Here we go again, trying to prove god’s existence


One of the paradoxical signs that god does not exist is how religious apologists keep trying to prove that s/he does exist. After all, no one tries to prove that the Earth exists or that the Sun exists. Surely the existence of gods should be at least as manifest. As I wrote before, attempts to prove god’s existence may actually weaken belief. But we periodically encounter people who claim that they have a killer argument in support of god’s existence and an exuberant press release touts a new book by Edward Feser that once again claims to do so.

Feser gives an ambitious and complete a defense of traditional natural theology as is currently in print, aiming to vindicate the view of the greatest philosophers of the past — thinkers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz and many others — that the existence of God can be established with certainty by way of purely rational arguments. The FIVE PROOFS OF THE EXISTENCE OF GOD thereby serves as a refutation both of atheism and of the fideism that gives aid and comfort to atheism.

As wags have suggested before, you would not need five arguments for god’s existence if any one of them were really good. Although I have not read this book, I am slightly familiar with Feser’s work and discussed six years ago an article he wrote about what it takes to be a Christian and why all the other religions are wrong. There too he disdained the need for any evidence and said that purely rational arguments are sufficient. I have not read his new book and so can only guess at these proofs but going by the names that are dropped I can guess that they consist of warmed over versions of the prime mover, Kalam, design, and the ontological arguments.

David Hume back in 1779 dismissed the idea that one could prove the existence of a god using rational arguments alonr in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (published posthumously and quoted at D, 9.5/189; cp, EU,12.28–34/ 164–5, retrieved at http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/hume-religion/#WasHumAth) saying:

[T]here is an evident absurdity in pretending to demonstrate a matter of fact, or to prove it by arguments a priori. Nothing is demonstrable, unless the contrary is a contradiction. Nothing, that is directly conceivable, implies a contradiction. Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction. Consequently there is no Being whose contradiction is demonstrable. (Hume (1779), my italics)

As my own book will argue, the whole idea of ‘proof’ in the mathematical sense has no place when it comes to establishing empirical facts such as the existence of entities.

Comments

  1. says

    My dad used to say that the way to defend religion was to deepen its mysteriousness and ritual, then blur it with culture and claim it was just an alternative “modality” of thinking. It’s already mostly woo, so why not go full woo?

    He’s one of those people you meet who argue that religions have social value (to which I usually rejoin “so do bowling leagues”) and that there’s no need to argue against them (to which I usually rejoin “if bowling leagues were killing eachother in the street over rules interpretations, you’d feel differently”) he sees it as a way to enjoy art and ritual. Some of that’s doubtless true, but any argument for the value of religion can be cast equally validly in terms of knitting clubs or bowling leagues. Although, I’ll say that if bowling leagues were as prevalent and powerful as religions, they probably would be killing eachother in the streets over something or other.

    What bothers me about apologetics is the dishonesty of coming up with the same argument over and over, in spite of good counter-arguments having been made. Nobody with any intellectual honesty can make the Kalam argument without addressing the many good critiques against it – imagine if Blondlot kept presenting N-rays over and over again after they had been conclusively debunked. In science, Blondlot would have to modify his theory and produce more results, not robotically keep talking about N-rays as if nothing had happened.

  2. says

    PS – religions, having been granted several thousand years to prove the existence of god, can be considered to have failed to do so. They’re not coming up with any new theories. Stick a fork in it.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Surely the existence of gods should be at least as manifest [as that of the Earth or the Sun].

    Sorry, but I find that almost as silly as religionists’ desperate attempts to prove their existence. Why should it be “at least as manifest”? Is there some Law of Deities that they have to be more obvious than electrons, photons, quarks, Higgs bosons, or gravitational waves? Or strings?

  4. Mano Singham says

    Rob,

    Gods are claimed to do all manner of spectacular things that go counter to the laws of science and can change the course of our lives in response to our pleas. If gods can do all the things that are ascribed to them, surely such things should be manifest?

  5. Brian English says

    Feser’s schtick is to rehash Aquinas’ 5 ways if I recall. And yes, if any of those 5 ways were a good argument, one would suffice. He’s one of those apologists who, like William Lane Craig is to declare that the arugments, when fully understood, which he does, are brilliant. When philosophers say, no sale, he ignores them and declares that no one has fully grasped the arguments and so they still stand. He must need a new house extension as he was doing this a few years back.

    thinkers like Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz

    Note that they all espouse a metaphys (roughly neo-Platonism fused with Aristotle) that accords with the Catholic church? That things have a form and substance? Odd no? No, it’s just that you need to presuppose that metaphysics to even find Feser’s work at all interesting.

  6. Brian English says

    gah, blockquote fail.

    [Brian, I took the liberty of adding the closing block quote in the location that I think you intended. – Mano]

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    Mano @4: If the five proofs were about smiting the Philistines with hemorrhoids, or getting the promotion you’d hoped for, that would be a valid point.

  8. Brian English says

    Rob the 5 proofs are all logical deductions. If they’re sound (valid and true), they apply to the whole universe as it were, so one would do the trick.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    Brian @8: I’m not defending the proofs. They’re pathetic. I’m saying that “God’s existence should be obvious” is not a very good response to them.

    It’s certainly possible to accept any or all of the five proofs while rejecting the idea of a being who answers prayers, favours sides in sports or battles, etc.

  10. Brian English says

    It’s certainly possible to accept any or all of the five proofs while rejecting the idea of a being who answers prayers, favours sides in sports or battles, etc.

    It is possible, but the purpose of the arguments is to get from something we all suposedly agree to the old guy in the clouds.
    If you’re Catholic, you have to follow Aquinas (the angelic doctor), when he equates the entity ‘proven’ in each of the 5 ways with ‘that which we call god’.
    It’s interesting psychologically, when you argue about god, it’s the philosophers god of Aquinas/Liebniz/Plantinga that is argued for, not the god of the bible…. but then in day to day life, an emotionless prime mover that is no more active than the brute fact of the universe existing isn’t much help. So it’s the person who answers prayers and loves (and hates), rewarding the faithful, that’s invoked.

  11. Holms says

    #4
    But Mano, a stipulation such as ‘god exists… but is not physically detectable’ would remove any need for spectacle. This is fundamentally no different to the claim ‘unicorns exist but live on an undiscovered invisible island’ or ‘I can turn invisible whenever there is no observation’: the stipulation renders the claim untestable. And why would someone claiming such a thing not make such a stipulation? Fantasies are not exactly bound by pesky things like logical rules nor intellectual honesty.

    Which reminds me of a common rebuttal that crops up in conversations about heaven: “no existence lasting an eternity can possible be blissful for all eternity; eventually, all people will discover all that there is to be known, see all sights, experience everything the universe has to offer ad nauseum. Eventually, all would crave oblivion out of sheer tedium.” Nope! Remember, this claim is pure fantasy and is thus not bout by such restricitons. ‘Heaven exists and contains an infinite variety of engaging experiences such that no one is ever bored or exhausted’ deals with that nicely.

  12. Mark Dowd says

    I’m not defending the proofs. They’re pathetic. I’m saying that “God’s existence should be obvious” is not a very good response to them.

    The vast majority of religion on this planet involve gods that are powerful, intelligent, emotional, and inimately involved in human affairs both grand and petty. They are incomparable in magnitude and quality to something subtle and tiny like particle physics.

    Your argument may be technically true in the most bland and legalistic of meanings, but Mano’s point is true in the larger context of the actual god debates, a context that should be obvious to anyone with two neurons to rub together. The context is that nobody actually gives a shit about a non-interventionist deist god.

    Nobody goes to church to worship and prayer to a non-interventionist god. Nobody commits violence in the name of a non-interventionist god. And nobody writes books defending the existence of a noninterventionist god. Those that claim to are playing a deceitful game. They themselves have a specific, detailed idea of what they think god is. They hope that by favorably arguing for one of the qualities of their god (uncaused cause, first mover, most perfect, tri-omni, whatever), they can shoehorn in all the rest of the qualities with it (like hating gays or answering prayers or something). Some thing was the uncaused cause of all existence like, therefore come to my church and praise Jesus.

    Nobody in the god debates gives a shit about some abstract amorphous thing. They care about their god, and invariable their personal good is something that would be blindingly obvious if it actually existed. The “proofs” are not bad just because they are illogical, they are bad because they are not being argued with honest intentions.

  13. says

    @Holms, #11: How would a God that could not be physically detected be any different from no God? Any interaction with the universe would be a potential opportunity for detection, so such a God would be constrained only to be able to do things that could happen by themselves anyway even if no God existed.

  14. Holms says

    #13
    I have put that to apologists myself, but it remains that questions of the style ‘how have we not noticed him then?’ run into the same problem: the nature of god, as described by apologists the world over, is intentionally unfalsifiabe.

  15. Mark Dowd says

    #15 Holmes

    I have put that to apologists myself, but it remains that questions of the style ‘how have we not noticed him then?’ run into the same problem: the nature of god, as described by apologists the world over, is intentionally unfalsifiabe.

    I will repeat, in short, what I said in my previous post.

    Nobody, not even the apologists, gives a shit about an airy and insubstantial god like that. None of their inane deepities are sincere.

  16. Owlmirror says

    Nobody, not even the apologists, gives a shit about an airy and insubstantial god like that.

    I’d qualify this, in just one way: Nobody cares about the God being philolsophistically proved except the apologists who want to use this remote and abstract thing that they claim is God as a club to bash atheists. That seems to be Feser’s whole shtick: “Look at how totally erudite and well-versed in classical sophistimacated philolsophy I am! How stupid of those atheists to not be convinced by my erudition and classical sophistimacated philolsophy!”

    None of their inane deepities are sincere.

    The only thing sincere is their contempt.

  17. Chris Snowden says

    Mano Singham,
    Why don’t you ever make a distinction between the pagan gods and the God of Judeo-Christianity? For example, you say: “After all, no one tries to prove that the Earth exists or that the Sun exists. Surely the existence of gods should be at least as manifest.” As a Christian, all I can say is that I agree with you, which is why I don’t believe in the pagan gods. Yet, you let that critique stand as if it applies to all ways people speak of God. I suppose my question more refined is, do you see a distinction between pagan gods and a Judeo-Christian God?

  18. Owlmirror says

    Why don’t you ever make a distinction between the pagan gods and the God of Judeo-Christianity?

    Is there really any reason to make a distinction? In the bible, God sometimes acts like the pagan gods were said to act, interacting directly with humans and doing things personally. And sometimes the pagan gods acted like God is said to act: Sending storms and/or plagues and/or enemy armies to show displeasure, but not being directly visible, so to speak.

    I understand that some theololgians claim that the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God is different, based on philolsophical argumentation. But this is problematic, not least because at least some of those arguments were based on those of pagan philosophers….

  19. John Morales says

    ‘Pagan’ just means ‘not Christian’ to Christians. It’s a meaningless distinction.

    Chris above:

    For example, you say: “After all, no one tries to prove that the Earth exists or that the Sun exists. Surely the existence of gods should be at least as manifest.” As a Christian, all I can say is that I agree with you, which is why I don’t believe in the pagan gods.

    But the Christian god is no more (and no less) manifest than any pagan god — how you can both agree with that sentiment and still be a Christian is strange to me.

  20. John Morales says

    … or, more succinctly, one does not need Faith (or even plain old faith) to believe the Earth or the Sun exist.

  21. says

    Always encouraging to read “Although I have not read this book, I am slightly familiar with Feser’s work…” then in the very next sentence chastises Feser for not using evidence “There too he disdained the need for any evidence and said that purely rational arguments are sufficient.”

    Oh, the cognitive dissonance.

  22. Mano Singham says

    Michael McCarthy @#23,

    I am not sure where you see cognitive dissonance. After all, Feser himself says that he does not need or use any evidence and I just took him at his word. Should I not believe him?

  23. Ye Olde Statistician says

    I think what Mr. McCarthy meant to say was “Oh, the irony,” since he placed your own not-reading of Prof. Feser’s book to your complaint about reaching conclusions without the empirical facts. Whatever the nature of God or god might be, the book is surely a material object that could be examined by simple techniques.

    One point worth commenting: Several folks object that the various unread proofs do not conclude to “the God of the Bible.” (Why they should care about this, who knows?) But it should be noted that Aquinas’ “five ways” are capsule summaries and each really should end with “details to follow.” That’s because they are followed — by several hundred questions and articles that add further details.

    Also an apparently dismissive reference to the Aristotelian metaphysical principle that all things have “a form and substance” would have been better served had the commentator given an example of a thing that was uninformed or insubstantial. [Actually, a substance is matter with substantial form, so it should be “form and matter”.]

  24. George says

    Dr. Singham,

    Edward Feser has wrote a response:
    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2017/09/thought-free-blogs.html

    It appears remarkable to claim that Dr. Feser “does not need or use any evidence” in a book that is supposed to argue for specific conclusions. An argument consists of a conclusion attempted to be justified with premises through an inferential process. I believe most philosophers would judge such an argument as evidence. The premises must be justified as true and the argument valid for the conclusion to be true. In his book, for example, he references evidence consisting of our observation that we often observe things changing in the world; that there are objects composed of parts; that things go out of existence (e.g., a fly dies, water evaporates, etc.); that human beings argue back-and-forth with propositions and syllogisms; etc.

  25. Rauss says

    Just read Feser’s piece. Wow he’s a fantastic writer.

    And objectively speaking, I think he knocked Mano out.

  26. Mano Singham says

    In response to comments #23 through #29,

    Thanks for your comments. I was going to reply here but it became a little too long and besides, old posts tend to be ignored, so I have replied in a new post here.

  27. Gene Callahan says

    The Mano Singham version of a critique of evolutionary biology:
    “I’ve never actually read a single work by an evolutionary biologist, but I’d GUESS they are saying that one day fish wanted to walk, so they forced themselves to develop legs. What stupidity!”

  28. Robert CB Miller says

    Two points:

    1) Mario Singham should really take the trouble to read the book before commenting on it.
    2) We know all sorts of things without empirical evidence – why should not knowledge of God be one of these things?.

  29. says

    In this quote from Hume: “Whatever we conceive as existent, we can also conceive as non-existent. There is no being, therefore, whose non-existence implies a contradiction.” the last statement, to be true, requires the addition of “a priori”. E.g., we can conceive Mano Singham’s parents as non existent, and their non-existence would not imply a contradiction a priori. Now, given the fact that Mano Singham exists, the non-existence of his parents would imply a contradiction after that fact.

    Then, let us note that, for any Christian, the rational demonstration of God’s existence and attributes is not a priori but a posteriori, after the existence and features of the universe. In the words of the Apostle Paul: “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made,” (Rom 1:20).

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