Summary of the Arguments for the Existence of God

Is it reasonable to believe in a god(s)? To be reasonable, a belief must be backed by good reasons, but are there any? Western philosophers through the centuries have advanced 3 basic arguments for the existence of a god; we will consider each of them briefly. 

ARGUMENT #1 – The Argument from Design (a teleological argument)

Version A – “The best explanation argument”

1) There seems to be design in the universe;
2) This design didn’t come about by chance; thus
3) The universe was intelligently designed.

Version B – “The same-evidence argument”

1) Watches have designs and are designed by watchmakers;
2) Similarly, universes have designs and are designed by universe designers; thus
3) The universe was designed by one or more universe designers.

Hume’s Objections

  • We infer a designer from a watch because we have background information about watches (we have seen them, can visit watch factories, etc.) But we have no background information about universes or how or if they are created. Thus we can make no inference about their supposed design.
  • Suppose we accept the universe has a design; what would we conclude about its designer? Considered objectively, we wouldn’t conclude that it was designed by an omnipotent, omniscience, omni-benevolent deity. We would conclude it was made by less than perfect beings, intelligent aliens, drunk, child or malicious gods, etc.

Evolution – Hume’s were logical arguments, but in lieu of a definitive replacement for design the situation was at an impasse. This all changed with modern biology. After the fact of evolution was discovered, the design argument was essentially dead. (For more on the fact of evolution see: http://evolution.berkeley.edu/)**

[There is a new kind of teleological argument, known as the “fine tuning” argument. The idea is that life in the universe can only occur when certain universal physical constants lie within a very narrow range. This may imply a designer. However, the argument is not generally thought to be successful, and it is definitively undermined if we live in a multiverse.]

ARGUMENT #2 – The First Cause Argument (a cosmological argument)

Version A –
1) Everything has a cause;
2) Causes can’t go backward indefinitely; thus
3) There is a first cause, the gods.

Problems – Either everything has a cause or it doesn’t. If everything has a cause, we should ask what caused the gods? If there is something without a cause or self-caused or self-sufficient, it makes more sense to say that thing is the universe instead of some god because we know the universe exists whereas we don’t know gods exist.

Version B –
1) The universe requires an explanation; thus
2) The best explanation is a god or gods.

Problems – We have no idea of what, if anything, explains universes, and no good reason why such an explanation would be anything like the gods we imagine. Moreover, with the advent of “quantum cosmologies” in the 1980s, we have scientific ideas that explain how universes can appear spontaneous existence out of nothing. In conclusion, either:

  1. the universe is explained by something else (but we don’t know what this might be);
  2. the universe is explained by itself (it is its own explanation);
  3. the universe has no explanation/cause (it is unintelligible, it just is); or
  4. the universe is eternal (could be part of 2 or 3 above)

(You can substitute multiverse for universe in the above, but the choices don’t change. )

ARGUMENT #3God as a Necessary Being  (an ontological argument )

Version A –
1) The universe is contingent (depends on something else); thus
2) Something else is necessary (a non-contingent god.)

Version B – (St. Anselm’s argument)
1) God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”;
2) The greatest thing, to be the greatest thing, must exist; thus
3) God exists.

Version C –
1) God is perfect;
2) Existence is a perfection;
3) God exists.

Gaunilo’s objection – According to this reasoning a perfect island exists. But this is silly.

Kant’s objection – Whether a thing is perfect depends on its properties. Existence is not a property, but a determination of whether a thing exists. Thus the definition of a perfect being tells us what a perfect being would be like IF it existed;  not that a PB actually exists.

These are the very best arguments ever advanced by theologians and philosophers, and a majority of contemporary philosophers believe these arguments fail. Maybe arguments don’t matter and one should just believe anyway, or maybe personal religious experience gives one a reason to believe, or maybe the gods are just imaginary. But we can say for certain that belief in a god or gods is not simply a matter of reason or logic.

(For the record I believe that the god of classical theism is almost certainly imaginary.)

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** If you want to know the truth about evolution you can visit any of these websites:

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7 thoughts on “Summary of the Arguments for the Existence of God

  1. I would hardly call these “the very best arguments ever advanced by theologians and philosophers”. And, in fact, one of these that you document is so poorly constructed by you as to be a strawman – one that NO theologian or philosopher worth his salt would propound. The “first cause” cosmological argument’s premise is not “Everything has a cause.” In its proper form it is “Everything THAT BEGINS has a cause.” This is a very different premise which completely undercuts your problem “what caused the gods?” At least in Christian theology, God has no beginning thus has no cause. The “what caused God?” objection carries no water at all when you state the cosmological argument properly.

    Some of your other “problems” also have difficulties. “The universe is explained by itself (it is its own explanation)”? How can something explain itself? The only way I can make sense of this is that you are saying the universe is necessary in its existence. Otherwise, I’m not sure what you mean the universe explains itself (at least in a coherent way). But clearly that can’t be right (does every atom, every electron, every quark HAVE to exist? Could there not be one less or one more of them? Could not there be a different set of quarks than we have today in the universe?). This is not quite as bad as Dennett’s “ultimate bootstrapping trick” where he claims the universe could cause itself, but sounds awfully similar. Are there any philosophers that have proposed the universe is necessary in its existence (other than Dennett and his “ultimate bootstrapping trick” which is just incoherent)? I have heard of none.

    As for claiming “the universe has no explanation/cause (it is unintelligible, it just is)” is equally unintelligible. So you are saying everything IN the universe must have an explanation but the universe itself doesn’t need one? “It just is?” Why stop at universes? This is the classic taxi-cab fallacy – you are arbitrarily stopping at your desired end point for no reason.

    “we have scientific ideas that explain how universes can appear spontaneous existence out of nothing” – I would call into question this statement, and specifically your definition of “nothing.” From quantum physics, we know of the existence of virtual particles that can fluctuate in and out of the vacuum, but as any quantum physicist knows the quantum vacuum is NOT nothing! Far from it – it is a sea of energy. It is not “not anything” (which is the true definition of “nothing”) – it is SOMETHING. Lawrence Krauss would like us to believe things can come from “nothing” but philosophers know better – to think something can come from literally “no thing” is to believe in magic (well, maybe not – at least in magic, you have the magician).

    As for the ontological argument, you didn’t mention Plantinga’s contemporary formulation of it, a better form than those you document here. He doesn’t propose existence as a great making property. And the perfect island analogy is itself silly – clearly it can’t be perfect because there is no such a thing (is a perfect island one with 100 palm trees? 1,000? 10,000? With hulu girls? How many?). More importantly though, while existence might not be a great making property, surely NECESSARY existence is (as opposed to a contingent existence) – and an island (or a perfect pizza, or whatever) are material things and as such didn’t exist, at least not in our universe during the Planck era after the Big Bang) and therefore by definition can’t be perfect. So those “perfect island” or “perfect pizza” analogies are easily defeated, at least via Plantinga’s formulation of the argument.

  2. The Cosmological argument stated properly allows for no objections– God has no beginning therefore he has always existed. This is logically fallacious– the ultimate child’s game and is only coherent to a believer.

    Empirically (sorry to mix disciplines here, but I think I understand John M’s point in this way) we know that the universe exists because we can observe it. There is nothing approaching empirical proof for the existence of God– except to the believer.

    If there is possibly a greater example of the “taxi-cab fallacy” than the truth claims of the Abrahamic religions I’d certainly like to see it. And I’m not so sure I’m convinced that the “taxi-cab fallacy” is anything beyond simple inconsistency.

    I agree with john that it would seem illogical to assume that “something” can come from “nothing”, but then again I think we are splitting hairs here– the point John M. was alluding to is that science is at least attempting to come to grips with the the origin of the universe. That is more than one can say for most Christians who claim to “know” the “truth” about its origin already with less empirical evidence than the scientists have.

    I’ve only read summaries of Plantinga’s arguments, and it is possible that they seemed obscurantist to me because a) the summaries were flawed or b) I’m just not smart enough to comprehend them. While there is a high likelihood that the correct answer is b), I’m still going to insist that anyone arguing for the existence of God bears the burden of proving his existence, that the best proofs are empirical, one can occasionally get some traction with philosophical arguments, but I’ll have no truck with dogma and received “wisdom”.

    Lastly– what do all of the arguments for God have in common? They presuppose that God is the Christian God. Why? Sorry– couldn’t resist. 🙂

  3. “The Cosmological argument stated properly allows for no objections– God has no beginning therefore he has always existed. This is logically fallacious– the ultimate child’s game and is only coherent to a believer.”

    I’m afraid that your reply is hopelessly confused and is shot through with fallacious reasoning. The argument which you present: “God has no beginning and therefore he has always existed” is *not* a statement of the cosmological argument but a straw man argument of your own devising. Such a fallacious argument does not make your case. I challenge you to present evidence that any theistic philosopher of note has ever presented the cosmological argument in this way. You won’t be able to.

    “Empirically (sorry to mix disciplines here, but I think I understand John M’s point in this way) we know that the universe exists because we can observe it. There is nothing approaching empirical proof for the existence of God– except to the believer.”

    Theists do not claim that God is a physical object like a hat or a horse which we can observe; rather he is said to be a spirit. Any failure to “observe God” is, then, entirely unsurprising. It’s clear that you have merely presented another argument of your own devising and attributed it to the theist. Again, such fallacious reasoning doesn’t make your case.

    I would add that you seem to be confused about the notion of a “proof”. In logic, a proof is a sound deductive argument- that is a logically valid deductive argument with true premises. One does not prove things empirically though observation- that pertains to induction not deduction.

    “If there is possibly a greater example of the “taxi-cab fallacy” than the truth claims of the Abrahamic religions I’d certainly like to see it. “

    You show that you are confused and unfamiliar with logic. A *claim* is not an argument and hence it cannot be fallacious; fallacies pertain to arguments. Furthermore, you have not provided any evidence that theists have committed the taxi-cab fallacy. I suspect this is a fallacy which you have read about and misunderstood.

    “I’m still going to insist that anyone arguing for the existence of God bears the burden of proving his existence, “

    The burden of proof is on the one making the claim to knowledge. If a theist claims that God exists, he has the burden of proof. If an atheist claims that God does not exists, he has the burden of proof. In debates on the existence/non-existence of God both sides share the burden.

    “that the best proofs are empirical, “

    Proofs are not “empirical”. See above.

    “Lastly– what do all of the arguments for God have in common? They presuppose that God is the Christian God. Why? Sorry– couldn’t resist. “

    Wrong. The Kalam argument is, for example, Islamic in origin. Furthermore, many arguments for God argue for the God of the Abrahamic God or even for a generic God.

  4. “These are the very best arguments ever advanced by theologians and philosophers, and a majority of contemporary philosophers believe these arguments fail. ”

    As another respondent has already remarked these are certainly not the very best arguments which theists have available to hem, indeed several of them are incorrect statements of the arguments.

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