The posts of the previous couple weeks begin to add up to an argument for the existence of something like God – a value or goodness that is an inextricable part of the basic structure of reality. It strikes me that a significant part of this line of reasoning also underlies most of the widely known philosophical proofs for the existence of God. These proofs (at least on their own) do not take us to any of the particular Abrahamic views of God, as revealed in Qur’an or Torah or the person of Jesus Christ, but they are often taken as a first step to getting there.
Probably the most widespread argument for the existence of God today is the cosmological argument. (I discount the “Reformed epistemology” argument, which is not actually an argument that God exists but only that those who already believe in him should continue to do so.) According to the cosmological argument, we need explanations for everything, and then explanations for those explanations, which ultimately must come back to a First Explanation. In the more simplistic and less satisfying versions of this argument, the First Explanation is simply a first cause, a temporal beginning that sets the universe in motion. Such a first cause has little to do with the claims I’ve been making about value. But as I’ve noted a couple of times, the First Cause is hardly a proof of anything Godlike. After that first act of creation, the First Cause can just go home and ignore us and be ignored.
But things look rather different through if we view explanation more broadly, as Aristotle did. For among Aristotle’s four aitia, the so-called “four causes” that are really four explanations, is the “final” explanation: one explains a thing through its purpose, its telos, what it is for. And on the more sophisticated cosmological argument, not merely causes but purposes must go back to something: there must be a First Purpose of sorts, the telos of every other telos, an end to end all ends. The First Purpose, as opposed to the First Cause, is exactly an explanation of value; questions of “why should I do X?” will ultimately lead back to it. And if such an ultimate purpose exists, it takes the kind of guiding role in our lives that God would be expected to take.
C.S. Lewis’s moral argument for God’s existence claims that there is a basic universal human set of moral rules, and that this could not exist without a creator having put it there. I don’t think this argument works; differences in historically observed moral codes are far greater than Lewis takes them to be, and Lewis too readily conflates explanation at the level of value with the kind of causal explanation that evolution at least theoretically could provide. However, it seems to me that in his own confused way, Lewis is trying to get at something like the argument of the earlier weeks: to posit God as the explanation for real value. In that sense, it seems to me that Lewis’s argument, like the First Cause argument, turns out to be a confused version of the more sophisticated First Purpose argument.
Even Anselm’s ontological argument can be viewed in a somewhat similar light. Unlike the First Purpose and moral arguments, it is not exactly an attempt to explain the existence of value. But it does something parallel. It starts with an idea of value and goodness of a certain kind, observed by the mind, in the concept of a perfect being. This concept doesn’t make sense – so the argument goes – unless it exists in reality. The evaluative concept of a highest perfection, here, cannot be understood unless it turns out to really exist.
Whether the argument from design also follows a similar line of reasoning is more debatable. In a sense it works by conflating cause and purpose – by examining the purposes apparent in living beings and assuming those must be caused by an intelligent designer. But then it doesn’t really matter, because that is the one argument that – notwithstanding the arguments of intelligent design proponents – has been decisively refuted by empirical evidence. With the idea of evolution to explain the complexity of life on earth, we do not need an idea of God; of course there are gaps in evolutionary theory, as there are in any scientific theory, but they are much smaller than the gaps in any theory of divine design. Before Darwin, the design argument was by far the most compelling argument for God’s existence; now it is the least, and not because the others have gotten any stronger.
I tie together the proofs of God in this way because I want to get at the heart of the God question in philosophy – and I think that question ultimately comes down to the problem of bad and the problem of good. It is not that I necessarily buy any of the arguments discussed here, even the more sophisticated ones. The problem of suffering is too intractable – it’s at least as big a problem for those who believe in God as the problem of value is for those who don’t. But perhaps there is some sort of dialectical synthesis to be found in between?