The Metaphysics of Theism

Print ISBN 9780199246533, 2001 pp. [6]-[10]

show that we can attain the best understanding of this or that area of our experience or sphere of concern—morality, human life, society, human wickedness, science, art, mathematics, or whatever— if we look at it from the standpoint of a theistic . . . metaphysics' (ibid.; emphasis added). The idea of a natural theology that goes far beyond existence arguments is one Alston shares with Aquinas, though, as we'll see, Aquinas's idea is perhaps less broad than Alston's. At any rate, Aquinas explicitly sets the concerns of natural science outside the scope of the project he's engaging in, and he shows no signs of having thought about including art or mathematics. But Alston's implied characterization of natural theology as 'theistic metaphysics' is very like what Aquinas seems to have had in mind, as the title of my book

is meant to suggest, and as I think the following chapters will show.

8 I favour 'the metaphysics of theism' over 'theistic metaphysics' mainly because the latter characterization of natural theology suggests metaphysics done within the context of an established theism rather than metaphysics developed in a way that leads to establishing and exploring theism.

These first two components of Alston's attitude look as if they might have been intended to form part of the basis for the third—his assigning an important supporting role to natural theology in his epistemology of religious belief, in which a form of religious experience takes the lead: 'The central thesis of this book [Alston 1991] is that experiential awareness of God . . . makes an important contribution to the grounds of religious belief. More specifically, a person can become justified in holding certain kinds of beliefs about God by virtue of perceiving God as being or doing so-and-so. The kinds of beliefs that can be so justified I shall call "M-beliefs" ("M" for manifestation). . . . [T]he support given to M-beliefs by mystical experience is only one part of the total basis of religious belief. . . . What are these other possible grounds, and how does mystical experience interact with them in the larger picture? ... I distinguish between various kinds of experiential grounds, various sorts of'revelation', and natural theology. . . . [T]he different grounds interact not only by adding up to a total that is greater than any of its components, but also in more intimate ways—for example, by one source contributing to the background system presupposed by another source, or by one source helping to remove doubts about another' (pp. 1 and

9 I've examined this epistemological position of Alston's generally, without taking special account of his attitude toward natural theology, in Kretzmann 1994. (Avery slightly different version of the same article appears as Kretzmann 1995.) See also e.g. Pasnau 1993.

It's not hard to see how end p.6

natural theology might contribute to 'the background system' pre-supposed by either of the other two sources, or how it might help to remove doubts about their results. But since, as Alston himself points out, natural theology engages 'in building up a picture of God without relying on any supposed experience of God or communication from God, or on any religious 10


10 Emphasis added, see n. 2 above.

it's not easy to see how putative religious experience or divine revelation ii could perform those services for natural theology.

11 Although the discipline itself is formally incapable of receiving such support, the system of beliefs of any practitioner of natural theology might well be enhanced in such ways.

Religious experience plays no role at all in Aquinas's natural theology, but he does make a special, restricted use of revelation. Often at the end of a chapter, after having argued for some proposition in several different ways, each of which scrupulously omits any reference to revelation, he will cite Scripture by way of showing that what has just been achieved by unaided reason agrees with what he takes to be revealed truth. On those occasions he's certainly not using revelation to remove doubts about natural theology's results; but could this use count as revelation's contributing to the background system presupposed by natural theology? Maybe, but only if such a contribution is construed as not much more than an aid to navigation. Reason could, of course, validly derive infinitely many further propositions from any one of the propositions previously argued for. But Aquinas's systematic natural theology is designed to show that reason unsupported by revelation could have come up with many—not all—of just those propositions that constitute the established subject-matter of revealed theology. So he needs Scripture in these circumstances as providing both a chart to guide his choice of propositions to argue for, and a list of specifications that can be consulted to see that reason's results in Book I of Summa contra gentiles are in fact building up a picture of'God considered in himself'.

When Alston comes to examine the possibility of natural theology's supplying the most important kind of support for the practice of forming M-beliefs, the practice he labels 'MP', he unexpectedly ignores his broad conception of natural theology, just when it end p.7


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved seems that its breadth might have been particularly relevant: 'The most obvious candidates for a noncircular support for the reliability of MP come from natural theology and revelation. . . . [But] even if we can establish the existence and basic nature of God without reliance on MP, how do we get from that conclusion to the informational efficacy of MP? Natural theology operates at too high a level of abstraction to enable us to do this job. The standard arguments for the existence of God give us no reason to think that God is interested in displaying himself to our experience' (Alston 1991: 144).

That's obviously true about the standard existence arguments. But a wide-ranging natural theology of the sort envisaged by Alston elsewhere in the same book and actively developed by Aquinas in Summa contra gentiles does, in fact, get around to giving us some 'reason to think that God is interested in displaying himself to our experience' (see Ch. Eight).

Every thoughtful religious person recognizes the difficulty of explaining objectively what it is about his or her religion that makes it preferable to all the others. Alston's backing MP as the main source of justification for religious belief exacerbates the difficulty, since his position looks especially awkward when confronted with the fact that 'the general enterprise of forming perceptual religious beliefs is carried on in different religions in such a way as to yield incompatible results' (Alston 1991: 255). He devotes a whole chapter to The Problem of Religious Diversity', 'the most difficult problem for my position' (ibid.), a position in which the 1Christian mystical perceptual practice' (ibid. 193; emphasis added) is ranked ahead of all others. Without examining the problem or Alston's solution to it, I want just to observe that his view of the modest contribution natural theology can make toward a solution strongly resembles what I take to be Aquinas's view of the efficacy of natural theology from the standpoint of Christianity. Alston puts it this way: The Christian may have recourse to natural theology to provide metaphysical reasons for the truth of theism as a general world-view. ... I believe that much can be done to support a theistic metaphysics' (ibid. 270; emphasis added). And I believe that in Summa contra gentiles I—III Aquinas has in fact done much in just that line. Distinctively Christian theism he deals with only in the fourth and last book, where he resumes his consideration of the nature of God and works his way down through human beings, addressing in particular just those specifically Christian propositions—for end p.8


© Copyright Oxford University Press, 2006. All Rights Reserved example, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation—to which reason would have no initial access without the revelation he accepts. And he does this, he says, with the aim of showing that even those propositions, which cannot be arrived at by reason alone, 'are not opposed to natural reason' (IV.1.3348).

Alston's attitudes toward natural theology, then, are often like Aquinas's, and some of the developments and applications he envisages for it are, broadly speaking, like those Aquinas actually carries out. However, in Alston's view, natural theology's most important function is to contribute toward the epistemic justification of certain religious beliefs, and that, as I'll suggest

below, is not the way Aquinas sees it.

12 This aspect of Alston's view of natural theology is the one that naturally gets emphasized in the special context of his project in Alston 1991. I have it on unimpeachable authority that his view of natural theology outside that special context is even more like Aquinas's.

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