Do Philosophical Arguments for God’s Existence
Carry any Weight?
It is as easy for me to believe that the universe made itself as to believe that a maker of the universe made Himself—in fact, much easier, since the universe visibly exists.
George Bernard Shaw
Metaphysical arguments for the existence of God have all been shown to be invalid by competent philosophers.
J. F. Brown (psychologist)
Throughout the long tradition of European thought it has been said, not by everyone but by most people, or at any rate by most of those who have proved that they have a right to be heard, that Nature, though it is a thing that really exists, is not a thing that exists in itself or in its own right, but a thing which depends for its existence upon something else.
R. G. Collingwood
Bernard Shaw tells of asking a priest “Who made God?” The priest, says Shaw, was thunderstruck, his faith shattered. Whether he committed suicide or merely left the Church Shaw does not tell. But the whole thing is ridiculous. Every student of philosophy has heard the question: and they all know that there must be a being which did not need to be made. If nothing existed except receivers of existence, where would the existence come from? In order that anything may exist, there must be a being which does not have to receive existence, a being which simply has it. God can confer existence upon all other beings, precisely because He has it in His own right. It is His nature to exist. God does not have to receive existence, because He is existence.
Frank Sheed (from Theology for Beginners, 1957)
The Cosmological Argument, which in its simplest form states that since everything must have a cause the universe must have a cause—namely, God—doesn’t stay simple for long. Some deny the premise...[by appealing to] quantum physics. Others prefer to accept the premise and then ask: What caused God? The reply that God is self-caused (somehow) then raises the rebuttal: If something can be self-caused, why can’t the universe as a whole be the thing that is self-caused.
Daniel Dennett (from Breaking the Spell)
When I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of 18, I read John Stuart Mill’s autobiography, and I there found this sentence ‘My father taught me that the question, “Who made me?” cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question, “Who made God?”’ That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Indian’s view, that the world rested upon a tortoise; and when someone said, “How about the tortoise?”, the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.”
There must be a Creator even if there is no Day of Creation. Looking at Being as it is now, as the baby looks at the grass, we see a second thing about it; in quite popular language, it looks secondary and dependent. Existence exists; but it is not sufficiently self-existent; and would never become so merely by going on existing. The same primary sense which tells us it is Being, tells us that it is not perfect Being; not merely imperfect in the popular controversial sense of containing sin or sorrow; but imperfect as Being; less actual than the actuality it implies. For instance, its Being is often only Becoming; beginning to Be or ceasing to Be; it implies a more constant or complete thing of which it gives in itself no example. That is the meaning of that basic medieval phrase, “Everything that is moving is moved by another”; which means inexpressibly more than the mere Deistic “somebody wound up the clock” with which it is probably often confounded.
G. K. Chesterton (from Saint Thomas Aquinas, 1935)
[In the famous 1948 BBC radio debate with Fr. Frederick Copleston, Bertrand Russell began by conceding that he could not prove the non-existence of God, and therefore his position was agnostic. Shortly thereafter he maintained that the word “necessary” can only be applied significantly to propositions that are self-contradictory to deny. He then went on to say that he could only admit a necessary being if there were a being whose existence was self-contradictory to deny. To a theist, this looks very much like wanting to deny a priori the possibility of God’s existence without appearing to do so. For it is absurd to cite as an argument against the existence of God consequences which are inevitable if God exists. I strongly suspect that if the concept of a necessary being, and the distinction between necessary being and contingent being, were crucial to an argument that led to a conclusion dear to Russell’s heart, he would have found some way to accommodate these notions. Here are the actual exchanges from that part of the debate.]
COPLESTON: Perhaps you would tell me if your position is that of agnosticism or of atheism. I mean, would you say that the non-existence of God can be proved?
RUSSELL: No, I should not say that: my position is agnostic.
COPLESTON: I should say, in order to explain existence, we must come to a being which contains within itself the reason for its own existence, that is to say, which cannot not exist.
RUSSELL: The word “necessary” I should maintain, can only be applied significantly to propositions. And, in fact, only to such as are analytic—that is to say—such as it is self-contradictory to deny. I could only admit a necessary being if there were a being whose existence it is self-contradictory to deny.
COPLESTON: That there is a contingent being actually existing has to be discovered by experience, and the proposition that there is a contingent being is certainly not an analytic proposition, though once you know, I should maintain, that there is a contingent being, it follows of necessity that there is a necessary being.
RUSSELL: The difficulty of this argument is that I don’t admit the idea of a necessary being and I don’t admit that there is any particular meaning in calling other beings “contingent.” These phrases don’t for me have a significance except within a logic that I reject.
The First Cause argument...says that everything has a cause, so there must be a first cause. But this, says Russell, is inconsistent, because if everything has a cause how can the first cause be uncaused? On some views, God is the self-caused cause (in Aristotle, the self-moved mover), but either this notion is incoherent, or if it denotes something possible, then either the principle of universal causation upon which the whole argument rests is false if causes must be other than their effects (as indeed the principle seems to imply), or, if causes can be their own causes, why should there be only one such?
A. C. Grayling (from Russell: A Very Short Introduction)
Aquinas’ first proof is from the existence of motion. Everything that moves is set in motion by another. The agent of change is not self-determined, but determined in its turn by a preceding agent. This process cannot, however, go on ad infinitum, for an infinite series of agents, none of which were self-determined, would fail to provide that finality which thought demands. The series must therefore begin with an agent who is self-determined, with a first mover who is himself unmoved. ‘And by this all men understand God.’
Aquinas’ first argument is frequently misunderstood. ‘It should be noted,’ writes Fr. D’Arcy, ‘that he is not arguing from the impossibility of an infinite series. He means that the addition of dependent things ad infinitum will do nothing to get rid of the dependence.’ This comes out in the second argument which is as follows:
Every event, says Aquinas, is determined by a cause, but an infinite series of causes will give no explanation of how causation began.
The third argument is on similar lines. Nothing we know exists in its own right. An animal, for instance, is born and dies and is contingent to its environment. Contingency, as Aquinas proceeds to show, implies the necessity for something that exists in its own right. These first three arguments are, as Fr. D’Arcy remarks, ‘all aspects of one and the same argument, which can be summarized as follows. All knowledge has for its object something or some being. According to Aquinas our first awareness of this something, which is not ourselves, is in sensible experience. Now change belongs to the world of our [sensible] experience, and change implies that a thing is not yet what it can be. Such a condition again implies contingence, because to be able to lose what one has and to acquire what one has not denotes an incompleteness in oneself, or in other words the absence of full being. We have, then, existent beings which are contingent and as such do not contain a sufficient reason and explanation in themselves for what they are. There must, therefore, be existent a being which explains them, and at the same time is its own sufficient reason and explanation; that is to say, a being who, as being, is not contingent or dependent or in any way lacking in completeness of being. This for the moment we define as God.’
Arnold Lunn (from Now I See, 1933)
The five ‘proofs’ asserted by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century don’t prove anything, and are easily—though I hesitate to say so, given his eminence—exposed as vacuous. The first three are just different ways of saying the same thing, and they can be considered together. All involve an infinite regress —the answer to a question raises a prior question, and so on ad infinitum.
1. The Unmoved Mover. Nothing moves without a prior mover. This leads us to a regress, from which the only escape is God. Something had to make the first move, and that something we call God.
2. The Uncaused Cause. Nothing is caused by itself. Every effect has a prior cause, and again we are pushed back into regress. This has to be terminated by a first cause, which we call God.
3. The Cosmological Argument. There must have been a time when no physical things existed. But, since physical things exist now, there must have been something non-physical to bring them into existence, and that something we call God.
All three of these arguments rely upon the idea of a regress and invoke God to terminate it. They make the entirely unwarranted assumption that God himself is immune to the regress. Even if we allow the dubious luxury of arbitrarily conjuring up a terminator to an infinite regress and giving it a name, simply because we need one, there is absolutely no reason to endow that terminator with any of the properties normally ascribed to God: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, creativity of design, to say nothing of such human attributes as listening to prayers, forgiving sins and reading innermost thoughts.
Richard Dawkins (from The God Delusion)
The cosmological argument does not go on to ascribe to the First Cause some of the basic attributes commonly associated with a theistic God, such as personality or benevolence. Rather, it simply argues that a First Cause must exist.
Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion would fail any introductory philosophy or religion course. Proudly he criticizes that whereof he knows nothing. As I have said elsewhere, for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for the ontological argument [not addressed in the excerpt above]. If we criticized gene theory with as little knowledge as Dawkins has of religion and philosophy, he would be rightly indignant. (He was just this when, thirty years ago, Mary Midgeley went after the selfish gene concept without the slightest knowledge of genetics.)
Michael Ruse (philosopher of biology, evolutionist, agnostic)
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