The Misframing of Theistic Debate

It’s difficult to find a more popular contemporary debate than the question of God’s existence. Here I don’t wish to weigh in on this issue, but the debate itself. The problems arise from how the problem if framed. For example, people still argue over evolution as if it’s relevant to God’s existence. This issue assumes that God only exists if both Christianity and Biblical literalism is true, which obviously doesn’t follow. The issue only gets more confused as the complexity and the detail of the analysis increases. In this post, I’d like to take a look at what is typically thought to count as evidence of God and where it’s mistaken, while at the same time assuming nothing about rationality of theistic or atheistic belief. In the end, I claim that the ontological argument is in principle the only thing that could be used to prove the existence of God as typically defined.

A (a)theistic debate will typically proceed in this fashion:

“What do you think this is all about, this reality?”

“It’s not about anything, it just is”

“Even with all of the mass complexity and magnificence of the universe, you don’t think there’s anything else going on, something deeper?”

“No, I see no evidence of purpose or design this world, nothing that would imply that there is a God”

“I can’t help but see a divine signature upon this world, everything seems to radiate the beauty of a cosmic plan”

“Well, I’m not sure that there’s not, but I would need to see real evidence, something falsifiable and repeatable; the kind of evidence that gets published in scientific journals. Then I think I could believe”

“Have you looked into the arguments for God’s existence. I find some of them fairly compelling”

“Yeah, a few of them, but they most seem like desperate attempts to prove what you’re already committed to. Besides, with amount of suffering in this world, a great being like God would have intervened by now to stop it. And since he hasn’t, I’d bet on his non-existence”

From here it’ll go on and on, discussing what evil entails about God, what’s evidence for design, the possible eternality of the universe, getting more abstract until were talking about the nature of causation, possibility and necessity, space, time, goodness, and how to even define God in the first place.

I’ll be using the following definition of God:

X is God iff X is essentially immaterial, omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, and necessarily exists.

This means that God has the power to do anything (beyond logical contradictions), knows everything there is to know, and is perfectly Good. By necessary existence, I mean that God has no explanation for it’s existence beyond itself. This doesn’t mean that God created itself, but that it’s the very nature of God to be. It would be impossible for God not to exist. This also means that everything’s ultimate explanation lies within God. God is the answer to the question, “why is there something rather than nothing?”.

The confusion arises once we start to ask for scientific evidence of God. The problem is that nothing under the domain of the scientific method could possibly come close. It’s not uncommon for an atheist to say something like “show me God and I’ll believe” or “if the stars spelled out in the sky ‘God exists’, then we’d have evidence of God”. Let’s take the first idea. What would it mean for God to show itself? Some people have the idea of an old man in white robes with a long beard descending from the sky with a show of power (lighting and fire emerging from his eyes and hands). What does this demonstrate? Is this evidence of God as defined above? No, all it shows is that some old dude has super powers. That’s it. And if this is what you have mind when considering God’s existence, you’re not even in ballpark of what most theists believe in. Or what about spelling “God exists” in the sky? All this shows is that someone either drugged us or is powerful enough to move stars around. Assuming the stars really do spell out “God exists” this only demonstrates great power. Were still along way from anything that entails God. Assuming some being were to cooperate with our tests, the most that could be proven via the scientific method, would be that some being is really powerful, really smart, and performs a lot of acts that increase the well-being of the population. Also, God is by definition immaterial (non-spatial). So it’d be mistake to ask for proof of God through a method that’s purpose is to discover facts about the physical world

Next, even if we were to grant some of the most popular theistic arguments, we’re still only given something god-like. Let’s assume that both kalam cosmological argument and the argument from fine-tuning are sound. This means that the universe had a cause and that this cause designed the universe. This still doesn’t prove the existence of God. For example, a possibility is that our universe is a simulation. This means our world is a sort of computer program. So even if our universe did have a minded cause, it could just be the science project of some of some experimenter in a different universe or it could be an immaterial, really powerful, really smart, and morally indifferent creature. The only argument that could possibly prove that there is a God is the ontological argument. This argument attempts to prove that a perfect being exists. It typically goes something like this:

1. Existence is greater than non-existence.
2. God is the greatest conceivable being.
3. Therefore, God exists.


  • A being has maximal excellence in a given possible world W if and only if it is omnipotent, omniscient and wholly good in W; and
  • A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world.
  • It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness. (Premise)
  • Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
  • Therefore, (by axiom S5) it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
  • Therefore, an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists

I’m not going to weigh in on the soundness of this argument because my aim here is not to discuss whether God exists, but only to discuss what counts as evidence/an argument for God’s existence. Additionally, I make no claim about the theist needing to be able to prove God exists with certainty in order to have a warranted belief that God exists.

Assuming I’m right about the limited scope of possible evidence for God, we’re left with a few questions.

1. Does God exist?
2. Is the ontological argument sound?
3. What is the criteria for a good reason to believe that God exists?
4. Are there good reasons to believe?
5. Is theistic belief properly basic?
6. Is belief/disbelief even the proper way to think about God?
7. What is the role of religious experience in theistic belief?

  • VQ

    I think you are correct that, if sound, ontological arguments tend to give you the thickest slice of God. Kalam, on the other hand, leaves you with a god that, through conceptual analysis, is rather thin. Typically, William Lane Craig says that the cause would be timeless/eternal, spaceless, immaterial, enormously powerful (not necessarily omnipotent), and personal (given that impersonal eternal causes would exist simultaneously with their effects). I think I would be willing to grant that such a being is incompatible with atheism, but it is a thin concept of God. Aquinas seemingly rejects the ontological argument, but provides a thicker concept of God through his five ways than Craig does through Kalam. The Five Ways appear at the very beginning of the Summa Theologica, and the rest of Book I is dedicated to unpacking the concept of God that arises from the proof. Such a God is simple, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent immutable, impassible, eternal, and perfectly good. I’d say that it is just as thick a slice of God as anything you get from an ontological argument, but the process of getting there is not as simple.