“Here’s the problem with philosophical arguments for God (the good ones, anyway): they’re complicated.
This shouldn’t surprise us in the least. Philosophical arguments for God are supposed to reveal something about the nature of fundamental reality and can take years to puzzle through. What should cause us to think that would be easy?
So, although folks will often attempt to pass off comparatively simple arguments, they are, despite being accessible, just plain wrong, or at least poorly formulated—and neither the doubter nor the believer is served by simplistic takes for God.
All this to say that distilling philosophical arguments for God without diluting or distorting them is difficult. Fortunately, as complicated as philosophical arguments for God can be, their general thrust is, for the most part, intuitive. With that in mind, let’s present the general idea of some of the more sophisticated and convincing philosophical arguments for God and to make the presentation simple . . . but not simplistic.
Keep in mind that when we present arguments like these at an introductory level, various details will be truncated or omitted. So I must insist that this is a worthwhile tradeoff for means for initial exposition, and that the arguments below are, in fact, good arguments, though we will ultimately have to pursue their fullest development elsewhere.
With those disclaimers, let’s begin.
1. The Argument from Adequate Reason
Common experience reveals stuff that doesn’t explain its own existence—that is, stuff philosophers call contingent. Here’s a list of some such stuff: Graham crackers, Yngwie Malmsteen, photons, corn. These things exist but could have been otherwise or not been at all. Reality did not have to include them, yet here they are. Why?
Philosophers have long claimed that stuff like this—that is, all the contingent things, considered collectively—must have some cause or explanation, and this cause or explanation cannot itself be contingent. That means it must be necessary, a being that must exist no matter what, a being whose nature or essence somehow guarantees its own existence.
A being like that would obviously be very special, quite unlike the beings of common experience, no matter how talented (Yngwie Malmsteen) or tasty (Graham crackers). Indeed, philosophers have argued that a necessary being would have to lack all the features that imply contingency (otherwise, it wouldn’t be a necessary being), such as being arbitrarily limited (say, in power, shape, location, knowledge) or composite (made of parts, physical or metaphysical), or changing and thus acquiring new modes of existence.
When thought through, it turns out that a necessary being would inevitably bear the traditional divine attributes: omnipotence, immateriality, immutability, eternality, simplicity, etc. Philosophers call this the Argument from Adequate (or sometimes Sufficient) Reason.
There are two main obstacles the argument from adequate reason must overcome. First, we have to support the principle that all contingent things do in fact have some adequate cause and don’t just exist as a matter of “brute fact,” with no explanation to be found. The second is closing off the so-called infinite regress objection, or making it clear that even if there were an infinite regress of contingent things—meaning each contingent thing is caused by some prior contingent thing, forever and ever—this would not provide the adequate explanation we require.
There is much that can be said to overcome these obstacles, but here are two quick rejoinders. First, it is highly rational to expect an explanation for something unless there is principled reason not to. After all, how else would we pursue science and philosophy, or increase our understanding of the world? To arbitrarily abandon this “explain everything (or at least as much as we can)” principle, particularly in the face of some fact that crucially seems to require explanation (like contingency), simply because its application converges upon theism, smacks of evasion, not objection, and is quite irrational. So, unless we have some good reason to think the fact of contingency cannot possibly find explanation—and we don’t!—it is far more rational to go with even just a conceivable explanation than no explanation at all.
As for the infinite regress objection? Is it really just turtles all the way down? Here seventeenth-century philosopher Wilhelm Gottfried Leibniz, one of the original formulators of this line of argument, offers a satisfying response: suppose there were an infinite line of geometry books, with each one having been copied from the one previous. Does this infinite regress remove all relevant mystery?
Leibniz says obviously not, and I agree. After all, we would still want to know why there is that infinite line of geometry books instead of nothing, and why the subject is geometry and not, say, biochemistry instead. Thus, according to Leibniz, even if an infinite regress of contingent causes is possible, it is irrelevant. The fact of contingency cannot be adequately explained by further contingency, no matter how much contingency there is and no matter how that contingency is arranged (in a line, circle, etc.).
Finally, a bonus consideration: While it seems that a necessary being is useful for explaining all contingent being, we should still like to know how contingency can arise from necessity. If fundamental reality is necessary, then why isn’t everything necessary? Here again, classical theism has the advantage, since we can argue that God—the single, simple, necessary being—freely chose to create the physical world. God’s act of free choice preserves the fact of contingency (that the world need not have been) while anchoring everything in necessity. Great result.
2. The Argument from Morality
Many of us take morality to be objective, which is to say, we believe that our moral statements and beliefs (e.g., that murder is wrong) are not merely describing people’s attitudes or preferences, but relating to what it means to live an objectively good life and flourish as the kinds of things we are.
If morality is objective, then specific people can be wrong in their moral beliefs, because what makes a moral belief true or false is beyond what a person happens to desire. This ought to be common sense, since most of us think desiring to love our fellow man is really good, whereas desiring to oppress our fellow man is really bad, and we think people who believe or act otherwise are gravely mistaken.
The traditional atheist, who claims that fundamental reality is just indifferent mindless stuff, and that everything about human existence reduces to atomic and evolutionary theory, veers toward nihilism. In other words, our moral sentiments, according to the atheist, are evolutionarily acquired beliefs insofar as they are useful for getting us to “have sex and avoid bears,” not because they are in any sense “true.” For the nihilist, moral beliefs are just personal preferences, mere sentiments or attitudes or tastes, like what we express when evaluating tapioca pudding or Nickelback’s “Photograph.”
It is commonly understood that many atheists, new and old, are nihilists. “There are no objective moral facts,” Nietzsche once pronounced. In modern times, naturalist philosophers like Alex Rosenberg argue that Darwinian theory (conjoined with naturalism) is an acid that dissolves our traditional understanding of morality, and that nihilism is the only consistent atheistic story about morality. As atheist philosopher Michael Ruse tells us, morality is “flimflam” . . . “an illusion” . . . “just a matter of emotions.” All fairly common atheistic commitments—and, I would add, consistent, coming from their naturalistic starting point.
On the other hand, if some atheist is reluctant to abandon objective morality, as many (thankfully) are, he must complicate his worldview to accommodate morality. Doing so invites two serious problems.
First, such complications will be suspiciously ad hoc and render the atheist’s theory less likely to be true. Why? Because simpler theories are more likely to be true, and the simpler atheistic theory is obviously the one that explains away objective morality through “blind” evolutionary forces, as many naturalists convincingly argue.
Moreover, the moral dimension appears extremely rich, which means the complications made by the atheist will have to be extensive to cover everything. For example, the atheist needs not just to explain moral facts (e.g., that rape is always wrong), but moral knowledge (e.g., how we know that rape is always wrong?). Imagine how much we would have to add to a theory that otherwise veers strongly, if not inevitably, to nihilism to accommodate these many features of moral experience. It’s a lot, building in a ton of complications, making the naturalist’s theory not very believable.
Second, recall that the mode of intellectual operation for the naturalist is scientistic, meaning, in cliché form, that we ought not “go beyond the science” in our claims to knowledge. However, moral facts are clearly not something science can tell us about, since nobody can see moral facts through a microscope or telescope, to put it crudely. This “breach of conduct” from a naturalist is problematic, since naturalists are effectively admitting that science isn’t the be-all and end-all and does not exhaust the intelligible content of reality. But if that’s the case, then what’s stopping us from running philosophical arguments for God, including as the best explanation for moral facts and knowledge and human dignity?
Once again, classical theism has considerable advantages, as theism can explain all the relevant moral features of reality with a simple and highly unified theory. For the classical theist, fundamental reality—God, who just is supreme being and supreme goodness—is where being and value converge at their climax. He provides a stable, traditional, and definitely rationally decidable way of thinking about the moral landscape. God can also equip us with reliable ways of forming moral beliefs and would be interested in doing so. So moral knowledge is expected if God exists as well.
For these reasons, if we think morality is objective, that we can know at least some moral truths, and that human beings really do have a special place in the universe, we really should endorse classical theism over atheistic naturalism.
3. The Argument from Consciousness
Life presents to us an extremely rich qualitative dimension, which is to say, the entire “what it is like”-ness to being you and experiencing the things you experience. The spicy scent of ginger tea, the easy sight of the flamingo, and the luscious guitar sounds of Ratt drive the point home.
The way naturalists usually tell it is that consciousness is a late and local phenomenon, something that emerges from purely mindless physical stuff. Simply put, whatever is fundamental to the naturalist is, effectively, whatever consciousness is not: it is not feeling, not sensing, and not “about” anything (the way thoughts are about things).
But the immediate problem is that it seems extremely difficult, if not outright impossible, to construct consciousness from an utterly unconscious base, as described by naturalism.
Just think about it. How does one take mindless atoms and make a unified center of conscious awareness, a subject that binds together so many different thoughts and feelings through intervals of time?
The problem is not just a matter of trying to establish sufficient material complexity, but also how one leaps, as if by magic, across profoundly different kinds of reality. Compare: just as the number and arrangement of white LEGO blocks is irrelevant to constructing a purple tower (even infinite time and number of pieces won’t help), it seems that the same problem, if not significantly worse, applies when it comes to constructing a unified conscious being from the disparate mindless blocks that the naturalistic worldview has to offer.
The problem doesn’t end there, however. For even if the naturalist can make sense of how consciousness could emerge from an unconscious base, he doesn’t have a good story for explaining why it would emerge. Consciousness seems wasteful for the naturalist, since it’s the mindless atoms that do all the work, anyway. (Remember that according to naturalism, the physical realm causes and determines the mental realm, not the other way around.) Thus, there is no good naturalistic-evolutionary account for why the emergence of consciousness would happen, even if the emergence of consciousness could happen.
Classical theism avoids both issues since theism isn’t committed to everything reducing to physics (which is absurd anyway, but whatever—set that aside). In a real sense, molecules aren’t fundamental in classical and Christian theism. Persons are. Theism starts not from a principle of indifference, but a principle of perfection, where everything in the created world is not just less than, but infinitely less than what stands at the foundation. Surely it is easier to think of how we can get something lesser from something (infinitely) greater than it is to think of how one can get something so profound as consciousness from something entirely bereft of thoughts and feelings, like atoms.
Moreover, theism gives reason to expect conscious beings. We are good to have around. God would know this and would be motivated to bring us about. So not only is our emergence possible on theism, but it is also expected. All this gives another powerful reason to accept classical theism over atheistic naturalism.
4. The Argument from Fine-Tuning
We have a basic intuition that stuff that seems “well put together”—i.e., complex stuff, with functionally interrelated parts—is the product of intelligence. This intuition is frequently applied in experience: we see a mousetrap or a Nintendo Switch or the Mona Lisa, and we naturally think some intelligent being produced it. By and large, this intuition is frequently confirmed in experience. Certain things seem to obviously be the product of forethought, which implies that creative intelligence (the ability to engage in relational thinking), not blind (unintelligent) natural forces, is responsible.
But the atheist says, “Not so fast: evolution shows us how things that appear designed are actually the product of totally unintelligent, pitiless forces of nature.”
However, as the best science informs us, evolution requires a very special physical setup to occur, and the physical setup of our universe is incredibly “fine-tuned” or “really well put together” concerning the necessary conditions for the emergence of interactive life. Physicists tell us that if things were just a teensy-weensy bit different concerning, say, the expansion rate of the universe, the strength of the strong nuclear force, the weight of the electron, or many other examples, the emergence of intelligence life would not be possible, because in many cases chemistry would not be possible, or the universe would have collapsed back in on itself, or some other catastrophic scenario. This conclusion enjoys overwhelming expert consensus, from theists and atheists alike. Where the disagreement largely lies is in what explains the fine-tuning.
From the best of what we know, scientifically speaking, evolution requires a physical system that appears “well put together,” a sort of “Goldilocks” situation, where things are just right for evolution to take hold and eventually produce beings like us. Once all that is understood, it becomes clear that evolution does not defeat our frequently confirmed intuition that stuff that appears well put together is best explained by intelligent agency, something capable of foresight.
At this point, the atheist might say the multiverse could explain fine-tuning. The theist can respond, maybe it does. But how does that help? As physicist Luke Barnes explains, any theoretically plausible model of the multiverse itself requires fine-tuning; thus, the problem is just relocated, not actually resolved. So until someone can propose a multiverse model that is predictively useful as a physical theory and does not itself appear well fit together (finely tuned), the theist is justified in maintaining his intuition that things that appear well put together are well put together because something intelligent is behind them.
The basic intuition is undefeated “all the way down.” There is thus no reason—from science, anyway—to think things that strongly appear to be the product of intelligence somehow aren’t.
Finally, when it comes to an entire physical universe being well put together, it does not take a lot of imagination to suppose whose intelligence is behind it.
(A note: Someone might worry that God is a poor explanation of the physical universe because God would be more complex than the physical universe. This is false. In the most relevant sense, God is far simpler than any physical reality, since God is an unrestricted act of understanding. In other words, God is the absolutely simple and immaterial first principle of all, a being of pure positiveness, with zero limitations or arbitrary restrictions, lacking all internal complexity, especially physical complexity. That makes God not only simpler than any possible physical explanation, but the simplest conceivable explanation there is.)
5. The Argument from Suffering
Recall the argument from consciousness. There it was made clear that the naturalistic worldview holds that our mental life is something late and local, preceded by and entirely caused by unthinking, unfeeling physical bits. Such commitments are what cause many naturalists to endorse a position called epiphenomenalism (an epiphonema is just something that is itself caused but causes nothing) when it comes to our mental life, or our thoughts and feelings. This is a spooky position and contrary to common sense, since it implies, for example, that our desiring coffee—that is, the feeling of wanting coffee—has nothing to do with our going and getting coffee. Such a feeling just coincidentally (magically?) attends to blind physical forces causing the action of “getting coffee.”
Now, to be clear, epiphenomenalism is as self-evidently false as anything in philosophy could be, and to the extent that naturalism is committed to epiphenomenalism, is even more reason to reject naturalism.
But there is yet another problem. Typically, the naturalist tells us that the vast suffering of our experience is far better expected if God does not exist and if naturalism is true, and so we should endorse naturalism over theism. But this story is way too superficial and ignores too much of what actually goes on in naturalistic research programs, including philosophy of mind. So let’s connect some dots.
Evolution selects for outcomes and functions that confer survival advantage, not feelings, per se, and human functions for the naturalist are possible without feeling. For example, the function of me pulling my hand away from the prick of a pin does not require any painful feeling—it requires no feeling at all within the naturalistic understanding, because the feeling is causally irrelevant. Further, if there is a feeling attendant to some function of human behavior, the feeling could have been literally anything; pulling my hand from the pin could have been correlated with the feeling I feel when listening to the Barney theme song, tasting a grape, or looking at my grandmother’s bunion. Why? Again, because the feeling plays no role in what “the physics” is doing, since the feelings are determined by the physics and the physics is in no way determined by the feelings. (For the naturalistic, remember, the causality is entirely in one direction.) Thus, the outcome would have been the same no matter what the feeling is, or if there is any feeling at all, because it is entirely the unconscious, unfeeling physical processes that matter, that do the functional work and that, ultimately, are selected for. Feelings don’t have anything to do with it, and so it just doesn’t seem there is any need for feelings to be there at all, or to be as “fitting” as they are, if the common naturalistic account of things is correct.
We can only scratch the surface of this argument here. The point for now is simply that once these (admittedly subtle) points concerning the mental and physical are understood, naturalism has no real story to tell for the actual distribution of suffering in our world. Things could have gotten along in just the same way they have without any feelings, good or bad. Things could have been far better or far worse, feelings-wise. The problem is that naturalism, when systematically articulated and consistent with its own inner logic, does not adequately predict any specific degree or distribution of suffering. It leaves all possibilities wide open.
However, once we grant a few plausible points about suffering, including that suffering can be spiritually medicinal (soul-healing and soul-building) alongside other plausible stories about God’s governance (particularly about letting natures play their part, including the natures of free beings), there is a strong theistic story we can tell that makes the distribution of suffering in this world not entirely surprising.
I cannot rehearse this story now, but the simple point is this: naturalism has no explanatory story to tell—ultimately—anyway, about the suffering we experience. Some story is better than no story, and so even the suffering of our experience is evidence for rather than against the existence of God.”
Love and truth,