Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

God: Philosophical Proofs and the Transcendentals

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 22, 2012 | In Reviews

In my In Depth Analysis Proving God, I introduced a book by Robert J. Spitzer, SJ, entitled New Proofs for the Existence of God. I concentrated on the scientific arguments, which occupied the first part of the book. I should now like to discuss the philosophical arguments (Part Two) and Fr. Spitzer’s use of the transcendentals (Part Three), which round out his several approaches to the reality of God’s existence.

Part Two, “Three Philosophical Proofs for the Existence of God”, covers four topics: an updated standard metaphysical proof for God’s existence; Bernard Lonergan’s proof based on intelligibility; a proof that there must be a Creator of past time; and considerations of how and why philosophical proofs work—along with a clear explanation of why it is impossible to prove the non-existence of God (which inevitably makes atheism a non-rational position).

The metaphysical argument is perhaps the core of the book, and this version has much in common with traditional arguments concerning such things as the first cause, the prime mover, and contingency. It is updated, however, to take into account our recent understanding—learned from quantum physics—that causation need not be strictly deterministic. Thus Spitzer frames the argument in terms of “conditioned” and “unconditioned” realities. The key philosophical questions are: (1) Is it possible that all realities are conditioned by other realities, or is it necessary that there must be at least one unconditioned reality? and (2) If there must be at least one unconditioned reality, is it possible that there could be more than one, or must there be one and only one?

As is typical throughout the book, the argument is presented step by step and with extreme care. Even those unskilled in the use of philosophical proofs can follow Fr. Spitzer’s analysis here, just as those largely unfamiliar with the details of modern science could follow the scientific discussions in Part One.

After completing the proof for the necessity of one unconditioned reality, Fr. Spitzer goes on to mine the thought of the famous Canadian Catholic theologian Bernard Lonergan, SJ, who demonstrated in the latter part of the 20th century that an unconditioned reality must in fact be unrestricted intelligibility. All other realities are restricted and so have restricted intelligibility; they are, in effect, the discrete “contents” of the one unrestricted act of understanding, which is God.

In the third chapter of this section, Fr. Spitzer takes up the argument for a Creator of past time. As you might imagine, this requires a proper understanding of time itself. While we often formerly spoke of time as a mere measurement of movement through space, both modern science and modern philosophy have become considerably more sophisticated in their understanding of time as its own reality, a “non-contemporaneous distensive manifold”. I mention this with apologies to the reader, but the effort to grasp it is well worthwhile, for the results are fascinating.

As I indicated, this section closes with a chapter on methodological considerations which will be very helpful for those who are not quite sure about how scientific and philosophical proofs differ, and what makes them valid in their own spheres. It is only fair to state that New Proofs is a very dense book, but the fact that I can remember everything I’ve written here simply by looking at the table of contents is a tribute to its own superior intelligibility and coherence.

Those who have read the first part of this review will recall that I spent much of it in a preliminary discussion of the sheer variety of ways in which the human person can become reasonably convinced of the existence of God. I also stated that Fr. Spitzer himself would heartily approve of this preliminary discussion. This contention is amply justified in the final part of the book, devoted to the transcendentals—to the true, the good and the beautiful as rooted in being and powered, so to speak, by love.

Fr. Spitzer has already demonstrated that pure being (being itself) is central to all the other proofs, as is pure or total truth (that is a complete understanding of pure being, or unrestricted understanding contemplating unrestricted intelligibility). In this context, he discusses the ontological status of love, the good and the beautiful, each of which is, in its own way, a completely simple unifying power behind all restricted loves, goods and beauties. This simplicity and unifying power makes love, the good and the beautiful all the same thing, united also with perfect being and total truth or understanding. Through these considerations, we learn a great deal more about unrestricted reality, that is, about God.

Such considerations do not replace Revelation, of course. Rather, they make us yearn for it. They bring us back, in fact, to John Henry Newman’s point about the conscience (see the first part of the review), which makes us feel we are in the presence of a lawgiver and a judge, and so drives us to seek a revelatory guide to his will. We feel ourselves accused and shaken when we defy this inner voice, while we feel happy and whole when we heed it—just as when we please or displease the important authority figures in our lives, such as good human fathers. Fr. Spitzer himself outlines Newman’s argument, along with many other related suggestions, in the final chapter of the book, which he devotes to the five basic human yearnings which correspond to the transcendentals.

These five longings are the desires for truth, love, goodness, beauty, and home. By the last Fr. Spitzer means a full sense of belonging, an end to our frequent sense that we are somehow out of sync and never fully comfortable with our total situation. The desire for perfect “home” is a desire for pure being; it is our desire for a preemintly simple and totally unifying being—being itself—in which we will finally feel fulfilled, at ease and at home.

I could spend another thousand words discussing how Fr. Spitzer demonstrates the existence of the transcendentals, what they mean, and how we yearn for them. For example, it is our very yearning for pure love which causes us to delight in romantic relationships, but which also threatens the stability of our relationships when the euphoria passes and we grow more aware of their inherent limitations. If we fail to mature, we will soon be casting off one relationship in favor of another “more promising” one, misled again by an initial euphoria into thinking that this one, at last, is perfect and complete—which of course is never true, short of God.

Instead, let me simply note that Fr. Spitzer concludes the book with a series of personal questions about our own experience, questions which may lead us to accept the existence of God and to properly identify our intense yearning for union with him. Perhaps, indeed, we will begin to search for His Revelation. Fr. Spitzer, then, is not only a scientist and a philosopher, but also a psychologist and ultimately a priest. In the last analysis even the reviewer must fall into silence and be drawn to God by love. It is a fitting ending for a challenging—and brilliant—book.

Previous in Series: Proving God

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bnewman - Mar. 26, 2012 10:28 PM ET USA

    Fr. Spitzer’s book brings together contemporary developments in science, philosophy, and theology.Your comments were very helpful, Dr. Mirus. Personally I found the philosophy and theology in Fr. Spitzer’s book very difficult. I will have to read and re-read it again and again.