Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics and About God

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I. On cognizance

1. Cognizance of things


       The theories on supposed “natural revelation” maintain that man has an inbuilt cognizance (knowledge) of God, which man then further cultivates. In other words, man is born having knowledge of God.  Other theories say that there is no “natural revelation”, only a direct revelation on God’s part.  This is a dilemma that developed chiefly among Protestants and Roman Catholics.  A leading upholder of the theory that “natural revelation” does not exist, was – and continues to be - in the West : he is Karl Barth.


Like all other issues, this problem does not exist within our Orthodox tradition and mentality. Before we start to talk specifically about the patristic views – the views of Orthodox tradition on the subject of knowing God - I would like to first define the problem: what is cognizance.  And we shall begin by approaching the subject entirely objectively – let’s say, not as theologians, but as ordinary thinking people, or as scientists, if you wish.


What is cognizance (knowledge) ?


              1.  Cognizance of things


When we say that I “know” something, for instance: the table, it means that I am behaving in the following way:  I am pointing out this table in order to relate it to my person.  Aristotle had introduced this basic principle, which became familiar as the “this here” of Aristotle.  When you point towards something and you identify it, saying: this (thing) is ‘this one” and not something else, you are in fact saying that you know (recognize) it. In other words, knowing always has something to do with some kind of identification.  From the moment that the object’s identity is lost, then the knowledge of it is also lost. If this table is not this table but another one, then I don’t know it.   To be unable to identify it means “I cannot recognize it”.   Consequently, the identity of an object or a being is a necessary prerequisite for cognizance (“knowledge”).


Now, how do we identify various objects?  (This has to do with the gnosiology of every science.  We are not speaking as theologians here, but in general, as we already said).  And so, in order to simplify matters, I pose the following question: “In what way do I identify this table, and consequently say that I “know” it?”


     A.  This includes a negative action to begin with; in other words, I identify this table and I say that it is a table, thus ruling out that it is something else;  I am saying that “A” is “A” and that it is not “B”.  Therefore, in defining “A”, I try to define what is not “A”, i.e., by excluding another being.  When I say it is this, it means it is not that.


     B.  The second basic action that is contained in the act of cognizance (knowing) is that I am obliged – precisely because I am excluding other objects – to somehow encompass the object of my cognizance; I have to define it.  (Pay attention, how the use of words is very important).  What is the meaning of the word “define”?  The word “define” contains the inference of boundaries, or limits, or terms, which I place around the object.  I am indicating it by excluding other objects, but: I am also placing limits around it.


              C.  The third action that I perform, which is a consequence of the second action, is that I am describing it.  (here we have another term of gnosiology, which, however, signifies precisely the relating of an object by the method of isolating it)  To describe an object means that I inscribe (write) things around that object and thus create a frame around it.   I say that “A” is “A” and not “B”, and in this way, I identify it. Now, how do I go about describing it?  In order to describe, I utilize certain properties that the object has; for instance, in order to say that I am describing this table, and that I am identifying it by describing it, I need to give it a form.  If it loses its form ( as conceded to me by space and time ), I will say that this table is another one and not that one.  I identify it as being another.  Imagine, if space and time were non-existent, and likewise the ability to isolate and to describe on the basis of the table’s form, thus rendering this table united to the other table to an absolute degree, then, I would no longer be able to know (discern) the specific table.  Identity is lost and there will be a confusion of objects.  Cognizance (knowledge) will disappear.  Consequently, ‘description’  ( usage of the limits that space and time place between two objects ) is a necessary element and is accomplished on the basis of the object’s attributes (for example its form); this is advanced even further (Aristotle analyzed all of this), with the attributes of objects, which originate from a judgment expressed by the object of cognizance.  In other words, I say that this table is square in shape; as cognizance of the table progresses, I can now define its form and say it is square.


              But where did I obtain the concept of “square”?  It is a concept.  Plato would have said it is an idea that we draw from the permanent cosmos of ideas and then apply to tangible objects.  Aristotle says that it is not an idea, but merely attributes that the object itself possesses. In other words, the attribute of squareness already resides within the table.


At any rate, for me to say that something is square, I must use a logical shape, which can apply everywhere, and not only to a table. It must also be applicable to other objects.  It is not the table only that has a square shape.  If we supposed that in all the world, only the table is square in shape, then I could not call it square.  I have borrowed the concept of ‘square’ from my experience of another object.  We shall examine this eventually; (and you will see how opportune it is, when we apply it to God, which is a very serious issue. )


       In any case, we are now at a point where we describe the object by using its different attributes, which, apart from its shape, include thousands of other things.  The more attributes that I add, the more I “know” the object.  For example, it is square; then I go to the colour. It has that colour. Then I go to various other attributes. And, based on all of these, I end up ( and this is our next element ) with the ability to utilize the object.   And I can now define the object on the basis of its usefulness.  I say that it is a table, because I use it for writing on.  Thus, we always have a latent utilitarian aspect to this cognizance, which originates from the identification of an object’s attributes, because these attributes are automatically available for usage.  This usage may be aesthetic (i.e. it is beautiful), or the object may be altogether exploitable from a realistic aspect, in which case, I use it for a specific purpose.


       So, to summarize:  For the cognizance (knowledge) of an object, so that we may “know” it, relate it, we must have an exclusion of another object and a description based on the attributes that the object possesses, with the help of time and space.


            This is because we do not only relate objects that we perceive with our eyes, but also objects that we don’t see.  I can relate my father; I know him. He is no longer alive. However, time has made it possible for him to be isolated from me, otherwise, there would have been confusion between my father and myself.  If things were totally indistinct, I would never have known my father.  I know him, thanks to the distance that time and space have allotted, as in the case of the table.  Therefore, this description that I am making with the aid of time and space, is what helps me distinguish that “A” is “A” and not “B”.  I can therefore “know” things, on the basis of this procedure of description, which leads me to the detection of attributes.  And because of this detection of attributes, I am led – as I said – to their evaluation and their utilization.  I can say that this table is larger than the other one; it is better than the other one, etc., etc..  This ability to compare, also offers the possibility to utilize it later; to say: “I want a larger table now; this one is not suitable”.  All this procedure of “knowing” resides inside that which we call “scientific knowledge”, which is very much dependent on the cultural level and the cultural era in which one lives, so that one can see which of those attributes comprise useful attributes.  For instance, in ancient Greek times, when beauty was important, the attribute of form, of beauty, was the basic attribute by which one could get to “know” something.  In our age, and especially in the West, (where we can see how much theoretical sciences suffer), knowledge is accompanied by usage.  If you don’t provide something along with knowledge that will be useful and will produce results, you are not providing anything.  It is as though you know nothing.  This knowledge is of no interest.  Why should we speak of God, or of art?  What can it “give” us?  What are the results?  And nowadays, in England, theoretical Schools are in danger of being closed down, because the prevailing philosophy is “how is the industry benefiting from these Schools?…… Give the money to Schools that produce results.”  But how is a result produced?  From that very procedure of knowledge, which defines and describes and consequently provides the possibility of usage and the benefit through that usage.


            Well, that is basically the method one uses in science.  Although we must stress here that after Einstein and chiefly after the recent quantum theory, we definitely have a change in the perception that the researcher – the one who “knows” – distances himself from the object of his knowledge.  Because, as you are aware, natural sciences today believe that the researcher is somehow entangled in the procedure of ‘knowing’ his object and affects that knowledge.  In other words, to know that this table is square is not simply a matter of detecting the table’s attribute of squareness; it is as though the experimenter is affecting the result of the experiment.  Therefore, the experiment is not simply “the object” that has certain attributes.  We too allot certain attributes.  And knowledge is an interaction of our involvement within this procedure, to the point that knowledge is entirely changed.  We can’t expand on this right now of course. This is just a parenthesis.  I would like to say however, that the basic perception, the classical perception prior to Einstein, in short, the common perception of knowledge (cognizance), has those elements that I just described.


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Greek text

Translation by A.N.

Article published in English on: 12-7-2005.

Last update: 4-8-2005.