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Proposition IV: The essence of the self-existent Being [is] incomprehensible.

IV. Proposition IV. The essence of the self-existent Being incomprehensible. What the substance or essence of that being, which is self-existent, or necessarily-existing, is, we have no idea; neither is it at all possible for us to comprehend it. That there is such a being actually existing without us, we are sure (as I have already shown) by strict and undeniable demonstration. Also what it is not, that is, that the material world is not it, as modern atheists would have it, has been already demonstrated. But what it is, I mean as to its substance and essence, this we are infinitely unable to comprehend. Yet this does not in the least diminish the certainty of the demonstration of its existence. For it is one thing to know certainly that a being exists; and another, to know what the essence of that being is. And the one may be capable of the strictest demonstration, when the other is absolutely beyond the reach of all our faculties to understand. A blind or deaf man has infinitely more reason to deny the being, or the possibility of the being, of light or sounds, than any atheist can have to deny, or doubt of the existence of God: For the one can, at the utmost, have no other proof but credible testimony, of the existence of certain things, whereof it is absolutely impossible that he himself should frame any manner of idea, not only of their essence, but even of their effects or properties; but the other may, with the least use of his reason, be assured of the existence of a Supreme Being, by undeniable demonstration; and may also certainly know abundance of its attributes, (as shall be made appear in the following propositions,) though its substance or essence be entirely incomprehensible. Wherefore nothing can be more unreasonable and weak, than for an atheist upon this account to deny 36the being of God, merely because his weak and finite understanding cannot frame to itself any adequate notion of the substance or essence of that first and supreme cause. We are utterly ignorant of the substance or essence of all other things; even of those things which we converse most familiarly with, and think we understand best. There is not so mean and contemptible a plant or animal, that does not confound the most enlarged understanding upon earth; nay, even the simplest and plainest of all inanimate beings have their essence or substance hidden from us in the deepest and most impenetrable obscurity. How weak then and foolish is it, to raise objections against the being of God from the incomprehensibleness of his essence! And to represent it as a strange and incredible thing, that there should exist any incorporeal substance, the essence of which we are not able to comprehend! As if it were not far more strange, that there should exist numberless objects of our senses, things subject to our daily inquiry, search, and examination, and yet we not be able, no not in any measure, to find out the real essence of any one even of the least of these things.

Nevertheless, it is very necessary to observe here, by the way, that it does not at all from hence follow, that there can possibly be, in the unknown substance or essence of God, any thing contradictory to our clear ideas. For, as a blind man, though he has no idea of light and colours, yet knows certainly and infallibly that there cannot possibly be any kind of light which is not light, or any sort of colour which is not a colour; so, though we have no idea of the substance of God, nor indeed of the substance of any other being; yet we are as infallibly certain that there cannot possibly be, either in the one or the other, any contradictory modes or properties as if we had the clearest and most distinct idea of them.

From what has been said upon this head, we may observe,

1st. Of infinite space. The weakness of such as have presumed to 37imagine infinite space to be a just representation or adequate idea of the essence of the supreme cause. This is a weak imagination, arising from hence, that men, using themselves to judge of all things by their senses only, fancy spiritual or immaterial substances, because they are not objects of their corporeal senses, to be, as it were, mere nothings; just as children imagine air, because they cannot see it, to be mere emptiness and nothing. But the fallacy is too gross to deserve being insisted upon. There are perhaps numberless substances in the world, whose essences are as entirely unknown and impossible to be represented to our imaginations, as colours are to a man that was born blind, or sounds to one that has been always deaf. Nay, there is no substance in the world, of which we know any thing further than only a certain number of its properties or attributes; of which we know fewer in some things, and in others more. Infinite space is nothing else but abstract immensity or infinity, even as infinite duration is abstract eternity. And it would be just as proper, to say that eternity is the essence of the supreme cause, as to say, that immensity is so. Indeed, they seem both to be but modes of an essence or substance incomprehensible to us; and when we endeavour to represent the real substance of any being whatsoever in our weak imaginations, we shall find ourselves in like manner deceived.

2dly. From hence appears the vanity of the schoolmen, The vanity of the schoolmen. who, as in other matters, so in their disputes about the self-existent being, when they come at what they are by no means able to comprehend or explain, lest they should seem ignorant of any thing, they give us terms of art, and words of amusement, mere empty sounds, which, under pretence of explaining the matter before them, have really no manner of idea or signification at all. Thus, when they tell us concerning the essence of God, that he is purus actus, mera forma, and the like, either the words have no meaning, and signify nothing; or 38else they express only the perfection of his power and other attributes; which is not what these men intend to express by them.

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