Saturday, December 26, 2020

The Proof of the Truthful


The contributions from medieval Islamic philosophers to the development of Western philosophy are undeniably numerous and profound. Here I'd like to pick out one argument from one philosopher as a noteworthy example: the Proof of the Truthful (برهان الصديقين) by Avicenna (ابن سینا‎). The proof purports to be a rational demonstration for why there must be a "necessary existent", something that must exist, a first cause for all contingent being. The "Truthful" refers to philosophers such as Avicenna himself. In contrast to the Koran that invites the masses to belief through a persuasive rhetoric or even the mullahs who approach the same subject through debate in a dialectic manner, Avicenna is indicating that the philosopher's method will be that of rigorous logical demonstration.

The point of departure for Avicenna's entire line of reasoning is nevertheless grounded in common human intuitions. We look around us with the palpable sense that everything we see is coming in and out of existence. The universe thus seems to cry out to the human mind for a reason for its own being. More than a millennium earlier the Greek philosopher Parmenides had coined the dictum, "nothing comes from nothing" in pursuit of his own metaphysical explanations. And nearly a millennium after Avicenna,  European philosophers such as Leibniz and Schopenhauer would revisit similar questions by means of what they described as the principles of sufficient reason. We ourselves are witness to a multitude of effects around us and can't help but wonder what is the cause of it all. Avicenna provides one of the most cogent arguments ever formulated for necessary being.

An initial presupposition of Avicenna is that there are three modes of being. There are things that are impossible, their vary essence precludes their being. An example might be a square circle which is contradictory by definition. Next there is the most familiar to us, contingent being. You and I could exist but we don't have to exist and in fact we eventually will cease to exist. Likewise, we're not even the cause of our present existence. Finally, he speaks of necessary existence. Something whose essence guarantees existence, is fundamental to its very nature. As we don't tend to question impossibility or contingency so his proof is focused on establishing a logical ground for necessary being.

Yet one may ask, why is the necessary even necessary? Might not contingent being suffice to explain everything? After all our notions of being seem primarily grounded in cause and effect. Yes, our being has a cause which we attribute to our parents, who had parents, perhaps ad infinitum. Similarly, existence might be occurring in cycles as a repeated loop so that the effect leads back to the cause; everything that has happened before will yet take place over and over, forever and ever. Certainly, ancient Eastern and Western religious beliefs and philosophical theories of an eternal universe posit such explanations. Avicenna rightly points out that this would lead to an infinite regress of contingent causes. Nevertheless, that is no objection in and of itself to its possibility. Avicenna must probe further.

If the universe were nothing more than an aggregation of contingent existence then would not the universe itself be contingent? Furthermore, if the universe is contingent on something that is itself contingent, by definition it would have to be included in the universe as defined as the collection of contingent being. Very quickly we find that holding to a universe of pure contingent existence tangles us in logical absurdity. Avicenna's argument could be rejected on the basis of an equivocation: just because the contents of the universe are contingent does not entail that the universe itself is contingent. The whole may be greater than or at least different from the parts. This objection however actually only seeks to prove the argument. At the very least, as the collection of contingent being, the universe must be necessary. If it isn't, than it is contingent on something that is not the universe. Avicenna favours the latter position and continues to make a philosophical articulation for the grounds of the Islamic conception of God as the one and only necessary being, a single unity. Included among this are his own arguments for various qualities that such a God must necessarily possess some perhaps being more convincing than others.

The Beautiful Names

"وَلِلَّهِ الْأَسْمَاءُ الْحُسْنَىٰ فَادْعُوهُ بِهَا (All the names of God are beautiful, so call Him by them)" - Surah 7:180

Many of the qualities attributed to God by Avicenna are again encountered in what are known as the "beautiful names" a list of 99 names or superlative attributes traditionally ascribed to God. Although the idea of the names comes directly from the Koran, the list is not strictly definitive; there are different iterations which contain names found both in and outside the Koran. The point of them is generally understood to serve as a means of directing praise to God by reflecting on his qualities. As such the names can found inscribed on Islamic rosary beads or "tisbah" (تَسْبِيح) literally meaning "glorify", the recantation being utilised for meditation and daily reflection.

Topping the list are the names of "most gracious" and "most merciful" found in the basmala (بِسْمِ ٱللَّٰهِ ٱلرَّحْمَٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ) that introduces all but one of the surahs of the Koran. However, also included are  transcendental aspects of necessary existence as expressed in Classical antiquity. God is "the True" (ٱلْحَقُّ) and "the Good" (ٱلْبَرُّ). Moreover, I find it quite interesting that it is the quality of "the Beautiful" (الْحُسْنَىٰ ) that characterises, permeates, and infuses the entire list. To be clear, the translation of the Arabic "al-Hassan" is no mere reference to superficial prettiness, rather conveys the notion of excellence and harmony that similarly typify Classical conceptions of the beautiful. 

There exists some disagreement and controversy as to whether or not the world of Islam is part of Western civilisation. Admitting that such classifications are based on subjective judgements, I'm going to state that my own position is a definitive yes. The cultural exchange between Islamic intellectual, religious, and architectural traditions with their Jewish, Christian, and Classical counterparts is profound and in my view inextricable. This is especially the case for the Islamic societies of North Africa, the Levant, Baghdad and Persia that have had the deepest and most enduring cultural exchange with what is typically considered Western civilisation.


Contributed by Patrick Webb

Monday, December 21, 2020

Truth, Beauty, and Goodness in Saint Thomas Aquinas


Sandro Botticelli
St Thomas Aquinas 1482

If Saint Augustine deserves the lion's share of credit for fully synthesising Neoplatonic philosophy including its metaphysical conceptions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness into Christianity, then Saint Thomas Aquinas must be acknowledged as having accomplished a similar feat with the philosophy of Aristotle. Although Aristotle's work on formal logic continued to be studied during the Middles Ages, much of his other writings were entirely lost for many centuries to the Western church. Neither was it propagated or widely known in the Eastern Orthodox church. Interest in Aristotle's philosophy during this early medieval period was instead zealously taken up by Islamic philosophers, beginning with Al-Kindi of Baghdad in the 9th century who translated much of Aristotle's corpus into Arabic. Al-Farabi and Avicenna were subsequent notable Islamic philosophers who wrote commentaries on Aristotle's philosophy and attempted to synthesise the metaphysics of Aristotle as well as that of Plato with Islamic theology. However, it was the 12th century Andalusian Averroës that would catch the attention of Catholic theologians. Averroës had written commentaries on almost all of Aristotle's philosophy which were translated into Latin thereby making them available to the West.

Averroës of  Córdoba
Averroës was of a mind that the philosophy of Aristotle and Islamic theology were ultimately irreconcilable. However, unwilling to reject either he proposed a theory of double truth wherein the truths of philosophy were said to be expressed clearly and logically. When these did not align with the revealed truth of theology than it indicated an allegorical interpretation of revelation was in order. Averroës went further in asserting that it was the philosopher who was in the best position to judge what was in need of interpretation and how it was to be interpreted. This subordination of theology to philosophy, as one might well imagine, did not sit well with the Islamic mullahs of Córdoba who sought and achieved his extradition on the grounds of heresy. 

A century later, with the translated works and commentaries of Averroës on Aristotle in hand, a cadre of theologians based out of the University of Paris were reaching similar conclusions with a similar response from the Church: condemnation for heresy wherein the Church was quite inclined to throw out the baby of Aristotelian philosophy with the bathwater of Averroist interpretation. It is in this controversial milieu that Saint Thomas Aquinas enters the Parisian scene with a far more moderating position. He was convinced that there was incredible value to be extracted from the philosophy of Aristotle, that faith and reason could and in fact must coexist. Yes, apparent contradictions might indicate the occasional allegorical interpretation of scripture is in order; however, it may likewise prompt a reexamination and moderation of philosophical positions. As brilliant as Aristotle was, only God is infallible. 

All Truth is God's Truth

Following Aristotle, Aquinas rejects that human beings enter the world with innate ideas, that is to say clearly defined truths. We have no a priori, prior knowledge of God or anything else for that matter. Everything we come to know (with one notable exception) come a posteriroi, meaning after the fact, from sense experience. Furthermore, what we sense are always particular things. Our world of sense is corporeal, made of bodies. Aquinas in accord with Aristotle recognises a dual nature of these bodies that he calls hylomorphic, "hyle" being the Greek word for "matter" and "morphic" indicating "form". The essence of corporeal things is thus a composite of matter and form that only exist together as a body, a substance. What makes particular things particular? Aquinas' view is that matter is subject to accidents of nature in such a way as to individuate the composite substance, leaving a permanent impression on it which varies slightly from body to body. Our senses only alert us to the particular, the composite body; however, humans have the additional unique capacity of intellect that inclines us toward essences. Our intellect empowers us to see the immaterial formal nature within the particular body, that which makes it the thing that it is. Moreover, we're able to identify upon reflection the same form manifest across multiple bodies. Aristotle and Aquinas call these dispersed forms universals and the intellectual act of reflection that recoginises them abstraction. 

Granting the Aristotelian presupposition that we've no direct knowledge of God, what if anything can our natural reason tell us about Him? Aquinas furnishes a number of proofs for God's existence grounded in the senses, assisted by the intellect. His proofs from motion and cause follow a similar pattern. We know from sense experience that everything that moves or that is an effect has a cause. However, also from experience we know that which initiates the movement or acts as cause must itself have a cause. From this point our intellect contributes, inclining us to think that to avoid an infinite regress of causes there must be a prime mover or first cause, something or someone responsible for the entire series. This could be thought of as first in time but more importantly first in importance, a supreme cause of the entire causal order. This is what Aquinas indicates as a logical proof for God. It tells us that God as a first cause must necessarily exist though admittedly it does little to say what God is. 

Nevertheless, Aquinas asserts that our senses and natural reason can get us yet even a little closer to the knowledge of God. He posited that there are objective properties of all existence such as truth, being, unity. As we can first find them in particulars then abstract them as universals, we reach a position to attribute them to God in a superlative sense. This act of attribution by the intellect he calls an analogy, "according to logic". Thus God is thought of by us as Truth, as Being, as Unity, etc. Of course, this is still not a direct knowledge of God, rather a similitude or extrapolation grounded in sense experience. In that respect it is acknowledged that it remains imprecise and incomplete. Thus, in defending Aristotle, Aquinas pointed out that an incomplete knowledge such as the philosopher held does not equate to falsity, rather the limitation of truth available to natural reason. Supplementing and surpassing this natural limitation is supernatural revelation. Such revealed truth may or may not be demonstrable to the senses. However, it remains available in its entirety to our faculty of natural reason which can subject revealed truth to rational scrutiny to ascertain that there is no logical contradiction, that it is possibly true. In fine, Aquinas sees our access through truth via natural reason, even supplemented as it is by revelation as being limited. Ultimate truth must await for a heavenly existence in the very presence of God.

Although Aquinas places a good deal of emphasis on the role of the intellect, he situates our motivation towards the pursuit of truth in the will, a will that has a measure of freedom. In so doing he utilises a modified version of the four causes of Aristotle. Obviously we exist as bodies and the material aspect of human nature acts a cause, one that holds potential as well as constraint as exemplified by the senses, our gateway to the acquisition of knowledge. Additionally there is a formal nature that makes us human and not something else. Our very form inclines the will to certain interests including the pursuit of well-being and the truth. At the same time there are efficient causes that impel us to take action in certain directions. Some of these come from without, others are an exercise of free will from within, we decide to pursue a course of action. And then there is the final cause, God that draws us towards him as the ultimate source of Truth. So the will although free does not exist in a causal vacuum. We have our own corporeal nature with its constraints and inclinations. Furthermore we are pushed from within and without and drawn from above. Human freedom of the will rests not in the ultimate end that we're already oriented towards, instead in the limited means of striving towards it.

Temporal and Eternal Goodness

For Aquinas God was more than the Form of the Good as per Plato or the source of Being as described by St Augustine. Not that they were incorrect in attributing those things to God; nevertheless, Aquinas saw something more essential to God. As previously considered, we are corporeal beings, hylomorphic in nature. Logically our matter and form are separable but substantially they're always found together. Our essence or being is that of a composite body. Neither aspect, be it our matter or form has any meaning if it does not exist. However, we're highly cognizant of the fact that we don't have to exist, it's not necessary. Bodies come in and go out of existence all of the time. To the contrary, it is patently obvious that we don't give ourselves existence; dependence is tied up in our very essence, our existence is contingent on something outside of ourselves. Aquinas says that such finite existence is contingent on God. He is unique in that His essence is not hylomorphic at all, rather His essence is to exist. God is that which exists independently and necessarily.

According to Aquinas we are always inclined, pushed, and drawn towards happiness, literally good or well-being which we pursue in proximate and ultimate ways. We posit existence as good and we share the desire to exist with other living things. As such we pursue activities of self-preservation in our own human way, notably what we might call the necessities of life: food, clothes, shelter, and medicine. And it's not just our own particular finite existence but also the preservation of the species that impels us towards reproduction, another impulse we seem to share with all living things. Apart from this human beings are rational and highly social. This presupposes that we can posit quite sophisticated goals of well-being. The cardinal or Greek virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice are social in orientation. In recognition of our social nature, that we find greater fulfillment in community than in isolation, these virtues serve as a basis for the proximate well-being that the State can potentially provide. 

Aquinas once again modifies the four causes of Aristotle to demonstrate how the State can serve well-being. The community as such is the material cause of the State. Civil law serves to give the community order and structure acting as formal cause. The ruling authority acts as efficient cause of the State, constantly impelling it toward its final cause: the common good. Therefore, by this reasoning the State is natural to humans as a necessary condition for men to pursue well-being according to their nature as rational, social creatures. Nevertheless, Aquinas insists that the happiness to be found in the State is but a proximate, temporal good. Man has a longing for the ultimate, eternal good as only can be found in God. This is why there arises another community of man organised for the pursuit of true happiness and the highest good: the Church. The Church helps the community of believers to cultivate the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love necessary for reunion with God. 

Friedrich Kaulbach - Coronation of Charlemagne 1861

From where does the authority of the State and Church derive? According to Aquinas it is not arbitrary power rather a legitimate authority based in God. Divine wisdom is equated with Eternal law which, while perfect and necessary, is inaccessible to our direct apprehension. However, by man being made in the image of God, we have His law implanted in our very nature. It is from reflection upon our own inclinations under the rule and measure of reason that Natural law emerges. Furthermore, the State develops a body of Civil law based on the right reason of Natural law and adapted to particular circumstances for the common good. However, for Aquinas man's ultimate end and well-being is not earthly but heavenly and eternal in God. Therefore the Church promulgates the Divine law of revealed truth in scripture. As the State does with Civil law, the Church develops a corpus of Canon law that adapts Divine law to specific circumstances. For the most part Church and State have there own spheres of influence, the eternal and temporal well-being of mankind respectively. However, as man's ultimate end is eternal in God, the State ought to recognise the higher purpose of the Church and support Her care for the salvation of mankind.

The Object of Beauty

The Chapel of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity
Thomas Aquinas College, Santa Paula, CA
courtesy of Duncan G. Stroik Architect, LLC
"The beautiful is the same as the good, and they differ in aspect only. For since good is what all seek, the notion of good is that which calms the desire; while the notion of the beautiful is that which calms the desire, by being seen or known."

It can be said unequivocally that for Aquinas beauty is objective. From the quote above we can glean its intimate relation with the good and its connection to cognition. Although Aquinas references the senses, particularly sight and hearing, they are merely suggested as a medium the transmission of beauty. Our awareness of beauty occurs when it is literally "recognised", repeatedly brought forth as an object in the mind in an act of cognition. So what exactly is it that we are seeing or knowing with the mind's eye?

Initially, Aquinas relates harmony as an attribute of beauty. This includes the cognition of symmetry, quantifiable geometric proportion. However, in the sense used it also refers to qualitative relations such as those between cause and effect. This entails the idea of order, things being appropriate, each allocated in their appropriate place and the aforementioned calm engendered in recognition of that.

There is also a clarity associated with beauty. Again, the object of beauty in the mind must be recognisable to be appreciated. There is a sense in which the beautiful is also radiant, it shines forth, it arrests the attention, it draws one towards it. The analogy of light is associated with God so that when He illumes the mind it is not merely a cold intellectual apprehension, rather a enrapturing beatitude of total awareness.

Finally, there is integrity, that something exists and that it is true. In as much as something has being it can be said to have a measure of beauty. However, what we look for is truth, completeness. In this case not logical truth but ontological truth. In other words, is the object of our contemplation true to type, approaching its perfection in the sense of not lacking anything that it is essential to what it is? To be truly integral and whole involves not just proper being but existing as well, dynamically actualising its end, its purpose.

In our next essay we'll conclude the medieval period with a consideration of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. This is a major transitory period in philosophy where the teleological, end oriented conception of reality begins to give way as a scientific world view in turn gains ground with significant implications for mankind's conceptions of truth, beauty, and goodness.

Contributed by Patrick Webb