Monday, December 6, 2021

Samuel Clarke on our ignorance of the essence of God

At times I am made uncomfortable by this objection to arguments for the existence of God: there feels like there is something fishy about inferring the existence of a being about which we know so very little. It may be that theism is the only reasonable explanation of the universe’s existence, but if we know so very little about that explanation, can the inference to the truth of that explanation be a genuine version of inference to best explanation?

Newton's disciple Samuel Clarke has a nice answer to this objection:

There is not so mean and contemptible a plant or animal, that does not confound the most enlarged understanding upon earth; nay, even the simplest and plainest of all inanimate beings have their essence or substance hidden from us in the deepest and most impenetrable obscurity.

In other words, all our ordinary day-to-day inferences are to things whose essence is hidden.

It may be thought that now that we know about DNA, we do know the essences of plants and animals. But even if that is true, which I am sceptical of, it doesn’t matter: for belief in plants and animals was quite reasonable even before our superior science. And even this day, our knowledge of the essences of the fundamental entities of physics (e.g., particles, fields, wavefunctions) is basically nil. All we know is some facts about the effects of these entities.


Walter Van den Acker said...

A few problems with this.
First, it may be true that we don't know the essence of most things, but we know they exist and we do have some idea about how they affect other things.
The problem is that God's essence is supposed to be existence, hence if we do not know God's essence, saying he exists is meaningless.
Another problem is that God, even is He exists, offers no explanation for the existence of anything else. There is no plausible principle to connect an immutable being with any alleged effect if is asserted to have.

Marius Blomlie said...

If God is pure actuality, and every other being is a combination of potentiality and actuality, aren't we somehow more certain of what God's essence is like than we are certain of the essence of any other being?

God's essence can never change, and if we understand that God is the being whose essence is existence, can we then say that we do know his essence in a pure, undefiled and perfect way, in the sense that existence itself can never be doubted? Maybe knowing that he exists - and is the source of all other existence - is to know his essence perfectly.

For every other being, we would not necessarily know whether they exist, have existed, or will continue to exist, even if we should happen to know their essence at any point in time. But as God is pure actuality and a being whose essence is existence, we know that he will always exist, and his essence is thus the most sure knowledge we can ever have.

RunDec said...

Well, surely we know *some* things about God with certainty. We can know that he is necessary, and hence that he will never fail to exist; that his essence is existence, etc. We can also know that he is all-perfect, has every power to an unlimited degree, from the fact that he is the source/first cause of all powers, as well as arguments from limit etc. We can know many things about God. But what is mysterious about God is how it is like for him to be omniperfect, say, especially for us classical theists who think all of his powers are just one - which is divinity, maximal existence itself. It cannot be pictured, and is very hard to understand. And if you do not perfectly know how a thing operates, you cannot be said to perfectly know its essence. You can know *some* of its essence, enough to make some reasonable judgments about it, but you do not know it perfectly if you don't know everything about it and how all of it is.

While we can be certain that a necessary being exists, and even infer some of its properties (its personhood, say), nevertheless it is still extremely mysterious. But the same is also true for everyday material beings, so I agree with the post.

Walter Van den Acker said...

Unknown and Marius

It is impossible to know "some" things about God without knowing all of God, precisely because God's essence is existence.
Before you can say that God exists you must know his full essence and one you admit you don't know god's full essence, you cannot say whether He exists or not.

António Ladrilhador said...

Well, I would say that, rather then simple faith, it would be interesting to find some logical basis to demonstrate the existence of God.
This what I've tried to do and have the pleasure to invite you at
Translation into english is available by Google clicking on the right column.