Truth is what is. Truth is the real.
We error-prone and sometimes reality-denying human beings have the truth when what we think about corresponds to what is real. So for us, truth is the correspondence of mind to reality.
We would like to know things for sure. How can we be confident? Thomas Aquinas (ST, II, II, q. 1., a 2) in his typically brilliant fashion gives us four levels of certainty. It is good to know clearly what we mean when we say we doubt something or we have an opinion about something or that we believe something. A fourth kind of certainty has for us modern folk a strange and misleading name: science.
We propose to ourselves, or others propose to us, all kinds of statements about reality. Here are some:
- God exists.
- That is a piece of Bazooka Bubble Gum.
- Lying is wrong.
- She’s not in love with me.
When I look at a little red, white, and blue wrapped rectangle and say, “That is a piece of Bazooka,” I am making a judgment. The judgment is what we want to be true, that is, to correspond to reality.
Let’s look at “God exists.” Either God exists or he does not exist. What you judge about the proposition “God exists” has no effect on what is being proposed. Your thinking does not make God exist or not exist.
I have doubt that God exists when I don’t have any more reasons in favor of God existing than of God not existing. I may want God to exist (because otherwise the universe cares nothing for me and will kill me forever), but if I am an honest doubter I can’t claim he does. I may want God not to exist (so I am free to do whatever I want), but if I’m in doubt I really can’t judge he is not.
One big problem here is that we human beings have a great talent for rationalizing. That is, we make a decision and then come up with reasons why we are right.
The common meaning of agnostic is someone who has doubt whether or not God exists. But strictly speaking, we can be and probably should be agnostic about many things.
I have opinion that God exists when I have enough reasons to think God exists but I still have some fear or doubt that God might not be. Note that this use of the word opinion is different than the use of the word as preference, as in Chocolate Toasted Almond Coconut ice cream is better than Peaches ‘n Cream ice cream. Dictionary.com actually has a pretty good definition of opinion in Thomas’ sense: “a belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.”
Thomas’ notion of opinion is akin to the modern judicial test of preponderance of the evidence. When most of the evidence points to guilt, the jury is supposed to find the defendant guilty. If not, the defendant is to be found not guilty.
It is probably the case for many of us that when it comes to our rational understanding, our opinion, based on good reasons, is that God exists. But we may also, based on other reasons, have the fear that maybe he does not.
Now we come to the tricky part, science.
When we hear the world “science” today we almost always think of natural or empirical science. People in white coats looking at test tubes. One exception might be when someone asks whether something, like teaching, is an art or a science.
Before natural science took over the word, the concept science meant knowing something by knowing its cause or causes. Aristotle said you fully know the why of something when you know what it is made of, how it’s parts are arranged, what makes it to be the way it is, and what it is directed toward.
For example, I can know this round object is a baseball when I know:
- that it is made of leather, yarn, string, rubber, cork, and adhesive (its material cause);
- that these materials are arranged as a round cork core covered in rubber, wrapped with various kinds of wool yarn, string, and adhesive, covered by stitched cowhide, and of a specific weight and circumference (its formal cause);
- that it was manufactured by workers in a factory in Costa Rica (its efficient cause); and
- that it was made to be used in the game of baseball (its final cause).
In this original meaning of science, we can know something by science in two ways. The first is immediately through first principles. Here is an example from Euclid’s geometry: things which are equal to the same thing are also equal to one another. Once you understand what is being said you see that it is true. If we could see God directly (which we can’t in this life), God exists would be this kind of statement.
The other way something can by known by science is by demonstration, that is, as the conclusion of a process of reasoning. This is a way that Aquinas (and the Catholic Church) says that the existence of God can be known by science. It is a valid process of reasoning from effects (created things) back to cause (God as the final explanation for why those things exist).
A final way of certain knowledge is faith. I know by faith that God exists when my will, through trust in an authority, moves my intellect to affirm that he is.
Faith can be natural, as when a child believes God exists because his mother, whom he trusts, teaches him so. All students begin their studies with a natural faith in what their teacher tells them is true, because they cannot yet see it on their own. A great deal of what we know is known by natural faith.
And faith can be supernatural, as when I am convinced that God exists because he has revealed himself. So, I believe what Jesus Christ teaches about God because I can trust him. My reasons for trusting him are that he fulfilled many Old Testament prophecies and performed miracles to demonstrate his divine power, especially his Resurrection. Supernatural faith opens the door to many more truths about God and man which, unlike the mere existence of God, could never otherwise be known. Examples are that God is in himself a loving Trinity of persons; that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became man; and that God wants to share his divine life with us.
A glass darkly
Doubt, opinion, and faith have in common that the intellect does not directly see the truth of the propositions, whereas with science it does.
Science in its old meaning and revealed faith have in common the complete certitude in regard to the propositions they hold, whereas doubt and opinion do not. With science the intellect sees either directly or through demonstration what is. With supernatural faith the person assents to what God reveals because God can neither deceive nor be deceived.
In heaven, doubt, opinion, and even faith will give way to a new kind of science, that of seeing directly as first principles God and all things in God. As St. Paul puts it, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor 13:12).