My friend Howie has a blog, Truth is Elusive, and his latest post discusses the philosophical arguments for the existence of God, and whether they are effective or even useful. His broad conclusion is “not very” – that is not for him, not for many people, only for a few.
I mostly agree with Howie about this – for most people. But it isn’t true for me. But I needed more than a blog comment to explain why, so I wrote this post instead.
Things we agree on
Howie linked to short videos by four thoughtful theists, three philosophers and a scientist, in which all four agreed …..
These arguments are not proofs
I don’t think any philosophers think any arguments for or against the existence of God rises to the level of being a proof. The best (or worst) they can do is offer a probability.
Few people are convinced at all by them
I agree with this. People generally disbelieve or believe for other reasons. But I happen to be one for whom these arguments are important.
Reasons to believe God exists?
Without reasons, we should be agnostic, with no strong belief either way. But what could be good reasons to believe?
“God exists” is a philosophical/metaphysical statement. Its truth or falsity may be determined, or at least assessed, by philosophy. Yet as we have seen, few regard this as convincing on its own.
If God is the creator of the universe, we might expect him to be “seen” in his creation, just as we may “see” Shakespeare or Van Gogt, Bob Dylan or Tim Winton in their creations. Thus the sciences, especially cosmology, quantum physics, neuroscience and anthropology, may provide clues to whether God is “behind” the universe or not. But we may need to learn to “read” the creation to see the creator’s hand.
If God doesn’t get involved in his world, it may not matter if we know him or not. But if he is an active God, as christians believe, we should be able to see his hand in history, especially the history of those who claim to be messengers from God. For a christians, obviously this primarily means the life of Jesus.
If God is “personal” as christians and some other religions believe, then we might expect him to interact with people – after all, that is how we get to know other people. An experience of God may be the most compelling reason to believe (though some sceptics would doubt the reality of their experience). And many non-believers say the lack of God revealing himself to them is one of the main reasons why they disbelieve.
Personal experience may take many forms. People may experience healing or a vision of God. Or they may receive peace or guidance as an answer to prayer. Or they may just receive deep assurance that God is there, and cares.
Personal experience is obviously best, but second hand experience may also be convincing if it is powerful enough – for example, documented cases of healing (which would be a combination of second hand experience and science).
It takes two legs to walk
It is hard to see how any of these methods could be sufficient on their own.
- It seems that philosophy and science, which form the basis of most of the philosophical proofs, are only going to take someone so far. They will probably need support from personal experience or belief in Jesus (or whatever other messenger a person may come to believe in).
- Personal experience may be sufficient on its own, if it is powerful enough. But our experiences can be forgotten or distorted, or we may need to learn more about the God we believe we have experienced, so again, a revelation from God may be important too – certainly I have read stories of people who came to believe in God via a vision then sought out a Bible to find out more.
So the philosophical arguments may well have an important part to play, as part of a suite of reasons why someone believes.
Non-believers and these arguments
Established arguments to disbelief include the argument from evil, divine hiddenness and incoherence. The philosophical arguments for God generally don’t ‘work’ for non-believers.
Three things seem to me to be inconsistent with atheist views about the reasons for belief I have outlined above:
- Many atheists are very critical of philosophy in general – it achieves nothing they often say. Yet the arguments from evil, hiddenness and incoherence are also philosophical arguments. How is it that philosophy can only become useful when in the service of unbelief?
- Many atheists dismiss anything that isn’t based on science. It’s the only reliable way of knowing anything, they say. But again, I don’t see them applying that principle when they make choices about politics or relationships.
- The strongest argument for belief for many people is personal experience, and the lack of it is often a strong argument for disbelief. But I cannot recall meeting any atheist who has taken a serious and systematic interest in investigating apparent miracles, and the possibility they provide excellent evidence for God. (I am not saying no atheist has done this, only that I cannot recall meeting any, and I have met many who reject that course of action.)
So I feel that unbelievers find the philosophical arguments ineffective because they have a different approach to epistemology (how we know truth) than I do. They seem to be less willing to see evidence as cumulative and they seem to make assumptions about what evidence they will investigate and value that I think pre-judges the question.
Why the philosophical arguments matter for me
I began my thinking about God with the life of Jesus. Here we have a character who historians say was historical and whose followers made certain claims about him. How do we assess if those claims are plausible?
One can judge by the internal evidence of his life and teaching, but what else can we use to form a judgment? It seems to me that science and the philosophical arguments point to the possibility (at least) that a God with similar characteristics as the God allegedly revealed by Jesus (creator, ethical, personal, etc) might truly exist. The experiences of others in healings, etc, add further weight to this conclusion.
So the philosophical arguments are nowhere central to my faith or to my apologetics, but they have an important role to play.
Howie mentions that William Dembski suggests that explanations of the universe have to run out at some point, so we might just as well end them at the universe as end them than at God. But I think there are very good reasons why we should end them at God.
We can explain the present state of the universe by previous states, all of which were contingent (i.e. they could have been different and were dependent on previous states). If we follow those explanations back as far as we can, it seems one of three possibilities must be true, either:
(i) there was no start, but an infinite number of contingent events and no explanation;
(ii) there was a start but still no explanation; or
(iii) there was a start and the explanation is in some non-contingent cause.
The universe seems unable to cause itself or be a non-contingent cause, hence stopping at a non-contingent explanation seems more logical. Of course, the only non-contingent explanation I can think of is God.