Discerning Ultimate Intelligibility: A Discussion with John M. McDermott

John M. McDermott FAITH Magazine July – August 2011

In our last issue we published a piece by Fr John M. McDermott S.J. concerning the resolution of tensions in the western philosophical tradition, especially in the modern philosophy of science. Here we publish our response and Fr McDermott's response to that. The differences seem to be over whether these tensions can be resolved through our better understanding of nature (our position), or whether they are inherent to created reality and cannot be rationally resolved but only founded upon the ultimate intelligibility of absolute love. Fr McDermott is a faculty member of the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. Since 2003 he has served as a member of the International Theological Commission, and since 2008 as a consultant to the US Bishops' Committee on Doctrine.

Reply to Fr John M. McDermott

1.  In finding human cognition "paradoxical" Fr McDermott seems unsure whether hylomorphism (the analysis of all entities into unifying form and individuating matter) reflects simply man's inadequate way of knowing, which cannot attain the full structure of reality, or whether this really is the structure of reality. Yet if we can intuit at least that God knows things differently, we can also discern that the structure of reality is actually as God would perceive it. McDermott seems to go on to suggest that humans simply project the subjective inconsistency of our supposed cognition onto reality because we have to posit some correspondence between our minds and reality. We should ask: Is the individual unknowable in itself, or just unknowable in all its relativitiesby the circumscribed mind of man? If that latter is the case, then we have no business saying that matter is absolutely unknowable and therefore "non being". If the material is truly unknowable as "not being" then not even God can know it! That is to make the mind of man the measure of being, not the Mind of God, whereas we are told by the Word of God Incarnate that "Every hair of your head is counted", "Not a sparrow falls to the ground without your heavenly Father knowing".

2.  Fr McDermott does go on to affirm that God knows creatures in their individuality, but he seems then to have some sympathy for the Nominalist despair of finding any intrinsic and universal rationality in nature, and even for Sartre's despair of finding meaning in existence at all. His way out of the conundrum of the apparent meaninglessness of existence, viewed by the human mind, depicts Revelation breaking into the closed world of man confirming the ultimate reality of the dialectical dynamic of love. This grounds the intelligibility of paradoxical creation and thus human knowing. It is akin to Barthian fideism in as much as such revelation leaves shrouded in mystery the resolution of apparent fundamental paradox within the immanent dynamic of human knowing andloving.

Rather, we would say that we do know material things within a matrix of universal relationships. We do indeed know differently from God, for God knows the individual in supreme detail and in every aspect and relationship of its universality - its causality, meaning and purpose within the Plan of Salvation to the nth degree. But we are sufficiently aware of this not to be trapped within the cloud of unknowing about matter. Our minds are created in the image of our maker and we do attain at least to the basic meanings of matter with certainty, as is evidenced by our increasingly fruitful and powerful use of those meanings in our technology. To attain to perfect understanding and wise use of these things, or to understanding ourselves and our own place and purpose in creation, we needrevelation and the graced elevation of our mind into communion with the Living God.

Yes, it is true that there is a level of provisionality, of "non-being" in the existence of created things because all contingent existence is measured and projected within a causal network of relationships. What something "is", its "essence", is defined through relationship to the creating Mind and intention of God who knows and wills its place and its purpose within the equational structure of meanings that is creation. So its own specific existence is always provisional and not the gold standard of its own identity.

3. If universality is "being" and individuality is simply "non-being", then Sartre would be right to say that to exist as an individual is inextricably entangled in meaninglessness. But if individual existence is always relationally set within a framework of other existentials, the whole of which is referred to the Supreme and Absolute Existential who is God, then we can see that essence and existence do not arise from a cosmic tension between infinite being and infinite non-being. Rather, every unitary reality, including every material entity, is actual and knowable because it is known by God within the dynamic and interlocking framework of other created beings, and they are simultaneously contingent and provisional in so far as they are intrinsically dependent andstructured towards meanings beyond themselves within that environmental framework. In short, they are "being" that is therefore knowable by created minds, because they are called into being by the Mind of God, and they are also "not-being" in the sense that they are not God, and therefore not absolute in their individual identity. McDermott writes:

"In the mystery of matter, or corporeal individuality, [human reason] strikes a limit to its knowing. It is then forced in freedom to choose either to postulate a fundamental nothingness or absurdity in existence, thus denying intelligibility and destroying itself, or to transcend itself toward the infinite God of love who has made Himself known through the finite, visible structures of this world."

Materia for Aquinas is not non-being in the sense of chaos or negation, but the lowest degree of esse/being. (2 Sentences d.12 art. 4 resp). Aristotle and Aquinas speak rather of polymorphic potential, not an infinite void, which could (erroneously) imply an equal and opposite pole of existence to God's infinite Being. As we argued in our November 2010 editorial, science is not the study merely of individual entities in the Aristotelian sense, which must condemn it to the realm of the metaphysically unknowable and irrelevant. Science is the study of the created order in its material/formal relationships up to and including the bodily existence of Man. It cannot, therefore, in Christian terms, be an all-sufficient answer to Life, Love and even to the Universe.For material existence relates intrinsically to the higher order of Mind or Spirit.

Matter (in the modern sense of material creatures with their potential/formal identities) not only relates to the Mind of God through which it is framed in meaningful and dynamic order, it is an order that is founded through the living Wisdom of God whose Personal Incarnation is the very raison d’être of the physical creation in the first place. If matter were indeed the ultimate unknowable and were meaningless, then Sartre would be right and the turn to a "God of love" would be an attempt to escape the inevitable conclusion that individual existence is indeed intrinsically empty and absurd. And if that were true, then how could God manifest himself through matter or through anything "created" at all?

The very fact of the Incarnation sheds light upon the foundations of matter and corporeality, which were gratuitously created for and towards that most meaningful of ends. It tells us that matter is not meaningless and nothing. It is contingent and dependent, only capable of being fully understood within the higher context of the plenary purpose of God's plan for creation. It is in God, not in matter, that man strikes an absolute limit to his knowing. God's infinity does not imply that he is the most abstract, but that he is the most absolutely individual and concrete, the most necessary and supremely Existential Being, beyond anything we have the mental or metaphysical capacity to imagine.

4. We deny the concept of absolute and infinite non-being. The concept of non-being is an unconscious hangover from a pagan cosmic dualism which owes more to Plato than to Aristotle and is alien to Thomas Aquinas. There is only God and that which he creates, however minimal its entitative constitution may be. "Non-being" simply IS NOT - by definition, unless we are to posit some infinite and eternal sea of existential emptiness which surrounds and circumscribes the equally infinite Being of God. For if matter is truly "non-being", except in some comparative and analogical sense, then God does not create it!

Were evolution ultimately random, there would be no intelligibility in the universe and all study of it would be doomed to the frustration of post-modern hypothesising. If evolutionists wish to preserve their science as "knowledge," while they might describe their method as concerned with the collection, comparison, and ordering of apparently coincidental mutations and events, they can never give chaos as the final explanation of the reality studied.

5. We are loved not just individually but within and through the hierarchy of relationships that constitute the Church as the family of salvation. We are all loved in and for the sake of Jesus Christ, then through Our Lady. Similarly we are known to be what we are and called to be what we should become in nature and in grace through the hierarchy of relationships that form the fabric of material causality that is the created cosmos. Matter is not "non-being" and chaos, it is that which is controlled and directed by mind to the glory of the Incarnation, for the Cosmos is framed by Wisdom as fully as it is by Love, and it is the Wisdom of God who is made flesh in the fullness of time and who gives himself for our redemption. It is from this new order of Wisdom restored inCreation that the plenary gift of divinising Love, who is the Holy Spirit, is poured out upon mankind. As Pope Benedict continually points out, if we neglect the priority of Wisdom in revealed religion we risk divorcing faith from reason and religion from science, which does harm to both.

Response by Fr McDermott

I am grateful to the editors of Faith for publishing my article, criticising its insufficiencies, and allowing me a response to clarify some misapprehensions.

The first misapprehension concerns "non-being." I did not intend an infinite void opposed to God. In the classical tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas prime matter, the principle of individuality conjoined to form, is identified as non-being. For them matter always exists within form. It is unintelligible to the human mind. Thomas writes, "Matter in itself has no being (esse) and cannot be known" {S.T. I, 15, 3, 3). But God created it and knows it thoroughly; He knows singulars individuated by matter (S.T. I, 14, 11c; 15, 3, 4; 44, 2; ScG I, 65; De Ver. 2, 5). Thus Thomas explicitly denies that "matter is of itself unknowable" (De Ver. 2, 5, 12). What man cannot know God knows. Thomas clearly oscillates between human and divine perspectives. Sohe paradoxically affirms that prime matter, non-being, participates in goodness and beauty (De Norn. Div. 4, 4, 355; S.T. I, 5, 3, 1.2; 5, 4, 3). I refer readers to "The Mystery of Matter" for Thomas' complex understanding of prime matter and "Matter, Modern Science, and God" for the recurrence of matter's paradoxes in modern science; both articles are scheduled for proximate publication in Angelicum.

Sartre's philosophy is abhorrent to me because it recognises no norm outside human reason, sees reason as absurd, and makes all value dependent upon arbitrary choice. That spells the death of reason, freedom, and love. Thus Sartre serves to expose and demolish the pretensions of Enlightenment reason as a faculty apart from faith and love. The finite cannot absolutise itself without committing intellectual suicide. Nonetheless I affirm a structure in reality intelligible to the human mind. It consists of the polar tension between finite and infinite which recurs repeatedly in the conundrums of philosophy and modern science. While reason cannot resolve that tension by dissolving one pole into the other, human experience is wider than pure reason. In the experience of morality we are awareof a claim made upon our consciences to do the good, whatever the cost, even if our lives have to be forfeited. This is an absolute, or unlimited, claim since the moral subject is called to surrender all other values for the sake of the good. The whole universe with all its attractions is relativised. Only God can demand such total dedication. Here reappears the tension between absolute and relative, infinite and finite. But instead of rejecting morality (and ultimately love) with Sartre for its alleged contradiction, we can recognise that, if the moral claim with its polar tension is reality, then the structure of thought reflects the structure of reality. This correspondence of thought and reality (morality) manifests the truth to be affirmed in freedom. "He who does the truth comes tothe light" (Jn. 3:21).

Since all thought presupposes an absolute (infinite), God can be known by thought, even apart from Christian revelation - if man can experience true morality! Such morality involving self-sacrifice for others is ultimately love, grounded in God who is Love. In a fallen world, no man can authoritatively assure others of love's reality except the One who is identically Love. Moreover, only absolute Love can restore creation's primordial unity destroyed by sin. Once we can see that meaning is given to us in love, human science surrenders its hubristic claim as judge over all and recognises love as mystery and gift. Then it understands its abstractions as meaningfully approximating God's mind. This is not Barthian faith, a leap into darkness with an intellect incapable of attaining truth.Rather by acknowledging love, reason finds itself grounded in reality and validated. When confronted by suffering, death, and sin, it does not despair but affirms meaning in Christ crucified, whose resurrection proves that Love is stronger than sin and death.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2011