Apophaticism or agnosticism

It is a conflict in which the opposing sides occupy some common ground. Thomas and Kant contest the common territory of the unknowability of God. For both, God could not be the cause of all that is in the sense in which anything in the world is a cause. For both, then, what a cause in the world explains could not in the same sense of 'explanation' be what God's existence explains - neither Thomas nor Kant has any greater need for God as an explanatory hypothesis than did Laplace. For both, what reason knows is all the world needs by way of explanation as to how it is, and God is not something known in any of the ways in which the world needs to be known; except that, for Thomas, the mystery that it is at all compels upon reason an acknowledgement that its deficiency is already theological: but not for Kant.

Even in thus differing, however, Thomas and Kant still occupy some apparent common ground, though it is now narrowing down. For what their agreement thus far amounts to is a shared denial that God is a possible object of knowledge in any of the ways in which created things are. For Kant, speculative reason's falling short of God consists in the impossibility that the transcendental conditions of human knowledge and agency -the conditions of the possibility of our knowing the world and of acting as free agents within it - could themselves be an object of our knowledge and agency in the world. Hence, they cannot be an object of knowledge at all; not one arrived at, therefore, even by inference, whether from the nature of things, or from the fact of the existence of things rather than of nothing. And it is just here that Thomas's theological apophaticism parts company with Kant's rationalist agnosticism. For whereas Kant's agnosticism is the proposition that God is unknowable to reason in the sense that no speculative inference from the world could get you to God, Thomas's apophaticism begins with the proposition that God can be demonstrated to exist, but that what such inference to God succeeds in showing is precisely the unknowability of the God thus shown. The difference would thus appear to be this: that for Thomas, what the proofs prove is that God's existence could not be an object of thought; whereas for Kant, because God could not be an object of thought, there can be no showing that God exists.

For which reason Kant must rule out the legitimacy in principle of the question 'Why is there anything at all?', and Thomas has no need to rule it out in order to meet Kant's agnostic condition that God could not be 'an object of thought', and the difference between them now turns out to be a difference concerning the nature of the divine unknowability, of the possibilities of inference, and, in general, of reason as such. What for Thomas is an 'apophaticism' of reason, allowing the extension of its inferential reach beyond its own bounds into the unknowability of God, is, in Kant, a simple agnostic curtailment of reason: rightly Kant must refuse God a place within the bounds of reason so curtailed. But why conceive of reason so? Of course, to repeat, you could just leave the matter there and say that Thomas's arguments could not succeed if Kant is right that the legitimacy of the 'Why anything?' question is ruled out in principle. But to do so is now beginning to seem as arbitrary a decision as its contrary. Do we have to conclude, then, that there is no argument to be had between those for whom the question 'Why anything?' is legitimate and those for whom it is not, as if to say that not being a matter of fact it is simply a matter of how you choose to view the matter? It certainly will not do merely to assert either case; nor do I say that the question is incapable of being settled, there being no reasons which could ultimately settle a question about reason and its scope. In any case, it certainly is true that if Kant is right about the limits of reason then Thomas is wrong about them, and vice versa, so that the issue between them is of that sort which needs to be settled by some means of argument. And so we have finally to ask: how is the question to be settled, and what is at stake, one way or the other? In particular, what else is lost by the refusal to allow this question, other than the legitimacy of an argument-strategy for proving God, whether the grounds for the refusal are philosophical or theological?

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