Universal Reasoning

Universal Reasoning IMAGE
Graphic by Darwin Leon


Paul’s words, that we live and move have our being in God, were taken to heart by Nicolas Malebranche, a French Cartesian philosopher and theologian who was ordained when he entered the congregation of the Oratory in 1664. He is known for propounding two doctrines: the Vision of God doctrine, that we see all things in God; and the doctrine of Occassionalism, that God is the first and effective cause of all things, so the apparent causes we refer to are not in the things but are mere occasions:

“No created thing can act upon another by an activity which is its own.”

Malebranche appeared in the early phase of the Enlightenment, an anti-clerical or anti-authoritarian movement that set independent reasoning upon the evidence of the senses against the divine Reason intuited and scholastically elaborated by Church authorities. Modern science presented certain challenges to creed, doctrine, and dogma, challenges which seemed to place God’s very existence and hence the souls of pious human beings at risk.

Creative thinkers like Newton and Descartes were not perturbed by the apparent threat to God’s existence: they were able to find ways around it. Descartes held that the animal is a machine, yet in the human animal there is a separate soul with immediate access to God. Malebranche agreed with Descartes. Knowledge does not originate in accidental sensation, in the things sensed, or in the imagination, but is a gift of God in the form of divine ideas. Furthermore, God’s existence is proved by man’s awareness of infinity. You see, limited things are imperfect, while the unlimited or infinite is perfection; for instance the Absolute Power, the Supreme Being, or, if you wish to use the term derived from the pagans, God.

So now scientists like Descartes and Newton could faithfully go about their business: the search for and application of scientific truths – some pious folk figured they were really atheists in disguise. As for Malebranche, he dedicated his life to the search for metaphysical truths and, most importantly, divine Truth. His most important writing was De la Recherche de la verite; that is, ‘The Search for Truth.’

As far as Malebranche and like-minded thinkers were concerned, God is Truth, and they were not about to throw God away, in whom they lived, moved and had their being, for that would be suicide. No matter what modern science came up with, God and His Establishment must be saved; on Earth that would be the traditional establishment and its hierarchy.

The logic-juggling resorted to by theologians in defense of God sometimes looks ludicrous in retrospect, now that even the Church has made its adjustments to certain undeniable facts. Not that the self-defensive maneuvering was entirely reactionary and absurd, without beneficial influence on progressive thinking.

Malebranche’s Occassionalism, the view that there is no real causal relation between bodies, or between minds, or between minds and bodies, was taken up by Hume, who posited that the concept of cause and effect arises from a habit of perceiving that one sort of thing follows another, yet there is no evidence that a “cause” really causes an effect. Kant was duly impressed by the puzzle presented so contrarily to common sense, and cogitated on it at length. The issue is still not resolved.

Of course when one is in doubt, God is the easy way out. That may seem to be a cop out, and maybe it is; but it has been one of the most convenient devices ever conceived by humankind and it has led to many practical results. For example, the speculations of Leibnitz were important steps of humankind toward scientific knowledge, including modern atomic theory. In his work on Monadology, dealing with the logic of those atoms or monads without windows and which may not be acted on or changed within from without, he said that our reasoning is founded upon two great principles. One: the principle of contradiction, whereby we judge between true and false. And we might add, between like and unlike, the like being “true” to each other. Two: the principle of sufficient reason, meaning that we must have sufficient cause to believe something is true.

Furthermore, Leibnitz said there are also two kinds of truths: one, the truths of reasoning; two, the truths of fact. The truths of reasoning are necessary: they are undeniable. We take apart or analyze a proposition to make sure every part agrees. At the bottom we find certain simple axioms that we must take for granted because they cannot be further divided. Those axioms are necessary truths. For instance, the great principle of identity, that A=A, from which follows that A cannot be not-A.

As for the truths of facts, we must also have a sufficient reason for them; this presents a bigger problem than the truths of reasoning because of the enormous complexity of facts, all contingent upon other facts, which would require us, in order to find sufficient reason or simple proposition about them all, to be examining details ad infinitum. Leibnitz therefore says that “the sufficiency of final reason must be outside this sequence or series of this detail of contingencies, however infinite it may be…. The final reason of things must be found in a necessary substance, in which the detail of changes exists only eminently, as in their source; and this is what we call God. Now this substance, being a sufficient reason of all this detail, which also is linked together throughout, there is but one God, and this God is sufficient.”

Malebranche would agree that God is good enough to explain the unexplainable, the infinite details or contingencies; but he would go further and say that the contingencies are mere occasions which really do not depend on one another as cause and effect to realize God’s will – here we use the term ‘contingency’ in the technical sense, for an event that is not necessary, that might or might not occur or exist. The problem with the scientific cause and effect business was that it could ultimately deny the independent or free will of God and therefore God herself. If everything is linked by cause and effect, a sort of infinite chain-work emanating from God, everything necessarily happens, who needs God? So Malebranche’s argument was an apology to save God as a free being, the only free being as a matter of fact; to wit, the Supreme Being.

Now if we try to define the Supreme Being we wind up clutching air or with a negative definition summed up as Nothing. Everything contingent is touchable, relative, and an occasion for an argument. But the buck stops with the First and Final Cause, the Alpha and the Omega. At least that much is Necessary, and we have enough faith in it to confidently proceed.

Moreover, God’s existence is an absolute presupposition; all other suppositions are relative. We climb the metaphorical mountain of logical generalizations and eventual arrive at an oversimplification at the summit. This metaphysical and ultimately religious process, which wants an ultimate, single answer to “Why?” is by no means foolish. It is quite reasonable, and God is its Reason comprehending all the details below.

Now some folks do not cotton to the idea that nothing is God or God is Nothing. They want a more personal authority, someone more human, who would be, in his or ideal form, a perfect human being.

Short of a miracle, there can be no such perfect individual, for perfection is God and God is infinite or without limitation of particular forms, although all forms having their being in perfection share in perfection. As far as I know, none of us has met a perfect human being. Our heroes and saints, no matter how much we might idolize them, tragically fall far short of perfection. For example, some people idolize the president while others are convinced he is the anti-Christ.

Now Jesus the Christ has been and still is one of the most popular models of human perfection. Yet only a few fanatics agree on his nature and activities. There has been and will continue to be a lively debate on who he actually was, who he ideally is, and exactly what he would do if he were in our sandals. The uncertainty is too much for some fearful people because, at least for them, it challenges the notion of the very existence of Christ. The notion that Christ, or God for that matter, exists “merely” as a real psychological social phenomenon is not good enough for them. The phenomenalist perspective might have provoked an argument from Malebranche too, faithful as he was, even though he opined that it is not the things themselves that we know, but the ideas, which are not of the things, but are the realities we associate with their occasions, God being the actual cause of them all.

However that may be, a person is a relation between individual and society, and no person may know herself without other persons to reflect upon. By our moral nature we gradually rise to the occasion to contemplate the Ideal Person who is necessarily a social person, and we do so climb by virtue of our reasoning process, whose Light or Spirit or Logos or Word is Reason.

“Universal reason is the Wisdom of God Himself,” said Malebranche in his work on ethics. Furthermore, in his ‘Elucidations of the Search after Truth’: “To see ourselves, we must look beyond ourselves, and we shall never know what we are until we view ourselves in Him who is our light and in whom all things become light. For only in God are the most material beings perfectly intelligible.”


David Arthur Walters

Honolulu 2000


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