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5 Objections to Proving God’s Existence

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Today, I put forward five common objections regarding attempts to prove God's existence. The first three typically come from skeptics and the last two from believers.

Though I don't agree with these objections, I've tried to articulate them fairly and as strongly as possible. On Wednesday, I will share a follow-up article responding to each of them.

Objection 1: “Proof in general is impossible, since we must trust our brains.”

All our knowledge depends on trusting our senses and our brains. For all we know, each of us is just a program in a computer, or a brain in a vat with evil scientists subjecting us to a virtual reality of their own creation, or we might in some other way be victims of a Matrix-like prank. To have perfect certainty about anything (which is what proof implies), we would first have to be sure that our senses and brains are trustworthy organs of knowledge bringing us real information about real things, and we would have to come to this knowledge without relying on our senses and our brains, which is impossible.

Objection 2: “Proof of god’s existence is either useless or impossible.”

It is useless if it proves only that there is some sort of divine being without identifying it with any particular god known to us through some religious tradition; impossible if it means proving that the god of some particular religion really exists as described by that religion. For example, if someone proves that there is an intelligent first cause of all things but does not prove furthermore that this being had special dealings with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and sent his only Son to redeem mankind from their sins et cetera, that is useless knowledge, since it does not tell us how we might be saved or gain eternal life or become in any way better off. On the other hand, it would be impossible to prove that such a being had special dealings with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—it is not even possible to prove, in any strong sense, that Abraham existed. Such statements are bound up with the inaccessible past, which we can know, if at all, only by very tenuous inferences and with a good deal of trust in certain authorities.

Objection 3: “Proof is useless in general, being incapable of moving the heart.”

Even if someone became convinced of the truth of the Jewish faith, or the Christian, or the Islamic, or some other, it remains that the manner in which he becomes convinced by “proof ” leaves him cold and indifferent—merely assenting to statements and not yet willing to devote his life to the things assented to. And that will not do him any good. A living and ardent faith is what is needed to please god. And where there is faith, there is no need for proof.

Objection 4: “Proof is unnecessary, since god’s existence is accessible by the much surer means of religious experience.”

Anyone who comes to love god and to converse with him regularly in prayer receives in return over the course of a lifetime some degree of experience of the presence of god and becomes as sure of god’s existence as he is of the existence of his other friends. This experiential knowledge is surer and more intimate and better than any cold, logical “proof ” that reasons from effects to causes.

Objection 5: “Proof is unnecessary, since god’s existence is self-evident.”

It is impossible to think god does not exist, given what the word god means: a being whose superior cannot be conceived. If such a being existed only in our minds, then we could easily think of a superior—namely, such a being existing outside our minds as well. Consequently, having thought of a superior, we would have to say that “a being whose superior cannot be conceived” turned out to be also “a being whose superior can be conceived”. But that is a contradiction and is plainly absurd. Hence, it is entirely unthinkable that god does not exist. Accordingly, no argument from effects to causes is needed.
 
 
Adapted from Who Designed the Designer?: A Rediscovered Path to God's Existence (Ignatius Press, 2015) by Dr. Michael Augros. Copyright 2014, Ignatius Press. Reprinted with permission.
 
 
(Image credit: Good Think Inc.)

Dr. Michael Augros

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Michael Augros earned his doctorate in philosophy at Boston College in 1995, and has been teaching ever since. He is the author of Who Designed the Designer?: A Rediscovered Path to God's Existence (Ignatius Press, 2015) and a tenured member of the faculty at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. Since one of his teachers said never to trust philosophers who are no good with their hands, Michael keeps up oil painting and woodworking, too. But it is not his job or his projects so much as his wife and three children that keep him busy, happy, and well behaved.

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  • Paul F

    What about this objection: Proofs employ deductive reasoning. In order to use deductive reasoning to prove God's existence, God would have to belong to a genus which is known to exist, and it would have to be evident that God is a member of that genus. This makes proofs for the existence of anything fail by begging the question indirectly.

    Instead, inductive reasoning is used when trying to know existence. Eg. we know a black whole exists based on light refraction around it and the effect of its gravity on surrounding matter. The evidence is too strong to make any substantive objections to it. However, there is no real proof that it exists in the sense that one could reason deductively that it exists.

    Therefore, a proper argument for God's existence is a listing of the evidence and a judgement on the strength of that evidence.

    • Robert Macri

      Putting aside for the moment the application of physical scientific
      methods to the meta-physical, we should recognize that even science
      doesn't work in the purely inductive way you describe.

      Eg. we know a black whole exists based on light refraction around it and
      the effect of its gravity on surrounding matter. The evidence is too
      strong to make any substantive objections to it. However, there is no
      real proof that it exists in the sense that one could reason deductively
      that it exists.

      But the existence of black holes was not merely induced from empirical evidence. It was in fact first deduced theoretically. Observations were then undertaken to support or undermine the theory. Originally it was thought that nature would not allow such singularities (that's still a point of debate in some circles, by the way), and that the absence of such singularities argued against the model. Subsequent observation has thus far vindicated the models.

      Of course, it is true that those theoretical predictions came from a model which was itself constructed to match other observations, and was thus at least informed by observational means, but there is a vital element of physical theory which depends as much upon the imagination of the thinker as it does the available evidence. And scientific models come and go. Thus, scientists tend to regard them as temporary approximations.

      Einstein's special and general theories of relativity are perfect examples of the theory-before-evidence approach. There was no direct evidence (at the time) to support his hypothesis that space and time are curved. Rather, he imagined a model which could explain a curious prediction of Maxwell's equations: that the speed of light is the same in every reference frame. The observations which support his theories came later.

      In order to use deductive reasoning to prove God's existence, God would
      have to belong to a genus which is known to exist, and it would have to
      be evident that God is a member of that genus.

      Such a statement inherently assumes that all existing things must belong to a genus, and thus eliminates the possibility of transcendent realities. It cannot, then, disprove what it eliminates in its own assumptions.

      The God of Christianity does not belong to any genus precisely because He is not a "being" in the ordinary sense of the word... not just another thing to be classified and counted. He is, ultimately, that which makes it possible for those things which CAN be counted and classified to exist.

      Suppose that we are just brains in vats, or embedded in "the Matrix". Would our inability to induce the existence of the vat or the matrix by means of observation within the vat or matrix invalidate claims of the existence of vat or matrix?

      Truth can at some times be deduced, at other times induced, and at still other times be revealed. (Red pill or blue, Neo.)

      By the way, we also do not observe countable occurrences of the square root of -1 in nature, but imaginary numbers have proved very powerful in mathematical analysis.

      • Paul F

        I realize that my analogies are not perfect, and I anticipated some of your objections. I do not disagree with your objections, but I am not trying to argue against God's existence. I am arguing against trying to know God in the way that proof's try to know Him.

        Deductive reasoning works from the general facts to a particular fact. Inductive reasoning works from a particular fact to general facts. In order to know which one to use, we have to know whether God is a particular fact or a general fact.

        I think that God defies even this classification. He is prior even to classification. He is in some ways general (omnipresent) and in some ways particular (trinity). We fail when we try to pin God down into a particular mode of existence.

        For this reason, I do not think God is meant to be known in the way that we know the facts of the universe. I think He is meant to be known more in the way we know a person.

        For example, when you recognize a friend of yours, can you prove that he is the person you recognize him to be? (Forget DNA analysis for this example.) You see his face and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is your friend. You could look at every face of every person who has ever lived and never mistake one of them for your friend. You know your friend. You would never consider trying devise a proof for his existence or tests to verify that he exists. In fact these tests would be degrading to your friend, who would ask, "don't you know me?"

        • Robert Macri

          Thank you for clearing up your point (and forgive me for being so pedantic in my last reply).

          I heartily agree with your sentiment that a distinction should be made between personal and intellectual knowledge of God, and that knowledge of a personal sort is surely paramount.

          But I would not discount the value of that knowledge which stems from reason, for the same God who reveals himself to us as a person also gives us the gift of reason. That gift must be of value, if only to inform our will, though I suspect more than that. ("Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made." Rom 1:20)

          Of course, such knowledge does not and can not lead us to a full understanding of God. As Aquinas put it, “it must be said that perfect knowledge of a cause cannot be derived from an effect that is not proportionate to the cause."--Because God is infinite, while his observable effects are finite--"Nevertheless, the existence of the cause can be demonstrated clearly from the existence of the effects, even though we cannot know the cause perfectly according to its essence.” (Summa Theologica)

          To build on your example, while I agree that a relationship with a friend is most properly a personal relationship, there is still value in the knowledge that comes from the effects of that relationship. For example, suppose that I know nothing of a friend of yours. You can point to his/her influence in your life (acts of charity, generosity, etc) to give me insight into the character of your friend, and if I happen to be of the opinion that your friend is imaginary you can even point to various effects to convince me of his existence…

          But your point is well taken, and I think you are right in pointing out the limitations of mere intellectual knowledge.

          I think that God defies even this classification. He is prior even to classification.

          Well said.

          • Paul F

            I didn't think you sounded pedantic. I am also trying to fit complex thoughts into few words so I understand completely.

            I agree that we get to know God through the effects of His actions. I just think we have to keep in mind that He is not quite like anything else we know.

          • Robert Macri

            I am also trying to fit complex thoughts into few words so I understand completely.

            I for one fail miserably when it comes to brevity. I applaud you for your much greater success on that score!

            I just think we have to keep in mind that He is not quite like anything else we know.

            I agree completely. If I remember correctly, Aquinas said something like, "If you understand it then it isn't God."

  • neil_pogi

    1.
    “Proof in general is impossible, since we must trust our brains.”--
    but brain can sometimes register false information when too much drugs induced it, producing hallucinations.
    2.
    “Proof of god’s existence is either useless or impossible.”-- if it is useless, then why even 'uncivilised' people are so aware and 'conscious' that there is a God.
    3.
    “Proof is useless in general, being incapable of moving the heart.”
    -- when i helped the needy and comfort the sick, all i experience is joy, even though i get only little sleep in my devotion to help others.
    when i committed serious mistakes and wrong-doings to my fellow man, my 'conscience' will dictate to me: 'dude, you made that man hurt, make an apology to him'
    4.
    “Proof is unnecessary, since god’s existence is accessible by the much surer means of religious experience.”
    5.
    “Proof is unnecessary, since god’s existence is self-evident.”
    -- it's not really the 'religious' experience that counts why people believe in God's existence, because people do exist, the universe exists, and people wonder why they exist, for reasons? they don't think that they just 'pop' with no cause at all

  • Galorgan

    The third objection comes from skeptics?

  • James Chastek

    Hi Dr. Augros,

    Here are a couple more objections, though limited to the thesis that one proves the existence of God from creatures:

    1.) If one proves the existence of God from creatures, he has to negate something from his conception of the creature. This negation is either total or partial. But it cannot be total, for then he would have no concept at all and so be thinking of nothing; and it cannot be partial because then something that is by definition of a creature is being transposed to a non-creature. (cf. Edouard LeRoy, Dogme et critique or a summary by Rousselot in Théorie de concepts par l'unité fonctionnelle...etc tr. in "Essays on Love and Knowledege" p. 87-91).

    2.) If one proves the existence of God from creatures, he appeals to the same data in proving that God exists as that he has certain properties, for example, moved movers. But some of the properties proved by these data are deeply paradoxical and even inconceivable (sc. a definition/ essence which, if known, would provide us information that such a thing existed; or a being that is not a being; or an intelligence that is not distinguished from or perfected by what it knows, etc.) Given that both are proved by the same data we don't know whether to take the existence proof as showing us the paradoxes are to be accepted, or to take the paradoxes as as showing us that the existence is to be denied. But proving existence requires us to know that we should do the former rather than the latter. Therefore, proving the existence of God from creatures is impossible.

    It seems we're in a different boat when it comes to proving the existence of paradoxical things in nature or math (black holes, non-computable numbers, wave collapse) since in these cases the proof that such things exist is either of a different order than the paradoxes (the things astronomers point to as evidence of black holes are different from the paradoxical elements, which mostly arise from theory) or all "existence" means is coherence (like Turning's proof that there are non-computable numbers). But God is neither of these.

    3.) The only criterion in natural theology that something is not true of God is that it admits of a formal contradiction, and so for natural theologians, if something is not true of God, then it admits of logical contradiction. Contrapositively anything within the subject of natural theology that is free from logical contradiction is true of God. But logical possibility differs from real possibility in that the latter requires reference to the real order to be known. Therefore, we do not need reference to the real order to know what is true about God, and so a fortiori we do not need to have reference to creatures.

    I do natural theology, and so I think the objections can be met, but I was just interested in how you'd meet them.

  • Proofs all depend on premises, and if premises aren't accepted, then neither will be the proof. Peter Kreeft has an audio "Faith and Reason", in which he presents cases for and against theism and atheism, for and against the main religious beliefs. He argues that none of these (either for or against) are totally convincing. If they were, then any rational person would be either a theist or an atheist, and that is not the case.

    I subscribe to grace as a seed planted within us to accept faith. If we let that seed grow and nourish it, our faith will be fulfilled. But it is not a faith that can be denied by reason.

    P.S. Am I correct in taking the Fifth objection as a version of St. Anselm's ontological proof? If so, there are various arguments against it, which I won't reproduce here.

  • It would probably have been useful to set out what is meant here by "proof" and "God".

    Objection 1 seems to be the problem of induction and has to do with standards of proof. Generally this is a mundane point. We can create logical proofs to absolute certainty, but when we but when we apply these to empirical situations like the existence of something or the origin of the universe, we need certainty of our observations. We need some content about which we can be certain in order for the argument to meet this standard. As far as I know, there is only one fact that is incontrovertible, and that is one's own existence. Each individual can be certain that they exist they have some experience. But that is as far as we can go with absolute certainty. All other "proofs" will require accepting as fact something that has not been demonstrated with certainty, such as the material existence of the cosmos.

  • On the standard of absolute certainty I would agree that proof of god is impossible, but I would also apply that to everything else, but my own existence. Presuppositionalists assert otherwise, but their argument is circular and poor.

    On an inductive standard I don't see why it would be impossible to demonstrate the existence of a god, sufficiently defined.

  • On number 3, this depends what you mean by faith and what your standards are. But this seems to be really an obvious point. Of course proving the existence of the creator of the cosmos would be moving.

    I don't see why anyone would thing having strong and convincing evidence for something would be cold or indifferent.

    No one would say, yes, I have obvious and empirical proof of my child's existence, but this leaves me cold and indifferent, it would be more moving if I could not directly sense her and had only recourse to "faith"

  • David Hardy

    On objection one, I find this a meaningless objection. It is true of anything we try to prove, and so is useless in discerning truth.

    On objection two, I would tend to agree that proof must point to implications for how to use the knowledge to be useful, and would add that there is no compelling evidence of which I am aware to demonstrate the existence of God, let alone a religion that believes in God.

    On objection three, cognitive dissonance can leave people unwilling to accept evidence that runs contrary to their current beliefs. It is up to the people with the evidence to recognize and respond to this dissonance effectively if they wish to have the information conveyed. However, I believe the most powerful response to this point is from the article itself, which can be applied more universally when a person emotionally commits to a viewpoint.

    And where there is faith, there is no need for proof.

    On objection four, I was raised Christian, and remained so until my late teenage years. I tried devotion and prayer, as well as seeking logical proofs, to respond to my doubts. Neither were convincing. The most profound, spiritual experience I have had was through Buddhist meditation, but this experience does not prove Buddhism to be true, either.

    On objection five, the argument makes the mistake of thinking that our ideas can be used to prove reality, rather than reality testing our ideas. The superior idea in the realm of truth is the one that accurately reflects reality. If God exists, the idea of God existing beyond our mind is superior to the idea of God existing only in our minds. If God does not, the idea of God existing beyond our mind is inferior to the idea of God existing only in our minds.