Sunday, June 13, 2010

Sunday Oden 4: Whether God Exists

For previous posts in this series, see here.

After two chapters about God's attributes, Oden now shifts to the question of whether God exists. This order of proceding is important to him, even though he seems quite convinced that these arguments are persuasive. He does not believe God's existence can be proved beyond doubt (83).

I want to make it very clear that it is not necessary for all these arguments to work for us to believe in God. Indeed, some would argue that the proper approach is blind faith rather than "evidence that demands a verdict."

In the end, he presents five kinds of argument that have been made:

1. Arguments from order and design (teleological arguments)

The argument from order is that the order of the universe is such that it begs for us to conclude an intelligence created it with purpose, that there is an Orderer of some kind behind it. The argument from design is similar, but slightly different. It argues that the complexity of the universe argues for an intelligent designer, much as a watch would.

Many will find this argument convincing. Evolution was often thought to have dethroned it, but even the theory of evolution involves patterns of order. Why does nature behave one way and not another? I wonder if in a quantum age, the argument from design collapses into the cosmological argument.

2. Arguments from humanity

The first of these is the argument of mind--how can we have minds by chance? How could nature produce something greater than itself? Not sure this argument makes sense to me. A couple of other arguments here that have been used in the past don't make a lot of sense to me. For example, God may very well have implanted in the human mind an awareness of Him, but it would be circular to argue that this fact alone argues that He exists.

More convincing is the argument that the existence of the divine is the general consensus of human culture. It is striking that humans seem universally to have some sense of the existence of gods. There must be some very strong reality driving this indeed!

3. Arguments from change, causality, contingency, and degrees of being

These are the standard cosmological arguments and although they do not prove the existence of the Christian God, I find them very impactful arguments. What caused the universe to explode into existence? Could it be possible that everything in the universe only existed contingently? If so, then it would be possible that nothing would exist. But if nothing could exist, there could not thereafter be anything. So it does seem like there must be some Thing or things that exist necessarily.

I'm not sure how helpful the arguments from motion and degrees of being are. In our world, I think the argument from motion collapses into the argument from cause. The degrees of being argument is that there must be a highest degree of being if we can conceive of lower ones. Not sure this makes any sense today.

Here again is where I respect the fathers but know way more about the world than they did. That makes this chapter seem really off to me at points.

4. Arguments from conscience, beauty, pragmatic results and congruity

I do not find these particular arguments very compelling myself. For example, the moral argument goes something like this: "The existence of absolute moral obligation establishes the existence of God as the cause of the moral order" (94). The problem is that the existence of absolute moral obligation is not at all obvious in the world, even though I believe in it.

Similarly, Kant's arguments for freedom, immortality, and God were based on certain things that seemed obvious to him about the world. Cultural anthropology far from vindicates his sense that everybody experiences such things the way he did. The arguments from conscience and beauty again seem far removed from the universal sense of those in this messed up world. The pragmatic argument is a reason why it might be advantageous to believe but it is not really an argument for the truth of such belief.

5. argument from the idea of perfect being

We end with the ontological argument. Oden clearly thinks he has hit pay dirt here, and there was a time when I tried to meditate on it to grasp its profundity. In the end, I find myself unable to say whether it has any truth to it or not. On one level it is logically incoherent. But there may be a subtle truth to it that I have not fully grasped.

The argument basically is that we could not conceive of God unless God actually existed, that the very idea of God implies within it the existence of God. The logical problem with the argument is that it mixes apples and oranges. The conception of God is a matter of our thoughts. The existence of God is a matter of the reality outside our mind. The argument as classically presented by Anselm and Descartes crosses this boundary between conception and world.

Certainly the greatest possible Being can exist in my conception. But if that fact in itself implies God exists in the real world, I have not yet been able to discern why.

So I find this chapter disappointing. Oden seems to treat all the classic arguments as if they are still fully convincing. Most of them to me, however, seem based on a pre-Cartesian view of the world. Nevertheless, God will continue to exist just fine with or without any of them. :-)


Bob MacDonald said...

My brother and I tossed these about before I was out of my teens. He is 5 years older than I and remains a pragmatic atheist who has managed billion dollar portfolios. His faithfulness in the face of Mammon may be his salvation - i.e. he is still an honest broker.

As for me - no philosophical argument works for me. But equally - for me - faith is not blind. While we are not to test the Lord our God, we are to taste and see. We are to put our trust in this one who revealed himself to Israel - in spite of the massive lament of Psalm 89, Psalm 34 still trumps it. And Psalm 51 while maintaining God's righteousness, is not a positive psalm of human morality, but simply a statement that God is righteous.

The 'taste and see' comes through the death of Jesus - I say this for me. For others, perhaps some other depth will give the necessary taste - some deep well - always good for the damsel to be found there when the bridegroom or his representative arrives.

When Paul gives his formula in Romans 9 - if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved - it is a formula for life now with all its troubles - not just for whatever we mean by the world to come.

None of these things proves existence in an abstract way. All of them are like the base statements of faith in the TNK - that God saw that creation is good - or that we are to hear that the Lord our God is one - or any other one cares to find in Torah or Psalms or other book.

As far as relating to science - both time and consciousness are not subject to Newton's laws but perhaps are even causative of them in the sense that we are in our decisions creating the reality we move into. See the blog of the Dean of Wisconsin called Entangled States for some suggestive stuff.

Anonymous said...

Doesn't one have to assume that God exists to "prove" God's existance? And don't these "appeals" appeal to those that are already pre-disposed that God does exist? Aren't apologies for the existance of God only "confirmation" biased, as most aspects of "knowledge"? Isn't "knowledge" culturally bound?Isn't "new knowledge" what brings about transformation to areas in assumptions, or biases? And isn't "new knowledge" what society grants to their doctorates?

π² said...

Why do you think Oden presents God's attributes before proof of existance? That seems logically backward to me.

Ken Schenck said...

He considers this the consensual order. I don't have him here at the office to give page and quote, but my impression is that it has to do with faith seeking understanding.

Anonymous said...

God is never meant to be proven by the 'origin of thoughts', but the 'origin of faith.'

matthew said...

I'd rank them...


3 doesn't prove the 'Christian God' necessarily, but it doesn't pretend to either.

It is counter-intuitive to reject 1

I tend to think the existence of minds/consciences are pretty strong arguments toward theism

But I'd agree with you that 5 is hard to find helpful. Perhaps I'm just not too bright :)

Alvin Wooters said...

Your second listed argument is that God placed within the human mind an awareness of Him, therefore God exists. You then argue that that would be circular reasoning. But it is circular reasoning that works. How can a god that does not exist plant anything in the human mind? Put another way, it takes the existence of God in order for God to have placed in our minds an awareness of Him.

Bob MacDonald said...

There is no abstract proof but perhaps one might allow a concrete proof. Such as is intimated in psalm 4 - prove the light of your face to us. I posted a translation here

Anonymous said...

Eph 4:23 And be renewed in the spirit of your mind;

Another concrete proof! Yet sadly, not many christians understood its reality!