On proofs of the existence of God

I used to think of proofs of the existence of God as basically attempts to compel assent to a particular religious doctrine through a sort of sleight of hand:

  1. Prove, based on reasonable-seeming general axioms, the existence of some sort of ultimate entity.
  2. Name this entity "God."
  3. Conflate this with the particular God-based model of the world and right action embedded in your own religion.

While in many cases this may actually be the motivation, I now see a totally different thing people might have been trying to do with such "proofs." In many cultures at many places and times, people have talked about right action, or the nature of reality, with reference to some sort of ultimate entity that seems to have some sort of human-like agency or preferences, an Ultimate Lawmaker or Ultimate Actor of some sort. These systems often have good reasons for particular claims they're making - they often constitute a workable strategy - but saying it with reference to an ultimate agent is frequently an embarrassment.

A natural criticism of such framings is that the ultimate entity seems like an extra hypothesis of which we have no need. Why not just describe everything literally? Why attribute moral principles to the will of an ultimate agent? Why attribute the existence of the universe to the same thing? There are plenty of perplexities associated with this. One of the most popular is that while we'd be happy to follow the advice of an omniscient omnibenevolent agent, it's hard to attribute the existence of the universe to the same omnipotent agent, given how obviously suboptimal many things are locally.

(Evidence: sometimes we improve things, and we're not even omniscient or omnibenevolent, much less omnipotent. Evidence: the need for such advice in the first place. The Bible mentions both these problems.)

The reason why God gets posited is that systems are simple not because they posit few objects, but because they have a short message length. A compact set of axioms and rules of inference is an example of this. For instance, Euclid's Elements allows the construction of an infinite variety of shapes and proof of a very large number of statements, but is based on a comparatively small set of assumptions, definitions, and rules of inference mostly stated at the beginning.

Given this, proofs for the existence of God can also be construed as an argument that, in some frameworks that are reasonably natural to work with, we can't help but posit a God if we carry them to their natural conclusion. The Prime Mover or Greatest Possible Existent occupies a position somewhat similar to the Axiom of Choice. So, not attributing things to God means either abandoning those frameworks entirely (which may make some important true things much more difficult to say), or refusing to follow them to their logical conclusion (epistemic motivated stopping, not an especially rational practice), or affirming a contradiction.

These proofs don't prove anything else about God - they don't, for instance, say anything about whether any particular religion is true - they only serve to identify the question "does God exist?" with the question of whether we find it helpful to use the particular axioms and modes of inference involved in the proof.

I think that most such proofs still fail, in part because the people engaging in them are somewhat confused about what they're doing, but they fail a bit more sympathetically than I used to think; they're not explanations for why everyone should buy into their system, they're explanations for why their system can't help but talk about God, despite the obvious problems this presents.

This post inspired by my recent reading of Yoram Hazony's The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.

11 thoughts on “On proofs of the existence of God

  1. Tanya

    I think you may enjoy Soloveitchik’s essay on the philosophy of Judaism, it’s called “Halakhic Mind”. He is refreshingly intellectually uncompromising, and places the problem of proper epistemology and its relation to religious belief into an unusually wide context. He discusses the underlying philosophies that prompt the introduction of both extreme rationalist and extreme mystical approaches, along with the shortcomings of both and a very cute discussion of theoretical physics while he’s at it. I am not eloquent enough to repeat his arguments here, but having read his essay I am compelled to say that discussions like the one you have started above are probably ill-defined without first introducing clearly stated and well-argued theory of the mind+epistemology frameworks. The latter cannot be assumed as universally understood, and the reader’s native frameworks in most cases tend to significantly change the way arguments of the type you’re making are understood. Moreover, without a specific prompt most people will not know to clarify their own underlying assumptions in these domains before formulating a response.

  2. Tucker Lieberman

    Are you saying that many worldviews already assume or depend on some concept of God? Thus, when adherents of these worldviews say "I can prove that God exists," the "proof" really only shows how God is essential to their worldview? Or, seen from another perspective, proofs of God's existence are valid...as long as you assume a whole bunch of other things to support that conclusion?

  3. Stephen

    The philosophers who wrote these arguments intended them to be demonstrations of God's existence based on whatever premises they used. Many of the famous ones are certainly valid (those of Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Plotnius, Leibniz, so on ... not sure about Descartes or Kant, they strike me as more dubious). The question is just whether the premises are sound.

    Your post strikes me as a fairly roundabout way of saying the above.

  4. Benquo Post author

    Maybe an analogy would help. Imagine that long ago people gave navigation directions based on big poles they erected as landmarks, so that directions would always be with reference to some pole or other. Eventually someone realized that they could integrate these sets of directions if they designated a single pole the reference pole, so that routes could be arbitrarily composed, maps could be more easily combined without awkward stitching, etc. Eventually, some people popularized the idea of referring to the "north pole", described sometimes as magnetic north, sometimes as the point about which the Earth turns, and sometimes as a barber-pole-like thing in an icy area marking the location of Santa's workshop.

    Eventually, cartographers discover that magnetic north is not true north, the Santa story seems increasingly implausible, and people dismiss the barber / candy cane pole description as absurd. But we still read and engage with old accounts of where things are that make reference to a single north pole, since they're using it as a reference point. Some people try to carry on the progress in those terms instead of engaging in the massive translation effort necessary to say the same things as efficiently without making reference to the single "true" north. When the "true" northers first encountered serious criticisms of their framework, they felt the need to engage in some apologetics to try to explain why they used the concept.

    These apologetics ultimately turned out to be kind of unfruitful compared to just directly describing what works about their system, but it's at least a plausibly honest confusion that could lead them to trying to "prove" the existence of the true north instead of tearing apart all their maps and starting over, the perceived alternative.

    I hope it's obvious that I don't think either of those options is right, though.

    1. Tucker Lieberman

      Yes, with the North Pole metaphor, it makes sense now. The following is how I understand your point. People whose worldview depends on God often perceive two options: (A) insist their worldview is really really *true* or (B) abandon it entirely. The former is more attractive, and that's why they try to prove God's existence. But there is a third option (C): They could say that their worldview is "true" in the pragmatic sense, insofar as their worldview is "coherent enough" (minus its idea of God) and "works for them" (because they are alive and happy). If they were to take this meta-position, they wouldn't have to abandon their worldview or change their lives, and they wouldn't have to pick fights over theism vs. atheism, which means that they wouldn't have to try to prove God. For some psychological reason, however, (C) is not obvious/available to them, so they resort to (A).

      1. Benquo

        “Depends on God” still seems wrong. Consider the sentence “it’s raining.” What, exactly, is raining? The rain? The subject-verb relation seems wrong, as the rain can’t very well refrain from raining and be itself. The water? We’re not concerned with the allocation of water to various activities here, only to the part of it that’s raining, and only if it is in fact raining, making the subject-verb relation a bit strained again, forcing us to speak of it as we would speak of an enemy army - “it’s attacking” - where there is some relevant conservation of subjects so that predicating one thing of the subject provides the additional information of denying its privation, or resolving some sort of anticipation (the army was potentially attacking for a while, and now this has changed into actuality).

        With the army example, we might well say that the clouds are (not is) raining, since clouds actually are potential rainers full of rainstuff before they actually fall upon us - but sentences like “it’s raining” are perfectly intelligible without any shared prior reference of anticipation based on threatening clouds. It - whatever it is - simply rained. (The singular verb also makes reference to clouds implausible.)

        It’s tempting to rescue the singular verb and say that the sky is raining, but this is also silly - the sky is a place, it doesn't do things, things in the sky do things, the composition of the sky changes, but the sky does not fall down on us in little drops.

        The *sentence* depends on “it,” and it [sic] would be awkward to avoid referring to the undefined “it” in common speech. It does little harm, since we know perfectly well what it’s raining means. But it would be absurd to say that our “belief system” depends on “it.”

        I’m saying that God often occcupies a place analogous to the unspecified “it” in “it’s raining.”

        1. Tucker Lieberman

          Yes, I see. God is embedded in certain proofs, if not conceptually, then at least in the way the proof is formally stated or arranged ("grammatically" or some similar notion).

          Our language helps create/reinforce concepts. I think that's part of your point. Some of our common assumptions attribute life to God. This also means, though, that it can be hard to spot and unpack these assumptions unless we already have the alternative non-God concepts/language with which to do it. A tool is not going to break itself or make itself obsolete. Only a stronger tool will do that. We need a diamond to cut the rock.

          I recall this bit of dialogue from the 10-year-old film "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed!":

          Ben Stein: "Who created the heavens and the earth?"
          Richard Dawkins: "You beg the question—"
          Ben Stein: "Well, then, how did it get created?"

          Here, the very concept/word "creation" is question-begging, but unless we already have a different concept/word, we can't see it. We'll keep trying to validate the same assumption about "creation" until something disrupts that assumption. To me, it's debatable whether the concept or the word needs to change first. They (the concept and the word) are tightly packaged together.

      2. Benquo

        Religious people have tended to shift towards option C now that A seems to have proven unsatisfying, and of course get viciously mocked for that sort of thing by rationalists. I’ve recently updated towards treating C more seriously, since it’s a more direct account of cruxes than A is in a context where the hard part is formulating the beliefs at all.

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