Post Author: Bill Pratt
OK, I admit we’re in deep waters with this question, but I’ve been studying epistemology, the investigation of human knowledge, for the last few months and I have run across a short section in a book I’m reading that struck me as particularly profound.
Before I discuss that section, I want to share a common question that people ask me. The question is this: “Why do you read and study so much? What’s the point of it all? Is there no end to your search for knowledge?” Generally these are people who don’t know what to think of all the books I read, of the blog posts I write, of the seminary courses I take. To them, it might all be a colossal waste of time.
The only way I can answer this question is that once I started studying the teachings of Christianity, my mind literally awakened to an immense world that I never knew existed. Since that time, I have felt an incredible drive, almost a primal need, to learn as much as I can about God, humans, and the world we live in – in that order of importance. I can’t get enough of it and I don’t think I ever will.
Is something wrong with me and people like me? Sometimes I wonder, but then I ran across a passage in a book that explains why I do what I do – why I want to know things. The book is An Elementary Christian Metaphysics by Joseph Owens and is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read. It is as abstract as you can possibly get, because the book is mostly about the concept of existence, of what it means for something to exist. There is no more basic subject than that, and thus it makes for abstract reading.
So what does the book have to say?
Through sense cognition a man is able to become [in his mind] one by one the . . . things he encounters in his daily life. He enriches himself with their forms as he perceives each of them [as they really are], and conserves the forms in his imagination.
Think about this. We actually become the things we perceive as we bring them into our mind. We are enriched by the things we come to know and we are able to preserve these things in our mind even after we stop seeing them.
Through intellection [man] is able to transcend the confines of the here and now, and become objects whose extent is unlimited.
How does this work? We are able to identify common natures in things, and once we identify a common nature, we are able to know all things that possess that common nature. For example, when we understand the concept of humanity as a nature, we now understand what all humans are like in their common humanity. We can know what humans were like in the past, in the present, and in the future without ever seeing all instances of human beings. That’s amazing when you think about it.
Though remaining an individual he is brought into a life that bursts away from the ghetto of his immediate surroundings and extends as far as do the natures of the things with which he comes in contact. . . . Through science he can enrich himself with myriad forms that could never impinge themselves on his immediate cognition.
The intellect and the ability to know things expands the universe far beyond what a man can directly see or hear. How far can man go?
In grasping the [existence] of sensible things . . . he has the starting point from which he can reach [God]. By intellective reflection [man] becomes himself . . . and is himself in a way that enables him to dominate his own activity. Knowing his own actions through reflection he has starting points for the investigation of spiritual nature.
Thus we are the only animals that can reach God by reflecting on ourselves. We see that we have a spiritual nature, that we have a mind, that we think, feel, and will. As Owens reminds us, this reflection provides the starting point for us to know that God exists.
The kinds of things that a man can know through his intellect are consequently unlimited. . . . Intellection, therefore, is able to enrich the knower cognitionally with the form of anything whatsoever. Those forms remain with the knower permanently as [intellectual likenesses] in which the thing may again be actually known at any time. There need be little wonder, then, that Aristotle saw in intellection the supreme happiness and destiny of man, and that according to the Christian the Beatific Vision is the ultimate goal of human living.
I believe that God has placed the desire to know in all humans, and that He has given some of us extra doses of that desire. That is why I want to know. Why has God given man the desire to know? Because the pursuit of knowledge, for the Christian, eventually culminates in the ultimate human experience, seeing God in the Beatific Vision. It doesn’t get any better than that.