Epistemology is the study of knowledge, of how we know things. It deals with the nature of knowledge, what knowledge is. And it deals with the extent of knowledge, how much can we know, or do we know.
How We Know
The science before science is philosophy.
Science emerged from empiricism, and is closely related to positivism. Today the philosophy of science sits in judgment of what science is or should be, for instance, that it should be grounded in empirical evidence and use the scientific method to test hypotheses that can be proven false.
Scientism is the fallacy that measures all knowledge by its consistency with science. It is self-annihilating. The view that only scientific claims are meaningful is not itself based on science. It excludes metaphysics, religion, and ethics, leaving it very narrow for a proposition that claims universal application.
Advocates for scientism argue that the boundaries of science should be expanded into these fields. Their argument is, if we expand the boundaries of science so that it includes everything, then everything will be scientific. The problem becomes visible by applying specifics: “If we call rat poison a health food, we will be able to safely consume it.”
Aristotle’s Prime Mover
The IEP essay on Divine Simplicity summarizes Aristotle’s prime mover argument based on God’s simplicity:
Aristotle’s prime mover sits at the top of an efficient causal hierarchy governing all motion and change in the universe. Aristotle’s first mover is a simple, unchanging form that still causally affects other beings: in Aristotle’s case the heavenly spheres would move themselves in imitation of the divine perfection, resulting in the motions of terrestrial beings. Aristotle’s god is still considered ontologically finite by theistic standards and remains only a cosmic mover rather than a creator ex nihilo. The Platonic notion of a supreme perfection at a remove from all things and Aristotle’s causally efficacious, disembodied mind would combine to suggest a powerful model for Western theologians seeking language to describe God’s nature.
When St. Thomas considers the question, Whether God is altogether simple, he quotes St. Augustine, “God is truly and absolutely simple.” St. Thomas then goes on to affirm that, “The absolute simplicity of God can be shown in many ways.” This is the teaching of the Catholic Church § 202.
We firmly believe and confess without reservation that there is only one true God, eternal infinite (immensus) and unchangeable, incomprehensible, almighty and ineffable, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; three persons indeed, but one essence, substance or nature entirely simple.
“God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” Gen 1:27. St. Augustine, at the beginning of his Confessions, declares, “You have formed us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in you.”
We’ve known many Catholics who, in the greatest adversity, are serene. St. John of the Cross, locked in a dark, cold, desolate cell, six feet by ten feet, beaten three times a week, experienced Rabbi Yeshua’s joy as fire and light, comes first to mind. St. John of the Cross said there are caverns ordered to God within us, into which nothing else will fit.
It has been so for a very long time. Recall Elijah’s Contest of Sacrifices, when Elijah stood alone against 450 prophets of the false god Baal. When Baal didn’t answer their cries to send one lightning strike to set fire to their bull they cried aloud and raved and hopped around and cut themselves and bled. This false craving is not a harmless process, it wounds us. But Elijah was serene. To show God’s power, he soaked his bull in water three times, and then said once, “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that thou, O Lord, art God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back” 1 Kings 18:37. Then God’s fire fell on Elijah’s bull and consumed it, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and the water in the trench. Only the true God can answer with fire!
St. Thomas Aquinas
The most formidable reasons to believe in God are in the will, rather than the intellect, the heart rather than the mind. “I will write it upon their hearts” Jer 31:33.
“We walk by faith, not by sight” 2 Cor 5:7. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” Heb 11:1. St. Thomas‘ remarkable clarity of ordered thought grounds his case firmly in the Sacred Tradition of Apostolic Teaching as taught by the Church Fathers, exposes it to the opposing arguments offered in his time, and overcomes them.
Some scholastic philosophers today say St. Thomas’ arguments are not valid. However, that does not mean we have to judge equally between them. St. Thomas is a Doctor of the Church. During more than 700 years his arguments have been studied in Catholic seminaries and universities by scholars familiar with both the pagan Aristotle and the Catholic St. Thomas, who have accepted his five arguments as valid. When we find a philosopher opposed to these arguments who has comparable stature, who thinks and writes with comparable clarity and order, and who is likely to be read 700 years from now, perhaps the case will be more balanced. For now, St. Thomas makes the more important case.
These five arguments support the existence of the one God of Israel § 199-231. As we’d expect from St. Thomas, they work as well for the Catholic faith since we understand that § 253 “The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the consubstantial Trinity.”
1. Unmoved Mover
In the world some things are in motion. Aristotle’s discussion of astronomy observed that planetary motion, which causes seasons to change, requires an unmoved mover. St. Thomas uses the same idea, everything that moves has to be moved by something else, but at the start of the chain of movers must be an unmoved mover, God.
Nothing can be the cause of itself; to do so it would have to be prior to itself, which is impossible. Also, it is not possible with causes to go on to infinity, because the first cause always causes the intermediate causes. And, to take away the cause is to take away the effect. If there is no cause, there can be no effect. The first cause is always God. (St. Thomas calls it “efficient cause,” but that distinction is not much used among philosophers today.)
Third, contingency. We find in nature things that are possible to be, and possible not to be. St. Thomas says that if everything can not-be, at one time there must have been nothing in existence, because that which does not exist begins to exist only through something already existing.
Among persons there are some more and some less good. But more and less can only exist in reference to an absolute standard, in this case an absolute standard of goodness. Since men mix good and evil impulses, there must exist an absolutely moral being, and this can only be non-human and not in the world.
St. Thomas suggests that inanimate objects, such as planets, could not have entered their orbits on their own, because they lack the intelligence to do so. But they are perfectly aligned. Since men cannot move planets, their orbits must have been designed by a being with the intelligence and power to do so.
St. Thomas’ Summa attempts to explain the origin, operation, and purpose of the entire universe and the role that everything in the universe plays in the attainment of that purpose. Physicists search constantly for a “unified field theory” or, if they venture outside the realm of fields, a “grand unified theory.”
The Summa offers a very disciplined method of organization. For each question St. Thomas considers, he begins by breaking down the question into several articles. He begins each article with several objections that have been made to it by eminent scholars and states them fairly, often more clearly than the eminent scholars themselves. Then he refutes their objections. Then he states his own view. Then he replies to each of the objections.
Here is an example, the very first question St. Thomas considers, “The nature and extent of sacred doctrine.” To see the Summa’s scope and extent, notice that it comes in five parts. Three of the parts are numbered, but the second part is divided into two parts, and he adds a supplement to the third part.
The First Part, on the one God, The Blessed Trinity, Creation, The Angels (Spirit), The Six Days (matter), and Man (Spirit and Matter) addresses 119 questions in this very comprehensive manner. The First Part of the Second Part, on Man’s Last End, Human Acts, Passions, Habits, Vice and Sin, Law, and Grace, covers 114 more questions. The Second Part of the Second Part, on Faith, Hope, Charity, Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, and Acts Which Pertain specially to Certain Men, answers 189 more questions. The Third Part, on The Incarnation, The Life of Christ, the Sacraments in General, Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Eucharist, and Penance, answers 90 more questions. The Supplement to the Third Part, on the remainder of Penance, Extreme Unction (Anointing of the Sick), Holy Orders, Matrimony, and the Resurrection, an additional 99 questions. Two Appendices together answer 3 final questions. 614 questions in all.
About St. Thomas
St. Thomas was born Tommaso d’Aquino. “Aquinas” is from the county of Aquino in the Kingdom of Sicily, an area where his family held land until 1137.
Since there have been so many “St. Thomases” during the Church’s 2,000 years, we call the most prominent one St. Thomas Aquinas. It means, “St. Thomas from the county of Aquino.” It is not his last name.
The Kalam Cosmological Argument
The Kalam cosmological argument (KCA) follows St. Thomas in its first cause emphasis, but has its roots in the eleventh century Islamic philosopher Al-Ghazali, and is named for Ilm al-Kalam, Arabic for “science of discourse” within Islam’s discipline of philosophical theology. William Lane Craig, updating KCA, presents it as a simple syllogism:1
1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause;
2. The universe began to exist;
3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.
After ontological analysis, Lane adds some specificity:2
1. The universe has a cause.
2. If the universe has a cause, then an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.
3. An uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans the universe is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless and enormously powerful.
This analysis has implications in classical theism, which lead to his conclusion:3
“Transcending the entire universe there exists a cause which brought the universe into being ex nihilo … our whole universe was caused to exist by something beyond it and greater than it. For it is no secret that one of the most important conceptions of what theists mean by ‘God’ is Creator of heaven and earth”
The Wider Catholic Perspective
St. John Paul II‘s encyclical letter Fides et Ratio begins, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves (cf. Ex 33:18; Ps 27:8–9; 63:2–3; Jn 14:8; 1 Jn 3:2).”
The Catholic Church, both in its historical antecedents and current teaching, integrates faith and reason in its heritage across thousands of years. The Old Testament declares, “Hear now my reasoning” Job 13:6, Sirach, “Blessed is the man who meditates on wisdom and who reasons intelligently” Sir 14:20, and finally God himself: “Come now, let us reason together” Is 1:18. The Talmud is filled with reasoned arguments among the sages to arrive at a right understanding of God‘s law for his people Israel. The Catholic Church holds St. Thomas’ Summa Theologica as the sine qua non for reason as applied to the existence of God and in fact all of Catholic teaching.
- A quite special place in this long development belongs to Saint Thomas, not only because of what he taught but also because of the dialogue which he undertook with the Arab and Jewish thought of his time. In an age when Christian thinkers were rediscovering the treasures of ancient philosophy, and more particularly of Aristotle, Thomas had the great merit of giving pride of place to the harmony which exists between faith and reason. Both the light of reason and the light of faith come from God, he argued; hence there can be no contradiction between them.
- More radically, Thomas recognized that nature, philosophy’s proper concern, could contribute to the understanding of divine Revelation. Faith therefore has no fear of reason, but seeks it out and has trust in it. Just as grace builds on nature and brings it to fulfilment, so faith builds upon and perfects reason. Illumined by faith, reason is set free from the fragility and limitations deriving from the disobedience of sin and finds the strength required to rise to the knowledge of the Triune God. Although he made much of the supernatural character of faith, the Angelic Doctor did not overlook the importance of its reasonableness; indeed he was able to plumb the depths and explain the meaning of this reasonableness. Faith is in a sense an exercise of thought; and human reason is neither annulled nor debased in assenting to the contents of faith, which are in any case attained by way of free and informed choice.
Holy Mother Church seeks to justify faith by reason to avoid the pitfall of fideism, the idea that truths of faith do not depend on any rational presupposition, which makes faith purely a question of personal conviction. At the same time, the Church seeks to avoid rationalism, the opposite error, that God’s revelation is entirely constrained by reason, as if man were the measure of the truth of faith. We offer as evidence St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica. St. Thomas begins with the question, “Do we need a Science Before Science?” That is, do we need to address whether God exists? And second, finding in the affirmative, he addresses whether God exists.
Rabbi Paul wrote, “When I am weak, then I am strong” 2 Cor 12:10. It looks like a paradox, but is not. When we’re strong we’re often tempted to rely on our own fallen intellect and will, but when we’re weak we rely on Rabbi Yeshua’s infinite intellect and will.
St. Thomas maintains a very high level of reason in his analysis of whether God exists, as he does everywhere in the Summa. He begins with sacred doctrine. He breaks each question into its logical elements. For each element, he brings up the most prominent objections to it. He then brings forward evidence opposed to those objections. He follows that with his own analysis of the matter, and in light of his analysis he replies to the original objections, often stating the objections to his thesis in a clearer and more logical way than their own advocates do.
St. Thomas offers five approaches to evidence in reason for God‘s existence S. Th. I, 2,3. The Catechism concisely summarizes: § 34 “The world, and man, attest that they contain within themselves neither their first principle nor their final end, but rather that they participate in Being itself, which alone is without origin or end. Thus, in different ways, man can come to know that there exists a reality which is the first cause and final end of all things, a reality ‘that everyone calls God.'”
Let’s talk faith. “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” Heb 11:1. Suppose I have no faith that Idaho exists. I’ve seen descriptions of it in tourist books, but I’ve never actually driven to Idaho. I’ve never seen a Welcome to Idaho highway sign of the kind I’ve seen on other highways when I drive across a state boundary. My friends will say, “But Idaho does exist. You can get in your car and drive there whenever you wish.” Most atheists find such empirical evidence reasonable. But when I say, to see God’s miracles go to Lourdes, in France, they don’t want to go.
Let’s talk reason. Two billion Christians propose something truly extraordinary, eternal life in a place of unsurpassed joy, and empirical evidence for it, yet most atheists refuse to spend less than a month’s income in travel and lodging costs to see for themselves whether evidence exists for such a place. The potential benefit so far outweighs the cost that we have to ask whether refusal constitutes an act of reason, or an act of religion, faith in the proposition that God does not exist.
Dr. Anthony Rizzi
More recently, I came across Dr. Anthony Rizzi who is both a noted physicist and also recognized by Catholic Answers as a Thomist. He would be able to explain all this in ways I could understand. You can too.
Dr. Rizzi explains it all:
Science Before Science 1 14:19
Science Before Science 2 14:18
Science Before Science 3 14:37
Science Before Science 4 14:37
Science Before Science 5 13:09
Science Before Science 6 13:09
Science Before Science 7 14:07
Science Before Science 8 14:07
Science Before Science 9 14:09
The Enemy Proves God
G.K. Chesterton is associated with the aphorism, “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” Liberal politicians succumb to the first capital sin, pride. They want to, “be like God” Gen 3:5 and worship power over others in many forms. “Climate change” atheists worship the Earth, which they call the environment. Others worship money or sex or fame. Satan is quite willing to make for us any false god we wish, as long as it distracts us from Rabbi Yeshua long enough for him to harvest us for hell.
If God did not exist, and we Catholics are merely sports fans rooting for the God team against the Satan team, those who do not believe would pay little attention to believers. These days a great many subjects compete to engage our interest. Sheer press of time requires that we pay no attention to most of them.
I have many interests, but sports are not among them. Top tennis players use their extremely high skill levels to hit a ball back and forth. I have no idea why they do that, who the top players are, or why I should care who wins, but when television audiences watch tennis and root for a player I’m serene.
Bishop Barron 49:55 offers a similar observation. He comments in passing that when studying in Paris many of the restaurant specials he saw were fish. Yet it never once occurred to him in all that time to mount a campaign against eating fish, or for spaghetti and meatballs. In a restaurant we each order what we prefer.
Atheists, however, make strenuous efforts to resist the Catholic Church, especially around Christmas and Easter. In secular terms it makes no sense. But if there had been a war in heaven Rev 12:1–4 it would make perfect sense that the demons Jn 8:44 know Rabbi Yeshua. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” Mk 1:24. “And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him” Mk 1:34.
If atheists resist evidence of God’s existence so strenuously, I know he exists. The only reason anyone would go to as much effort as atheists do is that they are driven by demons at war against the Church.
It is still true. Atheists are never really serene. St. Thomas Aquinas, in the Summa I-II, 2, observed that they pursue wealth, honors, fame, power, goods of the body, or pleasure. Often they become addicted to one or more, but none satisfies deeply. As soon as they accomplish even a major political or social objective, they are back with another grievance.
Science Without God
If God did not exist, science could not exist.
In the early 1970s, physicists agreed on this standard model: Our entire universe is made of 12 different matter particles and four forces. Among those 12 particles are six quarks and six leptons. Quarks are protons and neutrons, while leptons include the electron and the electron neutrino, its neutrally charged counterpart. Scientists think leptons and quarks are indivisible, can’t be broken apart into smaller particles. The standard model also acknowledges four forces: gravity, electromagnetic, and the strong and weak forces. That standard model depends on data replication and reproducibility, getting the same results again, and again, and again.
The big bang showed us that the universe did not always exist, but rather had a single starting point, and that an entity of infinite power and intelligence living as pure spirit outside of space and time had to bring it into being. We would expect an orderly mind to create an orderly universe, one in which matter particles and forces would behave in orderly ways.
In fact, the universe is astonishingly elegant in its design, extremely complicated and highly inter-related so that it continues in existence. Light emitted billions of years ago from stars at the most extreme distances that is just now reaching the earth show us that the universe then was very much the same as it is now.
Random generation of matter would have produced random behavior. Randomly generated matter here would be completely different from matter generated there. It might completely change its behavior in unpredictable ways at unpredictable intervals. With such matter, physics based on data replication and reproducibility would be impossible.
The Silence in Space
In 1960 astronomers Frank Drake and Jill Tarter began a search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia. By 1961 the National Academy of Science established SETI, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, as a scientific discipline. NASA says there are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy and 100 billion galaxies like it in the universe. In scientific notation: 10¹¹ Milky Way stars times 10¹¹ galaxies like it in the universe add up to 10²² stars in the universe.
NASA says that at least one in six stars has an earth-size planet. That means about 17 billion stars in our own Milky Way galaxy have Earth-size planets. With random generation, let’s assume that one in every thousand of those planets has intelligent life comparable to ours, and that one in every thousand of those has interstellar communication, 17,000 advanced civilizations within our own galaxy aware of our existence, familiar with our ways of communication, transmitting narrow-band radio signals in patterns discernible from ordinary solar background noise the way a flute can be heard near a waterfall that generates thousands of times more sonic energy, and crowding the radio channels as they compete for our attention.
Now lets consider the rest of the universe. With some fast paper napkin calculations, using American “short scale” numbers, 10²² stars in the universe are 10 sextillion. Using NASA‘s ratio, that would be 1.7 sextillion, round it down to one sextillion, earth-size planets in the universe. Suppose with random generation only one star in every 100 billion has a civilization capable of intergalactic communication. 10²¹ planets, divided by 10¹¹ would give us ten billion civilizations. If we assume that only the closest 1 percent of them would be able to reach us with a usable signal, that would still be 100 million civilizations competing for our attention.
Amateur (“ham”) radio operators often tune across a band looking for radio signals from other amateurs. On the international radio bands hams often find so many voice signals crowded together that they can hardly be digitally isolated enough for conversation. If random generation of life actually existed, astronomers would have a similar experience.
Frank Drake, Jill Tarter and the National Academy of Sciences put a great deal of effort into their search, but found: nothing. During the past half-century the SETI Institute has become a large organization, using advanced technology Frank Drake and Jill Tarter could hardly have imagined, and it has found: nothing. If we are alone in the universe there is no random generation of life. That takes us back to purposeful generation by an infinite power and intelligence living as pure spirit outside of space and time.
But the age old cry of the atheist scientist is always “give us more.” More processing power. Bigger antennas. Program the digital telescopes to focus specifically on Class-M planets. “I know they’re out there.” They remind me of Pope Leo XIII’s 1884 vision in which he heard Satan say that he could drag the world to hell, but he needed more time and more power. The atheist scientists have had more time and more processing power. But they ask for still more. “I know they’re out there.” That is not science, but religion, a conclusion not supported by observable phenomena.
The time will surely come when we discover another intelligent species, or several, from other stars in the Milky Way galaxy, or even from other galaxies. That will not change the conclusion. From random generation we should expect not two or three or ten advanced civilizations but millions. Rabbi Yeshua told us, “I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice” Jn 10:16. What would our atheist scientists say if they finally discovered another civilization thousands of light-years away from us, and it turned out to be Catholic?