Interesting Criticism of Kant

Take from here:

‘In response to Kant’s view that we impose form and order and intelligibility on the content of our sense experience by drawing on the a priori forms of intelligibility that are innate in all human minds: ‘

“[H]e has no explanation at all, and can in principle have none, of the miraculous fit between the structures we have imposed on the world, apparently independently of anything in the world, and the way the world responds to our practical action on it based on the predictions thought up by our minds – successfully coping with the challenges of nature, technology, etc. Nor can he explain – in fact he never tries – how we can know other human beings as just as real as ourselves and successfully exchange information with them in interpersonal dialogue. For if it is really I that am structuring your being and the messages you seem to be sending in to me through my senses, then it follows that you are also structuring me and my messages – which cancels out into incoherence: both can’t be true at once. No, we are open to truth-grounding communication about themselves from the real active beings that surround us, across the bridge of their self-expressive, self-revealing action. That is what it means to have a mind open to being.”

[W. Norris Clarke, The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), pg. 12-13]’

Gilson on Existence and Essence

‘Why, Saint Thomas asks, do we say that Qui est is the most proper name among all those that can given to God? And his answer is because it signifies “to be”: ipsum esse. But what is it to be? In answering this most difficult of all metaphysical questions, we must carefully distinguish between two words which are both different and yet intimately related: ens, or “being”, and esse, or “to be”. To the question: What is being? the correct answer is: Being is that which is, or exists. If, for instance, we ask this same question with regard to God, the correct answer would be: The being of God is an infinite and boundless ocean of substance. But essse, or “to be”, is something else and  much harder to grasp because it lies more deeply hidden in the metaphysical structure of reality. The word “being”, as a noun, designates some substance; the word “to be” – or esse – is a verb, because it designates an act. To understand this is also to reach, beyond the level of essence, the deeper level of existence. For it is quite true to say that all which is a substance must of necessity also both have an essence and an existence. In point of fact, such is the natural order followed by our rational knowledge: we first concieve certain beings, then we define their essences, and last we affirm their existence by means of a judgment. But the metaphysical order of reality is just the reverse of the order of human knowledge: what first comes into it as a certain act of existing which, because it is this particular act of existing, circumscribes at once a certain essence and causes a certain substance to come into being. In this deeper sense, “to be” is the primitive and fundamental act by virtue of which a certain being actually is, or exists. In Saint Thomas’ own words: dictur esse ipse actus essentiae – “to be” is the very act whereby an essence is.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘God and Philosophy’, p. 63-64)

Existence, Essence and Being

Avicenna was the first to posit the distinction between the existence of a thing and its essence, and the distinction was later refined by Aquinas – Etienne Gilson credits Aquinas as being a kind of forerunner of existentialism because of his use and development of the idea. John Duns Scotus would refine it further, developing one of his most original philosophical ideas, the formal distinction. Briefly, though the existence and essence distinction is this: a things existence (its ‘that it is’) is different from its essence (its ‘what it is’).

‘Existence, for Avicenna (at least as he was read in the thirteenth century) is not a constituent of the essence of anything, for we cannot infer from the knowledge of what a thing is the fact of its existence. Hence existence is an accessory accident which must be conferred upon a thing by an external cause in order that it may exist.’ ( Julius R. Weinberg, ‘A Short History of Medieval Philosophy,’  p. 184)

Aquinas disagreed in part, seeing that Avicenna seemed to be saying that there could be essences without existence:

‘…there is a feature of a thing, namely its essence, which can be understood without knowing whether such an essence has being in the universe of things. In the case of those things whose essences are not the same as their act of existing, the act of existing must be derived from something other than themselves.’ (ibid, p. 185)

The distinction made here between essence and existence is Scotus’ formal distinction that is, when two realities do not share a total and complete identity between them. An example might be, say, the attributes of wisdom and goodness in God (on a conception of God which holds to divine simplicity): while they aren’t two different properties (because in God all is fused into the most simple unity) there is a distinction between them. Scotus developed his formal distinction by saying that existence isn’t really different from essence, while still retaining the basic insight that existence does not follow from essence:

‘…while existence and essence are formally distinct, they are distinct to the extent that the existence of any created or caused thing cannot be deduced from its nature or essence.’ (ibid, p. 219)

Now, when it comes to knowing something, we first are aware of ‘being’ or ‘existence’ in a general way. Our knowledge of ‘what’ something is only follows after we are aware ‘that’ something is. Our awareness and of being and grasp of our existence come before our grasp of the essence of something. Our grasping of the essence is not a logical deduction – just as we cannot deduce existence from essence, we cannot deduce essence from existence:

‘As soon as it comes into touch with sensible experience, the human intellect elicits the immediate intuition of being: X is, or exists; but from the intuition that something is, the knowledge of what it is, beyond the fact that it is something, cannot possibly be deduced. The intellect does not deduce, it intuits, it sees, and, in the light of intellectual intuition, the discursive power of reason slowly builds up from experience a determinate knowledge of concrete reality.’ (Etienne Gilson, ‘The Unity of Philosophical Experience’, p. 252-253)

The common thread here is that existence and essence cannot explain each other and cannot exist without each other – a finite thing is a unity which derives its existence, or has its ground of being or however you wish to say it, in something else which gives being to finite things. Only an infinite thing in which essence and existence are the same act contains its own ground of existence – the unity of essence and existence in a pure act is an infinite of being.

Intellect and Reality

So, Kant basically ascribed to the mind a real creative power – things are understandable only insofar as they brought under or within the conditions of sensibility. This I’ll call the active power of the mind, since the categories for understand-ability are supplied by the mind. Now, as I said before, that the mind is in fact an active and not merely passive factor in our knowledge of the world is a fairly incontestable point, but thinking more on this topic led me to think about the intellect in general.

Aristotle held that the intellect was divided into the active (a) an the passive (p). p is the part of the intellect which receives data from the material world, while a acts as a kind of formal cause on the sensory data, forming ideas and thoughts with determinate structure. Aquinas basically held this same view, but tweaked it a bit: p still receives sensory data, but a grasps the form, which it abstracts, from the sensory data (Scotus disagreed with this and believed that the object of the intellect wasn’t the essence or quiddity of a thing, but being itself, but for right now I won’t go into that – for a bit more on that topic, see this post). So you basically have a concept of the intellect (and there’s a lot more to it, with categories like quality and whatnot, but this suffices for present purposes) where it is both passive and active in its knowledge of the world.

The medievals had this great concept: the fit of the intellect to reality. There is some kind of match between the intellect and reality, or the world or whatever you like to call it. Our cognitive faculties are able to allows us to know things about the world – of course, the medievals attributed this to the fact that God had created the world in this way (which I also happen to believe), but whether or not one believes that such a fit is a product of divine creation, it certainly seems that there is in fact a fit between our intellect, or our cognitive faculties and the world in which we live.

This brings me from the medievals ( in my mind, all roads in philosophy lead to the medievals) back to Kant. Where Kant made the mind purely active, the medievals, and the classical tradition as a whole, saw the mind as both active and passive – passive in that there is a world which acts upon our minds, and active in that in some way, the mind acts as a formal cause upon the sensory data received by the mind to impose a determinate form upon the data, either by abstracting the form or essence from the data or by some other means.

Divine action and the Eyes of Faith

There’s a running theme in the New Testament – that to perceive God or God’s action one must have the eyes of faith – that is, unless one by God’s grace has faith God’s action cannot be seen, at least as divine action.

To take a Barthian line: God’s revelation of Himself can only be seen by faith (no natural theology). In a sense God is hidden, even in His revelation – because His revelation isn’t something that becomes ‘available’ for us to see and study and analyze apart from faith. Even in God’s self-revelation in history in the person of Jesus Christ God is hidden except to those with grace-healed eyes. Revelation is not generally available as one more thing in the world – the same with God’s actions in history and in the world.

Barth, for those unaware, pretty much negated natural theology and the analogis entis, which is what makes a conception of natural theology possible. His famous reply to Brunner of ‘NO!’, sums up his position on natural theology. Nutshell: no natural theology because we cannot perceive God without faith – i.e. we cannot arrive at God from nature or reason alone.

However, I think that a position like, say, Aquinas’s is less offensive to Barth than would suppose:

‘Providence works at the level of what Aquinas would call primary causality: that is, it is so transcendent of the operation of secondary causes- which is to say, finite and contingent causes immanent to the real of created things – that it can at once create freedom and also assure tat no consequence of the misuse of that freedom will prevent him from accomplishing the good he intends in all things.’ (David Bentley Hart, ‘The Doors of the Sea’)

Barth, however, rejected the underlying metaphysics that led to conceiving of God in terms of causality – classical metaphysics. Classical metaphysics was one of the things Barth hated, because he thought it led to a picture of God that while philosophically consistent was not biblically accurate. While I don’t think that metaphysics as a whole needs to be thrown out, I do think that Barth was quite right in his ideas on revelation and divine action in the world. I don’t deny natural theology, so long as it’s properly qualified. T.F. Torrance really expounded the status of natural theology, which I’ll focus on next post.

Cosmological and Contingent Considerations

An astute commentator points out that reply to an objection about the cosmological argument along the lines of ‘X tradition holds that God is uncreated’ doesn’t really answer any questions (which I would agree that, on its own, such an argument from tradition doesn’t hold much water, but coupled with various cosmological considerations I think a good case can be made for it). It is in fact true that the Christian tradition holds that God is uncreated – though as was pointed out, in the context of the cosmological argument this doesn’t do too much. I have a habit of mixing concepts/arguments/ideas together – which makes sense to me, but, since no one but me is privy to my thought process it often makes sense only to me. Here’s hoping this post doesn’t suffer from that defect – and a heartfelt apology if this ends up being just a mishmash of confused concepts. What follows isn’t a defense of any of the various cosmological arguments – it’s a few simple expositions and explanations, not intended to prove so much as to open up some room for conversation.

An event is contingent if it might not have occurred; otherwise, it is necessary…’, (‘Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion’,p. 105)

Leibniz’s famous question, why is there something rather than nothing, ties in with the idea of contingency. Why is there a contingent universe? Because (operating from his principle of sufficient reason) there is a transcendent being that contains its own reason for existence – that is the sufficient reason for the cause of the universe – such a being has within itself its own sufficient reason, and is therefore a necessary being. This argument is part of the family of the cosmological argument, and there are a number of different versions – the most notable being that of Aquinas and the more modern kalam argument defended by William Lane Craig.

The Leibnizian answer, as noted above, is based on his Principle of Sufficient Reason – to quote again from the ‘Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion’,:

‘The principle holds that nothing takes place without a reason; for any occurrence, a being with sufficient knowledge would be able to give a reason sufficient to explain why it is as it is and not otherwise.’ (p. 299)

So in a nutshell, Leibniz says that the universe, being contingent, can’t exist without a reason, and that reason must come from outside the universe and must have within itself its own reason for existence. Such a being we call God – the necessary being. At any rate, the basic point of the arguments are to show that the universe had a cause – that the universe is finite and had a cause in time, indeed that the universe had to have a cause. Roughly, the idea is to point to a cause outside the universe.

‘…embodied within the proofs of Aquinas is that the idea of the universe , as the totality of contingent but rationally coherent and ordered beings, is a notion of the utmost import. The contingency of the universe obviates an a priori discourse about it, while its rationality makes it accessible to the mind only in an a posteriori manner. Hence the need for empirical investigations. The contingency of the universe as a whole serves in turn as a pointer to an ultimate in intelligibility which though outside the universe in a metaphysical sense, is within the inferential power of man’s intellect.’ (Stanley Jaki, ‘The Road of Science and the Ways to God’, p.38)

‘Why is there a universe and not nothing? What is the reason for this state of affairs, the existence of a universe that is accessible to rational inquiry? Yet the universe does not carry in itself any explanation for this state of affairs, and even the rationality embedded within it is not self explanatory. This is certainly understandable, for contingent being cannot explain itself, otherwise it should not be contingent. Nevertheless it does have something to “say” to us, simply by being what it is, contingent and intelligible in its contingency, for that makes its lack of self-explanation inescapably problematic and it is precisely through that problematic character that it points beyond itself with a mute cry for sufficient reason. What the intelligible being of the universe has to “say” is thus something which by its very nature must break off in accordance with the utterly contingent existence of the universe. This may be expressed more positively: the fact that the universe is intrinsically rational means that it is capable of, or open to, rational explanation – from beyond itself.’ (T.F Torrance, ‘Reality and Scientific Theology’, p. 52)

The takeaway here is pretty simple: contingency has to be explained by non-contingency. I found this blog post by Edward Feser helpful, in particular this bit:

‘When the classical metaphysician claims to explain why there is something rather than nothing, then, he doesn’t mean that sheer nothingness is the natural state of things and that we need to find out why it doesn’t obtain.  He means that the world of our experience, since it is a mixture of actuality and potentiality, composite rather than simple, etc., could have failed to exist, so that its explanation must lie in something distinct from it, something which actualizes its potentials, which composes its parts, and so forth.  And when we arrive at that explanation, we find that it lay in something whose existence is self-explanatory, precisely because it is pure actuality without any admixture of potentiality, absolutely simple, and subsistent being itself.’ (

Some of the Aristotelian concepts in the quote above I’m not 100% on board with, but the gist of the quote makes the same basic point: contingency, or non-necessity, or actualized potentials, or however one describes things are all only (and can only be) explained by something outside themselves, something that in principle is non-contingent, necessary, or purely actual.

God and Logic

Logic, as Wittgenstein and Russell learned, is a very slippery thing. For starters, what is it? It’s not a physical thing – I don’t bump into logic on the street. It’s not necessarily reasonable – some things are perfectly logical while also being entirely unreasonable. But, oddly enough, like mathematics, we seem to be subject to it – regardless of its immaterial status. Is it odd that something immaterial is something to which everything material is subject?

One of the various ways in which John 1:1 can be translated is ‘In the beginning was the logic’. Logos has many shades of meaning – but suppose this is true, as Gordon Clark thought. Is logic uncreated, then? Is God logic? I say no – logic has far too many limits to be God. However, is God subject to logic? Can God do that which is illogical? If God can perform physical miracles, and is unlimited by the laws of nature, wouldn’t the same apply to logic? Can God make square circles? Married bachelors? I don’t think so – though part of me is tempted to say that if God decided to make a square circle, then we would simply have to redefine our notion of a circle. But generally, it’s agreed that God can’t do any of these things. Aquinas discusses this issue in a pretty definitive way in his Summa:

‘It remains, therefore, that God is called omnipotent because He can do all things that are possible absolutely; which is the second way of saying a thing is possible. For a thing is said to be possible or impossible absolutely, according to the relation in which the very terms stand to one another, possible if the predicate is not incompatible with the subject, as that Socrates sits; and absolutely impossible when the predicate is altogether incompatible with the subject, as, for instance, that a man is a donkey.’

‘Now nothing is opposed to the idea of being except non-being. Therefore, that which implies being and non-being at the same time is repugnant to the idea of an absolutely possible thing, within the scope of divine omnipotence. For such cannot come under the divine omnipotence, not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing. Therefore, everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms, is numbered amongst those things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility. Hence it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them. Nor is this contrary to the word of the angel, saying: “No word shall be impossible with God.” For whatever implies a contradiction cannot be a word, because no intellect can possibly conceive such a thing.’ (I Q. 25, Art.3)

Interesting stuff. Aquinas was a sharp fellow.