Philosophical Arguments for God

Continuing in my current series trying to explain why I doubt the existence of gods, I’d like to start talking about the philosophical arguments for gods (the popular ones are formed as trying to prove a traditional monotheistic God, so I’ll stick to those.)

As an introduction to this topic I’d like to talk more generally about my own perspectives regarding arguments for and against the existence of God.  I’ve found some theists who have expressed my own ideas better than I can.  I’ve tried my best to not twist their quotes out of context but I’ll include links to all of their interviews from the Closer To Truth website so my readers can make their own judgments.  There are tons of related interviews on that website with both theists as well as atheists that I’ve spent way too many hours listening to, but I’ve found many of them helpful.

While many of my readers (perhaps all) don’t need to hear this, it is important for some believers to hear that philosophers agree that we cannot get complete certainty from philosophical arguments for/against the existence of God (actually uncertainty in philosophy extends way beyond this subject).  This seems to be the consensus even among conservative theistic scholars.  Some theists go further than only suggesting that you can’t get complete certainty and those are the perspectives I’d like to share here.

First a short clip from Peter van Inwagen:

This may have been one of those one off comments but it fits the context of what he was expressing in the interview.  Either way It matches my own view.  Take a look here at polls of philosophers on different topics.  What I see from that is that opinions are all over the map on many different topics.  Not only is there lack of complete certainty but there is much honest disagreement on deep philosophical questions.

Next a longer one from John Cottingham:

Cottingham doesn’t get into much detail here but his points are well taken – for many people these arguments likely won’t get them anywhere and they are even unhelpful.  I’m sure Cottingham would agree with me that there are exceptions to this, and frankly I want philosophical discussions to continue because the pursuit of truth needs to continue with all ideas on the table and discussed back and forth with rigor – but the point is that we need to have a practical as well as respectful view of the fact that these arguments at least at this point remain intellectually unconvincing to many who are both sincere and well informed.

People can provide their air-tight syllogisms and tout philosophical rigor above those they disagree with but they should be aware that many of those they disagree with are quite aware of the difference between logical validity and logical soundness. They are very aware that the premises of many of these arguments are questionable often in several different ways, and that it is mainly the discussion of the premises where the confusion and honest disagreement always lies.

Then there is more insight from William Dembsky:

Similar things here regarding this kind of perspective regarding arguments.  I totally agree with him regarding the ontological argument and many (not all) of the theists interviewed tend to express the same concession.  Like him, I also feel like the ontological argument is a word game where the existence of God somehow “pops out”.  Usually after reading these kind of ontological arguments I end up feeling similar to how I feel after I’ve been scammed by a sneaky telemarketer.  I don’t plan on discussing the ontological argument much, although I would say that I think that some laypeople (even theists) who speak against it don’t properly understand the argument.  Some feel that it just says “if you can think about something then it exists”.  This isn’t quite right, but either way many experts who are better informed (both theists as well as atheists) agree that the argument is fallacious.

Dembski precisely hits the nail on the head regarding the problem I’ve always felt plagues the Cosmological argument and frankly I don’t understand why people are so enamored with this one.  Since it is so popular later on I will likely post on some of the other issues with it.  Quoting Dembski on this: “…explanations always run out at some point.  There’s a natural resting place or final resting place of explanation, and it seems we can end it in nature or we can end it in God.  I’m not sure you can adjudicate that on any sort of logical grounds that stand outside and can say ok well it’s really God and not nature.”  If he was being more precise he would have exhausted all possibilities by saying “we can end it in something natural or we can end it in something not natural”, but this was an informal setting.

Dembski expressed that he is personally persuaded by the moral argument (Cottingham is also) as well as intelligent design (irreducible complexity) as you can see in the rest of the interview.  I’ve already discussed why the moral argument is not convincing to me.  While the moral argument is a popular one, Dembski seems to be in the minority among theist philosophers interviewed regarding intelligent design.  This is likely because the consensus among scientists in the field is against this view.  Francis Collins is one of many well informed theists who disagree with Dembski on this.  Which brings me to another very interesting point – there seems to be much disagreement among theists about which arguments are convincing and which are not, even among the experts.  Again, par for the course when it comes to philosophy.  I’m not all that negative on intelligent design, but I’ll need a separate post to fit all the ideas I have on that (sorry I keep doing that).

And last but not least a kind offer of respect from theist John Polkinghorne:

I just love Polkinghorne’s attitude here.  He mentions Steven Weinberg and I am similar to Steven in that I often talk about religion with my friends who have an interest in it.  Face to face these kinds of discussions can actually be enjoyable even with lack of agreement because a lot of my theistic friends can have a similar attitude as Polkinghorne.  Unfortunately, given the nature of the online medium it is much more difficult to have this kind of conversation (but not impossible) in the virtual world.

In my next post I will dig deep into one of the more popular arguments.  Likely fine-tuning.

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17 thoughts on “Philosophical Arguments for God

  1. I think you and i share a common un-comfortableness with philosophy. A little is fine, sometimes even fun, but its woefully inadequate in approaching any sense of truth. This is what drives me so mad with Christian philosophers and their utter devotion to word games.

  2. I’m still organizing all my references and thoughts on fine tuning but once I’m done you’ll probably find it useful. No way I can keep it short, so I’m thinking of doing a blog-post/webpage combo where the page will be for references if people want to dig further.

  3. Yeah John, that is a good way to describe my feelings. I took two philosophy courses way back in the college days and recently took an intro to phil class online to brush up. I see it’s usefulness in trying to organize our thoughts and make sure our thinking on many different topics are correct. It’s most useful area is likely in epistemology – the scientific method itself is obviously based on some practical concepts that derive from that. But the area of metaphysics is really just so abstract and not intended to be considered anywhere near conclusive. In this way I am bothered just like you that apologists take ideas from metaphysics and use them as practically conclusive weapons when that is not the intent. I think that was likely what drove Peter van Inwagen’s comment in the video.

  4. I think I am glad I never got into philosophy. Interesting to learn about the logical validity and logical soundness concepts though. That terminology could come in handy.

  5. Hey Jason – can’t blame you for not wanting to delve into philosophy. I have to admit there are times where I’ve spent hours reading on the subject and then wished I could get back those hours of my life! 😉

    I lurked in on that conversation you had with Derek on your blog the other day and I wanted to jump in at several points especially when he started talking about conspiracies among archaeologists, but the weird thing is that I just didn’t think I knew what to say to show him his wrong thinking. Reason why that’s weird for me is because I used to believe in a very similar way like Derek (minus his snide attitude). You’d think I’d know what to say to help these guys out. It took a while for me to see the problems from the inside and maybe that’s the biggest thing in all this – perhaps people have to learn it on their own. We’re all so stubborn about our beliefs.

  6. It sounds to me like Derek has a pretty strong emotional connection to the faith, maybe it’s what he needs right now. The conversations with him weave through a few different blog entries, but it seems he may have talked himself into a couple corners where I hope he may come upon opportunities to learn new ideas from those who have been engaging with him.

    Was there anything in particular that really helped start you in questioning things?

  7. It’s been a while so I don’t remember if there was any one thing. I really think it was just a matter of time in seeing a list of problems. Biggest one probably being the one way “relationship” that I thought would at some point start to develop into something real. I describe it a little more here which you have read already. The contradictions and atrocities in the bible certainly didn’t help. But Derek seems to think there are no contradictions in the bible. I think this may be a little bit of a talking point that Christians are in some ways taught to say – you’ve likely heard it a lot, and it goes something like this: “every alleged contradiction I look into ends up being resolved with further investigation.” Over time I realized more and more that for some of the alleged contradictions the resolution becomes so far reaching that if I was to apply the same interpretive techniques to any other sacred book then I could declare those as inerrant as well. Not everyone seems to get this though. Or maybe they kind of get it but just don’t think that other scriptures of other religions come anywhere close to how “beautiful” they see their own scriptures. But how can one really do an objective analysis between them. Anyone can list a bunch of good qualities of their own book and then list bad qualities of a different religion’s books and feel they are then justified – but this can be done from any different religion, and sure enough we see Muslims online preaching the same thing about the Quran, and I’ve met Mormons and Bahai who feel the same about their own religious writings. In the end I just see all of them as natural writings of myth and contemplative thoughts on human nature and life, but again not everyone ends up seeing that. I think there are just too many variables involved to be able to end up seeing that this is the most likely perspective. And then there is always the “what if I am wrong” question that lurks in the back of people’s minds, but they don’t stop to think about the fact that they may be wrong about Islam or any other faith which declares them judged. There’s also the feeling that the questioning they have is driven by a desire to not have rules that they have to live by – this is a guilt trip provided by peers, sometimes very subtly but it’s there for sure. But for me I actually don’t mind having rules to live by so that little guilt-trip trick didn’t end up working on me for very long. I wouldn’t mind there being a God of goodness – in fact I’d kind of like it.

    But Derek’s extreme version of declaring scientists to all somehow be in on a conspiracy because if they didn’t go along with the conspiracy then they wouldn’t be accepted as scholars is just taking things too far. If we applied this consistently to all human research then we’d end up not being able to trust a single thing – including the research in theology. I’m not sure how to communicate this properly to someone like Derek though.

  8. Yeah, I was actually into conspiracy theory stuff a few years back and I definitely see some parallels with some approaches Christians take. I have to admit though, it’s interesting trying to understand how people can get so locked into these views, and how difficult it is to snap someone out of it.

  9. Hi Howie, this was an interesting post. I agree with you and the videos that the philosophical arguments don’t prove anything and most people don’t find them all that useful. But I find them useful, so I thought that viewpoint was worth adding to the mix. But I found I had ‘too much’ to say, so I made it a blog post instead of a comment. Check out How can we know if God exists? Do philosophical arguments help? if you’re interested. Thanks.

  10. Thanks Unklee – I read your post and I am making a comment. I’m looking forward to see what others think of your post. Not much I can disagree with on your comment that you left here – you know a big thing with me is realizing that everyone is different so I know that these philosophical arguments will have a bigger impact on some people than others. For me it’s important to try and measure the strength of the conclusions which may come out of different fields. I detailed this a little more in my last paragraph on this post where I made an effort to list fields in order from more certain to more elusive: math/logic, physics, medical, anthropology, history, philosophy, religion, politics. (not a concise list or order just a general idea). I especially hold metaphysics at arms length and that is what I think of first when I think of the word philosophy. But philosophy itself is an incredibly broad field and logic is included in that, so it’s hard to properly place an extremely broad field.

    My post was 1100 words which is way above my limit so I left out that I appreciated the part in Cottingham’s video where he talks about a bunch of different things cohering to form a person’s worldview. I can see how that works – it has always been the case for me no matter what “phase” of worldview I was in. 🙂 I think this relates partially to your post.

  11. Those who live in truth, speak truths, and see truths, need not ask the question of whether or not God exists.

    Those who distance themselves from the truth, and do so via walking on paths of belief, disbelief, ignorance, etc., are those who do end up asking the question, for they do not see the truth, for they have chosen to be incapable of seeing the truth.

    After all, you are only dependent upon beliefs and disbeliefs if you are located at a distance from the truth in the first place, thus if you choose to stick to your beliefs and disbeliefs, then you have in turn chosen to stick to being located at that distance from the truth.

    Therefore, one can not speak truths directly to such people, for they only accept truth from a distance as best as that truth can be seen from that distance. Thus in turn you have no choice but to speak to them indirectly. One method is to speak to them via parables, since it is a form of indirect communication.

    However, if you do speak to them truthfully and directly, they will crucify you and your word.

    For instance, if you were a fellow named Jesus Christ and you were forced to speak truth directly to a group of “Believers”, believers who stick to their beliefs, they would spit into your face, flog you, scourge you, and crucify you, for they only will accept less than truth, since it is their ongoing choice to stick to their beliefs rather than choose to venture on over to the truth.

    If you speak truths, and see truths, and you are interested in the basic structure of reality, then you will see the truth concerning the basic structure of reality. You won’t have to learn Einstein’s theory of special relativity in a school. Instead you will simply see it all, independently.

    However, for those who do not live in truth, speak truths, and see truths, Einstein’s theories are beyond their reach.

    Here, for them, truth is seen as non-intuitive and bizarre, even though it should be seen as simple and obvious.

    Thus in turn, true proof of the existence of God is also invisible to the minds of such people. Place that proof directly in front of their noses and they still can not see it.

    Go to http://goo.gl/38qhp and click on the flashing words “Watch / Listen”. This takes you on a web page tour of such proof of God’s existence, and does so via automatic web page scrolling along with complete audio coverage.

  12. Hi Kevin P.,

    Thanks for your input. Which denomination matches your beliefs most closely?

    Do you know Silence of Mind? He’s another blogger and your comment about Einstein matched quite closely with some of the things I’ve seen him write.

  13. Pingback: Is the Universe Fine-tuned For Life | Truth Is Elusive

  14. Hey Howie-
    Really appreciate this post. And, thanks for getting me off that comment thread :). I think it was doing more harm than good for me to chime in.

  15. Hey Josh, no problem. Probably good idea you took the escape hatch. 😉 Yeah that comment thread is out of control – the never ending thread – if you count the comments on part 1 it’s about 3000 comments now – and a lot of them seem like just the same thing repeated many times over. You’ve offered some good input there though.

    As far as the Polkinghorne video I spoke about, as I mentioned in the post I found it pretty cool that an atheist like Steven Weinberg (and he’s actually quite a vocal atheist) could have positive conversations about religion with Polkinghorne. The 2 of them actually had a recorded debate about God a while back (I’ve only seen small bits of it).

  16. Pingback: How can we know if God exists? Do philosophical arguments help?

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