Philosophy of Religion

God has had a substantial role in the history of philosophy. For example, Descartes attempts to escape solipsism by appeal to the clear and distinct idea of God; he also invokes the Almighty in his attempt to explain the problem of causal interaction. In addition, Berkeley required the intervention of God in order to account for the continued existence of the world not perceived. However, most (but certainly not all) modern philosophers are atheists; indeed many actually hold religion responsible for a great many of the world’s ails. Given the role that religion continues to play in our lives it is important for philosophy to consider the arguments for and against the existence of God.

The first argument we are going to consider is the Ontological Argument, most famously put by Anselm of Canterbury in his Proslogion in the 11th century.

So, Lord, you who give understanding to those who have faith, grant me to understand, so far as you judge fit, that you indeed exist as we believe, and that you are as we believe you to be. Now we believe that you are something than which nothing greater can be thought. Is there then no such being, since ‘the fool hath said in his heart: there is no God’? Yet surely this same fool, when he hears the very words I now speak – ‘something than which nothing greater can be thought’ – understands what he hears; and what he understands exists in his understanding, even if he does not understand that it actually exists. For it is one thing for an object to exist in the understanding, and another to understand that the object exists. When an artist thinks in advance of what he is about to paint, he has it in his understanding, even if he does not yet understand it to exist, since he has not painted it. But when he has painted it, then he both has it in his understanding and also understands that it exists, since he has painted it. Hence, even the fool must agree that there exists, in the understanding at least, something than which nothing greater can be thought; for when he hears this expression he understands it, and whatever is understood exists in the understanding. Yet surely that than which a greater cannot be thought cannot exist in the understanding alone. For once granted that it exists, if only in the understanding, it can be thought of as existing in reality, and this is greater. Hence if that than which a greater cannot be thought exists solely in the understanding, it would follow that the very thing than which a greater cannot be thought turns out to be that than which a greater can be thought; but this is clearly impossible. Hence something than which a greater cannot be thought undoubtedly exists both in the understanding and in reality.

Almost immediately, Anselm’s argument, which we will look at in more depth in class, provoked a response. Below is a reply to Anselm from a monk named Gaunilo of Marmoutier, virtually accusing him of absurdity:

For example, they say there is in the ocean somewhere an island which, due to the difficulty (or rather the impossibility) of finding what does not actually exist, is called “the lost island.” And they say that this island has all manner of riches and delights, even more of them than the Isles of the Blest, and having no owner or inhabitant it is superior in the abundance of its riches to all other lands which are inhabited by men. If someone should tell me that such is the case, I will find it easy to understand what he says, since there is nothing difficult about it. But suppose he then adds, as if he were stating a logical consequence, “Well then, you can no longer doubt that this island more excellent than all other lands really exists somewhere, since you do not doubt that it is in your mind; and since it is more excellent to exist not only in the mind but in reality as well, this island must necessarily exist, because if it didn’t, any other island really existing would be more excellent than it, and thus that island now thought of you as more excellent will not be such.” If, I say, someone tries to convince me though this argument that the island really exists and there should be no more doubt about it, I will either think he is joking or I will have a hard time deciding who is the bigger fool, me if I believe him or him if he thinks he has proved its existence.

Most people will, I think, side with Gaunilo here. However, the Ontological Argument, in one form or another, has had many advocates (including Descartes) and some contemporary philosophers (such as Alvin Plantinga) still hold that it is valid. One thing that we can say for certain is that, for Anselm, the definition he provides – that than which nothing greater can be thought – is crucial. Whether or not anything could ever satisfy this definition is quite another thing.

The second argument for the existence of God that we will consider is the Cosmological Argument. The Cosmological Argument originates with Aristotle and, as such, is an argument which pre-dates Christianity; it is Christianised by St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae in the 13th century. Aquinas writes:

[I]t is impossible that something should be both mover and moved, or that it should move itself. Hence, whatever is in motion is moved by something else. And if something else is itself moved, it must in turn be moved by something else, and so on. But the series cannot continue ad infinitum, since in this case there would not be any first mover, and hence nothing would move anything else, since subsequent things do not move unless moved by an original mover (just as a staff does not move unless moved by a hand). Hence it is necessary to arrive at a first mover which is moved by nothing else; and this everyone understands to be God.

Perhaps the best way to understand the Cosmological Argument is in terms of a huge multi-track falling domino event where each domino in turn knocks over the one next to it. Now, suppose that we walked in on one of these tracks just as the 8,677th domino fell. We would say, I think, that the domino didn’t fall by itself – rather it was made to fall by domino 8,676. Domino 8,676 was moved by 8,675, which was in turn moved by 8,674 and so on. BUT – and here comes the hard part – this series cannot have been going on forever. The reason for this is rather complicated and we can discuss it in class but, in brief, in order for us to see this particular domino fall an infinite number of dominos must have already fallen. But an infinite number of dominos can’t have already fallen as an infinite series of events can never be completed. As such, Aquinas concludes that there must be an unmoved mover ( an uncaused cause) and this, he claims, is God.

Aquinas’ argument seems valid. If reason dictates that infinity is impossible, then there must have been a first event. Science tells us that all events have antecedent causes and, as such, the first (uncaused) event would seem to be rather unique. However, the claims of science are based on inductive inference and, as such, it is not impossible that there should be many of these uncaused causes. Moreover, even atheists are able to endorse the argument. For all the argument proves, if successful, is that there must have been a first event, an uncaused cause. Modern science accounts for just such an event – the ‘big bang’.

The third, and final, argument for the existence of God that we are going to consider is known as the Teleological Argument (or the argument from design). One of the clearest statements of this argument comes from William Paley (Natural Theology, 1802):

Suppose I had found a watch upon the ground, and it should be inquired how the watch happened to be in that place (…) There must have existed, at some time, and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers, who formed [the watch] for the purpose which we find it actually to answer; who comprehended its construction, and designed its use. (…) Every indication of contrivance, every manifestation of design, which existed in the watch, exists in the works of nature; with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.

In class, we’ll point out that this argument suffers from a potential infinite regress, and that arguments from analogy are rather weak, but here I’ll let Bertrand Russell (‘Why I am not a Christian’, 1929) respond to Paley as only he can:

You all know the argument from design: everything in the world is made just so that we can manage to live in the world, and if the world was ever so little different, we could not manage to live in it. That is the argument from design. It sometimes takes a rather curious form; for instance, it is argued that rabbits have white tails in order to be easy to shoot. I do not know how rabbits would view that application. It is an easy argument to parody. You all know Voltaire’s remark, that obviously the nose was designed to be such as to fit spectacles. That sort of parody has turned out to be not nearly so wide of the mark as it might have seemed in the eighteenth century, because since the time of Darwin we understand much better why living creatures are adapted to their environment. It is not that their environment was made to be suitable to them but that they grew to be suitable to it, and that is the basis of adaptation. There is no evidence of design about it. When you come to look into this argument from design, it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience have been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku Klux Klan or the Fascists?

In addition to the inherent flaws in these arguments, it must also be pointed out that, even if successful, they provide us, respectively, with: something than which nothing greater can be thought, an uncaused cause, and a cosmic designer. However, I am not convinced that any of these definitions accurately capture the Christian conception of God.

The standard definition of the Christian God has, for philosophers, been given in terms of three necessary and sufficient conditions. God is: omnipotent (all powerful); omniscient (all knowing), and; benevolent (perfectly good). As these characteristics are ones with which most Christians would agree, any satisfactory argument for the existence of the Christian God must be an argument for the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God.

The problem, however, is that it seems any such attempt may be doomed to failure. This is the basis of this week’s reading, J.L. Mackie’s ‘Evil and Omnipotence’. Mackie argues that the existence of evil in the world is incompatible with belief in a benevolent, omnipotent God. That is to say, if God is perfectly good he should not want evil to exist and if he is all powerful he should be able to bring it about that it doesn’t. Given that evil exists, there cannot be an omnipotent benevolent God. The standard Christian response to such arguments is that God granted humans free will, and this entails that we are free to choose to do evil. [It is worth noting that the existence of human free will in itself seems incompatible with he condition of omniscience; i.e. if God knows what we are going to do then we’re not free, if he doesn’t then there is something he doesn’t know. We will be looking more closely at issues related with free will next week.]

The problem with the human free will defence, however, is that it doesn’t account for the existence of natural evils (floods, droughts, famines, plagues, tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, etc.). Although it is arguable that some of these events stem from human actions, most do not. As such, how can we hold a belief in a omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God when every year millions of people suffer at the hands of natural disasters?

The believer, however, is likely to point out that such inconsistencies, paradoxes, and arguments (either for or against the existence of God) are irrelevant. Belief in God, they will say, is not the product of reason, but the product of faith. In class we will discuss just what it amounts to to have faith by considering Kierkegaard’s (1813-1855) notion of the ‘leap of faith’.

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