atheism for lent, day 5
I’m a day behind, so this is the first of two posts I’ll make today. The second will be “day 6.”
Today’s reflection from Dr. Peter Rollins recaps the past week, during which we looked at the three main categories of argument for the existence of God: cosmological, teleological, and ontological.
cosmological: arguing from the study of the universe’s nature (God as First Mover as proof of God’s existence)
teleological: arguing from the study of the design of things (design and purpose of natural things as proof of God’s existence)
ontological: arguing from the essence of things (concept of God as proof of God’s existence)All three of these are founded in reason and logic.
Peter then goes into one of the critiques of these arguments, as brought by Immanuel Kant. Kant said that the teleological argument rests on the cosmological; you can’t get to God through the teleological until you’ve gone through the cosmological. BUT the cosmological rests on the ontological; you can’t get to God through the cosmological until you’ve gone through the ontological. So, says Kant, the ontological is the core argument.
T depends on C. Without C, there is no T.
But C depends on O. Without O, there is no C.
So, we focus on O.
O, the ontological argument. Ohhhhhhhh, the ontological argument. It’s for sure the one that strikes me as weirdest and as potentially the most wrong. I really can’t get past Point 2, “(Necessary) existence is a perfection.” I just don’t feel that it’s provable. It feels very cold and very unaware (or outright ignoring) of the suffering of sentient beings. Peter notes that Anselm used it not as a tool of apologetics, but more as a tool of meditation meant for people who were already in the religious world.
That makes more sense to me. It seems like the ontological argument is a great intellectual exercise, but it doesn’t speak to the heart of what it means to be human. It might speak to the heart of what it means to be a human fully convinced of the existence of God. It might. (But personally, in meditating on this argument, I can’t find anything in it that strengthens my faith, or gives me “God with skin,” or helps me lean on the Divine in my daily life of interacting with other humans. Like I said: a cold argument.)
Kant did a mental exercise of imagining that the teleological argument works: watch means Watchmaker, universe means Universemaker, the mathematical structures of the universe evince an intelligence behind it all. The problem, though, says he, is that this doesn’t get us to God either — it only gets us to a Supreme Intelligence. So, we could be in the Matrix, which would be designed by an intelligence higher than ours. We could be the product of alien engineering. We could be the most miniscule beings in a universe contained in a drop of water clinging to a blade of grass grown by some Supremely Intelligent Gardener.
And we can go infinitely back, with one Supreme Intelligence being created by a More Supreme one. It’s turtles all the way down! An infinite regression that never gets us to a First Necessary Being. And there we’re back in the cosmological argument.
So, Kant now wants to imagine that the cosmological works. Let’s assume that there is a Necessary First Being. That still doesn’t have to be God. It could be mathematical structure. It could be some quantum effect. It could be the universe itself. It is some sort of Necessary Reality.
This Necessary Reality, then, must own the characteristic of existence. Existence must be part of its essence, and there we’re back in the ontological argument again. It all rests on whether or not “God” owns the essence of necessary existence, whether or not “God” must exist by definition.
BUT, Kant argues, “existence” isn’t a quality that something or someone must have. You can’t add existence to a list of characteristics like pink, textured, depressed, sunlit, furry, wavering, metallic, or droopy. Existence is a modality, a way of being, but it is not a predicate. God, if God exists, owns the modality of existence. But even if God exists, God doesn’t necessarily exclusively own the modality of Necessary Existence. Other beings could own it too.
So, Kant concludes, you can’t reason your way into a proof of God’s existence.
But you can hope that God exists.
We have morals and ethics, Kant points out. He says we have something within us that gets us to identify things that we would live and die for. And we also want to be happy and content. We want our morals to be bound up in our contentment, and vice versa — but they’re not. We see that no matter how rightly we live our lives, we will still experience pain and loss and suffering. And so we can hope that one day, our ethics and our contentment will be unified. And that is God.
Everything I’ve ever needed to know, I’ve learned from Star Trek.
Kant says that faith is a sort of living into the hope that there is a God who will bring us into this wholeness of ethics/morals and contentment.
But that is not an argument for God’s existence.
Shifting gears, Peter then gives us a sneak peek into the coming week: arguments against the existence of God. Peter says that these first two weeks of AfL are the “valleys” before we get to the mountains. I don’t know what’s worse: the thought that what we’re doing now is a sort of slog through the runoff, or the image that after this week, we’re going to have to tackle a mountain before we can reach any sort of peak or even a plateau. This reminds me of Kingdoms of the Wall by Robert Silverberg. I need to re-read that.
ANYWAY, this week we’ll be starting with a text from Antony Flew, an English philosopher. He was an atheist for most of his life, and he insisted that the burden of proving God’s existence lies on the believer, not that the burden of disproving God’s existence lies on the disbeliever. Just as the accused in court is “innocent until proven guilty,” God is non-existing until proven existing. Since believers can’t prove the existence of God, their claims concerning God are “vacuous.”
Critics of Flew insist that, no, belief in God is kind of a default position (? I’m not sure I got that right, but this is still just an intro), and the burden of proof lies with the atheist.
We’ll also be looking at Bertrand Russell (Welsh), David Hume (Scottish), J.L. Mackie (Australian), Immanuel Kant (German), and Douglas Gasking (Australian).
Hume is gonna be particularly interesting, I think. He’s got an argument against God that includes the position that sure, maybe God exists — but if so, we can just take a look at the universe outside our front door and see that God isn’t loving or even very competent. For a theist, it’s like having someone who’s on “their side” suddenly intentionally shooting goals for the opposition. So that is gonna be a humdinger.
Mackie apparently argues similarly, stating that “there are no objective values” and the problem of evil and suffering makes belief in God untenable. God, he says, cannot be all-powerful and all-good when evil exists. Since evil exists, either God is too weak to combat it (not omnipotent) or not good enough to care (not omnibenevolent). Logically, omnipotent and omnibenevolent don’t hold together in the face of evil; a good and powerful God would never allow unnecessary suffering to exist. (This is doing some wrestling with the ontological argument, questioning the essence of God.)
This was very long. If you’re still reading, YOU’RE CRAMAZING. See you on day 6!