Winter 2005

Rationality and Faith in God

Robert Spaemann

"The personality of man stands and falls with his capacity to grasp truth."


To explain man’s situation in the world, Plato came up with an allegory, the so-called allegory of the cave. In its simplest terms, it looks like this: human beings are sitting in a windowless cave. They sit in chains, facing a wall. A play of shadows is projected onto the wall; it is a cave-theater. Behind the backs of those who are chained is an artificial light source, in front of which figures are moved back and forth, and their shadows are cast on the wall. The people have never known any other situation but this one. They are unable to see one another, or even themselves, but only the play of shadows. For them, therefore, this play represents the only reality there is. They argue over this reality, they speculate about what will happen next in the drama, they come up with theories and make prognoses. Of course, there is a rumor floating around that there is such a thing as a true world outside of the cave, and that it is possible to get free and make it out there. But it is also known that there were some who had in fact gone outside and whose eyes were blinded by the light of the sun, so that they would not have been able to see anything at all if they did not have the patience to let their eyes grow accustomed to it. Thus the cave dwellers resist hand and foot if someone from the outside comes back to set them free.

By means of this allegory, Plato intends to present the world of ideas as the true reality and the material world as a mere image of reality. But we are able to modify the allegory a bit without distancing ourselves very much from Plato’s intention. The sun, for Plato, is the image of the substantial Good, the highest Good, which motivates all the striving in the world as the final end, and which the Church Fathers later equated with God. And this is not far from correct, since Plato says that the Good itself is the ground not only of the reality of things, but also of their knowability and truth. In my modification of the allegory, we ourselves are not only spectators in the cave-theater, but also co-actors in the film. Our reality owes itself in every moment to the light of a creative projector and its band of film. I call it creative because it projects things and beings that are actually alive and even free within a certain framework to move themselves in this or that way. If the light were to go out, then the film and all of its figures would disappear into the darkness. They would not die, for indeed dying is still an event in the film and has causes that for their part belong to the film: disease, accident, murder, etc. The cutting short of the film is not a part of the film. But within the film, there is also a past that we extrapolate. We know that a child, whom we see, not only has parents, whom we also see, but also grandparents and great-grandparents, like any other child. And on the basis of observations made within the film, we are also able to develop extensive physicalistic theories about the world’s past and its causal laws. The projector with the film band, which is in fact the cause of the whole thing, does not of course appear in the film. The Big Bang, for example, and perhaps even that which preceded the Big Bang, is still part of the film. But the projector never appears in the chain of causes, not even at the beginning. It is rather the ground and cause of the entire chain and of every single one of its links. The word “cause” does not have the same meaning, but is used analogously, when we refer it to prior conditions within the world and when we refer it to God.


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1. This essay is the text of a lecture delivered 6 December 2004 at the Hochschule für Philosophie in Munich.