I found myself, in this season of holidays, in conversation with a bright young man, who has been in a fine boarding school – but learning now remotely in the time of COVID. He has stayed, though, in constant touch with his friends at school. I asked whether these vibrant youngsters bore any interest in religion. He remarked that there’s very little interest – for there’s virtually no belief in what he called “higher powers.”
That brought back the memory of my dear, late friend Daniel Robinson, musing aloud before his “skeptical students” at Georgetown on the meaning of the Greek term epistemonikon: the capacity to grasp truths universal in nature, not bounded by space and time. They were not material in nature, and therefore they would never decompose.
The Pythagorean theorem would still be there, true in all places, even when Pythagoras himself died and decomposed. Robinson then recalled Aristotle mulling over the question of whether this remarkable state of being – this remarkable capacity to grasp things nonmaterial, universal, and true – would itself be subject to decomposition. Might it survive even after those who have it depart the scene?
Dan recalled that he stopped for a break, and “where I had five atheists I now had three Papists and one fellow trying to get Jerry Falwell (the Evangelical leader) long distance.”
I thought of the various paths I’d used over the years to open students to the disarming questions that led to God. But I passed over them to the one I would probably give to this young man when he could more readily take it on: The redoubtable Ronald Knox remarked on the convention of naming scientific laws after the researcher who had discovered them. Of the relation between the volume and pressure of gases, we’ve come to refer to “Boyle’s Law.” But, Knox observed, if it had taken a considerable mind to have discovered that law, it must have taken a considerable Mind to have put it there in the first place.
That gives way, though, to the question of how we can actually know of that Mind, or the existence of any “other minds.” The capacity to understand universals is not material in nature, and so how do we know it is there? That justly great Scot philosopher Thomas Reid (1710-1796), immensely readable and witty – and penetrating – once explained that our knowledge of this matter cannot depend at all on our “experience.”
Reid cited John Locke falling into a first principle of our knowledge when he remarked “on the repugnancy to our conceptions, that modes and accidents should subsist by themselves.” To put it another way, there cannot be qualities of things without the things themselves. As Reid put it, “figures cannot exist unless there be something that is figured, nor motion without something that is moved.”
Reid went on: “From wise conduct we infer wisdom in the cause; from brave actions we infer courage; and so, in other cases.” That is, we presume that actions are caused, and we take these actions as signs, or reflections, of the persons who caused them.
When I taught, in Amherst, in Fayerweather Hall, a lovely building designed by the architects McKim, Mead, and White, I would ask the students whether we did not find all around us the evidence that revealed so handsomely the “minds” of the designers.
Reid pointed out that we could have no immediate knowledge of a mind. “The mind is not an immediate object either of sense or consciousness” – we cannot see a “mind” or touch it. We can grasp it only through that first principle of common sense that we all have by nature – “to wit, that from certain signs or indications in the effect, we may infer that there must have been intelligence, wisdom, or other intellectual or moral qualities in the cause.”
This “is a principle, which we get, neither by reasoning nor by experience; and therefore, if it be a true principle, it must be a first principle.” We know it through our natural recognition that it makes no sense, as Locke said, “that modes and accidents should subsist by themselves.”
But that stylish skeptic, David Hume, always engaging, and virtually always wrong, simply invoked the familiar line that he needed more evidence. For all we knew, there could be other worlds without these connections at work, where things may subsist without causes, and where the arrangement of things shows no signs of wisdom or purpose. If we had other models for comparison, we might feel more confident about the presence of creative minds and signs of God at work.
And yet, if we had 10 or 10,000 worlds to compare, how would we know then the worlds that are not governed by cause and effect, as opposed to those that reveal the presence of wisdom? Or as Reid crystallized the matter, “if the marks of wisdom seen in one world be no evidence of wisdom, the like marks seen in 10,000 will give as little evidence, unless, in time past, we perceived wisdom itself conjoined with the tokens of it.” There was no way of knowing, through experience, in 10,000 cases, what would not have been known already in the first case.
The searing conclusion was that Hume could not sustain his argument against God and the First Cause in the Universe without calling into question at the same time the grounds on which we infer the existence of anyone else apart from ourselves.
And if we know, with surety, the presence of others, we know with the same surety of the Mind that has set in place the Laws, natural and moral, that have always framed our lives.
But the Lord who died on the Cross, we do not know, without “experience,” as a “first principle.” For He did indeed have a material presence. He was seen to live and die, and His wounds could be touched. And we have the lasting testimonies of those who saw it happen.
*Image: The Incredulity of St. Thomas by Caravaggio (Michelangelo Merisi), 1601-2 [Schloss Sanssouci, Potsdam, Germany]