Page:Catholic Encyclopedia, volume 1.djvu/254

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AGNOSTICISM
AGNOSTICISM
218

Religion must know its object to some extent or be mere irrational emotion. All religion recognizes mystery; truth and reality imperfectly known, not wholly unknowable. The distinction of "knowable phenomena from unknowable reality behind phenomena" breaks down at every turn; and Spencer well illustrates how easy it is to mistake simplified thoughts for the original simplicities of things. His category of the Unknowable is a convenient receptacle for anything one may choose to put into it, because no rational statement concerning its contents is possible. In fact, Spencer calmly affirms the identity of the two "unknowables" of Religion and Science, without appearing to realize that neither in reason nor according to his own principles is there any foundation for this most dogmatic of statements.

VI. The power to Know.—The primary fact disclosed in our sense-knowledge is that an external object exists, not that a sensation has been experienced. What we directly perceive is the presence of the object, not the mental process. This vital union of subject and object in the very act of knowledge implies that things and minds are harmoniously related to each other in a system of reality. The real is involved in our acts of perception, and any theory which neglects to take this basic fact into account disregards the data of direct experience. Throughout the whole process of our knowing, the mind has reality, fundamentally at least, for its object. The second fact of our knowledge is that things are known according to the nature of the knower. We can know the real object, but the extent of this knowledge will depend on the number and degree of manifestations, as on the actual conditions of our mental and bodily powers. Whatever be the results reached by psychologists or by physicists in their study of the genesis of knowledge or the nature of reality, there can be no doubt of the testimony of consciousness to the existence of a reality "not ourselves". Knowledge is, therefore, proportioned to the manifestations of the object and to the nature and conditions of the knowing subject. Our power to know God is no exception to this general law, the non-observance of which is the weakness of Agnosticism, as the observance of it is the strength of Theism. The pivotal assumption in agnostic systems generally is that we can know the existence of a thing and still remain in complete ignorance of its nature. The process of our knowing is contrasted with the object supposedly known. The result of this contrast is to make knowledge appear not as reporting, but as transforming, reality; and to make the object appear as qualitatively different from the knowledge we have of it, not, therefore, intrinsically unknowable. This assumption begs the whole question. No valid reason exists for regarding the physical stimulus of sensation as "reality pure and simple", or as the ultimate object of knowledge. To conceive of knowledge as altering its object is to make it meaningless, and to contradict the testimony of consciousness. We cannot, therefore, know the existence of a thing and remain in complete ignorance of its nature.

The problem of God's knowableness raises four more or less distinct questions: existence, nature, possibility of knowledge, possibility of definition. In treating these, the Agnostic separates the first two, which he should combine, and combines the last two, which he should separate. The first two questions, while distinct, are inseparable in treatment, because we have no direct insight into the nature of anything and must be content to study the nature of God through the indirect manifestations He makes of Himself its creatures. The Agnostic, by treating the question of God's nature apart from the question of God's existence, cuts himself off from the only possible natural means of knowing, and then turns about to convert his fault of method into a philosophy of the Unknowable. It is only by studying the Absolute and the manifestations together that we can round out and fill in the concept of the former by means of the latter. The idea of God cannot be analyzed wholly apart from the evidences, or "proofs". Deduction needs the companion process of induction to succeed in this instance. Spencer overlooked this fact, which St. Thomas admirably observed in his classic treatment of the problem.

The question of knowing God is not the same as the question of defining Him. The two do not stand or fail together. By identifying the two, the Agnostic confounds "inability to define" with "total inability to know", which are distinct problems to be treated separately, since knowledge may fall short of definition and be knowledge still. Spencer furnishes the typical instance. He admits that inquiry into the nature of things leads inevitably to the concept of Absolute Existence, and here his confusion of knowing with defining compels him to stop. He cannot discover in the isolated concept of the Absolute the three conditions of relation, likeness, and difference, necessary for defining it. He rightly claims that no direct resemblance, no agreement in the possession of the same identical qualities, is possible between the Absolute and the world of created things. The Absolute cannot be defined or classified, in the sense of being brought into relations of specific or generic agreement with any objects we know or any concepts we frame. This was no discovery of Spencer's. The Eastern Fathers of the Church, in their so-called "negative theology", refuted the pretentious knowledge of the Gnostics on this very principle, that the Absolute transcends all our schemes of classification. But Spencer was wrong in neglecting to take into account the considerable amount of positive, though not strictly definable, knowledge contained in the affirmations which he makes in common with the Theist, that God exists. The Absolute, studied in the light of its manifestations, not in the darkness of isolations, discloses itself to our experience as Originating Source. Between the Manifestations and the Source there exists, therefore, some relationship. It is not a direct resemblance, in the very nature of the case. But there is another kind of resemblance which is wholly indirect, the resemblance of two proportions, or Analogy. The relation of God to His absolute nature must be, proportionally at least, the same as that of creatures to theirs. However infinite the distance and difference between the two, this relation of proportional similarity exists between them, and is sufficient to make some knowledge of the former possible through the latter, because both are proportionally alike, while infinitely diverse in being and attributes. The Originating Source must precontain, in an infinitely surpassing way, the perfections dimly reflected in the mirror of Nature. Of this, the principle of causality, objectively understood, is ample warrant. Spencer's three conditions for knowledge—namely: relation, likeness, and difference—are thus verified in another way, with proportional truth for their basis. The conclusions of natural theology cannot, therefore, be excluded from the domain of the knowable, but only from that of the definable. (See Analogy.)

The process of knowing God thus becomes a process of correcting our human concepts. The correction consists in raising to infinite, unlimited significance the objective perfections discernible in men and things. This is accomplished in turn by denying the limiting modes and imperfect features distinctive of created reality, in order to replace these by the thought of the All-perfect, in the plenitude of whose Being one undivided reality corresponds to our numerous, distinct, partial concepts. In the light of