Theology: arguments for and against the existence of God

Mystic experience



mystic experience

verifiability criterion


'Theology' comes from the Greek words theos and logos. Theos is the word for "god" and logos is the word for "the study of the nature of." Logos can also mean "the word or message." Theology is thus the study of the nature of God. We, with Descartes' and the help of others, are going to do some theology to try to find God, as it were. It's more or less a sure bet with Descartes, for we know that God is the way he will attempt to get us out of solipsism. Problem is, Descartes' argument may not work. We may need other arguments to help us out. Perhaps we should take a look at another creature who undertook the same enterprise to explain his existence, purpose and the world around him. INSERT ASIMOV'S REASON. "REASON" by Isaac Asimov. The story also appears in Book #3 of The Road to Science fiction. Synopsis of the story: A robot (a conscious robot) is put together to manage a space station. The two humans aboard the station have to deal with the robot's question about his existence. The story parallels Descartes' Meditations. The robot comes to the reasonable conclusion that the humans on the station could not have produced him (inferior beings cannot produce a greater being; an effect cannot be greater than its cause) and that therefore some "Master", a cause greater than the humans, must have created him.

Asimov's story is fun and there is a lot in it to talk about. It is clear that Asimov has put Cutie, the robot, in the role of Descartes; in fact, Asimov is careful to point out that Cutie will let reason find the truth and will not trust completely the evidence of the senses. Though Cutie is a robot, we're not so different from Cutie. It's not too hard to put ourselves in Cutie's place. Cutie and we are rational, conscious creatures who are going to rely on reason to reveal the truth about matters. So, suppose we find ourselves, as does Cutie, in need of an explanation of not only the world around us, but also our very own existence. What kind of explanations may be forthcoming were we to put reason to work on the ideas which we find in our minds? Remember, we are still experimenting with Descartes' investigation. I have already tipped you off that Descartes is going to find an innate idea of God from which he will claim to be able to bring back the external world, other minds and his and our bodies. But, it's going to take us, as with Cutie, a while to get to this innate idea. Let's reformulate the situation so that it is more like Asimov's story.

Many of us would want to say that our existence is explained by God -- for Cutie, it is the energy converter which he calls the Master. How is it that we come by this explanation which utilizes the concept or idea of God? In fact, what kind of idea is the idea of God?


The God whom I am talking about is the Christian God. God is the creator of the universe and man. He is the object of worship, for He is the source of goodness in the world. He is also worshiped, for He is represented in the Old Testament as a God who will punish those who do not do what He commands. He is worshiped as the source of redemption through Jesus Christ, who was subject to death, according to the New Testament, to absolve mankind of sin. Since most persons reading this material I presume to be Christians, I'll direct the investigation along those lines. In doing so, I'll not be precise in my definition of God (there may be more definitions than we may want to examine), but I'll try to be as specific as possible with respect to the arguments which purport to explain or demonstrate His existence. Concentration on Christianity is not to say that other religions or other concepts of the Divine are not just as important or intelligible, only that it makes it more interesting to talk to the largest available audience.

Let me arrange the order of arguments for the existence of God to be one that I find "natural", if I may use that term. What I mean is that our exploration will go from rather straightforward arguments from everyday experience to complex proofs utilizing ideas which do not derive from everyday experience at all. Put another way, the arguments will go from "seeing is believing" to a geometrical style proof that God cannot be conceived not to exist. Let's start with "seeing is believing."

verifiablilty criterion


A. The argument for the existence of God from direct experience; the argument from mystical experience.

1. God exists because people have had direct contact with Him. Let's forget Descartes for the moment, for he would right away throw this argument out --remember, he does not trust evidence from the senses. OK. Descartes is held in check while we become "loose" empirical realists; there is a world out there which corresponds, for all practical purposes, to our sense data.

The argument is simple and goes like this. If I told you that, "There was a crow on my back fence yesterday," more than likely, you would believe me. For one thing, you have seen crows. Since I live in the South where there are plenty of them, the statement seems believable. Moreover, you know me to usually tell the truth. In fact, probably, if you are like me, you trust what most people say about their experiences.

Now, suppose that I told you that I had seen God in my backyard. Would you believe me? Probably not. Why are you hesitant with God, but not the crow? Maybe, it's because you have seen crows, but not God. Yet, there may be many other things about which I have told you that they exist, which you haven't seen --The Tower of London, the Crown Jewels, the crack in the Liberty Bell. Further, suppose that not only do I claim to have seen God, but that the direct experience of Him radically changed my life. And, you see the difference. Before the experience, I had no direction or morals. I was a bum, constantly leeching off other persons and never returning favors or doing anything good. Now, I have a direction in life and behave morally. I hold down a job and go out of my way to help people, even strangers whom I've never met and will probably never meet again. In terms of a change in behavior, the experience of God certainly had an overwhelming effect on me, whereas that of the crow did not. You finally get down to the nitty-gritty and ask me, "Do you think that God exists?" I answer, "Yes." You respond, "But, how do you know that He exists?" I answer, "I know that He exists because I have seen Him; I have had direct contact with Him and thus know that He exists. That experience of Him has changed my life and behavior forever. What more or better explanation or proof could you ask for?"

That's a good question: "What better explanation or evidence could you ask for?"

Well, you may respond this way, "Look, I and other people know that there are crows because we can get to them, we can find them. You tell me that you have seen God. OK. Take me to Him. Do that and I may start to believe you."

You are, in fact, asking for better evidence and a better explanation. What is wrong with the evidence I have presented to you is that you can't get at it first-hand, and that makes it suspect. Crows we can all get to; God is a problem. Secondly, you need to be sure that what I experienced was the real thing, God, and not something else about which I could be mistaken. Let's get a bit more detailed in this criticism.

2. Can the sentence, "God exists" be one capable of truth or falsity? A philosopher named A. J. Ayer had a lot to say about whether or not what we talk about can be checked out to be true. He was a master at linguistic analysis; he thought that an analysis of language and its use could resolve many of the ongoing puzzles of philosophy. Here's a short version of his position.

We use language. Words are symbols that have meaning and can refer to things in the world. Sentences are words put together in a way so that the overall meaning or content can be checked in the following way. A sentence is a statement or proposition if its content is capable of being verified to be true or false. Otherwise, the sentence may consist of meaningful words, but if it cannot be verified, it can have no truth-value for us. For example, if I were to utter the sentence, "That apple on the table is red," you can determine that the sentence is a statement by imagining an experiment which would verify it; for example, going over to the table and examining the apple. Given that you can imagine an experiment which would verify the sentence, you know that the sentence is a statement or proposition; the sentence is verifiable in principle --you can imagine the experiment which would produce verification that the apple is or is not red. And, in practice, the statement can be found to have a truth -value. You look at the apple along with other observers and determine that the apple is, in fact, red. Thus, the sentence, "The apple is red," has meaning (we understand the words), is a statement or proposition (we can think of an experiment which would verify it) and is a true statement (we carry out the experiment in practice). The important consideration is that in order for a sentence to be a statement (something capable of having truth-value), the sentence must be capable of being verified in principle. A sentence may have meaning, but not be able to be verified by any kind of experiment. In that case, we can throw away the sentence as worthless in terms of giving us true beliefs.

Let's take a more complicated example. Suppose I were to say, "A unicorn is a white horse with a long horn on the front of its head. And, unicorns exist." The last sentence has meaning, but is it a statement? Well, yes, sort of. We can imagine unicorns somewhere on a planet in this universe and we can imagine going and looking at them. The sentence is a statement (it is verifiable in principle; we can think of an experiment which would give us the needed evidence), but in terms of its being verified in practice, we can probably throw it out. Why? Because it is almost certain that the place where we would go to verify the unicorns is our imaginations. Unicorns are probably fictions. So, we're not going to spend our time looking for the world which has unicorns or for unicorns in our world, for we know that unicorns are almost certainly the product of our fantasies. In terms of conducting our lives, the belief that there are unicorns is not going to be very important. No one is going to sweat over what kind of saddle and bridle he/she should purchase to ride a unicorn.

What about the following sentence? "God exists." Is this sentence a statement? Can it be verified in principle; can we think of an experiment that would produce the right kind of evidence? Ayer says the sentence, though meaningful, is not capable of being a proposition because no experiment can be created which would produce evidence that would endow truth-value. The sentence is not capable of verification in principle. Whatever God is, there is no way to find out whether He exists or not, for there is no experiment conceivable to confirm truth-value. God is not an object for experience that could make Him into a subject for any kind of experiment. (Kant would hold that God is not a possible object for experience, for the categories that would make such an experience possible do not exist in our minds.) Again, if no experiment could detect God, then no verification is possible. No verification, no knowledge or truth-value. No truth-value, then throw out the sentence "God exists" along with the unicorn stuff as sentences with which we simply need not bother.

But, consider. Suppose I said that, " Ayer was wrong. First of all, how can he verify the sentence, The verification principle is itself verifiable? There's a problem; to verify the verification principle, we must already beg the question that the verification principle works. In which case, the verification principle cannot even endorse its own truth. That's bad. But, that's a lot of theory. Let's turn to another attack. There is a way," I continue, " to experience God. If you wish to experience God, here's how to do it. First of all, do not get any sleep. Second, do not eat anything save bread and water. Finally, stay in an environment that is as stimulus free as possible. If you do all of these things, more than likely you will have a mystic experience of God. So, the sentence 'God exists' is verifiable in principle (I just described an experiment which we could all do) and is verifiable in practice (we can do the experiment and check out the results)."

Well, suppose we, crazy as it may sound, stayed up as long as we could, ate only bread and water for that period, stayed in a dimly lit, all white room with nothing in it AND had (each of us) a mystic experience which we described to one another as an experience of God. Would we have good enough evidence to conclude that God exists in virtue of our direct encounter with Him?

Maybe, but the evidence might not be as conclusive as we would want. Why? We may find that our experiences which we interpret as that of God are radically different. Some of us may have seen a "burning bush" while others of us may have only heard a "voice walking in a garden." All of us want to claim our experiences to be of God, but when we start talking to one another, we find it hard to believe the accounts of the other persons. How could a "burning bush" be God? More and more, we may come to the conclusion that the experiences are hallucinations brought about by the extreme circumstances under which we conducted our experiment. Remember, our experiment required rather extraordinary conditions for us to be in, conditions which other persons would say are just the kind that would produce strange or suspect ideas.

Suppose someone repeated our experiment and encountered not God, but an alien from a UFO? What would we want to say about him: that he did not conduct the experiment properly; that he misinterpreted the experience; that maybe there is an alien in our midst? Or, consider our "experiences" of God. Perhaps, it is the case that we want to have the experience (of God) so much that the experiences came to us through some sort of subliminal wish-granting power of our minds. And that's the rub: did God really cause the experience in us or is the experience simply a production of our minds and/or their environments? How can we check that out? Doesn't seem like there's any way to determine whether God was the cause and is the object of our experiences or whether the cause of our experiences was really some neural activity in our brains resulting from sleep deprivation, lack of food and a strong wish to experience God. In terms of "explanations," it may be that a more reasonable explanation of the mystic experience is that it was produced by natural causes rather than a supernatural cause. In ordinary life, we are more apt to believe that there is a natural cause for our experiences than a supernatural cause. If I slip and fall, breaking my ankle, I am more likely to explain the event as wearing the wrong shoes for snow than saying a leprechaun pushed me. If I ride a roller coaster 100 times, the feeling of nausea is more likely to be caused by the effects of the rides on my inner ear than an alien being from Mars who poisoned my lunch. If I escape being hit on the head by a falling tree limb, it is a better explanation to say that I am lucky than to say that an angel pushed the limb aside. If I experience God, it is more reasonable to say that some natural cause (lack of sleep) produced that experience than to say that God caused it. Explanations which involve supernatural causes experienced through suspect conditions are too prone to real doubt.

3. Would miracles do to confirm the existence of God? A follow-up method of confirmation would be to see if the God of our experiences could do things that would reinforce our belief in His existence. For example, were He still available to us, we may ask Him to turn water to wine, part the sea, or cure our diseases (or at least, our allergies). And, were He to do all these things, then there would be strong evidence that He is the real thing. However, we would have to make sure that the miracles were precisely that, miracles and not the tricks of some Evil Genius, as Descartes would have it. So, we would want to be certain that the miracles were indeed miracles and that only God performed them.

And there's the rub, again, doublefold. First of all, what is a miracle? Answer: it is an event that violates the laws of nature. Now, most of us have great inductive faith in the laws of nature. To see a law of nature violated by someone usually prompts the response, "Hmmm. How in the world did he pull off that trick?" not, "Wow! A natural law of nature has been violated." I have seen a woman cut in half right before my very eyes only to be put back together again moments later. Was the event a miracle or good sleight of hand? No question, the latter. Magicians are artists of deception. They make people appear to float in the air, disappear and then return in what looked to be an empty box. Given this fact about magicians and their abilities, how could we be able to tell that a miracle really occurred and was done by God? Remember, there are plenty of magicians and faith healers around today. And, there were a good number of them back in the days of Jesus. We simply need more to guarantee that a miracle took place were one to be performed for us. But, if we got that more, if scientists could determine that God really performed the miracles -that in fact God caused natural laws to be violated-- then that verification would be enough. So, to summarize, if a miracle occurs, we must be certain that it is, indeed, a miracle (and that looks to be very hard to do), and we must be certain that it was God who caused the miracle (which looks practically impossible to do), Unfortunately and simply put, God doesn't seem to want to take center stage and perform miracles or be the subject of a scientific experiment.

There is an argument that should be mentioned here concerning personal experience. It is the argument from morality. (The argument from morality revives the miracles argument in an interesting way.) There are two versions of it. The first version is that persons have free-will. Choices made by free-will involve an indeterminacy that violates the determinism of natural laws. Those choices are "miracles." They are events that would not have happened given the lawful or determinate behavior of nature. For example, that I choose a more scenic route to go home just for the fun of it or no reason at all would not be a choice that a robot would make which was programmed to take a specific road home. Free-will involves more than the routine behavior that we exhibit most of the time. And, since this "more" incorporates a radical indeterminacy and non-natural power, free-will choices could not happen unless that special power were given to humans by another being which was powerful enough to do that. God seems to fit the bill here as the source of human free-will.

The second version holds that the world contains so much unanswered moral evil that there must be a God who will set things right (who will administer justice) in the long run, especially to bad persons who have lives that are wholly enjoyable at the expense and sufferings of others. For example, that Hitler committed suicide could never atone for the tremendous suffering he caused. In an afterlife, God will bring justice to bear and we shudder to think what that may involve for Hitler. However, we hope that there is a God to bring about that kind of retributive justice. Otherwise, the world seems to be lacking a moral symmetry by letting bad people lead happy lives at the expense of others. God and an afterlife, in which people are rewarded or punished for their deeds, seem to be necessary to remedy the problem of bad persons getting away with wrong actions in this life. We must have faith that there is a just God to set everything right in the long run. But, more about faith and free-will later.

On the other side of the coin, the critical responses to these arguments could be as simple as saying that persons do not have free-will and that it happens to be a fact, a heart-rending fact, about the world that bad people can lead happy lives at the suffering of others and never have to pay. There is no such thing as free-will and bad persons can live pleasurable lives and never suffer retribution for the pain and misery they cause.

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