Philosophy is a battle against the
bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Philosophische
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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,
Fëdor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Ivan to Alyosha in The
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.
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
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.
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?
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