Note: Although Brexit is topical at the moment, and I enjoy reading posts about it on this and other blogs (when time allows), today I would prefer to direct readers elsewhere on that topic and encourage them to spend time in prayer on the matter.
St Anselm and St Thomas Aquinas took markedly different approaches towards the problem of proving the existence of God. Their arguments were challenged by other philosophers and were also rehabilitated by those who thought that their arguments had been misrepresented or were essentially correct but incomplete or ambiguous as formulated in certain texts.
St Anselm’s ontological argument was critiqued by Immanuel Kant. Kant posed the question, “What kind of proposition is, ‘God exists’?” He held that analytic propositions, true or false by virtue of definitions, tell us only about the structure of human thought. They tell us nothing about how the external world is. Synthetic propositions are true or false by virtue of how the external world is. While Kant believed that some synthetic propositions could be known by reason alone (a priori), he did not put propositions about the existence of objects into this class. Their truth or falsehood must be established by means of experience (a posteriori).
St Anselm’s ontological argument seeks to prove that the proposition, “God exists”, is true by means of reason alone. If the proposition is an analytic one, then it is useless as far as the challenge posed by atheists and agnostics to theists is concerned. It only tells us that human thought requires the proposition, “God exists”, to be true. While this information has its value (for discussion of which the reader is referred to the works of Quine), if Kant’s reasoning is accepted, it tells us nothing about whether God actually exists in and beyond the external world.
If the proposition is a synthetic one, it can potentially be verified by experience. Indeed there are experiences that potentially do establish that God does exist. In non-contentious cases, people generally accept experience as a verification for a proposition concerning the existence of something.
However, such experience can never be conclusive. It is not possible to know something with certainty a posteriori, as Hume, who influence Kant, freely admitted. There is always the possibility of (rational) doubt. One can always explain an experience away as something else: a dream, a hallucination, a misunderstanding of a phenomenon, a hoax, a lie, insanity, etc. Humans know these options are possible; they simply discard them in a lot of cases as being less likely, based on the available evidence, than the obvious explanation.
Thus a posteriori verification of the proposition, “God exists”, was challenged by Kant. He questioned whether purported visions and other experiences were genuine and whether any kind of experience is available that would satisfactorily establish the existence of God. It would seem, based on a Kantian interpretation, that faith is required.
Accepting the necessity of faith does not in and of itself entail that belief in the existence of God is unreasonable. All humans use faith in this sense in secular contexts because a posteriori verification is not actually knowledge in the strict infallibilist sense.
Once this is realised, the debate naturally progresses to the particular lines of evidence. If it is generally acceptable to trust the senses (indeed one must if one is to avoid a solipsistic life of hermitude), one must then determine whether evidence adduced by theists is of the kind to be accepted in this manner or whether it is actually quite different. Such particular debates are beyond the scope of this post, except two noteworthy observations.
- The enquirer should beware of falling into the fallacious circular reasoning that Hume showed in respect of miracles, which is a sad stain on the reputation of the greatest thinker ever produced by Scotland. Indeed, few intellects at any time in history could compare to his.
- Given that humans must use faith in respect of synthetic propositions that cannot be known a priori, it is hypocritical to denounce theists for using faith unless one shows why it is unreasonable to use faith in particular cases. A general denunciation of faith is contradictory unless one is a nihilist. If one is a nihilist, one has no right to try and persuade others to accept such a proposition because nihilism is a rejection of objectivity, and logic presupposes objectivity, and persuasion presupposes logic. To attempt to persuade someone while simultaneously denouncing logic is to be engage in a contradiction.
St Aquinas worked backwards from experience to the Reality beyond experience (if such a gauche phrase can be accepted by the reader; indeed, the actual concept is beyond humans’ ability to unpack sufficiently with language, hence the necessity of accepting the doctrine of transcendence as part of the definition of GOD). He held that, given our acceptance of experience and the means by which we process it, we must accept the existence of God. To do otherwise is to engage in a contradiction.
Although Aquinas preceded the Enlightenment and the developed Rationalist and Empiricist camps, he belonged to the proto-form of the great debate. Indeed, the debate is really as old as philosophy itself, being found in the pre-Socratics and the works of Plato and Aristotle. Our ability to parse old philosophy using Enlightenment techniques is a testimony to both the Enlightenment and old philosophy.
Aquinas, however, faces the problem of Kantian interpretation (transcendentalism), just as Anselm did. Aquinas relied on the structure of human thought, even if he was decidedly fixed on experience. His reasoning concerned conceptual structures such as “cause and effect”, “origin and outworking”, “motion and rest”, etc.
Kant, and those who accept his doctrine, recognise that certain forms of human reasoning cannot be derived from experience (which is why it is tempting to class him as a rationalist; but he is a transcendentalist, neither rationalist nor empiricist). Rather, humans must impose certain concepts a priori on experience in order to make sense of it.
This leaves us with a problem. How do we know that the external world is like our thoughts? (See the debate between direct realists, indirect realists, and idealists.) The answer, according to Kant, is that we do not. He created in his schema two worlds: the phenomenal and the noumenal. We live in the phenomenal world, the world of appearances (see also Plato’s schema of this world and the world of the forms). The noumenal world is the world of things as they truly are. The two may in fact be identical – but we have no means of knowing this.
Thus, the Kantian storm shipwrecks (apparently) the bark of Thomism. Our understanding of experience, like the structure of our thoughts, requires us to believe that God exists. But does He? How do we know? Can we know?
In the face of challenges from agnostics and atheists, and tumults of daily life, it is tempting to stop believing in God. It is tempting to leave Zion and return to Ur, to Babylon. Indeed, one of life’s surprises is the mirrored position of theists and atheists, which Steve Hays discusses at Triablogue:
See also this post by Peter Pike.
This quotation from Peter Pike’s post is particularly apt:
Because of the Christians I’ve talked with, I know that one of the most common effects of depression is a struggle with faith and assurance. It is easy for us to fake how much we love God when things are going well. But add the overwhelming pain of depression, and suddenly it’s difficult to know where in the raging storm you can find dry land. I know many Christian brothers and sisters who struggle at times of depression with whether or not God has abandoned them. They struggle with this, yet I know as much as humanly possible that they have a genuine faith in God.
The problem of evil, one’s own depression, and the challenges of philosophy and militant atheism can leave a Christian vulnerable, even when things externally are going well (health, wealth, etc). There is the lurking fear that things will go badly again in the future: a mistake, moral weakness, or something evil that happens for no apparent reason. Indeed, living in the world is shocking. The more conscious one is of the goodness of Christian ethics and the benevolence found in the definition of God, the more shocking actual experience is. How is one to persist in belief in God and still cling to epistemic virtue?
The problem can be viewed from two perspectives: the Heavenly (objective) and the personal (subjective). Christian doctrine teaches that God spiritually preserves His people. This does not mean they are spared harship, temptation, depression, or doubt. It is part of theodicy and other concepts and describes what God is doing in the midst of adversity. Subjectively, one must navigate one’s own thoughts (logic and interpretation), emotions, and experiences, holding on to faith.
Ethical analysis reveals that humans ought to do the right thing for the right reasons. Believing in God is part of ethical behaviour. Ethics can ask the following questions.
- Is it right to believe in God?
- If so, what are legitimate reasons for believing in God?
- Are there illegitimate reasons for believing in God?
- As one ponders what God is like, how can one determine what would be moral for God to do and what would be immoral, in indeed such is possible and pious? (This stradles ethics and epistemology).
When confronted with the temptation of nihilism, dubious of Anselm and Aquinas alike, the Christian, as a means of navigating the subjective side of faith in epistemic virtue, can consider the place where their thoughts, if properly extended, meet: the argument from coherence.
This post has been preparatory. The reader is invited to comment on what he thinks the argument from coherence is or to wait for the next instalment on this topic.