The Quandary of God in Western Philosophy

The Quandary of God in Western Philosophy

By Shahid Lone


Philosophers love good definitions. They have very specific and lucid ideas in mind when they use terms like ‘know’, ‘believe’, ‘ proposition’ and ‘justification’. Just because these terms have been defined, doesn’t mean philosophers aren’t arguing over them. Arguing is what philosophers do. The definitions might seem kind of obvious, at first, but the more one thinks about them, the more nuanced they turn to be. Consider the following: is having knowledge of something the same thing as being correct? If we believe something to be true and it is true, does it matter if our belief in it is justified? Can one be right about something without really trying? Answer to these questions, is what philosophers grapple with every day. Philosophers love good arguments and they argue in a different way than kindergarten kids or internet trolls or other people who confuse arguing with sniping back and forth. Philosophers have all kinds of rhetorical devices at their disposal which they can use to advance an idea or call into question the ideas of their interlocutors.
How have philosophers- especially Western ones- dealt and grappled with the existence of God?
In order to know how western philosophers (theists/ atheists), with the passage of time, have approached existence of God, one must know the difference between the two things: an ‘Assertion’ and a ‘Proposition’. An assertion ‘is a linguistic act’- either spoken or written, that has a truth value. Truth value is ‘the state of being either true or false or indeterminate’. All declarative sentences have truth values. Declarations that assert something about the past or present are either true or false and assertions about future are indeterminate. The content of an assertion is the ‘proposition’ and it’s ‘the underlying meaning of what one is saying’. An assertion can change depending on what language it is articulated but its proposition doesn’t change and a proposition is true, if it asserts the claim that corresponds to reality.
In philosophy, no area of belief is sacred, evidence is provided and examined. The same holds true for the existence of God. In this pursuit, the 11th century French monk and philosopher, Anselm of Canterbury, first offered a deductive argument for existence of God based on what he understood to be the nature of God’s being (ontology) and proposed the ontological argument: there are two ways in which something can exist.
First, something can only exist in our minds and is strictly imaginary like Santa Claus or the Unicorns. Second, it can exist in our minds but also in reality like Pizza and Horses, that is, something that we can imagine but that’s also real. The major argument Anselm proposed was ‘God is the greatest thing we can think of’. Things only exist in our imaginations or they can also exist in reality. Things that exist in reality are always better than things that exist in our imaginations. If God existed only in our imaginations, He would be the greatest thing we can think of because God in reality would be better, therefore God exists’. But this argument was dubbed as the one in which existed a fallacy known as ‘begging the question, by his contemporary fellow French monk/philosopher Goalulu.
Goalulu asserted that we could run the same line of reasoning to prove the existence of anything we can imagine. He proposed ‘the best island, I can imagine is one, where I can swim and relax on a tropical beach and ski down snow covered mountains, all in one afternoon. I can imagine it, so it must exist. Otherwise it wouldn’t be the best island, there would be one better and that one would have to be the real’ .
Two hundred years later, Italian theologian/philosopher Thomas Aquinas, countered Anselm’s argument by extending Aristotle’s logic. He did believe in God but not by Anselm’s argument. He just felt as a philosopher, one needed to have evidence for one’s beliefs and constructed five arguments (Arguments from ‘motion, causation, contingency, degrees and teleology’), that would prove God’s existence, once for all. He defined these as cosmological arguments. Aquinas asserted that said cosmological arguments are necessary facts about the universe and asserted ‘we live in a world in which things are moving. Movement is caused by movers (things that cause motion). Everything that is moving must have been set into motion by something else that was moving. Something must have started the motion in the first place. Otherwise, we would be stuck in a philosophical quandary known as ‘infinite regress’. He added that infinite regress was not only absurd but also impossible. It implied every series of events began with nothing or it could have been going for ever. Aquinas further argued that, ‘there must have been a time when nothing was in motion, there must have been a static being, that started the motion and that being is God, ‘the unmoved mover’.
But philosophers were relatively unimpressed with these kinds of arguments and posited ‘these arguments don’t seem to establish the existence of any particular God, even if these arguments are correct, they don’t rule out polytheism, don’t prove the existence of a sentient God’. One of the famous criticisms came hundred years later from the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant agreed with the conclusions that God exists but held that the philosophers’ arguments did not prove it. He argued that ‘existence was not a predicate’ and added that earlier philosophers mistake was in thinking that ‘existence was something that could be predicated upon a thing or used as a defining characteristic’. Kant posited that ‘if God exists, then He must be the greatest being we can imagine but that does not mean that He does exist’. For example, ‘if a triangle exists, it necessarily has three sides but it could be that no triangle exists at all, the reason being that the idea of existence is not part of how we define a triangle.
Aquinas’s teleological argument was popularized centuries later by English philosopher William Paley who named it as intelligent design. He proposed his case, which is known in philosophy as ‘argument by analogy’, involving induction and adduction. His ‘watchmaker analogy’ posits ‘imagine if we found a watch on the ground, would we imagine that watch simply appeared randomly, spontaneously on its own or would we see the complexity of it. Notice that it’s parts seem to come together in a particular way to accomplish a goal. If so, wouldn’t we think that watch must have been made by someone on purpose’. He compared the watch to a living organism and concluded ‘purposefulness of the world compels us to believe in a world maker, God’. But Paley’s argument was refuted by the twentieth century philosopher Bertrand Russel, through his ‘argument by dis-analogy’.
Russel asserted that Paley’s conclusion that ‘bodies are purposeful and that purpose had to have been put by there by an intelligent creator’ is fallacious. He added, ‘ if we were to take his analogy seriously, we need to conclude that ‘the Creator that Paley posits seems to make a lot of mistakes, a flawed world implies a flawed creator’.
Similar arguments ran for and against the existence of God, in the works of Rene Descartes, David Hume, Richard Swinburne, Karl Popper, John Wisdom et`al. Every western philosopher who sought to provide arguments for the existence of the God, started with the hunch of seeking to prove God’s reality rather than demonstrate his unreality. Hume challenged Aquinas’s argument by saying ‘if Aquinas is right that everything must have been put into motion by something else and everything must have a cause, other than itself, then it seems god should be subjected to those same stipulations and if God is somehow exempted from those rules, then why couldn’t other things be exempted from them too?’
In the final analysis, faith by definition is unprovable, as argued by John Wisdom, through his ‘Parable of the invisible Gardner’. Few western philosophers state that ‘religion is the one area where you don’t need arguments, instead faith alone is enough’. However, philosophers generally do not take faith for an answer. After all, one might have a faith that moon is made up of green cheese. So, what?

—(Shahid Lone is a doctoral candidate in Political Economy at Jamia MilliaIslamia, New Delhi. He can be reached at

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