Overview – Does God Exist?
A level philosophy looks at 4 arguments relating to the existence of God. These are:
There are various versions of each argument as well as numerous responses to each. The key points of each argument are summarised below:
|Ontological||Teleological||Cosmological||Problem of Evil|
||God must exist by definition||The universe must be designed||There must be a first cause||If God existed, there wouldn’t be evil|
The ontological argument is unique in that it is the only argument that uses a priori reasoning.
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 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 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 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
- It is greater to exist in reality than to exist only in the mind
- 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.
The ontological argument reasons from the definition of God that God must exist. This would make ‘God exists’ an analytic truth (even though the analytic/synthetic distinction wasn’t made until years later).
The denial of an analytic truth 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.
The key point of Hume’s argument can be stated as:
- A contradiction cannot be coherently conceived
- ‘God does not exist’ can be coherently conceived
- Therefore, ‘God does not exist’ is not a contradiction
If ‘God does not exist’ is not a contradiction, then the ontological argument fails to prove ‘God exists’ is an analytic truth.
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 thus the ontological argument fails to prove God’s (actual) existence.
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
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.
The teleological argument is also known as the argument from design.
These arguments aim to show that certain features of nature or the laws of nature suggest they were designed by God.
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 draws an analogy between man-made objects, such as a watch, and certain aspects of nature. If you found a watch on a beach you wouldn’t assume it just appeared like, say, a pebble.
The reason for this is that a watch is composed of many parts organised for a purpose. This, Paley argues, is the hallmark of design.
Aspects of nature, such as the human eye, are composed of many parts. These parts are organised for a purpose – in this case, to see. So, like the watch, the human eye has the marks of design.
For something to be designed, it must have had a designer.
This designer, Paley says, is God.
Hume points out various problems with the analogy between the design of man-made objects and nature, such as:
- Man-made items (houses, watches, phones, etc.) are very different from nature
- We can have observe man-made items being designed, but we have no such experience of this in the case of nature
Such differences weaken the jump from man-made items being designed to the whole universe being designed.
Hume famously argues that it takes many instances (constant conjunction) of one event following another to infer a causal relationship.
For example, experience (ever since you were a baby) tells you that if one snooker ball hits another, this will cause the second snooker ball to move. You know that this relationship holds because you’ve seen it (and similar examples) happen hundreds of times without fail.
Now, imagine that you take a sip of tea and at the same time, your friend coughs. Do you assume your drinking the tea caused your friend to cough based on this one instance? Obviously not.
The point is that you cannot infer causation from a single instance.
The creation of the universe was a unique event – it only happened once. So, we cannot assume a causal relationship between designer and creation based on this one instance.
Hume’s next objection to the teleological argument relies on two assumptions:
- 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.
The point here is not that the monkey would learn to write Shakespeare – or even that it would understand what it had written. The point is that, given an infinite amount of time, the monkey would eventually type everything.
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.
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’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 evolution, for example, can explain the necks of giraffes or the human eye without a designer. These are examples of spatial order.
But, he argues, we can not explain the laws of nature (temporal order) without a designer.
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.
The laws of nature haven’t evolved, they just are.
But why are they the way they are? Why are they so perfectly fine-tuned to support life?
Swinburne argues that, unlike examples within nature (spatial order), the laws of nature (temporal order) cannot be explained without a designer.
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.
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).
- 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 start from the observation that everything depends on something else for its existence. For example, you depended on your parents in order to exist, and they depended on their parents, and so on.
Cosmological arguments then apply this to the existence of the universe itself. The argument is that the universe depends on something else to exist: God.
The Kalam argument is 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
St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) gave five different versions of the cosmological argument. A level philosophy requires you to know these three:
The contingency argument has been developed by more modern philosophers, so we’ll look at this one later.
Aquinas’ first way is the argument from motion.
The key points are:
- Some things in the world are in motion
- E.g. a football rolling along the ground
- Whatever is in motion must have been put in motion by something else
- 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:
- Everything in the universe is subject to cause and effect
- 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Response to this problem:
- 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
Another assumption (or premise) of all cosmological arguments is something like ‘everything has a cause’.
Hume points out that this is not an analytic truth. It’s logically possible for something to exist and not have a cause of its existence.
Of course, all of our experience in the physical world tells us everything has a cause. But just because we’ve never seen something happen without a cause, doesn’t mean it’s never happened. It just means we’ve never seen it.
Even physics says something along these lines. Before the big bang, there was no time and space (because time and space came into existence at the same time as the universe itself). So how can we be sure laws derived from our experience within time and space apply to something outside of it?
So, just because our experience tells us ‘everything has a cause’ is true, we can’t be certain of it in the same way we can be certain of analytic truths.
And if we can doubt the premise ‘everything has a cause’, then we can doubt the cosmological argument.
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.”
Response to this problem:
- 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
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.
Descartes’ version is a bit different. He specifically reasons that there is a first cause and that this first cause is God. However, there are a number of other dubious premises that can be challenged.
So, even if the cosmological argument is sound, it doesn’t necessarily follow that God exists.
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 says the existence of God is logically impossible given the existence of evil in the world
- The evidential problem of evil says that, while it is possible that God exists, the amount and way in which evil is distributed in our world is pretty strong evidence that God doesn’t exist
And evil can be divided into two types of evil:
- Moral evil: evil acts committed by people – e.g. torture, murder, genocide, etc.
- Natural evil: suffering as a result of natural processes – e.g. earthquakes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions, etc.
One final definition: a theodicy is an explanation of why an omnipotent and omniscient God would permit evil.
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:
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.
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 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.
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?
It is argued that without being able to be evil (both first and second order) we wouldn’t have free will. And the good of having free will outweighs the bad of people abusing it 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 for the greater good of free will.
Second order evils are not logically necessary for free will in the same way first order evils are necessary for second order goods.
It’s logically possible we could have free will and second order goods without ever choosing second order evils.
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.
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, contrary to Mackie’s claim, that second order evil is necessary for free will.
Sure, God could have created a world in which no one chose to be malevolent or cruel (second order evil). But what kind of free will would that be?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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).
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.