Conception and Nature of God (Overview)

The existence of God is a subject of debate in the philosophy of religion, popular culture, and philosophy.[1] A wide variety of arguments for and against the existence of God can be categorized as metaphysical, logical, empirical, or subjective. In philosophical terms, the notion of the existence of God involves the disciplines of epistemology (the nature and scope of knowledge) and ontology (study of the nature of being, existence, or reality) and the theory of value (since concepts of perfection are connected to notions of God).

The Western tradition of philosophical discussion of the existence of God began with Plato and Aristotle, who made arguments that would now be categorized as cosmological. Other arguments for the existence of God have been proposed by St. Anselm, who formulated the first ontological argument; Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Aquinas, who presented their own versions of the cosmological argument (the kalam argument and the first way, respectively); René Descartes, who said that the existence of a benevolent God is logically necessary for the evidence of the senses to be meaningful; and Immanuel Kant, who argued that the existence of God can be deduced from the existence of good. Philosophers who have provided arguments against the existence of God include David Hume, Kant, Nietzsche, and Bertrand Russell. In modern culture, the question of God’s existence has been discussed by scientists such as Stephen Hawking, Francis Collins, Lawrence M. Krauss, Richard Dawkins, and John Lennox, as well as philosophers including Richard Swinburne, Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, Rebecca Goldstein, A. C. Grayling, Daniel Dennett, Edward Feser, David Bentley Hart and Sam Harris.

The Catholic Church maintains that knowledge of the existence of God is the “natural light of human reason”.[2]Fideists acknowledge that belief in the existence of God may not be amenable to demonstration or refutation, but rests on faith alone. Atheism views arguments for the existence of God as insufficient, mistaken or weighing less in comparison to arguments against. Other religions, such as Buddhism, don’t concern themselves with the existence of gods at all, while religions such as Jainism reject the possibility of a creator deity.

Definition of God

In classical theism, God is characterized as the metaphysically ultimate being (the first, timeless, absolutely simple, and sovereign being, who is devoid of any anthropomorphic qualities), in distinction to other conceptions such as theistic personalism, open theism, and process theism. Classical theists do not believe that God can be completely defined. They believe that this would contradict the transcendent nature of God for mere humans to define him. Robert Barron explains by analogy that it seems impossible for a two-dimensional object to conceive of three-dimensional humans.[3]

By contrast, much of Eastern religious thought (chiefly pantheism) posits God as a force contained in every imaginable phenomenon. For example, Baruch Spinoza and his followers use the term God in a particular philosophical sense to mean the essential substance/principles of nature.

In modern Western societies, the concepts of God typically entail a monotheistic, supreme, ultimate, and personal being, as found in the Islamic, Christian and Jewish traditions. In monotheisms outside the Abrahamic traditions, the existence of God is discussed in similar terms.

In the Advaita Vedanta school of Hinduism, reality is ultimately seen as a single, qualityless, changeless nirguna Brahman. Advaitin philosophy introduces the concept of saguna Brahman or Ishvara as a way of talking about Brahman to people. Ishvara, in turn, is ascribed such qualities as omniscience, omnipotence, and benevolence.[4]

Ignosticism

Ignosticism or “igtheism” is the theological position that every other theological position (including agnosticism and atheism) assumes too much about the concept of God and many other theological concepts. It can be defined as encompassing two related views about the existence of God. The view that a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of God can be meaningfully discussed. Furthermore, if that definition is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence of God (per that definition) is meaningless. In this case, the concept of God is not considered meaningless; the term “God” is considered meaningless. The second view is synonymous with theological noncognitivism, and skips the step of first asking “What is meant by ‘God’?” before proclaiming the original question “Does God exist?” as meaningless.

Some philosophers have seen ignosticism as a variation of agnosticism or atheism,[5] while others have considered it to be distinct. An ignostic maintains that he cannot even say whether he is a theist or an atheist until a sufficient definition of theism is put forth.

The term “ignosticism” was coined in the 1960s by Sherwin Wine, a rabbi and a founding figure of Humanistic Judaism. The term “igtheism” was coined by the secular humanist Paul Kurtz in his 1992 book The New Skepticism.[6]

The problem of the supernatural

One problem posed by the question of the existence of God is that traditional beliefs usually ascribe to God various supernatural powers. Supernatural beings may be able to conceal and reveal themselves for their own purposes, as for example in the tale of Baucis and Philemon. In addition, according to concepts of God, God is not part of the natural order, but the ultimate creator of nature and of the scientific laws. Thus, in Aristotelian philosophy, God is viewed as part of the explanatory structure needed to support scientific conclusions, and any powers God possesses are, strictly speaking, of the natural order—that is, derived from God’s place as originator of nature. (See also Monadology)

In Karl Popper‘s philosophy of science, belief in a supernatural God is outside the natural domain of scientific investigation because all scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable in the natural world. The non-overlapping magisteria view proposed by Stephen Jay Gould also holds that the existence (or otherwise) of God is irrelevant to and beyond the domain of science.

Logical positivists, such as Rudolf Carnap and A. J. Ayer viewed any talk of gods as literal nonsense. For the logical positivists and adherents of similar schools of thought, statements about religious or other transcendent experiences can not have a truth value, and are deemed to be without meaning, because the version of metaphysical naturalism upon which logical positivism is based automatically excludes the possibility of the supernatural a priori without proof. As the Christian biologist Scott C. Todd put it “Even if all the data pointed to an intelligent designer, such a hypothesis is excluded from science because it is not naturalistic.”[7] This argument limits the domain of science to the empirically observable and limits the domain of God to the unprovable.

Nature of relevant proofs and arguments

John Polkinghorne suggests that the nearest analogy to the existence of God in physics are the ideas of quantum mechanics which are seemingly paradoxical but make sense of a great deal of disparate data.[8]

Alvin Plantinga compares the question of the existence of God to the question of the existence of other minds, claiming both are notoriously impossible to “prove” against a determined skeptic.[9]

One approach, suggested by writers such as Stephen D. Unwin, is to treat (particular versions of) theism and naturalism as though they were two hypotheses in the Bayesian sense, to list certain data (or alleged data), about the world, and to suggest that the likelihoods of these data are significantly higher under one hypothesis than the other.[10] Most of the arguments for, or against, the existence of God can be seen as pointing to particular aspects of the universe in this way. In almost all cases it is not seriously suggested by proponents of the arguments that they are irrefutable, merely that they make one worldview seem significantly more likely than the other. However, since an assessment of the weight of evidence depends on the prior probability that is assigned to each worldview, arguments that a theist finds convincing may seem thin to an atheist and vice versa.[11]

Philosophers, such as Wittgenstein, take a view that is considered anti-realist and oppose philosophical arguments related to God’s existence. For instance, Charles Taylor contends that the real is whatever will not go away. If we cannot reduce talk about God to anything else, or replace it, or prove it false, then perhaps God is as real as anything else.[12]

In George Berkeley‘s A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge of 1710, he argued that a “naked thought” cannot exist, and that a perception is a thought; therefore only minds can be proven to exist, since all else is merely an idea conveyed by a perception. From this Berkeley argued that the universe is based upon observation and is non-objective. However, he noted that the universe includes “ideas” not perceptible to humankind, and that there must therefore exist an omniscient superobserver, which perceives such things. Berkeley considered this proof of the existence of the Christian god.

C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity and elsewhere, raised the argument from desire. He posed that all natural desires have a natural object. One thirsts, and there exists water to quench this thirst; One hungers, and there exists food to satisfy this hunger. He then argued that the human desire for perfect justice, perfect peace, perfect happiness, and other intangibles strongly implies the existence of such things, though they seem unobtainable on earth. He further posed that the unquenchable desires of this life strongly imply that we are intended for a different life, necessarily governed by a God who can provide the desired intangibles.[13]

Outside of Western thought

Existence in absolute truth is central to Vedanta epistemology. Traditional sense perception based approaches were put into question as possibly misleading due to preconceived or superimposed ideas. But though all object-cognition can be doubted, the existence of the doubter remains a fact even in nastikatraditions of mayavada schools following Adi Shankara.[14] The five eternal principles to be discussed under ontology, beginning with God or Isvara, the Ultimate Reality cannot be established by the means of logic alone, and often require superior proof.[15] In Vaisnavism Vishnu, or his intimate ontological form of Krishna, is equated to personal absolute God of the Western traditions. Aspects of Krishna as svayam bhagavan in original Absolute Truth, sat chit ananda, are understood originating from three essential attributes of Krishna’s form, i.e., “eternal existence” or sat, related to the brahman aspect; “knowledge” or chit, to the paramatman; and “bliss” or ananda in Sanskrit, to bhagavan.[16]