Some Very Brief Notes on the Existence of God (or Gods)
These are very brief notes to help guide you through the supposed proofs for the existence of God. They do not establish anything about the character of God (if God exists), although some of them make assumptions about what that character must be like. Peter Angeles’s Dictionary of Philosophy, and Melchert’s The Great Conversation are helpful resources on this topic.
Rene Descartes’s proof for the existence of God is sometimes referred to as an a priori argument. Think of “a priori” as meaning: apart from sense experience. It is absolutely crucial that Descartes use this kind of an argument, because he introduces his proof, in Meditation III, to establish the existence of the external world and to overcome solipsism. If his proof depended on the use of his senses, and made any assertions about the nature of reality as we supposedly know it through our senses, then he would have begged the question, or would have been engaged in circular reasoning. What is Descartes’ attempt to prove that God exists? Please find it in the text. It is quite similar to one offered by St. Anselm (1033-1109), Archbishop of Canterbury. This “proof” or “argument” is known as the ontological argument for God’s existence. Briefly, this argument says that God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” But if this is so, then this cannot be true in the intellect alone, for the thought of a being that is the greatest that can be conceived of, who exists not only in thought but in reality as well, is greater than a being who exists in thought only. The very nature of God therefore implies the existence of God.
St. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) denied that we could think the thought of a being greater than which any other being can be conceived of. In other words, he contended that Anselm’s (and, by implication, later, Descartes’) proof assumed something of which we are not capable. (This, Aquinas said, is because we are imperfect, and an imperfect being cannot conceive of a perfect being.) He then offered five versions of his own cosmological argument, which to a great extent relies upon Aristotle (384-322 BCE). These arguments are a posteriori in nature, which means that they rest upon considerations about the nature of the world. (Note that it may well then be that you must have a theory of the nature of the world before you are entitled to claim this argument.) One version of the cosmological argument is called the first cause argument. Every event has a cause, but there must have been a first cause. If there were not a first cause, the causal chain would go backwards infinitely, which is absurd. Therefore there is an uncaused cause, and this is God. The criticism of this argument is that the notion of an uncaused cause can only be imagined by laying aside the very problem that led us to suppose there is an uncaused cause in the first place. Furthermore, “uncaused cause” is at least as unclear as is the notion of an infinite causal regression. Finally, we have been given no positive reason to call this uncaused cause, God, even if the idea were coherent and did solve our intellectual problem.
Another famous attempt to prove the existence of God is the so-called teleological argument, or argument from design. This argument was made popular by William Paley (1743-1805), an English theologian and moralist. The argument is very popular even today, despite its weakness. It goes roughly as follows: When we see a watch, we assume a designer. The complexity of the watch is sufficient to imply that it did not come to be what it is by accident. The universe displays vast amounts of order, far greater than does a watch, and so this order likewise implies the existence of a designer. That designer is God. This argument has been criticized most famously by David Hume (1711-1776), in his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion. The simplest objection is to ask yourself what you could imagine that would evidence no design or order whatsoever. For every hypothesis you offer, ask yourself if human beings might try to systematize whatever actually exists, even if it is as supposedly random as the photo at the top of this page.
Presumably we would, or at least could. For example, the area of the above figure could be calculated by a mathematician. So perhaps our recognition of order says more about us, than about anything that may or may not exist apart from us. Perhaps we are order-seeking animals, and perhaps the reason we assume a designer designed a watch is because we have never seen instances of watches not made by designers. Perhaps we have for a long time been looking at a universe devoid of a designer, but in which we have mistaken our own passion for order, for an order given by a cosmic designer.
Importantly, even if all of these arguments are unsound, it does not follow that God does not exist. – LF