Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Arguing for God

Kant famously rejects most of the traditional arguments that philosophers advance in favour of the existence of God. He breaks them down into three categories:

At the tertiary level, there are what Kant calls physicotheological arguments. These take as their starting point a particular feature of the world (e.g. apparent design, order, etc.) and argue from these to the existence of a God responsible for these features. Kant is unimpressed, suspecting that any argument of this sort must secretly depend on a cosmological argument. No one would begin to look for explanations of particular features of the world unless they were convinced already that the world as a whole required explanation.

The cosmological argument represents the second layer in the traditional proof for God. It proceeds, not from any particular aspect of the universe, but from the existence of the physical universe at all. In other words, it sees God as the answer to the question "why is there something rather than nothing?". Kant is equally dismissive of this argument. He believes that is essentially a cover for the ontological argument. No one would feel the need to posit God as an explanation for the world unless they already considered the notion of a necessary being to be coherent, and to require the actual existence of such a being.

At the most basic level, there are ontological arguments for God. These move from the concept of a necessary being, arguing that by definition the most perfect being must exist. Kant refutes the argument by asserting that existence simply is not a predicate and does not work in that way. In this opinion most philosophers have followed him. I'm not so sure myself, but I'm certain on other grounds that any form of ontological argument must ultimately fail.

In this fashion, Kant dismisses all traditional natural theology. You could argue that in fact what Kant shows is that one only finds God at the conclusion of the traditional theistic proofs if one is already predisposed to seek him there. This is the death of natural theology as traditionally conceived.

A question I would put to fellow Christians is whether they are content to take these arguments seriously? Are they prepared to leave natural theology behind? Note that this is something that we have to do even if we find the arguments convincing. Because of course we would find them convincing. We are looking for God, and lo and behold there he is. If you find design in the world around you that requires explanation, fair enough - so you should! But if your Christianity needs this philosophical foundation, I honestly think you're in trouble.


  1. Appreciating your clarity Dan. Since you invite comments, I think I'm inclined to agree, with 3 caveats:

    1) That doesn't mean there can't be valid arguments, but whether or not they are sound is never self-evident. I'm thinking of
    the recent resurgence of the ontological arguments using S5 logic (e.g. Leftow, but not just Christian philosophers). Whatever you say, the arguments are valid. The question is what to do with S5.

    2) Natural theology is not just "arguments for some perfect being" a la Swineburne, and perhaps for those non-Christians "pre-disposed/inclined to seek him there ", a valid argument may be helpful.

    3) Kant doesn't think that rational arguments are the only source of rational knowledge - he uses antinomies and transcendental arguments to take him places nothing else would. I think there's something Calvinian about that - I'm not so sure Kant was such a foundationalist, so agreeing with Kant on foundationalist arguments doesn't mean we can't reason with people.

  2. Anonymous11:50 pm

    I don't really know enough about philosophy in general and Kant in particular, but I agree with this entire dismantling of natural theology. How you understand the universe depends entirely on what your presuppositions are. There isn't a neutral position from which you can reason the existence of God. Your statement about being in trouble if your Christianity relies on the foundation of natural theology is an important one.

    From a Scriptural perspective, when Paul talks about people being able to know God through the created world, he makes the point that despite the witness God has borne to himself in nature, they suppress the truth and exchange it for a lie (Romans 1.18-25), that the God who made the world is unknown to them and they were in ignorance (Acts 17.23-30), and that we worship vain things and walk in our own ways (Acts 14.15-16). I am borrowing this idea, of course, from someone else.

    This is why apologetics is a bad idea.

    Similar things could be said about history.

  3. Good comments, gents, thanks.

    Chris, I am not familiar with the arguments you're pointing to in (1). Where should I look? I think (2) has to get a big fat "nein" from me, but it would be interesting some time to sit down and work out why we have arrived at different conclusions. As for (3) - see my next post (when I've managed to write it). For now, suffice to say I'm far less excited about Kant's transcendental arguments than you are!

    Daniel, I don't think the removal of natural theology from the picture leads to the removal of apologetics as a discipline. I suppose it all depends on definition. Someone could accept all your premises and still arrive at the conclusion that presuppositional apologetics was worthwhile, for example. Personally, I'm moving away from presupp (for reasons I might explain later) but I think we should distinguish natural theology proper from apologetics more generally...

  4. Anonymous1:40 pm

    I'm not very well up on these kinds of questions but would be really interested to hear about why you might be moving away from presuppositional apologetics. What do you see as the weaknesses of this approach?

  5. Dan - let's sit down at Summer School, apparently it's on the doctrine of Creation, I'm sure Mike will be happy to help us.

    1) basically look for anything on S5 logic. I'll look up my notes from Brian Leftow's course last year and get back to you. Having been satisfied with the "existence is not a predicate" as an undergrad, I was astonished to hear this resurrected at Oxford.

    Daniel N: who said anything about neutrality or apologetics? Natural theology isn't the same thing. For one, Alister McGrath's new book, the Open Secret is worth a read - what kind of nature are we theologising from? a fallen one. Otherwise, I'd recommend Colin Gunton's paper on the difference between a theology of nature, natural theology & a doctrine of creation.

    Matt: if it helps, a valid argument means "given the truth of the premises, the conclusion necessarily follows", a sound argument is a valid argument with true premises. In short, logic can reveal incoherence (ie falsity) but not what's true. You need experience for that.

  6. Matt: in essence, I think the weakness of the presup apologetic is it's strength. Cryptic? Watch this blog...

    Chris: would love to chat over summer school, but I think we're with Midlands/Wales rather than London. Alas and alack. Come visit MRC some time and we'll chat! In the meantime, I'll look into the Lazarus-like ontological arg...