Are any of the arguments for the existence of God successful?
Intro: As an atheist, I find that none of the arguments supporting the existence of God have been successful in persuading me that God does indeed in exist. However since beginning the research for this essay, I have discovered
It if difficult to argue the existence of God without first defining what the word ‘God’ means; part of proving the existence of God has to be deciding what or who God actually is. In ‘The Puzzle of God’, Vardy sites Plato’s description of God as kind of ‘moulder of clay’ (Vardy, 1999: 17). God did not create the matter which makes up the universe, he merely utilised it to create planets and animals – He moulded the matter to his own ends, made special through implanting his ‘mind’ and ‘soul’ into it, which the dead matter alone would not have possessed. This concept does not strictly fit the Judaeo-Christian belief that God created the world out of nothing (Genesis 1:1, New International Version) so it is already apparent that the concept of God cannot be discussed in simple terms. Indeed the major monotheistic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, whilst all believing in one God, are varying in their views on what /who God is (Davies, 2004: 1). However, for the purposes of this essay, I shall focus on the Christian beliefs about God, as the major philosophers of religion, St Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, Descartes et cetera have debated the existence of God through a Christian lense. The God of Christianity is often portrayed anthropomorphically – he is an old man with a grey beard in many children’s eyes – and it is therefore hard not to imbue him with human traits such as anger and joy and was also made flesh through the living man, Jesus (Martin, 1959: 2/3).
Mackie – Descartes’ idea of god.
Pascal’s wager – sensible! However, can discount this as acting as you have faith is different to actually having one. Let’s look at some agreed upon arguments supporting the existence of God.
- First para: It is very difficult to decide if God exists, without first defining what the word or concept of ‘God’ is/means. In this essay, I will focus on the monotheistic faiths’ definition of God, if indeed there is an agreed definition. In ‘An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion’, Brian Davies decided to focus on ‘Classical theism’ and ‘theistic personalisation’.
- Mention Pascal’s Wager – is it a good reason for believing in God, in a way it’s the one I most identify with, in a grave yard at night I’m scared of ghosts & if I were hanging off a cliff I might pray….
- Firstly – design (teleological) argument, when considering the Q, I look around and use my senses, empirical evidence to decide. This strongly influences me and makes me reconsider, however, if you believe in natural selection, that can dispel the ‘watchmaker’ (1000)
- Criticisms of the TA and points I agree with
- Leads onto how did the word start – cosmological – this is the most convincing argument to me, as my world is finite and I have often wondered what we are expanding into. Does make sense in my mind that (1000) Aristotle’s first cause (see revision guide).
- Criticism of CA and points I agree with in them
- Ontological argument – another argument which I find the least convincing, despite it described as being the most ‘logical’ argument by its supporters. When I read that this was a logical argument, I became immediately more interested as I think of myself as logical person, however, it disappoints. The whole argument hinges on the definition of God. If the definition of God is disputed so how can the definition of God prove His existence?
- Criticisms of the OA – what I agree with in them
- Moral argument (Kant) and criticisms. Does moral order need to be underwritten by God? Reference radio 4 prog?
Arguments for design
A common human response to the world around us is amazement. Two things in particular are sources of fascination – the stars in the sky and life. The grandeur of a star-filled night, the vastness of the universe, inspires a sense of awe. The complexity and intricacy of living creatures fills us with wonder. As philosophers, we should first of all be amazed that we can understand the world at all. It could have been a complete shambles, nothing constant, no laws of nature, no means by which our reason could try to explain it. But what we find is order, constancy, predictability throughout, and in living creatures, different parts working together and the creature as a whole fitting neatly into its environment.
When we talk about parts of a living creature, we often refer to their purpose. The heart is for pumping blood; the eye is for seeing; and so on. In fact, this is central to understanding the organ in question. You don’t really know what an eye is unless you know that it is the organ of sight. And we want parts of the eye in terms of their contribution to the purpose of the eye. So the lens focuses light onto the retina, the muscles attached to the lens change its thickness so that it can focus light onto the retina, and so on. Without this bit (the lens) or that bit (the retina), the eye wouldn’t work properly.
The way in which living things work, which requires a huge coordination of lots of tiny bits, each doing their specific job, is amazingly complex. [Margin: Similarly, the way living creatures interact in an ecosystem, each filling an ecological ‘niche’, is highly complex. Remove one creature and the ecosystem can become unstable and start to break down.] This coordination, the detail and intricacy of interrelations between parts, suggests planning – a plan that follows a purpose (of making a living creature, making an organ that enables the creature to see, etc.). Acting on a plan guided by a purpose is design. It’s as if someone had it in mind that the eye should see, and put the bits together to ensure that it could. The way living creatures are suggests that they are designed – designed to be alive, with organs designed to keep them alive.
If living creatures are designed, then as a matter of definition, there must be a designer. You can’t have design without a designer. This is the next step in an argument for the existence of God, which we look at in the separate handout on ‘Arguments from design’. (The Greek word for this idea of ‘purpose’ or ‘end’ or ‘what is aimed at’ is telos. Arguments for the existence of God that invoke purpose or design are therefore also called teleological arguments.)
Evolution by natural selection
Is the fact that we are amazingly complex, and our organs and many parts serve the purpose of keeping us alive enough for us to say that living creatures are designed? The appearance of design in nature clearly requires some explanation. But what is the best explanation?
Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection provides an excellent account of how the appearance of design could come about without anything being designed. Millions of alterations randomly take place. Most disappear without a trace. But some trait that coincidentally helps an creature to survive and reproduce, to function well, slowly spreads, because that creature and its descendents reproduce more. So more and more creatures end up with it. It’s not that the feature is ‘selected’ in order for the creature to live better and so reproduce more. Instead, the feature simply causes the creature to reproduce more, so its descendents also have that feature and they reproduce more and so on. What appears to be designed is actually just evidence of good functioning.
One very small change is followed by another. Over time, this can lead to great complexity. In the end, then, creatures appear to be designed when they are in fact the product of coincidence. So we don’t need to say that living things are actually designed (which would require the existence of a designer). This is a better explanation because it is simpler. We aren’t inferring the existence of something we can’t be sure exists.
The ‘fine tuning’ argument
Darwinism is sometimes thought to eliminate the question of design in nature. But we can ask ‘how is evolution by natural selection possible?’. It didn’t have to be possible – perhaps the universe could have been organized in such a way that evolution and life would be impossible. So the appearance of design needs a further explanation. For example, perhaps God set up the universe so that life evolves by natural selection.
This argument has been given support by recent work in cosmology – the study of the ‘cosmos’ or universe as a whole. Cosmologists have argued that the conditions needed for life to come into existence are incredibly improbably. As far as we understand, life needs planets; and planets need stars. But the universe needn’t have contained stars. In fact, if anything about the beginnings of the universe (the Big Bang) or the laws of nature were different by the smallest amount, stars wouldn’t exist. For example, the Big Bang was an explosion of matter-energy. Logically speaking, it could have been bigger, it could have been smaller – either more or less matter or more or less force of explosion. But for stars to be able to form, the initial strength of the explosion in the Big Bang had to be precise to one part in 1060 – it couldn’t vary by more than 0.00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001 percent. That’s as precise as hitting a one-inch target at the other side of the observable universe! And that’s just for stars to form. For life to form on planets is even more improbable, because so many more laws are involved. Because it is so unlikely, the fact that everything is exactly adjusted so life can exist seems a staggering coincidence.
What could explain this? Science can’t tell us why the Big Bang was exactly the size it was or why the laws of nature are the way they are. It can only tell us that this is how it is. One obvious explanation, then, is that the Big Bang, the properties of matter-energy, the laws of nature, were all designed to allow life to evolve. If they were designed, then instead of it being a massive coincidence that life could evolve, it becomes inevitable.
Paley and design-like properties
A famous argument for design was given by William Paley in his Natural Theology, Ch. 1-3. He argues that if I found a stone lying in a field, and wondered how it came to be there, I might rightly think that, for all I knew, it had always been there. However, if I found a watch lying on the ground, I wouldn’t feel the same answer was satisfactory. Examining it closely, I would infer it had a designer.
Now we know that watches have designers. But what is it about a watch itself that leads us to think it must have a designer? Paley spends a considerable time exploring this inference, and whether it is valid in the case of the watch. For example, would it undermine the inference if the watch sometimes went wrong, or if I’d never seen a watch being made? He is trying to identify exactly what it is about a watch that allows us to infer a designer. After all, in the case of a watch, this does seem a good inference. Watches don’t just ‘happen’. What properties of a watch are direct evidence of design?
Paley identifies the property of having an organization of parts put together for a purpose as crucial. It is from this that we infer the watch has a designer – even if we know nothing about watchmakers. He then argues that we can make exactly the same argument in the case of natural things that exhibit that property. [Margin: It is often thought that Paley argues from analogy; but he is not arguing that natural things are like watches. He is arguing that watches have a property which supports the inference of a designer, and then arguing that natural things have exactly that property as well.] Natural things have the same property, so they too have a designer.
Throughout the argument, Paley is relying on the idea that the sorts of properties he takes as evidence of design – in the case of the watch and of nature – cannot be produced by natural means, and so must be the result of a mind. In the case of the watch, this seems right – a watch isn’t the kind of thing nature produces. So if we found a watch in a field, we would rightly wonder about its origin. However, natural things are precisely the sort of thing that nature does produce. We can’t, then, argue that natural things cannot be produced by natural means, so must have been designed by a mind.
So what is the difference between natural things and watches? There is no question that natural things have design-like properties. Paley has established this. The difficulty is that unlike watches, natural things don’t show evidence of being manufactured artefacts. In this different context, their design-like properties aren’t clearly good evidence for actually having been designed. Although we are making the same inference from design-like properties to a designer, the argument doesn’t have the same force in the case of natural things. And as in our earlier discussion, we can appeal to Darwinism to show that nature can produce design-like properties (though not manufactured artefacts).
In the last twenty years, some thinkers have become dissatisfied with explanations of the complexity of living creatures in terms of evolution by natural selection. They have been struck by the ‘irreducible complexity’ of the systems and organs of living creatures. Michael Behe, a biochemist, defines irreducible complexity as
a single system which is composed of several interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, and where the removal of any one of these parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning’. (‘Molecular machines’)
This property is precisely the one that Paley has argued is the basis for inferring a designer.
As an example of such a situation, Behe describes the many parts (over 40) that work together to move the ‘tail’ that propels a certain bacterium. Behe argues that evolution couldn’t produce such an organization of parts. The reason is that, as we saw, evolution works by making small changes, accidentally, and one at a time. But until all the pieces are in place together, the tail wouldn’t work. It’s all or nothing. But evolution is bit by bit.
Like Paley, Behe argues that irreducible complexity is direct evidence of design. If a system won’t work at all until all its parts are in place, then this suggests someone planned and organized the parts.
However, many evolutionary biologists reject this conclusion. First, Behe’s argument assumes that each part in a system has always been that part in that system. But this isn’t true in evolution. It often happens that a system, or its parts, having evolved to do one thing are ‘co-opted’ into doing something else. Some of the parts that move the bacterium’s tail, work as a kind of pump if taken alone. They may have had nothing at all to do with movement when they first evolved. They could have evolved as a pump, and then later on, some further accidental change meant they joined with some new part to move a tail.
Second, features that are initially minor improvements can become essential. Take lungs – very complex and without which we wouldn’t survive. But they started out as relatively unimportant air bladders in fish (they help fish not sink to the sea floor, but not all fish have them, e.g. sharks do not). They acquired a new function when fish made brief forays onto land, now operating to supply the fish with oxygen as well. Over time, developments in the air bladder served this new purpose, allowing for longer and longer trips out of water. Eventually they became lungs, and the fish ceased to be fish. Lungs didn’t have to evolve all at once. So we can argue that evolution by natural selection can account for irreducible complexity.
Arguments from design
Arguments from design start from this evidence of design and infer the existence of a designer, a mind that can order things for a purpose. The most famous of these is the argument from analogy.
The argument from analogy
In Dialogues on Natural Religion, Part II, David Hume expresses the argument like this
The curious adapting of means to ends, through all nature, resembles exactly, though it much exceeds, the productions of human contrivance; of human design, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since, therefore, the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer, by all the rules of analogy, that the causes also resemble; and that the Author of Nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though possessed of much larger faculties, proportioned to the grandeur of the work which he has executed.
Hume is saying that nature is like human inventions in the way it displays purpose (the adaptation of means to ends, e.g. the arrangement of the parts of the eye to see, of the heart to pump blood), so it must have a similar cause to human inventions, viz. a mind that intended to create such design. Similar effects have similar causes.
However, Hume argues strongly against the analogy. First, he questions its strength. A watch is a typical example of something designed and made by humans. But living creatures aren’t really like watches in all sorts of ways. For example, watches aren’t alive and they don’t reproduce. So the ‘effects’ – watches, living creatures – aren’t all that similar, so we can’t infer a similar cause. Likewise, the universe is not at all like a watch. So again, because the effects aren’t very like, we can’t infer similar causes.
Second, even if the analogy between effects was better, inferring a similar cause would be dubious. Human beings are a fairly recent species living on a small planet on one of billions of galaxies. We can’t reliably generalise from our very limited and finite experience to the cause of the universe as a whole. As Hume says, ‘why select so minute, so weak, so bounded a principle as the reason and design of animals is found to be upon this planet’ as a model for something that could set laws of nature?!
Third, there could be other explanations of apparent design. With life, this is evolution. We don’t know what might explain the universe, but then, that’s the situation we were in about life before Darwin developed his theory. Hume suggests the idea that if the universe is infinitely old, then over time, all possible combinations of matter will occur randomly. This suggestion isn’t very good, because we know that the universe began around 13.8 billion years ago, and we know that matter doesn’t organize itself randomly, but follows very particular laws of nature. But Hume’s point is that if there are different explanations of the apparent design of the universe, then we can’t infer that the cause is a designer.
Is the designer God?
The argument from design is intended as an argument for the existence of God. However, as well as attacking the analogy, Hume also points out that even if we could infer the existence of a designer of the universe, it is an extra step to argue that the designer is God. And, because we are relying on analogy, this extra step also faces difficulties.
Let’s take the analogy between human inventions and the universe further. First, we should note that, in the human case, the designer is not always also the creator. Someone who designs a car may not also build it. So we can’t infer that the designer of the universe also created the universe. But God is said to be the creator of the universe; so we can’t infer that the designer is God.
Second, the scale of the design reflects the powers of the designer. Watches aren’t infinite, and neither are the minds that make them. But the universe isn’t infinite either. So we can’t infer that the designer is infinite, only that whoever designed the universe has sufficient power and intelligence to do that. But God is said to be infinite.
Third, we think that the quality of what is designed reflects the abilities of the designer. Designers need to be trained, and at first their designs will be poor and could be improved. We can argue that, if the purpose of the universe was life, this universe shows examples of poor design, e.g. volcanoes and tsunamis that wipe out life. [Margin: This idea is discussed further in The problem of evil (p. xxx).] Perhaps we should infer that the designer of this universe was not fully skilled, but made mistakes. But God is said not to make mistakes.
Some of Hume’s points can be debated. But the overall message is clear: If we rest the argument from design completely on analogy, then the argument faces many problems. What philosophers have done since Hume is to remove the appeal to analogy.
We can do this by using the considerations about probability. Cosmology supports the view that it is hugely improbable that the universe would have the right properties for life to evolve. But if God exists, we can explain this. So it is more probable that God exists and designed the universe for life than that the universe just randomly happened to have the right features for life. This is an inductive argument from probability for the existence of God.
The argument only works if God is the only satisfactory way that we can explain the fact that the universe allows life to evolve. In other words, we need to ask whether God is the best explanation for this fact. For example, could we not give a scientific explanation? In The Coherence of Theism (Ch. 8), Richard Swinburne argues not. Science can’t offer any satisfactory explanation, because science can’t provide us with the right sort of answer to why the universe has the laws it has or the exact quantity of matter it has. Science must assume the laws of nature in order to provide any explanations at all. It can’t say where they come from or why they are the way they are, because all scientific explanations presuppose laws.
For example, science explains why water boils when you heat it in terms of the effect on heat on the properties of molecules. It explains these effects and these properties in terms of other laws and properties, atomic and sub-atomic ones. Some further explanation of these may be possible, but again, it will suppose other laws and properties. So at root, scientific laws are ‘brute’ – they have no explanation unless we can find some other kind of explanation for them.
We use another type of explanation all the time, viz. ‘personal explanation’. We explain the products of human activity – this book, these sentences – in terms of a person. I’m writing things I intend to write. This sort of explanation explains an object or an event in terms of a person and their purposes. The hypothesis that God exists and intended to life to evolve provides a personal explanation for why the universe is such that life can evolve.
However, we saw that Hume objected that even if you can show that the universe has a designer, you can’t show that the designer is God, as we normally think of God? For example, this argument doesn’t show that there is only one cause of the universe; nor does it show that that cause is perfect, omniscient, omnipotent, or cares about people. The argument only needs ‘God’ to be able to design the universe (and perhaps, put that design into effect). It doesn’t say anything else about God.
Swinburne’s response is to accept this objection. The argument so far is only evidence for a designer, not evidence for the traditional theistic conception of God. However, he argues, the argument is about what is the best explanation for design; and God as we usually think of him remains the best explanation.
Swinburne says an explanation is good ‘when the explanatory hypothesis [in this case, the existence of God and his intention for the universe to contain life] is simple and leads us with some probability to expect the data which we would not otherwise expect.’ ‘Simplicity’ means not invoking more different kinds of thing than you need to; and not giving them more or more complex properties than they need for the explanation to work.
Simplicity requires that we shouldn’t suppose that two possible causes exist when only one will do. Supposing there is more than one cause of the universe is a worse explanation, because it is not as simple. It is also simpler to suppose that the cause of the universe is itself uncaused, or we have a problem of regress. It is also simpler to suppose that God has infinite power and intelligence, or we would have to explain why God had just the amount of power and intelligence he has (enough to create the universe, but no more), i.e. what limits God’s power and intelligence.
(Swinburne adds infinite goodness to the properties of God, but we can question this – why does God need to be good in order to create the universe?
The limits of explanation
If we explain design in terms of God, now we have to ask ‘What explains God?’ and this seems to be an even more puzzling question than ‘What explains scientific laws?’. So from not being able to explain design in the universe, we end up not being able to explain something else. This is not progress.
Swinburne responds that it is progress, and that we do something similar all the time in science. Science will introduce an entity – like sub-atomic particles – in order to explain something, e.g. explosions in a nuclear accelerator. However, these new entities now need explaining, and scientists don’t yet know how to explain them. This is absolutely normal, and has happened repeatedly throughout the history of science. It is progress, because we have explained one more thing. So we can still say that God is a good explanation for scientific laws even if we can’t explain God.
But if we will always have something we can’t explain, why invoke God? Why not just say we can’t explain scientific laws? Because scientific laws leave fewer things unexplained, and we should explain as much as we can. This is a principle of science and philosophy. If you give up on this, you give up on pursuing these forms of thought.
Does the universe need explaining?
But do we need any explanation for why the universe appears designed? Some things that appear to be coincidence are in fact inevitable, e.g. winning the lottery: it is very unlikely that you will win, but it is inevitable that someone will win. For whoever wins, that they won is a huge coincidence; but we don’t need any special explanation for it (such as ‘someone intended them to win, and rigged the lottery’).
Suppose, then, that instead of just this universe, there are or have been millions of universes. Each had different scientific laws, and in most cases, the laws didn’t allow the universe to continue to exist – as soon as it began, it ended. Others existed, but there was no life. It was inevitable, we might think, that given all the possible variations in scientific laws, a universe such as ours would exist, and therefore so would life. It doesn’t need any special explanation – it had to happen.
But why ours? Well, it had to be ours because we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t! Given that life does exist in it, this universe has to have the right scientific laws for life to exist. If it didn’t, life wouldn’t exist in it. There is nothing special about this universe, except that it has the right laws; just like there is nothing special about the ticket that wins the lottery. [Margin: Explain the argument that the appearance of design in the universe needs no special explanation.]
But we can object that this response assumes the existence of huge numbers of other universes, which are completely inaccessible to us, and for which we have (virtually) no other evidence. Why should we assume that? The existence of God, by contrast, Swinburne argues, is simpler (just one God, not millions of universes) and is also supported by other evidence, e.g. miracles and religious experience. So the existence of just one universe, designed by God, is a better explanation.
We can object, however, that we also have evidence against the existence of God, viz. the problem of evil. At least we don’t have evidence against the existence of other universes.
The question at the heart of the cosmological argument is ‘why does anything exist? why something rather than nothing?’. The argument is that unless God exists, this question is unanswerable. There are different forms of the argument. Two central ones are the Kalam argument and the argument from contingent existence. They are usually presented as deductive arguments; an inductive variation is given by Richard Swinburne.
The Kalam argument
The Kalam argument observes that
- of anything that begins to exist, you can ask what caused it. For example, what caused me (my birth)? In a sense, my parents. But then, we can repeat the question: ‘what caused my parents?’ And so on. We can go back to the beginning of the universe, and then ask ‘what caused the universe?’. If
- the universe began to exist, then
- it must have a cause of its existence. Something can’t come out of nothing.
- What we need is something that causes things to exist, but the existence of which isn’t caused itself.
- Only God could be such a thing.
There are three key issues that need to be addressed to defend the argument. First, is the causal principle, that everything that begins to exist has a cause, correct? Second, does the universe have a beginning? Third, must the explanation be God? We will leave this third question to the very end of this handout.
The causal principle
Must every event have a cause? David Hume famously argued that we cannot know this. It is not an analytic truth (by contrast, ‘every effect has a cause’ is an analytic truth; but is every event an effect?). ‘Something cannot come out of nothing’ is also not analytic. And Hume argued that synthetic truths are known a posteriori, through experience. And although our experience is that everything so far has a cause, can this principle can be applied to the beginning of the universe?
First, the beginnings of universes is not something we have any experience of. Second, the beginning of the universe is not an event like events that happen within the universe. It doesn’t take place in space or time, since both come into existence with the universe. Even if everything within the universe has a cause, that doesn’t mean that the universe as a whole does. We cannot apply principles we have developed for events within the universe to the universe as a whole. Bertrand Russell famously put it: ‘the universe is just there, and that’s all’.
Does the universe have a beginning?
Rather than challenge the causal principle, we can reject the idea that the universe has a beginning at all. Because time came into existence with the universe, the universe didn’t ‘happen’ at a time, so in a sense, it has no beginning. We can reply that, even if this is true, science suggests the universe has a finite past (it is about 15 billion years old). Whatever has a finite past must have a cause of its existence. In the case of the universe, that cause can’t exist in time if time didn’t exist before the universe. But that doesn’t mean there was no cause, only that the cause must exist outside time. Which God does, according to many theists.
Alternatively, even if this universe has a beginning, perhaps it was caused by a previous (or another) universe, and so on, infinitely. In other words, rather than infer that God exists, we may think there is just an infinite regress of causes. Something has always existed.
It is, however, difficult to imagine what infinity is; it is not,