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

SECTION 9. -- Mansel's arguments for the doctrine that all our attempts to form to ourselves the idea of God involve us in contradiction.

132. Among the defenders of the groundwork of Christian faith against atheism in England some twenty or thirty years ago, not the least conspicuous was Dean Mansel. His Limits of Religious Thought went though several editions. There is a great deal of valuable matter in the work, entitling the author to be regarded as one who has in some respects done good service. Yet it is to be regretted that some passages betray a want of sound principles, and contain statements which in the hands of an acute adversary can serve as weapons for attacking the very cause they are meant to uphold. They have been taken advantage of by Mr. Herbert Spencer in his advocacy of agnosticism.

Mansel's work consists of eight lectures. In the second of these he tries to prove that when we compare the attributes of God one with another, though each of them seems to be brought home to us by lawful reasoning, yet our intellect cannot help seeing contradictions between them. At the same time he is of opinion that man has sufficient grounds for ignoring these contradictions, and for supposing that they are not objective but only subjective, owing to the weakness and ineptitude of our minds for dealing with a Being so immense as God. This is the escape by which he saves his religious convictions, as he declares in the third lecture.

His final conclusion he states as follows: "It is our duty, then, to think of God as personal; and it is our duty to believe that He is infinite. It is true that we cannot reconcile these two representations with each other; as our conception of personality involves attributes apparently contradictory to the notion of infinity. But it does not follow that this contradiction exists anywhere but in our own minds; it does not follow that it implies any impossibility in the absolute nature of God. The apparent contradiction, in this case, as in those previously noticed, is the necessary consequence of an attempt on the part of the human thinker to transcend the boundaries of his own consciousness."{74} Mr. Herbert Spencer, after giving in his second and fourth chapters on the Unknowable long extracts from Mansel's argument, refers in his fifth chapter to Mansel's conclusion in the following terms: "That this is not the conclusion here adopted, needs hardly be said. If there be any meaning in the foregoing arguments, duty requires us neither to affirm nor deny personality. Our duty is to submit ourselves with all humility to the established limits of our intelligence, and not perversely to rebel against them. Let those, who can, believe that there is eternal war set between our intellectual faculties and our moral obligations. I, for one, admit no such radical vice in the constitution of things."{75}

The "eternal war" and the "radical vice," of which Mr. Spencer speaks here, are certainly to be deprecated by any reasonable man. But is either the one or the other a necessary consequence of true monotheism? Let us judge for ourselves by examination of the extracts from Mansel to which Mr. Spencer appeals.

133. Mansel thus reasons about the metaphysical idea of the Infinite: "The metaphysical representations of the Deity, as absolute and infinite, must necessarily, as the profoundest metaphysicians have acknowledged, amount to nothing less than the sum of all reality. 'What kind of an absolute Being is that,' says Hegel, 'which does not contain in itself all that is actual, even evil included?' We may repudiate the conclusion with indignation; but the reasoning is unassailable. If the Absolute and Infinite is an object of human conception at all, this, and none other, is the conception required. That which is conceived as absolute and infinite must be conceived as containing within itself the sum, not only of all actual, but of all possible modes of being. For if any actual mode can be denied of it, it is related to that mode, and limited by it; and if any possible mode can be denied of it, it is capable of becoming more than it now is, and such a capability is a limitation."{76} Mr. Spencer seems to suppose that against this explanation of the notion of the Infinite nothing can be said; yet there is everything to be said against it. It is not true that the Absolute and Infinite Being must contain whatever is actual, and whatever mode of being is possible. In so far as that which is actual contains an imperfection, and a fortiori in so far as it contains a privation, it cannot possibly be conceived as belonging to the Infinite: for the Infinite is an embodiment of all perfections without admixture of imperfection. Created perfections exist in God, as we have explained, not formally with their limitations, but eminently as in one undivided unchangeable Essence. If the perfections of creatures are in God without limit, they are in Him certainly without the presence of any evil whatsoever, for evil is more opposed to perfection than mere limitation; it is a privation of the perfection that is due to a being. To say with Mansel that the exclusion of any possible mode of existence from the Infinite would be to put a limit to its nature, is against reason. There is no possible mode of created existence without limit, because, as we have proved. only one Being unlimited in perfection is possible. Consequently, not merely one or another possible modes of created existence, but all possible modes of created existence, must, as such, be alien to the Divine Being. Nevertheless, as we have shown in treating of the Infinity of God, whilst the modes with which created perfections exist cannot be in God, the reality expressed by the abstract concept of each perfection is in the most proper sense of the word included in His simple and infinite Essence. Creatures are distinct from this Essence, but put no limit to it, because their nature is infinitely below the Divine Nature. Created beauty does not suffer in any way from its being represented by artists, now in stone, now in metal, now on canvas; because all these representations are only imperfect imitations of the original. How, then, should God cease to be infinite by being distinguished from a multitude of creatures, each of which is only a very imperfect copy of His simple Being, though it may excel among its fellow-creatures?

134. Another argument of Mansel against the intelligibility of the First Cause is based upon a comparison of the idea of Cause with that of the Absolute. Both must be predicated of God, and yet they seem to exclude one another. "A Cause," says he, "cannot, as such, be absolute: the Absolute cannot, as such, be a cause. The cause, as such, exists only in relation to its effect: the cause is a cause of the effect; the effect is an effect of the cause. On the other hand, the conception of the Absolute implies a possible existence out of all relation. We attempt to escape from this apparent contradiction, by introducing the idea of succession in time. The Absolute exists first by itself, and afterwards becomes a Cause. But here we are checked by the third conception, that of the Infinite. How can the Infinite become that which it was not from the first? If causation is a possible mode of existence, that which exists without causing is not infinite; that which becomes a cause has passed beyond its former limits."{77}

To the first part of this argument, we concede that a cause cannot be absolute, if it causes under the pressure of necessity; for in this case the existence of the cause is dependent on the existence of its effect, inasmuch as it requires it as its essential complement. Nor can it be absolute and infinite, if it does not produce an effect without undergoing internal change. But there is no reason for saying that the nature of a Being cannot be an absolute and infinite cause, if its causation is both free and conducted without any internal change. The possibility of such a way of causation is, as we have already urged, not only not opposed to the Divine attributes of Absoluteness and Infinity, but is a necessary consequence of them. God being absolute and infinite, must be infinitely powerful, infinitely free in His volition regarding the existence of creatures, and at the same time immutable. His causation is consequently a free act of His will, which, on account of its infinity, is capable of such an act without being changed. Such causation is incomprehensible, but it is not inconceivable. We know perfectly what we mean by asserting it, and we see clear reasons for asserting it, though on account of our finite nature we cannot fathom the manner in which it exists.

135. The proposition, that our mind sees contradiction between God as a Cause and God as Absolute, is argued by Mansel also in another way. Supposing rightly that creation must be thought of as an effect of God's free volition, he says: "Volition is only possible in a conscious being. But consciousness again is only conceivable as a relation. There must be a conscious subject and an object of which he is conscious. The subject is a subject to the object; the object is an object to the subject; and neither can exist by itself as the absolute. This difficulty, again, may be for the moment evaded, by distinguishing between the Absolute as related to another and the Absolute as related to itself. The Absolute, it may be said, may possibly be conscious, provided it is only conscious of itself. But this alternative is, in ultimate analysis, no less self-destructive than the other. For the object of consciousness, whether a mode of the subject's existence or not, is either created in and by the act of consciousness, or has an existence independent of it. In the former case, the object depends upon the subject, and the subject alone is the true absolute. In the latter case, the subject depends upon the object, and the object alone is the true absolute. Or if we attempt a third hypothesis, and maintain that each exists independently of the other, we have no absolute at all, but only a pair of relatives; for co-existence, whether in consciousness or not, is itself a relation."{78}

This whole argument is based upon a wrong hypothesis regarding the nature of knowledge. Mansel, like many modern authors, labours under the false impression that knowledge essentially supposes a plurality of terms; and that consequently no knowledge is possible, unless there exist a subject knowing and an object known, really distinct from one another. This is true of sense perception only; it cannot be applied to intellectual self-consciousness. If you apply it to the latter, you never can explain how a man knows that he exists and thinks and wills. An intellectual being is spiritual, and of such a nature that it cannot know anything different from itself without knowing itself as the knowing principle. In so far, therefore, as we apprehend ourselves as thinking principles in all acts of our intelligence, we are at the same time subject and object of our knowledge. Now God, the Absolute, Infinite, unchangeable Being, does not only know that He knows, but He is essentially a Being knowing Himself. There is no real difference between His Essence and the act of His self-consciousness.

In answer, therefore, to Mansel's difficulty, we deny that his three hypotheses to explain the self-consciousness of the Absolute exhaust the possibilities of the case. He has left out precisely that alternative against which no solid reason can be brought forward, and which is an evident consequence of the infinity of God. God does not know Himself by creating a mode of existence in His Essence, or by having such a mode really distinct from His Essence in Himself. He knows Himself in virtue of His Essence alone, which is both infinite Being and infinite Thought, the one not really distinct from the other.

136. In the simplicity of God, Mansel finds another source of apparent contradiction in the Divine attributes. "The almost unanimous voice of Philosophy," he says, "in pronouncing that the Absolute is both one and simple, must be accepted as the voice of reason also, so far as reason has any voice in the matter. But this absolute unity, as indifferent and containing no attributes, can neither be distinguished from the multiplicity of finite beings by any characteristic feature, nor be identified with them in their multiplicity."{79}

This argument proceeds from a wrong conception of God's simplicity. God is not one and simple in this sense, that He is an indeterminate substratum underlying all existences; but He is one and simple inasmuch as His Essence in virtue of its self-existence contains without division and composition, equivalently and supereminently, all conceivable perfections.

137. Not less unsound than the preceding arguments are those by which Mansel labours to show a contradiction between other Divine attributes. "How," says he, "can Infinite Power be able to do all things, and yet Infinite Goodness be unable to do evil?" This difficulty falls to the ground when we consider that omnipotence does not mean infinite liability to defects, but infinite power of calling into being any conceivable reality, not in the omnipotent Being itself but distinct from and dependent upon it. He who commits sin allows himself to be overcome by wrong motives of action. The malice of sin does not consist in the production of a physical effect, but in the voluntary neglect of a rule of conduct which reason prescribes as inviolable. The question, therefore, "How can God be omnipotent if He cannot sin?" betrays either a wrong notion of omnipotence or a wrong notion of sin.

Mansel's next question is: "How can Infinite Justice exact the utmost penalty for every sin, and yet Infinite Mercy pardon the sinner?" We may allow this question to stand over till we come to treat of the Divine will. A right conception of justice and mercy in God will put an end to the difficulty.

Our author proceeds: "How can Infinite Wisdom know all that is to come, and yet Infinite Freedom be at liberty to do and to forbear?"

To this we reply: God's free decrees are as eternal as His knowledge of the future. Whatever He freely does or forbears to do in time, that He does or forbears to do, not in consequence of a new decree, but in harmony with His eternal decrees.

The rest of Mansel's reasonings are virtually solved by the preceding answers. The most important among them is the old difficulty against God's perfection drawn from the existence of evil. This difficulty deserves a special treatment, which it will receive in our disquisition on Divine Providence.

138. After having dwelt in his second lecture on the contradictions contained in the idea of God, Mansel in the third tries to explain their origin. As a believer in Christian revelation, he endeavours to show that they are a necessary consequence of the limitations of our human understanding, and ought not, therefore, to be assumed to have objective validity. If, however, it is possible that the contradictions may not really exist, it is worth inquiring whether we can find any grounds for believing that they do or do not. From the position thus taken up he passes afterwards to the conclusion that the belief in God, as He is revealed to us by Christ and His Apostles, may, in spite of all contradictions enumerated before, find a reasonable foundation in the positive evidences by which it recommends itself to the needs of our nature. Following this line of argument, he has drawn down on himself a storm of agnostic criticism, against which his idealistic theory of knowledge leaves him no defence.

The argument by which this theory is supported, and which consequently is the second chief proof of the impossibility of conceiving the Infinite and Absolute, rests upon the relativity of human knowledge. "To have consciousness of the Absolute as such," says Mansel, "we must know that an object, which is given in relation to our consciousness, is identical with one which exists in its own nature, out of all relation to consciousness. But to know this identity we must be able to compare the two together; and such a comparison is itself a contradiction. We are, in fact, required to compare that of which we are conscious with that of which we are not conscious; the comparison itself being an act of consciousness, and only possible through the consciousness of both its objects. It is thus manifest that, even if we could be conscious of the absolute, we could not possibly know that it is the absolute; and, as we can be conscious of an object as such only by knowing it to be what it is, this is equivalent to an admission that we cannot be conscious of the absolute at all. As an object of consciousness, everything is necessarily relative; and what a thing may be out of consciousness no mode of consciousness can tell us."{80}

This argument proves too much. We might conclude from it that Mansel could not be conscious of the paper on which he was writing his lectures, of the audience before whom he delivered them, and of the existence of atheists, of whose impiety he complains. All these things were known to him only as related to his consciousness; and his consciousness being in its real existence limited to his individual soul, he could not possibly know whether beyond his consciousness there was any paper to write on, or any persons to talk to, or any adversaries to fight against. All may have been a part-creation of consciousness deceiving itself with idle phantoms. But this conclusion is revolting to common sense, and leads to universal scepticism.

139. A third reason why Mansel thinks it impossible for man to form a positive idea of God is expressed thus: "It is impossible that man, so long as he exists in time, should contemplate an object in whose existence there is no time. For the thought by which he contemplates it must be one of his mental states; it must have a beginning and an end: it must occupy a certain portion of duration as a fact of human consciousness. There is, therefore, no manner of resemblance or community of nature between the representative thought and that which it is supposed to represent; for the one cannot exist out of time, and the other cannot exist in it."{81} If Mansel merely meant to say that a temporal being could not have a comprehensive knowledge of an eternal being, this is manifest from the diversity of nature between the two.{82} But he means more than this; he means that a temporal being can form no distinct trustworthy notion whatever of an eternal being. We can reply that our proofs do not lead up to a comprehension of the eternity of God, but they make us sure of the existence of God as an eternal Being, inasmuch as we have a clear and distinct, though inadequate, concept of this Being as an Infinite Substance, existing without beginning and without end, and without any change in the way of its existence.

140. A similar answer must be given to the last reason by which Mansel endeavours to prove the purely negative character of our idea of God. He says rightly that we can conceive the various mental attributes of God only as existing in a personal being. "But," he continues, "personality, as we conceive it, is essentially a limitation and relation. Our own personality is presented to us as relative and limited, and it is from that presentation that all our representative notions of personality are derived. Personality is presented to us as a relation between the conscious self and the various modes of his consciousness. There is no personality in abstract thought without a thinker; there is no thinker, unless he exercises some mode of thought. Personality is also a limitation; for the thought and the thinker are distinguished from and limit each other; and the several modes of thought are distinguished each from each by limitation likewise. If I am any one of my own thoughts, I live and die with each successive moment of my consciousness. If I am not any one of my own thoughts, I am limited by that very difference, and each thought as different from another is limited also. This too has been clearly seen by philosophical theologians; and accordingly, they have maintained that in God there is no distinction between the subject of consciousness and its modes, nor between one modc and another. 'God,' says St. Augustine, 'is not a Spirit as regards substance, and good as regards quality; but both as regards substance. The justice of God is one with His goodness and with His blessedness; and all are one with His spirituality.' But this assertion, if it be literally true (and we have no means of judging), annihilates personality itself in the only form in which we can conceive it. We cannot transcend our own personality, as we cannot transcend our own relation to time; and to speak of an Absolute and Infinite Person, is simply to use language which, however true it may be in a superhuman sense, denotes an object inconceivable under the conditions of human thought."{83}

In this passage Mansel himself carries us so far on the way as this, that if there be no distinction in God between the conscious self and the modes of consciousness, as again between the modes of consciousness among themselves, there is no foundation for conceiving of His Nature as in this particular respect implicated in relations and limitations. And although he says here that we have no means of judging whether this absence of internal distinctions really exists in God, he has previously remarked with much justice, in words already quoted, that "the unanimous voice of Philosophy, in pronouncing that the absolute is both one and simple, must be accepted as the voice of reason also, so far as reason has any voice in the matter." Nor can the qualification in the last clause be allowed to explain away the force of this admission. If reason is to have a voice in creating the contradictions, she has certainly a claim to be heard when she represents that the contradictions are not really of her creating, but arise from a misconception of the true nature of her utterances.

There remains then but one outstanding point in Mr. Mansel's passage to be considered. Do we by identifying in God the conscious self and the modes of consciousness, "annihilate personality in the only sense in which we can conceive it"? This depends on the sense in which we do conceive it. Speaking in the name of Catholic Philosophy and repeating the utterance of all true thought and self-introspection, we understand by personality the "subsistence of a rational nature." Let us explain this technical term. Subsistence is what characterizes the existence of a natural whole as distinguished from the existence characteristic of the component parts of a natural whole. The arm of a man exists not in itself, but in the man, as a part in the whole; so also does the body, and so again does the soul, though here one has to speak more carefully, the soul being able to exist apart and exercise by itself the principal functions of the whole. On the other hand, the man exists in himself and in nothing else as in a containing whole that is, in a containing natural whole, for of course things can be taken together as component parts of a system of aggregates like the universe. For anything to subsist then is to exist in itself and not as a natural part of something else. Personality we have defined to be subsistence of a rational nature. That is to say, when the being which subsists has a rational nature and therewith consciousness, we call it person, and its subsistence personality. Accordingly, when we say that God is a personal God, we mean that He exists in Himself and not as a part of some whole, and that He possesses Mind and Consciousness. This is the only concept of Personality we can consent to deal with, when we claim it for God. We cannot accept the description given by Dr. Mansel, that personality is merely a "relation between the conscious self and the modes of his consciousness."

Do we, then, virtually deny the personality of God in the only form in which we can conceive it, when we deny of Him relation and limitation by asserting that the perfections which we represent to ourselves by distinct concepts as His attributes and modes are objectively in Him as a single and absolutely simple reality? Clearly not. it is true, we do not attribute to Him the perfections which we find in ourselves as existing in Him in the same "formal" manner as they are in us, just because in us they are characterized by attendant imperfections and limitations. We take the perfections found in ourselves as a nucleus; we divest it of its accompanying imperfections and limitations by an act of negation; we then enlarge the measure of the perfection to infinity by affirming that not only those limits are excluded from it which are inseparable from human perfection, but all limits whatsoever. In this way out of the original nucleus furnished by direct observation we form to ourselves by affirmation and negation a composite concept, and then led by just inference we proceed to take this as a valid and valuable though inadequate representation of the Divine Nature under some one or other of its aspects. This doctrine has already been propounded. But no apology is needed for the repetition, since the failure to bear it in mind lies at the root of the imagined contradictions which form the unsolved problem of Dr. Mansel's philosophy.

Let us now apply the doctrine explained to the point immediately under consideration. Although personality is not consciousness, yet, as we have stated, it implies consciousness as an attribute of the person, and it is the nature of consciousness which Mansel considers to involve an essential relation and limitation. That there is any real relation and consequent mutual limitation between the subject and object of consciousness -- inasmuch as intellectual consciousness comes under consideration -- we have denied even in regard to our own created consciousness, maintaining on the contrary that in consciousness the subject and object are essentially one. But there is in man the distinction, with its admitted consequences of relation and mutual limitation, between the self-conscious subject and the modes of his consciousness, and again between the latter among themselves. This distinction appears, therefore, in the original concept which we form to ourselves of consciousness. It appears then, however, only as incidental, not as the central and direct element in the concept. This central element, therefore, we can take as a nucleus, since in itself it is pure perfection. We then by negation and affirmation represent to ourselves a consciousness which is realized not by the passage of the subject from the potential into the actual state, but is ever actual: a consciousness which embraces in its vision the entire being of the subject; a consciousness which is not realized by even an abiding act distinct from the conscious subject itself, but is realized inasmuch as the subject is in virtue of its infinity Infinite Consciousness as well as Infinite Being.

Thus, then, we arrive at an inadequate indeed, but nevertheless a distinct and true, idea of God, an idea not purely negative, but negativo-positive. And thus, for all the apparent contradictions in the monotheistic idea of God, which Mr. Spencer has drawn from Mansel's famous work, it remains true that "we adore that which we know."{84}

{74} Limits of Religious Thought (Third Edition), p. 89.

{75} First Principles, p. 108.

{76} Limits of Religious Thought (Third Edition), p. 46.

{77} Limits of Religious Thought (Third Edition), p. 47.

{78} Limits of Religious Thought (Third Edition), pp. 48, 49.

{79} Limits of Religious Thought (Third Edition), p. 50.

{80} Limits of Religious Thought (Third Edition), pp. 74. 75.

{81} Limits of Religious Thought (Third Edition). p. 81.

{82} St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. i. 12. 4.

{83} Mansel's Limits of Religious Thought, pp. 84, 85.

{84} St.John iv. 22.

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