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How God Can Know and Cause a Universe of Things

Nature of the Problem

God is absolutely simple, meaning that he is not composed of parts, principles, or things. He is a spiritual being, since what is physical is subject to motion and God, as Unmoved First Mover, cannot be subject to motion.

It seems unimaginable that a simple, pure spirit could both know and cause the nearly infinite myriad of things that God has created. Yet, it is demonstrable that he causes each creature and knows each one individually.

That God causes all finite things follows from the proofs for his existence, since the arguments run from finite effects back to the infinite cause, which is God. Since (1) every finite being is actually being created as it is sustained in existence, and since (2) infinite power is needed to create anything, the First Cause must have infinite power. Infinite power resides solely in an Infinite Being. Were there two such beings, one would limit the power of the other. Since only one being has the infinite power needed in order to create things, it follows that all finite things are created by that single Infinite Being.

God, though perfectly simple, somehow creates untold numbers of finite things. Yet, it seems utterly counterintuitive that an absolutely simple First Cause could produce nearly infinite effects either in a single act or in multiple acts that cause the unimaginable multiplicity of creatures.

God’s intellectual nature is manifest from the fact that some creatures have intellectual abilities. Since God cannot cause intellectual perfections that he himself lacks, God must be intellectual. And, if God creates all things, he must know what he creates. Still, if God knew creatures the way we know things, his knowledge would depend on observing them. But, the Uncaused First Cause cannot depend on another for anything. He is his own sufficient reason for existing and acting. Therefore, God cannot know creatures by observing them as we do. Rather, it must be that God knows himself as Creator of all things -- thereby knowing every least detail of everything to which his creative causality extends.

Were God simply another material entity, such omniscience would be impossible. God’s spiritual nature will be seen as the key to how he can cause and know an infinite myriad of things – in a single act of knowledge that is identical to his act of creating.

A Third Way of Existing

There are three ways that things can exist: (1) materially, (2) spiritually, and (3) in an intermediate state between matter and spirit. Following the father of modern Western philosophy, Rene Descartes, most people think in terms of things being either material or spiritual, with no third alternative being possible. By “matter,” is meant that which is extended or locatable in space. This would include physical forces and energy fields. By “spirit,” we understand that which is neither extended nor locatable in space and is utterly independent of matter.

But, what if something that is not extended in space is still dependent on matter for its existence? Such a thing would constitute the third alternative described above: an intermediate state between physical matter and pure spirit.

Examining the sense of sight shows that something belonging to this third category of reality actually exists. When something is seen, it is seen as a whole: top and bottom, left to right. Thus, when I see a tree, I see the whole tree in a single act of sight. If my perception were not so unified, I could never know a whole tree -- only tiny, unconnected, and unintelligible “pieces.” But, the tree itself is extended in space, and is seen by me as so extended. Can a purely physical entity “apprehend” the whole of anything in this unified fashion? No, it cannot.

Consider a TV screen’s image of that tree. Hundreds of thousands of pixels create the image of the tree. Yet, no single pixel contains the whole image. Different pixels illuminate to represent different parts of the whole image. But, the viewer sees the whole image all at once. That is one reason why TV screens don’t see their own images. Yet, a dog, bounding into the room, instantly sees the tree on the screen – as a unified whole. Indeed, it can see many trees at once.

Every physical device “apprehending” an external sense object entails reception and storage of data on a physically extended medium, such as a CD, DVD, monitor screen, tape, chip, microchip, nanochip, or some such entity. In every one of these devices, data is stored or displayed with one part representing one part of the external object, and a distinct part representing another distinct part of the object.

Nothing represents the whole as a whole – for the simple reason that it is physically impossible.

The only way to get the whole image on a TV screen as a whole would be to collapse the vertical and horizontal dimensions to a single “dot” in the center of the screen – such as old picture tube TV’s did when turning them off. Now you have perfect unity – only you have lost your picture, since all the photons are hitting the same spot! Analogously, the same logic applies to every other medium of data reception or storage: reducing the data to perfect unity would entail so overlapping data upon itself as to render it meaningless.

This same analysis applies to all forms of sensory knowledge, whether sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, or any other possible form. Because sensory data, by definition, is extended in space, it is impossible to receive or record physically complex data on a single unitary physical “pixel” (for want of a better term).

Note that, although a material entity cannot know the “whole” of anything, a dog that watches television can see an image of another dog on the screen and bark at it! The reason is simple. While the body of the dog (including its brain) may be physically extended in space, nonetheless, its apprehension of the image on the screen is received as a “whole” solely because the dog has an immaterial soul with immaterial sense faculties, which enable him to see the image as a whole. TV screens and other physical representational devices know nothing at all, since they cannot “take in” the wholeness of sense objects, which alone constitutes real knowledge of things.

What is physically extended in space is inherently multiple, since it has parts outside of parts. This is why a physical entity can never “express” the wholeness of another physical entity in a single “pixel” of its makeup. Rather, part A must represent part A of the object represented, and part B represents part B, and so forth – but no single part represents the whole as such. No single physical part apprehends the whole all at once.

This would work similarly for senses other than sight. Various electronic “sensing” and “recording” devices designed to detect external sense objects of various senses will require diverse technological mechanisms. Still, in each case the discrete physical parts of whatever physical medium data is held on will necessarily face the intrinsic limitation that each physical element can only represent a single bit of information (probably in binary form), while no single bit unifies in a single act of “apprehension” the entire sense object it represents. Even a collectivity of bits explains nothing, since each bit represents only a part of the whole, and nothing represents the whole all at once.

Nor can one evade this logic by avoiding crude images of atomic entities in favor of esoteric notions of physical forces or energy fields -- since the essence of any physical reality entails extension in space, wherein the same problem arises of discrete parts representing discrete parts of the object known, but nothing adequately representing the unified whole.

Metaphysical Materialism is Simply Untrue

Only an immaterial cognitive faculty, that is, one not extended in space, can actually apprehend the wholeness of any sensed object. Moreover, in the same act, the sense faculty can apprehend many individual wholes at once, as in a flock of birds.

How does an immaterial sense faculty unify the object of perception into a meaningful whole? Knowing how an immaterial entity “works” would require knowing how to make one -- something that exceeds human capabilities. Still, I know a sense faculty can do it, because I actually sense meaningful wholes in sensory experience. That is, in a single act, I see a whole moose or experience hearing a complete melody or am aware that I am touching the total surface of a sphere. No purely physical entity can adequately explain this fact.

Sight’s ability to apprehend its object as a whole is sufficient to show that at least one external sense faculty must be immaterial. Because an animal’s sensitive soul is immaterial – that is, because it is not extended in space, even animals can experience the unified wholeness of sense objects – and many such wholes simultaneously.

Purely materialistic metaphysic’s essential problem is that sense cognition’s immaterial nature is what enables the knower to apprehend the physically extended object as a unified whole. In so doing, immaterial cognition achieves something that mere extended matter cannot do, namely, it can unify in a single simple act what in physical reality is extended in space and multiple in parts.

Some materialists admit that certain cognitive acts cannot be expressed in purely material terms. Yet, they insist that these “epiphenomena” somehow “emerge from” purely physical matter. That is, they are simply a product of physical matter in some way. The problem with this explanation is that the more perfect cannot be explained by the less perfect. Or, to put it another way, that which is inherently unable to explain the unity of the whole (discrete physical parts) cannot be a sufficient reason for apprehending the thing sensed as a unified whole.

Moreover, this immaterial principle must explain how unity is achieved from multiple sense data. Since a material entity can never explain the unity of its discrete elements, what unifies must not only be immaterial, but must be something within the sentient organism that unifies its discrete material organs into a functional whole respecting sense perception. Such an immaterial principle would be the form or soul of even the lowest sentient organisms.

This means that a purely materialistic explanation of all reality is simply false.

Since neither individual material parts nor their collectivity can explain the unity of the whole which is sensed, it is clear that material physical components of organisms cannot explain the unity of sensation experienced. This argues to some principle of unity that enables the entire organism to act in a manner which none of its material parts or their collective whole can explain. An immaterial principle of unity is needed, such as the substantial form, which functions as an organizing principle of matter according to Aristotle’s hylemorphic (matter-form) theory.

Now, I am not saying that the immateriality required for sensation is the same as the strict immateriality of a spiritual soul. For sense knowledge remains dependent on matter to a certain extent, as evinced by the fact that all such knowledge, even in the imagination, is received “under the conditions of matter.” That is, we sense a tree as extended in space, having weight, color, shape, and so forth. This indicates that sensory knowledge is still dependent on material organs of a material substance, even though the actual sensing faculty must belong to a soul that is not extended in space.

Yet, it remains true that these sensing powers cannot be explained merely in terms of lower physical units, as shown above. Rather, this is one of those “third alternative” cases of something that exists in an intermediate metaphysical state between physical matter and pure spirit. Most importantly, what is clear is that these immaterial sense powers (1) cannot be explained by metaphysical materialism and (2) possess the immaterial quality of being able to unify in a simple cognitive act that which is extended in space and multiple in parts – and even a multiplicity of wholes simultaneously, as when a dozen eggs are seen at once.

The existence of such “intermediate” forms obviously comports with Aristotelian-Thomistic hylemorphic doctrine, but not with the materialist claims of some form of atomism. The key insight is that an immaterial cognitive power can manifest what pure physicalism cannot explain, namely, conscious apprehension, in a unified act of cognition, of multiple objects perceived as wholes – as when we see a stand of trees.

While an analogous and even more striking case can be made for the spirituality of the human intellectual soul, I have studiously avoided this topic for two reasons: (1) it would entail explanation far exceeding this article’s space limitations, and (2) it can be easily demonstrated that immateriality in sense cognition enables even a dumb bunny to do something that metaphysical materialism can never explain, namely, to know in a single, unified act the whole of a sensed object, such as an entire carrot – or even a bunch of carrots all at once.

Such immateriality is the basis for the ability of a single knower to know multiple objects in a single, simple unified act of knowing.

How Immateriality Enables God to Know Multiple Objects

What has all this to do with God’s ability to know and to cause the near infinite multiplicity of the created world? Simply this. While we do not know exactly how the immateriality of God’s or man’s cognition enables them to know multiple, whole objects, or even how animals do it at their own merely sentient level of cognition, still, the fact remains that immateriality is the key to explaining how cognition can unify the complexity of experience into wholes, which can be experienced in a single, unified act of cognition.

Just as animals and man can do this at our own finite and limited levels, by way of transcendent analogy, the same explanation must be applied to God so as to render intelligible how he can know all things and cause all things, even in their near infinite multiplicity – all the while remaining absolutely simple and undivided in himself. We do not need to know exactly how he does this, any more than we need to know how we do it – in order to know that it is true (1) that it happens and (2) that it can happen solely because of the immateriality of the cognitive powers involved.

The analogy is that just as animals can perceive whole sense objects in a unified way and that man can understand many individual natures in a single concept, so too, God can know all things in a single unified act of understanding which is identical to the divine essence.

And, because of the divine simplicity, since God’s act of knowing things is identical with his act of creating them, he both knows and causes to be the innumerable multiplicity of created things in a single, perfectly unified spiritual act.

Dr. Dennis Bonnette

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Dr. Dennis Bonnette retired as a Full Professor of Philosophy in 2003 from Niagara University in Lewiston, New York. He taught philosophy there for thirty-six years and served as Chairman of the Philosophy Department from 1992 to 2002. He lives in Youngstown, New York, with his wife, Lois. They have seven adult children and twenty-five grandchildren. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame in 1970. Dr. Bonnette taught philosophy at the college level for 40 years, and is now teaching free courses at the Aquinas School of Philosophy in Lewiston, New York. He is the author of two books, Aquinas' Proofs for God's Existence (The Hague: Martinus-Nijhoff, 1972) and Origin of the Human Species (Ave Maria, FL: Sapientia Press, third edition, 2014), and many scholarly articles.

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