welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Beyond Reasonable Doubt?

Daniel Hill cross-examines Peter van Inwagen, God’s barrister.

Peter van Inwagen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, and currently the 1999 F.D. Maurice Lecturer at King’s College, London. He is a leading philosopher of religion.

Professor van Inwagen, you have just given the F.D.Maurice lectures under the title Is it possible to disprove the existence of God?, which question you answer with a resounding “No”. What do you mean here by ‘disprove’?

I mean ‘advance a compelling argument against’, and this is what I mean by a ‘compelling argument’: if one understands the premisses and logic of the argument one would be irrational if one did not accept the conclusion. A compelling argument is one which is obviously sound, given sufficient time and careful thought on the part of the people involved; it needn’t be immediately obvious at first glance. People perhaps needed a couple of years to think about Einstein’s arguments.

In my first Maurice lecture I seek to establish the conclusion that the only sort of argument for the non-existence of God worth consideration would be a philosophical argument, not a scientific argument. By ‘a philosophical argument’ I mean one with at least one philosophical premiss, and by ‘a scientific argument’ an argument of which every premiss is a scientific premiss or a premiss which requires no defence.

I claim that there is no compelling argument for any substantive position in philosophy, with the possible exception of arguments for the non-existence of God, which are sub judice in the first lecture; it also seems hard to believe that there are even considerations in favour of any substantive philosophical position which decisively outweigh those against.

And you provide evidence for this claim by reminding us that on any substantive philosophical position there are people on each side of the argument. For example, on the question of whether free will is compatible with determinism; you say it is not, David Lewis says that it is.

Ultimately it comes down to Lewis saying ‘I don’t believe that’ and me saying ‘I do’ about the same thing. But this doesn’t always happen in, say, science. Sometimes people in science get convinced by arguments uniformly across the discipline (take Einstein’s arguments again – they were almost universally accepted very soon after he put them forward); nothing like this happens in philosophy.

The alternative hypothesis is for someone to say ‘There are lots of compelling arguments in philosophy, in particular the ones for my point of view, but everybody else is too stupid to accept these.’ This is obviously fantastic: wouldn’t it be an amazing coincidence that all these compelling arguments just happen to be the ones for the speaker’s point of view, and that everybody else is deluded except the speaker?

There are, however, compelling arguments for minor positions in philosophy, such as Gettier’s argument against the thesis that knowledge is just justified true belief; this argument commands almost universal assent in the philosophical community. [In 1963 Edmund Gettier provided convincing examples of beliefs which were both justified and true, but which could not be regarded as knowledge. Ed.]

In the second Maurice lecture I ask whether it is plausible to suppose that on exactly one philosophical question, viz the existence of God, philosophy provides a compelling argument. I think that this supposition is antecedently very implausible, but that, just by itself, this antecedent implausibility isn’t sufficient for my purpose. My purpose is to show as strongly as one may hope to do in philosophy (which is certainly less than compulsion), that the arguments for the non-existence of God positively don’t work and don’t even give one – on balance – reason to believe their conclusion.

You are very careful to avoid the contradiction that you have a compelling argument that there are no compelling arguments in philosophy! Aren’t you trying to give people an argument such that on balance they will have reason rather than not to believe that there are no philosophical arguments which on balance give people more reason than not to believe something?

I don’t think that’s possible. I’m just trying to put the best possible face on the position which recommends itself to me, and to articulate my reasons as best I can. But I fully expect that the audience is going to come up with other reasons, perhaps ones of which I have not thought, for denying what I say.

There are lots of reasons for trying to engage in this area besides trying to convert everybody. You may convert some people – that’s all right. Or you make make your own position clearer in your own mind, so that at least other people – if they aren’t going to agree with you – understand better where you’re coming from. But somebody can listen to or read my lectures,understand everything I say, and still disagree with me, say by thinking that it is possible to disprove the existence of God by a compelling argument – I don’t claim that that person is irrational. I’m just a barrister arguing a case. I would like to have the result that some members of the audience think that the case has been made beyond reasonable doubt. But if somebody doesn’t think that, will the barrister think that the juror is irrational?

I then look at some particular arguments from empirical premisses for the non-existence of God and dismiss most of them as pretty feeble. I think that there are only two classes of arguments which aren’t feeble:

  • (1) The Argument from Evil
  • (2) The Superfluity argument: we have no need of that hypothesis so we ought not to believe it (Ockham’s Razor).

The conclusion of (2) is not that there is no God, but that it is not rational to believe there is a God.

Since we’ve got time to discuss only one argument, let’s talk about (1).

Well, I begin by defending myself against the accusation that it is improper to discuss the problem, e.g., because it trivialises people’s suffering.

Then I set up the problem of evil, pointing out that God is omnipotent and morally perfect. I then distinguish between a theodicy and a defence. By a theodicy I mean a story of why God permits evil which is put forward as true, by a defence I mean a story of why God permits evil which is put forward only as believable, to show that the purported disproof of God’s existence is unsound. I think that in the end there is only one defence which has any hope of succeeding, viz the Free Will Defence.

Why do you think that this is the only defence?

This defence also answers strengthened arguments from evil. Other defences fail at the argument from the amount of evil or at the existence of unredeemed evil or at the fact that there are people who don’t get any benefit from suffering.

You raise the question of free will itself at the start of Lecture 3. Here the question is: ‘are free will and determinism compatible?’. If it were the case that God could create a world in which everybody freely did the right thing and never inflicted or received suffering then this would sink the Free Will Defence. Your argument is that this view of free will, viz that it is consistent with determinism, is wrong. What are your reasons for this?

I adduce various thought experiments, such as the delta and epsilon category workers in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World whose deepest desires are chosen for them by the alpha category aristocrats – it’s just obvious that the deltas and epsilons are not free.

The dialectical situation is this: the atheist has to show that her view of free will is right, all I have to do is cast doubt on at least one of the premisses, assuming that the argument is formally valid; the atheist has to establish all of them. I attempt to cast doubt by raising the Free Will Defence. She replies by giving this theory of free will (which is compatible with determinism). I reply by saying that for all we know that theory of free will is wrong, so for all we know the Free Will Defence may be right.

All I have to do to cast doubt is to present a defence that may be right, for all we know. The atheist has to show definitely that this theory of free will is true. She is trying to prove something substantive. All I am trying to prove is that she hasn’t made out her case.

Aren’t you trying to prove that your story is possible?

No, I don’t have to prove that my story is possible, all I have to prove is that, for all we know, it is possible. In fact, I don’t even have to do that, all I have to do is cast doubt on the atheist’s ‘proof’ – she is the only one trying to prove something, so it’s up to her to prove all that needs to be proved.

All I’m trying to do is get a verdict of ‘not proven’, just as in a Scottish court of law, but I can’t do this simply by presenting logical possibilities, just as an accused in a Scottish court can’t get a verdict of not proven just by telling a logically possible story, e.g., one about an identical twin of whom all record has been lost who emerged from nowhere, committed the crime, and then disappeared again.

I could put into the FWD the proposition that free will is incompatible with determinism – the atheist is going to have to show that that is impossible, by showing that free will is compatible with determinism. As long as it is reasonable to believe that free will is incompatible with determinism I don’t have to show anything more. All I’m looking for is the reaction ‘Yes, that could be true’. And I think, given the Brave New World case, that it’s perfectly reasonable to expect people to say of incompatibilism ‘Yes, that could be true’.

The atheist has this premiss:

If God knows that there is a certain amount of evil in the world, and wants there to be no evil in the world, and can create a world without evil then there won’t be any evil in the world.

I present a counterexample to this premiss in the sense of describing a world in which there is evil, and God knows about it, wants to remove it, and is able to remove it. I tell a story involving free will, including in the story that free will is incompatible with determinism.

All I need to cast doubt on the atheist’s premiss is the reaction ‘Well, given that God exists, the rest of that story could well be completely true’. So I have to get people to say with respect to incompatibilism ‘Well, that could be true’, but that’s all I have to get them to say with respect to incompatibilism. The Brave New World case is a pretty good example to get people to say that incompatibilism could be true.

What is your story, your defence against the argument?

The story is about a group of primates whom God raised to rationality and protected from suffering, even though suffering was all around them. They had preternatural or paranormal powers to protect themselves. For some time they all live in peace and harmony, and then at some point they abuse free will in rebellion against God, disobey him, automatically leading to suffering to others and themselves. Humans rebel against God, and separate themselves from their union with God.

Why doesn’t God just forgive them? Why does God insist on withdrawing all the benefits they enjoy, the benefits of freedom from suffering and death?

It’s a natural loss of their preternatural abilities consequent on separating themselves from God.

But why should their preternatural abilities and their protection from harm be connected with their union with God?

Separating from God had unforeseen consequences because those preternatural abilities depended on their right function, which depended on their being united to God in a certain way – their freedom from suffering depends on certain abilities to protect themselves from creatures and random forces of nature. God designed them to be in union with himself; they are no longer operating under design conditions, they have ripped themselves away from God and there was a lot of damage, as one might expect when something violently rips itself away from the thing with which it was designed to be in union.

But can they be blamed if the consequences were unforeseen?

They consciously and intentionally did x where God told them to refrain from doing x. They knew the wisdom and source of the warnings against disobedience.

There used to be a sign in Buffalo zoo outside the bear pit saying ‘If you climb over this fence you will fall down into the pit and break your leg and the mother bear will come down and kill you’. Now suppose somebody reads this warning, understands it perfectly, and thinks ‘I’m the exception because I’m so much more agile at climbing fences’ or ‘I can show these people that they’re just being silly’, and then, of his own free will, climbs the fence, falls down, breaks his leg, and the mother bear comes down and kills him. I think that is certainly culpable. That is what this case is like.

You then say that humans separate themselves from God, and therefore they lose their ability to protect themselves from suffering, and so they start to suffer. Furthermore, you say, they have a moral decline too. You don’t think that it’s just a one-off offence which opens them up to suffering.

Well, there are all these genes that they have, millions of generations of the grab-and-rape genes. These didn’t make any difference when they were in union with God, but they did make a difference once they returned to the half-animal status: the intersection of the old animal genes and the capacity of rational animals to make plans was a disastrous one.

So God in his love decides to rescue them from their sins and their suffering. You deliberately don’t specify how God rescues them –

There are various points of view!

But you do stress that, whichever point of view is correct, co-operation is essential.

This is why God doesn’t just forgive them – it is not a matter of forgiving, it is a matter of rescuing them, and he has got to get them to co-operate. If they are to return to union with him, they must love him, and love essentially involves free will. If God automatically, by a continuous sequence of ubiquitous miracles, cancelled the most obvious effects they would no longer be willing to co-operate.

God gives us this free decision to accept or reject his salvation of us. But free will can’t be such a great good that it outweighs being eternally in Hell – rejecting God’s salvation of us, can it?

Hell isn’t part of the story. It’s part of the story only that everybody gets rescued unless they choose otherwise. I don’t want to make it part of the story that everybody gets rescued because I don’t believe that. What’s God supposed to do with the people in Hell? Annihilate them? But maybe that’s not what they’d choose themselves.

What God could do with them is force them into Heaven, saying ‘Look, I did it for your own good, and the good of being in Heaven outweighs the good of exercising your free will’.

What does forcing people into Heaven mean? Why didn’t he just force people into Heaven at the beginning? Because co-operation is necessary.

So co-operation plays a key role in your defence.

Right. But don’t forget that I’m not putting any of it forward as true, merely as true for all we know, given that God exists. I certainly don’t see any compelling reason to reject any of it. But the defence I have presented should be thought of as the beginning of a conversation.

Let’s suppose it is true. Does it justify the evils of the world?

Well, it’s not self-evident that it does, but it is not self-evident that it doesn’t, either. If there is anyone who maintains that it doesn’t, even if it is true, let that person explain why he or she thinks this is so. Then I, or some other defender of theism, can attempt to meet this objection, and the objector can reply to the rejoinder and…but so philosophy goes: philosophy is argument without end. As J.L. Austin said – here I leave and commend the subject to you.

Thank you very much, Professor van Inwagen.

© Daniel Hill 1999

Daniel Hill was once arrested at gunpoint by the Polish border police and is currently being trained by King’s College London to become a guru (or at least a minor prophet).

The Problem of Evil

The Problem of Evil is generally seen as the strongest argument against belief in God. What reason would an all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good God have for allowing evil to exist in the world? Theodicy is the enterprise of answering this problem.

The Free Will Defence is seen by many as the best response. Unlike theodicy, it does not argue that God has reasons for allowing evil to exist – it instead argues that the existence of evil is a result of the existence of God. In a nutshell: God wants moral goodness. Moral goodness depends on choice – the choice to do either good or evil. Thus evil will exist as a consequence of the existence of a God promoting moral goodness.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X