In 1997, a co-worker gave me a copy of a paper his son had written for a community college philosophy course. The assignment was to write on the existence of God. My co-worker knew of my interest in the subject and invited me to respond to his son's paper. This is my response updated with just a few corrections.
To: Mr. John Doe
From: Eric Messelt
Subject: "The Answer To Everyone's Question"
Date: May 19, 1998
Your father gave me a copy of your essay, "The Answer To Everyone's Question" and suggested I give it a quick review. As the subject is a favorite of mine, I am delighted to do so. This is a bit long and I get a little preachy, but I hope you find this helpful. Let me give my caveat (Latin for "beware") now: though my style here might seem provocative and antagonistic, it really is not. Welcome to the rough-and-tumble world of the "Academy!" And, as I point out later, "one of my best friends is an Atheist." J I truly am not intolerant, even though it may seem like I’m ranting. I know very well that there are some very bright and clever people out there that disagree with me. However, the brightest person is not necessarily the right person. When you want the truth, cleverness is a poor substitute. Well, with all that understood, let’s get into it…
I very much enjoyed the title! Indeed, the existence of God is (my humble opinion) the most important question we face. Note that the first four words of the Bible sum up much of what you discussed in the essay. "In the beginning, God …." The Bible doesn't offer philosophical analysis for the existence of God, however it does express at least two of the chief arguments for the existence of God. Note that God is declared to be the First Mover ala’ Aquinas. Also, God is declared to be the "Kalam:" the first in ‘time.’ The Kalam is one of the major arguments for God though I won’t discuss it here. Personally, I am convinced (though without rigorous analysis yet) that if a person can get past those first four words of the Bible, the rest of what I believe about God is simple reasoning from that point.
Now I will disagree on the next point; that the existence of God will be debated forever. The major monotheists: Christians and Jews – I believe Muslims, as well – all hold to an Apocalyptic vision that states that God will someday bring His justice to the earth and will make Himself plain. It is clear from those visions that God – and therefore His existence – will be plainly seen. When that occurs, the debate will be over; don’t you think?
To take another tack on the same point; serious monotheists really don’t think there's much of a debate at all. God clearly exists and we engage in these "debates" over His existence as mere intellectual diversions. I think there is a powerful point in that. Again, the Bible provides extraordinary insight. Within the context of answering another age-old question, "But why would God punish people who’ve never heard of Him?", that profound thinker Paul of Tarsus replied that there’s no excuse, everybody who wants to can see what they need to know about God all around them.
"For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse."
In summary, if people don’t see God, it is because they are blinded by sin, bad Karma, et cetera: it’s their own fault.
Pretty tough stuff, eh? But like any really good philosopher, Paul of Tarsus goes for the truth and has the courage to go with the implications of the truth. By the way, Nietzsche did the same thing in the opposite direction (most think). He declared that if God were truly dead, what is the consequence? He didn’t go for half-measures, he went right to the core – "The Answer To Everyone’s Question," if you will. Nietzsche did not shrink from the implications as the more milque-toasted philosophers like Satre and others did. Good philosophy is courageous. Back to Paul of Tarsus – that indictment quoted above is pretty bleak; if left there. But this most prodigious of the Christian Apostles gave the good news later in that same letter. But I digress.
Just so we’re OK on terms, let’s be clear on the distinction between "agnostic" and "atheist." "Agnostic" is from the Greek: "a" means "not" and "gnosis" means "know." So an agnostic is someone who doesn’t know; ie: "truly ignorant." Well, not quite; even more intriguing is to understand that "gnosis" is not "comprehension" but "to know from experience." There’s an interesting insight in that slight difference in meaning. An "atheist," on the other hand, is also Greek: "A" for "not" and "theist" for "god." Therefore an atheist declares, "no god." Those who really deny the existence of God – and they are truly few – actually don’t consistently live their lives according to that belief. That is, they lack faith in their atheism. The only person I ever met who closest to a true atheist was a medical doctor I met while in law school. We actually became great friends. He was an extremely bright guy with an incredibly messed up life.
Most people who are not theists are agnostics. The vast majority have little clear thinking to support their view. They have notions and opinions, but precious little in the way of rational reasons for their lack of believe. That is, they are irrational in their non-belief.
Now, the question has to be asked: if God really does exist, would you rather be irrational in your unbelief (have poor reasons for believing the wrong thing) or irrational in your belief in His existence (have poor reasons for believing the right thing)? I think you’d want to believe the right thing, even if your reasoning is faulty! You’ll recognize this as a variation of "Pascal’s Wager." If God does not really exist, it will not ultimately matter what I think or how clear my thinking. But if God exists, even though I have faulty reasoning that leads me to a belief in God but I have faith to live my life accordingly, then I "win" in the end. Still, I think it obvious that you should have good reasons for believing the right thing.
"Atheists argue that there is no God because there is no real proof that one exists except for revelations." Such thinking makes a dangerous assumption. That is, if you can’t "prove" it utterly, then it is not true. This is fallacious. You can still know something is true even if it can not be completely proven. There are many ways to know something. I know that there is a place in Russia named "Moscow" even though that fact can not be utterly proven by logic. No matter how much evidence you pile on, I can always counter your argument ("The rest of the world is suffering from a mass delusion"). However, I do know (to a reasonable degree of certainty) that Moscow does exist. Better proofs lead to greater certainty about what I know, not necessarily knowledge itself.
But note that there are different kinds of proofs: logical, scientific, and historical. A logical proof depends on those laws of logical thinking that you have – or will – be learning. Scientific proof depends on repeatable phenomena to create a conclusion about the nature of things. But only historical proof can be used to prove a one-time (non-repeatable) fact. That is the nature of legal proof: to decide what happened – a fact of history. To do that, you submit evidence to a gauntlet of procedure and weigh that evidence which remains. If the evidence shows "beyond a reasonable doubt," then the guy goes to jail; if it only outweighs contrary evidence (the "preponderance of evidence"), then they guy is liable and has to pay. Note that whether God exists is a logical exercise; but determining whether Jesus raised himself from the dead or Mohammed is His prophet is an exercise in legal reasoning.
Atheists philosophically state that God can not be "proven." That may or may not be true. But, nonetheless, I know that He exists and I have a lot of good reasons to be certain of that belief. Additionally, I have faith in God’s existence in that I shape the living of my life in accordance with my belief.
Let’s get back to the Atheists’ claim about being unable to prove God’s existence, but by revelation.
I think that the question is posed in a very clever way. Think about this. Most people believe that God exists; most of the world is religious and even in countries where government sponsored atheism has reigned for up to seven decades, people are – at "best" – agnostic. What the Atheists are doing is a very important legal tactic. Really, this is a rhetorical or argumentative trick. They are shifting the burden of proof. If you can shift the burden of proof away from yourself, then you have the luxury of sitting back and punching holes in the other’s argument without doing any hard work on your own. When the day is over, the other side is bloody and weak and you "win." That’s what Atheists have managed to do. They are asking us – who believe in God – to prove our point. The burden of proof rests on us to prove God’s existence. Why? Why do we need to prove what the overwhelming majority of the human race clearly understands? Why do we need to bear the burden of proving our beliefs? Why do we need to do all the work? Why is the incredibly small minority asking the majority to defend itself? Instead, what we need to be asking is for Atheists to prove that God doesn’t exist. The burden of proof is on the Atheists – there is no reason for the Theists to take up the burden. Where it belongs is with the Atheists and don’t let them push you around!
Think about the arguments that Atheists advance: "I don’t believe in what I can’t see." That’s absurd and nobody can live like that. "Evil in the world means God doesn’t exist." That is not a logical statement and I’ll give you the rebuttal below. Their arguments are rather piss-poor ones and only the real sophisticated atheists have anything decent to say.
Lets get back to Atheists’ supposed point about "revelation." The implication is that revelation is worthless as proof. My answer to that would be, "Of course not!" How do you prove anyone’s assertions? Submit the revelation (like any other testimony) to legal proof: weigh the facts asserted, look for factual and logical inconsistencies, consider the trustworthiness of sources, etc. Blah, blah, blah. It really isn’t that hard.
Which takes me on another digression. This stuff isn’t Rocket Science; clear thinking usually isn’t. Most real intellectuals understand that. We find it hard because we’re not used to it – my education never really taught me to think well. It wasn’t until I got through law school that I was subjected to disciplined thinking. Frankly (and this is from someone who’s had a lot of school) much of the confusion about philosophy is due to the mischievousness of second-rate philosophy teachers. Though you’ll never get them to admit it, most love to get their students confused. The result is rather than teaching students how to think, these professors get their egos stroked by putting down students’ quite reasonable beliefs. Weird. Now, let’s be clear here – not all students’ beliefs are reasonable! That’s not politically correct, but political correctness is not rational. For example, the quite reasonable belief in historical orthodox Christianity is routinely savaged by philosophy "teachers" for little more motivation than contrariness. Of course, what philosophy teachers claim they are trying to do – which is correct – is to challenge the thinking of students by challenging their beliefs. However, after tearing down a student’s belief structure the semester is ended and the student is left to wander about without any tools to evaluate, much less reconstruct, a belief structure. This leads to the Generation-X nihilism: there is no meaning and nothing is true. Of course, that is a logical contradiction.
All right, I’ll get off my rant and move along.
Aquinas’ (brilliant mind!) arguments – as you presented them – for God’s existence can be summarized that God is necessary to prevent a vicious regression. Example: if we evolved from simians (apes), then where did the simians come from? Where did they come from? And so forth until, where did life come from? Where did the stuff of life come from? And all the way back to the imagined "Big Bang." What was before that? Where did the speck of reality that exploded into the cosmos come from? Science, in reality, can not answer that – yet there must be an answer. Aquinas says, in a variety of roles, God fits the bill for the answer.
This is not as attractive an argument as you might initially think. I believe it is certainly true but this description of Aquinas’ proofs really boils down to: "There are intellectual problems that can only be solved by the insertion of God into the equation." That is far from a proof that God exists. Aquinas says because God has to exist, He does. Maybe not satisfying because it sounds like the only reason we believe God exists is because we’re not cleaver enough to figure out a better answer. In a way, God is created out of the mind of Aquinas!
BUT I think the problem really is with an unsophisticated understanding of Aquinas’ thought process. A better understanding will likely create better insight. I think the better understanding is to realize Aquinas’ technique: if developed properly, a logical necessity must be true. God’s existence is a logical necessity so God’s existence must be true.
Anslem’s argument (another brilliant mind) is similar in seeming difficulty with Aquinas. That is, the same problem occurs. Summarized, Anselm says that God is the pinnacle of our imagination. Same seeming problem, God – therefore – is a creation of our own minds. Also, just because something can be imagined doesn’t mean it exists. I can imagine Martians but that doesn’t mean they exist. Also, this flies right into the face of Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology: God is far more than what we can imagine!
Consider this: Anselm says it is greater to be real than not. But this is not universally agreed on. The Strong Gnostics commit the ultimate blasphemy by saying that in creating reality God messed up the universe; that the physical universe is a corruption of the higher spiritual plane that existed before creation. In other words, that Chaos is greater than Reality. Curiously, the notions of the New Age movement and certain aspects of radical social movements are informed by this Strong Gnosticism. So the Gnostics are still with us.
So, I don’t like Anselm’s argument as much as Aquinas’ but I suspect that’s because I don’t understand it very well, yet.
Just a quibble with the wording of your essay at this point: it’s not "simple mathematics" but what you really want to say is "simple logic."
There are two other major arguments that I can recall. Let me try to summarize them.
Order implies design. A design implies a designer. Purpose implies a Guide. That is, because the universe seems to hold together rather well – and that parts of it appear to be designed to fulfill particular purposes – there must be a Designer; that is, a personal God. This is fairly popular but is not very strong. For example, it doesn’t take long to realize that nature is not very efficient.
There are several examples of order that are created without the input of design – salt crystals have order but they just "happen." Now, you could argue that there is meta-Design in the "just happening" of a salt crystal – which is cool. Also, human sexual organs seem to have a clear purpose. However, there is a better way to go.
Consider this; if you found information you would be compelled to consider that there had to be intelligence behind it. Now consider DNA. It turns out that DNA sequences truly are a code because they can only be understood in the context of the transmission of information. It was only by the application of information theory that the breakthrough came in "decoding" DNA. When that insight was made, DNA became understandable. If DNA is information, who’s the Informer? This line of reasoning will be very interesting to follow along in the next few years.
May I also go back and add to the point about the inefficiencies of nature? I believe such "inefficiencies" actually argue for the personhood of God. Looking at some of the creatures: the ostrich, the platypus, and the otter; it seems clear that if there was a Creator, He possesses humor, whimsy, and playfulness. That is not very rigorous philosophy (it’s a bit anthropromorphic), but it’s fun to think about. In theological terms, the existence of those creatures are much more than evidence of God’s personhood, but actually an expression of God’s joy in creating.
That leaves us with an Intelligence that is a Person and Creator. That gets mighty close to my working definition of God.
This is my personal favorite. This one says that if there is real morality (technically, "ethics") – good and evil – then there must be a source for the standard. I remember constantly being bombarded with the question: "If God is good, how can there be evil in the world?" or some variation thereof.
Well the answer is staring you in the face. In fact, the very existence of evil confirms the existence of God. Check this out: If evil exists, then how do you know it? Well, you compare it against The Good. If it is found wanting, it is Evil. Evil isn't a thing in itself - it has no substance. The way we know about evil is because we first know about good, observe the difference, and then call the not-good evil. Evil is measured according to the standard of good. Interesting, isn't it? Evil is relative; good is absolute.
But where does your standard for Good come from? Crystallized community prejudices (trendy cynicism)?, majority vote (democracy)?, whatever the guy (like the government) with the gun says?, revelation from extraterrestrial aliens (the Heaven’s Gate cult)? – what? The regression problem occurs here as well. OK, let’s say we get our sense of morality from extraterrestrials (ala’ "2001: A Space Odyssey") but where did they get their morality, etc.? God has the answer: He is Holy and He’s not only told us what’s right and wrong in specific cases but also has given us a moral faculty (the conscience) that gives us the general rules.
Why evil exists is a different question. However, if evil is understood as an aberration on the face of a universe that was originally created as good, it is clearer. While evil can exist in the context of Good, evil can not exist without any moral standard at all. Of course Holiness can exist without regard or reference to evil. Therefore, the existence of evil requires a standard. To avoid the vicious regression of where the standard comes from, God is necessary. And, as you know or will learn, a logical necessity has to be true.
My last point is a caution to you. As a budding philosopher, you are also – by definition – a budding scholar. A good scholar is distinguished by many things: insight, diligent preparation, exhaustive research, clarity of writing and thought, attention to detail, and others. It is in that spirit that I point out that your essay contained several obvious misspellings. Granted, it is the thought that counts, not how well the thoughts are spelled. In the final analysis, of course I agree. However, if you are to gain and keep credibility for what you have to say, you must spell correctly. Others, critiquing your work, will take spelling errors as a signal that you have not adequately prepared, completely researched, and are muddled in your thinking – all because you didn’t check out the details of your spelling. They will take misspellings as an excuse to ignore you. Unfair, true; but very much part of real life for the scholar.
I did want to pass on to you the word of an excellent work, "Does God Exist" by J. P. Moreland and Kai Nielsen (Prometheus Press, 1993), should you care to pursue this more deeply. Dr. Moreland teaches at Talbot Seminary close by in LaMirada and Dr. Nielsen teaches at the University of Calgary. Let’s see here … I have the book in front of me and I’ve only gotten 40 pages into it and I can tell already that this book is a good ‘un. It gives a list of 25 arguments for the existence of God. Not all of them are compelling but it is pretty awesome to see the list.
Should you really want to get into another hot area of philosophy, consider researching the existence of the human soul. If you really want to give your philosophy professor kinniptions, prepare and then argue that humans have a soul. What is fun about doing that is the vast majority of philosophy profs trained in the last 30 years don’t "believe" in the human soul because that’s what their teachers taught them as a matter of philosophical doctrine. Therefore, they have no preparation to argue the matter because they’ve never come up against any serious challenge. The prejudice is so strong that a PhD candidate in Philosophy puts their degree at risk should they seriously argue the people are more than their bodies. More weird, isn’t it?
Of course, should you have any questions, I’d be delighted to try and answer them.