Question: "Is There A God?"
What a question! In a sense this is the question of questions. If the answer is "yes" then that has implications for whether life has meaning. If the answer is "yes", then it must guide how we live the remainder of our lives.
I will try my best to approach this massive topic in a way that is informative, concise and readable, while acknowledging that one could fill many books about this topic. I don't hope to really do justice to this question in a short essay, but if I am lucky then perhaps I will whet your appetite to study further.
First I will open with a shocker: I'm not sure that one can "prove" the existence of God--or anything, really. So if you struggle with this, I sympathize. At best, naked human reason might get us to some kind of a halfway point--to the position of being able to say that the following ideas may be true, or at least aren't stupid:
1. A higher reality exists beyond what is apprehended by our five senses.
2. Something created the universe
3. Therefore, a metaphysical something or someone exists that is quite powerful, and massively intelligent.
4. There probably needs to be a metaphysical basis for right and wrong, if you plan to hang on to such notions as justice.
It's a bit of a stretch to get from these vague affirmations to the God of Abraham, and Moses, and Jesus. Maybe in your own journey, you'll find that you have to stop there, at the edge of reason, stuck with a mystery--at most embracing an eviscerated notion of a "higher power" or "the Force".
When Christians speak of God, they mean much more than a "higher power", however. Christians tend to embrace a meatier idea that is known to philosophy as "theism"--a Being that is all powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient) and perfectly good (omnibenevolent).
In a sense, one might find it easier to argue backward from either "the Bible is indeed true" or "Jesus was indeed a prophet!" If either of these is true, then it follows closely that there is a theistic God. However, I will hamstring myself in this essay by setting aside the idea of divine revelation.
Without the Bible, could one still come up with a theistic God? The answer is "yes". To keep this short, I will append an outline of study--a syllabus--for your own further exploration. Instead of wading through it all here, let me highlight a couple of ideas.
1. "The Nephron proves that God exists"
The "argument from design" (known also as the "teleological argument", derived from the Greek "telos" meaning "purpose") is probably the most appealing and popular argument for God. The Holy Bible itself seems to make an appeal to the teleological argument:
"The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork."(Psalm 19)
"For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse."
In the basic form of the argument, we start from observing our environment. Enormous complexity and order exists in nature, everywhere we look. Everything seems to work according to ends and purposes (remember that Greek word "telos"). The harder we look, the more layers of complexity and order we find. We perceive evidence of purpose, of order, and of design. This implies the existence of a purposer, an orderer, a designer. Furthermore, such a designer would have to be so powerful and intelligent as to possess, for all practical purposes, two of the traits of theism, namely omnipotence and omniscience.
One of my friends, echoing the old watchmaker argument of William Paley, is fond of saying "the nephron proves the existence of God." The nephron is the part of the kidney where urine is created. The kidney contains millions of nephrons. I will not try to describe in exhaustive detail the foundations of renal physiology; large textbooks have been written on just this topic, and it will merely make your eyes glaze over (unless of course you are a nephrologist or scientist working in this area, and then my hat goes off to you). I will try to convince you that there is an elegance and precision to what happens in the nephron.
Blood flows into the structure known as the glomerulus via the afferent arteriole, and filtration occurs. From there, water, wastes, and salts enter the proximal tubule to begin an amazing journey. As the mixture flows through the tubule, it plunges into the depths of the kidney, rises up from those depths, and plunges back again. As it does so, water and electrolytes flow back and forth into and out of the tubule based on the milieu of the of the tubule. The fluid in the tubule, and that of the blood moving in the adjacent vasa recta, together create a system of "counter current exchange". What the body needs is ultimately kept; the rest is sent away into urine. The end result is that your blood is purged of wastes. And furthermore, water and electrolytes are maintained in just the right balance within the blood to keep you alive. If the body ends up with too little or too much of any one of these electrolytes--say potassium--then you will keel over dead. (Indeed, when the state executes criminals, the most common method is to stop the heart via potassium overdose). The system is beautiful, and elegant; and it reeks of design.
Dr. Francis Collins is a Christian and a scientist--a highly celebrated one at that. A few years ago he was in charge of the Human Genome Project; He is currently director of the NIH (National Institutes of Health). For him the magnificent world of molecular biology and DNA provides a similar lesson:
"As the director of the Human Genome Project, I have led a consortium of scientists to read out the 3.1 billion letters of the human genome, our own DNA instruction book. As a believer, I see DNA, the information molecule of all living things, as God's language, and the elegance and complexity of our own bodies and the rest of nature as a reflection of God's plan."
(Read more from his CNN essay; I also highly recommend his book, listed in the bibliography below).
Now it would be tempting to leave you here, but if I did so, I would be dropping you off and leaving you intellectually in the 19th century. The argument from design is elegant and emotionally appealing, but has its flaws. David Hume savaged the traditional argument from design in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1776). His critique is widely accepted today.
One refutation of the traditional design argument is to point out that it is an argument based on analogy. An opponent might concede that there is some evidence of design, but then also notice that things often go wrong in nature, and therefore an analogy from imperfect nature ought to lead to an imperfect and flawed designer. To get back to the nephron: If one starts with a dialysis patient and wants to analogize from the nephron--in this case a sick or diseased nephron--then one could then say that the god responsible for this is either sick or evil. Also, since the classic teleological argument starts with a subjective interpretation, that there appears to be evidence of design all around us, one of the effective counterarguments would be to simply deny that subjective interpretation--"Fine, you may see design, but I don't."
2. Later Twists on The Design Argument
I am drawn to a more recent version of the argument from design, by the philosopher (and renowned beekeeper) Richard Taylor. Without recapitulating the entire essay, which is readable and worth your time, I will try to summarize a major point. He begins with a parable about rocks on a hillside spelling out "welcome to Wales"--you can speculate about those rocks, and argue that maybe those rocks got arranged in such a way merely by random events, by chance; but if so, then it would be irrational to also believe that you were indeed in Wales. Conversely, if you look at those rocks and subsequently believe that you are actually in Wales, then logically you have to presume that the rocks were put there on purpose by someone--therefore not merely a chance occurrence. This argument is then applied to our own faculties. Our eyes and other faculties for interpreting an external reality could be in fact designed for that purpose (hence God), or merely a product of chance, but if the latter then it would be irrational for us to fully trust them. We can reject God but to do so destroys our basis for rational thought.
Another variation on the argument from design looks at the probability of circumstances being just right for the formation of life. This is less of a problem in an infinite universe, but hugely important in a finite universe. Evidence indicates that our universe, though mindblowingly large, has had a beginning in time, and is finite. Therefore, probability arguments have value. Some have estimated the odds of life arising at around 1 chance in 10280. With some quick searching you can easily find numerous quotes from scientists marveling about how our being here is so improbable as to be akin to a divine miracle.
All of these arguments from design are subject to criticisms. They point to a higher being of immense power and intelligence, but don't compel you to believe. I would say that this is true of most of the arguments for God. This is also true of the arguments against God. In the end, as Episcopal priest and evangelist Samuel Shoemaker is reported to have said, "more people are kept from faith by cold feet than by cold logic."
I. Five traditional argument for theism:
A. Ontological Argument: St. Anselm, Proslogion (Courtesy of Fordham University)
B. Cosmological Argument
- Plato :The Laws, Book X (courtesy of Internet Classics Library at MIT).
- Aristotle's "Unmoved mover": Metaphysics XII, 1072a (courtesy of Internet Classics Library at MIT). For some assistance in reviewing Aristotle's thought, I might recommend the article "Aristotle's Natural Philosophy" at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosphy
- St. Thomas Aquinas "5 ways" (The first 3): Summa Theologica I, Q 2, A 3 (The excerpt is provided courtesy of Texas A and M University).
C. Teleological Argument:
- St. Thomas Aquinas "5 ways" (The 5th way): Summa Theologica I, Q 2, A 3 (The excerpt is provided courtesy of Texas A and M University).
- William Paley's "Watchmaker analogy": Paley, William (1802), Natural Theology: or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (1st ed.), London: J. Faulder, available at The Internet Archive.
D. Religious Experience
E. Moral Argument:
- Immanuel Kant's "Categorical Imperative" from his 1785 Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.
- C.S. Lewis. Mere Christianity: A Revised and Enlarged Edition, with a New Introduction, of the Three Books The Case for Christianity, Christian Behaviour, and Beyond Personality. New York: Macmillan, 1952.
II. Critiques of these arguments:
A. Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason, Tr. Norman Kemp Smith. London, Macmillan, 1929. Full text is available at Internet Archive.
B. David Hume. Dialogues Concerning Natural religion. Edinburgh: 1779. Available online at Jonathan Bennet, editor, 2007, Early Modern Texts. Accessed 22 Oct. 2016.
C. Bertrand Russell.
- Russell, Bertrand. "Why I am Not a Christian" Watts & Co., for the Rationalist Press Association Limited, 1927. Pamphlet. Available online at Bertrand Russell Society at Drew University's Website.
- Russell, Bertrand. Debate between Bertrand Russell and Catholic theologian Frederick Copleston. Available online in print and audio recording, at biblicalcatholic.com. Accessed on Web. 22 Oct. 2016.
III. Philosophical Challenges to Theism
A. Marx: Theism is "opium for the masses": Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right. 1844. A lengthy quotation can be found at marxists.org.Accessed on Web. 22 Oct. 2016.
B. Feuerbach and others: Theism as projection and wish fulfillment.
- Freud, Sigmund, The Future of an Illusion, W. W. Norton & Company, Available at The Internet Archive.
- Feuerbach, Ludwig, Das Wesen des Christenthums (1841). 2nd edition, 1848; In English As The Essence of Christianity (1854). Tr. Marian Evans. St. Mary's. 2nd edition, 1881. Oxford; Available at The Internet Archive.
- For an overview and bibliography: Dale Wilkerson. "Nietzsche". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed on Web. 22 Oct. 2016.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Thomas Common. Thus Spake Zarathustra. New York: Modern Library, 1917. Available at The Internet Archive.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future.
- Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Antichrist Tr H. L. Mencken. New York: Alfred R. Knopf, 1918. Available at The Internet Archive.
- Response: Williams
D. The "New Athiests"
- For an overview and bibliography: Taylor, James E. "The New Atheists". Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed on Web. 22 Oct. 2016.
- Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
- Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.
- Dennett, Daniel. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Penguin, 2006.
- Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: Norton, 2004.
- Harris, Sam. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.
- Hitchens, Christopher. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Twelve, 2007.
IV. The Problem of Evil--Theism's "Achilles Heel" (For our thoughts and a brief bibliography, see our answer to Q-and-A--Why does God Allow Pain and Suffering?)
V. Other Readings on God's Existence:
- Kalam Cosmological Argument: William Lane Craig, "The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe." Truth: A Journal of Modern Thought 3 (1991): 85-96.
- New Cosmological and Design Arguments: Richard Taylor, Metaphysics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1992.
- Swinburne, Richard, Is there A God? Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Plantinga, Alvin. Warranted Christian Belief. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Flew, Antony. There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind. New York: HarperOne, 2007.
- Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in God in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Dutton, 2007.