Arguments for the Existence of God

Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the "F...

Portrait of René Descartes, dubbed the “Father of Modern Philosophy”, after Frans Hals c. 1648 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In yesterday’s philosophy class we discussed Descartes’ first argument for the existence of God in Meditation III, which has to do with the existence of the idea of God in one’s mind. In short, Descartes does not think we ourselves are capable of producing such an idea–how could a finite creature ever dream up the idea of infinity and the other perfections of God?–and so the only possible explanation of the presence of the idea is that a God must exist to cause it.

If you like horror movies, Descartes’ thought process here is actually similar to the Hollywood interpretation of how a Catholic priest would go about determining whether someone is possessed by a demon. Of course there is all the fun stuff: the green bile, the sizzling holy water, levitation, and all the rest. But the sudden ability to speak other languages is another important sign. How would an eight-year-old girl suddenly start speaking ancient Hebrew or Latin? It must have some cause, because such abilities do not just “appear” out of nowhere. In a similar vein, Descartes wishes to argue that the idea of God cannot just appear out of nowhere; it must have some cause, a cause corresponding to the idea.

Whether the Hollywood version of events truly reflects the reality of exorcism is something I leave to the industrious research of my readers. (If the topic interests you, you might begin with An Exorcist Tells His Story by Fr. Gabriele Amorth.) No, my interest here is primarily in relating how my attempted discussion of Descartes’ argument utterly fizzled in both classes. To me, this failure is an interesting phenomenon. By and large, my students are not shy; energetic discussions in my class are the rule, not the exception. So why, when Descartes and I served up such an important notion–that the mere presence of an idea in one’s mind could point to God–did the students start suddenly playing the quiet game?

The usual explanations certainly account for some of the silence: it was Friday, it was a hard section to read (so most students didn’t bother), it was a weird idea, etc.

However, it seems to me that at least two other things were going on:

  1. As one student admitted, she just doesn’t like talking about God in philosophy class, precisely because she is a believer, and her faith means a great deal to her. She can’t help but feel that evaluating an argument for God’s existence in philosophy class puts that faith “up for grabs” in some way. Given the religious make-up of the student body at CUA, I think she spoke for many other students in expressing this worry.
  2. My second thought is more speculative. Perhaps the students intuitively sense that there is something weird about trying to evaluate individual arguments for the existence of God. Why is that weird? Well, it seems to me that our human tendency is to pay attention not so much to individual arguments, but to groups of reasons. For example, I think the Green Bay Packers are the best NFL team because they have a strong history, they play in an open-air stadium, they have good personnel, they had a good record this past season, they are the only team owned by a city rather than some rich owner or owners, and I happen to like the colors green and gold together. It is unnatural to pick out one of these reasons and fixate one’s attention exclusively on it.

As to the first worry, I have felt it myself in the past. However, I think it has a solution, if one recalls that in Christianity, knowledge of God’s existence and faith in God are actually two different things. Faith, as understood in Catholic Christianity, is a personal response of obedience (of both mind and heart) to God’s revelation of Himself, and the ability to make such a response is a grace, a gift from God. As such, faith exceeds the reach of philosophy. What we do in philosophy class are just preambles to the faith, attempts to show that the superior life of faith does not contradict reason. Given the reality of original sin, we should expect that to be a difficult task, but not impossible.

As to the second worry, I think the students are on to something here as well. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes in #31, the “proofs” for the existence of God are not meant to be proofs such as one might find in geometry class, but rather “convincing and converging arguments.” It is not that any one particular argument must somehow bear the weight of convincing everyone–or even you yourself–that a God exists. Rather, what is important is that so many intelligent arguments for the existence of God have been advanced throughout history, and continue to be advanced (the living Roman Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann has even advanced an argument for the existence of God based on our grammatical future-perfect tense!).

It is the preponderance of evidence that is most important to the question of God’s existence, not the individual arguments. Consider my example of the Green Bay Packers above. Perhaps you can convince me that there is nothing special about the colors green and gold–but it is not that reason alone which is decisive. Rather, what motivates my judgment about the Packers is that I have so many good reasons urging me to the same conclusion. The same applies to arguments about God’s existence. I’ve seen a few good arguments advanced against the existence of God–the existence of evil being the best, not “evolution”–but they are far less numerous and intellectually varied than the arguments to acknowledge the existence of a God.

If you like thinking about this, consider some further blog reading on the subject:

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