Friday, 20 November 2015 13:38

A 900-Year-Old Response to a Contemporary Debate

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A 900-Year-Old Response to a Contemporary Debate

Craig Payne

Craig Payne writes from Ottumwa, Iowa.

Evangelistic Atheists

Perhaps many feel they have already read enough about the "New Atheism," as it has been labeled, to last them a good long while. Still, the fact remains this "New Atheism" continues its influence, and that many books presenting the case for atheism have been best-sellers in recent months. The best known of these in English are Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation, and Christopher Hitchens' God Is Not Great, with its somewhat adolescent subtitle, How Religion Poisons Everything. These books, with the possible exception of Dennett's, are not written as philosophical works for an academic audience; rather, they are written purely as proselytizing tools, aimed primarily at converting the typical reader to the doctrines of atheism. When considered as such, they merit our attention, especially considering their apparent popularity.

However, sometimes it seems difficult not only to know where to begin, but even how to begin. The above-mentioned authors, Dawkins in particular, repeatedly attack belief in God as "irrational" and "illogical." However, when believers do respond to atheistic arguments with carefully reasoned logic, they are often derided as out of touch with the "real" world. For example, in his article "Holiday in Hellmouth" (The New Yorker, June 20, 2008), James Wood, himself a former Christian, paraphrases Bart Ehrman, another former Christian, as describing logical attempts by religious believers to defend God's existence as "obtuse and disconnected from life." Wood mocks these believers as living in the "sterile laboratories" of "white-coated philosophers" with their "logician's granules of P and Q." Ehrman himself, in his recent book God's Problem, seems to reject even the possibility of any logical arguments regarding the existence and goodness of God when confronted with the horrific magnitude of human suffering in recent natural disasters. One wants to ask atheists such as these: Well, are Christians rational or are they irrational? Are Christian thinkers guilty of excessive logic or of non-logic? What is it that you want out of believers? Or is this just a case of "any argument is good enough to beat Christianity with" -- even if it contradicts the previous argument?

In fact, based on reading The God Delusion and examining its index, it appears that Dawkins is not familiar with the work of virtually any contemporary philosopher of religion. In his rather amateurish biblical criticism, he at least quotes from some scholars such as the aforementioned Ehrman, who probably will become the news media's favorite "biblical authority" now that he has given up his faith. However, in the realm of philosophy, one searches in vain for any contemporary formulations of standard theistic arguments, though Dawkins refers to Thomas Aquinas (whom he misrepresents and misinterprets), Anselm of Canterbury, and Pascal. Does he not realize that philosophical theology continued on even after the 1600s? Where is any engagement with the likes of Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, C. Stephen Evans, Eleonore Stump, Peter Kreeft, William Alston, J. P. Moreland, or Charles Hartshorne, just to name a few representative thinkers? All of these philosophers, except for Hartshorne, are still alive and writing. It would be unfair to expect Dawkins to tackle all of them, but at least an occasional nod in their direction would be appreciated. (Dawkins does briefly mention a fellow Brit, Alister McGrath, simply because McGrath wrote a book critical of him.)

On the other hand, despite this glaring omission of modern apologists in a book dedicated to arguing against belief in God, even the older philosophers mentioned are more than capable of handling themselves in debate. For example, Anselm of Canterbury's Ontological Argument for God's existence deserves much more careful analysis than Dawkins gives it. On pages 80-84 of The God Delusion, Dawkins refers to the Ontological Argument as "infantile," "logomachist trickery," and "pure armchair ratiocination," and says it should be converted into "the language of the playground." His parody of the argument follows: "A really really perfect thing would have to be better than a silly old imaginary thing. So I've proved that God exists. Nur Nurny Nur Nur. All atheists are fools." For those who have not read the book, these actually are quotes from Dawkins, who used to be a capable scientist, believe it or not.

Since next year marks the 900th anniversary of Anselm's death (April 21, 1109), perhaps this is a good time to re-examine this famous argument, to see if it really is as "infantile" as Dawkins claims.

Anselm's Two Ontological Arguments

Anselm had considered other arguments for God's existence in an earlier work, the Monologion, before he presented his ontological argument in the first three chapters of his Proslogion. In the latter book, he considers the biblical passage, "The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God" (Psalm 14: 1). But what is it about disbelief in God that is "foolish"? It does not immediately appear to be so; that is, it does not appear to be self-evident that God either does or does not exist. Eventually, as he prays to God for illumination, Anselm hits upon this line of reasoning: What is it that we are attempting to prove exists? That is, what is God?

God's definition, according to Anselm, is that of the Supreme Being, "that than which nothing greater can be conceived." From this definition flows the rest of the argument:

Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater. (from Chapter 2 of the Proslogion)

Although this may appear somewhat opaque, it really is not so. If God by definition is that than which nothing greater can be conceived, God at least exists in our minds, since we possess that conception of Him. However, for God to exist in reality is a greater conception of God than merely for God to exist in our minds. Since God is that than which nothing greater can be conceived, the greater conception must be true, and God must exist in reality. If we speak of God at all -- if even atheists speak of God in saying "God does not exist" -- we must speak of God as truly existing.

Many immediately view this argument with suspicion, as if a rabbit had been suddenly produced out of a thimble. Proving God's existence could not really be that easy, could it? The most influential critique of this argument came from Immanuel Kant in the 1700s, who argued that "existence in reality" cannot be considered as a meaningful predicate of anything. For example, if I were describing my car's characteristics, it would seem odd if I were to say, "My car is gold-colored, about ten years old, a Chrysler, and also actually exists in reality." Does the last characteristic add anything meaningful to the description? Likewise, could we say of God that God is all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing, and also actually exists in reality? "Existence" as such is not really a characteristic, argues Kant, and so treating "existing in reality" as a property of God's does not make sense. Besides, we commonly speak of many things, such as unicorns, without assuming thereby that they must exist in reality. Why should we treat God's existence any differently?

However, in Chapter 3 of his work, Anselm presents a second ontological argument which is quite similar to the first, yet which is different enough to address Kant's objection. What if we do not think of the quality of "existence," but rather of the quality of "necessary" existence, as referring to God? Would not this be a unique quality, a perfecting quality, one which would add to our conception even of actually existing things? As Anselm writes:

It is possible to conceive of a being which cannot be conceived not to exist; and this is greater than one which can be conceived not to exist. Hence, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, can be conceived not to exist, it is not that, than which nothing greater can be conceived. But this is an irreconcilable contradiction. There is, then, so truly a being than which nothing greater can be conceived to exist, that it cannot even be conceived not to exist; and this being You are, O Lord, our God.

In other words, one could conceive of God as a Being who actually exists, but whose non-existence is possible, rather like my car, or like me. On the other hand, one could also conceive of God as a Being whose non-existence is impossible; that is, God could be conceived of as possessing necessary existence as an absolutely perfect Being, a Being lacking no perfecting qualities. In this conception, God would not be like my car or like me; in fact, God would be in this sense unlike anything else that exists. If God is that than which nothing greater could be conceived, then God must be conceived in the latter sense, as being unique in possessing necessary existence. Logically, therefore, if God possesses the quality of necessary existence, then God exists: "I Am that I Am," as He describes Himself (Exodus 3: 14). Thus Anselm discovers why the non-believer is the "fool" of Psalm 14:1, for the non-believer appears to be implying something like the following: "God, the one-of-a-kind Supreme Being who possesses necessary existence and therefore must exist -- does not exist." Such a statement is self-contradictory.

Norman Malcolm, a 20th-century philosopher, took up Anselm's conception of the Perfect Being, the Greatest Possible Being, and moved it a step further. As pointed out by Aristotle (among many others), a Supreme Being would have no potential for change, since change implies either a decline from perfection or some kind of improvement on perfection, which are both incoherent. So a Supreme Being could neither decline nor improve in any way, as also the Bible says: "For I am the Lord; I change not" (Malachi 3: 6). Therefore, to paraphrase Malcolm's line of thought:

(1) If there is a God, then God has to exist. (If a Supreme Being exists, and cannot decline or pass out of existence, this Supreme Being necessarily exists.)

(2) If there is not a God, then it is impossible for God to exist. (If there is no Supreme Being, then a Supreme Being cannot come into existence, since coming into existence implies contingency and the potential for change. If God does not exist now and cannot begin to exist at some time, then it is logically impossible for God to exist, ever.)

(3) Either there is a God or there is not a God. In the study of logic, this is known as the Law of Excluded Middle: "P or not-P is always true."

(4) Therefore either God has to exist or it is impossible for God to exist. This is Copi's Law of Constructive Dilemma, or (3) applied to (1) and (2).

(5) It is not the case that it is impossible for God to exist.

(6) Therefore God has to exist, by applying the process of elimination to (4).

(7) Therefore God exists.

Notice that this argument shifts the burden of proof onto the non-believer. If someone wants to argue that God does not exist, that person has to disprove premise (5). In other words, the atheist has to prove that the existence of God is not simply unlikely, but that the existence of God is logically impossible. On the other hand, if God's existence is not logically impossible, then God's existence is entailed: Either it is impossible for God to exist, or God has to exist.

This argument for God's existence, if nothing else, is worthy of careful consideration. It is certainly not "infantile," as Dawkins puts it. In fact, as one considers the philosophical acumen displayed by these theistic writers as opposed to the lack thereof in Dawkins' book, one might call to mind an old saying about a pot describing a kettle's color.

The Light of Knowledge

Nevertheless, often the religious believer becomes overwhelmed, like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming truck, when confronted with the attacks of such as Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Ehrman, and so on. Certainly the "New Atheism" seems to have momentum and popularity on its side, as well as seemingly plausible arguments. These people seem not only intelligent, but also supremely self-confident and patronizingly dismissive of theistic arguments. However, this feeling of being intellectually overwhelmed certainly does not have to be the normal state of affairs in the believer's life.

As Thomas Aquinas pointed out long ago, truth does not contradict itself. If something is a true object of knowledge by the light of faith, it will not directly contradict those true objects of knowledge we can reach by the light of logic. Therefore, the person of faith need not fear the divine gifts of logic and reason, which complement rather than supplant the gift of faith. After all, any true human knowledge ultimately arises out of the same Light, the Light which we may pray even the "New Atheists" also will eventually see. *

"He who has not Christmas in his heart will never find it under a tree." --Roy L. Smith

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