How Saint Bonaventure Won the Creation Debate in the 13th Century

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When it comes to proving or disproving the existence of a creator, the debate is usually scientific and everybody seems to think they are an expert in astrophysics, quantum mechanics, biochemistry, theoretical physics, biology, geology, and everything inbetween.

While all of this scientific debate is great, it’s time to return to the simpler things in life and consider a philosophical argument made by a Franciscan scholar from the 13th century who seems to have been tragically widely forgotten — Bonaventure.

Bonaventure’s goal was simple. he wanted to disprove the possibility that the universe has existed for an eternity (or in other words that the universe did not have a beginning).

Bonaventure’s arguments are relevant today because as we consider the beginning of the universe (and whether there was one) naturalists cannot entertain either of two possibilities: that all matter and energy somehow sprang out of absolute nothingness with absolutely no cause and that all matter and energy were somehow set in motion by absolutely no cause.

This leaves the naturalist with only one possibility — that all matter and energy has existed and been in motion without a beginning. In other words, the universe, the composition of all matter and energy (which is ultimately all that objectively exists to the naturalist), has existed and been in motion for an eternity.

Therefore there is one core question at play. Is it possible that the universe has existed for an infinite amount of time? Bonaventure gave six proofs against the eternality of the universe which can be found in On the Eternity of the World from Marquette University Press, and we will focus on his third argument.

It Is Impossible To Traverse What is Infinite

Bonaventure argues that if there had been an infinite number of events in the past then it would be impossible for us to have traversed the infinite set of past events to arrive at the present time.

(This next paragraph is going to be really dense and really boring, so feel free to skip it)
There are two counterarguments Bonaventure entertains — that the infinite set of events would not have been traversed since there was no first event, and that the infinite set of events could have been traversed over an infinite amount of time. In response, he states that any event preceding us preceded infinitely or finitely. If no event preceded us infinitely then they are all finitely distant from the present therefore they must have had a beginning. But if any event preceded infinitely before us, then we must ask whether any event following immediately after that event proceeded infinitely or finitely before us. If any event immediately following the infinite event proceeded finitely before us then both events must have followed finitely before us since there is a finite distance between both events. But if all events proceeded infinitely before us then they all essentially happened simultaneously. Experience tells us plainly that all events do not happen simultaneously and infinitely, and it is impossible that an infinite set of things all be occurring since any infinite set is impossible.

That’s all really complicated, so let’s put it in simpler terms. If we set up an infinite amount of dominos in a line so that they will successively knock each other over when we push the first one down, we will never see them all fall if each one falls for a finite set of time since there would be an infinite succession of finite amounts. Or if we set up the dominos so they all fall simultaneously then we face another impossibility — the mere concept of an infinite amount of dominos all falling at the same time. Just try to picture an infinite amount of dominos all existing at the same time. Keep trying until you are satisfied it is impossible.

If we grant that the succession of events in reality follows in linear succession in a way analogous to dominos falling one after another, then supposing that an eternity has passed before us is as inconceivable as trying to imagine how a domino that has been knocked down was preceded by an infinite amount of dominos falling before it.

In the face of these absurdities it is unthinkable that someone could actually maintain the possibility that an infinite set of events could occur before the present state of things.

What May We Reasonably Infer From the Finite Existence of the Universe?

If there could only have been a finite set of events before us, we must ask what the first event was. If the naturalist is correct that there is nothing besides matter and energy then we must ask how matter and energy could account for the first event. Matter and energy only act if acted upon, therefore it is impossible for matter or energy to account for the first event.

Therefore, we must either deny that there was a first event or we must ask what kind of thing could possibly account for a first event. If we deny that there was a first event, we must deny the existence of all events that followed it. In essence, we deny our own reality. Since our mere consideration of such things is an event, the denial of a first event is literally insane.

So what kind of thing could cause a first event? It must be the kind of thing that could move itself. Only an agent can move itself through volition, therefore the first event must be accounted for by some sort of agent. Obviously this could be no standard agent as we are familiar with them in our natural world. It must be the sort of thing capable of moving from a state of completeness and rest into a state of creation without being acted upon in any way. It also must be an agent with the potency to craft and bring order to reality.

5 Counterarguments and Why They Fail

God Requires a Cause

Arguments from first cause are nothing new to religious debate. Naturalists like Richard Dawkins respond to them by asking what caused God. But to ask this question misses the point.

Smugly asking what caused an uncaused thing reverts to a logical impossibility (the traversal of an infinite set). This is the equivalent of an intellectually suicidal jump off a cliff in order to avoid a conclusion. The simple answer to the question is that God as an agent caused Himself into action, and nothing caused His existence otherwise He would not be God.

It Is Impossible for An Immaterial God to Act On a Physical Universe

This objection is only effective insofar as it is true that is is hard to imagine what kind of non-physical spiritual God could act upon a physical world. But when choosing between a demonstrable impossibility such as the traversal of an infinite set of events or the unexplainable act of God acting upon the physical world, we must choose that which we do not understand over that which is logically absurd.

This Is an Argument From Ignorance

When presented with arguments from first cause, there are some who revert to the accusation that the theist arguing for God’s existence is just arguing from scientific ignorance. In other words, it is an accusation that since we do not scientifically understand how something works we assume that God must be the explanation.

This accusation is emotionally potent since it hits the pride of a person by suggesting that they are superstitious and against further scientific investigation. But insisting that science could account for the traversal of an infinite set of past events makes as much sense as insisting that with enough time and scientific advancement we could find a way to explain a circular square.

Even granting the possibility that science could provide an answer to how the natural world began leaves only two options. Either science will reveal a way for matter and energy to pop themselves into existence out of nothing even though absolutely no cause preceded them which would be destructive to the very purpose of science which is to understand the causes of the events in the natural world. Or science will reveal that matter and energy once existed in a state in which all things were entirely static but willed themselves into action without first being acted upon which would be contrary to everything science has taught us about the inanimate natural world so far. It would be a display of blind faith in the ability of a discipline to reveal something that is contrary to everything that discipline has henceforth taught us and is therefore irrational to the highest degree to hope that science would ever teach us such a thing.

Belief in God Can Only Rest on Faith

Sometimes I hear Christians and non-Christians alike claim that belief in God is not a matter for evidence or reason but a matter of experience and blind trust. This is stupid. I write why that is the case here.

If This Is So Simple, Why Doesn’t Everybody Agree?

This is quite possibly the hardest objection to answer. Not because it brings the argument into question, but because there are so many reasons that arguments like Bonaventure’s haven’t conclusively disproven and discredited atheism.

My only answer is that if there can still be dissension on the shape of the earth or whether the Holocaust happened, then people must be stupid enough to be wrong about a lot of things even though there are conclusive arguments which disprove their position.

All we can do as rational beings is pursue truth to the best of our ability, and follow the good arguments as we find them. I can’t blame the average human being for being unfamiliar with medieval arguments concerning the world’s temporality, and I certainly don’t blame everyone for not having devised sophisticated philosophical arguments on their own. But what I do condemn is the refusal to accept the conclusion of such decisive arguments once one has become aware of them without being able to reasonably refute them. For doing so betrays a willingness to prioritize what one wants to believe over what reason demonstrates that we should believe.

Kyle Huitt
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Kyle Huitt

Part of the multitude that has lost their faith, but part of the few that has returned to it. This blog is my attempt to describe why I returned to the faith, and to maybe prevent somebody else from leaving it in the first place. Studying philosophy and history at Hillsdale College. Member of Delta Tau Delta fraternity.
Kyle Huitt
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