Reasoning About God
Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P. is one of the youngest professors at the Pontifical Academy of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., the seminary for the Dominican Province of St. Joseph and a center of Thomistic learning for both priests and laity. Fr. White is an expert in Thomistic metaphysics, Christology and Roman Catholic-Reformed ecumenical dialogue. Fr. White converted to Catholicism at age 22, while studying at Brown University.
Fr. White is the author of the upcoming Wisdom in the Face of Modernity: A Study in Modern Thomistic Natural Theology (Sapientia Press).
Question: What is Aquinas’ proof of the existence of God?
Thomas Joseph White: Aquinas has a number of writings on the rational demonstration of the existence of God, and he wants to avoid two extremes: one extreme is what you would consider a certain kind of Christian triumphalism or overoptimism which would say that God’s existence is self evident to the human mind: rationally self evident, not by faith but by reason. Another extreme is the extreme which you would term a kind of Fideism which would say that we simply have to believe that God exists and there is no rational demonstration, philosophically, or lack of demonstration: it’s simply a question the human mind cannot cope with by its own natural lights. He offers maybe in his whole corpus as many as 20 or 25 different kinds of arguments for the existence of God, but famously he has a centerpiece, a synthesis of this, briefly [in] the Summa Theologiae, where he offers five ways to convince [someone] of God. And those are not arguments from cosmology of his age or strictly speaking, not from the scriptures or the Bible: they’re arguments based on what we might call the metaphysical structures of reality.
So he looks at contingency, change, and movement of things, examined philosophically. He looks at efficient causality: that things are both causes of other things and in themselves caused and dependent. He looks at radical contingency, the capacity of a thing to "be" or "not to be" which, of course, characterizes everything around us, including ourselves. Grades of perfection in things. Degrees of beauty and truth and goodness in persons, in reality. And then he looks, lastly, at purpose or ordered teleology in realities that tend toward final ends.
What he’s trying to do is highlight, in each of these five ways, how there’s a certain kind of interdependency in the realities we experience, including in ourselves, that shines forth - that pushes you to ask the question of what exists or perdures over the horizon of contingency and interdependency. And he’s showing that there’s what he calls an a posteriori demonstration, from effects to causes, that there must exist some transcendent cause of this web of interdependent realities of which we make - a part [of] which is the fabric of existence around us.
So he thinks there are indirect demonstrations of the existence of God. Not immediate intuition, not a mere question of faith but a kind of fragile but real reasoning towards God as a term of human thought.
Question: Is having faith in God is more important than rationalizing his existence?
Thomas Joseph White: Well there’s always been, in the Christian tradition, a certain more marginal strand of thought that is a radicalization of Augustine’s thought. Augustine himself held that there are arguments for the existence of God by reason alone, but this strand of thought would argue that, in fact, human reason is so frail, so diminished by compromises, the complacency of the human will have so diminished reason’s capacity to vibrantly reason lucidly for itself, that really trying to reason about God or argue philosophically for the demonstration of the existence of God is a waste of time and in fact probably a pretension. And this is actually, I think, rather forcefully argued in Luther’s thought and it has become a commonplace theme in some Protestant thinkers like Carl Bart.
Aquinas has the famous dictum: Grace does not destroy nature but heals it and perfects it. Yes, human nature is frail and human reason is sometimes very weak and fallible. It’s also very noble and dignified. And if you in the name of grace in the exultation in the divine revelation of God diminish human reason, not only do you diminish God’s creation thereby and dishonor God, the creator. But you also will end up repressing one of the deepest most noble dimensions of the human person which will have its revenge on you. And your human nature will seek, eventually, to reassert itself and establish its own rational autonomy. So you can get a dialectic that exists between a position of faith alone versus rational autonomy which is one of the oppositions that Aquinas is careful to avoid in which is a very false opposition.
Question: Does relying on faith alone lead to inevitable doubts?
Thomas Joseph White: Not necessarily but you’re going to be an incomplete person. If you rely on faith alone, without the cooperation of your natural reason, that could be by humility, because there are people who are simpler. They are not going to be able to solve all the great problems of the world. And faith is a grace, a supernatural grace. We’re talking about divine faith, not simply human trust in other people, which is not always a bad thing. But divine faith, the trust in God that comes from the grace of faith, enlightening the heart and mind allows people, even simple people, to have great intimacy with God on a very sophisticated level.
That’s one of the amazing things about faith but it shouldn’t be used as a pretext to diminish or suppress what in us is deeply good and natural. And well a danger is you’re going to end up harming the human person and in fact, compromising the rational intelligibility of faith itself.
Question: What if reason leads to atheism?
Thomas Joseph White: Well, since the enlightenment, you had a number of extremely influential thinkers reassert the autonomy of reason. And to say that the autonomy of reason really, to be itself fully, has to askew the good of faith, or that reason can demonstrate the illogical or unhelpful character of faith - the first Vatican counsel of the Catholic church of the 19th century took a contrary view by arguing that the dignity of reason is such that it can ascend towards the question of God. And the question of God should not be neutralized because that actually diminishes the nobility of man. So allowing the question of God or the question of the soul, the question of the religious and metaphysical meaning of human existence to emerge, is a sign of liberation of human reason.
And human reason can also come to reflect on its own limitations, not by artificial frustration of itself by something outside of itself, but by being aware that going to term of its own reflections, it’s never the less seeing that there’s certain fundamental questions that [it] can’t fully resolve for itself.
When you hit up against questions like the meaning of evil or the meaning of human death or the question of God, [or] the moral drama of the human condition, there’s a certain amount of intelligibility natural reason can shed on those subjects, but [there's] also going to be frontiers where the mind is left looking off into a horizon, and it has questions that remain unanswered; natural questions. And that’s a natural openness towards the idea, or the question, of divine revelation. Why could God not reveal something which addressed [the] deepest aspirations of my human reason? While, in fact, doing so in such ways liberates me to seek the truth more deeply.
Question: What do you find to be the strongest case against the existence of God?
Thomas Joseph White: Well St. Thomas says that the stronger argument against the existence of God is the existence of evil in the world, which is the argument also mustered by David Hume. As I have gotten older in life, I've thought that that made a lot of sense because I have experienced more moral or physical evil in the universe. It's not convinced me, but I think that's an interesting argument. Actually, Aquinas has a really interesting argument positing that the ontological reality of evil, the privation of good in things, is itself ultimately rational grounds for arguing that God does exist, because there is a supreme good that's the measurable of the inferior goods that get eroded by evil.
However, my own education was more in the post-modern guild and I was experiencing – at 18, 19, 20 years old - the literature of Foucault and Nietzsche and that kind of crowd. So for me the real problem wasn't arguments for or against existence of God, it was the question of finding any kind of stable orientation or foundation upon which you would build any kind of rational or logical structure by which to understand reality. I was very skeptical about that. I still think that - although I don't agree with that position anymore - I still think that Foucault and Nietzsche, particularly Nietzsche, diagnose a lot of the syndrome of the relativism of modern human discourse and reason. They put their finger on the crisis, I think, rather profoundly. So I think Nietzsche is a really important figure for helping us to understand where we are as a culture today.
Recorded on: August 20, 2009
Are those content to simply have faith in God "incomplete" compared to those who try to reason about his existence? Dominican Friar Fr. Thomas Joseph White talks to Big Think about the spiritual importance of reason, and the doubts that a rational approach to spirituality may or may not lead to.
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How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.
- The 'Monkeydactly', or Kunpengopterus antipollicatus, was a species of pterosaur, a group of flying reptiles that were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
- In a recent study, a team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning to analyze the anatomy of the newly discovered species, finding that it was the first known species to develop opposable thumbs.
- As highly specialized dinosaurs, pterosaurs boasted unusual anatomy that gave them special advantages as aerial predators in the Mesozoic Era.
A newly discovered flying dinosaur nicknamed "Monkeydactyl" is the oldest known creature that evolved opposable thumbs, according to new research published in Current Biology.
The 160-million-year-old reptile is officially named Kunpengopterus antipollicatus. Discovered in China, the dinosaur was a darwinopteran pterosaur, a subgroup of pterosaurs, which first appeared 215 million years ago during the Triassic Period. Pterosaurs, like the pterodactyl, were the first vertebrates to evolve the ability of powered flight.
But unlike other pterosaurs, the Monkeydactyl was the only species in its group known to have opposable thumbs. It's a rare adaptation for non-mammals: The only extant examples are chameleons and some species of tree frogs. (Most birds have at least one opposable digit, though that digit is usually classified as a hallux, not a pollex, which means "thumb" in Latin.)
To analyze the anatomy of K. antipollicatus, an international team of researchers used microcomputed tomography scanning, which generates images of the inside of the body.
"The fingers of 'Monkeydactyl' are tiny and partly embedded in the slab," study co-author Fion Waisum Ma said in a press release. "Thanks to micro-CT scanning, we could see through the rocks, create digital models, and tell how the opposed thumb articulates with the other finger bones."
"This is an interesting discovery. It provides the earliest evidence of a true opposed thumb, and it is from a pterosaur — which wasn't known for having an opposed thumb."
As a tree-dwelling reptile, the Monkeydactyl probably evolved opposable thumbs so it could grasp tree branches, which would have helped it hang, avoid falls, and obtain food. This arboreal (tree-dwelling) locomotion would help the Monkeydactyl adapt to its home ecosystem, the subtropical forests of the Tiaojishan Formation in China during the Jurassic Period.
The researchers noted that the forests of the Tiaojishan Formation were likely warm and humid, thriving with "a rich and complex" diversity of tree-dwelling animals. But while the forests were home to multiple pterosaur species, the Monkeydactyl was likely the only one that was arboreal, spending most of its time in the treetops, while other pterosaurs occupied different levels of the forest.
K. antipollicatus and its phylogenetic position. (A and B) Holotype specimen BPMC 0042 (A) and a schematic skeletal drawing (B). Scale bars, 50 mm.Credit: Zhou et al.
This process — in which competing species manage to coexist by using the environment in different ways — is called "niche partitioning."
"Tiaojishan palaeoforest is home to many organisms, including three genera of darwinopteran pterosaurs," study author Xuanyu Zhou said in the press release. "Our results show that K. antipollicatus has occupied a different niche from Darwinopterus and Wukongopterus, which has likely minimized competition among these pterosaurs."
In general, pterosaurs are a prime example of how animals can evolve remarkably specialized adaptations. As pioneers of vertebrate flight, pterosaurs had strong and lightweight skeletons that ranged widely in size, with some boasting wingspans of more than 30 feet. The largest pterosaurs weighed more than 650 pounds and had jaws twice the length of Tyrannosaurus rex.
Unlike birds, which jump into the air using only their hind limbs, pterosaurs used their exceptionally strong hind limbs and forelimbs to push off the ground and gain enough launch power for flight. That these massive dinosaurs managed to fly, and did so successfully for about 80 million years, has long fascinated and puzzled scientists.The recent discovery shows that pterosaurs developed even more remarkable adaptations than previously thought, suggesting there's still more to learn about the "monsters of the Mesozoic skies."