God – diis – Nov 10

note: I don’t know shit about eastern philosophy so this is all going to be about the western tradition. Sorry if this is disappointing to all the buddhists and hindis that read lf. deal with it. I’m also a little shaky with some of the arguments put forward by islamic thinkers, so there might be some mistakes there too. I’ll do my best السلام عليكم.

god is a pretty old concept, and since god was first believed in people have tried to formulate some argument that proves the existence of god. believe it or not, “god exists d/w/i” it didn’t start in lf


usage of the word “prove” is important, since these proofs go far beyond simple beliefs that are generally assumed to not be subject to the strict rules about logic and philosophy of language. ask someone with experience in analytic philosophy what is asserted in the utterance “Tom believes that the King of France is bald” and s/he will likely beat you to death with a fire poker. in the convoluted world of philosophy, “certainty” has a specific meaning that implies the use of logic and/or evidence to back up whatever claim/proposition/argument you are certain about. so, within this framework it’s not enough to say that you are certain of god’s existence because you believe in god.

necessary existence

the necessary existence of god is a corollary to most proofs about god’s existence. as usual, dead white men screw everything up and the word “necessary” isn’t as simple as it should be. In philosophy, “necessary existence” implies existence in all possible worlds. to put this another way, an object that exists necessarily could not fail to exist under any circumstances, real or hypothetical. this seems like a dumb distinction to talk about, but there are logical rules about counterfactual situations that make “necessity” important and play a role in showing where arguments about god’s existence can go wrong. hopefully someone else will have the energy to talk about this in-depth because counterfactual schemas make my brain hurt.

other terminology

the entire reason that Im posting is to see if this crap can be talked about without resorting to the ridiculous jargon and bullshit that professional philosophers make tenure on, but sometimes it can’t be avoided:

a priori – literally, prior to. a priori statements are statements that can be known without experience, like the classic example “all bachelors are unmarried”

a posteriori – posterior to. a posteriori statements are statements that can be known with experience, for example: “all lf posters are unmarried”.

in this usage, the a priori/a posteriori distinction is an epistemological notion about what can be known and when it can be known. Empirical claims generated from experience (a posteriori) are always contingent, since and the counterfactual of an a posteriori statement could be true in another world. But, a priori statements generally are thought to be necessarily true because the counterfactual of an a priori statement is always false in any possible world:

  • [1] All bachelors are unmarried males.
  • [2] All bachelors are not unmarried males.
  • [3] All lf posters are unmarried males.
  • [4] All lf posters are not unmarried males.

Statement [2] is impossible in any possible world, while statement [4] could be true, but probably isn’t.

logicians, who generally will argue about anything and are insufferable pricks, actually care about whether or not a posteriori statements can only be known with experience. whatever I don’t care fuck professional logicians. there is also plenty of argument about the relationship between a priori/a posteriori and analytic/synthetic statements. I’m trying to make this as simple as I can, so i will be sticking with more epistemologically broad a priori/a posteriori claims. this will probably lead me to fudge some analytic statements as “a priori”. if you happen to be the sort of nit-picking asshole who cares about this, feel free to read willard quine’s article on the subject and then kill yourself.

kinds of arguments about god’s existence

most arguments about the necessary existence of god fall into three categories: ontological, teleological, and cosmological:

ontological arguments: literally, an argument about being. these arguments purport to prove god’s necessary existence using only a priori premises.
teleological arguments: these arguments attempt to prove god’s existence with (usually) a posteriori claims about nature’s perfections.
cosmological arguments: I think these are by far the most interesting kind of argument about god’s existence, and have to do with ultimate or first causes.

ontological arguments

i think, therefore i should stop posting

most people are familiar with descartes’ cogito: “I think, therefore I am”. most people who have taken an intro philosophy course probably know that the cogito is descartes’ first step on the path to eliminating skepticism from the poor deluded masses of unbelievers and heathens. oh, and maybe along the way prove that god exists:

  • 1. Whatever I clearly and distinctly perceive to be contained in the idea of something is true of that thing.
  • 2. I clearly and distinctly perceive that necessary existence is contained in the idea of God.
  • 3. Therefore, God exists.

The ontological arguments of yore are typically short and simple and straightforward. there’s not a lot to say here, except that holy crap it would be neat if this argument held water. interestingly, the famous athiest and proto-goon bertrand russell once fell off a curb and said “Great God in Boots! — the ontological argument is sound!” Most philosophers and logicians these days have abandoned the ontological argument, but I think this has more to do with reverence for Kant than anything else; however, to the credit of the intuitions underlying the ontological argument, some have never really stopped trying to develop workable ontological arguments. Of particular interest is kurt gödel’s version, which is right on the edge of what I understand w/r/t to modal logic and I don’t feel comfortable enough with it to try and explain how it works. go look it up if you want.

so where does it go wrong?

a long long time before descartes, a guy named anselm also offered up an ontological argument for god’s existence, but his was so hamfisted I can’t bear to type it out. I guess you can wiki that shit if you want. anselm’s version roughly matches descartes’ version, but without the bit about “clear and distinct perception.” But, anselm’s version of the argument was destroyed so thoroughly by thomas aquinas that even theologians were genuinely surprised that descartes would try to revive it. aquinas correctly pointed out that without the bit about “clear and distinct perception”, the ontological argument is circular because it assumes the existence of god in the premises. descartes’ version does not fall victim to this criticism.

aquinas also viciously attacked the idea that it is wise to claim definite knowledge of god in any way and one place where descartes’ argument does potentially fail is in premise [1] by claiming that it’s possible to have a clear and distinct perception of god in the first place. without going into a long-winded and boring discussion about what descartes meant by “clear” and “distinct” perceptions, it seems pretty far fetched to claim that you can have a mental conception of an infinite being that transcends space and time. even if you accept that it’s possible to form a perception based on a priori knowledge, you are going to have a tough time claiming that you can fit infinity in your head. thomas hobbes and david hume both advocated slightly different versions of this objection.

another potential failing of ontological arguments that others formulated and immanuel kant made famous is that “existence” is not a “perfection” that can be meaningfully be attached to a mental conception. After all, is there any difference between a mental image of an imaginary lungfish and a mental image of a real lungfish? (nope because you are still thinking about lungfish, you poor dumb bastard). So premise [2] is supect as well.

teleological arguments

teleological arguments are fairly common these days, even if the people making the arguments don’t know that they are teleological (thanks intelligent design movement!). these arguments generally identify some complex object or process in nature and then use that to claim that nothing could have created that object or process except an omniscient being, god. These arguments take two general forms: the analogical design argument and deductive design arguments (omitted because I’m lazy).

analogical design argument

Teleological arguments date all the way back to Plato, and probably before that too, but Plato is the first example I know of. The brilliant Islamic thinker Ibn Rushd also used this style of argument, and probably should be credited with keeping logic alive long enough for the medival europeans to remember that things like not eating your own feces are good ideas. The formalization here comes from David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which I am using as a representation of analogical design arguments because: A. I am familiar with it and B. It’s a fairly accurate representation of these kinds of arguments. William Paley’s Watchmaker is the iconic version of this argument and I would highly suggest looking it up if you are interested in reading prose in favor of teleological arguments, because Hume’s prose is kinda shitty and he’s not exactly what I would call a theist.

look mom! a racist!

  • [1] The universe and its contents are like intricate machines.
  • [2] In our experience, intricate machines are always the product of intelligent agency.
  • [3] like effects must have like causes.
  • [4] Therefore, the universe and its contents must be the product of intelligent agency (God)
  • [5] God exists and has intelligence.

The first important thing to note about this argument is premise [2], which is an a posteriori claim about reality. This is all well and good, but a posteriori claims cannot form the basis of an inductive argument, so the conclusions [4] and [5] can’t actually be absolute claims. Instead, they should be something like:

[4a] Therefore, the universe and its contents are very likely the product of intelligent agency (God).
[5a] It is very likely that God exists and has intelligence.

lf posters are all smart as hell so this probably doesn’t need to be said, but if you are having trouble conceptualizing the relationship between a posteriori knowledge and inductive reasoning, decide if this argument sounds feasible:

  • [1]It has been my experience that all swans are white.
  • [2]Therefore, all swans are white.

The only way that this could be an inductive argument is if the utterer of premise [1] had literally seen every single swan that had ever, or could ever, exist. So, the truth value of the conclusion is highly dependent on the evidence offered for the supporting premise. This potential weakness doesn’t necessarily make teleological arguments bad though. Everyone uses deductive arguments all the time in life and they are perfectly acceptable, it’s just something to keep in mind when dealing with a posteriori claims.

how can I piss off my intelligent design-loving dad/classmate/schoolboard?

Hume raises two distinct objections to his formulations of the teleological argument. First, and I think the best way to approach this argument, is to attack the linkage between premises [2] and [3]. Fortunately it’s possible to do this without relying on dubious theories that all good christians know are liberal conspiracies, like evolution and gravity and heliocentric galaxies. As Hume says, in order to infer an effect from a cause, we must have experience with discrete occurrances of the causes and their effects, but our experience is wholly limited to things that we can percieve with our senses. while we do understand and have experience with creation of human artifacts, like watches and babies, we do not have experience with creation of reality itself. Only God could have this kind of experience and like I said before, a posteriori arguments are only as sound as the evidence used to support them, so the only potential entity that could make this argument would be God. unless your dad/classmate/schoolboard considers themselves to be God this argument is a pretty ballsy one to make.

The second objection Hume raises to the teleological argument is one that will come up again with the cosmological argument. Even if one accepts premises [2] and [3], the appeal to God to explain the marks of intelligence in the material world is an appeal to marks of intelligence in the transcendental world, and wouldn’t it then be appropriate to appeal to marks of another intelligence in yet another world to explain those marks? and on and on an on (hurr much like my posting). there’s an infinite regress here and solving that problem isn’t easy with nothing but logic.

Cosmological Arguments

Cosmological arguments are probably really fucking old. like, fertile-crescent-coming-down-out-of-the-trees-kinda old. like teleological arguments, the western tradition dates these back to plato and aristotle, but they almost definitely existed before that. also like the teleological argument, we can thank the islamic world for preserving the tradition of logic in reference to God’s existence long enough for medieval christians to pick it back up and ruin it. thomas aquinas, descartes, spinoza and liebniz all formulated relatively famous versions, and many many islamic philosophers and theologicans over the years have advocated the kalām, which is a cosmological argument that specifically denies an infinite regress (more on that in a minute).
Western versions of the cosmological argument generally take the same form, and this particular formulation is from Liebniz’s Monadology:

leibniz was as dumb as a pile of monads, but look at that hair~~~!

  • [1] Some things that aren’t actual are genuinely possible.
  • [2] These possibilities must ultimately be grounded in something that is actual and that exists necessarily.
  • [3] Therefore, there must exist something that is actual and that exists necessarily.
  • [4] This being is what we call God.
  • [5] Therefore, God exists.

The kalām is a little different. I’ve stolen this formalization from Bruce Reichenbach, who stole it from William Craig:

  • [6] Everything that begins to exist has a cause of its existence.
  • [7] The universe began to exist.
  • [8] Therefore, the universe has a cause of its existence.
  • [9] Since no scientific explanation (in terms of physical laws) can provide a causal account of the origin of the universe, the cause must be personal (explanation is given in terms of a personal agent)

In both cases, the basis of the argument lies in the idea that everything that exists has a cause except God, who caused itself. which is why the cosmological argument is sometimes referred to as the causa sui argument. I’m not going to waste a lot of space on the western formulation because almost no one takes that version seriously anymore. once again, the great poo-pooer of logical arguments for god’s existence, immanuel kant, convincingly showed that sub-conclusion [3] presupposes that the ontological argument is true. Which means that if the ontological argument is false, then the cosmological argument is also false, and if the ontological argument is true, then the cosmological argument is superfluous.

The kalām, on the other hand is immune from this criticism since it does not directly attribute the “causing” of the universe to a necessary being. Instead, it leaves room for personal beliefs/faith about God, while still granting that the universe has an ultimate cause that science cannot account for. Many people have taken the kalām to be sufficient evidence for deism if not theism.

I’m a babby who can’t bear the thought of living in a world where christopher hitches could be WRONG what do I do now?

well, mr. literal child, you can safely dismiss most cosmological arguments on their face by screaming “KANT, MOTHERFUCKER”. You can also attack all cosmological arguments by denying that the causal principle is true, and there may be reason to do so. It’s reasonable to characterize premises [1] and [6] (and maybe [2] as well) as a posteriori claims, which places cosmological arguments in the same boat as teleological arguments with the same shortfall: the only entity that could have experience to know about the causes of everything is God. Another criticism made of cosmological arguments is that they involve an infinite regress: there is really no reason to stop asking what caused what when you get to God – something else could potentially have caused God.

what can I take away from all this crap?

prob not much, but the first thing I noticed when I first started learning about descartes was that all of his arguments understand God as a cataphatic entity, or an entity about which it’s possible to make positive statements. There is a long and not very illustrious tradition of this theological view, especially in christianity, and that is something that I just can’t get behind. I’m of the opinion that if god does exist, then the only thing I’m comfortable saying is that god is infinite. anything beyond that and you are bound for trouble, because anthropomorphizing god is the first step towards placing limits on the nature of god and being nonsensical. other philosophers’ constructions of proofs for God’s existence all follow the same pattern, with the possible exception of the kalām, which I do find very interesting.

Another thing about all proofs for god’s existence is that they are all self-reinforcing to some degree. By this I don’t mean self reinforcing among each other, but rather self-reinforcing based on the readers pre-existing intuitions about god and the nature of god. if you already believe that god exists these arguments may all have some amount of persuasive force, but a serious athiest isn’t going to be convinced by any of them under any circumstances because the basic intuitions that underlie them require some amount of sympathy for the idea of god’s existence.

further reading
ontological arguments:
teleological arguments:
cosmological arguments:


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