ARGUMENTS FOR GOD’S EXISTENCE – PART III

It is clear that science too rests on faith; there is no science without presuppositions.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

In the last two sections, we examined the ontological and cosmological arguments for the existence of God. Now we will look at the teleological argument which is based on thinking about the possibility of a design of the universe (also seen in Aquinas’ fifth way). It was most clearly articulated in its early form by William Paley in his Natural Theology. He points out that while we might find a stone on the ground and assume it to be unworthy of explanation, if we find a watch on the ground, we naturally ask how it came into existence recognizing the parts are so placed as to demonstrate a purpose and thus require a designer. He then applies that metaphor to the universe in general and to living beings in particular, seeing them as mechanisms with many interacting parts that similarly must have a designer, that is, God.

David Hume in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion counters that there are a finite number of configurations of particles and given adequate time, they would eventually take on forms that appear designed- that is suggesting chance could lead to the apparent design of the universe and living things. He also points out that this argument allows for multiple designers, perhaps mortal rather than divine, and that the imperfections in the universe argue against a particularly excellent designer.

Later science, including physics, cosmology, and biology (for example the theory of evolution) undermined much of Paley’s simplistic argument, but left an enigma. We appear to be able to demonstrate many of the physical laws underlying the universe, matter, and life, but the probability of the universe appearing spontaneously in a form with these finely tuned physical laws appears to be unlikely to be the result of chance alone. For instance take the finely tuned gravitational or cosmological constants which mathematics tell us could not have been off by 1/1060 to 1/10120 without the universe flying apart or collapsing in on itself.

Science’s best answer to date is the theory of a ‘multiverse’ where there are an infinite or very large number of ‘universes’; the one we inhabit being a fortunate one where galactic stability and physical laws allow life – the corollary being that if this universe did not meet those criteria, we wouldn’t be here to question it, as may be the case in alternate universes.1

However the idea of a multiverse borders on metaphysical speculation and is not based on science per se. Moreover the postulation of infinite universes seems to violate ‘Ockham’s razor’ wherein explanations should not multiply assumptions unnecessarily. Alternatively, the skeptic would point out the infinitesimal likelihood of a spontaneous creator with the ability to fine tune the universe we inhabit.

1Hawking, Stephen, A Brief History of Time. Bantam Books, 1996. ISBN: 978-0-307-29117-2, Chapter 8.

ARGUMENTS FOR GOD’S EXISTENCE – PART II

“…the truth about God such as reason could discover would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors.” – St. Thomas Aquinas

Last time we discussed the ontological argument for the existence of God. Now we will examine the cosmological argument which is based on thinking about contingency in and of the universe. For a philosopher a contingent thing may be or may not be, or might have been or might not have been, that is, it depends on something outside itself. For instance, you and I are contingent; we might have never been born, but were brought into existence by the actions of our parents. The color of grass is green to the human eye, but might have been otherwise, that is, there is nothing about grass that logically demands it be green. Alternatively a non-contingent thing is necessary or necessarily true and cannot be imagined otherwise – take for example the equation ‘2+2=4.’

The cosmological argument looks at the contingent facts of the universe and proceeds backwards to find an independent or non-contingent explanation. It was developed most famously by St. Thomas Aquinas in the first three of his five proofs for the existence of God, called by him the ‘Five Ways’* in Summa Theologica. Expressed briefly, they are:

1.  Motion – what is moved must be moved by another and so forth, but one cannot go back infinitely, therefore there must be a first mover which is God.

2. Cause – all contingent things have a cause and again the non-infinite regress takes one to the first cause which is God. 

3. Possibility – all individual things are possible, but must derive from something ultimately necessary, that is God.

This is an example of an a posteriori argument; it depends on experience of the world rather than entirely on logic. There are cogent arguments against it, for example, David Hume argues that an infinite series of causes or motions is not illogical and needs no outside explanation. He also denies the meaning of necessary existence and points out that the universe itself might be necessarily existent. Very involved arguments continue into modern times, some of which make up an entire chapter in Baruch Brody’s Readings in the Philosophy of Religion and an intriguing entry in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volume 2 for the curious.

Perhaps the critical take-away is that the cosmological argument is the theologian’s answer to the question: ‘Why is there anything at all?’- perhaps the most profound question in philosophy. Later we will consider other proposed answers.

 

 *The fourth and fifth ways are briefly:

4. Gradation of things – each comparison of a thing, for example its goodness, must be compared to a greater thing, the greatest being God

5. World Governance – things are directed to an end, which requires an intelligent director which for the universe is God.

ARGUMENTS FOR GOD’S EXISTENCE – PART I

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use.” – Galileo

 

During the middle ages, scholars wanted to marry faith and philosophy on the question of the existence of God because even though they believed faith trumped reason, they felt the two should not be inconsistent. From their efforts were derived three ‘proofs’ of the existence of God known as the ontological, the cosmological, and the teleological proofs. It is not the place of this site to present in detail the proofs themselves and the debate they raise, rather to summarize them and lead the reader to resources where he can explore them should he choose.

The Ontological proof was first developed by St. Anselm in his Proslogium published in the 11th century. Briefly his argument is as follows:

 1.  A being which no greater being can be conceived and as such exists in our     understanding.

2.  It is greater to exist in reality than not to exist in reality.

3.  Therefore a being which no greater being can be conceived must exist in        reality.

This type of proof is called a priori, that is based on pure logic and not experience of the world. It is not convincing; to most it appears to suggest actual existence from a simple idea, but philosophers including the monk Guanilon, a contemporary of Anselm, struggled to disprove it. Guanilon’s argument comes down to saying that understanding the words ‘being which no greater being can be conceived’ is not the same as being able to actually conceive or understand the actual proposed being; in fact Guanilon does not believe any human can understand God. I tend to agree; it seems similar to the word ‘infinity’ which I understand without actually knowing exactly what it is.

However, most philosophers feel the best counter-argument to Anselm was Immanuel Kant’s contention as presented in his Critique of Pure Reason that existence is not a predicate at all, i.e. an existing being is not in fact ‘greater’ than the idea of it.

THE QUESTION OF GOD

“There is one God, supreme among gods and men, resembling mortals neither in form nor in mind. The whole of him sees, the whole of him thinks, the whole of him hears. Without toil he rules all things by the power of his mind.” – Xenophanes

The next great problem in the search for a path to a philosophically guided life is the immense question of the existence and nature of God. As we discussed earlier, prehistoric man used the concept of divine spirits to explain otherwise mystifying events in the world. This carried over into early civilization as anthropomorphic agents with superhuman abilities that interact in various ways with mankind and expect worship and sacrifice. After thousands of years, during what Karl Jaspers calls the axial age, some cultures  – especially the Hebrews, but also Zarathustra and some Indian and Greek philosophers- began to realize polytheism was unnecessarily complex, even illogical, and began to proclaim or argue there was only one God or at least one supreme divinity (it is difficult to know exactly when atheism appeared and how widespread it was at any given time due to cultural restraints on its proponents). In any case, polytheism essentially disappeared by modern times leaving only two fundamental questions:

1.   Is there a God?

2.  What is His* nature?

The following blogs will address these two questions in a systematic order. First we will look at arguments for and against His existence. Thereafter we will look at different ideas on his attributes followed by theoretical reasons to believe in his existence outside of proof. Then we will make a very brief survey of the subject of religion, followed by the possible means to make contact with God and explore the concept of a relationship with Him. Last we will examine the reasonableness and consequences of the positions of atheism and agnosticism.

If the reader already has firm beliefs on these matters, it may be tempting, even reasonable, to skip the rest of this section. However if those beliefs are not based on careful reflection, they are not philosophically valid as such. As always, short cuts in philosophy may lead to error or enduring doubts.

*I will use the customary capitalized male article and possessive in reference to God as preferable to using the word, ‘God’ repeatedly or the neutral ‘It’ or even the feminine ‘She.’ However of course, like most people, I do not believe God has gender in the human sense and the male gender is only used for simplicity.

SYNOPSIS OF GOOD AND EVIL

“Where there is good, there must be evil.” – Lu Wang, 13th century Chinese metaphysician.

In summing up the place of good and evil in a personal philosophical program, the following points are worth emphasis.

You will have to choose an understanding of the words ‘good’ and  ‘evil’ that is comprehensive enough to encompass their full meaning;  an error in definition may have later consequences. My definition of ‘good’ is that which contributes to the happiness, well-being, longevity, pleasure, or knowledge of oneself and others or at least does not diminish these for others; or which promotes existing non-human reality in the universe . Notice that omitting the latter meaning neglects the value of other living things. Evil then is the opposite.

Goods and evils can be classified as I have done in Table 1 in the Appendix, but the reader may have other thoughts, and the exercise of writing them down is likely to be helpful. Goods can be intrinsic, that is, good in themselves; or instrumental, that is valuable as means to other goods. They can also be internal to the individual and/or external, that is, outside the individual or shared. Intrinsic and internal goods are likely to be more vital to personal meaning and fulfillment. Goods can be ranked, albeit inexactly, but the summum bonum or highest good for most of us is likely to be the dual hope of happiness and meaning.

Evil can be natural or due to free agency; the latter being caused by accident or human imperfections of immaturity, error (especially mistaken certainty), weakness, selfishness (especially self-aggrandizement), and malice. Therefore the twin goals of self-perfection and humility are potent means to limit evil.

Humanity tends to view the universe as the stage for a conflict between Good and Evil, and this mythology has great power in our lives. Varied philosophical sources tell us the best way to defeat evil and separate oneself from it is to be a force for good; that is, good will – the commitment to do good – is the means to both defeat evil and transcend it. Traditionally the ‘saint’ and the ‘hero’ are the two apex manifestations of the self-perfection, humility, sacrifice, and selflessness that allow humans to side with goodness in the universe, and achieve apotheosis.

GOOD VS. EVIL – PART III

In the last two blogs we discussed the mythological conflict of Good vs. Evil as a paradigm of the human conception of the universe especially as expounded by Zarathustra and reinterpreted by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Professor Francis Ambrosio in his course Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Lifelooks more closely at the position of humanity in this arena and proposes two timeless means to personal meaning: the role of the saint and the role of the hero. In that context he sees Nietzsche as a tragic hero, who self-identifies as the antichrist, but is in fact a misunderstood and unappreciated proponent of secular humanism, proposing “the ideal, not of oppressive domination of others, but rather of mastery over the self.”

So where does all of this leave modern man in defining his place in this mythic conflict? The answer recurs throughout literature whether sacred or historical:

One who does good is never overcome by evil.”  Bhagavad Gita, 6:40.

“Do evil to no man; work for the common good.” –  Cicero

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” – St. Paul, Romans 12:21.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke, 18th century British politician and supporter of the colonies.

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.” – Albert Einstein

These varied sources tell us the best way to defeat evil and perhaps more importantly to separate oneself from evil is to be a force for good. So returning to Frankena’s principles in the chapter on societal ethics; if our primary obligation is first not to commit evil actions and next to try to reduce evil, and our secondary obligation is to promote good, human history suggests commitment to doing good is the means to both defeat evil and transcend it.

Nietzsche shows us that self-mastery, rigorous analysis of ethical norms, and acceptance of and participation in the real world are necessary to success. Professor Ambrosio refines the human struggle; to defeat Evil and promote Good is done through the selfless courage of the hero and the personal sacrifice of the saint. I think Zarathustra and Nietzsche would agree that they are the uberman.

1Ambrosio, Francis J., Philosophy, Religion, and the Meaning of Life. 2009, The Great Courses.

GOOD VS. EVIL – PART II

In Part I, we discussed the enduring tradition of the conflict of Good and Evil especially as it was presented by the ancient prophet, Zarathustra. This mythological conflict survived into modernity – consider World War II conceived by many as a symbolic battle of the virtuous Allies against the evil Fascists. More recently the  light and dark sides of the force in the Star Wars saga or the conflicts in the wizarding world of Harry Potter are fictional but powerful examples. Ultimately this conflict seems to be a  recurring paradigm of the human interpretation of the cosmos

It is no accident that Friedrich Nietzsche adopts the personage of Zarathustra in his masterpiece, Thus Spake Zarathustra, to present an alternative narrative. He challenges traditional values and the very  existence of God. In his synthesis, man must awaken from complacency and dependence on religious and state authority; embrace life, existence, and this world; and remake himself as an uberman (superman). Human weakness is manifest in  failing to accept the world as disordered and to recognize that sometimes what is considered evil turns out on closer examination to be good; that is good and evil are not absolute. Virtue is being true to oneself, through will to power, that is command of oneself and one’s future. It is also acceptance of the eternal recurrence, that is the complete embrace of that which is as if all that happens has happened before and will happen again an infinite number of times.1

In another of his masterpieces, Beyond Good and Evil, he also challenges the goodness of truth. To Nietzsche, the value of an idea has greater significance than its truth, if fact what is health-producing is truth. The question of will is not whether it is free or unfree, but whether it is strong or weak. The will to power may be more powerful than self-preservation, and man must get beyond existing valuations and live creatively, even dangerously. But despite all of his irreverence, he never loses his admiration for the psychological discipline of the saints.2

1Magill, Frank, Masterpieces of World Philosophy in Summary Form. Harper&Row Publishers, 1961, pages 686-696.

2Ibid, pages 686-703

GOOD VS. EVIL – PART I

The world turns and the world changes… In all my years, one thing does not change…The perpetual struggle of good and evil.” – T.S. Eliot, The Rock.

 

Prehistoric humans lived in a world natural wonders – sun, moon, stars, earth, storms, animals, food plants, and so forth. In the absence of science, most if not all human societies came to see or explain at least some of these phenomena as divine or as deities. With time they personified them and polytheism was the result. During that prehistoric era, they also came to distinguish desirable things (e.g. food) from undesirable things (e.g disease) and eventually abstracted from that contrast the idea of good and evil forces or agents in a struggle, each trying to dominate the cosmos, setting the stage for the mythological conflict of Good and Evil.

Virtually every culture and most religious traditions incorporate the struggle of these two forces into their belief system, and seek to ascertain the impact on man and his place in it. One of the earliest of these comes from the Vedas of the subcontinent of India where two deities were considered most powerful: Vishnu (the preserver – also called Krishna) and Shiva (the destroyer).

In Persia, perhaps drawing on a similar Aryan tradition, a prophet known as Zarathustra, derived a religion and philosophy focused on the struggle between Good and Evil, perhaps 600 to 1000 years before Christ. He preached a near monotheism with  Ahura Mazdah as the supreme god, Lord of Light, Lord of Wisdom, ‘God of gods,’ ‘the first and the last.’ However a series of evil spirits he called Druj (servants of the Lie) led by Ahriman (also known as Angro-Mainyus) were fighting with Ahura Mazdah to dominate the universe. In his system Evil comes from free will, and cannot create; it is ‘not-life.’ Humans are born into the struggle and their role is to take individual responsibility and be active and diligent in the cause of good (inactivity is equivalent to aiding the Druj). Man’s duties then are to make all enemies into friends, to make the wicked righteous, and to make the ignorant learned. The greatest virtues are piety and honesty or honor.

After Zorasterism was adopted in Persia, these ideas worked themselves into Judaism and then Christianity where the evil spirit was called Satan and finally into Islam where it was known as Iblis (or Eblis). This dualism was also reflected in the two equal gods of Manichaeism, an extinct religion embraced by Augustine before he converted to Christianity.

1Gore, Charles, The Philosophy of the Good Life. Everyman’s Library, 1954. Chapter 2 – pages 31-52.

2 Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage. Simon and Schuster, 1954, p. 369.

CAUSES OF EVIL (cont’d)

In the last blog, we noted that evil can be due to natural causes or to human free will and that there are six explanations of evil due to the latter. We then looked at the first two: immaturity and accident. Now we will look at the four other causes of evil due to human free will.

In the category of evil due to error, I am referring to the use of information not readily seen as invalid in a decision for action. This may be avoidable through careful study of circumstances of decision and thoughtful reflection on actions.  Socrates sees  insufficient or erroneous knowledge as the defining feature in human behavior, that is, he sees virtue as identical to knowledge, arguing that no man will knowingly do what he knows to be wrong. However, I am unconvinced as my last three categories of human evil will demonstrate.

Weakness is a common source of evil and includes intemperance, rashness, negligence, and cowardice. It is overcome by the ancient virtues of temperance and fortitude combined with patience and diligence in decision making. Unlike error which may be unavoidable, weakness can be overcome by the mature individual through the art of self-discipline.

Selfishness is an excess of the self-preservation instinct intensified by human emotions and psychological constitution. Early in life it leads to evils of immaturity, but later in life it blinds us to fairness and compassion. It often reflects the belief that sacrifice is  unnatural, irrational, or unrewarding, but many great thinkers – for example, Buddha, Jesus, Epicurus, Seneca, and Spinoza -conclude that restraint, moderation, and selflessness can be good for both the individual and for others.

Last is malice, the intention to cause harm to others. The more common form, mean-spiritedness, leads to relatively minor evil; whereas the less common form, cruelty, can lead to major evils. Most of us have experienced the former although most often subconsciously; especially in response to a perceived hurt. It may be overcome by self-examination and control of emotions especially anger. Cruelty in all of its forms must be overcome through ethical reversal and good will or if necessary by external restraint.

Extreme evils of error can be seen in an unwavering certainty of one’s belief. When paired with selfish desire to outshine others, we get Becker’s misplaced heroism discussed in Escape From Evil1. When paired with cruelty we get J. Brownowski’s vision of the catastrophic evil of the Nazis in The Ascent of Man2.

Remembering Frankena’s principle of beneficence we discussed in the section on ethics3, our primary duty is not to inflict evil or harm. This requires us to eliminate to the extent possible all the evil due to our actions, particularly that due to error, weakness, selfishness, and malice. Alternatively, knowledge, humility, self-examination, fortitude, consideration of others, and good will are the remedies for most human caused evil.

1Becker, Ernest, Escape From Evil. The Free Press, New York, 1975.

2Brownoswki, J., The Ascent of Man. Little, Brown, and Company, 1973. Page 374.

3Frankena, William K., Ethics,  Prentice-Hall, Inc. ISBN 0-13-290478-0 .  1973, p. 47.

CAUSES OF EVIL

“Nature in her indifference makes no distinction between good and evil.” – Anatole France

 

 

We don’t usually think about causes of good, they simply seem to be good fortune or derive from personal effort. On the other hand for some reason, it is characteristic of human understanding to wonder why there is evil. We are unlikely to ask why a day is beautiful, but inclined to ask rhetorically at least why a hurricane with its resultant damage or injuries should occur.

Traditionally philosophers attribute evil to two main causes: nature and free agency. Natural evil is that which occurs through the forces of nature: calamity (earthquakes, droughts, and the like), disease, and imperfections in natural function (e.g. genetic mutations or congenital conditions). Science can explain the basis for most natural evils, but not in any satisfying way why the universe has them. This ‘why’ is the crux of thinking about natural evil. Psychologically, it tends to make humans see the universe as hostile or indifferent to us while undermining belief in an all-powerful or beneficent divinity. These interpretations will be examined in more detail in later blogs.

The other main cause of evil is that committed by free agents, which for most of us means human free will (we will discuss the possibility of evil non-humans such as Satan in later blogs). While the number of evils due to free agency is large, the reasons fall into six main groups (in rough order of increasing severity): immaturity, accident, error, weakness, selfishness, and malice.

The first two of these are largely unavoidable and on the whole minor. The evils of youth are generally unintentional whereas accidental evil appears to be almost a variety of natural evil. Both lead to feelings of guilt or remorse and thus serve a place in human maturation and socialization and may drive individual and human progress .

(continued next post)