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Sunday, September 30, 2007


Science, Actus Essendi, and Revealed Truth

by Orestes J. Gonzalez




Science, Actus Essendi, and Revealed Truth
by Orestes J. Gonzalez



The relationship between science, philosophy and Revelation was a subject particularly close to the heart of the late Saint Pope John Paul II. Early in his papacy the Pope established a commission of scholars to conduct an in-depth study of the Galileo case. At the conclusion of that study, in 1992, John Paul II spoke about the notion of meta-scientific concepts which the scientist must use to describe and formalize the data of experience. The Pope indicated that “It is useful to state exactly the nature of these concepts in order to avoid proceeding to undue extrapolations which link strictly scientific discoveries to a vision of the world, or to ideological or philosophical affirmations, which are in no way corollaries of it. Here one sees the importance of philosophy.”

(For the quotation, see John Paul II, “Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences,” 31 October 1992,  Acta Apostolicae Sedis 85,  no. 2 [1993]: 764-772; trans. L’Osservatore Romano English Weekly Edition, [November 2, 1992]: 1-2.)

While applauding the unquestionable success of science, the Pope stresses that, in the quest for knowledge of all things and their causes, philosophical reasoning and Revelation provide important normative principles which belong also to the sphere of valid and true knowledge. Through philosophical reasoning the human intellect is able to rise from the empirical realm to the suprasensible world. And the Pope remarks that “The experience of metaphysical knowledge falls within the competence of philosophical analysis and reflection.” Metaphysics is indeed a rigorous form of knowledge.

(For the quotation, see Pope John Paul II, “Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences,” 22 October 1996,  Acta Apostolicae Sedis 89, no. 6 [1997]: 186-190; trans. L’Osservatore Romano English Weekly Edition, [October 30, 1996]: 3-7.)

However, the proliferation of philosophical systems is a historical fact. Take for example the philosophical position initially advanced by the Vienna Circle (1929) and how several brilliant minds were led to abandon the view altogether.

The aim of the Vienna Circle—founded by Moritz Schlick (1882-1936) and formalized in 1929—was to further empower the validity of science concretely at the foundational level of knowledge. To accomplish this aim the Vienna Circle considered it necessary to remove all meaningful metaphysical statements not only from science but also from the whole realm of intellectual knowledge. They called metaphysics nonsense and proceeded to grant power to science by proclaiming one principle to be the only valid and universal principle of knowledge, namely, the verification principle: “A proposition is meaningful only if it is verifiable.” But very soon they ran against a serious philosophical objection: the verification principle is itself unverifiable. Since this principle is not itself scientifically verifiable, must it not be meaningless as well? It was the philosopher Friedrich Waismann (1896–1959) the one who later recognized that it is nonsense to say that metaphysics is nonsense. Also Alfred Jules Ayer (1910–1989) conceded later that, from the epistemological restrictions imposed by the Vienna Circle, the meaninglessness of metaphysical statements did not follow. Furthermore, Otto Neurath (1882–1945) in his exchanges with Rudolf Carnap (1891–1970) argued that the revision Carnap made to the original thesis meant at once to reintroduce the transcendental entities of metaphysics. And more recently, Hilary Putnam (1926-2016) has argued for the existence of—and the importance of—knowledge outside the exact sciences.

Can one then conclude that the philosophical positions advanced throughout the centuries are completely free from constraints because a point of reference for philosophical speculation is nowhere to be found? The answer is “no” and, in the remainder of this essay, I simply want to indicate a fundamental aspects of the philosophy of being that has been proposed as reference point for the different philosophical schools.

An authoritative statement in this regard is recorded in the encyclical letter Fides et Ratio of Pope John Paul II: “The philosophy of being is strong and enduring because it is based upon the very act of being itself (ipsum actus essendi), which allows a full and comprehensive openness to reality as a whole.”

(For the quotation, see John Paul II, “Fides et Ratio,” 14 September 1998, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 91 [1999]: 5-88, no. 97.)

The Pope explains this openness of the philosophy of being as follows: 

What is meant [by the characteristic openness of the philosophy of being] is an openness to the whole of reality in all its parts and dimensions, without either reducing reality or confining thought to particular forms or aspects (and without turning singular aspects into absolutes), as intelligence demands in the name of objective and integral truth about what is real. The basis and source of this openness lie in the fact that the philosophy of Saint Thomas is a philosophy of being, that is, of the act of being (actus essendi); it is the philosophy of the proclamation of being.
It is from this affirmation of being that the philosophy of Saint Thomas draws its power to justify itself from the methodological point of view, as a branch of knowledge that cannot be reduced to any other science whatever, and as one that transcends them all by establishing itself as independent of them and at the same time as bringing them to completion in regard to their true nature. Only in this way does the intellect feel at ease (as it were at home) and therefore it can never abandon this way without abandoning itself.
In so far as methodology is concerned it would be hard to exaggerate the importance of this discovery for philosophical research, as indeed also for human knowledge in general. Is it to be feared that by favoring the philosophy of Saint Thomas one will undermine the right to exist that is enjoyed by different cultures or hinder the progress of human thought? Such a fear would clearly be groundless because the methodological principle invoked above implies that whatever is real has its source in the act of being (actus essendi);  and because the perennial philosophy, by reason of that principle, can claim in advance, so to speak, all that is true in regard to reality. By the same token, every understanding of reality—which does in fact correspond to reality—has every right to be accepted by the philosophy of being, no matter who is to be credited with such progress in understanding or to what philosophical school that person belongs. Hence, the other trends in philosophy, if regarded from this point of view, can and indeed should be treated as natural allies of the philosophy of Saint Thomas, and as partners worthy of attention and respect in the dialogue that is carried on in the presence of reality. This is needed if truth is to be more than partial or one-sided. That is why the advice given by Saint Thomas to his followers: “look rather to what was said than to who it was that said it” (ne respicias a quo sed quod dicitur), is so much in keeping with the spirit of his philosophy.

(For the quotation, see John Paul II, “Address at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas—the Angelicum—in Rome,” 17 November 1979, Acta Apostolicae Sedis 71 [1979]: 1472-1483; trans. Angelicum 57 [1980]: 133-146.)

Endorsement and laudatory words directed towards a philosophical system such as the ones just presented are rare. With unmistakable clarity John Paul II has directed attention towards the methodology of the actus essendi. Statements of comparable strength have been expressed after the publication of the Pope’s insights. Commenting on John Paul II’s remarks at the Angelicum, Ambrose McNicholl, for example, says:

The reflections . . . put forward in so concise a fashion [by John Paul II], equip the reader to approach what must be the most commonly heard, if not also the most obvious, objection against any special favor being shown . . . to any particular system of thought. To act in this way, it is felt . . . would block enquiry along other lines or from different perspectives; it would rule out . . . [the] pluralism which is implied in the factual diversity of cultures, since it would tie [thought] . . . too closely to one particular cultural tradition.

After pointing out that it was not possible for John Paul II to address in one speech all the aspects of this problem, McNicholl continues:

[John Paul II] goes straight to the main point at issue by noting that the philosophy of Saint Thomas differs from all others by its basic insight that the key to the full and proper understanding of reality is to be found in the actus essendi . . . It is the peculiarity of esse (and of being in so far as it signifies esse) that it is at one and the same time the most universal and yet the most singular and concrete characteristic of all that is real. Everything that is real exists, but in every existing thing that which is unique and most fully singular in it is its actus essendi.
That is why the Pope can state that such philosophy is rightfully able to claim as its own all that can be known through other approaches to reality; and that, in the same way, all the truths which men can learn about reality can claim right of entry into such all-embracing philosophy. This philosophy therefore does not exclude other approaches which uncover different aspects of reality. It does indeed regard them as insufficient of themselves, as partial and inadequate, if put forward as complete philosophies; but it can regard them as common allies and partners in the concerted effort of mankind to understand reality from every point of view.
A philosophy centered on this actuality is open, in principle, to accept all that any other philosophy can discover about the more limited aspects of reality which it takes to be fundamental; and only a philosophy so centered is capable of such universal assimilation.

(For the quotation, see Ambrose McNicholl, “A Chant in Praise of What is,” Angelicum 57 [1980]: 172-196.)

The underlying question remains, however: Why is the methodology of the actus essendi said to be normative of thinking in a fundamental way? An image from C. S. Lewis should prove helpful here. It is the story of an aborigine who, “having learned several other languages, was asked to write a grammar of the language used by his own tribe. He replied, after some thought, that it had no grammar. The grammar he had used all his life had escaped his notice all his life. He knew it—in one sense—so well, that—in another sense—he did not know it existed” (C. S. Lewis, Miracles, [New York: Macmillan, 1978], 40-41).

This example illustrates how the methodology of the actus essendi operates. Concerning this methodology, the essentials are so basic that they tend to remain unnoticed and generally what one expresses does not reflect the richness and fullness of what is implied. The act of being (actus essendi) inherent to the subsisting sensible things of nature is constantly making an impact on the intellectual faculty of human beings. The intellect’s response to that impact is knowledge, but not explicit knowledge. The intellect’s response to that impact grows as a personal possession of an implied, non-explicit, intellectual habit. The proper content of this natural habit is given by the actuality in being of the subsisting things of nature in such a way that without explicitly thinking about it—even without ever explicitly thinking about it—you and I and everyone knows that actuality in being cannot be affirmed and denied at the same time. This is the intellectual habit generated by the actus essendi. The habitual intellectual knowledge caused by the actus essendi is the most obvious and primary intellectual habit there is in the human being’s intellect. Take away this habit and there is no foundation for human knowledge at all. And yet, this is precisely the habit that is most easily forgotten—“forgotten not because it is so remote or abstruse but because it is so near and so obvious” that we don’t even know it exists.

(For the quotation, see C. S. Lewis, Miracles [New York: Macmillan, 1978], 40-41. For more on the dynamism of the actus essendi, see my Actus Essendi and the Habit of the First Principle in Thomas Aquinas [New York: Einsiedler Press, 2019].)

While the elegance, beauty, awesomeness, and accuracy of scientific findings are established accomplishments, what needs to be proclaimed is that philosophical reflection is not a turbulent sea without a landmark. True knowledge mirrors the order of the subsisting things of nature and the dynamism of the actus essendi dictates that a normative nonscientific priority must be given to the voice of the subsisting things of nature.