Principles of Natural Theology / by George Hayward Joyce, S.J.


It is, perhaps, the most notable feature of the Scholastic system that it covers the whole ground of philosophical investigation, and provides a closely-knit and consistent body of doctrine, dealing with each of the great problems which confront human reason. It applies its principles to the consideration of God, of the world, and of man; and offers us as the result of the enquiry treatises on Natural Theology, on Cosmology, and on Rational Psychology, not as so many independent sciences, but as integral parts of a single synthesis. Nor does it stop here. In Logic it deals with the problem of knowledge and with the laws of thought: in Ethics with human conduct: alone among philosophies it furnishes a satisfactory theory of extended and discrete quantity as the basis of Mathematics. Every department of human thought is gathered up into one vast scheme, the conclusions of each part bearing out the results of all the others. The minds -- and they were many -- which laboured at the work, aimed at and achieved a synthesis universal in its range. These men were not content to leave one region of being, and that the most important, unexplored. They held that, if only the right path were chosen, the peaks might be scaled. It was left for a later generation at once less sure of foot and duller of vision to aver first that the heights were unattainable, and finally that they were a mere mirage to which nothing real corresponded.

It follows from what we have said that in the Scholastic philosophy Natural Theology is no unessential adjunct, no mere afterthought, but a substantive and vital part of the system, without which it would be radically incomplete. It claims to establish from assured first principles the existence of a Supreme Being, distinct from the finite and mutable things of experience. It maintains, further, that though the limitations of the human intellect render all our knowledge of Him inadequate, we are not wholly ignorant of His nature. There are certain attributes which can be affirmed of Him with certainty, though they are His in a manner more perfect than any which we can imagine. Above all, He is intelligent and free, and therefore possessed of personality. In Him it finds the source and origin of all finite beings, and the final cause in view of which such beings exist.

The attitude of much recent philosophy in regard of the subject of which we are speaking, shews us the very antithesis of this. The contrast could hardly be more absolute. The question, it is true, receives ample discussion, as the successive volumes of Gifford lectures bear witness. Moreover, of the thinkers whose philosophical views derive from Kant and Hegel, many, at least, maintain the existence of God. Yet it does not seem too much to say that in no case is a Natural Theology an essential part of their system. Indeed, we feel, as we read, that the system would be more harmonious, more self-consistent, if a personal God were ruled out. The fact is that the conviction of God's existence is, as we shall shew, almost ineradicable from the human mind. Speculative reasons may seem to make against it -- tamen usque recurret. Hence room is made for it even at the cost of inconsistency. Sometimes too ethical considerations are operative, as they were with Kant himself: it is felt that there can be no basis of moral obligation unless the existence of a personal God be admitted. Yet the treatise is of the nature of an excrescence to the metaphysics of the system. And the positive conclusions are of so meagre a character that they cannot be said to form a Natural Theology: they are mere salvage from the wreck. We are told that God is not a Creator: that He is not omnipotent: not infinite: not really distinct from the world or from the human soul, and consequently not simple: and that the proofs for His existence are not valid. We are hardly surprised when we are told that He is not personal and not moral: or when a pluralist writer assures us that we ourselves are just as self-existent as is God: that He is merely primus inter pares.

We have spoken of Natural Theology as forming an integral part of any complete philosophy. It is, in fact, the most important section of all -- the key-stone of the arch. Apart from it philosophy has failed of its object. "Philosophy," says Aristotle, "is the science which treats of primary causes and principles."{1} This is its distinctive characteristic, by which it differs from the special sciences. They are concerned with the different particular types of reality, viewed under their various aspects. The object of philosophy is nothing less than the universe as a whole. Its goal is the ultimate ground of the manifold of experience -- the primary principles which constitute its explanation. It follows that unless Natural Theology be a pure delusion, it is the supreme treatise -- that for which all others should serve as a preparation. For it claims to find in God that ultimate explanation of which it is in search. It shews that He is the first efficient cause, the source and origin of all that is not Himself: that He is the exemplar cause, of whose perfection all finite perfections -- all types and forms of being, from the highest to the lowest -- are the reflection: that He, too, is the final cause of all, since the same necessity which demands that all things should come from Him, requires no less that He should be the end for whom they exist. Here then, and here alone, is the object which philosophy sets before it. The system which has no room for this treatise has failed of its end.

The vital nature of the issue at stake may be seen from another point of view besides that to which we have just adverted. If there be such a science as Natural Theology, then -- viewing man purely in his natural faculties and apart from revelation -- in that science lies the noblest occupation of the human mind: and to mislead us on this subject, to represent the knowledge it confers as illusory, is to inflict on us an injury of the gravest kind. When Aristotle enquires in what human felicity consists, he replies that it must lie in the exercise of our highest faculty upon the highest of all subjects -- in the exercise of the intelligence upon eternal verities.{2} Without entering upon the question of felicity, which is outside our present scope, it is easy to see that the reason given shews the knowledge of God to be the highest thing of which human nature is capable: that it gives us the true measure of our dignity as men. It follows that to deny our power to attain to this knowledge, to maintain that a science of Natural Theology is non-existent, is to strike a blow at the dignity of human nature, and to place mankind on a lower plane of being.

The method which Scholasticism employs in dealing with this branch of philosophy is well known. It is that of demonstration from axiomatic metaphysical principles. Since the objective validity of these principles has been denied, we have devoted a special chapter (chap. ii.) to this question, and have there shewn that the intellect is not deceived when it unhesitatingly affirms their universal and necessary validity: that in so doing it is acting in its proper sphere, and judging with full competence in regard of its appropriate object. If this be the case, it is plainly idle to object, as is sometimes done, that a priori reasoning based on a universal premiss is unconvincing to the mind, inasmuch as the assumed universal is liable to be upset by a single contrary instance. Undoubtedly this would be the case if we had no capacity of apprehending necessary truth. But we affirm that within its due sphere the human mind possesses this power. He would be a bold man who should maintain that the proposition, twice two are four, might be invalidated by an exception. And where the first principles of metaphysical truth are concerned the intellect judges with no less certainty than about the primary verities of mathematics.

Our organon of proof is Aristotelian logic, the ultimate test of each step being the principle of contradiction. It is indeed not to be expected that those who have embraced the Hegelian philosophy should he other than disdainful of such a system. Thus Principal John Caird, who has treated our subject from the standpoint of Hegelianism, writes: "The unity of the spiritual world is a thing which lies beyond the standpoint of formal logic. . . . How can an organ of thought, which tests all things by the law of contradiction, compass, or in the attempt to compass, do anything else than misrepresent, the realities of a world, where analysis is ever revealing contradictions, and whose absolute opposition can only vanish in the light of a higher synthesis."{3} The Scholastic philosophy is fully prepared to take up the challenge. We maintain that the proofs which we advance are conclusive: and that our reasoning, so far from misrepresenting reality, achieves a very>, pp. 199, 200. ample measure of knowledge of indubitable validity regarding the object of our enquiry. Reality, we affirm, contains no contradictions. Those which the Hegelian believes himself to have discovered are mere mare's nests due to his own inaccurate analysis: they have no basis in fact.

To other writers it appears that the right method to adopt in the study of Natural Theology is that of an interpretation of the religious experience of mankind. This is the view maintained by Mr. C. J. Webb in his striking volume, God and Personality. He tells us that, in his judgment, "Natural Theology is to be regarded, not as a science consisting of truths reached altogether independently of a historical religion, but rather as the result of reflection on a religious experience, mediated in every case through a historical religion."{4} Such a view supposes, of course, that the intellect cannot arrive at a knowledge of God by direct systematic proof, but only by reflection upon the various modes in which the human spirit has sought to direct itself towards its Divine source. Here, too, the issue is a clear one. We contend that the method of direct reasoning is open to us: and not merely that it lies within our power, but that no just exception can be taken to a very large body of conclusions already reached.

Indeed, if our mind is capable of determining aright the implications of man's religious activities as brought under observation in the history of religions, and of gathering in this way certain trustworthy conclusions regarding God, it is hard to see why a valid metaphysic should not reach Him by a less circuitous route. The science which treats of primary principles and causes must surely be able to tell us something of the source of all being. And if it be held that this is beyond the mind's competence, have we any ground for supposing that it is to be trusted in the conclusions which it draws from the religious experience of the race? Moreover, the method pursued is open to criticism on another count. It assumes gratuitously that religions are all natural in their origin. This, however, must be proved: it cannot be taken for granted. Is there anything unreasonable in the hypothesis that other factors have been operative? that on the one hand God has Himself intervened to communicate to man truths beyond the scope of unaided reason: and, on the other, that maleficent influences have been at work, diverting in many cases the practice of religion to ends wholly opposed to that which belongs to it by right, and rendering it a cult, not of God, but of evil? If this be so, it is impossible to treat the historical faiths as data for determining Natural Religion. In view of the fact that in every religion it is assumed as beyond all question that the teaching is not due to the unaided efforts of the human spirit, but to communication made ab extra, the demand for some proof that this is not the case can hardly be considered extravagant.

From what has been said it will be manifest that the object of our enquiry is the validity, not the genesis, of the conclusions regarding God at which we shall arrive. Statements such as "the highest proof of any idea is an account of the process by which it has been reached,"{5} we hold to be entirely false, and utterly opposed to any true view of the aim of speculative thought. There are, of course, certain provinces of knowledge in which the genesis of an idea is a question of the highest moment, inasmuch as in them the validity of a proposition is dependent on its origin. In the sphere of dogmatic theology it is essential to shew that a doctrine which only became explicit at a comparatively late date was legitimately derived from one which was at all times explicitly held. But speculative philosophy does not fall within this category. Doubtless it is of interest to trace the elements of a given system to their various sources -- to see in what the Schoolmen were indebted to Aristotle, in what to the Platonism of Augustine or of the Pseudo-Areopagite, in what to the moral teaching of the Stoics. But the interest here is historical: and the question has little, if any, bearing on the truth of the teaching under consideration. During the past century the enquiry into origins has absorbed an immense amount of attention in regard to many different subjects, as e.g., anthropology, biology, jurisprudence, language, etc., etc., and in some it has borne much valuable fruit: the natural consequence of this being that some minds came to regard it as the one and only road to all truth. That it certainly is not. And where the investigations of speculative philosophy are concerned, it has, we contend, no place. The point at issue is not how an idea arose, but whether it corresponds with the reality of things: Is it true?

In the preface to a work on Scholastic philosophy some reference seems necessary to the prejudice against which that system has to contend. It is, indeed, not many years since outside the Catholic schools it was regarded as undeserving of serious attention. At our universities the volumes in which it was contained lay neglected. And the opinion was commonly entertained that the middle ages had contributed nothing to the progress of human thought: that from the days of the Neoplatonists to the seventeenth century there was a blank in the history of philosophy. A far saner view now prevails. It is recognized that just as in art, in literature, and in architecture, the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries were a period of rapid advance and of brilliant achievement, so the same is true in regard to philosophical speculation. Nevertheless, it is still widely held that, whatever value the system may have had for the period at which it arose, and whatever the intellectual eminence of those who fashioned it, it would be absurd to look to it at the present time for a tenable metaphysic of being. It stands, it is believed, committed to assumptions once generally received, but now recognized to be altogether erroneous. Given these assumptions, it provides a wonderful synthesis of knowledge. But now that they are rejected, it can afford no solution to the great riddles with which philosophy is concerned. No one, we imagine, will dispute the fact that such is the estimate taken of it by very many thinkers, even by those who are far too well informed to be affected by the old-time prejudices to which we have referred. Yet, certainly, those who thus think should find cause for reflection in the fact that on the continent Scholasticism is not a matter of merely historical interest, but is likewise a powerful factor in contemporary thought. The Neoscholastic movement has taken firm root, and is a living thing. The present writer has spoken of this elsewhere, and will not here repeat what he has already said.{6} Besides, the fact must have been brought home to many in this country during the late war. The widest interest was taken in the fate of the university of Louvain, and in the personality of its founder, Cardinal Mercier. And one of the most notable features of that university is that its philosophical school is a stronghold of Neo-scholasticism.

There are, however, two objections which are regarded by many as fatal to the claim of Scholasticism to rank as a living philosophy. Of these notice may suitably be taken here. It is not infrequently asserted that Scholasticism is a dualistic system, and that the human mind has outgrown the stage in which it can accept any form of dualism. The answer to this is easy. The term dualism has more than one sense: and it is here employed sophistically. As ordinarily understood it signifies a system which supposes two first principles of being, independent the one of the other. As a rule these are conceived as being a good and an evil principle, the sources respectively of spirit and of matter. Taken in this sense, it is true enough that the human mind has outgrown the possibility of accepting dualism. Reason is seen imperatively to demand a single first principle, the origin of all that is. But Scholasticism is emphatically not dualistic after this fashion. It teaches the existence of one self-existent Being, God, the first cause of all that is not Himself. This is not the sense in which the reproach of dualism is urged against it. Those who raise the objection are of the school of Hegel: they affirm the unity of all being, and reject as philosophically inadmissible any ultimate distinction between God and the world. For this reason they style themselves monists: and it is because Scholasticism is emphatic in asserting that God and the created world are absolutely distinct that they accuse it of dualism. But who has ever shewn that the human mind has outgrown dualism in this sense of the term? Doubtless there are difficulties in holding the coexistence of the finite and the Infinite. But we contend that these difficulties are capable of solution, whereas the manifold difficulties involved in any system of monism, whether spiritual or material, admit of no satisfactory answer whatever. The contention that Scholasticism is to be rejected because it is dualistic, owes such plausibility as it has, wholly and entirely to the ambiguity of the term. Indeed, it is open to Scholastics to turn the argument back on their opponents -- retorquere argumentum. There is, it is admitted, a sense in which a system of dualism is impossible. Reason will not tolerate the supposition of more than one self-existent Being. It seeks for one first principle of things, not for many. Yet the more recent development of Hegelianism has landed us in precisely this impasse, and offers us a philosophy of Pluralism!

Still more frequently, perhaps, do we hear the objection that the philosophy of the Scholastic doctors is vitiated by their utterly erroneous notions regarding physical science. They accepted, it is contended, the geocentric hypothesis as indisputable: they never doubted that the sun goes round the earth. And the rest of their ideas about nature were on the same plane. Do they not appeal to principles such as that heavy things tend downwards and light things upwards, and the like? Where the outlook is so radically faulty, the resulting philosophical system cannot, we are told, be other than futile. It is, of course, not to be disputed that in many respects their scientific knowledge was extremely imperfect. The last two centuries have been a time fruitful in physical discovery in many directions -- perhaps the most fruitful period in this respect which the history of man has known. It is not altogether unnatural that the possession of this new knowledge should generate some disdain towards those who lived and died long before this era of discovery dawned, and who were content with a measure of physical knowledge which to us appears so totally inadequate. Yet it would be a grave mistake to argue from their ignorance of the special sciences that their metaphysics must necessarily be at fault. It is possible surely for man to reason aright regarding first principles without a training in the sciences. He may grasp the true significance of notions such as unity, truth, reality, substance, efficient and final causality, etc., etc., without any knowledge of the mysteries of electricity. We do not hear the masters of Greek thought belittled for their imperfect acquaintance with physical science. In their case men seem to understand that the treatment of moral and metaphysical subjects is largely independent of physical knowledge. This, surely, holds good equally of the Schoolmen. Moreover, in Justice to these latter it should be observed that they were quite aware that the Ptolemaic system of astronomy was an hypothesis and not an established certainty. They knew better than to conclude that because it served well as an explanation of the facts, it must needs be true. And here some of our own contemporaries might learn a useful lesson from them. How often have we not been asked to accept unquestioningly as an established truth in philosophy, or it may be in physical science, or in anthropology or in history, some hypothesis which, though it affords an ingenious explanation of a certain number of the facts, is as yet far from being proven.

We have made it our constant aim to express the Scholastic reasoning in a form which shall be intelligible to anyone who cares to follow the argument. The Schoolmen themselves, when establishing a conclusion, frequently appeal for proof to a formula embodying a principle of Aristotelian metaphysics. To those familiar with the significance of the formula, and with its application in the Aristotelian philosophy, no more was needed: the proof was adequate. But to those who read it without the same mental background little or nothing is conveyed. This constitutes a real difficulty at first to the student who wishes to acquaint himself with the system: and doubtless is in some degree responsible for the frequency with which even scholars of reputation fall into the strangest errors regarding Scholasticism. We are in consequence not without hope that this work may be of interest even to some who differ, perhaps widely, from us. In view of the historical importance of the Scholastic philosophy and of its growing influence to-day, there may be not a few who, while disinclined to study it as encumbered by its native technicalities, will be glad to see its Natural Theology in an English dress. If such there are, we venture to direct their attention more especially to the metaphysical proofs offered for the existence of God. It is so often confidently asserted that Kant shewed once and for all the total inadequacy of the traditional arguments, that it is a matter of no small moment to observe that his criticism fails altogether to touch those arguments as they are proposed, e.g., by St. Thomas Aquinas. The first essential in criticism is to know what your adversary maintains.

Yet the chief end of our work is practical. There is, we are convinced, urgent need at the present moment for a reasoned defence of the principles of theism. The prevalent philosophies are all either pantheistic or materialist in tendency, leaving no room for belief in a personal God. Moreover, the controversy is not debated only among the learned. Unbelief has become militant. Rationalism carries on an active propaganda of its own, attacking the very foundations of all belief in God, and seeking to persuade all, educated and uneducated alike, that there is no life but this, and that the, only worthy object of effort is material well-being. Since the challenge is made on grounds of reason, it is on grounds of reason that it must be met. Meanwhile the need is acute. Many a young man finds himself brought face to face with some specious objection urged against the first principles of religion: and though he instinctively feels that the reasoning is fallacious, he is unable to see where the fallacy lies. To him the difficulty is new, and therefore disconcerting. He wonders whether a satisfactory answer can be found. In these cases -- and they are numerous -- a reasoned grasp of the main truths of Natural Theology would afford an adequate protection against a very grave danger. Hence it is incumbent on the defenders of religion to do what in them lies to make this part of philosophy more widely known. The system of thought elaborated by the great Scholastic thinkers is, we are convinced, grounded on such solid arguments, its various parts are so consistent with each other, and the whole so concordant with reality, that it provides us with all that we need to defend ourselves against the more or less plausible objections which are met with to-day. But so long as a knowledge of it is confined to academical circles, its effects can be but small. That it should be rendered accessible to many is the main purpose with which this book has been written.

Among recent works written from the Scholastic standpoint I desire to express my obligations to Dieu, Son Existence et Sa Nature by R. Garrigou-Lagrange O.P., and to the treatise -- for it far exceeds the usual limits of an article -- Création by H. Pinard, S.J., contained in the third volume of Vacant and Mangenot's Dictionnaire de Théologie.

My grateful thanks are due to the Rev. L. W. Geddes and the Rev. M. C. D'Arcy for much valuable help. On many points I have sought counsel from one or other of these friends, and always to my advantage. I am also very greatly indebted to the Rev. J. Brodrick for his kind assistance in the correction of the proofs.

Nov. 15, 1922.

{1} Metaph., I., c. i.

{2} Eth. Nic., X. c. vii., 1177a 13-21; cf. St. Thomas Aq., Summa Theol., 1a 2ae q. 3, art. 5.

{3} Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion

{4} God and Personality, p. 32.

{5} J. Caird, op. cit., p. 298.

{6} Principles of Logic, pp. i.-xii.

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