A Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika Argument for the Existence of God

Historical Context

The different philosophical traditions in classical Indian thought are usually categorized under the labels of orthodox and heterodox. The orthodox traditions accepted the scriptural authority of the Vedas, while the heterodox ones such as Buddhism and Jainism did not. Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika were initially two different orthodox schools. Nyāya was mostly concerned with logic, reasoning and epistemology. Vaiśeṣika focused on metaphysics and identifying the different kinds of substances that ultimately exist. By the eleventh century, these two traditions had merged into a single school, which came to be known simply as Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika (NV henceforth). Apart from a few academic philosophers, the NV tradition is basically extinct today. Historically, however, they were extremely influential and made a number of important philosophical contributions.

Of all the theistic systems in India, NV had the greatest confidence in the scope of natural theology. They came up with a number of arguments for the existence of Īśvara (“the Lord”), and were engaged in a series of polemical debates with other thinkers, their primary adversaries usually being Buddhists. I will go over their most well known argument for theism in this essay.

What the Argument is Not

Before I lay out the the argument, I want to make a few preliminary comments on what the argument is not, since this is often an issue of confusion.

The argument is not like the popular Kalām cosmological argument, which states that everything that begins to exist must have a cause, and that if you trace the chain of causes you eventually get to an uncaused cause that explains the beginning of the universe. Indeed, the NV system holds that a number of entities are eternal and uncreated. These include the atoms of different elements, time, space, universals, individual souls, and of course, God.

The argument also does not belong to the family of arguments from contingency, which conclude that there is a necessarily existent being that explains why anything at all exists. The NV thinkers were not committed to the view that everything that exists has an explanation for its existence. Finally, the argument is not like familiar teleological arguments that draw on observations of biological complexity to infer that an intelligent designer exists.

That said, the NV argument does bear some resemblance to all of the above arguments. It is therefore best understood as a hybrid cosmological-teleological argument. The argument points out that certain kinds of things require an intelligent creator that has the attributes traditionally assigned to God.

Overview of the Argument 

The argument can be stated as follows1:

(P1) Everything that is an effect has an intelligent maker.

(P2) The first product is an effect.

(C)  Therefore, the first product has an intelligent maker.

The argument as spelled out here is a little different from the way the NV philosophers usually framed it, primarily because they had a more elaborate way of laying out syllogisms. But that need not concern us. The important point is that the argument is valid – if the premises are true, the conclusion does follow. But what are we to make of the premises?

Some terminological clarification is in order before we can assess the premises. By an effect, defenders of the argument refer to a composite object – i.e., an object made of parts. Buildings, rocks, mountains, human bodies are all examples of effects. Recall that NV philosophers were atomists, and since atoms are indivisible and indestructible, they do not count as effects.

The first product refers to the simplest kind of effect that can be further broken down into atoms. In the NV system, dyads – imperceptible aggregates of two atoms – were seen as the first product. But again, that need not concern us. All we need to know is that the first product is the smallest unit that is itself further divisible. We can now move on to scrutinize the premises.

Support for the Premises 

P2 is necessarily true, since the first product is defined as the simplest kind of effect. Things get interesting when we consider the first premise. P1 states that every effect has an intelligent maker, where an intelligent maker is defined as an agent who

(i) Has knowledge of the components that make up the effect;

(ii) Desires to bring about the effect; and

(iii) Wills to do so.

The obvious question then is: why believe that every effect has an intelligent maker?

The support offered for P1 is inductive. NV philosophers defend P1 by pointing out that we have a very large number of examples that confirm it. The classic example is that of a pot. We observe that pots have an intelligent maker: the potter who is aware of the material out of which the pot is made (the clay), desires to make the pot, and wills to do so. Atoms are deliberately excluded from P1 since they aren’t effects, and hence cannot be seen as counterexamples. Given this, defenders the argument claim that the numerous confirming instances (as in the case of the pot/potter), entitle us to accept P1 as a general principle.

Responding to Objections

Philosophers in the NV tradition were aware that the argument was extremely controversial, and came up with a number of interesting responses to common objections. I will go over three of them here.

Objection 1: Counterexamples to P1

The most common objection is that there are obvious counterexamples to the first premise. Rocks, mountains, plants – these are all made of parts, and yet, don’t have a maker. Thus, P1 is false.

The NV response is to say that this objection begs the question against the theist. The mere fact that we don’t immediately observe a maker in these cases does not establish that a maker was not at least in part involved. For the maker could, after all, be spatially or temporally remote2 from the effect.

NV philosophers press the point by insisting that if direct observation of the cause was necessary, then even ordinary inferences would be defeated. For instance, we wouldn’t be able to infer the presence of fire from smoke if the fire wasn’t immediately observable. But of course, the fire could be a long distance away. Similarly, if we happen to come across a pot, we wouldn’t suspend judgement about whether it was made by a potter simply because we didn’t directly and immediately observe the pot being made by one. The potter could, after all, be in a different town, or even be dead. In other words, this objection proves too much, since it would render everyday inferences that we all rely on unjustified.

Objection 2: The Possibility of Counterexamples to P1

At this point, we might be willing to concede that we can’t rule out the existence of a maker for things like rocks and mountains. However, since the maker isn’t directly observed, the theist can’t be sure that a potential counterexample doesn’t exist either. It may be true that we have observed several instances of effects that have makers, but the possibility that there exists a counterexample means that P1 is at the very least unjustified, if not shown to be false.

Once again, the NV response is that the objection proves too much. The mere possibility of a counterexample is not reason enough to give up on the first premise. Consider, again, the example of smoke and fire. The mere possibility that there may have, at some time in the distant past, or in a faraway land, been an occurrence of smoke without fire does not give us enough reason to reject general fire-from-smoke type inferences. Unless we are willing to give up on induction entirely, there is no reason to reject P1.

The skeptic is also accused of another inconsistency at this point. Why does the skeptic not doubt that material things have material causes? If someone who is skeptical of P1 came across an object they had never seen before, they probably would not doubt that the object had been made out of pre-existing matter. And yet, the support for the belief that material objects have material causes is also inductive. The skeptic must provide some principled reason to reject P1 while also believing in material causes without the reason collapsing into the first objection which has already been refuted. Since the skeptic has not done this, they have failed to show that we must not accept P1.

Objection 3: The Gap 

Many arguments for theism face what is sometimes called “the gap” problem. In other words, even if these arguments establish the existence of an intelligent maker, there is no reason to think this creator has any of the attributes traditionally assigned to God. A skeptic may point out that in all the cases of intelligent makers we have observed, the makers were embodied agents. The makers were not omniscient, uncreated or eternal. So there is no reason to suppose that the argument, even if successful, gets us to God. At best, it can establish the existence of some kind of intelligent maker, but any further claims about the omniscience or eternality of the maker would not be justified, since these properties are not observed in any of the cases we discussed.

Predictably, the NV response is that the criterion for inference being proposed as part of the objection is too strong, and would defeat many of our everyday inferences. In most inferences we make, we go beyond the general cases, and can justifiably infer special characteristics depending on the context. To go back to the commonly used fire-and-smoke example, if we observe smoke rising from a mountain, we don’t merely infer that there is fire. Rather, given the specific context, we infer that there is fire that has the property of being on the mountain. In other words, it isn’t fire-in-general that is inferred, it is fire-on-the-mountain. Similarly, based on the specific context, we can conclude that the maker of the first product has certain characteristics.

Since the maker exists prior to the first product, it must be uncreated. It cannot have a body, since bodies are made of parts, and this would simply introduce a regress that would have to be terminated by a creator that is not made of parts. Thus, the maker must be disembodied and simple. Since it is simple, it cannot be destroyed by being broken down into its constituent parts, and hence must be eternal. Since it has knowledge of all the fundamental entities and how to combine them, it must be omniscient. Finally, simplicity favors a single maker over multiple agents. The intelligent maker thus has many of the attributes of the God of traditional theism.

Conclusion 

The argument, if successful, does get us to a God-like being. P1 is the controversial premise, and as we have seen, NV philosophers respond to objections by essentially shifting the burden of proof on to the skeptic. This can seem like trickery, and indeed, that’s how the influential 11th century Buddhist philosopher Ratnakīrti characterized it in his work Refutation of Arguments Establishing Īśvara, which is arguably the most thorough critique of the Nyāya-Vaiśeṣika argument. Either way, it is at least not obvious that the first premise can be easily rejected, so the skeptic must do some work to justify rejecting it. I may go over Ratnakīrti’s criticisms in a future essay.

References 

[1] The argument as I’ve presented it here is roughly based on Kisor Kumar Chakrabarti’s formulation in Classical Indian Philosophy of Mind: The Nyāya Dualist Tradition. 

[2] The terminology I’m using is based on Parimal Patil’s translation of the original Sanskrit terms in Against a Hindu God: Buddhist Philosophy of Religion in India. 

Plato’s Proof of God’s Existence (Book X of The Laws)

Introduction

In Book X of The Laws, the Athenian provides an argument for the existence of god. Unholy acts are committed by those who suffer from three kinds of misconception, which are that gods do not exist, or they exist but do not care about human affairs, or that they can be bribed with sacrifices (Jirsa 239; Laws Book X 885e). The Athenian believes that the atheist ought to be provided with proof of the existence of gods before any punishment is imposed on them for impiety (885c-e).[1]  The Athenian aims to provide a proof that soul is fundamental (892c-d).[2] The proof that the Athenian provides is an argument from motion (Stalley 169-170). In short, a thing can have one of two properties: (a) the property of moving other things without moving itself, and (b) the property of moving other things as well as itself (894b-c). All motion has an absolute origin, which cannot be type (a), because things of that type can only transmit motions to other things by virtue of themselves being moved by something external to them (894e). To be the originator of motion, a thing must be of type (b), because it must have the potential to originate motion within itself, as there is nothing but itself to transmit motion to other things at the beginning of the sequence of moving things. Things of type (b) are said to be alive, or ensouled (895c). So, the originator of motion is soul, which makes soul more fundamental than physical things (892c-d; 896b-c). Since soul is more fundamental than physical things, the properties of soul are more fundamental than the properties of material things (896c-d). Soul, being fundamental, is the source of everything less fundamental, which includes values like good and bad (896d).

Soul controls the heavens and the earth because they are also in motion (896d-e). The goodness or virtue and rationality of the originator of motion is inferred from the fact that the motion of the heavens is orderly and rational, which means that the originator of that motion must also be virtuous, orderly, and rational (896e-898c). This paper will be structured as follows. In section one, I will explain the doctrine against which the Athenian is arguing. In section two, I will lay out the argument’s premises, and explain the rationale behind them. Finally, in section three, I will assess the validity and soundness of the argument.

  1. Physicalism

The Athenian’s opponent is the physicalist. Physicalism is responsible for the attractiveness of atheism (887b-c). In the context of the Laws, physicalism is the doctrine that all things that come into being do so by virtue of nature, change, or art (888e).[3] The physicalist believes that the basic elements (earth, air, water, and fire) exist by nature, and they combine in various ways by chance to produce everything else that exists (889a). Things that exist by virtue of art are secondary to those that exist by chance or nature (889c). Examples of things that exist by virtue of art are things crafted by humans and human conventions (889c). When it comes to crafts that involve mixing labor with the natural world, the products such as fresh produce and meat are considered natural (Jirsa 242-243). The secondary, or less fundamental (derivative) entities are those that do not involve outright mixing of human labor with the natural world. Statesmanship, for example, seems not to involve the natural world, so it is secondary to the natural by virtue of the object of its inquiry (the state) being a product of art (889c-e). Furthermore, on the physicalist view, the gods are the products of human activity, and therefore are not ontologically primary (889e). Clearly, this threatens the notion that the laws which structure Magnesia are from the gods, so it is important for the Athenian to refute the doctrine of physicalism (886e-888e). So, the Athenian, encouraged by Clinias, sets out to formulate an argument against physicalism, which establishes the existence of god.

  1. The Argument

The Athenian begins his exposition of the argument by laying out a taxonomy of motion, which seems to be ordered according to ontological priority (Jirsa 244). The motion I classified as type (a) is identified with that which can move other things but cannot move itself, and the motion I classified as type (b) is identified with that which can move other things and itself (894b-c). Types (a) and (b) motion are considered to be the most basic kinds of motion in the Athenian’s taxonomy (Jirsa 244). Since the Athenian aims to refute the doctrine of physicalism, which says that earth, air, water, and fire are natural, or fundamental, which is to say that they are ontologically primary, and everything else derives its being from them (Jirsa 243; Laws Book X 889a). So, the Athenian must find the fundamental kind(s) of motion, and he must show that it does not fall within the set of things considered natural (fundamental) by the physicalist.

The Athenian proceeds by showing that type (b) motion is more fundamental than type (a) motion. Since all motion must have an absolute origin, there must be an originator of motion (894e). The originator cannot be of type (a), because it would have no source for its ability to move other things. If there is no prior motion to move the originator, then the motion that the originator transfers to other entities in motion must come from within the originator, which is to say that the originator is of type (b). So, the originator of motion must be self-moving and capable of moving other things. Self-motion, therefore, is the fundamental kind of motion (895b). The first premise of the argument is:

  1. Self-motion is prior to all other motion.[4]

The Athenian bolsters the first premise by considering a thought experiment. If all things in motion stopped moving and were stationary, which would be identifiable as the first motion? Type (b) must be the first, because if it were type (a), it would require a prior transfer of motion to enable the first motion to move other things, which, ex hypothesi, cannot exist (895b).

The Athenian then aims to show that soul is identical to self-motion. When we examine the world around us, those things we consider self-movers are what we classify as alive (895c). Things that are alive are also ensouled (895c). So, self-movers are ensouled, since self-movers are alive, and the set of living things is a proper subset of ensouled things (Jirsa 246). The second premise of the argument is:

  1. Soul is self-motion.[5]

The Athenian backs up the second premise by mentioning that we can see three aspects of something, namely its being, its name, and its definition (895d). The Athenian’s definition for the entities picked out by the name “soul” is just, “that which is self-moving” (895e-896a). So, the thing denoted by the name “soul” is the same thing as is defined as, “that which is self-moving.” So, to say that something has a soul is to say that it is capable of self-motion (Jirsa 246). From premises one and two, the Athenian infers that soul is prior to all other motions and entities that are or could be in motion (Jirsa 253; Laws Book X 896b-c). So, the first conclusion is:

3. Soul is prior to all other motion.[6]

The notion of priority that the Athenian employs seems to be both temporal and ontological (895b). So, soul is temporally and ontologically prior to all other motions, including the motions of the elements that the physicalist posits as fundamental. The Athenian has shown so far that soul is ontologically and temporally prior to the physical, which means that soul, rather than the elements (earth, air, water, and fire) falls in the category of natural that the physicalist employs (892c).

At this point in the argument, the Athenian suggests that it could be two souls that govern the heavens and the earth, one good and the other one bad (896e-897c). The Athenian aims to show that it is a good soul that governs the heavens and the earth, which would entail that the world we presently inhabit is ordered rationally and virtuously.[7] He points out that the products of soul guided by virtue and reason are different than those of soul not guided by reason (897b). The products of soul guided by virtue and reason are better than those produced by a soul not guided by virtue and reason. Because the heavens move in a way that resembles reason, the soul which orders the heavens must be guided by virtue and reason. But if the heavens were ordered by an irrational soul, the motions of the heavenly bodies would not be as they actually are (897b-898b). From this we get the next steps in the Athenian’s argument:

  1. If the heavens move rationally and virtuously, then soul guided by virtue and reason orders the heavens.
  2. The heavens move rationally and virtuously.[8]
  3. Soul guided by virtue and reason orders the heavens.

The second conclusion of the Athenian’s argument, then, is that the heavens are ordered by a rational and virtuous soul, because to be guided in action by virtue and reason is to be virtuous and rational. Finally, to get to god, the Athenian points out that the soul guiding the sun must be regarded by anybody as a god (899a). Since the other heavenly bodies move in ways resembling the sun in relevant respects, it follows that the souls guiding those bodies must also be regarded as gods (899b-c).

Now, to complete his case, the Athenian must show that the gods care about human affairs, and are not capable of being bribed. Since the gods are all powerful, all knowing, and all good, they cannot disregard human affairs, because doing so would call into question their power, knowledge, and goodness (901d-e). For the gods to disregard human affairs would be for them to succumb to indolence and idleness, but given their attributes, they cannot succumb to such things. Furthermore, to take bribes would be to succumb to self-indulgence, which would call their goodness into question (901e). So, the gods concern themselves with human affairs and are not susceptible to bribery.

  1. Evaluation

The Athenian’s argument seems valid. The first conclusion (3) follows from the first two premises (1 & 2) by virtue of substituting co-referring expressions (soul and self-motion). The second conclusion (6) follows from premises four and five by modus ponens. Finally, the Athenian’s conclusion that the gods concern themselves with human affairs and cannot be bribed follows from the properties he ascribes to the gods. If those properties logically exclude disregarding human affairs and being bribed, then it is a valid form of argument to move from some set of properties being possessed by some entities to the negation of the proposition that the properties logically excluded by that set are possessed by those same entities.

The Athenian’s argument is quite ingenious, but it is susceptible to various criticisms which call its soundness into question. First, the notion of ontological priority employed by the Athenian to justify his first premise can be questioned. If one embraces the (contemporary) orthodox way of doing ontology, the notion of levels of being will become unintelligible. It is only given the idea that some things are more fundamental than others such that they form more basic levels of being that the justification given for the first premise can work. Second, the reasons given to think that there must be a first motion were insufficient. Merely thinking of a hypothetical situation in which motion is stopped, and we are free to judge which motions are more fundamental than others is not enough to justify the claim that there was a first motion. The defender of the view that there is an infinite series of motion-transference that stretches backwards eternally will not see that, given a stoppage of all motion, there must be a first motion. Furthermore, Parmenides doubted the reality of motion (Stalley 170).

The fourth and fifth premises of the Athenian’s argument are also questionable. Setting aside anachronistic reasons such as the falsity of the Athenian’s thesis that the heavenly bodies move in perfectly circular orbits, there are still other reasons to doubt his premises. First, premise four is a conditional, and it seems not to be true. There are possible states of affairs where the heavenly bodies happen to move in virtuous and rational ways merely by virtue of chance, or by virtue of the nature of the elements composing them. In other words, the physicalist thesis examined in section one seems to have the resources to account for the appearance of the virtuous and rational guidance of the heavens. Perhaps the intrinsic properties of each kind of element constrains the range of possible combinations of those elements, and the possible motions of those composite objects such that they inevitably would move in apparently virtuous and rational ways. The Athenian does not address this possibility at all. So, on the physicalist view, the fourth premise is questionable because the consequent of the conditional has not been shown to be a consequence of the antecedent obtaining.

Finally, moving from the claim that the soul which guides the heavens is rational and virtuous to the claim that that soul is all powerful, all good, and all knowing seems to be a non sequitur.[9] The soul which guides the heavens may be only capable of moving the heavens and nothing else, perhaps by virtue of a limitation on its power, or on its knowledge. Maybe all such a soul can do is move the heavenly bodies in a circular fashion, forever. That soul could not concern itself with human affairs, because it would be outside of the scope of its power or knowledge to do so. Even if we grant the Athenian’s claim that the soul has the properties of maximal power, knowledge, and goodness, it may not follow that the soul could not be bribed. It could be the case that we humans are so limited in our moral knowledge, that the soul could allow the wicked to prosper by bribing it with sacrifices because doing so allows for some greater good which we cannot currently comprehend. So, even granting the set of properties that the Athenian ascribes to the soul he calls god, it does not obviously follow that that set logically excludes the ability to be bribed.

Conclusion

I have examined the argument in Book X of The Laws presented by the Athenian. The argument’s premises are all questionable, which means that it is within the physicalist’s rational rights to doubt the conclusions. The Athenian aimed to provide reasons to believe in gods which would be provided to atheists before punishing them for impiety (885c-e). The gods, given the Athenian’s argument, concern themselves with human affairs and cannot be bribed. They are not fictions created by humans, as the physicalist maintains (889e). However, the Athenian underestimates the resources available to the physicalist. The physicalist can resist the Athenian’s argument while remaining within her own ontological framework. So, the Athenian has failed to supply the atheist with reasons to believe in gods.

Endnotes

[1] Whether or not the proof is supposed to be rationally compelling or just sufficient for rational acceptance is an open interpretive question (Jirsa 241).

[2] Plato seems to use the term “natural” in the same way as “fundamental” is used by Jonathan Schaffer, which is to denote ontological priority (Chalmers 2009; Jirsa 243).

[3] I am using “physicalism” to characterize the Athenian’s opponent because his opponent holds to the view that the elements (earth, air, water, and fire) are fundamental or primary, and those elements seem paradigmatically physical entities (Jirsa 2008).

[4] See (Jirsa 253).

[5] See (Ibid 253).

[6] See (Ibid 253).

[7] By virtue of being ordered by a rational and virtuous soul.

[8] See (Book VII 822a-b) for a description of the moon, sun, and stars following a circular path, and compare with what is said at (Book X 897d-898b). Both the moon, sun, and stars and the image chosen to represent reason are circular (Jirsa 252). So, the motions of the heavenly bodies and of reason are the same.

[9] I am using the singular instead of “souls” for stylistic purposes. The Athenian’s argument actually entails that there are multiple souls that are virtuous and rational. But this does not affect my criticisms.

Works Cited

Chalmers, David John, David Manley, and Ryan Wasserman. “On What Grounds What.” Metametaphysics: New Essays on the Foundations of Ontology. Oxford: Clarendon, 2009. 347-83. Print.

Jirsa, Jakub (2008). Plato on characteristics of god: Laws X. 887c5-899d3. Rhizai. A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 5:265-285.

Plato, Malcolm Schofield, and Tom Griffith. Plato the Laws. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2016. Print.

Stalley, R. F., and Plato. An Introduction to Plato’s Laws. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1983. Print.

Divine Command Theory and the Euthyphro Dilemma

The Dilemma:

While theistic ethics, broadly construed, could be any ethical theory that takes facts about God(s) as normatively relevant, it has come to be associated with a specific theory online, in various debates, and in several publications. Divine Command Theory (DCT) is a view about the metaphysics of morality that takes moral values and obligations to be constituted by God’s commands. Our obligations towards each other draw their normative force from God’s competence as an authority. Something is good just if it resembles God in some morally relevant respect, or follows God’s commands [1]. Most, if not all, DCTs look like this general sketch I’ve provided here.

A classic problem for DCTs is called the Euthyphro Dilemma. The original formulation of the dilemma probably doesn’t resemble what people take it to be in contemporary discourse [2]. Be that as it may, I’m not interested in engaging in Plato exegesis in this post, so I’ll set issues of interpretation aside. The form of the dilemma that most people are familiar with goes like this: Is X right because God wills it, or does God will it because it’s right? The same dilemma can be run against DCTs with “right” replaced by “good.” Answering the first horn of the dilemma affirmatively will get you Theological Voluntarism, while the second horn gets you a disjunction of views.

The First Horn:

Theological Voluntarism in metaethics is a form of radical subjectivism about moral properties. Moral obligations and values are constituted by the commands issued by God. God is not normatively constrained in his choices, so all moral values and obligations have an air of extreme contingency. God could have willed what we consider to be horrible things had he wanted to.

Grabbing the first horn, then, strikes me as biting the bullet. In essence, the theistic ethicist is saying that there is an agent who makes things good or bad, right or wrong by virtue of his volitions. He chooses what is or isn’t morally heinous. But what exactly is it that constrains God in his choices? Perhaps it’s some non-moral evaluative principle. Maybe God decides on a set of commands to issue his creatures by using the evaluative criteria of aesthetics; values like beauty guide God’s choices. Or perhaps God goes by the norms of practical reason, if those are somehow ultimately separable from moral reasons [3].

A question arises from the non-moral norms move, though. Why is it that God’s commands make things right, but they cannot make things beautiful? Is there something distinct about moral normativity that makes it contingent on God’s whims that non-moral normativity lacks? There doesn’t seem to be a satisfactory answer forthcoming, since the notion of goodness simpliciter is common to the various kinds of values exhibited by these different normative domains, and God making something valuable in one domain seems to license the assumption that God can make things valuable in any domain [4]. In other words, in a normative domain where the value of something isn’t conceptually tied to some non-normative notion like truth, God seems to have free reign to alter what is and is not good.

Another problem for non-moral normativity guiding God’s will is that DCT is a species of reductionism about moral properties. Moral properties are constituted by or identical to being commanded and/or valued by God. But other normative properties share action or choice guiding qualities that moral properties have, so it seems as though DCT should be able to offer a unified explanation of normativity as such. If it can’t, then it seems as though it has left something equally in need of explanation out. However, one could soften the blow from this objection by giving reasons why we should not expect a reduction of normativity as such to God’s will or commands.

Another problem is with the notion of God’s goodness on this view. If goodness consists in following God’s commands, then God is good insofar as God follows his own commands [5]. But God’s commands are to his creatures, and not himself; indeed, it seems as though the notion of commanding yourself to do something is incoherent, if it isn’t just some strange way to combat akrasia. On Voluntarism, then, it seems like the categorical or binding nature of God’s commands is not grounded in his goodness; rather, God, by virtue of his commands, makes certain actions good.

The Second Horn:

Setting Voluntarism to one side, let’s move on to the second horn. There is no single view associated with embracing the second horn, because there is an ambiguous “is” in the sentence describing it. “God commands X because X is good,” could mean that X is identical to or constitutes goodness, or that X instantiates the property of goodness. The first option gets you various forms of naturalism, both reductionist and non-reductionist. The second option gets you non-naturalism.

Reductionist moral naturalism is a family of views that take goodness (and other moral properties) to be reducible to some natural property. One general constraint on what could qualify as a natural property is causal power. So moral properties are a species of properties with causal powers (among other things). A simplified version of this view is hedonistic utilitarianism. Goodness is identical to maximal pleasure for conscious creatures. On this view, the theistic part of theistic ethics seems to drop out of the picture, since the work is being done by the reduction base. We could have moral properties without God, assuming it’s possible for there to be conscious creatures capable of experiencing pleasure.

Non-reductionist moral naturalism views goodness as constituted by a cluster of properties; Richard Boyd employs a notion of homeostatic cluster properties [6]. A good example of a homeostatic cluster property is human flourishing. Human flourishing is constituted by various properties whose instantiation tends to promote the instantiation of other properties in the cluster. So human health is part of flourishing, and being healthy also tends to help your state of mind, which helps to make you more sociable and easy to get along with, which helps promote a healthy social life, etc.

The problem with non-reductionist moral naturalism is that, much like reductionism, the work is being done by the homeostatic cluster property. God drops out of the picture, because his choices are guided by what promotes the instantiation of the most properties in the cluster. Something would be permissible just if it didn’t quell the instantiation of properties in the cluster, and right or obligatory if it instantiated properties in the cluster; this gets you a form of consequentialism. So, again, the theistic part of theistic ethics drops out of the picture, and we’re left with something completely compatible with atheism, given the assumption that there would be no modal collapse if God didn’t exist [7].

The second option takes the “is” to be the “is” of predication. Goodness (and other moral properties) would be instantiated by states of affairs in the natural world, but wouldn’t have causal powers; they would be sui generis properties. On this view, moral properties are not reducible to even a composition base [8]. Again, like the two forms of naturalism we surveyed, this form of moral realism seems to deprive theistic ethics of its claim to be truly theistic. Since all of the work is being done by sui generis moral properties, we wouldn’t need God for our moral metaphysics.

A False Dilemma?:

Most contemporary theistic ethicists will claim that the Euthyphro Dilemma presented above is false [9]. There is a third option ignored by proponents of the dilemma, and therefore it is no dilemma at all . For this rebuttal to work, however, the third option must not itself generate the dilemma it was set out to resolve. The third option should look like a theory that makes moral facts somehow ontologically grounded in God, but without the radical contingency associated with Theological Voluntarism, and the independence of moral properties of the second horn.

Perhaps God neither makes things good or right by virtue of valuing or commanding them, nor does he command or value things by virtue of their goodness; rather, God is essentially good, or goodness itself. God is the paradigm of goodness, and as such any commands he issues are going to derive their normative force from that fact [10].

If God is the paradigm of goodness, though, one may ask what makes him good. What is it that makes God the paradigm of goodness, and the source of our moral imperatives? The usual answer is that God’s various characteristics or traits are what makes him the paradigm of goodness. God is supposed to be essentially loving, kind, forgiving, etc. But if that’s the case, the Euthyphro Dilemma just reappears. Are those characteristics good because God has them, or does God have them because they’re good?

The second horn of the dilemma just gets you a modified version of the theories explored in the previous section. Goodness would be constituted by a cluster of character traits, and anybody who exemplified those traits would thereby be good. But then the theistic part drops out of the picture, and moral facts are no longer dependent on God’s existence. So the DCT defender ought to opt for the first horn.

The first horn says that the characteristics that God has are good because they are had by God. The way this is defended is by introducing analogies to things that are defined by some particular exemplar. So, the meter stick analogy is used by the likes of William Alston and appropriated by William Lane Craig for debating purposes [11].

Particularist DCT:

The best way to understand the notion of particularist accounts of goodness is explored by John Danaher over at Philosophical Disquisitions. In short, there are two kinds of predicate: Particularist and Platonic. Platonic predicates apply just if the concrete particular resembles a Platonic Form in a relevant way. Danaher’s example is something being rightfully called a triangle just if it resembles the Platonic Form of a triangle. Particularist predicates, on the other hand, apply just if the concrete particular resembles (in a relevant way) some concrete exemplar. So, in the meter stick analogy, the meter bar in Paris is the exemplar of being one meter, and anything can be said to be a meter just if it resembles that meter bar.

The problem with using the meter stick analogy to cash out the acceptability of the first horn is that we merely labelled some concrete particular as the standard meter bar. There is nothing essential to that meter bar that makes it one meter, besides the fact that people dubbed it as such. The same, then, goes for God; his goodness would just consist in being labeled as such by theists. Nothing intrinsic to God makes him good. But the obvious problem with this is that God is supposed to be a divine being that is worthy of worship. Usually the rationale that is given for God’s worship-worthiness is that God is the paradigm of goodness, but if God is merely good because he’s labeled as such, then this robs that claim of content.

Possible Response:

One possible move to avoid the problem mentioned above is to insist that there must be some point at which explanation ends. If all explanations about the nature of goodness have some stopping point, then the defender of the Particularist horn of the dilemma is no worse off than somebody who explains moral properties in terms of Platonic Forms or homeostatic cluster properties. There are going to be things that are just left without explanation, and we’re all partners in guilt in that respect.

One difficult pill to swallow is that the particular characteristics that constitute God’s nature would somehow be morally neutral if God did not exist. There is nothing intrinsic to those characteristics that makes anybody possessing them good; rather, those characteristics are good because they are had by God. On its face, this seems difficult to believe; but that isn’t an argument. So let’s find specific problems with the view.

A problem plaguing the Particularist is that her stopping point gets moral epistemology wrong. Knowing that something is good, or even an exemplar of goodness, requires some faculty of judgment that latches onto something about the thing being examined such that one can form judgments about the goodness of that thing. But God’s properties or characteristics play no role in what makes God good [12]. So, rather than seeing that God is good by examining his properties or characteristics, theists must directly know that God is good, and then infer that the traits had by God are good-making by virtue of being had by God. However, as Danaher points out, directly knowing that God is good in this way by virtue of some faculty of judgment like intuition is problematic because such faculties latch onto nothing in particular about God. There is no content to the idea of God’s goodness on the Particularist point of view, so there’s nothing to form judgments about through rational insight.

The goodness of God is just a label in the way the standard meter is determined by a chunk of metal that has been labelled the meter bar. Given that there’s nothing about the natures of either the meter bar or God that is meter-making or good-making, respectively, there is nothing about the goodness or meter-ness of those concrete particulars than reflects something intrinsic to them as particulars. After all, we didn’t come to know about the fact that the meter bar is one meter by intuiting it; it was labelled as such. But perhaps that’s where the analogy between God and the meter bar breaks down; we could’ve labelled something with different dimensions the meter bar, but God couldn’t have been otherwise. However, this disanalogy is only relevant if the necessity of God and his nature has some bearing on the goodness of God. But if the necessity of something determines its goodness, then something about that being’s nature determines its goodness, and we’ve abandoned Particularism. So, appealing to that disanalogy won’t work.

The biggest problem with the Particularist move is that, upon examination, the idea of a concrete particular grounding the goodness of properties doesn’t make much sense. There is a shift between appealing to the loving nature of God to ground moral properties and appealing to God qua concrete particular. The plausibility of the former option feeds into the seeming plausibility of the latter by virtue of a subtle conflation. It is quite intuitive to think that certain character traits we already recognize as constitutive of a good person could ground moral properties, but it isn’t as obvious to think that a particular person can ground them. It is tantamount to saying that if that particular didn’t exist, then those character traits would no longer be constitutive of a good person; instead, they would be morally neutral. Furthermore, pointing out that that concrete particular is a necessary being doesn’t solve the problem. The necessity of the particular is only going to ground properties like goodness if necessity itself is a morally relevant feature, which is to say that necessity as a property of particulars is good-making.

Conclusion:

So, it looks like the Particularist move to escape the Euthyphro Dilemma doesn’t cut the mustard. A more promising avenue for the theist is to explore the possibility of moral properties having God-independent grounding, but a discrete class of moral facts being dependent on God. So, perhaps some deontic facts about duties to worship or axiological facts about the goodness of prayer find their grounding in God’s existence; but goodness itself and our moral obligations have independent grounds. That seems, at least to me, like the most viable way to endorse a qualified version of Divine Command Theory.

Further Reading:

  1. Robert Adams: “A Modified Divine Command Theory of Ethical Wrongness.” 
  2. William Alston: “Some Suggestions for Divine Command Theorists.” 
  3. William Alston: “What Euthyphro Should Have Said.” 
  4. Jeremy Koons: “Can God’s Goodness Save the Divine Command Theory from Euthyphro?”
  5. Michael W. Austin: IEP Entry on Divine Command Theory.

 

Endnotes:

[1]. Goodness could be seen as either following God’s commands, or resembling God’s character in some relevant respect. Goodness as following God’s commands would most naturally flow from Voluntarism, a view discussed later in the post. Goodness as God-likeness follows from the God as goodness response to the Euthyphro Dilemma.

[2]. See Richard Joyce’s 2002 article, “Theistic Ethics and the Euthyphro Dilemma.”

[3]. A possibility that won’t be explored here is God acts for no particular reason. That option seems to make all of God’s actions arbitrary. A God who acts for no good reason seems to be an absurdity that not many theists are willing to commit to, so I’ll ignore this option.

[4]. A possible exception is epistemic goodness. For the sake of simplicity, and to avoid being bogged down in debates about the nature of evidence, let’s say that something is good evidence if it points to the truth. It seems as though God couldn’t make things good or bad evidence. God could alter natural laws such that striking a match no longer causes an explosion in the presence of gunpowder, but then the presence of a spent match near an explosion site involving gunpowder wouldn’t constitute good evidence of the cause of the explosion. But, given our laws of nature, it would; and that doesn’t seem to be a fact that God could alter. God could only alter the causal order of the world such that what constitutes good evidence given our causal order would no longer be good evidence given the altered causal order; he can’t alter the goodness of evidence within our causal order, but merely the causal order itself. Epistemic goodness, then, is conceptually tied to truth or the way things are such that God could not alter what instantiates it in a given causal order. Other examples may be dialectical and inferential goodness, where the former pertains to good arguments and the latter deals with good forms of inference. The same that was said for epistemic goodness seems to hold for dialectical and inferential goodness.

[5]. As mentioned in the first endnote, given Voluntarism, all moral properties are determined by God’s free will, so goodness is something constituted by following God’s commands. God makes things good by commanding that people do X, and if people do X then they instantiate the property. Following God’s commands could either be identical to or constitutive of goodness.

[6]. See Boyd’s long paper, “How to be a Moral Realist.”

[7]. Modal collapse is the idea that nothing would be possible. If God is the ground of all being, then if God did not exist, nothing would or could, since being would be groundless.

[8]. There’s dispute over whether the non-reductive naturalism I spelled out is really a form of reductionism without identity. I think it can be safely said not to be a form of reductionism given moral naturalism simpliciter, but in relation to non-naturalism is can be construed as a form of reductionism.

[9]. See this video for William Lane Craig unpacking the false dichotomy response.

[10]. N.B. One could say that some moral facts are not grounded in God’s existence, such as obvious examples like “don’t torture for fun,” while other facts are grounded in God, like obligations dealing with worship and salvation. This option is embraced by folks like T.J. Mawson. There aren’t any obvious problems with this move, besides being an admission that arguments from the existence of moral facts to God’s existence are unsound.

[11]. See several of William Lane Craig’s debates where the Euthyphro Dilemma is brought up by his opponent for the meter stick analogy. Also see Alston’s paper, “What Euthyphro Should Have Said.” You can find it in the further reading section below.

[12]. The “property” and “characteristics” talk appears to leave out Divine Simplicity as an option. I’ll leave it an open question if Divine Simplicity can overcome the Euthyphro Dilemma; I might deal with it in a future post.

Why Gaunilo’s Parody Fails as a Criticism of Anselm’s Ontological Argument

Anselm’s ontological argument has been formulated various ways, but for now here is a version from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (originally from Plantinga):

  1. God exists in the understanding but not in reality. (Assumption for reductio)
  2. Existence in reality is greater than existence in the understanding alone. (Premise)
  3. A being having all of God’s properties plus existence in reality can be conceived. (Premise)
  4. A being having all of God’s properties plus existence in reality is greater than God. (From (1) and (2).)
  5. A being greater than God can be conceived. (From (3) and (4).)
  6. It is false that a being greater than God can be conceived. (From definition of “God”.)
  7. Hence, it is false that God exists in the understanding but not in reality. (From (1), (5), (6).)
  8. God exists in the understanding. (Premise, to which even the Fool agrees.)
  9. Hence God exists in reality. (From (7), (8).)

One famous way to criticize this argument is through parody. The most well known parody is the one by Gaunilo, a contemporary of Anselm. In short, the parody objection says that by the same reasoning employed in Anselm’s argument, one could prove the existence of all sorts of things we know not to exist, such as a perfect island.

There are two problems with the perfect island parody. First, the island parody is not strictly analogous to Anselm’s argument. To truly parody an argument, it must be strictly analogous and entail an absurdity. Anselm’s argument is about the set of all possible beings, whereas Gaunilo’s objection deals with a subset of that set, namely islands. So, the scope of Gaunilo’s objection is not parallel to that of Anselm’s (Nagasawa 30). Yujin Nagasawa gives an example to demonstrate why this causes the objection to fail:

“Suppose that we construct an argument that is concerned with all possible people. We then construct its parallel parody that is concerned with all possible weightlifters, which, of course, constitute a subset of all possible people. It is far from obvious that the fact that a parallel argument about all possible weight lifters entails an absurd conclusion tells us anything about the plausibility of the original argument about all possible people” (Nagasawa 30).

The second problem with the parody objection is that it makes assumptions to which the defender of Anselm’s argument isn’t committed. The parody’s implicit assumption is that there are intrinsic features of a perfect island that make the island perfect by virtue of having those and only those features (Nagasawa 31). The assumption is implicit in the Anselmian argument insofar as the theist believes there is a set of intrinsic features of God by virtue of which God is the greatest conceivable being, namely maximal great-making properties, such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence. However, this assumption is not strictly analogous to the island assumption due to the reasons given above. Islands are merely a subset of all possible beings, so the analogy doesn’t hold due to a difference in scope. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem obvious that there is a specific number of beaches and trees (and whatever else that makes an island great) that the greatest conceivable island intrinsically has; it seems like for any number of pleasant beaches and trees, one more of each could be added to increase the island’s greatness.

So, Gaunilo’s parody fails by virtue of a disanalogy between the set of all islands and the set of all beings. It makes assumptions about the intrinsic nature of the greatest conceivable island that the defender of Anselm’s argument is not committed to. Also, it isn’t obvious that there is a specific number of features that makes an island greatest conceivable island; rather, there seems to be no upper limit on the number of those features. What is it about any particular number of great making features that makes a particular island the greatest, rather than some other number? There seems to be no way to answer that question.

Works Cited:

Nagasawa, Yujin. The Existence of God a Philosophical Introduction. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Oppy, Graham, “Ontological Arguments”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/ontological-arguments/>.

Uncommon Objections to the Ontological Argument

Let’s face it, there are tons of bad objections to the ontological argument, both online and in print. It seems like the ontological argument (OA) elicits more bad objections than any other argument for the existence of God. From ridiculous parodies to rants about how philosophers continuously try to define or imagine things into existence, it’s a minefield of objections that are so bad that they border on downright offensive. In this post, I will explore some uncommon objections to the OA, and explain why I think they would be valuable debating tools; but first I need to lay out a typical, contemporary ontological argument:

P1. There is a possible world where a maximally great being exists.

So,

C. A maximally great being exists in the actual world.

This argument is valid, and you get from P1 to C by S5. One could conceivably challenge system 5, but that’s no fun. Let’s move on to the uncommon objections:

  1. Axiological anti-realism
  2. Axiological pluralism
  3. Axiological skepticism
  4. Robust modal realism
  5. Modal anti-realism

Axiological anti-realism is the thesis that evaluative properties either do not exist, or do not exist independently of a subject’s perspective. In the ontological argument being examined, God is called a maximally great being, which means that God has all great making properties to their respective maximal degrees. Great making properties are evaluative properties, properties that it is better to have than not. Even if “maximal greatness” is just considered a placeholder for the god of classical theism, the point still seems to stand. The classical theistic god is generally considered as all good, The Good, or the summum bonum. Regardless of how one cashes it out, the god of classical theism seems to require some sort of axiological realism insofar as this being possesses a mind-independent property called “goodness.” It seems strange to think that this aspect of God is contingent, which is what some forms of axiological anti-realism would entail.

The forms of axiological anti-realism that would even minimally preserve our discourse about God’s goodness would make that goodness a relational property that depends on the responses, desires, or judgments of either actual people or ideal spectators. If the response-dependence is on actual people, then it’s radically contingent, since actual people could have been quite different. Perhaps in a different possible world, those people wouldn’t see God as all good, so God just wouldn’t be all good in that world. While the ideal spectator option may prevent the contingency floodgates from opening, it still seems implausible as a means of cashing out what it is for God to be good. When classical theists discuss God’s goodness, they just aren’t saying that God’s character would be positively evaluated by an ideal spectator, or that the proposition “God is good” falls out of the ideal spectator’s set of beliefs in reflective equilibrium. At any rate, it may make most theists uncomfortable to consider God’s goodness essentially connected to the responses of an idealized person, which may not be an argument against the possibility of any conception of God that involves God’s goodness being cashed out in a subjectivist framework, but does cast doubt on its aptness. So, any argument against the existence of evaluative properties, or for their existence as irreducibly subjective properties, is an objection to the ontological argument [1].

Axiological pluralism holds that evaluative properties exist, but do not form a homogeneous set. This means that there is nothing that all evaluative properties have in common, such that they can all be predicated of the same being. If there is a heterogeneous plurality of great making properties, then there cannot be a being that has all of them at once. Any argument for some sort of moral relativism, or just against axiological monism will constitute an objection to the OA.

Axiological skepticism is the idea that we are in no position to know or be justified in our belief that evaluative properties exist. Traditional skeptical arguments can be run with even greater strength against the existence of evaluative properties than against physical or just non-mental properties. The possibility of the non-existence of evaluative properties seems more plausible than the possibility of the non-existence of  non-mental properties. So, the traditional skeptical arguments are of greater dialectical strength when used against evaluative properties. Any argument for axiological skepticism constitutes an objection to the OA, because the defender of the OA is asserting that there are great making properties. If one could shake the foundations underpinning his alleged epistemic entitlement to make those claims, then that constitutes an objection to the OA. Given axiological skepticism, we can’t know if great making properties exist, so we can’t make claims about their existence in the form of a being who exemplifies them to maximal degrees.

Robust modal realism is the thesis that possible worlds exist in the same way that the actual world does. So, “actuality” would be an indexical, like “now” would be if the B-theory of time was true. In this case, there would be a maximally great being inhabiting every “possible” world, which seems to be a form of polytheism. In a dialectical scenario with a monotheist philosopher or apologist, if one gave good arguments for robust modal realism, then they would put the monotheist on the defensive; either she has to defend a less robust theory of modality, or she has to explain how this wouldn’t constitute a “bad” form of polytheism.

Anti-realism about modality says that modal properties are either mind-dependent, or just don’t exist at all. This objection goes in the opposite direction of robust modal realism. In essence, if modal properties like necessity only exist in the mind, then they would not be properties that objects in the external world could exemplify. So, there just couldn’t be a necessary being, since necessity and contingency would be aspects of the way we think about things, and not properties of those things. If one could argue for modal anti-realism, then that would constitute a good objection to the OA.

That exhausts the list of objections. I feel that if somebody engaged in a formal or informal debate utilized these sorts of criticisms, then that would not only enrich the dialectic, but also create a more interesting and fruitful discussion between the debaters. This is why I find such value in exploring uncommon objections to theological arguments; doing so not only opens up new tactics for the debater, but it also sheds light on assumptions embedded within these arguments, and what sorts of reasons we have for holding onto them.

While there may be ontological arguments that avoid some of the commitments that these criticisms target, the OA I gave at the beginning seems to be one of the most typical kinds that you’ll find in the wild. In reality, though, there are tons of ontological arguments, ranging from ones based on concepts in mereology, to reductios like Anselm’s; and while my criticisms may damage some of those other kinds of OA, don’t assume that’s necessarily the case. Thanks for reading.

Endnotes:

[1]. At least if the ontological argument is intended to prove that the god of classical theism exists. Perhaps there are ontological arguments that can be run using anti-realist conceptions of God’s goodness.

Uncommon Objections to the Kalam Cosmological Argument

It’s safe to say that the Kalam cosmological argument (KCA) is widely discussed online. It may be one of the most well known arguments from natural theology to a denizen of the internet. An explanation of the argument would be repetitive given the sufficient extant resources available online.

There have been many attempts at refuting the argument on various blogs, in debates, and myriad podcasts and youtube videos. These objections come in varying degrees of strength. It’s not my purpose to discuss the bad objections in this post. What I’m going to do is point out a few ways to object to the KCA that haven’t really been emphasized in online discussions or debates.

I’ll list the objections and then describe each one below:

1. Challenge substance dualism.

2. Challenge the coherence of agent causation.

3. Challenge the a-theory of time.

The first challenge is the most straightforward. The argument from elimination that establishes that the cause was an unembodied mind is where this objection puts pressure. If substance dualism is false, then an unembodied mind couldn’t be the first cause of the universe. There are arguments against substance dualism in the literature on the philosophy of mind, and they come in varying degrees of strength. Historically, the most persuasive would probably be the interaction problem. The point is, though, that any argument against substance dualism would constitute an objection to the KCA.

The second challenge attacks the notion of agent causation underlying the theistic story about how the universe came into being. Proponents of the KCA will tell a story about the unembodied mind choosing to bring the universe into being by a free, timeless choice. The sort of freedom assumed here is libertarian, and the sort of causal account most at home with this sort of freedom is agent-based instead of event based (the most prominent event-causal account of libertarian free will is naturalistic and based on brain states, so it wouldn’t be easily compatible with the spirit of the KCA). One could challenge the coherence of agent causation itself, which is possible. If agent causation is incoherent, and the KCA relies on it, then the KCA is unsound. Another way to challenge the use of agent causation is to make an argument for the explanatory insufficiency of agent causal accounts in cosmology.

The last challenge is probably the most common of the uncommon objections. The first premise of the KCA says that whatever begins to exist has a cause. The notion of beginning to exist is cashed out in terms of irreducibly tensed facts. Irreducibly tensed facts are only possible on the a-theory of time. If the a-theory of time is false, then premise one is false and the KCA is unsound. One could argue that the b-theory of time is more virtuous than the a-theory due to its relative simplicity, since it doesn’t require the additional entities posited by the neo-lorentzian interpretation of relativity. There could also be challenges on a conceptual level, such as McTaggart’s paradox. Just like the other two challenges, if there’s a good argument against the a-theory of time, then that argument constitutes a good objection to the KCA.

There may be other decent responses that I’ve overlooked, but these seem to be the strongest uncommon avenues of objection. The common objections get a lot of attention in the academic and popular spheres, but these uncommon responses merit further exploration. It would be nice to see these objections employed in live debates more often, as they would probably be unexpected by the defender of the KCA.

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.

or

  • 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?