On Those Circular Proofs of God
I remember the first time I read St. Thomas Aquinas’ proofs of God’s existence. Although I was already a believer and although I found them a wonderful adventure in Catholic theology, I thought they were circular. Sure, I thought, if you believe in God and you expect the proofs to prove the existence of God, then the Unmoved Mover, the First Cause, the Argument from Contingency, the Argument from Degree, and the Argument from Design all convincingly follow from postulates to conclusion. But if you are not a believer, they might sound like constructs to support a predetermined conclusion.
The conclusion: “ . . . and this we call God.”
Well of course. Were the proofs supposed to surprisingly disprove God?
I have continued to study these proofs as well as the other arguments and writings of St. Aquinas. I still find them intellectually satisfying exercises that help me understand my faith. What I am about to say has nothing to do with the arguments, but with how they might be perceived:
To a non-believer, I can totally see how they seem like the reasoning begins with the conclusion in sight and is therefore contrived.
A circular argument is logically valid if the premises are true, so again, I am not referring to the integrity of the proofs but rather to their ability to persuade a non-believer. I want to be clear about that.
Maybe I am projecting my personal struggles. In that case, suffice it to say those arguments would have fallen flat on my faithless ears when I was not ready to believe. The language of St. Thomas, or any other densely theological discourse, would have sounded as strange to me as an unbeliever as a pretend language I had no desire to grasp. Even now, I feel a twinge of guilt in admitting that I remain somewhat diffident about these grand arguments as evangelization tools, especially when I see how enthusiastic other Catholics are about using them. But when I read comments from atheists who call these arguments circular, I feel a twinge of guilt too. I want to interject into the discussion and say, “Hey, Christian apologist, the atheist has a point. They can seem circular.”
Undoubtedly there are believers and converts who were compelled to faith by the force of persuasion in these arguments and proofs, and I do not discredit any of those pathways to faith. But if a non-believer tells an evangelizing believer that the arguments for the proofs of God’s existence sound circular, the point ought to be graciously conceded (or at least respectfully engaged). It is unreasonable to expect a non-believer to see arguments and proofs through a believer’s eyes, and I think such a dismissal on the non-believer’s part is a clue to move on rather than continue arguing.
I will always relate to the materialist because I remain an incurable reductionist. I cannot help it. I was trained to see the world as a meticulous sort of materialist. Chemistry taught me to see all matter as a symphony of interacting atoms and molecules carrying out their deterministically orchestrated routine. And let me tell you, it is magnificent! If you find that reading essays and friending friends on computer screens has enriched your life, you can thank materialism for the materials to do so. Same goes for liking your jeans and shirt.
My reductionism has consequences though. I struggle not to think of the human person as a soul driving the body-machine and meat-brain because I think of the body and brain as animated matter, but I cannot put my finger on what “animate” actually means since it is a concept that cannot be measured. I therefore relegate it to some metaphysical arena I am untrained to deal with and call it “life.” But that takes me no farther in comprehension, even as I sit on the porch with my coffee, watching my organic-inorganic multicomposite assemblies (aka my children) run laughing across the yard. I know the body and soul are united in the person. I just do not have the mental files to sort it out yet, but I am trying because this is the very foundation of our human dignity.
I also struggle with what to make of dogs. For all we know, they are automata governed by biological instinct, but I cannot reconcile such machinistic dog-existence with the way our hound, Rufus, held his head on his last day. Suffering and deteriorated from bone cancer though he was, that noble dog lay sprawled and waiting to die until the whole family was home. He took his last breath with his head still up ten minutes after my husband got home from work, and then he laid his head down and died. He never once whimpered. Our family witnessed superhuman loyalty in Rufus.
I also struggle to get my head around the afterlife. Every day is a march reeling toward the inescapable end of our life on earth, and I cannot even begin to imagine what it is like to die. Nothing in chemistry can confirm whether the soul actually does live on. I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting completely in faith, “the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” My profession is my proof. When I profess what I believe, I am no longer afraid of death, even though I am utterly perplexed by the idea of a glorified body.
I also struggle with miracles. I accept they happen, but nevertheless I still think of them in material terms because whatever happens in the material world is still material, carrying out some orchestrated routine, even if it is the Hand of God overriding the whole created order for the sake of communicating His love to searching souls. This is a quibble, but St. Thomas thought that angels can do something which is outside the order of corporeal nature, yet they cannot do anything outside the whole created order. So if angels have a comprehension of matter beyond human comprehension (which means scientists ought to befriend them), how do we humans know whether something that appears to be a miracle is indeed a miracle and not an angel doing something outside the order of corporeal nature and beyond human comprehension? I have witnessed what might be considered miracles, but I have no idea how to talk about these experiences, which probably explains why I get hung up on quibbles.
And I struggle with how to evangelize. I did not convert because people preached to me. I thought to seek out the Catholic Church because the Catholics I had known during the span of my life all had something solid I admired. I also do not like debates as tools for evangelization because if any of the atheists I have encountered online were actually sitting in my kitchen, I would not want to talk about evidence and proofs. I would want to get to know them as people, cook something good for us to eat together, and if appropriate, pour us some of that heavenly substance that geniuses (or perhaps angels) produce from vineyards.
Because of my reductionist outlook rather than in spite of it, I do not think the hard logic of theological proofs of God could have sparked the flame of conversion in my heart. Perhaps that is why they do not resonate with me. People sometimes assume that a scientist convert must have been swayed by the logic, but honestly, I had enough logic. I needed something more. I needed faith, hope, and love. My metanoia had to be a desire to lead a different life, a holier life for the sake of my loved ones, a willingness to peer beyond the material world for the sake of understanding something bigger, an assent to the truths of faith and the fullness of the Divine Revelation, which I discovered are guarded by the Catholic Church. That discovery was when I truly appreciated the proofs of God's existence because they greatly aided me in grasping my faith, but my conversion was not a matter of sifting through logic puzzle pieces until I saw the picture. It was a reaching up to a light. I needed Christ.
It was a choice. I remember making the choice to accept that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, a most circular argument in my head, something like this: “I believe. This is what I believe. This is why I believe. And this I call the Body and Blood of Christ.”
Sure, at times I wondered if I was deluding myself. When I prayed the long and memorized prayers, I knew I was training my brain. I struggled, but only until I realized something about faith, something I knew as a child but had never realized.
When I learned chemistry, I had faith in the chemists and physicists who came before me and whose work filled my text books. I had faith in my instructors. I had faith in the data listed in the manuals. I had faith in the peer-reviewed journals I absorbed to remain current in my field and faith in the reviewers who granted me publication. I knew I could not do every experiment or procedure myself to prove to myself everything I read or learned. I accepted authority of my own volition. I learned what was to be taught. I memorized what was to be memorized. I repeated certain facts until I appropriated them. And my knowledge of chemistry became part of who I am, through circular logic.
Although I have never seen an electron, I believe they exist. I accepted that they exist before I learned what they are and what they do. My rationale went something like this: “I believe. This is what I believe. This is why I believe. And this I call an electron.” Every proof I find convincing is a proof I am willing to believe. Believing that the universe is orchestrated by God the Father, Creator of Heaven and Earth was probably the most satisfying intellectual assent I have ever made as a scientist. In the light of faith, I finally understood why I love science.
So, to the atheists, I am not really sure what to do except offer a blanket apology to all those I have interacted with in the past. Looking back, I admit that there were periods along my journey where I had the idea that—even though the proofs were not what convinced me—I needed to wield Aquinas to convince you to have faith because I thought that was how to effectively evangelize, and surely it is for some. But I am sorry for treating you the way I would not want to be treated.
I know what it feels like to take the leap of faith, and for me anyway, it was and still is terrifying. I did not know what faith would demand of me, and I still do not know what it will demand of me tomorrow. I had to face up to some horrible things about myself, and I had to make changes unsure of how they would affect me. I consented to becoming the mother of seven children, but the thought of seeing one of my children die fills me with so much dread I sometimes wonder if my life would have been objectively less painful without them, and then I banish that thought because I know it would have been painfully empty too, immeasurably so.
I did not and do not know if I could or can do what faith might demand, which sets me up for failure, which sets me up for fear, which plunges me into anxiety. But my faith continues to grow stronger. Do you want to know why? My faith grows stronger because I agree to accept the grace offered to me, almost as if I were placing my hand on a glass of water handed down by God Himself and drinking it in. (Alas, I need material props to envision grace.) When I drink the grace in, something happens that is like a charge running straight through my blood and neurons straight to my heart and mind, and I am infused with a courage I cannot describe, except to call it the purest, most brilliant lovelight. And it is thrilling.
Life does not get easier with faith. Mine got harder in a lot of ways, but I can soar above anxiety, suffering, and pain because I have a confidence, peace, and joy that lifts me.
Faith comes as a gift only when you are willing to accept it. Faith requires the courage to do something radical—to leap out of the entrapment of circularity. Faith is kind of like flinging yourself into an unknown abyss only to realize you can fly, which yeah, defies all logic.
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