Science, Prayer, and the Density of Being

Why are things the way they are? Why do we enjoy learning about them? The answer is simple.

(Image: Jason Strull/

The other night, I watched a few minutes of the comedian Ricky Gervais’s new comedy show. Early in, he does a bit about his atheism and his willingness nonetheless to abide expressions of religious devotion. By way of example, he says,

. . . if one of my family is very ill, they say, “I’ll pray for them.” I say, “Thanks very much,” ‘cause it’s a nice gesture. If they say, “We also canceled the chemotherapy,” I’d go, “Don’t do that. Don’t do that . . . Let’s do the praying and the chemotherapy, shall we?”

Gervais’s audience laughs, but most people would not find this a very perceptive bit of humor. Who exactly are these religious persons who think that prayer should be a substitute for medicine and that the two are somehow mutually exclusive? Surely such people exist somewhere, but Gervais’s joke will only be funny if it applies to the people who pray whom we actually know.

Hearing this, I was reminded of another of Gervais’s comments, made years ago, to the effect that he and Christians agree on almost everything. We all believe in this being and that being. There’s only one being we don’t both believe in and that is God. Christians simply believe in one more being than Gervais does.

I recall these moments not specifically to refute them. Gervais is a comedian and one whom I often appreciate; his words are humor even if they contain arguments. Nevertheless these two of his comments both struck me because they are exemplary of two distinctly modern assumptions that stand athwart what Christians actually believe and what, indeed, much of the world has always believed, including those classical pagan ancestors, Aristotle and Plato, who helped human beings to acquire a scientific knowledge of reality.

In Gervais’ first comment, he seems to assume that the causes of things must be singular and so multiple claims about causes must be mutually exclusive, with one being true and the other false. Either chemotherapy effects a cure or prayer does. There can only be one cause of an effect in the world, he indicates, and the material cause—the action of one material thing on another—will always be that cause.

This was a widespread assumption among the early modern philosophers, including Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes, who by very different paths concluded that we know the full truth about something when we know the mechanical, the material, process by which it has come to be. Everything outside this mechanistic functioning is merely something in the mind, subjective, and so not explanatory of what is real. E.F. Schumacher once named this assumption as the philosophy of the “nothing but”: what appears rich in reality is really “nothing but a slight extension” of some simpler, material being. Those who make such a reduction effectively proclaim a dog is “a barking plant or a running cabbage,” and that human beings are nothing but “naked apes.”

In the comic’s second comment, many people will hear an echo of the late mediaeval scholastic idea that being—all that is real—is univocal. The being of a smile, a rabbit, and God are all beings essentially of the same kind. They may differ, but not in their being. If, on this premise, God exists, then God would be simply one more being in a world of beings. If many of the great modern thinkers reduced causality to “nothing but” the actions of matter upon other matter, behind that claim lay this earlier, medieval notion that all being is “just” being.

The ancient and the modern world both agree that “science” is the knowledge of the cause of a thing. Where they sometimes part company is that the most influential modern thinkers accept only one cause—the material—to the exclusion of all else, such that to know how matter works on other matter is to possess the full science of reality. The ancients were familiar with such materialism but found it preposterous. As Aristotle once put it, materialism assumes that a house is because it has thick walls, whereas it is obvious that houses have thick walls—their material cause—only because those walls serve a purpose—what he calls the final cause—of supporting the roof, and the roof and walls in turn are only because they serve the purpose of providing shelter to human beings. Matter does not exhaust the definition of the nature of house; in fact, matter is the least informative explanation of the cause of a house. The most informative is the final cause, the why, of the house’s being.

We all live in a world of prayer and chemotherapy, as it were, because reality must be understood not in terms of one cause alone but in terms of multiple. We live in a world where God is not “just one more being,” because being itself is not univocal, but analogous, that is, beings are in myriad different ways. It means something radically different for a dog to be and for God to be: a dog is a being, Thomas Aquinas would say, but God is Being Itself. The word “being” is used in both phrases and the meaning of that word in one phrase is not utterly alien to its use in the other, but the words are not, on the whole, being used in the same way.

The great minds of our tradition have provided us at least three ways to arrive at some science of the multi-causal, multi-variously analogous nature of reality, each of which helps us to move from wonder to understanding and, beyond understanding, to still deeper wonder. I wish to describe each of those ways briefly. They are the four causes, the four senses of things, and the four transcendental properties of being. While Gervais seems to reduce the world to some one thing—material being—I propose that, since three times four is twelve, that the world must be understood as being at least twelve times as dense or rich as Gervais takes it to be.

Aristotle gave us a means to perceive this richness of being when, in the process of inventing the science of Physics, he articulated the four causes of all changeable or natural being. To understand—to have the science of—something, you have to know what it’s made of (the material cause), what brought it into being (the efficient cause), what it is essentially or intelligibly (the formal cause), and—governing all of these—what purpose it serves (the final cause). Contrary to the modern philosophers, we do not understand something when we know its matter—that human beings are flesh and bone, for instance. For if bone is our matter, bone is also a kind of form whose material cause is a number of proteins, and those proteins are forms whose materials are a number of elements—and so on. All these material and formal causes hold together only in their composite realization of some purpose: they exist for something; they have a final cause. Saint Thomas Aquinas extended Aristotle’s theory of the four causes to show us that they help us to understand not only changeable being, but the eternal being of God himself.

The four causes alone, however, do not explain all of reality. Beyond the causality of what things are, there is the significance of what things mean. Everything that is has what the great poet Dante called a “polysemous” quality to it. Everything that is means, or signifies, in multiple ways.

Christians initially articulated this multiplicity of meaning to explain to themselves how Holy Scripture communicates. Scripture has four senses: it has a literal sense, but also three spiritual senses: the allegorical, moral, and anagogical (CCC 118). Scripture’s literal sense is whatever the author of the work intended; but authors’ intensions do not exhaust the meaning of their own work. The inspiration of the Holy Spirit can invest those same words with spiritual figurations of other significance. Any given verse may speak to us of the nature of Christ (the allegorical sense), the form of Christian life (the moral sense), and of the full unfolding of God’s providence (the anagogical sense).

Christians had a special impetus to understand the polysemous nature of things, because of the need to perceive the depths of meaning found in scripture. They had also an impetus to theorize the multiplicity of meaning present in things as they struggled to grasp the fact of the Incarnation—that Christ could be both God and man—and the reality of the sacraments—that, above all, the Eucharist could at once be the appearance of bread and wine and the substance of Christ’s spiritual body and blood. If Christians therefore had distinctive reasons to theorize and organize their understanding of how any one thing is a sign of multiple things, people of every age and culture have nonetheless recognized that nothing only means one thing, that meaning is always multiple. Not only Scripture, not only books and works of human genius, but the great book of the world is steeped deeply in intelligibility such that the sense of things is always multiple.

Nothing is ever just itself. Even rocks and stones have vast landscapes of meaning hidden within themselves. This is what the English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins meant, when he spoke of the “inscape” of things: the interior significance hidden within the physical appearance of things.

Children often stand in wonder at the apparent strangeness of things, as my children did recently at the iridescence of a dead snake in our backyard, but children also grow bored of things quickly, because they often only perceive appearances. Adults more frequently find things endlessly fascinating, they seem to talk things to death, because the more they turn something around in their minds, the more significance they discover within it. This is why Aristotle recommended philosophy as a study for the old. Younger souls wonder more spontaneously, but older souls wonder more deeply.

The four causes and the four senses woven into the fabric of reality are rooted fundamentally in another set of four: the four transcendental properties of being. The idea of the transcendental properties was only expressed in the medieval world, but it was in de facto use in ancient pagan thought as well. We might briefly describe the idea in this way. Being as the sole principle of reality: only being is real and everything that is real is in some sense a being. But if being is the one reality, it bears within itself a multiplicity of properties, the four most important of which are oneness, truth, goodness, and beauty.

Oneness or unity may seem obvious: everything that is a being is one being. Wholes constitute real unities that may comprehend multiple parts but are not reducible to them. I may be made of a multiplicity of atoms, but I am still one person and one being. When we perceive the oneness of a being we are also moving toward perceiving the truth about what it is. So all beings also are true. Truth follows from oneness. But recall what Aristotle says about the causes: we really only have scientific knowledge about things when we know what they are for. Because the truth about something must be understood in terms of its causes, and the final cause—the purpose of its being—is the most important one, all beings are also good. If we could not perceive goodness in things, we could not perceive the truth about them either. Goodness must therefore be the third property common to all beings.

Human beings delight in learning and knowing. We wonder about things by nature, and we naturally feel joy, when that wonder is answered by the world with knowledge that gives us science or understanding. We may ask: why do we like to know the causes of things? Why do we appreciate learning the multiple senses of things? Why, when we perceive even the oneness of things, the truth of things, the goodness of things—why do we feel joy?

The answer, and it is an answer as old and older than Aristotle, is that, when we perceive reality as a multiplicity in unity, an intricate and various but ordered whole, we perceive a reality that is more than the sum of its parts. It is a whole, it has a form, but that form seems endless, infinite, and inexhaustible. What we see then is the radiance or splendor of being. Form and splendor, Plato first told us, is beauty. The four causes, the four senses, the transcendental properties of being themselves find their justification and their total gratuitousness in the beauty of being. Beauty is the fourth transcendental property of being that explains everything else about reality.

Why are things the way they are? Why do we enjoy learning about them? The answer is simple: for the beauty of it.

When we speak of the existence of God, we are not speaking of just one more being in whom one might believe. We speak rather of the condition of possibility, the foundational existence, reason, and love that makes reality intelligible (in terms of causes), steeped in meaning, and rooted in the beauty of being. When an atheist denies God’s existence, he is not simply denying the existence of one more, very large, being. He is not merely denying what is “supernatural,” but rather claiming a deeply impoverished view of nature as well. Alasdair MacIntyre once wrote of this in describing philosophical debates in the Islamic world, arguing that

To believe in God is not to believe that in addition to nature, about which atheists and theists can agree, there is something else, about which they disagree. It is rather that theists and atheists disagree about nature as well as about God. For theists believe that nature presents itself as radically incomplete, as requiring a grounding beyond itself, if it is to be intelligible, and so their disagreement with atheists involves everything.

Belief in God, he explains, is an answer to whether the universe is open to being understood, whether reality as such is open to inquiry about “why it is as it is, and why indeed it is” at all. What is funny about this observation is that only a universe that is indeed intelligible and open to such questions will be also a universe where we can recognize the absurd and the silly. Only a world that is orderly and makes sense provides us a stage on which the anarchic and the hilarious can appear for what it is—something worth laughing at. Theism is already implicit in our laughter.

(Editor’s note: This essay was posted originally on May 28, 2022.)

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About James Matthew Wilson 25 Articles
James Matthew Wilson is the Cullen Foundation Chair in English Literature and Founding Director of the MFA program in Creative Writing at the University of Saint Thomas, Houston. His most recent book is I Believe in One God: Praying the Nicene Creed (Catholic Truth Society, 2022).


  1. Dear Mr. Wilson, your article is wonderful and I get it. But it is wasted on a person like Ricky Gervais. He is like so many other atheists who don’t admit to a God simply because it is inconvenient. If they admitted to a God, then they would have to either acknowledge or deny his commandments. If they acknowledged his commandments, then they would have to change their lifestyle and that would be very inconvenient. If they denied his commandments, then they would be public rather than private hypocrites. No, they deny God because they do not want to change their lifestyle. Without God, all morality is relative and they can live as they please. Their present lifestyle status-quo is too important to allow interference from God. And concepts of being and existence are too near the truth for them to consider as they may have to apply Truth to their lives; also very inconvenient. Plausible deniability is their faith and life creed.

    • And how, may I ask, do you “know” this? You put forth one possible explanation among many others. Try not to be so certain in your judgments of others.

  2. Gervais places his hope in science e.g. chemotherapy. Where is his proof that science saves since he’d have to admit that in his version of reality Death ultimately will win over any and all science. It seems pretty foolhardy to place all your hope in science. Nothing about science proves that it is an eternal solution to anything.

  3. An enjoyable, excellent, philosophical essay. Goodness must therefore be the third property common to all beings (J M Wilson). Aquinas posited a very simple definition of good. All being is good. Good then is convertible to being (ST 1a2ae 18, 3). The identification of good with being refers to God as the cause of all existence [as Aristotle says what exists are beings]. God who is unqualified Being is therefore infinitely good. For us to be good follows. Since we’re created in his likeness we must participate in his goodness and become like him [final cause].
    Beauty has varied meaning, physical beauty, intellectual beauty [remember the story A Beautiful Mind] poetic [the arts] and so forth. Perhaps citing beauty primacy is Platonic. Although Saint Bonaventure, a contemporary of Saint Thomas Aquinas leaned more toward Plato and beauty. Nevertheless associated beauty with the spiritual. Beauty in its complete sense is spiritual beauty. Why the ancients spoke of God as infinite good and perfect beauty.

  4. James Matthew Wilson writes with a rare combination of erudition and accessibility – the antithesis of what passes for learning in the Language and Humanities faculties of many contemporary universities, particularly those in thrall to Critical Theory that makes a virtue of the obscure.

  5. “…the transcendental properties of being themselves find their justification and their total gratuitousness in the beauty of being. Beauty is the fourth transcendental property of being that explains everything else about reality.”
    As Jacques Maritain also contended (somewhat controversially); “beauty is the radiance of all the transcendentals united.”

  6. “No scientist, no lab in the world can create even a blade of grass [not even one of its numerous cells] from raw material, a proof for the existence of an intelligent power greater than human. Given this, it is only natural that through the centuries many great scientists such as Kopernik, Newton, Lomonosov, Pasteur and Einstein believed in God.” – Humber College ‘Rosary Prayer Group,’ Toronto and Knights of Columbus, Mississauga.
    Robert Jastrow, a former NASA scientist, explains: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

    I watched a little of Ricky Gervais, and was quickly shocked and disgusted at how mean, nasty, cruel, and self-consciously and deliberately wicked he was. Ricky Gervais aims at poking his finger in the eye of God, and in the eyes of believers in God. Ricky Gervais makes the cynical, amoral, and nihilistic Woody Allen look like a pious saint. Ricky Gervais has a sort of terrible, dark soul sickness, and, strangely, quite few people like to enjoy and celebrate his sickness.

  8. A rich and wide-ranging article. Selecting three points:

    First, during my wife’s very trying and very graced 12-year ordeal with cancer, behind the discreetly closed clinic door the added prayer of our oncologist was for “healing, with the medicine–or around it” (the story: “Kristi–So Thin is the Veil,” Crossroad Publishing, 2006).

    Second, a very important insight, that God is not another being among other beings in a sequence of contingent beings, but rather is the very act of being–in all things and above all things. God is what he does and does what he is. Absolute and subsisting simplicity without composition, not as between the essence and the existence (the “is”-ness) of created things.

    And third, Hans Urs von Balthasar, the theologian of transcendental “beauty,” meditated on both the fact and the “why” of creation:
    “The responses of the Old Testament and a fortiori of Islam (which remains essentially in the enclosure of the religion of Israel) are incapable of giving a satisfactory answer to the question of why Yahweh, why Allah, created a world of which he did not have need in order to be God. Only the fact is affirmed in the two religions, not the why. The Christian response is contained in these two fundamental dogmas: that of the Trinity and that of the Incarnation” (“My Work in Retrospect,” 1993).

    The deepest “fraternity” will be grounded not in a pluralism or progressive blending of religions, but finally in the historical fact of the Incarnation as the center of human history.

  9. Christian Scientists would pray and not have chemotherapy. I had a friend who used the expression, “He must feel like a Christian Scientist with appendicitis.”

  10. Who is the great physician? Does He not provide us with medical arts and science to help alleviate pain? He also provides us with prayer to aid and comfort us! When doctors are perplexed, prayer never goes amiss. It may result in a miraculous healing, yet we all face death! For the believer in Christ, death is a blessing and is not to be feared.

    Psalm 116:15 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.

    Revelation 1:18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.

    What is faith if not a gift from God? Our faith is no vain thing, indeed:

    Hebrews 12:2 Looking to Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

    Hebrews 2:10 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.

    Comedy has a positive cathartic effect as long as we acknowledge our creator. The atheist, impulsively confuses the Christian with Christ. Christ is perfect and we are sinners. We acknowledge His ability to save us and proclaim His mercy. The unbelieving comedian is whistling in the dark as he slanders his maker and redeemer. In scripture, we find that the Lord has a lively sense of humour too, yet His humour is to the believers advantage.

    Proverbs 17:22 A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.

    Ecclesiastes 3:4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

  11. Von Balthasar’s question, why creation implies causality. Even if we examine the Trinity and Incarnation we’re determining fact not why. God cannot be caused to act. He’s pure Act of Existence, whose Essence, love, is identical with his Existence [see Aquinas Essence and Existence]. Aquinas responds, if it were possible [which it is not] to add a cause to the question why, it would be out of love.
    Historically Man, seeking to understand all things, consistent with an intellect, places his mind in the mind of God. An impossible journey that finds abrupt rationalized vacuousicity in its own limitation. Humility, for theologian, and philosopher is exactly found in realizing this limit.

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