If you were to ask me to define ‘philosophy’ for you, I wouldn’t go with the traditional “love of wisdom” line. While that is the etymological meaning of the term, it does little to tell the layperson what the philosophical enterprise is all about. Instead, I would repeat to you what the Stanford philosopher David Hills said, “Philosophy is the ungainly attempt to tackle questions that come naturally to children, using methods that come naturally to lawyers.” It is a perfect summation of what engaging in philosophy ought to be like.
The only problem is that most philosophers today present their work on these questions in a manner that can be understood solely by their fellow philosophers. Incapable of grasping the often arcane and flatulent prose of academia, the layperson either spends his time speculating on what the philosopher might mean by something (which often leads to misunderstandings and conclusions that the philosopher never intended), or completely dismisses the entire endeavour of philosophy as some kind of sophistry meant for folk who are too lazy to take up a more practical occupation.
When I started this blog, I wanted to do something that would take philosophy back to Hills’ definition, examining the fundamental questions of life in a rigorous fashion, but I also wanted to ensure that the material presented would be accessible to the layperson. Thus, in my very first blog series, I’d like to go back to a question that is very commonly asked, namely the question of whether God exists, and present to you some of the classic arguments for and against God’s existence, but not as they would be presented in a philosophy textbook. Rather, I intend to walk you through these arguments step-by-step, assuming that you’ve never sat in a philosophy class before (or ever heard William Lane Craig present them in a debate or lecture), breaking down even the simplest of the technical terms. I hope it’ll be beneficial both to the layperson, who will gain a basic understanding of the material on both sides of this debate, and to the philosopher, who might enjoy a refresher on some of the arguments that aren’t often heard in debates (yes, we will be covering some lesser-known arguments as well). But before we get into all that, there are a few other issues we need to look into.
Why the God Question?
When one moves away from the hullabaloo raised by the ever increasing lineup of pop atheists who think they’ve stumped theists at “Who created God?”, one begins to notice that a large subset of thinking adults in the West do not really pledge allegiance to either camp in the debate. Instead, they are indifferent to the question of God’s existence; instead of treating it as an issue of importance like both the theist and the atheist speak of it, the apatheists, as they are known, decides that it is irrelevant to their lives and isn’t worth thinking or talking about.
Apatheists come in all flavours. There are those who think the question isn’t worth thinking about because the answer is of no consequence to us; whether or not God exists will have no impact on how we live our lives everyday. Others think that there might be an answer to the question, but reason and argumentation cannot get us to it; those who believe in God do so as a consequence of blind faith, while those on the other end deny God on the basis of equally incomplete knowledge. Still others argue that the question itself is the wrong one to ask; what matters is not whether God exists, but how one can pragmatically apply this abstract concept of ‘God’, whether He exists or not, to motivate oneself to clean one’s room and live a better life.
Unlike the apatheist, however, I do think that this is a significant question that needs to be answered. I also believe that when the apatheist argues that the question of God’s existence is irrelevant and doesn’t merit being addressed, he or she isn’t actually understanding what they’re claiming and are basing their conclusions on several false assumptions. Allow me to show you what those assumptions are as we walk through some of the reasons why I think the question of the existence of God does matter.
It is a matter of reason
The first claim I would like to address is the one made by those who argue that belief in God is not a rational matter, but a private matter of blind faith. Not having time to spend on matters of wishful thinking, they dismiss the question of God’s existence as irrelevant.
The fact of the matter is that the existence of God is neither a private matter nor one of blind faith. It has been repeatedly demonstrated throughout history that one can attempt to rationally prove the existence of God, right from Aristotle down to Alvin Plantinga (with names like Plotinus, Anselm, Aquinas, al-Kindī, Maimonides, Leibniz, and Gödel peppered throughout). None of them start from things like private experience, personal revelation, or subjective opinions. Instead, they begin from facts about the world that are widely agreed upon, such as the claims that all things require an explanation, that the universe had a beginning, that the universe possesses an appearance of design, or that objective moral values and duties exist (the last one being the most disputed of the lot). The construction of each of these arguments involved serious thought and scholarly reasoning, the records of which can be found in the massive tomes that their proponents left behind.
Now, I’m not arguing that all of these arguments conclusively prove that a God exists, or even that all of them are sound. As a matter of fact, we shall see during this blog series that many of these arguments aren’t as strong as their original proponents thought they were. The point, however, is that the existence of God is a question that can be and has been dealt with by serious intellectuals using rational argumentation. To dismiss it as a matter unworthy of rational discussion is to out yourself as a coward, as many continue to do by calling it everything from irrational to delusional.
Let’s move to the second reason.
If true, it is a matter of ultimate importance
It is absurd to say that the issue of God’s existence is irrelevant to one’s life, given that if God does exist, it affects every aspect of everything that exists, including your life. You do not have a choice in that matter.
What does it matter to you, say, if God does not exist? Apologist William Lane Craig has famously laid this out in a talk he often gives called ‘The Absurdity of Life Without God.’ Without God, he says, many questions remain unanswerable; questions like who we are, why we are here, how did we get here, how we ought to live, and where we are headed after this. Even when man has tried to solve these issues without God, he has found nothing but profoundly disturbing answers that lead to absurdity. Without God, it is impossible to find ultimate meaning, value, morality, and purpose. Nothing stops us from descending into a Hobbesian state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, for we are nothing but mindless matter, dancing to the music of our DNA.
But if God does exist, at least the Christian God, Craig says that there can be ultimate meaning in life imbued by this Creator. If the Christian God does exist, everything is not permissible because there is an ultimate authority to be accountable to. The world is not devoid of value and purpose anymore; one does not have to view one’s own life as nihilistic and absurd.
Now, arguing that life without God would be nihilistic and absurd does not automatically prove that God exists. The most attractive solutions are not always the right ones Perhaps it is true that God does not exist and nihilism is what we’re all doomed to. Nonetheless, one should not dismiss the question of His existence at the outset. It is something that deserves to be rationally investigated, because unlike something like the tooth fairy or Santa Claus, God’s existence or non-existence brings with it enormous ramifications. You are free to dismiss it if you know that it is false, but you first need to figure out whether it is false.
So the question of God’s existence isn’t as trivial as the apatheist would have you think. Hence, I believe there is good reason for you to take the topic of this blog series quite seriously, even if you are not a theist or a Christian like I am.
Allow me to quickly outline some of the goals that I wish to achieve through this blog series:
- To present some of the classic arguments in favour of God’s existence.
- To present the common objections to the above arguments.
- To present some of the classic historical arguments against God’s existence.
- To present the common responses to these arguments.
- To not take either side at the end of every blog post, leaving the reader to arrive at their their own conclusions based on the strength of the arguments and the objections made.
- To make my every post as accessible to the layperson as possible. This will often involve explaining the basic philosophical concepts involved in the argument while delineating the argument itself.
To the last point, it is imperative that I lay out my biases at the outset; I am a theist. I am a Christian. And while I will try to present the arguments as impartially as I possibly can, there will be inevitable moments where my biases show through, and I apologize for that in advance.
Arguments in philosophy aren’t like the verbal fights that you have with your wife (I mean the ones that your wife wins more often than not).
An argument in philosophy is the most basic tool used in reasoning. It uses several propositions or truth claims called premises to prove the truth of a final truth claim called a conclusion.
Let’s consider a commonly-used example:
- All men are mortal.
- Socrates is a man.
- Socrates is mortal.
In this example, ‘All men are mortal’ and ‘Socrates is a man’ are premises. Together, they attempt to prove the conclusion ‘Socrates is a mortal.’
The above example is stated in what is called the ‘standard form’ of an argument. You might not always find arguments presented in this way; they might be contained within a paragraph in a book. A simple way to identify the premises and conclusion of such an argument would be to look for the claim that the author is trying to prove. This is the conclusion. The claims that try to prove this conclusion are its premises.
Arguments can be either deductive, inductive, or abductive.
Deductive arguments are the strongest form of argumentation that there are in philosophy. In these arguments, if the premises are true, the conclusion is must be true. The argument above and most of the arguments we will be examining in this series are deductive arguments, so we don’t really need to worry about inductive and abductive arguments for now. Feel free to look them up in your own time.
Validity and Soundness
Validity is a necessary quality of a good deductive argument, where the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises; an argument that does not have its conclusion follow from its premises is an invalid argument.
A special property of a valid argument is that it is impossible for the conclusion of a valid argument to be false if all of its premises are true.
An example of a valid argument would look something like this:
- All cats are good philosophers.
- Biscuit is a cat.
- Biscuit is a good philosopher.
In this argument, the premises imply the conclusion in such a way that if the premises are true, the conclusion is necessarily true.
But validity isn’t the only sign of a good argument. If you look at the argument above, it’s still a bad argument despite being valid. Why? Because it contains the false premise, “All cats are good philosophers.” So we need at least one more criterion for a good argument.
This second criterion is called soundness. A sound argument is an argument that is valid, but also has true premises. Thus, the argument above is valid, but unsound.
Here’s what a sound argument might look like:
- All cats are mammals.
- Biscuit is a cat.
- Biscuit is a mammal.
Keep the concepts of validity and soundness in mind when we discuss the arguments for and against the existence of God; we will be using them to determine whether the arguments are good or not.
The Scope of Theistic Arguments
Before we close, it is imperative that we answer an important question (and answer it honestly): What exactly can these arguments for God do? What are they capable of?
Can they convince someone to change their minds on the issue of God’s existence? Maybe, but mostly not. None of these arguments are guaranteed to convince anyone that God exists. They’ve existed for centuries, and while many have admitted that they are robust, few have actually changed their minds on their basis. People come to the table with many presuppositions, some of which cause them to dismiss even the possibility of God’s existence in spite of whatever argument you might provide them with. In short, these arguments cannot persuade anyone of God’s existence if their minds are closed to that possibility.
To ask the question once again, then, what can these arguments do? What they achieve is a modest goal – and it is something that we’ve discussed earlier – that belief in God cannot be dismissed as irrational at the outset; that Christians do have good, rational reasons to believe in a deity, regardless of whether they are aware of these reasons themselves. At best, then, they remove some of the misconceptions that people have about religion and bring them one step closer to belief; and while the removal of these stumbling blocks is necessary for them to come to believe in God’s existence, it is not sufficient.
Having understood this, allow me now to leave you here and meet you again when we begin discussing the first theistic argument of our series.