God Does Not Exist: Philosophical Arguments

Among the Abrahamic religions, multiple arguments have been put forward by philosophers and theologians to prove the existence of God. I’m an atheist and don’t think any of these arguments are convincing. In this post – the first in a series I will do concerning the existence of God – I will demonstrate why I personally don’t think these philosophical arguments are very convincing.

Why Try Showing God Doesn’t Exist?

My reason for undertaking this project is because the question of God’s existence is of utmost importance for any further philosophical discussion. Questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics will take vastly different courses depending on whether or not God exists. Therefore, the question of whether God exists or not has to first be answered before further philosophical discourse can proceed. My philosophy is under the assumption that God does not exist, and in this series I will show why I take that position.

A Priori Arguments

Ontological Argument

The ontological argument, in St, Anselm’s formulation, is thus:

  1. By definition, God is a being than which none greater can be imagined.
  2. A being that necessarily exists in reality is greater than a being that does not necessarily exist.
  3. Thus, by definition, if God exists as an idea in the mind but does not necessarily exist in reality, then we can imagine something that is greater than God.
  4. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God.
  5. Thus, if God exists in the mind as an idea, then God necessarily exists in reality.
  6. God exists in the mind as an idea.
  7. Therefore, God necessarily exists in reality.

Or, in another formulation:

  1.  For any understandable being x, there is a world w such that x exists in w. (Premise)
  2. For any understandable being x, and for any worlds w and v, if x exists in w, but x does not exist in v, then the greatness of x in w exceeds the greatness of x in v. (Premise)
  3. There is an understandable being x such that for no world w and being y does the greatness of y in w exceed the greatness of x in the actual world. (Premise)
  4. (Hence) There is a being x existing in the actual world such that for no world w and being y does the greatness of y in w exceed the greatness of x in the actual world. (From (1)-(3).)

These arguments make the assumptions that (A) necessity implies existence, (B) that existence is predicate – or property – that something can have, (C) that existing makes something greater, (D) that our imagining something being greater because it exists necessitates its existence, and it also (E) makes a circular argument by proving existence by predicating existence.

Refutation of (A): As Immanuel Kant argued, necessity doesn’t imply existence. Because a triangle, in order to be a triangle, necessarily has three sides does not imply the existence of any particular triangle.

Refutation of (B): Existence is not a property or predicate, but is Being itself. It is that which makes properties and predicates true or false. It doesn’t say anything about what God is in the same way that the predicate ‘benevolent’ says something about what God is.

Refutations of (C) and (D): Something existing doesn’t add anything “more” to a concept. Imagined things (things that don’t exist) are only in our minds and cannot be made greater by being made real.

Refutation of (E): In attempting to predicate existence of God, that this proves God’s existence. Knowing what something is and that something is is not the same thing. To say that ‘existing’ is what God is is not the same as knowing that God actually exists. One would have to presuppose God existing to say existing is what God is in attempting to prove that God exists, making it a circular argument.

The Paradoxical Nature Of God

God is commonly said to be omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent and, as Islam says, Tawhid (one). Omnipotent means all-powerful, omniscient means all-knowing, and benevolent means all-loving. I content that all three of these properties result in paradoxes. What is meant by this oneness, in the traditions of all three Abrahamic religions, is that God does not have attributes like knowledge or wisdom or justice, but that God is the attribute. In other words, the statement ‘God is Justice’ needs to be taken literally as written. God does not possess Justice as a quality, but God is, in fact, Justice.

Paradox of Omnipotence: If God is omnipotent, then there is nothing more powerful than God. Also, if God is omnipotent, then God is able to do anything. If God can do anything, then God is capable of creating a being more powerful than Himself. This means that God is not the most powerful, but in fact could create a being more powerful than Himself. What this shows, though, is that omnipotence is an incoherent trait and not possible. Something can’t both be and not be at the same time – God can’t both be and not be omnipotent.

Paradox of Omniscience: If God is omniscient, then there is no such thing as free will. This would also pertain to God Himself, since God would already know everything God is going to do. This would mean that God could not do otherwise than what God already knows He is going to do. Therefore God cannot be both omniscient and also have free will.

Problem of Evil: If God created everything, then God created evil (or created the free wills that are capable of turning away from God), meaning God is not benevolent. This is known as the Problem of Evil: if God is willing but unable to stop evil, then He is not all-powerful; if God is able but unwilling to stop evil, then He is malevolent; if God is unable and unwilling to stop evil, then He is no God; if God is able and willing to stop evil, then why is there still evil? A popular answer is that evil comes about due to our free will. This, obviously, doesn’t answer the question of why natural disasters exist or why terrible things happen to innocent children. Also, if God is benevolent, then God cannot have free will, since that would mean God is capable of doing evil, which means God is not all good – we can conceive of possible worlds where God has done evil. For God to be benevolent – all good – then God cannot have free will. This means God would A) not be omnipotent (what is all powerful if one does not have the power to choose?) and B) not, in fact, be morally good, since being morally good requires that one choose to do the right thing when one could have chosen to do otherwise. The requirement of free will for evil to exist also implies that if free will is how humans can be evil, and no evil exists in heaven, then humans must not have free will in heaven.

Paradox of Tawhid: If we take Thomas Aquinas’s (and Moses Maimonides’s) idea of God being equal to attributes, as opposed to having them, then God = Knowledge means that all that can be known is what God “knows” (“God’s knowledge is the cause of things” -Aquinas and “[God’s knowledge] has the same extension as [God’s] causality, [so] his knowledge must necessarily extend to individuals” -Aquinas (Cambridge Companion pg 80)) and therefore God knows the fate of all creation. Then if we are to take God = Justice and God = Mercy, do we then need to assume Augustine’s idea of God’s Grace that all of us deserve eternal damnation due to original sin (Justice) but an arbitrarily selected few Elect will be saved (Mercy)? This divides Mercy and Justice between the Elect and the damned, which means Mercy and Justice is not applied everywhere, meaning that God is everywhere only in particular senses, which breaks God’s supposed unity.

A posteriori Arguments

Cosmological Argument/First-Cause Argument/Prime Mover/Demonstration of the Truthful

Ontological arguments, put forth by such prominent philosophers as Duns Scotus, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas. Scotus, in a baroque argument, puts it thus:

  1. No effect can produce itself.
  2. No effect can be produced by just nothing at all.
  3. A circle of causes is impossible.
  4. Therefore, an effect must be produced by something else. (from 1, 2, and 3)
  5. There is no infinite regress in an essentially ordered series of causes.
    1. (5a) It is not necessarily the case that a being possessing a causal power C possesses C in an imperfect way.
    2. (5b) Therefore, it is possible that C is possessed without imperfection by some item.
    3. (5c) If it is not possible for any item to possess C with no dependence on some prior item, then it is not possible that there is any item that possesses C without imperfection (since dependence is a kind of imperfection).
    4. (5d) Therefore, it is possible that some item possesses C without dependence (imperfection) on some prior item. (from 5b and 5c by modus tollens {if it is possible that there is any item that possesses C without imperfection, then it is possible for any item to possess C with no dependence on some prior item})
    5. (5e) Any item possessing C without dependence on some prior item is a first agent (i.e., an agent that is not subsequent to any prior causes in an essentially ordered series).
    6. (5f) Therefore, it is possible that something is a first agent. (from 5d and 5e)
    7. (5g) If it is possible that something is a first agent, something is a first agent. (For, by definition, if there were no first agent, there would be no cause that could bring it about, so it would not in fact be possible for there to be a first agent).
    8. (5h) Therefore, something is a first agent (i.e., an agent that is not subsequent to any prior causes in an essentially ordered series—Scotus still has to prove that there is an agent that is not subsequent to any prior causes in an accidentally ordered series either. That’s what he does in step (6) below). (from 5f and 5g)
  6. In an accidentally ordered series, each member of the series (except the first, if there is a first) comes into existence as a result of the causal activity of a prior member of the series.
    1. (6a) In an accidentally ordered series, each member of the series (except the first, if there is a first) comes into existence as a result of the causal activity of a prior member of the series.
    2. (6b) That causal activity is exercised in virtue of a certain form.
    3. (6c) Therefore, each member of the series depends on that form for its causal activity.
    4. (6d) The form is not itself a member of the series.
    5. (6e) Therefore, the accidentally ordered series is essentially dependent on a higher-order cause.
  7. Therefore, there is a first agent. (from 4, 5, and 6)

Some issues arise with this logic. First, in (5a) Scotus asserts a being, but there is no logical necessity that this first causal item have any agency. It could as easily be something inanimate. Second, in (5c) it is taken for granted that dependence is an imperfection, and conversely that being perfect means having no prior cause, but there is no justification for this. Third, in a causal link, even this alleged first agent exists, it is subsequent to the existence of time and therefore subsequent to the existence of time – meaning, by this logic, time itself could be considered the first agent.

One particularly clever formulation of the Ontological Argument is what the Muslim philosopher Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina (Avicenna) called the Demonstration of the Truthful. It goes something like this:

  1. B is the set of all contingent things that ever existed, currently exists, and ever will exist.
  2. All contingent existences need something else to make them exist (definition of contingency).
  3. The set of all contingent things B is itself contingent.
  4. B, being contingent, requires a cause, A.
  5. This cause, A, has to be either contingent or necessary.
  6. A cannot be contingent, though, because if it were, it would already be included within the set B.
  7. Thus the only remaining possibility is that the external cause A necessary-in-itself, and that A must be a necessary existent.
  8. That necessary existent, A, is God.

Refutation 1: The easy answer to this argument is that the necessary existent, A, is just the physical universe. Adding something beyond that doesn’t actually answer the question of what the first cause is, but only moves it up one level.

Refutation 2: If we want to get more technical, A being necessary-in-itself does not necessitate any particular necessary properties or predicates of A. Therefore, all one can say about A, the necessary-in-itself existence, is that it caused itself – it is a univocal cause. The property of being a cause for any or all of the contingent existences is itself a contingent property of A’s necessary-in-itself existence. To be necessary would mean that A had no choice in the creation of existence and is therefore inert, meaning it has no will.

Refutation 3: If A is necessary-in-itself, then it’s impossible to say anything about it in a causal way. Cause-and-effect is a contingent existence itself. It is contingent on the existence of time. Time cannot be infinitely long or we never would have gotten to where we are (time would still be infinity into the past). This means time is contingent on something outside of time, meaning it is contingent on a state of affairs where time doesn’t exist, or otherwise exists differently from how we understand it. Therefore, the cause of existence cannot have a cause if it does not have time.

Refutation 4: Existence doesn’t need a cause because non-existence by definition doesn’t exist. The aggregate set of contingent existences, B, are necessary because non-existence cannot be (it cannot be the state of affairs that nothing exists). What is necessary is for matter and energy to exist as it does, since all other contingent existences can be ’caused’ by the properties of existence (the laws of physics). This would mean that, in fact, existence is inevitable-in-itself, regardless of whether there is a creator or not.

Refutation 5: Avicenna says that the first cause – the necessary-in-itself – must be immaterial, otherwise it would depend on its matter for its existence. But physical matter would be sufficient as a cause of our universe. What makes a cause be followed by an effect is its ability to do work, which is energy. That means energy could be the necessary-in-itself existence and therefore, energy itself could be a first cause. And since E=mc^2 we know that energy and mass are the same thing, thus explaining the presence of matter.

Teleological Argument/Argument from Design/Argument from Beauty

The teleological argument, or argument from design, essentially says that existence is too ordered and fine-tuned for it to have come about by chance or any non-intelligent causes. Scientists, if they’re being honest, will say they don’t know how the universe came to exist. It doesn’t follow that it had to have been God (e.g. God of the gaps). But, even in our ignorance of how the universe came to be, this argument still doesn’t prove that it had to have been God.

Refutation 1: This is reasoning backwards from effect to a speculative (not known, but proposed) cause that doesn’t fit under any categorical species or genus we know of (and therefore nothing prior is known of its nature). As David Hume points out, one can only, at best, reason a sufficient cause when only the effect is observed – any attributes above and beyond what is sufficient for the effect to come about is mere speculation and nothing new can be attributed to the effect from the cause (like a grand plan for existence).

Refutation 2: At best we could only say that, because of the alleged well-designed nature of existence, that the universe is designed. We couldn’t conclude anything about its having been created – the matter in-itself and energy in-itself doesn’t imply that it was necessarily created. And if it’s not necessary that the matter in-itself and energy in-itself was created, then it’s possible that the various properties of the matter in-itself and energy in-itself are sufficient for the designed appearance of the universe.

Refutation 3: It’s impossible to say that something looks designed if we have no reference for what an un-designed universe looks like. We know that a house is designed by humans, just from looking at it, because we know what objects that are not designed by humans appear like. But, if all we knew was the house, having never seen anything else, it would be impossible to say that, just because of the house’s structure, it had to have been designed by an intelligence.

Refutation 4: We can’t infer a creator’s perfection from the “design” of the universe because it may have been a mistake to have made it such as it is, or the result of multitudes of trials before arriving at the current “design.”

Refutation 5: We observe the universe in it’s alleged state of perfect design because if it were some other way, we either wouldn’t be here to ask why it is the way it is, or we’d be in that other possible universe asking why it’s that way instead of some other way. This is known as the anthropic principle.

Moral Arguments

Without God, There is No Morality

The moral argument for the existence of God is essentially that, without God, there would be no morality. Of course, even if it were true that morality was impossible without God, the fact that we find this conclusion displeasing does nothing to prove that God exists. But, there are other issues with the argument as well.

Refutation: A modified formulation of Euthyphro’s Dilemma asks whether something is moral because God demands it, or does God say something is moral because it is moral in-itself? The former would mean that we have a tyrant God who invented moral maxims that we must follow under threat of eternal damnation. Morality doesn’t actually exist apart from God’s whims, which could, conceivably, change at any moment. The latter would mean that God is subject to some higher power (moral principles) and is essentially just an enforcer of something higher than Himself. In this case, then, God is not required for morality anyway.

Argument by Degree (Aquinas)

This argument says that, just like in any given circumstance of people being in the room, there must be one who is tallest, one who is oldest, one who is heaviest etc. Therefore, in existence, we also must assume that there is a being who is most Loving, most Just, most Merciful, most Moral, etc. while also being most True. Syllogistically, it can be formulated thus:

  1. Objects have properties to greater or lesser extents.
  2. If an object has a property to a lesser extent, then there exists some other object that has the property to the maximum possible degree.
  3. So there is an entity that has all properties to the maximum possible degree.
  4. Hence God exists.

Refutation 1: Having one who is ‘most’ of something among even all people doesn’t necessarily mean that someone has an infinite amount of that property. Premise 2 above doesn’t hold – it doesn’t follow that, even if there is something which is most Loving etc., it is infinite or in any way God (premise 1 only proposes an object).

Refutation 2: Degrees of Love or Truth is an incoherent measurement. Is someone more loving if they love more people? If they’re willing to take someone to the airport as opposed to help them move? By what criteria can we say that A is more loving than B? And it’s even more incoherent when talking about truth.

Refutation 3: As Dawkins says in The God Delusion, if we follow this logic, there must also exist a being of supreme smelliness, or supreme irritation, or supreme boredom. What are we to make of this smelly, irritating, boring being? Really, this argument can be used to prove anything, because there must be a most of anything we can conceive of.

Epistemological Arguments

Noetic Effect of Sin

The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry (CARM) discusses the Noetic Effect of Sin:

There is a difference between understanding and accepting. Many nonbelievers can understand doctrinal issues of Scripture but will not believe them. So, there is a difference between ascentia (intellectual acknowledgment) and fiducia (faithful trust). So, on the one hand, those who are not believers can understand spiritual things but they cannot accept them and this seems to be the case as described in the Bible:

1 Corinthians 2:14, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.”

The fact remains that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). We can recognize certain logical absolutes such as the laws of logic and use them in debates. In fact, Christians have developed various logical proofs for God’s existence using logic, evidence, and Scripture. But, they are resisted and denied by those who are outside of the faith. So, we could say that proof is different than persuasion and, since a person is unregenerate, he cannot be persuaded. Therefore, the noetic effect of sin will manifest, and unbelievers will use their minds to deny God’s truth and remain in their sin.

Refutation 1: Leibniz pointed out that this doctrine is unfair to those who suffer the effects of sins that are not their own making. If someone is brought up as a Hindu or a Sikh, and has therefore sinned by worshiping false gods, then too bad for them I guess, their minds will be blinded to the truth.

Refutation 2: This doctrine could pertain to any religion. Why are Christians not Muslim? Must be because their sin is obscuring their ability to see its truth.

Refutation 3: One must already accept the idea of sin being a real concept in order for this to be convincing. In other words, one has to already accept the conclusion in order for the argument to work.

Other Arguments

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s wager says essentially: if one believes in God and it turns out God doesn’t exist, one has lost nothing from one’s belief; however, if one disbelieves in God and it turns out God does exist, then one will suffer eternal punishment. Therefore, it is better to believe than not to believe.

Refutation 1: This is a self-serving belief. One’s only epistemological justification for believing is because doing so will result in a better outcome. It doesn’t follow from a better outcome that something is true. Something being a better outcome is not a justification – it is not justified belief – even if p is true, s believes that p is true (that p being that God exists), s is not justified in believing that p is true in the same way that I s is not justified in believing it is 6:00 am just because that means s is not late for work.

Refutation 2: Mutual exclusivity of religious belief means that only one religion can be correct, so Pascal’s Wager does nothing to tell us which religion is actually correct. And with an estimated 4,000 religions in the world, you only go from 0% chance to an 0.025% chance of being right – and this is assuming that of all of the currently existing modern religions that one of them is the correct one. Without a method for determining the correct one, there is no justification for believing any particular one.

Miracles

One argument for religious belief is that multiple people in the various Holy Books have attested to witnessing miracles (a transgression of a law of nature by volition of a Deity). I would say that testimony concerning miracles can be posed similar to C.S. Lewis’s trilemma about Jesus:

Christ either deceived mankind by conscious fraud, or He was Himself deluded and self-deceived, or He was Divine.

In my formulation, though, we would say that the witnesses to miracles have either deceived by conscious fraud, were deluded, or are telling the truth. David Hume, in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, made a good argument about why we should reject the third option for every testament to witnessing a miracle. What it comes down to is that we have to assess all claims based on the way we know the universe works, so there will always be more evidence in support of disbelieving testimony about miracles than there is for believing it. In other words, it’s a sort of probability game – you can be vastly more confident in disbelieving testimony about a miracle than you can about believing it, since we know that transgressions against the laws of nature, by their very nature, break the laws of nature. If they didn’t, they’d just be laws of nature. Thus, we can conclude that in all instances of claims about witnessing a miracle, the person is either consciously deceiving people are being deceived themselves.

Faith

Really, the primary recourse for any believer comes down to faith. I think even most believers didn’t start believing because they were convinced by some abstruse philosophical argumentation. So, why not just have faith in God, despite rejecting all the above philosophical arguments?

Reason 1: God must be known in order to be worshiped, otherwise there is a veil of ignorance between the believer and God. Yet religion requires faith, which requires a veil of ignorance (if God is known, it is no longer faith, but knowledge). But this veil of ignorance means that God cannot be known, and therefore the worship is likely to be toward something that isn’t actually God.

Reason 2: Nothing in faith can confirm that one religion is true and another false, so there is no justification for saying that one religious faith is false and another is true. Saying that Islam is false because I believe in Christianity is an invalid argument.

Reason 3: The only way to believe in God is through blind faith, without any epistemological justification, and this faith is polluted by our own personal desires and upbringing. This is why people tend to embrace the religious teachings of their culture and family. A pure, unpolluted faith being impossible, as it would require a state of being that doesn’t exist (pure objectivity to judge religions based on their own merits).

Conclusions

The vast majority of people who read this will not be convinced one way or the other about the existence of God. My real goal with this project is to show what I think – why I don’t accept the God hypothesis. This is to show that any philosophical discourse that I engage in here is under the assumption that God does not exist. I intend for this to be a living document, to be pinned under the Philosophy tab on the blog header, and to which I will make revisions and amendments as I see fit.

Coming soon(ish) in my series on the existence of God:

God Does Not Exist: Scientific Arguments

God Does Not Exist: Theological, Textual, and Historical Arguments

God Does Not Exist: Should We Still Believe Anyway?

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