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The Existence of God: Two New Proofs

Lawrence Crocker examines the logic of hope.

Hilary Putnam once gave a paper at Harvard entitled ‘The Problem of Induction’. In his opening remarks he revealed that it was not Hume’s problem of induction that he would address. He would not try to justify our belief that the sun will probably rise tomorrow. Instead Putnam was going to argue an interesting yet arcane issue involving mathematical induction. You may think that I have perpetrated a similar philosophical bait and switch when I confess that the last line of neither of my proofs is “Therefore God exists.” In fact, I will not try to argue that you should believe in God. I am not at all sure that you should. What each of my proofs seeks to establish is that you should hope for the existence of God – even if you are a firm unbeliever.

Hope will strike some theists as a lame concept when it comes to God. “I do not need to hope, I know that God exists, with complete assurance. No person of faith will express himself on any significant point of religion in terms of mere ‘hope’.” Well, Paul was a person of faith, and he often spoke of hope, (‘έλπίς’, ‘elpis’) for things unseen and the working out of God’s plan. From Romans came the title ‘Spe Salvi’ of Pope Benedict’s third encyclical ‘On Christian Hope’. I concede that neither Paul nor the Pope take the very existence of God to be a matter of mere hope. The hope of my proofs might or might not be mere. That, in my view, is one of its chief virtues.

In the increasingly hostile relation between theists and atheists, hope represents potential common ground. It is not middle ground, as is agnosticism. Hope is something that an atheist and a theist might genuinely share. It is possible to hope for something in which you believe and also possible to hope for something in which you do not believe. Take next weekend’s picnic. Jack and Jill both hope it will be a fine day. Jill has checked the internet, which says that there is five percent chance of rain, and both believes and hopes it will be fair. Jack, never known for his caution, accidentally grabbed a week old newspaper, which said that the coming weekend would be stormy. He believes that the weather for the picnic will be rotten, but hopes to the contrary.

Bait and switch confession number two: My proofs are entirely new only in their concluding to hope. Their ancestry lies in traditional proofs, although their forefathers would surely disown them.

First Proof: Variation on a Theme of Pascal’s

1. There is a non-zero probability that there is a happy life-after-death of eternal duration.

2. Any finite probability, however small, times an infinite benefit gives an infinite expected benefit.

3. Any state of affairs that has an infinite expected benefit, and that is not dominated in hope worthiness by some other state of affairs, is worthy of hope. (This will be explained.)

4. A happy life-after-death of eternal duration is not dominated in hope worthiness by any other state of affairs.

5. Therefore a happy life-after-death of eternal duration is worthy of hope.

6. If x is in other respects not value negative and x is plausibly a necessary condition for some y that is worthy of hope and x is a member of at least one set of plausibly sufficient conditions for y, then x is worthy of hope.

7. God’s existence is plausibly a necessary condition of and a member of at least one set of plausibly sufficient conditions for life-after-death of eternal duration.

8. God’s existence is in other respects not value-negative.

9. Therefore God’s existence is worthy of hope.

Some people would dispute the first premise, arguing that an infinite life could not be happy. It would become a bore sooner or later even if its conditions were such that all of its early segments were positive. Do not invite these people to parties. They lack imagination and are joie de vivre-challenged. If tempted to this view, bear in mind that on every single morning of your eternal life, you will have lived only a finite number of days. You will not that day hear Beethoven’s Ninth for the infinity-ith time.

Premise (8) is worth more discussion than I will give it here. I contend that, independent of life after death, the existence of God is not an evil. Thomas Nagel is to the contrary on this point, at least so far as to hope that God does not exist. One reason I part ways from Nagel is that, with the hedonists, I believe that desirable states of consciousness are intrinsically valuable. Therefore an eternally existing conscious God is intrinsically valuable, making the theologically weak assumption that His consciousness is not, e.g. continuing pain. It is also plausible that God’s plan gives the cosmos a desirable kind of meaning that it would otherwise lack. Moreover, the kind of God for which we would even consider hoping is a good God. That goodness is the chief reason for regarding God’s existence as independently positive, or at worst, not negative.

The odd restriction in the third premise is there because of the following case. I would count a happy eternal life wearing a pointed yellow hat as having infinite utility. If the only way to immortality is to wear a pointed yellow hat, I’ll live with it. However, I would prefer eternal life without hat requirements. Because the hat-unrestricted life dominates, automatic ‘worthy of hope’ status should not go to an eternal life wearing a yellow hat. You might say, “I can perfectly easily hope that I live forever wearing a yellow hat, and hope that I live forever wearing a red hat, and hope that I live forever wearing a cerulean hat …” Well, be my guest, but I would advise you not to hope individually for too many of these. Hoping is a mental activity that has a certain cost in time and energy, even if very small. It is uneconomical to hope for what is hope-dominated.

I could have avoided the premise (3)-(4) wrinkle if I were shooting for a weak sense of ‘worthy of hope’. The harried junior executive hopes that she will give her report tomorrow and her boss will think it brilliant. She also hopes that her boss will be sick tomorrow, so that she will not have to give her report. We hope for inconsistent things all the time. Both possibilities are worthy of hope in a weak sense, as it is that I should live forever wearing the pointed yellow hat complemented by green cowboy boots and a polka dot sash. If the bottom line of the proof were that the existence of God is worthy of hope in a sense that weak, it would be uninteresting. To deserve your attention, ‘worthy of hope’ will have to come closer to ‘should hope’ or ‘rationally required to hope.’ I cannot say that you should always hope for the existence of God. Sometimes you should sleep; sometimes concentrate on your lock combination. When you reflect upon the question of God’s existence, however, you should hope that God exists. Inasmuch as you probably had some time to reflect as you read line (9), I intended that you should then and there have realized that you should hope for the existence of God.

The dominance clause invites the objection that I should hope for a chocolate truffle now and eternal life later over plain old eternal life later. The response that the total utility of the two is mathematically identical (both infinite) falls to the observation I made at the end of my comments on the first premise. There will be no day of my eternal life on which I will have made up for missing that truffle. Still, this does seem to be a merely technical problem, to be handled by some such device as stipulating that hopes for these purposes not be conjunctions.

On premise (7), I will concede that we can imagine other ways eternal life might happen without God. Perhaps some alien species will happen by with the secret of immortality that they will generously share with us. Alternatively the physics or metaphysics of the universe might lend itself to some form of Nietzsche’s ‘eternal recurrence.’ Living your life again and again would be a kind of infinity of value, so long as you have not botched your life too badly. (It would be worrisome if everyone always responded to the Nietzschean question in this way: “I would be happy to live my whole life again; only not last week, of course.”)

In any event, the non-supernatural alternatives for an eternal life, although conceivable, do not look very promising on our best current theories of human biology and the best current astrophysical projections for the universe. From science we should conclude that it will probably take a deus ex machina to get any of us all the way through his or her second hundred years – let alone the second trillion. Supernatural agency looks like what it would take to extract our conscious essence from our bodies or to resurrect those bodies for eternal life.

Unfortunately, there is supernatural agency and then there is supernatural agency. The Encyclopedist Diderot tendered a ‘many gods’ counterexample to Pascal’s original Wager Argument. (Pascal: You should seek to believe in God, even if His probability were a very low positive figure, because, with salvation through faith, belief would produce infinite expected utility.) Diderot noted against Pascal the possibility of the existence of a demon who grants eternal life to all and only those who do not believe in God. The existence of such a demon may seem less probable than the existence of a good God. Still, it would have some positive probability and matters of comparative probability would have involved Pascal in more theology than he intended for a proof aspiring to be purely decision-theoretic.

The parallel problem for my proof involves a minor variant of Diderot’s lamentably unfair demon. This one dooms all those who hope for the existence of God and saves those who do not. The demon threatens the ‘necessary condition’ status of God unless it can be ruled out for implausibility.

So is there a defensible sense of ‘plausibly’ in premise (7) on which it is plausible that God is a necessary condition and a member of at least one set of plausibly sufficient conditions for eternal life and that none of Diderot’s demons shares this plausibility? Yes, so long as there is such a sense of plausibility on which the existence of God is plausible and the existence of these demons not. That does not seem too hard. The existence of God is a respectable intellectual question. It is even discussed by non-philosophers. There are many millions of perfectly intelligent and mentally healthy people who go so far as to believe that God exists. A demon that saves all and only those who do four summersaults at noon each day never will have a single believer. That seems enough for a respectable plausibility difference between God and the demons.

Diderot would be quick to respond, had events not intervened, than I have left the high road of decision theory for the muddy byways of theology. Why isn’t this counter thrust by Diderot just as deadly for my argument as it was for Pascal’s? In the first place the demon tries to wreck a different part of Pascal’s proof than it does of mine. For Pascal, belief is causal in bringing about eternal life. By challenging the mechanism of salvation, the demon ushers in such questions as whether Christian salvation theory is transparently more plausible that Muslim salvation theory. My hope does not cause eternal life, but only anticipates its possibility. Muslim hope, Christian hope, and atheist hope can have different content. My proof will go through on any of them.

Philosophically more important, a different plausibility standard is appropriate for worthy hope than for justified belief. We are less constrained in our hoping than in our knowing. You fall off a cruise ship at night and swim to the paradigmatic deserted island. You hope for a quick rescue. How probable is a quick rescue? You have no idea. You know nothing about the island or its surrounding waters. Having paid the single supplement, you do not know how long it will take those shipboard to realize your absence. You lack the evidence that would support the plausibility of confidence in a quick rescue. A quick rescue is, however, clearly not beyond hope.

Still, plausibility is not altogether irrelevant to hope. A short and clumsy teenager may have dreams of becoming a professional basketball player someday, but that would be only a wish not a hope. The justification of belief is serious business. The justification of a wish, if it needs any justification, is easy. Hope is between the two. Responsible hope cannot conflict with the facts in the way that a mere wish can. (Notice that you can wish that the atomic bomb had not been dropped. You cannot hope that the atomic bomb had not been dropped.) It is not, I think, a matter of crossing some probability threshold. Although I cannot give a full defense of this here, I am persuaded that the sort of plausibility that is required for hope is that the evidence does not defeat the hope. Grounds for skepticism are not enough; there must be a good affirmative argument to throttle hope.

Some hard-core atheists will contend that the evidence does defeat hope for the existence of God. The sum total of human evidence is best explained by our scientific theories, and those theories do not include God in their ontology. I will not quarrel with the contention that naturalism is generally our best theory of reality. I will take up cudgels against the claim that the naturalistic arguments against the existence of God are so good as to deflate the possibility of God’s existence to the level of something that can only be wished. My second proof explores one basis for doubting that naturalism defeats the reasonableness of hope that God exists.

Second Proof: Variation on the Cosmological Argument

1. It is a fact that there is something rather than nothing.

2. The best explanation (or among the better explanations) for the fact that there is something rather than nothing is a supernatural Creator.

3. It is reasonable to hope for anything that is independently worthy of hope and is the best explanation (or among the better explanations) of a fact.

4. Therefore, it is reasonable to hope that a supernatural Creator exists.

The truth of the first premise has long seemed remarkable to people of a wide range of philosophical temperaments and religious attitudes. “The first question which should rightly be asked,” wrote G.W.F. Leibniz, is “Why is there something rather than nothing?” (‘The Principles of Nature and of Grace, Based on Reason.’) Ludwig Wittgenstein: “I wonder at the existence of the world. And I am then inclined to use such phrases as ‘how extraordinary that anything should exist’.” (‘Lecture on Ethics’. Wittgenstein was quick to add, however, that even his own expressions on this point were nonsense.) The atheist philosopher J.J.C. Smart conceded: “My mind often seems to reel under the immense significance this question has for me. That anything exists at all does seem to me a matter for the deepest awe.” (‘The Existence of God,’) Apparently not everyone feels this way, however. The philosopher of science Sidney Morgenbesser is reported to have said, “Even if there were nothing, you’d still be complaining.” For Morgenbesser and his ilk starting with premise (1) may seem less motivated than it does to the rest of us. The truth of the premise is surely beyond cavil, however.

Is the act of a supernatural Creator really the best, or among the better, explanations for the existence of physical reality? It is a substantive claim, ruling out such possibilities as that matter was all brought about through purely natural processes. The creation explanation contributes to our understanding because we know what it is for an agent to create something – although we do not have experience of agents creating out of nothing. Assume, for the moment only, that we knew that God created the universe. Would we say, “God created the universe, but that does not at all explain why the universe is here”?

Other than a Creator, what explanations are there for the existence of physical reality? Here are some possibilities:

(a) It was ever thus; or

(b) Everything is by chance; or

(c) Physical laws require the existence of matter and energy; or (d) Two or more gods created reality.

(a) and (b) are not really explanations at all. They are rejections of the need for explanation. Now, it is perfectly conceivable that this is the best we can do. Perhaps we should simply accept that there is no explanation and no need for an explanation. Our desire for explanation may just be intellectual greed. That being conceded, it remains true that in a beauty contest of explanations (a) and (b) do not survive the first cut.

(c) is worse. It is, of course, true that for the physical laws to have application, there must be some matter or energy. For traffic laws to have application, there must be vehicles. It is not much of an explanation of the existence of vehicles, however, that without them there would be nothing to which traffic laws applied.

(d), for present purposes, is a mere variant of the Creator explanation. It is of importance to theology, of course, whether the deity is singular or plural. There may be important arguments, going well beyond the elegance of unity, for preferring an explanation in terms of a Creator to polytheistic explanations. In any event, even if plural supernatural creators were, for some reason, the best explanation for the existence of physical reality, a single Creator would surely still be one of the explanations of second rank.

The chief traditional complaint against the Creator explanation is that it does not quiet our initial unease about the existence of something instead of nothing. The question reasserts itself: Why should there be God rather than nothing at all? Does shifting the question to the supernatural plane accomplish anything? I concede that much of our initial perplexity over why there is something rather than nothing remains unless theism is able to make good on its often-made claim that God is self explanatory. I could add as a premise that God, if He exists, is self explanatory. I refrain from doing this, however, because I am unconvinced by any of the arguments to that effect. But I don’t think that the theistic explanation needs to remove all perplexity to be among the better explanations for the existence of reality – because no alternative explanation does either. It would be nice if our desire for explanation could come to an end, but we can do without that. We are doing without it.

Finally, there is the dialectical objection that if my argument worked for hope, it would work for belief as well. Overall, it is an argument to the best explanation. If the best explanation for an undoubted fact supports hope in the existence of the explanans, shouldn’t it support belief as well? Why the pretense that it is a proof only about hope, unless it is a vain attempt to claim novelty by cutting off the head of an old argument?

But the best explanation of an undoubted fact does not always justify belief in the explanation. Suppose, with Ms. Christie, that we have exactly ten possible suspects. That the most likely of them is the actual killer is only slightly more probable than that the least likely is. In these circumstances we cannot have justified belief that any particular suspect is guilty. Almost inevitably, if Poirot is on the case, two of the suspects will be engaged to be married. Each, if not guilty, will hope that the other is not guilty as well. They have enough basis to hope rather than merely wish, even though that basis falls short of justifying belief. My second proof is the same. It provides a basis for hope in God without necessarily providing any justification for belief in God.

The existence of something rather than nothing is a door to hope that the atheists have not been able to close tightly. Whether the doors labeled ‘consciousness’, ‘time’ and ‘religious experience’ might also be slightly ajar I leave to the reader.

© Dr Lawrence Crocker 2011

Lawrence Crocker studied philosophy at Yale and Harvard, and taught at the University of Washington before a career as a lawyer. He now teaches philosophy at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

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