THE EXISTENCE OF GOD
A. The Meaning of �Existence� of
There are theists and atheists
alike who believe that it is meaningless to speak of the existence of God.
For them the word �existence� can only refer to something in the
spatial‑temporal world. For the naturalist‑atheist who believes that such a
world is all there is, a supranatural being is easy to reject. There are also
some believers who contend that to talk of God’s existence is to offend the
majesty of the deity, whose nature goes far beyond the physical world.
Alstaire McKinnon has defended
this approach using a basic insight from Ludwig Wittgenstein. In his
Philosophical Investigations Wittgenstein states: �There is one thing of
which one can say neither that it is one meter long, nor that it is not one
meter long, and that is the standard meter in Paris.�1 If the
standard meter existed, then it too must have a standard to which its meter
length is measured. But this leads to a vicious infinite regress of
standards. Therefore the standard meter neither exists nor not exists.
McKinnon argues similarly that the predicate �existence� cannot apply to God,
therefore God neither exists nor not exists.2
The theologian Paul Tillich
maintains that God is the �Ground of Being,� and therefore God cannot be an
existing being like the finite things which depend upon God for their
existence. For Tillich to argue for the existence of God ultimately plays
into the hands of the atheist, who can easily show that there is no divine
being in the world which we can investigate empirically. As McKinnon points
out, the Apostles’ Creed starts with faith in God, not the philosophical
problem of the existence of God.
There is, however, something
wrong with the comparison of God to the standard meter, which has only a
�formal� existence by virtue of its being invented by human beings. This is
precisely the type of existence which atheists are quite willing to ascribe to
God: a purely formal existence invented in the minds of pious believers.
Formal existence is then a second type of existence of which we can speak
meaningfully. The �laws of the land� surely exist, but not in any
spatial‑temporal way, i.e., existing in the law books, but only formally
existing. Like the standard meter, the laws of the land are conventional,
human‑made. One might say that numbers and the laws of nature have a formal
existence which is independent of human agency, but this is still a
controversial issue in the philosophy of science.
In addition to spatial‑temporal
and formal existence, we can also talk about �metaphysical� existence.
Naturalists‑atheists are usually suspicious of metaphysics, but even they have
to admit that they are firmly committed to an ontology, albeit a materialist
one. Matter is just as much a metaphysical concept as mind or spirit. We,
therefore, propose that matter, energy, subatomic particles, minds, souls, and
God may have metaphysical existence. Admittedly, there is a difference between
the existence of a neutrino, of which we have a high degree of confidence, and
the existence of souls or God; but each of these entities, if they do exist,
exist in a way which is decidedly not spatial‑temporal and not perceptible.
Energy‑events are essentially non‑material and imperceptible; therefore, with
regard to their type of existence, there is not a difference of kind between
energy‑events and God. There is, however, a different of degree of certainty
that such things as souls and God really exist.
Mortimer Adler phrases the
preceding point excellently: �If modern scientists can legitimately and
validly deal with objects that lie wholly outside the range of ordinary or
common experience because they cannot be directly perceived by us, and are
able to do so by means of notions that are theoretical constructs rather than
empirical concepts, then theologians cannot be dismissed as being engaged in
illegitimate and invalid speculation when they also deal with objects that lie
outside the range of ordinary or common experience….�3
The Ontological Argument (OA)
The Ontological Argument (OA)
is so named because the argument (logos) attempts to go from the idea
of God to the being or reality (ontos) of God. It has no direct bearing
on the ontological problems involved in materialism, dualism, mentalism, etc.
� except that materialists generally do not accept any concept of God.
Important exceptions to this are believers like Thomas Jefferson and Ben
Franklin, who were materialists and theists at the same time.
The ontological argument is
usually first attributed to St. Anslem in the llth century C.E. M. P. Slattery
argues that there is already a form of this argument in Parmenides in the
sixth century B.C.E.4 Actually there are two forms of the
argument–the positive and the negative� and the entire history of philosophy
can be seen as an response to these implicit arguments in Parmenides.
Parmenides assumes this axiom: One cannot know that �which is not,� for �the
same thing exists for thinking (noesis) and for being (to on)� (Frag.
#2). To think and to know is to think and to know being. But this being
cannot be many, it cannot change, it cannot move; because all of this would
involve the concept of non‑being, which is an impossible concept. This is the
�negative� ontological argument.
Therefore, being must be one,
immovable, immutable, imperishable, indivisible. Anything less than this
perfect absolute would be a contradiction, i.e., an admission of non‑being.
This is Parmenides’ �positive� ontological argument. To think of anything
apart from the absolute is to think a contradiction. To put it more precisely,
one cannot think of anything except the absolute, because noesis and
to on are the same. The negative argument denies the reality of our
sensible world of change, movement, finitude, and generation. The One cannot
come into being and go out of being. That would involve saying that it is and
yet it is not, and this is impossible according to Parmenides’ fundamental
If one surveys the
characteristics of the Parmenidean One, one will readily observe that they
correspond to the absolute being the Christian West has called �God.� There
are three important changes however: (1) the One is impersonal, but the
Christian God is personal; (2) the One is finite, but the orthodox God is
infinite; and (3) the Christian God is a Creator. Parmenides did not need to
prove the existence of the One; Christian theologians, however, did. A
standard formulation of the Christian ontological argument is: �I have a
concept of a perfect being. A perfect being cannot lack any perfection of
being. Existence is a perfection of being. Therefore this perfect being must
exist.� Note the logical coincidence of the conception (noesis) of and
the existence (to on) of the perfect being.
Formulations of the OA
The formulation of the OA
mentioned above is not considered very good, primarily because of the semantic
difficulties involved in talking about �perfection.� The following formulation
tries a different tactic.
1. God is the greatest
conceivable being (GCB).
2. The GCB at least exists
intramentally (in the mind).
3. But it is conceivable to
think of the GCB existing extramentally as well as intramentally. (In other
words, God is a possible being.)
4. But the being existing
intramentally only would not be the GCB.
5. Therefore the GCB must exist
in reality as well as in the mind.
An objection to this form of
the OA has been presented in the form of a reductio ad absurdum. One
can easily think of the greatest conceivable island, mountain, river, person,
and then automatically draw the existence of such imaginary entities out of
the hat. Supporters of the OA, however, claim that the idea of God is unique
in that it implies a necessarily existing being. An island, a mountain, a
river, etc. may not exist, no matter what degrees of perfection one might
conceive of them. This means that these entities are contingent, not
necessary, beings. A contingent being is a being whose non‑existence is
conceivable. God as a necessary being is a being whose non‑existence is
inconceivable. This necessary existence is implied in the logic of the idea of
Among contemporary formulations
of the OA, William Rowe’s is one of the more instructive.5 It is
presented as a reductio ad absurdum.
1. God exists in the
2. God might have existed in
reality. (God is a possible being.)
3. If something exists only in
the understanding and might have existed in reality, then it might have been
greater than it is.
4. Suppose God exists only in
5. God might have been greater
than he is (by 2, 3, & 4).
6. God is a being than which a
greater is possible.
7. The being than which none
greater is possible is a being which a greater is possible. (reductio ad
8. It is false that God exists
only in the understanding.
9. God exists in reality as
well as in the understanding (by 1, 8).
Critics concentrate on premise
#2: Is God really a possible being? For example, in the series of integersC1,
2, 3, 4, and so on � there can always be a greater integer. �Therefore,� as
Rowe says, �the positive integer than which none larger is possible in an
But the supporter of the OA
could respond that God is not like the greatest possible integer, but he is
like the greatest possible angle, which cannot exceed four right angles. The
angle than which none larger is possible is indeed a possible object. The
critic may respond by saying: �What stops us from revolving through a circle
ad infinitum?� We could modify the analogy of the greatest possible
angle so that we could not always have a greater angle. Observe these figures:
In (a) we have a solid angle.
We can conceive of a solid angle greater than this one, but if we carry that
thought out, we eventually wind up with the case shown in (b). It is a whole
solid angle. It is that angle than which none larger can be thought of; it is
a perfect �piece of pie.� This example would seem to be the correct use of the
angle analogy which would be less prone to the objections of the
mathematician. (From Jim Moy, Phil 305 �star� student.)
The Cosmological Argument (CA)
William H. Halverson formulates
the CA in the following way:
1. Some contingent beings
2. Contingent beings require a
non‑contingent ground in order to exist. (Richard Taylor: to deny this is to
go against both common‑sense intuition and scientific claims.)
3. Hence, a non‑contingent,
i.e., necessary being (God), exists.6
Rem B. Edwards presents the
argument in this manner:
1. Some contingent things
2. An extended series of causes
on which these contingent things depend also exists.
3. Either this entire series of
causes is contingent, or it is necessary.
4. The entire series of causes
is not necessary.
5. If the entire series is
contingent, then there is a necessary being.
6. This necessary being is
God. Hence, there is a necessary being called God.7
�Naturalists� deny the fourth
premise; theists affirm it. Nature, according to the naturalist position, is
a self‑sufficient whole in no need of extra �support� for its being. Edwards
explains the naturalist position: �Events within the world may be contingent,
but the world is necessary.�8 Edwards claims to the contrary that
if the parts of nature are contingent, then the whole of nature is contingent.
Who is right?
The Fallacy of Composition
Critics of the cosmological
argument contend that Edwards’ last claim commits the logical fallacy of
composition: viz., it is fallacious to reason that just because parts of a
whole have a certain property that the whole must have that property.
Naturalists observe that just because the myriad parts of a machine are light,
does not mean that the machine as a whole is light. Edwards counters this with
an observation that this relationship does not always obtain. His example is:
all the parts of the machine are made of metal; therefore, the machine is made
of metal. Edwards claims that his form of the cosmological argument follows
this model and therefore commits no fallacy. If each of the parts of any whole
is contingent, then the whole itself is contingent.
1. Each of the parts of nature
2. Therefore, nature as a whole
3. And therefore needs a
non‑contingent ground for its existence.
Edwards claims that this
formulation refutes the naturalists’ claim of the self‑sufficiency, or
necessity, of nature as a whole. Edwards’ example of metal parts of a metal
machine is to be preferred as an analogy to the contingent parts of the
universe. There is nothing in contingent things that would make a simple sum
of them non‑contingent.
The Principle of Sufficient
One of the most attractive
formulations of the CA appeals to the principle of sufficient reason, a
principle which is not only crucial for philosophy and theology but common
sense as well. The principle has two parts: There must be an explanation (a)
of the existence of any being, and (b) of any collection of beings whatever.
If we are to explain the existence of something, it seems that we have three
alternatives: (1) The thing is explained in terms of another. Such a thing
would be a contingent thing. (2) The thing is explained by itself. Such a
thing would be a self‑existent or necessary being. (3) A thing is explained by
nothing. Such a thing might be called a �brute fact.� Theists believe that
such a thing is impossible. As St. Anselm states: �It is utterly
inconceivable that what is something should exist through nothing.�9
Some might be tempted to say
that there is no difference between the second and third types of explanation.
It might be said that for something to explain itself is just as mysterious as
for something to be explained by nothing. The following analogy, however,
indicates clearly the conceptual difference between the two. A friend of mine
speeds into my driveway in his new VW Rabbit. I am really impressed by the
car’s performance and I ask to see the engine. To my surprise I find three
fairies on a treadwheel. Obviously, this �fairy� engine does not give a
sufficient reason for the acceleration of the car. There might as well have
been nothing under the hood. Alternatively, let us say that I find an engine
which does not need refueling, an engine which will run forever. While both
of these alternatives are quite fanciful, they show a clear difference between
something being caused by nothing and something as a cause of itself.
Therefore a car which never needs refueling is a good analogue for
comprehending the idea of a self‑existent being.
I now offer William L. Rowe’s
formulation of the CA using the principle of sufficient reason (PSR).10
1. Every being (that exists or
ever did exist) is either a dependent being or a self‑existent being (by PSRa).
2. Not every being can be a
dependent being (by PSRb).
3. There exists a self‑existent
One could conceive of an
infinite circle of dependent beings each causing the other and therefore
fulfilling the conditions of PSRa. But the whole collection of things would
beg the question of its existence and therefore not fulfill PSRb. Thus a
self‑existent being must exist in order to fulfill the complete demands of the
The non‑believer has two
options: 1. She can accept the existence of a self‑existent being and refuse
to call it God. One need not accept Edward’s conclusions from the previous
section and simply declare nature itself necessary and self‑sufficient. 2. The
non‑believer can argue that the PSR has only a socio‑psychological basis: it
is only human desire which seeks ultimate explanations for things. The
universe is simply a brute fact which has no explanation. But Richard Taylor
argues that this position goes against common sense and also the traditional
scientific understanding of the universe.
Three Versions of the CA from
�The first…way is the
argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the
world some things are in motion. Now whatever is moved is moved by another,
for nothing can be moved except it is in potentiality to that towards which it
is moved; whereas a thing moves inasmuch as it is in action. For motion is
nothing else than the reduction of something from potentiality to actuality,
except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot,
as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby
moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same things should be at
once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different
respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot;
but is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the
same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e.,
that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is moved must be moved by
another. If that by which it is moved be itself moved, then this also must
needs be moved by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on
to infinity because then there would be no first mover; as the staff moves
only because it is moved by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a
first mover, moved by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.
�The second way is from the
nature of efficient cause. In the world of sensible things we find there is an
order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed,
possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for
so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible. Now in efficient causes
it is not possible to go on to infinity, because in all efficient causes
following in order, the first is the cause of the intermediate cause, and the
intermediate is the cause of the ultimate cause, whether the intermediate
cause be several, or one only. Now to take away the cause is to take away the
effect. Therefore, if there be no first cause among efficient causes, there
will be no ultimate, nor any intermediate, cause. But if in efficient causes
it is possible to go on to infinity, there will be no first efficient cause,
neither will there be an ultimate effect, nor any intermediate efficient
causes; all of which is plainly false. Therefore it is necessary to admit a
first efficient cause, to which everyone gives the name God.
�The third way is taken from
possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are
possible to be; and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to be
corrupted, and consequently, it is possible for them to be and not to be. But
it is impossible for these always to exist, for that which cannot‑be at some
time is not. Therefore, if everything cannot‑be, then at one time there was
nothing in existence. Now if this were true, even now there would be nothing
in existence, because that which does not exist begins to exist only through
something already existing. Therefore, if at one time nothing was in
existence, it would have been impossible for anything to have begun to exist;
and thus even now nothing would be in existence � which is absurd. Therefore,
not all beings are merely possible, but there must exist something the
existence of which is necessary. But every necessary thing either has its
necessity caused by another, or not. Now it is impossible to go on to
infinity in necessary things which have their necessity caused by another, as
has been already proved in regard to efficient causes. Therefore we cannot
but admit the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and
not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity.
This all men speak of as God.�
The central weakness in
Aquinas’ first two �ways� is that he implies that God stands as the first
cause in the whole string of causes. The dual ideas of mover and maker
(efficient cause) misleads us into thinking that God causes things to be in
the same way that other things cause each other. These conceptions are
ultimately not compatible with the idea of God at all.
If God exists, God will have a formal‑logical relationship to the
universe. Such a relationship is currently expressed in the distinction
between �reasons� and �causes.� For example, in an institution like a
university, the janitor is the efficient cause of the mop moving down the
floor, but the university president is not the efficient cause of classes
meeting at half past the hour. Such conventions are �reasons� not �causes,�
and they have a formal‑logical relationship with the things which happen
according to them. Therefore, only the contingency argument escapes the trap
of making God into an actual mover or maker. The contingency argument,
especially as it is formulated by Rowe, is the only formulation which is
immune from the objection of infinite regress.
The Teleological Argument (TA):
The Design Argument
First Formulation (after W. P.
Alston, The Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
1. The world exhibits
teleological order (design, adaptation).
2. Therefore, this order was
produced by an intelligent designer.
In this argument it is
important to make a distinction between �causal� order, which plays a part in
the CA, and �teleological� order. Also �aesthetic� order, which is sometimes
included in the TA, is different from teleological order. Therefore, the
appeal to the starry heavens is not an appeal to telos, but simply to
an awe‑inspiring and aesthetically pleasing sight. In other words, the heavens
do not exhibit prima facie design or specific adaptation. Teleological order
is a causal order that intends or gives a specific result; it is one that
exhibits design, i.e., means ordered to ends. If this distinction is not made
then we face the embarrassing fact that much causal order (e.g., the wind
blowing loose soil) does not exhibit design. The teleological order then must
result in an end that has recognized �value� (e.g., the survival of organisms,
to glorify God, to entertain humans in art, science, and philosophy, etc.).
1. Anything that significantly
resembles the products of purposive intelligence in relevant respects may be
inferred to be a product of purposive intelligence.
2. There is order in nature.
3. The order of nature
significantly resembles the products of purposive intelligence, in relevant
Therefore, the order of nature
is a product of purposive intelligence (viz., God).
The first premise constitutes a
very important and pervasive principle: the principle of teleological
explanation. It is used in science and in everyday life in the analysis of the
behavior of other human beings. It is also at the basis of the answer to a
very embarrassing philosophical question: I know that I am the cause of my
actions, but how do I know that the actions of other humans are caused in the
same way; in short, how do I know for sure that human beings are not simply
robots? (This is commonly known as the problem of �other minds.�)
The traditional answer is that
we infer from the purposive behavior of other beings that same sort of
connection between �a mind with purpose and design� and �explicit purposive
behavior� as we do in our own experience. If this argument fails, then
�solipsism,� i.e., the dead‑end view that all that we are certain of our
his/her own mind and experience and nothing else, is the result. Most
philosophers do not want to be solipsists.
Dave Hume contends that the
failure of the TA is the failure of the theist to be able to observe the
purported connection between a divine mind and its ordered creation. But Edwards
replies that the TA is simply trying to solve the problem of other minds at the
cosmic level. There is no difference in asking for a proof of the connection
between God and his ordered world and asking for the empirical connection
between a person’s mind and his/her ordered experience. Most people, excluding
solipsists, do not require a direct proof of the latter, so they cannot make a
similar demand of the theist using the TA. Only if Hume is willing to admit to
solipsism is he allowed to demand this of the theist.
Another objection to the TA is
that the existence of design does not necessarily imply the existence of a
separate designer. But if we again return to the analogy of the human mind
ordering its experience by intention and desire, it is not inconceivable that
God’s relationship to the world is the same. The only problem here is the
intelligibility of allowing God to be transcendent, i.e., completely apart from
his creation. This is a problem only for orthodox theists, not �process�
theists. Evolution theory is a competing explanation for the order and design of
nature, especially if coupled with an acceptable theory of pre‑biotic evolution
from non‑organic elements.
Halverson articulates the TA as
1. Nature exhibits a number of
instances of means ordered to ends (e.g., the eye).
2. The ordering of means to ends
presupposes a cosmic ordering agent.
3. Such a cosmic ordering agent
Most naturalists reject the minor
premise, because they believe that Darwinism is a superior way of explaining any
design in nature � namely, that all order and structure came about by accident
and subsequent natural selection of the most functional structures.
Aquinas’ Fifth Way14
�The fifth way is taken from the
governance of the world. We see that things which lack knowledge, such as
natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or
nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is
plain that they achieve their end, not fortuitously, but designedly. Now
whatever lacks knowledge cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by
some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is directed by
the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things
are directed to their end; and this being we call God.�
Aquinas, relying as he does on
Aristotle’s teleology, is what I call a �whole‑hog� teleologist. Everything,
including rocks which fall straight to the earth and leaves and feathers which
float erratically, aim at their best end. The modern formulation of the TA,
usually attributed to William Paley, does not assume that all things exhibit
teleological order. Indeed, if the second premise is accepted, then all one
would need would be a single example of means ordered to ends to arrive at the
Weakness of the TA
(from David Hume)
1. It does not prove that God is
2. It implies that there was some
material external to God from which God created the universe. This goes against
the creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing) doctrine which orthodox
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam hold.
3. It does not prove that God is
omniscient or omnipotent. If God did have these qualities, one would have
expected perfect designs perfectly executed by the fullness of divine power.
4. It does not prove the goodness
of God. Indeed it looks as if God might be an amoral designer. For example, the
Nile River fluke is expertly designed for its destructive life in the livers of
unsuspecting Egyptian peasants.
5. It does not prove monotheism.
Many designers and builders could have been involved. This indeed is one
possible interpretation of the passage in Genesis where it states "let us make
man in our image� (1:26). (See Chapter 13)
1. Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Philosophical Investigations,
trans. G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: MacMillan, 3rd ed., 1958), p. 50.
2. Alstaire McKinnon, �The Meaning of ‘Existence’ in the
Existence of God,� American Philosophical Quarterly (1972).
3. Adler, op. cit., p. 67.
4. M. P. Slattery, �The Negative Ontological Argument,� New
Scholasticism 43 (1969), pp. 614‑617.
5. William L. Rowe, Philosophy of Religion (Belmont:
Dickenson, 1978), pp. 35‑7.
6. William H. Halverson, A Concise Introduction to Philosophy
(New York: Random House, 4th ed., 1981), p. 156.
7. Rem B. Edwards, Reason and Religion (New York:
Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1972), pp. 258, 264‑70.
9. Monologium, VI.
10. Rowe, op. cit., pp. 18‑19.
11. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part I, Q. II, Art.
12. Edwards, Reason and Religion, p. 275.
13. Halverson, op. cit., p. 163. Wording changed somewhat.
14. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Part I, Q.II, Art.