THE METAPHYSICAL CONTENT OF PERCEPTION

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The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1)

The “metaphysical content of perception” is a power-packed phrase I came across in a book by Fulton Sheen, Peace of Soul. Sheen quotes Franz Werfel, who said: “The atheist…betrays his own psychology when he thinks he is unveiling the mystery; and his denial unwittingly becomes the proof of God by confirming, against his own troubled will, the tremendous and vital importance of the metaphysical content of perception” (p.49). I confess I have not read Franz Werfel, but perhaps he is implying that the more one explains life on purely material grounds the more obvious it becomes that he has simply omitted an explanation of its ultimate origin. As Chesterton once observed, mystery is not eliminated by meticulously explaining the processes of life because “nobody can imagine how nothing turned into something.” Dietrich von Hildebrand spoke of “man’s metaphysical problem” on a number of occasions, and the problem here is that man seeks an ultimate explanation for life.  

Albert Einstein (commenting on our human perception of the universe) once said: “I’m not an atheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws” (Einstein: His Life and Universe, p. 386).

We are talking here about natural knowledge, what theologians call acquired knowledge, the knowledge gained from sense perception acted upon by human reason (ratiocination). The great Catholic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, states: “The part played by the senses in the perception of beauty is even rendered enormous in us, and well nigh-indispensable…only sense knowledge possesses perfectly in man the intuitiveness required for the perception of the beautiful.” Father Thomas Dubay adds: “Creation is a book proclaiming the Creator. It is a book of beauty that our intellect reads, but through the passageways of our five senses.”

The Church proclaimed infallibly in Vatican Council I that God can be known by the light of human reason. It said: “The same Holy Mother Church holds and teaches that God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certitude by the natural light of human reason from created things; ‘for the invisible things of him, from the creation of the world, are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made’ ” [ Rom 1:20] (Dogmatic Constitution “Dei Filius”).

St. Thomas Aquinas expounds further: “Our natural knowledge begins from sense. Hence our natural knowledge can go as far as it can be led by sensible things. But our mind cannot be led by sense so far as to see the essence of God; because the sensible effects of God do not equal the power of God as their cause. Hence from the knowledge of sensible things the whole power of God cannot be known; nor therefore can His essence be seen. But because they are His effects and depend on their cause, we can be led from them so far as to know of God ‘whether He exists,’ and to know of Him what must necessarily belong to Him, as the first cause of all things, exceeding all things caused by Him” (Summa Theologica, First Part, Q 12).

We see, then, that faith in God is intrinsically linked to human reason. “Being Atheist, it is characteristic of the advancing wave that it repudiates the human reason….But the Faith and the use of the intelligence are inextricably bound up. The use of reason is a main part – or rather the foundation – of all inquiry into the highest things” (Hilaire Belloc).

Michael Corey, in discussing the possibility whether our “wondrous universe could have evolved by blind chance” quotes the distinguished University of Montreal psychiatrist Karl Stern as  labeling such a view of the universe as “crazy.” He further quotes Stern as saying: “And I do not at all mean crazy in the sense of a slangy invective but rather in the technical meaning of psychotic. Indeed such a view has much in common with certain aspects of schizophrenic thinking” (God and the New Cosmology, p.220). Stern is basically maintaining that it is flat out irrational to believe the universe came about by chance or accident.

The metaphysical content of perception is God. The Bible confirms this: “For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists, nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works;…If through delight in the beauty of these things people assumed them to be gods, let them know how much better than these is their Lord, for the author of beauty created them. And if people were amazed at their power and working, let them perceive from them how much more powerful is the one who formed them. For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wisdom 13: 1-5, as edited).

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

Note: In Catholic theology a distinction is made between natural and supernatural knowledge. The focus of this note has been natural or acquired knowledge.

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