Philosophical Arguments


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    Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language
    Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Philosophische Untersuchungen


    All three principal monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) share certain core beliefs, sometimes collectively referred to as classical theism. These beliefs are that a single transcendent god exists, and that he is all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good.

    Since the Middle Ages theologians have tried to adapt ancient Greek philosophy to the ends of Christian natural theology. Their object was to try to prove by rational argument that God exists and that he has the traditional Christian attributes. It is fair to say that modern philosophers generally attach little value to these arguments, and some of the most eminent have been contemptuous of them. Nevertheless, the arguments are of interest, and we will briefly review some of the principal ones.


    Historical Proofs of the Existence of God

    Few doubted the existence of God until Philosophers tried to prove it.

    The desire to prove the existence of deities by rational argument dates back at least as far as Classical Greece. Over the centuries many arguments have been advanced purporting to prove the existence of divine beings, but none has survived into modern mainstream philosophy. A few of them are still accepted by some Christian sects and by individual Christians. It is a commonplace that these proofs have only ever convinced those who already believe in their conclusions. Historically, there have been three main types of proof of the existence of God: the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, and the argument from design.

    Saint Thomas Aquinas with his Five Proofs of God's Existence
    He is shown with a pagan philosopher groveling at his feet, a fantasy that never approached reality since the five "proofs" were soon exposed as variations on three different arguments, all invalid.



    The Ontological Argument

    This is an argument that seeks to demonstrate the existence of God simply from the definition of such a being. The classic form of the argument is attributed to St Anselm and stated briefly proposes that "God is the most perfect being; it is more perfect to exist than not to exist; therefore God exists". The argument is so unconvincing that it is difficult to present it in a manner that is even superficially credible. The following exposition is taken from a popular introductory work on philosophy.

    He [St Anselm] contended that anyone who understood what was meant by the terms "God" or "Supreme Being", would see that such an entity must exist. God is that Being than which none greater can be conceived. Since I can comprehend this definition, I can conceive of God. Moreover, I can conceive of God as existing not only as a concept in my own mind, but also as existing in reality, that is, independently of my ideas. Since it is greater to exist both as an idea and as a real thing, than merely to exist as an idea, God must exist both in reality and as an idea. By definition God is that than which none greater can be conceived. Hence God must exist in reality, or else something greater than God can be conceived (that is, an entity possessing all of God's properties, plus real existence); this by the very definition of God or the Supreme Being, is impossible.

    Even Christian contemporaries of St Anselm pointed out difficulties with this type of argument. It was for example noted that the same argument could be used to prove the existence of all manner of preposterous things. St Anselm's response was that the argument could only be applied to God, since nothing else was perfect. This kept the argument alive for the time being. The final confutation of St Anselm's argument came from St Thomas Aquinas (c.1224-1274), who demonstrated that it presupposes what it purports to prove. The conclusion of the argument is implicitly used in a premise, so the argument is circular. God's existence is already built into the contention that he must be perfect. At a later date Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) also addressed the problem and tidied up the loose ends. He showed that the concept of the existence of an object and the actual existence of the object are different things. By thinking about external entities we do not affect the likelihood of their existence. Kant effectively buried the ontological argument, and no reputable philosopher has disinterred it.

    In passing, it might also be noted that not everyone would even accept the premise that existence is somehow more perfect than non-existence. Buddhists for example might disagree, and many philosophers would find the statement meaningless.


    The Cosmological (or Causal) Argument

    This argument runs is as follows: everything that happens, happens for a reason. There is a cause for every effect. Therefore if we select any event we can be sure that it has a cause; but this cause is itself the effect of a preceding cause. If we were to trace back an event through a series of causes, then one of two things might happen. The first is that we would eventually get back to an initial cause, a prime mover, which is God. The alternative — that the series stretches back indefinitely — would imply that there was no first cause; but if there were no first cause then there could not be a series at all, since it could not start. Therefore there cannot be an infinitely long series of causal events. The implication is that the chain of cause and effect must be finite, and that at its beginning must be God.

    This sort of argument was first propounded by Aristotle. It was subsequently developed by St Thomas Aquinas. In the form presented in his Summa Theologica it was adopted by the Roman Catholic Church. The preceding summary encapsulates the essential elements of the argument, although Aquinas's exposition is considerably more intricate. The cosmological argument contains a number of terminal flaws. Some of the principal ones are:

    (a) The presumption that every effect has a cause is merely that — a presumption. The presumption is based upon inductive evidence of that part of the Universe that is available to our sensory perception. There are at least three major problems here: first, inductive evidence is weak evidence. We have no reliable way of establishing any necessary causal links between events at all. Indeed recent advances in sub-atomic physics point to the occurrence of spontaneous random events, denying causality. Second, even if such causal relationships do exist in some parts of the Universe they do not necessarily hold everywhere in it. Third, such relationships may apply only to those aspects of the Universe amenable to empirical investigation. David Hume (1711-1776) was the first to identify the weakness in the link between cause and effect. As Bertrand Russell observed: "Before Hume, rationalists at least had supposed that the effect could be logically deduced from the cause, if only we had sufficient knowledge'. Hume argued, correctly as it would now be generally admitted, that this could not be done".

    (b) As Russell himself noted, the formulation of the argument contains a contradiction since it posits that every effect has a cause and also that there is at least one effect (God) that does not have a cause.

    (c) The supposed proof that there cannot be an infinite chain of causality is invalid. The underlying fallacy, that every sequence must have a first element, can be exposed by simple arithmetical examples. The existence of infinite sequences undermines an essential link in the argument, and we are left with no reason to suppose that infinite chains of cause and effect should not exist also. Therefore we are not able to rely on the existence of an initial cause or prime mover.

    (d) If there was an initial cause, a prime mover or trigger, there is no reason to suppose that this was God. In fact we are in no position to say anything of any significance about the nature of such a trigger.

    The cosmological argument was comprehensively demolished by David Hume, and the rubble was cleared up by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason. Virtually all modern philosophers accept that the cosmological argument is no longer tenable. Nevertheless it is still regarded by the Roman Catholic Church as conclusive evidence for the existence of God. The Church has lain down as a matter of dogma that the existence of God can be proved by unaided reason. Even so it is doubtful whether any theological philosopher really believes it any longer. It is fair to say that the Roman Church's attachment to it is becoming an increasing embarrassment.

    We have already considered a junior version of the cosmological argument, which runs as follows: the Universe cannot have existed forever; something must have existed before the Universe came into being, and this "something" must have been God. An elementary difficulty with this sort of argument is the regression of the explandrum: one question (What existed before the Universe came into being?) is replaced by another (What existed before God came into being?). If the answer is that God has always existed, then we might as well have conceded that the Universe had always existed. There is no point in creating one mystery to explain another.

    The problems with the cosmological argument (full and junior versions) are mainly connected to our intuitive notions concerning the nature of time. First, the Universe may well have existed for an infinite time (if the concept has any meaning at all). Secondly if there was a beginning of time then we have no reason to suppose that God or anything else existed before it. Indeed the concept of existence "before" the beginning of time is meaningless. Our intuitive notions of the nature of time (and space) are not at all reliable as a basis for philosophical enquiry. Einstein's greatest achievement was to rid scientists of the intuitively plausible but unwarranted assumptions that still bedevil amateur philosophers and theologians. For example, intuition generally denies that space can be finite yet unbounded, or that time can pass at different rates for objects moving at different velocities, or that there can be different types of infinity, yet such ideas are accepted by modern mathematicians and physicists as everyday facts.


    The Argument from Design

    This argument was also used by Aristotle, and later adopted by St Thomas Aquinas. Since then, Protestants have traditionally favoured it, the most famous exposition having been given by an Anglican clergyman towards the end of the eighteenth century. Briefly, it runs as follows: the Universe works like a highly sophisticated machine. Machines are designed. Therefore the Universe was designed, and the designer was God. Hume gives a classic formulation of the argument:

    Look round the world, contemplate the whole and every part of it: you will find it to be nothing but one great machine, subdivided into an infinite number of lesser machines, which again admit of subdivisions to a degree beyond what human senses and faculties can trace and explain. All these various machines, and even their most minute parts, are adjusted to each other with an accuracy which ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated them. The curious adapting of means to ends, throughout all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance — of human design, thought, wisdom and intelligence. Since therefore the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble, and that the Author of nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much greater faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed. By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, do we prove at once the existence of a Deity and his similarity to human mind and intelligence.

    One error that is increasingly obvious to us as we understand evolutionary processes lies in the poor quality of the analogy. There are great differences between consciously created artefacts and various natural objects in the Universe, especially life on Earth. A human manufacturer would soon be sacked if he were as accident prone, wasteful and inefficient as nature is. In the course of prehistory many more species have become extinct than now survive. How could God have made so many errors? And why did it take millions of years after creation before human beings were put on Earth to worship him (especially since, having someone to worship him was the purpose of creation)? Couldn"t an omnipotent God who so desperately desires to be worshipped manage to generate more praise for himself than he now receives? Again, why did God insist on using the same basic skeleton for all mammals, including bats, whales, rabbits, horses, elephants and humans? Why not fit the skeleton more precisely to its purpose instead of using the same template? Why miniaturise a bone from the lower jaw for re-use in the middle ear (as the stapes)?. Why provide useless appendages such as too many teeth, men's nipples, an appendix, and a vestigial tail? And why do so many people need glasses if a perfect God were manufacturing our eyes? How can a perfect designer produce such imperfect designs?

    A more fundamental error in the Argument from Design is the method of reasoning by analogy. We have no way of knowing how many different causes might result in the same effects. What we observe is not design, but symmetry, pattern and order. Conscious design is only one of many ways of generating symmetry, patterns and ordered systems. Scientific theories concerning evolution, chaos and sub-atomic physics all confirm that no conscious intention is required to produce order.

    Hume exposed other flaws and other undesirable implications of the argument. As he observed, even if the argument were valid, its conclusions are not all that Christians might desire. It would not for example demonstrate that the Universe was created by a single god, or by a benign one, or a competent or supreme one, or even one that still exists. It might well for example have been designed by a panel of malign gods. It might be a prototype, a reject, or a mistake. It might be merely one in a line of ever-improving designs. The design might have been imperfectly copied from another god. The world might even have been created as part of some huge divine joke. Although Hume demolished the Argument from Design around 200 years ago some religious groups, notably Jehovah's Witnesses, seem not to have heard the news:

    Every machine, computer, building, yes, even pencil and paper, had a maker, an organizer. Logically, the far more complex and awesome organization in the Universe must have had an organizer too.



    Problems Associated with the Nature of God

    If you were God, would you have consented to create the present world if its creation depended on the unexpiated tears of one tortured child crying in its stinking outhouse to "dear, kind God"?
    Fëdor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Ivan to Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov

    The classical theism of conventional Christianity has envisaged a God with a number of specific attributes. He is said to be, amongst other things, all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), and totally benign (omni-benificent). Unfortunately concepts such as these carry the seeds of their own confutation. Some are logically inconsistent with others, and some can be shown to represent impossible concepts. The following examples illustrate a few of the difficulties.


    The Problem of Evil

    We have already touched on the problem of why God permits evil to exist in the world, citing the example of the Nazi death camps during World War II, and shown through simple logic that God cannot be both wholly omnipotent and benevolent if he is also omniscient. In brief, either God has no power to prevent evil (so is not really omnipotent), or else he does have the power but chooses not to exercise it (so is not really benevolent).

    A popular reply to the argument above is that our concept of morality is not the same as that of God, but this is not a satisfactory solution since it accepts that God is not necessarily moral according to the moral standards that he has himself supposedly provided to mankind. An alternative reply is that suffering and evil arise through the operation of human free will. This defence is not available to anyone who believes in the Bible, since the Bible says explicitly that God is the creator of evil (e.g. Amos 3:6, Lamentations 3:38, Isaiah 45:6-7). The defence is available to other believers, but does not work. The problem of evil cannot be off-loaded onto mankind, or Adam and Eve, or fallen angels, or any other of God's creations. Christianity teaches that God created everything, so if evil arises in any way then God's creation must have been imperfect from the beginning.


    The Paradox of Omnipotence

    As it turns out, the concept of omnipotence represents impossibility. Medieval theologians originally held that God could do anything at all, but this view soon ran into difficulties. Could God create a square circle? Could he make 2 added to 2 equal 5? Could he change the past? Could he do things that implied limitations or moral fault? For example, could he forget something? Could he break a promise? Could he tell a lie? Consideration of such questions led theologians to decide that God's omnipotence was limited to logically consistent actions that were consistent with his own nature.

    Even with these qualifications there are still difficulties. Is God able to formulate an insoluble problem? If he cannot then clearly he is not omnipotent. If he can, then consider such a problem. Can God himself solve this problem? If he cannot solve it then we have found something he cannot do, establishing that he is not omnipotent. If he can solve it then it cannot have been insoluble. The implication of this is that an omnipotent God cannot formulate an insoluble problem after all. It is easy to invent similar paradoxes. Can God create an immovable object? If he can, then can he move it? Whether he can or not the conclusion is the same: we have found something that God cannot do. The method of deduction is unimpeachable, so where does the problem lie? If we have used valid modes of reasoning and applied them properly, then the fault must lie in a premise. But there is only one premise: that God is omnipotent. We are driven to the conclusion that there is something wrong with the proposition that God is omnipotent. The only explanation is that the proposition is invalid. In other words God cannot be omnipotent.


    The Paradox of Omniscience

    Christians have traditionally maintained that God has complete knowledge about the past, present, and future of the Universe. They have also held that people are provided with free will; that is, each of us is free to make our own decisions, and the quality of those decisions will determine our fate on the final Day of Judgement. But if God knows everything about the future of the Universe, then it is clear that the future of the Universe must be predetermined. Indeed the behaviour of every living being and of every sub-atomic particle must be predetermined. So too every human action and every thought is predetermined. In other words everyone's life is fully determined from before his or her birth. But this means that there can be no scope for the exercise of free will. Every decision is known to God long before it is made. Our fate on the Day of Judgement was fixed before our birth. In short, free will cannot coexist in the same Universe as an omniscient being. The conclusion here is that either God is not omniscient, or mankind does not enjoy genuine free will. Either way at least one traditional Christian doctrine must be wrong.

    Several centuries ago, Calvinists and some other Protestants recognised that the concepts of free will and predestination are indeed contradictory. They resolved the problem by abandoning the idea of free will and concluded that people are indeed fated for Heaven or Hell before they are born: "Some are vessels of wrath, ordained unto destruction, as others are vessels of mercy, prepared to glory". The Anglican Church also rejects free will (Article 10 of the 39 Articles) in favour of predestination, having enjoyed the benefit of God's secret counsel on the matter (Article 17 of the 39 Articles). The Protestant position is thus at least logically consistent. The Roman Church emphasises the importance of free will but fails to recognise that this negates the possibility of God's omniscience, explaining the inherent contradiction in the customary way as a "mystery".

    There is also a major problem with the concept of petitionary prayer. What can be the point of asking God to manipulate events when he has already determined the course of the Universe, and especially when those who pray believe that God has created the best of all possible worlds? Petitioning God seems to make sense only if a believer does not have the confidence in God and his ability to do what is best without being asked. When Christians pray to be healed, or pray for rain, or for military victory, or success in an examination, can they imagine that their God is unaware of their needs, and that he will improve his already perfect creation by heeding their requests?



    A Paradox of Justice and Mercy

    In addition to the various attributes already mentioned, God is usually credited with being perfectly just, and also all-merciful. But if God is perfectly just he will judge his creatures perfectly fairly, which leaves no scope for the exercise of mercy. On the other hand if he is all-merciful than he must punish his creatures less than they deserve, which means that he cannot be perfectly just. The two attributes are simply incompatible without some dubious mental gymnastics. This difficulty has led some Roman Catholic theologians to propose that God is responsible for justice and the Virgin Mary for mercy, but this only opens up another set of difficulties since it seems to make Mary into a goddess — a major problem that we cover elsewhere



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    § The Argument from Design is also known as the teleological argument or the physico-theological argument.

    § Mark 12:30, 2 Kings 17:38, Revelations 4

    §. Thomas Aquinas recognised five arguments, but it is generally accepted that all of these are merely variations of arguments discussed here.

    §. A. R. Lacey, A Dictionary of Philosophy, "Ontological argument". For St Anselm's own words see S. N. Deane (trans.), St Anselm: Basic Writings, Open Court (LaSalle, Illinois, 1962), p 7.

    §. Richard H. Popkin, Avrum Stroll and A. V. Kelly (advisory editor), Philosophy Made Simple, William Heinemann Ltd (1981), p 155.

    §. The cosmological argument and some of its variations are dealt with in chapter 9 of Smith, Atheism The Case Against God. See also Peterson et al, Reason and Religious Belief, Chapter 5.

    §. The philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas was declared to be the official philosophy of the Roman Church in 1879 by Pope Leo XIII. This was reaffirmed by Pope Pius XII in 1950 in the encyclical Humani generis.

    §. Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy, OPUS (1978), p 47.

    §. Infinite sequences caused the ancients a great deal of trouble. Indirectly they gave rise, for example, to Zeno of Elea's paradox concerning Achilles and the tortoise. The problems were sorted out by mathematicians several centuries ago, and infinite sequences now feature on many school syllabi.

    §. The First Vatican Council in 1870 made it a dogma of the Roman Church that God "can be known through creation by the natural light of human reason" (Sess. iii, cap 1 ). Anyone who denies this was declared anathema.

    §. Einstein gave much of the credit for freeing ideas such as time and space from the "taboo attached to them" to David Hume and Ernst Mach. Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (translated by R. W. Lawson), Methuen & Co. ( London, 1962).

    §. The Argument from Design is comprehensively dealt with in chapter 10 of Smith, Atheism The Case Against God. See also Peterson et al, Reason and Religious Belief, Chapter 5 for the Analogical, Teleological and Inductive Teleological arguments.

    §. Archdeacon William Paley, View of the Evidences of Christianity (1794). We will encounter Paley and his arguments again when we look at historical battles between religion and science.

    §. A. Flew, An Introduction to Western Philosophy, 1971, Ch. 6.

    §. The case is presented by the character of Cleanthes in David Hume's Dialogues on Natural Religion.

    §. Life — How Did It Get Here? By Evolution or by Creation? Watchtower Bible and Trust Society of New York, Inc., International Bible Students Association, Brooklyn, New York, USA (1985), p 123.


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