Monday, 3 May 2010

Question 13 - Talking About God

Why this Question Matters.

In the previous question Aquinas has argued that we can know God, in various different sorts of ways. He now turns to the question of how we can talk about God. That God is talked about is undeniably true, for example in Scripture. However, how can we know that our talk about God is not simply nonsense? If it is not nonsense, in what way are the things we say about God true, especially given the radical difference between us and God? In this question, Aquinas will introduce the very important idea of analogical predication. That is, in talking about God the words that we use are not used in the same way as we use them when we talk about created things, nor are they used in a completely different way; our talk about God uses words in analogy to the way we use them when talking about created things.


The Thread of the Argument

A1. The words that we have to describe things and the way that they are put together in language would appear to derive primarily from our perceptions of created reality. Does it make any sense to try and apply words to such a transcendental thing as God? The objections of this article focus in on the different functions that words have in language and argue that such functions make no sense when one attempts to apply them to God. In particular, each in turn of abstract and concrete nouns, verbs, participles and pronouns, as they are ordinarily used in language cannot be used to describe God.

Aquinas, following Aristotle, points out that we use words to designate thoughts and that these thoughts designate things; therefore words refer to things that are known. In the previous questions he has already shown that we can know God to a certain extent, therefore we can use words to describe this limited understanding of God. However, we cannot use words to express the divine essence as it is in itself.

In the reply to the objections, Aquinas returns to the fact that we know God through his creatures. We use concrete nouns to refer to concrete things that are composites of matter and form and we use abstract nouns to refer to forms. When we use nouns to talk about God we use them in a way an analogous to this. In a similar way, Aquinas goes through the other parts of speech indicating the senses in which they are used of God.

A2. Having shown that it makes some sense to use words in describing God, Aquinas now turns to the question of whether we can talk about God's substance, i.e. what He is in himself. Aquinas immediately asserts that there is no problem in describing what God is not, or in describing the relationship of creatures to God. What he wants to know is what it means when we say things like “God is good” or that “God is wise”. He is keen to deny interpretations of such phrases that dilute their strength. So he will not accept that such positive attributions are actually to be interpreted as negative statements; nor will he accept that they indicate relationships to creatures. In particular, he will not accept that saying things like “God is good” is equivalent to saying that God is the cause of goodness in other things; the latter is true, but it does not capture the meaning of the original assertion.

Aquinas's solution is that such statements do talk about God's substance but that they do it in an inadequate way. As before, he claims that we know God through His creatures and that creatures resemble Him in the way that effects resemble their causes. However, as this resemblance is imperfect the words we use of God can form true assertions, but ones that don’t capture the fullness of God’s substance. So when we say “God is good” we are really asserting that goodness exists in God in a higher way than it exists in us. We describe goodness as it is known to exist in us as caused by God and apply it as a true but inadequate representation of how it exists in that cause.

A3. We can talk about God using words; we can say things that are true about Him, but our use of language to talk about God will always be imperfect. In this and the next few articles Aquinas enquires in more detail into how language functions when we talk about God. In this article Aquinas is concerned with whether we are always stuck in the realm of the metaphorical when we talk about God, or whether we can we say things of him literally.

Aquinas’s position is subtle. When we say that “God is good” we are speaking the literal truth about God. However, our notion of the good is derived from the good we see in creatures, and the goodness of God far exceeds that. So when we describe God as good, the word “good” that we're using in the sentence does not adequately point at the goodness of God himself. It is as if the sentence itself is literally true but the words in the sentence are mere shadows of what they really should be. In fact, words like “good” are most appropriately associated with God and only secondarily associated with creatures; we only have a limited understanding of what such words mean.

A4. The next article deals with a question that is really quite subtle and awkward for anyone who wishes to claim that we can talk about God. God is entirely simple and therefore anything truly predicated of him is identical with his essence: God's goodness is his essence; God's strength is his essence; and so on. Therefore it would seem that anything we truly say of him is a synonym for anything else we say of him.

The objections attempt to head off any reply that might simply suggest that we describe him from different points of view. To illustrate this, consider looking at a physical object like a vase from different points of view. When we look at one side of the vase we see something different from when we look at another side of it. We may build up a mental picture of the object based on these different points of view, but the different points of view themselves are of genuinely different aspects of the object. If God is entirely simple then our so-called different points of view of Him are not different at all as far as He is concerned. We’re simply using different words to describe exactly the same thing. Frankly, this is a waste of breath.

Aquinas will have none of this: we know God through creatures, and we know God's perfections as they are divided up in many and various ways in the perfections of creatures. We describe God through those perfections which are each imperfect realizations of God’s perfections, imperfect each in their own way. Those different perfections are not described by synonyms even though they derive from a perfectly simple being. The different points of view are not useless because they each represent the single reality in a different imperfect but complementary way. If we take the example of the vase, it is as though we were viewing it every time from the same place, but with different colours of light and with different resolution. We would see the same thing but imperfectly each time; the complementary imperfections would lead to complementary true and non-synonymous descriptions of what we saw.

A5. We use a term univocally when the term has a single meaning; we use it equivocally when it has different meanings according to context. So we can use a word like “bark” univocally when we speak of this dog barking and then that dog barking. We can use it equivocally when we first talk about the bark of a dog and then about the bark of a tree. We have seen that our use of words is derived from our knowledge of creatures. So when we use these same words to talk about God are we using them univocally or equivocally? In other words, do words have the same meanings when talking about God and about creatures or do they rather have completely different meanings?

If we were talking equivocally about God it would seem that there would be no resemblance between God and his creatures, which would contradict the fact that we know God through his creatures. So it would therefore seem that we must be talking about God univocally. However, we simply do not use words in the same way about God as we use them about creatures, as we have seen above, so we must be talking about God equivocally. These two lines of reasoning contradict each other.

Aquinas's answer is to observe that the use of words is not exhausted by the univocal and the equivocal. We also frequently use words in an analogical way; for example, when we describe a diet as healthy. By this we do not mean that a certain plate of food can run a mile in under six minutes and has an appropriate blood pressure; we mean that it is a plate of food conducive the health of the one who eats it. The analogical use of the word is derived from some primary use; there is certain order or relationship between them. When we use words about God and about creatures Aquinas claims that we use them in such an analogical way. That is, the words that we use to describe creatures are used to describe God in a way that mirrors the imperfect resemblance between creatures and God.

In the reply to the first objection, Aquinas extends the ideas of the univocal, the equivocal and the analogical to the case of causes, extending what he said in Ia.q6.a1. In general, a univocal cause is one that transmits its nature to its effects. So, for example, parents transmit human nature to their children. On the other hand, a non-univocal cause is different in nature from its effects; the sun is the cause of life on earth but we are not balls of fusing hydrogen. However, when we consider God as universal cause of all creatures, we should not think of Him as being a wholly equivocal cause, as we do resemble Him in some ways. It makes more sense to think of Him as an analogical cause, in that His creatures do resemble him, albeit imperfectly.

A6. In the third article, Aquinas suggested that as far as the words used to describe perfections are concerned, they are used primarily of God and only secondarily of creatures. In this article Aquinas goes further and discusses which classes of words are primarily used of creatures (and secondarily of God) and which are primarily used of God (and secondarily of creatures).

Aquinas starts by elaborating on what he said about the analogical use of language in the previous article. In order to understand the analogical use of a word in describing something, firstly you have to understand how the word is used of the central thing to which it refers. All analogical usage of a word flows from the ordering it has to some central meaning; the primary application of the word is to this central thing. So, for example, to understand the analogical use of the word “healthy” when applied to urine or to diet, one has first to understand how these usages relate to the health of an animal. Then one realizes that “healthy urine” refers to something diagnostic of good health and that a “healthy diet” is something that promotes good health.

Turning back to the issue under study in this article, Aquinas can now argue that when we speak metaphorically of God, the words used apply primarily to creatures and secondarily to God. On the other hand, when we talk literally but analogically about God, the words used apply primarily to God and secondarily to creatures. The central meanings of these analogical terms refer to God, as He is the eminent exemplar of all these properties.

A7. God does not exist in time; his existence is eternal. So what sense can we make of statements involving God and temporal succession? For example, when we say that “God is Lord of all” we might infer that there must be things for God to be Lord of. These things are things created by God that had to come into existence at some point in time. Some of them may go out of existence at some other point in time. What this statement appears to set up is some kind of relation between God and His creatures that changes over time. This might begin to make us nervous, because it appears to be attributing change in something to do with God; we might prefer to say that “God is Lord of all” actually applies from eternity and does not imply temporal succession.

So, in order to answer this question, Aquinas has to start off with a technical discussion of what appears to be a completely different subject; he considers the notion of a relation. He has to do this because temporal statements about God are really about the relations between God and things that exist in time. Aquinas is returning to unfinished business from Ia.q10.

We are well acquainted with relations in real life: “I am the father of my son”; “that chair is to the left of the table”; “those two animals are both cats”. Each of these sentences indicates a relationship between things. Aquinas, being a good Aristotelian, is committed to the idea that some relations at least can be considered to involve real existence. He goes through three possibilities. In the first case, some relations need not reflect any reality in the things that are related. For example, all the pieces of furniture in the left half of this room are related by that fact, but this does not reflect anything in the pieces of furniture themselves but merely how I've arranged them. In the second case, some relations exist because of a reality in all the objects that are related. I am the father of my son, and this relation exists because of realities that are true of my son and of me. Finally, it is possible for a relation to exist because of something real in one object alone. We can talk about the right-hand side of a column, for example, because it is on the right-hand side of me. But if I were to turn around, what had formerly been the right-hand side of the column would now be the left-hand side. Nothing has changed in the column; the change has been in me. Similarly, if I am thinking about my mug of coffee, this expresses a fact about me but nothing about the mug of coffee.

At the end of this discussion about relations, Aquinas reaches the punch line: since God is altogether outside the order of creatures, being related to God is a reality in creatures but being related to creatures is not a reality in God. This is because a real relation that God has with a creature would have to be an accident in God; but we know there are no accidents in God because he is entirely simple.

Finally Aquinas applies this discussion to the original question about time. We can talk about relationships that God has with creatures that involve change and temporal sequence; but not because there is any change in Him but because there is change in the creatures. This means that such of talk about God is consistent with God being unchangeable, which was discussed in Ia.q9.

The objections and the replies to these objections go through a series of examples illustrating how we are to understand this notion of temporal relation in respect to God. For example, “God is Lord” can quite reasonably be understood as a temporal statement as long as the relations with creatures described above are understood correctly. It is also quite reasonable to understand it as eternally true in that it describes something about what God is essentially in order that He could be Lord of creatures.

A8. Aquinas asks whether the word “God” is the name of a nature. The objections suggest that etymologically the word is derived from meanings that point to activity, so that the word “God” must itself name an activity rather than a nature. Also, since we don't know what God's nature is we can't really name it.

Aquinas's answer is that language is more complicated than the objections would allow. He takes the simple example of a rock, pointing out that the word “rock” signifies what the rock is rather than what the rock does, after having claimed that we derive the word “rock” (in Latin) from what it does. Similarly, he admits that we don't know what God's nature is but he denies that we can't use a word to point to it. We understand the nature of things by abstracting from their properties and from their effects; our language would surely be impoverished if we were not able to name the abstraction even if it was partial and contingent.

A9. Should we reserve the name “God” for God alone? Aquinas makes a number of distinctions in the way that we use names. For example, he makes a distinction between the proper and the metaphorical use of a name. “He is a lion”, for example, could mean that he is in fact a large fierce feline animal, or it could refer to the fact that someone is brave.

A further distinction is between names that can apply to many individuals (there are many lions, for example) and those that are not (for example, a proper name like Achilles). Proper names like Achilles can only be used of other individuals in a metaphorical way as when we want to indicate that some of the attributes of the individual apply to someone else. For names that can apply to many individuals, even when we know of only one example of something, we can abstract its form and hypothesize other exemplars of the form. Aquinas suggests the example of the sun for such an individual, which is rather nice because we do now know of other examples of stars!

Aquinas argues that the word “God” is an example of a name that can only properly apply to one individual. “God” signifies the divine nature, and there's only one of them. However, this does not stop us using the word “God” metaphorically in certain contexts.

A10. Having discussed the proper and the metaphorical use of the name “God”, it should come as no surprise that Aquinas now turns to its univocal and analogical uses. When one person who has a correct understanding of the term “God” is arguing with another who has a faulty understanding are their usages of the word “God” univocal? Similarly, if we use the word “God” to refer to things that in some way share in divinity as well as for the divine nature itself, are we speaking univocally?

Aquinas answers that, in these cases, the word “God” is being used analogically. In the first case the one with a faulty understanding of God is using the word “God” analogically with respect to the true meaning of the term. For the second example, those things that have some share in the divine nature are referred to as “God” analogically. We have to recall, from the sixth article, that the analogical use of terms is founded upon the relation of the analogical use to the central use. In this case, the central use of the term refers to the divine substance; therefore all uses of the term that do not refer to the divine substance are analogical uses.

Notice in this article that there are three objections and yet five replies to the objections! Aquinas uses the last two replies to the objections to continue the discussion started in the sed contra.

A11. The Tetragrammaton, which is often translated He who is, is used as a name for God in Exodus. Is it the most appropriate name for Him? Aquinas argues that it is and gives three reasons for considering it as such.

Firstly, the name doesn't point to any particular thing but simply to existence itself. If we recall that Aquinas has already established God to be self-subsistence existence in Ia.q3.a4, then we see that such a name is the most appropriate for God. The second argument observes that this is about as general a name as a name can be and therefore restricts its subject in as minimal a way as possible. As we cannot, in this life, grasp what God is in Himself then a name like this is the most appropriate for God. Finally, the name points to being in the present; this gives us a hint of His eternity.

A12. The final article in this question returns to the theme of how we can say things about God when the terms we use in our propositions derive their meaning from created reality which is so different from Him. In particular, we may be happy in formulating what God is not, but how can we make affirmative propositions about Him?

For example, in a sentence that involves a subject and predicate we tend to understand the predicate in terms of a form, and the subject in terms of the thing that has the form. In a sentence like “God is such-and-such”, the subject is purely simple and the attribution of the form “such and such” to God would seem to contradict that simplicity as it appears to attribute composition to God. (He is this and He is that and He is the other appears to make Him a composite of this, that and the other.)

On the other hand, there are affirmative statements of the faith such as “God is three persons in one substance” that must be taken both as being meaningful and as true.

Aquinas acknowledges the difficulty but insists that such sentences can be considered true in the sense that they allow us to consider God through a number of different concepts. Even though God is simple, and therefore any true statement about His substance must refer to the same thing, the subject/predicate structure of an affirmative proposition allows us to think about God in a particular way. It is as if teasing the subject and predicate apart in the proposition allows us to represent different ways of thinking about God; whilst having the subject and predicate together in an affirmative proposition represents His unity.

If we take a series of affirmative propositions as meaning that there is a composition in God, then we would be falling into error. But we must differentiate between thinking that “He is this and He is that and He is the other” as a composition and “we can think of Him as this and we can think of Him as that and we can think of Him as the other”.


Summary & Handy Concepts

  • Words designate thoughts and thoughts designate things. So, insofar as we can have some understanding of God, we can express our thoughts about Him in words. These words do not point directly at the substance of God, though.
  • When we do talk about God literally (as in “God is good”) we do so in an imperfect way and the words we use are used in analogy of God’s perfection with respect to the terms we use.
  • We describe God’s perfections using words derived from the perfections of creatures. These terms each give us an imperfect but complementary view of God’s perfections and therefore they are not all synonymous.
  • Terms can be used univocally, equivocally or analogically. When we are not talking metaphorically about God, we predicate terms analogically of Him.
  • Causation can be thought of in terms of the univocal, the equivocal and the analogical causes. We should think of God’s causation as analogical as, although He does not cause what is like Him, some things He causes bear a resemblance to Him.
  • The fifth article refers to the fallacy of equivocation. Here is an example of such a fallacy: “all pigs are kept in pens, pens are something to write with, and therefore all pigs are kept in something to write with”.
  • When we speak metaphorically of God the terms used apply primarily to creatures and only secondarily to God. On the other hand, when we speak analogically of God the terms used apply primarily to God and secondarily to creatures.
  • We can make temporal statements about God that make sense as long as we remember that these define relations in creatures but not in God.
  • The notion of relation discussed in the seventh article will be very important when we come to consider God as Trinity later in the summa.
  • The name “God” names a nature that truly applies only to God alone; the name “He who is” is the most appropriate for God.
  • Faulty uses of the term “God” use it in analogy to the correct usage.
  • Although they are imperfect, we can make affirmative statements about God.


Revised 11/04/12

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