Popular Arguments for the Existence of God

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Argument about the existence of God is rare, for religious beliefs are effectively supported in our society by means that are not principally rational. It is common to answer the question "Why are you a believer?" with "Because I was taught to be," uttered in the tone of voice, or in the context, of one presenting reasons, not mere causes, of belief. It is even more common to speak of faith in God as if this were a specially compelling reason for belief and, moreover, one beyond logical criticism. Faith, however, is merely determination to believe and no kind of reason. Literature giving such justifications is not considered in this entry. Despite this omission of the greater part of the popular writing and what one might call the traditional verbal folklore of religion, a vast quantity of material remains that can be considered argumentative. After omitting further the grossest absurdities among these arguments, it has still been necessary to choose in a rather arbitrary way what should be dealt with, and no claim to completeness is made.

General Remarks

Most of the arguments in popular literature may be seen as variants of the more strictly philosophical arguments, such as the Cosmological and Teleological arguments, or those from morals and common consent. The variants are popular largely because they are posed as probable rather than as valid arguments; that is, they are not offered as arguments whose premises entail their conclusions. Almost all of them fall into a common class of arguments of the form "The universe contains some puzzling feature, F (design, an objective morality). God's existence explains F, and no other known hypothesis does. Therefore, God exists." That they have this form is a matter of no small importance; it affects the whole question of what kind of objection is likely to succeed against a given popular argument.

It is beside the point to demonstrate the formal invalidity of such arguments, although their invalidity is very easy to show in almost every case. However, it is entirely relevant to require of such an argument that it should make clear just how God's existence explains F. (Similarly, the real force of the well-known infinite regress counter to the Cosmological, or First Cause, Argument, is that it demonstrates the failure of this argument to provide the promised explanation. The argument merely postpones the explanation. That God's nature is mysterious does not, of course, fill any explanatory bill.) On this score, popular arguments are universally unsatisfactory, appealing tacitly (for the most part) to the claim on the one hand that all things are possible to God and on the other that, God being a transcendental mystery, it is presumptuous to expect any account of his efficacy to be actually intelligible. As the substance of an explanation, this is thin. Further, it is an entirely relevant question to ask whether any explanation is required of some singled-out feature, and whether alternative explanations are simply not known or whether there appears to be a reason to suppose there are none.

Argument from Common Consent

The argument from common consent is an old and constantly recurring popular argument (see J. A. O'Brien, God: Can We Find Him? ). The argument has a large measure of plausibility, despite the fact that it is formally invalid; for it is very often overwhelming evidence for some view that the majority holds it. For example, if a huge majority of spectators at a football game believes that a certain team won the game, that is exceedingly good evidence that this team indeed won it; and any minority dissent can be written off in some way, such as irrational partisanship for the beaten team. However, the proportion of majority to minority views is not the only, or by any means the most important, factor in such situations. It is also crucial whether the majority has any competence to judge the issue. On the outcome of football games the majority of spectators is well placed to judge, but on the significance of some scientific experiment the majority is not at all well placed. Obviously, the general run of humankind has always been and still is poorly placed to pronounce on such a question as the existence of a Deity. This requires a competence in logical reasoning on highly abstract matters and an ability to assess complex evidence that the majority does not possess. Their vote carries no weight on this issue.

Argument from Morals

An argument widely used, especially by evangelists who aim at the most general audience, is the argument from the intelligibility of morals. (On a more sophisticated level it has been argued by A. E. Taylor in The Faith of a Moralist. ) Many who urge it seem to have dimly in mind an essentially rather sophisticated argument, encapsulated in naive remarks like "But if God doesn't exist, why do you not murder or plunder?" and "If God doesn't exist, then a morality could amount only to doing what you please." The rather sophisticated argument thus hinted at is as follows: To call an action moral (immoral) is, first, to provide a motive for doing (avoiding) it. Second, the claim that an action is moral can be a subject of rational dispute, which requires that the claim be not simply a disguised subjective remark about the speaker's tastes. The existence of God explains these two features of normal discourse. Therefore, God exists.

As was pointed out earlier, the first question must be "Does the existence of God explain these features of moral discourse?" If the question whether an action is moral is equivalent to the question whether the action is consistent with God's commands, then moral questions are not purely subjective. On the other hand, it is doubtful whether the theory accounts for the sort of discussion that actually goes on when moral issues are argued. God's commands must, according to the hypothesis, be arbitrary. It cannot be that he consults something beyond his own will, since that external thing or principle would then be the source of morality and God its mere interpreter and announcer, not its creator. However, moral reasoning surely requires empirical knowledge of other persons and the world generallyand a very great deal of intelligence if the reasoning is to be satisfactory. It is far from clear that the hypothesis allows for the relevant play of intelligence and knowledge in arriving at moral conclusions.

Again, it is rarely stated just which motive for behaving morally is provided under the hypothesis of God's existence. It cannot be suggested that we have a moral duty to obey God's commands because the whole point of the proposed explanation is that his commands are the source of all moral duties. It could be claimed that terror of punishment and desire for reward are perfectly adequate motives for obeying the commands. However, despite the undoubted efficacy of these motives, they are seldom urged because they do not adequately account for what we feel our motives really are in moral behavior. The most satisfactory suggestion as to the motive provided under the hypothesis seems to be that one obeys the commands out of love of God.

In sum, it is uncertain how the hypothesis clearly explains the required features of moral discourse. Further, it seems quite possible to account for them at least as well without being committed to the theistic view. For if love of God is an adequate motive for moral behavior, why should not love of one's fellows also be adequate? And if it is, then it further seems an objective empirical question that courses of action promote those almost universally desired ends of continuance of life, adequate food and shelter, and freedom from violence, as well as less fundamental and more subtle ends that promote smooth social intercourse.

Teleological Arguments

Versions of the classical Teleological Argument are by far the most popular of all popular arguments. The variety of changes rung upon this old theme in respect of its premises is astonishingly wide, as may be gathered from the following brief examples: The smallness of the human gene has been cited by A. C. Morrison, for no very clear reason, as an instance of God's designing hand, and so has the immensity of the orbital velocity of an electron. More markedly odd are such suggestions as "This old world has three times as much water as land but with all of its twisting and turning not a drop sloshes off into space" (Ebony symposium, November 1962, p. 96) and that the annual progress of Earth round the sun, although it is much more rapid, is also much smoother than the most sophisticated jet airliner yet designed. Although it is difficult to see what relevance these considerations may be thought to have, they perhaps involve a confusion between a good argument to the conditional conclusion that if these things are designed, then the technology of their production is well beyond our present reach, and a bad argument to the conclusion that these things have, in fact, been designed.

An ingenious variant, heard in conversation but apparently never published, neatly turns the tables on a standard polemic against belief in a God that stems from Freudian psychologythat such belief is caused by a psychological mechanism arising from various sexual stresses in an infant's relationship with its father. This mechanism, it is claimed, far from showing that belief in God is pathological and irrational, really demonstrates his loving care for his creatures in providing a psychological mechanism that promotes belief, thus preventing the damnation of his creatures as heretics and infidels. This does not at all answer the point that insofar as belief depends upon the psychological stresses, it is irrational and pathological. (Irrational and pathological beliefs may, of course, be true.)

Arguments from the Sciences

Only more recent arguments taken from the biological and the physical sciences will be discussed. First, however, there is a general argument from the very existence of science, or as it is more likely to be put, from the intelligibility of nature (see D. Elton Trueblood, Philosophy of Religion, pp. 9498). It is felt that the universe must be rational if science, using logic and mathematics, is able to comprehend it. But logic and mathematics are concerned with deriving some propositions or formulas from others. It is not the conclusions or the premises of arguments that may properly be called rational, but only the procedure of deriving conclusion from premises. This procedure reflects no rational process in nature. It would be more accurate (although still not very accurate) to call this a linguistic procedure. We can move from "If there is lightning, then there is thunder" and "There is lightning" to the conclusion "There is thunder" by the rational procedure known as modus ponens, but it is not even intelligible to suppose that modus ponens is a natural physical process by means of which lightning produces thunder. Scientists may discover the important equation that relates the speed of a falling body to the square of the time of its fall. They may differentiate this equation, v = t 2, to show that the body's acceleration is constant. Differentiation is a mathematical procedure of derivation, but it is not intelligible to say that the body or the gravitational field in which it falls undergoes any such process of differentiation, or that it undergoes some nonmathematical counterpart of it.

arguments from biology

It has been arguedby Pierre André Lecomte du Noüy and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, for examplethat the pattern of evolution as displayed by modern biology shows clear marks of a designing hand. The direction of evolution, it is claimed, is toward progressively more intelligent life forms, thus showing the desire of the Creator (Omega, as Teilhard de Chardin called him) to bring about beings like himself. The claim is highly dubious. It induces "a certain shuffling of the feet" (to quote P. B. Medawar's review) in Teilhard, when he discusses the fact that insects and plants do not seem to evolve in this way at all. Lecomte du Noüy solved the difficulty by defining the problematic cases not as evolutions but as adaptations. The direction of adaptation is toward usefulness; that of evolution, toward liberty. Thus he made the claim perfectly, if trivially, safe. Even so, there is a difficulty, for if it is all a plan, why does God not bring about immediately and at a stroke the desired state of affairs now being so laboriously approached with such a plethora of wasteful products? Lecomte du Noüy's apparent answer is merely that since God is an eternal Being, what seems to us simple mortals as a drear immensity of wasted time is to him but the twinkling of an eye. The irrelevance of this to the original objection is obvious enough. The waste is still waste, and the existence of so many pointless dinosaurs (whose lives played no part in future evolution) can scarcely have escaped the attention of him who takes note of the fall of a sparrow.

One prevalent argument, put forward by Morrison, among others, is based on the allegedly remarkable hospitality of our planet to complex forms of life. Temperatures are neither too high nor too low, and there is an abundance of water and oxygen and an atmospheric blanket against lethal doses of cosmic radiation. But the argument inverts the situation. We now have good reasons (of a Darwinian kind) to believe that the surviving life forms are those that adapt to the environment rather than those for whom the environment has been adapted by a beneficent Overseer. So far as is known, only one of the nine major planets of our particular star is hospitable to complex life forms. It might be surprising if every planet of every star fulfilled the quite detailed set of conditions that favor life as we know it and that prevail over most (not all) of our planet. But that there is one such planet is not so surprising that we need recourse to metaphysical entities to explain it.

Similar arguments from alleged improbabilities also spring from biology. Lecomte du Noüy and others have claimed that life is inconsistent with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This law states that entropy increases, which means, roughly, that in any isolated system energy breaks down from various differentiated forms that are usable in doing work to an undifferentiated state of uniform heat. In statistical thermodynamics, increase of entropy is defined roughly as increase of the randomness of systems, that is, their movement toward more probable forms. But, it is said, living organisms decrease in entropy as they grow; they build up differentiated forms of energy and hence are improbable structures.

However, the phenomena of life are quite consistent with the law, for living organisms are not thermodynamically isolated systems. In whatever way life may be improbable, it is certainly not improbable in any sense that makes it inconsistent with statistical thermodynamics.

A second, more plausible, claim of this kind is that even a simple protein molecule is a highly improbable structure, so improbable that it is simply incredible that it should ever have come into existence by pure chance. A calculation cited by V. H. Mottram puts the odds against a chance "manufacture" of a simple protein molecule as 10160 to 1, a small chance by any standards. Mottram also claimed that 10243 years would be needed for such an event to occur on this planet (a much longer period than that accepted for the cool Earth) and that it would require sextillion sextillion sextillion times more material than is believed to be in the entire universe. Another calculation shows that the probability of such a molecule's arising by chance manipulation of amino acids (already quite complex structures) is still as low as 1:1048 and hence very improbable indeed.

The ways of statistical arguments are notoriously complex. We must always ask "Relative to what assumptions are these probability figures reached?" This was not made clear by Mottram. Presumably we are to assume at least that the atoms are rearranged in various positions by a process of mechanical shuffling of some sort in which all the rearrangements so envisaged are equally probable.

The possibility of such a rearrangement is very dubious. Even elementary chemistry informs us that certain combinations are not possiblefor example, five hydrogen atoms may not be linked to one carbon atom. There is no evidence that such groups were excluded from the class of equiprobable arrangements considered in constructing this figure. If one considers the various linkages of more complex groups in which, say, a group of fifty atoms hooks on to another group of fifty, the number of chemically possible combinations is, presumably, very small. But this cannot have been taken into consideration in constructing the figures, because we do not have sufficient knowledge of the chemical possibilities at this level. The theists appear to have committed at this point the fallacy of assuming equal probabilities in cases where we have no positive knowledge of what the probabilities are.

Consider a liter of hydrogen containing, say, 1022 atoms. If we attempt to assign a number to all the conceivable arrangements of those atoms, the number is enormous. Yet we invariably find them divided into hydrogen molecules, 0.5 × 1022 pairs of atoms extremely close together. The improbability of this always coming about as a random arrangement of atoms is immense, and certainly far greater than any of the figures quoted by Mottram, yet this is presumably not evidence of design. Without more information about and justification of the assumption of equiprobability on which Mottram's calculation is based, plainly no reliance can be placed upon it.

arguments from physics

Perhaps even more than biology, modern physics has given rise to a group of widely circulated arguments purporting to show that, despite the fact that God nowhere appears in the calculations of physicists, modern physics demands, suggests, or allows for the existence of God.

Although most apologists agree that the views of a scientist have no special authority outside the field of his expertise, this does not prevent their citing a vast mass of material produced by those physicists who spend their less strenuous hours philosophizing on their findings. The view almost universally favored among such writers, and perhaps most forcefully expressed by Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans, is that modern physics establishes the subjectivity of all knowledge and that reality is mental, not material. It is often further concluded that physics has shown the world to be a nonrational place about which clear logical argument is out of place.

Relativity theories are alleged to have shown the subjectivity of all knowledge and to have confirmed Protagoras's doctrine that man is the measure of all things. But the special theory of relativity is concerned with relations between inertial systems (a notion definable wholly within objective dynamics). It is not at all concerned with any observers who may be reading clocks or using measuring rods within these systems. The general theory only extends the results of the special theory to cover relations between systems of a wider class. Neither theory is subjectivist or mentalistic.

A similar example of needless obscurantism concerns the primary place given the concept of energy by the relativistic notion that mass (matter) may be converted into energy, and vice versa. Few of us are sure just what energy is; and, when a scientist such as E. J. Bing informs us that everything is energy, that it may exist in the form of electromagnetic vibration, and that it is a vehicle of universal thought (a gratuitous addition), we are apt to think that, while we do not know what this really means, perhaps everything is, in some obscure way, thought and hence in the mind of God.

Trueblood (op. cit., pp. 102105) has invoked the science of thermodynamics to yield a theistic conclusion. The Second Law of Thermodynamics shows that the universe is steadily increasing its thermodynamic randomnessit is dissipating its stores of differentiated energy usable in doing work. It also shows that, as we trace the history of the universe in time according to the law, we come to a state of minimum energy, a sort of beginning in time of the universe. But this is far from lending support to the theistic hypothesis. It simply means that the law leads us to a point beyond which it will not take us. It gives no warrant for the conclusion that the minimum entropy state has a supernatural cause.

The greatest number of arguments are derived from the difficult and puzzling field of quantum mechanics. It is possible to give some indication of the relevant state of affairs in physics in terms of two features: (1) The Schrödinger wave equation, which is fundamental to quantum physics, contains the ψ function. This gives as its square the probability that an electron, for example, is in a certain spatiotemporal region. This feature leads to the result that the exact later states of electrons are unpredictable even from the fullest statement of their earlier states. (2) Beams of radiation or of electrons show some features characteristic of beams of particles but others characteristic of beams of waves, although their being particles is inconsistent with their being waves.

Feature (2) leads directly to such distortions as "If an electron can be two wholly inconsistent things, it is a little narrow to expect so much less of God." The electron, of course, is not, nor can it be, two inconsistent thingsand (2) does not entail this. But the claim, together with the breakdown of the Laplacean view that given the complete mechanical state of the universe at any one time, any future or past state could be rigorously deduced in every detail, is generally hailed by religious apologists. Very few apologists claim that quantum physics actually provides evidence for God's existence. It is simply that in quantum theory mechanical determinism breaks down and there is no mechanical picture of quantum processes that is an adequate interpretation of the mathematical formalism of the theory. To religious apologists it appears that these facts allow for occult nonphysical causes and forbid rational understanding. They appear to feel that in the overthrow of reason itself lies their best defense.

More specific in their trend toward the admission of occult or physically transcendent causes are the following characteristic arguments. Arguing from the bad habit some physicists have of speaking about unpredictable electron jumps as the electron "choosing" one rather than another energy state, E. J. Bing wrote, "Let's call a spade a spade. To say that an electron 'chooses' to do anything is to attribute free will to the electron. " The theory gives no warrant for taking this obvious metaphor literally. It is quite unclear what real meaning there could be for such terms as choice and free will if their use is extended from describing living things to describing those that are nonliving. Such extension can result only in confusion.

Some physicists (Jeans, for example) have an equally deplorable habit of speaking of the Schrödinger wave equation as "waves of knowledge" in discussing the behavior of subatomic particles. This is presumably because the Schrödinger equation, which describes the behavior, is a wave equation and contains a function whose square is a probability. Apparently they regard probability as purely a matter of knowledge and thus suppose that some occult mental principle is at work in the quantum world. These suggestions won no assent from such authoritative quantum physicists as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who most strongly insisted on the indeterminacy of quantum physics. Their notion is not that quantum phenomena have occult causes (acts of free will on the part of electrons) or unknown causes, but that they have no causes at all. Although there have been many distinguished scientists, including Albert Einstein, who believe it is possible that in the future we shall have a fully deterministic theory of the subatomic world, they have all taken for granted that the theory would postulate only physical causes.

See also Common Consent Arguments for the Existence of God; Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God; Degrees of Perfection, Argument for the Existence of God; Moral Arguments for the Existence of God; Ontological Argument for the Existence of God; Religious Experience, Argument for the Existence of God; Teleological Argument for the Existence of God.


favorable views

Bing, E. J. "Modern Science Discovers God." American Mercury (June 1941).

Corbishley, Thomas. Religion Is Reasonable. London: Burns & Oates, 1960.

Ebony, symposium. "Why I Believe in God" (December 1961 ff.).

Eddington, A. S. Nature of the Physical World. London: Cambridge University Press, 1928.

Gittelsohn, R. B. "Have We Outgrown God?" Saturday Review (September 16, 1961).

Griffith, A. L. Barriers to Christian Belief. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1962.

Jeans, Sir James. The Mysterious Universe. London: Cambridge University Press, 1930.

Lecomte du Noüy, Pierre. Human Destiny. London: Longmans Green, 1947.

Lewis, C. S. Miracles. London: Bles, 1948.

Morrison, A. C. "Seven Reasons Why a Scientist Believes in God." Reader's Digest (October 1960).

Mottram, V. H. "Scientific Basis for Belief in God." Listener (April 22, 1948).

O'Brien, J. A. God: Can We Find Him? New York: Paulist Press, 1942.

Robinson, J. A. T. Honest to God. London: SCM Press, 1963.

Rosten, Leo, ed. Guide to the Religions of America. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1955.

Taylor, A. E. The Faith of a Moralist. London: Macmillan, 1930.

Taylor, F. Sherwood. Man and Matter. London: Chapman and Hall, 1951.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Phenomenon of Man. Translated by Bernard Wall. New York: Harper, 1959.

Trueblood, D. Elton. Philosophy of Religion. New York: Harper, 1957.

Weaver, Warren. "A Scientist Ponders Faith." Saturday Review of Literature (January 3, 1959).

Whittaker, Sir Edmund. "Religion and the Nature of the Universe." Listener (June 1, 1950).

skeptical views

Cohen, Chapman. God and Me. London, 1946.

Cohen, Chapman. God and the Universe. London: Pioneer Press, 1946.

Feyerabend, Paul. "Niels Bohr's Interpretation of the Quantum Theory." In Current Issues in the Philosophy of Science, edited by Herbert Feigl and Grover Maxwell. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961. The relevant features of quantum physics are well discussed in this difficult but not highly mathematical paper.

Jack, H. "A Recent Attempt to Prove God's Existence." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 25 (1965): 575579. Critically discusses one of the arguments by A. C. Morrison and a very similar argument by Lecomte du Noüy in Human Destiny.

Medawar, P. B. "Critical Notice of 'Phenomenology of Man.'" Mind 70 (1961): 99106.

Russell, Bertrand. Religion and Science. London: Butterworth-Nelson, 1936.

Russell, Bertrand. The Scientific Outlook. London: Allen and Unwin, 1931.

Russell, Bertrand. Why I Am Not a Christian. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957.

Stebbing, L. Susan. Philosophy and the Physicists. London: Methuen, 1937.

other recommended titles

Behe, Michael. Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. New York: Free Press, 1998.

Behe, Michael et al., eds. Science and Evidence for Design in the Universe. San Franciso: Ignatius Press, 2000.

Buckman, Robert. Can We Be Good without God? Biology, Behavior, and the Need to Believe. Amherst, MA: Prometheus, 2002.

Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics, 4th ed. Boston: Shambhala, 2000.

Davies, Paul. God and the New Physics. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

Davis, Jimmy, and Harry Poe. Designer Universe: Intelligent Design and the Existence of God. Broadman and Holman, 2002.

Dawkins, Richard. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton, 1996.

Dembski, William. Intelligent Design: The Bridge between Science and Theology. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Dembski, William, ed. Mere Creation: Science, Faith and Intelligent Design. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998.

Dennett, Daniel. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Hare, John. Why Bother Being Good? The Place of God in the Moral Life. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002.

Johnson, Philip. Darwin on Trial. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Ross, Hugh. The Fingerprint of God. New Kensington, PA: Whitaker House, 2000.

Schroeder, Gerald. The Hidden Face of God: Science Reveals the Ultimate Truth. New York: Free Press, 2002.

G. C. Nerlich (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christian B. Miller (2005)