What doesn’t exist can’t be known

91HvBls+5-L._AC_UL320_SR208,320_You Aquinas experts out there, help me out. I know Aquinas held God to be timeless and to have timeless knowledge of the world’s entire history of becoming. But there’s an interesting passage in the Summa (1.89.7.3) that has me stumped. For those unfamiliar with citing the Summa, that’s Part 1, Question 89 [on the knowledge of the separated soul], Article 7 [on whether local distance impedes the knowledge in the separated soul], and then Aquinas’ reply to Objection 3).

The Objection:

Further, as there is distance of place, so is there distance of time. But distance of time impedes knowledge in the separated soul, for the soul is ignorant of the future. Therefore it seems that distance of place also impedes its knowledge.

Aquinas’ reply

The future, which is distant in time, does not actually exist, and therefore is not knowable in itself, because so far as a thing falls short of being, so far does it fall short of being knowable. But what is locally distant exists actually, and is knowable in itself. Hence we cannot argue from distance of time to distance of place.

Aquinas seems pretty matter-of-fact about the unknowability of non-existent/non-actual entities, and obviously I want to agree with him. Future events and objects are simply not actual, and are thus unknowable. They have no ‘being’. This has obvious consequences for one’s knowledge of the future. We don’t know the future not because there is in fact something to know of which we’re ignorant. We don’t know because there’s nothing there to know. I was surprised to find this passage though. John Sanders mentions it in an article on his site.

My guess is that Aquinas qualifies all this when it comes to God. God is not limited in his knowledge of creation to creation’s own temporal perspectives. It’s only finite knowers who exist at a time who cannot know future actualities because those actualities do not exist at the knower’s time. But God is not a finite knower located at a time. If anything, he’s at all times and so is immediately present to Creation’s entire timeline (as it were). So God doesn’t fall within the scope of Aquinas’ comments.

Yes? No?

You experts out there?

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Eadem est scientia oppositorum

marco4The phrase was used by Aquinas, following Aristotle, meaning that affirmations and their corresponding negations are one and the same knowledge and it’s theological application is the affirmation of Aquinas’ apophatic theology. Apophatic theology, or the “way of negation,” is resoundingly rejected by open theists as a virtual blasphemy. It’s believed to represent the core methodological error that lands one ultimately in the mistaken belief of classical theism’s actus purus.

This is so among open theists because, as we said earlier, methodologically speaking open theists stand squarely within that Process assumption that God and world constitute between them a single order of content and explication, that is, God is not to be thought of as the exception to (nor an apophatic negation of) our metaphysical principles but as their chief exemplification. Open theists embrace this Process belief in a single and univocal ontology that embraces and explains both divine and created being. And just so you remember, to challenge the necessity of this methodology to open theism is one of the goals of this blog.

Ask open theists what ‘negative’ or ‘apophatic’ theology is and you’ll likely be told that it means “taking back everything you say about God” or “negating by way of contradiction everything you affirm about God” or worse yet that it means “attributing the most nonsense possible to God.” This is not the kind of apophaticism one finds in, say, the Orthodox thinker Pseudo-Denys who is much more thoughtful and complicated.

For the past couple of years I’ve repeatedly returned to the scrumptious provocations of British philosopher/theologian Denys Turner. I keep returning, in particular, to his chapter “Apophaticism, idolatry and the claims of reason” in Silence and the Word: Negative Theology and Incarnation (eds Oliver Davies and Denys Turner, 2002). I’d like to share several quotes I think shed light on our understanding of the proper limits of theological language.

…all talk about God is tainted with ultimate failure. But this is because an adequate cataphatic theology has to be unremitting in its affirmations of theological language, for everything about the world tells us something about the creator. You cannot understand the role of the apophatic, or the extent to which it is necessary to go in denying things of God, until you have understood the role of the cataphatic and the extent to which it is necessary to go in affirming things of God. And the reason for this, as I see it, logical interdependence of the negative and the affirmative ways is not the true but trivial reason that logically until you have something to affirm you have nothing to negate. The reason is the more dialectically interesting one that it is in and through the very excess, the proliferation, of discourse about God that we discover its failure as a whole.

———-

…the way of negation is not a sort of po-faced, mechanical process, as it were, of serial negation, affirmation by affirmation, of each thing you can say about God, as if affirmative statements about God were all false; nor is it…simply adding the prefix ‘super’ to already superlative Latin adjectives predicated of God…. Rather…the way of negation demands prolixity; it demands the maximization of talk about God; it demands that we talk about God in as many ways as possible, even in as many conflicting ways as possible, that we use up the whole stock-in-trade of discourse in our possession, so as thereby to discover ultimately the inadequacy of all of it….

———-

So it is not that, first, we are permitted the naïve and unself-critical indulgence of affirmation, subsequently to submit that affirmation to a separate critique of negation. Nor is the ‘way of negation’ the way of simply saying nothing about God, nor yet is it the way simply of saying that God is ‘nothing’: it is the encounter with the failure of what we must say about God to represent God adequately. If talk about God is deficient, this is a discovery made within the extending of it into superfluity, into that excess in which it simply collapses under its own weight.

(Picture from here.)