By Dr. Douglas E. Potter,
Over the years that I have been teaching Christian apologetics and theology to seventh graders through doctoral students, five (5) misconceptions regarding arguments for the existence of God consistently show themselves. My students come from both secular and Christian educational backgrounds. I would often excuse those with the misconceptions as coming from a secular background that does not bother teaching correct philosophy. However, more and more I am seeing those even coming from a Christian background expressing misconceptions about arguments concluding “God exists.”
These misconceptions surrounding argument for the existence of God are not new. I can trace almost all of them back to the rise of modern philosophy, starting with René Descartes and especially through Immanuel Kant, and then I have seen them manifest in the Christian community even under the label of “apologetics.” Here are the answers to the misconceptions that I give in class to my 7th grader students —yes, 7th graders. (For those of you who may have missed a 7th grade apologetics class, I have provided a glossary of important terms you should be expected to know.)
Argument for the existence of God can demonstrate the existence of God. Usually the error arises as a result of confusion between two kinds of demonstration: propter quid with quia. Propter quid demonstrates the “whatness” of something. For example, if I want to know what the nature of something is, such as my pet, then I will match all the characteristics of felineness (catness) and conclude that my pet is a cat (i.e., what it is). This works fine for things found in the natural created world, but not for metaphysical (beyond the physical) being or God. However, for the existence of God, we must argue demonstration quia (“that” God exists). That is, I look at effects and reason that they must have a cause, even though I cannot match that cause with something else I know in the created world. For example, if I push on a door that is supposed to open and it does not, it is reasonable for me to say, “I know something is causing the door to not open, but I don’t know what is directly causing it.” This is demonstrated knowledge, even though I do not know directly (only through its effects) the cause. This is the kind of demonstration that is being made with respect to arguments for the existence of God, especially those of the kind Thomas Aquinas is making in the Summa with his five ways.
The confusion lies in what is known by natural theology versus what is only known via revealed theology. It is true that we cannot demonstrate the triune nature of God (i.e., the Trinity) by argumentation apart from Scripture. The triune nature of God is only known by examining Scripture and is completely based on the authority of God’s revelation. However, arguments for the existence of God and valid inferences made from those arguments can correspond to the One infinite and eternal nature of God with the identical affirmation of the One divine infinite and eternal nature found in Scripture. As such, Parmenides [name his most famous work containing his argument] argument when applied to the divine nature, as opposed to creation, stands true. There can be only one infinite and eternal being, so a philosophical argument for God and the God concluded from Scripture must be one and the same Being.
This was one of Kant’s problems with arguments for the existence of God. He reasoned that all such arguments depended upon the ontological argument that he thought was erroneous since a concept of something in the mind cannot entail its existence in reality. Thinking about having $100 is not the same as having $100 in your pocket. However, good cosmological arguments do not depend on or reduce to the ontological. At best, they may incorporate an ontological definition of God. Their starting point is not in the mind alone (a priori) but with an existential statement that corresponds to an undeniable truth such as “contingent being exists” and therefore concludes, “A necessary Being must exist.” Some arguments may then use the ontological definition to conclude what a necessary being is and is not, but it is nowhere dependent on the ontological argument.
Indeed, arguments for the existence of God begin with the knowing of contingent effects in the world. However, imbedded in this objection is the failure of modern philosophy since Descartes to provide a philosophical proof or argument that we know the real external world. But why does philosophy need to prove something that is already undeniable evident to us? As Dr. Richard G. Howe, my metaphysics professor said, “If the brick wall does not convince you it is real, what makes anyone think that a philosophical argument about the brick wall will do any better.” Indeed, philosophy just cannot do some things, or at least better than reality itself can do. It should be satisfying enough for philosophy to be descriptive of how we know, than to think it must prescribe a formal argument for knowing or else it cannot be true. It should be enough for the philosopher to start philosophy with what is an undeniable first principle that connects statements (a priori) with our knowing reality (a posteriori). In this life, it does not get any more certain than that.
Another one to blame on Kant, but he likely was tripped up by David Hume. The principle of causality states every contingent thing needs a cause. Note, it does not state everything needs a cause. Being that is infinite and eternal does not need a cause. God is not even self–caused (which is impossible); God is uncaused pure existence. As such, this principle does not apply to God. But it does apply to all dependent or contingent things, nevertheless, in a way that most do not recognize. Most think of causation in terms of one thing causing another that causes another and so forth. Moreover, even that is usually paternal causation: my mother and father are a cause of me (to come to be, but not continue to be), and their mother and father caused them, and so forth. Or consider one tree causes another tree through its seed, which goes back to a beginning, etc. for everything. This kind of causation is called per accidens. While some may use this to illustrate the principle in an argument, it is more proper to illustrate it via causation per se. That is, a simultaneous cause of my being is needed right now for me to exist if I am not a necessary being. For example, consider an egg being cooked in hot water. I ask, what is the cause? Answer: a flame is heating a pot, which is heating water that is cooking an egg right now. This is how the principle of causation works in arguments for God’s existence.
Arguments for God properly understood and stated are demonstrative and allow us to affirm correctly, “God exists.” Hence, they certainly have a role in any educational plan that is serious about teaching, learning, and knowing. If you missed it in your education or need a refresher, why not start today. SES has many opportunities for your to deepen your understanding of your faith. Why not start with our free Mobile App or our online Lay Institute. If you are looking for an undergraduate degree or one of our Masters Degrees visit take a look at some of our degree programs.
A posteriori – from or based on experience, in the world as opposed to a priori.
A priori – prior to or independent of experience, existing in the mind alone.
Cosmological Argument – reasons from contingent effects in the world to a necessary cause.
David Hume – Scottish philosopher 1711–1776, espoused skepticism
First principle – a principle that is undeniable true since it demonstrates its own truth once understood, since its opposite cannot be affirmed. For example, “something exists.” To affirm its opposite requires something’s existence.
Immanuel Kant – German philosopher, 1724–1804, espoused agnosticism.
Metaphysical – the study of being or existence; what can exist and kinds of existence.
Ontological Argument – a kind of argument for the existence of God that reasons a priori from the God being the greatest conceivable being and therefore must exist since necessary existence must be attributed to the greatest conceivable being.
Parmenides – (b. 515 B.C.) ancient philosopher that argued for monism that all must be one based on the inability to distinguish between different kinds of being.
per accidens – kind of causation where the cause is not directly or simultaneously causing the effect.
per se – kind of causation where the cause is directly and simultaneously causing the effect.
propter quid – a kind of formal argument or demonstration that results in direct knowledge of what something is.
quia – a kind of formal argument or demonstration that results in indirect knowledge that something is.
René Descartes – French philosopher, 1596–1650, espouses doubt leads to certainty (about doubt).
Summa Theologica – Thomas Aquinas major work on theology that contains his five ways or arguments for showing that God exists.
Thomas Aquinas – 1224/5–1274, Medieval theologian, espoused moderate realism in doing philosophy, theology, and morality.
Trinity or Tri Unity of God – the belief based on Scripture that God is one divine nature existing in three persons (Intellect & will) that are identical to the divine nature, but distinct from each other.