Arguments for the Existence of God (2)

PHILOSOPHY VERSUS RELIGION?

In trying to answer the question of what these arguments prove or do not prove, we must now consider whether religion and philosophy are like oil and water and therefore do not mix; we must consider whether they are like paper and fire so that one is destroyed by the other; or whether they are like a right and left hand and can complement each other.

Religious belief is concerned with man’s attempt to make sense of reality and is judged by man to be true or false according as it does or does not make sense to man. Since man is not God, however, Pailin says that he “cannot escape this relativity of all his judgments.”

Furthermore, says Ferré, if philosophy “has always been engaged in factual knowing, symbolized by correspondence; in logical investigation, symbolized by consistency; in the evaluative and interpretative organizing of experience, symbolized by coherence” – has philosophy brought us proof of anything? Or has it merely provided some kind of income for those who write philosophy books?

While virtually no-one would deny the fact that a man named Jesus from Nazareth walked on earth around two thousand years ago, the life and death of that man has had incredible and unmistakable impact in the world. One has only to consider the way that time has been divided between BC and AD. Even if we no longer favour that division and prefer to use BCE and CE, they are still centred around the person of Jesus – whether we like it or not.

Yet, can the life and death of Jesus be said to be consistent and coherent with the rest of history? Why should the life and death of this one man stand out so much in history when Jesus seems in many ways to have been an intrusion into history rather than a coherent and consistent part of it?

Philosophy has sometimes been described as ‘faith seeking understanding’, but, if that is what it is, then philosophy springs from faith, it does not lead to it. “When faith is seeking understanding, the faith is already there, and philosophy comes on the scene too late to produce it” says Alston.

If religion is about revelation and philosophy is about the intellect, are the two mutually exclusive? Or is it possible that they can not only live together, but feed and encourage one another? Perhaps not for Ferré, who warned that “when intellectualism takes over, religion dies.” Yet it is the revelatory nature of religion that concerns MacQuarrie, who said, “If Christianity rests solely on an alleged once-for-all revelation, and has no support in reason and common experience, then it is doubtful whether it can survive or whether indeed it deserves to survive.”

But Christianity has survived, and so has philosophy. The general worldview seems to be that neither has really proved anything. So what can we be sure of? Can we be sure with Lewis that “evidence can never prove anything with absolute certainty, there is always the possibility of being mistaken about matters of fact; we must be content with probability, although in many matters this is of a very high order indeed and gives us all the certainty we need.”

“The general upshot of all this is that although philosophical reasoning has very important roles to play in the religious life, producing faith where it had been absent is not one of them.” Alston suggests that philosophy without faith is hollow, and that philosophy is at its best when it springs from faith.

We are told by Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach and Basinger, that “most people are very far from being rational in the way in which they decide on important beliefs, especially religious beliefs.” But of course they are! Religious beliefs in themselves are intrinsically irrational, and they are largely valued by the believers as far more important than rationality. The reason for this should be obvious. 

Rationality exists for this physical life only, but religion exists forever, and any rationalist should be a religious believer on this basis alone. But therein lies the greatest danger – the rationalist who believes religion because it is the rational thing to do has at best a wafer-thin and fragile foundation of faith which is not in the God of religion but in the belief of the existence of that God of religion. This rationalistic believer will find that the philosophy which quickly gave them this belief today, will just as quickly take it from them tomorrow. Had the arguments led them to proof for the existence of God, they would not be so easily swayed from believing what that proof has shown them.

Therefore, says Lewis, “If we begin with certain principles thought to apply to finite things, such as we find in the world, and then try to proceed by argument from this to the existence of infinite Reality, we are bound to fail.” Does that mean that philosophy has no value to those who believe in God? Do those who believe in God have to leave their reason and logic at the door on the way in to religion? No, not at all.

THE BURDEN OF PROOF

In philosophical terms, “any proof for an argument must be sound, known to be sound, and must extend our knowledge from a knowable premise that is independent of the conclusion.” But, to take the central point of that last statement, how do we know that any argument for the existence of God is sound? For, even to debate an argument requires common ground on which the argument can take place and allow the potential for knowledge to be extended. Where is the unshifting ground on which we may debate?

The reality is that argument always depends upon another person (or persons) accepting the ground on which the argument is based and therefore entering into the argument on an equal basis. Until this foundation is built, proof of any description is simply not possible. Proof is therefore person-relative, for we need to agree on terms of reference before we can discuss an issue. But then what value would a proof actually have even it were demonstrated to be true? Such a genuine proof might cause me to change my opinion, but my opinion would change just as easily at the next proof.

Pailin has said that “we may reasonably claim that we can provide significant verification for a religious belief if we can show that it is consistent with other fundamental convictions, is universally applicable, provides an appropriate understanding of reality, is superior to any other understanding of reality based on different ultimate convictions and does not lead to mutually contradictory consequences.” But how can arguments for the existence of God be persuasive to those who do not believe in God, and especially to those who do not want to believe in God?

Ferré has said that “God cannot be proved by experience and history anymore than he can be proved by mere reason, for the ultimate cannot be proved by the proximate.” Brown says that “The traditional rationalistic arguments for God will not hold water.” Therefore, the proof about the existence of God can only be a sound argument to those who already believe in a God of some sort; those who do not believe in God will not accept the argument for that god’s existence, even if there is ‘proof’. After all, how much more proof is required than the well-attested resurrection of Jesus from the dead?

Those who are deeply committed to belief in their God have made that commitment on the basis of experience or belief which is external to them – that is, something outside themselves that has deeply influenced them and caused them to believe deeply. Philosophy will not change these people, except possibly to cause them to doubt their faith.

Those people whose religious belief is something that they have arrived at themselves through a process of logical thought and argument or on the basis of someone else’s opinion have a very fragile foundation of faith, and philosophy can do real damage to that wafer-thin foundation of faith. The logic that apparently brought people to faith can take it from them just as easily.

The reality, then, is this: The only people who may be persuaded by classical ‘proofs’ of God’s existence are those whose existing belief in God is fragile and wafer-thin, and the only persuading that the arguments will effect is to weaken their faith, rather than strengthening it. Since the classical arguments for the proofs of God’s existence can therefore influence only a few people and then only in the negative, we must conclude that the arguments prove nothing. Nothing of any lasting value, nothing on which solid foundations may be built.

But one also has to ask if these arguments were ever meant to prove the existence of God, or were they meant to arouse our curiosity and seek after a meaning for life – faith seeking understanding. Perhaps the arguments cannot actually prove anything, but does this mean that philosophy has no meaningful contribution to make to the lives of those who believe in God? No, not at all.