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Problems of Belief & Unbelief

Does god exist, william lane craig says there are good reasons for thinking that he does..

On April 8, 1966, Time magazine carried a lead story for which the cover was completely black except for three words emblazoned in bright, red letters against the dark background: “IS GOD DEAD?” The story described the so-called ‘Death of God’ movement then current in American theology. But, to paraphrase Mark Twain, it seemed that the news of God’s demise was “greatly exaggerated.” For at the same time that theologians were writing God’s obituary, a new generation of young philosophers was re-discovering His vitality.

Back in the 1940s and ’50s it was widely believed among philosophers that any talk about God is meaningless, since it is not verifiable by the five senses. The collapse of this Verificationism was perhaps the most important philosophical event of the twentieth century. Its downfall meant a resurgence of metaphysics, along with other traditional problems of philosophy which Verificationism had suppressed. Accompanying this resurgence came something altogether unanticipated: a renaissance of Christian philosophy.

The turning point probably came in 1967 with the publication of Alvin Plantinga’s God and Other Minds , which applied the tools of analytic philosophy to questions in the philosophy of religion with an unprecedented rigor and creativity. In Plantinga’s train has followed a host of Christian philosophers, writing in professional journals and participating in professional conferences and publishing with the finest academic presses. The face of Anglo-American philosophy has been transformed as a result. Atheism, although perhaps still the dominant viewpoint in Western universities, is a philosophy in retreat. In a recent article, University of Western Michigan philosopher Quentin Smith laments what he calls “the desecularization of academia that evolved in philosophy departments since the late 1960s.” (‘The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism’, Philo , Vol 4, #2, at philoonline.org ). Complaining of naturalists’ passivity in the face of the wave of “intelligent and talented theists entering academia today,” Smith concludes, “God is not ‘dead’ in academia; he returned to life in the late 1960s and is now alive and well in his last academic stronghold, philosophy departments.”

The renaissance of Christian philosophy has been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in natural theology – that branch of theology which seeks to prove God’s existence without appeal to the resources of authoritative divine revelation – for instance, through philosophical argument. All of the traditional philosophical arguments for God’s existence, such as the cosmological, teleological, moral, and ontological arguments, not to mention creative, new arguments, find intelligent and articulate defenders on the contemporary philosophical scene.

But what about the so-called ‘New Atheism’ exemplified by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens? Doesn’t it herald a reversal of this trend? Not really. As is evident from the authors it interacts with – or rather, doesn’t interact with – the New Atheism is, in fact, a pop-cultural phenomenon lacking in intellectual muscle and blissfully ignorant of the revolution that has taken place in Anglo-American philosophy. It tends to reflect the scientism of a bygone generation, rather than the contemporary intellectual scene.

Eight Reasons in Support of God’s Existence

I believe that God’s existence best explains a wide range of the data of human experience. Let me briefly mention eight such cases.

(I) God is the best explanation why anything at all exists.

Suppose you were hiking through the forest and came upon a ball lying on the ground. You would naturally wonder how it came to be there. If your hiking buddy said to you, “Forget about it! It just exists!” you would think he was either joking or just wanted you to keep moving. No one would take seriously the idea that the ball just exists without any explanation. Now notice than merely increasing the size of the ball until it becomes coextensive with the universe does nothing to either provide, or remove the need for, an explanation of its existence.

So what is the explanation of the existence of the universe (by ‘the universe’ I mean all of spacetime reality)? The explanation of the universe can lie only in a transcendent reality beyond it – beyond space and time – the existence of which transcendent reality is metaphysically necessary (otherwise its existence would also need explaining). Now there is only one way I can think of to get a contingent entity like the universe from a necessarily existing cause, and that is if the cause is an agent who can freely choose to create the contingent reality. It therefore follows that the best explanation of the existence of the contingent universe is a transcendent personal being – which is what everybody means by ‘God’.

We can summarize this reasoning as follows:

1. Every contingent thing has an explanation of its existence.

2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is a transcendent, personal being.

3. The universe is a contingent thing.

4. Therefore, the universe has an explanation of its existence.

5. Therefore, the explanation of the universe is a transcendent, personal being.

– which is what everybody means by ‘God’.

(II) God is the best explanation of the origin of the universe.

We have pretty strong evidence that the universe has not existed eternally into the past, but had a beginning a finite time ago. In 2003, the mathematician Arvind Borde, and physicists Alan Guth and Alexander Vilenkin were able to prove that any universe which has, on average, been expanding throughout its history cannot be infinite in the past, but must have a past spacetime boundary (i.e., a beginning). What makes their proof so powerful is that it holds so long as time and causality hold, regardless of the physical description of the very early universe. Because we don’t yet have a quantum theory of gravity, we can’t yet provide a physical description of the first split-second of the universe; but the Borde-Guth-Vilenkin theorem is independent of one’s theory of gravitation. For instance, their theorem implies that the quantum vacuum state which may have characterized the early universe cannot have existed eternally into the past, but must itself have had a beginning. Even if our universe is just a tiny part of a so-called ‘multiverse’, composed of many universes, their theorem requires that the multiverse itself must have had a beginning.

Of course, highly speculative physical scenarios, such as loop quantum gravity models, string models, even closed timelike curves, have been proposed to try to avoid this absolute beginning. These models are fraught with problems, but the bottom line is that none of these theories, even if true , succeeds in restoring an eternal past for the universe. Last year, at a conference in Cambridge celebrating the seventieth birthday of Stephen Hawking, Vilenkin delivered a paper entitled ‘Did the Universe Have a Beginning?’, which surveyed current cosmology with respect to that question. He argued that “none of these scenarios can actually be past-eternal.” Specifically, Vilenkin closed the door on three models attempting to avert the implication of his theorem: eternal inflation, a cyclic universe, and an ‘emergent’ universe which exists for eternity as a static seed before expanding. Vilenkin concluded, “ All the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning.”

But then the inevitable question arises: Why did the universe come into being? What brought the universe into existence? There must have been a transcendent cause which brought the universe into being – a cause outside the universe itself.

We can summarize this argument thus far as follows:

1. The universe began to exist.

2. If the universe began to exist, then the universe has a transcendent cause.

3. Therefore, the universe has a transcendent cause.

By the very nature of the case, that cause of the physical universe must be an immaterial (i.e., non-physical) being. Now there are only two types of things that could possibly fit that description: either an abstract object like a number, or an unembodied mind/consciousness. But abstract objects don’t stand in causal relations to physical things. The number 7, for example, has no effect on anything. Therefore the cause of the universe is an unembodied mind. Thus again we are brought, not merely to a transcendent cause of the universe, but to its Personal Creator.

(III) God is the best explanation of the applicability of mathematics to the physical world.

Philosophers and scientists have puzzled over what physicist Eugene Wigner called “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics.” How is it that a mathematical theorist like Peter Higgs can sit down at his desk and, by pouring over mathematical equations, predict the existence of a fundamental particle which, thirty years later, after investing millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours, experimentalists are finally able to detect? Mathematics is the language of nature. But how is this to be explained? If mathematical objects like numbers and mathematical theorems are abstract entities causally isolated from the physical universe, then the applicability of mathematics is, in the words of philosopher of mathematics Mary Leng, “a happy coincidence.” On the other hand, if mathematical objects are just useful fictions, how is it that nature is written in the language of these fictions? The naturalist has no explanation for the uncanny applicability of mathematics to the physical world. By contrast, the theist has a ready explanation: When God created the physical universe He designed it in terms of the mathematical structure which He had in mind.

We can summarize this argument as follows:

1. If God did not exist, the applicability of mathematics would be just a happy coincidence.

2. The applicability of mathematics is not just a happy coincidence.

3. Therefore, God exists.

(IV) God is the best explanation of the fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.

SETI dish

In recent decades scientists have been stunned by the discovery that the initial conditions of the Big Bang were fine-tuned for the existence of intelligent life with a precision and delicacy that literally defy human comprehension. This fine-tuning is of two sorts. First, when the laws of nature are expressed as equations, you find appearing in them certain constants, such as the gravitational constant. The values of these constants are independent of the laws of nature. Second, in addition to these constants, there are certain arbitrary quantities which define the initial conditions on which the laws of nature operate – for example, the amount of entropy (disorder) in the universe. Now these constants and quantities fall into an extraordinarily narrow range of life-permitting values. Were these constants or quantities to be altered by less than a hair’s breadth, the life-permitting balance of nature would be destroyed, and life would not exist.

There are three live explanatory options for this extraordinary fine-tuning: physical necessity, chance, or design.

Physical necessity is not, however, a plausible explanation, because the finely-tuned constants and quantities are independent of the laws of nature. Therefore, they are not physically necessary.

So could this fine-tuning be due to chance? The problem with this explanation is that the odds of all the constants and quantities’ randomly falling into the incomprehensibly narrow life-permitting range are just so infinitesimal that they cannot be reasonably accepted. Therefore the proponents of the chance explanation have been forced to postulate the existence of a ‘World Ensemble’ of other universes, preferably infinite in number and randomly ordered, so that life-permitting universes like ours would appear by chance somewhere in the Ensemble. Not only is this hypothesis, to borrow Richard Dawkins’ phrase, “an unparsimonious extravagance,” it faces an insuperable objection. By far, the most probable observable universes in a World Ensemble would be worlds in which a single brain fluctuated into existence out of the vacuum and observed its otherwise empty world. So, if our world were just a random member of the World Ensemble, by all probability we ought to be having observations like that. Since we don’t, that strongly disconfirms the World Ensemble hypothesis. So chance is also not a good explanation. Thus,

1. The fine-tuning of the universe is due to either physical necessity, chance, or design.

2. The fine-tuning of the universe is not due to physical necessity or chance.

3. Therefore, the fine-tuning of the universe is due to design.

Thus, the fine-tuning of the universe constitutes evidence for a cosmic Designer.

(V) God is the best explanation of intentional states of consciousness.

Philosophers are puzzled by states of intentionality . Intentionality is the property of being about something or of something. It signifies the object-directedness of our thoughts. For example, I can think about my summer vacation, or I can think of my wife. No physical object has intentionality in this sense. A chair or a stone or a glob of tissue like the brain is not about or of something else. Only mental states or states of consciousness are about other things. In The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life without Illusions (2011), the materialist Alex Rosenberg recognizes this fact, and concludes that for atheists, there really are no intentional states. Rosenberg boldly claims that we never really think about anything. But this seems incredible. Obviously, I am thinking about Rosenberg’s argument – and so are you! This seems to me to be a reductio ad absurdum of his atheism. By contrast, for theists, because God is a mind, it’s hardly surprising that there should be other, finite minds, with intentional states. Thus intentional states fit comfortably into a theistic worldview.

So we may argue:

1. If God did not exist, intentional states of consciousness would not exist.

2. But intentional states of consciousness do exist.

(VI) God is the best explanation of objective moral values and duties.

In our experience we apprehend moral values and duties which impose themselves as objectively binding and true. For example, we recognize that it’s wrong to walk into an elementary school with an automatic weapon and shoot little boys and girls and their teachers. On a naturalistic view, however, there is nothing really wrong with this: moral values are just the subjective by-products of biological evolution and social conditioning, and have no objective validity.

Alex Rosenberg is brutally honest about the implications of his atheism here too. He declares, “there is no such thing as… morally right or wrong.” ( The Atheist’s Guide to Reality , p.145); “Individual human life is meaningless… and without ultimate moral value.” (p.17); “We need to face the fact that nihilism is true.” (p.95). By contrast, the theist grounds objective moral values in God, and our moral duties in His commands. The theist thus has the explanatory resources to ground objective moral values and duties which the atheist lacks.

Hence we may argue:

1. Objective moral values and duties exist.

2. But if God did not exist, objective moral values and duties would not exist.

(VII) The very possibility of God’s existence implies that God exists.

In order to understand this argument, you need to understand what philosophers mean by ‘possible worlds’. A possible world is just a way the world might have been. It is a description of a possible reality. So a possible world is not a planet or a universe or any kind of concrete object, it is a world-description. The actual world is the description that is true. Other possible worlds are descriptions that are not in fact true but which might have been true. To say that something exists in some possible world is to say that there is some consistent description of reality which includes that entity. To say that something exists in every possible world means that no matter which description is true, that entity will be included in the description. For example, unicorns do not in fact exist, but there are some possible worlds in which unicorns exist. On the other hand, many mathematicians think that numbers exist in every possible world.

Now with that in mind, consider the ontological argument , which was discovered in the year 1011 by the monk Anselm of Canterbury. God, Anselm observes, is by definition the greatest being conceivable. If you could conceive of anything greater than God, then that would be God. Thus, God is the greatest conceivable being – a maximally great being. So what would such a being be like? He would be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, and He would exist in every logically possible world. A being which lacked any of those properties would not be maximally great: we could conceive of something greater – a being which did have all these properties.

But this implies that if God’s existence is even possible , then God must exist. For if a maximally great being exists in any possible world, He exists in all of them. That’s part of what it means to be maximally great – to be all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good in every logically possible world. So if God’s existence is even possible, then He exists in every logically possible world – and therefore in the actual world.

1. It is possible that a maximally great being (God) exists.

2. If it is possible that a maximally great being exists, then a maximally great being exists in some possible world.

3. If a maximally great being exists in some possible world, then it exists in every possible world.

4. If a maximally great being exists in every possible world, then it exists in the actual world.

5. Therefore, a maximally great being exists in the actual world.

6. Therefore, a maximally great being exists.

7. Therefore, God exists.

It might surprise you to learn that steps 2-7 of this argument are relatively uncontroversial. Most philosophers would agree that if God’s existence is even possible, then He must exist.

So the question is, is God’s existence possible? Well, what do you think? The atheist has to maintain that it’s impossible that God exists. That is, he has to maintain that the concept of God is logically incoherent , like the concept of a married bachelor or a round square. The problem is that the concept of God just doesn’t appear to be incoherent in that way. The idea of a being who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good in every possible world seems perfectly coherent. Moreover, as we’ve seen, there are other arguments for God’s existence which at least suggest that it’s possible that God exists. So I’ll just leave it with you. Do you think, as I do, that it’s at least possible that God exists? If so, then it follows logically that He does exist.

(VIII) God can be personally known and experienced.

This isn’t really an argument for God’s existence; rather it’s the claim that you can know God exists wholly apart from arguments, by personally experiencing him. Philosophers call beliefs grasped in this way ‘properly basic beliefs’. They aren’t based on some other beliefs; rather they’re part of the foundation of a person’s system of beliefs. Other properly basic beliefs would be the belief in the reality of the past or the existence of the external world. When you think about it, neither of these beliefs can be proved by argument. How could you prove that the world was not created five minutes ago with built-in appearances of age like food in our stomachs from the breakfasts we never really ate and memory traces in our brains of events we never really experienced? How could you prove that you are not a brain in a vat of chemicals being stimulated with electrodes by some mad scientist to believe that you are reading this article? We don’t base such beliefs on argument; rather they’re part of the foundations of our system of beliefs.

But although these sorts of beliefs are basic for us, that doesn’t mean that they’re arbitrary. Rather they’re grounded in the sense that they’re formed in the context of certain experiences. In the experiential context of seeing and feeling and hearing things, I naturally form the belief that there are certain physical objects which I am sensing. Thus, my basic beliefs are not arbitrary, but appropriately grounded in experience. There may be no way to prove such beliefs, and yet it’s perfectly rational to hold them. Such beliefs are thus not merely basic, but properly basic. In the same way, belief in God is for those who seek Him a properly basic belief grounded in their experience of God.

Now if this is so, then there’s a danger that philosophical arguments for God could actually distract your attention from God Himself. The Bible promises, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” (James 4:8) We mustn’t so concentrate on the external arguments that we fail to hear the inner voice of God speaking to our hearts. For those who listen, God becomes a personal reality in their lives.

In summary, we’ve seen eight respects in which God provides a better account of the world than naturalism: God is the best explanation of

(I) Why anything at all exists.

(II) The origin of the universe.

(III) The applicability of mathematics to the physical world.

(IV) The fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life.

(V) Intentional states of consciousness.

(VI) Objective moral values and duties.

(VIII) God can be personally experienced and known.

© Prof. William Lane Craig, 2013

William Lane Craig is Research Professor of Philosophy at the Talbot School of Theology, California, and founded the organization Reasonable Faith (please visit reasonablefaith.org ). His book, A Reasonable Response , is due out soon, answering questions unbelievers and believers often pose.

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3 (page 25) p. 25 Arguments for the existence of God

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Is it possible to prove that God exists? There is certainly no shortage of arguments that purport to establish God’s existence, but ‘Arguments for the existence of God’ focuses on three of the most influential arguments: the cosmological argument, the design argument, and the argument from religious experience. Before examining these arguments, it first considers the very enterprise of attempting to establish God’s existence. What should we expect from an argument for God’s existence? What would it take for such an argument to be successful? The attempt to justify claims about the nature and existence of God on the basis of commonly accepted truths is known as natural theology.

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Unit 2: Metaphysics

Aquinas’s Five Proofs for the Existence of God

St. Mary's Press

The Summa Theologica is a famous work written by Saint Thomas Aquinas between AD 1265 and 1274. It is divided into three main parts and covers all of the core theological teachings of Aquinas’s time. One of the questions the Summa Theologica is well known for addressing is the question of the existence of God. Aquinas responds to this question by offering the following five proofs:

1. The Argument from Motion: Our senses can perceive motion by seeing that things act on one another. Whatever moves is moved by something else. Consequently, there must be a First Mover that creates this chain reaction of motions. This is God. God sets all things in motion and gives them their potential.

2. The Argument from Efficient Cause: Because nothing can cause itself, everything must have a cause or something that creates an effect on another thing. Without a first cause, there would be no others. Therefore, the First Cause is God.

3. The Argument from Necessary Being: Because objects in the world come into existence and pass out of it, it is possible for those objects to exist or not exist at any particular time. However, nothing can come from nothing. This means something must exist at all times. This is God.

4. The Argument from Gradation: There are different degrees of goodness in different things. Following the “Great Chain of Being,” which states there is a gradual increase in complexity, created objects move from unformed inorganic matter to biologically complex organisms. Therefore, there must be a being of the highest form of good. This perfect being is God.

5. The Argument from Design: All things have an order or arrangement that leads them to a particular goal. Because the order of the universe cannot be the result of chance, design and purpose must be at work. This implies divine intelligence on the part of the designer. This is God.

Citation and Use

“Aquinas’s Five Proofs for the Existence of God.” In The Catholic Faith Handbook for Youth, Teacher Guide. © 2011 by Saint Mary’s Press.  https://www.smp.org/resourcecenter/resource/7061/

Permission to reproduce is granted. Document #: TX001543

Aquinas's Five Proofs for the Existence of God Copyright © 2020 by St. Mary's Press. All Rights Reserved.

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Arguments for the Existence of God

Introduction, general overviews.

  • Anthologies
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  • Anselm’s Proslogion
  • Modal Ontological Arguments
  • Gödel’s Ontological Argument
  • Aquinas’s Five Ways
  • Arguments from Sufficient Reason
  • Arguments from Contingency
  • Kalām Cosmological Arguments
  • Biological Arguments for Design
  • Cosmological Fine-Tuning Arguments for Design
  • Moral Arguments
  • Arguments from Religious Experience
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Arguments for the Existence of God by Graham Oppy LAST REVIEWED: 01 September 2022 LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0040

Philosophical discussion of arguments for the existence of God appeared to have become extinct during the heyday of logical positivism and ordinary language philosophy. However, since the mid-1960s, there has been a resurgence of interest in these arguments. Much of the discussion has focused on Kant’s “big three” arguments: ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, and teleological arguments. Discussion of ontological arguments has been primarily concerned with (a) Anselm’s ontological argument; (b) modal ontological arguments, particularly as developed by Alvin Plantinga; and (c) higher-order ontological arguments, particularly Gödel’s ontological argument. Each of these kinds of arguments has found supporters, although few regard these as the strongest arguments that can be given for the existence of God. Discussion of cosmological arguments has been focused on (a) kalām cosmological arguments (defended, in particular, by William Lane Craig); (b) cosmological arguments from sufficient reason (defended, in particular, by Richard Gale and Alexander Pruss); and (c) cosmological arguments from contingency (defended, in particular, by Robert Koons and Timothy O’Connor). Discussion of teleological arguments has, in recent times, been partly driven by the emergence of the intelligent design movement in the United States. On the one hand, there has been a huge revival of enthusiasm for Paley’s biological argument for design. On the other hand, there has also been the development of fine-tuning teleological arguments driven primarily by results from very recent cosmological investigation of our universe. Moreover, new kinds of teleological arguments have also emerged—for example, Alvin Plantinga’s arguments for the incompatibility of metaphysical naturalism with evolutionary theory and Michael Rea’s arguments for the incompatibility of the rejection of intelligent design with materialism, realism about material objects, and realism about other minds. Other (“minor”) arguments for the existence of God that have received serious discussion in recent times include moral arguments, arguments from religious experience, arguments from miracles, arguments from consciousness, arguments from reason, and aesthetic arguments. Of course, there is also a host of “lesser” arguments that are mainly viewed as fodder for undergraduate dissection. Further topics that are germane to any discussion of arguments for the existence of God include (a) the appropriate goals at which these arguments should aim and the standards that they should meet, (b) the prospects for “cumulative” arguments (e.g., of the kind developed by Richard Swinburne), and (c) the prospects for prudential arguments that appeal to our desires rather than to our beliefs (e.g., Pascal’s wager).

There are few works that seek to provide a comprehensive overview of arguments for the existence of God; there are rather more works that seek to give a thorough treatment of arguments for and against the existence of God. Mackie 1982 is the gold standard; its treatment of arguments for the existence of God remained unmatched until the publication of Sobel 2004 . Other worthy treatments of a range of arguments for the existence of God—as parts of treatments of ranges of arguments for and against the existence of God—include Gale 1991 , Martin 1990 , and Oppy 2006 . The works mentioned so far are all products of nonbelief; they all provide critical analyses and negative assessments of the arguments for the existence of God that they consider. Plantinga 1990 is an interesting product of belief that also provides critical analyses and negative assessments of the arguments for the existence of God that it considers, although in the service of a wider argument in favor of the rationality of religious belief; first published in 1967, this work was clearly the gold standard for analysis of arguments for the existence of God prior to Mackie 1982 . Of the general works that provide a more positive assessment of arguments for the existence of God, consideration should certainly be given to Plantinga 2007 and, for those interested in a gentle but enthusiastic introduction, Davies 2004 .

Davies, Brian. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Wide-ranging introduction to philosophy of religion that includes a discussion of ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, arguments from religious experience, arguments from miracles, and moral arguments. Good coverage of a range of arguments for the existence of God.

Gale, Richard. On the Nature and Existence of God . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Entertaining and energetic discussion of ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, arguments from religious experience, and pragmatic arguments (e.g., Pascal’s wager).

Mackie, John. The Miracle of Theism: Arguments for and against the Existence of God . New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Superb presentation of cumulative case argument for atheism. Considers ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, moral arguments, arguments from consciousness, arguments from religious experience, arguments from miracles, and Pascal’s wager. Benchmark text for critical discussion of arguments for the existence of God.

Martin, Michael. Atheism: A Philosophical Justification . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Comprehensive cumulative case for atheism. Considers ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, arguments from miracles, arguments from religious experience, Pascal’s wager, and minor evidential arguments. Worthy contribution to the literature on arguments for the existence of God.

Oppy, Graham. Arguing about Gods . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511498978

Detailed discussion of cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, Pascal’s wager, and a range of other arguments. Discussion of ontological arguments that supplements Oppy 1995 (cited under Ontological Arguments ). Also includes some discussion of methodology: the mechanics of assessment of arguments for the existence of God.

Plantinga, Alvin. God and Other Minds: A Study of the Rational Justification of Belief in God . Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Groundbreaking discussion of cosmological arguments, ontological arguments, and teleological arguments. Instrumental in setting new standards of rigor and precision for the analysis of arguments for the existence of God. First published in 1967.

Plantinga, Alvin. “Appendix: Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments.” In Alvin Plantinga . Edited by Deane-Peter Baker, 203–228. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511611247

A collection of sketches or pointers to what Plantinga claims would be good arguments for the existence of God. Divided into (a) metaphysical arguments (aboutness, collections, numbers, counterfactuals, physical constants, complexity, contingency), (b) epistemological arguments (positive epistemic status, proper function, simplicity, induction, rejection of global skepticism, reference, intuition), (c) moral arguments, and (d) other arguments (colors and flavors, love, Mozart, play and enjoyment, providence, miracles).

Sobel, Jordan. Logic and Theism: Arguments for and against Beliefs in God . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Brilliant discussion of major arguments about the existence of God. Contains very detailed analyses of ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, and arguments from miracles. Brought new rigor and technical precision to the discussion of these arguments for the existence of God.

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God and Other Necessary Beings

It is commonly accepted that there are two sorts of existent entities: those that exist but could have failed to exist, and those that could not have failed to exist. Entities of the first sort are contingent beings ; entities of the second sort are necessary beings . [ 1 ] We will be concerned with the latter sort of entity in this article.

There are various entities which, if they exist, would be candidates for necessary beings: God, propositions, relations, properties, states of affairs, possible worlds, and numbers, among others. Note that the first entity in this list is a concrete entity, while the rest are abstract entities. [ 2 ] Many interesting philosophical questions arise when one inquires about necessary beings: What makes it the case that they exist necessarily? Is there a grounding for their necessary existence? Do some of them depend on others? If so, how might one understand the dependence relation?

1. Stating the Question

2. why might someone believe god grounds the existence of necessarily existing abstract objects, 3.1 theistic voluntarism, 3.2 theistic emanationism, 3.3 theistic mentalism (without divine simplicity), 3.4 theistic mentalism (with divine simplicity), 4.1 theistic platonism, 4.2 theistic nominalism, 4.3 mixed view 1: mentalism-platonism, 4.4 mixed view 2: anti-bootstrapping emanationism, other internet resources, related entries.

The main question we will address in this article is: Does God ground the existence of necessarily existing abstract objects? It is perhaps a more general question than a question one might at first ask: Did God create necessarily existing abstracta? But it is the main question that philosophers who have written about the relation between God and abstract objects have sought to answer.

Over the last two decades, philosophers have done a great deal of work on the notion of grounding (see, e.g., Fine 2001, Rosen 2010, Audi 2012, Schaffer 2009 Koslicki 2012 and the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on grounding ). It is thought by many currently working on issues in the metaphysics of grounding that grounding is a primitive, sui generis relation. In particular, it is not to be understood as a supervenience or causal relation. How are we then to understand what it is? Philosophers point to particular cases where it is instanced: Dispositional properties are grounded in categorical properties, the mental is grounded in the physical, the semantic is grounded in the non-semantic, features like smiles or surfaces are grounded in facts about bodies, and so on. To this point, one might think that grounding talk can be captured by our ordinary notion of supervenience. [ 3 ] But Fine (2001) claims that Socrates’ singleton set is grounded in Socrates; yet, necessarily one exists just if the other does. Thus our ordinary modal notion of supervenience won’t capture this case of grounding. If we assume (as many in the grounding literature do) that the other cases of grounding are of the same sort as the Socrates-singleton case is, then our ordinary notion of supervenience won’t capture them either.

Our discussion of the question of God’s grounding the existence of necessarily existing abstracta bears on the general conversation about the nature of grounding. First , we can note that our divine grounding case stands alongside the Socrates-singleton case in showing that ordinary supervenience won’t capture the grounding relationship properly. For instance, suppose we say that God grounds the existence of the number 2. We then can note that, necessarily God exists just if 2 does (that is, each exist in every possible world). According to ordinary notions of supervenience, the number 2 supervenes on God, and conversely. But we are to think that God grounds the existence of 2, and not vice versa. Second , we have here in the case of divine grounding of abstracta a case where the grounding relationship is typically spelled out in other, familiar terms (and thus isn’t sui generis ). As we will see, a number of different philosophers who think that God grounds the existence of necessarily existing abstract objects think that God does so in a causal manner. Others think that the grounding takes place in that necessarily existing abstracta are identical with divine mental states.

One might look at those who claim that God causes necessarily existing abstract objects or that they are identical with divine mental states as not asserting that God grounds the existence of necessarily existing abstracta. But as we will see, each of these sorts of theorists really is saying that God grounds the existence of necessarily existing abstract objects. Thus, it might be better to cast our lot with those who are skeptical that there is a sui generis grounding relationship that metaphysicians investigate. Or, if there is such a relationship in some cases of grounding, it isn’t present in all cases of grounding (it isn’t “univocal”—see Hofweber 2009 and Daly 2012 for discussion). After all, it is perfectly sensible to recast “Do necessarily existing abstract objects depend on God?” as “Are necessarily existing abstract objects grounded in God?”

However we think of the dependence relationship between God and necessarily existing abstract objects, we will want to insist that on it God is somehow more fundamental than necessarily existing abstract objects. Fundamentality (Stanford Encyclopedia entry) is an asymmetric relationship. Thus we will construe those who think that God grounds the existence of necessarily existing abstracta as claiming that God is more fundamental than necessarily existing abstracta, and not conversely.

There are at least two sorts of reasons why someone might be inclined to think that God grounds the existence of necessarily existing abstract objects. The first sort of reason involves central religious texts in monotheistic faiths like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Roughly, this sort of reason consists in these texts’ assertions or suggestions that God has created everything. If God created everything, it must be that God has created necessarily existing abstract objects, as well. Thus, God grounds the existence of these abstract objects. For instance, there are statements in the Hebrew Bible such as Psalm 89:11: “The heavens are yours, the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it—you have founded them”. [ 4 ] Also in the Hebrew Bible is Nehemiah 9:6:

And Ezra said: “You are the Lord, you alone; you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. To all of them you give life, and the host of heaven worships you”.

In the New Testament, there are passages like John 1:1–1:4:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. (The Word [ logos in Greek] to which John refers is Jesus of Nazareth)

Paul states in Colossians 1:15–16,

He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him.

One of the most important documents for Christian faith outside the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, the Nicene Creed of 325, says “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of all things visible and invisible”. The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381, a modification of the older Nicene Creed of 325 that is used by the western Church begins similarly, “We believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things that are visible and invisible”.

According to the Qur’an, “God is the Creator of all things; He has charge of everything; the keys of the heavens and earth are His” (39:62–63). The Qur’an also says, “This is God, your Lord, there is no God but Him, the Creator of all things, so worship Him; He is in charge of everything ” (6:102). [ 5 ]

These reasons from authoritative religious texts may not be taken to be conclusive, however. One may take these sorts of texts seriously as an adherent to faiths they define and still hold that God doesn’t have creative control over necessarily existing abstract objects. For instance, Peter van Inwagen (2009) argues that the universal quantifier in claims like that of the Nicene Creed “maker of all things visible and invisible” is implicitly restricted to include only those things that are capable of being created. Necessarily existing abstract objects cannot enter into causal relations and thus can’t be created. But it is worth noting that philosophers who think that if there are necessarily existing abstract objects, God must have some sort of control over them (e.g., Craig 2016) point to texts like those cited above for justification for this view.

There is a second sort of reasoning that may lead someone to think that God grounds the existence of necessarily existing abstract objects. That is by way of perfect being theology (see Morris 1987a, 1987b and Nagasawa 2017 for discussion). Perfect being theology is a way of theorizing a priori about God that goes back at least to Anselm of Canterbury. One begins with the claim that God is the greatest possible being, and from there one can derive attributes that God must have. This method is one way of arriving at God’s being omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. Anselm himself famously thought that via perfect being theology he could conclude that God existed. For our purposes here, we are to imagine two conceptually possible beings: One being has grounds or explains the existence of necessarily existing abstract objects, and the other doesn’t. We are to see that the being that grounds these abstracta is greater than one who doesn’t, and thus we are to conclude that God (the greatest possible being) has control over necessarily existing abstract objects. Sometimes the intuition that the former being is greater than the latter is put in terms of God’s aseity , or independence from all other entities. A being with maximal aseity is greater than one without it (other things being equal); and if necessarily existing abstract objects don’t depend on God, God lacks maximal aseity.

There likely would be little objection to reasoning to divine grounding of necessarily existing abstracta in the above way, if it were thought that God could have control over these sorts of abstracta . However, someone might concur with van Inwagen that abstracta can’t enter into causal relations, and say that the only way that abstracta might be grounded in God is via causation. Or someone might think that the idea of a necessarily existing object depending on anything is incoherent. [ 6 ] If one took either of these positions, one would deny that the being who grounds necessarily existing abstract objects was greater than the one who didn’t. (Just as she would deny that a being who can make a square circle is greater than one who can’t—there can’t be a being who can make a square circle.)

We have noted two sorts of reasons why a theist might think that God grounds the existence of necessarily existing abstract objects. We turn to a discussion of some different answers to our central question: Does God ground the existence of necessarily existing abstract objects? [ 7 ] Each of the next two sections will begin with a list of views and will follow with considerations for and against each. [ 8 ]

3. God’s Grounding Abstract Objects I: Views on Which Necessarily Existing Abstracta Are All Grounded in God

The views discussed in this section are as follows:

Theistic Voluntarism: Necessarily existing abstracta are caused to exist by God’s will (or some other normally-contingent divine faculty). Example: Descartes.

Theistic Emanationism: Necessarily existing abstracta are caused to exist by some non-contingent divine faculty (e.g., the right sort of divine cognition). Example: Leibniz, Morris-Menzel (1986).

Theistic Mentalism (without Divine Simplicity): Necessarily existing abstracta are identical with divine mental states, and God isn’t simple. Example: Welty (2014).

Theistic Mentalism (with Divine Simplicity): Necessarily existing abstract are identical with divine mental states, and God is simple. Examples: Augustine, Aquinas.

According to the theistic voluntarist, necessarily existing abstract objects depend on the divine will, or some other contingent feature of God. This is famously the view of Descartes. In a letter to Mersenne (27 May 1630), Descartes says:

You ask me by what kind of causality God established the eternal truths. I reply: by the same kind of causality as he created all things, that is to say, as their efficient and total cause. For it is certain that he is the author of the essence of created things no less than of their existence; and this essence is nothing other than the eternal truths. I do not conceive them as emanating from God like rays from the sun; but I know that God is the author of everything and that these truths are something and consequently that he is their author. (Descartes 1991: 25)

Descartes makes the same sorts of claims in his public writings, as well (e.g., in the reply to the Sixth Set of Objections (also from Mersenne)). This view seems to take seriously that God truly is maximally powerful; he even has volitional control over things like numbers, properties, and states of affairs. Indeed, even more than with views like theistic emanationism is God in control of abstracta on this view. According to the theistic voluntarist, God could have made different—or no—abstracta like propositions, properties, and states of affairs. God is in control of abstracta like God is in control of any other object: Their existence is subject to God’s will.

Of course, the seriousness with which the theistic voluntarist takes divine aseity and sovereignty is also the source of problems for the view. If God could have failed to make the number 2, in what sense is 2 a necessary being? One might try to weaken the voluntarist view, by claiming that 2 is only weakly necessary: God had to create it, but it is possibly…possible that it not exist. All worlds that are accessible to the actual world have 2 existing in them. But some of these worlds have a somewhat-different divine will relative to the existence of 2 (maybe God somewhat-reluctantly wills the existence of 2 in them). And possible relative to those sorts of worlds (or relative to worlds possible to those worlds, etc.) are worlds in which God doesn’t will that 2 exist. The key here is that the claim: Necessarily, 2 exists comes out true on this picture; 2 exists in every possible world relative to the world of evaluation (the actual world). But there are possibly…possible worlds in which God doesn’t will the existence of 2. The voluntarist can say that abstracta depend on the will of God, and yet really do exist necessarily (just don’t say in every possible world, full stop (see Plantinga 1980: 95 ff. for further discussion)).

Of course, this suggestion risks two sorts of problems. The first is that it doesn’t take divine sovereignty seriously enough. Imagine a being who could—in a world possible relative to the actual world—make it the case that 2 doesn’t exist. That being might be thought to be more powerful than a being that only possibly…possibly could do this. And Descartes (in places, at least) seems to have this intuition; and thus plumps for a God who could make it the case that 2 didn’t exist.

The second concern is that it abandons S5-type modal logic, in which anything that is necessary is necessarily necessary. This is thought by many to be the appropriate system of modal logic to describe the way actual modality is. [ 9 ] So there are concerns from both sides for this reply to the objection to voluntarism. On the one hand, it might be thought not to take divine power seriously enough. On the other, it might not make abstracta “necessary enough”.

One reason why Descartes is famous for holding to theistic voluntarism view is because so few others in the history of theological thought hold to it. And perhaps the main reason why no one else holds to it is because many judge that the theistic voluntarist isn’t able to account for the absolute necessity of necessarily existing abstracta. These are objects that if they exist should exist in every possible world, full stop; and once one allows for that, it makes it very difficult to see how it could be up to God’s will that these exist. Rather, if they are up to God; one winds up with a view like theistic emanationism. We turn to it.

According to the theistic emanationist, necessarily existing abstract objects are caused to exist by some non-contingent feature of divine activity. The standard feature the emanationist appeals to is divine cognitive activity of some sort. So, the theistic emanationist will say something like that the number 2 exists because of God’s cognitive activity. She will go on to say (and this is how the view is distinct from a theistic voluntarist view) it is not possible (it’s true in no possible world, full stop) for God’s cognitive activity in this respect to be other than it is. Thus, the theistic emanationist can hold that abstracta really exist in every possible world, full stop (allowing that God does, too).

One example of a theistic emanationist is Leibniz. In his Monadology he says:

43. It is also true that God is not only the source of existences but also that of essences insofar as they are real, that is, the source of that which is real in possibility. This is because God’s understanding is the realm of eternal truths, or that of the ideas on which they depend; without him there would be nothing real in possibles, and not only would nothing exist, but also nothing would be possible. 44. For if there is a reality in essences or possibilities, or indeed in eternal truths, this reality must be grounded in something existent and actual, and consequently, it must be grounded in the existence of the necessary being, in whom essence involves existence, that is, in whom possible being is sufficient for actual being. (Leibniz 1714 [1989: 218])

Here Leibniz seems to suggest that necessarily existing abstracta are grounded in divine cognitive activity. It’s not clear exactly how to characterize the relation between the cognitive activity and the existence of the abstract objects, but saying that the former causes the latter to exist seems appropriate given his language.

Thomas Morris and Christopher Menzel (1986) also are theistic emanationists. They invoke explicitly causal language in setting out their view, which they call “theistic activism”.

So our suggestion is that the platonistic framework of reality arises out of a creatively efficacious intellective activity of God. It is in this sense that God is the creator of the framework. It depends on him. (1986: 356)

They continue later:

Let us refer to this view, the view that a divine intellectual activity is responsible for the framework of reality, as “theistic activism”. A theistic activist will hold God creatively responsible for the entire modal economy, for what is possible as well as what is necessary and what is impossible. The whole Platonic realm is thus seen as deriving from God. (1986: 356)

And on the next page:

God’s creation of the framework of reality…is an activity which is conscious, intentional, and neither constrained nor compelled by anything independent of God and his causally efficacious power. (1986: 357)

Theistic emanationism allows the theist to take seriously the claims of religious documents that God creates everything (indeed, the name of Morris/Menzel’s paper is “Absolute Creation”), and it avoids the problems that beset theistic voluntarism. It has virtues. But it has problems of its own. First, some philosophers claim that God already has to have critical properties in order to be able to cause abstracta to exist. The theistic emanationist claims that God causes properties such as being omniscient , being omnipotent , existing necessarily , being able to cause abstracta to exist , and having cognitive activity to exist. She also claims that God causes his own haecceity, being God , to exist. However, to claim this is to get the dependence relationship backwards, one might charge. Surely, God’s being able to cause abstract objects to exist must be posterior to his having properties like the ones mentioned above. And if God has these properties, they must exist. But, the proponent of this theory is committed to the existence of properties being posterior to God’s causing them to exist. Thus, the objection concludes, theistic emanationism is false (see Leftow 1990, Davison 1991, Davidson 1999, Bergmann and Brower 2006 for discussion of this sort of objection).

This sort of argument has seemed to many to be decisive. However, there is a response that the theistic emanationist can give at this point. It might be claimed that although God’s ability to cause abstracta to exist is logically dependent on his having certain properties, it is not causally dependent. The account would be problematically circular only if God’s ability to cause abstracta to exist were causally dependent on his having certain properties, and his having these properties were in turn causally dependent on his having caused these properties to exist. There is a circle of logical dependence here (as there is between any two necessary truths), but there is no circle of causal dependence (see Morris and Menzel for this sort of reply).

The opponent of theistic emanationism might make the following retort. Certainly, the above response is right in that if there is a problem of circularity, it is one of causal circularity. Earlier, we saw that there for the theistic emanationist is a one-way causal relationship between God’s cognitive activity and the existence of abstracta such as being the number two . We can say that the necessary existence of being the number two (or any abstract object) causally depends on God’s having the cognitive activity that he does. Or, perhaps we might say that the necessary existence of being the number two causally depends on God’s being omniscient, omnipotent and existing necessarily. However, the entities on which being the number two causally depends are themselves properties. On what do they causally depend? It seems that on the emanationist account they wind up causally depending on themselves. But this is incoherent, one might charge.

Even if the emanationist successfully replies to this first problem for the view, there is a second, and perhaps more serious objection to the view. We will call this objection “the bootstrapping objection” (see Leftow 1990, Davidson 1999, Bergmann and Brower 2006, and Gould 2014b for discussion of this sort of objection). We can put the concern this way (following Davidson 1999). To cause something to exist is to cause its essence (or, in the terminology of Plantinga 1980, its nature ) to be exemplified. Suppose God creates a certain table which has as a part of its essence being red . Then God causes the property being red to be exemplified by the table when he creates it. Consider the property being omnipotent . The property being exemplified by God is contained in its essence. So, God causes the property being exemplified by God to be exemplified by being omnipotent in causing being omnipotent to exist. Similar to the manner with which God causes being red to be exemplified by the table in exemplifying the table’s essence, God causes being omnipotent to be exemplified by himself. But, surely God can’t cause the property being omnipotent to be exemplified by himself: How can God make himself omnipotent? Furthermore, one might think that God’s omnipotence should be causally prior to his causing properties to exist. However, on this occasion it is not. Then, if one does think that God’s omnipotence should be causally prior to his causing properties to exist, this would be an instance of causal circularity. This sort of argument will work for other properties like being omniscient or having divine cognitive activity (although the causal circle may be more difficult to establish with the former, and the implausibility of self-exemplification may be more difficult to establish with the latter).

Furthermore, consider God’s haecceity, the property being God . The property being necessarily exemplified is contained in the essence of this property. So, when God causes his haecceity to exist, he causes the property being necessarily exemplified to be exemplified by his haecceity. Just as God causes being red to be exemplified by the table when he causes it to exist, God causes being God to be exemplified necessarily. However, one might well think this incoherent. Indeed, it seems this is the divine causing his own existence: God is pulling himself up by his own bootstraps.

The theistic emanationist needs to address these sorts of concerns about bootstrapping, and it is not clear how that could be done.

One sort of theistic mentalism is the view that necessarily existing abstract objects are divine mental states, and that God isn’t simple. [ 10 ] On this view, God is distinct from his mental states, and abstracta are identical with these mental states. One proponent of this view is Welty (2014). He says

I maintain that [abstract objects] are constitutively dependent on God, for they are constituted by the divine ideas, which inhere in the divine mind and have no existence outside it…[Abstract objects] are necessarily existing, uncreated divine ideas that are distinct from God and dependent on God. (2014: 81)

Why might someone adopt theistic mentalism? One could make the following sort of case. Thoughts (e.g., sentences in the language of thought) are capable of representing the world as being a particular way. Propositions are capable of representing the world as being a particular way. Why do we need both of these sorts of intentional entities? We can simply identify propositions and thoughts, and we get a simpler ontology.

Of course, there is a problem here. If the thoughts we speak of here are human thoughts, there are continuum-many true propositions, and finitely many human thoughts. Also, there are propositions true in worlds where there are no human thoughts. So we can’t identify propositions and human thoughts. But we don’t have this problem with divine thoughts. God, we may grant, exists necessarily. And God has sufficiently many mental states to stand in for true propositions (see Plantinga 1980, 1982).

If we identify propositions with divine thoughts, we have enough of them in all possible situations. And one has one fewer kind of thing if one admits only thoughts (divine and otherwise) rather than thoughts and propositions. But there are reasons to think there are both thoughts and propositions and that the two shouldn’t be identified, even if one identifies propositions and divine thoughts. The most straightforward reason is that thoughts are a different kind of entity from propositions. The former are concrete, and the latter abstract. Furthermore, it’s worth noting the conceptual role propositions play. They are the sorts of things that can be affirmed, doubted, believed, and questioned. They can be true and false, necessary and possible. It is said by some that they are sets of possible worlds; and by others that they are composite entities, made up of properties and relations, and perhaps concrete individuals. It’s not at all clear that thoughts, especially divine thoughts, satisfy any of these conceptual roles.

We also should ask about other necessarily existing abstracta. What sorts of mental entities are they? Do they relate to one another, as concrete mental tokens, in the right sort of way such that they mirror the ways that Platonic states of affairs, propositions, properties, relations, and numbers relate to each other?

What these considerations suggest is that theistic mentalism may actually be a sort of nominalism about abstract objects, in the way that Plantinga (2003: ch. 10) says Lewis’ (1986) conception of possible worlds is a sort of nominalism about possible worlds. At best, we have concrete things that play the roles of necessarily existing abstract objects. (And the theistic mentalist has a great deal more work in specifying concrete divine mental particulars such that we have all the requisite role-players among the various sorts of necessarily existing abstract objects. It is presumably not enough to say that propositions are divine thoughts and leave it at that.)

Let us return to the initial motivation for theistic mentalism: There are two sorts of intentional objects (propositions and thoughts), and it would be a simpler metaphysic to identify tokens of the two sorts. To assess this, we must ask if the tokens of the two sorts are enough like each other to be identified. That is, simplicity isn’t the only consideration relevant here. After all, Spinoza’s metaphysic (necessarily there is one object that is exactly as it is in the actual world) is maximally simple, yet has few proponents within western philosophy. Furthermore, if we are able to explain the intentionality of one of these sorts of entities by its relation to the other, it will seem less mysterious that we have two classes of intentional entities. That is precisely what many want to say about the intentionality of thoughts vis-à-vis that of propositions: Thoughts derive their intentionality by standing in the right sort of relation to propositions. So, the reason why my thought is a thought that grass is green is because it has the propositional content that grass is green . The proposition that grass is green has its intentionality intrinsically.

Theistic mentalism with divine simplicity is the view that necessarily existing abstracta are identical with divine mental states, and that God is simple. Because God is simple, each abstract object is identical with God and thus each other. This is a view held most famously by Augustine and Aquinas. [ 11 ] Because this is a mentalist view, the criticisms leveled in the section on theistic mentalism without divine simplicity will apply here. In addition, the person who accepts divine simplicity alongside her divine mentalism also will face criticisms of divine simplicity . Plantinga (1980) is perhaps the locus classicus of contemporary criticism of divine simplicity. He argues that according to divine simplicity, God is identical with his attributes and has (all of) his attributes essentially. But, he argues, God isn’t an attribute; and God has many different attributes. (For discussion more sympathetic to divine simplicity, see Mann 1982; Stump and Kretzmann 1985; Leftow 1990; Stump 1997; Wolterstorff 1991; and Bergmann and Brower 2006.) The sorts of difficulties that Plantinga has raised have seemed decisive to many. (It is beyond the scope of this essay to evaluate them, however.) This isn’t to say that they can’t be met. But the theistic mentalist who accepts divine simplicity has, prima facie , a great number of difficulties with her view.

4. God’s Grounding Abstract Objects II: Views on Which There Aren’t Necessarily Existing Abstract Objects that All Are Grounded in God

  • Theistic Platonism: There are necessarily existing abstract objects, and none of them are grounded in God. Example: van Inwagen (2009).
  • Theistic Nominalism: There are no necessarily existing abstract objects. Example: Craig (2016).
  • Mixed View 1: Mentalism-Platonism: Example: Gould and Davis (2014).
  • Mixed View 2: Anti-Bootstrapping Emanationism: Any abstracta that create “bootstrapping” problems aren’t grounded in God. Theistic emanationism is true of the others.

According to the theistic Platonist, there are at least some necessarily existing abstract objects (e.g., propositions, properties, relations, numbers, and states of affairs), and the existence of all of the necessarily existing abstracta is not grounded in God. Peter van Inwagen (2009) is a paradigm case of a theistic Platonist. As we saw earlier, van Inwagen argues that if necessarily existing abstract objects were grounded in God, they would be caused to exist by God. But necessarily existing abstracta can’t enter into causal relations. So they aren’t grounded in God. He says:

In the end, I can find no sense in the idea that God creates free abstract objects [things like propositions, relations, numbers, properties, etc.], no sense in the idea that the existence of free abstract objects in some way depends on the activities of God. (Recall that, although I believe that all abstract objects are free, that is not a position that I am concerned to defend in this chapter.) And that is because the existence of free abstract objects depends on nothing. Their existence has nothing to do with causation… Causation is simply irrelevant to the being (and the intrinsic properties) of abstract objects (2009: 18).

Van Inwagen takes his most serious challenge to be from religious texts that he, as a Christian, thinks are authoritative. He speaks particularly of the beginning of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, which begins, “I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen”. He thinks here that the quantifier in “all that is seen and unseen” is restricted to things that are capable of entering into causal relations and thus are capable of being created. As van Inwagen points out, there are other authoritative Christian texts in which a universal quantifier is read in a restricted manner (e.g., Matthew 19:26 “for God all things are possible”; see also Luke 1:37, Mark 10:27). No such passage should be taken as a prooftext for a Cartesian view of omnipotence. Rather, the quantifier is read in a restricted manner. Similarly, the quantifier is restricted in the case of the beginning of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.

It is worth noting that van Inwagen’s argument here is slightly different from one that often occurs around these sorts of texts. Often, there is discussion as to whether the writers of the authoritative texts had in mind things like necessarily existing abstracta (e.g., Wolterstorff 1970: 293; Morris and Menzel 1986: 354). To the person who says that the writers of these texts didn’t have, say, structured propositions in mind when they claimed God created everything; it is pointed out that neither did they have in mind (clearly-created) things like quarks and bosons (e.g., Davidson 1999: 278–279). Rather, van Inwagen argues that a text like the beginning of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed has to be read in a restricted manner if it is to avoid asserting impossible propositions. And this seems the right way to go for the theistic Platonist. It is very difficult to discern the scope of the universal quantifier in the usage of writers from nearly 2000 years ago. (This is apart from questions about the connection between intention and semantic content.)

Van Inwagen’s main focus is on authoritative texts like the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. But we noted earlier a second sort of reason for adopting a view on which any necessarily existing abstract objects depend on God. That second sort of reason is perfect-being theology. Again, the line of reasoning is that a being who is such that necessarily existing abstracta depend on it is greater than a being on whom they don’t depend. And God is the greatest possible being. It is clear what van Inwagen would say at this point: It’s not possible for necessarily existing abstract objects to depend on anything. Thus, being an x such that necessarily existing abstracta depend on x is not a great-making property. That this isn’t a great-making property is the sort of thing the theistic Platonist needs to say to the perfect-being defender of divine grounding of necessarily existing abstracta. It must be that these things can’t depend on God or anyone else. (One may or may not adopt Inwagen’s particular argument that they can’t.)

Thus, if the theistic Platonist thinks there are good arguments that necessarily existing abstract objects can’t be grounded in God, she will have reason to do two things. First, she will have reason read the relevant universal quantifications in authoritative texts as restricted. Second, if she accepts the sort of reasoning in perfect being theology; she will have reason to insist that being an x such that necessarily existing abstracta depend on x is not a great-making property (any more than being able to create a square circle is).

The theistic nominalist doesn’t think there are necessarily existing abstract objects. She may or may not think if there were necessarily existing abstract objects, they would be grounded in God. For instance, William Lane Craig (2016) who is a theistic nominalist; thinks that were there necessarily existing abstracta, they would have to be grounded in God. (We presumably should count Craig as someone who thinks there are true counterpossibles.) But one can imagine someone who thinks that if things like numbers and properties did exist, theistic Platonism would be a plausible view to adopt. It is worth noting that very few—if any—of the realists about necessarily existing abstracta who are theists are themselves realists because they are theists. Rather, they are realists about necessarily existing abstracta for other sorts of reasons (e.g., indispensability arguments , arguments that we quantify over them with true sentences , or arguments that true sentences (e.g., that 2+3=5) require them as truthmakers (see Rodriguez-Pereyra (2005) for a defense of truthmakers). Van Inwagen himself believes in necessarily existing abstract objects because he thinks that we are committed to true existential quantifications over them (e.g., van Inwagen 2014: ch. 8). There is nothing in particular the theistic nominalist needs to say qua theist about the existence of necessarily existing abstracta that any other nominalist doesn’t need to say. One advantage of theistic nominalism is that it allows one to avoid some of the sorts of difficult maneuvers that those who believe God grounds the existence of necessarily existing abstract objects wind up performing. Another advantage of theistic nominalism is that it allows one, if she wishes, to avoid debates about the semantics of universal quantifiers in ancient religious texts. Of course, theistic nominalism is open only to those who find plausible nominalistic replies to standard arguments for realism about necessarily existing abstracta. Craig himself thinks that he can give replies to these standard arguments for realism (2016: ch. 3, 6, 7). [ 12 ]

We turn now to two “mixed views”, views on which different types of abstracta stand in different grounding relations to God. Both of them try to bracket abstracta having to do with God (e.g., God’s own attributes), and to say that God doesn’t ground those. But God grounds all the other necessarily existing abstracta.

On this view, propositions are identical with divine mental states; and properties and relations not exemplified by God are independent of God, a la theistic Platonism. This is the view of Gould and Davis (2014). They say, “Thus, abstract objects exist in two realms: the divine mind and Plato’s heaven ” (2014: 61). They decline to say in this particular essay whether mentalism or Platonism is true of other sorts of abstract objects (e.g., numbers, states of affairs, possible worlds). So what we have in Gould and Davis is an initial sketch of a proposal. They are motivated by bootstrapping worries for theistic activism (itself an emanationist view). They think that they can evade bootstrapping objections by having some abstracta be identical with divine mental states, and having the others not grounded in God. Their own name for this view is “modified theistic activism”.

It is perhaps strange that, having started with theistic activism (an emanationist view) and its bootstrapping worries, they wind up with a part-mentalist view. It would seem that they could have kept some abstracta causally grounded in God, and others independent of God (see Mixed View 2 , below). Also, this first Mixed View will face objections of the sort faced by theistic Platonism; viz. that it doesn’t take divine aseity seriously enough, and that it must read the quantifiers in the relevant religious texts in a restricted manner. Furthermore, it is peculiar that propositions wind up as divine mental states, but properties and relations wind up independent of God. One natural understanding of propositions is that they are structured entities, made up of properties and relations. Another is that they are sets of possible worlds. The former understanding seems unavailable to Gould and Davis, and the latter would seem to involve having sui generis primitive possible worlds identical with divine mental states. But at that point, why not just be a thoroughgoing theistic mentalist? After all, bootstrapping isn’t a concern for the mentalist. Furthermore, bootstrapping worries arise with abstracta other than properties. For instance, consider the proposition God is omnipotent . In any possible world it exists, it is true. That is, it has being true as part of its essence. But then, if God causes it to exist, God causes it to be true. So we have the same sorts of bootstrapping concerns as we did with a property like being omnipotent .

This is a view designed wholly to avoid bootstrapping worries that affect theistic emanationism. It really is a sort of modified theistic activism, and it may actually be the sort of view Gould and Davis (2014) would like to hold. The idea is this: Ascertain the necessarily existing abstracta that cause bootstrapping problems (e.g., being God, being omnipotent , etc.) for the emanationist. Those exist independently of God. All other necessarily existing abstracta are causally grounded in God in the way the theistic emanationist thinks abstracta are grounded in God.

So far as I can tell, no one holds this first mixed view. Perhaps the reader is thinking that that is because it is obviously ad hoc : The sole motivation for the two classes of abstracta in the theory is avoidance of bootstrapping worries. This is too strong, I think. There is a reason why certain abstracta create bootstrapping problem. That reason is that they have to do with God in a way that other abstracta that don’t cause bootstrapping problems don’t. So why not say that Leibniz or Menzel and Morris are right about all the non-God related abstracta? To put it another way, why not be an emanationist about all the abstracta one can be an emanationist about—those that don’t have to do with God?

That said, there is at least a whiff of ad-hocness here. The motivation for this theory presumably would be that of perfect being theology. For the proponent of this first mixed view must think that the quantifiers in relevant religious texts are actually restricted. They aren’t as restricted as the theistic Platonist thinks they are. But she will agree with the theistic Platonist that it’s false that all (read the quantifier wide open) entities are created by/depend on/grounded in God. It’s worth pointing out that it’s not clear how to delineate precisely those abstracta that lead to bootstrapping problems and those that don’t. The best one can do seems to be to say that those that cause bootstrapping problems don’t depend on God, and all others God causes to exist. But presumably for each necessarily existing abstract object, either it gives rise to bootstrapping problems, or it doesn’t. So there should be two non-overlapping classes of abstract objects at hand here, even if we’re not able to specify more descriptively which abstracta are in which class.

It would be better if the emanationist could find a cogent reply to bootstrapping concerns. But if she can’t, she may plump for being an emanationist about all abstracta save those having to do with God.

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abstract objects | Anselm of Canterbury [Anselm of Bec] | Aquinas, Thomas | conditionals: counterfactual | Descartes, René | Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm | Lewis, David | simplicity: divine

Acknowledgments

Thanks to Edward Wierenga, Timothy Simmons, Anthony Macias, and an anonymous referee for comments on this version of this entry.

Copyright © 2019 by Matthew Davidson < mdavidson @ csusb . edu >

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Philosophy A Level

Overview – Does God Exist?

A level philosophy looks at 4 arguments relating to the existence of God . These are:

  • The ontological argument
  • The teleological argument
  • The cosmological argument

The problem of evil

There are various versions of each argument as well as numerous responses to each. The key points of each argument are summarised below:

Ontological arguments

The ontological arguments are unique in that they are the only arguments for God’s existence that use a priori reasoning. All ontological arguments are deductive arguments .

Versions of the ontological argument aim to deduce God’s existence from the definition of God. Thus, proponents of ontological arguments claim ‘God exists’ is an analytic truth .

Anselm’s ontological argument

“Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater. […] Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” – St. Anselm, Proslogium , Chapter 2

Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was the first to propose an ontological argument in his book Proslogium .

His argument can be summarised as:

  • By definition, God is a being greater than which cannot be conceived
  • We can coherently conceive of such a being i.e. the concept is coherent
  • It is greater to exist in reality than to exist only in the mind
  • Therefore, God must exist

In other words, imagine two beings:

  • One is said to be maximally great in every way, but does not exist.
  • The other is maximally great in every way and does exist.

Which being is greater? Presumably, the second one – because it is greater to exist in reality than in the mind.

Since God is a being that we cannot imagine to be greater, this description better fits the second option (the one that exists) than the first.

Descartes’ ontological argument

Descartes offers his own version of the ontological argument:

  • I have the idea of God
  • The idea of God is the idea of a supremely perfect being
  • A supremely perfect being does not lack any perfection
  • Existence is a perfection
  • Therefore, God exists

This argument is very similar to Anselm’s , except it uses the concept of a perfect being rather than a being greater than which cannot be conceived .

Descartes argues this shows that ‘God does not exist’ is a self-contradiction . Hume uses this claim as the basis for his objection to the ontological argument.

Gaunilo’s island

Gaunilo of Marmoutiers (994-1083) argues that if Anselm’s argument is valid, then anything can be defined into existence. For example:

  • The perfect island is, by definition, an island greater than which cannot be conceived
  • We can coherently conceive of such an island i.e. the concept is coherent
  • Therefore, this island must exist

The conclusion of this argument is obviously false.

Gaunilo argues that if Anselm’s argument were valid, then we could define anything into existence – the perfect shoe, the perfect tree, the perfect book, etc.

Hume: ‘God does not exist’ is not a contradiction

The ontological argument reasons from the definition of God that God must exist. This would make ‘God exists’ an analytic truth (or what Hume would call a relation of ideas , as the analytic/synthetic distinction wasn’t made until years later).

The denial of an analytic truth/relation of ideas leads to a contradiction. For example, “there is a triangle with 4 sides” is a contradiction.

Contradictions cannot be coherently conceived . If you try to imagine a 4-sided triangle, you’ll either imagine a square or a triangle. The idea of a 4-sided triangle doesn’t make sense.

So, is “God does not exist” a contradiction? Descartes (and Anselm) certainly thought so.

But Hume argues against this claim. Anything we can conceive of as existent , he says, we can also conceive of as non-existent . This shows that “God exists” cannot be an analytic truth/relation of ideas, and so ontological arguments must fail somewhere.

A summary of Hume’s argument can be stated as:

  • If ontological arguments succeed, ‘God does not exist’ is a contradiction
  • A contradiction cannot be coherently conceived
  • But ‘God does not exist’ can be coherently conceived
  • Therefore, ‘God does not exist’ is not a contradiction
  • Therefore, ontological arguments do not succeed

Kant: existence is not a predicate

Kant argues that existence is not a property (predicate) of things in the same way, say, green is a property of grass .

To say something exists doesn’t add anything to the concept of it.

Imagine a unicorn. Then imagine a unicorn that exists . What’s the difference between the two ideas? Nothing! Adding existence to the idea of a unicorn doesn’t make unicorns suddenly exist.

When someone says “God exists”, they don’t mean “there is a God and he has the property of existence”. If they did, then when someone says “God does not exist”, they’d mean, “there is a God and he has the property of non existence” – which doesn’t make sense!

Instead, what people mean when they say “God exists” is that “God exists in the world” . This cannot be argued from the definition of God and could only be proved via ( a posteriori ) experience. Thus the ontological argument fails to prove God’s (actual) existence.

Norman Malcolm’s ontological argument

Kant’s objection to the ontological argument is generally considered to be the most powerful argument against it.

So, in response, some philosophers have developed alternate versions that avoid this criticism.

Malcolm accepts that Descartes and Anselm (at least as presented above) are wrong.

Instead, Malcolm argues that it’s not existence that is a perfection, but the logical impossibility of non-existence ( necessary existence , in other words).

This (necessary existence) is a predicate, so avoids Kant’s argument above. Malcolm’s ontological argument is as follows:

  • Either God exists or does not exist
  • God cannot come into existence or go out of existence
  • If God exists, God cannot cease to exist
  • Therefore, if God exists, God’s existence is necessary
  • Therefore, if God does not exist, God’s existence is impossible
  • Therefore, God’s existence is either necessary or impossible
  • God’s existence is impossible only if the concept of God is self-contradictory
  • The concept of God is not self-contradictory
  • Therefore, God’s existence is not impossible
  • Therefore, God exists necessarily

malcolm's ontological argument

Malcolm’s argument essentially boils down to:

  • God’s existence is either necessary or impossible (see above)
  • God’s existence is not impossible
  • Therefore God’s existence is necessary

Possible response:

We may respond to point 8, as discussed in the concept of God section , that the concept of God is self-contradictory.

Alternatively, we may argue that the meaning of “necessary” changes between premise 4 and the conclusion (10) and thus Malcolm’s argument is invalid. In premise 4, Malcolm is talking about necessary existence in the sense of a property that something does or does not have. By the conclusion, Malcolm is talking about necessary existence in the sense that it is a necessary truth that God exists. But this is not the same thing. We can accept that if God exists , then God has the property of necessary existence, but deny the conclusion that God exists necessarily.

Teleological arguments

The teleological arguments are also known as arguments from design.

These arguments aim to show that certain features of nature or the laws of nature are so perfect that they must have been designed by a designer – God.

Hume’s teleological argument

In Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion , Hume considers a version of the teleological argument (through the character Cleanthes ), which he goes on to reject (through the character of Philo ).

“The intricate fitting of means to ends throughout all nature is just like (though more wonderful than) the fitting of means to ends in things that have been produced by us – products of human designs, thought, wisdom, and intelligence. Since the effects resemble each other, we are led to infer by all the rules of analogy that the causes are also alike, and that the author of nature is somewhat similar to the mind of man, though he has much larger faculties to go with the grandeur of the work he has carried out. By this argument… we prove both that there is a God and that he resembles human mind and intelligence.” – Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part 5

Hume’s argument here draws an analogy between things designed by humans and nature:

  • The ‘fitting of means to ends’ in human design (e.g. the fitting of the many parts of a watch to achieve the end of telling the time) resemble the ‘fitting of means to ends’ in nature (e.g. the many parts of a human’s eye to achieve the end of seeing things)
  • Similar effects have similar causes
  • The causes of human designs (e.g. watches) are minds
  • So, by analogy , the cause of design in nature is also a mind
  • And, given the ‘grandeur of the work’ of nature, this other mind is God .

William Paley: Natural Theology

William Paley (1743-1805) wasn’t the first to propose a teleological argument for the existence of God, but his version is perhaps the most famous.

Paley Teleological argument watch

The reason for this is that a watch, unlike the stone, has many parts organised for a purpose. Paley says this is the hallmark of design:

“When we come to inspect the watch, we perceive (what we could not discover in the stone) that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose , e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day.” – William Paley, Natural Theology, Chapter 1

Nature and aspects of nature, such as the human eye, are composed of many parts. These parts are organised for a purpose – in the case of the eye, to see .

So, like the watch, nature has the hallmarks of design – but “ with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater and more” . And for something to be designed, it must have an equally impressive designer .

Paley says this designer is God.

Hume: problems with the analogy

Hume (as the character Philo) points out various problems with the analogy between the design of human-made objects and nature, such as:

  • We can observe human-made items being designed by minds , but we have no such experience of this in the case of nature. Instead, designs in nature could be the result of natural processes (what Philo calls ‘generation and vegetation’).
  • The analogy focuses on specific aspects of nature that appear to be designed (e.g. the human eye) and generalises this to the conclusion that the whole universe must be designed.
  • Human machines  (e.g. watches and cars) obviously have a designer and a purpose. But biological things (e.g. an animal or a plant, such as a cabbage) do not have an obvious purpose or designer – they appear to be the result of an unconscious process of ‘generation and vegetation’. The universe is more like the latter (i.e. a biological thing) than the former (i.e. a machine) and so, by analogy, the cause of the universe is better explained by this unconscious processes of ‘generation and vegetation’ rather than the conscious design of a mind.

An argument from analogy is only as strong as the similarities between the two things being compared (nature and human designs). These differences weaken the jump from human-made items being designed to the whole universe being designed.

Hume: Spatial dis order

Hume (as the character Philo) argues that although there are examples of order within nature (which suggests design), there is also much “vice and misery and disorder” in the world (which is evidence against design).

If God really did design the world, Hume argues, there wouldn’t be such disorder. For example:

  • There are huge areas of the universe that are empty, or just filled with random rocks or are otherwise uninhabitable. This suggests that the universe isn’t designed but instead we just happen, by coincidence, to be in a part that has spatial order.
  • Some parts of the world (e.g. droughts, hurricanes, etc.) go wrong and cause chaos. Hume argues that if the world is designed , these chaotic features suggest that the designer isn’t very good.
  • Animals have bodies that feel pain and that could have been made in such ways that they could have happier lives. If God designed animals and humans, you would expect He would make animals and humans in this way so that their lives would be easier and happier.

These features are examples of spatial dis order – features that wouldn’t make sense to include if you designed the universe.

Hume argues that such examples of disorder show that the universe isn’t designed. Or, if the universe is designed, then the designer is neither omnipotent nor omnibenevolent (as God is claimed to be).

Hume: causation

Hume famously argues that we never experience causation – only the ‘constant conjunction’ of one event following another. If this happens enough times, we infer that A causes B.

For example, experience (ever since you were a baby) tells you that if one snooker ball hits another (A), the second snooker ball will move (B). You don’t actually experience A causing B, but it’s reasonable to expect this relationship to hold in the future because you’ve seen it and similar examples hundreds of times.

But imagine that you take a sip of tea and at the same time your friend coughs. Would it be reasonable to infer that drinking the tea caused your friend to cough based on this one instance? Obviously not. The point is: You cannot infer causation from a single instance.

Applying this to teleological arguments, Hume (as the character Philo) argues that the creation of the universe was a unique event – we only have experience of this one universe. And so, like the tea example, we can’t infer a causal relationship between designer and creation based on just one instance.

Hume: finite matter, infinite time

“Instead of supposing matter to be infinite, as Epicurus did, let us suppose it to be finite and also suppose space to be finite, while still supposing time to be infinite. A finite number of particles in a finite space can have only a finite number of transpositions; and in an infinitely long period of time every possible order or position of particles must occur an infinite number of times.” – Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part 8

Hume’s objection here assumes the following:

  • Time is infinite
  • Matter is finite

Given these assumptions, it is inevitable that matter will organise itself into combinations that appear to be designed.

It’s a bit like the monkeys and typewriters thought experiment:

Given an infinite amount of time, a monkey will eventually type the complete works of Shakespeare.

god's existence philosophy essay

This is the nature of infinity. It’s inevitable that the monkey will write something that appears to be intelligent, even though it’s just hitting letters at random.

The same principle applies to the teleological argument, argues Hume: Given enough time, it is inevitable that matter will arrange itself into combinations that appear to be designed , even though they’re not.

Darwin: evolution by natural selection

Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of evolution by natural selection explains how complex organisms – complete with parts organised for a purpose – can emerge from nature without a designer.

For example, it may seem that God designed giraffes to have long necks so they could reach leaves in high trees. But the long necks of giraffes can be explained without a designer , for example:

  • Competition for food is tough
  • An animal that cannot acquire enough food will die before it can breed and produce offspring
  • An animal with a (random genetic mutation for a) neck that’s 1cm longer than everyone else’s will be able to access 1cm more food
  • This competitive advantage makes it more likely to survive and produce offspring
  • The offspring are likely to inherit the gene for a longer neck, making them more likely to survive and reproduce as well
  • Longer necked-animals become more common as a result
  • The environment becomes more competitive as more and more animals can reach the 1cm higher leaves
  • An animal with a neck 2cm longer has the advantage in this newly competitive environment
  • Repeat process over hundreds of millions of years until you have modern day giraffes

The key idea is that – given enough time and genetic mutations – it is inevitable that animals and plants will adapt to their environment, thus creating the appearance of design.

This directly undermines Paley’s claim that anything that has parts organised to serve a purpose must be designed.

Swinburne: The Argument from Design

Swinburne’s version of the teleological argument distinguishes between:

  • Examples of order in nature ( spatial order )
  • And the order of the laws of nature ( temporal order )

Swinburne accepts that science, for example evolution , can explain the apparent design of things like the human eye (i.e. spatial order) and so Paley’s teleological argument does not succeed in proving God’s existence. However, Swinburne argues, we can’t explain the laws of nature (i.e. temporal order) in the same way.

For example, the law of gravity is such that it allows galaxies to form, and planets to form within these galaxies, and life to form on these planets. But if gravity had the opposite effect – it repelled matter, say – then life would never be able to form. If gravity was even slightly stronger, planets wouldn’t be able to form. So how do we explain why these laws are the way they are?

Unlike spatial order, we can’t give a scientific explanation of why the laws of nature are as they are. Science can explain and predict things using these laws – but it has to first assume these laws. Science can’t explain why these laws are the way they are. In the absence of a scientific explanation of the laws of nature, Swinburne argues, the best explanation of temporal order is a personal explanation.

We give personal explanations of things all the time – for example, ‘this sentence exists because I chose to write it’ or ‘that building exists because someone designed and built it’. Swinburne argues that, by analogy, we can explain the laws of nature (i.e. temporal order) in a similarly personal way: The laws of nature are the way they are because someone designed them.

In the absence of a scientific explanation of temporal order, Swinburne argues, the best explanation is the personal one: The laws of nature were designed by God .

Multiple universes

Hume’s earlier argument (finite matter, infinite time) can be adapted to respond to Swinburne’s teleological argument.

But instead of arguing that time is infinite, as Hume does, we could argue that the number of universes is infinite.

This idea of multiple universes is popular among some physicists, as it explains various phenomena in quantum mechanics.

But anyway, if there are an infinite number of universes (or even just a large enough number), it is likely that some of these universes will have laws of nature (temporal order) that support the formation of life. Of course, when such universes do exist, it is just sheer luck. If each universe has randomly different scientific laws, there will also be many universes where the temporal order does not support life.

Is the designer God?

Both Hume and Kant have argued that even if the teleological argument succeeded in proving the existence of a designer , this designer would not necessarily be God (as defined in the Concept of God section).

For example:

  • God’s power is supposedly infinite ( omnipotence ), yet the universe is not infinite
  • Designers are not always creators. Designer and creator might be two separate people (e.g. the guy who designs a car doesn’t physically build it)
  • The design of the universe may be the result of many small improvements by many people
  • Designers can die even if their creations live on. How do we know the designer is eternal , as God is supposed to be?

Cosmological arguments

cosmological argument for the existence of the universe

The Kalam Argument

The Kalam argument is perhaps the simplest version of the cosmological argument in the A level philosophy syllabus. It says:

  • Whatever begins to exist has a cause
  • The universe began to exist
  • Therefore, the universe has a cause

Aquinas: Five Ways

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) gave five different versions of the cosmological argument. A level philosophy requires you to know these three:

Argument from motion

Argument from causation.

  • Contingency argument

Aquinas’ first way is the argument from motion .

“It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion… It is [impossible that something] should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover… Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.” – Aquinas, Summa Theologica , Part 1 Question 3

A summary of this argument:

  • E.g. a football rolling along the ground
  • E.g. someone kicked the ball
  • If A is put in motion by B , then something else ( C ) must have put B in motion, and so on
  • If this chain goes on infinitely, then there is no first mover
  • If there is no first mover, then there is no other mover, and so nothing would be in motion
  • But things are in motion
  • Therefore, there must be a first mover
  • The first mover is God

Aquinas’ second way – the argument from causation – is basically the same as the argument from motion, except it talks about a first cause rather than a first mover:

  • E.g. throwing a rock caused the window to smash
  • C is caused by B , and B is caused by A , and so on
  • If this chain of causation was infinite, there would be no first cause
  • If there were no first cause, there would be no subsequent causes or effects
  • But there are causes and effects in the world
  • Therefore, there must have been a first cause
  • The first cause is God

Argument from contingency

Aquinas’ third way relies on a distinction between necessary and contingent existence. It’s a similar distinction to necessary and contingent truth from the epistemology module.

Things that exist contingently are things that might not have existed.

For example, the tree in the field wouldn’t exist if someone hadn’t planted the seed years ago. So, the tree exists contingently. Its existence is contingent on someone planting the seed.

So, using this idea of contingent existence, Aquinas argues that:

  • Everything that exists contingently did not exist at some point
  • If everything exists contingently, then at some point nothing existed
  • If nothing existed, then nothing could begin to exist
  • But since things did begin to exist, there was never nothing in existence
  • Therefore, there must be something that does not exist contingently, but that exists necessarily
  • This necessary being is God

Descartes’ Cosmological Argument

Descartes’ version of the cosmological argument is a lot more long-winded than the Kalam argument or any of Aquinas’ .

The key points are along these lines:

  • I can’t be the cause of my own existence because if I was I would have given myself all perfections (e.g. omnipotence, omniscience, etc.)
  • I depend on something else to exist
  • I am a thinking thing and have the idea of God
  • Whatever caused me to exist must also be a thinking thing that has the idea of God
  • Whatever caused me to exist must either be the cause of its own existence or caused by something else
  • If it was caused by something else then this something else must also either be the cause of its own existence or caused by something else
  • There cannot be an infinite chain of causes
  • So there must be something that caused its own existence
  • Whatever causes its own existence is God

There’s a bit more to Descartes’ version than this. For example, he talks about a cause needed to keep him in existence and how there must be ‘as much reality’ in the cause as in the effect. But the points above constitute the main argument.

Leibniz: Sufficient reason

Note: This is another cosmological argument from contingency , like Aquinas’ third way above

Leibniz’s argument is premised on his  principle of sufficient reason. The principle of sufficient reason says that every truth has an explanation of why it is the case (even if we can’t know this explanation).

Leibniz then defines two different types of truth:

  • Truths of reasoning: this is basically another word for necessary or analytic truths
  • Truths of fact: this is basically another word for contingent or synthetic truths

The sufficient reason for truths of reasoning (i.e. analytic truths) is revealed by analysis. When you analyse and understand “3+3=6”, for example, you don’t need a further explanation why it is true.

But it is more difficult to provide sufficient reason for truths of fact (i.e. contingent truths) because you can always provide more detail via more contingent truths. For example, you can explain the existence of a tree by saying someone planted a seed. But you could then ask why the person planted the seed, or why seeds exist in the first place, or why the laws of physics are the way they are, and so on. This process of providing contingent reasons for contingent facts goes on forever.

“Therefore, the sufficient or ultimate reason must needs be outside of the sequence or series of these details of contingencies, however infinite they may be.” – Leibniz, Monadology , Section 37

So, to escape this endless cycle of contingent facts and provide sufficient reason for truths of fact (i.e. contingent truths), we need to step outside the sequence of contingent facts and appeal to a necessary substance. This necessary substance is God , Leibniz says.

Is a first cause necessary?

Most of the cosmological arguments assume something along the lines of ‘there can’t be an infinite chain of causes’ (except the cosmological arguments from contingency ). For example, they say stuff like there must have been a first cause or a prime mover .

But we can respond by rejecting this claim. Why must there be a first cause? Perhaps there is just be an infinite chain of causes stretching back forever.

infinite chain of causes cosmological argument

  • An infinite chain of causes would mean an infinite amount of time has passed prior to the present moment
  • If an infinite amount of time has passed, then the universe can’t get any older (because infinity + 1 = infinity)
  • But the universe is getting older (e.g. the universe is a year older in 2020 than it was in 2019)
  • Therefore an infinite amount of time has not passed
  • Therefore there is not an infinite chain of causes

Hume’s objections to causation

Another assumption (or premise) of many of the cosmological arguments above (not so much the contingency ones) is something like ‘everything has a cause’.

But Hume’s fork can be used to question this claim that ‘everything has a cause’:

  • Relation of ideas: ‘Everything has a cause’ is not a relation of ideas because we can conceive of something without a cause. For example, we can imagine a chair that just springs into existence for no reason – it’s a weird idea, but it’s not a logical contradiction like a 4-sided triangle or a married bachelor.
  • Matter of fact: ‘Everything has a cause’ cannot be known as a matter of fact either, says Hume. We never actually experience causation – we just see event A happen and then event B happen after. Even if we see B follow A a million times, we never experience A causing B, just the ‘constant conjunction’ of A and B.

Further, in the specific case of the creation of the universe, we only ever experience event B (i.e. the continued existence of the universe) and never what came before (i.e. the thing that caused the universe to exist).

This all casts doubt on the premise of cosmological arguments that ‘everything has a cause’.

Russell: Fallacy of composition

Bertrand Russell argues that cosmological arguments fall foul of the fallacy of composition . The fallacy of composition is an invalid inference that because parts of something have a certain property, the entire thing must also have this property. Examples:

  • Just because all the players on a football team are good, this doesn’t guarantee the team is good. For example, the players might not work well together.
  • Just because a sheet of paper is thin, it doesn’t mean things made from sheets of paper are thin. For example, a book with enough sheets of paper can be thick.

Applying this to the cosmological argument, we can raise a similar objection to Hume’s above : just because everything within the universe has a cause, doesn’t guarantee that the universe itself has a cause.

Or, to apply it to Leibniz’s cosmological argument : just because everything within the universe requires sufficient reason to explain its existence, doesn’t mean the universe itself requires sufficient reason to explain its existence. Russell says: “the universe is just there, and that’s all.”

  • Ok, but everything within the universe exists contingently
  • And if everything within the universe didn’t exist, then the universe itself wouldn’t exist either (because that’s all the universe is: the collection of things that make it up)
  • So the universe itself exists contingently, not just the stuff within it
  • And so the universe itself requires sufficient reason to explain its existence

Is the first cause God?

Aquinas’ first and second ways and the Kalam argument only show that there is a first cause . But they don’t show that this first cause is God .

So, even if we accept that there was a first cause, it doesn’t necessarily follow that God exists – much less the specific being described in the concept of God .

So, even if the cosmological argument is sound, it doesn’t necessarily follow that God exists.

This objection doesn’t work so well against Descartes’ version because he specifically reasons that there is a first cause and that this first cause is an omnipotent and omniscient God .

Similarly, you could argue that any being that exists necessarily (such as follows from Aquinas’ third way and Leibniz’s cosmological argument ) would be God.

The problem of evil uses the existence of evil in the world to argue that God (as defined in the concept of God ) does not exist.

These arguments can be divided into two forms:

  • The logical problem of evil is a deductive argument that says the existence of God is logically impossible given the existence of evil in the world
  • The evidential problem of evil is an inductive argument which says that, while it is logically possible that God exists, the amount of evil and unfair ways it is distributed in our world is pretty strong evidence that God doesn’t exist

And evil can be divided into two types of evil:

One final definition: a theodicy is an explanation of why an omnipotent and omniscient God would permit evil.

The logical problem of evil

“Epicurus’s old questions have still not been answered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then where does evil come from?” – Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part 10

J.L. Mackie: Evil and Omnipotence

Inconsistent triad.

The simple version of Mackie’s argument is that the following statements are logically inconsistent – i.e. one or more of them contradict each other:

  • God is omnipotent
  • God is omnibenevolent
  • Evil exists

Mackie’s argument is that, logically, a maximum of 2 of these 3 statements can be true but not all 3. This is sometimes referred to as the inconsistent triad .

He argues that if God is omnibenevolent then he wants to stop evil. And if God is omnipotent, then he’s powerful enough to prevent evil.

But evil does exist in the world. People steal, get murdered, and so on. So either God isn’t powerful enough to stop evil, doesn’t want to stop evil, or both.

In the concept of God , God is defined as an omnipotent and omnibenevolent being. If such a being existed, argues Mackie, then evil would not exist. But evil does exist. Therefore, there is no omnipotent and omnibenevolent being. Therefore, God does not exist.

Reply 1: good couldn’t exist without evil

People often make claims like “you can’t appreciate the good times without experiencing some bad times”.

This is basically what this reply says: without evil, good couldn’t exist.

Mackie’s response

Mackie questions whether this statement is true at all. Why can’t we have good without evil?

Imagine if we lived in a world where everything was red. Presumably, we wouldn’t have created a word for ‘red’, nor would we know what it meant if someone tried to explain it to us. But it would still be the case that everything is red, we just wouldn’t know.

It’s a similar story with good and evil.

God could have created a world in which there was no evil. Like the red example, we wouldn’t have the concept of evil. But it would still be the case that everything is good – we just wouldn’t be aware of it.

Reply 2: the world is better with some evil than none at all

You could develop reply 1 above to argue that some evil is necessary for certain types of good. For example, you couldn’t be courageous (good) without having to overcome fear of pain, death, etc. (evil).

We can define first and second order goods:

  • First order good: e.g. pleasure
  • Second order good: e.g. courage

The argument is that second order goods seek to maximise first order goods. And second order goods are more valuable than first order goods. But without first order evils, second order goods couldn’t exist.

Let’s say we accept that first order evil is necessary for second order good to exist. How do you explain second order evil ?

Second order evils seek to maximise first order evils such as pain. So, for example, malevolence or cruelty are examples of second order evils.

But we could still have a world in which people were courageous (second order good) in overcoming pain (first order evil) without these second order evils. So why would an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God allow the existence of second order evils if there is no greater good in doing so?

Reply 3: we need evil for free will

We can develop the second order evil argument above further and argue that second order evil is necessary for free will. And free will is inherently such a good and valuable thing that it outweighs the bad that results from people abusing free will to do evil things.

So, while allowing free will brings some suffering, the net good of having free will is greater than if we didn’t. Therefore, it’s logically possible that an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would allow evil (both first order and second order) for the greater good of free will.

  • An omnipotent God can create any logically possible world
  • If it’s logically possible to freely choose to act in a way that’s good on one occasion, then it’s logically possible to freely choose to act in a way that’s good on every occasion
  • So, an omnipotent God could create a world in which everyone freely chooses to act in a way that’s good

In other words, there is a logically possible world with both free will and without second order evils.

This, surely, would be the best of both worlds and maximise good most effectively: you would have second order goods, plus the good of free will, but without second order evils. This is a logically possible world – the logically possible world with the most good.

So, why wouldn’t an omnipotent and omniscient God create this specific world? Second order evils do not seem logically necessary, and yet they exist.

Alvin Plantinga: God, Freedom and Evil

Plantinga argues that we don’t need a plausible theodicy to defeat the logical problem of evil. All we need to show is that the existence of evil is not logically inconsistent with an omnipotent and omnibelevolent God.

So, even if the explanation of why God would allow evil doesn’t seem particularly plausible, as long as it’s a logical possibility then we have defeated the logical problem of evil .

Free will defence

Even Mackie himself admits that God’s existence is not logically incompatible with some evil (first order evil). But his argument is that second order evil isn’t necessary .

Plantinga argues, however, that it’s logically possible (which is all we need to show to defeat the logical problem of evil) that God would allow second order evil for a greater good. His argument is as follows:

  • A morally significant action is one that is either morally good or morally bad
  • A being that is significantly free is one that is able to do or not do morally significant actions
  • A being created by God to only do morally good actions would not be significantly free
  • So, the only way God could eliminate evil (including second order evil) would be to eliminate significantly free beings
  • But a world that contains significantly free beings is more good than a world that does not contain significantly free beings

In short, this argument shows that it’s at least logically possible that God would allow second order evil for the greater good of significant freedom.

Perhaps God could have created the world where everyone chose to only do morally good actions ( as Mackie describes above ) – but such a world wouldn’t be significantly free. Free will is inherently good and so significant free will could outweigh the negative of people using that significant free will to commit second order evils.

Natural evil as a form of moral evil

The free will defence above explains why an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would allow moral evil. But it doesn’t explain natural evil.

When innocent people are killed in natural disasters, it doesn’t seem this is the result of free will. So, even if an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God would allow moral evil, why does this kind of evil exist as well?

Plantinga argues that it’s possible natural evil is the result of non-human actors such as Satan, fallen angels, demons, etc. This would make natural evil another form of moral evil, the existence of which would be explained by free will.

Even if this doesn’t sound very plausible , it’s at least possible . And remember, Plantinga’s argument is that we only need to show evil is not logically inconsistent with God’s existence to defeat the logical problem of evil.

The evidential problem of evil

Unlike the logical problem of evil , the evidential problem of evil can allow that God’s existence is possible .

However, it argues the amount and distribution of evil in the world provides good evidence that God probably doesn’t exist.

  • Innocent babies born with painful congenital diseases
  • The sheer number of people currently living in slavery, extreme poverty or fear
  • The millions of innocent and anonymous people throughout history killed for no good reason

We can reject the logical problem of evil and accept that God would allow some evil. But would an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God allow so much evil? And to people so undeserving of it?

The evidential problem of evil argues that if God did exist, there would be less evil and it would be less concentrated among those undeserving of it.

Free will (again)

Sure, God could have made a world with less evil. But this would mean less free will. And on balance, having free will creates more good than the evil it also creates.

However, this response only explains moral evil, not natural evil. And while the natural evil as moral evil argument may work against the logical problem of evil , it’s less plausible against the evidential problem of evil.

The free will response explains natural evil as a form of moral evil – caused by Satan or other non-human entities. And while it’s logically possible such entities exist, what physical evidence is there? Without strong evidence, the proponent of the evidential problem of evil can stick to their claim that the amount and distribution of natural evil is strong evidence that God doesn’t exist.

John Hick: Evil and the God of Love

Soul making.

Hick argues that humans are unfinished beings. Part of our purpose in life is to develop personally, ethically and spiritually – he calls this ‘soul making’.

As discussed above , it would be impossible for people to display (second order) virtues such as courage without fear of (first order) evils such as pain or death. Similarly, we couldn’t learn virtues such as forgiveness if people never treated us wrongly.

Of course, God could just have given us these virtues right off the bat. But, Hick says, virtues acquired through hard work and discipline are “good in a richer and more valuable sense”. Plus, there are some virtues, such as a genuine and authentic love of God, that cannot simply be given (otherwise they wouldn’t be genuine).

This explanation goes some way towards explaining why God would allow the amount and distribution of evil we see. He then addresses some specific examples of evils that may not seem to fit with an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God:

Why God allows animals to suffer

The evidential problem of evil can ask Hick why God would allow animals to suffer when there is no benefit. After all, they can’t develop spiritually like we can.

Hick’s response is that God wanted to create epistemic distance between himself and humanity – i.e. a world in which his existence could be doubted. If God just proved he existed, we wouldn’t be free to develop a relationship with him.

Why God allows such terrible evils

Hick argues that it’s not possible for God to just get rid of terrible evil – e.g. baby torture – and leave only ordinary evil. The reason for this is that terrible evils are only terrible in contrast to ordinary evils. So, if God did get rid of terrible evils, then the worst ordinary evils would become the new terrible evils. If God kept getting rid of terrible evils then he would have to keep reducing free will and thus the development of personal and spiritual virtues ( soul making ).

Why God allows such pointless evils

Hick argues that pointless evils – e.g. anonymously dying in vain trying to save someone – are somewhat of a mystery. However, if every time we saw someone suffering we knew it was for some higher purpose (i.e. it wasn’t pointless), then we would never be able to develop deep sympathy.

Again, this goes back to the soul making theodicy: without seemingly unfair and pointless evil, we would never be able to develop virtues such as hope and faith – both of which require a degree of uncertainty.

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The Existence of God

Other essays.

The existence and attributes of God are evident from the creation itself, even though sinful human beings suppress and distort their natural knowledge of God.

The existence of God is foundational to the study of theology. The Bible does not seek to prove God’s existence, but rather takes it for granted. Scripture expresses a strong doctrine of natural revelation: the existence and attributes of God are evident from the creation itself, even though sinful human beings suppress and distort their natural knowledge of God. The dominant question in the Old and New Testaments is not whether God is, but rather who God is. Philosophers both Christian and non-Christian have offered a wide range of arguments for God’s existence, and the discipline of natural theology (what can be known or proven about God from nature alone) is flourishing today. Some philosophers, however, have proposed that belief in God is rationally justified even without theistic arguments or evidences. Meanwhile, professing atheists have offered arguments against God’s existence; the most popular is the argument from evil, which contends that the existence and extent of evil in the world gives us good reason not to believe in God. In response, Christian thinkers have developed various theodicies, which seek to explain why God is morally justified in permitting the evils we observe.

If theology is the study of God and his works, then the existence of God is as foundational to theology as the existence of rocks is to geology. Two basic questions have been raised regarding belief in God’s existence: (1) Is it true ? (2) Is it rationally justified (and if so, on what grounds)? The second is distinct from the first because a belief can be true without being rationally justified (e.g., someone might irrationally believe that he’ll die on a Thursday, a belief that turns out by chance to be true). Philosophers have grappled with both questions for millennia. In this essay, we will consider what the Bible says in answer to these questions, before sampling the answers of some influential Christian thinkers.

Scripture and the Existence of God

The Bible opens not with a proof of God’s existence, but with a pronouncement of God’s works: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” This foundational assertion of Scripture assumes that the reader not only knows already that God exists, but also has a basic grasp of who this God is. Throughout the Old Testament, belief in a creator God is treated as normal and natural for all human beings, even though the pagan nations have fallen into confusions about the true identity of this God. Psalm 19 vividly expresses a doctrine of natural revelation: the entire created universe ‘declares’ and ‘proclaims’ the glorious works of God. Proverbs tells us that “the fear of the Lord” is the starting point for knowledge and wisdom (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; cf. Psa. 111:10). Denying God’s existence is therefore intellectually and morally perverse (Psa. 14:1; 53:1). Indeed, the dominant concern throughout the Old Testament is not whether God is, but who God is. Is Yahweh the one true God or not (Deut. 4:35; 1Kgs. 18:21, 37, 39; Jer. 10:10)? The worldview that provides the foil for Hebrew monotheism is pagan polytheism rather than secular atheism.

This stance on the existence of God continues into the New Testament, which builds on the foundation of the uncompromising monotheism of the Old. In his epistle to the Romans, the apostle Paul insists that God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are clearly perceived from the created order itself. Objectively speaking, there can be no rational basis for doubt about the existence of a transcendent personal creator, and thus there can be no excuse for unbelief (Rom. 1:20). Endued with a natural knowledge of our creator we owe God our honor and thanks, and our failure to do so serves as the primary basis for the manifestation of God’s wrath and judgment. The apostle’s robust doctrine of natural revelation has raised the question of whether anyone can truly be an atheist. The answer will depend, first, on how “atheist” is defined, and second, on what precisely Paul means when he speaks of people “knowing” God. If the idea is that all men retain some genuine knowledge of God, despite their sinful suppression of natural revelation, it’s hard to maintain that anyone could completely lack any cognitive awareness of God’s existence. But if “atheist” is defined as someone who denies the existence of God or professes not to believe in God, Romans 1 not only allows for the existence of atheists – it effectively predicts it. Atheism might then be understood as a form of culpable self-deception.

Paul’s convictions about natural revelation are put to work in his preaching to Gentile audiences in Lystra and Athens (Acts 14:15–17; 17:22–31). Paul assumes not only that his hearers know certain things about God from the created order but also that they have sinfully suppressed and distorted these revealed truths, turning instead to idolatrous worship of the creation (cf. Rom. 1:22–25). Even so, his appeals to general revelation are never offered in isolation from special revelation: the Old Testament Scriptures, the person of Jesus Christ, and the testimony of Christ’s apostles.

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the question of the existence of God is almost never explicitly raised, but rather serves as a foundational presupposition, an unquestionable background assumption. One exception would be the writer to the Hebrews, who remarks that “whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (11:6). In general, the New Testament is concerned less with philosophical questions about the existence of God than with practical questions about how sinners can have a saving relationship with the God whose existence is obvious. As in the Old Testament, the pressing question is never whether God is, but who God is. Is Jesus Christ the revelation of God in human flesh or not? That’s the crux of the issue.

Arguments for the Existence of God

Consider again the two questions mentioned at the outset. (1) Is belief in God true ? (2) Is it rationally justified ? One appealing way to answer both questions affirmatively is to offer a theistic argument that seeks to infer God’s existence from other things we know, observe, or take for granted. A cogent theistic argument, one assumes, would not only demonstrate the truth of God’s existence but also provide rational justification for believing it. There is a vast literature on theistic arguments, so only a sampling of highlights can be given here.

The first generation of Christian apologists felt little need to argue for God’s existence for the same reason one finds no such arguments in the New Testament: the main challenges to Christian theism came not from atheism, but from non-Christian theism (Judaism) and pagan polytheism. Not until the medieval period do we find formal arguments for the existence of God offered, and even then the arguments do not function primarily as refutations of atheism but as philosophical meditations on the nature of God and the relationship between faith and reason.

One of the most famous and controversial is the ontological argument of St. Anselm (1033–1109) according to which God’s existence can be deduced merely from the definition of God, such that atheism leads inevitably to self-contradiction. One distinctive of the argument is that it relies on pure reason alone with no dependence on empirical premises. Various versions of the ontological argument have been developed and defended, and opinion is sharply divided even among Christian philosophers over whether there are, or even could be, any sound versions.

Cosmological arguments seek to demonstrate that that the existence of the universe, or some phenomenon within the universe, demands a causal explanation originating in a necessary first cause beyond the universe. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) famously offered “Five Ways” of demonstrating God’s existence, each of which can be understood as kind of cosmological argument. For example, one of the Five Ways argues that any motion (change) has to be explained by some mover (cause).  If that mover itself exhibits motion, there must be a prior mover to explain it, and because there cannot be an infinite regress of moved movers, there must be an original unmoved mover : an eternal, immutable, and self-existent first cause. Other notable defenders of cosmological arguments include G. W. Leibniz (1646–1716) and Samuel Clarke (1675–1729), and more recently Richard Swinburne and William Lane Craig.

Teleological arguments , which along with cosmological arguments can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, contend that God is the best explanation for apparent design or order in the universe. Simply put, design requires a designer, and thus the appearance of design in the natural world is evidence of a supernatural designer. William Paley (1743–1805) is best known for his argument from analogy which compares functional arrangements in natural organisms to those in human artifacts such as pocket watches. While design arguments suffered a setback with the rise of the Darwinian theory of evolution, which purports to explain the apparent design of organisms in terms of undirected adaptive processes, the so-called Intelligent Design Movement has reinvigorated teleological arguments with insights from contemporary cosmology and molecular biology while exposing serious shortcomings in naturalistic Darwinian explanations.

In the twentieth century, the moral argument gained considerable popularity, not least due to its deployment by C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) in his bestseller Mere Christianity . The argument typically aims to show that only a theistic worldview can account for objective moral laws and values. As with the other theistic arguments there are many different versions of the moral argument, trading on various aspects of our moral intuitions and assumptions. Since such arguments are typically premised on moral realism —the view that there are objective moral truths that cannot be reduced to mere human preferences or conventions—extra work is often required to defend such arguments in a culture where moral sensibilities have been eroded by subjectivism, relativism, and nihilism.

Cornelius Van Til (1895–1987) gained some notoriety for his forceful criticisms of the “traditional method” of Christian apologetics which capitulated to “autonomous human reason.” Van Til held that any respectable theistic argument ought to disclose the undeniability of the triune God revealed in Scripture, not merely a First Cause or Intelligent Designer. He therefore advocated an alternative approach, centered on a transcendental argument for the existence of God, whereby the Christian seeks to show that human reason, far from being autonomous and self-sufficient, presupposes the God of Christianity, the “All-Conditioner” who created, sustains, and directs all things according to the counsel of his will. As Van Til put it, we should argue “from the impossibility of the contrary”: if we deny the God of the Bible, we jettison the very grounds for assuming that our minds have the capacity for rational thought and for reliable knowledge of the world.

Since the renaissance of Christian philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century, there has been renewed interest and enthusiasm for the project of developing and defending theistic arguments. New and improved versions of the classical arguments have been offered, while developments in contemporary analytic philosophy have opened up new avenues for natural theology. In his 1986 lecture, “Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments,” Alvin Plantinga sketched out an entire A to Z of arguments for God, most of which had never been previously explored. Plantinga’s suggestions have since been expanded into a book-length treatment by other philosophers. The discipline of Christian natural theology is thriving as never before.

Basic Belief in the Existence of God

Still, are any of these arguments actually needed? Does confidence about God’s existence have to be funded by philosophical proofs? Since the Enlightenment, it has often been held that belief in God is rationally justified only if it can be supported by philosophical proofs or scientific evidences. While Romans 1:18–21 has sometimes been taken as a mandate for theistic arguments, Paul’s language in that passage suggests that our knowledge of God from natural revelation is far more immediate, intuitive, and universally accessible.

In the opening chapters of his Institutes of the Christian Religion , John Calvin (1509–1564) considers what can be known of God apart from special revelation and asserts that a natural knowledge has been universally implanted in mankind by the Creator: “There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity” ( Institutes , I.3.1). Calvin speaks of a sensus divinitatis , “a sense of deity,” possessed by every single person in virtue of being created in God’s image. This internal awareness of the Creator “can never be effaced,” even though sinful men “struggle furiously” to escape it. Our implanted natural knowledge of God can be likened in some respects to our natural knowledge of the moral law through the God-given faculty of conscience (Rom. 2:14-15). We know instinctively that it’s wrong to lie and steal; no philosophical argument is needed to prove such things. Similarly, we know instinctively that there is a God who made us and to whom we owe honor and thanks.

In the 1980s, a number of Protestant philosophers led by Alvin Plantinga, Nicholas Wolterstorff, and William Alston developed a sophisticated defense of Calvin’s notion of the sensus divinitatis . Dubbed the “Reformed epistemologists,” they argued that theistic beliefs can be (and normally should be) properly basic : rationally justified even without empirical evidences or philosophical proofs. On this view, believing that God exists is comparable to believing that the world of our experience really exists; it’s entirely rational, even if we can’t philosophically demonstrate it. Indeed, it would be quite dysfunctional to believe otherwise.

Arguments Against the Existence of God

Even granting that there is a universal natural knowledge of God, there are unquestionably people who deny God’s existence and offer arguments in their defense. Some have attempted to exposed contradictions within the concept of God (e.g., between omniscience and divine freedom) thereby likening God to a “square circle” whose existence is logically impossible. At most such arguments only rule out certain conceptions of God, conceptions that are often at odds with the biblical view of God in any case.

A less ambitious approach is to place the burden of proof on the theist: in the absence of good arguments for God’s existence, one ought to adopt the “default” position of atheism (or at least agnosticism). This stance is hard to maintain given the many impressive theistic arguments championed by Christian philosophers today, not to mention the Reformed epistemologists’ argument that belief in God is properly basic.

The most popular atheistic argument is undoubtedly the argument from evil. The strong version of the argument maintains that the existence of evil is logically incompatible with the existence of an all-good, all-powerful God. The more modest version contends that particularly horrifying and seemingly gratuitous instances of evil, such as the Holocaust, provide strong evidence against God’s existence. The problem of evil has invited various theodicies : attempts to explain how God can be morally justified in permitting the evils we encounter in the world. While such explanations can be useful, they aren’t strictly necessary for rebutting the argument from evil. It is enough to point out that given the complexities of the world and the considerable limitations of human knowledge, we are in no position to conclude that God couldn’t have morally justifying reasons for allowing the evils we observe. Indeed, if we already have grounds for believing in God, we can reasonably conclude that God must have such reasons, whether or not we can discern them.

Further Reading

  • James N. Anderson, “Can We Prove the Existence of God?” The Gospel Coalition , April 16, 2012.
  • Greg L. Bahnsen, “ The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presuppositional Apologetics ,” Westminster Theological Journal 57 (1995): 1–32.
  • John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion , Book I, Chapters 1-5.
  • William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland, eds, The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).
  • John M. Frame, Nature’s Case for God (Lexham Press, 2018).
  • C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Fontana Books, 1955).
  • Alvin Plantinga, Knowledge and Christian Belief (Eerdmans, 2015).
  • Cornelius Van Til, Why I Believe in God (Committee on Christian Education, Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1966).
  • Jerry L. Walls and Trent Dougherty, eds, Two Dozen (or so) Arguments for God (Oxford University Press, 2018).
  • Greg Welty, Why Is There Evil in the World (And So Much Of It)? (Christian Focus, 2018).

This essay is part of the Concise Theology series. All views expressed in this essay are those of the author. This essay is freely available under Creative Commons License with Attribution-ShareAlike, allowing users to share it in other mediums/formats and adapt/translate the content as long as an attribution link, indication of changes, and the same Creative Commons License applies to that material. If you are interested in translating our content or are interested in joining our community of translators,  please reach out to us .

God’s Existence: Views and Ideas Essay (Critical Writing)

Introduction, perception of god, criticism of god.

The various views of God’s existence provide a plurality of ideas and arguments used to justify God’s meaning as a phenomenon. Rational, theological, and critical ideas form the underlying principles of the probability of God’s existence. A unified view of God is impossible because denying it would have a more significant effect. Instead, one must accept that God and his creations are different manifestations of the divine and not confuse transcendence with rationality.

The perception of the rationality of faith depends on many factors and, above all, an understanding of what ends faith leads to soul’s fullness. Whether it is only the pursuit of rationality and explanation that one seeks or whether the transcendence of God delights in and thereby compels one to believe given supra-rationality (Rea, 2020). An essential aspect of this question is the very understanding of truth and revelation that is theoretically or physically attainable (Geisler & Feinberg, 1980). It is the difference in views on the very essence of revelation that conditions the position on the extent to which one can perceive the existence of God and reflect it in one’s reality (Hewitt, 2019). The most relevant position seems to be that a reinterpretation of God leads to the fact that its rationality is not denied. This position leads to a worldview in which divine revelation exists and is accepted, but rationalism and drawing the line between the real and the mythological. The irrationality of phenomena is not a reason to deny their myth; consequently, they continue to be part of the worldview and perception.

God as a phenomenon is unusual because it combines a collision of consciousness reflection and creative natural processes. The world’s creation occurred by a set of circumstances, so God used the available substrata and created something new and perfect in his view. That his representations do not collide with the way society perceives them does not diminish his merit. Therefore, the reality of divine influence on the world cannot be denied (Geisler & Feinberg, 1980). The differential understanding of this influence is realized through the perception of observed phenomena and, consequently, is diverse enough that the reality of God is not denied. Accepting only one view reduces all human existence to meaninglessness, which is untrue. God is as much one as he is diverse, which is precisely the arrangement of the world that is most true.

One view of God’s existence that makes one wonder about being is the pantheistic worldview. In this view, God is one with the universe and every part of it, so every activity is merely the result of a mortal mind (Geisler & Feinberg, 1980). This view simplifies the understanding of things and, at the same time, elevates it to absolute truth. The whole one looks at is always good, and those parts one denies because they are evil are just part of a mistake and a wrong view (Geisler & Feinberg, 1980). Rethinking the world this way brings the person to the knowledge that unchanging truths are good. These truths are set by the nature of things and the nature of God, who acts as the criterion of the perfect and the imperfect. As long as one’s view of the world fluctuates within the framework of simple truths, one can determine the causes of one’s doubts and, consequently, the errors of the mind that can lead to evil.

Denial of God and his place in society is a failure to understand why his existence as a whole is possible. A conflict arises between what is perceived under the universe by the scientist and creator and what the atheist current assumes without a rational grain. Eternity as a universe is a concept to describe the relation to the world, not the existence of something from outside (Geisler & Feinberg, 1980). One should perceive divine influence, speech, and essence as entirely different things because otherwise, the very meaning of God is confused (Mosser, 2021). It is essential to accept the necessity of denying each element because it is impossible to establish truth unless each component is examined separately and all false or irrational variants are discarded. To believe that the process of agreement alone shapes attitudes toward God is not rational. Doubt is a natural part of the journey to God, so each persona opens a path to transcendence (Geisler & Feinberg, 1980). This path is how the Divine is perceived and why His creations do not entirely reflect Himself.

The perception of God is a way of knowing one’s way of understanding the universe, reality, and transcendence. Doubt and criticism are part and parcel of knowing the divine discourses and creations because truth cannot be known without understanding imperfect things. The good can be seen only if one sees things as a Whole and understands the relationship of each part to the other. Simple truths are always virtues, so the perception of evil is only a consequence of a mortal mind that has not yet discovered transcendence and completed the journey to God.

Geisler, N. L. & Feinberg, P. D. (1980). Introduction to philosophy. A Christian perspective. Baker Academic.

Hewitt, S. (2019). God is not a person (an argument via pantheism) . International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 85 , 281–296. Web.

Mosser, C. (2021). Deification and union with God, in T&T Clark companion to analytic theology , Arcadi, J. M. & Turner, J. T. (eds). Bloomsbury (pp. 269–280).

Rea, M. C. (2020). God beyond being: Towards a credible account of divine transcendence”, in Essays in Analytic Theology , 1, Michael C. Rea (ed.). Oxford University Press (pp. 120–137).

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Home — Essay Samples — Philosophy — Existence — The Ontological, Cosmological, and Teleological Theories of the Existence of God

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The Ontological, Cosmological, and Teleological Theories of The Existence of God

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  4. An Argument for God's Existence (1. Introduction)

  5. Neil deGrasse Tyson's Surprising Stance on the Existence of God #shortsbeta #shortsyoutube

  6. The Essence of Divine Logic

COMMENTS

  1. Existence of God

    The argument claims that the universe is strongly analogous, in its order and regularity, to an artifact such as a watch; because the existence of the watch justifies the presumption of a watchmaker, the existence of the universe justifies the presumption of a divine creator of the universe, or God.

  2. Proof For The Existence Of God Philosophy Essay

    The existence of God is a matter of debate in philosophy, the philosophy of religion, and popular culture. This report presents the different sides and opinions of philosophers that at different time periods argued about the existence of God and its need as well as the analysis of different views to present the controversial topic in detail.

  3. Moral Arguments for the Existence of God

    Evidence for this can be found in the amazing popularity of C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity (1952), which is almost certainly the best-selling book of apologetics in the twentieth century, and which begins with a moral argument for God's existence. Many ordinary people regard religion as in some way providing a basis or foundation for morality.

  4. PDF Can we prove God's existence?

    Premise 1: God is the greatest conceivable being. Premise 2: It is greater to exist in reality than to exist only in the mind. Conclusion: Therefore, as the greatest conceivable being, God must exist in reality. This argument has had a very rocky history.

  5. Does God Exist?

    All of the traditional philosophical arguments for God's existence, such as the cosmological, teleological, moral, and ontological arguments, not to mention creative, new arguments, find intelligent and articulate defenders on the contemporary philosophical scene.

  6. Anselm: Ontological Argument for the God's Existence

    1. Introduction: The Non-Empirical Nature of the Ontological Arguments It is worth reflecting for a moment on what a remarkable (and beautiful!) undertaking it is to deduce God's existence from the very definition of God. Normally, existential claims don't follow from conceptual claims.

  7. Arguments for the existence of God

    There is certainly no shortage of arguments that purport to establish God's existence, but 'Arguments for the existence of God' focuses on three of the most influential arguments: the cosmological argument, the design argument, and the argument from religious experience.

  8. Principles of Philosophy Part I: 13-27: God's Existence Summary

    The first one, found in I.14, is a version of the ontological argument for God's existence. Descartes' ontological argument goes as follows: (1) Our idea of God is of a perfect being, (2) it is more perfect to exist than not to exist, (3) therefore, God must exist. The second argument that Descartes gives for this conclusion is far more complex.

  9. Aquinas's Five Proofs for the Existence of God

    One of the questions the Summa Theologica is well known for addressing is the question of the existence of God. Aquinas responds to this question by offering the following five proofs: 1. The Argument from Motion: Our senses can perceive motion by seeing that things act on one another. Whatever moves is moved by something else.

  10. Arguments for the Existence of God

    Davies, Brian. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. Wide-ranging introduction to philosophy of religion that includes a discussion of ontological arguments, cosmological arguments, teleological arguments, arguments from religious experience, arguments from miracles, and moral arguments.

  11. Teleological Arguments for God's Existence

    Teleological Arguments for God's Existence. First published Fri Jun 10, 2005; substantive revision Wed Apr 5, 2023. Some phenomena within nature exhibit such exquisiteness of structure, function or interconnectedness that many people have found it natural to see a deliberative and directive mind behind those phenomena.

  12. (PDF) Existence of God: A Philosophical Aspect

    The existence of God is a subject of debate in the philosophy of religion. In philosophical terms, the question of the existence of God involves the disciplines of epistemology and...

  13. The Existence of God: Key Arguments

    The existence of God has been a big subject in philosophy, and attempts to prove or disprove his existence have been made since time immemorial. Famous philosophers such as Rene Descartes, St. Thomas Aquinas, and William Paley have all conceived arguments to prove the existence of God. Although there are many other arguments trying to prove the ...

  14. God and Other Necessary Beings

    God and Other Necessary Beings. First published Fri Apr 29, 2005; substantive revision Tue Aug 6, 2019. It is commonly accepted that there are two sorts of existent entities: those that exist but could have failed to exist, and those that could not have failed to exist. Entities of the first sort are contingent beings; entities of the second ...

  15. God's Existence as a Topic in Philosophy Essay

    Updated: Dec 10th, 2023. The existence of God is one of the more contentious topics in philosophy since it involves the collision of faith and skepticism. Nonetheless, both the proponents of the idea that God exists and those that deny it introduce legitimate claims to support their argument. While the famous dilemma of the coexistence of God ...

  16. Does God Exist?

    A level philosophy looks at 4 arguments relating to the existence of God. These are: The ontological argument The teleological argument The cosmological argument The problem of evil There are various versions of each argument as well as numerous responses to each. The key points of each argument are summarised below: Ontological arguments

  17. Rene Descartes And The Existence Of God Philosophy Essay

    The idea of existence of God is an innate one and must have been placed inside us by a supernatural being that is, God. There is no way that the idea of God's existence can be an invented one or an adventitious idea. Nothing comes from nothing, so everything must have come from something.

  18. The Existence of God

    Scripture and the Existence of God. The Bible opens not with a proof of God's existence, but with a pronouncement of God's works: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.". This foundational assertion of Scripture assumes that the reader not only knows already that God exists, but also has a basic grasp of who this God is.

  19. Existence of God

    e. The existence of God (or more generally, the existence of deities) is a subject of debate in theology, philosophy of religion and popular culture. [1] A wide variety of arguments for and against the existence of God or deities can be categorized as logical, empirical, metaphysical, subjective or scientific.

  20. God's Existence: Views and Ideas Essay (Critical Writing)

    The various views of God's existence provide a plurality of ideas and arguments used to justify God's meaning as a phenomenon. Rational, theological, and critical ideas form the underlying principles of the probability of God's existence. A unified view of God is impossible because denying it would have a more significant effect.

  21. The Ontological, Cosmological, and Teleological Theories of the

    The existence of God has been a big subject in philosophy and efforts to prove or disprove his existence have been taking place since the dawn of time. Notable philosophers such as Rene Descartes, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and William Paley have all conceived arguments to prove the existence of God.

  22. 5 arguments for and against the existence of God

    Scotty Hendricks One of the most enduring problems of philosophy is whether God exists. It has attracted the attention of some of the greatest minds across every philosophical tradition. Here,...

  23. Arguments On Gods Existence Philosophy Essay

    Critical thinking be it evaluation of logic or deductive reasoning put forward as philosophical arguments further justifies the existence of God. Three main philosophical arguments explains the existence of God; anthological, first cause, and argument from design. Simple reasoning clearly shows that there is a God.