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A Philosophical Approach to Finding God

The question of God’s existence has been debated through the history of man, with every philosopher from Socrates to Immanuel Kant weighing in on the debate. So great has this topic become that numerous proofs have been invented and utilized to prove or disprove God’s existence. Yet no answer still has been reached, leaving me to wonder if any answer at all is possible. So I will try in this paper to see if it is possible to philosophically prove God’s existence.

Before I start the paper there are a few points that must be established. First is a clear definition of Philosophy of Religion, which is the area of philosophy that applies philosophical methods to study a wide variety of religious issues including the existence of God. The use of the philosophical method makes Philosophy of Religion distinct from theology, which is the study of God and any type of issues that relate to the divine. Now there are two types of theology, Revealed and Natural Theology. Revealed Theology claims that our knowledge of God comes through special revelations such as the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and the Koran. Saint Thomas Aquinas indicates that Revealed Theology provides what he calls “Saving Knowledge”, which is the knowledge that will result in our salvation.

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Now Natural Theology is our knowledge of God that one ascertains through natural reasoning or reasoning that is unaided by special revelations. Saint Thomas noted that this type of reasoning can provide knowledge of God’s nature, or even prove his existence, but can never result in the person attaining salvation for as he states, even demons know that God exists. A note must be made before we press on; as one might notice Natural Theology is akin to the philosophy of religion in the sense that both use human reasoning in their attempts to explain the divine. The main difference between them of course is the range of the topics considered.

Ontological Argument

The Ontological Argument, which argues from a definition of God’s being to his existence, is the first type of argument we are going to examine. Since this argument was founded by Saint Anslem, we will be examining his writings. Saint Anslem starts by defining God as an all-perfect being, or rather as a being containing all conceivable perfections. Now if in addition to possessing all conceivable perfections this being did not possess existence, it would then be considered less perfect from a being that does exist.

Since by definition God is all-perfect, and a being that does not exist is less perfect than one that did, it must be deemed that God exists. As one can see, Anslem explains God’s existence just by utilizing our concept of God as an all-perfect being. Simply put, the definition of God guarantees his existence just as the definition of a triangle guarantees that all triangles have three sides. This argument is a hard one to follow due to the fact that it utilizes the Reductio Ad Absurdum form. This is when you support your conclusion by showing that the negation of the said conclusion will lead to a logical paradox.

Numerous Philosophers, Immanuel Kant being one, have refuted Saint Anslems assertion. Kant’s main objection is that the argument rests on the idea that existence is a quality or property. He asserts that the word “exist” has a different meaning from property-words such as “green”, or “pleased”. He then goes on to state that only characteristics or qualities can clarify or describe a concept, and since existence is neither it cannot be utilized in the argument. Kant then points out that the concept of God existing cannot be derived from the definition of him being all perfect, just as the concept of a leprechaun or unicorn’s existence cannot be derived from its definition.

Another problem with the Ontological Argument is the belief that existence is a real predicate. A predicate is something that adds some type of description to a subject. To say that something exists is to merely state that there is something in our reality that correlates with the description we have. It answers the question of “Is there any”, but not the one “What is it”. It can also be pointed out that if the Ontological Argument was valid then one could prove the existence of a perfect singer, perfect scientist, or any other perfect being. This alone should make it clear that there is something drastically wrong with this argument. Lastly, this final note must be made, the Ontological may prove God’s existence but the question of his nature is never dealt with.

Teleological Argument

The next type of argument is called the Teleological Argument, or the argument from design. This argument starts by saying that the universe exhibits some type of purpose or order, and draws the conclusion that a supreme, intelligent being, must be responsible for this order. One of the most popular supporters of this argument goes under the name of William Paley. Paley starts by examining a watch, marvelling at how tall its pieces from the hand to its sprockets move in Harmony. Each of these pieces has a specific purpose, the hand tells the time, the sprockets move the gears, and so on.

This watch, or as Paley calls it “a well-adjusted machine”, would not demonstrate its purpose of telling time if one of its components were slightly perturbed. This precision, in Paley’s eyes, shows that there must be a watchmaker who created the watch for the purpose of telling time. He believes that it is just not possible for the watch to have been created by chance. It indicates that it is irrelevant whether anyone knows the maker of the watch, or actually witnessed its creation. He defends this by pointing out how we know that an eyepiece exists even though the vast majority of people do not know how, or who created it.

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Paley next declares that it would not invalidate his conclusion if the watch sometimes went astray or was seldom right. The purpose of the machine would still be evident, and that it is not relevant for the machine to be perfect to prove that it has a creator. He concludes the watch analogy with the assumption, that no intelligent person would assume that the pieces of the watch were just a random combination of nature.

The next concept Paley addresses is the idea of the watch being able to reproduce itself. Just because it can do this does not eliminate the fact that there must be a designer to establish the first in the line. We know that the watch has a designer because it demonstrates an end, a sort of purpose. Therefore there must be some artificer who understood its mechanism and designed its use. Paley in his final analysis compares the complexities of the human body to the watch to demonstrate that they both have a creator.

The first disagreement against the Teleological Argument comes to us from David Hume, who actually lived 100 years before William Paley. Hume looked at the idea that the universe is completely like the human-designed objects being utilized in this type of argument. He concluded that although they both may share some similar features the two are ultimately different. Second, Hume indicates that we need to compare this universe to another to see if it was created. The last argument denotes that an effect must be proportionate to its cause, and since the universe is imperfect with evil and suffering, then its creator also must be imperfect.

We will now examine Clarence Darrow’s objection to the Teleological Argument. He starts by claiming that what the hypothetical man would observe and conclude by finding the watch depends on the man. Men who would believe that the watch shows a design or purpose would reach this conclusion because they are familiar with tools and their use to man. While one must wonder if a bushman or even a wolf happened onto the watch would they derive the same conclusion? The obvious answer would be no because they are not able to draw an interference between the object and its meaning. This unfamiliarly of the object would lead to confusion and can cause the bushman or wolf to assume the watch has a different purpose.

Before I present the rebuttal for the argument, I must first bring you up to date with the argument. Paley’s interpretation of the Teleological Argument withstood all criticisms until Charles Darwin published “The Origin of Species”. Darwin showed that ordered exhibited in nature is the result of an evolutionary process. This theory now refuted the claim that only a divine intelligence is a sufficient explanation for order found in nature. This discovery caused defenders of the Teleological argument to reform their argument focusing now on probability. They claim that the evolutionary explanation of man’s existence rests mainly upon chance. They point to the tremendous odds against the complexity of life evolving by chance. An example of life on this planet evolving to its present form by chance is like the possibility of a tornado picking up all the scattered pieces of a 747 and putting it together. With this in mind, they claim that if your choice was between chance and an intelligent designer, and the odds are against chance and in favour of a maker, whom would you pick?

Richard Dawkin claims that the critics of evolution have misunderstood the concept. Life, he states, did not evolve by chance but rather through a nonrandom process he calls cumulative selection. The critics of evolution are viewing it as a single-step process that sorts and filters items only once. Cumulative repeatedly does this sorting, thus passing some of the first results to the second, and so on. He goes on to explain that an automated process that produces order can be found. He points to the ocean, where the pebbles on the beach are ordered, arranged, and sorted. This arrangement has been done by the blind forces of physics, which, as Dawkin puts it, has no mind of its own.

The waves simply throw the pebbles around, and they become sorted by their own weight. He goes on to critique the concept of guided evolution. This is the idea that God had some sort of supervisory role over the course evolution has taken. While we cannot disprove this idea, its reasoning implies that God must have taken care to masquerade his interventions so that they would always match we what would expect from evolution. One must keep this in mind, to assume guided evolution is to assume the existence of the main thing we want to explain, namely organized complexity. It simply postulates an already existing being of prodigious intelligence and complexity.

Cosmological Argument

The next argument is probably the most debated of all the ones we will be examining. The Cosmological argument reasons from the existence of the universe to the existence of God as its cause, creator, or explanation. While there are numerous variations on the argument, Saint Thomas Aquinas is the most used. While his whole argument consisted of 5 proofs, only two of these are really relevant today.

The first one is the causal or efficient cause. He starts by saying we find that things around us come into being as the result of the activity of other things. These causes are in fact the result of yet other activities. Yet this causal series cannot go back to infinity, hence there must be a first member. This first member is not caused by any preceding member and hence labelled God.

What frequently gets pointed out about the causal premise is that even if it were valid it would not establish the existence of God. It does not show that the first cause is all-powerful or good. Defenders of the cosmological point out that the argument is not meant to prove God’s existence, and that supplementary arguments are needed to ascertain the qualities of the first cause. The causal argument is only meant to be an important step in proving God’s existence.

The main disagreement about the causal argument centers on the infinite series paradox. Aquinas states that to imply an infinite series is not only illogical, it also implies that nothing exists. Yet we know that things do exist, hence the infinite series is wrong. Let me explain a little better, Aquinas reasoned that whenever we take away the cause the effect is sequentially removed. By maintaining that the series is infinite we are denying that the series has a first cause.

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Like on the alphabet, if you are denying the existence of the first cause, which is A, we are also denying the existence of Z. Since without A, Z cannot exist. Critics respond to Aquinas reasoning by stating that he did not sufficiently distinguish between

  1. A does not exist, and
  2. A is not uncaused

When you are stating that a series is infinite you are implying statement one, not two.

The critics go on to say that they are not at all refuting the existence of A, but merely stripping it of its privileged status of the first cause. Since they are stripping A of its first causes, but allowing it to exist, they are in no way committing themselves to the absurdity that nothing exists.

John Locke tries to counter this by saying that anyone who denies the conclusion of an eternal being, is committed to the absurdity that things came into existence from nothing. Philosophers answer this question by pointing out that an infinite series of causes always allow for something to exist. They then indicate that Locke failed to distinguish between

  1. There was a time at which nothing existed, and
  2. There is nothing, which did not have a beginning

The existence of an eternal source is committed to the second cause not the first. Another way of saying it is that they are committed to the idea that no matter how far back one goes in a causal series one will never find a thing without a beginning.

Critics of the causal argument criticize it on other points as well. The argument does not show that all various causal series in the universe ultimately merge, thus they never really rule out the notion of a plurality of first causes. Nor do they establish the present existence of the first cause. We know that an effect may exist long after its cause has been destroyed. From here defenders of the argument insist that some of the criticism rest on a misunderstanding of the argument itself.

They go on to distinguish between two types of causes “In Fieri” and “In Esse”. In Fieri is the cause that brought or helped bring an effect into existence; In Esse is the cause that sustains the effect. Now here we see some type of consensus, the defenders say that it is logical to have an infinite series of in fieri causes but not of in esse. This reorganization of causes eliminates one of the previously mentioned objections, proving the present and not merely the past experience of a first cause. For if Y is the in esse of an effect, then it must exist as long as Z exists. So to maintain that all-natural and phenomenal objects require a cause in fieri is not implausible.

John Stuart Mills and other philosophers state that to claim that all-natural objects require a cause in esse is illogical. Forces such as gravity, or particles, show no causes in esse. While most will grant particles did not cause themselves, it is not evident that these particles cannot be uncaused. Professor Philips admits that there is nothing self-evident about the proposition that everything must have a cause in esse.

From this comment, I am reminded of a snide remark Schopenhauer made about how the cosmological arguments treat the law of causation “like a hired cab which we dismiss when we reach our destination”(1). Back to the subject at hand, opponents of the argument state that after its restructuring, the argument still does not address the difficulties in which I have already pointed out.

Farther Coplestone goes to defend the argument with the idea that if there were an infinite series of causes, this would still not do away with the need for a first cause. “Every object has a phenomenal cause if you insist on the infinity of the series. But the series of phenomenal causes is an insufficient explanation of the series. Therefore, the series has not a phenomenal cause, but a transcendent cause….An infinite series of contingent being will be, to my way of thinking as unable to cause as one contingent being”(2) Bertrand Russell retorts that the demand to find the first cause of a series rests on the false assumption that the series is something over and above the members of which it is composed. This is an easy thing to do, take that the word “series” is a noun and can easily be taken as an individual object. Yet it is absurd to ask for the cause of the series as a whole, and then proceed to ask the causes of the individual members. It is here in the causal argument do you see a blurring of the next type of Cosmological argument.

Defenders insist that when they ask for an explanation of a series, they are really saying that a series is not explained if it consists of nothing but contingent members. “What we call the world is in intrinsically unintelligible apart from the existence of God. The infinity of the series of events, if such an infinity could be proved, would not be in the slightest degree relevant to the situation. If you add up chocolates, you get chocolates after all, and not a sheep. If you add up chocolates to infinity, you presumably get an infinite number of chocolates.

So, if you add up contingent beings to infinity, you still get contingent beings, not a necessary being”(3) This last quote by Father Copleston is nothing more than the summary for the contingent argument, the other main form of the cosmological proof. It follows that all around us we perceive contingent beings, by contingent we mean beings that might not have existed. The universe could be conceived without these contingent objects. We can properly explain contingent beings around us only by tracing them back to some necessary being.

Therefore the existence of a contingent being implied the existence of a necessary cause. To Kant, this form of argument commits the same error as the Ontological, regarding existence as an attribute or characteristic. Yet philosophers like Farther Coplesten refute Kantian criticism and assert that existence is a characteristic.

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Yet it is Bertrand Russell’s critique of the argument that does it the most damage. He believes that the contingency argument rests on a misconception of what an explanation is and does, and what makes a phenomenon intelligible. If it is granted that in order to explain a phenomenon or to make it intelligible we need not bring in a necessary being, the contingency argument breaks down. Like the series, every contingent agent can be explained by reference to other contingent agents. Russell then attacks the premise that states there are explanations for phenomena. One must question not only can humans obtain this explanation but if it even exists? To use the word “explanation” lends the premise a plausibility that it does not really possess.

Appeal to Biblical Faith

Emil Fackenheim whose views are derived from certain ideas of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber is the best-known advocate for this proof. Buber came up with the concept of the eclipse of God in response to the suffering of the Jewish people during the Nazi regime. The concern of the time was that if there was an all-powerful God then he could have surely stopped the extermination at Auschwitz. The fact that these camps did exist, and six million Jews mostly women and children were murdered, causes one to question his existence. Buber goes on to say that the phenomena like Auschwitz do not show that God does not exist, but rather there are periods when God is in eclipse. Buber has convinced the eclipse of God will not last forever, and if we endure the silence he will return to us shortly.

Fackenheim’s first contention is that biblical faith differs from the attitude of science. The believer’s position is impregnable while the scientist is forever hypothetical. If a scientist’s hypothesis is disconfirmed then he will either modify it or abandon it. The biblical believer will do nothing of that sort, for once the nature of biblical faith is understood then it is easy to see why the evil that unquestionably exists in the world does not disprove it.

Tragedy does not destroy Biblical faith but merely tests it. In his mind, biblical faith is irrefutable and scientific evidence cannot affect it. If the bible contains a statement that is proven false, well one must keep in mind that God can both reveal and conceal himself. Fackenheims second contention concerns the place assigned to religious experiences by the biblical believer. Basically, human beings have meetings with God, and these meetings are what all religions are based upon.

The problem with the first contention, biblical faith is empirically verifiable and nothing can refute it, involves confusion between psychological considerations and the real logical issues at stake. The question at stake is whether, in light of the evil in the world, the claims of the believer can be shown as false, or highly improbable. Fackenheim is misled by the ambiguity of certain statements that he uses, such as “destroy” and “test”.

The horrors of the world may not in fact destroy a given person’s religious faith in the sense it causes him to abandon it, but this in no way shows that they do not destroy it in the sense of disproving his faith. We know bigots are so attached to beliefs that they will not give them up regardless of the facts in front of them. What is remarkable is the fact that a philosopher advocates this type of reasoning as an intellectual policy of great virtue.

On Bubar’s doctrine of the eclipse of God, one retorts that God’s self-concealing is inconsistent with his perfect goodness or indeed any kind of goodness. Imagine a child in trouble who calls out for his dad, this dad does not only know about it but can come to his aid. Instead, he decides to conceal himself, would we not consider this person a monster? It is difficult to see what other responses could be justified toward a deity behaving in this concealing fashion. This deity is not one who falls short of complete goodness but rather a monster, which as Russell puts it, makes Nero look like an angel.

Both Bubar and Fackenheim claim that their argument is not one that argues from a religious experience; hence they are immune to the fallacies of that argument. Yet critics counter that they are presenting an argument from a religious experience, one that is incompletely stated. One might remark that many people, who claim to have had glimpses of God, as Fackenheim puts it, are in both of these philosophers’ minds delusional.

Charles Guiteau who assassinated President Garfield acted upon what he thought was instructions from God. As John Baillie puts it, there must be some criteria to distinguish fake encounters from real. We simply cannot take Bubar’s word that certain glances are illusionary while others are not.

In conclusion, I am left pretty much in the same place as I have started. It is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God philosophically. For every philosopher who publishes his or her opinions on the subject, three more are there to tear it down. In the end, I think it is best that man does not figure out the answer to this lifelong question. Some things are better left unanswered.

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