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Prove to Me That God Exists

Prove to Me That God Exists

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Published by Michael Liccione

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Published by: Michael Liccione on Jul 13, 2010
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10/25/2012

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Prove to Me that God Exists
 Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Prove to me that God exists and I'll believe it!
This is slightly revised version of talk given to Rice University Undergraduate Philosophy Society, 11/4/91.
 I take the title I have been given for this talk to express the attitude of certain people who do not altogetherrule out the possibility that there is a God but see nothing likely to convince them that there is. That is thetypical attitude of the agnostic. And so it is to the agnostic that I shall address myself.Not, however, to just any agnostic; for there are some who cannot be fruitfully addressed. Some, forexample, cannot say what, if anything, would convince them that there is a God. I have found that mostsuch agnostics so limit what might count as evidence or proof as to preclude evidence or proof that there isa God. That kind of narrow-mindedness is usually impervious to argument. But most of you are probably not guilty of it, for it is quite rare
except among academics who pride themselves on their broad-mindedness.More often, agnostics have an mistaken idea of what would count as God. Consider the painful fact that welive in a world in which the wicked often prosper and the innocent often suffer. Many agnostics think thateven if there is some entity responsible for the way the world in general is, that entity is unworthy of  worship and obedience
and hence cannot be God. That is one way of posing the so-called "problem of evil," a problem that theists must and do confront. But it ought at least to occur to such agnostics that
if 
 there is an all-powerful, all-knowing, perfectly good God, he might see fit to arrange the universe quitedifferently from how they would in his place and do so in a way that is unclear to them. Until they take thatpossibility seriously, their idea of God remains so anthropomorphic that it would be pointless to try topersuade them with arguments that something called "God" exists. Admittedly, some agnostics are free of such errors. Their idea of what would count as God is pretty close tothat of the theistic mainstream, and they have a more or less defensible notion of what would count as acompelling case that there is such a God. It's just that they have yet to find any case compelling. Such open-minded, clear-headed agnostics are the only sort to whom a theist may usefully propound an argumentthat there is a God. Some of you, I hope, count as such agnostics.Now the question what would succeed in persuading anyone in particular that God exists is a highly personal one. So, all I can do as a theist in a setting such as this is to try to present an argument that iscogent in an objective sense: one that really does establish its conclusion (or at least render it probable),and thus should persuade those who understand it even if, for whatever reason, some people remainunpersuaded. Such an argument would be a proof that God exists. It might fail to prove to
 you
the open-minded, clear-headed agnostic
that God exists; but if my argument is objectively cogent, then the failureis as likely to be yours as mine. Very well then: what criteria must an objectively cogent argument satisfy? It is easy to answer that in broad terms. The first criterion is that of 
 validity:
an argument is valid just in case its conclusion followsnecessarily from its premises if it is a deductive argument, or its conclusion is rendered highly probable by its premises if it is an inductive argument. The second is that of 
soundness:
an argument is sound just incase it is valid and all its premises are true. The third criterion is that of independent decidability. If anargument is to be objectively cogent, then the question whether it is sound must be decidable by somereliable, publicly accessible method that does not require prior knowledge that the conclusion is true. Thatessential since an argument that we can't certify as sound without prior knowledge of the conclusion is notuseful as an argument.Now we can decide the validity of many sorts of arguments by the reliable, publicly accessible methods of deductive and inductive logic; and it is in fact quite easy to produce a valid argument for nearly any meaningful claim. And so my main task is to show how the premises of some valid argument that God existscan be verified by some reliable, publicly available method that does not require prior knowledge that Godexists. The main difficulties may be raised in two questions: by what method might we look to verify suchpremises, and by whose judgment would such premises thereby be verified? I cannot answer thosequestions tonight; I can only point you in the right direction by constructing the right sort of argument,i.e., one that I think satisfies the criteria I have cited and allows for good answers to the questions I haveposed.Before proceeding further, though, I must dispose of a major red herring: believers as well as unbelievers
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often reject what I want to do as impossible, irrelevant, or both. Indeed most people these days are givento saying that belief in God is a matter of faith rather than of reason. And though I find that most who say soare unclear about what they mean either by 'faith' or by 'reason', they are clearly negative about thoseinstances of reasoning that consist in philosophical arguments for the existence of God. That is only to beexpected from unbelievers; but ironically enough, believers will often go further.Some Christians, for instance, accept as revealed truth the doctrine of total depravity, thus holding thathuman reason unaided by revelation is too corrupt to attain any knowledge that it would facilitate one'ssalvation to have. From that point of view, arguing as I shall do appears almost as a kind of impiety. Andeven many believers who would admit that my aim is not impious are inclined to consider it irrelevant.How many people, after all, come to believe in God primarily as a result of philosophical arguments? Youmay be sure they are few. To most people who pay the matter any notice at all,
natural theology 
i.e., that branch of metaphysics which aims to achieve knowledge of God without taking anything from divinerevelation as a premise
seems like a quaint if occasionally irritating sideshow to the real business of ordering their minds, hearts, and lives. Well, natural theology is not for everyone. But it is for many of you, else you wouldn't be here. You want toknow just how much there really is in the whole business. I think there is a lot in it. That is what I want to begin showing you. As many of you probably know, there are traditional
clusters
of arguments for the existence of God. Eachcluster comprises many arguments, but the clusters themselves are surprisingly few. In my view,arguments from each cluster contribute to what the literature terms a
cumulative-case argument
fortheism, and it is just such an argument that I shall present in briefest outline at the end. In aid of formulating such an argument, I shall consider only the four clusters most widely discussed by philosophers: the modal, the cosmological, the teleological, and the moral. I want to frame arguments fromeach of these four as briefly as possible, so as to show as briefly as possible why each is valuable but noneare objectively cogent by themselves.Modal arguments are sometimes classed together under the heading 'the ontological argument'; but forreasons I cannot discuss here, I shall leave aside ontological arguments that are properly so-called. Modalarguments are called such because they employ the logical modalities of possibility and necessity, and may  be generically framed in the following simple argument:(1) If God possibly exists, then God necessarily exists(2) God possibly exists(3) Therefore, God necessarily exists.The first premise may seem odd, but it has to be true. It means that if anything could be God, then there is aGod that exists eternally, uncausably, and unpreventably. That is because God cannot be a contingent being: God is not the sort of thing that happens to exist but might not have, or that happens not to exist butmight have. God cannot come to be or cease to be: God cannot be caused to exist, or just pop intoexistence, or die. However extraordinary, no such being could be God, but would be only one more item of our world. The same goes for any alleged God who undergoes change; such a being would not be God, butanother constituent of our world, though perhaps a pretty special one. Whatever would count as God would have to be eternal, uncausable, and unpreventable, so that it always exists, never really changes,and could neither come into existence nor pass out of existence. Hence, if it could exist at all, it must exist.The simple modal argument I have presented is obviously valid. But since Hume, many philosophers have been inclined to reject its conclusion, and hence its second premise, as false on logical grounds alone. Theirargument goes like this: no existential statement (i.e., no statement to the effect that such-and-such exists)could be a necessary truth; for a necessary truth is one whose denial entails a contradiction, and nostatement of the form 'x exists' entails a contradiction; hence no statement of the form 'x necessarily exists'is true; hence it cannot be true that God necessarily exists. And given (1) as well, we may also conclude thatGod does not possibly exist
i.e., that (2) is false.But that argument is itself invalid. For from the fact
if it is a fact
that no existential statement is such thatits denial entails a contradiction, it does not follow that any statement of the form 'x necessarily exists' isfalse. In particular, to say that God necessarily exists is not to imply that 'God does not exist' entails acontradiction; it is rather to imply that, given the sort of thing God would be, God exists eternally,uncausably, and unpreventably if at all. The word 'necessarily' in this context is not about the modal statusof the statement 'God exists', but is rather a shorthand description of how God exists if God exists at all. So if (3) is false, that is not because it is saying something that logic alone can teach us is false.The real problem with the modal argument is that there seems to be no reliable, publicly available methodfor verifying premise (2) that does not require prior knowledge that God exists. In general, we find out thata thing possibly exists (i.e., could exist) in one of two ways. The first is to extrapolate from what one knows
 
to exist. That, e.g., is what astronomers do when they hold that there could be life on some planet orbitingsome other star; given what we know about the physical universe, that is a reasonable view, even if it turnsout to be false. The second way to find out whether something could exist is simply to find out that thething does exist, from which it follows trivially that the thing could exist. Obviously, to verify (2) by findingout that God exists would render the modal argument useless as an argument. But from what may weextrapolate in order to make it reasonable to think that God could exist? God is not the sort of thing, likelife on a planet, that might not have existed if indeed it does exist, or that exists by first coming to be. In view of this, some theists would argue that God, though not physically possible, is logically possible. Thus,given a complete description of the concept of God, we would find that God is, in a certain sense, likeplanets but unlike things that are both black-all-over and not-black-all-over. Like the former and unlike thelatter, the claim that there is a God would not entail a contradiction; hence God could exist (is possible).But of course, there is no agreement on just what such a description would entail or on whether we couldfully understand it even if we could agree on all that it would entail. Short of knowing that there is a God,there seems to be no reliable way to find out just what God is; if so, then one cannot know that God'sexistence is possible without knowing that God exists. It seems we are at a loss here. By itself, the modalargument does not get us very far
though it does highlight something about what God is that must always be kept in mind.The next two clusters of arguments
the cosmological and the teleological
are the best-known, andinvolve essentially extrapolatory moves. Their aim is not to establish directly that God could exist but thatGod does exist. The cosmological argument may be generically framed as follows:(1) Whatever exists, and is contingent, has been caused to exist by something other than and not part of itself (2) The world exists and is contingent(3) Therefore, something not of the world has caused the world to exist.Even if sound, of course, such an argument does not establish that the cause of the world is God. But for themoment I want to leave that issue aside and assess the argument for what it purports to do, not criticize itfor failing to do what it does not purport to do.The cosmological argument as I have presented it is clearly valid. But are both its premises true? Consider(2) first. To say that the world is contingent entails that the world is not the sort of thing that existseternally, uncausably, and unpreventably. Obviously, whether that's true or not depends on what the world is. Suppose, for example, that the world consists only of matter-energy and the changes matter-energy undergoes, and that matter-energy is neither created nor destroyed. Then one might be inclined toaffirm that the world is necessary not contingent. But even if the world consists only of matter-energy andthe changes it undergoes, and even if the first law of thermodynamics is true, that law does not entail thatthe world can neither be created nor destroyed; it only entails that such changes as occur in the world donot involve the production or destruction, but merely transformations, of matter-energy. And so the sortof crude physicalism I have hypothesized for argument's sake is no basis for saying that the world isnecessary.There are, of course, other more philosophical arguments that the world's existence is necessary 
the bestknown being Spinoza's. Each of those arguments, if you look at them in their respective contexts, stands orfalls with the philosophies to which they severally belong. Of those philosophies, all I can say here is theirchief attraction has been their explanatory power: if any are true, then everything is explicable in such a way that nothing could have been otherwise. Such philosophies often attract people, like philosophers andscientists, who crave maximum intelligibility of the sort we find in, say, geometry or elementary symboliclogic, where every theorem is strictly deducible from a few axioms using a few obvious rules of inference.Such philosophies entail
determinism:
the thesis that whatever is the case is either necessarily so in itself or is rendered inevitable by the past and the laws of nature. But determinism does not seem true to most of us
 who find it incompatible with, e.g., our sense of moral responsibility 
and in any case determinismfinds no more support in contemporary physics than in ordinary experience. Many people, then, are rightto think it a marvelous and puzzling fact that the world exists, and continues to exist, at all. At any rate,there is no good reason to hold that the world is the sort of thing that exists uncausably, unpreventably,and eternally. And so we may safely say that the existence of the world is contingent.Premise (1) is harder to justify. True, ordinary experience only presents objects that are caused to exist,and so one might think that we can infer (1) by induction. But the contingent objects that experiencepresents are the sorts that come to be through causally efficacious processes which follow 
laws:
the laws of nature. Whatever the world as a whole is, it cannot be an object of that sort; it is rather that totality whichincludes all such objects, whatever else it may include. So if the world has indeed come to be, it cannothave done so through a causal process that obeys the laws of nature. And some have found in this groundsfor denying that the world's existence is causally explicable at all. Such explanations as we have of the

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