How can we know anything? How do we know that the desk in front of
us is real, that bachelors are unmarried, that the capital of France
is Paris? These are questions of
Unless we have a
framework that lets us know that, say, desks exist, we can't really
discuss whether God exists. There are various problems with knowing
things, but a few examples are:
There are various ways to deal with epistemological problems.
The most popular is to accept that there is no way of
really knowing anything about the physical universe. This
solution takes several forms.
have largely abandoned the idea
that philosophy can tell us anything about the real world,
focussing instead on the analysis of language.
- Gödel's incompleteness
theorem, which shows that no non-trivial logic system
can ever be shown to be consistent and complete.
If logic itself isn't reliable, then we're in trouble.
- The matrix. If we rely on our senses, how
can we know we're not being systematically mislead?
We might just be dreaming when we think that the
sky is blue instead of pink.
- Problems of induction.
One problem is usually illustrated by the raven paradox.
We want to prove experimentally that ravens are black.
So we get ten ravens, they're black. But there might still
be a white raven somewhere. So we get a thousand ravens.
They're all black. But there might still
be a white raven somewhere. So we get a million ravens...
you get the picture.
How ever many ravens we get, we
can't show by induction that all ravens are black. Even
if we try to get all the ravens in the Universe, we
just end up in the same boat trying to prove we've
got all the ravens.
The problem of induction is the one that real people pay
most attention to, only rather than ravens it's usually
something like "but how can you prove power lines/
mobile phones/ GM crops aren't dangerous."
holds that ultimate reality consists of ideas. In its
most common form, Platonic idealism, the physical world
is compared to shadows on a cave wall, cast by the
ideal Forms that compose ultimate reality. To Idealists,
logic and reason are more important than sense-data.
Another approach is that of modern Empiricism. Empiricists
accept that there is a degree of doubt in any statement of
knowledge. If the word "knowledge" cannot in fact be applied
to anything, it makes more sense to redefine the word so
that it just means "overwhelmingly likely, given certain
assumptions". Modern empiricists, such as
Bertrand Russell in his book
Knowledge simply add certain assumptions as axioms to their
systems. These include the ideas that logic is consistent,
and that the universe is not an illusion.
Another axiom that is usually, though not universally, added
is that things (such as white ravens) should be assumed not
to exist, until there is evidence that they do. This will become
It's notable that people who have had a chiefly scientific
education tend to prefer some form of empiricism, so it's
important not to overstate its popularity. Adding axioms
and weakening definitions is philosophically inelegant.
In academic philosophy departments, empiricism is not taken
In some cases scientific theories are generally believed to be
just another cultural myth. Similarly, while idealism seems
somewhat bizarre to scientists, with its emphasis on things that
are unobservable, it is taken seriously by many theologians.
Finally, epistemology is a large and complicated subject, which I've
barely touched upon here. I've ignored various systems here, either
because they're not sufficiently different, or else are somewhat
There are several alternative definitions of the word "god".
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is only
one God, who is the immortal creator of the Universe. He is
omnibenevolent: perfectly good and loving. He is also said to
be omnipotent, but is limited by certain rules of logic
In polytheistic religions, gods are immortal and powerful beings,
but not necessarily omnipotent nor good.
which is associated with the philosopher
God is identified with the physical universe itself.
This can mean God is just the mystical level of the universe, or
the universe seen spiritually.
Finally, there appears to be a modern belief among non-Church
deists that God is either less than omnipotent, or less than
perfect, but still the creator of the universe.
Some like to divide atheists into two categories
"strong" atheists who "actively deny" the existence of God and
"weak" atheists who just do not express a positive belief in
God. It should be noted that from an Empiricist view these
distinctions are meaningless: if there is insufficient evidence
to believe in any entity, it is deemed not to exist.
Theists believe that God exists as part of the Universe, and can
intervene within it.
Deists believe that after creating the Universe, God does not
intervene within it.
Arguments for the Existence of God
There are several "classical" arguments for the existence of God.
It's unclear how significant these arguments actually are in terms
of converting people to religious belief. Novelist John Sladek once
encounter with them thus:
...when I was twelve the Catholic school I attended made the mistake
of teaching me apologetics. Up to this time, the religious arrangements
of the universe had been taken for granted, like gravity or water.
Now we were told that you could prove God's existence in four (count 'em)
The Ontological Argument
It took no time at all for me to realise that if you could prove God's
existence it was a matter for disputation, not a fact... I struggled out
of my bonds, leapt to the window, and with one bound I was free.
Possibly the most significant argument, and certainly the
on K5, is the
Argument, originally formulated by Saint Anselm in 1078. Essentially
this goes as follows, though there are many versions.
In spite of its appearance, the ontological argument is not just a word trick:
it is logically valid within certain frameworks.
In particular, from a purely
Idealist point of view it is uniquely convincing, since it
doesn't rely on any observations or judgments of the physical
- Define X as the greatest being imaginable:
that which no greater can be imagined.
- Consider for a moment that this being does not exist in reality, it's just
an idea in the mind.
- D'oh! Then a greater being can be imagined: one that does exist in reality
after all. The concept that X doesn't exist in reality leads to a contradiction.
- Therefore, X exists in reality.
- Let X=God.
However, more empirical philosophers tend to reject the ontological argument.
If your epistemology is that reality is
something that can only be known through sense-data, Anselm's link from idea
to reality can be denied. The details of the refutations, counter-refutations,
counter-counter-refutations and so on become rather complicated.
Kant's refutation seems the most popular, possibly because his framework includes
both empirical and idealistic elements: he considers that both can give
valid knowledge, but of different types.
Kant's theories are therefore easier to swallow than those of
hardcore empiricism or pragmaticism.
Kant's view is that "existence is not a predicate". The step where you say
X is greater if it exists in reality is meaningless, since existence is not
an extra quality that you add to an idea, but something already present
within that idea.
Kant's refutation is widely, but not universally accepted. The refutation
of the refutation
of his refutation is left as an exercise for the
reader, because things are getting silly by this point and I don't totally
understand it myself.
The Ontological argument is probably more important as a definition of God
than a proof of the existence of God. Many who do not find it convincing
as a proof, still believe it to provide the best definition of what God is.
Cosmological Argument (Prime Mover Unmoved)
This argument also has several forms. It was formulated
as the "Kalam" argument
by Islamic philosophers al-Kindi and al-Ghazali in
the 9th and 11th centuries, and by Aquinas in the 13th
The Kalam version starts by arguing that infinities cannot
exist in reality, and that everything that exists has
a cause. Therefore, if you go back far enough in time,
there must be a First Cause, which is identified with God.
This is the easiest version to attack. Some criticisms are:
Aquinas' version gets more metaphysical. Aquinas also argues that
there is a hierarchy of different levels of cause. When a letter
appears on a screen in front of me as I type, one level of cause is that
my finger has pressed a key. Another level is that I'm writing
an article for K5. Another level is that my vanity drives me to
write articles. Eventually we'll get to the very highest level,
which is the will of God. However,
this version is still vulnerable to criticisms 2 and 4 above.
- The argument that infinities cannot exist originally came
from mathematical paradoxes such as that
infinity plus one equals infinity. Modern mathematics is
much better at dealing with these.
- The First Cause is not necessarily the same thing as God.
- We may think that every event has a cause simply because we live
through such a tiny part of the life of the Universe that this
is true. It could be that time is circular, so that the Big
Bang is the same moment as the Big Crunch. In this circle every
effect has a cause, but there's no first cause.
- If the universe is defined as "everything", it must include
God. If the First Cause is God, we're still left with the
question of where God came from
Argument from Design (Teleological Argument)
This argument is that the universe fits together
so elegantly and efficiently that it must be a
This argument was hit badly by
the theory of evolution, which gave an alternate explanation
for the same observation.
However, philosophers had criticized
this argument on theoretical grounds before Darwin.
Hume asked "Have worlds ever been formed under your eye...?",
pointing out that a lack of knowledge of how
something formed does not entitle you to come to a particular
explanation of how it was formed.
Hume and Kant both pointed out that the impression of order might
simply be a projection by the observer.
Taking the view that God is perfect,
Hume also argued that since the universe is limited and imperfect,
its creation cannot be used to imply the existence of a perfect God.
This argument lives on in the form of "God of the Gaps"
explanations. In these, gaps in scientific knowledge
are taken as evidence for the intervention of God.
For instance, Newton did not have the mathematics to prove
that planetary orbits were stable, so he suspected that
God intervened occasionally to keep them so.
More contemporary puzzles are those of the "cosmological
constants", fundamental numbers in the universe that appear
to be precisely set to certain values, which allow life
to exist. Since there is a gap in our understanding of
why these constants are just so, it is argued that God
must have intervened to set them.
It seems that as long as there are gaps in scientific
understanding, there will be "God of the gaps" explanations
for them. Even if it is found that there are vast numbers
of universes, and ours just happens to be ones where the
constants are set right for life, it seems likely that
there will be other gaps, from which divine intervention
will be inferred. However, while popular with some
evangelists, "God of the gaps" explanations are not taken
seriously by most philosophers.
The moral argument starts from the idea that people have
an objective sense of morality, which implies that there
is a moral aspect to the Universe, which must come from
The moral argument can be denied if you hold that morality
is subjective, or the result of social conditioning,
environmental or genetic influences. It can also be argued
that there is a moral order to the universe that is
independent of God.
Argument from Religious Experience, Arguments from Miracles
These two arguments are interesting because they are
acceptable, within limits, even to a diehard empiricist.
It is fairly common for people to report religious experiences,
in which they often claim to have experienced personal contact
with God. These reports can be considered to be empirical evidence,
in the same way as you might take a traveller's report from Timbuktu
as evidence for the existence of Timbuktu, without having been
On the other hand, religious experiences are hard to replicate,
and do not constitute undeniable evidence.
The argument from miracles is just that: miracles are reported,
and may be taken as evidence that there is divine intervention
breaking the natural laws of the universe. However, it is not
universally accepted that miracles actually occur.
The Problem of Evil
The Problem of Evil is probably the greatest problem
in religious philosophy. It has probably the greatest
practical significance in influencing ordinary people's
belief, or non-belief, in God. It is also probably the most
controversial. While some religious educators tend to imply that
is has been neatly solved, some textbooks imply that it is
effectively insoluble. For instance,
used for this article states that
"from a rational point of view, assessing all the arguments,
it would seem most unlikely that there can be a god who is literally
both omnipotent and loving."
It is important that the Problem is understood clearly. The chief
misunderstanding comes from the word "evil". The Problem is generally
held to consist of two different types of evil: natural evil
such as earthquakes, diseases and cancer; and human evil, such
as murders and rapes. While these are often considered separately,
the problem contains both. With that clear, we can say that the
Problem is the question of why a loving, omnipotent
God permits great suffering to happen to some people, but not others.
It is important to note that the problem of evil is not limited to the
question of why the potential for pain exists. It is assumed that
God is still bound by certain rules of logic. It can be argued that
physical pain is a necessary warning mechanism for an organism to survive.
It can also be argued that mental pain is necessary for spiritual
However, this does not address the issue of why suffering happens to
some people but not others. It also does not address the question
of whether the suffering could be reduced in scope or intensity.
The "human evil" part of the problem is usually dealt with by
referring to free will. It is argued that God has to allow
people to make their own choices, which means they can choose
to inflict death or suffering on others.
This solution excludes certain others. It is sometimes argued
that the reason suffering occurs to some people but not others, is that
God inflicts suffering either on those who deserve it, or those
who can cope with it. The free-will explanation implies that much
suffering is outside the control of God, and this therefore cannot
The free will argument is widely but not universally accepted, since
it depends on the definition of omnipotence. It could be argued that
true omnipotence would mean God could arrange free will to exist
without so much suffering: for instance God could give people a way
to "switch off" pain in extreme circumstances.
Not omnipotent or omnibenevolent?
A solution to the Problem which has become popular with Deists and Theists
who do not belong to a particular Church, is to assume that God is
either not omnipotent, or not perfectly loving.
The idea that God is not omnipotent gives some problems if God is
assumed to be the creator of the universe. The assumption that God
does not have total control over his creation makes the role as
a creator somewhat weak: merely pushing some kind of celestial button
hardly seems to count. This assumption also greatly weakens the
classical arguments given earlier. If God is not omnipotent or
near-omnipotent, the Ontological, Cosmological and Teleological
arguments all fall apart, giving us less reason to believe in
God in the first place.
The idea that God is not perfectly good is easier to hold, though
the Ontological argument is weakened, and the Moral argument voided.
In spite of these weaknesses, these theories are largely valid
solutions to the Problem, providing that the holder has other
reasons to believe in God, perhaps from religious experiences
or a belief in miracles.
The main Christian churches, and mainstream Islamic and Jewish
thought, maintain that God is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent.
Therefore they do not accept these solutions to the Problem of Evil.
However, polytheistic religions, or religions such as Buddhism that do not insist on
an omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator, do not have a Problem of
Optimism and Candide
God is usually held to be omnibenevolent, infinitely loving. Such
a God may permit necessary suffering, but never unnecessary suffering.
This is a tricky proposition to defend. A
single instance of unnecessary suffering would disprove it, so this
belief depends on all suffering being the minimum necessary.
This theory is that of Optimism, usually summarized as
the idea that "this is the best of all possible worlds". This theory
is essentially that God has chosen to create the best possible universe
that is logically consistent.
This idea was mercilessly
in Voltaire's novel
In this book, the Optimist Dr. Pangloss and the innocent Candide travel
around seeing and experiencing terrible tragedies and great suffering,
including the famous 1755
earthquake that killed 60,000 people,
each event being blithely explained away by Pangloss.
Without access to other possible Universes, the credibility of Optimism
comes down to making a judgment call. Did God have to design geology
in such a way that thousands would die in earthquakes and volcanic eruptions?
Was it necessary to give us so many varieties of pain, and such intensity
of pain? The answers can only be a matter of individual judgment.
Wager takes a more practical approach to the question of whether
God exists, essentially applying a cost-benefit analysis to the issue.
Consider four possibilities:
Interestingly, Pascal did not consider damnation to be an infinite
cost. He reasoned that since God is merciful, his rewards to the saved would
be vastly greater than his punishments of the damned. Even so, the Wager
appears to prove that you should believe in God. However, there are several
possible objections to it.
- No God, you don't believe: neutral outcome
- No God, you believe: small net cost due to wasted prayers and sinning
- God, you don't believe: high cost due to damnation
- God, you believe: infinite gain due to eternal bliss
- An atheist may declare that the probability of God existing is
zero. Therefore the benefits should not be considered.
- Consider a new strategy: throw a coin and believe if
it comes up heads. When you multiply the infinite benefits by the
probability of heads, the net benefit is still infinite. The coin-tosser
has exactly the same net benefit as the believer.
This idea leads to two mutually exclusive possible objections. The first is to treat it
as a argument from absurdity, and conclude that infinities
are simply not valid in a cost-benefit analysis. The second is to
assume that the best strategy is to choose an event with a remote
possibility, such as winning the lottery jackpot twice in successive
draws, and only believe if that happens.
- The wager ignores the possibility of mutually exclusive religions.
It's unclear why you should bet on Christianity rather than any other
- Finally, it's not certain that this self-interested solution is
really acceptable to God. If it turns out that God values being true
to your beliefs more than adherence to ritual, you might well find
yourself out of luck.
The arguments for the existence of God have various merits and
drawbacks. It should be noted that even among theists they
are not always taken to be valid proofs.Many theists believe that logic is insufficient, and it is necessary
to have faith apart from logic.
in particular argued that faith is essential.
Similarly, on the subject of the Problem of Evil, many theists
believe that there is no rational solution: that it must be
taken as another matter of faith that there is an explanation
for human suffering, without actually knowing what that explanation
In particular, while some Idealists find the arguments to be
convincing, for an Empiricist it is a matter of judgment
whether there is sufficient evidence for the existence of God.