Should Christians Argue that God Exists? (No)
You can read more of Ed's writing in the St. Hilda's Winter Quarterly.
A few of my posts on this blog have explored things in my life which have changed since I converted from atheism to Christianity (c.f. From Militant Atheism to Christian Community, and this piece on the Bible). In this post, however, I want to look at something which has remained almost exactly the same from my atheist days to now: my belief that we shouldn't try to argue for the existence of God.
I'm going to give a brief overview of what I take an argument for God's existence to be, why we might want to use them, and then a couple of general reasons why it seems to me that we shouldn't. I'm going to finish by focussing on one argument in particular, in order to point out at least one specific fault in a specific example, before concluding! (This does get more pseudo-technical than I'd hoped it would, so apologies if it feels like reading through treacle at times.)
What's an Argument, Eh?
Discussions about whether or not God exists tend, in my experience, to hinge around arguments. We're not always clear, however, what an argument is in this context. Let's get clear about that, then, before looking at why we might be tempted to use them.
Put as generally as possible, an argument is constituted by premises and a conclusion. These premises and this conclusion should really have something to do with each other, but they don't actually need to in order for something to be an argument. For example, 'if grass is green then Britain doesn't have a monarchy; the grass is green, therefore Britain doesn't have a monarchy' is an argument. It just also happens to be a nonsensical one.
Here are three types of argument, broadly defined for the purposes of our discussion (apologies for any apparent falsehood):
1. An inductively valid argument is one where the premises make the truth of the conclusion more probable than not.
2. A deductively valid argument is an argument where it is impossible for the premises to be true and the conclusion false.
3. A sound argument is a deductively valid argument which has true premises.
To give a sensible and informal example of an argument, and one which has been very relevant to teachers over the past few months:
- If it snows a lot tomorrow, there won't be school.
- The forecast says it's going to snow a lot tomorrow.
- The weather forecast is usually accurate.
- It's probably going to snow tomorrow.
- We probably won't have school tomorrow.
Now, a deductive argument for God's existence is an argument which seeks to move from a given set of premises to the conclusion that God does exist. An inductive argument for God's existence is one which seeks to move from a given set of premises to the conclusion that God's existence is more probable than not. Both are fairly ubiquitous in the modern day.
Why do We Use Arguments for the Existence of God?
As far I can see, arguments for the existence of God can be used for three reasons. The first reason is to try and convince people who don't believe that God exists of his existence. This is not a contemporary phenomenon: whether or not we believe him (and I do), this is Descartes' stated purpose in writing the Meditations. It may well be something that it is particularly easy to be concerned with in the scientific age.
The second is to try and show that religious belief is either consistent with or grounded in the principles of logic and reason. This is, I believe, the hope of thinkers like Richard Swinburne. It's an easy thing to want to do, as the most common criticism of religion (in my experience) is its inherent irrationality, which can carry implications of stupidity or madness. It's natural, when faced with such a criticism, to want to show that one's belief are, at the least, not irrational.
The third reason is to try and clarify certain aspects of God's existence for those who already believe by grounding them in earthly analogy. This is easily the least well known reason in modern writing, yet it is probably the one with the most venerable tradition. It is, I believe (not originally), the reason behind Aquinas' proofs in the Summa Theologica, and it is fairly uncontroversially the reason behind Anselm's ontological argument. Elsewhere, arguments for divine characteristics found in Augustine's Trinity are themselves attempts to elucidate our understanding of the divine nature, not ground our belief in that nature in the existence of certain material facts.
Why I Think We Shouldn't Use Them: A General Account
All of these reasons are understandable. I would claim, however, that all three are misguided (though the third to a much, much lesser extent). I'm just going to give three arguments in support of that claim here, each somewhat related, then move on to a specific criticism of a specific argument. I am here going to switch from talking about 'God' as a general term, as start talking about God as referring specifically to the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, who became incarnate in Jesus Christ, was crucified, resurrected, and whose Holy Spirit remains a gift to us. I am also going to switch here from saying things I think are commonly accepted to things which aren't, such that they may well be catastrophically wrong.
1: It is a part of God's nature that His existence cannot be rationally demonstrated.
The God of Scripture, whose ways are not our ways, whose wisdom is not to be found in gold or silver mines, who judges and blesses all humanity, cannot be subjected to human measures. Possibly the most pointed support of this in Scripture is found at the end of the Book of Job, where God's response to Job is to lambast him for presuming to know and judge the will of the divine, but it is a common found throughout Scripture in general. In the Gospels, perhaps the best examples are when Jesus says that God alone is good and when he criticises Peter for setting his mind on human, not divine things (the implication being that the things of man, especially reasons for action, and not the things of God).
Rational argument, however, just is such a human measure: to be supported by rational argument is to measure up to a given standard of human rationality. It is the nature of the God in Scripture, however, to be utterly beyond such measures, even to the extent of obvious irrationality. Instead, God is the ground of our reason as Christians, against whose will our lives are judged, and who alone can do the judging.
This claim applies most obviously to deductive arguments for God's existence. This means more than to say that God cannot be deductively shown to be by logical principles; it can also mean to say that it cannot be shown to be utterly consistent with them (for otherwise His being would be bound to that consistency, such that were an inconsistency to be found between God and logic it would be God who would have to alter, not our application of logical principles), and it can also mean that we cannot demonstrate divine qualities by analogy to earthly things (we can perhaps use analogy to earthly things to communicate what we're trying to say about God more clearly, but the dis-analogy being God and Earth in Scripture seems to me to be such that Hume's criticism of any/all teleological arguments in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion couldn't be more on the money. Indeed, I think it to be one of the best books written in the service of theology, from my particular Christian standpoint).
This is not to denigrate human reason in all its forms: Christian belief is not an excuse to give in abrogate responsibility for our thinking, nor is it to say that logic, argument, and all the rest are essential resources for much of what we seek to do. It is just to say that the order between God and human reason is such that reason must always be responsible to God, not vice-versa. And if reason is to be responsible to God, we probably shouldn't try to set it as the ultimate ground by which we might know God.
(On a side note, I've been writing so far as if 'reason' were a single and clearly definable human faculty, which can across time and space be identified with a particular way of thinking. I should say explicitly that I don't think it is, but I find it difficult to explicitly write of 'human reason' in the plural.)
2: Inductive Arguments seem to only be convincing given a certain psychological circularity.
My second argument is directed against inductive arguments for the existence of God. It rests on the idea that, for these arguments to be psychologically convincing, an individual must already believe in the conclusion, and so be circular.
My reasoning for this rests on the idea that what we count as evidence for a given fact itself relies upon the particular paradigm our thought occupies.
Now, put broadly (and this is far from an exclusive definition), I take fact Y to be evidence for the truth of fact X if fact Y renders fact X more probable.
In cases which do not have clearly defined epistemic boundaries, I also understand our judgements of probability to be psychological grounded before they are logically grounded. So, for example, a case with a clearly defined boundary would be one where we knew we had marbles in a bag, three red and seven blue: here we can say that the probability of pulling a red marble out of the bag is 3/10, and that this judgement of probability is logically grounded.
To take another example, however: it seems to me that the fact of the material world's existence is not one possibility within clearly defined epistemic boundaries: I have no idea what the other possibilities are, so no real idea what would make them probably or not, so no real idea what makes the existence of the material world probable or not. All the same, I will take the fact that when I pick up a coffee cup my hand doesn't just go through it as evidence for the material world's existence (that is, something that continues to support its probability): this is not, however, because I can logically show that this fact renders the material world's existence more probable, but because the paradigm within which I naturally think is one which believes in the existence of the material world as given, and so psychologically renders the fact of my interaction with physical objects as evidence for that belief. To sort of paraphrase Wittgenstein in On Certainty, it's because I believe in the material world that I believe I have hands, but it's still only after I accept this latter belief that I can be given all the rest.
So, under this view that what we take as evidence of a belief's truth or falsity depends upon the paradigm under which we think, there has to be a certain sort of psychological circularity for inductive arguments to work. I will only accept an argument that the material world exists on the basis that you have hands if I am first willing to believe that the material world exists: if I'm not willing to do that, then no argument could convince me otherwise, because I am under no psychological compulsion to see your evidence as evidence for that belief.
I am pretty sure that inductive arguments for God work in the same way. The supposed examples of evidence we deal with in teleological (arguments from design) and cosmological arguments (arguments form the raw fact of existence) are only convincing if we first accept that they do render God's existence more probable; but we will only be inclined to think that if we first accept that God's existence could be rendered probable in this way in the first place. And this is precisely what an atheist (and, in fact, a certain sort of Christian, myself included) will often deny. For these arguments to work, then, I'm pretty sure that their work has to have already been done; and when they don't work, but are claimed as logical demonstrations, I think it fair to say that it can make Christian belief look as though it could only rest on a logical fallacy which those who occupy a given paradigm don't notice (though this in and of itself is not actually the worst thing: after all, I'd claim most of our basic thinking rests on similar sorts of belief, quite rightly and rationally, not least our belief in the material world).
My third (and shortest) argument against is that most arguments for God do not get us to God. This is not a new idea in the slightest, but it is perhaps worth restating: when a cosmological argument brings us to the necessity of a first cause, when a teleological arguments brings us to the idea of a watchmaker, when an ontological argument brings us to a maximally perfect being, or when a moral argument brings us to the absolute ground of value, none of them have given us reason to believe in Christ crucified. At most they have brought us to 'what everyone understands by God'. And what everyone understand by God need not be (and in the context of my first argument, actually most likely won't be) the God of Scripture.
(It is important here, I think, to distinguish between arguments made in order to ground God's existence and arguments attempting to elucidate certain aspects of it. I believe both to be questionable, but the latter is certainly less so (and may even be necessary for effective communication across paradigms, even with all its attendant dangers of anthropomorphism).)
*A Particular Case
My old college tutor would be heartily disappointed if I didn't at least try to end this general invective with at least a cursory glance at a specific argument, given how many times he's warned me against attempting to do away with entire forms of thought on the basis of general considerations. (I should also say on that note that the general considerations above would, I think, only have validity if they could be demonstrated to apply in particular to any given argument: as they stand, I feel quite comfortable saying that they prove nothing.)
So, let's take a particular case: Descartes' Ontological argument (apologies for the straw man- I don't have a copy of Aquinas to hand, and am not enough familiar enough with the particular statements of more convincing arguments to confidently write about them without direct question (I really don't think I could have picked a weaker argument to go through here, making my life very easy, so apologies for that)).
Descartes argument, in a nutshell, is (I am more than willing to accept criticism on this formulation as well: it's a bit rushed, and a bit lazy!):
- that I have an idea of a maximally perfect being inside my mind,
- that it would be impossible for me to have such an idea in my mind if such a being did not exist,
- a maximally perfect being must exist, and this being must be God.
Very quickly (because I'm running up to the deadline for this post, also why I settled for Descartes), let's see how each of the three arguments above applies here.
First: the argument that God is by nature beyond reason. It might seem that Descartes has accounted for this by saying that I could not have an idea of a maximally perfect being in my mind if it didn't exist; however, he has (to my mind) contravened it by assuming that I do in fact have an idea of a maximally perfect being in my mind. The fact of God's being beyond reason also implies, or so I believe, that God's nature is beyond imagination; that as such, even if I do believe in God, and even if He has in fact revealed His existence to me, I still would not have an idea of God in my mind. Even in direct encounter with God, there is no idea I could have or hold onto which could encapsulate His being, least of all an idea of what I might call a 'maximally perfect being'. The best I can do is the last image we have of the transfiguration, when, after the light and the prophets have disappeared, all Peter sees is his friend Jesus, simple flesh and blood yet still God almighty, before him.
Second: the argument that inductive arguments for God can only be persuasive on the basis of psychological circularity. This is here contravened by Descartes' second premise: there seems to me to be no reason to accept that the idea of a maximally perfect being entails its existence unless we first accept both the fact of the idea and the possibility of the being. As it is, I see no reason to suppose that I do have the idea of a maximally perfect being in my mind, and even less to suppose that if I did it would entail its possible, let alone its actual, existence. Without a reason to believe in the conclusion already, then, I can't see how this premise would be convincing (Descartes himself seems to be aware of this, to some extent at least and with a pejorative spin, when he writes in his preface to the reader of those who 'did not so much impugn my reasonings as my conclusions'; as if those who did not already in some sense accede to the conclusions could be logically convinced by the reasonings.)
Third, does Descartes equivocate, stopping short of God for 'what all men understand as God'? Fairly unambiguously, yes: despite his also condemning those who 'ascribe to God affections which are human', what is more human than to suppose that our idea of a maximally perfect being (even if we suppose ourselves incapable of defining, specifying, or conceiving of the particular things in virtue of which it is maximally perfect) could reach up to the heights of God, even if it were given unto us by God Himself? What is more human than to take God as the ground of all human certitude, as Descartes does, rather than the point against which all our certitudes are relativised against the person and command of Jesus Christ (including our interpretations of that person and those commands)? Rhetorical questions aside, it seems to me that Descartes does indeed only reach an idea which people might call God, not God Himself, and that this idea is itself a reifying of human standards of perfection in order to ground a particular and questionable system of thought, one which remains profoundly influential today as modern and post-modern schools of thought battle it out (paradoxically?) at the same.
This post is much longer than I originally anticipated its being, and as such is much more rushed than I had hoped. Nonetheless, if you've made it this far, thank you, and I hope it has at least been thought provoking.
I'll just end by saying that I very much don't believe that we as Christians should argue for God's existence for any of the reasons given above in virtue of my own reason above; however, my being confidence in my own position does not actually mean that I'm all that sure that my confidence is any guide to truth. I hope this can be read, then, not just as an overly aggressive young write trying to shut down avenues of thought, but also as a point for discussion and disagreement. After all, whilst I personally don't think Christians should argue for the existence of God, I think it an entirely good think to argue about that question.