Thursday, February 4, 2010

Can we even know about God? (Part 2)

Last time we discussed a couple of more personal avenues to knowledge of God. In this post and the next I want to consider some more external options.

It might be fairly said that the concepts presented last time constitute how the Christian knows that God exists, while the ones here deal more with how we show that He does. Both ways can establish genuine knowledge, but since humans do not have immediate access to each other's minds, these are better for teaching and learning, since everyone can verify them independently.

The first is argument. This can take many forms, but the ones I want to focus on here are the various 'theistic proofs,' or arguments for God's existence. These are known collectively as 'natural theology,' because historically, most have sought to establish God's existence through inference from either the 'natural' world or reason itself. There are quite a few such arguments, some good (in my opinion) and some not-so-good. I hope to cover the better ones in more detail in a future series, but for now I'll just mention the 'big three,' if you will.

The most common until very recently (within the last fifty years or so) is called the cosmological argument. There are various versions of the argument that utilize different methods for establishing God's existence, but they all argue from some contingency (something that could have been otherwise) in the world back to God.

The second and currently most popular among apologists is the teleological argument. This argument begins with some account of order or design (usually in nature), and infers God's existence from the seeming necessity of an intelligent mind.

The third (and my favorite) is also the oldest: the ontological argument. The various versions of this argument are intended to establish God's existence on the basis of reason alone. 'Ontology' is literally the study of being, and so this kind of argument begins with an idea or conception of God's being and then infers (more-or-less successfully) His necessary existence.

It is important to note that in their deductive forms (the teleological in its more modern forms is usually inductive...more on this later), all of these arguments, if successful, provide us with real knowledge. That is to say, if I offer you one of the above arguments that is valid and has all true premises, then you have to either show me that at least one of the premises is false, or else accept my conclusion. This is important because the attitude of the atheist on the street (and even of some of the popular new atheist literature) towards these arguments is usually to wave a hand at them or somehow laugh them off. This is much more difficult to do with a proper understanding of deduction.

Personally, I love arguments for God. But they have several weaknesses.

First, they are often difficult to present in everyday conversation, and they only get more complex as time goes on. I think they still have a place here, but perhaps not as a first option.

Also, not everyone is convinced by them. There are many very good Christian scholars, for example, who reject the soundness of the ontological argument.

And thirdly, they cannot by themselves get us all the way to the Christian God, but only to some more vague, enormously powerful entity. To get us the rest of the way, something else is needed.

And this will be the subject of part three...


  1. The logical arguments for god: Cosmological, teleological and ontological. I have a philospher friend who would go 'round and round with you for hours. Not me. We've been doing this stuff for millenia, since Aristole, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm...and they're no more convincing as ever. You and I could dig up dozens of books on both sides of each what purpose. As you point out not just the skeptics like Dawkins et. al but many Christain scholars remain unmoved, including Plantinga hinself as he says in his video. Though the form of the arguments may be valid, you gotta buy into the reality , not just hypothetical supposition of the they dont convince. And it doesnt get you from deism to the Christian god (or any other)anyway, revelation is the necessary step as you've said.

  2. "Though the form of the arguments may be valid, you gotta buy into the reality , not just hypothetical supposition of the they dont convince."

    You seem to have fallen victim to the very thing I was trying to guard against in the post. If the form of the argument is indeed valid, then the only way to defeat it is to show at least one of its premises to be false or unreasonable. This is clearly not a matter of 'buying into the reality.' These arguments (the good ones) are constructed around assumptions that are neutral or widely accepted, and for good reason. Often denying these premises leaves one in quite a pickle in other ways. I openly admit in my post that these arguments don't always convince, but that is no mark against them, anymore than it would be a criticism of the various arguments you would offer for atheism that they fail to convince me. Either the arguments work or they don't. Let's deal with them directly and avoid the hand-waiving I mentioned in my post.