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Question of the Month
Is There A God?
The following readers’ answers to this central philosophical question each win a random book. The harvest was abundant, unsurprisingly; just sorry we couldn’t fit you all in. The votes were, loosely, Yes: 52%, No: 31%, and Don’t Know: 17%. So we’ll start with a ‘Yes’.
The answer to the question will hinge on the meaning of this word. St John tells us that “God is love,” so perhaps we could rephrase and ask “Does love exist?” Jacques Derrida’s answer would be yes – but love as a ‘necessary impossible’.
Pure love is impossible in human intercourse because we always contaminate it with the instinctive or the calculative. We love because we want some reward or because we experience love as an instinct, convenient or inconvenient. But we must look beyond this. Derrida suggests that this is the core of Jesus’ teaching on loving one’s enemy: love must learn to love the enemy as enemy. For this sort of reaction we must posit a love beyond restriction. Love exists necessarily, because without it as an horizon all human life would sink to the instinctive or calculative. This profoundly contradicts our moral sense. But, because our loving is always less than pure, ‘love itself’ is impossible for us. Thus love is both an absolute necessity for human life, but at the same time, impossible for us.
Now let us take this insight back into the question of the existence of God. The connection between love and God made by St John would mean that God becomes a necessary impossible: God is an absolute necessity for the human horizon, but at the same time, impossible. This is why God will always be beyond our grasp, yet will always be within our experience, as a necessary impossibility that calls us beyond ourselves.
This is more than a restatement of Kant’s moral argument for the existence of God, which leaves us with a God who is simply a necessary but empty postulate of practical reason. The God who is love is a very real voice calling to us to the horizon of love. Hearing this voice means that we learn what is truly human when we are ‘for Others’, to use Levinas’ phrase.
We know God exists because we know the need for love itself. Hence God exists necessarily.
Michael Williams, Bolton, UK
We need to ask which God? Richard Dawkins gave us four. One is a loving God – the Gentle Jesus of the hymns on Sunday; the second a personal God who answers our prayers and intervenes in our lives; the third an all-knowing, all-powerful God capable of great miracles; and finally the God of the deists – one who detonated the “hot big bang, retired, and was never heard from again.” The others of the Four Horsemen of Atheism – Hitchens, Dennett, Sam Harris – broadly agree with these categories. Even Michel Onfray, presumably excluded from the club as he writes in French, rails against the same incarnations.
Concerning the loving God: it would take a leap of extraordinary faith to agree with the funeral hymn ‘O Love of God, How Strong and True’. We may ascribe the Inquisition and the genocides of the Crusades or the Conquistadors to a church too long in need of reform – but we cannot deny the incredible suffering still visited on millions today, by nature etc, including on innocent children. A loving God does not exist.
A God we pray to, then? One who helps us in times of difficulty? Helps us to face our own death? Mankind has believed in the afterlife since the Neanderthals. Our fear of the unknown has created many Gods. We are spiritual people, because our need for self-understanding is immense. In times of trouble we ask the universe for clarity, for acceptance, for help. We can ask on a mountaintop, on a deserted beach, in a crowded, bustling city or in an empty church, whether or not we believe anybody is listening. But we will never wean the human race off the appeal to the supernatural. For most, then, God will exist.
Finally, the all-powerful creator of the Universe? The responses of the New Atheists, as they also call themselves, are as incomprehensible as the miracles they decry. A universe without a beginning? And ‘quantum multiple universes’ equally borders on the miraculous. Darwin stated the obvious: “the extreme difficulty, or rather impossibility, of conceiving this immense and wonderful universe... [as] a result of blind chance… I cannot pretend to throw the least light on such abstruse problems. The mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us, and I for one must be content to remain an Agnostic.”
Peter Bowden, Sydney, Australia
There are oral traditions and holy texts regarded by some as sacred, ultimate, unconditional and (thus) authoritative, even though their content and claims stretch credulity. Claims to be the ‘Word of God’ are made despite the need for subsequent reinterpretation. Prescriptions and proscriptions from this supposed infallible source come to be regarded as no longer defensible or morally acceptable, even among believers, and thus amendment if not refutation becomes unavoidable, albeit belatedly. This inevitably raises questions concerning divine authorship. There are issues in respect of the Hadith and the Koran debated recently in Turkey that have been compared with events that fuelled the Reformation.
By contrast, the need to refute and revise assertions that are no longer tenable is the sine qua non of philosophy and science – exemplified in the latter by recent developments in evolutionary biology that undermine creationism and intelligent design.
Reports of miracles or of dramatic conversion to a faith, within and outside hallowed texts, are cited as evidence of divine intervention. However, such events are overwhelmingly subjective and thus may be explained in a more scientific, objective way via psychology and neuroscience. So if we seek the kind of evidence that we now characteristically accept as valid and reliable, there is none, as yet. Absence of evidence is of course not evidence of absence, and perhaps persuasive evidence is simply not currently available or even accessible by our limited ‘apparatus’ – natural, or technologically enhanced. But bearing in mind the knowledge that has been and is being amassed through empirical and rational enquiry, including in ethics, a god is neither probable nor necessary.
Colin Brookes, Leicestershire, UK
I used to think that so many people could not be wrong, especially about something like this. Most of the world believes in a deity, and I thought there had to be something to it. I didn ’t particularly believe in God, but I believed in the intelligence of people. That was before I started a customer service job.
There is absolutely no way of either proving or disproving God’s existence. Every ‘proof’ of God’s existence has a contradiction, as does every denial. Denials however seem more logical than any positive proofs, to me at least, as the proofs usually seem to assume that God exists. And there is nothing far short of God Himself appearing that could make a rational non-believer accept that there is a God, and that He watches over everyone and everything, has supreme intelligence, and cares about the plight, struggles, and minute details of human life.
But if a supreme and perfect being exists, and He watches and has control over everything happening on the planet, and if humankind is the pinnacle of His creation, why are there plagues, drought, famine, disease, death, homelessness, and the rest of the never-ending list of the plight of man? It ’s horrible. God would have to be overwhelmingly incompetent to allow that to happen on His watch, and therefore nowhere near perfect, supreme or any of the qualities that defines the Judeo-Christian God. Definitely not worth worshipping at any rate, if He exists...
Robert McDonald, Midlothian, Scotland
While I can question whether matter exists other than as a product of mind, I never question whether mind exists. Nor has a convincing explanation ever been put forward as to how (supposedly) unconscious matter could (supposedly) cause consciousness. So a pre-existing consciousness is a plausible explanation of our own consciousness. Hence God exists.
What’s God like? Perhaps we can get clues by examining our own minds. All minds have purposes. However, while most minds simply seek some stimuli and avoid others, adult humans make moral judgements (among other things), and believe we should behave in moral ways (however often we fail). It seems likely that any evolved species with a comparable or superior level of intelligence would be motivated by moral judgements, because such species would be both rational and social.
Would an infinitely superior mind make the same sorts of judgements? Probably, up to a point. This is partly because purpose and morality do not seem to be entirely subjective. Torturing babies for fun must be always and everywhere wrong – whatever the torturer may think or say. As W.D. Ross says in The Right and the Good (1930), the “moral order… is just as much a part of the fundamental nature of the universe and… of any possible universe in which there are moral agents at all… as is the spatial or numerical structure expressed in the axioms of geometry or arithmetic”.
It seems probable to me that a supremely intelligent mind would have purposes of its own, and its own moral sense. It would hardly be supremely intelligent otherwise. However, it also seems, not just probable, but absolutely certain, that its actions would be sometimes beyond our limited comprehensions. This fact does not eliminate the problem of evil for theists, but it does reduce its force.
None of this proves God’s existence, but does go some way towards indicating why I find a fairly traditional image of God a plausible, even probable, hypothesis. And by this traditional image I mean a good God who has purposes and gives us purposes, who has a moral sense and has chosen to give us a moral sense.
Mark MacCallum, Wellington, New Zealand
In Haitian Vodoun, the Mambo ‘points the bone’ towards their intended victim in order to place a curse upon them. All bad fortune is amplified, and all good fortune is placed in the background. The curse becomes real when the victim begins to believe their misfortune is based upon the Mambo ’s curse. Isn’t it the same dynamic when believers state that God is really good to them: the power of suggestion? Prayer is a sublimation of the rabbit’s foot, in which the petitioner asks for good fortune. When misfortune occurs, it is chalked up to the ‘mystery of His ways’. But consider this comparison: if man was to invent a virus that could kill millions of people, he would be considered diabolical, the Devil incarnate. But the mass suffering of humanity in this and many other ways is continual.
Does this necessarily mean that God doesn’t exist, that God can be reduced to an opiate? I am not so sure. The one thing it does mean is the concept and image of God as a person must be completely obliterated. If God is a man, he is quite perverse; or as Spinoza states “Gods are as mad as men.” In a sense Nietzsche stating that “God is Dead, and we have killed him” is the idea that man no longer needs the primordial father. So if the standard definition of God is to suffice, then God is, as Jacques Lacan states, “unconscious.”
Scott Maxwell By Email
Science is a very effective system of thought. Has science found any evidence for the existence of God? Apparently not. As their theories are not science, the best the Creationists and Intelligent Design theorists can do is to tell us that we are living in a created universe which looks as if it was not created. Yet if there is a God as creator of everything, He must pre-exist and be apart from the everything. We, humans, and all that we perceive, are part of the everything, so how can we expect to be aware of something which is not? Whichever way you look at it, God is not detectable scientifically.
And yet Mohammed did ride out of the desert. The Jewish nation thrives after millenia. There was an historical Jesus. Saul of Tarsus was thrown from his horse on the road to Damascus and became an apostle. Francis of Assisi did run naked from his father’s house to rebuild the church of God. Mother Teresa did arrive in Calcutta in a borrowed Sari, with four rupees in her purse. Thomas Aquinas did turn down the job as Abbot of Monte Casino in order to become a philosopher and beggar.
Is there a God? Well, yes. How do I know? Because He spoke to me too.
Ron King, Wareside, Herts, UK
The question of the existence of a God often lies outside the scope of empirical study, given the conception of most deities as immaterial beings beyond scientific observation. This argument provides theists with a seemingly unanswerable case for the possibility of religious belief, though it still leaves their belief vulnerable to claims that it is irrational. Many questions that were formerly considered theological now fall into the remit of science, and attacks against the rationality of particular religions may lead their proponents to revise the official interpretation of their doctrine, so that it conforms to current scientific models. Science has progressed to the stage where it seems the only rational form of theism considers God as akin to the Prime Mover of Aristotle, left with little to do after the laws of physics were set in place. But this does not settle the question of whether or not God really exists. In The Construction of Social Reality, John Searle argues that concepts such as the value of money, the points scored by making a touchdown in American football and the sanctity of marriage, whilst having no empirical reality (we cannot physically observe them) are nevertheless made real by an act of collective social agreement and performing a particular social function. The same rationale applies to the concept of God, whether the imposed status is ‘the source of morality’ or ‘a fictional entity that is the cause of much human conflict’. The concept of God is something that billions of people across the world use to orient their lives – whether that orientation is towards or away from God is irrelevant: all that is relevant here is that it exists at all. For these billions who live with the concept of God, we may say that God is just as real (in precisely the same way, and to precisely the same extent) as money, marriage, and the points in a football game.
J. P. Walsh, Sidcup, Kent, UK
God is defined as omniscient, ie he supposedly knows everything. However, it is impossible to know everything, because no matter how much is known, the nature of the infinite assures us there is more to learn. Take numbers, for example: no matter how many numbers are known or calculated, more can always be added. Since it is impossible to know everything, God does not exist.
Another gaping incongruity between supposed omniscience and infinity is consciousness. All instances of infinity exist as non-conscious things, eg numbers. The same cannot be said about God, because he is said to be jealous, wrathful, to pass judgment, etc. Compared to infinity as we recognise it, God is the odd man out. He thinks, therefore he cannot be.
Diametrically opposed to the notion of God’s stable, ongoing state of perfection, our evolution in the infinite universe requires ever-changing pliability in the way we think and develop. We need never deteriorate into a hellish state of know-it-all stagnation; there will always be the ecstasy of discovery, because knowledge, not a mythical God, is never-ending.
Jeff Harmsen, Ontario, Canada
As pointed out by Aristotle (among many others), a supreme being would have no potential for change, since change implies either a decline from perfection or some kind of improvement on perfection, which are both incoherent. So a supreme being could neither decline nor improve in any way.
(1) If there is a God, then God has to exist. (If a supreme being exists, and cannot decline or pass out of existence, this supreme being necessarily exists.)
(2) If there is not a God, then it is impossible for God to exist. (If there is no supreme being, then a supreme being cannot come into existence, since coming into existence implies contingency and the potential for change. If God does not exist now and cannot begin to exist at some time, then it is logically impossible for God to exist, ever.)
(3) Either there is a God or there is not a God. (Law of Excluded Middle.)
(4) Either God has to exist or it is impossible for God to exist. (Copi’s Law of Constructive Dilemma, or 3 applied to 1 & 2.)
(5) It is not the case that it is impossible for God to exist.
(6) So God has to exist.
(7) Therefore God exists.
Notice that this shifts the burden of proof. If someone wants to argue that God does not exist, they have to disprove premise (5). In other words, the atheist has to prove that the existence of God is not simply unlikely, but that the existence of God is logically impossible. On the other hand, if God’s existence is not logically impossible, then God’s existence is entailed.
Craig Payne, Iowa, USA
Humans have a natural predisposition to believe in God. This makes His existence extremely unlikely.
Like all animals, we have evolved a fundamental survival instinct. We differ from other animals in that we are acutely self-aware. This enables us to observe that everything that is or has been physically alive is or will become physically dead. This experience of death completely contradicts our desire to survive. So we invent something called the soul, which can survive physical death. But where does it go? Hopefully somewhere pleasant. So we go on to invent the concept of heaven, and subsequently hell.
As we become more sophisticated, we come to realise that these places cannot simply exist without some explanation of how they came to be. Enter God. God created and controls heaven, so he has power over whether or not you get in. Therefore our wish to survive, and to survive somewhere blissful, leads us to create God, and gives us an ambition to impress him. But God is a phantom phenomenon who comes about simply as a result of our animal desire to survive.
This does not disprove God, but it is a fair explanation of how He came to exist in our imagination. It tells us that our belief in God is merely an evolutionary hangover. This suggests that we are justified in believing that there is no God.
Stephen Ingram, Godmanchester, Cambs, UK
Is there a God? I think so, because God’s existence makes good sense from an accumulation of evidence from science, ethics, and history.
Various findings from science suggest God. The big bang posits a beginning of the universe. This, together with the principle that whatever begins to exist has a cause, suggests that the universe has a cause. This cause, because it is the cause of all matter/energy, space and time, would be physically transcendent (ie immaterial), temporally transcendent (ie eternal), and very powerful. Furthermore, the exquisite fine-tuning of the universe’s conditions for life suggests that the aforementioned cause is intelligent. Life’s blueprint, DNA’s code, smacks of an intelligent cause, too. The mathematical intelligibility of the universe can be explained by the hypothesis that a rational Mind created the universe and us in such a way that we can understand them. Non-God explanations (ie multiple universe theories) seem overly speculative, thus denying Occam’s razor.
Our experience of morality also makes good sense on the God hypothesis. That we have free will to make moral (or immoral) choices makes sense on the hypothesis that God gave us the mentality and freedom to choose (or reject) the good.
Some historical facts make good sense on the hypothesis that God raised Jesus from the dead. Shortly after Jesus’ death, various individuals and groups of individuals claimed to have seen, touched, and conversed with the resurrected Jesus in various locations over several weeks. The lives of these individuals were transformed into an irrepressible witness to Jesus’ bodily resurrection. A miracle logically implies God’s existence. This means that Jesus’ miraculous resurrection shouldn’t be ruled out a priori. The non-miracle explanations are ad hoc.
Therefore God exists. Of course, much more should be said.
Hendrik van der Breggen, Providence College, Canada
In short, no. But in the limited space allowed, I don’t want to talk about the scientific evidence, or lack thereof, for the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good being. Instead, let’s imagine for a moment that the monotheistic creed is true. Imagine being born (without having any say in the matter), into a life monitored every second of every day by a divine dictator – a celestial Big Brother, if you will – who decides the fate of your soul for all eternity. As for eternal life itself: imagine living a million years, a trillion, 10 20 years, etc. What would be the point of life if it went on and on and on, ad infinitum, with no possibility of escape? No matter what you envision heaven consisting of, after x number of years it would eventually become hell – eternal bliss is the greatest oxymoron in the English language. The question that needs to be asked, then, is, who wishes it were true?
We all could have easily been born an organism of one of the 30 million known animal species living on Earth. Instead, we were born into a species that is ‘blessed’ with a high cognition, which after millions of years of evolution is now able to formulate complex thoughts, store memory, communicate with others, form deep social bonds, and which allows us to unravel the astonishing mysteries of the universe. For instance, thanks to astrophysicists we know that, as you read this, more than 50 trillion solar neutrinos are passing through your body every second! The truth of the matter is, our current knowledge of the Earth, the life on it, and the cosmos is far grandeur, far more beautiful, and far more meaningful than anything written in any of the world’s religious texts.
Michael Bixter, Oak Brook, Illinois, USA
This question has, surprisingly, held our interest for thousands of years. Surprisingly because, by most definitions, the question only permits one possible answer: we don’t know. In fact, we cannot know. God is usually defined as being the creator of the universe. And to create the universe, God must essentially exist outside the universe. The universe is usually defined as all we can perceive. Therefore, whatever we can perceive must be within the universe. And if it is within the universe, then it is not essentially God. Therefore, by definition, we cannot perceive the essential part of God. And so, when it comes to belief in God, it genuinely is a matter of faith.
Kevin Andrew, Tadcaster, North Yorkshire, UK
Finding evidence for God is a bit like doing a jigsaw without the picture on the lid. One piece by itself will not give us much of an idea what the overall picture will be like. As we fit more pieces together the picture becomes clearer and clearer. As more pieces are put together we may get a sense of what fills the gaps, even if we can’t find that particular piece. Along the way, pieces may be put in the wrong place and it may not be possible to place some pieces until the very end. Applying this idea to whether there is a God or not means that no one piece of evidence will give a conclusive result, but as more evidence is pieced together, the picture becomes clearer, even if faith is needed to fill in the gaps as the picture is being assembled.
The fact that there is something rather than nothing is one piece that can indicate a deity. The fact that this something is organised in such a way that life can arise may be another. The fact that some of this something can think and has a sense of morality may give another pause for thought. By themselves they are not conclusive. Together they build up a picture that could still be fairly persuasive, even if it still has gaps.
For me as a Christian, the major pieces relate to Jesus Christ. He is the missing corner piece. I find him a unique person who uniquely enables to me to make sense of the other pieces. However, I may not get all the pieces in the right place, and some pieces I may not be able to fit in until the jigsaw is nearly completed. Suffering may be counter-suggestive to the idea of a good God, but I believe that because all the other pieces fit together, eventually I will be able to place even that.
Geoff Bagley, Nottingham, UK
The question ‘Is There A God?’ has a sharp edge within our Western philosophical tradition. But we need to recognise the origins and limitations of this tradition if we are not to mistake parochial insights for universal truths.
Western philosophy is rooted in rationalism. It assumes that phenomena are susceptible to rational explanation. Its practitioners may flatter themselves that rationalism has been won in the face of hostility from the irrational religious mysticism of Western Christianity, but in fact Western Christianity is not particularly mystical. Its predominant character over many centuries has been its literalism, and this literalism was the soil in which Western philosophical rationalism took root.
Central to Western Christianity’s literalism is a particular conception of God: monotheistic, anthropomorphic, God as Prime Mover and creator of the universe; God as a person to whom humans can relate, with purposes and motivations of his own which he has pursued by direct intervention in human affairs. This conception of God offends scientific evidence, everyday experience, and human dignity. It deserves to be exposed and ridiculed and it has been, many times, by atheists and rationalists.
However, these people are not attacking God. They are only attacking a particular concept of God: the Western concept, which is a particularly soft target. But there is another understanding of God not susceptible to rationalist attack. In this understanding, God is conceived neither as Prime Mover nor as a self-aware person with plans and purposes. God is instead conceived as an expression of the unity of the world, the unity of the universe, the unity of humanity with the universe: the shared ground of all being. This is the God of numerous mystical currents, appearing in many religions. It is perfectly possible for two people to share a broad understanding of the universe and humanity’s place within it, but for one to include the mystical concept of God which enriches and underpins that understanding, while the other finds it simply unnecessary. In these circumstances, the only possible answer to the question “Is There A God?” is: “Yes – if you choose to believe.”
Martin Spence, Penge, London, UK
The unceasing controversy engendered by this question results not from an adherence to either atheism or theism, but rather as a consequence of the qualities we attribute to the divine, god providing a limitless and untainted canvas on which we subsequently paint our psychological self-portraits with the distorting pigments of our anthropomorphizing imaginations, in order to better relate to an ineffable reality by seeing it as we see ourselves. “Everyone praises what he believes,” Sufi philosopher Ibn Al-Arabi reminds us: “His god is his own creature, and in praising it he praises himself.” And so the discussion reduces not to the existence of a god, but rather our own particular conceptions thereof, the discussion of ontological reality thus mutating into a proxy struggle for self-validation: as Spinoza declared, a triangle would assert that the divine nature is eminently triangular. We are in no better position than the blind men of the Buddhist parable who molested the elephant, each arriving at his own unique conclusion of the beast’s nature – an event which culminated in violence, to the king’s delight. We can only confidently and honestly answer that there are as many gods – or conceptions of God – as there are believers. And thus all of the theistic befuddlement ultimately precipitates to one philosophically viable approach, the basic wisdom proffered by Kahlil Gibran: “Say not, ‘I have found the truth,’ but rather, ‘I have found a truth.’”
Shawn Harte, Death Row, Nevada, USA (request first two chapters of his book free from firstname.lastname@example.org)
Next Question of the Month
The next question is: Who Is The Best Philosopher? Cases should be made in less than 400 words. For once only, the prizes are signed copies of The Kingdom of Infinite Space by Ray Tallis (see Saving Truth). Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question Of The Month’, and must be received by 20th August. If you want the chance of getting a book, please include your physical address. You will be edited, and submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically.