Arguments for the Existence of God - A Discussion
According to the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, the verb “to reason” means to make use of “the power of the mind to think in a logical way, to understand and have opinions” (and it is this act of reasoning that forms the base of every kind of philosophy (gr. “philosophia” – love of wisdom). The question (see title) that I posed myself for this piece of coursework is without doubt a deeply religious and philosophical one. But since I intend to argue and discuss the question of God’s existence, I shall only approach the matter from a philosophical point of view, because simply saying that one believes in God (belief and reason being the main difference between religion and religious philosophy) will not convince anybody of His existence. Logic, on the other hand, could make it impossible to either deny or claim His existence. Therefore, I shall proceed to reason instead of simply quoting a set of psalms from the bible and adding my comment on them. For the same reason, I shall very arrogantly not pay to much attention the ideas of philosophers such as René Descartes who claim (incoherently, as I will prove) that God‘s nature lies beyond logic – such a claim does not leave any room for debate.
To be, or not to be: that is the question.
The five World Religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism) are divided into to two main categories; abrahamic and dharmic religions. Abrahamic religions, as the name suggests, all claim to have a historical relation to Abraham and are all monotheistic, worshipping the omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and benevolent God Yahweh. Dharmic religions come from India and are usually polytheistic. Their God’s do not always play such a central role as Yahweh in the abrahamic religions. I decided to focus only on the latter because I would have had to go beyond the scope of this piece of coursework in order to take both types into close consideration and because dharmic religions are not as wide-spread in Europe as abrahamic religions. But even by limiting myself to Christianity, Islam and Judaism, I came to realise during my search for arguments for and against His existence that, as I had suspected, there has simply been to long a chain of ideas on the topic throughout European history to fit all of them into merely twelve pages. To remain within the limits I broke up this chain into its links and chose a selection of two powerful arguments which support the idea of a being such as Yahweh and two equally powerful arguments which vitiate it, discussing each of them with all the relevant counter-arguments that I could find on the topic. Although I am myself an atheist, I shall try to remain in a neutral position for an appropriate judgement.
The question of God’s existence has been occupying me since 2006 when I spent four months in England where I studied philosophy of religion at grammar school and it is from that time onwards that I drew the idea of writing my piece of coursework on this topic. There I already discussed “The Argument from Design”, I heard about Thomas Aquinas’ “Five Proofs” and I caught a first, very general glimpse of Darwinian natural selection, all of which will be discussed within this piece of coursework. During my search for arguments I made a lot of use of the internet, where I learnt most about “The Ontological Argument”, of which I had heard before, but never known what the argument actually was. For deeper understanding, I asked my father, a theologian himself, who answered a handful of my questions, to give me the renowned book The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins for Christmas. To gain further knowledge, I went to both the school and town library and had a look at a range of books, read one or two articles and searched for relevant material in my school book for philosophy. All titles and websites used for this piece of coursework will be mentioned in the list of references.
Finally, I would like to keep in mind that although I have read a lot on the topic, I am not God and therefore not omniscient. My own part in this piece of coursework involves my own thoughts, but I cannot say for sure that I am the first one to come up with them. However, as long as I don’t find anything that suggests that someone else came up with them before I did, I will let my selfish genes do their job and call these ideas mine. Now let’s get started.
2 Arguments for God’s existence
There are two main categories of arguments for God’s existence: a priori and a posteriori. Arguments that deduce His existence by observation of phenomena in the world are a posteriori arguments, as without observation they would not be possible. A priori arguments, on the other hand, try to come to a satisfying result by pure reason and no observation at all.
2.1 The Argument from Design
The Argument from Design (or the Teleological Argument) is an a posteriori argument and certainly one of the most influential ones. It occurs in different forms and has been discussed by a range of important philosophers. I shall present a selection of three famous versions of it that should give the reader good idea.
2.1.1 Thomas Aquinas’s Fifth Proof
St. Thomas Aquinas, a medieval philosopher and theist, offered five “proofs” for God’s existence in his Summa Theologica, the fifth of which is a teleological argument. The version I chose is the one that Richard Dawkins uses in his book The God Delusion (I will add the other proofs in the appendix):
“Things in the world, especially living things, look as though they have been designed. Nothing that we know looks designed unless it is designed. Therefore there must have been a designer, and we call him God.”
The point is that the entire world is far to complex to have simply been a matter of chance. Ecosystems, high and low tide, complex brains, intelligent life and the way animals are adapted to their environment, all this seems unlikely to have just occurred at random with no planning or designing at all.
This argument, by the way, is in my opinion one of the reasons for which people become religious. If there were no God, mankind would simply be a matter of chance and life would have no concrete purpose. And who would rather be a side effect of an enormous random development than the purposefully created image of the creator of the universe himself? The answer is dispensable.
2.1.2 The Watchmaker Analogy
There are various versions of the so called “Watchmaker Analogy”, but one of the most famous is that of William Paley (1743-1805). In his 1802 Natural Theology, or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity collected from the Appearances of Nature, Paley imagines the situation of a man walking through a desert and suddenly finding a perfect watch. The man would obviously assume (if he asked himself the question at all) that the watch was created by an intelligent designer, because it works so perfectly. The watch is compared to the perfectly designed world and in the same way that we would assume the watch to have been designed by an intelligent designer we must assume that the world was designed, too.
2.1.3 The Argument from Beauty
A lot of theists claim that the beauty of nature and art proves God’s existence. Looking at the sky during night time and seeing these uncountable numbers of stars twinkling ever so beautifully, reading a Shakespearean sonnet or listening to one of Beethoven’s symphonies, the incredible view of landscapes such as the Niagara Falls and the Himalayas, great architecture und presumably even the excellent taste of strawberry ice cream; all of these enrich the life of those who can properly appreciate it and therefore, according to some theists, are proof of a designer, who intended to make life on earth worthwhile.
In the end, all three of them, Thomas Aquinas’s Fifth Proof, the Watchmaker Analogy and the Argument from Beauty, lead to the same conclusion.
2.1.4 The inadequacy of the Argument from Beauty and Darwinian Natural Selection
First of all, I shall briefly state why the Argument from Beauty delivers at its best insufficient proof for divine existence. I only thought it to be worth a mention because I stumbled over it so often during my search for sufficient arguments. Richard Dawkins, who would agree with me on the matter, wrote once more in The God Delusion: “Obviously Beethoven’s late quartets are sublime. So are Shakespeare’s sonnets. They are sublime if God is there and they are sublime if he isn’t. They do not prove the existence of God; they prove the existence of Beethoven and of Shakespeare”. Great art must have a great artist as its creator, but this does not prove that the great artist had a (great) creator. As for the natural beauty, it contains no more of God’s signature than a composition of Schubert’s. You might as well claim that skunks prove that God does not exist and call it the Argument from Smelliness (which in form of the problem of evil is in fact quite a common argument against God). The author Douglas Adams once said: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” Does natural beauty prove God’s existence? Now this is a fairytale.
The Teleological Argument in Thomas Aquinas’ or Paley’s version was for a long time safe from sufficient criticism because of the lack of scientific knowledge. Philosophers such as David Hume (1711-1776) already stated that the impression of a designed world did not necessarily leave the existence of a supreme being as its only possible cause, but neither did they know of an alternative. It was not until Charles Robert Darwin (1809-1882) that the argument was at least partly chopped down to make room for his theory of the evolution of species.
During an expedition to the Galapagos Islands Darwin made an extraordinary observation. In his 1859 work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life he explains, how he came to the conclusion that all species evolve. What he spotted was that two islands with almost exactly the same physical conditions had produced completely different flora and fauna although they lay only half a hundred miles apart. Due to certain meteorological circumstances there was little wind or storm that could have carried birds or seeds from one island to the other. These observations led Darwin to the conclusion that different species can evolve in similar territories if those territories are separated from one another and he developed one of the most exciting biological theories.
According to Darwin, the creatures that exist today have not always existed. Rather they are part of a great evolutionary process that has not yet come to a halt. Complex species derive from primitive species, mutations randomly occur through slight changes of the genetic make-up. Those creatures whose genetic properties are well adapted to their environment can survive while others become extinct and it is because of a mass of mutations which are passed on through generations of a species that the flora and fauna seem to be so well adapted to their environment, as if they were designed. Darwin called this process of retaining some genes while dropping others in order to survive natural selection.
To clarify how the process works I will give a simplified example:
One type of monkey (say, Type A) has strong teeth and a small mouth, another type of monkey (Type B) has weaker teeth but a larger mouth. Type A is better at eating small nuts with hard shells, whereas Type B is better at eating larger nuts with soft shells. Because of climatic changes there are suddenly fewer large nuts with soft shells than small nuts with hard shells. Therefore, Type B can never feed more than one offspring while Type A can still feed two. So after one generation there are twice as many Type A monkeys as Type B monkeys. After the second generation there are four times as many Type A monkeys as Type B monkeys. The Type A monkeys, which are well adapted, survive while Type B monkeys become extinct.
2.1.5 The Creation of the Universe
Most theists do not deny that Darwin gives a good answer to why nature looks designed. But then they point out that Darwin only explains creation on a biological level, his theory does not, however, offer an explanation for the origin of the universe itself and until this day there is no sufficient explanation for it on a physical level that could satisfy either a scientific or a theological mind. Of course, there is the famous Big Bang theory according to which the universe expanded after a gigantic explosion, but there is no absolute scientific evidence for it or for any other theory. How could there be? The Big Bang is said to have happened billions of years ago. And even if scientists were absolutely sure that the Big Bang actually took place, a theist could still ask how it happened, if not through the power of God.
I won’t struggle for an answer to this question in order to defend atheism. But I would like to keep in mind that the development of science within the last two centuries has been amazing. At Paley’s time I would have been locked up if I had said that two centuries later I could fly from London to New York. These days I’d be locked up if I denied it. Darwin came up with the theory of evolution only one and a half centuries ago. Maybe there’ll be someone around 2150 A.D. who comes up with the Proof of the Theory of Expansion. We still have a lot to discover. But right now, although not knowing how the universe came into existence does not necessarily mean that it was created, we are like David Hume before Darwin and cannot absolutely contradict the theist argument.
2.2 The Ontological Argument
The Ontological Argument was firstly introduced by the medieval philosopher St Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury (1033-1109), in his Proslogion and it is an a priori argument, relying on pure logic.
2.2.1 The Argument
The idea is that everybody can imagine the greatest and most perfect being of all, “a being of which no greater can be conceived”. But this being only exists in the understanding of the person who imagines it and it is not real. Anselm continues that the being can also be imagined to exist in reality and according to him, the existence of such a being would be greater than if it did not exist. Therefore this very being must exist, for if it were only to exist in the understanding, we could conceive of an even greater being than this “being of which no greater can be conceived”, i.e. a being which is real. But this is logically impossible because it contradicts the definition of “a being of which no greater can be conceived”. So the greatest thing conceivable must exist both in the understanding and in reality.
2.2.2 My Criticism
I have to admit that, on my second reading of the argument, I was astonished by it. Not that it actually brought me to belief, but my atheistic ego was pretty helpless. I knew that something was wrong with the argument, but I couldn’t tell what was wrong with it. As Bertrand Russell said, it “is easier to feel convinced that (the ontological argument) must be fallacious than it is to find out precisely where the fallacy lies”. But I kept looking through it and, before reading Kant’s criticism of it, I believed to have found a mistake in it. Anselm wrote:
“And certainly that (being) than which a greater cannot be imagined cannot be in the understanding alone. For if it is at least in the understanding alone, it can be imagined to be in reality too, which is greater.”
I can imagine the greatest thing conceivable. It is only in my imagination. Now I can make it even greater, by imagining it to be real. Now the latter has replaced the first, the greatest being imaginable must be one that I imagine to exist. But this only improves my idea of the greatest thing conceivable. I still only imagine it to be in reality. This is only an improvement of my idea, but it does not mean, that the being actually exists. The same way, I can imagine a tastiest apple. It tastes better than any other in my imagination, but it would taste even better if it existed. I can therefore imagine an apple which tastes even better than the one I imagined before; the same apple, but a real one. Anselm would have concluded that there must be this apple. But the apple still only exists in our imagination. I therefore deduce that there might be such an apple, but its existence is not a necessary consequence of my thought. For the same reason I deduce that God may or may not be. And therefore the ontological argument is not valid.
2.2.3 Aquinas’ and Kant’s Criticisms
Aquinas, although he was a Christian, rejected the argument, because it already contains a definition of God. In his opinion, we cannot know what God is like, what His essence is. According to Aquinas, we cannot come up with a definition of something of which we cannot draw knowledge through sense-experience, something which nobody can draw of God. And Anselm defines God as the “being of which no greater can be conceived”. Therefore, the ontological argument is not valid, but if it were not for this objection, then, according to Aquinas, it would be a real proof.
Kant would not agree with Aquinas on his last point, that it would be a real proof, were it not for Aquinas’ objection, because Aquinas then claims that Anselm’s proposition “God exists” would be a self-evident (or analytic) consequence of the ontological argument. But this would mean that the predicate “exists” would have to be included in the subject “God” and that the negative form of the phrase, i.e. “God does not exist”, would have to be contradictory. Neither is true, the phrase “God exists” is not analytic, but this is what the ontological argument tries to make of it: it tries to deduce the existence of a being from its definition.
Furthermore, (and in my view more convincingly) Kant points out that things are not better if they existed than if they did not. I can imagine what this piece of coursework would be like when finished. Of course it would be better for me to have finished it, but this does not mean that the finished coursework would be any better than the one I imagined. Therefore the ontological argument is again not valid.
3 Arguments against the existence of God
For the arguments against His existence, I have chosen two very common and effective ways that philosophers took through the ages. One, like the teleological argument, tries to find proof against Him by observing the world, the other relies on contradicting the definition of God revealed in scripture.
3.1 The Problem of Evil
The problem of evil is one of the most obvious arguments against the existence of God. It poses the question: If there is an omnipotent and benevolent God as He is described in many Holy Scriptures, how come that there is any evil in the world? He would only want the best for everybody and His omnipotence would allow Him to make this wish come true.
As for most of the arguments for and against His existence, there are many counter-arguments on the topic. I have chosen and evaluated three counter-arguments.
Firstly, theists remark that a lot of the dissatisfaction and evil in the world is created by men. As Soren Kierkegaard put it: “Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The Gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.” According to Kierkegaard, men are the main source of evil in the world.
God had a choice of two when he created the world, he could either make free entities that act on their own behalf or robotic beings that obey his orders on the spot. Both would have had their disadvantages; free entities could abuse their freedom to do wrong, robotic beings would be rational slaves with limited emotions, they would lack everything that we value in life. Now certainly mankind is more valuable when free, because the pain we suffer due to other men is a price worth paying to avoid slavery. And God, being benevolent, would never want to be a slaveholder.
Firstly, I believed the following argument against the problem of evil that corresponds to the afore said to be my own, but during my research I found out that it had already been brought up by the English professor of philosophy of religion F. R. Tennant. Tennant argued that morality is nothing that can be forced into a soul but rather something that one learns from the consequences of one’s wrong-doing and through this one understands why it was wrong. Experience is the most convincing teacher.
A friend of mine, Stéphane Mailloux, once said to me: “A ton of theoretical knowledge is outweighed by a pound of practical experience.” I totally agree. God would not have pumped kindliness into us, but let us make our own mistakes if he really wanted us to understand thoroughly why our deeds were or were not morally acceptable.
Another relevant aspect is that we could not appreciate good times properly if we did not suffer from bad times, nor could we make proof of certain kinds of goodness if there wasn’t any evil. The first point underlines that a poor person will be far more grateful for any financial success than somebody who has always had enough money. The ups and downs make our life interesting and worthwhile. As for the second point, how could there be bravery, if there was no evil to stand up to? How could one forgive another, if the latter had not brought evil upon the first? Though this might not be a sufficient argument for some people, evil is a necessary condition for the existence of some of the greatest good. Without evil, life would be monotonous, boring and passionless.
Paradoxes concerning God’s existence try to confute Him by finding contradictions in the definition of Him. I have chosen two famous paradoxes and also come up with my own.
3.3.1 Karen Owens’ Paradox
Richard Dawkins uses this paradoxical verse by Karen Owens in The God Delusion to prove the impossibility of omnipotence and omniscience within one being:
“Can omniscient God, who
Knows the future, find
The omnipotence to
Change his future mind?”
If God already knows what he is going to do in the future, he cannot change his mind about what he is going to do, which means that he is not omnipotent. On the other hand, if he can change his mind he is not omniscient, because he does not know how he is going to intervene in the future. Therefore, he can never be both at the same time.
I find this logically convincing, but still I have to criticise it. For if God were omniscient, he would already know the best way of acting in the future, ergo changing his mind would not only be unnecessary but stupid, replacing the best way by one that is less good. And God, being a totally perfect entity, would never do something stupid, only to prove that he is able to do it. I could write an essay on the Teletubbies during a maths exam even if I knew the correct solutions, but it would just be silly and pointless. The same goes for Karen Owens’ argument and although this does not contradict her contradiction, I believe it raises an important aspect.
3.3.2 The Paradox of Learning and The Paradox of the Stone
After I had read Karen Owens’ paradox, I thought that I should try to come up with a paradox of my own, because to me it seemed a very good method of disproving at least the idea of the abrahamic God. So I thought of a very simple phrase and called it the Paradox of Learning: Can God learn? If he can, he cannot be omniscient by the meaning of the word. If he cannot then he is not omnipotent, because he lacks the ability of learning.
In the same way, the famous Paradox of the Stone tries to show that there is no way that God can be omnipotent: Can God create a stone so heavy that he cannot lift it? If he can, he cannot be omnipotent because he cannot lift the stone. If he can lift it, then he cannot create the stone. Either way he cannot be omnipotent.
3.3.3 Descartes and Aquinas – The objections
As I mentioned in the introduction, René Descartes (1596-1650) claimed that God’s nature is beyond logic. Therefore Descartes’ God would survive paradoxes, for they are based on logic. But the problem of evil proves that Descartes is wrong. My discussion of it showed that God only wants the best for man but has to accept certain kinds of evil. But Descartes’ God could have created a good world without any evil, although this is logically impossible. But when observing the world, we see that there is evil. Therefore, God cannot do the logically impossible.
Aquinas had a narrower view of God’s omnipotence. He says that God can only do the logically possible. So theists say that there is no contradiction, because God can do anything possible and a stone that God cannot lift is an impossible object. Therefore, they can say that God cannot create the stone without contradicting the argument.
But this is just wordplay. In the same way, I could turn things around and say that God can create any stone. The fact that God cannot lift the stone means that God logically contradicts himself, for God should, by definition, be able to lift any stone. Therefore God’s omnipotence is impossible, even in Aquinas’ sense.
Hence, paradoxes do not supply sufficient answers.
4 Summary and continuative thoughts
As we have seen, a lot of philosophical debate, especially the a priori kind, relies on exact wording. The Ontological Argument is an extremely clever word game, though I seriously doubt that Anselm of Canterbury saw through his own trick in the way that Kant did. The same goes for the paradoxes. The Paradox of the Stone may seem convincing at first. But the objections, all relying on logic, show that wordplay is not enough to find sufficient answers. The Teleological argument has, according to my discussion, a tendency to be stronger than its counter-arguments as long as physicists cannot find other scientific explanations for the existence of the universe. The Ontological Argument definitely fails. The Problem of Evil cannot truly survive its counter-arguments, the paradoxes are not very convincing.
None of the arguments that I offered have really proven the existence of Yahweh, nor have any proven the opposite. But I guessed as much before I even started writing this piece of coursework. If there was the ultimate answer to the question everybody would be either a theist or an atheist. But I agree with the American Poet Nancy Willard who once said that sometimes “questions are more important than answers”. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that if we cannot prove His existence, He will always be denied and if we do prove His existence, religion will lose all its fascinating mystery, because we would start to consider miracles as matter-of-fact. That is why we should focus on the questions. Philosophy is not the book of truth, but the love of wisdom that we seek by reasoning. The saying “The journey is the reward” suits this idea; we should love the discussion rather than the answer and for me it has indeed been a pleasure to read what Aquinas and Kant had to say on the topic, and to put forth my own thoughts. Not that the search can really be successful; either there is a God or He is not. If He is not, we will never find Him. And if He is, then His omnipotence (if there is such a thing) will allow him to hide from us as long as he wants to. Ergo, unless He suddenly wanted us to find Him, we will never be sure if He is. And surely He would enjoy our debates on Him so much that He would prefer to listen to all the different theories we come up with rather than to reveal Himself to all those who deny Him.
The last question that remains is whether or not it would be a good thing to prove that He does not exist, even if we could. So many people never give up hope, because they believe in God, so many would fear death even more than they do already. Does religion not make the world a better place even though it might be scientifically incoherent?
David Ari Nadkarni
1 Introduction 1
2 Arguments for God’s existence 2
2.1 The Argument from Design 2
2.1.1 Thomas Aquinas’s Fifth Proof 3
2.1.2 The Watchmaker Analogy 3
2.1.3 The Argument from Beauty 3
2.1.4 The inadequacy of the Argument from Beauty and Darwinian Natural Selection 4
2.1.5 The Creation of the Universe 5
2.2 The Ontological Argument 6
2.2.1 The Argument 6
2.2.2 My Criticism 6
2.2.3 Aquinas’ and Kant’s Criticisms 7
3 Arguments against the existence of God 8
3.1 The Problem of Evil 8
3.2 Counter-arguments 8
3.3 Paradoxes 9
3.3.1 Karen Owens’ Paradox 10
3.3.2 The Paradox of Learning and The Paradox of the Stone 10
3.3.3 Descartes and Aquinas – The objections 10
4 Summary and continuative thoughts 11
http://www.anselm.edu/homepage/dbanach/anselm.htm (19.01.2008). I underlined the essential part