Confirming existence of God proves elusive

By Matt Runde, June 07, 2015

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

Confirming existence of God proves elusive

For centuries, believers have sought to provide logical proof that God exists.

Due to the many contradictions in the holy books, it has always been difficult to convince skeptical people to believe based purely on the written word. Several philosophical arguments for the existence of God have led to spirited debate, but they all ultimately fail the test of reason and have been refuted time and again by critical thinkers.

Probably the most popular argument is called the Cosmological Argument, sometimes also called the First Cause Argument. It is based on the notion that every event we can witness appears to have been caused by a prior event.

It rains today because clouds rolled in on air currents carrying humid air, which resulted from evaporation from surrounding bodies of water, which filled due to groundwater, which accumulated from past rains, and so forth ad infinitum. If one carries that thinking back to the beginning of time, there is a point where nothing existed, and therefore the idea is that the very first cause was uncaused itself, and the name believers give that first cause is God.

Originally proposed by Aristotle and venerated by Moses Maimonides and St. Thomas Aquinas among others, it carried serious weight and stimulated centuries of debate, but it can be dispelled by a simple insight. If one requires all effects to have a cause, what caused God? It is just as logically valid to assume the universe always existed. David Hume and Immanuel Kant also proposed more complex refutations of this argument, but the common-sense concept is the simplest.

Originally proposed by Socrates, a second widely known argument is called the Teleological Argument, or the Design Argument. Teleology suggests inherent purpose to things — the reason we have fingers is so we can send text messages. It’s based on the idea that the universe and all of its creations are simply too complex to have arisen by processes such as evolution and gravitational attraction. An analogy often used is that a watch must have a watchmaker, because the watch cannot assemble itself.

Proponents of this argument will point to “irreducibly complex” biological organs such as the eye, arguing that this organ would be useless in a transitional form so it must have been constructed in its present form by design.

Evolutionary biologists, however, can demonstrate many transitional forms of eyes, from crude light-sensitive patches of tissue all the way to the human eye. All forms confer a selective advantage to the organism, and therefore are perpetuated by evolution. Aside from the demonstrable fallacy of the argument, it’s difficult to believe an omniscient designer would create a world with such obvious flaws, such as parasitic disease, geological disaster and the like.

A third argument, conceived by St. Anselm in the 11th century is quite abstruse but held sway among many prominent thinkers, including Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza. It’s called the Ontological Argument. Its premise is that anyone who can understand what is meant by the word “God” can see that such a being must exist. God is that being “than which none greater can be conceived.”

Because I can understand that, I can conceive of God. Anselm claimed that, because it’s greater to exist in reality than only as an idea in the mind, God therefore must exist in reality.

Even Aquinas believed this argument to be false, as he thought God must first exist before we can make any claim about his nature. The monk Gaunilo pointed out that the argument can be extended to ridiculous analogy, such as claiming that there exists a perfect island: the perfect island must exist, for if it did not then it would be possible to conceive of an island greater than that island than which no greater can be conceived, which is absurd.
The most powerful refutation, generally taken as the final word, came from Immanuel Kant. He argued that the claim that existence is greater than non-existence is logically indefensible, and that our concept of a thing is as complete whether or not it exists in reality. The details require much study to truly grasp but have stood the test of time.

Despite the best efforts of many generations of human minds, we have yet to produce an empirical argument for the existence of God. That, of course, does not mean we can state definitively that there is no God, but it means we cannot make any claim to knowledge one way or the other.

Because no holy book offers any insight, we are left where we started thousands of years ago — choosing to believe on faith or withholding judgment until the evidence improves.

Matt Runde is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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