Discussion on Does God Exist?
Does God Exist?
When a philosopher tells you that he or she is going to prove that God exists (or that God does notexist) your ﬁrst thought should be, “Wait! Stop! Before you say another word, tell me as clearly and asplainly as you can what you mean by the word ‘God.’ ” Like most familiar words, the word “God” hasmany meanings, and each yields a diﬀerent interpretation of the question “Does God exist?” Here aresome 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 usethe 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 thethings 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 inthe relevant tradition regard them as true stories about a real being whom the stories more or lessaccurately depict.
THE GOD OF THE PHILOSOPHERS
Philosophers often use the word “God” to mean an absolutely perfect being. Anselm’s famous ontologicalargument is not an argument for the historical accuracy of the Christian scriptures. It is an argumentfor the existence of a being than which none greater can be thought. A being of this sort would be perfectin 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 islimited in some way. Even if the world was created by an immaterial spirit who loves mankind andensures that justice is done in the next life, if that being is imperfect in any way, then that being is notGod 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. Inthis view, when we ask whether God exists, we are asking whether the natural world owes its existenceto 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 beintelligent 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 anamazing contribution to metaphysics. But it would not by itself have much religious signiﬁcance. Wecan imagine someone saying, “Wow, that’s fascinating. But unless this cosmic being plans to interferewith my life, I plan to ignore it. You’ve given me no reason to take this being into account or to live mylife diﬀerently in light of its existence.” Some writers use the word “God” to signify a being that no onecould sensibly shrug oﬀ in this way. On this conception, to say that God exists is to aﬃrm the existenceof a being whose existence somehow manages to give meaning, purpose, directions, or limits to humanlife—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” reallymeans, when we all know that it sometimes means a stick used in sports like baseball and sometimes aﬂying rodent of the order Chiroptera. Anselm seeks to establish the existence of God, by which hemeans a perfect being. You can object to his argument in many ways. But you should not object to it bysaying, “By ‘God’ I mean the supernatural creator of the universe; Anselm has not proved the existenceof a creator, so his argument is no good.” When you review the arguments for and against the existenceof 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 moreimportant things to do.
That said, it is possible to abuse the word. Occasionally someone will say, “I’m a religious person; Ibelieve in God,” and then go on to explain that she doesn’t believe in anything supernatural. “When I saythat God exists, I just mean to express my hope for human progress.” There is no law against this sortof Humpty Dumptyish use of words. (“ ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said—in a rather scornfultone—‘it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.’ ”
1 ) But in philosophy this sort ofidiosyncratic usage is a recipe for confusion. So avoid it. If you want to express your secular hope forthe future of humanity, we have perfectly good words for that already. There is no need to co-opt thelanguage of theology for your purposes.
One last potential source of confusion should be mentioned. It is surprisingly common indiscussions of the existence of God for people to say that God is an idea or a concept. One hears thisfrom atheists who mean to say that God is just a ﬁgment of the imagination. But one also hears it fromprofessed theists who seem to think that it makes their position less controversial. This way ofspeaking is, however, seriously misleading. There may be such a thing as the idea of God. In fact theremay be many such things: your idea of God, my idea of God, and so forth. These ideas arerepresentations in the minds or brains of human beings, and for present purposes, no one denies theirexistence. It is, however, a grave mistake to confuse your idea of X with X itself. You would neverconfuse your idea of your mother with your mother. Your mother is a ﬂesh-and-blood person with handsand feet who existed years before you existed. Your idea of your mother is—well, who knows exactlywhat 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’sexistence is a debate over the existence of a real being with extraordinary attributes. It is not a debateabout 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, andundetectable by means of scientiﬁc instruments. How then are we to approach the question of God’sexistence? In this book, we set aside arguments that depend on special revelation or on privatereligious experiences that are not widely shared. These arguments are important. But the mainphilosophical challenge has always been to ask whether God’s existence can be established byphilosophical 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 ofthe strangest and also one of the most diﬃcult arguments in this area. Think of it as a reductio adabsurdum. The atheist says, “A perfect being does not exist.” But if he says this, he must understandthe phrase “a perfect being,” and whatever he understands must exist in his understanding, accordingto Anselm. So the atheist must agree that God exists in the understanding (i.e., in the mind). The onlyquestion is whether he exists in reality as well. Anselm then seeks to show that if God exists only in theunderstanding, 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 modernstudent of this argument rejects it, but there is no consensus about where the error lies. If you rejectthe argument, your job is not simply to show that it is unsound but to identify the source of theproblem: 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 ofobservation and experiment constitute “evidence of things unseen.” The cosmological argumentbegins with an observed causal or explanatory sequence in nature, and then argues that this sequencemust have an origin—a ﬁrst cause—that is not just another part of nature. Some versions assume thateach such sequence must have a beginning in time. But the most sophisticated versions hold that evenif the natural universe has always existed, there must still be something outside the world to explainwhy 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 drawnfrom the sciences. The design argument begins from the observation that the parts of plants andanimals are brilliantly adapted to serve the purposes of the organisms whose parts they are. BeforeDarwin, the only serious explanations for this fact were theological, and even after Darwin, someversions of this argument are worth discussing. Darwinian arguments assume the existence of livingthings, 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’texplain it. But it must have an explanation. So God exists!” The defect in arguments of this form shouldbe clear. Science makes progress. What we cannot explain today, we may well explain tomorrow. Sogiven an ordinary gap in our scientiﬁc understanding of nature, the rational response is not to posit aconvenient God of the gaps, but rather to acknowledge that for now we just don’t know, and perhaps tohope that ordinary science will solve the problem.
The most recent of the arguments for God’s existence is crafted to evade this diﬃculty. Thecosmological 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 notknow these laws in detail. But we know a bit about them, and what we know suggests the following: Ifthe fundamental constants had been slightly diﬀerent from what they are, stars and planets would nothave 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 areaspects 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 possiblycome from science. Proponents of the argument regard the fact of “ﬁne tuning” as a reason to believethat a divine ﬁrst cause exists. Are they right? The argument is new. Unlike the other argumentsdiscussed in this section, it is a creature of the late twentieth century. The science it assumes remainsunsettled, and philosophers are not going to settle it from the armchair. The question for you istherefore 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?
The Case for Atheism
Suppose the arguments for the existence of God are all no good. Would this vindicate the atheist? Notautomatically. Our search for extraterrestrial life has so far turned up nothing. But this does notwarrant the conclusion that no such life exists. To the contrary, at this stage, the only reasonableattitude on that question is agnosticism: a principled refusal to answer the question given the presentstate of the evidence. By parity of reasoning, the atheist who wishes to aﬃrm with conﬁdence that Goddoes not exist needs a positive argument for this negative conclusion. What is it to be?
The most important argument for atheism is the argument from evil. The target is the God of thePhilosophers. If there were a perfect being, there would be no unnecessary suﬀering in the world, sincea good God would prevent unnecessary suﬀering if he could, and an omnipotent God could certainlyprevent it. But there is unnecessary suﬀering: think of the animals injured in forest ﬁres who suﬀerterribly before they die. And so, the argument concludes, there is no God. The argument is as old astheology, though it has been reﬁned over the years. It has occasionally been oﬀered as a knockdownproof of atheism. These days, however, it is generally understood as providing evidence for atheism—evidence that any credible form of theism must overcome. A theistic argument that attempts to meetthis challenge is called a theodicy.
After you have read and discussed these arguments, it will be useful to step back. What have youbeen discussing? The existence of an invisible spirit—a being whose existence would be of absolutelyfundamental importance, both for our understanding of the universe and for the conduct of our lives.How have you been approaching the question? By reading and thinking and talking. Have you madeprogress? One hopes so. Even if you have not settled the question, you have a clearer sense of what itwould take to settle it. Familiar arguments that once seemed compelling may strike you as hopeless;unfamiliar arguments may strike you as promising. This encourages the thought that more work ofthis sort might bring the issue into sharper focus. Perhaps the most important point to stress is thatphilosophical progress in this area, as in others, does not always consist in marshaling knockdownarguments that “compel assent” from any rational creature, but rather in displaying the availablepositions and the best arguments for and against them. The questions addressed in this chapter arevery old, as the classic selections from Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas attest. The selectionfrom William Paley illustrates how these questions were transformed by the rise of science. Thecontemporary selections from Roger White, Eleonore Stump, and Louise Antony show that progress isstill being made.