The Buddha on God, with Responses

The Buddha once made a number of remarks about God and why he discouraged his disciples from speculating about God:

On occasions, [the Buddha] expressed his opinions about creation and the role of God. When Ananthapindika, a wealthy young man, met the Buddha at a bamboo groove at Rajagriha, the Buddha made a few statements before him about the existence of God and the real cause behind the creation of beings in this world. Those views are summarized as below:

1. If God is indeed the creator of all living things, then all things here should submit to his power unquestioningly. Like the vessels produced by a potter, they should remain without any individuality of their own. If that is so, how can there be an opportunity for anyone to practice virtue?

2. If this world is indeed created by God, then there should be no sorrow or calamity or evil in this world and no need for the existence of the principle of karma since all deeds, both pure and impure, must come from Him.

3. If it is not so, then there must be some other cause besides God which is behind him, in which case He would not be self-existent.

4. It is not convincing that the Absolute has created us, because that which is absolute cannot be a cause. All things here arise from different causes. Then can we can say that the Absolute is the cause of all things alike? If the Absolute is pervading them, then certainly It is not their creator.

5. If we consider the Self as the maker, why did it not make things pleasant? Why and how should it create so much sorrow and suffering for itself?

6. It is neither God nor the self nor some causeless chance which creates us. It is our deeds which produce both good and bad results according to the law of causation.

7. We should therefore “abandon the heresy of worshipping God and of praying to him. We should stop all speculation and vain talk about such matters and practice good so that good may result from our good deeds.

For such reasons, the Buddha did not encourage speculation on the existence of Isvara (God) among his disciples. He wanted them to confine themselves to what was within their field of awareness, that is, to understand the causes of suffering and work for their mitigation. For the same reason, he discouraged speculation upon the nature of Nirvana.

Let’s take these one at a time:

1. If God is indeed the creator of all living things, then all things here should submit to his power unquestioningly. Like the vessels produced by a potter, they should remain without any individuality of their own. If that is so, how can there be an opportunity for anyone to practice virtue?

RESPONSE: This is strange objection since Buddhism denies BOTH individuality and personal virtue (there being, really, no persons to practice virtue). 

We are indeed created by God like a potter producing pots, but the Buddha’s contention that being a creature would render one without individuality is simply a non sequitur. Consider the obvious case of a great artist: is each of his works “without individuality”? On the contrary, the greater the artist, e.g. Shakespeare, the greater the variations in his productions.

Similarly with regard to virtue. There is simply nothing that prevents God from creating free creatures, creatures who can choose meaningfully between good and evil—and hence virtue and vice.  

The error the Buddha is making is in considering God only in terms of His power, and not His wisdom and goodness. That is, the Buddha is making exactly the sort of theological mistake he warns his followers about. 

2. If this world is indeed created by God, then there should be no sorrow or calamity or evil in this world and no need for the existence of the principle of karma since all deeds, both pure and impure, must come from Him.

RESPONSE: This is where the question of the Fall of Man becomes necessary.  And admittedly, the Fall is revealed primarily via divine revelation, a revelation the Buddha did not have access to.

Nevertheless, the Buddha’s  inference is false. The Fall of Man cannot be shown by natural reason, but it can be shown to be in accord with natural reason: why should it be, when it is logically possible for everyone to be good and virtuous, no one is, and most people are bad? It is obvious to all sane people—including the Buddha—that man is not what and how he ought to be. 

Unfortunately, the Buddha equates the fallen world with the world as such, and thus his doctrine can only be one of renunciation and escape from the world.  

3. If it is not so, then there must be some other cause besides God which is behind him, in which case He would not be self-existent.

RESPONSE: The Buddha is making a metaphysical error in confusing evil and suffering and sorrow and calamity with real things. The reason that the Buddha is wrong here is that God is capable of creating free beings with real choice, which opens the possibility of there being a secondary cause besides God, that is not “behind” or “beside” God.

The Fall of Man is the work of man, and man’s abuse of his freedom, in order to sin. Evil and death are the result of sin, sin is the result of human choice, and although God is the author of human beings as free beings, he is not the author of their free choices, since it would be contradictory for God to “choose our free choices for us.” 

4. It is not convincing that the Absolute has created us, because that which is absolute cannot be a cause. All things here arise from different causes. Then can we can say that the Absolute is the cause of all things alike? If the Absolute is pervading them, then certainly It is not their creator.

RESPONSE: Another metaphysical mistake.  All things within the totality of creation have a cause within that totality, within the order of nature. But God is at once the creator and sustainer of the whole totality of what is in being.  In this way, as the one who donates a portion of the Being that He Is, thus allowing all else to be, God is the source and ground and cause of all things. 

5. If we consider the Self as the maker, why did it not make things pleasant? Why and how should it create so much sorrow and suffering for itself?

RESPONSE: The Self, or Atman, is not the God, or Isvara. That said, God DID create all things as GOOD. Evils such as sorrow and suffering are the consequences of the Fall, and of Sin.  

6. It is neither God nor the self nor some causeless chance which creates us. It is our deeds which produce both good and bad results according to the law of causation.

RESPONSE: False in two ways: firstly, the Buddha is making the error of thinking of divine creation as being in time, and a “one and done.” God is our creator at every instant because he is our sustainer in being. Second, our ability to do good is radically impaired due to our fallen state. Once again, the Buddha is unaware of the Fall of Man, and consequently, despite his deep insight into the deficiency of existence, somehow believes it is within man to escape this deficiency.  But the broken man in the broken world cannot repair himself. What is needed is a RESCUER, a SAVIOR, to redeem us from our fallen state. 

7. We should therefore “abandon the heresy of worshipping God and of praying to him. We should stop all speculation and vain talk about such matters and practice good so that good may result from our good deeds.

RESPONSE: Romans 3:10-12

as it is written:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
     no one understands;
    no one seeks for God.
 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
    no one does good,
    not even one.”

 

The Buddha’s failure to engage in proper metaphysical and theological thought results in his making metaphysical and theological mistakes. This is always the way: those who disdain metaphysics and theology end up with defective metaphysics and theology. 

The Buddha’s answer, “Do good by following the Eightfold Path and you will achieve Nirvana,” is a false answer, because no one unassisted by Grace can do good, nor is it, I repeat, within the power of the broken being in the broken world to fix itself.  

The Buddha’s rejection of the life of selfish craving, Taṇhā is good as far as it goes, but there is also selfless craving. Taṇhā is cognate with the various Indo-European words, the English of which is Thirst, and true thirst can be quenched not be extinguishing it, but with the water of life: 

John 4:14 “but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Revelation 21:6 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the fountain of the water of life without payment.”

Revelation 22:17 “And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price.”

Buddhism offers only a palliative. It is not worthless, but it can no more solve the problem of human sin, suffering, misery, and despair than Stoicism could—which was a sort of Roman Buddhism, albeit in a nobler key.

Doctrines of Resignation such as Buddhism and Stoicism must give way to the doctrine of Christ the bringer of new life, of eternal life:

John 10:10 “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

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The Argument from Contingency: A Brief Synopsis

Definitions:

Def 1: A contingent being is a being such that if it exists, could have not-existed or could cease to exist.
Def 2: A necessary being (or non-contingent being) is a being such that if it exists, cannot not-exist (and therefore could not not-have-existed and cannot cease to exist).

Note: I use ground-reason essentially to do the work of the German Grund, a word which neither the English “ground” nor “reason” sufficiently captures in meaning, since it unites the sides of being and knowing, the ontological and the epistemological, in one.

The Argument 

1. A contingent being C exists.
2. This contingent being C has a ground-reason for its existence.
3. If C were the ground-reason for C’s existence, C would not be a contingent being, but a necessary one, since C, as self-grounding, could not not-exist—contrary to 1.
4. Therefore, the ground-reason for C’s existence must be something other than C.
5. This ground-reason for C’s existence other than C must either be another contingent being or set of contingent beings alone or it must be or include a non-contingent (necessary) being N.
6. Contingent beings alone cannot provide a completely adequate ground-reason for the existence of any contingent being (neither ontologically as ground nor rationally as reason), so the ground-reason for C’s existence is not any contingent being or set of contingent beings alone.
7. Therefore, the ground-reason for the existence of contingent being C must be or include a non-contingent (necessary) being N.
8. Therefore, a necessary being N exists, because without such a necessary being N, C could not exist, contrary to 1.
9. The universe and every part of the universe is contingent (as is “the multiverse” and every part of it, if this concept is supposed to subsume “universe”).
10. Therefore, a necessary being N which is something other than the universe or one of its parts (or “the multiverse”), must be the ground-reason for its existence.
11. Therefore there exists a necessary being N which is the ground-reason for all contingent beings, including the universe or cosmos or multiverse, as well as all their parts, whatever they may be.
12. Et hoc omnes intelligunt Deum.

Commentary: 

Premise 1: This premise is empirical but evident. As long as anything at all exists which could have not existed or could cease to exist, it is a contingent being. It is obvious that physical beings are contingent.

Premise 2: This is simply a statement of the Satz vom Grund or Principle of Ground (usually expressed in English as the Principle of Sufficient Reason), although perhaps the Principle of Ground-Reason would be better as I use it.  This principle can be expressed negatively as “nothing happens or comes about FOR NO REASON.” It is a core principle about reality, that things cannot happen for no reason at all, just as it is about reality that a thing can’t both be and not be the same at the same time and in the same respect—and because Being is like this, thinking (which follows being) has the Principle of Ground and the Principle of Noncontradiction as basic first principles.

Premise 3: Evident. If C were its own ground-reason it could sustain itself in being and never cease to be, and would thus be a necessary being; but C is already posited in 1 as contingent, so it can’t be the ground-reason of itself.

Premise 4: Also evident. Since C is not its own ground-reason, the ground-reason of C must be something other than C.

Premise 5: By the Principle of the Excluded Middle, this something other than C is either fully contingent or contains a necessary being.

Premise 6: This is the premise that would take the most argumentative work to establish and to get clear about. Since in contingent beings, existence is a property that is “passed on” from another being, if a contingent being got its existence from another contingent being, that being would have to be either contingent or necessary. In this scenario in Premise 6, no necessary beings are in play.  So one would have to hold either that there is an infinite regress of contingent beings each passing on their being to another being and receiving it from the one before—most philosophers think the idea of an actual infinite is  absurd (conceptual or abstract infinites are not).  Or the passing on of existence would have to be circular, where A causes B to be and B causes C to be and C causes A to be.  This becomes more clear, perhaps, when we look at it from the side of explanation, as the reason for C: I want to explain how C got here, so I say C₋₁ explains C, but C₋₁ is explained by C₋₂ and it by C₋₃ and it by C₋₄ … infinitely C₋∞. But this “explanation” never actual explains anything. In simply passes the buck infinitely backwards.  It is as if I wanted to know the origin of a magic book that contains the secrets of the cosmos, and someone tells me he got it from his father, who got it from his father, who got it from his father … who … etc.  No matter how long you make this chain of fathers passing down books to sons, you never answer “Yes, but where did the book originate?”  We need something it terminate the infinite regress, where the “buck” of explanation can no longer be passed.  Similarly, it would be famous for the possessor of the book, Dave, to explain he got it from Mary, who got it from Josh, who, is it happens, got it from Dave. If I said to Dave, “Yes, I know Mary gave it to you, but where did it come from?” it would not do for Dave to say “I always get it from Mary, who always gets it from Josh, and I always give it to Josh. This circuit is itself the origin of the book.”

Premise 7: If it is correct, then, that the ground-reason for a contingent being cannot be nothing but other contingent beings, whether in the mode of an infinite regress (which is a non-explanation) or a circular explanation (which is a non-explanation), then it must be the case that there is a necessary being which terminates the regress.

Premise 8: Since C requires there be a necessary being N in order for C to be, and C is (premise 1) then there is an N.

Premise 9: The argument from 1-8 applies to every being without the universe, all of which are contingent, as well as the whole ensemble of contingent beings called the universe. A whole made entirely of contingent beings cannot itself be necessary, since it is susceptible to change—which a necessary being cannot be.  Someone might say that an inference from the things that make up the universe to the whole universe might be a fallacy of composition, but this cannot be the case, since the universe is an aggregate that contains contingent parts and therefore changes.

Premise 10: The same argument 1-8 reapplied to the universe as contingent. There must be something other than the universe, a necessary being N, which is the ground-reason for the universe.

Premise 11: So there is such a necessary being N which is other than the universe and is its ground-reason.

Premise 12: Bit of a joke. This is a variant of how St. Thomas Aquinas ends each of his Quinque Viae or “Five Ways” of proving the existence of God: “And this everyone understand to be God.”

As a piece of natural theology, the argument from contingency will indeed not get one straight to the Christian God—but then, it isn’t meant to. It will get is to “there is a being other than the universe such that it is the ground-reason for the universe’s existence and is in itself a necessary being, such that it has the ground-reason for its own existence in itself.

From there we can go on to flesh out what other things this entails about such a being: if we work through it will find out it is timeless, spaceless, unchanging, and perfect.

In other words, it is very certainly AT LEAST what Jews, Christians, and Muslims call “God, what Hindus call Brahman, what the Chinese call “The Tao,” what Plato knew as “The Idea of the Good,” Etc.

The argument from contingency isn’t enough to settle the theological question of what God is like, but it is enough to show that atheism is false and agnosticism unwarranted.

Intellectually Dishonest Atheists

As philosopher Edward Feser has pointed out, some atheists are simply not intellectually serious. They may be very ignorant or uneducated, directly dishonest, deeply confused, ill-informed, willfully obtuse, ideologically dogmatic, or just plain stupid; the end result is the same: it is not possible or fruitful to have a serious, rational discussion about God with such people. Here are some red flags which may alert you that you are dealing with an intellectually dishonest or defective atheist:

✅ 1. A persistent inability or refusal to distinguish God from a god or gods. This is a distinction 3 or 4-year-old children can easily grasp, so any atheist who claims not be be able to grasp it is either severely intellectually impaired or lying. In almost all cases, the atheist is simply attempting to conflate God with a god in order to set up a strawman and/or trying to annoy you by belittling God—while ignoring the basic conceptual distinction that all European languages mark by differentiating the word “God” from the word “god” by capitalization. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy explains, in the entry written by atheist philosopher J. J. C. Smart:

‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God. I shall here assume that the God in question is that of a sophisticated monotheism. The tribal gods of the early inhabitants of Palestine are of little or no philosophical interest. They were essentially finite beings, and the god of one tribe or collection of tribes was regarded as good in that it enabled victory in war against tribes with less powerful gods. Similarly the Greek and Roman gods were more like mythical heroes and heroines than like the omnipotent, omniscient and good God postulated in mediaeval and modern philosophy.

Theists have little to no interest in discussing gods, at least not when God is the topic of discussion. If an atheist wants to discuss gods, he is free to do so, but he cannot pretend talk of gods has any bearing on or relevance to a discussion about God.

✅ 1.1 A persistent inability or refusal to distinguish God from such things as imaginary friends, faeries, wizards, spaghetti monsters, Santa Claus, or other fabulous, fictitious, or mythological entities.

✅ 1.2 A persistent habit of paraphrasing religious ideas in ways which are deliberately ludicrous, derisive, or tendentious, e.g. describing the resurrected Christ as “a zombie,” or God as a “sky daddy.”

✅ 1.3 Persistent use of the fallacious “I just believe in one god less than you” rhetorical trope.

✅ 1.4 Persistent use of tendentious and irrelevant rhetorical mischaracterizations of Christianity, e.g. as “Bronze Age mythology.” Christianity, of course, dates from long after the so-called “metallic” ages, in fact from the prime of the Roman Empire, on of humanity’s civilizational high points. And Judaism, its precursor religion, derives almost entirely from the Iron Age up through historical times—not that the age of a teaching has any bearing whatever on its truth-value.

✅ 1.5 Persistent dishonest characterization of God as some kind of “cosmic tyrant” or “cosmic oppressor” (interestingly enough. the position of Satan).

✅ 1.6 Persistent dishonest characterization of God, especially in the Old Testament, as a moral monster.

✅ 1.7 A persistent inability or refusal to distinguish miracles from magic, usually paired with a tendency to attribute magical powers to nature, e.g. in such claims as “the universe created itself out of nothing” or “properties such as consciousness just emerge out of unconscious matter, because they do.”

✅ 2.0 Belief in scientism, the logically incoherent claim that “only scientific knowledge is valid/real/genuine knowledge” or that “only science or the scientific method can establish the truth-value of propositions,” claims which are neither themselves scientific nor established by science, and hence, self-defeating, and which entail such absurdities as “no human being knew anything before Europeans in the 1600s.”

✅ 2.1 Persistent claims that science, which studies physical nature by means of empirical observation and quantitative measurement, has any bearing on the question of the existence of God, who is by definition, beyond nature, not empirical, and not measurable in terms of quantity. Persistent insistence that claims about God must be proven “scientifically” or that any evidence for God must be “scientific” fall into this category.

✅ 2.2 The claim that Galileo Galilei’s run-in with the Roman Catholic Church in 1633 proves (somehow) that there is some kind of natural antipathy between either (a) science and religion, or (b) science and Christianity, or (c) science and Catholicism. This indicates a complete ignorance of the history of the Galileo affair, and is merely a recycled weaponized meme of the early Enlightenment.

✅ 2.3 Use of the non sequitur that the multiplicity of religions proves that no religion is true, either wholly or in part. By this logic, of course, one may also “prove” that no scientific theory is or can be correct, wholly or in part, since there are always rival theories.

✅ 2.4 Claiming or assuming that the atheist, a finite being who is not all-knowing, is not all-powerful, is not all-wise, and is not all-good, nevertheless is in an epistemic position to know with certainty what an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-wise, all-good being would or would not do or have done.

✅ 2.5 The belief the atheist knows the true or real origin of religion in human pre-history, a matter which, since it occurs far in human pre-history, we have no certain knowledge of, but only conjecture.

✅ 2.6 The peculiar belief held by some atheists that their total ignorance with respect to God and divine matters is in fact an infallible indication of their intelligence or wisdom or knowledgeableness precisely about the things about which they know nothing.

✅ 2.7 Repeated assertion of the evidently false claim “there’s no evidence for God.”

✅ 3.0 Persistent use of the burden of proof fallacy, that is, the rhetorical trope which combines an argument from ignorance (“my position is the default position,” i.e. “my position is true until proven false, so I need not argue for it) with special pleading that the atheist be allowed to use arguments to ignorance in support of atheism (i.e. “atheism is true because I am totally ignorant about God or divine matters”).

✅ 3.1 Chronological bigotry, i.e. the absurd belief that human beings who lived prior to (say) Richard Dawkins were one and all somehow mentally inferior to anyone living today, up to and including the greatest minds of the past. This would also include the belief that all human beings in the past were incapable of skepticism or critical thinking, or were somehow exceptionally gullible or credulous in a way we, the Enlightened Moderns, are not.

✅ 3.2 “Arguments” that consist wholly of posting atheist memes, e.g. “Eric the God-Eating Penguin.”

✅ 3.3 “Arguments” that consist of no more than exercises in blasphemy or obscenity.

al-Ghazali and the Apes of Unbelief

al-Ghazali was one of the greatest of the Islamic thinkers. Virtually single-handedly, al-Ghazali brought it about that Islam came to regard mathematics, science, and philosophy with suspicion and hostility. And this, arguably, was what was responsible for what has been called “the closing of the Islamic mind,” and the bringing of the Islamic Golden Age of intellectual inquiry (~950-1150) to its end.

Even today, the Islamic world remains on the whole very hostile to the very idea of science and philosophy—these things seem to be man attempting to fathom the ways of Allah, in a way which is blasphemous and impious, as well as absurd and ridiculous. What man can fathom the mind of God? What man would be so presumptuous?

The Muslim world likes technology—because these things may easily be regarded as gifts from Allah. Muslims tend to deny any strong causal link between developed theoretical science and technological development. If you assert that there is one, you will be told (correctly) that correlation does not entail causation. Muslims are, or tend to be, Humeans (or more precisely, Hume is a Ghazalite or Ash ̔arite, al-Ghazali following al Ash ̔ari on this crucial point) that

  1. Correlation does not establish causation.
  2. All attempts to establish causation do so by means of correlation.
  3. ∴ Causation can never be established.
  4. ∴ There is no evidence for causation.
  5. ∴ Natural cause and effect are fictions of the mind.

Hume taught that “cause and effect” was not a reality, but a mere psychological habit the human mind has of connecting things. It followed that all or most of human science was not grounded in reason, but it an irrational and unjustifiable psychological prejudice. So Hume ended up in a deep and almost total skepticism.

al Ghazali applies Ockham’s Razor centuries before Ockham and notes (correctly) that the most parsimonious explanation of seeming regularity in the world, or what some call “nature,” is simply a single cause: the omnipotent will of Allah. One cannot get more parsimonious than one and only one cause.

So it follows that there is simply no such thing as “nature.” There are no second-order causes that operate apart from the will of Allah. It is not the case that paper placed in fire will burn because the fire consumes it.  Fire has no power to cause anything, including burning—what happens is, when paper is place into fire, Allah may (or may not) cause the paper to be burnt. Every event, bar none, is caused directly by the will of Allah. The word “nature” is not the name of anything. There is no such thing as nature. The very idea of “nature” and therefore of “natural sciences” rests on a mistake, namely, that there is an order of causation that is independent of the will of Allah. But this cannot be so, so it is not so.

It is a strange argument for most Westerners, given their understanding that “nature” was the great discover of the Greeks that allows the very possibility of philosophy and science. But it isn’t entirely foreign to the Western tradition either. As I’ve already noted, William of Ockham taught just such a an occasionalism conception in which God is the single cause of all events; and David Hume took philosophers and scientists to task for believing their concept of “cause and effect” was a rational one, as opposed to a merely irrational habit of associating two things in the mind.

al-ghazali

As new and radical as the insights of Ockham and Hume seemed in their own day, they were only following in the footsteps of al Ghazali. Here are some of his words.

As a thought experiment, when you read al-Ghazali’s words below, replace “mathematics” and “mathematician” with “science” and “scientist” respectively:

Mathematics comprises the knowledge of calculation, geometry, and cosmography: it has no connection with the religious sciences, and proves nothing for or against religion; it rests on a foundation of proofs which, once known and understood, cannot be refuted. Mathematics tend, however, to produce two bad results.

The first is this: Whoever studies this science admires the subtlety and clearness of proofs. His confidence in philosophy increases, and he thinks that all its departments are capable of of the same clearness and solidity of proof as mathematics. But when he hears people speak of the unbelief and impiety of mathematicians, of their professed disregard for the Divine Law, which is notorious … he says to himself that, if there was truth in religion, it would not have escaped those who have displayed so much keenness of intellect in the study of mathematics.

Next, when he becomes aware of the unbelief and rejection of religion on the part of these learned men, he concludes that to reject religion is reasonable. How many of such men gone astray I have met whose sole argument was that just mentioned. And supposing one puts the following objection: “It does not follow that a man who excels in one branch of knowledge excels in all others, nor that he should be equally versed in jurisprudence, theology, and medicine. It is possible to be entirely ignorant of metaphysics, and yet to be an excellent grammarian. There are past masters in every science who are entirely ignorant of other branches of knowledge. The arguments of the ancient philosophers are rigidly demonstrative in mathematics and only conjectural in religious questions. In order to ascertain this one must proceed to a thorough examination of the matter.” Supposing, I say, one make the above objection to these ‘apes of unbelief,’ they find it distasteful. Falling a prey to their passions, to a besotted vanity, and the wish to pass for learned men, they persist in maintaining the preeminence of mathematicians in all branches of knowledge. This is a serious evil, and for this reason those who study mathematics should be checked from going too far in their researches. For though far removed as it may be from the things of religion, this study, serving as it does as an introduction to the philosophic systems, casts over religion its malign influence. It is rarely that a man devotes himself to it without robbing himself of his faith and casting off the restraints of religion.

Now tell me: has he missed the mark?

Atheistic Arguments

Something that doesn’t get a lot of attention today are actual atheistic arguments, arguments for the position “God does not exist.” This is the result of an odd situation that occurred in the mid-20th century in which atheists essentially did two things:
(1) they admitted their position could not be defended and gave up trying to do so, and
(2) they still did not abandon their indefensible position, but instead shifted their position to a much more defensible one, agnosticism—except they did not do this honestly and openly, but redefined ‘agnosticism’ and ‘atheism’ so that they two words are now supposed to mean essentially the same thing (despite the fact that ‘agnosticism’ had been coined in explicit contradistinction to atheism, and also despite the fact that the loud atheist minority did not bother to ask permission of the agnostics before forcibly co-opting their identity).

What are the arguments that God does not exist? How strong are they? There are only four, to my knowledge, and if you suspect they are not very strong, given that atheists themselves recognized their complete failure, you would be correct.

1. The Argument from Evil. The argument from evil makes the case that the amount of evil in the world is sufficient to be incompatible with an all-good, omniscient, omnipotent God. It essentially says that such a God would not permit evil, and would have the means to do away with evil, but since there is evil, no such God exists. The argument from evil is the most powerful of the atheistic arguments because it makes a very powerful emotional appeal. In grief, suffering, and loss, human beings are apt to demand of God “Why?”—and taking the pain and incomprehension a step further, one can go on to conclude that a good God would never allow such a painful or horrible thing as X (whatever X is) to happen.

Logically the argument does not have much force. First, it is important to note that human reckoning of evil and horror tends to drop off very sharply with time. No one gets worked up about the Magyar invasions of Europe in the 9th century, and screams “Why???” at God. The problem with emotional reasoning is that it over-prioritizes things that matter to you, personally. The reason that the argument from evil logically breaks down is that the premise “An all-good God would not permit evil” can be defeated simply by denying it in favor of the the premise “An all-good God would not permit evil without sufficient justification.” Then the argument from evil turns on whether or not God has sufficient justification for permitting the evil that He does permit. So the argument from evil requires that the following premise be established: “An all-good, omniscient, omnipotent God would not permit the amount of evil that actually does exist in the world.”

It should be obvious with a moment’s reflection that, in order to establish this needed premise to be true, one would have to be in a position to evaluate the actions of an all-good, omniscient, omnipotent God.  One would, that is, have to be oneself both all-good and omniscient.  And any argument that stands on a premise that requires omniscience and omnibenevolence to support it is going to fail.  All the argument from evil can do is attempt to elicit an emotional agreement to this premise, that it can no way establish to be true except on the basis of “feeling” it to be so.

But of course many Christians and other theists “feel” that God exists, so the atheist cannot allow premises to be established on the basis of feelings.

2. The Argument to Parsimony, or the Appeal to Ockham’s Razor.  This argument holds that God is explanatorily unnecessary in the order of nature, and therefore does not exist. It is typified by the response of Laplace to Napoleon, when asked by him as to the place of God in his system of Newtonian physics: “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.”

A child should be able to see that this argument, logically speaking, is a non sequitur. From the fact that God is not required as an explanatory principle, it simply does not follow that God does not exist. The argument is simply invalid.

It should also be said, however, that the premise that God is explanatorily unnecessary is dubious—it is perhaps true that God is explanatorily unnecessary within physics, but it very possibly and even likely is the case that God is explanatorily necessary to explain nature and the possibility of physics—that is, to address what is sometimes called the question of being: Why does anything at all exist, and not rather nothing?

3. The Argument from Self-Contradiction.  Some atheists have argued that the concept of God is self-contradictory, and since nothing self-contradictory can be, God cannot exist. The problem with this argument is that it at most succeeds in showing that “God” cannot exist when “God” is defined in a self-contradictory manner. But no one has ever succeeded in showing that classical philosophical definitions or understandings of God are contradictory.

4. The Argument to an Alternate Explanation of the Concept of God.  This argument takes the form of

  1. X is a possible alternate explanation of why people might believe in God other than God existing.
  2. Therefore, God does not exist.

As with the Argument to Parsimony, this is an obvious non sequitur. It was popular in the 19th and early 20th century, being deployed by the likes of e.g. Marx and Freud.  Freud, for example, argued that belief in God arises in human beings as a kind of wish-fulfillment.

Without getting into the details of Freud’s speculations—which are questionable at best—one can merely reply with “So what?”  The human belief (at one time) that it would be possible to construct devices to allow human beings to fly was certainly partly grounded in a wish to fly.  That fact has absolutely no bearing on the fact that it is possible, according to the laws of physics, to build airplanes.  Today many people have a wish for spaceships that can travel interstellar distances in short times. Our science fiction writers dream about “warp drive” or “hyperspace” travel. Does our wish to explore the universe have any bearing on whether or not this is possible, according to the laws of physics? Not that I can tell. Why would it? Many of us wish for peace on earth, or for the number of murders and rapes in the world to be zero. Do our wishes for these things entail that they cannot be? Everyone who plays the lottery (I assume) wishes to win. Does the fact that every player wishes to win demonstrate that it is impossible for anyone to win the lottery? Or in team sports, fans wish for the team they support to win. Does that wish demonstrate no team will or can possibly win? How would it?

The point, of course, is that at the end of the day, the fact that something has its origins at least partially in desire or wish has no logical bearing on the truth of the matter.  One can make a rather powerful argument on Freudian grounds that atheism arises as a kind of human wish fulfillment: the human wish to be autonomous and free of any binding normative obligations and especially the wish to be free of judgment and punishment for wrongdoing.  It is rather difficult to see how wish fulfillment can account for the traditional, orthodox Christian belief in Hell, but it is extremely easy to see how atheistic disbelief in Hell could arise from wish fulfillment:

feseratheismhell

There are the only four arguments for atheism that I’m aware of. And they are all logically unsound.

I do not count the Evidentialist Argument here, because it is not, properly speaking, an atheistic argument, but an agnostic one.  Framed as an atheistic argument, it would run

  1. If there is insufficient evidence to establish that X exists, X does not exist.
  2. There is insufficient evidence to establish that God exists.
  3. ∴ God does not exist.

So framed, it is valid, but Premise 2 is highly contestable to the point of being almost certainly false, and even if it were not, even if it were true, Premise 1 is obviously false. This can be seen invoking such things as intelligent alien life in other galaxies.  We certainly do not have sufficient evidence to establish that such a thing exists.  But how would that be evidence that intelligent alien life does not exist, much less prove that it does not? We have insufficient evidence that faster than light travel technology can exist; is that evidence that, necessarily, it cannot exist? We had insufficient evidence that coelacanths did not go extinct 65 million years ago—until some fishermen caught one.

The problem here is that both “the evidence we have” and “what counts as evidence” are not static.

The Evidentialist Argument is somewhat stronger when used to argue that we do not have sufficient evidence to warrant or justify a belief in the existence of God—while openly acknowledging that this situation, even if it is the case, in no way demonstrates the nonexistence of God.

Even here, though, the Evidentialist Argument always seems to involve a kind of question-begging circularity.  It begins by postulating certain criteria as evidentially sufficient, and then goes on to show how God does not meet the postulated criteria.  The argument proceeds in way almost logically identical to the Argument from Self-Contradiction, except in this case, instead of offering a definition of God which is self-contradictory, and proceeding from there to show that the offered self-contradictory definition is, unsurprisingly, self-contradictory, the evidentialist strategy is to specify evidentiary criteria upon which God will be found to be insufficiently evidenced, and then to go on to show that, on such criteria, God is, unsurprisingly, insufficiently evidenced.  The problem here is that this seems very much like a trick—and it is a trick that anyone can play.  It is trivially easy for a clever person to, for example, show that science is insufficiently evidenced—one would only need to “pull a Hume” and attack the various unjustified assumptions that all science makes, e.g. in the reality of cause and effect, in the uniformity of nature, in the intelligibility of nature, in the reliability of reason, etc.

This is the kind of argument I refer to as a Vorpal Sword Argument: it will indeed succeed in disproving what you are trying to disprove, in a sense, but this is because it can succeed in disproving anything whatever. A vorpal sword can kill anything—and it does not care who wields it against what.  Atheists, and anyone else for that matter, should think twice before legitimizing arguments that can be turned on any and all positions alike, including theirs.

Okay, so much for the arguments for atheism roundup.  See you next time.

John Ballie on “The Top of Our Minds”

Do we really need to take atheists seriously when they claim not to have any knowledge or experience of God? Professor John Baillie argues we do not.

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“The Top of Our Minds”

by theologian John Baillie

In his celebrated essay Of Atheism, Francis Bacon asserts that ‘atheism is rather in the lip than in the heart of man’. That it is not in his heart I have already contended; but I think we must allow that it is not only in his lip but also in his head. There are undoubtedly some men among us who not only say but also think that they are utterly devoid of all religious belief and feeling, including belief in God …. Nevertheless there have been and are some men who wold apply the term ‘atheist’ to themselves and would do so, as we must believe, with some real meaning. There are men who think they do not believe in God …. The question then arises whether men may be mistaken concerning their own beliefs. Is it possible to hold that those who do not think they believe in God really do believe in Him?

The question has been investigated in an essay which I, in common with many others, have regarded ever since I first read it as one of the most important theological documents of our time—I mean the paper on ‘Rational Grounds for Belief in God’ which was read by the late Professor Cook Wilson to an Oxford society … Cook Wilson answers the question with a confident affirmative. He is able to produce many examples of knowledge which men have possessed without being aware that they possessed it, and even while expressly denying their possession of it—cases in which ‘it is not merely that we have not become aware of a necessary element in our thinking, but we have actually denied that we have it at all’. He therefore concludes that the fact that some people ‘think they have no direct experience or knowledge of God’ is quite compatible with the hypothesis of ‘His direct presence in their consciousness’. ‘The true business of philosophy’, he submits, ‘is to bring the belief to a consciousness of itself.’

What we have here to do with is thus a special case of the familiar distinction between consciousness and sub-consciousness. All belief must in some sense be conscious—unconscious beings cannot entertain beliefs—but not all belief need be conscious of itself. We may have an awareness of a certain reality without being aware of that awareness. And we may therefore, without ceasing to be aware of such a reality, set about doubting and denying its existence—and that in all good faith. There have been people, so-called solipsists, who denied the existence of everything and everybody except their own selves. But are we, who believe in the existence of other selves, therefore obliged to allow that these other selves are not really and directly present to the consciousness of the solipsists? There have been other people, so-called subjective idealists, who denied the independent existence of the external world. But are we others, who believe in an external world which is objectively presented to our consciousness, therefore obliged to allow that it is NOT so presented to the consciousness of the subjective idealists? We should not dream of allowing these things. Why then should we, who believe in God, think it necessary to allow that because some men, the so-called atheists, deny the existence of God, God cannot therefore be directly present to their consciousness as He is to ours? We should say that the solipsists and subjective idealists are as conscious of their neighbors and of the world about them as we are, but they have been misled by false and confused philosophical argumentation into a meaningless (though doubtless quite sincere) intellectual denial of their existence. We should say that though they deny the reality of their neighbors and of the world about them with THE TOP OF THEIR MINDS, they believe in them all the time in the bottom of their hearts. Why then should we be precluded from occupying the same ground with regard to the so-called atheists? There have even—and this, unlike the others which I have mentioned, is one of Cook Wilson’s examples—been people like Hume who denied the reality of their own selves …. For we who do believe in the reality of our own selves would not only refuse to allow that Hume’s self was not real; we should also refuse to allow that Hume was not conscious of its reality; the most we would allow being that he was not conscious of being conscious of it—that he had argued himself into an intellectual denial of a self-consciousness which actually was every whit as fully developed in him as it is in the rest of us.

It may possibly be objected that the case of the atheists is not entirely parallel to that of the solipsists and subjective idealists or of skeptics like Hume, in that these do not deny their acquaintance with the experiences which we others interpret as involving the direct presence of our fellow men and the external world, or of our own self-hood, but only deny the correctness of the ordinary interpretations of them. I should hold, however, that exactly the same thing is true of the atheistical denial of the direct presence of God. The Christian believer may indeed often be found pointing to experiences which he claims to have had and which the unbeliever can truly say that he has never had; but I am sure the commoner case is that the believer finds God in experiences which the unbeliever would equally claim to have had, but which seem to him susceptible of a purely humanistic or naturalistic interpretation. The believer finds in the most familiar experiences of life a meaning and a presence which the unbeliever does not find in them; and it is on this basis alone that he is able to proceed to those further experiences which the unbeliever cannot have at all.

Three Steps to Orthodox Christianity

The question of the relation of reason and revelation has occupied some of the greatest thinkers in the Christian tradition, as well as in the Judaic and Islamic theological traditions.

I wanted to be clear with my readers what I understand to be the relationship between human reason or philosophy and the Christian faith, by which I mean the orthodox Christian faith in general (“little-o orthodox”) and Orthodox Christianity specifically, since I am Orthodox.

Step One: Reason and Natural Theology. I hold that human reason alone, that is, philosophy—and more specifically, sound metaphysics—is sufficient to demonstrate the existence of God understood very broadly, as i.e. ἡ ἀρχή τῇς οὐσίας, the ground of Being.  When I speak of ‘God’ in this sense, that of natural theology, I take myself to be referring not only to what Christians call ‘God,’ (θεός, Deus), what the Jews call YHWH (יהוה), what the Muslims call Allah (الله), but also to what Plato is refers to as ἡ ἰδέα του ἀγαθού or the Idea of the Good (“beyond Being, exceeding it in dignity and power”), what Aristotle refers to as the unmoved mover, what the Stoics refer to as the Λόγος, the Chinese as the Tao (道), Vedantic Hinduism as Brahman (ब्रह्म), the Zoroastrians as Ahura Mazda (اهورا مزدا ), Fiche, Schelling, and Hegel as The Absolute, etc .As far as I am concerned, all these are names for one and the same, that which is the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the highest and deepest.

[NOTE ON BUDDHISM: Buddhism is a strange case.  It is worth noting the Buddha clearly and explicitly teaches that “There is an Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed. Were there not this Unborn, Unoriginated, Uncreated, Unformed, there would be no escape from the world of the born, originated, created, formed”—Buddhism seems to reject the idea of God under the headings of Brahma or Īśvara, but what the Buddha is rejecting seems to be a degenerate concept of Brahman that was prevalent in his time, much as the original concept of God as θεός degenerated among the Greeks merely to Sdeus or Zeus, and kind of Sky-Father god or “king of the gods”. I have found that Buddhists frequently mistake the God of Christianity for that which the Buddha rejects under the name of Īśvara; however, I believe that they have radically misunderstood the orthodox Christian teaching on this point.]

Step Two: The Strongest λόγος. Socrates teaches that human beings, not being gods, cannot have the perfect possession of truth by their own efforts. As beings essentially defined by λόγος (speech/reason, discursivity) human wisdom consists in open inquiry and to always follow the strongest λόγος and where the λόγος leads. My view is that, given the above essentially universal theistic agreement concerning many aspects of the Absolute, the question turns to their differences, not only in their accounts (λόγοι) of what the Absolute is LIKE but also the various accounts they give of the human condition, the nature of the world, and man’s place in the world and in relation to God/the Absolute.  Here, I think the case can be made that the Christian account proves to be strongest λόγος, that is, it provides the account of all things which both best conforms exemplifies the divine nature and best accounts for the state of man and the world.  It is, for example, evident to me that it is a greater perfection to be a WHO than a mere WHAT, which leads me to reject any conception of the Absolute that is impersonal, or a mere ‘Force’—similarly the Christian account of the divine personhood and the divine essence as being LOVE (ἀγάπη) is the only conception that adequate to the divine nature.  It would be a long and complicated matter to lay out why I hold the Christian λόγος to be the strongest λόγος concerning God, man, and the world, but I want to emphasize that here we are not entirely beyond the reach of reason. To reach Christianity, a leap of faith is required, as Kierkegaard rightly taught and (over?) emphasized—but it is not a blind leap of faith; philosophically it may be regarded as one of the most rational procedures which one commonly finds in all science: an argument to the best explanation.

Step Three: Becoming a Christian.  If and when one ventures a leap of faith into Christian belief, one is not left untransformed by this. As crude as the “born again” talk of some fundamentalist Protestants is, this is trying to name something absolutely fundamental, that entrance into the Christian faith, primarily by the mystery of Baptism, is rebirth, a new birth, in which one dies to oneself only to live again in a new and changed way. Becoming a Christian is not merely an adoption of a certain set of beliefs, but is an ontological change at the deepest level of one’s being.  It is on this side, the other side of the leap of faith, that one learns that the leap was fully and totally justified (although it was a reasonable leap beforehand).  There is simply no adequate way of explaining this to one who has not yet become a Christian—including those who are merely nominal Christians, those whom the Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain termed ‘practical atheists’—for the are atheists in their praxis.  I wanted a rational and satisfactory explanation of the nature of reality, and I got much more than I could ever have expected or guessed.  As I have said to many atheists—and this seems to annoy them, which does not bother me—before I had encountered God for myself, I had not thought there could be anything more certain that the Cartesian cogito sum, the “I think; I am”, the absolute certainty I have of my own existence.  Why possible evidence or argument could one present to me that could persuade me that I do not exist? The idea seems absurd, self-contradictory. How could one even try to convince ME that I do not exist? And yet, although I still hold this to be the case, that I am absolutely certain that I exist, the certainty I have of God’s existence is still more absolute.  I am aware that saying things like “more certain than absolute certainty” sounds paradoxical. Indeed, in saying such a thing I perhaps begin to sound not like a philosopher, but a mystic. Well and good. There is simply no other way to talk about God, however inadequate this is. Socrates was not ashamed to utter the speech that the Good “is beyond Being, exceeding it in dignity and power,” and even though I say with Descartes, and with absolute certainty, “I think; I am!” this certainty is but a dim shadowy image of the eternal I AM.

This is my account of the three steps that led me to theism, to Christianity as seen from without, and finally to Christianity as seen from within.