Month: March 2014

The Ontological Argument: Anselm

Today I give the first post in my new series on Natural Theology. I plan on discussing arguments for the existence of God, and giving the pros and cons against them. I may follow up on it in later weeks and continue to give different approaches and thoughts on it.

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) 1 was an 11th century bishop who started his career as a Benedictine Monk in the Monastery at Bec, and wound up being Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 until his death in 1109. He was, broadly speaking, a Neoplatonist. This was a world-view which he had inherited from Augustine of Hippo, who influenced Anselm greatly. By the end of his life he had published many works on theology, including works on the Trinity 2 and the Atonement, as well as works of Philosophy. In his tract De Veritate he lays the groundwork for a Christian Epistemology based on Neoplatonic ideas. Roughly speaking, he believes there is an absolute truth of which all other truth partakes, and that we come to know by coming to know other truth; and that without we could know nothing.

He is best known, perhaps, among philosophers for two sets of works. The first is the Monologion, is an outline of Theistic Proofs for the Existence of God. After completing that however, Anselm wished to find a single argument that could prove that God existed by definition, and not only that God exists, but that he is the supreme good upon which all else depends and exists. And so he writes his Proslogion, to put forth this argument which he frames thus:

Therefore, Lord, you who give knowledge of the faith, give me as much knowledge as you know to be fitting for me, because you are as we believe and that which we believe. And indeed we believe you are something greater than which cannot be thought. Or is there no such kind of thing, for “the fool said in his heart, ‘there is no God'” But certainly that same fool, having heard what I just said, “something greater than which cannot be thought,” understands what he heard, and what he understands is in his thought, even if he does not think it exists. For it is one thing for something to exist in a person’s thought and quite another for the person to think that thing exists. For when a painter thinks ahead to what he will paint, he has that picture in his thought, but he does not yet think it exists, because he has not done it yet. Once he has painted it he has it in his thought and thinks it exists because he has done it. Thus even the fool is compelled to grant that something greater than which cannot be thought exists in thought, because he understands what he hears, and whatever is understood exists in thought. And certainly that greater than which cannot be understood cannot exist only in thought, for if it exists only in thought it could also be thought of as existing in reality as well, which is greater. If, therefore, that than which greater cannot be thought exists in thought alone, then that than which greater cannot be thought turns out to be that than which something greater actually can be thought, but that is obviously impossible. Therefore something than which greater cannot be thought undoubtedly exists both in thought and in reality.

Anselm starts by defining God as “A being which nothing greater can be conceived.” Using this definition he then puts forth a simple argument, which I will reformulate into clearer terms than the above:

  1. God is a thing which nothing greater can be conceived.
  2. It is greater to exist in reality than to exist solely in the mind. 3
  3. If God does not exist, then we can conceive of a greater being, namely one that exists in reality, therefore that being must exist and must be God.
  4. Therefore: God exists in reality.
  5. Therefore: God exists.

This argument, for better or for worse, has been talked about for many centuries. Most people suggest there has to be something wrong with it, but they disagree over exactly where the misstep is. It is not exactly obvious.

Even his contemporaries were not pleased with it. Guanilo of Marmoutiers wrote a response to Anselm in his book, Liber De Insipiente, where he basically parodies the argument, trying to show that Anselm is mistaken in his idea that this form of logic can work. If it works, than absolutely anything is possible, is the idea. The parody argument goes thus:

“Welcome to the Lost Island. Fantasy Island.”

  1. The Lost Island is an island greater than which none can be conceived.
  2. It is greater to exist in reality than in the mind alone.
  3. If the Lost Island does not exist, then you can conceive of an even greater island, then that one must exist.
  4. Therefore: The lost island exists.

This argument, however, seems to miss the mark on its intended goal. It’s goal was to show that if the argument is valid in an obviously false case, then it cannot be used to show the true one with any more certainty. The problem here is that Guanilo did not understand the nuance of Anselm’s position. Anselm first off, postulated a thing of which nothing greater than can be conceived, but Guanilo postulated an Island, which precludes the possibility of the argument being effective at all on it. The argument goes that any thing which is the greatest conceivable thing must exist. The island therefore, can not exist4, because it could be out-conceived by a non-island.5 You might be able to revise it to include something like Premise 1 in Anslem’s argument; which is “The Lost Island is  a thing of which none greater could be conceived.” But then you’d have to justify why an island is the greatest of all conceivable things.

Further, I think Guanilo misses another nuance of the position, that Anselm did not flush out. If we revise the argument to look like this:

  1. A being greater than which nothing can be conceived is a thought which is understood by any who hear it.
  2. In order for something to be understood by a hearer the object being talked about must exist in the mind.
  3. If something exists only in the mind it is inferior to an object that exists both in the mind and reality.
  4. “A being greater than which nothing can be conceived” would obviously be better than a being that existed only in the mind.
  5. Therefore: said being exists both in the mind and in reality.

The key difference is now that “is a thought which is understood by any who hear it.” Anselm, in combination with his idea about truth given in De Veritate, is roughly saying that everyone will at least roughly agree on what the greatest conceivable thing is, even if they don’t like it. Guanilo’s counter-objection does not follow then, because what makes the greatest possible island might not be agreed upon. I for example, like peace and quiet, and would like an island with a steady climate, books and easy to reach fruit. My girlfriend on the other hand, being an active person and a lover of people, might want there to be resorts and dances and events she could go and do and see. My brother might wish for an island with dangerous animals to pit his skills against, or at least seemingly dangerous ones. So it seems much harder to pin down what might make something great. Infinity. Anselm does spend the rest of the Proslogion showing exactly what kind of attributes this sort of thing would have. The following is just the table of contents of the Proslogion:

CHAPTER III: That God Cannot be Thought Not to Exist
CHAPTER IV: How the Fool Managed to Say in His Heart That Which Cannot be Thought
CHAPTER V: That God is whatever it is better to be than not to be, and that existing through Himself alone He makes all other beings from nothing
CHAPTER VI: How He is perceptive although He is not a body
CHAPTER VII: How He is omnipotent although He cannot do many things
CHAPTER VIII: How He is both merciful and impassible
CHAPTER IX: How the all-just and supremely just One spares the wicked and justly has mercy on the wicked
CHAPTER X: How He justly punishes and justly spares the wicked
CHAPTER XI: How ‘all the ways of the Lord are mercy and truth’, and yet how ‘the Lord is just in all His ways’
CHAPTER XII: That God is the very life by which He lives and that he same holds for like attributes
CHAPTER XIII: How He alone is limitless and eternal, although other spirits are also limitless and eternal
CHAPTER XIV: How and why God is both seen and not seen by those seeking Him
CHAPTER XV: How He is greater than can be thought
CHAPTER XVI: That this is the ‘inaccessible light’ in which He ‘dwells’
CHAPTER XVII: That harmony, fragrance, sweetness, softness, and beauty are in God according to His own ineffable manner
CHAPTER XVIII: That there are no parts in God or in His eternity which He is
CHAPTER XIX: That He is not in place or time but all things are in Him
CHAPTER XX: That He is before and beyond even all eternal things
CHAPTER XXI: Whether this is the ‘age of the age’ or the ‘ages of the ages’
CHAPTER XXII: That He alone is what He is and who He is
CHAPTER XXIII: That this good is equally Father and Son and Holy Spirit, and that this is the one necessary being which is altogether and wholly and solely good
CHAPTER XXIV: A speculation as to what kind and how great this good is
CHAPTER XXV: Which goods belong to those who enjoy this good and how great they are
CHAPTER XXVI: Whether this is the ‘fullness of joy’ which the Lord promises

A summary then of the properties he believes God to have are
1. Metaphysical Necessity.
2. Self-existent.
3. Perceptive.
4. Immaterial.
5. Omnipotent.
6. Just.
7. Merciful.
8. Timeless.
9. Spaceless.
10. Simple.

While it might be hard to get people to agree on all of these being the greatest possible things, surely at least some of them seem intuitive. Something which is omnipotent and self-existent and necessary, seems greater than something which is impotent and contingent. Justice and Mercy might be omitted from the list, but still it seems like Anselm has something going for him. His argument just might make it out.

Until we get to Immanuel Kant.

Immanuel Kant famously attacks Anselm’s Ontological Argument (and is actually where we get the term ‘ontological argument.’) in his Critique of Pure Reason. In his Critique, Kant levies a series of arguments related to the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments that directly attack the plausibility of the premises of the argument. Analytic judgments are judgments wherein the information of the premise is already inside the premise. (ex. “All bachelors are unmarried.”) They are tautologies and  give no new information about the subject during analysis. Synthetic judgments on the other hand do give us information about a subject. (Ex. “The book is on the desk.”) In our example sentence, we have the subject ‘book’ and the predicate ‘on the desk’ and ‘desk’ is no where contained within the idea of ‘book’ and so we have learned something new about this book, namely it’s relation to the idea of ‘desk’.

After making these distinctions Kant argues that the idea of a necessary being is incoherent. If the Ontological argument is intended to be Analytic in nature, then the statement “God exists” is only true because of the definition we ascribe to the terms. (I.e. “If God exists then he exists.”) but you could easily have an incorrect definition, or believe that God exists falsely. (If bigfoot exists, then he exists.) However, if it’s intended to be a Synthetic statement, then the knowledge required to prove God would be outside of God himself, and is not an a priori judgment then.

This is a pretty detrimental attack on Anselm’s argument as he phrased it. It even takes to task particular attributes of God that Anselm puts forth as being part of the Maximally Great being such as “Not being able to not exist.” Kant claims that in order for a contradiction to arise in a sentence, the subject and predicate must be maintained throughout it. He argued that non-existence then could not be a contradiction with anything, because that would deny the predicate. So there is no way to arrive with a contradiction through non existence.

He concludes his attacks on the argument by concluding that “‘being’ is obviously not a real predicate.” 6 It does not add any information to the definition of something only indicates that it actually occurs in reality.7 He argued that the ontological argument depends on existence to be a predicate and thus it is possible for a maximally great being to not exist and thusly he refutes Anselm.

Can Anselm’s argument survive this attack?


Immediately preceding Anselm(b. 1033) lived a man the Latinate world came to know as Avicenna(980-1037)8 Avicenna was, and perhaps still is, one of the most important philosophers of the Arabic World. He derived several arguments that showed how there must be a necessary existence, because everything in the universe(even the universe itself) is obviously contingent. Without belaboring the argument too much (since I will be dealing with it later) it seems that Avicenna may be able to rush to his Latinate successor’s rescue.

If, instead of using ‘existence’ as a property of the maximally great being you can show that ‘necessary existence’ is a property of the maximally great being, then you could defeat Kant’s objection. This is because “If a God exists, he necessarily exists.” Because it is in the conditional tense it is still possible to reject this premise, it does have the unfortunate effect of weakening the ontological argument. It can now no longer be used to prove God and all his properties. But it could still be useful as a sort of ‘capstone’ argument in a cumulative case for God.

So sadly, I ultimately think Anselm failed at his goal for coming up with a single argument to show both that God exists and that he has all the properties we believe he does. He does however, come up with a concept of an argument that could unite all the other arguments for God’s existence and serve as a sort of capstone argument. He also succeeds in creating what is known as “Perfect Being Theology” which is taking God’s attributes and stretching them as far as logically possible. So when God is said to be ‘almighty’ we can extend this as far as is logically possible and take him to be this way in the greatest conceivable way. This form of theology is incredibly useful in both apologetics and personal theology.

That does not mean I think it’s the end for the Ontological Argument. As we’ll see there are several modal versions which I think are useful and we’ll look at later, starting with one put forth by Alvin Plantinga.

  1. Sometimes also known as Anselm of Aosta after his hometown, or Anselm of Bec after his home monastery. 
  2. His works on the Trinity are interesting in that they draw on Augustine’s De Trinitate where Augustine uses himself and how the mind relates to itself, to show how a trinity might conceivably exist. What’s fascinating is that a similar line of reasoning is used in Ibn-Tufayl’s “Hayy Ibn Yaqzan” when Hayy is coming to an awareness of the Unity and Multiplicity of the Necessary Existent. 
  3. I take it then that Anselm probably has a problem with nominalistic existences of entities such as numbers, properties, etc. However, this could also be a reference to Aristotle’s active intellect, which contemporary and earlier Arabic thinkers had thought enabled us to know things by relating the forms of things to particulars. This is farfetched though and is wildly speculative on my part, and I find little in the texts to support it. 
  4. This does not necessitate that the island does not exist, rather that it is possible for it to not exist. 
  5. William L. Rowe: “The Ontological Argument” in Feinberg; Shafer-Landau: Reason & Responsibility, p. 15. 
  6.  Kant, Immanuel (1958) [1787]. Critique of Pure Reason. Norman Kemp Smith (2d. ed.). London: Macmillan @ Co. Ltd. pp. 500–507. (first edition, pp. 592–603 
  7.  For example: Unicorns are not defined as “Non-existent” but they simply do not occur in reality. If you were to find a one horned Horse you could call it a unicorn and not be “Oh, that can’t be a unicorn, they’re non-existent. 
  8. His full name was Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sīnā. 

Fledgling thoughts on Liturgy, Aristotle, and Birthdays

This last week has been very busy for me. It was my birthday week, and seeing as my family always takes four or five days to celebrate all the Birthdays that fall on that week, let me say, I had no free time. No free time especially to work on my new post on Natural Theology concerning Anselm’s Ontological Argument, but it occurred to me this week the importance of these sorts of events. To mark things that happen.

I have a long term post goal to eventually present a full post(or even a series) on Aristotle and the Liturgy, where I discuss the importance of habituation in our lives, that we might always reflect on God. But this is side-research for the moment, but relatedly I would like to present a few fledgling thoughts on why it is important to keep memorial of events, and to celebrate.

“We are adapted by nature to receive [virtues] and are made perfect by habit” 1 Human beings by nature are habitual creatures, and we grow into our habits and our strengths more often. This then is why if we want to grow in relationship with other people, we must habituate spending time with them, that we can receive virtues from them, and they can receive them from us, and in this exchange we grow more and more virtuous. If we wish to grow in Godliness, we spend time with God and adapt our minds to orient towards him, and for this we have the Liturgy.

But what is a habit? And how do birthdays and holidays and such things help us deal with that? Habit in this case, is not a passive action. Sure there are habits we have that are passive, such as gesticulating a certain way, or using a certain phrase or checking our phones absently. But when we use the word habit in the sense described above, we’re using a more active word. The Greek word, hexis. Hexis describes a condition in which someone must actively hold themselves. If not, then it is strange that Aristotle describes the good life as a life lived by virtuous habit. Not by choice, not by activity, but by passive habits, like checking one’s phone. This hexis is practically the opposite of what we mean by ‘habit’ today.2

“In Book VII of the Physics, Aristotle says much the same thing about the way children start to learn: they are not changed, he says, nor are they trained or even acted upon in any way, but they themselves get straight into an active state when time or adults help them settle down out of their native condition of disorder and distraction. (247b, 17-248a, 6)” [^3]

Hexis is what happens when everything else is put in proper order. It is the state of actively maintaining a state of affairs. A garden cannot prosper if it is full of weeds, but the plants do their own growing, a gardener just keeps the weeds away. Similarly disciplining virtues is a matter of avoiding extremes, of cancelling out bad ‘habits’ and creating a neutral ground through which our mind and character can grow actively.

And this is one of the reasons for the liturgy. By starting and ending our day in good ways, in the objective experience of God, regardless of how we feel or what we want, we shape that day in some way. Similarly, in the Bible we see that whenever God moved his hand and caused something, the people of God put up a memorial or founded a feast, or wrote it down. Why? To remember. When you begin to level out your day of distraction and then are reminded of those things which matter, you can better focus on them. Lent clears away our distractions, reminds us of our weakness, so that when Easter comes we can better see the Triumph of Christ. Advent prepares our minds for the incarnation that we can truly appreciate the wonder of God becoming man.

Holidays then are set up to remind us of things, so that we can allow them to press upon our minds and change us. Christmas reminds us of the wonderful gift and humility of God, that we might also be gracious and humble. Easter reminds us of Christ’s death and resurrection, conquering sin, Satan, and death in the process, so that we might be more fearless in our lives, and less afraid of death. So that we might more faithfully confess our sins, for their sting has already been taken. Birthdays as well, though sometimes time consuming and annoying(at least for me, when it takes up four days of my time.) remind us of what we care about most. Family, friends, and the joy that God gives us. But it also reminds us, as Christ tells us that we must be ‘born again’. We had nothing to do with our First birth, and we had nothing to do with our spiritual birth. And we have nothing to do with our birthdays, merely that they continue on in God’s grace. And that perhaps is a great reminder, to trust in the Lord for all the days of our lives, that we might make it to our next birthday.

  1. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II:1, 1003a 
  2. While habitus  is a perfectly good translation of hexis into Latin, it’s through this little detour that things get muddled and we get to the modern idea of ‘habit’. 

Natural Theology: A Brief History

I am going to be starting a semi-weekly series on Natural Theology. I will try once a week to put up a new post referring to Arguments for the Existence of God from the Natural World. I will survey the person who proposed it very briefly, give the argument as they pose it and then attempt to both give critique and defense of the argument.

This week we’re going to be giving a brief history of the views towards Natural Theology, where it comes from and how people typically respond to it. To begin though, we need to define Natural Theology. Natural Theology is a field of study that deals with the existence and attributes of God through natural human experiences, reason, and evidences. Some of the questions that might also be addressed by it are whether God knows future free choices of creatures, how is God related to time, what does it mean for God to be omnipotent, etc. This is done without an authoritative appeal to revealed scriptures of your tradition. This allows even atheists and agnostics to participate in Natural Theology and most apologetic arguments and work would be in the field of Natural Theology. In this post, we will discuss the origins and history of Natural Theology.

Theology and Natural theology have their earliest roots in the same place: Ancient Greece. Poets were theologians, discussing the attributes, activities, and character of the Gods, and at roughly the same time came the philosophers. The pre-socratic philosophers began their search for the “First Principle” of all things, the source and origin of all others. Their attempts varied much from each other, but we had candidates like Fire, Water, duality, “Being”, number, etc. These were supposed to be the principle from which everything else was derived. Note that both these activities, Theology and Philosophy, were in the air of the society by the time Socrates and Plato came on the scene.

And that brings us to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. We don’t know much about Socrates’ actual thoughts, only that he was executed for ‘corrupting the Youth’ and on charge of Atheism. (that is, denying the gods of the poets.) In his Republic1Plato describes what the purpose of an education is, and he does this by analogy of a Cave. Under normal circumstances we are chained to walls made to watch shadows dance, illusions cast by puppets over fire. Then we are debating and discussing the virtues of these so called ‘shadows’ and talking about them as if they are real. Eventually, we are taken and dragged out of the cave, kicking and screaming. We see the puppets and the fire, and the puppeteers, and eventually are thrown out fully into the light of the sun, which burns our eyes and hurts us. But we gaze upon the sun, that gives understanding to the forms below it. And then we go back into the cave and tell everyone else what we’ve seen, and they count us as mad.

Plato claims that the first principle is the “Form of the Good” or the sunlight in his analogy. It is the source of all knowledge, and is arrived at through a means of dialectic. By working on ideas with other people, we eventually come to the conclusion that there is this ‘good’ which is beyond adequate description (but we come to this conclusion not by inference but in some non-inferential way), but without which we don’t have much else. Plato himself didn’t think of this as ‘God’ but later thinkers most certainly did.

Aristotle, Plato’s student, offers a series of arguments for the Prime Mover, or the Prime God, the God of Gods. He starts with the observation that things change. And then based on his Physics, he goes to show that there must be an unmoved mover. A Prime mover. And this is what he means by God. He also claims that this is not an inference, but a proof2. In his Metaphysics, he then tries to show that this substance must be nous, or reason, because all things in the universe move in accord with reason. So this first mover, this prime mover, must be reason itself.

Both Aristotle and Plato agree that you don’t need sacred writings or texts to arrive at ideas about God. And this laid the groundwork for later thinkers.

Jump ahead quite a bit, and we get to the Early Christians. Early Christians were vexed with two distinct questions, “do we have a theology, and what do we do with philosophy?” Theology, in the 1st Century world, still had the connotation of poets, describing the myths and actions of their gods. So for a time, Christians rejected theology. After the milieu shifted away from paganism and towards Christianity, only then did they adopt the word.

So what did they do with philosophy? Well, they were largely divided. Christians had received a lot of flack from philosophers for their central tenant, which can be roughly paraphrased as thus. “The first principle, became flesh.” This is simply a logical contradiction, they argued. Tertullian was, in response to them, known to have said, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?”3 This response was (perhaps without warrant or unfairly) used to show that Christians have no business with rational argument when it comes to their theology. But his response was not unanimous. Justin Martyr, a rough contemporary of Tertullian, developed an account of the activity of Christ in the vein of Platonist and Stoic ideas. As well, Clement of Alexandria was a fan of philosophy, believing it to be a sort of “proto-gospel” preparing the hearts of the Greeks for the reception of the gospel much like the law did for the Jews.4 He also developed a theory of knowledge (gnosis) based on contemporary theories and philosophies available.

Soon, the Greek speaking church was using philosophical language to define their terms and their theology. But just using philosophical language doesn’t make something philosophy, does it?

It seemed then, that even though theology was using philosophical language, it wasn’t philosophy in the proper sense. Philosophy, had been done historically without appeal to sacred texts, and theology was the analysis of sacred texts(admittedly with philosophical terms.) Often the two disciplines overlapped, say, in trying to understand determinism and free will, but they were distinct disciplines.

So we arrive at this distinction with Augustine (though he does not use these terms): Natural Theology is theology that is done by reason and experience alone. Revealed Theology is done by appeals to revelation and the Authority of the Church. In other words, Faith is concerned with Theology, Reason is concerned with Natural Theology, even though they might deal with some of the same topics. But nothing (in Augustine’s view) is more powerful than the Authority of the Church.

Later, Boethius writes a full treatise on the attributes of God, God’s existence, and his providence, without a single appeal to sacred texts to establish any points he establishes God as good, providential, etc.

Pseudo-Dionysus did similar, dividing between these two disciplines more sharply, but showing that they were about the same thing. One approached God from below, and one approached God from his level and himself. They both helped contribute to a complete picture of God and the world he made. (Though one is more reliable than the other.)

Then there was an age of monasticism where no Natural Theology was done per se, but there were extensive meditations on the Scriptures and the limits of them. Though there was a distinction made by most of them between scientia or that which is established by principles, and opinia that which is known by appeals to authority. If a proposition was confirmed by either of these options, then we should believe it(even though scientia is a limited faculty, recalling that we “see only through a mirror dimly”.) That all changed with Anselm of Canterbury, who resurrected the idea of trying to understand God without appeals to revelation. He however, did think that reason would eventually meet the unintelligible, and would be supported by the claims of faith. Reason was not fit to rule over faith, but to support it.

He is also regarded commonly as the founder of Scholasticism, where dogmas met changing thoughts and pluralism and adapted to arguments as they grew. The most famous Scholastic, or at least, the most famous in my opinion, is Thomas Aquinas.

Aquinas viewed Faith and Reason, as two approaches to the same thing, like his predecessor. He may have also borrowed this approach from Averroës, or The Commentator, as he mentions him in his works. Aquinas viewed Truth, as being able to obtained through a two fold path. The lesser is reason, as the truths we get apart from it are incomplete but nonetheless true. The greater then is revelation. There can be no contradiction that exists between them, though faith is allowed to have a truth that cannot be confirmed by philosophy. This is because as Averroës puts it, “for truth does not oppose truth but accords with it and bears witness to it.” 5 Aquinas thought that philosophy could be used to support revelation and the propositions revealed there, but if there was a falsification or contradiction, then faith would continue through. This “twofold truth” 6 was necessary because Faith and Reason are distinct faculties and they cannot know the same truth.

Aquinas argued on the basis of his two-fold truth, that there are two distinct types of theology. Revealed Theology and Rational Theology, the former being a science not based on reason or experience, it deals with only one thing, the nature of God, and has a higher degree of certainty than the latter. Rational theology on the other hand can make demonstrations using articles of faith as its principles, and can make apologetic defenses whilst assuming no articles of faith. However, unlike the former, this science can err. He bases this idea on a form of hierarchical reality which is essential in his Natural Theology, for example, I think it’s his third of the Five Ways where he demonstrates the existence of God from ascending measurements.

This “two truth” method however, soon caused great skepticism, and was not accepted even within the church as an established method of using reason. Within the Dominican order(which Francis was a part of), these seemed to be okay, but later Franciscans rejected Aquinas’ natural theology. One example is Duns Scotus: Scotus for example, rejected the premise that you can learn things about the higher order from the lower order. Meaning that yes, moving things here require movement, but you cannot show that about the heavens or anything above them. Scotus instead thinks that reason can only be used to clarify a concept, and the concept we should be looking at is “infinite being”. When Scotus uses his natural theology he explains that there is no prime mover, but a self-existent being that makes all possibles possible.7

Ockham similarly rejects Aquinas’ metaphysics. Ockham suggested that a large majority of Aristotelian physics was simply a corruption of the Christian faith. God seemed more bound by principles and the natures of things than being their author. Ockham rejected the use of reason without revelation in every sense, claiming that there was no point in doing Natural Theology, because not much can be known of God.

The Reformers, Luther and Calvin, took a lot of the faith and made it sola fides, meaning that you could only know God through faith, and that there was little room for reason. This is a broad stroke of course, as they had their nuance. Luther for example rejected the idea of divine analogy, and thought that the only way you could learn anything about God was through looking upon the Cross and Christ. The human will was even more unable to bring itself to think about the things of God, without God’s first helping, so no faith could be based upon will or reason.

Calvin on the other hand, in his Institutes, talks about a sensus divinatus, which is a general sense of and awareness of the Divine, given certain circumstances. Whenever we experience Beauty, Guilt, Danger, we are learning about God and becoming aware of his attributes. Even idolatry contains some aspect of this, so religion itself is not an arbitrary thing, but he then emphasizes that the sensus divinatus is not enough to build your faith on, that faith must be established by revelation and the hand of God.

The modern period gets a lot more rapid in the discussion, quickly realizing that Aquinas’ two-truths had opened a door no one knew what was on the other side of. Two camps arose: those that thought that nature affirms some knowledge of God, and that there is a way to approach his nature from Human nature(even if inadequately) and others who thought the exact opposite. The rise of modern science and philosophy, caused a change in Natural Theology, even possibly creating an Anti-Aristotelian form of it.

Descartes for example, derives a version of the Ontological Argument, that is proving God a priori, in his Meditations. He concludes that since he has an idea of perfection, even though he doubts everything, he himself exists, and he himself has an idea of perfection. This idea cannot come from without, and it cannot come from the world, because he has no basis for it, therefore it must come from the idea of God. God must exist, and he wouldn’t lie, and therefore our senses are reliable.8 And this method of rationalistic a priori Natural Theology took a firm root in the continent. This continues through Leibniz, Spinoza, and Pascal.9

In Great Britain however, something different was occurring. These arguments were Empirical and took the form of Probabilistic arguments. Clark and Butler are two examples. Clark’s book A Demonstration of the Being and Attributes of God, starts with the observation that something has always existed (since nothing can arise from nothing) and it argues from that fact that God exists and that he has the attributes he has. Presumably this is all founded upon an empirical claim (which I’m thinking is ex nihilo, nihilo fit. “Out of Nothing, nothing comes.”)

Hume though, came along and leveled his powerful objections to just about every form of belief anyone could have. He criticized design arguments, and arguments from Miracles10 and left us with either mysticism or skepticism. In his work Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Hume applies principles of his epistemology to Natural Theology as a whole, tackling it and smashing into it’s side with a large wrecking ball. This however, did not stop natural theologians. William Paley, to use just one example, put forth one of the most famous arguments from design, which I will address in a later post, where he believes the existence of a Creator is the proper inference due to the massive complexity of the universe.

But then came Kant. Kant, in an attempt to escape the wild metaphysical musings of the Rationalists, and the deep Skepticism of the Empiricists(specifically Hume.) he devised a metaphysical system that caused trouble for Natural Theologians. He argued that the arguments for the existence of God cannot make their point, due to the limits of human cognition. The apparent sensibility of these arguments is due to a transcendental illusion that our mind creates due to our confusion of the essence of things and our experience of things. The idea that our experience of objects as they affect us, is somehow the experience of objects as they are. For example: The premise of causality that “every event has a cause” is simply the way our mind orders experiences to make sense of them, not a product of the way they are. This is from Hume’s demonstration that there is no necessary reasoning that makes a cause a cause. Causality is one example of an illusion. Therefore, any demonstration of God’s existence from premises concerning the essence of things are illusory. Therefore, any metaphysics, classical or natural theology had to answer this problem.

So after Kant, Natural Theology took two general directions. The Catholic Church took it in one direction and the Protestant Church took it in another. The Protestant church was largely inspired by William Paley, who’s natural theology suffered a major blow from the works of Charles Darwin, who was able to explain away the appearance of design through Natural Selection. As Dawkins once put it, “Darwin made it acceptable to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”11 In Protestant circles natural theology fell out of fashion throughout the 20th century, as theology became less founded on historical knowledge and more on a sort of textual or philosophical or faith based knowledge. This is in response to both historical criticism of the New Testament following the Enlightenment, and also an arousal of doubt in the historicity of the text. G.E. Lessing in his Philosophical and Theological Writings, argues that there is a “ugly great ditch” that cannot be crossed in terms of epistemology. We cannot reliably trust historical truths, and especially not ones that claim miracle. Because of this we cannot base our metaphysical understanding or truths on historical truths. This led to a movement where his successors both redefined faith, knowledge, and history in attempts to get around this. This had the unfortunate effect of either removing the gospel from real spatio-temporal history, actual knowability, or the realm of the concrete, depending on whom you are dealing with.  This move might also have been supported by their sola fide affirmation that only faith is useful in understanding God, and that reason if useful at all, is only a secondary and less important thing. (I do not think that’s what we mean necessarily by sola fide, but I see how that sort of interpretation could be made.)

The Catholic Church went in two forks of its own:

  1. First: there were those who intended to adapt modern philosophy for Theological use, like Aquinas had done with Aristotle, and Augustine had done with Plato. Examples of these men include Antonio Rosmini, who drawing on the work of Augustine, Bonaventure, Pascal, Malebranche and others developed his theology. He wrote many works with philosophical overtones, addressing some of the same topics, such as “A New Essay concerning the Origin of Ideas” which if the title isn’t a dead giveaway, was set out to replace Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. 

  2.  Second: There were the thinkers who revised the work of Thomas Aquinas. This was originally a small movement, but overtime grew in strength, gaining power and following. But there were disagreements, which led to splintering, which gives us many distinct groups of Neo-Thomistic thinkers. You have Aristotelian Thomists, and Transcendental Thomism, and Analytic Thomism, and so forth. Some examples of  Neo-Thomistic thinkers today would be Peter Kreeft and Edward Feser 12

But then, something really odd happened in the latter half of the Twentieth Century. As far as I can tell, starting with Alvin Plantinga’s God and Other Minds, a renaissance in Natural Theology has burst forth in the Anglo-American world. Natural Theology has not enjoyed such a time of free expression since the medieval period. Discussions of Divine Attributes about in books and journals, and articles written in Academic Journals such as Faith and Philosophy, and Philosophia Christi, and arguments for the existence of God are showing up all over the place. There have been revisions of the argument from design based on recent Cosmological discussions, such as Robin Collin’s The Teleological Argument: an exploration of the fine tuning of the universe,13 or TJ Mawson’s Explaining the Fine Tuning of the Universe to Us, and Us to the Universe. 14 We’ve seen the argument from the Origin of the Universe retraced in articles such as William Lane Craig and James Sinclair’s The Kalaam Cosmological Argument 15 arguments from the existence of Objective Morality, and from states of Consciousness, and arguments from Contingency, like Alexander Pruss’ The Leibnizian Cosmological Argument,16 and arguments like Anselm’s ontological argument have been revised, by men like Plantinga who put forth a Modal Version of the Argument, and Robert Maydole, who put forth another sophisticated version of it. (The logic used in it is hard for me to follow, so I don’t plan on doing a review of his any time soon.)

This advance is of course, not without its critics, but I think it is at least a good thing for Christians in this day and age. To clarify our positions wisely, and not to fight uphill against science and philosophy but try and use it. Because as Al-Ghazali observed in his Incoherence of the Philosophers: 17

“The second part is one where their doctrine does not clash with any religious principle and where it is not a necessity of the belief in the prophets and God’s messengers, God’s prayer be upon them, to dispute with them about it.

Whoever thinks that to engage in a disputation for refuting such a theory is a religious duty harms religion and weakens it. For these matters rest on demonstrations – geometrical and arithmetical – that leave no room for doubt. Thus when one who studies these demonstrations and ascertains their proofs, deriving thereby information about the time of the two eclipses and their extent and duration, is told that this is contrary to religion, such an individual will not suspect this science, but only religion. The harm inflicted on religion by those who defend it in a way not proper to it. As it has been said: ‘A rational foe is better than an ignorant friend.’

So I think Christians should welcome the revival of Natural Theology. All while understanding that while religion is not based on the affirmation of certain propositions, nonetheless, rational defense and understanding of these propositions might help to strengthen ones faith, to give you more room to defend it to yourself and to other people when you encounter a difficulty.

  1. The Republic, book VII. 
  2. Based on his theory of proof put forth in the Prior Analytics
  3.  Prescription Against the Heretics, ch. VII 
  4.  In Defense of Greek Learning 
  5.  The Decisive Treatise, chapter 2. 
  6.  Summa Contra Gentiles 
  7. There is a resemblance here to Avicenna’s argument for a necessary existent. This form of argument is called the “Contingency Argument” in modern nomenclature. Maimonides, Leibniz, Avicenna, and apparently Scotus use a form of it, but they tend to reject cosmological arguments from motion(or the absolute beginning) 
  8. Interestingly, this form of argumentation is becoming useful again. Plantinga in several places, has raised what is called the “Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism” which shows that given naturalism, we have little reason to trust our senses are delivering us truth. 
  9. How Pascal was affected by the probabilistic versions of arguments being raised in Britain is unclear. I would have to do more research on them. All we know is he leveled a version of the argument based on Game probability, commonly called Pascal’s Wager. 
  10. Interestingly, with the rise of Bayesian Probability, Hume’s argument against miracles has been shown, not just to be failure, but an irredeemable failure. For full explanation see “Hume’s Abject Failure” 
  11.  Dawkins, Richard. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton. 
  12. Edward Feser’s blog can be found here. 
  17.  Ghazzālī, and Michael E. Marmura. The Incoherence of the Philosophers = Tahaful Al-falasifah. Provo, UT: Brigham Young UP, 2000. Print.