ad astra per alia porci

arguing about God

I try to take modules that hold or will hold some degree of personal meaning to me and explore issues that I find fundamentally important. My sojourn into philosophy took me first to the philosophy of religion. I choose to study the philosophy of religion because I would like to understand the arguments for and against the existence of God and how belief in God may be justified and supported, as well as appreciate the various ancillary issues that surround theistic faith.

End of the term means the start of exams, and I had to study and prepare for this module’s exam. There is a distinction between studying for an exam (where the goal is to display competence and earn the marks) and thinking about a subject meaningfully (where… whether there is a goal and what such a goal is depends on the person). Having to prepare in an utilitarian manner for an exam crowds out the mental space required to reflect.

After getting into the details of exams, it is good to step back and think about what I have studied, and how it has or has not change my views on religion. A series of email exchanges with my former jurisprudence professor (a person I greatly admire and like), in which she asked me whether my “agnosticism/atheism/religiosity level increased or decreased” after my study of the philosophy of religion prompted me to pen down what I think about religion and God at the end of the term.

Philosophy of religion is a subject that spills over into all other areas of philosophy like philosophy of the mind, and other disciplines, from evolutionary biology to quantum physics. I am consistently awed by the sheer amount of knowledge required to gain a proper understanding of the scale of problems and construct an informed analysis of the issues associate with theism.

Surveying the various arguments for and against the existence of God, I realised that almost every argument has a counter-argument, regardless of the relative strength of each argument. And when it comes to strength, it seems that the deeper one reads into the literature pertaining to specific arguments, auxiliary points that buttress a seemingly weak argument invariably sprout. And to compound the mess, it seems to me that the idea of God holds a particular emotional and spiritual appeal to people, which tends to distort and motivate argumentation in particular directions.

The cosmological and ontological arguments hold the most intellectual appeal to me. In particular, St Anselm’s teleological argument is an intellectual masterpiece of pure thought, in spite of the fact that its a priori nature also limits its persuasiveness. The cosmological argument’s fundamental assumption, the Principle of Sufficient Reason which states that everything is caused by itself or by another, has an intuitive and empirical appeal. Things around us can very conceivably be explained by reference to another, and Aquina’s unexplained rejection of the third possibility, that the universe may be populated by “brute facts” or things that have no cause and just exist seems justified.

The ontological argument has the advantage of avoiding any use of a posteriori assumptions, and its central proposition that God being by definition a perfect being necessarily has to exist is supported by a sound reductio argumentative structure. People who accept the view that God is perfect has to also accept that God by definition exists, for existence is a great-making quality. Kant’s counter-argument that existence is not a predicate and is instead assumed about beings seems to be untenable because it seems that we can sensibly talk of existence as something separate from things. Think of cartoon characters. Yet the ontological argument’s pure reliance on a priori concepts is its flaw, as well as its strength. We cannot define something into existence. Just as we can accept that a donkey by definition has to exist or otherwise it is not a donkey, this does not mean that there is a donkey existing in reality. Just as God by definition is an existent being because he is perfect, this does not mean he actually exists in the world. However St Anselm’s contribution to the debate is weighty, and his ontological argument has been expanded and modified over the years.

On the flip side, the teleological argument which is basically an argument by analogy between the apparent order and telos in nature to the entire universe seems to have lost much of its appeal after the general acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution. A purely naturalistic explanation of order is possible, more persuasive and economical and has ousted the supernatural explanation.

There is however a fatal flaw with each of the three distinct strands of argument for the existence of God. Even if we accept all the arguments, we have not accepted arguments that prove the existence of the theistic God, that is, a being that is omnipotent, omnibenevolent and omniscient. Accepting the various arguments just means that we accept that some sort of being that created the universe exists and it is very likely that he exists. However, he might be pure evil, for all we know. He might also be absolutely indifferent to the plight of men. In fact, he might be entirely different from the version of God that the major theistic religions subscribe to.

And this is where the argument from evil comes in. Simply put, the existence of much evil and unnecessary suffereing warrants the conclusion that at least the theistic God does not exist. If God does exist, he is surely not purely good. This argument in my view is particularly strong because it seems impossible to gainsay that needless suffering occurs all the time, and this is greatly inconsistent with the existence of omnibenevolent God. A truly good God would act to eliminate, or at least alleviate suffering.

Apologists like the sceptical theists and Hicks have produced various counterarguments justifying and explaining an all-good God’s apparent ignorance and indeed willful permission of suffering. Those that I have been exposed to seem to me to involve convoluted and unsustainable reasoning. For example Wykstra argues that God, being all powerful and all knowing, will surely work in ways that are completely incomprehensible to us, and hence we cannot conclude that observed suffering is indeed pointless for God has a unfathomable reason to allow such suffering. The problem with his view is that it posits divine hiddeness, the idea that God deliberately shields his ways from human comprehension. Is there any justification for withholding such understanding from us? It seems very plausible that God’s muteness in the face of suffering humans who are bewildered by their undeserved suffering is absolutely cruel.

Hicks posits his “soul-making” theodicy, which I find to be totally unconvincing, particularly with regard to natural evils. Hicks suggests that suffering is required to allow man to grow as individuals into good beings. This makes sense, and I would not doubt that a good God would do such things. However we have so many instances of suffering in which there is no good achieved, particularly suffering that involve natural disasters and babies. We cannot say that floods that drown newborns have any “soul-making” quality to it. Hicks’ theodicy also fails to address the problem of animal suffering. Animals get burned to death in forest fires and die from dilapidating illnesses. Surely such suffering do not develop any moral character at all, for animals are not beings with a higher consciousness like humans.

Like many Singaporeans, I do not come from a particularly religious family. There is a Buddha idol in my house, but only my grandmother prays to it. My aunties take me to the Goddess of Mercy temple at Waterloo Street once in a while. We are not vegetarians and do not chant scriptures. Our devotion can be properly described as rather casual. Even though I do not have a religious background, I find it important to subject the concept of God to scrutiny because religion has come to play such an important role in both the private and public spheres of human life.

My interest led me to this investigation of the arguments for and against the existence of God. After surveying the subject, I have some personal conclusions on the issue.

First, it seems to me that the arguments for the existence of God are plausible but ultimately fail to establish the existence of the theistic God, and it is this failure to provide sustainable arguments for the additional step that is required to establish through reason the existence of the theistic God that makes it hard to adopt theism. For if all we are left is an argument establishing the existence of some being that created the universe, we have little need to concern ourself with this being for it seems irrelevant to and absolutely detached from  our lives. If the theistic God does exist, we will do good to follow and understand God’s ways and God becomes immediately relevant to our lives. But the state of arguments leave us with no reason to believe in the theistic God.

Second, the existence of evil is a major obstacle against the reasonableness of accepting theism, and as far as I have read, none of the apologists offer plausible and sustainable arguments justifying God’s unwillingness to prevent apparently unnecessarily suffering. Since the status quo is more believable, that is that unnecessary evils do occur, it follows that if there is indeed some sort of being who created the universe, he cannot be omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent at the same time, which excludes the possibility of the theistic conception of God. For evil exists than God is not omniscient since he would have known such evil exists and have acted to eliminate it. If we accept that God is omniscient despite such evils existing, than God is not omnipotent since he knows but does not have the power to stop such evils. And if we say that God knows and has the power to stop such evils, it seems that we cannot also hold that God is omnibenevolent for he actively refrains from eliminating such pointless evils.

Arguing for and against the existence of God is no easy task. The amount of effort and intellectual pondering put into this area is laudable and should be sustained. However I remain unconvinced that theism is an intellectual justifiable position to adopt, particularly since it fails to explain the existence of gratuitous evil which surely exists in this world. The existence of an indifferent or even evil God-being is more plausible. I do not think that religious belief, particularly that of the theistic God, is sustainable on the basis of reason. Such belief has to be sustained on other grounds, like faith. But this leaves us in even shakier territory, epistemologically and ontologically. Perhaps Wittgenstein was right to note that religion is not founded on reason, and arguments about religion ultimately miss the whole point. We have faith, and than we have reason.


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