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Argument on the Existence of God Essay



Aims By the end of this chapter you should:

1. Appreciate the different approaches that are possible to religious questions understand some of the arguments for and against the existence of God, and have some insight into the debate which is generated by competing claims

2. Understand the role of faith and belief in the context of religious knowledge

3. Be able to justify a personal position on the question of the existence of God.


In any search for truth, the issue of religion will arise as some point. You may have already seen that religious values, or lack of them, permeate our thinking about many issues, and MOST people naturally feel a deep personal interest in the whole question of God. There may be people who are indifferent to the possibility of God's existence; if so I have never come across them. And it would be strange to be indifferent to an area of knowledge which claims to explain the nature of right and wrong, the purpose of life and what happens to us after death. What more important and exciting questions can there be? Although religious questions are asked universally (every single culture throughout history has, as far as we know, had the concept of one or more deities), there have been no universally accepted answers. Opinions vary from atheism (the belief that there is no God), to theism (the belief that there is one God), to polytheism (the belief in several gods), to pantheism (the belief that the Universe is God), and agnosticism (the lack of belief one way or another), and within each 'ism' there are numerous, sometimes strongly conflicting, beliefs. A full investigation is more than we can offer here — instead we focus on the most commonly held belief, namely that there is one omnipotent, benevolent and personal God who takes an active interest in humanity, and ask the central questions: Is there a God? How can we know? Before we even start to answer the questions, we find that we are already in controversy. The philosopher A. J. Ayer dismissed the whole concept as meaningless, since 'no sentence which purports to describe the nature of a god can possess any literal significance'. (Ayer was a logical positivist, which meant that he would only accept as meaningful statements which could be verified by empirical evidence. The logical positivists' approach is now regarded by most as extreme and fairly barren.) Similarly, in the eighteenth century, David Hume suggested that rational inquiry can play no part in religious matter. Of the whole concept of divinity, he wrote, 'Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.' It will come as no surprise that many believers have accused this sort of philosopher of monstrous conceit and have suggested that it is philosophy, or in extreme cases, philosophers, who should be cast into the fire! St Attgustine's view was that humans must rely on God, not reason, to guide them to the truth, and in cc response to the 'stupefying arrogance' of philosophers who believed they could work out the great questions without an appeal to God, wrote 'What sort of an awareness of truth is there in this material flesh?' Those are the extreme views. These days most people would agree that there is a middle ground between philosophy and religion; certainly it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility out of hand. Arguing that both faith and reason are divine gifts, the great Christian philosopher St Thomas Aquinas rejected the idea of an inherent conflict between them. He saw them as complementary, even harmonious tools with which to study God. The Prophet Muhammad expressed a similar sentiment when he said 'God has not created anything better than reason, or anything more perfect or more beautiful than reason.' This whole course is based on the principle that we need to maintain an open mind and to try to apply honest reasoning where we can. Let us therefore see how far reasoning will take us, and lilt proves to be an insufficient tool then let us recognise that and examine the alternatives.

A What are your religious beliefs (if any)? Do you know why you believe what you do? Is it a set of beliefs (or lack of beliefs) you have come to yourself, or one that you have absorbed from your culture unquestioningly? B Do you believe that reasoning should play a part in determining religious beliefs? C Look at the different meanings of 'exist' in the following sentences: • Trees exist. • Pain exists. • Protons exist. 111 Dinosaurs exist. El Dragons exist. M Energy exists. 01 Ghosts exist. U Love exists. Which statement is most like 'God exists'? D Would any of the following demonstrate the existence of a God? IS If believers lived on average 25 years longer than atheists. • If prayers of believers were answered. 1/1 If children started to quote the Holy Book as soon as they learned to talk. If believers were more successful in life than atheists. O If believers could perform miracles. 10 If believers after death were seen to fly up into the sky and disappear. Can you think of any empirical test that would prove that God existed?

Many brilliant thinkers have argued passionately that God exists; many have argued that He does not. Some of the arguments have been debated for the best part of 800 years, and still inspire new defences and counter-attacks from both sides. We will review some of the more popular arguments and then stand back and take stock of what, if anything, we can conclude.

The fool hath said in his heart 'There is no God.'
Book of Psalms 14.1

Imagine you are walking in a sandy desert, miles from civilisation, through what xou believe is completely uninhabited land. There have been no signs of human life for days; just sand in all directions, and the odd camel. Suddenly, in the distance, something small and shiny on the ground catches the light; you walk over to it and you find a camera. You were sure that there were no humans in the area, so you have two options. Either you were wrong, and the camera was put there by humans, or it somehow sprang into being by some mysterious, purely natural forces. Which choice is the more reasonable? In this case, we clearly require human intervention (neglecting the camel possibility) because the camera could not have come into being in an accidental way. The lens exactly fits the camera body, the shutter opens for exactly the right length of time to create a detailed image on the film, the film is itself a very clever way of recording visual images, and there is a viewfinder lens for humans to look through to see the image they are recording. In short, the camera shows unmistakable signs of design, and what is more, design for human use. For many people, exactly the same argument applies to the world. It is clearly designed, so there must be a designer, and God is that designer. In fact, the argument arguably applies with far more force. You think a camera is complex? Look at the eye! Look at the brain! A single human brain is the most complex physical structure known to man, far, far more complex than the most sophisticated supercomputer. If a camera is designed, surely a brain must be designed? For many people, the argument from design, or teleological argument (from Greek telos meaning 'goal' or 'end'), means that a compelling argument in favour of God's existence is all around them. It is in the intricacy, beauty and design of the natural world. The most famous counter-argument against this proof comes from Charles Darwin, and in essence it is very simple (note though, that it is an argument against the teleological argument, not an argument against the existence of God). Darwin makes a distinction between the concepts of order and design, suggesting that not everything which shows order must have been designed. As an example, consider walking along a river. You notice that as you walk further, the rocks in the river seem to be getting bigger; that the river is well-ordered in this respect. But no designer is needed to explain this ordering, and the whole process is completely and convincingly explained by geographical theories of fluvial transportation and deposition — sorting rocks of different sizes is simply the result of natural physical processes. Similarly, Darwin argues that we can explain the order in nature through purely physical processes; that a designer is unnecessary. This means that we can account for the world without God, and that the apparent design of the world is no evidence for a creator. Of course, the order in the natural world is far greater than that in a single river and Darwin's basic idea needs a lot of detailed work before it becomes convincing, but most, though not all, scientists working in biological fields believe that the evidence for it is convincing. One variety of the argument from design that is at least partly immune to Darwin's criticisms goes by the name of the anthropic argument. This argument notes from a scientific point of view that very slight changes in any one of several aspects of the Universe would have made it impossible for us to exist, or even have evolved. If the Earth were a little closer or further away from the Sun; if the atmosphere were a little thinner; if the Sun were hotter or cooler; if the structure of water were a little different; if the electron/proton or neutron/proton mass ratios were different; if the ratios between the four fundamental forces were different; if there were different numbers of spatial dimensions and so on, we would not exist. All these and dozens of other conditions must be fulfilled for us to be able to survive or evolve. What is the probability of that happening? Extremely low runs the argument, and this provides evidence that we are not here by pure chance. Astronomer Fred Hoyle said that it looks as if 'someone has been monkeying with the laws of physics'. Others argue that the logic is incorrect; given that we are here, it is absolutely certain that these things are the way they are. If they were not, we would not be here, and it is a trick of conditional probability that it appears unlikely.

A The following argument has been made against Darwin's idea of evolution: The human body is vastly more complex than a jumbo jet. But we say that 'natural events' led to humans. Well, could natural events lead to even a jumbo jet? Could a natural event like a whirlwind sweep through a scrap yard and somehow assemble all the parts for a jumbo. ready for take-off? If not, then natural events can neither account for jumbo jets nor humans. Evaluate the validity of this analogy. B Augustine of Hippo, the fifth-century bishop and philosopher, anticipated Darwin by well over a thousand years, suggesting that God created the Universe with built-in organising principles through which all forms of life and non-life developed. So is evolution consistent with belief in God? What would scientists today make of Augustine's claim? C What do you think of the anthropic argument? Is it persuasive? D Let us grant the argument from design its full force, and accept that the Universe was indeed designed. What can we conclude from this fact? Are we inevitably led to the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God, or could God be of a completely different nature?

A second argument often put forward in favour of God's existence has been called the argument from first cause, or the cosmological argument. Like the argument from design, it is based in everyday experience. When we ask 'Why did this happen?' we always feel there is a cause, even if we cannot find it. And when we have found the cause, we can, like the proverbial curious child, ask why that happened, and so on. For example, in attempting to answer the question, 'What causes the stars to twinkle?', we can imagine a (very truncated) sequence which starts 'stars twinkle because the light comes through the atmosphere; coming through the atmosphere causes twinkling because of the process of refraction; refraction is caused by ...' and which eventually ends '... because that is the way the Universe is made'. In any explanation we either keep on going, or we stop somewhere, and this argument suggests that the somewhere is God. Most famously stated by Thomas Aquinas, this argument can be expressed in the following logical form: I Every event is caused by some event prior to it. 2 Either the series of causes is infinite, or it stops with a first cause which is itself uncaused. 3 An infinite series of causes is impossible. 4 Therefore a first cause, which is uncaused and which is God, must exist.

This common-sense approach has also been subject to stinging criticism from David Hume, who we have by now seen several times before, and who disputed 1, 3 and 4. Hume thought that 3 is simply false, that it is another example of limited human understanding, and the need to impose human order on the Universe. If we can conceive of an infinite future, why not an infinite past? It is not logically or empirically clear why 2 should be true, so we should not accept it. He also argues that even if 1, 2 and 3 are true, why does this lead to God? Couldn't the Universe have created itself, uncaused? A related difficulty lies in the contradictory nature of the argument. Premise 1 seems to rule out the possibility of anything uncaused at all, which would rule out God immediately. Recent attempts have been made to defend Aquinas against these charges, and it is fair to say that, despite flume's penetrating comments, debate is still alive and well in some philosophical quarters.

A Current scientific theory suggests that the Universe began in a 'big bang several billion years ago. It also suggests that some events on the quantum-mechanical scale are genuinely uncaused. Are either of these facts evidence for or against the argument from first cause? B What do you think of part 2 of Aquinas' argument? Is it possible to imagine an infinite past? Is this harder to conceive of than an infinite future? If so, why? C Some have argued that trying to find the first cause is like trying to find the smallest positive number — a meaningless task. Given any number (state of the Universe), you can always find a smaller number (earlier cause) but you can never find the smallest number (first cause) because there is no such thing. This is obvious when you think of a number line — no matter how close you get to zero, you can always 'zoom in and get closer. Is this a helpful analogy? Is it possible to imagine that every single event has a cause, but that there is no first event? D Let us grant the first cause argument its full force, and concede that the Universe was indeed caused by God. What can we conclude from this fact? Are we inevitably led to the existence of an omnipotent, benevolent God, or are there other first causes equally consistent with design?

The final argument we shall consider, and one that has had great popular appeal over the centuries, is the argument from miracles. According to this argument, miraculous happenings throughout history, such as Jesus rising from the dead, milk flowing from a stone statue of Ganesh, or sudden remissions of deadly diseases, are evidence of divine intervention because only God could cause such things to happen. Like the other two arguments, there is something very appealing about this line of thinking — some events seem so incredibly unlikely, implausible, or even impossible for humans, that some sort of divine agency must be responsible. However, Like the other (WO arguments, there are problems. Firstly, let us consider exactly what we mean by a miracle. Presumably it must be something which cannot be explained by an natural or scientific laws, so in this context we do not mean such miracles as the 'miracle of birth', wonderful and awe-inspiring as this may be, as it requires no divine intervention. Most physical and biological processes are reasonably well understood and there is every indication that those which are not will be explained by careful and painstaking scientific investigation. No, a miracle must be something which is beyond scientific explanation. Suppose, for example. I find that my cup of water has turned into wine. What can I make of this? Is it a miracle? It certainly seems to be unaccounted for by the known laws of nature, but that may well be because we don't know the correct laws of nature. In past times, thunder and lightning were explained with reference to gods — they were thought to be miraculous. Now we believe otherwise. In the late nineteenth century, it was found that photographic plates kept in total darkness became exposed. At the time this was inexplicable, but in fact this 'miraculous' incident opened up the whole field of radioactivity to scientific study. To invoke God as the explanation for events which are not explained by science is possible (the God-of-the-gaps approach), but this inference is vulnerable to advances in knowledge. It could be said that some events seem not only miraculous, but take place in such contexts that natural laws must be inadequate to explain them. For example, the Bible recounts that the sound of Joshua's trumpet caused the walls of Jericho to fall, and the Sun to stop still in the sky for several hours. By any account, this would have to be a miracle; how could the laws of science link a trumpet call with the motion of the Sun? If the story is true, even the most fervent atheist would have to admit that this is a good case for divine intervention. But is it true? We were not at Jericho at the crucial time. How can we know? In On Miracles, David Hume, writes that when we listen to stories of such miracles, we should weigh up two possibilities. Firstly, that the account is genuine and the event is indeed miraculous; secondly, that those making the report are deluded, credulous, dr dishonest and that the event is not miraculous. This approach may seem rather brutal, but it would be foolish and simply incorrect to suggest that lying, exaggeration and gullibility are even rare, let alone miraculous:

No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establisk So which is the snore likely? There are no prizes for guessing where Hume stands on the matter, but what do you think? Hume argues that some deception is far more likely than a miracle, but it could be said that he is open to the charge of circularity. We do not know the likelihood of a miracle happening — if we did, then their occurrence would not be in dispute (a zero probability means miracles never happen; any other probability confirms the possibility of their occurrence). So how do we evaluate the probability? This question clearly illustrates the paradigmatic nature of religion — if we are atheists then the probability is zero, bus if we are theists then the probability may, depending on our particular beliefs, be reasonably high. Under some circumstances then, by Home's own account we may feel that the miracle is the better explanation, especially if the source is very trustworthy. Perhaps all we can say is that the argument from miracles is hardly likely to win converts from atheism, and conversely, the problem of miracles is hardly a problem for any theist! Despite these issues, it is probably fair to say that if certain miracles were to be reliably witnessed at first hand, even the most zealous atheists would need to re-examine heir beliefs, but that these miracles have not (yet?) happened. If someone appeared to us, telling us that he was God, with the ability to repeatedly perform under scrutiny such 'impossible' things as changing water into wine, reading minds, and predicting the future publicly, precisely, and unambiguously, then many would say that the claim was a strong one. The existence of God could still be avoided in several ways, but these ways would also be problematic.
A Sometimes scientists are accused of arrogance because they believe that science has all the answers. How does this relate to the notion of miracles as being beyond the realm of science? B Even if we grant the difficult-to-satisfy criterion that an event must be inexplicable by science, where does that get us? Does an event that is 'inexplicable by science' necessitate divine intervention? C The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'. Do you agree? What implication does this have for the argument from miracles? D In Home's critique, we are required to assess the probability of a miracle. How do we do that? What are the problems with Hume's argument?

This is by no means a complete catalogue of the rational arguments which attempt to support the existence of God, nor an exhaustive report of the subtlety, complexity or richness to which they can be taken, They do, however, give a flavour of the genre and should inspire further research for the interested. We now turn to the arguments offered in the other direction.

Your Highness, I have no need of this hypothesis. Pierre Simon de Laplace (to Napoleon on why his works on celestial mechanics make no mention of God)

The most extreme defence of atheism has been to claim that it needs no defence. The thrust of this argument is that the existence of God is like the existence of Father Christmas — the notion is so far-fetched and lacking in rational or empirical basis that our base position should be that of atheism, and that the burden of proof is on the theist. This sort of statement, which is arguably circular and certainly more aggressive than persuasive in nature, goes to demonstrate that the whole role of argument within the religious context is sometimes so clouded in emotion on both sides of the divide that rational discussion is difficult. This sort of argument is made when the speaker is less interested in the truth than in scoring rhetorical points, and since it is the former which interests us here, we shall go ahead and examine theism for strengths and weaknesses. The first argument against the existence of God is based around a set of questions which are collectively known as the paradoxes of omnipotence. Proponents argue that these paradoxes demonstrate that the very concept of an omnipotent God is inconsistent and hence impossible. The argument is quite radical as it claims to demonstrate not only that there is no God, but that there could not be a God, just as there could not be a square circle or a married bachelor.
The questions are those such as:

1 Can God make a stone so heavy he cannot lift it? 2 Can God make himself omnipotent and not omnipotent at the same time? 3 Can God create another omnipotent being? 4 Can God cease to be omnipotent? You can immediately see the problems — 2 seems downright absurd, and no matter how you answer the others there seems to be some limit placed on God's power.

2 if God can't make such a stone then there is something He cannot do (make the stone) and so He is not omnipotent; if He can make a stone that He cannot lift then there is something He cannot do (lift the stone) and so He is not omnipotent. Either way we have a dilemma. Responses to these have been to either engage them directly or to acknowledge their force but to deny their relevance. We will turn to the latter tactic in the next section; for now let us see what we can do to resolve the paradoxes. Many have said that these objections have something of a word game nature to them and suggest that none of these questions generate paradox when looked at correctly. In the stone case, for example, to say that 'God cannot create a stone which is too heavy to move' is a direct and harmless consequence of 'God can create and move stones of any weight at all.' In case 4 a common response is to say that God cannot cease to be omnipotent any more than He can cease to exist, but that this inability is not a contradiction of His omnipotence but an expression of it.