In a previous post I examined the late Hilary Putnam’s engagement with the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition on a topic in the philosophy of mind. Let’s now look at what Putnam had to say about Aristotelian-Thomistic ideas in natural theology. In his 1997 paper “Thoughts Addressed to an Analytical Thomist” (which appeared in an issue of The Monist devoted to the topic of analytical Thomism), Putnam tells us that while he is not an analytical Thomist, as “a practicing Jew” he could perhaps be an “analytic Maimonidean.” The remark is meant half in jest, but that there is some truth in it is evident from what Putnam says about the topics of proofs of God’s existence, divine simplicity, and theological language.
Putnam is not unsympathetic to some of the traditional arguments for God’s existence, such as those defended by Aquinas and Maimonides. He rejects the assumptions, common among contemporary secular academic philosophers, that such arguments are uniformly invalid, question-begging, or otherwise fallacious, and that it is absurd even to try to prove God’s existence. He notes the double standard such philosophers often bring to bear on this subject:
[T]he majority of these philosophers take it to be quite clear what a “proof” is: a demonstration that something is the case using the standards (or supposed standards) of, if not science, then, let us say, analytic philosophy. In addition, it is supposed that a sound proof ought to be able to convince any rational person who sees it. (Why the arguments of analytic philosophers themselves -- not even the philosophical, as opposed to technical logical, arguments of Frege, or Russell, or Quine, or Davidson, or David Lewis -- all fail to meet this test is not something that analytical philosophers discuss a great deal.) (pp. 487-88)
Putnam also says that “the view that the traditional proofs are fallacious rests, I think, on a straw-man idea of what those proofs are” (p. 488). In fact, he holds, “each of the traditional proofs can be stated in a form in which it proceeds validly from its premisses [and] ones which… are not simply question-begging…” even if an atheist would not accept the premises (Ibid.). In particular, Putnam thinks that causal proofs like those of Maimonides and Aquinas can be given such a form. And he thinks that the proofs’ contention that any ultimate explanation of the world of contingent things requires a necessary cause, and that this necessity is not merely conceptual, reflects “a very natural conception of reason itself” which “expresses intuitions which are very deep in us” and that the notion that modern science has somehow “refuted” these intuitions “deserves critical examination” (p. 489).
Indeed, in Putnam’s view, the notion that science has refuted religion reflects “a deeply confused understanding of what real religious belief is,” because religious belief is not a matter of trying to explain or predict this or that particular empirical phenomenon, and because theological and scientific modes of description are “incommensurable” (though he cautions that he does not mean to be bringing to bear everything Thomas Kuhn famously had in mind when using that term) (p. 491). This brings Putnam to the topic of theological language, and in particular to accounts like Maimonides’ negative theology and Aquinas’s notion of the analogical use of language.
The development of such accounts reflects the fact that, as Putnam puts it, “the monotheistic religions passed -- irreversibly, I believe -- from thinking of God in anthropomorphic terms to thinking of God as a transcendent being” (p. 493). Putnam notes that some contemporary religious thinkers seem to have forgotten the reasons for this development. He cites “a distinguished Christian philosopher” -- Putnam doesn’t name the person -- who once opined to Putnam that worries about theological language were due to a “hang-up” the medievals had about divine simplicity. When asked by Putnam whether God might be said, then, to have distinct states of consciousness which succeed each other in time, this philosopher responded “Why not?” When Putnam suggested that thereby putting God within time would implicitly be to deny God’s transcendence, this philosopher, Putnam says, had no reply.
In fact, in Putnam’s view, the medievals’ concern with divine simplicity was no mere “hang-up” but has a serious theological basis. Giving up simplicity threatens not only God’s transcendence but his necessity too, and thus threatens to turn God into a mere “gaseous vertebrate” (as Putnam puts it, borrowing a vivid phrase from Haeckel), one mere creature alongside others. But divine simplicity does make theological language problematic, which is what led thinkers like Maimonides and Aquinas to their respective theories of such language.
So far Putnam sounds very close indeed to a Thomist, speaking up as he does for a correct understanding of causal proofs of God’s existence and for the classical theist conception of God’s nature. However, he refrains from going the whole hog, in two respects. For one thing, though he thinks that theological language is, despite its problematic nature, both intelligible and different from other sorts of language, he is skeptical of both Maimonides’ and Aquinas’s specific ways of understanding it. For another, he seems to think the Thomist position a bit too rationalist.
Consider first Putnam’s criticisms of Maimonides’ and Aquinas’s accounts of theological language. Putnam briefly comments that Maimonides’ negative theology “leaves it unintelligible why we should say the things we do about God” (p. 495). He does acknowledge that Maimonides allows that we can speak of God in terms of his different actions, but to Putnam this “seems like a failure to carry though his negative theology to the end” (p. 496). (Putnam had more to say about Maimonides’ negative theology in another 1997 article, in Faith and Philosophy.)
Regarding Aquinas’s account of analogical language about God, Putnam thinks that, at least read one way, it collapses into Maimonides’ position that we can speak of God in terms of his actions. But this, I think, is not correct. As I understand Maimonides’ account of our talk about God’s actions (which I discussed in this post from a couple of years ago), when we speak of God’s various actions we are in the strict sense not really saying anything about God himself, but rather only about his effects. But on Aquinas’s analogical account of theological language, we are (at least often) saying things about God himself, and not just about his effects (even if the different predications we make do not pick out distinct parts of God). That is to say, on Maimonides’ position, theological language, even in the case of descriptions of divine action, does not really tell us anything positive about the divine nature itself, whereas for Aquinas it does, at least to a limited extent.
However, Putnam does also consider the role “proportion” plays in Aquinas’s conception of analogical language, and offers as an example the claim that God’s knowledge is to God as Socrates’ knowledge is to Socrates. But the problem with this, Putnam says, is that there is no single way Socrates’ knowledge is to Socrates, and surely God’s knowledge is not to God in every way that Socrates’ knowledge is to Socrates.
The trouble with Putnam’s objection, though, is that it is difficult to know what to make of it, because it is underdeveloped. Both his description of Aquinas’s position and his criticism of it are brief and vague.
The kind of proportionality that Thomists think is relevant to understanding theological language is what is called proper proportionality, of which there are three key features. First, with the analogy of proper proportionality, a term is being used to name something that is intrinsic to all the things being referred to. For example, when we say that a plant, an animal, a human being, an angel, and God all have life, we are using the term “life” analogically, but we are nevertheless referring to something intrinsic to each of the things talked about. (Contrast this with the analogy of attribution, where a term is not being used to name something intrinsic to all the things referred to. For instance, if I say that Socrates is healthy and that his food is healthy, it is only Socrates who has health intrinsically, and his food is “healthy” only insofar as it causes health in him.)
Secondly, with the analogy of proper proportionality, a term is being used literally rather than metaphorically. In the example just referred to, each of the things named is literallysaid to have life, even if “life” is not being used univocally or in exactly the same sense. (Contrast this with the analogy of improper or metaphorical proportionality, as when we say “That tree is an oak” and “Wyatt is an oak” -- meaning, in the second case, not that Wyatt is literally a kind of tree, but that he has a steadfast character.)
The third feature (and the one Putnam cursorily refers to) is that with the analogy of proper proportionality, a term is not being used to name something that is exactly the same in each thing being talked about (as it is when we are speaking in a univocal way) but rather to name something in one that bears a “proportional similarity” to something that exists in another. For example, when I say that “I see the desk in front of me” and “I see that Aquinas’s argument is valid,” the term “see” is not being used univocally, since the “seeing” the eyes do is very different from the “seeing” that the intellect does. Still, the eyes are to a tree as the intellect is to the validity of an argument, so that the word “seeing” properly applies to both. (See pp. 256-63 of my Scholastic Metaphysics for further discussion of analogical language.)
Now, with all of this in mind, what exactly is Putnam’s objection? He says that there is no single way Socrates’ knowledge is to Socrates, and that God’s knowledge is not to God in every way that Socrates’ knowledge is to Socrates. But what exactly is it that he has in mind that would apply to the case of Socrates but not to the case of God? In particular, if we exclude features that some things have only relationally rather than intrinsically, or only metaphorically rather than literally -- as we would have to do when we are talking about the analogy of proper proportionality rather than the analogy of attribution or the analogy of improper proportionality -- what exactly is left that Putnam thinks would still apply in the case of Socrates but not in the case of God? Moreover, even if God’s knowledge is not to God in every way that Socrates’ knowledge is to Socrates, why wouldn’t there being someways that God’s knowledge is to God as Socrates’ knowledge is to Socrates suffice to justify the predication of knowledge to God according to the analogy of proper proportionality?
Putnam doesn’t address such questions, so, again, it is hard to know what to make of his objection.
Now, despite his criticisms of Aquinas, Putnam nevertheless holds that it is possible to talk intelligibly about God, that we have to understand theological language as “sui generis” rather than either equivocal or straightforwardly univocal, and that contrary to the simplistic conception of the literal use of language presupposed by too many contemporary philosophers, “there is no oneform of discourse which is in some absolute sense ‘literal’” (p. 497, emphasis added). So far that might make his position sound close to Aquinas’s view of analogical language after all. But Putnam also says:
In my view, if there is one thing that there isn’t going to be a scientific theory of (either in the Aristotelian or in the contemporary sense of “scientific theory”) it is how religious language works, and how it connects us to God. (p. 497)
I feel that insofar as I have any handle on these notions, I have a handle on them as religious notions, not as notions which are supported by an independent philosophical theory. (Certainly not by the theory of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.) For me the “proofs” show conceptual connections of great depth and significance, but they are not a foundation for my religious belief… Nor are “proofs” the way in which I would try to bring someone else to Judaism, or to religious belief of any kind. (p. 490)
It is this resistance to theory, and to understanding philosophy as an intellectual bridge between the religious believer and the non-believer, that marks the key difference between Putnam and Thomism. As he sums up his position:
I would say that I cannot explain how [theological language] works except in religious terms, by showing how the use of those terms figures in my religious life, showing how projecting those terms from my non-religious to my religious life is an essential part of that life. And neither can I explain what I mean by ‘God’, except by showing how my use of the term figures in my religious life -- and that is not something I can do at just any time or to any person. Of course, this disbars me from claiming that I can “prove” that God exists to an atheist. But I have already indicated that that is not a claim that I think a religious person should make. (p. 498)
Rather, says Putnam:
I am inclined to say… that while the potentiality for religious language, the possibility of making it one’s own, is a basic human potentiality, the exercise of that potentiality is not a real possibility for every human being at every time… I myself believe that it requires something experiential and not merely intellectual to awaken that possibility in a human being… But what if the belief in God were simply a belief in the strength of a certain philosophical argument?... On the supposition that that is all that was going on, I would say that this was not belief in God at all, but a metaphysical illusion. (p. 492)
Once again, Putnam’s position is a bit too vague to know exactly what to make of it, but it seems clear enough that what he evinces here is the very common attitude that religion is ultimately more a matter of the heart than of the head. The idea seems to be that proofs of God’s existence and philosophical analysis of the divine nature, while salutary and important, are, ultimately, compelling only when viewed from the standpoint of someone already attracted to a religious way of life. How one comes to be attracted to it in the first place is, in Putnam’s view, an “experiential” matter.
What sorts of experience Putnam has in mind is not entirely clear -- perhaps it is ethical experience or aesthetic experience, or perhaps he sees religious experience as something sui generis. The fact that he uses the specific term “religious” to pick out what he wants to distinguish from philosophy and metaphysics, and the influence that Wittgenstein’s writings on religion have had on him (as is evident from some of Putnam’s other work), incline me to think that he probably regards religious experience as sui generis. In any event, variations on this “more heart than head” theme are a staple of modern theology, from Pascal to Schleiermacher to Maurice Blondel to David Bentley Hart.
There is, from a Thomistic point of view, a deep problem in this, and also a deep irony. The problem is this. From the Thomistic point of view, Putnam’s bifurcation of religion and metaphysics, and of the “experiential” and the “intellectual,” is simply false, and certainly question-begging. For according to the doctrine of the transcendentals -- a key part of Thomistic metaphysics -- being, unity, truth, goodness, and (on at least some versions of the doctrine) beauty, are all convertible, the same thing looked at from different points of view. Hence when the will is drawn toward God as the highest good, or our affective nature delights in God as supremely beautiful, they are not grasping something different from what the Thomist theologian describes as Being Itself, or the Neo-Platonic philosopher characterizes as the supreme unity, or the rationalist philosopher conceives of as the Sufficient Reason for the existence of things. These are all just different avenues to one and the same divine reality.
Hence it simply cannot be the case (contrary to what “more heart than head” types seem to think) that to yearn for God as the highest good or to experience him as supreme beauty is necessarily deeper or more profound or genuine than to know him intellectually as the First Cause, as Being Itself, etc. And while it is true that when we are drawn to God, the will and affective side of our nature do indeed tend to operate no less than the intellect does, that is not because the former alone are doing the “real” work, but rather because since being, truth, goodness, beauty, etc. are convertible, what the intellect grasps as true and real is, unsurprisingly, also going to attract the will under the guise of goodness, and our affective nature under the guise of beauty. To be sure, human beings being as diverse as they are, some people are bound to be drawn to God more under the guise of goodness or beauty than under the more philosophical guises of First Cause, Sufficient Reason, or what have you. Nothing necessarily wrong with that. But the more metaphysical conceptions are hardly less legitimate, or somehow second-class -- nor could they be given that we are essentially rational animals.
Indeed, there is a sense in which the metaphysical conceptions are more fundamental. The transcendentals are transcendental properties of being -- truth is being as intelligible, the good is being as desired by the will, and so forth. But being is the characteristic subject matter of metaphysics. Hence to understand how the various guises under which we grasp God -- as Being Itself, as the highest good, as supremely beautiful, etc. -- all fit together requires metaphysical inquiry. Moreover, to understand why goodness, beauty, etc. are not mere subjective reactions that we project onto the world, but are genuine features of reality itself, also requires understanding their relation to being.
Hence while Putnam is certainly correct to think that a purely philosophical approach to religion would be gravely deficient, it goes too far to suggest that it would be a “metaphysical illusion.” On the contrary, without metaphysics, it is the purely ethical and/or affectiveapproaches to religion which stand in danger of being exposed as illusory. This is by no means to say that most or even very many religious believers ought to be expected to pursue philosophy, or are even capable of doing so. But somebody had better be able and willing to do it. Metaphysics must always be a part of religion even if it is not the whole of it.
So, from a Thomistic point of view, the “more heart than head” attitude to religion, in its various forms -- fideist, voluntarist, relativist, Wittgensteinian, etc. -- reflects various philosophical errors, and certainly begs the question against Thomism, which rejects the bifurcations that the attitude rests on.
I also said that there is a deep irony in Putnam’s position, and the irony is this: Putnam himself attacked at least one of the philosophical errors that often underlies the “more heart than head” attitude toward religion, namely the “fact/value dichotomy.” (This attack even gave Putnam the title for one of his books.) If we think, as Hume does, of “value” as something essentially disconnected from the objective “facts” grasped by reason, then naturally the ethical and aesthetic side of religion (the “value” or “heart” side) is going to seem essentially disconnected from the metaphysical side (the “fact” or “head” side). But to reject this Humean position is to open the door once again to the doctrine of the transcendentals, and to see thereby that the ethical, aesthetic, and metaphysical aspects of religion -- the “heart” and the “head” -- cannot be separated.
Hence, from a Thomistic point of view, Putnam -- whose defense of the legitimacy of the traditional proofs, attack on the fact/value dichotomy, and critique of contemporary naturalism all evince a willingness seriously to question the orthodoxies of modern philosophy -- should have pursued this questioning just a little bit further.
More could be said about Putnam’s engagement with analytical Thomism -- for example, about the exchange between Putnam and John Haldane in the recent Library of Living Philosophers volume on The Philosophy of Hilary Putnam -- but I’ll leave it at that for now.