Sunday, 21 August 2011

God, existence of

I wrote this little summary of the Six Arguments for (and against) the existence of God yonks ago in response to a question from 'Melanie' on the 'Ask a Philosopher' forum. It has been reproduced here and there quite a lot since, with astonishingly little dissent...

The pic is from the 2008 Bollywood film God Tussi Great Ho

1: The Miracles Argument
FOR GOD: God runs the universe and controls all its physics, therefore the only entity who can alter the physics is God. Thus, by doing magic miracles which are beyond normal physics, God's prophets prove that He exists and that they carry His authority. (Thomas Hobbes)
AGAINST GOD: Reports of miracles always seem to come from uneducated, far distant, ancient people, so they are no more to be trusted than any other such stuff. If miracles prove religion to be true, how come religions which oppose one another (e.g. Sikhism and Shinto, Judaism and Hinduism etc) can all claim to be proved true by miracles? (David Hume)

2: The Ontological Argument
FOR GOD: Everything I know of comes, ultimately, from outside of myself. I know of the existence of a being greater than which nothing can be conceived, namely God. There is nothing in my experience which ought to make me know this, so it must have come from elsewhere, namely from God Himself. (Rene Descartes)
AGAINST GOD: The fact that you can conceive of something, doesn't make it true. You can imagine all sorts of infinitely great and perfect things — the perfect island, the perfect answer to a philosophy question — but that doesn't make them exist. Furthermore, 'existing' isn't a property of things. It isn't something which they might or might not have, like 'being blue' or 'getting hot', it is something which has to come first to make the concept real — you can't just tag it on after. Quite a lot of modern theologians, Don Cupitt being one, try to get round this by arguing that God doesn't exist as a being, but He does have 'real' existence as the abstract projection of our moral and religious ideals. Though how that differs from 'god doesn't exist' I don't know. (Immanuel Kant)

3: The Design Argument
FOR GOD: If you found a watch lying in the road, you would know from the perfect way all its little parts interact that it had not suddenly appeared by chance. You would know that some thinking creature had deliberately designed it. Look at the world around you, isn't it astonishing how all its parts fit and work so perfectly together? Such a magnificent structure must have had a designer behind it. That designer is God. (William Paley)
AGAINST GOD: I, Glyn Hughes, am by trade and profession a designer, so I think I can speak with some authority here. People with no experience of designing tend not to realise how the process works. They assume that the designer thinks out a grand plan, and then makes the thing from nothing more than the raw materials and his own genius. This is not what happens. Designers never can work alone — which would suggest, at least, a committee of several gods. They begin with prototypes, which are usually faulty. Objects which exist now do not mean that the designer is alive now (Guccio Gucci died in 1972, but you can still buy his watches.) Designers never begin from scratch, they merely make tiny modifications to existing designs. There never was anyone who ever designed a wristwatch. Dr Paley's watch would have been designed by someone who had copied almost every feature from previous watches, and they in turn from clocks, which copy a synthesis of milling equipment and water clocks, which might well have come about from the accidental breaking of a water jug. Such innovations as designers appear to make are invariably the result of either fortunate accidents, of synthesis with other designs. Consider that noted design icon, the Dyson vacuum cleaner. It is a synthesis of the upright vacuum cleaner with a device called a cyclone precipitator, invented decades before to remove dust from industrial chimneys, and itself the result of a chance observation about fans. James Dyson himself says that he 'stumbled' onto the idea, and took five years and 5,127 (yes, 5,127) different versions before the design was ready.
So, while, in philosophy, analogies are always suspect as arguments, the design analogy is an exceptionally poor one for God. In fact, if the design argument proves anything, it rather proves that gradual, blind, evolution is the better explanation for the harmony of the universe. (Richard Dawkins)

4: The Morality Argument
FOR GOD: Humans want to each grab as much as they can for themselves. They are naturally selfish, yet humans very often act with care and sensitivity. There is no logical reason why they should do this. Virtue, thus, must be caused by something outside of humanity which itself has a moral sense. This must be God. (John Henry Newman)
AGAINST GOD: Virtue is no mystery. It is quite true that humans each just want to grab everything they can for themselves, but the best technique for doing precisely that is to be as nice as possible to the people around you. Being moral is a good survival mechanism, it doesn't need God. In any case, what with all the earthquakes, diseases, pestilences, nasal hair and boils, God, if he did exist, doesn't seem to be at all nice Himself. (Matt Ridley)

5: The Experience Argument
FOR GOD: It just doesn't matter what anyone says, I just KNOW that God exist, and I prove that from nothing other than my own honest knowledge of my own mind. I have studied all the arguments, and I realise that God can't be demonstrated by science or logic. I have made the great 'leap of faith', I have chosen God. (Martin Heidegger)
AGAINST GOD: This could be a good argument for God, were it not for the fact that different people get totally different, and utterly opposing, inner experiences of God. And, funnily enough, such experiences seem to owe far more to each person's cultural and social influences than to anything outside of themselves. (William James)

6: The First Cause (or 'cosmological') Argument
FOR GOD: Everything which happens must have a cause. Everything which is moving must have been started off moving by something else pushing it. That means that there must have been some first thing, a 'prime mover' to start things off. That is God. (St Augustine)
AGAINST GOD: This argument is both illogical and unjustified. You can't begin by stating as an inviolable principle that 'all things must have a cause' and then use that to prove that there is something which doesn't have a cause. The fact that we don't really know how the universe started doesn't prove anything at all, it might have existed forever infinitely backwards in time for all we know. This is a 'God of the gaps' argument, where, when there is a gap in our knowledge, some people are tempted to slot God in. In any case, if all things have a cause, what was the cause of God? Another pre-God God? And what caused that God? (AJ Ayer)

That's about it for God. There is Blaise Pascal's 'wager', in which he suggests that it is better to profess a belief in God, as it gives you a better chance of eternal life. But that isn't an argument for the existence of God, just a reason why you ought to go to church. And not a very good reason at that; would a thinking God actually want to spend eternity with a bunch of sycophantic believers? Wouldn't an intelligent God rather spend His time with polite unbelievers — they would make for much more productive conversation.

As for arguments actually against the existence of God, they are few and poor. It is extremely difficult to prove that something ISN'T true, for to 'prove' generally means 'to bring forward evidence for', and it is usually impossible to bring forward 'non evidence' in order to disprove something.

There are the so-called 'fallacies of omnipotence', like 'could an all-powerful God make a stone to heavy for God to lift up?' But they are rather, shall we say, floppy, as arguments. There is the 'problem of evil' — that the horrid things we find thrown at us by the natural world show that a Good God couldn't possibly exist. But that doesn't in any way disprove the existence of God, it just shows that either He is either vindictive or uncaring, or that we don't really understand Him.

Then there is the 'Parable of the Invisible Gardener', a sort of commentary on the design and ontological arguments, which might be neatly summed-up in this question:

"Could you please tell me what the difference is between:

1) A God who has no shape, no size, no location, no colour, no form, who cannot be heard, or seen, or smelled, of felt, or touched, who is invisible and unknowable...
2) A God who doesn't exist?"


  1. Really interesting post. Perhaps also, you might mention Anselm's Ontological argument: God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived/ a god that exists in reality is greater than one that exists in the mind/ QED, God must exist. It's a bare assertion fallacy, but nevertheless ought to be viewed in conjunction with Descartes' argument.

    Geoff -

  2. Muhammad Shahroz4 June 2012 at 00:03

    considering Shrodinger's Cat experiment I see that there must be a Consciousness higher but among us!