God of the Appearances: Does God possess sense-perception?

According to Augustine, the answer is “No,” but according to Anselm, the answer might just be “Yes.” In her study of The Neoplatonic Metaphysics and Epistemology of Anselm of Canterbury, Katherin Rogers argues that, his overwhelming debt and consistency with St. Augustine notwithstanding, Anselm actually seems to differ with the Bishop of Hippo in his theological understanding of sense-perception. For Augustine, Rogers writes,

man is not a true image of God when he is concerned with the senses… The mind is a true image of God only when it contemplates eternal things, and especially when it knows itself as being able to remember, understand, and love God. Augustine… thinks there is no real analogy between the human word born of the senses and the Divine Word.

Enter Anselm, who around 600 years later writes in ch. 6 of his Proslogion: “Therefore Lord, although You have no body, nevertheless You are, in a way, supremely capable of sensing, in that You know all things supremely, though not as an animal knows by its bodily senses.” As Rogers comments:

Anselm’s attitude towards sense knowledge seems rather different from Augustine’s… Anselm sees the ability to perceive sensible things as a perfection. Since it is a perfection God must have it. God does not see with eyes nor taste with a tongue, nonetheless, in knowing everything, He knows how sensible things look and taste. This is quite a remarkable assertion. Not only does it mark a deaprture from the earlier Neoplatonism which denigrates sense knowledge as “mere” appearance, but it suggests far-reaching epistemic implications. In Western philosophy, since ancient Greece, it has been almost a truism that sense data such as color, taste, sound etc. do not reflect truth or render knowledge. The Platonists say this because the world of sense is mutable and, in their eyes, only the unchanging can genuinely be known. The empiricists say it because they hold that the impression of the object perceived is produced as much by the perceiver as by the object. Thus Locke agrees with the ancient atomists that blue, for example, exists, qua blue, only in the mind of the perceiver. There is no blue “out there” in the blue objects. By holding that God has sense knowledge Anselm seems to give the sensible world an objective reality which most Western philosophers have denied to it. (Rogers 35)

We have sense-perception, in short, because in God there exists some perfection to which our powers of sense-perception are a real analogy or likeness. Rogers elaborates:

Surely the way individual things appear is part of the divine plan and so known by God from all eternity. It seems very odd to say that God has number the hairs on one’s head, but that He does not know what color they are. Augustine might say that knowledge of colors, tastes etc. is not really knowledge, that real knowledge must be of superior, non-sensible things. But this would put the sensible world outside of, or below, God’s plan. Augustine certainly thinks that the physical world was created and ordered according to God’s knowledge. Any other opinion is heresy. Thus it seems that the Christian philosopher ought to say that God eternally knows the appearances of things. (Rogers 35-6)

For Anselm, theology really does “save the appearances,” for God is the God of the appearances.

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