Proofs of God


Christianity Today’s July cover story is about modern Christian apologetics; i.e.,, the use of philisophical arguments for rational arguments in favor of the existence of God. The article, by William Lane Craig, research professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology, begins by arguing that theists are once again at philosophy departments:

Back in the 1940s and ’50s, many philosophers believed that talk about God, since it is not verifiable by the five senses, is meaningless—actual nonsense. This verificationism finally collapsed, in part because philosophers realized that verificationism itself could not be verified! The collapse of verificationism was the most important philosophical event of the 20th century. Its downfall meant that philosophers were free once again to tackle traditional problems of philosophy that verificationism had suppressed. Accompanying this resurgence of interest in traditional philosophical questions came something altogether unanticipated: a renaissance of Christian philosophy.

. . .

The renaissance of Christian philosophy has been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in natural theology, that branch of theology that seeks to prove God’s existence apart from divine revelation. The goal of natural theology is to justify a broadly theistic worldview, one that is common among Christians, Jews, Muslims, and deists. While few would call them compelling proofs, all of the traditional arguments for God’s existence, not to mention some creative new arguments, find articulate defenders today.

Professor Craing then describes and defends various traditional proofs of God. Here is an example:

The cosmological argument. Versions of this argument are defended by Alexander Pruss, Timothy O’Connor, Stephen Davis, Robert Koons, and Richard Swinburne, among others. A simple formulation of this argument is:

1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.

2. If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.

3. The universe exists.

4. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God.

This argument is logically valid, so the only question is the truth of the premises. Premise (3) is undeniable for any sincere seeker of truth, so the question comes down to (1) and (2).

Premise (1) seems quite plausible. Imagine that you’re walking through the woods and come upon a translucent ball lying on the forest floor. You would find quite bizarre the claim that the ball just exists inexplicably. And increasing the size of the ball, even until it becomes co-extensive with the cosmos, would do nothing to eliminate the need for an explanation of its existence.

Premise (2) might at first appear controversial, but it is in fact synonymous with the usual atheist claim that if God does not exist, then the universe has no explanation of its existence. Besides, (2) is quite plausible in its own right. For an external cause of the universe must be beyond space and time and therefore cannot be physical or material. Now there are only two kinds of things that fit that description: either abstract objects, like numbers, or else an intelligent mind. But abstract objects are causally impotent. The number 7, for example, can’t cause anything. Therefore, it follows that the explanation of the universe is an external, transcendent, personal mind that created the universe—which is what most people have traditionally meant by “God.”

Read it all here. Is it just me, or is the defense of premise 2 quite weak? In any event, do these examples of traditional Christian apologetics still have value?

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5 Responses to "Proofs of God"
  1. The problem I've had with many of these arguments (including St Anselm's famous ontological argument, is that there's a difference between positing a god and positing our God---a God willingly and personally invested in the fate of not only humanity but individuals. That where a lot of this falls flat for me. The Judaeo-Christin tradition is not the only monotheistic faith out there---there was a fair amount of philosophical monotheism in the Greco-Roman period. One of the great differences is that our God is both compassionate and active.

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  2. You've got to take a great deal of care with these arguments. Some of the premises need more defense than the author provides.

    Some claims like, "Philosophically, the idea of an infinite past seems absurd," need more defense. Mathematically, the idea of an infinite time or space isn't that absurd and infinity is assumed regularly. You have to give some more to show that an infinite regression of causes isn't satisfactory.

    Also, most of these arguments for God do not show that this God still exists. Conceivably, a first mover, designer or prime cause could set all in place and then cease to exist. This is contrary to the Judaeo-Christian revelation that Derek speaks of: our God still lives and is presently a part of the cosmos. These arguments don't take that into account.

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  3. Yes, Derek! - The leap of faith needed to connect "a god" with "Holy Trinity" is so vast as to make it irrelevant. The "a god" implied can be The Goddess, Aslan, Brahman, or it can be impersonal such as the currently interesting theory of a 12th dimension of sheets colliding. Philosophy will only bring us so far: into the narthex, if you will.

    I like the Eastern Christian idea that "theologian is one who prays". Praying takes place at the altar. In Christian understanding God is not a philosophical proposition but a person by whom we are called into relationship. The *relationship* is the proof - by our love we will be known - and as with any relationship, it's not a head-thing, but a heart thing. It's not what I think about my lover that is important (or theorise about my lover, or write about my lover). When the Hebrew writings call us to "know" God, they use "Da'at" the same word used for "Adam knew his wife." What I "know" (in the Biblical sense) with, in and through my lover is the important thing. True theology needs to go there - and away from that dance with pagan philosophers. We need to get out of our academic and scholastic mind games and into relationship. Less thinking and more praying! Less writing and more liturgy!

    I'm not willing to shove God back in a box invented by people who didn't have computers. Their arguments were perhaps valid once, but they seem childish. (Anselm's Ontological Argument seems rather like a George Carlin routine.) We have to grow up sooner or later and enter into an adult-stage of relationship with the God that seeks us and our love.

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  4. While I agree with much of what you say, Huw, I'd disagree with "I'm not willing to shove God back in a box invented by people who didn't have computers." I've learned huge amounts about God, faith, humility and joy from people who never conceived of computers. Too, I once mocked Anselm's argument in front of my college roommate--a double-major in math and philosophy--who shrugged and told me that hearing the proof was what compelled him to faith...

    It sure wouldn't do that for me--but it was compelling for him. Thus, I won't call it worthless or useless, but it is outside of how I experience and share my faith.

    For me faith isn't "just" head or "just" heart--it's a whole-body mix where the parts can't fully be separated.

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  5. The various proofs may speak to someone - I'm not denying that. I should have been clear, forgive me: It's not worthless... it's a start. That's and important difference. But to go backwards seems wrong.

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