. However, this truth is of no force to prove that really existing creatures cannot be known but in God. A creature which really exists is really distinct from a merely possible creature. It is not a pure essence, but a created essence, and therefore has an existence of its own distinct from God's existence, although it owes its existence to God's free creation. Now as intelligibility results necessarily from existence, so from an existence distinct from God's existence there must result an intelligibility distinct from God's intelligibility, although God is the efficient cause of the creature's existence, and consequently of the creature's intelligibility.

E. The universal attributes which we give to creatures, when we predicate, for instance, that "John is a man," or that "Bucephalus is a horse," express something necessary, eternal, unchangeable. But created things are contingent, temporal, changeable. Therefore we cannot have drawn our universal ideas by abstraction from created things; but they must be due to a direct intuition of their uncreated cause. (Thus Vercellone, Milone, Fabre, Sans-Fiel, and other modern ontologists.)

Answer. Properly speaking there is, as St. Thomas rightly affirms, only one being which is necessary, eternal, unchangeable, namely, God.{6} If we say that the universal attributes of created things are necessary, eternal, unchangeable, we mean simply that God is the necessary, eternal, unchangeable source of all kinds of possible things which we express by universal ideas, and that consequently these things are understood by God necessarily, eternally, unchangeably, as imperfect imitations of His own essence, and producible out of nothing by His infinite power. Hence we may say that universal attributes, or, in other words, the objects of universal ideas, are negatively eternal; but we may not say that they are positively eternal. A thing is positively eternal, if it exists by its own essence, unchangeable, without beginning and without end. It is negatively eternal, if, as a thinkable, conditionally existing object, it is not limited to a certain time. Thus the object of the universal idea "man" is negatively eternal, because no possible time can be given at which by the power of God that idea might not be verified in one or many individual men. The human mind is obviously capable of forming such a negatively eternal idea. Perceiving with our senses an individual thing, we at once grasp with our intellect that which is, or at least may be, common to many such individual things. This we do without penetrating into their individual constitution. It is therefore a baseless assertion that the formation of universal ideas is conditioned by a direct intuition of God.{7}

SECTION 3. -- Criticism of the Ontological Argument.

19. Having proved that the Ontologistic hypothesis, according to which all our knowledge is based on a direct intuition of the Infinite, cannot be admitted, we have now to explain our objection to the opinion of those who think they can prove the existence of the Infinite from the idea of the Infinite. Their argument is known among scholastic philosophers by the name of the "Ontological Argument," a term which we must distinguish from the "Ontologistic Hypothesis." It has three celebrated forms, of which the first was proposed by St. Anselm, the second by Descartes, and the third, virtually at least, by Leibnitz.{8} We give the substance of all three.

20. St. Anselm reasons thus: By God is understood the greatest Being which can be thought of. But a Being which not only exists in the mind as an object of thought, but has also actual existence outside the mind, is greater than a Being which exists in the mind only. Therefore God actually exists outside the mind.

In Descartes the argument takes this form: Whatever is contained in a clear and distinct idea of any object must be affirmed of that object. But a clear and distinct idea of an absolutely perfect Being contains the notion of existence. Consequently, we must say that there really exists an absolutely perfect Being.

Leibnitz remarks on the two forms of the Ontological argument just proposed that the scholastics were wrong in rejecting them. He says they are not fallacious, but only need completion. They do not, it is true, offer any reason for their assumption that the idea of the greatest and absolutely perfect being is possible and not self-contradictory. He thinks, however, we may safely assume this possibility as long as no one proves the contrary. Thus according to his mind the Ontological argument ought to be cast into this shape: God is at least possible, for in the concept of Him no repugnance is discovered. But if He is possible, He must exist, because the concept of Him implies existence.

21. It has been said in answer to St. Anselm and those who took up his argument, that it only proves the existence of an infinite being in the world of ideas, not in the world of realities; that it proves the ideal possibility of such a being, but not its real existence. Even in St. Anselm's time this objection was raised by a certain ingenious thinker named Gaunilo. After having first objected to the validity of the premisses, this man argued thus against the conclusion:

"There are people who say that somewhere in the ocean there exists an island, which certain men, because of the difficulty or rather impossibility of finding what really does not exist, have surnamed the lost island. This island is by fiction represented as possessing in incredible abundance all sorts of precious and delightful things, far more than the celebrated Isles of the Blessed; nay, as surpassing in riches all the countries inhabited by men, although no proprietor or settler is living on it. If somebody were describing all this to me, I should of course easily understand his explanation: there could be no difficulty in that. But if he went on thus to argue: You cannot any longer doubt but that the island I spoke of, the idea of which you admit without hesitation to be in your mind, exists also in reality somewhere. Indeed, you cannot deny it, if you only attend to what I now say: It is more excellent to exist not in the mind only, but in reality, than to exist in the mind only. Therefore the aforesaid island must really exist; for if it did not, any other real country would surpass it in excellence, and consequently the island which you have thought to be superior to all, really would not be superior to all. If the speaker attempted thus to make me admit the real and undoubted existence of that island, I should either believe him to be only joking, or I should not know which of us to think the more stupid, myself, if I granted such a conclusion, or him, if he really thought that he had proved the actual existence of that island with anything like certainty. Assuredly, I should not yield to him, unless he convinced me that its excellence was thought of by me as something really and undoubtedly existing, and not only in the same way in which we can think of what is false or uncertain."{9} Nevertheless, this mode of putting the objection is not so strong as it may seem at first sight. St. Anselm answered it thus: "If any one can find anything whatsoever, either really existing or only represented by the mind, with the one exception of the greatest being conceivable, such that he can reasonably apply to it the form of this my argument, I promise to find him the 'lost island' with such success that it shall never be lost again."{10}

So far the Saint is perfectly right. Whoever grants as certain that we have a true idea of an infinite being, cannot deny that existence is implied in that idea without contradicting himself: for an infinite being cannot be otherwise than self-existing. A being which is not self-existing is necessarily limited: for it cannot possess anything but what it has received from its cause; and its cause cannot give it the perfections of self-existence. Therefore, when there is question of finite being, it may be granted that I can think of a finite being better than any that really exists; and yet quite consistently with this concession it may be denied that such a being as I think of does really exist. For a finite being is contingent, and without internal contradiction can be conceived as not existing. But if it be admitted as certain, that I really think of an infinite being, the actual existence of such a being must be allowed; for an infinite being cannot without internal contradiction be conceived unless it be conceived as self-existing.

Thus far, then, we do not find any serious fault with the advocates of the Ontological proof. Our reason for not admitting the demonstration as a valid refutation of agnosticism is its failure to provide us with a warrant for the absolute certainty of the assertion, that we have an idea of an infinite being. We therefore state our objection thus:

Thesis II. -- In the so-called Ontological Argument the supposition underlying the premisses that the idea of an infinite being is not self-contradictory, is assumed without sufficient warrant. Consequently, that argument is not a perfrct demonstration of God's existence.

22. Of course we readily allow that the idea of an infinite being is in fact not self-contradictory. We only deny that this can be ascertained with certainty otherwise than by the a posteriori argument. It must be established by consideration of contingent things, and by inference from their existence of the necessary existence of One First Cause. As long as this has not been shown, the agnostic may justly reply to the Ontological proof: "Possibly there may be many self-existent beings. In that case the idea of an infinite being is self-contradictory. For none of the many self-existent beings would be the source of the perfections of all other beings; and consequently none of them could be really infinite; because a being which does not unite in itself all thinkable perfections, must be finite. Of the many self-existent beings, then, which I suppose there may be, none can be infinite. And as you yourself allow, no contingent being can be infinite. But all being is either self-existent or contingent. The conclusion is that an infinite being is absolutely impossible, and consequently we can have no real idea of such a being."

To this objection the advocate of the Ontological argument has no satisfactory answer. He can say nothing but what Leibnitz said: "We may safely suppose the possibility of an infinite being, till it be disproved." Perhaps we may. But a supposition made on these terms is no basis of certainty. In short, the Ontological argument is a very strong argument ad hominem against one who does not challenge the supposition of the premisses; but in no way an objectively evident proof.{11}

{4} Part I. pp. 17, 18.

{5} Aristotle, Metaph. Lib. I. brev. c. i. Aristotle's words are: hôsper gar kai ta tôn nukteridôn ommata pros to pheggos echei to meth hêmeran, houtô kai tês hêmeteras psuchês ho nous pros to tê phusei phanerôtata pantôn. According to this passage, our understanding is like the eyes of nightbirds for daylight, as regards the beings most intelligible in themselves. Now spiritual beings are more intelligible in themselves than material beings, inasmuch as the pre-eminence of internal intelligibility follows the pre-eminence of natural being. Cf. the beautiful remarks of St. Thomas on this passage of Aristotle. Comment. in Metaph. Aristot. Lib. II. Lect. i. § "Ostendit causam praemissae difficultatis," etc.

{6} Cf. Sum. Theol. i. q. 9. a. 2. and q. 10. a. 3. especially ad 3m. A more full explanation of the eternity of all truth is given by St. Thomas, Qq. Disp. de Veritate, q. i. a. 5.

{7} For further discussion of Ontologism, we may recommend Stöckl, Geschichte der neuern Philosophie, Vol. I. pp. 123, seq., Vol. II. pp. 570, seq., 579, seq., 621, seq.; Lepidi, O.P., De Ontologismo; Zigliara, O.P., Della luce intellettuale e dell' Ontologismo; Kleutgen, Phil. Scholastique, nn. 377-490; Liberatore, Psychol. Edit. I. nova formae nn. 200-206; Theol. Nat. n. 3 and n. 6; On Universals (Translated by E. H. Dering), pp. 64-95, and pp. 180-196.

{8} Cf. Opp. S. Anselmi, Proslogium, c. 2; Descartes, Principia Philosophiae, Pars I. 14; Leibnitz' Opp. (Edit. Erdm.), pp. 374, seq.

{9} Opusculum pro Insipiente, inter Opp. S. Anselmi, c. 6.

{10} Liber Apologeticus, inter Opp. S. Anselmi, c. 3.

{11} St. Thomas Aquinas criticizes and rejects the argument of St. Anselm in I. dist. 3. q. 1. a. 2. ad 4m.; Sum. Theol. i. 2. 1. ad 2dum, and Contra Gent. i. c xi. § "Nec oportet ut statim cognita." An estimate of it is also given by Kleutgen, Phil. Schol. nn. 937-942. The history of this argument, which may be seen in the Life of St. Anselm, by Martin Rule, M.A., Vol. i. pp. 195, seq. is very interesting.

<< ======= >>