Some Thoughts on the Catholic Dogma that God’s Existence Can Be Known for Certain.

It is frequently said nowadays, even by professing Roman Catholics, that everyone knows that it is impossible to prove the existence of God. The first objection to this putative truism is, as my reference to Roman Catholics should have suggested, that it is not true. For it is an essential dogma of Roman Catholicism, defined as such by the First Vatican Council, that ‘the one and true God our creator and lord can be known for certain through the creation by the natural light of human reason’. So even if this dogma is, as I myself believe, false, it is certainly not known to be false by those many Roman Catholics who remain, despite all the disturbances consequent upon the Second Vatican Council, committed to the complete traditional faith. To this a sophisticated objector might reply that the definition of the First Vatican Council speaks of knowing for certain rather than of proving or demonstrating; adding perhaps, if he was very sophisticated indeed, that the word ‘demonstrari’ in an earlier draft was eventually replaced by the expression ‘certo cognosci’. But, allowing that this is correct, it is certainly not enough to vindicate the conventional wisdom. For the word ‘proof’ is not ordinarily restricted in its application to demonstratively valid arguments, that is, in which the conclusion cannot be denied without thereby contradicting the premises. So it is too flattering to suggest that most of those who make this facile claim, that everyone knows that it is impossible to prove the existence of God, are intending only the strictly limited assertion that one special sort of proof, demonstrative proof, is impossible. The truth, and the danger, is that wherever there is any awareness of such a limited and specialised interpretation, there will be a quick and illegitimate move to the much wider general conclusion that it is impossible and, furthermore, unnecessary to provide any sufficient reason for believing. It is, therefore, worth underlining that when the presumption of atheism is explained as insisting that the onus of the proof must be on the theist, the word ‘proof’ is being used in the ordinary wide sense in which it can embrace any and every variety of sufficient reason It is, of course, in this and only this sense that the word is interpreted when the presumption of innocence is explained as laying the onus of proof on the prosecution.
~Antony Flew, The Presumption of Atheism

I was reading through a book I was recently given, a Philosophy of Religion anthology, and I ran across that article from when Antony Flew was still an Atheist. It impresses me how many good philosophers who aren’t Catholic grasp this seminal point about the Catholic faith: that it really is a dogma that the existence of God can be known with certainty and arrived at in the mind by the use of reason and reflecting on the world. Wittgenstein also recognizes this point:

“It is a dogma of the Roman Church that the existence of God can be proved by natural reason. Now this dogma would make it impossible for me to be a Roman Catholic.”
~Wittgenstein

Now, it seems to me that the Catholic should be proud of this heritage, not ashamed of it (let alone dismissive of it). After all, the last half century has seen the resurrection of Natural Theology in an absolutely unprecedented way, such that now not only are 1/6 Philosophers Theists, but almost 1/3 Graduate students in philosophy are Theists. Moreover, if one simply takes inventory of the different kinds of arguments which have been offered and which are taken seriously by professional analytic philosophers everywhere, one will find that we have more good arguments (where ‘good’ arguments are arguments that merit being taken seriously and treated at length in the professional literature) for thinking that Theism is true than we have for anything else in the entirety of Metaphysics. For instance, we do not have comparably good arguments for the reality of the past, or the existence of other minds, or the mind-independent reality of the external world, or principles such as the Law of excluded middle, the Identity of Indiscernibles, the Principle of Sufficient Reason, the Principle of Causal Adequacy, and so on. Now, that doesn’t mean that the arguments are successful, but it does suggest that a sobering recognition is in order for the student of the philosophy of religion. It seems as though if one were simply to go with whichever side had ‘more’ and ‘better’ arguments in its favor, we ought to go with Theism over Atheism in the matter of whether God exists.

Moreover, notice that the Catholic faith does not say that one can demonstrate to any given human agent that God does exist. For instance, some may be mentally handicapped, and not able to, by no fault of their own, comprehend the abstract arguments for God’s existence. Even for as many as are mentally fit for the task of understanding and analyzing such arguments, it may be that without wisdom one will inevitably be stuck never recognizing what, for some Theists, seems obvious: that God exists. The hardness of heart is a difficult thing for a person to see in this case, principally because people are so good at lying to themselves or deceiving themselves (intentionally or not). We all experience such self-deception all the time, and thus it is very hard for us to known if and when we are being honest with ourselves when we introspect. However, what the Theist encounters in religious experience (for instance in prayer, at least some of the time) is an undeniable transcendent reality, the existence of which is, at least during the religious experience, self-evident (undeniable). Such an experience is able to obviate Theism to the Theist, and make it a Properly Basic belief, such that it can and should be maintained in the absence of any final defeater. Notice that if such religious experiences occur, then that is already enough to satisfy the dogma that the existence of God can be known.

What is more, Atheists hardly seem to take inventory anymore of just how existentially absurd Atheism is by contrast with Theism, and this absurdity argues against Atheism and for Theism. More weakly, it at least argues against being justified in accepting Atheism over Theism. Were all things equal, we ought to, given existential considerations, be Theists. But, all things are not equal: they are unfairly tipped in the Theist’s favor!

Finally, when one actually turns to the arguments for the existence of God, one will find there arguments, one after another, which are compelling even to the most stubborn of Atheists. Even the most ardent and convinced Atheist recognizes that these arguments must be met, and that is not an insignificant challenge. Moreover, the Atheist cannot have recourse to saying that Antony Flew was wrong and that what we require is a proof which comes with the force of deductive closure enough even to silence the most radical skeptic. The Atheist doesn’t set the bar that high with respect to anything else, so why should she set it there in the matter of God’s existence? However, even if she did, the arguments for the existence of God are the only arguments which even have a chance of compelling even her (no arguments for anything else in metaphysics come with as much force and closure as do the arguments for Theism).

In light of these things, I think I have to reiterate the sentiments of the great Michael Anthony Dummett when he said:

“The divergence which now obtains between what the Catholic Church purports to believe and what large or important sections of it in fact believe ought, in my view, to be tolerated no longer.”

It’s about time Catholics wake up and recognize the intellectual revolution of our age. It used to be that Liberal Protestantism pointed to this as the great failure of the Catholic Church, and in time it may ironically turn out to be the embarrassment of Liberal Protestantism. It may, moreover, become the strength of the Catholic Church (visible and invisible, thus including protestants) in this century.

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About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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