God Does Not Exist: Philosophical Arguments

Atheism God does not exist

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.

The second post in the “series” on the scientific reasons for not believing in God is here.

Introduction

Why Care Whether or Not God Exists?

My reason for undertaking this next project is because the question of God’s existence is of utmost importance for any 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, so here I will show why I take that position.

Let’s imagine that a God of some sort similar to the Abrahamic God does exist. What this God is like is not clear from the various sects of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, but surely there are certain aspects of this God that can be agreed upon. This is the God that created the universe and can still intervene in the universe in the form of miracles – the alteration of the natural order of things in order to bring about outcomes that would otherwise be highly improbable or impossible given just the physical laws of nature.

What would the existence of a God like this actually mean for the human condition? I’ll get into the arguments about why this conception of God is impossible in what follows, but for now let us assume it’s not impossible. The fact of God’s existence would alter what we must think about metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics.

With God existing, science would merely be unpacking how God arbitrarily decided to create the universe. There would be no need for any sort of internal coherence to existence – all of existence could be held together by God’s will alone. No longer would we be able to assume that any set of principles can be used to mathematically deduce some other theory because it would just as easily have been that God decided to create it some other way, rendering any predictability useless. Why would certain symmetries of the universe, such as the laws of physics being the same everywhere, be assumed if everything is simply the caprice of a powerful deity?

Not only that, but we might have to take into consideration that God could change the parameters of existence based on whim. The laws of nature don’t necessarily hold over time and any scientific results could be chalked up to divine intervention. If everyone in the world knew God existed, and God actually did exist, why wouldn’t people defer to miraculous occurrences to explain aberrant data?

One might argue that God wouldn’t work in this way, but how could we ever know? God’s plan is already said to be mysterious, which is just another way of saying we don’t, and possibly cannot, know what it is God wants. For example, think about God’s covenant with the Jews: the Law was supposed to be eternal and irrevocable, but according to Christianity, it was revoked and superseded with salvation through Christ. Who is to say that this Christian covenant will not be revoked in the future, based on the whims of God? If we don’t know what God wants, or what God may at any future time begin desiring, we can never make any assumptions about what God would and would not do.

Even if God Himself told us that He would never alter the fundamental laws of physics, how could we know that He wasn’t lying? Or that His telling us this, while doing something else, wasn’t supposed to bring into existence something more pleasing to God – in other words, God’s deceitfulness is just another of the mysterious ways in which He works. Assuming God exists, it is already the case that God deceives us by masking His own existence, relegating Himself to the realm of faith.

Indeed, we could not even make assumptions about the hidden nature of God. Is God a conscious entity? God being capable of experiencing emotions such as love and wrath makes one think so, but we could never know for sure. Is it possible for God to change His mind about what His plans for humanity are? The story of the flood in Genesis makes one think so (as does answering prayers, divine intervention, the story of Job, and so on). But again, how can we know?

All of this means that if God existed, there would be no such thing as justified true belief (JTB). We would have no way of being justified in our true beliefs because it could always, and at any time, be the case that the truth has been altered.

If we use the case of a clock accurately telling us what time it is, we can say that we are justified in believing it is actually six o’clock in the evening because if we were in some possible universe where it wasn’t six in the evening, we would not believe that it is. But if God exists, we could never be sure, because God could at any moment alter what time it actually is without our knowing it – one can conceive of a possible universe in which one believes it is six o’clock, but it is not because God decided to intercede and change what time it actually is. God could easily be the crafty evil demon that Descartes spoke of.

Even if we continued to believe that God would not change the universe, there would still always be the question of why God decided to make things this way instead of some other way. It might be argued that this is a question that can be asked even without God – why is the universe the way it is instead of some other way.

Without God we can answer this question with the anthropic principle: the universe is not specially designed to support life; it is that life is only here to wonder about the nature of the cosmos because the universe is suitable for life. This may seem circular at first, but it is like asking why is it four in the afternoon now instead of six? Well, if it were six, I might be asking why it was six instead of four. The fact that the universe is the way it is makes it possible to ask the question in the first place.

However, if God created the universe, we would assume He made it in a way that was suitable for life. But this is not a good assumption. God, being all powerful, could make life arise under any conditions. God could revise, edit, add, and subtract different laws and constants as He sees fit. The universe could have been any other way – there was nothing inevitable about it being the way that it is. And so, the question of why it is this way instead of some other way is because of an arbitrary decision made by God when creating the universe. All scientific questions would then have to take God’s psychology into consideration.

God’s psychology wouldn’t just be a scientific question, though. It would be a matter of personal safety and national security. At all times we would have to ask ourselves what it is God wants us to do. It may be the case that God wants us to commit treason, regardless of the personal risks and the risks to national security. We couldn’t trust anyone in the national security apparatus, because at any time they may be inspired by God to betray their country. Especially if the country displeases God, which many believe the U.S. does.

It wouldn’t just be God inspiring traitors, either. God could just as easily send plagues and natural disasters, as the God of Abraham is known to do, and indeed is still believed to do today by some adherents. The hurricanes, forest fires, and earthquakes God sends because His creations are doing things that displease Him are a threat to the personal safety of even the pious and the national security of our countries.

The Abrahamic God, by my calculation, is a hedonist. Based on the mythology, it seems he created us in order to increase His own pleasure via our worship of Him. God’s pleasure in us increases as devotion to Him increases. Meanwhile, God demands that all of us withhold our own pleasure, since that also pleases Him. These sound like the dispositions of someone with narcissistic personality disorder.

What this does, ultimately, is reduce ethics to questions of which actions most please God. Even if it is demanded of us that we kill our children, as Abraham himself was willing to do, it becomes ethical by means of increasing God’s pleasure.

No ethical question could even, in principle, have a solid foundation due to the loss of justified true beliefs – it may be demanded of me to kill someone, but not you, and therefore there is no general theory of who or why some people ought to be killed and others should not except by deference to God.

These all sound like absurd conclusions drawn from the existence of God like that of Abraham. Yet, if we accept that this God, similar to the one spoken about the in Bible or Quran, there is no reason why we would necessarily have to discount the picture I’ve drawn. The existence of a God like that of Abraham is itself an absurd conclusion and if we accept it, then there is no philosophy worth our time except that of analyzing God’s psychology. All answers to all philosophical questions could be answered by examining God’s psychology.

I, like everyone else, definitely have my own biases. The question of God’s existence is no different. However, I am attempting not to undertake this exercise for any personal reasons. I do it in order to show that philosophy itself can be coherent and that it is worth doing.

In what follows, I’ll look at a number of philosophical arguments for the existence of God and show why the arguments can be rejected. I first start with the a priori argument known as the ontological argument. I then go into the paradoxical nature of an omniscient, omnipotent, benevolent God itself. I will then cover a posteriori argument, such as the argument from design, before covering several other miscellaneous arguments.

A Priori Arguments

Ontological Argument

The ontological argument is a fairly old one. Numerous philosophers and theologians have come up with their own formulation of the argument. It is an attempt to show, using just logic, without having to reference anything in the real world or to any holy text, to show that God’s existence is necessary. The human ability to reason has always been seen as one of our defining characteristics, and in fact was considered by Aristotle to be the third type of soul we humans possess that nothing else does. This is why an a priori ontological argument was considered a good one – it uses only our human ability to reason.

Ontology is the study of Being, which can be a somewhat slippery term. Maybe another way of saying it is that ontology is the study of what exists and the way in which it exists. Thus, an ontological argument is attempting to show that existence is the way the concept of God exists – that the actual concept itself necessarily exists.

To understand this, we need to understand what ancient and medieval philosophers meant when they talked about the essence of something. Aristotle said “the essence of a thing is what it is said to be in respect of itself1.” Scholastic and Islamic philosophers such as Aquinas and Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina (Avicenna) took Aristotle’s idea of separating existence from essence and substance from accidents and tried to reconfigure these ideas into their own ontology. Existence and essence, in Aquinas’s ontology, combine to make Being. Being is what is; essence is the what and existence is the is. Existence, in both Aquinas’ and Avicenna’s terminology, means actuality – that a thing is. Essence is what makes that thing into that particular thing. Essence is potentiality while existence gives essence actuality.

Avicenna hinted at the idea of God bestowing actuality (existence) onto essence (potentiality) during creation, using an emanationist conception. In Avicenna’s system, God is a necessary-in-itself existence that acts as the first cause creating the rest of the universe, which was only potentiality as contingent existence. Once existence was bestowed upon this potentiality (essence) it became necessary-due-to-other (due to God, the necessary-in-itself) existence.

Aquinas was more explicit that it is God who “bestows” existence onto essence in order to make it actuality. That is how Aquinas believed God created the universe. In this, God is necessary in an Avicennan sense in that God is the only Being whose existence is implied by His essence. Because God is existence by essence, He is the efficient cause of the universe, which makes the efficient cause antecedent to the material and formal cause of the universe, because it was God as efficient cause that created matter and form from nothing.

The ontological argument is an attempt to show that God’s existence is a part of God’s essence – that a fundamental thing that makes God be God is that He exists. At the beginning, all we know are the propositions present in the premises. For the argument used to prove God’s existence, one assumes a God with infinite attributes, such as being all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, embodying perfect justice, mercy, wisdom, etc. We can conceive of a being that has all these attributes. But, the argument goes, if this being exists only in our mind, then it cannot perfectly embody all those infinite attributes. Therefore, in order for that being to actually reach that perfection – a perfection we can conceive of – then it must necessarily exist. Or, to put things more formally, using St, Anselm’s formulation of the argument2, it goes 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 formulation3:

  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 several assumptions. The first is that necessity implies existence. Necessity is about the sorts of properties that something must have in order to be that thing (a hypothetical, not categorical). For example, as Immanuel Kant argued4, a triangle, in order to be a triangle, necessarily has three sides. However, this does not imply the existence of any particular triangle. This argument takes as an unstated assumption that existence is within God’s essence – that it is a necessary part of the definition of God – which is what the argument is trying to prove, making it circular.

And besides, “if A exists, then it necessarily possesses property X” does not imply “if A necessarily possesses property X, then A exists”.

The second assumption that this argument makes is that existence is a property that something can have. Existence is not a property, but is Being itself4,5. It is that which makes properties true or false. It does not say anything about what God is in the same way that the predicate ‘benevolent’ or ‘answers prayers’ says something about what God is or what God does. A property is something that can be conceptually added or subtracted from a subject that changes what the subject is. Positing existence as a property does not fit because whether something exists or not does not conceptually change what the subject is. You cannot define something into existence; it’s invalid for me to say of Russell’s Teapot that one of its essential properties is that it exists and therefore it (necessarily) exists.

Third, this argument assumes that existing makes something greater than something not existing (a human value judgement). The opposite, as Douglas Gasking pointed out in his parody of the argument, could be said to be true: that-which-does-not-exist creating existence out of nothing would be a greater feat than that-which-exists creating existence through-itself, therefore non-existence is greater than existence, therefore God does not exist.

In all seriousness, though, this argument assumes that somehow our imagining something being greater because it exists necessitates its actual existence as if value judgments we make about things have some ontological necessity over what exists and what does not. Something existing does not add anything “more” to a concept. Imagined things (things that do not exist in physical reality) are only in our minds and cannot be made greater, by whatever objective criteria the greatness of things ought to be decided, by being made real.

Indeed, Guanilo of Marmoutiers replied to Anselm in his letter “Pro Insipiente” raising objections to the argument within Anselm’s life2. Gunilo proposes a lost island containing treasures greater than anywhere else on earth and says that if we are to use Anselm’s logic, then we necessarily have to believe this island exists since, if it were not to exist, it would not have greater treasure than anywhere else. Anselm denies that his argument applies to anything other than God, but he doesn’t give a good argument why this is the case – he seems to miss the point that saying something is greater because it exists is not an objective fact but a value judgment by people and has no bearing on the actual existence of a thing.

Finally, the argument makes a circular argument by proving existence by predicating existence. It is attempting to predicate the existence of God in order to prove 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.

Modal Ontological Argument

A popular form of the ontological argument is the modal ontological argument given by Alvin Plantinga. It uses the axioms of modal logic given by Clarence Irving Lewis and Cooper Harold Langford, in particular modal axiom S5, to show that if God is possible (no matter how improbable), then it is necessary that God exists. Modal axiom S5 says that if something is possible, then it is necessarily possible (it is possible in all possible worlds). But, since God is a necessary being, then if God exists in one possible world (the definition of God being possible), then God must exist in all possible worlds (existing in all possible worlds being the definition of necessity). Therefore, if it is possible that God exists in even one out of innumerable possible worlds, then God must exist in all possible worlds, including the actual world.

I think it’s easy to see that this argument is defining God as a necessary being and so is attempting to define God into existence. The proposition “God does not exist” does not contain any contradictions and as such “god exists” cannot be a priori determined to be necessary. If we could simply define something as being necessary, then one could also say that some arbitrary being X is defined as a necessary being, and so if it is possible for X to exist (if X exists in at least one possible world), then X exists in all possible worlds. Substitute whatever you want in for X: unicorns, leprechauns, Bigfoot, Santa Claus, etc.

One might argue against this, saying that God’s necessity is not simply tacked on but is part of God’s maximal excellence (e.g., having the tri-omni properties: omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence). This, however, means that God being tri-omni must be coherent and without paradox, but as we’ll see later this is, at the very least, not obviously true. It also then inherits the problems of the original ontological argument of using existence as a predicate, or assuming that existence is “better” or “greater” in some sense than non-existence.

We can examine the modal ontological argument in a more discursive formulation, which, according to Wikipedia, goes as follows:

  1. 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
  2. A being has maximal greatness if it has maximal excellence in every possible world. [being necessary is part of maximal greatness since the possibility of not existing is a flaw]
  3. It is possible that there is a being that has maximal greatness. (Premise)
  4. Therefore, possibly, it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being exists.
  5. Therefore, (by axiom S5) it is necessarily true that an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.
  6. Therefore, an omniscient, omnipotent and perfectly good being exists.

This argument (at least formulated this way) seems to replace using existence as a predicate with using necessary as a predicate, and a predicate that is essential to something having maximal greatness. The problem is, as we will see below, the tri-omni properties of God stated in (1) – omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent – is paradoxical, which means that such a being necessarily does not exist in all possible worlds. Thus, we could use the same argument: if God is impossible in all possible worlds, then God is necessarily impossible in all possible worlds and therefore God is necessarily impossible. Indeed, we could turn the argument around and say:

  1. If there is even the most miniscule, infinitesimal, but non-zero possibility that God does not exist (there is at least one possible world in which the necessary being God does not exist), then it is necessary that God does not exist (i.e., that God does not exist in all possible worlds)
  2. There is a non-zero chance that it is possible that God does not exist
  3. Therefore, necessarily God does not exist

We could also apply the argument to other things. For instance:

  1. The definition of God’s omnibenevolence is that there is no possible world in which there exists gratuitous evil (i.e., evil that is purposeless or evil that is beyond what must exist in order to bring forth some greater good)
  2. If there is a non-zero possibility for the existence of gratuitous evil (there is a possible world in which there exists gratuitous evil), then necessarily God is not omnibenevolent (since there is at least one possible world in which gratuitous evil exists)
  3. There is a non-zero possibility that there exists gratuitous evil (i.e., there is at least one possible world in which there exists gratuitous evil, since the existence of gratuitous evil does not contain any contradictions and therefore cannot be ruled out a priori)
  4. Therefore, necessarily God is not omnibenevolent

The same argument could be used for God’s other omni-properties or for other “maximally [blank]” things.

What it really comes down to, however, is that the modal ontological argument is just that, an ontological argument, and so it suffers the same problems as the O.G. ontological argument. It’s primary upgrade is that it’s less intuitive and therefore appears more sophisticated.

Argument by Degree (Aquinas)

Aquinas famously made five arguments for the existence of God. The other four, which are essentially different formulations of the cosmological argument, are covered in other places throughout this post, but the argument by degree is one that stands by itself as an a priori argument.

I almost considered this an a posteriori argument, since it seems to take experience into consideration as concerns the varying nature of things. However, I think this argument could be made through what Kant might call synthetic a priori knowledge, which is the bringing together of different concepts, rather than analysis of a single concept, in order to derive knowledge.

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. We call this entity God.
  5. Therefore God exists.

Having one who is “most” of something among even all people does not necessarily mean that someone has an infinite amount of that property. Even with an infinite number of people, it would still be physically impossible for one of them to be infinitely tall or infinitely old. Therefore, premise 2 above does not hold – it does not follow that, even if there is something which is most Loving etc., it is infinite or in any way God.

Also, being the “most” of various qualitative properties does not make any sense. Degrees of Love or Truth is an incoherent measurement. Is someone more loving if they love more people? If they are 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 is even more incoherent when talking about truth. Is someone more truthful when they never lie? Or when they simply say more things that are the truth? The point is, there is no way to say that something can have these sorts of properties to a maximum degree.

Also, as somewhat of a side note, Dawkins points out 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 if we accept the premises – which I do not – then there must be a most of anything we can conceive of.

The Paradoxical Nature of God

God is commonly said to be omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent and, as Islam says, Tawhid (one) or maximal simplicity in Christian thought. Omnipotent means all-powerful, omniscient means all-knowing, benevolent means all-loving, and Tawhid/simplicity means perfect oneness.

Omnipotence:
All powerful is a tricky notion that is debated among philosophers and theologians. Some say that God has what is often called unrestricted or untrammeled omnipotence, which means that God can make actual even those things that are contradictory – God can make square circles and unmarried bachelors and so forth. Others limit this by saying God can do anything that is not logically impossible (i.e. contradictory) – God can create matter from nothing (which, depending on how one looks at it, may or may not be a logical impossibility, but I will be charitable and say it is not logically impossible), but God cannot make square circles and unmarried bachelors. Additionally, there are those who say that God is in complete control of everything in existence – no bee flaps its wings unless God wills it – while others allow for God to have a more hands-off approach, leaving existence to play out according to the free will of its inhabitants and the laws of physics that God set in motion. The point is, there is not a single definition of omnipotence. In what follows, I will attempt to use the definition of omnipotence that is most often associated with a particular argument and attempt to define which version I am using at any given time.

Omniscience:
Like with omnipotence, the concept of omniscience is not universally agreed upon. For instance, Molinists (named after Luis de Molina) will argue that God has three levels of omniscient knowledge: natural knowledge (knowledge of all necessary truths i.e. logical truths), middle knowledge (knowledge of all possible truths i.e. every way in which it is logically possible for the world to obtain), and free knowledge (knowledge of actual truths i.e. what actually obtains). Once again, I will attempt to clarify in what follows what definition of omniscience I am employing.

Omnibenevolence:
In what follows I will use a consistent definition of benevolence, namely omnibenevolence. Omnibenevolence, or all-lovingness, is desiring and taking action to actualize for all beings capable of experiencing pleasure and suffering (i.e. conscious beings) that those creatures experience maximal pleasure and minimal suffering. Pleasure, in what follows, isn’t meant as merely satisfying physiological needs and/or desires (hedonic experiences), but the attainment of all of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: physiological needs, security needs, belonging & love, esteem & prestige, and self-actualization (achieving one’s full potential). A being that is omnibenevolent would both desire the satisfaction of these needs in all consciousnesses and would take whatever actions to the best of such a being’s available abilities to make that desire actual for all consciousnesses.

Tawhid/Oneness/Simplicity:
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.

I contend that all of these properties result in paradoxes that have yet to be satisfactorily rectified. Here I will go through each of them one by one and show why they have yet to be fully addressed by philosophers and theologians.

The Problem of Evil

Theodicy, or the branch of theology that looks to vindicate God from evil, has been a point of contention within philosophy of religion for quite some time. This is known as the Problem of Evil.

Epicurean formulation:

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 not God
If God is able and willing to stop evil, then why is there still evil?

Hypothetical formulation:

P1 – If an omnipotent and benevolent God exists, then evil cannot exist
P2 – Evil exists
C1 – Therefore an omnipotent and benevolent God does not exist (modus tollens)

Syllogistic formulation

P1 – Benevolence is (defined as) the desire to eliminate evil to the best of one’s abilities
P2 – Omnipotence is (defined as) possessing unlimited abilities
P3 – God is benevolent and omnipotent
C1 – Therefore God desires the elimination of evil and possesses the unlimited ability to eliminate evil
P4 – Yet evil exists
C2 – Therefore God cannot exist

Logical problem of evil formulation (not all four propositions can be simultaneously true, i.e., they contain a contradiction):

  1. God exists
  2. God is omnipotent
  3. God is benevolent
  4. Evil exists

Evidential problem of evil formulation

P1 – Great (possibly gratuitous) evil is witnessed and experienced by some or all living beings (human and non-human)
P2 – An omnipotent and benevolent God possesses both the means and desire to eliminate all evil (or, at the very least, gratuitous evil)
C1 – Therefore one is justified in believing that God does not exist

A popular answer is that evil comes about due to our free will. Alvin Plantinga puts it like this:

A world containing creatures who are significantly free (and freely perform more good than evil actions) is more valuable, all else being equal, than a world containing no free creatures at all. Now God can create free creatures, but He can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For if He does so, then they aren’t significantly free after all; they do not do what is right freely. To create creatures capable of moral good, therefore, He must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so. As it turned out, sadly enough, some of the free creatures God created went wrong in the exercise of their freedom; this is the source of moral evil. The fact that free creatures sometimes go wrong, however, counts neither against God’s omnipotence nor against His goodness; for He could have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.

Pierre Bayle rebuts it in the following way:

Surely God foresaw the first sin of humankind from all eternity, yet he created humans with freedom anyway. Is this not comparable, Bayle asks, to supplying a criminal with a knife knowing full-well that he will commit murder with it? If so, the responsibility for the murder falls at least partially on the supplier of the weapon. But perhaps God allowed humans to fall so that he could send his Son to redeem them. To this last resort of the Christians-the felix culpa theodicy-Bayle observes that God in this case would resemble a father who allowed his son to break his arm (though he could have prevented it) just so that he could display his skill at cast-making to the neighbors. Or God would be like a king who permitted a deadly uprising just so he could demonstrate his ability to quell it. God would not appear infinitely perfect on any of these hypotheses.

I would add, too, that if we take the Molinist view (see the section on Paradox of Omniscience below for more on Molinism), where God’s so-called “middle knowledge” (of counterfactuals) allows God to have knowledge of all possible worlds. It is logically possible that in at least one possible world, all humans make all (and only) the maximally moral choices. God, with His so-called “free knowledge” could have chosen to actualize that possible world rather than a possible world in which humans make some morally bad choices.

There is of course also the issue that other humans are not the sole source of our suffering. Indeed, throughout history, more people have died of disease, famine, and natural disaster than from the hands of our fellow humans. These so-called acts of God cannot be stopped or prevented by people. They have often been attributed to punishment for our sins, but that seems an awful lot of collateral damage – disease, famine, and natural disaster are not very precise ways of killing off just the sinners.

There is also the problem that if free will is the cause of suffering, and there is no suffering in heaven, then humans do not possess free will while they are in heaven. And if God gave humans free will in order to freely love His creations, then does that mean that God has less love for those who are in heaven? None of this disproves the existence of God or heaven, but it does highlight an inconsistency in the doctrines of the Abrahamic religions.

The idea that humankind’s free will as the source of evil has another issue. If God is benevolent, meaning He is unable to do evil by His very nature, then God cannot have free will, since that would mean God is capable of doing evil. If God does still have free will, that would mean God is not all good – we can conceive of possible worlds where God has done evil (indeed, if we use Alvin Plantinga’s transworld depravity argument, which I discuss below, then God having free will means there must be possible worlds in which God has chosen to do evil). In fact, if disease, famine, and natural disaster really are acts of God, then conceivably God is doing evil in our world. Not just due to such acts of God, either. If God created everything, then God is the initial cause of human free will, which means God is the cause also of the evil being done by the freely acting wills, meaning God is not benevolent. God could only be exonerated of this crime if God did not actually choose to give humans free will, but that would mean God is either A) not omnipotent (what is all powerful if one does not have the power to choose?) or 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.

The Leibnizian argument that we live in the best of all possible worlds attempts to address this issue by saying that the evil we do encounter that does not stem from free will is there only to prevent greater evil. This line of argument persists in modern times with the notion of gratuitous evil, which is evil that is purposeless or is not necessary to bring about some greater good (I’ve discussed this above in the section on the Modal Ontological Argument). Thus, the evil we witness and experience is necessary to bring about some greater good (i.e., it was impossible for God to avoid a certain evil while bringing about some greater good); likewise, God will never bring about more evil (i.e., gratuitous evil) than what is absolutely necessary to bring about the maximum possible good. The issue we finite humans have is that we may not (and perhaps can not) understand why our suffering is actually better for us – similar to a toddler getting a vaccine shot not understanding that the pain of the needle is a necessary evil in order for the child to be better off in the long run.

This, however, still means that God created some possible greater evil (since God created everything in all possible worlds, including those possible worlds in which there is gratuitous evil) and then was forced to actualize a possible world with less evil in order to prevent the possible greater evil from actually obtaining. A better analogy would be: a doctor creates a deadly new infectious pathogen while also creating a vaccine for that pathogen that is painful to administer. Would anyone think this doctor to be a good person for having created the vaccine to the disease the doctor themself created? Sure, knowing that the disease actually exists, people will be grateful to have the vaccine, but they will also be angry and confused about why the disease needed to be created in the first place. Perhaps some nurse working for the doctor, while giving you your vaccine, will say “the disease was created in order to kill off the mindless hoard of murderous clones the doctor created, so creating the disease was actually for the greater good” at which point you, the patient, will then have to wonder why the doctor created an army of deadly mindless clones. And so on, creating lesser evils to neutralize the worse evils the doctor (God) created, ad infinitum.

Alvin Plantinga would likely disagree that God could even create a world of beings with free will that perform only morally good actions. To make this point, Plantinga uses the Transworld Depravity argument: if God strongly actualized the world in a state W such that a person P could decide whether or not to perform a moral action A, there will always be possible worlds in which P makes the wrong (morally bad) decision with respect to A on account of P’s free will. This means that it is impossible for God to have created a perfect world.

Plantinga’s argument makes two flawed assumptions. The first is that there are such thing as morally good actions in a world with more than one person possessing free will. If all humans have free will, and we are only in control of our own actions, then how can we judge the moral value of our actions? What if, for example, there was an evil nemesis of mine who, upon all of my supposed morally good actions, my nemesis would commit a morally bad action? Would it then be moral for me to cease any morally good action? And if so, wouldn’t that then be a morally good action for which my nemesis would perform a morally bad action? The bottom line is that while these actions are a result of my moral decisions, they are not my moral decisions.

This extension of moral decisions through the free wills of other people mean there are no such things as morally good actions in a world where every individual possesses free will. If my moral responsibility extends only to my own actions, then it would be morally wrong for me to lie to someone who asks me where to find someone they wish to do harm to. Therefore, even a perfectly moral person could leave a wake of evil behind them. If, however, my moral responsibility extends beyond my own actions, then not all of the moral choices relevant to me are within my control, meaning that even if free will is real, there are moral decisions I cannot make but are reflected upon my moral standing.

The second assumption is his distinction between strong and weak actualization. Strong actualization is when God directly brings about a state of affairs, such as creating and organizing the matter in the universe in the way that it is. Weakly actualizing is when God directs things towards, but does not actually create, a particular state of affairs. This would be like creating humans who, though having free will, performed only morally good actions. Yet, weak actualization may not exist at all – there may be no such thing as free will – and therefore God has only ever strongly actualized anything. The existence of free will is not a settled question, but most evidence tends to point toward the negative – we humans do not possess free will. Either way, it is not something that can be merely assumed – the onus is on Plantinga to show why we ought to accept free will in the first place. If God can only strongly actualize the world, then God is at fault for all the evil and suffering in the world.

Plantinga asserts in Knowledge and Christian Belief that there is no logical inconsistency between belief in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God (Plantinga refutes the logical problem of evil) in the same way that there is no logical inconsistency with a flat earth resting the back of a giant turtle. This assertion is untrue. It is literally saying there is a possible world where a being capable of doing anything (all-powerful) and willing to make the world such that it is best for all creatures (all-loving) is also a world where bad things happen to those creatures. It’s analogous to saying that there is a possible world where I do only morally good things for morally good reasons and yet I am a morally bad person. That Plantinga doesn’t see the logical inconsistency is due to his model of belief being warranted if it is of the immediate (basic) kind: essentially, a Christian can see evil in the world and still believe in God due to the immediate (basic) way of forming beliefs, therefore the existence of evil is not a defeater. In other words, anything that doesn’t convince a Christian isn’t a defeater because it failed to convince the Christian, making it a circular argument.

The Problem of Grace

This is an extension to the problem of evil. Grace is the property God is said to possess to explain why God loves such sinful creatures as humans: God’s love for humanity is unconditional. Setting aside problems such as punishment for sin in Hell or Calvinist/Augustinian ideas of predestination, we can then define Grace as God’s love for humanity being unconditioned on contingent facts of human behavior. Thus, the Leibnizian view that we must live in the best of all possible worlds, given that God would love the most moral world more than less moral worlds, does not stand. This is because God would love even a more sinful world, since God’s Grace does not hinge on our behavior. This once again raises the problem of evil: given God’s grace, God would be free to create a world that contains more evil than the best of all possible worlds, which once again implicates God in the existence of evil, meaning that God is not benevolent. However, if God is benevolent, and would only create the best of all possible worlds, than God’s love for humanity is dependent on the specific behaviors of humans (God would love the most moral humans more) and therefore God does not possess Grace.

Paradox of Omnipotence

Presumably, in order to have created the universe, God must be omnipotent, or all-powerful. As noted above, this is not as straightforward as it might at first seem. There are multiple ways that omnipotence can be conceived. This is usually done as a way to try avoiding the paradoxes of omnipotence by conflating certain definitions of omnipotence or by conveniently stripping certain powers from God when the situation calls for it – surely God cannot be all powerful. God cannot make things that break their definition – He cannot make square circles or married bachelors.

This is a difference between so-called unrestricted or untrammeled (absolutist) omnipotence and limited omnipotence. The words “square circle” are individually meaningful – both words reference something that has meaning in the actual world (even if abstract) – but together they are empty: they reference nothing. Thus, to say that God can create square circles is meaningless, because it is saying that God can create something that is devoid of reference in any possible world, devoid of meaning. However, this presumes that God cannot give actuality to something empty: that God cannot make something from nothing, even though this is purportedly what God was able to do when creating the universe. To say that, prior to any conscious experience, that something is experienced as being red, is also empty (a thing, by definition, cannot be experienced if there are no experiencers – the “unexperienced experience” is as logically impossible as the “square circle”), but that does not preclude the experience of red (which we obviously know is true since we can experience red).

However, we already saw in the previous section that Plantinga attempted to save God’s benevolence by stripping powers away from God. In Plantinga’s conception of God, He is unable to control the wills of mere humans without stripping their actions of moral value. This is strange, since God being all-good should mean that anything God does is morally good. If God forces a human to make a particular choice, shouldn’t that choice be a morally good choice? Or is it possible for God to take morally neutral actions? Of course, if we say that God is all good and therefore cannot do anything but act morally, then we are taking yet another power away from God – the power to perform morally bad actions.

It can be argued that, due to God’s omnipotence, God does not need to perform morally bad actions, since lying is simply a way for someone with less power to manipulate those with more power. If God has power over everything in existence, then being able to lie would do nothing to increase God’s power. Indeed, God would not have to lie, He would only have to alter what the truth actually is. This means, though, that all truth is contingent on what God desires: God cannot lie and say that murder is morally good, but God could simply make it so that it is actually the case that murder is morally good; if not, then morality has power over God since God can only act in accordance with what is morally good (since it is not logically impossible for murder to be morally good – it is contingent on human nature).

The reason God, like superman, must have His powers stripped in order to be a more sympathetic hero, is because of a subtle yet cliché paradox. This paradox is usually portrayed by asking whether or not God can make a rock so heavy even He could not pick it up. Bringing this argument up in any theological debate will usually get eye rolls and snorts of derision that someone would be so juvenile, yet there hasn’t been a satisfying answer to the riddle. I, however, would pose it differently.

If God is omnipotent, then there is nothing more powerful than God. Also, if God is omnipotent, then God is able to do anything He so desires. 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. Some may object that this is fallacious since being able to make a being more powerful than oneself would not be a strength, but a weakness. One may argue that:

1) an all powerful being has only powers and no weaknesses
2) creating a being more powerful than oneself attests to a weakness
3) therefore God cannot make a being more powerful than Himself

However, being unable to do something is also a weakness. Humans create things that are more powerful than any human, and that is the reason why humans are powerful. It is our ability to harness things more powerful than ourselves that have been the progenitor of all our technological and societal advances. But the fact that being omnipotent leads to a paradox is not an issue with the argument, it is precisely what the argument is trying to prove: that omnipotence is an incoherent idea and is not possible. Something cannot both be and not be at the same time – God cannot both be and not be omnipotent.

The reply one is likely to get to such a query is that God cannot do anything – omnipotence means more powerful than all other things in existence combined, not the ability to do anything. In other words, to solve this paradox, God must be stripped of certain powers. Nobody wants to say that God is not the most powerful being in existence, knocking Him from His rightful place at the top, and so it must be that He is simply incapable of performing certain feats. This obviously does not mean He is not very powerful, but it does mean He is not all powerful: all we can say about God is that He is most powerful, not all powerful, but being most powerful means being finitely powerful, which suggests that it is logically possible for that power to increase: God could, logically, create a being more powerful than Himself, since being more powerful is possible. We would say that if:

God > Σ everything in existence

Then:

Possible New Being > Σ (everything in existence) + God

However, if that is the case, then why not worship this Possible New Being – a possible being which, if we were to accept the ontological argument, must actually exist. But then, that being, only being more powerful than God, and not all powerful, could then logically create a being even more powerful than itself; this process would go on ad infinitum, making omnipotence logically incoherent.

This paradox might be stated another way, too. Is God powerful enough to eradicate His own existence? Presumably an all-powerful being such as God would be impossible to destroy. Even more difficult would be the eradication of His entire existence – even the existence of Himself at the time of creation. That would mean that God has done the impossible in being a necessary existence while also not existing. Could it be that God can have as His essence both existing and omnipotence? If God cannot create the world while not existing, then God is not all-powerful, but if God can create the world while not existing, then existence cannot be in His essence as the a priori argument.

Paradox of Omniscience

God’s omniscience – or all-knowing nature – tends to go hand-in-hand with God’s omnipotence. It seems the logical conclusion that if God were omnipotent that He would also be omniscient. Knowing everything is a power that would fall under all of the powers. Once again, though, most attempts to square God’s omniscience with things like free will and God’s omnipotence simply strip away certain of God’s powers.

The most popular argument against God’s omniscience is that if God knew everything, then God already knows the outcome of all our lives. This means we don’t have free will and God created some people knowing they would be evil, yet God punishes them anyway. This would be tantamount to writing a computer program to crash your computer and then getting angry at your program for crashing the computer. Not only did the program you wrote do exactly what you programmed it to do, but it is essentially an automaton that was never really aware that it should have done anything else.

Some would argue that this is saying that God’s knowledge of the future causes the future, but this rebuttal doesn’t work. I am not arguing that it was God’s foreknowledge that causes a person to make the decisions that they do, but the fact of God’s knowledge of what one will actually do before they actually do it means that what they actually do was true before they actually did it. In other words, a person P deciding to do A instead of B at time t2 was known by God even when P was still at some prior time t1, which means that it was always true that P would do A at t2, and since it is, and always has been, a true proposition that P does A at t2, then this proposition being true is the cause of God knowing that in the actual world P does A at t2, since an omniscient God is omniscient by virtue of knowing all true propositions; thus, it is not that God knowing this caused the proposition to be true, but the truth of the proposition at t1 prior to P’s action at t2 that contradicts free will.

Worse still for God is what omniscience means for Himself. If God is omniscient, then even God would have no free will. God would already know everything He is going to do (can God make a choice so free that even God couldn’t predict it?). 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, which means God is not omnipotent. Also, if God has no free will, then none of his actions have any moral value since He could not have done otherwise, meaning God is not all-good.

According to early sixth century Christian theologian Boëthius, God’s knowledge of the future does not contradict with free will because for humans, future events are contingent (the outcome is not fixed) but from God’s point of view as an eternal being, they are necessary. God’s eternity “is the complete, simultaneous, and perfect possession of unending life.” The past, present, and future are all experienced as the present from God’s point of view. Freedom happens in the present, therefore freedom is conserved even if God is present to our future.

This argument seems clever at first, but it is merely a trick with words. Freedom is not an event that happens in the present, it is an abstraction that applies atemporally. Decisions happen in the present. However, decisions, from an atemporal standpoint, is the taking of one single pathway among two or more potential paths. This can be conceived of without needing past, present, and future – from a God’s eye view, if you will.

Molinists will then argue that God has three levels of knowledge: natural knowledge (knowledge of all necessary truths), middle knowledge (knowledge of all possible truths), and free knowledge (knowledge of actual truths). God’s middle knowledge of all possible worlds – all of the possible decisions that a person can make – allows Him to actualize the possible world’s God prefers (giving Him free knowledge). This supposedly preserves God’s sovereignty while also preserving human free will. This seems like it’s more a case of cognitive dissonance: if God is choosing what you do in the actual world (God is actualizing one of all the possible worlds), then how is it that you are making those decisions? For instance, if I want to dig a trail on the beach leading from farther up the beach and going down to the lake, such that pouring water into the trail causes it to flow down to the lake. There are a countless number of ways I could actually dig that trail, meaning there are countless possible ways for the water poured into a potential trail to make its way down to the lake. But, when I actually dig a particular trail – I actualize it – then the actual water does not have a choice which path to take: it is the case that the water, in actuality, takes only the actualized path.

The Molinists, then, need to make a distinction between true and actual. Molinists believe that counterfactuals are true, though not actual, in the same way that “if A, then B” can be a true proposition even if A does not obtain (if A is not actual): it is still true that if A were actual, then B would be actual, even when A is not actual. For example, we can say that “if I buy a Big mac tomorrow, then I will pay money to McDonalds tomorrow” is true, even if I never eat another Big Mac in my life. Thus, even if this conditional statement is both counterfactual and true, that does not mean that it is actual. But that 1) does not imply some ontological commitment to counterfactuals or 2) have any bearing on the actual decisions I make. To say that there is some ontological truth to counterfactuals simply means that every decision I ever made or will make exists in some possible world, and that possible world is real. This does not make my decisions free if I have chosen everything: if I buy everything on the McDonalds menu, I did not make a decision between a Big Mac and a Quarter Pounder; furthermore, if I buy everything on the menu and then the cooks decide only to make the Big Mac and nothing else (thereby actualizing the Big Mac), I would not then have chosen the Big Mac. Similarly, if every decision I’ve ever made exists differently in other possible worlds, I did not make those decisions, and if God is the one that actualizes one of those possible worlds, then it was God that chose what I actually did, not my free will.

The twelfth century Sephardic Jewish theologian Moses ben Maimonides said that when we talk about God, we cannot apply the human meanings of words used to describe Him (human language is used equivocally when talking about God). That means when we say God knows contingent future events, we don’t actually understand what that means as it pertains to God. Of course, this line of reasoning could be used about everything we know about God, throwing up a veil of ignorance between humans and God. Every belief people have about God is based on what people have been told about God. That means the God people know is constructed from the words, or memes, they’ve received to build their internal model of God, which, because the words do not actually describe God, is an idol – a false God.

The late thirteenth century Christian theologian John Duns Scotus said that God knows all the possible ways the entire existence of humankind could be, but wills only one of them8. God was free in that he could have willed existence to be otherwise, but is providential in that he does not change what he has willed. This means that God, being able to stop evil – the evil He originally willed, mind you – has chosen not to. God sees all the ways humankind could be, including the outcomes that are free of evil, yet maintains the outcome that does contain evil. This conception of God also does not allow for free will amongst humans, even if it allows God free will in a compatibilist sense. God has willed a particular outcome for humankind, yet He will still dole out punishment and reward as if people had a choice.

The arguments here are not exhaustive, but I believe they are sufficient to show the paradoxical nature of omniscience. This does not show that a being with a vast amount of knowledge that dwarfs our own cannot exist, but that an all-knowing God, as is usually conceived of in the Abrahamic religions, is impossible.

Paradox of Tawhid or maximal simplicity

In the Abrahamic religions, philosophers such as Aquinas and Avicenna have postulated that God much be maximally simple, or completely unified. This is because God cannot have external causes (i.e. there cannot be some “part” of God that causes something in some other “part” of God, since that would mean that one part is dependent on another part, and God must be fully independent (having sovereignty and aseity)). In addition, God must have complete, unhindered access to all of God’s knowledge: God does not have “memory” the way humans do, but a fully and eternal comprehension of everything in existence at all times; God does not come up with new ideas, since that would mean there was a version of God who did not yet know that idea, and so God must be always and eternally complete, never undergoing change, and therefore must be One and maximally simple.

This, of course, is not how God is portrayed in any of the Abrahamic religion’s scriptures. It also brings back all of the issues I’ve talked about with omniscience and omnipotence: if God is eternal and unchanging, then God lacks the power to change Himself and is responsible (or, at least, negligent) for all the evil in the world. Such a simple, or Tawhid God seems sterile and remote.

Another version of Tawhid or maximal simplicity is the conception of God being equal to attributes, as opposed to having or possessing them, or having them predicated of God. That means that God = Knowledge means that all that can be known is what God knows. According to Aquinas9, “God’s knowledge is the cause of things” and “[God’s knowledge] has the same extension as [God’s] causality, [so] his knowledge must necessarily extend to individuals.”

If this is true, then 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 some will be saved due to the human sacrifice of Jesus (Mercy)? This divides Mercy and Justice between the saved and the damned, which means Mercy and Justice are not applied everywhere, meaning that God is everywhere only in particular senses, which breaks God’s supposed unity.

Omniscience + Simplicity Addendum:
Problem of Subjective Knowledge

If God is omniscient (all-knowing) and maximally simple (His existence is not dependent on anything), then there is a problem with human subjectivity. God, being omniscient, must know the thoughts and the subjective feeling of a person’s experience. However, this means that God’s knowledge of these things is dependent on the contingent existence of humans in general and on the existence of each particular human: if I did not exist, then God would not know my thoughts and subjective experiences. Further, given that each and every individual subjective experience for each and every organism capable of subjective experience is contingent, and the number of possible individual experiences, as well as different ways that experience can be had, is bounded only by the maximal amount of ways that information can be integrated within existence, God would require immediate and eternal knowledge of all of those ways of possible subjective experience as well as all of the ways those types of subjective experience could be instantiated. This, however, poses a problem for how and why the types and tokens that are actualized are the ones God chose to actualize. Given God’s Grace, God should love each and every possible type and token of subjective experience equally, but the vast majority of them will never be actualized. This means that either God lacks Grace (He chose to actualize what is actual due to preference; which means God’s actions are dependent on preference and therefore breaking God’s simplicity) or God only arbitrarily decides what is actual (and then His decision making about what to actualize and/or knowledge of what is actual are dependent on something outside of God’s absolute sovereignty/aseity, once again breaking God’s simplicity).

A Posteriori Arguments

A posteriori arguments, as opposed to a priori arguments, look at how things work in the physical world and attempt to extrapolate God’s existence from it. These are much more human arguments because we have to take human experience into consideration in order to formulate them.

This already poses a problem for the arguments because it assumes that human experience has some ontological necessity over how existence exists. For instance, we assume that causality must exist necessarily and therefore outside even our own universe, but we have no way of knowing that. All we can say of causality is that it is how our universe works, and indeed, if we assume a creator God that intervenes on our universe exists, then we cannot even be sure that causality exists. It could be that a God with an untrammeled will simply dictates that everything happens as it happens and causality is just the way God decided to make everything appear.

However, due to the dominance of science and western liberalism, it is a posteriori arguments that are more in vogue in modern times. The appeal to human the human experience of the world gives these arguments a weight that something like the ontological argument no longer holds. Modern arguments concerning God’s existence are often in the realm of a posteriori arguments. Indeed, anyone who has ever been in a discussion online about the existence of God will likely have seen an argument of the form “if there is no God, how did everything get here?” or “without God, how is the universe just so such that life can exist” or “without God, anything would be permissible.” These God-of-the-gap arguments are the three that I will analyze in this section of the chapter.

 (Kalam) Cosmological Arguments

Cosmological arguments for the existence of God are one of the more popular, up there with ontological arguments. These arguments take causality axiomatically – the so-called Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR) – and then try to work back from the present time. No effect exists without a cause, and so for every effect we see, we must assume a cause or sufficient reason (PSR). All those causes must have been the effect of something else, and so we assume they had a prior cause. If we continue working backwards in this fashion, surely we will end up at a first cause. That first cause then must necessarily be God. This can be stated in as the Kalam Cosmological Argument in a simple syllogism:

  1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause

The cause of the universe, then, is said to be an uncaused cause or unmoved mover. If we disregard the fact that this syllogism smuggles in hidden premises (one, that the laws of causality, as we understand them, obtain even outside our universe; and two, that an infinite regress of causes or circular causation are impossible), the conclusion refutes the first premise. If the cause of the universe is an uncaused cause, then it is decidedly not the case that everything that begins to exist has a cause, because there is at least one instance of this not being the case: that of the uncaused cause itself. And if we allow for an uncaused cause once, then what is to stop us from allowing it more than in this one instance?

Besides, even if we assume that only one uncaused cause exists and that the PSR obtains, and that causality must obtain even outside our own universe, and therefore there must be a first cause, there is little we can say about the nature of this first cause. It does not follow from the existence of a necessary first cause that it have any of the properties attributed to God by the Abrahamic religions. Indeed, I would argue (as others have, see Tawhid above) that this first cause must be extremely simple – in fact, the most simple – due to complexity being caused by the mereological interactions of simpler components.

This first cause would have to be non-spatial and atemporal – existing without spatial or temporal dimension. To have spatial dimension would mean that something could happen in one place but not another in this first cause, which would denote a sort of mereology, or in Aristotle’s way of putting it, a material cause and formal cause, making this first cause not the first cause. To have a time dimension would mean that this first cause persists in time, which means there would either have to be an infinite amount of time or a finite amount of time. If time were infinite, then rewinding infinity into the past would mean that the time of creation would never arrive, because it would be infinite time in the future. If time were finite, then it would be the beginning of time that is the first cause, because that is when the first cause began.

Thus, given this conception of what the first cause would be, it would necessarily be infinitely simple, with no spatial extension, no temporal flux, no material and no form. We would then have to conclude that the first cause was nothing. Meaning that something came from nothing, which is clearly absurd. But, any other conception of a first cause is equally absurd because it is impossible to otherwise satisfy the criteria of a first cause.

The cosmological argument has been formulated in several ways by such prominent philosophers as Duns Scotus, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas. Scotus, in a baroque argument10, puts it thus:

Some issues arise with this logic. First, in (5a) Scotus asserts a being, but there is no logical necessity that this first causal item has 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 dependent on time, meaning, by this logic, time itself could be considered the first agent.

Another particularly clever formulation of the Cosmological Argument is what the Muslim philosopher 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 is necessary-in-itself, and that A must be a necessary existent.
  8. That necessary existent, A, is God.

The easy refutation to this argument is that the necessary existent, A, is just the physical universe. Adding something beyond that does not actually answer the question of what the first cause is, but only moves it up one level. Scientists, if they are being honest, will admit that they have no idea how or why the universe came into existence. But to posit God as the cause just begs for an explanation of God – why is it that God does not need a cause but the universe does?

Beyond this simple reply to the argument, though, if we want to get more technical, if a being A is necessary-in-itself, then it is 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 does not 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. This, as I said above, means that time is the first cause of our existence. What we need is to figure out what caused time to exist.

Let’s say that a particular being, A, is the cause of time’s existence. This particular being A, if it is necessary-in-itself, does not necessitate any particular necessary properties or predicates of being A. Therefore, all one can say about being 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, such as time, is itself a contingent property of A’s necessary-in-itself existence. For A to cause time necessarily would mean that A had no choice in the creation of time and is therefore inert, meaning it has no will.

So far, I have shown that time itself is a necessary, though not sufficient, cause of our universe. I posited a being, A, which necessary-in-itself, that could be a necessary and sufficient cause of time and therefore, potentially, our universe. What we can say about this necessary-in-itself being is that, if it has the property of being the universe’s necessary cause, then it must be inert, because it has no will of its own. This, I think, is sufficient enough to say that this particular being A is simply existence itself. This can be demonstrated by showing that existence itself is the necessary-in-itself existence.

Existence is necessary-in-itself because it does not need a cause because non-existence, by definition, does not 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: the proposition “existence does not exist” is contradictory). 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. All we need to know is that existence exists, and after that the problem is why existence exists the way it does. This can perhaps be understood through the anthropic principle: if existence existed in some other way than it does, then we would not be asking why it exists this way, but instead asking why it exists that way (or we wouldn’t exist at all and therefore would not be here to ask the question – existence necessarily exists as it does given that we are, in fact, here to ask why it exists as it does).

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 = mc2 we know that energy and mass are the same thing, thus explaining the presence of matter in our universe.

The following videos go into more detail on the Kalam Cosmological Argument:

Fine-Tuning Argument

It is been said that if any of the universe’s fundamental constants had been off by just a tiny bit, for instance if electrons had been just ever so slightly more massive, then life would be unable to exist. This almost seems to suggest that the universe was made specifically for life to thrive – and even more specifically for human life to thrive.

The teleological argument, or fine-tuning argument, makes this very argument. It 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 are being honest, will say they don’t know how the universe came to exist. It does not follow that it had to have been God (e.g. God of the gaps); even in our ignorance of how the universe came to be, the teleological argument still does not prove that it had to have been God that created the universe.

One weakness that this argument has is that it is reasoning backwards from effect to a speculative (not known, but proposed) cause that does not fit under any category we know of, and therefore nothing prior is known of the cause’s nature. As David Hume points out11, 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. Nothing new can be attributed to the effect from the cause (like a grand plan for existence).

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 as such does not imply that it was necessarily created. And if it is not necessary that the matter as such be created, then it is possible that the various properties of the matter are sufficient for the designed appearance of the universe.

Yet, even the supposed fine-tuned appearance of the universe cannot be determined. It is impossible to say that something looks purposefully 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. In essence, we have no control group when it comes to what designed and un-designed universes should be like.

So far, I’ve shown that we cannot know anything about the cause of our universe by reasoning backward from the effect. In the case of humans, we can reason backward from an effect – the existence of, say, a house – because the cause fits into a known category: human builders. God, on the other hand, is an unknown category, so we cannot reason backward to God as a necessary cause of our universe just from the seemingly fine-tuned nature of the universe. The fine tuning might suggest a designer, except that we have no “control” universe – a universe that is not fine-tuned – with which to compare our own. Thus, we cannot say anything about the seemingly fine-tuned nature of our universe.

Additionally, if an all-powerful creator was responsible for creating our universe, there would be no need for the design features to be such as they are, because the creator could have made it any other way it wished. In other words, given that the laws themselves were laid down by the creator, the creator itself was not working within the confines or restrictions of any laws and could therefore have made all of our universal constants different and still have the universe be habitable to lifeforms such as us – there was no need to fine tune the constants until the universe was just right for life, the creator could have made any other values of the universal constants be the constants that could accommodate life.

It’s also probable that it is not that the universe is perfectly suited for us, but that, because we evolved and arose in this particular universe, it is us that are perfectly suited for the universe. There wasn’t a designer who had humans in mind when making the universe, thereby having to affix the laws of the universe such that the planned humans could inhabit it. It was that the universe came to be in the way that it is, and therefore the particular way humans evolved to be is as a result of how the universe is.

It is like saying that, because I exist, my house was built where it is, which explains why I happen to live where I do, when in fact it is the other way around: I live where I do because it just so happens that this is where a house happened to be built. Or like saying that World War 1 happened for the purpose of making World War 2 happen, rather than saying that World War 2 occurred because it so happened that it was the case that World War 1 happened. Likewise, it’s like saying that the universe is the way that it is so that humans can exist (in the way we do) rather than that humans are the way we are because the universe exists in the way that it does.

The way that humans are is contingent on the way the universe is, not the other way around. Because the universe is the way that it is, and everything that has happened in the universe happened the way it did, humans necessarily are the way that we are, but the way humans are is grounded in the way the universe is and the way that all the events within the universe actually occurred, not the other way around. Essentially, there are three ways we could think about the relationship between the way the universe is and the way humans are:

  1. The way humans are and the way the universe is are independent
  2. The way humans are grounds the way that the universe is
  3. The way humans are is grounded in the way that the universe is

The first one seems like the more likely case if we are to accept the existence of God, since as I’ve mentioned before, God would not be constrained in making one thing in a certain way because of the way God made the other thing. This, however, would make the teleological argument moot. The second one is the one that proponents of the teleological argument seem to prefer. The second one, however, requires us to ignore the fact that most of the time the universe has existed has been without humans and that most of the universe that exists at the same time as humans is not only absent humans, but is downright hostile to them. The second relationship cannot explain why the universe had to be a certain way (i.e. why God was forced to create the universe in the way it exists) in order for humans to exist. Thus, only number three makes any sense, while also explaining why humans are the way that we are: because we came to exist in this particular universe with these particular physical laws.

Another way to think about all this is that we observe the universe in its 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 is that way instead of some other way. This is known as the weak anthropic principle. The strong anthropic principle says that there are as many as an infinite number of other universes, each one with its own set of physical laws, and we happen to be in this one because it is one of the ones with physical laws that allow for lifeforms such as us to evolve. In both cases, it is saying essentially that the universe is not fine-tuned for us, but that we are fine-tuned for this particular universe by virtue of having come about in this particular universe. Simply put, if things were different, then things would be different.

We can put the weak anthropic principle as a syllogism:

P1: All observers exist in universes capable of sustaining observers
P2: All universes capable of sustaining observers will appear fine-tuned to the conditions necessary for the existence of those observers
C1: Therefore all observers will perceive their universe as satisfying the conditions necessary for the existence of those observers
P3: The satisfaction of these conditions necessary for the existence of observers is defined as the physical constants falling within values capable of sustaining the particular observers in question
P4: Our universe contains particular observers (namely us humans)
C2: Therefore the observers in our universe perceive our universe as having physical constants falling within values capable of sustaining our particular observers

Alvin Plantinga, in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies rejects the weak anthropic principle because he says that the Observational Selection Effect (OSE) does not offer a useful argument against the fine-tuning argument. He compares the OSE to a person fishing with a coarse-grained net that can only catch fish that are 10 inches long or longer and then concluding that all the fish in the lake must be 10 or more inches long. He then compares this to an argument that goes as follows:

All observed universes are fine-tuned
Therefore, probably all universes are fine-tuned

This is of course not what the weak anthropic principle is arguing. It would be more similar to:

All observed universes are fine-tuned
Our universe is observed
Therefore our universe is fine-tuned

This then accounts for why we, as observers, would find ourselves in a (seemingly) fine-tuned universe. Plantinga then goes on to compare the weak anthropic principle to a firing squad. Say I am convicted of a crime and sentenced to a firing squad where there are eight sharpshooters, each of which fires at me from fifteen feet away. But then all of them miss. Which of the following hypotheses ought I accept:

H1: the sharpshooters intentionally missed
H2: the sharpshooters intended to shoot me

Plantinga says that H1 is more likely given the evidence. He then says that this is similar to the observation that our universe appears fine-tuned. Which of the following hypotheses ought we accept:

H3: our universe has been designed by some powerful and intelligent being
H4: our universe has come to be by way of some chance process that does not involve an intelligent designer

Plantinga then says, with respect to the evidence (i.e. that all the physical constants need to fall within extremely narrow ranges) that H3 is more likely than H4. The parallel here seems to be that in the firing squad, when I find myself unscathed, then I am like the observer in a universe: finding myself unscathed means I necessarily live in a world where all the bullets missed me. Further, H1 and H3 both suggest intent behind my finding myself unscathed (or finding myself as an observer in our universe) while H2 and H4 suggest improbable random processes (that the sharpshooters intended to shoot me but missed or that the universe randomly settled on values that allow for observers).

Lets set aside that the fine-tuning argument seems to suggest that God is constrained by the laws of his own creation rather than that He creates the laws (i.e. why would God have to fine-tune anything if God is the one dictating how the laws work in the first place? Why did God need to make these laws instead of some combination of other completely different laws?). We’ll assume that the physical constants existed as variables prior to God and that God only had control over the knobs controlling the values those variables take that were already there when He was fine-tuning the universe. Are we more warranted in accepting H1 & H3 over H2 & H4? And is the firing squad a good analogy for the fine-tuning argument?

I’ll answer the second question first. It’s not a good analogy, because in the firing squad case we have an ontologically equivalent situation, whereas in the fine-tuning argument we must choose between two ontologically very dissimilar situations, namely an existence that either does or does not contain an intelligent designer and all the ontological commitments that forces us to take. In other words, it raises the question of who fine-tuned God?

Also, in the sharpshooter scenario we know about the existence of the sharpshooters and know that intentionally missing was within the possible realm of their dispositions. In the intelligent designer scenario we can only make shaky inferences as to its existences and even shakier inferences about what lies within the possible realm of its dispositions.

But lets for the sake of argument bracket these ontological and epistemological differences. Is H3 really more likely than H4 based on the available evidence (i.e. the fine-tuned appearance of our universe)? In other words, using a Bayesian framework (where C is the values of our universe’s physical constants):

Is P(H3|C) > P(H4|C)?
Where
P(H3|C) = P(C|H3)P(H3)
and
P(H4|C) = P(C|H4)P(H4)

We can assume that P(C) = P(C|H3)P(H3) + P(C|H4)P(H4) = 1 since we are asserting that H3 and H4 are exhaustive of the possible explanations for C and so I’ve left out the 1/P(C) normalization factor.

I talk about this a bit more in my post on the scientific arguments against the existence of God, primarily looking at H3 = tine-tuning creator God and H4 = the multiverse (i.e. the strong anthropic principle). But here lets look at the weak anthropic principle and not consider P(H4) being the probability that multiple universes exist but instead as the probability that our universe could have come into being by random chance.

First, a few assumptions. We’ll assume that all the physical constants are independent of each other and that there is no subset of physical constants that act as a basis that determines the values the other constants take. Lets also assume that the universe at the point at which it came into being was just as likely to take on any other values than the ones they did take (all values had an equal probability of obtaining). Lets further assume that the physical variables, the knobs so to speak, are the only ones that could have existed.

And so, I’ll take Plantinga’s number and say that there was a 1 in 10100 chance of the universe coming into existence. In other words: 

P(C|H4) = 1/10100

We could probably say that:

P(C|H3) >> P(C|H4)

Essentially, that the probability, given all the above assumptions, and assuming that the fine-tuning creator deity wanted the universe to be such that it could sustain human life in particular, the probability of observing the physical constants we actually have C given that there is a fine-tuning creator deity H3 is very high. We might even be able to say that:

P(C|H3) = 1

The next step is then to determine P(H3) and P(H4). In other words, the probability of a fine-tuning creator deity existing and the probability of randomness existing. Well, we know that randomness exists since we’ve directly observed it. Whether the sorts of randomness we observe can be applied to the physical constants there really isn’t a good way to know at this point. But we also don’t know that a fine-tuning creator deity exists, because we’ve never observed it. Thus, I would say we’re warranted in believing that:

P(H3) < P(H4)

But, the question then is, how much greater is P(H4) than P(H3)? It would at least need to be more than 10100 greater to make P(H3|C) < P(H4|C). In other words, if we say, for example, that

P(H4) = 0.1
then we would need at least
P(H3) < 0.1 x 10-100

Given all our steelman assumptions above, this becomes very subjective. Ontological parsimony of assuming God and a spiritual ontology, the nature of God and what is necessary and sufficient for a fine-tuning creator deity to create our universe, whether randomness within the universe applies to randomness outside the universe, whether there is a multiverse or some other explanation entirely for the appearance of fine-tuning in our universe (i.e. what if we live in a simulated reality? Or what if there is some option no human has yet even conceived of?), why the universe demands explanation but the fine-tuning creator deity does not, and all the other assumptions from above would need to be considered. Without these considerations it comes down to how strongly a person believes P(H3) or P(H4), or how easily one can conceive of P(H3) or P(H4).

In the end, the supposed “design” of the cosmos and the organisms that inhabit it can be plausibly explained by advances in science. Theories of cosmology paint plausible pictures, backed by evidence, of a universe ordered by laws that emerge from nature itself. The theory of evolution shows how complexity can come from simplicity.

Moral Arguments

 The moral argument for the existence of God is essentially that, without God, there would be no morality. Or, to put it syllogistically:

P1 – If God does not exist, then morality cannot exist (i.e., have an ontological or objective status)
P2 – Morality (objectively/ontologically) exists
C – Therefore, God exists

Or

P1 – If God does not exist, then morality cannot exist (objectively/ontologically)
P2 – God exists
C – Therefore, morality exists (objectively/ontologically)

Or, perhaps, stated somewhat different

P1 – If morality exists (objectively/ontologically), then God exists
P2 – Morality exists (objectively/ontologically)
C – Therefore, God exists

The first syllogism is the one most commonly encountered by discussions with apologists. The argument usually takes the form: if you are an atheist, then you accept the antecedent. As such, the atheist makes one of two errors: either they must deny premise 2, meaning the atheist must accept that we live in a savage world of moral anarchy where everything is permissible and nothing is forbidden, or the atheist accepts premise 2, and as such are contradicting themselves (i.e. they have denied the consequent of premise 1 and therefore, by modus tollens, must accept the conclusion).

The second syllogism can be discarded for being invalid (it denies the antecedent which is not a valid form of syllogism).

The third syllogism is likely the canonical version of the argument. Whereas the first syllogism is effective because it implies that atheists are immoral, therefore scoring points in a debate by appealing to the audience’s emotions, this third argument at least takes as an assumption that the atheist believes in morality. This third syllogism, a case of modus ponens, says to the atheist that, since they accept that morality exists (they affirm the antecedent), they must accept that God exists (due to God being necessary for the existence of morality as per the hypothetical).

There are several problems with these arguments. The first is the assumption that God is necessary for morality to exist. The second is that the existence of morality is sufficient for the existence of any God (much less a particular God). The third is that morality must have an ontological status in order for it to be any sort of imperative for humans. The fourth is that, because we find the lack of this ontological status of morality displeasing in some way that it therefore cannot be the case that morality lacks any ontological status. And the fifth is that everyone, when saying “morality exists” is saying the same thing (i.e. it begs the question by implying that “God-given morality” is the morality that everyone is referring to).

Lets look at each of these issues in turn.

Problem 1: Is God Necessary for Morality?

To disprove that God is necessary for morality, all we need to do is find a conceivable way that morality could exist without God. But we can go further than simply conceiving it, we can actually observe it. We know that non-human animals have what might be called proto-morality. What we call morality is a way that social creatures can maintain group cohesion. The only way that humans differ is that we philosophize about morality, searching for grounds and justification, instead of just unreflexively following our social instincts. What this means, though, is not only that we can conceive of morality without God (i.e. God is not a necessary condition for morality), but that morality precedes any conception of God. Our distant ancestors in east Africa, before any sort of modern religion was invented, would have acted in ways that we could recognize as moral. Or, at the very least, they would have had a recognizable form of justice, even if it were crude by our standards.

Problem 2: Is the Existence of Morality Sufficient to Prove God’s Existence?

One might argue that this is asking too much of the moral argument, that we shouldn’t depend solely on the moral argument to establish the existence of God. I am examining other arguments for the existence of God elsewhere in this post, so I am only going to look at the moral argument in isolation. Of course, if someone makes the argument that the moral argument shouldn’t have to stand alone, they are already conceding that it is not sufficient to prove God’s existence. But, for the sake of argument, I will assume that this point is not being conceded and that the moral argument can stand on its own.

For this I will appeal to a modified formulation of Eythyphro’s Dilemma. This 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 morality that we must obey under threat of eternal damnation. Morality does not actually exist apart from God’s whims, which could, conceivably, change at any moment. This would mean only that the existence of morality, at best, merely suggests the existence of a tyrant. The latter – that God only enforces a morality that already exists a priori of God’s commands – would mean that God is subject to some higher power (morality in itself) and is essentially just an enforcer of something independent of and higher than Himself. In this case, then, we would have morality even if God did not exist. Thus, the existence of morality is not sufficient to prove the existence of God.

Problem 3: Does Morality Necessarily Have an Ontological (or Objective) Status?

The question is whether morality has an ontological (or objective) status (i.e., moral realism vs. moral anti-realism), but a second part of the question is whether morality requires an ontological (or objective) status in order to justify moral principles. I think there are four issues that have to be addressed: 1) does morality have ontological (or objective) status? 2) If so, can it ever be discovered or demonstrated that morality has ontological (or objective) status? 3) If we can, is the ontological (or objective) status of morality sufficient to prove that God exists? And finally, 4) even if morality has ontological (or objective) status, does that ontological status act as the unmoved mover of morality (i.e. does that ontological status of morality require its own justification)?

The first issue ends up being messy. Those things of which we accept an ontological status are not even universally agreed upon for things that seem easier to work with that morality: such as, what is the ontological status of numbers? Or mereological sums? At best we can only take the approach of Quine and make an ontological commitment to morality: accept the ontological status of morality because doing so works within the framework of moral philosophy. Unfortunately, this does not settle, once and for all, the ontological status of morality. A move often made by moral anti-realists is this: objective morality doesn’t exist, so suck it up, buttercup. In other words, the desire to have objective morality exist is purely emotional (not based on rational or empirical grounds, but motivated reasoning) and people who cling to the notion that objective morality exists simply need to face reality: that objective morality doesn’t exist (or, at least, that we do not and perhaps can not know if it does exist).

Moral realists, if pressed, will usually appeal to intuition and emotion. If we say that morality has no objective ontological status, then we’re saying that there is nothing objectively wrong or evil about rape and murder. There is a very powerful intuition in (most) people that raping and murdering an innocent child is just plain wrong, that in no possible world could anyone even begin to justify something so heinous. The moral anti-realist might say that 1) if God is the source of all morality, then if God commanded us to rape and murder innocent children, it would then be a moral imperative to do so (think of what the Israelites were commanded to do, for instance, in Deuteronomy 20:10-15, Numbers 31:17-18, and Joshua 11); the anti-realist might also reply 2) that we do not need morality to have an objective ontological status, but could, for instance, go by the pleasure principle or Sam Harris’s moral landscape or some other way in which morality arises because of the nature of humans. The point being, there are anti-realist arguments for why morally reprehensible actions are morally reprehensible even in the absence of an objective ontological status for morality.

This brings us to the second issue: the best we can do insofar as “discovering” the ontological status of morality is simply observing that, in general, there are some universally agreed upon moral principles among humans. The issue is that we can account for the emergence of this simply by appealing to our nature as social animals that resulted from our evolutionary past. The best we could do to demonstrate morality is to show either that immorality is contradictory and that morality has objective validity (in the Kantian deontological sense) or that there is some a priori and necessary principle of reality from which morality necessarily follows. None of these things have been satisfied, and even religion itself contradicts things that are now almost universally considered immoral (e.g. slavery).

The third issue I think was covered under problem 2 above, so I will not add anything else to it.

The fourth issue is similar to the cosmological argument: if we say that morality requires some necessary ground, since only something with a necessary ground would be justifiable, then how do we ground the ontological status of morality? In other words, since we are required to have a ground for our moral principles (e.g. don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t lie, etc.) in something that has ontological status (i.e. it is not just that we say don’t murder because we subjectively and contingently feel that murder is wrong, it is in fact written into the very fabric of existence that murder is intrinsically wrong), then is the ontological status of morality something that does not itself need to be grounded? I assume most apologists would argue that it is grounded in God, but this brings us back to the modified Euthryphro’s Dilemma, but also to the same issue of the cosmological argument: if we say that things need a ground (or cause), then how are we justified in saying that certain things do not need a ground (or cause)?

Problem 4: Do Our Preferences Prove Anything?

Let us say for the sake of argument that God is a necessary (and perhaps even sufficient) ground for the ontological status of human morality. We would still need to then prove that morality has an ontological status. What apologists often appeal to is the fact that, if morality does not have some kind of ontological status, then we would live in a world of moral anarchy. Since we don’t want to live in a world of moral anarchy, then God must exist. Or, to put it in syllogistic form:

P1 – If God does not exist, then morality does not exist
P2 – If morality does not exist, then there is moral anarchy
P3 – If there is moral anarchy, then I will be very displeased
C1 – I don’t want to be very displeased, therefore there is no moral anarchy (P3 “modus tollens”)
C2 – There is no moral anarchy, therefore morality does exist (P2 modus tollens)
C3 – Since morality does exist, then God must exist (P1 modus tollens)

I think we can see where this argument collapses. In C1, the attempted modus tollens of P3 fails. The fact that we do not like something is not grounds for it to be true: just because I don’t like a certain state of affairs does not mean that that state of affairs is not actually the case. The fact that we find the conclusion (moral anarchy) displeasing does nothing to prove that God exists. A successful modus tollens of P3 would have to deny the consequent by saying “I am not displeased” and not “I don’t want to be displeased.” But this would be a quite different argument:

P1 – If there is moral anarchy, then I will be very displeased
P2 – I am not very displeased
C1 – Therefore there is not moral anarchy

I am not at this time going to go into what is wrong with this argument (I hope it is at least somewhat apparent), but perhaps I will expand on it in the future.

Problem 5: What Even is Morality?

I certainly do not want to descend into moral relativism here. My issue isn’t whether or not there is an objective, or at least best, morality. My issue is more to do with the way that assumptions about what morality is are buried within the argument from morality. A more explicit way to state the syllogism ought to be:

P1 – If Biblical (or Quranic) morality exists, then God exists
P2 – Biblical (or Quranic) morality exists
C – Therefore, God exists

The assumption in the argument is that everyone accepts that the morality of a particular religion is the morality agreed upon by all parties. This poses a problem particularly for premise 2, since it is equivocating conceptions of morality. The apologist posing this argument states that morality exists with the implicit assumption that this is understood as Christian (or Islamic, or whatever other religion) morality. Certainly, it is the case that if the morality of some religion exists, then there is something within that religion that is true (i.e. the morality, though as I’ve said above, whether this then implies their deity exists is questionable at best). But that is begging the question, since it is saying essentially:

P1 – If Biblical (or Quranic) morality exists, then God exists
P2 – Biblical (or Quranic) morality, given to us by God (assumed here to exist), exists
C – Therefore, God exists

Thus, in addition to being unsound (as discussed above, the ontological status of morality has not been established), the argument is also invalid. As a result, the argument from morality does not work.

De Jure Arguments

What this post has been focusing on up until now are what Alvin Plantinga calls the de facto question of God’s existence. In other words, the question as to whether it is actually true or not that God exists. But the other kind of question is what Plantinga calls the de jure question in his book Warranted Christian Belief. This is the question people are answering when they say things like “belief in God is irrational” or “belief in God is unjustified.” The de jure question does not say one way or the other that God does or does not exist, it is simply the question of whether someone is warranted in believing in the existence of God. Belief in the existence of God, by this view, could potentially be warranted even if God doesn’t exist, and it could potentially be unwarranted even if God does exist.

So then what is warrant? How does a belief have warrant? According to Plantinga, a belief has warrant when the following conditions are satisfied:

  1. One’s cognitive faculties are functioning properly (no dysfunction, malfunction, or impedance; for example, when one sees a house, they are not hallucinating and there isn’t something blocking one’s view)
  2. One is in an environment (maxienvironment) conducive to the proper functioning (we’re on earth with its given atmosphere and faced with the kinds of things that human brains are “designed” to encounter)
  3. One is using faculties designed (or evolved) for the acquisition of true beliefs (instead of, say, faculties designed to make one feel comfortable or important)
  4. The design (or evolution) was successful in producing a faculty oriented toward truth (whatever originated our belief-producing faculties actually succeeded in making belief-producing faculties that are oriented toward truth and capable of producing at least some true beliefs)
  5. The degree of warrant a belief has depends on the strength of the belief
  6. Resolution Condition: a belief B produced by an exercise E of cognitive powers has warrant sufficient for knowledge only if MBE (the minienvironment with respect to B and E) is favorable for E
    • Has do with addressing certain Gettier cases, i.e., counterexamples

Plantinga says that for religious belief to be irrational, then all else being equal, it would have to lack warrant both (A) if God does not exist and (B) even if it were true that God in fact does exist (the de jure question has to be independent of the de facto question). Plantinga, however, says that if God does not exist, then belief in God has no warrant, but if God does exist, then there is no case in which belief in God has no warrant. Thus, when people say that belief in God is irrational, they are implicitly assuming the answer to the de facto question is that God does not exist.

But how is it that humans acquire knowledge of God in the first place? For this Plantinga uses his Aquinas/Calvin, or A/C, model (16th century Christian reformer John Calvin’s doctrine that the Gospel is “revealed to our minds” and “sealed unto our hearts”). Plantinga says “I claim four things for these two models [the A/C model for theism in general and the extended A/C model for Christianity in particular]”:

  1. They are possible, and thus show it is possible that theistic and Christian belief have warrant
    1. Epistemically possible: they are consistent with what we know
  2. There aren’t any cogent objections to the model; any cogent objection to the model’s truth will also have to be a cogent objection to the truth of theistic or Christian belief
  3. The models are not only possible and beyond philosophical challenge, but also true, or at least close to the truth
  4. There is a range of models for the warrant of Christian belief, all different but similar to the A/C or extended A/C models; if classical Christian belief is indeed true, then one of these models is very likely also true

The model: sensus divinitatis – humans have natural disposition to form a belief in God. We do not decide to form the beliefs, we simply find ourselves with them, just like with perceptions and memory. This capacity people have from birth. The sensus divinitatis is triggered by, for example, the glories of nature, or when we are doing something wrong and have feelings of “divine disapproval” for our actions.

Six features of the A/C model:

  1. Basic Acquisition: not an inference, but immediate – upon seeing the majesty of the cosmos, the belief just arises, not though some discursive syllogism; basic in that it is not predicated on any other beliefs
  2. Basic Justification: one is in their epistemic rights (not epistemically irresponsible) in holding beliefs in this way; even when faced with the F&M (Freud and Marx) objection (that belief in God is an illusion or wishful thinking or due to some defect), the feeling that God exists still remains, and so how could such a person be irresponsible or derelict in their epistemic duty?
  3. Basic Warrant: produced by cognitive faculties functioning properly in a congenial environment according to a design aimed at truth (i.e., to have true beliefs about God)
  4. Natural: would be with us even if there was no such thing as sin (it is not instilled by the Holy Spirit, but is how we are so constituted as originally created by God)
  5. Doxastic Experience (what I might call Doxastic Phenomenology): experiencing the presence of God vs the absence of God is in some way similar to experiencing a right answer (2+3=5) vs a wrong answer (2+3=6) – the former just has an inherent sense of rightness while the latter an inherent sense of wrongness

Because of the noetic effect of sin (see below) the sensus divinitatis has been “compromised, weakened, reduced, smothered, overlaid, or impeded by sin and its consequences.” It is restored by the Holy Spirit; prior to that it is “narrowed in scope and partially suppressed.” More on this in the following subsection.

We therefore see that one of the necessary conditions for someone’s belief in the existence of God to be irrational, according to Plantinga, is that someone would be unwarranted in believing in the existence of God even if it were the case that God does in fact exist. Is it possible for someone to be unwarranted in their belief in God’s existence even if God does, in fact, exist? I can think of some ways that would undercut someone’s warrant should it be the case that God does, in fact, actually exist:

  1. It is possible that, instead of a God creating humans with a sensus divinitatis, there was an evil deity who created humans with a sensus deceptio, such that humans come to false beliefs about whether a loving and personal God exists. This belief does not have warrant (being produced by cognitive faculties properly functioning according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth – the design plan is not aimed at truth).
  2. On account of sin (gaining knowledge of good and evil) our sensus divinitatis is no longer functioning properly according to its design plan. Then Satan afflicted us with some new faculty that functions sufficiently similar to the sensus divinitatis, since Satan knew that our rejection of God was damnable only if we knew (or at least had some idea) that God existed and therefore wanted us to have knowledge of God in order to trick us into rejecting God. We then have Plantinga’s “Gettier-like” case.
  3. It could be that God created us with the sensus divinitatis and then at some point either destroyed Himself or was destroyed by something else (Satan or another God, perhaps) or has since morphed into something He was not when He created the universe (maybe, like the sea squirt, following the act of creation He no longer needed His intellect and digested it away so that God would not have to be cognizant of evil, thereby maintaining His perfect goodness); we would therefore have no warrant, even though our cognitive faculties are properly functioning according to a design plan successfully aimed at truth.
  4. It could also simply be the case that God did not create us with the sensus divinitatis and that some other faculty has become defective (for whatever reason) and therefore isn’t a properly functioning faculty; what is our guarantee that the sensus divinitatis, if we say that it is a knowledge-producing faculty, must have been created by God? Is it that the sensus divinitatis also produces knowledge of its own warrant (kind of like saying “what I see is true because I see it”, i.e., is incorrigible)?

Without independent confirmation, one cannot know that the sensus divinitatis is still functioning in an epistemically congenial environment: if God has left, has been destroyed or radically altered, or is otherwise cut off from us, but we still retain our sensus divinitatis, then the environment is incompatible by virtue of God being absent from it. The only way to know that this is not the case is through some other knowledge producing faculty, in the same way that a person only learns that they are hallucinating by perhaps trying to touch the hallucination or through someone else telling them it is not true (testimony).

And ultimately, because of the noetic effect of sin (see below), the sensus divinitatis is not properly functioning according to its design plan, which automatically defeats any warrant that beliefs produced by the sensus divinitatis possess.

Plantinga argues in Warranted Christian Belief that the A/C Model is not circular. The circularity – that one needs to buy into the A/C Model to prove the existence of God, which would therefore justify one’s belief in the A/C Model – is not applicable, Plantinga says, because he is not using the A/C Model as a premise in an argument for the existence of God. He says:

What I claim for the model is only that it is (1) possible, (2) subject to no philosophical objections that do not assume that Christian belief is false, and (3) such that if Christian belief is true, the model is at least close to the truth. But obviously it is not the case that my assertion of or believe in the truth if (1), (2), or (3) has warrant only if the model is true or Christian belief is warranted.

But is he right about this? We can maybe put it this way:

  1. My belief in Christian doctrine (trinity, incarnation, Christ’s resurrection, atonement, forgiveness of sins, salvation, regeneration, eternal life) is warranted. Why?
  2. Because sensus divinitatis gives me occasion to believe in God by doxastically forming the belief that the world around me was created by God and giving me a sense of Truth when reading the Gospels. How do you know that the sensus divinitatis isn’t mistaken or explainable by something that doesn’t require God as an explanation (e.g., it is a hyperactive agency detection, or the Devil is tricking you, you are too mired in sin for the sensus divinitati to be properly functioning, etc.) – in other words, how do you know the sensus divinitatis is a properly functioning cognitive faculty operating in a congenial environment according to a design plan oriented toward truth?
  3. Because Christian doctrine says that the Internal Instigation of the Holy Spirit (aka IIHS) ‘reveals to our minds and seals on our hearts’ basic beliefs (i.e., beliefs which are not based on (propositional) arguments or reasons) in ‘the great things of the gospel’, that is ‘trinity, incarnation, Christ’s resurrection, atonement, forgiveness of sins, salvation, regeneration, eternal life’. Well, how are you warranted in believing that the Holy Spirit “reveals to our minds and seals on our hearts” these beliefs?
  4. Because the sensus divinitatis gives me occasion to believe this. But how do you know that the sensus divinitatis isn’t mistaken or explainable by something that doesn’t require God as an explanation (e.g., it is a hyperactive agency detection, or the Devil is tricking you, you are too mired in sin for the sensus divinitati to be properly functioning, etc.) – in other words, how do you know the sensus divinitatis is a properly functioning cognitive faculty operating in a congenial environment according to a design plan oriented toward truth?
  5. See #3 above (ad infinitum)

This seems pretty circular to me.

In the rest of this section, I will examine some arguments that have to do with this de jure question.

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.

Alvin Plantinga puts it this way in his book Warranted Christian Belief (separated into multiple paragraphs by me):

The extended [A/C] model retains this feature [belief in God delivered by sensus divinitatis] and adds more. First, it adds that we human beings have fallen into sin, a calamitous condition from which we require salvation – a salvation we are unable to accomplish by our own efforts. This sin alienates us from God and makes us unfit for communion with him. Our fall into sin has had cataclysmic consequences, both affective and cognitive.

As to affective consequences, our affections are skewed and our hearts now harbor deep and radical evil: we love ourselves above all, rather than God.

There were also ruinous cognitive consequences. Our original knowledge of God and his marvelous beauty, glory, and loveliness has been severely compromised; in this way the narrow image of God [sensus divinitatis] in us was destroyed and the broad image damaged [imago dei], distorted. In particular, the sensus divinitatis has been damaged and deformed; because of the fall, we no longer know God in the same natural and unproblematic way in which we know each other and the world around us.

Still further, sin induces in us a resistance to the deliverances of the sensus divinitatis, muted as they are by the first factor; we don’t want to pay attention to its deliverances.

We are unable by our own efforts to extricate ourselves from this quagmire; God himself, however, has provided a remedy for sin and its ruinous effects, a means of salvation from sin and restoration of his favor and fellowship. This remedy is made available in the life, atoning suffering and death, and resurrection of his divine Son, Jesus Christ.

Salvation involves among other things rebirth and regeneration, a process (beginning in the present life and reaching fruition in the next) that involves a restoration and repair of the image of God in us.

This is an epistemological argument that says non-believers lack fiducia, or faithful trust, in the claims of their particular religion. Essentially it is saying that anyone who does not believe has to be either deceived or self-deceiving in their lack of belief. This makes belief in God indefeasible, since any evidence or argument against the conclusion (i.e. that God is real and/or that your particular religion is the true religion) is taken as evidence or argument for the conclusion. It’s similar to the conspiracy theorists who, when presented with evidence or arguments against the conclusions entailed by the theory, simply retort “well, that’s just what they want you to think” or “only someone in on the nefarious conspiracy would deny that the conspiracy is real!” Thus, this is not an argument, but a defense mechanism against inconvenient or undesirable facts in the real world or flaws in the logic of one’s beliefs.

Another obvious issue: one must accept all these beliefs in order to have a properly functioning cognitive process aimed at truth according to the design plan, but any set of beliefs could grant themselves warrant by including among those beliefs that acceptance of the beliefs is a precondition for forming true beliefs.

  • Example 1: the earth is flat; you must accept this in order not to have magic heavenly rays blinding you to this truth; therefore, your saying that you don’t believe that the earth is flat is unwarranted by virtue of being caused by these magic heavenly rays
  • Example 2: people have a tendency to believe what I say when I tell them something. However, they don’t have absolute trust in me. Yet, everything I say is unimpeachably trustworthy. If you don’t believe this, it’s because you have been deceived by your trust in your own intelligence as to my infallibility – you prefer, out of pride and envy, to believe your own thoughts over my testimony. This must be true because I am saying it and I am infallible. Disagree? Then you are deceived by your pride and envy, therefore you cannot prove me wrong (your very attempt to do so is proof of how deceived by pride and envy you are). Were it not for the noetic effect of disagreeing with me, my unimpeachability would be obvious and uncontroversial.
  • Example 3: one of the tenets of the theory of evolution by natural selection is that we evolved to be capable of seeing that evolution by natural selection is true. Anyone who doubts this must have inherited a gene (or epigenetic effect) that causes them to doubt it. Thus, one of the tenets of evolution by natural selection is that believing in the theory of evolution by natural selection is a necessary indication of ones properly functioning belief-forming apparatus. Indeed, that one has inherited this evolution-doubting gene is proof that evolution by natural selection is true.

Additionally, if our knowledge producing faculties are defective, then how do we know what way they were intended to be in the first place? In other words, how do we know that the distortion caused by the noetic effect of sin was away from the conception of its proper function as being to know and love God? For instance, if all humans become red-green colorblind, then how would our descendants know that they ought to be seeing these missing colors? And if we are aware that these cognitive faculties are defective, how do we know we still receive “some knowledge” of God? In other words, how do we know that that “some knowledge” isn’t completely wrong? How do we know that we’re not so mixed up that it is in fact the case that God wants us to rape, murder, and steal and loathes charity, mercy, and justice?

Besides, if sin arose because Adam ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, then Adam could not have known that eating the fruit was evil. Thus, one needs sin in order to have knowledge of good and evil. And if knowledge of good and evil arose from eating the fruit, then Adam and Eve would not have known that God is good until they had sinned (which raises the question: did God originally want us to know Him?). Therefore, the sensus divinitatis could only have formed upon the advent of sin.

Leibniz, of course, pointed out that this doctrine (of the noetic effect of sin) 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 (according to Christianity), then too bad for them, their minds will be blinded to the truth through no fault of their own.

We also do not know who has been deceived. Just like with Pascal’s wager, this doctrine could pertain to any religion. Why are Christians not Muslim? Is it because their sin is obscuring their ability to see the truth of Islam? There would really be no way of knowing. It would be like a riddle where there are one thousand people, one who tells the truth and nine hundred ninety nine who lie. All one thousand tell you that they are the one who tells the truth. Which one is actually the truth-teller? It is an impossible riddle to solve outside of chance.

It is also the case that one must already accept the idea of sin being a real concept in order for this idea to be convincing. In other words, one has to already accept the conclusion (of the noetic effect of sin) in order for the argument to work, making it circular.

Burden of Proof

The burden of proof has to do with who must provide evidence or argument for a proposition that is (A) a positive proposition and (B) is unfalsifiable. What is meant by (A) is that the proposition is making a claim about some state of affairs as opposed to a denial of some other claim. For instance, if I make the claim that the number of stars in the universe is an even number, then the burden of proof would be on me to show that this is true. Now, if someone says “but you don’t know that there are an even number of stars in the universe,” that is not a claim that the number is in fact odd; the interlocutor is not making a positive claim about whether the number of stars in the universe are even or odd. They are simply saying that I don’t have enough information to make my claim. It would be fallacious for me to mistake their denial that I have this knowledge as them taking some position, such as that the number of stars in the universe is odd. It would also be fallacious for me to ask my interlocutor to disprove my claim that the number of stars in the universe is even – why should the burden of proof by on my interlocutor to “prove me wrong” when I am the one making the claim? Does that mean anyone who doesn’t believe in, say, reincarnation, has the burden to disprove reincarnation to anyone who claims it is true? Or how about astrology? Or Big Foot? of alien abduction? Isn’t the onus on the astrologer to show that planetary alignment at birth (and not some other factor, such as time of the year being born having an affect on average state of maturation for a class at school) has a statistically significant affect on personality and life events? Isn’t it up to the Squatchers to come back with video evidence, or a corpse or something, of Big Foot, before we are to believe them? Don’t the putative abductees need to provide evidence of an alien encounter if they expect us to believe them? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. And likewise: what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

This gets at what I meant with (B) from above. The claim that the number of stars in the universe is even is an unfalsiable claim (in practice, since there is no known way to come by such knowledge). This is important when it comes to the burden of proof. For instance, if instead I claimed that the number of marbles used to fill a five-gallon bucket are even, then such a claim could in fact be disproved: my interlocutor could count the marbles in the bucket to see if my claim was true. With the number of stars in the universe, however, this claim is so prodigiously impractical to prove that it is effectively unfalsifiable.

When it comes to the question of God’s existence, the unfalsifiable claims would be something like “the Christian God created the universe around 6,000 years ago, but did it in such a way as to make it appear much older” or “evolution by natural selection occurs, but God is the one causing the mutations that are then selected for” (as Alvin Plantinga suggests in his book Where the Conflict Really Lies). This is tantamount to my saying that gravity works when trillions upon trillions of invisible magical elves hold objects together with their tiny hands. This would be an unfalsifiable positive proposition for which the burden of proof would be on me if I were to expect anyone else to take it seriously.

Bertrand Russell’s teapot is the common analogy used for this. The analogy goes as follows:

Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense.

Many people misunderstand the analogy, thinking it is an argument for the probability that God exists: if the probability of a teapot too small to detect orbiting the sun is very low, then so much the probability of an invisible God. That is not what the analogy is about, though. It is about the burden of proof. Just like with whether the number of stars in the universe being odd or even is a positive, yet unfalsifiable, proposition, so is the presence of an undetectable teapot (the undetectable part is important here).

Russell follows up the above quote with this:

If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time. It is customary to suppose that, if a belief is widespread, there must be something reasonable about it. I do not think this view can be held by anyone who has studied history. Practically all the beliefs of savages are absurd. In early civilizations there may be as much as one percent for which there is something to be said. In our own day…. But at this point I must be careful. We all know that there are absurd beliefs in Soviet Russia. If we are Protestants, we know that there are absurd beliefs among Catholics. If we are Catholics, we know that there are absurd beliefs among Protestants. If we are Conservatives, we are amazed by the superstitions to be found in the Labour Party. If we are Socialists, we are aghast at the credulity of Conservatives. I do not know, dear reader, what your beliefs may be, but whatever they may be, you must concede that nine-tenths of the beliefs of nine-tenths of mankind are totally irrational. The beliefs in question are, of course, those which you do not hold. I cannot, therefore, think it presumptuous to doubt something which has long been held to be true, especially when this opinion has only prevailed in certain geographical regions, as is the case with all theological opinions.

And this segues nicely into the next section on religious pluralism (that everyone thinks their own religious beliefs to be true while those of all others are absurd).

Religious Pluralism

Faculties for Truth?

At this point in this post I doubt anyone who believed in God before will be convinced that He does not exist. Most people were not moved by argument but by upbringing. This is the problem of religious pluralism (sometimes called the incompatibility problem), which says:

With respect to many, if not most issues, there exist significant differences of opinion among individuals who seem to be equally knowledgeable and sincere. Individuals who apparently have access to the same information and are equally interested in the truth do in fact affirm incompatible perspectives on, for instance, significant social, political, and economic issues. Such diversity of opinion, though, is nowhere more evident than in the area of religious thought. On almost every religious issue there are honest, knowledgeable people who hold significantly diverse, often incompatible beliefs.

In other words, the fact that many other people believe something different with the same level of conviction, and further that one’s views is largely determined by environment and upbringing, means that there is something going on with how such beliefs are formed (I’ve talked about belief formation elsewhere, but for now all we need to do is look at populations).

If a person was born into a Christian nation, they will almost certainly become Christian. The same goes for someone being born into a Muslim nation becoming a Muslim. This has much more to do with culture than with the persuasiveness of any arguments. One thing religious people know, but in some ways don’t like to admit, is that culture transcends God. This is why religious people care so much about culture war issues – they know that losing the culture means God will be abandoned.

One’s belief in God being an accident of where they were born should raise anxiety for anyone who believes in salvation through their religion. That means they dodged a huge bullet when they just so happened to have been born in the right place. But it also means that billions of others are damned due to the accidents of their own birth. This goes back to the problem of evil and God’s omniscience – why does God allow people to be born in places that raise them to believe wholeheartedly in the wrong thing?

And how can anybody know that they just happened to be raised with the right beliefs? Most people will appeal to their own deep conviction in their beliefs as evidence that God is leading them down the right path, but that deep conviction is felt by other people for their differing beliefs. Unless God Himself descends from Heaven and tells everyone in the world the right beliefs, nobody can have even the least bit of confidence that theirs is correct. If, somehow, they do happen to be correct, it cannot be attributed to any unimpeachably convincing argument for their beliefs or some sort of superior moral constitution. It would still be the brute fact that some people – perhaps God’s Elect – are simply born into the right culture. One question those people might want to have for God whence they meet Him is why He allowed so many to be led astray – and not just in our own time, but for the hundreds of thousands of years that religion existed before anyone happened upon the right religion.

What this ultimately means for warrant, though, is that one is not using faculties oriented toward truth. This is because religious pluralism indicates that one’s belief formation in this instance has to do with something other than faculties oriented toward producing true beliefs, namely, it has to do with faculties oriented toward taking in cultural beliefs and norms, i.e., propositions that are adaptive (bring social inclusion) within a particular cultural milieu.

Probability

Maybe we can think about religious pluralism in a probabilistic sense? For this exercise, let’s think of ourselves as an alien coming to earth in search of a religion. This alien knows nothing about our religions and isn’t too concerned with the content (the set of propositional beliefs) of the religion, only with which ones seem to have a higher chance of being true.

One way might be to say that religion has an equal probability of being true. We would thus have a proportion that is about 1/4000 for each religion (source). This doesn’t seem like a good way to do the probability. If one gets very pedantic, it could be argued that every individual person has their own personal religion, given the idiosyncrasies of their beliefs. But even if we’re not that idiosyncratic, why should each religion be considered to have equal probability? Many are probably believed by only a handful of people while others have millions and even billions of adherents. Perhaps we should weigh the probabilities based on number of adherents?

The source linked to above gives the following:

Below is each religion’s total estimated population for 2020:

  • Christianity – 2.38 billion
  • Islam – 1.91 billion
  • Hinduism – 1.16 billion
  • Buddhism – 507 million
  • Folk Religions – 430 million
  • Other Religions – 61 million
  • Judaism – 14.6 million
  • Unaffiliated – 1.19 billion

That comes out to 7,652,600,000 (~7.65 billion) total people. And so then Christianity has a proportion of 0.311 or 31.1% of being correct. That’s still a pretty small chance of being correct. And how are we justified in thinking that the number of adherents right now reflects the true proportion of all humans who have ever believed in a religion? And what justifies us in thinking that the number of believers is even a good weighting measure for the probability that a religion is correct? Perhaps what we should be interested in is conversion rate, since that at least tells us something about how persuasive a religion is.

How might we determine conversion rates? This is tricky. Conversion is unlikely to be a random variable. But lets assume for the sake of argument it is at least approximately random. How might we proportion it? We would probably have to take [# of people converting to religion X] – [# of people converting away from religion X] to be our variable; if it is positive, then the religion is more likely, if negative then less likely, if 0 then it breaks even.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find any data on religious conversion itself. There is plenty about the growth rate of religion, but that also takes birth rates into account. What we want is data that shows adults deconverting from one religion (or lack thereof) and becoming an adherent of another religion (or lack thereof). I’ll examine this study that looks at data from 2001. To simplify, I’ll take Catholic and Protestant to be the same (Christian). We thus have:

[# converted to] – [# converted from] =
1401 – 2032 = -631

In other words, a net of 631 converted from Christianity to something else (another religion or no religion). That is a 5.18% loss (using {-631/(total current for Cath. + Prot.)}*100)

For Islam, we have:

25 – 8 = +17

In other words, a net of 17 converted to Islam from something else (another religion or no religion). That’s an 8.29% gain (using {17/205}*100).

Thus, from this data, it would seem that Islam is a better way to go than Christianity (one of the others might be even better, but I’m not going to do the calculations here). One will see an obvious issue: the sample of Muslims (converts and total) is much smaller than the sample of Christians and is therefore going to have a much higher margin of error. I’m sure there are other methodological and statistical issues that someone could point out (this was all “back-of-the-envelope” calculations here).

Besides, how do we know that conversion rates are a good measure for determining the accuracy and correctness of a belief system, anyway? Shouldn’t we be taking the content of the beliefs into consideration (i.e., how likely or probable each proposition within a belief system is)? For instance, shouldn’t we evaluate the joint probability of God’s properties (omniscience, omnipotence, benevolence) and the trinity and Jesus resurrection and all the other propositions within Christian doctrine? And if so, how would we get proportions from this (i.e., how would we assign probabilities to these propositions)? And how might such probabilities be compared to one another?

To do this we would need to come up with some hypothesis that explains the actually observable evidence. In other words, we want P(H|E) and P(E|H). This is something I already discussed above (the fine-tuning argument) and in my post on the scientific arguments against the existence of God, so I won’t dwell on it here, suffice to say that it often ends up being quite subjective. Furthermore, it doesn’t let us assign probabilities to things like “the probability that Jesus died so that we could be forgiven our sins given that Jesus was actually crucified” or “the probability that God is a single entity with three consubstantial hypostases.”

Pascal’s Wager

Pascal’s wager, put forth by seventeenth century French philosopher Blaise Pascal, is not an argument for the existence of God so much as an argument for believing in God regardless. The admission that one can never know whether God exists or not is the reason why Pascal’s wager would be at issue.

The argument goes that if one believes in God and it turns out God does not 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. Another way to put it is with a table:

Pascal's Wager table

And so the probability that God exists multiplied by the expected utility:

P(God exists)*[expected utility from belief in God] = ∞ reward and pleasure
P(God exists)*[expected disutility from non-belief in God] = –∞ reward and pleasure (i.e. ∞ suffering)

If expected utility = ∞ for believing in God and –∞ for disbelieving, then no matter what the probability P(God Exists) is, multiplying it by ±∞ makes even the smallest finite probability infinite.

This argument, though, would be a self-serving belief. One’s only epistemological justification for believing is because doing so will result in a better outcome. It does not follow from a potentially better outcome that something is true. Something potentially being a better outcome is not a justification – it is not justified belief.

Even if the proposition that p is true and 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 s is not justified in believing it is 6:00 am just because that means s is not late for work.

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 – and, indeed, believing the wrong one could be very dangerous for one’s eternal soul.

The test of Pascal’s wager could be applied to just about any belief. Imagine a god that punishes those who blink more than 1,000 times a day. We can’t, with 100% certainty, know that such a deity does not exist, and therefore, even the incredibly small probability that this deity does exist, when multiplied by the infinite punishment for disobeying, is infinite disutility (pain and suffering). Therefore, it is most rational not to blink more than 1,000 times a day. But wait, I’m sure you must be asking, didn’t you pull the number 1,000 out of thin air? What if a God exists that actually cares if you blink more than 999 times a day? Or 998? Or 777? All of these, while exceedingly unlikely, cannot be proven 100% not to be true. But, even a 10 to the power of minus TREE(3) percent chance multiplied by infinity is still infinity, and therefore ought to be taken seriously (if we are to accept Pascal’s wager).

TREE(3) times infinity

So, what is the answer to Pascal’s wager? What ought we actually believe, if Pascal’s wager can be applied to anything?

If we distill Pascal’s wager down to its essence – that, given the choices, a rational person would believe in God because it has the highest probability to maximize their pleasure and minimize their suffering – then we ought to worship a God that demands us to live as hedonists. If we believe in such a God, and the God of hedonism is the true God, then we maximize pleasure in life and in Heaven; if we believe in such a God and God does not exist, then we maximize pleasure in life and have no pain nor pleasure in death. On the other hand, if we disbelieve in this God of hedonism and there is no God, we live a life that does not maximize our pleasure and still have no pain nor pleasure in death; but if we disbelieve in this God of hedonism and and that God is the true God, then we fail to maximize pleasure during life and end up with infinite pain in Hell. Thus, if we follow the logic of Pascal’s wager, then worshiping a God of hedonism is the most rational course since it maximizes our pleasure in life and death.

Just as Pascal’s wager does not seek to prove God’s existence, but merely to show why one ought to believe in God regardless, refuting the argument does not show that God does not exist. What it does show, however, is that we don’t have a good reason to believe in God (or in any particular God) regardless – Pascal’s wager does not render someone’s belief in God warranted because it is a faculty aimed at self-preservation and not producing true beliefs. Simply put, Pascal’s wager is an attempt to scare people into belief with threats of eternal damnation. This is the last refuge of the scoundrel evangelist.

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 are either deceiving us by conscious fraud, were deluded and self-deceived, or are telling the truth about witnessing miracles. David Hume, in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding11, 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 is 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 or are being self-deceived themselves.

If we give the testimony of people in the Holy Books the benefit of the doubt and assume they weren’t deceiving people consciously, then it is easy to see how they could have been deceived themselves either by delusion or cognitive bias.

It is possible that many of the people who testified about Christ’s resurrection were delusional. There is some tantalizing evidence, for instance, that the apostle Paul may have had temporal lobe epilepsy12, which is known to cause many religious delusions. Indeed, different sensitivities of the temporal lobe lead to differential religious experiences, with temporal lobe epilepsy being the most sensitive to religious experience13.

More likely, though, for the majority of followers, was that cognitive biases were at play. People wanted to believe in the miracles of Christ and in His resurrection. Any evidence against this view would be dismissed and any evidence for it would be counted. Partner this confirmation bias with the sunk cost fallacy for those who were followers of the Jesus the human being – His disciples – and after they saw Him executed, they needed to justify their belief in Him as the Jewish Messiah.

I’m not saying that things happened exactly like any of the ways I illustrated here, but these are much more plausible than that miracles actually occurred. Using Hume’s logic, given that there are much more plausible situations, we are forced to dismiss the miraculous claims.

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? Søren Kierkegaard talked about the leap of faith one must take. He says that asking for evidence of God’s existence shows that one is not willing to completely give their life over to God – to make God the sole telos, or purpose, of their life.

Why should we reject faith? The first reason is because 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 is not actually God.

Nothing in faith can confirm that one religion is true and any other potential belief in all of possible belief space is false, so there is no justification for saying that all other religious faith is false and this one is true. Saying that Islam is false because I believe in Christianity is an invalid argument.

Indeed, the only way to believe in God is through blind faith, without any epistemological justification. 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 is impossible, as it would require a state of being that does not exist: pure objectivity to judge religions based on their own merits and truth claims.

One can take Kierkegaard’s leap of faith at anything, even destructive ideas. In order to ensure that one is taking a leap of faith at the true God, one would need to know that God exists. Loving God without evidence is not like loving a romantic partner without evidence. For one, we know the subject of our affection actually exists. And second, we do, in fact, use evidence to ensure that the subject of our affection reciprocates the feeling. That’s why if a partner becomes distant or abusive, we can infer that they do not, in fact, love us. The deeds they perform in reciprocation of their love are evidence that they do. We get no such reciprocity from loving God.

I could also proffer this argument: if humans are to be truly virtuous, then we must be good people without expectation of any reward for our good behavior. If a person who has faith in an afterlife that rewards virtuousness expects rewards for their virtue, then they are less virtuous than the non-believer who is a good person without any expectation of reward after death. Therefore, it is the non-believer who is more virtuous and therefore more deserving of reward in the afterlife. And so it is the case that a lack of faith is better (more virtuous) than having faith.

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 do not accept the God hypothesis. This is to show that any philosophical discourse that I engage in on this blog is generally under the assumption that God does not exist.

Philosophically speaking, in order to be honest and thorough in what beliefs I accept, I would consider myself agnostic. I don’t know for sure that some sort of Supreme Being, whatever its nature, exists. However, I am absolutely convinced that the God of Abraham does not exist, and I think the preponderance of evidence supports the idea that no other supreme being in that same vein exists. Therefore, while I may philosophically be agnostic, I do not function in my everyday life as if a God of some kind is watching over me and the rest of the world; I am functionally an atheist.

However, as I have experienced for myself in going from being a Christian to an atheist, losing the idea of God can be jarring. That is true not just for individuals, but for society as a whole. Religion is a strong glue that can hold society together. It comes with shared beliefs, metaphysics, traditions, communities, culture, morals, and faith. Without these things, society becomes atomized and other avenues are sought for filling the void religion once occupied.

The western world is a post-Christian culture, even if the majority of people are still believers. Religion has been pushed back and relegated to personal belief as opposed to communal belief – it has taken the form of moralistic therapeutic deism. Communal belief, of course, has many drawbacks, but it does cement a society and culture. Without it, people succumb to shallow materialism, hollow sexual pursuits, and addiction.

Unfortunately, with the knowledge that God does not exist, the benefits of religion cannot be regained. The veil has been lifted. If we were to try putting it back, all we would see is the veil. We would see the illusion for what it is. This is why it is important to the human condition to consider the existence of God.

Friedrich Nietzsche said that God is dead and then laid blame at our own feet. This is not entirely true. Human progress in thought and science guaranteed that we would climb the ladder as far as it went out of Plato’s cave, only to find God missing from the top. This, as the existentialists liked the point out, meant that we are condemned to freedom. There is no higher authority to tell us what’s good and how best to live our lives. We are on our own.

Unfortunately, humans, being hierarchical creatures, are lost without that higher authority. The usual atheist retort to arguments from morality is “you need someone to tell you that rape and murder is wrong? If you thought there was no God, you would just rape and murder at your own pleasure?” This may not be true of any particular interlocutor, but it is true of humans in general. Every one of us has the capacity to be a member of the Einsatzgruppen, shooting women and children and throwing them into pits. Or to be a member of the NKVD, secretly torturing people by removing appendages and then proceeding to execute them. Or work for Unit 731, infecting people with plague and performing vivisections. Those things are as much a part of our nature as love and charity.

References

  1. Aristotle, Metaphysics, Ca. 350 B.C.E. English translation by J.L. Creed, First Signet Classics, 2003.
  2. Anselm, Proslogion, 1078 C.E.
  3. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ontological-arguments/
  4. Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason,1781/1787. English translation by Marcus Weigelt, Penguin Books, 2007.
  5. Chris Heathwood, The relevance of Kant’s objection to Anselm’s ontological argument, Religious Studies (2011) 47, 345–357 Cambridge University Press 2010
  6. Boëthius, The Consolations of Philosophy, Book 5, 524 C.E.
  7. Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, 1190
  8. John Duns Scotus, Lectura I 39, §§49–53
  9. Aquinas, Thomas, Summa Theologica, Benzinger Brothers Printers to the Holy Apostolic See, 1485.
  10. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/duns-scotus/
  11. Hume, David, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748.
  12. D Landsborough, St Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy, J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry, 1987
  13. Samarth Shukla, Sourya Acharya, and Devendra Rajput, Neurotheology-Matters of the Mind or Matters that Mind? Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, 2013
  14. Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry: https://carm.org/what-is-the-noetic-effect-of-sin