Early in his life as a Christian, Augustine wrote a short work, the Soliloquies, wherein he prayed: “I desire to know God and the soul.” In response, the Lord said: “And nothing more?” To which Augustine replied: “Nothing whatever.” Augustine’s ultimate concerns have recurrently prodded gifted thinkers to examine exactly what can be known about such things, and Edward Feser, in Five Proofs of the Existence of God (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 2017), encourages us to explore with him some of classic arguments for God’s existence and nature. Now a philosophy professor at Pasadena City College, Feser moved beyond his “brash young atheist phase” when his studies of Aristotle and Aquinas drew him to embrace theism and recover his Catholic faith. To his amazement, their ancient “arguments are right after all!” Though very much a Thomist, the “five proofs” Feser sets forth in this book are not the celebrated “five ways” of Aquinas. Rather they are five approaches, taken by some of the most brilliant thinkers in history, designed to demonstrate the existence of God. “And once you have allowed yourself to see the truth that reason leads you to,” Feser writes on his blog, “what reason apprehends is . . . as good and beautiful as it is real. If you find yourself intellectually convinced that there is a divine Uncaused Cause who sustains the world and you in being at every instant, and don’t find this conclusion extremely strange and moving, something that leads you to a kind of reverence, then I daresay you haven’t understood it.”
Turning first to Aristotle, we begin with the very common sense observation that “change occurs.” Potentiality becomes actuality—a wood stove heats up or cools down; an acorn falls; a lake expands following rainfall. It’s further obvious that “change requires a changer.” When anything changes we detect causation—a baseball moves because it has been thrown or hit; thunder roars following a lightning strike; a lit match ignites kindling, making a fire. Whenever we see things changing we cannot avoid asking “why?” What caused something to be what it is? Things don’t just aimlessly happen. Accordingly, we know there must something (or someone) actually existing that underlies and explains the reality of change.
Sometimes we discern a linear series of changes leading back to an initial event, such as an earthquake triggering a tidal wave. But sometimes we see an hierarchical organization of things, such as a swing hanging from a tree, that demonstrates dependence rather than sequence. Such dependence has nothing to do with time—however long the swing stays suspended it’s held up by a tree limb, which is joined to the tree trunk, which is anchored in the ground by roots, etc. So however we frame the discussion (thinking in terms of sequence or status), we cannot escape concluding that there must be a “first cause” responsible for all that exists. There there must be an underlying existent being sustaining all that is. This being is God. To Feser, the real force of Aristotle’s argument lies in the fact “that for things to exist here and now and at any moment at which they exist, they must be here and now sustained in existence by God” (#553). “To argue for the existence of God, you don’t need to start from the claim that the universe had a beginning, and you don’t need to start with any other claim about the universe as a whole either. You can start with any old trivial object existing here and now—a stone, a cup of coffee, whatever—because even for that one thing to exist, even for a moment, there must be a purely actual cause actualizing it at that moment” (#559).
Next, Feser embraces Plotinus’s Neo-Platonic Proof for God’s existence. Here we begin with the simple apprehension we have of composites. Things are composed of other things—molecules are made up of atoms, paintings require both canvas and oil. Such things’ combined parts are needed, but there is also a very real one-ness, a form, making them what they are. Consequently: “For any of the composite things in our experience to exist at all here and now, then, there must also exist here and now a non-composite or utterly simple ultimate cause of their existence, a cause which following the neo-platonic philosopher Plotinus, we might call the One” (#1149). Yet another Platonic thinker, St Augustine, shared with Plotinus an appreciation for the “universals” that enable us to refer to trees and waterfalls, to numbers and geometric shapes and ethical verities—all non-material “forms” giving structure to the more elementary material components in particular things. “Universals like triangularity, redness, and roundness exist at least as objects of thought” (#1373) and enable us to form the propositions without which we cannot think. And we can think thusly, St Augustine held, because there is “an infinite, eternal, divine intellect” (#1639) underlying and providing the logos making the cosmos comprehensible. In short: “realism about abstract objects entails the existence of a necessarily existing intellect which is one, omniscient, omnipotent, fully god, immutable, immaterial, incorporeal, and eternal. In short, it entails the existence of God” (#1710).
The fourth proof Feser cites is “the Thomistic proof,” anchored in the thought of St Thomas Aquinas. Basic to Aquinas’ philosophy is the distinction between “a thing’s essence and its existence, between what it is and the fact that it is” (#1894). Thus I can understand the essence of something such as a black hole, whether or not it exists. And I can see an existent object, such as a silhouette on the horizon, without knowing exactly what it is. For anything to be (i.e. to exist) there must be a fundamental realm of reality that enables it to be. Something more deeply existent than the trees and tomcats in my world must sustain them in existence. What Thomas called “subsistent existence itself” underlies all that is, causing “everything other than itself” to exist. “Hence, that which is subsistent existence itself must be one, necessarily existing, the uncaused cause of everything other than itself, purely actual, immutable, eternal, immaterial, incorporeal, perfect, omnipotent, full good, intelligent, and omniscient. It is, in short, God” (#2087).
Fifthly, there is the “rationalist proof” associated with G.W. Leibniz—the principle of sufficient reason (PSR). To Feser, PSR resembles classic Thomistic formulations such as “everything which is, has a sufficient reason for existing” and “everything is intelligible.” Einstein famously said: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” Deep-down we know this, demanding reasonable explanations for events. An earthquake occurs and we want to know why moving tectonic plates explain it. A body is found and we want to find the killer. Examining the evidence, right reason leads us to trustworthy conclusions. And given that the world is filled with obviously contingent beings, it makes sense to conclude (as sufficiently reasonable) there is a necessary Being giving them existence. Existent beings subsist, sustained in their being by what simply and eternally exists: the One Who IS.
Having probed and approved these “proofs” for God’s existence, Feser then provides a lengthly examination of His attributes, the logical correlates of His Being. Just as you can think persuasively in geometry and logic, you can (once you have demonstrated His existence) rationally infer certain things about Him. Indeed: “We can make literal, positive statements about God and his nature by applying the analogy of attribution and the analogy of proper proportionality” (#3023). Thereby the traditional divine “attributes”—e.g. unity, simplicity, immutability, immateriality, eternity, omnipotence, ominscience, goodness—can be understood and explained.
Five Proofs for the Existence of God is written for serious thinkers with some background in philosophy. Yet for anyone who might imagine there are no first-rate Christian thinkers—demonstrably superior to the “New Atheists”—following Edmund Feser’s presentation is a fulfilling endeavor.
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Pick up any public school or university textbook, and you’ll find religion explained in an evolutionary manner: early humans were supposedly animists, imagining spirits in rocks and trees; then, as cultures advanced, polytheism flourished, as in ancient Greece and Rome; much later some religionists (notably the Hebrews) devised the notion of monotheism. That this “just so” textbook story may in fact be false is declared in Winfried Corduan’s In the Beginning God: A Fresh Look at the Case for Original Monotheism (Nashville: B&H Academic, c. 2013), providing considerable insight into the earliest evidences of man’s religious practices. Corduan follows the groundbreaking anthropological work of Wilhelm Schmidt’s 12 volume Der Unsprung der Gottesidee, which “is the centerpiece of the story of this book,” for “no one advocated original monotheism as strongly and effectively as he” (#75). Corduan insists: “Regardless of how one explains the origin of human beings, one cannot get around the fact that the first religion of human beings was monotheism, the recognition and worship of one God” (#166).
Much of this book surveys and critiques the work of various distinguished anthropologists and ethnologists, such as Mircea Eliade, Max Muller, E.B Tyler, and Emile Durkheim, who generally adopted the “conventional wisdom that ‘primitive’ people were only capable of ‘primitive’ thoughts, and, thus, their religions could only be ‘primitive,’ viz. childish and magical without having a rational distinction between the natural and the supernatural” (#723). However, when “primitive” peoples were carefully studied by Andrew Lang, for example, it appears: “(1) certain people on the simplest level of material culture had some of the highest moral standards found anywhere in the world and that (2) those standards were based on their belief in a single God who created them,watched over them, gave them his laws, and enforced them” (#1169). Lang based his position on data received from Australia, where the Aborigines living in the interior had no prior contact with Europeans. The first information concerning their religion showed that their “gods could not have evolved out of any prior phases of the religious cultures for the simple reason that there weren’t any discernible prior phases.” Lang concluded that the Aborigines’ “conceptions of a god could not conceivably have arisen out of animism since, where the belief in this god was purest, there was no animism. In his own words, “‘The more animism, the less theism, is the general rule’” (#1247).
Wilhelm Schmidt and his Vienna associates found Lang’s insights confirmed by copious records coming in from missionaries around the world. Rather than imagine what might have happened in the distant past, Schmidt took seriously the testimony of “primitive” peoples who had retained their traditions, despite been shunted aside and despised by more “civilized” folks who now occupied their lands. He rejected the evolutionary dogma “that human cultures progress according to fundamental laws of development” and “claimed that the story of nonliterate people is ultimately not dissimilar from the story of literate people, except that they left no written records” (#2400). These cultures were patrilineal, monogamous, and lived “by a solid moral code.” And they were monotheists! There is a Supreme Being, the Aborigines thought, who “is the good creator of the world, omnipotent, omniscient, and eternal, the author of moral obligations, who expects human beings to live by them” (#3091)
So too the most primitive American Indian tribes, such as the coastal Yuki in California, “show the clearest evidence of a truly monotheistic religion. Not only do they recognize a single God, but they pray to him and worship him regularly.” Though surviving by hunting and gathering, it was “precisely among these three oldest primitive peoples of North America that we find a clear and firmly established belief in a High God, a belief which . . . is of quite a particular character by virtue of the high importance attributed to the idea of creation. . . . Quite a number of them have reached the highest summit of the idea of creation, denied even to Aristotle, viz. the belief in creatio ex nihilo, only by the will of the all-powerful Creator’” (#3330-33). “The most important line in the Yuki story is reminiscent of Genesis: ‘He spoke a word, and the earth appeared’” (#3343). Elsewhere the Lakota (Sioux) had a deep veneration for wakan, which “is not an impersonal force that pervades nature, as some scholars have claimed, but … it is always associated with personal beings. Who is at the top of the spirit world for the Oglala Lakota? Is it the “Great Spirit” of the sky, the sky itself, or is it the sun?” Not really! According to one informant, “ the “Great Spirit” is a “powerful wakan being,” as is the sun. However, when people pray . . . they should pray to Wakan Tanka, the totality of the wakan beings conceived as a singular unity” (#5084).
Corduan strongly affirms Schmidt’s position and shows how it properly synthesizes the evidence and retains its persuasiveness. “It still remains true,” he says, “that the Primitive cultures represent the ones that most closely resemble what may have been the original human culture. Furthermore, regardless of where one places the pastoral nomads, they, in general, maintained the original monotheism most clearly” (#4200). In sum: “Let us not lose sight of the point of this whole enterprise. What we see in these cultures, which have qualified on the basis of the culture-historical method, is that each of the supreme beings, regardless of surrounding mythology, bears the essential attributes of deity. They have personhood. They created the world and are now overseeing a moral code. They are all-powerful, all-knowing, eternal, and all good, to mention just some of the most outstanding attributes, which certainly puts them all into the same rubric labeled ‘supreme being.’” (#5871)
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“And we, who are we anyhow?” asked Plotinus in his Enneads. Addressing this question, Michael Augros has written The Immortal in You: How Human Nature Is More Than Science Can Say (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 2017). “The overarching question of this book is, what are you? It is not a trivial question, but one of the deepest we can ask” (p. 15). Too many of us, intimidated by “scientific experts” have meekly assented to thinkers such as Bertrand Russell, who declared that man’s “‘origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; . . . that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins’” (p. 10) Augros is perplexed as to “why people allow themselves to be talked out of many things they really do know about themselves simply because they mistakenly believe that science—that formidable authority—says otherwise” (p. 270).
We need to recover confidence in common sense philosophy—thinking rightly and thereby “unraveling of some of the deeply hidden implications of our ordinary experience of ourselves and the world” (p. 262). “The chief foundations of philosophy, in contrast to empirical science, are interior certainties, such as your interior experience of being a single being, and your conceptual certainty that no exact statement can be both true and false at once” (p. 270). Natural science has its place, but “philosophy brings us a wealth of universal, certain, and stable truths. Where modern science can place the reins of nature in our hands, philosophy can discern the ends that must govern our use of nature if we are to better ourselves rather than self-destruct. Where purely empirical methods must fall silent before the greatest questions about ourselves—about god, our mortality and immortality, our ultimate origin and destiny—philosophy has things to say” (p. 284).
Rather than trust “outsiders” like Russell, Augros urges us to take an “insiderer’s view” and rely upon our “own treasury of experience” as a basis for understanding who we are. “I have in mind ordinary, natural, human abilities. Nothing extraordinary, supernatural, or superhuman” (p. 40). We sense things, such as warm water in a shower, but we also know we are someone sensing it. There’s a very real me understanding and organizing the thousands of sensations I constantly feel, leading me to believe there is “another sense power, one that listens to what all your five senses have to say, and weaves their reports back into a single world of experience, keeping distinct things distinct and perceiving the sameness of things that are the same” (p. 49). This inner power is my mind, my intellect, and it enables me to not only know specific things but to craft concepts and see universal truths regarding my world. “What power in you is responsible for the formation of universal ideas?” Augros asks. “If the word intellect names your power to understand truths, and especially conceptual truths, then we must attribute the work of universal formation to your intellect, since universals are the foundation of your ability to grasp such truths” (p. 69).
This power was self-evident to Cicero, who said: “Reason and speech bring men together and unite them in a kind of natural society. Nor in anything else are we further removed from the nature of wild beasts” (On Duties). Though we are indeed animals, we differ from them in radical ways, most importantly in our ability to speak. As we talk, we verbalize “what we conceive in our minds, and it is our minds that give us our special edge over the animals” (p. 78) We are, prima facie, rational animals. “Capacity for true speech demands the power to grasp universals, something that is absent in animals. Every word we speak, with the sole exceptions of proper nouns such as Paris, Led Zeppelin, and Walker Percy, are expressions of universal ideas.” We can indeed think of cities, singers, and novelists—and it this ability to grasp universals that distinguishes us as humans. “This is a difference of kind, not of degree, between human beings and other animals” (pp. 88-89).
Our intellect distinguishes us as a species, and it cannot be understood as a purely material entity. Indeed it points to an immortal aspect of human nature. Though the organic “brain” is composed of matter, we have a more powerful non-organic “mind” using it to formulate concepts. Thus, for example: “Your intellect can receive ‘what a circle is’ without turning it into an individual circle. Nothing that has dimensions can do that. Your intellect, therefore, is not a thing that has dimensions. That means it is neither an organ in your body, nor a power distributed through the parts of some organ of your body. It is a nonbodily, nonmaterial power. Unlike all your other knowing powers, your intellect is not a property of your brain at all” (p. 110). Noting this leads us “to one of the most beautiful conclusions of philosophy.”
This intellectual power resides in what common sense thinkers such as Aquinas deemed the “rational soul” which is the form, the life-giving cause of what we are. “The facts force us to say something like this: the primary cause of life in you is a form of your body that is more basic than its organization” (p. 135). “The technical term used in philosophy to name such a first-class being, an owner of properties as opposed to a property, is substance.” Though scientists usually talk a material substances, philosophers use the word “in quite a different sense” defining “substance” as a “single entity that has properties and is not itself a property of some more fundamental thing” (p. 142). Our substance, our rational soul, “has no parts, no shape and size, which is why it can grasp universals and why its ideas even of spatial objects bear no spatial relationships to one another” (p. 159).
“It is as certain as anything can be,” said Socrates, “that the soul is immortal and imperishable, and that our souls will really exist in the next world” (Phaedo). Our soul, giving form to our body, surely survives the death of the body. It’s a non-material form, and forms cannot be destroyed since they are non-material. “Although it gives existence to your body, it does not depend on your body in order to exist, since it is not only the form and life of your body, but also has a life of its own apart from your body. . . . . This conclusion ranks among the most magnificent in all philosophy: your soul cannot be destroyed” (p. 180). “Your body is to your soul somewhat as your arm is to you. You can live without your arm. And so long as your arm is a part of you, it possesses no life or being of its own, but only yours. It is you who live and exist in that arm. That is how your soul is related to your body. It can live and be without your body” (p. 180). While in the womb we could not see, but our eyes were forming and opened to us the world once we were born. “Our lives inside our mothers prepare us for life outside them. In similar fashion, our lives within matter prepare us for life outside it. (It is no accident that the word matter is so similar to mater, the Latin word for mother)” (p. 287).
To Peter Kreeft, a noted thinker in his own right: “This is far and away the best book I have ever read about the nature of mankind as far as natural reason can know it. On a scale of 1 to 10, I have to give it a 12.” High praise for a worthy work!