This article is going to be as unfruitful as it is controversial. In the history of the world, the existence of God has been a contentious subject, people who expressed any skepticism regarding the existence of a particular deity were quite literally risking their lives. Wars have been fought in the name of a particular God and a considerable fraction of the horrors that have occurred in the world may be attributed to the belief in the existence of a God. This led the French intellectual Voltaire to suggest that “people who believe absurdities will commit atrocities.” In any case, one of the very first skeptics was the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who insightfully remarked:
“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Even though this observation would more adequately fit in the department of theology since it is a question concerning theodicy, it calls into question the nature of God, were he to exist or not. With these introductory remarks in mind, we can proceed to discuss six of the most common arguments for the existence of God, dissecting and presenting each with historical context and relevance to the current debate.
1. St. Anselm’s Ontological Argument
In the 11th Century, St. Anselm of Canterbury devised one of the first ontological arguments for the existence of God. Before we go further, we must define ‘ontology’ as the Greek word for ‘being’, therefore, this argument intends to demonstrate how it is that God can be or exist. Another thing that St. Anselm did was provide a definition for God; a lot of the problems in philosophy can be said to result from misunderstanding language, which is why defining the terms in any argument is of the utmost importance. God is defined as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”, a “maximally perfect being”. The ontological argument is commonly written as follows: “Premise 1: If a maximally perfect being exists, he will have all the attributes of a perfect being. Premise 2: Existence is an attribute. Conclusion: therefore, God exists.” You will instantly notice that the problematic premise is not the first premise but the second one. About 100 years later, St. Thomas Aquinas would argue that the Ontological argument is invalid since we cannot conceive of the nature of God. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant went even further and suggested that ‘existence is not a real attribute.’ The attributes commonly associated with God such as omniscience and omnipotence are of a different nature than existence. Existence does not add to the essence of God whereas the other attributes do. If existence is not a real attribute, the argument collapses on itself, since a ‘maximally perfect being’ can be conceived without having to actually exist. Modern forms of the Ontological Argument exist with more robust premisses, but the verdict on this argument is not too favourable.
2. The Unmoved Mover Argument
This argument in its original form was put forward by Aristotle, one of the most important philosophers of antiquity along with Plato and Socrates. Aristotle looked at the world and realised that some things are in motion. Now in order for something to be put in motion, it must be put into motion by something else. For example, the billiard ball is put into motion by the cue stick, which in turn is put into motion by the first person and so on. We have what is called an infinite regress and drawing the line anywhere would seem to be very important. The important part of this argument is that there must exist something which put everything into motion which was not put into motion itself. Hence, it moves without being moved; such an entity is then called God. Aristotle’s argument falls prey to the fallacy of distribution since he assumes that the world as a whole is imperishable (it might not be), it does not follow that specific parts of the world are imperishable. One thing that scientific evidence and even the Bible have agreed upon is that the world may not always have existed, thus this argument does collapse on itself if there was a point where the world did not exist – brought into existence by the Big Bang or God itself.
3. The First Cause Argument or, a form of the Cosmological Argument
One of the best theologians, Thomas Aquinas, came up with ‘five ways’ (Quinque viae) that we can come to know of God’s existence. He dismissed the Ontological argument and incorporated the Unmoved Mover argument since he was an Aristotelian scholar. Bearing this in mind, we will see the similarities in the construction of this argument with the previous argument we discussed. The argument runs as follows: Premise 1: Some things are caused. Premise 2: Something that is caused is caused by something else. Premise 3: An infinite regress of causes would be absurd. Conclusion: There must be something which was not itself caused but causes everything else. The rejection of an infinite regress is also found in the Unmoved Mover argument, but we can actually go so far as to suggest the faulty premisses are the first two premisses of the argument. Cosmological arguments fall prey to asserting facts about the nature of motion and in this case causality. What does it even mean for something to cause or be caused by something? The Scottish philosopher David Hume challenged our notion of causality by saying that in reality causality is just an empirical illusion and that all that we really observe is constant conjunction; the effects seem to follow from one another. But there is no rational basis for believing that something will follow from something else, just as there is no rational justification to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow. Doubting causality already starts to harm this argument.
4. The Argument from Contingency
This is another one of Thomas Aquinas’ five ways that we can come to know of the existence of God. You will notice at this point that these arguments necessarily contain a reasonable premise and are subsequently followed by a faulty premise that contains within itself a presupposition or asserts an alleged ‘fact’. Of all of the arguments presented before this one is slightly more difficult to refute. The argument runs as follows: Premise 1: Some things exist and some things do not. These things are said to be ‘contingent’. Premise 2: It is impossible for everything to be contingent, because, theoretically there would be a time where nothing existed and that would not make sense since nothing cannot bring something into existence. Conclusion: There must be a being who existence is not contingent, therefore, God exists. Unless you are a solipsist – someone who believes they can only know that they themselves exist – you will, in a commonsensical way, agree with the first premise. With the development of science, the necessity for God, which this argument seems to be advocating, is being removed. Again we run into the difficulty of definitions in philosophy. What is nothing, really? There was a moment when the universe was compressed into a unit smaller than the cells in our fingernails. Again, the origin of the universe is probably outside of the domain of philosophy and probably belongs more to the field of cosmology. In any case, this argument relies on a very intuitive notion that nothing cannot yield something.
5. Argument by Degree
Thomas Aquinas proposed yet another argument for the existence of God. You will naturally observe that some people are taller than others, that some people are kinder than others and and that some things are more beautiful than others. Bearing this in mind we can express the argument by degree as follows: Premise 1: Objects have attributes to greater or lesser degrees. Premise 2: If an object has an attribute to some degree, there must be an object which as this same attribute to the maximum degree. Premise 3: There is an entity that has all of these attributes to the greatest extent. Conclusion: Therefore, God exists. Premise 1 is hardly disputable, to try to refute that objects have attributes with greater or lesser degrees would be an exercise in futility, useless skepticism, really. However premise 2 is the faulty one. Why must there be an object with a particular property in the greatest degree? It does not logically follow that there must be some entity with this property in the greatest degree and even if the attribute in question was tactile strength (in which case diamonds would be the hardest substance) why is it automatically equivocated with God?
6. Argument from Design, or the Teleological Argument
Finally the fifth way that Aquinas demonstrates the existence of God is the Argument from Design or the teleological argument. Essentially, this argument runs with the presupposition that everything in nature tends toward a purpose and for this purpose to be anything but entirely arbitrary, God must be behind the curtains directing it all. Before we can dispute this argument, it seems only fair to recall the lack of information that the Medieval world had access to compared to us today. Chaos theory or the “butterfly effect” – the instance whereby a slight change in the initial conditions could irrevocably and unpredictably change the behaviour of a system – and quantum physics have quite literally blown the argument apart. In the 19th Century, the British philosopher William Paley devised the watchmaker analogy which simply suggests that if we look at the inherent complexity of a watch, we can infer that some form of intelligent design went behind its construction. It seems very much like there is an inherent order in the world, everything seems so perfectly structured that it appears highly unlikely that this could come about naturally. Again, to be fair, this analogy came about 50 years before Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection which effectively resolves the issue of the chaotic complexity of nature. This theory coupled with the Big Bang theory – which posits that approximately 13.8 billion years ago the world was extremely dense and hot until it began to expand, cooling the universe to create sub-atomic particles which would arrange themselves in all sorts of magnificent ways – are the scientifically-accepted and evidence-backed cosmological theories which explain the inception of the universe. Among Paley’s predecessors, David Hume demonstrated that any argument from design once again committed the fallacy of distribution. Since we are limited to what we experience in the world, i.e: seeing a watch vs. the entirety of the universe which is constantly expanding, we cannot infer from specific parts a property which should apply to the whole.
In summation, this article by no means claims that God does or does not exist, but simply looks at the valiant and clever attempts to try to make sense of the world. When faced with a particular blank, it does make sense to try to fill in the gaps with God, but perhaps it would be more prudent to rely on the scientific progress that we make every century. Perhaps it elevates our species even more if we can live without a belief in a deity. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche perfectly sums up this psychological necessity for the existence of God:
“Any explanation is better than no explanation.” – Friedrich Nietzsche.