Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Proofs of God's Existence

Every time we encounter a proof of God's existence or non-existence, we should use it as an opportunity to ask: why is this proof being offered?

Too often I have seen Anselm's "ontological" argument abstracted from its context, as though the fact that his Proslogion begins with a prayer were inconsequential to the argument; or Descartes' proofs abstracted from his Meditations, as though it were not important that "God" serves an instrumental purpose for Descartes, allowing for the re-establishment of the world after he doubts its existence.

Anselm already believes when he writes his argument.  He has arrived at his belief in some way other than argumentation, and there is no shame in that.  Most of us arrive at most of our beliefs in less-than-purely-rational ways, and as William James has argued, we have the right to do so. It looks to me like Anselm is writing not in order to defeat all atheism (though that may be one of his aims) but in order to see if his faith and his understanding can be in agreement with one another.

Descartes might believe or he might not; I don't know how I could know.  God matters in his Meditations because God offers an "Archimedean point," a fulcrum on which to rest the lever of reason, allowing Descartes to lift the world anew from the ruins of doubt. Whether or not Descartes believes in God's existence, God is useful to Descartes.

My point is that it is mistaken to assume that arguments about God - for or against God - are detached and detachable from other concerns, and when we neglect those concerns we might just be missing the most important aspect of those arguments, namely the human aspect.  When we argue about God, we are usually also arguing about something else. 


  1. I think this is spot-on, and since I tend to take the argument from evil and the argument from God's hiddenness as the two most important arguments for atheism, I can readily see how the underlying concerns of despair and withdrawal are actually underwriting my concerns in those arguments.

    That said: "Usually *also* arguing for something else" is different from "usually *only* arguing for something else." What's more, sometimes we just want to resolve the God question in a way that's not rooted in one set of concerns. I have a lot of different overlapping reasons to be concerned about God's existence or non-existence, and sometimes they kind of pile up and I just want to know "Does God exist?" So then I go looking for the best arguments, in a context-free way that leads me to those purported to have good arguments of general utility.

    What's more, of course, Descartes cares about God for reasons that are crucial to his argument. If Descartes needs God to complete his argument that he can trust his clear and distinct ideas, then it matters if he succeeds or fails on his own terms. And it matters if the argument is circular or not. If we discover that we have independent reasons to trust our clear and distinct ideas (or to reject that claim) then it seems like we're actually ignoring the context rather than attending to it.

    Here's one question: what is Plantinga also arguing for?

  2. Good points, anotherpanacea. I know what you mean about wanting to just *know* sometimes.

    I won't say that others are usually *only* arguing for something else, because I don't know. But I do think it's likely that most of us are acting from a complex set of motives much of the time.

    As for Plantinga, I have often imagined he's like Anselm: someone who believes for other-than-rational reasons and who is looking to see if that can make sense. He says as much at the end of his modal version of the ontological argument. I know enough of his story to think he might also have a concern about theological bullying, and that he might be trying to defend more naive believers from people who claim that they have no right to believe. No doubt there's more, but those are the things that stand out from my reading of him. What do you think?