Bernard Lonergan SJ and Christianity: "Proof"
The existence of God is based on the intelligibility of the world. To follow this out we will examine the philosophy of the twentieth century Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan. This involves a discussion, however quickly of how we come to know something and then what that will mean. So first knowing, then God. After that we may have time for the problem of evil [basic sin] and then the solution to basic sin found in Christianity, philosophically. But let’s not set the bar too high!
I. Knowing and Lonergan’s cognitional dynamics
Lonergan asserts that knowing is a three part dynamic of cognition: knowing involves experience, understanding, and verification. To examine this theory we will take a simple example of knowledge and explore it: the law of gravity.
First, imagine you are walking through the park and notice a leaf which gets detached from a tree branch. You notice that it floats gently to the ground. This is an example of the experience component of knowledge. One experience is random and probably won’t spark your attention too much, but imagine that another leaf does the exact same thing, then another and another, etc. You might become suspicious that something is going on here. You might also notice that a cat has climbed up the tree and also becomes dislodged, falling to the ground. Inquisitive, you might also climb the tree yourself and hang on a branch, releasing your grip after a bit of debate and notice that you too, fall to the ground. All of these events are the experiential component of knowing reality; in and of themselves they are nothing but a collection of random events (seeing any one of them by itself may not spark anything in particular), but to an intelligent person the knowing process will start to hit the second stage: insight.
While in the hospital recovering from your own event you might try to ‘understand’ what was going on in all those events. You have a keen sense that the world is intelligible, that things make sense and so try to understand what could possibly connect these different, yet similar, events. Then you get an insight, a Eureka moment! What is it? You might say that whenever something detaches itself from a (or that) tree, a strong wind blows downward, forcing the object to the ground! This would be a systematic insight into understanding what was going on in those events. This is the second step of knowing, but it is important to realize that the process does not stop here. Right now all you have is a concept; the question which brings about knowledge is “Is this concept correct?” Clearly in this case the concept is not correct, but how do you know this? By the third step: judgment.
The final step in knowing is judgment, answering the simple question: ‘Is it true?’ Do answer this you must investigate your insight (in science we call this a hypothesis) by checking out reality. In the case of our insight, we might want to bring some device that measures the wind so we can see if our insight is indeed correct. Of course we will find that the wind is not blowing downward, but rather that we need a better insight (one which is true) in order to make sense of the situation. In this case of course the insight is that there is a law of gravity at work, whatever might be meant by that can be worked out by physicists. With this insight of the law of gravity we can now test it out and confirm that our grasp of reality is indeed true of the world: there is such a thing as gravity by which all objects are naturally directed towards the earth while falling.
The most important part is to realize that all three steps are necessary in coming to true knowledge. To be specific, we have come to what Lonergan calls the virtually unconditioned. This means that after reflection on our insight into experience we have answered all the questions we can ask adequately and so the fact is unconditioned. For finite minds however, it is virtually unconditioned because we must be open to the possibility of revision, as in science theories, without eliminating the truths which we have discovered.
As an example of this we can think of Newtonian physics and Einsteinian physics; it is not that Newton was wrong so much as he was not completely right. His laws still explain reality but we have moved to a deeper understanding through Einstein’s general relativity which helps deepen our explanation of gravity; things still fall towards the earth according to Newton’s law of gravitation but this is seen as only a part of a wider geometrical system called general relativity.
Why is this three step process important, even essential? Because it is the grounding of all reality, and it is personal. First it is the grounding of all reality because knowing is correspondent to the known; we can only speak of the known world in so much as we can know the world. To speak of something means to know it, even if our known is what Lonergan would call a ‘known unknown’: we know there is something which we do not yet know. This is what spurs on a particular insight. In a sense the primary insight into the world is that there are known unknowns for this drives us to know them and allows us to believe that they (and the world itself) are knowable. We are confirmed in these ‘known unknowns’ because they quickly (usually) become ‘known knowns’ through the process of knowledge and cognition just discussed.
The second reason why this is important is that it makes all knowledge dependent on rational self-consciousness. To be known, to be true, there must be more than a concept floating in mid-air (the second step of the process, insight) but there must be a reflection made by a rational agent. For something to be true it must be known to be true, otherwise it just is as a collection of occurrences. The law of gravity is true because it has passed the reflection stage in verification; the law of downward blowing wind is not true because it hasn’t. Until there is rational judgment neither one nor the other can be called true. This may seem startling but it is a necessary fact given our cognitional dynamic.
So this lengthy excursus on epistemology (the study of knowing) is important because knowing is intimately and crucially linked to the known; reality is known by experience, understanding and reflection. In this sense, the notion of being, the definition of reality is that which is known by the questions asked and affirmed through the third stage of knowledge, rational reflection.
II. Existence of God
Okay, time to get to the real deal, the ‘proof of God.’ What I want to do here is discuss two preliminaries, two premises, and then one syllogism which the proof will consist of. So two preliminaries:
1. What kind of proof?
What kind of proof will this be? Well, it can be either a priori or a posteriori. The first is from causes to effects, the second is from effects to causes. The first would be the ontological argument (The necessary being exists necessarily), but this is an only a concept and does not move to existence in the three part process of knowing. So this must be an a posteriori proof. We have already seen how this works in our insight into the law of gravity. No one can find an existent thing which is gravity, but we know it exists from its effects, i.e. falling leaves, cats, and people. The insight and knowledge of God will consist in the same sort of argument, moving from some effects to a cause, moving from accidents to substance, in a sense.
2. Extrinsic Causality
The second preliminary which is important is the existence of something called ‘extrinsic causality’. This means a cause which is either efficient or final in the traditional set; or for our terms, a cause which is connected with the object but not intrinsic to it. Science (say physics) is concerned with internal causes as such, but metaphysics (or higher science) is concerned with higher causes, extrinsic causes.
This need not be abstract. For example, in building a bridge extrinsic causality is involved in the form of efficient and final causality. The final cause is the use of the bridge (what it is being built for) and the efficient causality is the men building it, external agents cause the bridge to be formed. Physics and chemistry (maybe biology) can deal with the material causality of the bridge (tensile strength, chemical composition) but there are certainly other extrinsic causes which make the bridge a bridge; examining the physical composition won’t tell you why this bridge exists in this place now.
So extrinsic causality is valid in specific cases, but since we are concerned with all reality, all being, which is what we are asking questions about, this extrinsic causality must also be valid for general or universal cases. This is obviously apparent since the bridge is a specific example of our general observation of extrinsic causality.
Note: We shouldn’t run to fast ahead here, we haven’t proved anything yet, far from it! If we want to have knowledge of God’s existence it must be done rigorously; right now were are just preparing the ground as it were and getting some definitions straight. In themselves they tell us nothing, they are rather the empirical residue as it were of a later insight and judgment which will end up with the affirmation of the statement ‘God exists’. But let’s not move too quickly!
Now that the two preliminaries are finished, let’s move to our two premises, which follow naturally from everything else we have been saying.
1. Being is intelligible
Lonergan says: “Because being is intelligible: it is what is to be known by correct understanding; by definition, it is the intelligible. Being has to be the intelligible to be what is to be known by correct understanding, because the intelligible is all that correct understanding knows.”
What this means is that being (all that is the objective of the pure desire to know, the correct answers to all our questions) must be the intelligible, the order. This means that nothing is ultimately random in being; it may appear random on some levels (subatomic processes) but when moving to a higher viewpoint (statistical laws; chemistry) then it has a reason. This reason is essential because to be known is to be understood and judged correct (steps two and three of knowledge) but randomness can ultimately not be judged correct because it can not be understood. So being (all that is) must be intelligible, able to be known through correct understanding.
2. Defects in intelligibility
But we know that we don’t know everything. We know a lot, but we can’t answer all questions when we move to higher viewpoints. Lonergan says: “You can explain it provisionally by saying this is because that is. But why is that?”
This is relevant to the pure and unrestricted desire to know in all of us: there are always more questions to ask than answers. In other words, each answer only leads to more questions.
We have just affirmed that being is intelligible, but “why should reality be intelligible? What is the ultimate ground of its being intelligible? Our minds are not that ultimate ground.”
Our minds (the three step process of knowing) tell us that the known (being) is intelligible, but they are not the cause of its intelligibility. For example, we know the moon is spherical because of the phases we see in the sky throughout the month, but the phases of the moon are not the ontological ground of the moon’s spherical shape. “Similarly, the structure of our minds is the ground of our knowledge that the real must be being and intelligible. But there is a further question: What accounts for the fact that the real is intelligible and being?”
If being is intelligible, which we have determined it to be by our cognitive structure (the basic position) then we cannot stop asking questions at some point. “Being has to be intelligible. But the intelligible is not something with respect to which I answer a certain group of questions and, for no reason whatever, refuse to answer further questions… There is no point where you can arbitrarily say, ‘No more questions – supply exhausted!’ To answer all of the questions that do arise de facto, you have to go beyond this world, and that means that some principle of extrinsic causality is universally valid [as discussed earlier].”
3. Finally, to complete the argument we meet the syllogism:
If the real is being (the intelligible) then God exists. (Major Premise)
The real is intelligible (being). (Minor Premise)
Therefore, God exists.
Minor Premise: The real is intelligible (being).
That the real is intelligible is nothing other than the basic position, what we know by the structure of our minds in knowing. If this is not true than being is unintelligible and therefore any questions cannot receive answers (how does one unintelligently distinguish which questions are intelligent and which are not?). So for anything to be intelligible the whole must be intelligible (at various levels, of course), otherwise there could be no knowledge. If being was not intelligible then you could not know it was not intelligible, therefore it must be intelligible.
Major Premise: If the real is being (the intelligible) then God exists.
Lonergan says: “Only if there is, at the root of all reality, an unrestricted act of understanding [all is known and intelligible] that freely creates everything else that is [being is existent through judgment, not just conceptual], and in doing so acts intelligently and reasonably – only if the whole of reality depends upon God, and God is absolute understanding – can it be true that the real is being, that the real is intelligible [by extrinsic causality].”
Only by having God [a Being who is absolute understanding in act – creation] is it possible that all further questions can have answers. “Only insofar as you posit the formally unconditioned, as not only intelligible [definition of being and reality] but also intelligent [act of correct understanding in extrinsic causality] – and all the other properties that can be deduced from that [simplicity, one, omniscient, a temporal, etc.] – can it be true that the real is being, that the real is intelligible.”
Thus since the major and minor premises are true, the conclusion must follow: Therefore, God exists.
Phew! We have come a long way and I assume by now your minds are pretty tired and worn out, maybe excited or just confused. That is fine; I don’t expect anyone to get the argument on the first try, like all things it must be slowly appropriated over time so don’t fell like it needs to jump out at you. But hopefully you will have the basic structure of it and can rehearse it for yourselves in your own time; remember knowledge only comes through personal understanding and rational reflection. Ultimately this means the hard work begins with you!
But all we have done so far is determine that there is a God, a transcendent Being with certain characteristics (intelligent, simple, one, omniscient, a temporal, etc.), we haven’t said anything about who this God is, which is what Christianity is all about. So in quick brushstrokes (since I know you are tired!) let’s have a crack at two questions which further arise (of course!) following the argument: the question of evil and the question of a solution.
III. Problem of Evil – Basic Sin
The Problem of Evil can be separated into three types of evils: physical evils, moral evils, and basic sin.
Let us call basic sin the fact that human beings (with free-will) often do not choose what is rationally obligatory but do choose what is repugnant in their courses of action. So basic sin is the fact that all of us at various times choose what is not reasonable [being nasty to a friend] and ignore what is reasonable [helping someone in need]. This basic sin leads to moral evils in that evils are committed by moral beings (us), but these are really secondary to the basic fact that these can be committed. Physical evils are the breakdowns in the natural process of world order, an order governed by probabilities as well as deterministic structures (quantum mechanics as well as classical mechanics). These are to be expected in such a nature, but moral evils cannot be explain in such a way because they involve intelligent (and hence moral – since to be moral is nothing other than to choose the Good which is also the True) brings.
Basic sin therefore is a fact which is in need to a solution; this is clear because being cannot be unintelligent (for we could not know it was unintelligent if it were so, see above), therefore there must ultimately be a solution to the issue of basic sin if everything above is correct, which we have been convinced of.
IV. Solution to the Problem – Christianity
It is in the solution to the problem where the world religions come in. Obviously any religion which does not see the problem of basic sin existing cannot be a true account of the world and God. This rules out any religion like Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc., for which there is no basic sin or problem of evil. Easy enough!
Now there are three religions which meet the above two criteria (Existence of God and Problem of Evil), obviously there are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. It is from these three (or some unknown religion?) which we must ultimately find the intelligibility of nature. So a short examination from back to front (by no means exhaustive!).
1. Islam – from my understanding of Islam (which is limited, I will admit) the concept of ‘free-will’ and therefore moral agents is not permissible. Islam’s doctrine of providence seems to allow only a form of either fatalistic determinism, or a form of theological compatibilism (free yet not free) which would have to be judged on its own merits (this is an intense area of philosophic dispute which I am not sure how to solve by itself!). Assuming that traditional Islamic doctrine does profess some form of theological determinism this would remove the reality of moral evils and therefore question basic sin in a serious way. A solution to this might be brought about, but I have yet to see or hear of it. So for me, Islam is not an option philosophically because of its commitment to some form of theological determinism (very different to say, Thomas Aquinas’ work).
2. Judaism – obviously I am not inclined to consider Judaism apart from Christianity since Christianity (and Jesus Christ) claims to be the fulfillment of Judaism; but just for fun let’s assume that Judaism can stand alone historically and theologically from Christianity. Does Judaism provide a solution to the Problem of Evil? It seems to me that it does not. Although it has some form of solution in the sacrificial system of the Mosaic covenant (remember, the solution must be physical because we live in a physical world; Gnosticism will not do!), it appears that this is non-existent today and deemed faulty in Jewish theology. Even in the Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures we find passages discussing how sacrifices of burnt offerings is not what God desires, but rather a clean heart. But I don’t see anything in Judaism answering this demand; which is why ultimately I see Christianity as the necessary fulfillment of it.
3. Christianity – so out of all the world religions which have a shot at answering the Existence of God and the Problem of Evil, it appears to me (and hopefully to you) that only Christianity is capable of making sense of the world. This is not to say that there are no mysteries, mystery is an essential part of being, but these are known unknowns which will ultimately be known by God, of course. Since the solution must conform to the problem, Lonergan gives the basic structure of the solution: it must be one, universally accessible and permanent, harmonious continuation of the actual order of the universe, not add new genus or species [a new animal!], consist of a higher understanding [extrinsic causality] – a ‘supernatural’ form, must be dynamic, must respect free will and consent of men, accord with probabilities, willingness to conform will be charity, must effect the social order.
Remember at this point Lonergan has done nothing strictly ‘theological’, he has worked this all out from philosophy and his structure of being as determined by the structure of mind. But, as Hugo Meynell comments: “Where the shape of the hat is as closely specified as this, the identity of the rabbit which is concealed under it scarcely needs to be added. The actual ‘emergent trend and full realization of the solution’ are to be found, when the facts of history are scrutinised, in the history of the ancient Israelite nation and its culmination in the words and deeds of Jesus Christ [mainly cross and resurrection!].”
So Christianity is the only solution to the Problem of Evil (basic sin) which is philosophically capable, let alone historically verifiable, according to these principles, which we have built up from nothing other than the process we all know so well in coming to know something in the world.