Category Archives: Metaphysical Realism

How do we know there is being beyond the physical? Metaphysics is the study of Being as Being, which is primarily concerned with “what is” in aspects of “what it is” and “that it is”

INTELLIGIBLE BEING AND FIRST PRINCIPLES – Summary Points of Thomistic Principles

(please excuse the indentation issues. Not sure why its left-flushing everything)


Thomistic Realism  differs from

1) Phenominalism – philosophy of appearance

2) Evolutionism – philosophy of becoming

3) Psychologism – philosophy of the ego


Intelligible Being and First Principles

The first idea which the intellect conceives, its most evident idea into which it resolves all other ideas, is the idea of being. Grasping this first idea, the intellect cannot but grasp also the immediate consequences of that idea, namely, first principles as laws of reality:

1) “The intellect’s first act is to know being, reality, because an object is knowable only in the degree in which it is actual. Hence being, entity, reality, is the first and proper object of understanding, just as sound is the first object of hearing.”


2)  The being, which our intellect first understands is not the being of God, nor the being of the understanding subject, but the being which exists in the sense world.


3)  This doctrine rises above two extremes –

a)        that of absolute realism held by Plato; that universals exist formally outside the knowing mind.

i)                 Platonist realism claims to have at least a confused intuition of the divine being (which it calls the Idea of Good

b)       that of Nominalism, which denies that the universal has any foundation in individual sense objects, and reduces it to a subjective representation accompanied by a common name.

i)                  Nominalism opens the door to empiricism and positivism, which reduce first principles to experimental laws concerning sense phenomena


4)  Here lies the point of departure in Thomistic realism

a)        By reflection on its own act of knowledge the intellect comes to know the existence of that knowing act and its thinking subject.

b)       In intellective knowledge, the universal comes first; sense is restricted to the individual and particular.

c)        This limited moderate realism of Aristotle and Aquinas is in harmony with that natural, spontaneous knowledge which we call common sense

d)       These principles are laws, not of the spirit only, not mere logical laws, not laws merely experimental, restricted to phenomena, but necessary and unlimited laws of being, objective laws of all reality


5) Our intellect seizes at once its opposition to non-being, out of which knowledge arises the understanding of first principles, the first being the principle of contradiction: Being is not non-being.


6) Principles

a)        Non-contradiction: the declaration of opposition between being and nothing

b)       Causality or sufficient reason : Everything that is has its raison d’etre, in itself, if of itself it exists, in something else, if of itself it does not exist.

i)                This principle is subordinated to the principle of non-contradiction.

ii)               It is to be understood analogically, according to the order in which it is found, whether that order is intrinsic (the nature of a circle related to its characteristics): or extrinsic (cause, efficient or final, to its effects)

c)        The principle of substance: “That which exists as the subject of existence is substance, and is distinct from its accidents or modes.”

i)                This principle is derived from the principle of identity, because that which exists as subject of existence is one and the same beneath all its multiple phenomena, permanent or successive.

ii)              Inversely, being is now conceived explicitly as substantial

iii)             The principle of substance is simply a determination of the principle of identity: accidents then find their raison d’etre in the substance.

d)       The principle of efficient causality also finds its formula as a function of being: Every contingent being, even if it exists without beginning, needs an efficient cause and, in last analysis, an uncreated cause

e)        The principle of finality: Every agent acts for a purpose (or end). Depending on its level of being it may:

i)               first, a tendency merely natural and unconscious

ii)              secondly, this tendency may be accompanied by sense knowledge

iii)             thirdly, a tendency is guided by intelligence, knowing its purpose as purpose

f)        The first principle of natural law is derived from this principle: “Do good, avoid evil”  is founded on the idea of good, as the principle of contradiction on the idea of being. In other words: The rational being must will rational        good, that good, namely, to which its powers are proportioned by the author of its nature

Faith and Reason: Bad Metaphysics and the Divorce Between Faith and Science

Metaphysical thought inquires beyond our sense experience, but is derived from it.  We can understand something about the world beyond our immediate perceptions, and “come to a knowledge of the truth.”  Philosophical reasoning, rightly employed, will bring us to many of the same truths as divine revelation, as truth, by its nature, is one.  But likewise, a bad metaphysics, or a doubt of the possibility of doing metaphysics at all, can lead to a view that doubts revealed truth as well.

The problem of modern philosophical trends is not merely limited to the secular world, but has in many places crept into the writings and teachings of Catholic philosophers and theologians as well.  While the Church doesn’t have an official philosophical position, she must guide and sometimes reel in those who wonder into dangerous territory.  The problem has been addressed in different times and in different ways by the Church in the past and, more recently, by the encyclical Fides et Ratio.  Certainly this work of Pope John Paul II contains other insights and addresses other issues, but we will here look at the problem of modern philosophy in a broad sense, and how the church document addresses it.

The two directions of rationalism and empiricism that developed in the modern period of philosophy, as emphasized by Descartes and Hume, respectively, contributed to a divorce between faith and science.  Kant later attempted to reconcile the divergent views, but he also had to deny the ability to prove the existence of God, and many other metaphysical possibilities fell by the wayside in his system as well.

Fides et Ratio, or Faith and Reason, presented to the church in 1998, addressed the apparent divorce between faith and reason, and suggested the remedy to it. Faith and reason are not contrary to one another, and so faith will never be irrational, although it can be supra-rational, for certain.  Likewise, reason, if not in line with the revealed truths of God, must therefore have an error in reasoning or otherwise.  Truth is one, and although seeking it can certainly come through different means and explain the truth in different ways, it must always coincide.

As said in the forty fifth paragraph of Fides et Ratio, “Although they insisted upon the organic link between theology and philosophy, Saint Albert the Great and Saint Thomas were the first to recognize the autonomy which philosophy and the sciences needed if they were to perform well in their respective fields of research.”  These two learned Dominicans understood that philosophy, by definition, had to come from human reasoning alone.  Indeed, many articles of the faith that others tried to prove through philosophy were rejected by St. Thomas as being philosophically demonstrable.  For example, St. Thomas argued that the eternity of the universe could not be disproved by reason alone.  He also understood that the eternity of the world could not be proved positively either, and as a believing Catholic, believed in the worlds beginning as a free act of creation by God.  What this example shows is that some truths are known only by revelation and through faith in that revelation, but while these truths are not philosophically provable, they are likewise never contrary to reason either.  They simply transcend it.

Fides et Ratio continues “As a result of the exaggerated rationalism of certain thinkers, positions grew more radical and there emerged eventually a philosophy which was separate from and absolutely independent of the contents of faith. Another of the many consequences of this separation was an ever deeper mistrust with regard to reason itself.”  This rationalism began with Rene Descartes.

Descartes was a believing Catholic, and there is no substantial evidence that he denied aspects of the Catholic faith.  In fact, he states often that it is his intent to prove things such as the existence of God, but through reason, since our senses can be deceived.  However, it is hard to understand what his position would be on such things as Transubstantiation and similar dogmas of the faith, given his views in other areas of metaphysics and the material world as well.

Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.  lectures that “what Descartes is primarily saying is that we must for the moment turn away from the world of the object (the world of the senses) to the interior truth of the thinker.”  Descartes does this because he doubts his sense perceptions can lead to any certain truths, since they often deceive us, such as when we are dreaming.  In other words, only that which we can have no doubt of can be certain, and this cannot come from what we attain through our senses.

As stated above, Descartes aggressive change from the Aristotelian and generally Scholastic epistemology and metaphysics began a split in philosophical thought from his day forward.  As Benedict Ashley says “On the continent of Europe it went in the direction of ‘Idealism’ saying that actually the material world does not exist, or if it exists, it is somehow a projection of the human mind.  That a world outside the human mind, a reality outside the human mind is inaccessible.”  This, to me, develops most faithfully the philosophy of Descartes himself.

However, across the English Channel, the dualism of spirit and material reality showed its emphasis in the latter.  As. Fr. Ashley again states, “It begins [also] with the cogito ergo sum.  What I really know is my own thinking.  But it then says when I look at my thinking, what I find are sense impressions, and from the sense impressions, I have some idea that there is a material world other than my own mind.  And yet, Empiricism, because it confuses the sense data and the power of the intelligence to analyze that data tends to say that intelligence, and its abstract ideas, are simply faint versions of our sensations. They do not give us the essence of things.” So once again, we cannot know the essence of things; we cannot know them as they really are.  And without this, we certainly cannot know things beyond them (beyond the material, that is) or even confirm that anything at all exists beyond the physical.

What we have additionally with Hume, who stands as a giant in this empirical reasoning, is a denial of the ability to truly know causes.  Just because we have always seen that every time “X” happens, “Y” has followed, does not, for Hume, demonstrate that “X” causes “Y,” or that when “Y” happens, we can be assured that “X” just took place.  Hume would tell us that we must live practically as if these cause-effect relationships we perceive were real, but that we can by no means know that they are in fact a certainty.  Of course, without a way to understand “cause,” even between two material objects, there is certainly no way to prove causes beyond them, such as a first mover.  We cannot prove or disprove God, in other words, and all our knowledge of the world must be based on what we experience in what we now would call scientific method, although with Hume, even this gives us no certainty of knowledge.  In the end, the main point for us here is that God and all revealed truth must be completely disregarded in our seeking to know the physical world, and therefore, can never be a corrective for it, keeping us from certain errors that, with a faith in God’s revealed truth, we might avoid.

Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, tried to reconcile, to some degree, the diverging paths of the empirical and rational philosophies.  His emphasis came to be placed on the “limits of knowledge which have been set by the nature of the human reason.” (Kant, Dreams of a Ghost-seer I, 2,)  For Kant, our capacity to know is limited by categories of ideas into which we place things, and these prevent us from truly knowing the things-in-themselves.  The end result is a lack of ability to know things metaphysical.  We can try to describe them in their possibilities, and that mostly by negation, but we cannot demonstrate them to truly exist, or have any certain knowledge of them if they do.

Well, metaphysics is not in the realm of ideas for Kant but in the realm of subjective needs, a postulate of practical reason which makes it completely subjective.

All of this, of course, has led to a doubt of the possibility of metaphysics at all, and therefore doubt of any ability to have knowledge of anything beyond the physical world around us in a material way.  This has led to the divorce we see between faith and reason, pouring over most especially into the field of the physical sciences.  A return to a moderate realism in metaphysics seems to be the answer to the problem of modern philosophy and faith.

John Paul II, in Fides et Ratio, says that “[There is then] the need for a philosophy of genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate and foundational in its search for truth. This requirement is implicit in sapiential and analytical knowledge alike; and in particular it is a requirement for knowing the moral good, which has its ultimate foundation in the Supreme Good, God himself.”(Fides et Ratio, 83)

When we limit ourselves to an idealist or materialist philosophy, we have no way to attain to the higher truths that man must seek, especially as they pertain to our moral life on earth, and our knowing our own “ends” beyond this earth.

Pope John Paul II’s answer to the philosopher is exemplified in his statement in Fides et Ratio: “I believe that those philosophers who wish to respond today to the demands which the word of God makes on human thinking should develop their thought on the basis of these postulates and in organic continuity with the great tradition which, beginning with the ancients, passes through the Fathers of the Church and the masters of Scholasticism and includes the fundamental achievements of modern and contemporary thought. If philosophers can take their place within this tradition and draw their inspiration from it, they will certainly not fail to respect philosophy’s demand for autonomy.

The importance of Act and Potency, Essence and Existence

How do you understand St. Thomas’ first “proof” (Prime Mover) for the existence of God (I, Q.2, Art.3)?

Let’s start with Aristotle’s definition of motion, which is basically that “”Motion is the actualizing of what exists in potency insofar as it is in potency.” Potency means changeable. This leads us to understand motion as “the actualizing of the moveable (changeable) insofar as it is moveable (changeable).”

So, God is pure act. Therefore, there is no potency in Him, and He cannot move (He cannot be the object moved) but He can move [verb] others as cause.

All contingent things are obviously not pure act, but at a minimum have the potency to exist or not to exist. So this potential to exist must be brought about by something other than themselves, since they do not explain their own existence. This “movement” from potentiality is from God.

Of course, this will include not only things that involve local motion, which are the material things we study in physics, but also the “motion” of moving from potency to act even in non-material beings, such as angels, etc.

In the end, Thomas’ argument is one that says that nothing that does not explain its own being can be the cause of its existence (almost a tautology), and so a pure act, a necessary being, must exist, an uncaused cause and unmoved mover.

So at it’s core, motion is about going from non existence to existence?

At its core, motion is moving from potency to act. The way we see this as humans is generally in the physical world, which is local motion, physical motion of material things. But also, say, in the realm of mind, moving from not knowing something to knowing it (by being taught, for instance). Motion always involves potency. God, having no potency, cannot receive motion, cannot receive act.

So it’s potency to act in the broadest sense, meaning it covers every type of potency to act?

Yes. Going from non existence to existence, in the sense of creation, however, is a very different thing than going “from here to there” or going “from black to white,” etc. it’s not like God took some thing called “nothing” which had potency and actualized it. He rather made something to exist from nothing-at-all.

Much harder to perfectly define, but the point still remains: for anything to exist that could possibly not exist, a necessary being (pure act) must be the cause.

This stuff is so important in understanding Thomas’ teachings. For example, many problems arise from misunderstanding things of God as if they were movements within the world. A couple examples should demonstrate:

1. When you read Thomas treatment of the processions in the Trinity, you will see that the heresies of Sabellianism and Arianism both treated the procession of the Son from the Father as if it was a movement from within the world, and this is why they could not understand one God and three Persons.

In the first objection in Q.27, it is said “It would seem that there cannot be any procession in God. For procession signifies outward movement. But in God there is nothing mobile, nor anything extraneous. Therefore neither is there procession in God.

The reply to this objection is “This objection comes from the idea of procession in the sense of local motion, or of an action tending to external matter, or to an exterior effect; which kind of procession does not exist in God, as we have explained.”

2. In creation, so many of the debates between evolutionists and intelligent design adherents is based on a false understanding of creation as something that happens “within” the world. Thomas’ answer (and I believe the correct one) sees that it transcends this. Here is an excellent video that demonstrates the point well:

Thomas Aquinas vs. The Intelligent Designers (1/2)

and part 2:

Thomas Aquinas vs. The Intelligent Designers (2/2)

The point is, understanding act and potency, existence and essence, etc, is crucial for understanding so much about what Thomas says, and thus, about God and the world.

One last point can be made here:

There is a difference between cause and effect and sufficient reason. People sometimes miss this. For instance, God is not the cause of Himself; He has no cause. He is, however, the explanation, the sufficient reason, for His own existence. Some do not understand the difference here, and it leads to other problems later.

Thus, people will say that, by saying everything needs a cause, we must give a cause for God.  But Thomas, for one, does not say that all things need a cause, but rather, all contingent things need a cause.  All caused things need a cause, and all contingent things are caused things.  God, who’s essence is to exist, is not contingent, and thus does not need a cause.

God bless

Nominalism, Subjectivism, and the U.S. Supreme Court

Post-modern society claims to be ‘blind to individual concepts of good.’ As such it must let the individual decide.

But what if one of these “individuals” is not part of creation, but the creator, and what’s more, goodness itself?  If there is an objective truth, then the whole thing is ridiculous.

We would certainly be called fools if we were each to walk into a forest and “decide for ourselves” if there are indeed trees here. But our problem is deeper than this. We now say, “I don’t know if there is a forest, because a forest is made of trees, which would be plural “trees.” But in nominalism, there are no two things that share a nature.  If no “two trees,” then no forest.

We not only cannot see the forest for the trees, but cannot see the trees for the forest.  We deny the existence of both, or rather, we see a group of individual things, and we cannot classify the group (forest/morality) or the particulars (trees/commands, prohibitions).  It seems to me, however, that there is no way to deny creation.  We simply transfer the creation story from God to ourselves.

If every individual enjoys a fundamental right to define “one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” then virtually every positive law not justified by compelling state interest could be trumped by the right spelled out in Casey. (Hittinger pg.147) This is merely quoting the words of Planned Parenthood vs Casey, 1992.  In order to uphold abortion as legal, it had to go so far as to define subjectivity as the objective truth (at least as far as society is concerned).

Hobbes states in his Leviathan that

To this war of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice, have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law; where no law, no injustice. Force and fraud are in war the two cardinal virtues…It is consequent also to the same condition that there be no propriety, no dominion, no mine and thine distinct; but only that to be every man’s that he can get, and for so long as he can keep it.

And a little later

For where no covenant hath preceded, there hath no right been transferred, and every man has right to everything and consequently, no action can be unjust…

Therefore before the names of just and unjust can have place, there must be some coercive power to compel men equally to the performance of their covenants, by the terror of some punishment greater than the benefit they expect by the breach of their covenant, and to make good that propriety which by mutual contract men acquire in recompense of the universal right they abandon: and such power there is none before the erection of a Commonwealth.

We should reflect on how much this line of thinking has become the basis of our contemporary society.  A thing is just or unjust because the State makes it so.  According to Hobbes, there was no such thing as actual justice or injustice until a commonwealth is set up.  Right and wrong are completely due to the law of the State, and before it there is no objective right or wrong. Thus, today you will hear that “action A is moral, clearly, because it is legal.” Shouldn’t it rather be legal only if it is good morally?  We have it backwards, it seems.

It is no longer God, but I who defines my “own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life.”

One of the biggest problems I can think of dealing with nominalism, on a reasonably informed faith aspect, is the Incarnation. How could Christian theologians like Occam believe that Christ “took on human nature” if no such thing as human nature exists? Obviously, we will be led from nominalism to occasionalism. If there is no human nature for Christ to take on, the fact that He “became man” (whatever that now means) is merely arbitrary. He could have come as a rock or a turtle or an atom of hydrogen; for what would it matter “what” He came as, since this has no true relation to those He came to save?

This topic deals with a theology issue, but the question is completely philosophical. The fact that this has led many to fideism is certainly responsible for the failure of those who reject reason to be able to defend, in any coherent way, the truths of natural law, and our country and it’s laws reflect this inadequacy.

Obviously, this is a brief reflection.  Much more will be said later on the several matters brought up here.

Thomas Aquinas and the Arabic Philosophers: A Brief Look

“Say, ‘He is Allah, the One;

Allah, the Eternal, Absolute;

He begets not, and neither is He begotten;

And there is nothing that can be compared to Him.”

Qur’an 112:1-4

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord.”

Deuteronomy 6:4


The Arabic philosophers of the middle ages took various positions in affirming the divine simplicity and unchangeableness of God when seeking to understand His relation to all other existing things.

All sought to defend the divine simplicity, but in various and often mutually exclusive ways.  It would be up to Thomas Aquinas, familiar with their efforts at a unification of faith and reason, to reconcile the unchangeable God and His “relation” to creation.


“God” according to Plotinus, the unofficial founder of Neoplatonism, is the One, and is beyond being. Being itself, for him, has a finite character, as it applies to that which we experience, and we only experience things that are finite and changing.  We can see here a bit of Aristotelian epistemological realism, but with a heavy bias towards the metaphysics of Plato.  What else should we expect from Plotinus?

God, who is unchangeable, is necessarily “beyond” being, although  this is certainly not to say that he does no exist.  It will probably always be somewhat unclear exactly what this means, but the point seems to be to keep God from being “part of our world.”

This point itself will be shown to be of great importance to the Islamic and Christian beliefs about God, although to say God is beyond being or other than being will not of itself always be the reasoned answer.


Early Islamic thought on God’s immutablility is highly influenced by Neoplatonic thought, as we might expect.  If we start with al-Kindi, we see, in On First Philosophy, that a major theme of his metaphysics is on wahda, or oneness, an attribute that can only be truly said of God. Any other thing, such as “one person,” is really one and many, it is spread out, it has parts, etc.

Al-Kindi sees God as active in the role of creation, however.  In this, he differs from many of the later Neoplatonic Arabic philosophers, who adhere more closely to the pure emanationist scheme of classical Neoplatonism.

Al-Farabi, who followed soon after al-Kindi, is a perfect example of such thought.  His cosmology and metaphysics tie together in a system of hierarchical emanationism.  This certainly still has an Aristotelian flavor, as he sees God as the prime mover, moving the spheres of the cosmos (through passion for the One), which in turn are causes of movement in the terrestrial sphere.

One still wonders, with an emanationist natural theology, how the “multiplication of gears starts the clock,” or rather, how merely multiplying the levels between us and God removes God from an relation to us.


When we now turn to Avicenna, we will see a more strict adherence to Aristotelian thought.

Avicenna was much more in line with Aristotelian metaphysics , and he deeply engaged his mind in trying to show that God was absolutely unchangeable.  This led him to a denial of creation, for this would be an act of God that would change Him in some way, or be a change in Him.  The eternity of the world, as understood by Aristotle, was also key in his thought.

Necessary being was an important doctrine of his, as was the beginnings of a distinction between essence and existence.  These were highly influential on how he understood God, and so we will examine a few of his statements on these two matters at present.

“From what we have asserted it follows necessarily that that whose existence is necessary is not relative, not changeable, not multiple, not sharing in respect to the existence which is peculiar to it.” (Healing, I, 6) One however, must wonder at his need for a “cause” of that which does not exist. “Furthermore, everything whose existence is possible has, when it is considered in respect to itself, both its existence and its non-existence from a cause.” We will see that “necessary existence, having no share in reference to that which is peculiar to it” can certainly be agreed to, although in a somewhat different way, when we come to St. Thomas Aquinas.

As for essence and existence, this will be an important distinction for St. Thomas as well.  There is much debate on exactly how Avicenna understood these terms. “Existence, according to Avicenna, is superadded to essence or, in alternate language, it is its accident,” says an article in Philosophy in the Middle Ages. Our Cambridge Companion would say this claim is not certain.


We will here look at some questions in purely philosophical terms as St. Thomas examined them.  Important for our inquiry will be Thomas’ work Quaestiones Disputatae de Potentia Dei, or Disputed Question on the Power of God.  We will refer here primarily to Question 7 on the Simplicity of the Divine essence, especially articles VIII-XI.  Below are some important quotes from this section as regards God’s immutabilty in the light of his relation to contingent being:

Article VIII: Is There Any Relation Between God and the Creature?


  1. The Philosopher(Aristotle) proves (Phys. v) that there can be no movement in relation: since without any change in the thing that is related to another, the relation can cease for the sole reason that this other is changed. Thus it is clear with regard to action that there is no movement in respect of action except metaphorically and improperly speaking, just as we say that one who passes from inaction into action is changed: and this, would not be the case if relation or action signified something abiding in the subject. Hence it is evident that it is not incompatible with a thing’s simplicity to have many relations towards other things: indeed the more simple a thing is the greater the number of its concomitant relations: since its power is so much the less limited and consequently its causality so much the more extended.
  2. Although God is not in the same genus as the creature as a thing contained in a genus, he is nevertheless in every genus as the principle of the genus: and for this reason there can be relation between the creature and God as between effect and principle.
  3. From whichever extreme a change is wrought in that which caused the relationship, the relationship between them ceases. Accordingly from the fact that a change is wrought in the creature, a relation begins ‘to be attributed to God. Hence he cannot be said to become except metaphorically; inasmuch as he is like a thing that becomes, through something new that is said about him: thus we say (Ps. 89): Lord, thou art become our refuge.
  4. God’s existence does not depend on creatures as neither does the builder’s existence depend on the house: wherefore just as it is accidental to the builder that the house exists, so is it accidental to God that the creature exists. For we say that anything without which a thing can exist is accidental to it.

Article VIII dealt with the question “Is There Any Relation Between God and the Creature?” Article X, however, will deal with the question “Is God Really Related to the Creature So That this Relation Be Something in God?”  We will see that, although it may appear to be a similar question to that of Article VIII, it is actually quite different.  The answers of Thomas will demonstrate such:

  1. As the knowable thing is the measure of knowledge, so is God the measure of all things, as the Commentator says (Metaph. x). Now the knowable thing is not referred to knowledge by a real relation existing in it, but rather by the relation of knowledge to it, as the Philosopher says (Metaph. v). Therefore seemingly neither is God related to the creature by a real relation in him.
  2. “Likeness is not reciprocal between cause and effect, for an effect is said to be like its cause and not vice versa.” (Quoting Pseudo-Dionysius, Div. Nom. ix) Now the same would seem to apply to other relations as to that of likeness. Therefore, seemingly neither is there reciprocity in the relations between God and the creature, and we cannot argue that because the creature is really related to God, therefore is God really related to the creature.

This last response is the key to Thomas solution.  As opposed to what Avicenna would say in regards to creation, Thomas could go on from here to say that the creature, including its contingency and its coming to be, impose no change on God, even though there is an absolutely real relationship from the creature to God.


A relationship from creature to God does not, in other words, impose a relationship on God to the creature.  We are forced to say that the relationship “half” has a corresponding relationship “double.” What we are not forced to say is that a relationship of and in creation to God, even as coming to be from God, has a counter in God Himself.


The Arabic philosophers of the middle ages took various positions in affirming the divine simplicity and unchangeableness of God when seeking to understand His relation to all other existing things:

Allah is one, and we have seen that, whatever the philosophical presuppositions,  nothing that gave way to a “changing god” would be tolerated.

All sought to defend the divine simplicity, but in various and often mutually exclusive ways:

The Arabic philosophers used various metaphysical theories to try and explain reality, whether it be that of Neoplatonism, a strict Aristotelianism, or even an abandonment of the idea that  any philosophy itself could accurately say anything of truth about God.

It would be up to Thomas Aquinas, familiar with their efforts at a unification of faith and reason, to reconcile the unchangeable God and His “relation” to creation:

Thomas Aquinas, with his doctrine of analogy and his understanding of God through both philosophical insight and Biblical revelation, especially that of Exodus 3:14, could come to the metaphysical and logical conclusion that God could be shown to be true            creator and true unchanging existence Himself.

He Who is, Is.

Universals, Nominalism, and Natural Law

It has been said that the question of universals was the question of the Scholastics.  Sadly, it seems to have ended with the winner (at least as far as unaware secular society is concerned) being the nominalism of Ockham (which I would attribute the beginnings of his errors to Scotus, as I believe our current Pope did in a lecture some time back).

After reading Servias Pinckaers’ masterpiece The Sources of Christian Ethics, I had been enlightened into how this rejection of universals (for all practical purposes) forever changed the world’s outlook on morals and made God (if He still existed) into an arbitrary dictator at best.

Certainly, in the realm of natural law, it will be hard to justify the truth of natural law as related to human nature if no such thing as human nature can be affirmed.

In my theological and philosophical studies, probably no single sentence has affected me more than one written by Ettiene Gilson in his book The Unity of Philosophical Experience:

When and where piety is permitted to inundate the philosophical field, the usual outcome is that, to better extol the glory of God, pious-minded theologians proceed joyfully to annihilate God’s own creation (pg. 30)

However, the Catholic position, rightly taken from the encyclical Faith and Reason, is well stated here:

The unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear. (notice the appearance of the important foundation of non-contradiction) Revelation renders this unity certain, showing that the God of creation is also the God of salvation history. It is the one and the same God who establishes and guarantees the intelligibility and reasonableness of the natural order of things upon which scientists confidently depend, and who reveals himself as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (34)

Ockham seems to me to have been one such “pious-minded theologian.” The result has been a separation of faith and reason.  We can no longer affirm natural law.  We can no longer say that is implies ought.  The secular world has had a field day with this.  On the other side, especially among the reformers and those who follow the protestant tradition, every truth must now come from the Bible, and reason is looked upon with suspicion.

Fr. Coplestone points out what happened quite clearly:

Of course, in all medieval systems of thought the uniformity and regularity of natural processes were regarded as contingent in as much as the possibility of God’s miraculous intervention was admitted by all Christian thinkers. But the metaphysics of essence had conferred on nature the comparative stability to which Ockham deprived it. With him relations and connections in nature were really reduced to the coexistence or successive existence of absolutes. And in the light of the divine omnipotence, believed on faith, the contingency of relations and of order in nature was seen as the expression of the all-powerful will of God. (History of Philosophy Vol. III)

All sorts of philosophies have followed this arbitrary connection between God’s creation and what it does, such as occasionalism, etc.  We see it in Descartes’ (almost fictional) connection between the mind and the body.  We see it leading to both empiricism and idealism, depending on its interpreter. But the point is, if universals are not something that is truly objective in “the things themselves,” we either have an arbitrary God or no god at all; neither is conducive to establishing natural law.

Essence and Existence: continued…

We gave an introductory teaser to this issue HERE.

We now continue:

The philosopher Heidegger has stated that the problem in metaphysics is that we have constantly asked “what it is” but have neglected to ask what about “that it is.” Why should there be anything at all? We might say that we can understand the essence of a horse and the essence of a unicorn, but there are horses and there do not seem to be unicorns, so the essence and knowledge of it does not make a thing to actually exist.

Aristotle’s god (or gods) did not cause the being of all that exists, but merely are the primary and unmoved mover.  For Aristotle, the fact that things “are” seems to be a given.  Of course, it is true that things “are,” but their existence is not the explanation for their existence.  Otherwise, they would not be contingent beings.  This seems to go hand in hand with Aristotle’s (supposed) proofs of the eternity of the universe.  The universe simply is.  Bertrand Russell and the majority of modern materialists as well seem to agree.  We should not, then, look for a cause of things, but accept that “things are” as our starting point.

The doctrine of creation ex nihilo seems to be the key to the philosophical discovery of the distinction between essence and existence.  If things “began to be” then their existence is not explained by their essence.  The reason that horses “are” and that unicorns “are not” cannot be simply explained by evolution, for example.  Evolution may explain why unicorns “are not” but it only a partial explanation of why horses “are.”

Evolution, as one theory, can explain why horses “are what they are” and why they are not unicorns, but it offers no explanation as to why there are horses instead of nothing at all. An eternal world might seem at first to get rid of this problem, but even in an eternally existing world, once looked at deeper, the problem remains. As Thomas Aquinas shows, the doctrine of an eternally existing world, although contrary to revealed truth, does not deny the possibility of creation ex nihilo.  The existence of anything contingent, whether eternal or not, still requires a cause, even if not a cause prior in time.

This cause, however, being uncaused (for otherwise we have the impossible infinite regress) is of necessity the explanation of its own existence.  This is not to be confused with being the cause of its own existence, for it is not caused.  Therefore, this uncaused cause is a “something” and whatever this is is its essence.  But it is also its very existence, for that is the only way for it to be uncaused.

Without going through all the attributes of this uncaused cause as examined by Aquinas, we must say here that its simplicity, its being pure act and having no potency, all tie into its very essence being “to be.”  All else, then, besides God, is not “to be” but must receive its “to be” from outside of itself.

We can see, therefore, that in metaphysics and natural theology, the distinction between essence and existence is of utmost importance.  And it seems to be that from the very revealed truth of God Himself saying to Moses that His name is basically “He that Is” is the key to this discovery.

Aquinas’ distinction here is important for understanding that God is outside of any genus.

Aristotle certainly did not teach this, at least not in any explicit way.  The great Arabic metaphysicians like Avicenna certainly did not see this.  In fact, it is likely that, for Avicenna, God is a being, and the only being, with a “specific difference” of “necessary.”  He is, then, a universal species and the sole being of that species.

But for Aquinas this is not so.  God stands outside of genus, and being is not a genus, for it has no “specific difference.” Being is predicated of all things, of both God and all contingent beings, but analogously.

Although not written by Thomas himself, we must list here the first 4 of the 24 Theses of Thomism, which make explicit the basic point we have been reviewing:

1. Potency and Act divide being in such a way that whatever is, is either pure act, or of necessity it is composed of potency and act as primary and intrinsic principles.

2. Since act is perfection, it is not limited except through a potency which itself is a capacity for perfection. Hence in any order in which an act is pure act, it will only exist, in that order, as a unique and unlimited act. But whenever it is finite and manifold, it has entered into a true composition with potency.

3. Consequently, the one God, unique and simple, alone subsists in absolute being. All other things that participate in being have a nature whereby their being is restricted; they are constituted of essence and being, as really distinct principles.

4. A thing is called a being because of being (“esse”). God and creature are not called beings univocally, nor wholly equivocally, but analogically, by an analogy both of attribution and of proportionality.

A rejection of this analogous use of being and a rejection of the real distinction between existence and essence is seen in thinkers after Aquinas as well, even among Christian thinkers such as Scotus.  It has in no way been simply accepted after Aquinas, even by those who may agree with him on much else.

Nevertheless, although not explicitly endorsed by the church, for “The Church has no philosophy of her own nor does she canonize any one particular philosophy in preference to others,” (FR 49) the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas is considered the “perennial philosophy.”  Pope Leo XIII promulgated the encyclical Aeterni Patris and this document provided for the revival of Thomism as practically the official philosophical and theological system of the Church. It was to be normative not only in the training at seminaries but also in the education at Catholic universities.

Although the Angelic doctors contributions the philosophy and theology are almost endless, it is hard to deny that his exposition of the distinction between essence and existence and the fact that these two differ in all but God is arguably the single most important key doctrine that he has left us.

Essence and Existence: the difference

Probably the single most famous “proof” in all of philosophy is refuted if the topic of our discussion is legitimate.  In his Proslogion, St. Anselm lays out the following argument for the existence of God:

“And certainly that than which a greater cannot be imagined cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is at least in the understanding alone, it can be imagined to be in reality too, which is greater. Therefore if that than which a greater cannot be imagined is in the understanding alone, that very thing than which a greater cannot be imagined is something than which a greater can be imagined. But certainly this cannot be. There exists, therefore, beyond doubt something than which a greater cannot be imagined, both in the understanding and in reality.”1

St. Thomas, of course, rejects this “proof” of St. Anselm in his Summa Theologica:

“Granted that everyone understands that by this word “God” is signified something than which nothing greater can be thought, nevertheless, it does not therefore follow that he understands that what the word signifies exists actually, but only that it exists mentally. Nor can it be argued that it actually exists, unless it be admitted that there actually exists something than which nothing greater can be thought; and this precisely is not admitted by those who hold that God does not exist.”2

The problem is basically this: is to ask the question “is it?” the same as to ask the question “what is it?” Or is one a question of concept and the other a question of judgment?  For to say what something is, according to Aristotelian logic, is the understand an essence, but this is not the same thing as to affirm the existence of that essence.

The ontological proof offered by Anselm was certainly defended by Descartes, and his rationalist proof for the existence of God is very similar in its construction and assumptions. Even to say “I think, therefore I am” implies a somewhat related premise, but this is not the place to go further into that.

Of course, a refutation was made to Anselm, “on behalf of the fool,” where one simply asked about “imagining a perfect island” and then seeking to see how this would prove the existence of this island, and Anselm responded accordingly.  This is, of course, not the place to enter into that particular dispute, but we see here that even the great thinkers of our Christian heritage differed vastly on this question, and it is one that ultimately comes down to the difference between essence and existence, or “being” in the “verb sense.”

According to St. Thomas, God is Ipsum esse subsistens (Subsistent Act of Existing Itself).  If he is correct, God and God only is his existence.  This means that in every other existing thing, essence and existence are different.  And this will lead us to know that all other things are contingent, as they do not explain their own existence in their very essence.  These said, it should be clear that the difference between essence and existence is of primary importance in metaphysics and in all contemplation of reality.

(to be continued…)

Speculative Philosophy and Abstraction

Philosophy, the love of wisdom, can in practice be divided into useful categories, so that each can be studied separately.  In the end, we want to view reality as a unified whole (after all, what is the “universe” if not a unified concept of reality?).  Still, we do well to analyze, to break down knowledge and understand its parts.

After studying logic, which is more of a preparation and ordering of the mind toward the study of philosophy than a part of philosophy itself, we can look at two general branches of philosophy: Practical and Speculative.

Practical philosophy aims at action, for the sake of conduct or operation. It is not merely knowledge for its own sake, but links “is” with “ought.”  The truths we derive from it are not “complete” until put into action, until we “do” these truths.  Major branches of practical philosophy include the arts of “doing” which are ethics, economics, and politics, but may also include arts of “making” such as the fine arts.

In speculative philosophy, we seek knowledge for its own sake. It is divided into three parts, and these depend directly on their relation to matter.  The most abstract is metaphysics, mathematics is an intermediate knowledge, and natural philosophy (known simply as physics in older usage) is directly related to matter.




Natural philosophy

We will here focus on the latter three, the speculative sciences, and seek to better understand these levels of abstraction.  To do so, we must understand abstraction, and see how it is related to but different from separation.

All three of these sciences have there origin in sense knowledge.  They therefore start with sensible objects, and this means material being. In the study of natural philosophy, therefore, we merely abstract the universal from the particular.  We study the features of flesh and bones, apart from this particular flesh or this particular bone. This is to consider objects as they contain common sensible matter, which is to say that we are considering matter as such, such as flesh and bones, but not particular matter, such as “this flesh” and “these bones,” because our interest is in what “flesh and bones” do, and not what some particular set of flesh and bones do. We do not imply however, that flesh or bones actually exist apart from particular flesh and particular bones.

St. Thomas proposes that we use “to abstract” or “abstraction” in a narrow sense to cover only cases where we think apart things which do not exist apart, when from AB, I abstract A without suggesting that A exists apart from AB (McInerny, Metaphysics Lecture). So A here can represent “flesh,” and B is the particular flesh that we study.  We need not imply that flesh exists apart from particular flesh to study flesh.  We can ponder A, then, apart from B, without implying that A ever actually exists apart from B. Thus, whenever we define flesh, we do not define “this flesh,” but rather, flesh in general.  In doing so, we still must include matter in the definition, because matter is a part of what it is to be “flesh.”

Freedom from all sensible matter, including in the definition of what is studied, brings us to mathematics.  For we do not need to include matter in the definition of a circle as we do when we define flesh.  However, there are no existing circles apart from matter.  We see that the difference, then, is that while both require matter to exist, mathematical objects do not require that matter be part of their very definition.  This comprises the major difference in how we understand math as the second level of abstraction.

Metaphysics goes beyond this by not only abstracting the object of study from sensible matter, but understanding that some things can exist and be defined apart from any matter whatsoever. In other words, this subject is attained by an abstraction of the third order properly called a separation, whereby the mind leaves aside all the limitations of matter and cognizes an object that is intelligible without reference to matter and so is independent of matter in both meaning and existence. (Elements of Philosophy) Separation in the narrow sense is taken to characterize metaphysics. In the narrow sense, separation is the consideration of A without B when A exists apart from B. (McInerny)

When we look at God, whose existence is already proven in natural philosophy, we see one such immaterial being.  We also see, in psychology, the existence of our soul, which can exist apart from matter and, although defined by it as the form of the body, is a substantial form and can exist on its own, apart from the material body.  These are basic examples of how we arrive at this level of abstraction and see that things do truly exist so that metaphysics as a separate branch of study is a legitimate endeavor.

In brief, the differentiation of the sciences comes about by the different ways of demonstrating properties of these objects. This distinction does not (necessarily) arise because of the different objects studied, but from the diversity of principles that can be found in the objects of study. In logic, definition come about through “middle terms,” and the middle terms of the three speculative sciences we have looked at are arrived at precisely by the type or level of abstraction used.

The use of analogy in the study of metaphysics is relevant here.  Analogy is a kind of predication midway between univocation and equivocation. This is necessary primarily because “being” cannot be a genus, for if being were a genus, substance and accidents would have to differ in something other than “being.”  Therefore, recognizing this difference, but knowing it cannot be other than within being, we realize that we must use being analogously when speaking of different modes of being.  This is important here, for analogous terms are so called by the fact that they arise by a sort of incomplete abstraction (separation), whereas univocal terms arise from complete abstraction.

Therefore, it is by a sort of incomplete abstraction from one subject that we understand such terms as goodness and even being itself.  The primary subject that we abstract these analogies from is being itself, which is God.  For example, God is not [merely] “good” but is goodness itself, whereas other things are “good” by way of analogy, and this goodness is understood as related to God’s goodness but not univocal to it.

The understanding of abstraction and separation, then, are not only important for understanding the difference in the speculative sciences, but in understanding metaphysical topics. It is especially important in contemplating how all created things relate to God without falling into the areas of thinking that God’s being and our being, for example, are completely univocal (e.g. Scotus) or completely equivocal (Maimonides?).

What makes us rational animals, different as human from all other animals, is our ability to abstract the universal from the particular, and to seek higher things.  We are, by nature, made to learn from the sensible material things around us, but to know things beyond them, and this by abstraction.  We are, as has been often said, a microcosm, the link between the spiritual and the material world, being the one unique creature that we know of to participate in both. We are made to know being, and in the end, Being Himself.

Parmenides and “change”

This essay was written a couple years ago, and perhaps I will update it, but I thought it worth sharing:

What, precisely, is the “Problem of Parmenides,” and how does Aristotle solve it?

The problem of the one and the many has been part of philosophy as long as men have been pondering reality.  Until the time of Parmenides, a major focus of philosophy was trying to understand the changes occurring in the world.  Given our experience, it seemed only obvious that change is a reality, and some, like Heraclites, would go so far as to say that nothing could really be said of anything, since it was all in constant flux.


Parmenides, however, would say that our senses must not be the authority we look to, since reason shows necessarily that change is an illusion, and cannot actually be possible.  He says that being is being, and non being is not being, and that being cannot come from non being, and likewise, non being cannot come from being.  Therefore, all change is an illusion, since something cannot become something it is not.  For example, this rock is not “there,” and so, it cannot become “there” from “not there.”  Parmenides thus defends the reality of being, that it is, and his doctrine, seemingly of very sound logic, creates quite a difficulty for those who would try to explain change, as we perceive it.


Aristotle, of course, will say that our knowledge starts with our sense perception, and that we reason from there.  He certainly agrees with Parmenides in that non being does not come from being, nor being from non being.  However, it is the manner of being, of the subject which has things incidental to it, by which things can change.  If white and rock are both said to be in the same way, then a white rock cannot become red, since white cannot become red.  However, a rock can become red, and no longer be white, and it is not the white that changed, but the rock.


Below, a relevant passage (Physics i. 3 ; 186 a 24 – 186 b 3) of Aristotle’s is commented upon. Aristotle is addressing an assumption of Parmenides:


His assumption that one is used in a single sense only is false, because it is used

in several. His conclusion does not follow, because if we take only

white things, and if ‘white’ has a single meaning, none the less what

is white will be many and not one. For what is white will not be one

either in the sense that it is continuous or in the sense that it

must be defined in only one way. ‘Whiteness’ will be different from

‘what has whiteness’. Nor does this mean that there is anything that

can exist separately, over and above what is white. For ‘whiteness’

and ‘that which is white’ differ in definition, not in the sense that

they are things which can exist apart from each other. But Parmenides

had not come in sight of this distinction.


Here, Aristotle begins to define the difference between what “is” white and the “whiteness” that it has.  It is in this distinction of the subject of the change from the change that takes place in, of, or to it, that we are to understand that change is not being coming from non being, or vice versa.


It is necessary for him, then, to assume not only that ‘being’ has

the same meaning, of whatever it is predicated, but further that it

means (1) what just is and (2) what is just one.


Parmenides did not recognize the difference, in speaking of being, between the thing that “is” and an attribute of it.  For instance, the rock “is” and “is white,” and even though “is” can be used to speak of both of these things, they are not speaking of “being” in the same way, and this is the error of Parmenides reasoning.


It must be so, for (1) an attribute is predicated of some subject,

so that the subject to which ‘being’ is attributed will not be, as

it is something different from ‘being’. Something, therefore, which

is not will be. Hence ‘substance’ will not be a predicate of anything

else. For the subject cannot be a being, unless ‘being’ means several

things, in such a way that each is something. But ex hypothesi ‘being’

means only one thing.


As part of Aristotle’s logic, a term cannot be ambiguous, and the term “being” or “is,” as used by Parmenides, is not one and the same when he reasons that something cannot come to be from what it is not.  The rock comes to be red from white, but it is false to say that the white comes to be red.  Once again, it is the rock that comes to be red, and the rock was white.


Aristotle thus demonstrates that we are not thereby deceived when our senses show us that there is change in the world.  Aristotle’s massive contribution to logical reasoning itself allows him to find the fault in Parmenides’ reasoning and expose it.  The error now refuted, philosophy was free to continue to seek to understand the changes occurring in the world around us.