Classical Apologetics 1 – A Critique

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.

  1. Everything which begins to exist must have a cause
  2. The universe began to exist
  3. 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:

  1. If objective moral truth exists, then God exists
  2. Objective moral truth exists
  3. 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:

  1. A maximally great being is one which, if it exists in one possible world, exists in all possible worlds
  2. It is possible that a maximally great being exists in some possible world
  3. Therefore, a maximally great being exists in all possible worlds (from 1)
  4. 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:

  1. A maximally great being is one which cannot exist in any possible world, unless it exists in all possible worlds
  2. It is not certain that a maximally great being exists
  3. Therefore, a maximally great being does not exist in all possible worlds
  4. 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.

Conclusion

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.

2 thoughts on “Classical Apologetics 1 – A Critique

  1. Hi Chris,

    As someone with a specific interest in the area of natural theology, I’m always interested in how atheists respond to the philosophical arguments for theism. Many atheists, in their over-eagerness to dismiss these arguments as simply desperate attempts to justify belief in an imaginary entity called God, often show by how they critique it, that they have actually not taken the effort necessary to properly understand the arguments. Unfortunately, by reading your critique here, I have come to the same conclusion. The reason you don’t find the arguments “compelling” is mostly due to misunderstanding and confusion. You seem to even misunderstand the project of “natural theology” as if it is merely about “adopting an abstract metaphysical being as the God whose existence requires demonstrating”.

    My aim in very briefly exploring your critique here, is not to convince you that the arguments are sound (even though I believe they are, if understood properly), but simply to make you aware that you might not have grasp them adequately. One of the most able defenders of these arguments, as you as a Christian probably know (or should!), is Dr. William Lane Craig. It is therefore somewhat surprising to find that you seem to have neglected to consult any of his very accessible explications and defenses of these arguments before you ventured in offering this critique of yours. So have taken the liberty of referring you to the relevant parts where Dr. Craig addresses the particular misunderstanding that you exhibit.

    The Cosmological Argument

    //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.//

    What reasons convinces you think that the inductive inference that “Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning”; is invalid as a generalised principle? Why would a universe as a whole (as opposed to something within the universe) be exempt from this principle? What property do you think a universe might have that would make it begin to exist without a cause? (See the following in defense of the first premise of the KCA: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-excursus-on-natural-theology/excursus-on-natural-theology-part-8/)

    //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.//

    Notions such as causal loops, cyclical causation and an infinite regress of causes (besides the question of whether such notions are coherent) doesn’t address premise 1 of the argument that “Whatever begins to exist has a cause of its beginning”;. Such a retort is a denial of premise 2, “The universe began to exist”. (See a defense of premise 2 in parts 9-13 following on from part 8 in abovementioned link).

    The Moral Argument

    //The main issue with this argument is that premise 2 is either false or poorly defined.//

    This an overly hasty assessment of the coherence of premise 2. Every premise in an argument relies on an underlying evidence for its plausibility. In fact, the justification you go on to give for why it is either false or poorly defined, demonstrate that you don’t understand what the premise is actually claiming. Let’s see.

    //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.//

    Referring to “objective” moral truths should not to be confused with its universality. The claim is not that all people everywhere agree on any specific moral truth. The claim is that EVEN IF people disagree on a specific moral truth, it is still the case that there are moral truths that exists objectively, that is, irrespective of people’s opinion about it. For example, is torturing infants for fun morally wrong just in our western, enlightenment-influences societies, or is it always wrong, irrespective of the society and era you were born in? If you were born in a different society that believed in torturing infants for fun, would that fact in itself make it morally acceptable to do so? Or does your moral experience tell you that such an action is ALWAYS wrong, irrespective of any society condoning it?

    Also, the argument that says that actions that leads to human flourishing and therefore aids human survival, is what constitutes human morality, is an argument against premise 1, not premise 2. And yes, such an argument does not prove objective morality.

    By the way, you seem to be arguing that if moral truths cannot be substantiated via logical reasoning, then it must be false. But why? That would mean that even you as a Christian cannot believe that torturing infants for fun is morally wrong, because you have not demonstrated it through logical reasoning. You merely assume it on faith, because your faith tradition has declared it wrong. What you are missing is that the underlying reasoning in support of premise 2, is that our human moral experience is sufficient for believing the objectivity of certain moral truths. It seems you would benefit from exploring this idea further in the following places:

    https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-excursus-on-natural-theology/excursus-on-natural-theology-part-21/
    https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-excursus-on-natural-theology/excursus-on-natural-theology-part-22/

    //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.//

    Underlying the claim of premise 2 is the notion that all people can recognise moral truths (since clearly not only those who have access to the Bible can act morally and know that they act morally) because all people are inherently moral beings made in the image of God, even if some of those people choose to suppress such truth in unrighteousness. Just because someone denies that it is morally wrong to torture infants for fun doesn’t make it right; it simply means their moral faculties are defective in perceiving moral truths, just as when someone’s sensory faculties are defective when they cannot perceive the redness of a rose because they are color blind.

    The Ontological Argument

    In an attempt to expose a perceived flaw in the ontological argument, you present the following argument:

    1. A maximally great being is one which cannot exist in any possible world, unless it exists in all possible worlds
    2. It is not certain that a maximally great being exists
    3. Therefore, a maximally great being does not exist in all possible worlds
    4. Therefore, a maximally great being does not exist (from 1)

    This is simply an invalid argument since conclusion 3 does not follow deductively from premises 1 and 2. A person’s lack of psychological or epistemic certainty about whether a maximally great being exist, has no bearing whatsoever on premise 1, that is, that maximally great being exists in all possible worlds. Your alternate argument, by trying to capitalise on a feature of the original, misunderstands the nature of the second premise of the original in thinking that the word “possible” refers to certainty. It doesn’t, and it has nothing to do with “linguistic cleverness” – it simply refers to what could logically and metaphysically be the case in any possible world. I therefore think you would benefit greatly from looking carefully at the following explanation:

    https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-excursus-on-natural-theology/excursus-on-natural-theology-part-24/
    https://www.reasonablefaith.org/podcasts/defenders-podcast-series-3/s3-excursus-on-natural-theology/excursus-on-natural-theology-part-25/

    Like

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for your response and interaction with my piece. I am familiar with the work of Dr Craig and would share much in common with his approach (his evidentialism, his rejection of Thomism, his nominalism). But on the issue of the core philosophical arguments for Christianity, I would tend to part ways with him, as you have observed from my arguments above. I appreciate that my sceptical approach towards the more philosophical aspects of traditional Christianity makes me something of an outlier.

      I’ll have a look at some of the links that you’ve shared. Thanks again for the interaction.

      Cheers,
      Chris

      Liked by 1 person

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