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God and the Philosophers

by Rick Lewis

Napoleon: “Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.”

Pierre-Simon Laplace: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.”

(“I had no need of that hypothesis.”)

The guttering, smoky candle dripped wax onto the desk as the grizzled, grey-haired monk toiled late into the night on yet another treatise proving God’s existence and discoursing upon His essential nature. His tired eyes narrowed as he tested the logic of arguments ontological and cosmological, and of how God could be both three and one at the same time. Faith seeking understanding? He already stood in a very long tradition.

“Is there a God?” has been a central philosophical question since the earliest times. Don’t roll your eyes! These arguments should interest you too, and I’ll try to explain why.

The Philosophy Now editorial team includes both humanists and religious believers, but we agree that questions about God are tied up with a whole series of philosophical concerns of the deepest and most personal kind – questions which keep honest folk awake at night. How should we live our lives? How should we treat one another? What’s the point of it all? What happens when we die? Where did this world come from? Some say that the idea of God arises from our need to answer such questions. Others retort that without God we’d never have had the wit to ask such questions in the first place. The questions are difficult and the question of whether God exists – and what we mean by God – particularly so, which is why Benedict O’Connell’s agnostic article on ‘God and Humility’ is well worth a read.

There are – heaven knows! – many ways to divide religious believers, but one useful way to categorise them is into Theists and Deists. Those who believe in a personal God who knows each of us, and wants us to be our best selves, and perhaps is angry or disappointed if we are not, are Theists. Most Christians, Jews and Muslims are Theists. A question for Theists is, how can we live in relationship to a personal God, while unable to prove His existence? Read Stuart Hannabuss’s article on Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who conceived of the religious as a life stage, one requiring an existential leap of faith to enter. But what if the God in whom we are asked to place our trust appears to us untrustworthy? Patrick Wilson in his short essay suggests that it would be unwise to believe in any deity who didn’t share our core values.

Those who, by contrast, do not believe in a personal God, but who on some basis of reason and science believe in a God who created the universe, set its rules and perhaps sustains it in existence, are known as Deists. They have included Jefferson, Voltaire and Thomas Paine, and you can read more about traditional and contemporary Deism in Robert Griffiths’ article. Can anyone really prove God’s existence using only reason and observed facts about nature? Theologians in the Middle Ages and many later philosophers certainly tried, with numerous variations on the ontological proof (see Peter Mullen’s piece to learn more) and the cosmological proof among others. Their occasionally mind-bending cogitations have gradually acquired wider relevance for cosmologists, philosophers and astronomers, for they wrestled with questions such as: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”; “What do we mean by infinite?”; “Does the universe have a first cause or does the chain of cause and effect stretch backwards in time for ever?” and “What came before time?”

You have to be careful where such trains of thought may pull you. The brilliant and pious Baruch Spinoza argued that since, by definition, there can be nothing greater than God, it follows that all things in nature must be part of God – or else an even greater God could be conceived who did include them. Therefore God is identical with Nature. Spinoza called this Deus sive Natura, ‘God or Nature’. But then a few centuries down the line, writes Lesley Chamberlain, this resulted in some nervous Spinoza scholars attempting to convince Stalin that Spinoza was a materialist and an atheist. It didn’t go well.

No doubt the medieval theologians and philosophers so earnestly disputing about God’s nature had some preconceptions and preoccupations that seem quaint today, but many of them were penetrating, subtle, patient thinkers. The logical nets they wove might catch other fish too. Tony McKenna’s article gives several startling examples of metaphysical arguments by later philosophers including Hegel, Fichte and Descartes whose form had been anticipated by theologians centuries before. This makes you want to ask, what other clever moves lurking unregarded in the obscurer works of medieval monks might turn out to be exactly what philosophy needs right now? Quick, everyone – let’s get digging!

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