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home » articles » "Primary Knowledge of God"

Primary Knowledge of God

Rene Descartes says in his philosophical treatise, "Meditations on First Philosophy":

But I have convinced myself that there is absolutely nothing in the world, no sky, no earth, no minds, no bodies. Does it now follow that I too do not exist? No: if I convinced myself of something [or thought anything at all] then I certainly existed. But there is a deceiver of supreme power and cunning who is deliberately and constantly deceiving me. In that case I too undoubtedly exist, if he is deceiving me; and let him deceive me as much as he can, he will never bring it about that I am nothing so long as I think that I am something. So, after considering everything very thoroughly, I must finally conclude that the proposition, I am, I exist, is necessarily true whenever it is put forward by me or conceived in my mind. (AT VII 25; CSM II 1617)

If I can ask the question: "Do I exist?", then I know that I do exist because there I am, asking the question. I'll refer to this kind of knowledge as primary knowledge. It is knowledge that is self evident, it is knowledge that is impossible to doubt. Indeed, if I doubt that I exist, then I prove that I exist because it is I am who doubts.

I'll refer to secondary knowledge as the knowledge we gain through our senses. We see a table, therefor we "know" that the table exists. This is not primary knowledge however. It is possible that nothing we see, hear, smell, taste, or feel really exists! To understand the concept, imagine that a living human brain were being kept alive in a test tube in an ultra-sophisticated laboratory. Imagine also that there were a myriad of tiny electrodes connected to all of the points of the brain that are normally connected to the nerve endings in our bodies. There are electrodes connected to the optical nerves, to the olfactory nerves, nerves from all of our touch sensors, etc. Then by manipulating the electrical signals on these electrodes in a certain way, the way in which our bodies naturally send signals to the brain, then it would be impossible for the brain to know that it was not in a body and experiencing the outside world. In fact, you have no way of knowing for sure that you are not a brain in a lab somewhere right now!! You may not believe that you are, but you have no way of knowing it absolutely. The movie, "The Matrix" is a good illustration of this concept.

I'll refer to tertiary knowledge as the reasoning about primary and secondary knowledge. Based on our unshakable knowledge that we exist, plus secondary knowledge we receive as sensory input, we form conclusions about the world, what it's like and how it works. Our conclusion that "what goes up must come down" is tertiary knowledge.

If God exists, then isn't He the most real thing in all the universe, even more real than ourselves? Would our knowledge that God exists be any less real than the knowledge that we ourselves exist (our primary knowledge)? If He wanted us to have true knowledge of Him, wouldn't true knowledge of the most real thing in all existence be primary knowledge?

Despite claims to the contrary, any knowledge people say they have of God is tertiary. Though some refuse to admit this most obvious truth, God is not as real to them as their own existence. In fact, they don't even have secondary (direct sensory) knowledge of God! All they have is tertiary knowledge - they reason that what they sense (their secondary knowledge) must have a creator.

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