Existence of God Discussion Paper
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Existence of God Discussion Paper
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Does God Exist?
When a philosopher tells you that he or she is going to prove that God exists (or that God does not exist) your ﬁrst thought should be, “Wait! Stop! Before you say another word, tell me as clearly and as plainly as you can what you mean by the word ‘God.’” Like most familiar words, the word “God” has many meanings, and each yields a diﬀerent interpretation of the question “Does God exist?” Here are some of the most important possibilities.
Some Meanings of “God”
THE GOD OF SCRIPTURE AND TRADITION
We have ancient books about God and complex religious traditions built around them. One way to use the word “God” is to use it to mean the ﬁgure described in one or another of these traditions. In this view, when we ask whether God exists, we are asking whether there exists a being who did all or most of the things that God is said to have done in (say) the Hebrew Bible or the Koran.
Atheists who answer “no” regard these stories as myths, as we now regard the ancient Greek and Roman myths, while theists in the relevant tradition regard them as true stories about a real being whom the stories more or less accurately depict.
THE GOD OF THE PHILOSOPHERS
Philosophers often use the word “God” to mean an absolutely perfect being. Anselm’s famous ontological argument is not an argument for the historical accuracy of the Christian scriptures. It is an argument for the existence of a being than which none greater can be thought.
A being of this sort would be perfect in all respects: perfectly powerful (omnipotent), perfectly wise (omniscient), perfectly good(omnibenevolent), and so on. When the word is used in this way, it is a contradiction to say that God is limited in some way. Even if the world was created by an immaterial spirit who loves mankind and ensures that justice is done in the next life, if that being is imperfect in any way, then that being is not God when the word is used in Anselm’s sense.
GOD AS FIRST CAUSE; GOD AS DESIGNER
For some writers, the debate over the existence of God is a debate about the origin of the universe. In this view, when we ask whether God exists, we are asking whether the natural world owes its existence to a being that is not simply part of nature.
A supernatural creator must presumably be immaterial, since it exists before any material thing exists. If it is to count as a designer, it must presumably be intelligent and very powerful. But it need not be perfect in every way, and it need not play the role inhuman history that God is said to play in (say) the Bible.
GOD AS A TRANSCENDENT SOURCE OF “MEANING”
If philosophy could establish the existence of a supernatural cause of the universe, that would be an amazing contribution to metaphysics. But it would not by itself have much religious signiﬁcance. We can imagine someone saying, “Wow, that’s fascinating. But unless this cosmic being plans to interfere with my life, I plan to ignore it.
You’ve given me no reason to take this being into account or to live my life diﬀerently in light of its existence.” Some writers use the word “God” to signify a being that no one could sensibly shrug oﬀ in this way. On this conception, to say that God exists is to aﬃrm the existence of a being whose existence somehow manages to give meaning, purpose, directions, or limits to human life—a being that, by its very nature, merits devotion or obedience or even love.
Ground Rules in Philosophical Theology
These are rough sketches of some of the many meanings that philosophers have attached to the word “God.” Which is the correct meaning? This is a bad question. It’s like asking what the word “bat” really means, when we all know that it sometimes means a stick used in sports like baseball and sometimes a ﬂying rodent of the order Chiroptera.
Anselm seeks to establish the existence of God, by which he means a perfect being. You can object to his argument in many ways. But you should not object to it by saying, “By ‘God’ I mean the supernatural creator of the universe; Anselm has not proved the existence of a creator, so his argument is no good.” When you review the arguments for and against the existence of God,
Your ﬁrst job is to ﬁgure out what the author means by the words in his or her text.
Your second job is to determine what his or her argument is supposed to be.
Your third job is to decide whether the argument establishes its conclusion.
Given these aims, it makes no sense to quibble with the author’s terminological choices. You have more important things to do.
That said, it is possible to abuse the word. Occasionally someone will say, “I’m a religious person; I believe in God,” and then go on to explain that she doesn’t believe in anything supernatural. “When I say that God exists, I just mean to express my hope for human progress.” There is no law against this sort of Humpty Dumptyish use of words. (“‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said—in a rather scornful tone— ‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’”
1) But in philosophy this sort of idiosyncratic usage is a recipe for confusion. So, avoid it. If you want to express your secular hope for the future of humanity, we have perfectly good words for that already. There is no need to co-opt the language of theology for your purposes.
One last potential source of confusion should be mentioned. It is surprisingly common in discussions of the existence of God for people to say that God is an idea or a concept. One hears this from atheists who mean to say that God is just a ﬁgment of the imagination. But one also hears it from professed theists who seem to think that it makes their position less controversial. This way of speaking is, however, seriously misleading. There may be such a thing as the idea of God.
In fact, there may be many such things: your idea of God, my idea of God, and so forth. These ideas are representations in the minds or brains of human beings, and for present purposes, no one denies their existence. It is, however, a grave mistake to confuse your idea of X with X itself. You would never confuse your idea of your mother with your mother.
Your mother is a ﬂesh-and-blood person with hands and feet who existed years before you existed. Your idea of your mother is—well, who knows exactly what it is? But it is obviously nothing like that. Similarly, your idea of God did not create the universe. Your idea of God is not omnipotent, even if it is the idea of an omnipotent thing. The debate over God’s existence is a debate over the existence of a real being with extraordinary attributes. It is not a debate about the existence of an idea.
A Brief Taxonomy of the Arguments
However, we understand the word, everyone agrees that, if God exists, God is invisible, intangible, and undetectable by means of scientiﬁc instruments. How then are we to approach the question of God’s existence? In this book, we set aside arguments that depend on special revelation or on private religious experiences that are not widely shared.
These arguments are important. But the main philosophical challenge has always been to ask whether God’s existence can be established by philosophical reasoning informed by ordinary experience. This is the project of natural theology.
Some arguments proceed a priori. The most important is Anselm’s ontological argument—one of the strangest and also one of the most diﬃcult arguments in this area. Think of it as a reductio a dabsurdum. The atheist says, “A perfect being does not exist.” But if he says this, he must understand the phrase “a perfect being,” and whatever he understands must exist in his understanding, according to Anselm.
So, the atheist must agree that God exists in the understanding (i.e., in the mind). The only question is whether he exists in reality as well. Anselm then seeks to show that if God exists only in the understanding, God could have been greater than he is. But as God is a perfect being, this is absurd. And so, it follows that God must exist both in the understanding and in reality.
Almost every modern student of this argument rejects it, but there is no consensus about where the error lies. If you reject the argument, your job is not simply to show that it is unsound but to identify the source of the problem: the false premise, the invalid step. Be advised: this is very slippery material.
The remaining arguments all proceed a posteriori. The aim is to show that certain facts of observation and experiment constitute “evidence of things unseen.” The cosmological argument begins with an observed causal or explanatory sequence in nature, and then argues that this sequence must have an origin—a ﬁrst cause—that is not just another part of nature. Some versions assume that teach such sequence must have a beginning in time.
But the most sophisticated versions hold that even if the natural universe has always existed, there must still be something outside the world to explain why the world exists, and so to answer the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”
The most important arguments in recent natural theology begin with detailed observations drawn from the sciences. The design argument begins from the observation that the parts of plants and animals are brilliantly adapted to serve the purposes of the organisms whose parts they are. Before Darwin, the only serious explanations for this fact were theological, and even after Darwin, some versions of this argument are worth discussing.
Darwinian arguments assume the existence of living things, but the ﬁrst living thing must already have had parts that were adapted to beneﬁt the whole. Thus, some writers argue that the existence of life itself constitutes evidence of God’s existence.
There is of course a famous danger in such arguments. At any given stage in the history of science, there will be facts that science cannot explain. Given such a gap, a theist can say, “Aha! Science can’t explain it. But it must have an explanation. So God exists!” The defect in arguments of this form should be clear. Science makes progress. What we cannot explain today, we may well explain tomorrow.
So given an ordinary gap in our scientiﬁc understanding of nature, the rational response is not to posit a convenient God of the gaps, but rather to acknowledge that for now we just don’t know, and perhaps to hope that ordinary science will solve the problem.
The most recent of the arguments for God’s existence is crafted to evade this diﬃculty. The cosmological ﬁne-tuning argument begins from a claim about the fundamental constants of nature: certain numbers—like the gravitational constant—that appear in the basic laws of physics. We do not know these laws in detail.
But we know a bit about them, and what we know suggests the following: If the fundamental constants had been slightly diﬀerent from what they are, stars and planets would not have formed, and life would never have arisen. This raises a question: Why do the constants have “life-permitting” values? And here (it is claimed) there can be no scientiﬁc explanation.
The constants a respect of the fundamental laws of nature. But a fundamental law—by deﬁnition—cannot be explained.(If it could, it would not be fundamental.) So, the answer to our question, if there is one, cannot possibly come from science. Proponents of the argument regard the fact of “ﬁne tuning” as a reason to believe that a divine ﬁrst cause exists.
Are they right? The argument is new. Unlike the other arguments discussed in this section, it is a creature of the late twentieth century. The science it assumes remains unsettled, and philosophers are not going to settle it from the armchair. The question for you is therefore conditional: If the physicists tell us that the fundamental constants of nature appear to be “ﬁne-tuned,” what would this show about the existence of God?
Existence of God Discussion Paper
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