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

SECTION 3. -- The objects of Divine Thought.

Thesis XXVII. -- God has not only a comprehensive knowledge of Himself and of the essence of each possible thing and each possible event; but He sees also from eternity all His creatures, before they exist, knowing adequately whatever is knowable about their existence and activity, so much so that He foreknows distinctly all future free acts of His rational creatures, even those which are only conditionally future.

160. The general reason why God must know all things knowable is again the truth repeatedly mentioned in the two preceding sections, that His Intellect is infinitely perfect. This reason alone suffices to convince us that He knows with absolute perfection all those things which are at least imperfectly knowable to us. But in order to show how it follows that He knows things of which we know nothing, some further explanations are wanting; for it must be shown that there do exist objective truths perfectly hidden from created intellect, which are evident to the uncreated mind. Thus it appears that the proof of the subjective infinity of the Divine Intellect given above, does not supersede a detailed exposition of the objects of His knowledge. Even as regards those truths, the Divine knowledge of which can be inferred from human knowledge, it is not superfluous to explain carefully their relation to the mind of God. The effect of this explanation will be that we shall be struck more forcibly by the infinite wisdom of our Creator, and filled with deeper admiration of His Majesty. At the same time it will enable us to solve more clearly the difficulties raised against the knowledge of God.

161. First, then, we affirm that God knows Himself by a comprehensive knowledge, that is to say, by a knowledge which comprises absolutely every point knowable about Him, whether as He is in Himself or as He is in relation to other things. This much will hardly be disputed. The Divine intellect must evidently know with comprehensive knowledge what ever object of knowledge is intimately present to it. But the Divine Essence is intimately present to the Divine intellect so much so that it is even identical with it.

Now every finite perfection possible and actual pre-exists eminently in God; so that when anything comes to be created, its actually existing essence is necessarily an imperfect imitation of the infinite Essence of God. Consequently the Essence of God is necessarily imitable by creatures, though its actual imitations are due to the free act of Divine creation. This being so, God in comprehending Himself must know all the different ways in which His Being is susceptible of imperfect imitation by finite beings. Such a knowledge involves an actual comprehension of the essences of all possible creatures, with all the perfections they may acquire, and all the defects and privations conceivable in them. Consequently it implies a knowledge of their faculties, their possible acts, their relations to one another and to their Creator, and all manner of combinations, states, and alterations incident to them. Briefly, God seeing Himself has an adequate knowledge of all possible creatures and of all possible events. With one act of comprehensive intelligence He so represents the whole of them that each is known to Him fully and distinctly. Consequently, whatever God now knows as actual for any given period of time, He would know it as distinctly as He knows it now, even if He had never created. The difference would be that then He would judge the same things to be not actual which now He judges to be actual, and thus distinguishes from the indefinite multitude of purely possible things and events. Indeed that He cannot fail to make this distinction is readily understood, if we consider the dependence of all creatures and all the incidents of created existence upon the decrees and power of the Creator. Whatever exists and whatever happens cannot exist or happen, unless God has decreed that it should exist or happen, or, as regards moral evil, that He would not prevent its existing or happening.

As we shall prove later on, God does not form new decrees in the course of time, but His decrees are eternal, and are now what they were from eternity. Consequently from eternity He foresaw whatever actually exists or happens in the course of time. Otherwise how could He have decreed it? Therefore all actual creatures past, present, and future, all their actions and all circumstances of their existence, were present to the mind of God from eternity. He foreknew them all without any exception, even the free actions of His rational creatures.

162. To prove this still better we will abstract here from the immutability of the Divine decrees. We will also distinguish the existence of creatures and events, according as they are independent of or in any way dependent upon free choice on the part of men.

As regards the former, the perfect knowledge of them is included in the comprehensive cognition which God has of Himself and all possible things. Knowing Himself and all possible things, He knows which of these according to His will must become actual, and what facts will be necessarily connected with their creation. Thus He knows the history of His creatures, so far as it depends upon His decrees and His creative power alone.

Of His knowledge of the rest of their history, there can be no doubt, if only we are able to demonstrate that He foresees the free volitions of His rational creatures. Everything except free volitions runs its course according to certain laws pre-established by God. The efficacy of created freedom with regard to these laws does not extend beyond initiating by free choice either of two alternatives. The natural consequences of the alternative thus initiated are to be set down to the freedom of the creature only inasmuch as they were implicitly contained in the act of choice. If a man yields to a propensity for liquor and becomes a drunkard, the consequences which drunkenness carries with it for his health, his mental faculties, his fortune, his good name, and the future of his offspring, &c., are not controllable by his free-will. He is, however, answerable for them, not because they are wished by him, but because he did not prevent the cause by which they are produced, when he was free and obliged to prevent it. Let us take another instance. A sinner who feels moved by the inspiration of Divine grace to blot out his sins by due penance, is free to follow the lead of grace or to neglect it. On the supposition that he follows it, he will receive a full pardon for his sins, according to a law of the supernatural order pre-established by God; if he resists grace up to his death, he will die in his sin, and according to another supernatural law never reach his last end.

These explanations presupposed, it is evident that an eternal knowledge of all free volitions of rational creatures would enable God to foresee everything from eternity. No one can deny that God has a knowledge of free volitions, at least at the time when they are actually elicited. Such a denial would be an impugning of the Divine intellect, representing it as falling short of understanding all objective truth, that is to say, as being limited. God therefore, whose intellect has no limits, comprehends all volitions elicited by His creatures at the moment when they are elicited. But if He knows them, each in its turn, when they become actual, He must have known them from all eternity; otherwise His knowledge would have grown, He would have learned something which He did not know before, an hypothesis manifestly incompatible with His infinite intellect. It follows, then, that He foreknows from eternity whatever happens in the course of time, even the free actions of His rational creatures.

163. But how shall we prove that God must know from eternity what a free creature would do, if it were placed in this or that situation, in which it really never will be placed? How could He foreknow from eternity that the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon would have done penance, if amongst them Christ had wrought those miracles against which the citizens of Capharnaum, of Corozain, and Beth.saida hardened their hearts?{4} How could He foreknow the detailed course of action which Napoleon III. would have taken, if he had conquered the Germans at Sedan, and made the German monarch his prisoner?

Without entering upon the "How" which in this as in many other cases is an insoluble mystery to us, we can prove evidently that the knowledge of God must extend even to those hypothetical cases.

God certainly knows the possible lines of action open to a free creature, who finds himself with the full use of his freedom in a certain situation, in which he is able to attend to and consequently to choose, among a limited number of possible alternatives. Of each of these possible ways of action open to the person so circumstanced, two propositions can be formed, contradictorily opposed to each other. A type of the one is this: Put in the situation C, Peter will choose the alternative A. A type of the other is this: Put in the situation C, Peter will not choose the alternative A. Every one knows from his own experience how limited is the number of alternatives to which he really can attend under given circumstances, and which really move him, although they do not force him. We grant much, if we say that sometimes ten alternatives together may be open to a man. But whether it be ten or any other number n, of each there can be formed two propositions of the type given above. If we have, then, n alternatives, we get n pairs of propositions contradictorily opposed to each other. In every pair there must be a true and a false proposition; for we know from Logic that two propositions contradictorily opposed to each other, never can be both true or both false, but one must be true, the other false. But God, from whom no objective truth can be hidden, must know which is the true one and which the false one. Knowing this, He knows thereby the course which any free creature really would take under any given condition.

The belief in this truth is beautifully expressed in the Collect which the Catholic Church makes use of on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: "O God, whose Providence in its arrangements is never deceived, we humbly ask of Thee to take away all hurtful things, and to grant whatever will be useful for us."{5} Every Christian knows that "hurtful" and "useful" in the language of the Church, are spoken of with reference to our last end, our future beatitude. Now, whether in view of this any set of circumstances, in which we may be put, will prove hurtful or useful, depends, under Divine grace, upon the use of our own freedom. If, then, the Church beseeches God to take away all hurtful things and to grant whatever will be useful to us, she evidently supposes that He knows under what conditions we shall make a good or excellent use of our freedom, and under what others we shall use it less well, or even abuse the same to our ruin. We must now answer one or two objections.

164. (1) Mr. Herbert Spencer says in his Principles of Psychology:{6} "A thing cannot at the same time be both subject and object of thought." But evidently on the supposition that God comprehends Himself, He is at the same time both subject and object of thought. Consequently, in attributing to God a comprehensive self-consciousness, we have put ourselves in opposition to the conclusions of psychological science.

Answer. We have had already occasion to make some reference to this author. That the subject and object of thought cannot be identical, is a proposition which Mr. Spencer does not support by any argument, nor can any be given unless we admit the materialistic hypothesis and reduce all activity to the pulling and pushing of material particles. On the other hand, Mr. Spencer's assertion is in glaring contradiction to the evidence of consciousness, and incompatible with moral freedom. Who doubts that at the moment when he has knowledge of anything he knows himself to be knowing? Were it otherwise, how could he know afterwards that he knew the thing before, though meanwhile he may have forgotten it? Again, how can I be morally free and answerable for my actions, unless at the moment when an eligible object is presented to my intellect, my conscience tells me whether I am right or wrong in choosing it? Yet if my conscience tells me this at the moment, it follows that I myself am at the same time subject and object of my thought.

We must then dismiss as false this piece of Spencerian psychology even in its application to the human soul. Much less can it be admitted in regard to God, who comprises eminently in the simplicity of His Essence whatever is conceivable as an intellectual perfection, not however possessing it by any act really distinct from His Essence.

165. (2) We have stated that God sees all possible things by comprehending His Essence as imitable. But among other possible things evils are to be found, and accordingly we are compelled in consistency to affirm that God knows evil as well as good, inasmuch as He comprehends the imitability of His Essence. This, however, seems to involve us in the Hegelian absurdity of supposing the Infinite to contain in itself everything, evil not excepted.

Answer. This objection rests upon the wrong supposition that evil is a thing existing in itself, and consequently knowable in itself. The truth is that evil consists in the absence of some perfection due to a substance. The want of a physical perfection which the nature of the substance concerned requires is a physical evil; and the want of moral rectitude in the will of a rational creature is a moral evil. Neither physical nor moral evil can be in God. Nevertheless God knows all possible physical and moral evils by knowing, in virtue of the comprehension of His own Essence, all possible finite essences. For the perfect knowledge of these involves a knowledge of all their natural requirements, and so far as rational creatures are concerned, their moral obligations. It involves also an adequate knowledge of all possible actions of free creatures, and of the relation of those actions to the requirements of their nature, physical and moral. Consequently it carries with it a comprehensive understanding of all the ways in which the activity of creatures can come into collision either with the integrity of their own natural being or that of their fellow-creatures. Thus all possible physical evils are known. And inasmuch as an adequate knowledge of all possible rational creatures, of their faculties and of the relation of those faculties to their last end, is inconceivable without an insight into all the possible abuses of their free-will, by which they can miss the narrow path of duty, God cannot fail to know all those possible abuses: which is equivalent to His knowing all possible moral evils.

166. (3) Against the foreknowledge which God has of our free actions, there is the obvious difficulty which has been raised repeatedly in various forms. If God foreknows from eternity what men deliberately are doing now and will do in future, their actions must necessarily be in harmony with the cognition that God has of them. If men could act otherwise than as God foresees, they would be able to make the infallible knowledge of God fallible, which is absurd. They act therefore of necessity as God has foreseen that they will act. But actions which of necessity agree with the judgment God has formed of them from eternity, cannot be free actions. Consequently, admitting Divine prescience of free human actions, we must deny the freedom of the human will.

Answer. The apparent strength of this difficulty gives way as soon as a distinction is made between the necessity of affirming an action as future, and the necessity of affirming the same action, not only as future, but also as necessary. He who admits that God foreknows the future actions of men is logically compelled to allow that these actions will certainly take place, but Logic by no means constrains him to affirm that they will be performed as necessary and not as free actions. The foreknowledge of God is a truth from which we must logically infer that the event foreseen by Him will happen precisely as He has foreseen it. But does it follow that He cannot foresee events, unless they are the outcome of natural necessity and not of free choice? True, if God's foresight did not reach farther than to the causes of free actions, and consequently could foresee them only by comprehending the nature of His free creatures and all the impelling motives which precede their resolutions, He never could be absolutely and adequately certain about their particular free acts. Whatever object may be put before a rational creature that enjoys the full use of its faculties, it remains at liberty to choose or not to choose until the choice is made. However, the knowledge of the Infinite Mind extends beyond causes; it has a direct vision also of actions and effects; it expresses all objective truth to whatever time it may belong. Of the two propositions, "The free creature A under the circumstance B, in which the action C will be possible to it, will, by the exercise of its freedom, perform this action," and again, "The free creature A under the circumstance B, in which the action C will be possible to it, will, by the exercise of its freedom, not perform this action," the one must be necessarily true, the other necessarily false. That which expresses really what A, under the circumstance B, will do as regards the action C, is formally true, because it is really the expression of an objective future fact. Consequently the Infinite Intellect of God must represent it as future. Moreover, that proposition, inasmuch as ex hypothesi it is the enunciation of a choice both really future and really free, expresses a fact which is out of all necessary connection with any preceding fact. Therefore God knows it as it is, out of any such necessary connection. His knowing it as it will happen before it actually happens does not change the nature of the fact itself.

God necessarily foresees from eternity what men will do in the course of time, but His foresight does not force them to act the one way or the other. If the drunkard had chosen otherwise, God, without any change in Himself, would have seen a free act of abstinence where He now sees a free act of intemperance. Nevertheless, if the creature chooses now, for instance, to write rather than to read, God has foreseen this choice from eternity, because He represents objective truth as it is or will be under any given circumstance.

Tourists who are walking through an Alpine valley may be seen easily by one who is at the top of a mountain bordering on it. Whilst they are walking there, it cannot be true that they are not doing so, though it depends upon their free choice to walk or not to walk. Consequently their passing by cannot be hidden from the spectator within the range of whose eyesight they are coming. And if he were able to see with his eyes future events as clearly as he can see those that happen at a short distance, he would see the excursionists coming before they were actually on the way. Yet his foresight would not be the reason of their coming; it would be nothing but an anticipated announcement of a future event.

In a similar way God looks, as it were, from the summit of His Eternity down upon the course of future times, and sees the free actions of His rational creatures. Their future resolutions are expressed by His infinite mind exactly as they will come about; consequently, not as natural consequences of habitual or actual impulses, but as self-determinations, as events which will come to pass at the bidding of rational creatures, making use of that power of accepting or rejecting any particular good which He Himself will grant them. This is well expressed by St. Thomas: "God is altogether outside the order of time. He is standing, as it were, upon the high citadel of unalterable eternity. Before Him is spread out the whole course of time, which He takes in by one simple intuition. Consequently, by one act of vision, He sees everything that happens in the course of time; and each fact He sees as it is in itself, not as some thing that is to be present to His gaze in the future, and is for the present involved in the sequence of causes on which it depends; at the same time He does also see that sequence of causes. He sees every event in a manner altogether proper to an eternal being. Each fact, to whatever period of time it belongs, He sees even as the human eye sees Socrates seated. The sitting itself, not its cause, is seen by the eye. But from the fact of a man seeing Socrates seated, it must not be inferred that the sitting is an effect flowing from its cause necessarily. On the other hand, the human eye sees most truly and infallibly Socrates seated whilst he really is seated, because everything, as it is in itself, is a fixed and determined fact. Thus, then, we must admit that God knows with absolute certainty and infallibility whatever happens at any time. Nevertheless temporary events do not happen of necessity, but are the effects of causes that might have acted otherwise."{7}

We may now state the difficulties in their usual form with compendious answers, applying the doctrine just expounded.

(a) An act which God foresees will necessarily take place. But an act which necessarily takes place cannot be a free act.

Answer. There is a fallacy in the use of the word "necessarily." In the minor it denotes the physical necessity under which a certain class of causes produce their effects. When there is this necessity, of course, by force of terms, freedom is excluded. In the major the necessity denoted is logical necessity; the Divine mind being infinitely perfect, necessarily sees the truth wherever and however it is, past, present, or future. It is impossible for the thing to be without God foreseeing it, and by necessary consequence the Divine foreknowledge is an infallible evidence of what it will be.

(b) An act the omission of which is impossible cannot be a free act. But the omission of an act which God foresees is impossible. Thus such an act cannot be free.

Answer. Again the same fallacy. The omission of such an act is logically impossible, but not on this account physically impossible. The act and its omission cannot both exist. The one is necessarily exclusive of the other. And in that sense, if the act is really future, its omission is impossible, but in no other sense is it impossible; and in no other sense is any necessity on the part of the event the basis of the infallibility of the Divine foreknowledge.

(c) That act is necessary and not free which necessarily follows upon something else that does not rest with the free choice of the agent. But an act foreseen by God follows necessarily upon the Divine foreknowledge, which foreknowledge does not rest with the free choice of the agent.

Answer. The major is correct, if the necessary following upon "something else" is because that something is a necessarily acting cause, but not if the "something else" is only a necessarily truthful spectator or seer.

(d) If God were to foresee the free actions of creatures His foreknowledge would be dependent on their choice, for it would depend upon their choice whether it should be framed in this way rather than in that. But it is absurd to make an attribute of the Infinite God dependent on the action of His creatures.

Answer. The alleged dependence can only be called dependence in a broad and mitigated sense. True dependence is the relation by which the effect is bound to its physical cause, not that by which truthful knowledge is necessitated to conform itself to its object. The former, so far forth as it is dependence, is an imperfection. It is a perfection indeed to possess being, but an imperfection to have it in dependence on the causality of an external agent, and the greater the dependence the greater the imperfection. The latter is pure perfection, and the fuller the conformity with the object, the greater the perfection.

{4} Cf. St. Matt. xi. 20-23.

{5} "Deus, cujus providentia in sui dispositione non fallitur: te supplices exoramus, ut noxia cuncta submoveas et omnia nobis profutura concedas."

{6} Principles of Psychology, i. p. 148.

{7} "Deus est omnino extra ordinem temporis, quasi in arce aeternitatis constitutus, quae est tota simul, cui subjacet totus temporis decursus secundum unum et simplicem ejus intuitum. Et ideo uno intuitu videt omnia, quae aguntur secundum temporis decursum et unumquodque secundum quod est in seipso existens non quasi sibi futurum quantum ad ejus intuitum, prout est in solo ordine suarum causarum, quamvis et ipsum ordinem causarum videat: sed omnino aeternaliter sic videt unumquodque eorum quae sunt in unoquoque tempore, sicut oculus humanus videt Socratem sedere in seipso, non in causa sua. Ex hoc autem quod homo videt Socratem sedere non tollitur ejus contingentia quae respicit ordinem causae ad effectum; tamen verissime et infallibiliter videt oculus hominis Socratem sedere dum sedet, quia unumquodque prout est in seipso, jam determinatum est. Sic igitur relinquitur, quod Deus certissime et infallibiliter cognoscat omnia quae fiunt in tempore, et tamen es quae in tempore eveniunt non sunt vel fiunt ex necessitate, sed contingenter." (In Perihermeneias Aristotelis, Lib. I. Lect. 14.)

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