Contesting Christianity: Philosophical Arguments

Sign with line through Christian cross(This post is part 5 of the series entitled “Contesting Christianity.” Please see the index for the other posts in this series.)

Philosophy - Plato and AristotleAs far as my experience has shown, philosophical arguments do not play a large role in the life of most believers. Most people seem to come to be a Christian either from growing up into a Christian family or through an intense emotional experience of “conversion”. Nevertheless, philosophical arguments for the existence of God and/or the truth of Christianity have a rich historical tradition, from Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo to Descartes and Kant. And while many philosophers have conceded that these arguments are ultimately unsuccessful, they still do have their supporters even today. So I’d like to take some time to examine a few of the most common philosophical arguments for God.

The Cosmological Argument

While many Christians would likely be unfamiliar with the term “cosmological argument,” this is actually used quite commonly in informal settings. Anyone who has asked the question, “If God doesn’t exist, then how did everything get here?” has employed the cosmological argument in a very basic sense. The general idea is that the universe must have had something which caused it to come into existence, and this “First Cause” must have set things in motion. Such an argument has had numerous reformulations over the years, beginning with Plato and Aristotle and made more concrete with Thomas Aquinas’ five proofs for the existence of God. After serious criticisms of the argument by David Hume and Immanuel Kant, it fell out of favour, but has since been revived in modified forms, with the most prominent form being the Kalam cosmological argument (KCA) defended by William Lane Craig. As this is the form that one would be most likely to hear today, I will spend the rest of this section talking about this version of the argument.

Kalam Cosmological Argument

William Lane Craig

William Lane Craig

In the most basic form put forward by Craig, the argument goes as follows:

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

This is a deductive argument, meaning that if the premises (1 and 2) are true, the conclusion (3) must necessarily also be true. Craig usually goes on to say that this cause must also be an uncaused (because it is the first cause), immaterial (because it created matter), timeless (because it created time), and changeless (because it exists outside of time) being. It must also be a personal being that can freely choose to act, or else the universe could not have been created at a specific point. This all sounds a lot like what we typically call “God”. Thus, Craig concludes that the cause of the universe is God.

In support of his first premise, Craig typically appeals to intuition. Of all the things we see come into existence, each and every one of them has a cause. So, as his reasoning goes, it simply makes sense that such a thing is a general rule of all things which come into existence. For the second premise, however, Craig spends more effort supporting this with data. As far as I am aware, he accepts Big Bang cosmology (or at least holds it to be the current scientific consensus), and so he appeals to the large amounts of data supporting this theory. In addition, he makes appeal to concepts surrounding infinite sets, and the differences between potential infinities (like something you would encounter in math equations) and actual infinities (like an infinite series of time). I won’t get into much detail about this, but in essence, he argues that actual infinites cannot exist in reality, and so time must have a starting point.

Big Bang TheoryCriticism of the KCA

So what are the problems with this argument? I’d like to start with the second premise, since that’s comparatively simpler to deal with. First, while Big Bang cosmology enjoys enormous support from scientific evidence, it is important to remember that scientific theories may always be overturned in light of new evidence. Thus it is a possibility that the second premise may lose its support from science in the future. Indeed, there are already alternative models of the universe which would not require it to have a beginning. Cyclical models of alternating big bangs and big crunches exist, and there are other models which do not posit the big bang as the absolute beginning of space and time. There are also people who argue that actual infinites to exist—in other words, that there could have been an infinite series of events before this current moment. However, I have little expertise in this area to really make a judgment of whether those arguments are sound or not. So for the time being, I will accept Craig’s second premise.

But now let’s go back and deal with the first premise. For starters, scientists note that things come into existence without a cause all the time on the subatomic level. For example, in radioactive decay, an alpha, beta, or gamma particle begins to exist spontaneously; there is no actual cause of it coming to exist. Also, unlike what you learned in basic high school science class, quantum physics describes the bizarre behaviour of electrons, which pop in and out of existence seemingly at random.

Even if one sets those aside as peculiar cases, however, one needs to ask the question of what it means to “begin to exist.” I’ll use a few examples to illustrate why the common sense notion of “begin to exist” is problematic for this argument. Tables come into existence. We can watch a carpenter form a table that, the day before, did not exist anywhere in the world. Trees come into existence as they pop out of the ground, where previously there was no tree. Houses come into existence when construction workers build them. However, while in one sense we can say these things “come into existence”, in another very important sense, these objects are merely rearrangements of matter. The table was fashioned out of wood, which was previously a tree. The tree was previously a seed, plus water and nutrients from the soil which are rearranged. The house was previously wood and metal and concrete, which all had their own previous forms as well. None of these things “came into existence” in the sense of atoms and molecules appearing where there previously were none. In every single case where our intuition tells us that something “began to exist,” it was merely rearrangement of existing stuff. This is unlike the universe itself, which must have come into being where previously there was absolutely nothing. So in a very important sense, we have zero examples of anything beginning to exist. And if we have no examples, we have nothing with which to support the first premise at all. And of course, premises which cannot be supported are worthless premises.

I think that what I’ve laid out above is pretty damning to the KCA. I don’t think that it is at all reasonable to rely on “intuition” when dealing with the existence of all space and time. For myself, I can barely comprehend the vastness of the province I live in, let alone the Earth, the Milky Way galaxy, or the mind-bogglingly large universe itself. Our intuitions work very well for medium-sized objects we are used to dealing with in our everyday lives, like people and animals and trees and cars and buildings. But as quantum mechanics has shown us, our intuitions break down when dealing with tiny particles; it seems at least plausible that they might also break down when dealing with vastly huge objects as well. But as a final point, I think it is important to point out that a successful cosmological argument would only get an individual to a “First Cause.” It at most presents a being (perhaps not even a being) that set the universe in motion. That’s it. It hardly gets us anywhere close to a personal, loving being, or to the Christian God that is outlined in the Bible.

The Ontological Argument

Unlike the cosmological argument, I doubt anyone has ever used the ontological argument in an informal setting—it remains a purely philosophical exercise. The ontological argument was first presented by Anselm of Canterbury, and has been supported in various forms by other philosophers since. René Descartes, Gottfried Leibniz, and Alvin Plantinga have also produced well-known forms of the argument. Despite this, it has received pretty extensive criticism from many philosophers. I will present the argument as given by Anselm, since this is an easier form to understand. Descartes’ and Leibniz’ versions would require me to provide much more context to the argument with little gain, and Plantinga’s version relies on “possible worlds,” which is simply too complex of a topic for this article. Anyone interested in these other versions can take a look at the link at the bottom of the page.

St. Anselm of Canterbury

St. Anselm of Canterbury

Anselm’s argument is a little tricky to piece together from his writings, but essentially it goes something like this (source):

  1. It is true by definition that God is a being than which none greater can be conceived.
  2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
  3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
  4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, one that also exists in reality).
  5. But, by definition, we cannot imagine something that is greater than God.
  6. Therefore, God exists.

You might think that at first glance, this argument seems to work flawlessly. It is a deductive argument, and all the premises seem to be true, so that would mean that the conclusion of God’s existence is necessarily true as well. Nonetheless, I suspect that you, as I did when I first read it, might have a funny feeling that something about this is not right. It seems just a bit too easy. And if you have that feeling, you are in agreement with many other philosophers on the matter.

Criticism of the Ontological Argument

The first objection to Anselm’s argument was actually put forward by a monk named Gaunilo of Marmoutier, a contemporary of Anselm. He pointed out that “God” could essentially be replaced by any other concept, with absurd results. Gaunilo demonstrated with the “greatest conceivable island.” It would, of course, be greater for an island to exist in reality instead of only in the mind, and as such, the greatest conceivable island must exist in reality. But clearly this is bizarre. David Hume later pointed out that it was absurd to try to conclude the existence of an object or being through reason alone, without any reliance on evidence or observation.

Square

Not a triangle.

Perhaps are more important criticism was made by Immanuel Kant. He pointed out that “existence” is not a property of the concept of something, but rather a description of the concept’s instantiation in the real world. For example, while “having three sides” is a property of triangles, “existing” is not. One could still have a concept of triangles even if no triangles existed in the real world. (Similarly, I can have a concept of unicorns even though none exist in the real world.) Existence is merely a statement about whether there is an instance of the concept in the world. In other words, there is no difference between the concept of a triangle and the concept of a really existing triangle. The reason that triangles exist is that there are real objects that correspond to the concept of triangles. In the same way, then, existence cannot be a property of God, but rather a description of God’s instantiation in the real world. One cannot simply conjure up a God merely by thinking about God.

Deriving from Kant’s objection, it is also the case that existence is not a “great-making property.” There is nothing inherently better about an object that exists compared to one that does not exist. While we might like it more if the greatest conceivable water slide actually existed, it wouldn’t therefore be a “better” water slide. If that were the case, then it must likewise be said that a real Auschwitz concentration camp is “better” than an imaginary Auschwitz concentration camp existing in the mind alone. This doesn’t seem to work properly. Thus, the “greatest conceivable being” is no greater for existing in the real world than existing in the mind alone.

The Moral Argument

Morality ComicThe moral argument seems to be another one that many Christians often use informally. Although I don’t see it get mentioned as often as the two arguments above, it has been put forward by many people. Because of this, it has numerous forms, and I cannot possibly hope to deal with all of them here. However, they are generally similar to each other, so I will use William Lane Craig’s version as illustrative of them all.

Craig outlines his argument as follows:

  1. If God does not exist, objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

As you can see, the argument is fairly simple and straightforward. This deductive argument essentially states that moral values and duties are dependent on God for their existence. Craig supports premise 1 by pointing out that such a statement is supported and argued for even by many atheists. And premise 2 is usually supported through intuition: “We all know that objective moral values exist!

Criticism of the Moral Argument

Both premises can be challenged here. To start with the first premise, while it is true that some atheists believe such a statement, (a) there is a wide variety of opinions about the grounds of morality among both believers and non-believers, and (b) whether or not atheists support the statement really says nothing about its truth. It is not at all clear that objective moral values are dependent on God, and various moral philosophers argue that (objective) moral values are brute facts of the universe, or products of evolutionary development, or results of a hypothetical “social contract,” and more. In addition, philosophy uses the term “objective” in a very specific sense: as “mind-independent.” In other words, something objective must be the case regardless of any entity’s thoughts, decisions, or judgments. If one is claiming that moral values are dependent on God for their content, it can become very strange to say that such values are “objective.” They rely on the judgments of an entity: God. This makes them, by definition, subjective.

In order to avoid this problem, some (including Craig) define this dependency in a different way. Craig instead argues that moral values are rooted in the character of God as a perfect being; however, he still claims that moral duties are formed through God’s commands, and the commands of a being definitely fall into the subjective realm. Moreover, it becomes difficult to see how God’s character being a certain way really has any ramifications of what our moral values become. If God were hateful instead of loving, would that make hate a moral value? If God’s character meant that he really liked the colour blue, would that make blue a moral “good”? Just because a perfect being exists with a certain character, this doesn’t seem to entail any specific characteristics of morality. He may make the universe a certain way because of his character, but this would still seem to fall under the “subjective” realm, unless one is willing to argue that God himself does not have free will.1

The second premise seems just as contentious as the first. Craig’s support for it, as I mentioned, is that we simply intuitively know that some things are right or wrong. But this begins to get tricky to support. An examination of cultural differences reveals many things that are viewed as immoral or wrong in one culture, but permissible or okay in another culture. Cannibalism is one example. People growing up in cultures that practice cannibalism simply do not have any intuitions about the wrongness of eating other human beings. It doesn’t seem that they are calloused towards such things, or that they are willfully ignoring their intuitions, but rather that they simply do not believe there is anything wrong with it. Similar things can be found for a whole host of other behaviours. In short, it seems that at least many of the moral values we find “intuitive” are culturally-specific. This doesn’t mean that they don’t exist objectively, but it does argue against the efficacy of our moral intuitions.

Cannibal RecipeOf course, philosophers throughout history have found other ways to ground objective moral facts. Typically, they use reason and logic to uncover these things. If such things can be found using arguments and reason, however, this tends to undercut the idea that moral values are dependent on God. It seems, rather, that they are dependent on reason. So traditional forms of moral reasoning present in philosophy generally can’t be used to support this moral argument.

So it seems that without any support for the second premise, and with difficulties in supporting the first premise, that this argument is unsuccessful. It remains an interesting debate in the philosophical literature, but the challenge especially of grounding the second premise on anything other than intuitions makes this a difficult argument to sell.

Conclusion

We have taken a look at three of the most common philosophical arguments for God. Although philosophers go into much more detail concerning these arguments, I have tried to do my best to summarize the arguments and then provide critiques of them. It seems that these arguments, while an excellent attempt, are fraught with difficulties that philosophers and theologians throughout centuries of time have not been able to adequately resolve. Moreover, even if these arguments were successful, they would get us nowhere close to the God of Christianity, but merely to the so-called “God of the philosophers,” a vague being who, at most, set things in motion. To try to translate this into the Christian God would take much more than these arguments have to offer.

More Information

Notes:

  1. If he didn’t, then he wouldn’t have a true choice in the matter of how moral values were set, so one might be able to argue that they were objective. []

5 responses to “Contesting Christianity: Philosophical Arguments”

Gandy

Jeff said ..” suspect that you, as I did when I first read it, might have a funny feeling that something about this is not right. It seems just a bit too easy. And if you have that feeling, you are in agreement with many other philosophers on the matter.”

Yes indeed.

I was thinking pity it cant be adapted to the theory of gamblers “winnings” at the horse races.

Something like

1. winning exists

2.Therefore we all should become winners

Bryan Norford

Hi again Jeff:
As I have commented before, I won’t take much space to respond to all your points from your previous article—some could be further considered, others we will disagree on. I would rather continue to your other subjects. However, I have some comments on the last paragraph of your response.
Even from your point of view, I find it difficult to equate fairies and Santa Claus with religious faith. Most people grow beyond these fantasies before puberty, yet still retain a sense of the reality of God—even if they disagree on understanding that reality. After all, spiritual things are spiritually discerned. The scope of belief in God makes it a different genre than fairy tales.
Furthermore, your statement you “choose not to believe” is unexpected. I would have thought that “impelled” or “constrained not to believe” would have been more appropriate for your approach to belief. Not that I disagree with your use of “choose,” I firmly believe that in spiritual matters, belief is a choice.
In addition, you seem to imply that believing in the probable rules out the merely possible. Personally, I have no difficulty in accepting the probable, but still believe some things are possible; not to do so truncates our ability to understand life. Besides, once God is established as reality, miracles are possible, if unlikely. It all depends on your starting point. And as the saying goes: truth is often stranger than fiction.
But moving to your article on philosophy, I’m not inclined to answer your suggestions point by point for a couple of reasons. First, I have made no meaningful study of philosophy, and you have me outgunned. Second, philosophy, like science, will never prove the existence or non-existence of God. In fact, I am again in some agreement with you that the approaches you review, but also the objections, are flimsy at best, and very different from personal experience, the starting point for most Christians.
But I do have some views on philosophy itself. The history of philosophy seems bound up in words that can easily bypass logic. In the Lysis, Socrates arrives by deduction at the statement: “Many, therefore, are loved by their enemies and hated by their friends, and they are friends to their enemies and enemies to their friends,” which he subsequently agrees is false! Too often playing with words can arrive at nonsense, as your recently quoted Loftus argument also demonstrates.
Typical in this fight for certainty is what I understand are recent findings in the philosophy of language, which doubts the efficacy of language to transmit thought. This undermines the whole philosophical endeavour, just as faster than light neutrinos may upset physics. A typical approach is to assert that words take their meaning from context, but context depends on the meaning of words, which suggests, despite evidence to the contrary, that understanding meaning is improbable.
In the approaches you review in your article, it appears that one can refute a thesis by expanding its original parameters. Then of course, the refutation may be refuted by expanding the parameters again, probably leading to Plantinga’s complicated process you necessarily avoid. It seems the only thing we can be sure of is that we doubt, for as Augustine pointed out: to doubt that we doubt is to prove we doubt. There seems no way around this one, but, as you may agree, doubt is a necessary component in the search for truth.
Thus for me, philosophy is generally an exercise in seeking answers where the journey is more important than the destination. Whatever practical application can be gained from philosophy rests on a foundation that is constantly in jeopardy.
Now, despite my earlier disclaimer, there are a couple of points from your article I want to raise. Again, I don’t think the moral argument settles anything, but I have a problem with your use of objectivity. Even using the philosophical definition, “mind-independent,” morality in the mind of an objective God—that is One outside the realm of nature—can still be mind-independent of humans. Further, I notice the old argument that different cultures have different morals, but I don’t believe this holds water. Cannibals don’t eat their own clan, only someone else’s—a corruption of “do not kill,” but still based on it. In addition, while many would dispute the last six commandments of the Decalogue, victims of them wholeheartedly agree with them!
Finally, I’m surprised you have not tackled the problem of reason (unless you have addressed it elsewhere). Morals could be naturally built on survival and utilitarian values, although I don’t believe they are—altruism doesn’t fit the pattern. But reason defies the random character of nature. A thoroughgoing naturalism is an irrational process of chance where each event is caused by a previous event. This gives rise to two problems.
First, in this situation human beings have no free will, but are conditioned like all nature to follow the process of cause and effect. The brain responses are no more than nature performing her act and personal responses its continuation. Of course, none of us believes that because reason intervenes. Which leads to the second problem. Our reasoning is the result of rational thought, but how can our thinking be reliable if it is the result of irrational movement of atoms in our naturally formed brains?
Perhaps trial and error over eons has given rise to a means of conceiving successful actions and denying destructive ones. Heredity passes these on and improves on them through the generations. But this argument assumes this thought is reasoned, inferring the very thing in question. Another, pragmatic approach: “Well, it works,” says nothing about the truth of what we believe, nor does it address the elusive cause of reason.
You’ve probably guessed where I’m heading. The Creator is Reason Himself, or at least He created reason. After creating nature to run on its pre-ordained processes, He gave reason to humans so they could investigate and adapt nature for their survival and advance. The brain is the interface between brute process and the ability to harness it. Reason comes from outside nature, and a world without reason would be hell on earth!
Of course, this is another theory that makes sense to me, but not one on which I rely. It is further circumstantial evidence for a Being outside of nature, without whom life beyond animal existence is not possible.

Jeff

Hi Bryan,

Even from your point of view, I find it difficult to equate fairies and Santa Claus with religious faith. Most people grow beyond these fantasies before puberty, yet still retain a sense of the reality of God—even if they disagree on understanding that reality. After all, spiritual things are spiritually discerned. The scope of belief in God makes it a different genre than fairy tales.

The fact that children growing up are generally never told that God is actually not real might give some indication of why belief in Santa Claus disappears while belief in God remains. Usually, children are eventually told that Santa isn’t real, whereas belief in God is instead reinforced. With that said, though, I didn’t mean to necessarily equate all those beliefs in every aspect. They are merely all (from my perspective) beliefs which are possible, but not probable. So I still use them for the sake of an analogy.

In addition, you seem to imply that believing in the probable rules out the merely possible. Personally, I have no difficulty in accepting the probable, but still believe some things are possible; not to do so truncates our ability to understand life. Besides, once God is established as reality, miracles are possible, if unlikely. It all depends on your starting point. And as the saying goes: truth is often stranger than fiction.

I’m not sure I understand what you mean here. Obviously some improbable things happen; the difference here is that we should not believe in such things unless the evidence for them warrants it. Sure, miracles are possible. But one’s starting position should not be to believe in possible yet improbable things; that should be an ending point, if compelling evidence is presented.

Typical in this fight for certainty is what I understand are recent findings in the philosophy of language, which doubts the efficacy of language to transmit thought. This undermines the whole philosophical endeavour, just as faster than light neutrinos may upset physics. A typical approach is to assert that words take their meaning from context, but context depends on the meaning of words, which suggests, despite evidence to the contrary, that understanding meaning is improbable.

This is an interesting point, and something that philosophers (and other academics) have struggled with in recent years. I’m certainly no expert in the philosophy of language, so I’m not very aware of what more recent philosophers have said, but in Wittgenstein’s original description of “language games”, what you’ve asserted is not quite what he described. According to him, the meaning of words/sentences was understood from the shared social context, i.e. a “language game” that two or more people are playing. How one determines which game one is playing is the result of many complex social factors, but the point is, if you can identify (implicitly) what game you’re playing, the meaning of the words can be understood. Thus, the meaning doesn’t necessarily depend on the context of other words, just on the general context of the situation.

At any rate, I do agree with you that philosophy can be “slippery” at times. If any meaning can be gleaned from it, it’s at least important to be as clear and precise as possible to avoid playing with words in order to make your point.

Even using the philosophical definition, “mind-independent,” morality in the mind of an objective God—that is One outside the realm of nature—can still be mind-independent of humans.

That seems like special pleading to me, and nothing more. Why does morality in the mind of God make it somehow less subjective to his own personal thoughts or values or beliefs (or whims)? And why is the realm limited to humans? If a sentient alien species were to fly to earth and tell us that hopping on one foot for seven hours a day was morally obligatory, would we not see that as “subjective” as well? Objectivity doesn’t seem to be predicated on what sort of body or brain someone’s mind exists within. If there are thoughts, feelings, beliefs, values, etc., they are subjective.

Further, I notice the old argument that different cultures have different morals, but I don’t believe this holds water. Cannibals don’t eat their own clan, only someone else’s—a corruption of “do not kill,” but still based on it.

Or perhaps the moral of “do not kill” is a corruption of “do not kill and eat someone in one’s own clan”! Why are your moral injunctives the basis from which everything else is corrupted?

But reason defies the random character of nature. A thoroughgoing naturalism is an irrational process of chance where each event is caused by a previous event.

Nature is not entirely random. It operates according to very regular rules governing physics, chemical reactions, and so on. Not to mention, if each event is caused by a previous event, as you say, doesn’t this imply that the events aren’t random?

This gives rise to two problems. First, in this situation human beings have no free will, but are conditioned like all nature to follow the process of cause and effect. The brain responses are no more than nature performing her act and personal responses its continuation. Of course, none of us believes that because reason intervenes. Which leads to the second problem. Our reasoning is the result of rational thought, but how can our thinking be reliable if it is the result of irrational movement of atoms in our naturally formed brains?

The movement of atoms in our brains are anything but random! They operate via an incredibly complex system of neural pathways, excitatory and inhibitory impulses, and hierarchical (and modular) organizational structure. It’s also been finely-tuned by eons of evolutionary development, honing into processes that function optimally (in most cases). “Human reason” is a wonderful thing, but not unexplainable. It relies on logic and probability, both of which can be gleaned based on rules which govern nature. And of course, the development of language, and later written language, helped enormously to develop and refine our “reason” and logic.

However, keep in mind, of course, that humans are not really as “reasonable” as you might think. We often fall prey to biases, errors, and faulty logic. Stating that reason was given to us by our creator implies that such a creator gave us reason which only works some of the time, in some situations, and often breaks down (even without us realizing it). It’s a wonderful thing to have, to be sure, but it’s shoddy workmanship if its creator was truly all-knowing and all-powerful!

Perhaps trial and error over eons has given rise to a means of conceiving successful actions and denying destructive ones. Heredity passes these on and improves on them through the generations. But this argument assumes this thought is reasoned, inferring the very thing in question. Another, pragmatic approach: “Well, it works,” says nothing about the truth of what we believe, nor does it address the elusive cause of reason.

Evolution (or “trial and error”, if you wish) does not assume a reasoned process of some sort of intelligence. Evolution in even this limited sense is inevitable in any population with heredity and limited resources. And when certain aspects of “reason” provide us with better abilities to assess reality (much as a focused eye gives us better vision than a blurry one), such a trait will be selected for. Of course, what is being selected is the tool that provides beliefs, not the beliefs themselves. So evolution provides us with tools that are fairly good at understanding reality (in general, everyday situations…unfortunately, we’re not so good at inuitively understanding differential calculus or quantum mechanics!), and then those tools, along with societal progress over time, help us to refine beliefs which better reflect reality. No outside intelligence required here!

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