God and Contemporary Thought – Étienne Gilson

  • Article (book excerpt)
  • 2800 words
  • Level: high school and above

The twentieth-century French philosopher Étienne Gilson writes on God, Immanuel Kant, Auguste Comte, and science:

The present-day position of the problem of God is wholly dominated by the thought of Immanuel Kant and of Auguste Comte. Their doctrines are about as widely different as two philosophical doctrines can possible be. Yet the Criticism of Kant and the Positivism of Comte have this in common, that in both doctrines the notion of knowledge is reduced to that of scientific knowledge, and the notion of scientific knowledge itself to the type of intelligibility provided by the physics of Newton. The verb “to know” then means to express observable relations between given facts in terms of mathematical relations….

When a man falls to wondering whether there is such a being as God, he is not conscious of raising a scientific problem, or hoping to give it a scientific solution. Scientific problems are all related to the knowledge of what given things actually are. An ideal scientific explanation of the world would be an exhaustive rational explanation of what the world actually is; but why nature exists is not a scientific problem, because its answer is not susceptible of empirical verification. The notion of God, on the contrary, always appears to us in history as an answer to some existential problem, that is as the why of a certain existence. The Greek gods were constantly invoked in order to account for various “happenings” in the history of men as well as in that of things. A religious interpretation of nature never worries about what things are — that is a problem for scientists — but it is very much concerned with the questions why things happened to be precisely what they are, and why they happen at all….

Click here for an excerpt selected by the Interdisciplinary Encyclopedia of Religion and Science (Inters.org), which is edited by the Advanced School for Interdisciplinary Research, operating at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross, Rome, and directed by Giuseppe Tanzella-Nitti. The excerpt is from Gilson’s God and Philosophy, also published as “God and Contemporary Thought” in In Quest of Value (1963) — click here to access this work courtesy of Archive.org.