By our Guest Blogger: Mark Vernon. The Big Questions: God
The so-called proofs for the existence of God are widely thought to fail.
Philosophers point out that there is no need for an ‘unmoved mover’, to use Aristotle’s phrase, because modern physics teaches us that motion is natural to matter, not stasis. Alternatively, the ontological argument comes to look like a conjuring trick with words: it is no more the case that God needs to exist because God’s imagined greatness demands it, than it is the case that a perfect island needs to exist because it is described as perfect. Both might be fantasy.
As for the arguments from design – the notion that the apparent purpose, fit and beauty of the natural world requires a designer – that can be dismissed in a single word: evolution. Darwinian processes of natural selection produce the illusion of design by a combination of random change and environmental filtering, at least when it comes to the living world.
So far, so familiar for students of the philosophy of religion. What is not widely observed, though, is that the failure of the ‘proofs’ is only what theists should expect. They might even be glad of it. There are a number of reasons why proofs that worked would actually lessen, not increase, the appeal of religious belief.
For one thing, a deity that could be proven to exist would, by implication, be a deity that was comprehensible to the human mind. To be able successfully to reason the existence of a god would necessitate being able to understand the reasons for the existence of that god.
But religious traditions have a word for such theological confidence. It is idolatry. The only gods that human beings can fully grasp are gods that human beings have made in their own image. Hence, idolatry is the worse sin in the Bible, second only to usury. Believers should expect purported proofs to fail.
Put it this way. There is a reason that God is called ‘immortal’, because whatever God might be – and who knows – God is certainly not mortal. Similarly, God is said to be ‘invisible’: whatever God might be, God is not visible. This kind of God-talk says nothing about God’s actual attributes, and so nothing that might contribute to a proof. Rather it focuses on how God seems from the perspective of finite and visible mortals. And how could it be otherwise?
A similar point can be expressed in more existential terms. If God was obvious to the human mind, then would not the human experience of God be tyrannical? Direct experience of, say, divine omnipotence – should it turn out that God were all-powerful, whatever that might mean – would obliterate human freedom. To feel the full force of divine omniscience – again, supposing for the sake of argument there is such a quality – would belittle human striving.
This must be the reason that the Bible talks about the impossibility of being able to see God and live, or that it is the fear of the Lord that is the beginning of wisdom, not the comprehension of the Lord.
A different reason why it is important that the proofs fail is that it makes clear that the human quest for the divine is not a purely rational pursuit. If that were the case, if God could be discovered by logic, then the spiritual quest would be a demoralising, dispiriting affair. What role then for the emotions, for the arts, for the darkness, for the revelatory? If reason could tell all, then reason would rule all, and that would surely leave us less than human.
In truth, whether or not you believe in God is primarily a matter of the heart, not the head – the heart understood metaphorically as the place where we humans attempt to integrate the panoply of thought, intuition, experience, evidence. Reason will have a star role in the process of discernment. But reason of itself needs something else to go on.
What then do the ‘proofs’ actually achieve? Thomas Aquinas summed it up well. All that we have proven, he says, is that the fundamental nature of divinity is mystery. Religious belief, then, is the attempt to cultivate a relationship with that mystery. That is the gift of the proofs’ failure.