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Science, Prayer, and the Density of Being

(Image: Jason Strull/

The other night, I watched a few minutes of the comedian Ricky Gervais’s new comedy show. Early in, he does a bit about his atheism and his willingness nonetheless to abide expressions of religious devotion. By way of example, he says,

. . . if one of my family is very ill, they say, “I’ll pray for them.” I say, “Thanks very much,” ‘cause it’s a nice gesture. If they say, “We also canceled the chemotherapy,” I’d go, “Don’t do that. Don’t do that . . . Let’s do the praying and the chemotherapy, shall we?”

Gervais’s audience laughs, but most people would not find this a very perceptive bit of humor. Who exactly are these religious persons who think that prayer should be a substitute for medicine and that the two are somehow mutually exclusive? Surely such people exist somewhere, but Gervais’s joke will only be funny if it applies to the people who pray whom we actually know.

Hearing this, I was reminded of another of Gervais’s comments, made years ago, to the effect that he and Christians agree on almost everything. We all believe in this being and that being. There’s only one being we don’t both believe in and that is God. Christians simply believe in one more being than Gervais does.

I recall these moments not specifically to refute them. Gervais is a comedian and one whom I often appreciate; his words are humor even if they contain arguments. Nevertheless these two of his comments both struck me because they are exemplary of two distinctly modern assumptions that stand athwart what Christians actually believe and what, indeed, much of the world has always believed, including those classical pagan ancestors, Aristotle and Plato, who helped human beings to acquire a scientific knowledge of reality.

In Gervais’ first comment, he seems to assume that the causes of things must be singular and so multiple claims about causes must be mutually exclusive, with one being true and the other false. Either chemotherapy effects a cure or prayer does. There can only be one cause of an effect in the world, he indicates, and the material cause—the action of one material thing on another—will always be that cause.

This was a widespread assumption among the early modern philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes, who by very different paths concluded that we know the full truth about something when we know the mechanical, the material, process by which it has come to be. Everything outside this mechanistic functioning is merely something in the mind, subjective, and so not explanatory of what is real. E.F. Schumacher once named this assumption as the philosophy of the “nothing but”: what appears rich in reality is really “nothing but a slight extension” of some simpler, material being. Those who make such a reduction effectively proclaim a dog is “a barking plant or a running cabbage,” and that human beings are nothing but “naked apes.”

In the comic’s second comment, many people will hear an echo of the late mediaeval scholastic idea that being—all that is real—is univocal. The being of a smile, a rabbit, and God are all beings essentially of the same kind. They may differ, but not in their being. If, on this premise, God exists, then God would be simply one more being in a world of beings. If many of the great modern thinkers reduced causality to “nothing but” the actions of matter upon other matter, behind that claim lay this earlier, medieval notion that all being is “just” being.

The ancient and the modern world both agree that “science” is the knowledge of the cause of a thing. Where they sometimes part company is that the most influential modern thinkers accept only one cause—the material—to the exclusion of all else, such that to know how matter works on other matter is to possess the full science of reality. The ancients were familiar with such materialism but found it preposterous. As Aristotle once put it, materialism assumes that a house is because it has thick walls, whereas it is obvious that houses have thick walls—their material cause—only because those walls serve a purpose—what he calls the final cause—of supporting the roof, and the roof and walls in turn are only because they serve the purpose of providing shelter to human beings. Matter does not exhaust the definition of the nature of house; in fact, matter is the least informative explanation of the cause of a house. The most informative is the final cause, the why, of the house’s being.

We all live in a world of prayer and chemotherapy, as it were, because reality must be understood not in terms of one cause alone but in terms of multiple. We live in a world where God is not “just one more being,” because being itself is not univocal, but analogous, that is, beings are in myriad different ways. It means something radically different for a dog to be and for God to be: a dog is a being, Thomas Aquinas would say, but God is Being Itself. The word “being” is used in both phrases and the meaning of that word in one phrase is not utterly alien to its use in the other, but the words are not, on the whole, being used in the same way.

The great minds of our tradition have provided us at least three ways to arrive at some science of the multi-causal, multi-variously analogous nature of reality, each of which helps us to move from wonder to understanding and, beyond understanding, to still deeper wonder. I wish to describe each of those ways briefly. They are the four causes, the four senses of things, and the four transcendental properties of being. While Gervais seems to reduce the world to some one thing—material being—I propose that, since three times four is twelve, that the world must be understood as being at least twelve times as dense or rich as Gervais takes it to be.

Aristotle gave us a means to perceive this richness of being when, in the process of inventing the science of Physics, he articulated the four causes of all changeable or natural being. To understand—to have the science of—something, you have to know what it’s made of (the material cause), what brought it into being (the efficient cause), what it is essentially or intelligibly (the formal cause), and—governing all of these—what purpose it serves (the final cause). Contrary to the modern philosophers, we do not understand something when we know its matter—that human beings are flesh and bone, for instance. For if bone is our matter, bone is also a kind of form whose material cause is a number of proteins, and those proteins are forms whose materials are a number of elements—and so on. All these material and formal causes hold together only in their composite realization of some purpose: they exist for something; they have a final cause. Saint Thomas Aquinas extended Aristotle’s theory of the four causes to show us that they help us to understand not only changeable being, but the eternal being of God himself.

The four causes alone, however, do not explain all of reality. Beyond the causality of what things are, there is the significance of what things mean. Everything that is has what the great poet Dante called a “polysemous” quality to it. Everything that is means, or signifies, in multiple ways.

Christians initially articulated this multiplicity of meaning to explain to themselves how Holy Scripture communicates. Scripture has four senses: it has a literal sense, but also three spiritual senses: the allegorical, moral, and anagogical (CCC 118). Scripture’s literal sense is whatever the author of the work intended; but authors’ intensions do not exhaust the meaning of their own work. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit can invest those same words with spiritual figurations of other significance. Any given verse may speak to us of the nature of Christ (the allegorical sense), the form of Christian life (the moral sense), and of the full unfolding of God’s providence (the anagogical sense).

Christians had a special impetus to understand the polysemous nature of things, because of the need to perceive the depths of meaning found in scripture. They had also an impetus to theorize the multiplicity of meaning present in things as they struggled to grasp the fact of the Incarnation—that Christ could be both God and man—and the reality of the sacraments—that, above all, the Eucharist could at once be the appearance of bread and wine and the substance of Christ’s spiritual body and blood. If Christians therefore had distinctive reasons to theorize and organize their understanding of how any one thing is a sign of multiple things, people of every age and culture have nonetheless recognized that nothing only means one thing, that meaning is always multiple. Not only Scripture, not only books and works of human genius, but the great book of the world is steeped deeply in intelligibility such that the sense of things is always multiple.

Nothing is ever just itself. Even rocks and stones have vast landscapes of meaning hidden within themselves. This is what the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins meant, when he spoke of the “inscape” of things: the interior significance hidden within the physical appearance of things.

Children often stand in wonder at the apparent strangeness of things, as my children did recently at the iridescence of a dead snake in our backyard, but children also grow bored of things quickly, because they often only perceive appearances. Adults more frequently find things endlessly fascinating, they seem to talk things to death, because the more they turn something around in their minds, the more significance they discover within it. This is why Aristotle recommended philosophy as a study for the old. Younger souls wonder more spontaneously, but older souls wonder more deeply.

The four causes and the four senses woven into the fabric of reality are rooted fundamentally in another set of four: the four transcendental properties of being. The idea of the transcendental properties was only expressed in the medieval world, but it was in de facto use in ancient pagan thought as well. We might briefly describe the idea in this way. Being as the sole principle of reality: only being is real and everything that is real is in some sense a being. But if being is the one reality, it bears within itself a multiplicity of properties, the four most important of which are oneness, truth, goodness, and beauty.

Oneness or unity may seem obvious: everything that is a being is one being. Wholes constitute real unities that may comprehend multiple parts but are not reducible to them. I may be made of a multiplicity of atoms, but I am still one person and one being. When we perceive the oneness of a being we are also moving toward perceiving the truth about what it is. So all beings also are true. Truth follows from oneness. But recall what Aristotle says about the causes: we really only have scientific knowledge about things when we know what they are for. Because the truth about something must be understood in terms of its causes, and the final cause—the purpose of its being—is the most important one, all beings are also good. If we could not perceive goodness in things, we could not perceive the truth about them either. Goodness must therefore be the third property common to all beings.

Human beings delight in learning and knowing. We wonder about things by nature, and we naturally feel joy, when that wonder is answered by the world with knowledge that gives us science or understanding. We may ask: why do we like to know the causes of things? Why do we appreciate learning the multiple senses of things? Why, when we perceive even the oneness of things, the truth of things, the goodness of things—why do we feel joy?

The answer, and it is an answer as old and older than Aristotle, is that, when we perceive reality as a multiplicity in unity, an intricate and various but ordered whole, we perceive a reality that is more than the sum of its parts. It is a whole, it has a form, but that form seems endless, infinite, and inexhaustible. What we see then is the radiance or splendor of being. Form and splendor, Plato first told us, is beauty. The four causes, the four senses, the transcendental properties of being themselves find their justification and their total gratuitousness in the beauty of being. Beauty is the fourth transcendental property of being that explains everything else about reality.

Why are things the way they are? Why do we enjoy learning about them? The answer is simple: for the beauty of it.

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