Today’s Aquinas: Does God Think The Way We Do?

Today’s Aquinas: Does God Think The Way We Do? March 9, 2015

ThomasAquinas We’re blogging through St. Thomas Aquinas’ Compendium Theologiae, sometimes called his Shorter Summa. Find the previous posts here.

Thomas has shown that God is intelligent, that is, He has an intellect.  Is that intellect like our own, or does it differ in particular ways?  Unsurprisingly, it differs: God understands everything perfectly, so He doesn’t reason as we do:

Since in God nothing is in potency but all is in act, as has been shown. God cannot be intelligent either potentially or habitually but only actually.

At the moment I’m thinking of the workings of an internal combustion engine: the carburetor that mixes the fuel with air, the cylinder and piston, the fuel intake, the spark plugs, the crank shaft.  And at the moment, I understand it in actuality.  An hour ago I was thinking of something else entirely, but the knowledge of how such an engine works was in my memory.  In Thomas’ terms, I take it, I then understood it habitually, but not actually.  And may years ago, just before I learned about engines, I was capable of learning about them; I understood them potentially.  But God is pure act, with no mixture of potentiality: He understands everything in actuality, always:

An evident consequence of this is that He undergoes no succession in understanding. The intellect that understands a number of things successively is able, while actually understanding one thing, to understand another only potentially. But there is no succession among things that exist simultaneously. So, if God understands nothing in potency, His understanding is free from all succession. Accordingly, whatever He understands, He understands simultaneously. Furthermore, He does not begin to understand anything. For the intellect that begins to understand something, was previously in potency to understanding.

God doesn’t understand this, and then that, and then the other, in sequence; He simply understands and knows everything all at once.  And that means that God has no need to reason from premises to conclusions, as we do:

It is likewise evident that God’s intellect does not understand in discursive fashion, proceeding from one truth to a knowledge of another, as is the case with our intellect in reasoning. A discursive process of this sort takes place in our intellect when we advance from the known to a knowledge of the unknown, or to that which previously we had not actually thought of. Such processes cannot occur in the divine intellect.

Our ability to reason is on the one hand our claim to greatness; it separates us from the animals.  But on the other hand our need to move painfully and “discursively” from truth to truth is a sign of the weakness of our intellects in relation to God.

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photo credit: Public Domain; source Wikimedia Commons

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