To support his atheism, Bertrand Russell proposed the analogy of a celestial teapot. He noted that the burden of proof is not on the skeptic of the claim that there is a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. The burden of proof is on the proponent who claims that the teapot is there, but there is no way of detecting it. It is implied that belief in God is comparable to belief in a celestial teapot.
The hiddenness of God is a similar argument. If God were an all-powerful being, who expected men to acknowledge him as such, and if he existed, he would make his existence apparent. He would not be hidden.
Both of these contentions about God imply that the existence of God ought to be manifest in the same way that the existence of a material thing is manifest to us.
The Catechism notes that grace is supernatural to the life of men. Consequently, we can have no immediate or direct knowledge of grace in this life (CCC 2005). Nevertheless, we can know of the existence of God and of many of his attributes through natural human knowledge of material things, i.e. through the knowledge of created things (CCC 286).
In acquiring such natural or philosophical knowledge, it doesn’t hurt to have revealed knowledge of them. Revelation is like having the answers to problems in mathematics at the end of the chapter. It can be a lot easier to figure out the rationale if one already knows the correct conclusion.
Ironically, the arguments above — that the existence of God is undetectable and that God is hidden — are not primarily a misunderstanding of God and the immaterial. Rather, they are primarily a misunderstanding of material things and our knowledge of them.
Knowledge of the Existence of Things
Human knowledge of things is a posteriori or through the fact. It is attained through experience. No human ever had a truly creative thought.
If I were to say, ‘There is a skunk under the porch’, it would not be a creative fiat bringing the skunk into existence. My declaration of the existence of the skunk would be based on my prior knowledge of skunks and my present smelling of the odor. Similarly, predictions in theoretical physics are extrapolations and interpolations. As such, they are expressions of what is already known through experience.
Due to the lack of creativity of humans, there can be no such thing as a unicorn, outside of cut and paste art. We know of the existence of koala bears, even if only from videos of them. But their existence requires more than their being photogenic. It requires a completely specified biology. In contrast, our knowledge of them is never that complete. It may be nothing more than direct visual apprehension of one koala bear.
Humans are no more capable of inventing ex nihilo the nature of a material being then they are of bringing a material being into existence. However, we can cut and paste in art. We may choose to call such art creativity.
Human intellectual knowledge of the existence of entities is ultimately dependent upon sense experience of the existence of material things.
Human Intellectual Knowledge Is Beyond Sense Knowledge
Having known one specific human being through sense knowledge, I can recognize another intellectually, i.e. generically, as human when I apprehend another specific human through sensation.
The ancient Greek philosophers recognized a dilemma: intellectual knowledge is fundamentally different from sense knowledge. Sense knowledge, being material is always specific. In contrast, intellectual knowledge is not specific, but generic. Consequently, intellectual knowledge cannot be material, even though it may be of material things.
Aristotle solved the dilemma by inferring that material things are composites of two principles. One principle, matter, is existential and specifying in every detail. The other principle is immaterial, a generic substantial form. The human mind has the power to abstract the generic immaterial principle from the composite, which composite is an entity.
Ideas Cannot Be Hidden
If Russell’s teapot is inferred to be a material thing with no material properties, it would be a self-contradiction. If it is inferred to be a material thing that is humanly undetectable given the present state of the art of instrumental detection, the existence of the teapot would require of humans nothing in practice.
In contrast to material things, which are external, ideas are personal to the individual. It is the individual mind which has the power to possess the abstracted substantial form. You cannot hide your ideas from yourself, whether they be of a substantial form or a conclusion of a rationale.
Education is individual. It is assistance in the forming of one’s own ideas. Education is based on the fact that we can possess generic ideas in common in spite of the variety in our specific material experiences.
One may not have yet reasoned to the existence of God, but it is not due to any obscurity or hiddenness, characteristic of God. It is due to the nature of human intellectual knowledge in its extrinsic dependence upon sense knowledge.
God can be known by his effects, just as I would know a skunk, if my first ever apprehension of a skunk was not visual but solely its odor. St. Paul says this somewhat more elegantly, “Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made.” (Rom 1:20).
Most Material Things Are Hidden
Humans can possess the same intellectual knowledge. They possess similar, but not the same sense knowledge. You and I possess the same idea of dog. However, our sense experiences of dogs differ.
Also, the more complete is my sense experience of this dog at this moment, the less it can be of another dog. Material characteristics in the dog itself are exclusive. If the dog has the material characteristics of a poodle, it cannot have the material characteristics of a St. Bernard. It is because of the specificity and exclusivity of material properties in material things and in our sense knowledge of them that material things can be hidden.
Most material things are hidden. Everyone has extremely limited sense knowledge. Very few of us have sense knowledge of the same material entities. I probably have never sensed a dog that you have sensed. About the only materiel that both you and I have sensed are the sun and the moon. The vast majority of material things are hidden from you and me as objects of knowledge through sensation.
The adage, ‘Out of sight, out of mind’, implies the extrinsic dependence of human intellectual knowledge upon sense knowledge. The analogous phrase for sense knowledge would be, ‘Out of sight, out of visual sensation’. This implies the intrinsic dependence of sense knowledge on the material existence of the specific object of sense knowledge.
The extinction of all skunks, would not affect the intellectual knowledge of skunk, which is generic and immaterial. The extinction of all skunks would preclude the immediate sense knowledge of skunk.
Natural Knowledge of God
We know God as the creator of material things. We know of The Cause of Existence through its effects, namely the existence of material things.
We know of the existence of material things through immediate sense knowledge of them. Each material entity is fully explained by its generic nature or substantial form, combined with its specificity due to materiality, with one exception. Its existence is still lacking explanation.
A skunk, e.g., in its nature is indifferent to existence. Its existence and consequently its intelligibility can only be explained by another being, which other being explains its own existence in the identity of its nature and its existence as ‘I Am’.
All material things are hidden to us, except for those currently being sensed by us. Hiddenness cannot be said of God, because we know of the existence of God, through the existence of whatever material thing is currently present to us through sense knowledge.