Within this piece, I will be considering some of the classical arguments for God’s existence, namely the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the moral argument and the ontological argument. I believe that most of these arguments are inherently flawed and rely upon deeply questionable metaphysical assumptions. In a future instalment, I will put forward what I would consider to be a much better argument for the existence of God.
The Cosmological Argument
This argument can be framed in a number of different ways, but here I will interact with one of the simplest ways in which it is articulated.
- Everything which begins to exist must have a cause
- The universe began to exist
- Therefore, the universe has a cause
From this, the classical apologist will often then discuss the properties of this “cause” – immaterial, timeless, and so on. The implication is clear: the cause of the universe is God. But there is a huge problem with this argument. The notion of “causation” being invoked is a notion derived from within the universe. To take a concept like “causation” derived from within this universe (with all of its spatio-temporal connotations) and to then try and apply it at a meta-level to the universe as an entity in itself is unwarranted. One could simply re-phrase the first premise as “everything in the universe which begins to exist must have a cause” and the entire argument would collapse.
Even if it is possible to generalise beyond the universe in speaking of causation, there are still many other ways of resolving the question. You could have a loop of causes causing other causes, for instance. Once you go beyond the universe, you lose concepts like space and time so a concept like cyclical causation isn’t as strange as it might sound.
The Teleological Argument
This argument in its older forms would point to various features of the world or of the human body and deduce that they must have been designed rather than developed by chance. However, most modern proponents of this argument instead point to the universe itself. They would argue that a number of the fundamental constants and properties of the universe needed to be exactly right in order for the universe as we know it to be formed. Had even one of these fundamentals been slightly different, then either the various early formations would have spread out too fast and dissipated, or spread out too slowly, leaving the universe to collapse in on itself. In other words, the universe appears exactly fine-tuned for life to emerge.
The implication drawn from this is that therefore these constants must have been set up by some form of intelligent agent right from the start, in order to have a universe where life could form. Unlike the other arguments used, this one seems valid. One could also point to other interesting features of the universe, such as the uniqueness of earth. What are the odds of a planet having the specific conditions exactly right such that intelligent life could appear?
The Moral Argument
This is one of the most popular arguments for God’s existence in use today. Here is a straightforward formulation:
- If objective moral truth exists, then God exists
- Objective moral truth exists
- Therefore, God exists
The main issue with this argument is that premise 2 is either false or poorly defined. The notion of a universal moral law, popular in western enlightenment-influenced societies, cannot be demonstrated through any kind of logical reasoning. Now of course, there are practices which work better at holding a society together and enabling it to flourish (eg. prohibition of murder). Societies which lack such common-sense survival principles aren’t likely to succeed in the long-run. But that does not imply the elevation of these principle to a kind of objective moral law.
The only examples of ‘objective’ moral values that we can point to are either those found in religious texts such as the Bible, or the law codes and constitutions of political institutions. But these are objective in the sense that they are actually written down and codified somewhere. They do not represent a kind of ‘natural law’ written into the fabric of the world and so in this sense are not universally objective.
The Ontological Argument
This argument is a bit harder to understand since it appeals to the notion of “possible worlds”. However, one popular formulation goes like this:
- A maximally great being is one which, if it exists in one possible world, exists in all possible worlds
- It is possible that a maximally great being exists in some possible world
- Therefore, a maximally great being exists in all possible worlds (from 1)
- Therefore, a maximally great being exists
The problem with this argument is that it inverts the burden of proof through linguistic cleverness. One can simply turn the argument on its head as follows:
- A maximally great being is one which cannot exist in any possible world, unless it exists in all possible worlds
- It is not certain that a maximally great being exists
- Therefore, a maximally great being does not exist in all possible worlds
- Therefore, a maximally great being does not exist (from 1)
So, depending on how you phrase the statements, a maximally great being either does or does not exist. Given that such a stark difference in outcome can be obtained simply by slightly changing the second premise, I would question whether this argument is of any use.
For the reasons given above, I do not find any of the classical arguments for God’s existence compelling, aside from certain forms of the teleological argument. All of them fail insofar as they begin by adopting an abstract metaphysical being as the God whose existence requires demonstrating. The cosmological argument begins with God as an “uncaused cause”. The moral argument begins with God as “the good” in a Platonic sense. The ontological argument begins with God as “a maximally great being”.
The only argument which has any merit is the teleological argument, since it makes no assumptions about the nature of God, besides that God is some form of intelligent creator. In the next instalment, I will put forward another argument for God rooted in history and revelation, rather than metaphysical speculation.