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CHAPTER 2 GOD AND RELIGION

Aquinas: Summa Theologica (the “Five Ways”)

In this reading Aquinas presents his five a posteriori arguments for the existence of God. The first argument begins with the fact that there is change and argues that there must be an Unmoved Mover that originates all change (or motion) but is itself unmoved. The second argument is from causation and argues that there must be a first cause to explain the existence of cause. The third argument is from contingency and argues that because there are dependent beings (for example, humans), there must be an independent or necessary being on whom the dependent beings rely for their subsistence. The fourth argument is from excellence, and it argues that because there are degrees of excellence, there must be a perfect being from whence come all excellences. The final argument is from the harmony of things: There is a harmony of nature that calls for an explanation. The only sufficient explanation is that there is a divine designer who planned such harmony.

Craig: Reasonable Faith

In this selection, Craig puts forth the Kalām cosmological argument, drawing inspiration from scientific evidence suggesting that the universe came into being about 15 billion years ago in a cosmic “Big Bang.” He states the argument like this:

1.   Whatever begins to exist has a cause.

2.   The universe began to exist.

3.   Therefore, the universe has a cause [God].

Craig regards premise 1 as “intuitively obvious.” To support premise 2, he contends that the universe had to begin to exist because the alternative is an infinite number of past events, which is impossible. He maintains that such an infinity is impossible because notions about an actual infinity of things involve logical absurdities.

Paley: Natural Theology

In this reading Paley offers his famous argument from design for the existence of God. Arguing by analogy, he says that anyone who comes upon a mechanical watch would infer from the watch’s apparent purposefulness that it must have been made by an intelligent designer. Likewise, when we see the intricate works of nature exhibiting all the marks of purposefulness in their design, we must conclude that the world, too, had an intelligent designer. 

Hume: Dialogues Concerning Natural

In this famous dialogue, Philo (who reflects Hume’s views on the subject) gives us the classic critique of the argument from design. In the parts reproduced here, Cleanthes (the natural theologian) states the argument and asserts, “By this argument a posteriori, and by this argument alone, do we prove at once the existence of a Deity and his similarity to human mind and intelligence.” Philo replies that the argument rests on an extremely weak analogy from which we can derive no more than a guess about a deity. The dissimilarities between the universe and a human-crafted machine are too great to draw the conclusion that Cleanthes seeks. We cannot, for example, draw a conclusion about the origin of the vast universe as a whole from a fact about the origin of a tiny part of the universe (a house or a ship, for instance). Furthermore, if we try to infer the nature of a Designer from facts about the natural world and human designers, we would have to conclude that the Designer may not be infinite (because the world is finite), may not be perfect (because nature is full of imperfections), and may not be single (because it is possible that the world was made by many deities).

Anselm: The Ontological Argument (from Prologium)

In this reading, we encounter St. Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God and Gaunilo’s reply. The argument goes like this: God is by definition “a being than which nothing greater can be conceived.” If God, the greatest being that can be conceived, exists only in our minds, then there must be a being greater than God—that is, a God that exists in reality (an existing being is greater than an imaginary one). But this leads to a contradiction: A being greater than God is impossible. Therefore, God must exist in reality (as well as in the mind). Gaunilo replies that if Anselm’s reasoning were sound, we could prove something ridiculous—namely, that the greatest island possible exists in reality.

Kant: Critique of Pure Reason: Of the Impossibility of an Ontological Proof

Against Anselm’s argument, Kant maintains that existence is not a property. To say that something exists is not to attribute any additional property to that thing’s essential nature. “‘Being’ is obviously not a real predicate [term designating a property],” Kant says. “[I]t is not a concept of something which could be added to the concept of a thing. It is merely the positing of a thing, or of certain determinations, as existing in themselves. . . . By whatever and by however many predicates we may think a thing—even if we completely determine it—we do not make the least addition to the thing when we further declare that this thing is.”

Rowe: Philosophy of Religion (Critique of the Ontological Argument)

Rowe examines Anselm’s argument and finds it wanting. His critique is suggested by a basic conviction that many philosophers have about the ontological argument: “that from the mere logical analysis of a certain idea or concept, we can never determine that there exists in reality anything answering to that idea or concept.” All that follows from Anselm’s argument, he says, is that no nonexisting thing can be God (as Anselm defines God)—that is, that “nothing but an existing thing could exemplify Anselm’s concept of God.” But it does not follow from this conclusion that “some existing thing actually does exemplify his concept of God,” that this God so defined exists in reality.

Swinburne: Is There a God? (Free Will Defense)

Swinburne says that human free will is an enormous good, so much so that a universe where humans have free will is better than one where they don’t, even if their exercise of freedom brings about much evil. Moral evil is the unavoidable byproduct of God’s gift of free will. This argument is based on the assumption that God’s omnipotence is not the power to do anything, but the power to do anything that is logically possible.

Hick: Evil and the God of Love

Hick offers two responses to the problem of evil, one aimed at moral evil and the other at nonmoral (or natural) evil. He argues that moral evil is a necessary result of finite persons (moral agents) acting freely. God chose to create finite persons, and the “possibility of wrongdoing or sin is logically inseparable from the creation of finite persons.” There is nonmoral evil in the world, says Hick, to allow humans the opportunity for moral improvement, to be more like God. The purpose of nonmoral evil, then, is “soul-making.” Given this purpose, an environment without nonmoral evil “would be the worst of all possible worlds.”

St. Teresa of Avila: The Life of Teresa of Jesus

This excerpt gives us an example of religious experience—encounters with the divine—that does not involve sensory content. Unlike Paul, who declares he had a very sensory experience with the divine on the road to Damascus, St. Teresa reports having no sensations at all but nonetheless sensing a divine presence.

Mackie: The Miracle of Theism (Religious Experience)

Mackie argues that generally alleged religious experiences can be given a natural psychological or physical explanation. And this fact seems fatal to any argument from religious experience to claims about the supernatural. 

Rowe: Philosophy of Religion (The Problem of Evil)

In this selection, Rowe presents his own version of the argument from evil:

1.   There exist instances of intense suffering which an omnipotent, omniscient being could have prevented without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

2.   An omniscient, wholly good being would prevent the occurrence of any intense suffering it could, unless it could not do so without thereby losing some greater good or permitting some evil equally bad or worse.

3.   [Therefore] there does not exist an omnipotent, omniscient, wholly good being.

Concerning premise 2, Rowe declares, “In light of our experience and knowledge of the variety and scale of human and animal suffering in our world, the idea that none of this suffering could have been prevented by an omnipotent being without thereby losing a greater good or permitting an evil at least as bad seems an extraordinary absurd idea, quite beyond our belief.” 

Swinburne: The Existence of God (Religious Experiences)

Swinburne tries to rebut the notion that conflicts among reports of people who claim to have had religious experiences show that the experiences are bogus. He argues that apparent conflicts among descriptions of the object of religious experiences may just mean “that we have a source of challenge to a particular detailed claim, not a source of skepticism about all claims of religious experience.”

James: The Will to Believe

In this classic essay, James argues that life would be greatly impoverished if we confined our beliefs to such a Scrooge-like epistemology as some critics of faith propose. In everyday life, where the evidence for important propositions is often unclear, we must live by faith or cease to act at all. Although we may not make leaps of faith just anywhere, sometimes practical considerations force us to make decisions regarding propositions that do not have their truth value written on their faces. “Belief” is defined as a live, momentous optional hypothesis on which we cannot avoid a decision because not to choose is in effect to choose against the hypothesis. James claims that religion can be such an optional hypothesis for many people and that in this case one has the right to believe the better story rather than the worse. To do so, one must will to believe what the evidence alone is inadequate to support.

Martin: Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (Reply to James)

Martin takes issue with James’s notion of verifying through our experiences the religious hypothesis by first believing it. Faith is supposed to be the prerequisite for experiences that will enable us to confirm some divine reality. But Martin argues that having faith first is not likely to corroborate anything.

Pascal: Pensees

Pascal argues that if we do a cost–benefit analysis of the matter, it turns out that it is eminently reasonable to get ourselves to believe that God exists, regardless of whether we have good evidence for that belief. The argument goes something like this: Regarding the proposition “God exists,” reason is neutral. It can neither prove nor disprove it. But we must make a choice on this matter because not to choose for God is in effect to choose against God and lose the possible benefits that belief would bring. Because these benefits of faith promise to be infinite and the loss equally infinite, we must take a gamble on faith.

Ajahn Sumedho: Buddha-Nature

This passage affirms the impermanence of the self and asserts that the “I” we refer to is not an existing entity persisting through time but is an ongoing, ephemeral process of mental states. This truth is said to be comforting, for there is no lonely, isolated self lost in a vast unfeeling universe.  

Walpola Rahula: What the Buddha Taught

This excerpt tries to explain the attainment of nirvana, which occurs when all suffering is abolished through the extinguishing of all desire. For the one who achieves nirvana, there is happiness and freedom from pointless obsessions, worries, and mental anguish of all kinds.

Chuang Tzu: All Things Are One

The Chuang Tzu characterizes the Dao as literally everything—it is the whole of all that exists, and we are of this whole. Those who are one with the Dao are oblivious to death, life’s woes, and anything else that may disturb one’s tranquility.

Lao-Tzu: Tao-te ching

The Dao is beyond words; it is “nameless” (unnameable) and thus can only be hinted at through metaphor and paradox. Submitting to the Dao means realizing the virtue of wu-wei—active inaction, or effortless action. To some scholars wu-wei suggests acting effortlessly without straining or struggling and without feverish obsession with the objects of desire. To others it implies acting naturally, spontaneously, without predetermined ideas of how things should go.