With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

How Logical is Logic?

There is a great amount of misconception on what logic is, what its strengths are, what its weaknesses are, and, most importantly, the boundaries of its domain. Many people have a simple belief that if something is logical this means it is true. Of course, that is not correct. Logic is a skill and practice by which you can determine the consequences of given premises. Initial premises always lie outside of the dominion of logical analysis. Logic is a useful tool, but it must not be understood as being self-sufficient, nor should it be seen as infallible: one can logically prove things which are not true, and some things which are true can never be derived from logic. It must be understood as a human construct, created within the limited perspective of our human intellectual capabilities. To believe the rules of logic are the only sound guide and judge we should follow gives too much credit to the human judgment which created those rules.

This helps explain the exchange I recently had over questions of the virgin birth. It was asked where we get this knowledge: are we to just trust Matthew and Luke? And if so, how and where do they get their knowledge of an event they were not at?

I tried to offer a rather helpful, but simple, explanation.

According to the earliest Church histories, Luke was a personal friend of Mary, and learned from her many historical details which were not found in other Gospels. We can also recognize the fact that there was much which was said and done in the oral proclamation of the Gospel. It is not Jesus and Mary alone, but also the family of Jesus, who could have provided knowledge of the virgin birth to the early Church. Thus, Jesus’ stepbrothers and sisters probably were a source by which the Gospel writers learned about Jesus’ early life. Clearly James, the first Bishop of Jerusalem, would have said what he knew about the early life of Jesus from his own family experience, and while it might not have been written down, it does not invalidate the value of oral tradition in establishing historical sources. Finally, as Catholics we believe the testimony of Scripture is more than just a mere human testimony: it was written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This means Scripture should not be seen for us as any mere historical report, but as revelation. Of course this could provide many questions which have not been answered, yet if one comes to the question in and through faith, then we have to acknowledge that the Holy Spirit, who "guides us in truth," helped in the development of the Church's proclamation.

From this, the questioner changed tactic, and moved away from asking “how did the Gospel writers know about this,” to asking why we should believe what they say? Could they not be lying, or could they not have been told lies and just wrote down what they were told? Moreover, it was said that my argument based upon the guidance of the Holy Spirit was not logical because it was be founded upon faith. In other words, the questioner moved away from the direction of the believer to that of the unbeliever, and what I said just did not prove that Jesus was born of a virgin. Moreover, the questioner wanted more witnesses to give credibility to the testimony to the Gospel writers.

It was clear that the discussion was moving away from how and why a Christian believes in the virgin birth to how a Christian could prove it to a non-Christian. Moreover, it was clear that the questioner thought the only way this could be done was through logic. Hence there was even made the claim that “in the claim of a supernatural event, the burden of proof lies with the claimant to prove it.”

Yet, from all this glorification of logic, it was clear the questioner did not appreciate or understand the limits of logic. They want logical answers to everything, even though not everything can be shown through logic. Thus, I provided what I hope is a good, and final, response to this exchange:

If you are coming to the question from faith, then it is logical to make arguments based upon that faith, to follow through and explain what comes about form that faith. Logic can never validate premises: all premises are ultimately based upon faith. Of course one can make a logical argument based upon a conclusion from a former logical analysis, but even then it is tied to the reliability one places upon the initial premises: upon faith. Logic cannot prove itself: logic itself is a human-made construct and therefore, its truth and verifiability transcends the domain of logic. One who comes to the question with faith and believes that Jesus is the messiah will read things one way; their answer, if they follow the rules of logic, would be logical. Logic only tells us that if we start with a set of given statements, that its conclusion follows. It requires one to find something to have faith in to establish any given -- faith is a necessary prerequisite for all logic, and as such, when saying “that’s an issue of faith and not logical,” one would be correct so far as they realize faith is not something inferior to logic but something which falls outside of the domains of logic and indeed is the source by which logical analysis can ever occur. For example: verification of the senses cannot be verified; we have faith in what we experience through them. Empirical science clearly has faith in them when a scientist uses their observation to deduce scientific principles. Yet one must remember that this is all based upon the evidence of the senses, a trust and faith which cannot be logically deduced and yet allows for logical analysis.

But we must be careful here. Logic is a human construct created by humans. Because our intellectual capabilities are limited, we must even put trust upon the rules of logic we create. Moreover, if we want truth, we must be open to revelation which transcends our abilities: truth is still truth even if we cannot explain it. We need a transcendent anchor to provide credibility to our human enterprise. Of course one can ask how one finds that anchor, and suggest one source or another for it – but that concern requires much more study and exploration. For now, if the question comes from one who holds faith, then as a Christian who holds faith in Jesus as messiah, I suggest that the guidance of the Holy Spirit is sufficient, for the Christian is one who believes the Holy Spirit is acting to guide the Church in her search for understanding.

Now if you really are looking for a way to prove the truth of the virgin birth to the non-believer, one will run into many difficulties and they might find the suppositions of the unbeliever makes such proof impossible. If, for example, one such supposition is "it can never happen, miracles are impossible,” you will never prove a miracle to them. Their logical foundation removes such a possibility, and so they will go about finding a logical answer according to their premises. Thus, most often, they will suggest any claims of miracles will come from ignorance or fraud. No matter how many witnesses are around to provide testimony to the miracle, they will find a way to discredit their testimony. When we bring this back into the question of history, this comes out even more, because it is easier to discredit people who no longer can answer back. Yet the science of history requires us to acknowledge testimonies from sources who were not primary witnesses because that is the source for much of history. We don't have eyewitness accounts for most historically believed events. For the historian, while they understand the possible doubts this could provide, they still know that history cannot be done except on this basis. Thus for the Christian, the method by which historians establish other events can be the only secular method by which we establish historical miracles. Of course again, one has to accept or deny the trustworthiness of any such accounts – but to this one can ask, why would one of the Evangelists die for their lie? Would they not recant and would not such a recantation been made known by their opponents? While this gives some credibility to their testimony, it clearly doesn’t prove it – but the same is true for all of history. And one must acknowledge that for one who does not want to believe, they can always find a possible excuse to justify their unbelief.

This is why the best thing one should do is not question the periphery but look to Jesus and discern who he actually is. If you find in him the Lord of Heaven and Earth, if you find him to be the messiah, then the other answers start to come in -- this is not because one has rejected logic – rather, it is because one has made a humble acknowledgment that logic is not self-sufficient and can never prove anything.

Clearly this line of reasoning will not suffice for everyone. Yet I think people need to appreciate more than they do that logic is a human construct and tool, and thus limited by human ingenuity and understanding. Then they will realize both its utility but also why it can never be a sufficient tool to discern truth.

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  • At 9/13/2007 10:51 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    A fine reflection.
    As the medievals almost universally conceded, no science can prove the veracity of its principles. All sciences require principles from a higher science in order to inestigate their respective objects. Logic employs the first principles of human reason, which themselves are grounded upon a higher science. This is perhaps one reason why Aquinas time and again reminded his readers that faith is the most certain of all knowledge, even the first principles of human reason.

    Another way to approach your objector is to focus on the nature of proof (see my previous post on 'proving' God's existence). Even after demonstrating the historical reliability of the NT eye witnesses, as well as the consistency of the argument, there is no way to 'prove' to someone the veracity of any Biblical event (or any historial event for that matter) so long as proof is considered the method by which an 'object' outside of me is indisputably shown, and this usually means tangibly or empirically, to require my assent

    BUT, there is another way to approach it, in a kind of via negativa. In other words, tthere are ways to demonstrate that the attempt to refute Biblical events is either not true, or not necessary because they are founded upon, presuppose and assume: 1) bad faith in the early Church community - what logically grounds this? Believing that the apostles were either dumb, gullible or crazy is nothing more than a faith oriented choice. 2) A rigidly objective, and hence misconstrued, view of historiography that is closed to any historical novelty, and refuses to recognize that all history is the telling of a narrativity. It is essentially a kind of metaphysical prejudice, since it too is not grounded on any logical premise; rather it is simply assumed. 3) a pre-judged and predetermined notion of nature as a closed system, which many scholars have proved is another case of metaphysical prejudice since it cannot be logically proven or demonstrated.

    All that said, though, I have to take issue with a few minor things you wrote. First, I'm not sure I would agree with the degree to which you insisted that logic is a human construct. It is true that it employs human constructs (words, signs, symbols etc.) but there is a sense in which logic is the cognitive expression of being, which is not a human construct. For the medievals, logic was in fact an art - the art of linguistically and cognitively giving expressive form to the many modes of being. Thus, the 'logical' order is the order in which being is made intelligible to the mind. To over emphasize it as a mere human construct risks emptying it of its roots in truth, being and even beauty.

    Second, I would not go so far as to say that we have faith in our senses, since I think this risks opening the door to an unnecessary skepticism. In other words, recognizing that our senses are primarily grounded on faith is the first step back toward Descartes. The medievals spoke of a sensus communis, a sense prior to the five senses by which each of the senses could be certain of their objects. To be sure, I understand - and agree - that sense knowledge is not the most certain, and requires a degree of trust. But I would not emphasize their link to faith as much as you seemed to do.

    Otherwise, a fine, fine post as always. Good to see you back up and running.

  • At 9/13/2007 10:51 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • At 9/13/2007 3:35 PM, Blogger Matt Kennel said…

    I must confess, this is an area that I'm struggling with right now. I'm reading the Pope's Introduction to Christianity, and he repeatedly speaks of faith as a decision. The word keeps hitting me every time I read it like a hammer on the head. Of course, I know that faith is an act of the will, believing in Jesus Christ and entrusting yourself to him. And yet, isn't there something Kantian about this? By that I mean the following (since I've never read Kant, but only read parts of his philosophy summarized by some philosophy textbooks and the works of Karol Wojtyla, Peter Kreeft, and Joseph Ratzinger), from what I'm told, Kant said that the mind imposes its patterns and thoughts on the world, since it can't perceive the essence of things in themselves. There's something troubling about this to me. If faith is in some sense necessary for salvation, and yet faith is a leap, how can someone who can't bring themselves to make the leap be outside the Kingdom of God? Or, are they even outside the Kingdom? If not, what of the Scripture's assertion that "without faith, it is impossible to please God."? I'm not talking about the salvation of those who haven't heard the Gospel properly preached. If faith is a "decision", as the Holy Father insists, why is it any more reasonable than the decision for "doubt"?

    As for logic, I've always seen it as a kind of sight. The rules of logic were something to be taken at face value. They obviously couldn't be proven, they could only be seen.

  • At 9/14/2007 3:23 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    A very nice post. I too am glad to see you posting again. I for one have not had a spare second since classes started up again.

    I agree that most people who invoke the term "logical" have no idea that is is actually a technical term. I imagine they mean something like "rational" or "credible," both of which are open to the same kind of equivocation. But it stands that many people don't grasp that logic is in fact a method, a practice, a tool, rather than a means of judging principles. It is simply the way of unpackaging the implications of premises; seeing whether conclusions follow from them; and whether or not our thinking and language is coherent. It is radically neutral in that sense.

    But as in the case of your interlocuter, there is a confused obsession with "proof:" how can the believer prove it to the non-believer? This has very little to do with logic. The "proof" that i think he really means is already colored by evidentialist presuppositions: i must only believe that which can be proven to me in light of evidence and principles supplied by natural reason. Logic simply doesnt place this specific a burden on us. Logic would come in if Christians agreed to play by these rules, and granted the evidentialist or naturalist or Enlightenment-autonomous (pick your poison) presuppositions. And sadly, many Christians think they must. But really, we're playing in an entirely different league.

    Sadly for the evidentialist, the articles of faith that we assent to don't have the same kind of status that principles of natural reason do. Unlike, say, the principle of non-contradiction, the articles of faith are revealed, not already given to natural reason. They come from elsewhere, and thus they dont shine with that same kind of luminous self-evidence that casts its light on all the propositions we derive from it. However, if we accept the articles on faith, which is (among other things) the disposition to receive these things as true, we can logically argue for what propositions these articles entail. That is, essentially, the task of theology. further, as an exercise of reason, this unpacking of what is implied in our faith commitments cannot violate the principles of logic, because then we would have a conflict of truths deriving from a single source (God, as author of nature and of grace).

    In other words, in my opinion, much debate with the unbeliever is a non-debate, unless they understand the terms they and we are using. Its an issue of clarification before anything else. We can only talk past each other if they assume (as most do) that what we believe is the kind of truth that should have the same kind of evidence as natural principles; ie. that if we just had good enough history books, it would be evident that Mary was a virgin. In truth, we miss the point if we play by these rules, and as Thomas says, scandalize the faith by acting as though it is a set of truths provable by the light of natural reason.

    So really it is about the "limits" of logic in a sense: in the sense that logic is not meant to do everything and doesnt supply us with a burden to grand as to justify our premises. Logic has not the power to invalidate faith.

    But i am hesitant, as Brendan is, about your characterization of logic's limits. I am not sure i can agree that it is merely a human construct, though in a sense a human construct it is. Nor, would I say, that all premises presuppose faith (unless we are using faith in a different sense here). Can we not have self-evident access to certain premises, such as principles supplied by natural reason? Is knowledge of our natural world possible without that shadow that is faith in the background?

    For Aristotle and St. Thomas, faith and knowledge were, in a certain sense, incompatible states of cognition. One cannot have knowledge and faith about the same object at the same time. With God, this is different. But it remains that faith (as "unseen") requires a lack of self-evidence characteristic of the principles of natural reason, whereas knowledge requires the fullness of "sight," or evidence. While, as Brendan points out, supernatural faith is more certain than the principles of reason because its object is, in itself, more certain, for us, in this life (that is, epistemically or subjectively), knowledge shines brighter.

    To base all of our access to premises on faith is, seemingly, to deny any direct epistemic access to the world. Thats a yellow-brick road, as Brendan noted, that seems to end at Descartes. I would argue that the kind of knowledge devoid of faith on the natural level is actually presupposed by faith. If we had not some real knowledge of the world without faith, how would we distinguish between what and what not to have faith in? What would the criterion be?

    I prefer to view logic, as the medievals, as the means of mirroring the order of reality in our expressions. Logic is not something we humans make; rather, it is something we already find ourselves immersed in. We cannot even begin to think about "creating" constructs of logic without already presupposing logical activity. I think of Husserl's great point, in response to the Enlightenment thinkers, that we do not create logical expressions, but discover words, phrases, expressions as already so structured.

    Can God do things that defy logic. No. Simply because this "no" is only an illusory limitation. For God's actions to defy logic is simply for them not to perform any such action. For instance, god cannot make a boulder so big he can't lift it not because he could use a few more pushups, but because the expression "a boulder so big he can't lift it" is not a meaningful expression. It is gibberish. Thus, the response to such a statement, when all the terms are understood is, "I don't understand what you mean?"

    Pax Christi,

  • At 9/15/2007 8:10 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…

    I hope to be posting more here from time to time, especially after I get more of my Balthasar reading/notes done. That means, of course, Balthasar will be a focus on a lot of what I write here (in one fashion or another).

    Back to the post at hand: I think we are, in general, in agreement. There are clearly differences in our opinions; some might be because we are employing different connotations to words, but others are clearly differences which are interesting, and while we probably will not come to an overall agreement on them, are valuable to discuss.

    I think the big issue is my view of logic. We could discuss the issue of faith/senses (I do not think it has to be seen in light of Descartes, but rather, think Descartes has hindered the earlier, Platonic understanding), but I think the issue of logic is the more interesting one here.

    First, in saying it is a human construct, I am not saying there are not real logical rules in the universe -- but rather, the rules we use and employ are only analagous to the greater, meta-logic which exists only in and through God. In light of my reading of Balthasar, I would even say this construction of logical principles is an aspect of our being made in the Trinity -- that as the Logos is born of the Father, the human logos is born from us. Nonetheless its truths and values are limited to our ability to understand and map the greater principles which exist in and through God.

    For example, one can say the deducation of logical principles is a kind of map-making; what you see on the map is truly what is there and yet it is not all that is there. Moreover, as a map is 2d, you could make two maps which contradict each other, based upon 3d representations they are trying to embrace. The same with human logic -- I think there are many ways human logic can be and is created or deduced: all are pointers to the truth, but they only point in accordance to the strength of mind which deduced it.

    To bring about what I mean, I think a conversation and agreement that Brendan and I had could explain this well: the law of identity, A=A, is true and yet it can be false, in the sense that it can be limiting and self-enclosed. If the truth of being is trinitarian, then A=A does not denote this Trinitarian feature, and so while there is a pointer to truth, it is a human construct which neglect the open-ended relational qualities of A. Thus there can be and are other forms of logic which embrace the relational qualities of A, yet will in that way, lose some of the strengths of the law of identity (because, in this other pattern, it is easy for A to become non-A and therefore lost any definition).

    Thus -- I think Balthasar's emphasis on the idea of a Theo-Logic which differs from a human-logic is what I am pointing out in my response: what we consider to be logic is the human construct by which we map up principles we experience. Yet because it is a map it is analogous and an identification but people confuse it for identification and there comes the problem.

  • At 9/15/2007 8:14 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    Your question about the relation of faith and salvation is important. Some people would say faith represents a fidelity or trust -- and that faith in Christ can be an implicit instead of explicit faith if they are ones who do not have an explicit knowledge of Christ. Some, like Balthasar, also believe we will all meet and be judged by Christ, and that our faith comes through in relation to our response to that judgment: a yes to Christ, a yes to the judgment, and a yes to the mercy leads to salvation (though a dying to the self); a no to Christ, a no to the judgment, and a no to mercy leads to damnation (where we close ourselves off from all, and so become all in all in ourselves: we live true to ourselves, but we find ourselves turned into a closed fact, a singularity if you will).

  • At 9/18/2007 11:51 AM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…

    Matt, Pat and Henry,

    The question of Kant is quite relevant in all this. It was Kant, after all, who ushered in his self-proclaimed Copernican revolution: where once thought began with extra-mental things that present themselves to us, he wanted to invetigate the transcendental conditions - i.e, the universal conditions beyond the phenomenal realm - that allow for the very possibility that things may be made objects of our cognition in general. In a sense, then, he gave greater momentum to the mind as a mode of self-determination, which, as we now see, risks generating a mode of logic that elevates the mind to the highest authority.

    Matt, more to your question, I think that often Kant is not given a very generous reading (and sometimes, he doesn't merit one). But I don't think it is accurate to say that the mind imposes its own conditions upon the world. After all, the categories are a priori - that is already given, and so stand before the mind as a filter through which things may be 'abstracted' into the 'logical realm'. They arise with the mind, but the issue isn't as sollipcistic as the word 'impose' makes it sound.

    Now, it is true that Kant may have gone a bit too far with some of the possible corollaries generated by his transcendental method. But here is something that is quite helpful about his thought, which Rahner and many of those who advanced transcendental thought were able to see.

    The insight proceeds like this:

    - For Kant, all objects of experience require a corresponding cognitive framework
    - this framework is what enables them to go from being object before us, to objects as thought by the mind, and thus objects for reflection
    - Thus, it may very well be the case that there are phenomenon laden in the natural order that have not yet been beheld because our conditions have not been advanced enough to allow us to perceive these objects.
    - Now, apply this to 'objects' of the supernatural order, or the 'object' of faith
    - In this sense, 'faith' can be understood as the conditions whereby the 'objects' of the supernatural order are able to be perceived.
    - One who refuses to acquiesce to the principles given in faith simply refuse a gift of a broader, more perspicacious, vision of reality, of being.
    - This is why, in part, for Rahner, Christ becomes the conditions wherein the 'objects' beyond the natural order are able to be perceived.

    Now, I myself don't adopt this wholesale, but I can see the benefit in such a Kantian appropriation. To the extent that we do participate in shaping the world, Kant provided an immense service. But if we absolutize Kant, we do HIM an immsense disservice.

    Pat. as to the matter of logic, I agree with much, if not most, of what you said. I would be reluctant, though, to concede your final thoughts regarding meaninglessness (I see you're getting a nice dose of Wittgenstein and company...). I suppose this is my Demsondian side coming out, but I would never want to stamp any questions with the label of 'meaningless'; most especially the ones asked by children (like Can God create a rock so big even he can't move it.) One reason is that a question has an objective dimension insofar as it points to something in reality (and in this sense, it can be meaningless if it points to nothing in reality) but it also has a subjective dimension insofar as it is an utterance from a subject, and so can never be meaningless since it is a way that that particular subject is presenting himself or herself.

    In light of this, I think there is another way to approach that question, 'Can God create a rock so big even he can't move it?'. It is not that the question has no meaning; in my view, it is rich in meaning. It is asking a question that cuts to the very core of the limits of the logical order. It is a question that embodies the human mind's ability to defy even the absolute nature of the divine. But that is also its weakness. The question assumes that God has potential. Any question that speculates on God's possibility must be tempered with the awareness that God never sits around testing his own ability; this is simply a false image of God, and so an idol - it presupposes that there are 'acts' that stand outside of God's conscious acts, and so posits an act greater than God which God has yet to realize.

    Thus, the question serves to help us understand how easy it is for us to direct our speculative thought not at the real God, but at an idol. This, in my view, holds tremendous meaning in an age where many reject God for the very same speculative reasons. And so it allows us to make clear that the God often rejected by self-proclaimed athiests is really the rejection of an idol (a rejection we should all share). The problem with the athiest is that he or she makes an act of cosmic prejudice - he or she assumes that having rejected on image, all images are false - but that's for another discussion....

    Henry, I appreciate your clarification, and certainly agree with it. Though I still think there is a danger in overstating the distinction between a theo-logic and the logic of human reason. If we bear in mind that grace perfects nature rather than destroying it, we must see any and every theo-logic to still have before it as a precursor and a fertilizer, the logic associated with human reason.

    The discussion to which you allude - our conversation about the law of identity - is a good illustration. But let's bear in mind that part of the dillemma there was an improper understanding of logic. Florensky exploits the same weakness in his 'The Ground and Pilllar of Truth' when he too takes issue the principle of identity. He clams that if 'A=A', and nothing but A, then it follows that A can never = -A. And so my father is a father and cannot NOT be a father (according to this logical identity). This means that he is a father to all, even horses, pigs and dogs.

    Now note well: Florensky was demonstrating the limits of logic that is mathematically configured, where there is little finesse. Of course, the logical dillemma, as he himself points out, is the confusion between identity of particularity and identity as a participation in a genus. To say that my father is a father is not to exhaustively define his being. It is rather an identity as included in a broader class of things. This is why he can share elements of fatherhood with other animals.

    In the end, I would still say that we have to see logic as an insrument. As an instrument, it necessarily has limits; I wouldn't hammer in nails with a toothbrush. But as you suggest, Henry, I think it is possible to see logic as having a plurality of modes all coalescing around the Logos. In fact, logic without the Logos is nothing but the feeble human mind's attempt to penetrate the infinite. And what proportion is there between the infinite and the finite?

  • At 9/26/2007 1:06 AM, Blogger Amber Lee said…

    I love this blog that I found.
    I start my MA for History in January. Medieval studies is the way of the future :D

  • At 10/08/2007 6:29 PM, Blogger X-Cathedra said…


    A very nice clarification. That did clear up much of what I perceived as questionable. I believe any difference that remains is a matter of emphasis: I, like Brendan, see potential danger in over-emphasizing the equivocity between human and divine logic. It is, of course, a matter of analogical harmony: an ordered equivocity. Having accepted this, which seems the backbone of the mantras like "grace perfects nature," etc., any differences are matters of judgment. But you are quite right to note that determining that relationship is of the utmost importance.

    Mr. Sammon,

    I concede your point about meaninglessness. You are quite right to make the distinction between objective and subjective meaninglessness. I forgot that technically contradiction does not mean "meaningless." Husserl made something like that distinction, if I recall: even things like "three-sided circles" can be noema, objects of intentionality. There is therefore a difference between something like the noema of an apple and the proposition "three-sided circle" on the one hand; and the "THRYPL" or "Narflak" on the other.

    Sadly (though I'm not shedding too many tears), my education has been devoid of the Analytic crowd since freshman year. MacIntyre raised the point about responding to the question "Can God create a rock so big..etc." His point was, I think, related to what Thomas says in Q.25, art.3: "For whatever implies a contradiction cannot be a word, because no intellect can possibly conceive such a thing." So, in one sense, yes, contradictions can be the objects of intentional acts and have meaning in that sense. But in another sense, they point to the presence of a kind of being and non-being colliding.

    So I think there are two ways of going about it: the first is, as you note, is idolatry. The run-of-the mill atheist is positing an idol under the term "God." If he was working with the notion of God, even from say the Five Ways, he would be able to conclude to his idolatry because it would be clear that one's notion of potential/power needs to be tweaked (ie. analogized) when dealing with Pure Act. Here, dialectic, in the Platonic sense, should probably proceed with a "what do you mean by 'God'?" so as to expose his idolatry.

    Secondly, one might approach it by addressing the contradiction and how that relates to us and this "God." I think MacIntyre's point is that in a very real sense, it is difficult to coherently propose the question. Following Thomas, our language about God's power is dependent upon our ability to form statements about potencies. We call God omnipotent because He can do all possible things. Now many philosophers, I think, took this the wrong way and formed the modern Analytic Idol of the God whose power is limited to the possibilities that the finite mind includes in the "set" of possible things. Thomas notes that God's power flows from the divine nature which is infinite, and thus His power extends to all Being, beyond the limitations of genera. Thus, unlike the modern thinker, he importantly notes that it is damn difficult to define what omnipotence means, even though we know we must attribute it to God.

    But at the least we know that affirming something as possible or not for God depends on our ability to conceive of something as a potency. His point about contradictions is that they do not signify a certain potency that God's power simply cant extend to: rather, they cannot be concieved as possibilities at all. "Hence it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them"

    So, I think what MacIntyre meant was: the atheist can't coherently formulate a potency, and to ask whether any agent can "do such and such" is a failure to conceive of possibility. To think that this limits God is to implicitly affirm it as a possibility, as "something" that can be done, when in fact the words signify precisely a "no-thing." to say that power is related to being and omnipotence does not extent to contradiction is only a limitation in appearance. So one could respond to the "rock so big" question by challenging the atheists presuppositions about possibility and limitation.

    Pax Christi,

  • At 10/30/2007 3:45 PM, Blogger Brendan Sammon said…


    Sorry I never responded to your fine rejoinder about language and meaning.
    As usual it is an excellent and well written response, hitting on all the important aspects of the discussion.
    Many thanks.


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