JTS: Intro to Phil
Session 3: Briefing Note

GEM 03:10:22

“Proofs” and the Existence of God



1. The Problem of "Proof"

2. Alternative Views on God

3. Theistic "Proofs"

4. Antitheistic "Proofs"

--> The Problem of Evil

5. Dialogue

For Discussion or Reflection

References & Readings


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INTRODUCTION: The first pivotal issue in a worldview is the existence and nature of ultimate reality, especially: is there a God? If so, how is the world related to him, especially ourselves?

To such questions, there are many diverse and conflicting answers, every one of which bristles with difficulties.  Therefore, our approach in this session will be to first reflect on what we mean by “proof” then consider the menu of significant alternatives, and the arguments that rage about them.  From these reflections, we will then be able to draw balanced conclusions about the limitations of argument, but more importantly, we will see that becoming critically aware of the alternatives and difficulties on a major issue helps us mature our own views.

1.         The Problem of “Proof”

In looking at the philosophers toolkit, we saw that sound arguments – those that are based on true facts and valid logic -- result in true conclusions. However, there is little consensus on what facts can be used as the foundation of arguments, due to the ever-present potential for an infinite regress: to demonstrate A requires B, but B requires C . . . 

In short, there is the tendency: if you don’t like the conclusions and the logic is valid, challenge the assumptions.  Consequently, there are no proofs that cannot be challenged, if one is sufficiently motivated to do so. But, this comes at a price: the alternative start-points are often at least as problematic as the one being challenged.

(Therefore, one should call “foul” when one sees a claim that the mere existence of serious difficulties means that we can reject a given worldview out of hand. Rather, it is far better to ask: what are the alternatives, and what are their difficulties? For, “the rest of the story” can make a big difference!)

Thus, we again see the value of the principle that in philosophy a fair-minded thinker compares difficulties and chooses which ones s/he is willing to live with. This dialogue strategy is central to the task of properly assessing the balance of views and arguments on the question of God.

2.         Alternative views on “God”

There are many alternative views on the existence and nature of God, leading to equally diverse world views and agendas for life.

C. Stephen Evans provides a useful summary[1]:

Of these, the “live” broad philosophical alternatives seem to be (a) theism, (b) pantheism/ panentheism/ monism and (c) agnosticism/atheism. (In practice, people often blend aspects of the major views – even when this involves logical contradictions; and it is particularly common for animist survivals or fragments to be embedded in other views.)

If we for the moment put aside the question of the personality of God, we can reduce the issue yet further: God/no God. To this, we now turn.

3.         Theistic “Proofs”

Perhaps, it is wisest to start with Pascal’s Wager: given the vital importance and potential consequences of the question whether God is/is not, as the core of all worldviews, and the rough balance of the arguments, one faces a forced, momentous choice. 

For, if one “bets” that God is not, and is wrong in the end, s/he has lost all – one’s soul. If one has bet that God is, and is eventually proved wrong, one still has lived by a manner of life that is arguably at least as good as the alternative, and has lost nothing – for one would then face oblivion as all other men do.

Pascal, father of probability theory, therefore argues that on the balance of expectations (= probability x payoff – cost) the bet that God is, is far better – a case of comparative difficulties at work.  His underlying point is that if you then sincerely seek God, God will meet you, so that you can come to know God through personal experience.

To see what that "rough balance" looks like, we first explore the classic theistic arguments to God, using modern examples[2] from the families of such “proofs” presented and summarised by Thomas Aquinas in his famous Summa Theologica:

B. Cosmological:

(NB: This appears out of the classical order, as IMHO it makes A far more clear if this is done, by distinguishing and rationalising "contingent" and "necessary" beings. This is an example of a cumulative argument.):

1.      Some contingent beings exist. (E.g.: us, a tree or a fruit, an artifact, the planets and stars, etc. -- anything that might not have existed, i.e. is caused.)

2.      Contingent beings do not exist by themselves – that is in part what “contingent” means - so they require a necessary being as their ultimate cause.

3.      If any contingent being exists, then a necessary being exists.

4.      Thus, there exists a necessary being, the ultimate cause of the existence of the many contingent beings in the cosmos.

A. Ontological:

1.      If God exists, his existence is necessary. (NB link to B.4 just above.)

2.      If God does not exist, his existence is impossible.

3.      Either God exists or he does not exist.

4.      God’s existence is either necessary or impossible.

5.      But, God’s existence is possible (i.e. not impossible).

6.      So, God’s existence is necessary.

C. Teleological/design:

1.      Highly complex objects with intricate, interacting parts are produced by intelligent designers, at least so far as we can determine from cases where we do directly know the cause.

2.      The universe (and/or a specific part of it[3]) is just such a highly complex object.

3.      Probably, it is the result of intelligent design.

4.      But, the scope/complexity of the universe is such that only God could be its designer.

5.      Probably, there is a God.

D. Moral:

1.      People, in practice, invariably act as though there are binding moral obligations. (For instance, as C. S. Lewis points out, that is how we quarrel.)

2.      Probably, such objective, binding moral obligations exist.

3.      Probably, unless there is a God, there cannot be objectively binding moral obligations.

4.      Probably, there is a God who is the author of the moral order of the universe.

E. Religious experience:

1.      If and only if God exists, can God reveal himself to us -- through direct encounters/revelations, and/or through miracles, and/or through indirect witness (such as the voice of conscience or the glories of creation, or the intellectual and moral incoherence of other views about ultimate reality), etc.

2.      A great many people report that they have had just such experiences of/encounters with/discoveries about God; often sensing union with and/or the utter otherness of God.

3.      Many of these are in the list of greatest minds and/or greatest lives in human history.

4.      It is extremely unlikely that all of these people are lying, mistaken or deluded.

5.      It is therefore highly probable that God exists, as the ground of such experiences. (This argument brings us back to Pascal’s wager.)

These arguments are of valid -- or at least inductively strong -- forms, and they mutually reinforce like the strands and fibres in a rope[4], but objections can be made to at least some of their premises. However, such rejection comes at a price:

Thus, we see that there are no universally compelling theistic arguments, but that rejecting them all comes at a metaphysical price that may be steeper than one is willing to pay.

4.         Antitheistic “Proofs”

Similarly, there are no universally accepted proofs that there is no God. Generally the antitheistic arguments appeal to one of two main arguments: (1) the triumph of the natural sciences as a satisfactory explanation of everything from hydrogen to humans without need to invoke the supernatural. Beyond that is (2) the problem of evil.

F. Naturalism is adequate:

Here, modern Big-Bang Cosmology, then chemical evolution leading to the first life-forms and Darwinian natural selection coupled to mutation are appealed to explain the biophysical universe. Society and culture, as well as individuality are then explained in terms of socio-cultural evolution interacting with the results of biological evolution: nurture plus nature.

Several limitations and difficulties attach to this:

Thus, evolutionary thinking can be fitted into a materialistic framework, but not without challenges, and it certainly cannot provide a proof beyond reasonable dispute. However, naturalistic thinkers, who dominate the academy, counter that theistic thinking is even more suspect, especially for reasons connected to the problem of evil.        

G. The Problem of Evil:

There is probably no more persuasive argument against God than the existence and/or intensity of evil in the world.  The problem comes in two main forms, inductive: the extent of evil observed is so much that it challenges the claim that a good God exists. The deductive form says that the existence of evil entails that the idea of God as expressed by theists embeds a logical contradiction. (There is also a non-propositional form: the existential problem of evil, triggered when we go through experiences that bring us face to face with great evil or pain or loss.)

That is, it is claimed that the following theistic beliefs embed an unresolvable contradiction:

1.      God exists

2.      God is omnipotent – all powerful[5]

3.      God is omniscient – all-knowing

4.      God is omnibenevolent – all-good

5.      God created the world

6.      The world contains evil

To do so, there is an implicit claim that, (2a) if he exists, God is omnipotent and so capable of -- but obviously does not eliminate -- evil. So, at least one of 2 – 5 should be surrendered. But all of these claims are central to the notion of God, so it is held that the problem is actually 1. Therefore God does not exist.

However, it has been pointed out by Plantinga and others[6] that:

  1. 2a is not consistent with what theists believe: if the elimination of some evil would lead to a worse evil, or prevent the emergence of a greater good, then God might have a good reason to permit some evil in the cosmos.

  2. Specifically, what if “many evils result from human free will or from the fact that our universe operates under natural laws or from the fact that humans exist in a setting that fosters soul-making . . . [and that such a world] contains more good than a world that does not” ?

  3. In this case, Theists propose that 2a should be revised: 2b: “A good, omnipotent God will eliminate evil as far as he can without either losing a greater good or bringing about a greater evil.”  But, once this is done, the alleged contradiction collapses.

  4. Further, Alvin Plantinga – through his free will defense[7] -- was able to show that the theistic set is actually consistent. He did this by augmenting the set with a further proposition that is logically possible[8] (as opposed to probable or plausible) and which makes the consistency clear. That proposition, skeletally, is 5a: “God created a world (potentially) containing evil; and has a good reason for doing so.” Propositions 1, 2b, 3, 4, and 5a are plainly consistent, and entail 6.

  5. The essence of that defense is: “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 . . . God can create free creatures, but he can’t cause or determine them to do only what is right. For . . . then they aren’t significantly free after all . . . He could only have forestalled the occurrence of moral evil only by removing the possibility of moral good.” [This assumes that moral good reflects the power of choice: if we are merely robots carrying out programs, then we cannot actually love, be truthful, etc.] [Clark pp. 69 – 70, citing Plantinga, God, Freedom and Evil, (Eerdmans, 1974), p. 30.]

  6. Anticipating the response that in at least some possible worlds, there are free creatures, all of whom freely do what is right, Plantinga asserts a further possibility: trans-world depravity. That is, in all worlds God could create in which a certain person, say Gordon, exists; then that person would have freely gone wrong at least once. And, what if it is further possible that this holds for everybody? (Then, there would be no possible worlds in which moral good is possible but in which evil would not in fact occur. So the benefit of moral good would entail that the world would contain transworld depraved creatures.)

  7. Moreover, Plantinga proposes that there is a possible state of affairs in which God and natural evil can exist. For instance, if all natural evils are the result of the actions of significantly free creatures such as Satan and his minions, then since it is logically possible that God could not have created a world with a greater balance of good over evil if it did not contain such creatures, God and natural evil are compatible.
  8. At this point, albeit grudgingly, leading atheologians (Such as Mackie and Williams) concede that the deductive form of the problem of evil stands overturned. Thus, a new question is put on the table.

  9. It is: But what if the world seems to contain too much evil, and evil that is apparently pointless, i.e. gratuitous? First, the greater good “absorbs” at least some of the evils. To this, the Christian Theist further responds that there are goods in the world that are left out of the account so far; especially, that the fall of mankind led to the greatest good of all: that God loved the world and gave his Son, setting in motion the programme of redemption as a supreme good that absorbs all evils. That is, it is rational for a Christian to believe there are no unabsorbed evils, even though the atheologian may beg to differ with the Christian’s beliefs.

  10. However, it should be noted that there is an existential form of the problem of evil: where the overwhelming force of evil and pain brings us to doubt God. To that, no mere rational argument will suffice; for it is a life-challenge we face, as did Job. And, as a perusal of Job 23:1 – 7, 38:1 – 7, 40:1 – 8, 42:1 – 6, God may be more interested in exposing our underlying motives and calling for willingness to trust him even where we cannot trace him, than in satisfying our queries and rebutting our pained accusations. That is, it is at least possible that God is primarily in the business of soul-making.         

Where then does the problem of evil stand today? On balance, it is rational to believe that God exists, but obviously there are many deep, even painful questions to which we have no answers. And, those who choose to believe in God will have a radically different evaluation of evil than those who reject him.

CONCLUSIONS: Overall, we have seen that there are no proofs acceptable to all informed thinkers that there is/is not a God.  However, it is clear that the rejection of ALL of the arguments to God requires quite strong commitments, some of which may well seem extreme.  For instance, given that those who claim to have encountered God in their lives includes many of the very greatest minds and lives ever lived, is it plausible to believe that they ALL were/are deluded or worse?

On the other side, the problem of evil is a very powerful difficulty for theism. However, Plantinga’s free will defense has clearly brought about a major shift in the terms of such a discussion. Specifically, even leading atheologians have now had to concede that the deductive form of the problem of evil, fails to demonstrate that theism is self contradictory in a world that contains evil. (And, in some cases, those who deny the existence of God need to address their basis for thinking that evil is significant, as this is a moral concept, arguably entailing that God exists as the ground for morality to have universal force.)   


Points to ponder . . .

  1. Do many people in the Caribbean doubt God’s existence? Why/why not?
  1. Is there a trend?
  1. How could arguments such as the above be best reworked to communicate to people in our region who are puzzled by the issue of the existence of God?
  1.  In light of the above, how should we respond to the needs and trends in the Caribbean?

References & Readings

Evans, C Stephen. Philosophy of Religion. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1985.

Nash, Ronald. Faith and Reason. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988.

Clark, Kelley James. Return to Reason. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

Morris, Tom. Philosophy for Dummies. NY: Hungry Minds, 1999.

Stanford online Enc. of Phil: http://plato.stanford.edu/

An online Intro to Phil: Topic: 

Metaphysics: http://www.philosophyclass.com/metaphysics.htm  



[1] Philosophy of Religion, p. 31 ff, with a few additional notes on animism.

[2] Cf. C S Evans, Philosophy of Religion (IVP, 1985), pp. 45 – 119. Also, Morris, pp. 233 – 260.

[3] The Intelligent Design movement cites the cell as a case in point, especially the bacterial flagellum, which is  20,000 RPM molecular scale electric outboard motor energized by ion interactions, complete with paddle, stator and rotor. Cf. http://www.windowview.org/ARNfiles/Flagellum.html, for a summary of the claim, which has triggered quite a debate. (Cf. http://www.arn.org/docs2/news/dembski-ruse-aaas.htm .)

[4] That is, arguments can have a cumulative effect that is stronger than the force of each component argument. One fibre from a rope is short and weak. But, when it is twirled with others to make a strand, and the strands are then intertwined, the twists and counter-twists make a long, strong, durable rope. Similarly, if one has a set of buckets, each with a hole in it; if they are stacked properly, each bucket will help stop the holes of the others, often leading to a composite bucket that can carry water!  In short, when several valid or inductively strong arguments converge on a common conclusion, it is often much harder to reject the cumulative case than it is to attack each in isolation.  (This is how court cases are usually built up.)

[5] This plainly cannot include power to do the logically impossible: say, make a square circle.  Theists will add. nor, to do what contradicts God’s nature as loving, pure, holy, just, truthful, etc.

[6] Cf. Nash, Ron, Faith and Reason, (Zondervan 1988) p. 177 ff; Clark, Kelly J., Return to Reason, (Eerdmans, 1990), p. 55 ff.

[7] A theodicy attempts to show why God permitted evil, and so is open to the objection that it is implausible. A defense exploits the fact that the charge “contradiction” is so stringent that bare logical possibility is enough to overthrow it.

[8] That is, it does not contain internal inconsistencies such as a square circle or the equivalent.