Faith, Reason, Knowledge III

One of the important matters related to this understanding of the relationship between faith, reason and knowledge is our ability to know God, and to know God we must come to some conclusion about whether or not he exists. If it is granted that he does exist, then what are his attributes? How can we know them?

I want to say more about faith, reason and knowledge specifically, but it has been helpful for my thinking to lay the groundwork for further discussion by running through the ancient sceptical arguments against whether one can dogmatically assert God’s existence and make claims about his attributes. I will use the third chapter of Book III of Sextus Empiricus’ Outlines of Pyrrhonism, especially paragraphs 6-12, as my working text.

Sextus is thought to have lived in the late second century A.D., and his work is a summarization of one line of ancient scepticism that purports to date from Pyrrho in the early fourth century B.C. Sextus’s work falls into four neat divisions: Book I discusses Pyrrhonian scepticism in general, including terms and concepts, and the famous ten modes and the so-called “Agrippan” modes on which sceptical thought is based and from which it derives its critical force. Book II applies those concepts and modes to the ancient philosophical subject and discipline of Logic (or Dialectic), and Book III further applies these modes and concepts to the areas of Physics (or the Causes, primarily motions–chapters 1-21) and Ethics (chapters 21-32).

Our text falls in the third chapter of Book III. After some discussion about the necessity of remaining undogmatic (we would say agnostic) about God’s existence and claims about his attributes, Sextus writes:

Further, in order to form a conception of God one must necessarily–so far as depends on the dogmatists—suspend judgment as to his existence or nonexistence. For the existence of God is not preevident. For if God impressed us automatically, the dogmatists would have agreed together regarding his essence, his character, and his place; whereas their interminable disagreement has made him seem to us nonevident and needing demonstration. Now he that demonstrates the existence of God does so by means of what is either preevident or nonevident. Certainly not, then, by means of the preevident; for if what demonstrates God’s existence were preevident, then–since the thing proved is conceived together with that which proves it, and therefore is apprehended along with it as well, as we have established–God’s existence also will be preevident, it being apprehended along with the preevident fact which proves it. But, as we have shown, it is not preevident; therefore it is not proved, either, by a preevident fact. Nor yet by what is nonevident. For if the nonevident fact which is capable of proving God’s existence, needing proof as it does, shall be said to be proved by means of a preevident fact, it will no longer be nonevident but preevident. Therefore the nonevident fact which proves his existence is not proved by what is preevident. Nor yet by what is nonevident; for he who asserts this will be driven into circular reasoning when we keep demanding proof every time for the nonevident fact which he produces as proof of the last one propounded. Consequently, the existence of God cannot be proved from any other fact. But if God’s is neither automatically preevident nor proved from another fact, it will be inapprehensible.

The typical sceptical move in Sextus is simple: there are disagreements about whether or not God exists, therefore we must suspend judgment about whether or not God exists. For if it were clear (“preevident”) that God exists, then there would be no dispute. But since there are disagreements, God’s existence must be demonstrated.

Now those demonstrations are either: clear (“preevident”) or unclear (“nonevident”). But they cannot be preevident, because if they were preevident then a) the implication is that God’s existence would be demonstrated and there would be no disagreement and b) since what is preevident must be conceived together with the proof that is preevident, then God’s existence would also be preevident with the preevident fact; but in fact God’s existence is not preevident.

But neither can God’s existence be proven by a nonevident fact, because it would need a preevident fact to provide proof for itself. But a nonevident fact cannot be proven by a preevident fact because the nonevident fact would have to be preevident along with the preevident fact which provides the basis for accepting the nonevident fact. But similarly, a nonevident fact cannot be proven by another nonevident fact, because either one assumes the conclusive proof in the premise (which is circular reasoning) or one would have to provide yet another nonevident fact to prove the nonevident fact proving the first nonevident fact, and this would only lead to infinite regress.

Thus, Sextus concludes, since there are only preevident or nonevident facts, and neither is a ground for proving God’s existence, there are no proofs of God’s existence.

But while this argument works for the limited operations of reasoning, one cannot assume that reason is the only way of knowing God. If God is a person, as we Christians, among others, take him to be, then while reason is one component of our knowledge of him, he is not circumscribable by reason. In fact, precisely because God is a person, one might well expect that his existence could not be proven on the basis of human reasoning alone. Think for example of attempting to prove the existence of one of your friends to another friend who does not know him and has not had direct contact with him. In the end, the “proof” would have to rely on your testimony, supported by various reasonings.

But all this is not the same thing as denying God’s existence. Sextus himself notes that one cannot, by lack of proof, assert that God does not exist, because this stance itself would need demonstration. But that demonstration would fall prey to the same sceptical attack. In short, the best that reason can do with regard to God’s existence is to remain agnostic. (It seems to me that Kant makes basically this same move in the first Critique.)

Next, Sextus explores God’s attributes: forethought (or foreknowledge), will and power, and how these relate to God’s goodness or malignancy.

There is this also to be said. He who affirms that God exists either declares that he has, or that he has not, forethought for the things in the universe, and in the former case that such forethought is for all things or for some things. But if he had forethought for all, there would have been nothing bad and no badness in the world; yet all things, they say, are full of badness; hence it shall not be said that God forethinks all things. If, again, he forethinks some, why does he forethink these things and not those? For either he has both the will and the power to forethink all things, or else he has the will but not the power, or the power but not the will, or neither the will nor the power. But if he had had both the will and the power he would have had forethought for all things; but for the reasons stated above he does not forethink all; therefore he has not both the will and the power to forethink all. And if he has the will but not the power, he is less strong than the cause which renders him unable to forethink what he does not forethink: but it is contrary to our notion of God that he should be weaker than anything. And if, again, he has the power but not the will to have forethought for all, he will be held to be malignant; while if he has neither the will nor the power, he is both malignant and weak–an impious thing to say about God. Therefore God has no forethought for the universe.

This essentially is an early version of the theodicy problem. If God is all-good and all-powerful, why does evil exist? Sextus’ move runs something like this: God forethinks things in the universe, or he does not. But if he does, then his forethought encompasses all things or only some things. But if he forethinks all things, since evil exists in the universe, this would make God responsible for evil. This seems impious to attribute to God. So it cannot be that God forethinks all things.

But if God only forethinks some things, why certain things and not others? If he does not forethink all things, then either he does not have the will to do so, or he does not have the power to do so, or yet again he has neither the will nor the power. If he had the will and the power to forethink some things, then he had the will and the power to forethink all things, but we have seen that he did not forethink all things, so he either doesn’t have the will or the power. If he does not have the power to forethink all things, even if he has the will, then the things he does not forethink are more powerful than he, but this is a contradiction to our understanding of God that he be all-powerful. If he does not have the will to forethink all things, but has the power to do so, then he is evil, for it is a contradiction to our understanding of an all-good God that he would willfully tolerate the existence of evil. But if he has neither the will nor the power, then God is both evil and weak–and this is an impious thing to think about God. Thus God is not foreknowing.

Again, this makes a fundamental mistake with regard to God’s nature. Sextus–among other ancient and modern philosophers–equates God’s attributes with his essence. And if one assumes that God is utterly simple, this makes perfect sense, God is the attributes he evidences. But if God is essentially a person, then philosophical assertion that God is utterly simple cannot be true, because personhood is a complex nature irreducible to a single attribute or set of attributes. Christianity teaches this: God is three Persons in one Nature. Paradoxically, God is both simple and complex. But this is precisely the experience we have of human persons. They are not reducible to a single essence. One cannot sum up one’s spouse in a single word, a relationship into a concept. Thus, God’s personhood is irreducible to his foreknowledge, his will, his power, his love. But at the same time, it is proper to say, God is love. (Note: Precisely because God is a person, one cannot reverse subject and predicate. It is wrong to assert Love is God.)

So while reason can properly show our limitations in speaking about God’s foreknowledge, will and power, and the reality of evil in a universe of his making, it cannot disprove God’s existence (or at least prohibit the assertion of his existence), because God is not reducible to his attributes.

But if he exercises no forethought for anything, and there exists no work nor product of his, no one will be able to name the source of the apprehension of God’s existence, inasmuch as he neither appears of himself nor is apprehended by means of any of his products. So for these reasons we cannot apprehend whether God exists. And from this we further conclude that those who positively affirm God’s existence are probably compelled to be guilty of impiety; for if they say that he forethinks all things they will be declaring that God is the cause of what is evil, while if they say that he forethinks some things or nothing they will be forced to say that God is either malignant or weak, and obviously this is to use impious language.

Sextus concludes then, that if God does not exercise forethought, then nothing that exists can be demonstrated to be his work. And there will be nothing by which his existence can be apprehended. Thus God’s existence is inapprehensible. And those who dogmatically assert God’s existence are being impious because in so doing they assert that he is the cause of evil, or that he is himself evil or weak.

But since this argument has all along failed to understand God as a person, then it similarly fails to understand that God’s attributes are an extension of his person, and, as it were, under his volitional control. This is preeminently revealed in the Incarnation, in which, Christ, who in his very nature was God, chose not to exercise his foreknowledge at various points in his earthly ministry, and remained ignorant of specific matters (for example, the day and hour of his return). Philippians 2:5-11 clearly highlights the loving condescension of God who chose not to continue to grasp his divine perogatives, but became as one of us and suffer and died. Christ did not cease to have the attributes attributed to God’s person, but he chose not to exercise them out of love for us.

Clearly mine is only a sketch at an attempt to answer Sextus’ sceptical critique. There are gaps in my reasoning which clearly need filled in, not the least of which are the implications of what it means for God not to exercise his attributes, and whether, indeed, God’s attributes are as separable (or, better, distinguishable) from his person as I seem to be claiming they are.

But what I have intended is to show that the sort of knowing reason engages in is only one sort. There is a knowing that we have as persons of other persons that is not reducible to rational terms, and that this sort of knowing may be said to be governed by the rubrics of faith. As I have mentioned in my reflecting on the unity of faith and reason, these two sorts of knowings are not in conflict with one another–or at least need not be–but neither can one be reducible to the terms of the other.

Next I will take up the relationship between faith and reason through the activity of knowing.