Lesson 6: The Existence of God

When we read Plato and Aristotle, we find references to God everywhere. These are made in an untroubled way. What troubled Plato were the demeaning things that the poets said about the gods, attributing to them behavior that would be reprehensible in human beings. Not only did Plato regard such accounts as providing defective instruction for the young, he thought them false. One of the tasks of the philosophers was to insure that talk about God was appropriate to its subject.

Aristotle said of Anaxagoras' appeal to Mind, or Nous, as the ultimate cause of things that he sounded like the one sober man in a crowd of drunks. On another occasion, he commended Heraclitus, telling an anecdote about the philosopher that he took to underwrite the importance of the study of nature. "Every realm of nature is marvelous: and as Heraclitus, when the strangers who came to visit him found him warming himself at the furnace in the kitchen and hesitated to go in, is reported to have bidden them not to be afraid to enter, as even in that kitchen divinities were present, so we should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful. Absence of haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to be found in Nature's works in the highest degree, and the resultant end of her generations and combinations is a form of the beautiful" [On the Parts of Animals, Book One, Chapter 5].

Some awareness of God is a feature of being human, nor of course does each one individually hit upon the existence of God. Such awareness is conveyed by our language, our upbringing, our culture. But it answers to the experience of everyone. Cardinal Newman held that God's presence is most widely recognized in the fact of conscience, which is operative in every human agent. The hesitation before acting, this or that -- and why or why not? It is not necessary to speak of a voice, though this seems natural enough; it suffices that the agent is attending to criteria of action which are antecedent to his choice. Conventions, customs, laws? To some degree, but when conventions, customs, laws? At the limit, it is the sense of the imperfect mastery we have over our lives that impresses upon us a sense of creatureliness. Great evil, misfortune, great joys as well. "Life is a book in which we set out to write one story and end by writing another." But it is the sense that there is an Author and we are characters, however free, in a story we cannot comprehend that induces awe and may occasion worship.

In speaking of philosophical proofs of the existence of God, it is well first to exorcise the assumption that agnosticism or atheism is the natural default position of the human mind, and that only the cunning of culture or craven fears of the unknown have led some, alas many, from this pristine recognition that the world just happens to be there, just happens to function as it does, that we and our species have against all statistical probability arrived on the scene, but in the end, none of it makes sense, it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Far from being the natural attitude, this is an acquired outlook, and one that must explain away far more than it explains. Man is not naturally atheistic. He is naturally theistic.

If the case can be made that Plato and Aristotle undertake philosophical discussions of God against the background of Greek popular religion, it is yet more obvious that in the Christian era talk about God -- theology -- takes place against the background of the Christian tradition, of revelation and of the authoritative interpretation of Scripture. Does this mean that so-called proofs of God's existence are really only an articulation of convictions already held?

The secularist complaint against Christian Philosophy -- the secularist is one who with the great effort mentioned arrives at an agnostic or atheist position and then portrays it as the natural standpoint -- is that believers are unwilling to follow the argument wherever it goes precisely because they have begged the question. Proofs of God's existence are not meant to bring about a certainty not previously had, but actually depend upon the believer's antecedent commitment that there is a God.

There is much to this objection. Sometimes, as with Kierkegaard and Karl Barth -- his interpretation of Saint Anselm and of fides quaerens intellectum -- it is the believer who blows the whistle on the supposed bad-faith of the believer who would prove the existence of God. How can you ask a question to which you already hold an answer?

Of course the believer before, during and after his philosophical efforts to show that God's existence follows on other known truths, holds that God exists because he believes in Him. He does not put his faith in escrow. He does not for the nonce adopt the stance of the agnostic. As a matter of fact, he is sustained in his effort by what he believes, mindful that St. Paul has said that human beings can "from the things that are made, come to knowledge of the invisible things of God." Paul was speaking to and of the pagan Romans and was holding them inexcusable in their actions because the knowledge they should have had of God, moving from the things that are made, would have precluded such actions. It is no accident that the ambience of faith has provided a powerful stimulus to natural theology.

Natural Theology

The believer comes to philosophy with a rich inventory of truths about God. Thanks to his faith, he knows that God is a trinity of persons, he knows that Jesus is one divine person with two natures, a human and divine, he knows that sins are forgiven, on and on. When he reads Plato and Aristotle, he will note what they say of God and some of it will strike him as just right. It jibes with what God has told us of himself, although from the point of view of the vast number of truths God has revealed about himself, those philosophers hit upon will not seem like much. But on reflection the believer will marvel at what the human mind, unaided by revelation has had to say about God. And eventually it will dawn on him that there is an overlap between what God has revealed about himself and what philosophers have discovered about God. If those philosophical proofs and analyses are correct, then some of the things one has accepted on divine faith, can be known. The believer who takes up philosopher undertakes to see if he can know those truths about God.

We have seen that the pagan philosophers saw theology as the culminating task of philosophy. Theology means what human beings can come to know about God. Call this philosophical theology. Call it natural theology, since it is achieved in reliance on the natural human cognitive powers without any special light or revelation. When the believer recognizes that philosophers have sought to prove truths about God which are part of what he believes, he may wonder if the arguments work. If he is a philosopher, he will pursue the matter. Let us say that, like Thomas Aquinas, he concludes that the philosophical argument for the existence of God is sound. He does not conclude from this that every truth revealed about God is susceptible of such proof. He will know that most of what he believes constitute mysteries. He will accordingly distinguish among the truths that God has revealed those which can be known, proved, understood, and those which cannot. Thomas called the first preambles of faith and did not confuse them with the mysteries of faith.There are then two kinds of truth about God, those which can be demonstrated, and those which cannot. And both are part of revelation.

Can a believer engage in natural theology? Well, can a believer evaluate and/or formulate arguments which establish the existence of God? Of course. The fact that he believes in God before, during and afterward has no intrinsic effect on the proof he offers. Either it is good or it is not. If it is good, it is good for anyone; if it is not sound, it fails for everyone. As was suggested earlier, religious faith can serve as a stimulus to philosophical inquiry and it can sustain one's efforts in the face of reversals. The believer has extra-philosophical confidence that God's existence can be known even apart from the faith.

It is increasingly apparent that the presuppositions of secular philosophy have had terrible effects on philosophy itself. This judgment is based on the assumption that nihilism and relativism and skepticism are terrible effects. One of the features of Pope John Paul II's encyclical Fides et Ratio is that we now find the Holy Father, Christ's Vicar on Earth, defending human reason against the depredations it has suffered at the hands of many recent philosophers. Chesterton once said that the man who stops believing in God does not believe in nothing, he believes anything. One might also say that one who adopts a narrow and materialist view of reason will not only be indisposed to follow proofs for God's existence; he will end by doubting that any proof is valid.

Selection 11

In the Selected Writings of Thomas Aquinas, you will find some chapters from the Summa contra gentiles dealing with the matter of this lesson. A feature of the discussion is Thomas's treatment of the view that a proof is unnecessary because it is self-evident that God exists. Perhaps no discussion of proofs of God's existence is possible without mentioning the proof formulated by Saint Anselm in his Proslogion. The proof was suggested by the psalmist's remark that "The fool has said in his heart there is no God." In reflecting on this, Anselm reasoned that if it was foolish to make this denial, then it was absurd and wouldn't that make it incoherent? He set about showing that it was logically impossible to deny God's existence.

Such an effort is the classical form of the reductio ad absurdum. I maintain that p is self-evidently true, and you deny it, asserting -p. Since my claim is that p is self-evident, I have deprived myself of finding something more evident from which I would derive it. All I can do in defense of p is show that you cannot hold -p. In the case in point, the value of p is "God exists." How can it be shown that "God does not exist" is self-contradictory?

Anselm makes two preliminary points. If I say that the whole is greater than its part, my listener must know what "whole" and "part" mean, and he will have to know what "greater than" means. Here, one must know what "God" means. Anselm suggests this meaning as capturing the obvious: that than which nothing greater can be thought.

What does "greater than" mean here? If I have the idea of a birdhouse. Subsequently, I go to my workshop and realize this idea. If I give the birdhouse in my mind the value of 1, then the combination of the idea and the reality receives the value of 2. So, the combination of idea and realization is greater than the idea taken alone.

Let us use the acronym TTWNGCBT for Anselm's proposed meaning of the term "God." The fool hears the word spoken and he knows what it means. So TTWNGCBT exists in his mind. If God means TTWNGCBT for both Anselm and the fool, but the fool denies that God exists, that is, that the idea has a counterpart in reality. But if this is so, he at one and the same time holds that God means TTWNGCBT and the opposite, -(TTWNGCBT). If God exists only in the mind, it would be greater from him to exist in mind and in reality. But if he exists only in the mind, he is not than which nothing greater can be thought. The fool has thus deprived himself of the means of denying the existence of God.

It is the assumption of this argument that Thomas rejects in chapter 11 of Selection 11 (p. 246). His own argument will be found in Chapter 13. I had intended to analyze that argument in detail in this lesson but have decided to let it stand on its own rather than extend this lesson as much as such an analysis would require. In lieu of that analysis, I will suggest some secondary readings.

Suggested Reading Assignment

Selection 11 in the Selected Writings.

Suggested Writing Assignment

Write your own summary outline of this key text (Selection 11).


Purchase This Course                               << Previous               Next >>                                   Return to Top